Last year I did a series of three horse portraits for the foyer of my new house, and I’m really excited about how they turned out! Though I have been involved in the horse world since I was 10, and owned horses since I was twelve, I had yet to draw a full-colour horse portrait since becoming a professional artist, but I was eager to try. I thought I’d give you a bit of background on each of these portraits and then go into some things I learned along the way, so you can keep them in mind for your own art and learn a bit about my process!
I decided to start with Lewis, my most recent horse, simply because he was not grey. I have draw a lot of brown animals in coloured pencil so I figured I had a pretty good sense of what colours to use. Of course, Lewis’s coat was more than just brown: there were reds, yellows, creams and even purples in there. Once again I had to overcome my fear of putting in too much colour, as Lewis was always very uniquely coloured and I really wanted to capture that.
I was absolutely thrilled with how I managed to capture Lewis’s expression and colour, but then I had a more challenging problem: drawing two grey horses on white paper. Not to mention both horses were different types of grey (one dappled and one flea-bitten), and I really wanted to capture those differences as well.
I drew Lily next, as she is the darker of the two, and I thought it would give me a fighting chance on figuring out how to make grey horses stand out on a white background. The biggest difficulty in this one was trying not to make her look too shaggy, as the reference wasn’t super clear in parts. It was also a little tough for me to draw emotionally, as I sold Lily when I went to university and still miss her a ton. Her show name (Adlaya) is now the name of my business, so I’m not lying when I say she means a lot to me.
Levi was last on the list. My first horse, Levi was a not-quite-pony who excelled in the jumper ring, won everything that he wanted to, and was a ton of fun to ride. I have lots of brilliant pictures of him, but I wanted it to be similar to the headshots of Lewis and Lily (since they’ll be hanging in the same room), with a bridle and nothing else. Unfortunately the only shot I had of him like this was not in the best lighting, and somewhat fuzzy. So I was quite worried about how this one would turn out. Thankfully, I saved him for last, which meant I had all the practice from Lewis and Lily to help guide me, and I was able to make a portrait I was very happy with!
1) Horse hair is short. Especially in working horses, when we clip their coats in the winter, their hair is quite short. You want to keep your pencil strokes the length of the fur your drawing, so with horses, short strokes are the ticket
2) Don’t be afraid to use colour. Even if it seems weird, or too much. I used a ton of colours that were not brown or grey in both portraits, and it adds so much depth and life to your drawings
3) On a similar note, white (or grey) fur is never white or grey. I used so much blue in Lily and Levi’s portraits, to the point where I was sure I would overdo it. But every time I’d come back to the drawing table I’d add more, and I’m glad I did.
4) Always cover every part of your drawing with pencil, even the truly white parts. Except for the background, I don’t let any paper show through on my drawings. It really helps the drawing stand out, especially if you’re working with grey colours on light paper.
5) You can adjust the reference photo. I changed something in every one of these photos. Both Lewis and Levi had saddles on that were distracting, so I just took them out. Lily had a strap loose on her bridle so I just took that out. I increased the reflection in Levi’s eye because the reference was taken at night and the reflection of the flash made it look really weird. For Lily and Levi I added some warm shadows on the lit parts of their faces so they stood out against the white background. It worked. I’m happy.
6) Adjusting references is hard, and it takes practice. If I tried to do these portraits even a year ago I wouldn’t have had the skills to make those adjustments, and would have just stuck exactly to what I saw in the picture. But with practice comes the ability to be more flexible and make necessary adjustments that make your portrait stand out.
7) I love drawing horses. I will definitely draw more in the future!