10. How To Paint Horses Part 3 : Paint Horses From Life, Alla Prima!

Horse Painting From Life

Is it difficult?  Yes, it is.  Is it impossible?  Absolutely not, if you plan ahead….

American Academy of Equine Art horse painting workshop, Aiken, South Carolina, April 2013.  Giobbe’s Angel, My fabulous model:  Angel, mowing his way along a prescribed, planned ‘path’, right past my set up.

American Academy of Equine Art horse painting workshop, Aiken, South Carolina, April 2013.  Giobbe’s Angel, My fabulous model:  Angel, mowing his way along a prescribed, planned ‘path’, right past my set up.

It was a particularly brisk, chilly morning in Aiken, South Carolina.  We had a young, vibrant horse as our model and our hands were freezing, so my fellow painters opted to watch my demonstration.  The odds are against you on such a morning, but there are certain things that you can do to to give yourself a chance of success.  The following are my suggestions :

  1. I had prepared my palette, supplies, ground, easel, etc., ahead of time in the warm studio (whilst my fingers still worked!)
  2. Approach the subject with low excitement, use calm gestures, and avoid making too much eye contact initially.  Set up calmly and relatively quietly.  Be aware that your equipment is foreign and often smells funny!  Furthermore, nothing says “predator” quite like a bunch of artists staring hungrily at their model.  Even human subjects are often unsettled.  (It’s worth considering that, in my experience, horse artists are often riders themselves; In other words often lively, earthy, confident, carnivorous types!)  This morning we had enjoyed a wonderful, cooked breakfast at the Aiken track kitchen, so we all smelled like bacon – not optimum, as you can imagine.  (For more on this particular theme, see “A Horse Tale: Story of a Paint Out Disaster, below…)
  3. Realize that the horse will not be still, and your best bet is to plan for its movement.  I like to spend a little time observing its grazing patterns (horses often favor one leg in front), or recurring gestures, and set up a situation where I can have the horse slowly move along a prescribed path.  Once it has “mowed” its way along, have the handler take it back to the original start place, and watch the horse follow the same path.  On this particular morning we had about 4-5 routines I could paint from, totaling about 30 minutes of painting time until the horse became bored and rather irritated with that grazing spot.

My demo was done rapidly, with no time to think about the ‘how-to’s.  However, the lights are so ‘ingrained’ into my process, they are now second nature.  The following photographs were taken by my students, and I apologize for the size.  This is the only way we could accomplish this lesson:

1. Rapidly applied shadow pattern in variety of cool temperatures

2. Applied strong gesture and WLDH! (Where light don’t hit.)

Closer view of light and shadow plane

Applying shadow color/temp and warm glaze for WLH (where light hits)

“Angel” 12 x 12 oil on panel. Alla prima by Lesley Humphrey. Sincere thanks to Mrs. Gutfarb and Mrs. Giobe for this great experience.


The following paint-out was done later that day.  My students and I were invited to Sposato farm which accommodates many retired horses.  We situated ourselves amongst them and painted as well as we could.  You will never achieve the masterpiece of the modern world this way, but you will hone your skill, but perhaps more importantly, you will learn what catches your attention and forget about everything else.

Sposato Farm : Charlie (29 years) and his friend (30)

Sposato Farm, sketch from life.  I was primarily interested in the incredible colors reflected in Charlie’s hide… but it was near impossible to capture.

Pin Oak plein aire studies. I parked myself by the practice arena. Honestly, people come by like clockwork; everyone pops over the practice jump pretty much the same way, about every ten seconds…..  It is possible!

A Horse Tale : The Story Of A Paint-Out Disaster

This is not a very ‘P.C.’ story, but it’s an absolutely true story.  I have lots of people who were there and can vouch for this….

About 15 years ago, 18 of my best art buddies and I decided to take a workshop from a rather famous, rather painterly western artist.  He was conducting a week long workshop in the Hill Country of Texas.  I was particularly interested to go because the instructor was a well-known western/cowboy artist.  Many of his works contained horses, and the workshop organizer had assured us that this was going to be a part of the mix…. So off we all went.  True to his word, the organizer had arranged a ‘field trip’ to a working ranch.

This is the scenario:  An old stagecoach was parked in the middle of a field.  In addition to our rather fun and always giggling group, the artist had a couple of… let’s call them groupies.  (You know the type;  Fawns all over the instructor, fetches stuff, brags on him at every opportunity, clad in “I’m an artist” clothing, including the required ‘statement hat’ designed to single the person out from the rest of the rabble.)  We were arranged in a semi-circle around the stagecoach/stage.  Our friend Nancy was positioned in the best place, because she was in the early stages of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS/motor neuron) and we wanted her to have a prime position because she couldn’t move herself around to accommodate a better view.  The horse was brought in.  I had assumed we were going to have the handsome cowboy stand there and hold him, but the fellow tied the horse to the stagecoach, and walked away!  He assured us that the horse would stand still and not move a muscle, and he did, but his twitching ears, worried eyes and flared nostrils belied the fact.  Despite all those country western songs advising to the contrary…I trusted the cowboy.  After all, I was an English rider – what did I know about cow ponies?

For a while everything went according to plan.  The horse indeed stood stock still, but he was surrounded by carnivors that were glaring at him in a strange, bug-eyed, ‘artists painting’ manner (sorry vegetarians, but our eye position proves the fact we are meat eaters.) Horses have a keen sense of smell, and I’m sure our intrepid bunch smelled of a curious blend last night’s wiener schnitzel and German beer (if you’re in Fredericksburg, you have to try it…).

Then, it happened……  The horse exploded.  He lunged, plunged, smashed the old stagecoach to smithereens trying desperately to free himself from the turpy, beer, meaty humans with spikes in their hands.  The artists headed for the hills, well behind our leader, the only ‘man’ in the group…. Everyone that is, except Nancy who could not move.  With half of the stagecoach gone, the horse was able to drag the demolished axle perilously close to Nancy where he stood, braced, sides heaving, eyes terrified, gasping for air and desperate for escape.  I could not leave her.  I had to do something.  I immediately went into horse training mode….

I have trained several horses, some from youth.  I knew we were in the middle of a terrible disaster.  The horse was in full flight or fight response, terrified beyond any training – in full primeval state.  I realized I had to distract him and behave in a manner he could comprehend…. I dropped all my brushes.  I dropped my shoulders, I began to walk sideways, not toward he and Nancy, but diagonally toward them, changing directions, gently and slowly… all the while speaking softly to him, eyes averted.  As I approached, I noticed he was watching me keenly, and I thought desperately.  I walked up to him sideways, not looking at his face at all, and thankfully, the cowboy had tied him with a quick release knot.  The knot was tight, but I pulled it slowly and it came loose.  I stroked him and led him slowly away from the stagecoach and down the lane.  Eventually a cowboy came and retrieved the terrified horse.  What a disaster!  Never, ever ignore your own instincts when painting horses… They are instinctive animals, no matter how well trained and you are a scary beast – especially when you’re painting!

The story does not end here.  About 5 years later, I went to the Prix de West exhibition in Oklahoma City, a highly prestigious western art show that I used to love to go to.  (I loved to see the Fechins and Bob Kuhn’s work).  It was opening day, and as I was walking through, lo and behold, there was our ‘man’… our instructor, an honored artist surrounded by patrons… and there was one of his groupies.  Same hat too!  As I walked up he instantly recognized me and beckoned me over.  His lovely wife was there too and began to tell the tale of the disastrous paint out…. with a twist.  Everything went according to plan, until the horse exploded, and our brave man rushed to Nancy’s side and saved her, and also us, from the crazed horse!  He looked just a little sheepish as she continued to wax lyrical about his deeds.  His groupie, who was also there and no doubt close on his heels as he sprinted away, just looked at me with a quirky smile.  Well… I had to take her to the side and I said “You were there, weren’t you M?  You did see that it was I who went to get the horse?”  She said “I guess…. He must gotten the story all wrong”.  I said “You think!”  Oh well… now you know the real story, and I have about 16 people who can back me up.

Sadly, Nancy passed away two years later, and we all still miss her hilarious stories and her great art.

Rode Hard, Put Up Wet. 9 x 12 oil by Lesley Humphrey. 45 minute sketch of an exhausted roping horse. He never moved a muscle!

Hannah and her pony

Thank you Sposato Farm, The American Academy of Equine Art, Mrs. Gutfarb and Mrs. Giobbe, and all my great students and friends at Aiken, South Carolina.

You too can paint horses from life!!!  Go on, have a go!

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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