Equine Sculpture by Mel Miller


This article deals only with oil painting, but the ideas are applicable to all media with some modifications in technique. For instance, if you choose to paint in acrylics, instead of laying the color on the body all at once, you might want to work in sections to take advantage of all the blending time you can get. There are also differences in paintbrush handling techniques; you will find what works best for you by experimentation.

To get started, I strongly recommend Carol Williams' "Color Formulas and Techniques", which comes with color formula cards. If you do not have the formula cards, you can mix your colors using photo reference and trial and error. (And in fact, once you become more experienced, you will likely want to go back to this method. However, it is still very helpful to learn how to mix colors using Carol's formulas as you will see the color components that go into a paint job much more easily.) After mixing your colors, you should thoroughly mix in a few drops of cobalt drier and blending medium before you start. Drier is not required, but if it is not used you will have to wait longer before you can begin subsequent coats. If you do choose to use drier, don't use too much. A few of drops per mix will do - you'll get the feel for it after a few mixes. If you use too much, you'll wind up with flaky or discolored paint that has to be stripped. Since dark oils take longer to dry, you can add an extra drop to them so they dry with the rest of the paint. White mixes also take a long time to dry, but be very careful when adding drier to whites. They will turn yellow fairly quickly if too much drier is added. If you have a horse with a lot of white in its coat, it is best to use very little drier and just be a bit more patient with drying times. The blending medium is added to prevent brushstrokes. How much medium you use will depend on your tastes and painting style, and you may choose not to use it at all. Personally, I like my paints quite thin, and I paint 6 or more "glaze" coats to build up the color. By shading every layer, you can develop a rich depth of color in the coat. Some people prefer to do one, or possibly two layers of oils - to accomplish this, you will need to keep your paints somewhat thick, and using a shaded acrylic basecoat helps.

As you are painting, you can "stipple" the colors together. This is simply dabbing the edges between two paint colors together until they blend. Avoid overblending colors, which can make either an ugly, greenish color depending on the mix (especially in buckskins) or a muddy, flat final color. Experimentation is the only way to know when to stop stippling. As you stipple the color, use a different brush for each color mix as you won't be able to clean the brush during painting. (Cleaning your brush with thinner or cleaner can affect the consistency of the paint, or even strip what you've already painted on!) When the brush gets too full of paint, you can gently wipe some out with towels. If after wiping the brush out you find it is still too saturated, move on to a new brush. Old, frayed brushes work best for blending. For highlights and shadows, use a newer brush without frayed hairs to apply the color first to all areas that need it, and then carefully stipple or brush over to blend the shades together.

If the horse will be dappled you can do that on the last coats, and then come back to touch up the dapples you want to enhance later. Alternatively, you can paint them gradually in several layers, going back and forth between making a dapple shape and adding paint in a network around the dapples. For intense dapples, dry-brushing (painting with very little paint on the brush on top of a dry coat of paint) works well.

Study pictures of different colors to get a feel for how dapples look. Some are roundish and fuzzy, others are more jagged and may or may not fit together like puzzle pieces. Sooty colors have different types of dappling than non-sooty colors in both shape and position, as do silvers. The same techniques for regular dappling can be applied to reverse dappling, but again, use photo reference to get the shape and placement right. To make round fuzzy dapples, use the light color you used on the horse's flank or even a highlight color. Get a little bit of paint on a small round brush and dab small spots onto the areas to be dappled. These tend to be on the barrel and back of the haunches primarily, though certainly all horses vary, and some dappling patterns are more extensive. (Also note that many horses don't have any dapples at all.) Do not worry about blending the dapples in yet. Try to make the dapples appear random; it is very easy to accidentally make them look patterned. Don't be stingy with the number of dapples you add either - they look very out of place when they are too sparse. Also pay attention to the size; very large and very small dapples look terribly unrealistic. It may be time consuming to do correctly, but it is well worth the effort.

After you have the dapple dots in place, use a firm, but still soft, round brush, and begin stippling (tap the brush over the dapple spot) gently. To get the round type, just keep stippling in one place. These dapples tend to be very close in color to the coat, and blend in easily. For the irregularly shaped variety, move the brush tip around just a bit to shape them. These types of dapples tend to stand out more than the round type. Dapple greys have a unique type of vein like dappling on their gaskins and forearms. These can take quite a lot of practice to prevent from overblending, but look fascinating when well done. Use a round brush to draw on the light paint, and carefully blend around the edges with a clean brush.

After you've finished with a painting session, use a very soft, large brush over the whole horse. You may want to use a smaller brush for the face and legs to prevent color mixing. Gently brush in the direction of hair growth. Be careful not to brush too hard; this process is only to rid the paint job of any stray brush strokes. If you push the brush down too much, you can drag color out of its proper place into another spot. Test on an unnoticeable area first to get a feel for how lightly you have to brush. You can skip this step if there are no brushstrokes. You can intentionally vary the pressure on the brush to get different effects, but proceed carefully to avoid ruining the paint job.

It is best to use disposable palettes for each paint job. I just use a sheet of foil, folded in half once (too keep it from ripping). The paint mixes are placed along the middle of the foil palette; that way, you can simply fold the foil over again to keep the paint clean and prevent it from drying out. By placing the paint in the middle, it prevents the paint from spreading out all over the palette, and it therefore lasts longer. If your paint coat doesn't look good at first, don't worry about it. Save the paints (unless it was definitely a bad paint mix) and start over after the first coat has dried, usually in about 24 hours. Often times, colors look quite odd while the coat is still translucent, so don't get discouraged if the first coat or two doesn't look quite right.

If you are planning on adding a dorsal stripe, leg barring, or other similar markings, you have two options. First, you can add them on in the wet paint sessions. Don't blend them in too much, or you might muddy up the coat color. You can also add them on after the last coat is dry. Apply and blend the paint carefully if you choose to work this way, as the stripe color can stain the rest of the body coat. The effects can be very striking using this dry brushing method. I generally like to use a combination of the two methods. I usually do a "base" for the primitive markings in with the last wet coat or two. Then, I go back and enhance them after the coat is dry.

I prefer to add white markings with gesso and an acrylic mix, but you can also do markings in oils. To work in acrylic, spray the horse with fixative or DullCote before adding markings. This will prevent the peeling or cracking that can happen when acrylics are painted directly on top of oils. I use several different white formulas for different purposes, all thinned down to prevent brushstrokes. Some are tinged with raw sienna or other colors, some are blindingly white. You can use several different shades of white on one horse to create more depth and believability too. For the first layers, use gesso only as it covers much better than white paints. It may take 25 coats or so to get a medium sized area white, and many more for a large area. It can take a long time, but carefully done, this method creates completely smooth markings. You can also airbrush a couple of coats on if you're accurate and the white spaces are fairly large. This can cut down drastically on the number of coats you need to apply. Completely fill in areas that are supposed to be white; in other words, don't let the base color show through.

To make mapping or the light roaned edges around markings, paint the marking white like usual. On the last coat, slightly overlap the colored area outside the marking. This will give an instant blended, roany looking effect. For a detailed look, you can also draw in individual hairs in the mapped areas with a brush or pencil.

Any areas with white markings should have pink skin underneath. In the areas where the hair is thin, and skin shows through more, you'll be able to see the white hairs fade into the pink skin. Make a mix of some titanium white, burnt sienna and a bit of burnt umber; you can alter this mix with other colors to suit the color of the horse better. After the marking is completely white, shade in the pink in the appropriate areas such as the nose, insides of the ears, around the eyes, groin and behind the elbow. Paint on a spot of the pink and then use the white marking mix to blend the pink into the rest of the white marking. Do this in several layers for the best looking shading.

Hooves on legs with white markings should be tan. Paint a mix of titanium white, burnt umber and raw sienna around the hoof. These colors are a general starting point for light hoof color. You can adjust the mix and add different colors for each horse. Be careful to keep this color on the hoof only as it can be difficult to re-shade white leg markings. Once the hoof basecoat is completely dry and solid in color, put another coat on one hoof. Immediately use a small round brush to apply a narrow band of white at the top of the hoof. When both paints get a little tacky (this won't take long), blend the two together. This will create the lighter coronary band area. Before the paint dries, add a couple thin lines of burnt umber and blend them in a bit after they are tacky. Don't try to tackle more hooves than you can handle at once. Trying to do more than one hoof at once can result in the paint drying before you have a chance to blend the colors properly, and you'll have to start over. Pencils can also be used to great effect on hooves.

Hooves on dark legs are a dark greyish brown color with a coronet band just like the tan hooves. Mix burnt umber, black and white for an appropriate dark hoof color. Show horses that have their hooves blackened are really easy! (Remember to make sure the breed or discipline shows with blackened hooves.) All you have to do is paint some straight black on all of the hooves. It's a nice touch to make the back side of the hoof/heel the correct hoof color since hoof black isn't added there. The sole of the hoof should be the same color as the hoof, and you may choose to paint some dirt detail there.

For eyes, paint a basecoat of unbleached titanium on the whole eyeball. You will have to paint this on a few times unti it is solid in color. This will provide a base for eyewhites. If you know you won't have any eyewhites showing, you can omit this step. Next, paint a black circle on the eyewhite. Make it as big as you like - you can hide the white completely, allow a bit to show in the corners, or even leave a white sclera around the eye for an appaloosa. To make the brown eye color (the iris), experiment with mixes of burnt umber, burnt sienna, raw sienna and metallic colors. For blue eyes, it helps to work from a picture to avoid too bright a shade. When you paint the iris, be sure to leave a very small rim of black around the outside. You will need to put the brown or blue on more than once to make the color solid. After the iris is solidly colored and dry, add the color again, but this time before it is dry add a horizontal rectangle in the middle to create the pupil. (Do not make a vertical line like cat eyes!) The pupil feathers out lightly into the iris - it almost looks mossy. To get this realistic look, blend little fingers of black out a bit into the iris. This is very hard to see in pictures unless they are exceptionally well lit light colored eyes; you may have to look at a horse's eye up close to see it. This technique will take a lot of practice, but is well worth the effort.

When you are all done, and everything is completely dry, you'll have to put a protective coat on the horse. DullCote and Model Master Lusterless (both Testors products) are excellent. The Model Master name is slightly more expensive, but has a finer spray that turns out a bit nicer than DullCote. If you use Krylon, do not get the low odor variety; this type is blotchy, leaves little shiny flakes behind, and really isn't very "low odor". When spraying your protective coats, make sure to use many thin layers. If you put it on too thick, it can run and become too shiny. (Or worse yet, it may leave a milky white film!) With several thin layers, the horse becomes well protected without a poor finish.

Materials Checklist