6. Painting a Horse Head Step-By-Step : Lusitano Demo : Part 1

12 Lights On Horse Head : Lusitano stallion, Oceano. Oceano is an international champion. He stands at Haras Dos Cavaleiros (harasdoscavaleiros.com) very close to where I live in Texas.

A word about references

I love to paint horses, whether I’m working from photos, sketches, or from life.  (Yes, I do actually paint from life at times.  I’ll share some with you at a later date.)  If you’re a beginner to painting, it’s prudent to start painting horses from a photograph, and I mean a good photograph!  So often I have seen students fail because of the poor references, and so I’d like to begin by sharing some of the drawbacks I’ve encountered, as food for thought:

When it comes to photo reference, size matters:

There sits Maude, her nose close to a photo, her eyes vexed and her painting displaying the agony she’s wearing all over her shoulders.  I look at the photo.  It’s a distorted 3/4 view of the family horse against a barn.  The photo is a 4′” x 5″, which makes the horse about an inch tall.  Herein lies the problem; When you paint from a tiny image like this, it’s like watching a movie on your iphone, sat on your lap, instead of on an IMAX screen… Literally!  Only when painting from life can we see with ease, but in the meantime, if we have to use photos, let’s use large, clear, crisp, well-composed images taken with a zoom lens designed to shoot horses.  (We may have to talk about that at a later date also.)

Start with something simple:

“What!”  You might exclaim.  A horse, simple?  Ah… Remember, I don’t want you to think about painting a horse.  You’re becoming a light painter and you have only two things to worry about:

Where light hits, and where light don’t hit!

As a painter who understands how to identify and paint the 12 qualities of light, we will have a lot of fun if we practice painting from photographs with some simple shadow patterns.  Sometimes I like to make the photos black and white, so that I can more clearly see the patterns, like so….

Here we have the great Lusitano stallion, Oceano. (Details above)  We can quickly become enamored with his lovely tack and beauty, but as a light painter, there are actually some pretty simple shapes here.

So… Let’s paint.

I’d recommend that you regularly refer back to the basic ball exercise on lesson 1, along with explanations of the lights.  This will help you as you watch the painting of Oceano unfold and hopefully, try it for yourself.  Please note that the same paints, palette and materials were used.

These images were taken at a demonstration I did for the Brenham Fine Arts League, College Station, Texas.  (The painting demo took about 1.5 hours).


Form Shadow + Cast Shadow

Light 1:  The Form Shadow

  1. Just as in the basic ball exercise in Lesson 1, I begin by mixing a transparent, soupy mix of paint with turp and a small amount of Liquin.  The colors I used were Transparent Oxide Red, Ultramarine Blue+ Viridian.
  2. I changed the color as I created the shape because, as you already know “SAMENESS IS BORING” in every aspect painting.
  3. I ensure that the edges are undefined and my brushstrokes loose and free at this early stage.

Wipe out platform for light

Light 2:  Cast shadow

  1. The case shadows on Oceano are scant, possibly the rein and subtle shadow caused by the bulk of the neck muscle.
  2. I apply a shadow shape in a cooler, darker color for this.
  3. I then wipe out the ‘platforms for light’ (WLH) with a soft cloth, and, as if by magic, the form of Oceano begins to emerge.

Void shadows in warm dark

Light 3:  Void Shadow

  1. Oceano’s reins are black, and therefore do not become “platforms for light”, except where the image of the light source is reflected off the bridle.  Therefore, the reins become void shadows!
  2. A word of caution, watch out for a phenomenon known as “photographer’s black”.  Cameras often over-compensate/ overstate values, so we must pay attention when we’re taking the photograph… Even though the reins appear very black against a white horse, were we to be in Oceano’s presence and looking at him, they would be far less noticeable.  As a would-be artist, we must paint our experience, not slavishly copy the photo.  When we paint our experience, the viewer feels that the painting is more “real” even though it is not ‘photographic’.
  3. With the abundance of void shadows in this simple composition caused by the black reins, I opted to paint the void shadows warm and less dark, so they would not overpower the composition at this early stage.

And there we have the kingdom of shadow; we’ve painted “where light don’t hit” and created a platform for light.  Let us proceed to the second part of the process.

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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