9. How To Paint Horses Part 2 : Basic Horse Painting Step-By-Step

Lizard, courtesy Amanda U.R.

Fast, free, fun oil painting demo/lesson of a beautiful horse!

Meet the grand Thoroughbred Lizard.  Lizard belongs to Amanda, who very graciously is allowing us to paint her beautiful horse.


Amanda, a member of the Longacre Hunt (of which I am very fond and used to hunt with) bought Lizard as a seasoned 9 year old event horse.  Soon after purchase, Amanda and Lizard found that they were parting company quite frequently.  “Coming a cropper” is the term used on the hunt field… Anyway, several bounces later and a trip to the vet revealed that Lizard was, in fact, only 6 years old, and a relatively untrained, fresh-from-the-track Thoroughbred.  This rather glamorous photo was the result of a brief attempt of selling the beautiful Lizard…

I am happy to report that Amanda and Lizard are still together, and have recently competed in a dressage show.  Amanda reassures me that she is learning much as they ‘work out the kinks’ together.  (I had an event horse I “learned a lot from” too Amanda;  He was almost as gorgeous as Lizard… and also off the track)…  Anyway, moving on…

This is a great photo for a realistic painting.  You can see how fabulous the light and shadow planes are; perfect for our painting exercise.  I am going to present it here in black and white, so you can see how complex, yet recognizable the shadow planes are.  (Since this is a representative sketch, I will interpret/simplify the planes in the background during the exercise.)

Black and White: Note how similar the value (shade) of Lizard is in relation to his background. We will separate him, not simply with light and line, but color too.

Please forgive the photography… My good camera was not ‘in town’ when I did this exercise.

It is often difficult to paint a brown horse, which is a very natural color among horses, against a natural background.  It’s interesting to note that the bay color is the most common color in the horse world.  (Colored or ‘light colored’ horses are less accepted in the herd as they attracted predators).  It’s also easy to see, when you see the black and white image, how this type of horse would blend in to the background.  Predators are supposedly color blind.


Palette with initial ‘shadow’ mixes

I taped a piece of 13 x 17 canvas to a sturdy board.  The canvas was pre-painted with gray gesso, to make it easier for you to evaluate hues (color) and values (shade).

My palette is pale gray card, with a piece of glass over it.

Please see introduction and materials for how I prepare for this, and any painting session.

I begin by mixing a Soupy mix of Liquin, transparent darks consisting of greens (Viridian), browns (Transparent Oxide Red), blues (Ultramarine Blue or Cobalt) and purples (Mineral Violet).

Lights 1, 2 & 3 Form shadow, cast shadow, and cracks, crevices and creases loosely applied.

Lights 1, 2 & 3 Form shadow, cast shadow, and cracks, crevices and creases loosely applied.

Using paint etching tool to create more detailed ‘platforms for light’

Applied ‘local colors’ for planes of light. Note the first layers are not all one color, just as the various planes are different on Lizard’s photo.

Added local color for ground and background planes

Applying Light 4, local color, to the planes on head and neck (notice I avoid the shadow mud)

Applying Light 5, the higher light to already painted local color planes. Notice how subtle!

Local color, plus 1 stage of high light to rump. Notice I apply each shape separately, just like the muscle, regardless of whether it is the same color, or not. This creates forms and planes.

Local color applied, and 2 layers of higher lights applied to body

Local color applied, and 2 layers of higher lights applied to body

First layer of ‘shadow illumination’ applied to flank, and body shadows

Shadow illumination automatically creates the correct hue and shade, once you get used to it. Once this is done, I suggest you re-set the voids/cracks/crevices/where light don’t hit shadows, which will bring clarity back. (Often lost when shadow is illuminated)

Reflected Color…Notice that ‘horse color’ is now in the background, and you can find cool hues from the background reflected into the horse’s flanks.  I call this “value-grouping” the color.  You simply have to ensure that the colors you reflect, as one object affects the other in its environment, is the same “value” as the plane/shape upon which it falls.  Remember, it should always be in the shadow, since the planes in full light will bleach-out and override these lovely reflected colors.

Reflected colors also applied to front end of horse..

Carefully selected and applied ‘halo lights’ delineate form, separating the horse from the background in a subtle way. Take care to use this light very scantily, and I recommend in no more than 2 places.

 Lizard, oil on canvas by Lesley Humphrey

I consider this an oil sketch/demonstration painting.  In these, I tend to leave my brushstrokes and planes visible in my paintings, as I like a more ‘painterly’ look, even in my representational work.  If I were to ‘polish’ the painting, or design the background as I usually do, you would miss the exercise of interpreting a photograph for a painting.  I am sure you can see how this technique could be easily modified to create the most polished, ultra-realistic look by softening planes, creating ever more minute, detailed shapes, and refined brushstrokes. 

I hope you have enjoyed this demo and believe that you can do this yourself.  I know that you can.  Happy painting, and I’ll see you soon.


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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