Painting what I know: horses

To paint well, first you must understand the subject.

Paint what you know.

These two bits of wisdom sound quite similar but come from two different parts of the world.  “Paint what you know” is what most of us in western cultures hear while dabbling in the arts.  The other bit comes from Asia.

So far in my attempts at Chinese Brush painting I am most satisfied with executing cats and horses.  These two animals I know well.  In the ten short years “Ziggy” ruled our household I probably shot a gazillion or more pictures, and personally stroked every little furry bit of him.  He was an amazing cat.

As for horses, I spent much of the first ten years of my life staring at the rear ends of two magnificent animals, the team of Rocky and Lou.  Lou was a gentle white mare who kept her more boisterous partner on track.  Rocky provided reliable and formidable horsepower as my Dad broke land in the Mt. Robson Valley in the early 1940s.  The team also pulled our wagon in the days before local roads were graded well enough to sustain vehicular traffic.


You might say horse sense runs in my family; my triple great-granddad immigrated to Canada in 1815 and opened the first saddlery in York, now Toronto.  Down through the generations, many a horse served us well. My mother was also a horsewoman.  I like to think I come by my horse appreciation genetically.

The horse’s place in Chinese Brush Painting:

In the Chinese zodiac the Horse arrives sixth in line.  Attributes of horse-year people include cheerfulness, intuitive thinking, and skill in managing money.  They tend to be hot-blooded and anger easily. Horse-year people are not noted for their patience, but excel in doing things with their hands.  Attracted to entertainments such as plays and musicals, they love an audience. One source states bluntly: they are terribly independent.

As with many of the 12 special zodiac animals the horse is well covered in most instructional books on Chinese Brush Painting.  My favorite tends to be the guidance given by Ning Yeh,  a master born and trained in China, who has made California his home for decades.  His detailed instructions for horse painting were printed in a dedicated booklet distributed through OAS, and he also addresses painting horse in several of his books.  Ning Yeh strikes me as possessing all the most desirable qualities an art teacher should have.  I particularly enjoy the many anecdotes he incorporates into his albums and instructional books.

On the horse Ning Yeh is particularly instructive; his father—also an accomplished brush painter—perfected the requisite number and kinds of brush strokes to execute what they call the Celestial Horse.  When you gaze on any number of Ning Yeh’s horse compositions, whether a single, pair or group of the noble beasts, the term “celestial” is deemed most apt. His horses are spirited and alive.

I have also acquired two books dedicated to painting the horse: The Way to Paint Horses and Chinese Painting for Beginners # 16 Painting the Horse.  The latter is a collaboration of two excellent painters—Hsu Yong and Pai Su-Lan–while the first one identifies the author only in Chinese.  Both are jam-packed with wonderful compositions and step-by-step images.  They are treasures to a beginning painter who loves horses.


This last year I completed two horse compositions, which were included in our annual show at Goward House.

HorseDancing copy                  HorseLeaping copy

A third composition in which I attempted to capture the majesty and power of a stampeding herd of horses I turned into an art card.

Dec12WildRide2 copy

I’ve had favorable feedback from several trusted sources and intend to do more.  I can see why some painters do nothing but horses.

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