8. How To Paint Horses Part 1 : The Basics & Measurements

Tentador and Dulce : Before The Parade : Alla Prima Oil by Lesley Humphrey

Do you want to learn how to paint horses, from life, with happy, expressive brushwork?  During the next lesson series, I am going to share how I approach the art of horse painting.  Join fellow painters all over the world…It’s fun!


We will first learn how to see and paint representational horse paintings, using photos, with my “12 Lights” theory.  As we progress, we will then move on to direct painting, from life, eventually exploring expression and abstraction using horse imagery… Art is for everyone …Why not have a go?



Whether you have personal experience of horses or not, I believe that every person has a deep appreciation encoded into their DNA for the horse.

From a very early age, the sound of hooves coming down the street would cause me to flee outside, my heart to race and, as the horse receded, he would leave a wisp of dreams that would linger around me all day.  Dreams that I would write poems about, or draw, perhaps fueling my future with horses… and I would beg my Mum and Dad to take me to Blackpool, so that I could ride the donkeys on the beach.  Decked in bells, the smell of sea air, the sound of seagulls and sea bells… Oh yes… Donkeys were very worthy substitutes for any grand steed for this Lancashire lass!…..

Blackpool Donkey 12 x 9 oil on panel by Lesley Humphrey

I believe that my lifelong love affair with the horse began with my first breath, and when I wasn’t riding them or dreaming about them, I was drawing them….

From ponies to jumpers, Thoroughbreds, Andalusians, Arabians… I’ve had quite a variety over the years.  I have driven ponies, rode to hounds, competed in 3-day eventing, and even galloped racehorses; and every encounter informs my art.  The nature, the fear, the triumph, the love, the mystery, the resolve, the training… the stories of my heart…all can be found in the visual tapestries that are my life, in horse painting.


When man befriended horse, he began to thrive… The horse lent mankind his strength, enabling us to farm the land, flee from our enemies, and at times forgoing all its survival instincts bearing men into battle or into a madding crowd.  Is it any wonder we see them depicted in art from prehistoric times, throughout every culture, a symbol of life, of status and sometimes, of spirit?  Yes indeed, we are encoded to love the horse.

Let me introduce you to one great horse that I had the very good fortune to know.  This is Tentador.  Tentador was a very grand Andalusian stallion that belonged to my friend, Patty M.  The horse had real presence.  He was a master of dressage, turning heads wherever he went, yet all the while so gentle, he never hurt a fly.  He was an incredibly playful horse, and I have made several works from my encounters with him (see above).  Here he is at 17, posing for my students during a horse painting workshop I had the privilege to teach, courtesy of TP Farms, Magnolia, TX.

Tentador: You will notice that I have manipulated the photograph so that you can easily see the planes of light and shadow.

The light is very intense in my part of Texas, creating a stark difference between the light and shadow planes when using photography.  If you wish to paint realism from photographs, it is essential to my realistic process that you:

  1. Have a camera that contains at least a 200 mm lens, so that you can shoot from a distance, thereby eliminating any distortion caused by the size of the horse.  (Otherwise, you must take notes on perspective to use in your painting later.)  This was shot with a 200mm lens, from a distance.
  2. I, and all professional horse photographers, learn to shoot from “lower”, and into the ‘heart/girth’ area.  This is because the shadow planes are more beautiful, and create ‘more grandeur’ from this angle.
  3. Learn how to use the camera sufficiently to know how much light/shadow you need
  4. Choose a time of day, and lighting conditions that will enable you to see shadows, and therefore, form.


I’d like to thank one of my mentors, Alex Powers, for these terms.

The Paper Doll – Light against dark (Done on my iPad with “Brushes” app.) When I was a little girl, I used to cut out paper dolls and paper dresses… Similar concept.

Silhouette – Dark against light (Done on my iPad using Brushes app.)

In sum, when looking at your horse, is it showing up as dark against a lighter background, light against a darker background?  Perhaps it is more “value-grouped” or of a similar value to the background, and therefore showing up more because it’s color temperature/hue differentiates it from its surroundings?  We will explore the obvious here:


First, don’t worry!  You don’t have to know all this before you do the painting exercise.  I recommend you refer to it as you proceed with your own paintings, learning it as you go. 

A word about anatomy.  It usually brings shudders through my students, (many of them having already taken workshops where they have had to learn all about bones, ligaments, etc. before they learned to paint.)  If you wish to become a serious, and successful horse portrait painter, obviously the more you know, the more authoritative you will become with your paintings.  However, knowledge of anatomy does not an artist make!  If it did, then all doctors and vets would be fantastic horse/people artists.  (Some are; Check out Kathleen Friedenburg.)

I confess, I am not an ‘anatomist’.  Personally, I find that my ego engages when I start to think about the ligaments and bones beneath the skin, and I suspect most of my students feel the same way.  I am, however, a horse woman, and knew every inch, sinew, hard and soft part of my horses’ bodies, and I know what happens to the shapes and forms they create during movement, both from upon and aside the horse.  Consequently, I know the quality and shape of light that would be found on each part of its form.   I have studied (and ran my hands) along the skeleton in the collection of the American Academy of Equine Art, imagining the muscles and hide covering them, again for one purpose… to figure out what planes of light and shadow such frame would create… All because, when I am painting in a representational manner, you might be surprised that …

…I AM NOT, IN FACT PAINTING A HORSE!  …I am only painting two things… Where Light Hits.. and Where Light Don’t Hit!  (See red ball exercise)

I have identified about 10 landmarks/points on a horse that are definitely worth learning, for they will enable you to learn how to identify, measure if you wish, all so you can begin to identify the forms that create the magnificent shapes of light and shadow that make a horse.

Now, I’m not the first person to think of measuring horses by any stretch.  (I’d like to refer you to Calderon’s Animal Painting & Anatomy for more in-depth coverage of these and other great concepts.)

These ‘points’ are often referred to in scientific circles as “tuberosities”, which I call “the bony bits that poke through the skin” and therefore create light planes… so I can paint….They really are landmarks of sorts, which enable me to quickly measure, if necessary, to keep my painting on track… When I hold life-painting workshops, I always invite my students to feel the ‘bony bits’ so they can always know where they are.  So let’s have a look at these wonderful, plane creating landmarks…. There are only 10 folks, so they’re worth learning if you want to paint horses.  Let’s call them “Head Lengths”:

10 HORSE HEAD LENGTHS (modified using Brushes App., and my iPad.)   By the way, if you learn these points and measurements, you can learn to find and modify them for any animal.

1. POLL TO LIP:  At the top of the horse’s head, between the ears is a bone call ‘the poll’.  From the top of the poll to the bottom of the lip is a head-length.

2. BELLY LENGTH:  On the horse’s back, right where the saddle will sit is a collar bone called ‘the wither’.  On a stallion, or a chubby horse, it’s often covered in fat, but it’s the curved bone that connects the neck to the body…. Right behind the wither, drawing a straight line to the under belly, where the ‘girth’ (saddle strap) would go, is a head-length.

3. WING OF THE ATLAS TO ‘COLLAR’:  Just behind the horse’s ear is a large, hard bone from which his head swivels and rotates.  This always creates a sharp edge.  This is the tuberosity of the wing of the atlas.  From this edge to the point where a collar would sit on the shoulder (where the neck begins and the shoulder terminates), is a head length.

4. APEX OF WITHER TO POINT OF SHOULDER:  On Tentador, you can see the sharp turn at the point of the shoulder at line 4.  From the very top (apex) of the aforementioned wither, to the point of the shoulder is a head-length.  (Interestingly, on a strong, well-proportioned horse, the angle of this diagonal line matches exactly the diagonal line created by the pastern.  A lot of horse artists get this wrong.)  On a well-muscled horse, such as a thoroughbred or a quarter horse, you may not be able to see it.  However, the point of the scapula can always be felt, as it is very close to the surface.  As you run your hand down the shoulder, you can actually follow the path of the spine of the scapula.  It terminates in the point of the shoulder, which is a tuberosity.  It’s worth finding an accommodating local steed to become familiar with this line; this very important angle.

5. OLECRANON TO FETLOCK JOINT:  At the top of the horse’s foreleg is a very hard tuberosity (bone) which is the point called the olecranon.  If you draw a straight line toward where the horse’s ankle begins, the point just where the ligament shadows end, that is a head length.

6. DORSAL ANGLE OF SCAPULA TO POINT OF HIP:  The horse’s shoulder blade is covered by massive, load-bearing muscles yet still can be felt through the skin, especially when the horse is moving.  This creates a turning plane which can be seen in sunshine.  Measure from the the back of the shoulder blade (dorsal/scapula) to the point of the hip (again, a bony bit) and you should find a head length.

7. APEX OF CROUP TO PATELLA:  At the top of the horse’s hind end is the top/apex of it’s hindquarters.  This creates a ridge commonly known as ‘the croup’.  From this apex, or croup to the knee bone is a head length. Before we continue, I think it’s worth adding another, quite strange visual for you here.  You might think that the horse’s knee is at the front, as it is commonly called a knee.  However, the patella is actually located beneath a nice fold of fatty tissue, often buried in the haunch.  This should help….

HORSEY-BOY: Notice that the horse’s knee is located deep within it’s powerful hindquarters. This interesting picture reveals interesting insights on how horses move, compared to us. (This image was mailed to me by a student, for I usually have to draw ‘horsey boy’. I am sorry, but I do not know from whence it came. Thanks.)

8. STIFLE FOLD TO POINT OF HOCK:   The stifle fold is a soft fold of fatty substance that covers the patella, or knee (see above).  It is always visible, no matter the condition of the horse.  Measure from here to the point of the hock (back leg joint) for one head length.

9. TUBEROSITY OF ISCHIUM TO POINT OF HOCK:  The ischium can be found upon the above illustration in hot pinkviolet.. It’s the bit that sticks out close to the tail.  If you draw a straight line from the ischium to the point of the hock (hind leg) you have a head length.

10. STIFLE FOLD TO BASE OF HOCK:  There is a second head-length from the stifle fold to base of the hock

HOMEWORK – BRIDLE LENGTHS & FACE WIDTHS:  The blue lines are bridle lengths.  These are measurements taken from the poll (top of horse’s head, between the ears) to where the corner of the horse’s mouth appears, and where the bit is inserted.  This is the length of the bridle, and so I call it the ‘bridle length’.  The red dashes are ‘face-widths’.

HOMEWORK:  See if you can discover these ‘points’ or ‘bony bits’ on a horse near you.  Take a pencil with you and, closing one eye, measure the head-lengths, bridle lengths, and face widths…

You will find that, from old, bony draft horses to racehorses, and even to little ponies, the points vary only slightly.

INTERESTING FACT:  Wherever the bone meets cartilage/ligament tissues, fat cannot be found.  This is wonderful, because even if the pony or horse is very fat, you will be able to detect the tuberosity points, because they will occur as a dimple on a fat horse, yet will protrude starkly on an old horse, or one of poor condition.  Furthermore, because the underbelly is made of a strong ligament-type material, it does not hold fat either, ensuring you can always get a decent head-length #2.  The same thing works for humans…Isn’t that great?  (Think dimply babies’ elbows or your chubby Aunt Suzy’s knees!)

Just remember to modify the measurements when the horse is moving around, as they will.  At the end of this segment, I am going to share some oil sketches/paintings I have actually done from life, just to show you that this stuff really works!  (I confess, some were done using a more direct painting method, which I’ll share at a later date.)


Again, using my iPad and Brushes App., I have shown you below how the 10 points or tuberosities create planes, or ‘platforms for light’ and caves for shadows:

WLH AND WLDH! (Where light hits, and where light don’t hit!)

  • Yellow planes are planes in direct light
  • Green planes are planes in shadow, but illuminated by secondary light
  • Purple planes are in full shadow
  • Note the special ‘illumination’ as light is reflected directly into the underbelly of the horse.

(Hey, I just noticed… I’ve made a Mardi Gras horse!)

PLANES OUTLINED: Orange = Where light hits. Blue = Where light don’t hit. (You have to say this in a Texan accent like my teacher, Dick Turner.)

It is my hope that you are beginning to “see how I see”, when I’m painting realism.  This is not hard folks!  It’s so much fun, and it ALWAYS works. You have everything you need to know to begin to paint a horse…  In Lesson 2, we will be painting a bay (brown) horse, in landscape, using the same lighting principles, and measurement techniques, explained here.  As always, happy painting!!!

This is how I serve; This is how I connect us all. All I ask, is that you pass it on.. Namaste.

   Life-painting examples from Kentucky Horse Park :  My American Academy of Equine Art Workshops

Wild pony : Kentucky Horse Park

Try painting the little critter as he wonders about the paddock. Thank goodness someone threw him some hay! This one was about 10 mins. Only 8 x 11. Oil

Rode Hard, Put Up Wet by Lesley Humphrey. 40 minutes, oil on panel. Kentucky Horse Park, after a roping competition.

Want to see the process in action? Click below.

Final Word….



My life is a living testament to the old statement “What comes around, goes around”’; or “What you do for others in an act of generosity, comes back tenfold”.  In honor of this code, I began writing down everything I know in these lessons in 2011 and began to offer them out, for free…. But it’s very valuable information.  The lessons constitute a lifetime of learning, and are lent to you as an act of generosity to help you on your artistic journey.  If you find this material helpful, continue to ‘pay it forward’ by sharing this website with others so that they too can be inspired with Art through "Lessons With Lesley."

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