My developing horse sense…painting the head

If one could choose an astrological sign, I would choose Horse. As discussed in a much earlier blog, I am ‘so NOT a rat’ despite being born smack in the middle of a Rat year. With 2014 being a year of the horse in Chinese astrology, I challenged myself to raise my level of mastery of horse painting over the last few months. It’s been a ‘runaway’ year!

My horsey resources:

The first is the one that helped me break through to painting horses that looked like horses. The others have added to that base knowledge/skill, and continue to do so.


  1. Chinese Brush Painting: an instructional guide offers detailed instructions from a fourth generation horse painter, Ning Yeh. ( His ‘Celestial Horse’ is so named because it steps so sprightly that its hooves never seem to touch the ground.) The book corresponds to a series of televised video lesson produced in the 1980s, which you might just find in a nearby library.
  2. Two dedicated books with various well-explained styles–The Way to Paint Horses and Chinese Painting for Beginners # 16 Painting the Horse are jam-packed with ideas and many great horse compositions.
  3. Images of individual horse compositions, especially those of renowned Chinese master Xu Beihong who specialized in horses. His images also adorn a 2014 calendar we have in our Monterey CBP Club library.
  4. Intermittent access to places offering pony rides, horse and sleigh rides, petting zoos, and nearby farms where live equine examples abound. Other people may think me a bit odd when I snap close-ups of fetlocks, nostrils and withers, but the results are helpful at my art table.
  5. Photography books from world-renowned horse photographer Robert Vavra. (example Equus: the creation of a horse.) His work is enthralling, AND accompanied by snippets of horse sense that can inform one’s art.
  6. How to draw animals by Jack Hamm has one of the most comprehensive sections on sketching horses imaginable. He shows and names all the bones and muscles, he gives you the horse-owner’s jargon, he breaks all the parts into different lines and geometric shapes complete with many observations of what lines should run parallel to others, he shows panoramas for the footwork when a horse walks, canters, gallops—this can all be TOO MUCH if you don’t love horses. It is superb reference material once you’ve got some mastery of the horse under your belt.
  7. Another guide to sketching horses I picked up in a thrift store (for 25 cents) is simply called Drawing Horses. Author John Skeaping provides many insightful line drawings and pointers, especially a diagram showing how to ‘foreshorten’ a horse to convey depth in a painting.
  8. I have books on Leonardo da Vinci and Eugene Delacroix with some of their horse studies. I love the loose, vibrant style Delacroix used for horses (one of my CBP books even references his pen and ink sketches when describing the CBP ‘spontaneous’ approach), and da Vinci’s work-up sketches for his massive sculptures are impressive. I’ve read in more than one source that such artists working before time-lapse photography must command our respect for having ‘caught’ the subtleties of horseflesh on the move. Their footwork when walking, trotting, cantering, galloping all appear quite complex. and yet those artists ‘saw’ it. When you spot an artist at work who seems to be fiddling with a pencil or brush, aligning and re-aligning it over a work in progress (WIP), you’ll understand what those masters saw in the blink of an eye.

My equine studies:

In this year of ongoing horse studies I’ve had several epiphanies that could only have happened once I had mastered (well, at least got comfortable with…) Ning Yeh’s approach.

I was amazed to discover that he had never seen a live horse until he emigrated from China as a young adult, yet he could create marvelous horse paintings in mere minutes. Like his father, grandfather, AND great-grandfather, he learned at an early age just how and where to flick and slide his ‘dancing brush’ across rice paper with great success.

In western parlance, we sometimes call such practice ‘parlor tricks’: you devise a series of effective strokes (with variations) and practice until you can reliably execute them, then ‘perform’ for the amazement of others. See Ning do just that in this video:

There are a few slight jumps in the tape (they probably cover moments of brush loading some editor deemed unimportant!) but otherwise he executes a horse in under three minutes. He can do this repeatedly, with variations, and with an audience plus other distractions.

Henry Li of Blue Heron Arts does a similar version, (using a horsehair brush), and if you google his name with ‘horse painting’ you can find others, such as this one:

Now that you’ve seen these accomplished painters ‘strut their stuff’ I’ll lift the curtain so to speak, and divulge some of their secrets. As with more conventional ‘parlor tricks’ (such as making coins disappear, or identifying cards from a so-called shuffled deck) learning ‘how it’s done’ often surprises in the simplicity.

I found that steady practice of Yeh’s approach soon led to some satisfaction and that then, and only then, did all the other stuff truly enhance my results. I favor his method as a good starting point because it starts with the eye and head, and ALL proportions for the remaining body parts stem from those starting elements, and ALL equine compositions are but variations. I can now see that Xu Beihong’s horses are also all created from a similar mental template. Smart people, those horse painters.

An introduction: basic shapes

For starters, one could think of the horse as a combination of three-dimensional geometrical shapes. At the most basic level the horse consists of two cylinders oriented on their side, the smaller above the other. They are joined at one end by a stick (the neck), with four sticks (legs) protruding below the larger cylinder. Mane and tail swish out in appropriate places. If you’ve ever admired or even made reindeer decorations for Christmas from twigs and birch logs, you’ll be comfortable with this concept.


Ning Yeh refines the shapes somewhat, with the head cylinder narrowing toward the nose, and the body cylinder flattened into more of a brick shape to help position the legs and tail. (This all will become clearer in my next equine blog post, part 2 the body.)

Yeh starts with a simple left-facing horse head profile. It is probably the easiest first step for a right-hander, but easily reversed (right facing) once you’ve got the strokes down. THEN you can move on to head-on or charging away at different angles.


Head pointers in the Yeh fashion:

Ning Yeh starts with what he calls line work (outline drawing), and then adds some ink work (color) done with a flattened brush. He recommends either of two brushes—the large flow brush or his combination one. I sometimes use a detail brush for the line work and a combination one for the ink work, especially when working much smaller than Ning did in his Youtube special for 2014.

You’ll want at minimum two small pools of ink, one very dark and “sticky” if possible (pour from a bottle and let sit for awhile—happens naturally when you’re painting over an afternoon) and another of lighter ink wash. OR you can pour just a small puddle of dark ink, and develop the lighter mix right in the brush following Yeh’s method.

Painting a horse head:

Step 1. Start with the eye closest to you, midway up your paper. The first stroke is really a little three-dash stroke, up-over-and down. Then you add two little dabs below like parentheses, closing in a sort-of oval eye. Aim to keep the centre white, or your horse will be blind.

Step 2: Indicate the eye on the other side of the head, farthest from you. You do this with a simple little black line to the left of your first eye, further up on the paper, parallel to the three-dash upper eye line of your first one.


You have just established the positioning of every other part of your horse! Over time you get more practiced at what is the ‘right size’ and the ‘right distance apart’. As mentioned, my other resources go into a lot more detail with these shapes and alignments, and it is enlightening to ponder all that, BUT for quick satisfaction in rendering a horse, this simple approach can truly work.

Yeh points out one proportional reference: the distance from a line through both eyes to the top of the head is about half the distance from that same line to the end of the nose. Horse eyes appear relatively far apart, and that distance you have from the line through their eyes to the top of the head is equivalent to the distance between eye centres. Of course you’re not showing the entire eye farther away from you, because the head curves away from you. Once you consider this VISUALIZATION of proportions, you’re ready to continue the line work.


My Hamm sketch book does indeed offer another reference for placement of a horse’s eyes on the head, which I’m not totally in agreement with. Hamm mentally partitions the head into fourths, and places the eyes at the three-quarter mark. In comparing the two, I think they’re both right!


Hamm is creating a preliminary sketch and his eyes start our rather smallish, not too pronounced. Later shading and sketching ‘flesh them out’, so to speak. Yeh is completing the eyes with minimal brushwork; his strokes result in eyes that are more pronounced on one go. He also notes that an exaggerated eye lends a stronger ‘spirit’ to the animal you create.  As you paint you are gauging the distances and proportions fairly quickly, and these mathematical guides are simply intended as rough estimates. Besides, like humans, horses do have individuality, as well as variations among different breeds.


Step 3. Ink in two dark lines starting just below each eye, heading towards the nose tip. Don’t go all the way, but be sure to have them ‘converging’ toward an imaginary point further down. In CBP parlance, Yeh refers to this as “two fish seeking the same food”, a phrase he uses often in describing relationships of certain compositional elements. In painting some plants, you have your lines actually meet, in others the vortex remains imaginary at some distance, as here with the horse head.


Step 4. Ink in the nose and mouth. The horse nose has two prominent nostrils, a large flexible upper lip, and a similarly rounded soft-tissue lower lip. As with the eyes, both nostrils are not fully visible in a horse head thus positioned. Detail the one closest to you with a C-shape (or reverse C), and then suggest the one farthest from you with a mark that parallels the rounded shape of your first nostril. Ink in the upper lip with thin-thick upward curving line; lift your brush and move slightly to the right and drop in a smaller lower lip. Later on, once you are more familiar with horse lips, these strokes can be used to convey many different expressions. The wild, exaggerated strokes employed in spontaneous style CBP help to show horses neighing and baring their teeth at one another or in great exertion.

Typically, a horse head appears to be held at just more than a 90 degree angle as shown below.  Like other animals, a horse stretches its head forward when running, but at rest it will appear like this.


Step 5 Lower face and cheek line. Once you grasp the proportions and placement of these lines you can execute them sequentially, with smoothness and in a flowing motion. The next little line is meant to suggest how the under-chin completes the pointed end of that cylindrical shape you visualized at the beginning. And THEN you lift your brush, move up the face a bit and ink in a bigger curving line for the cheek/jowl. It helps to think of this curve as moving equidistant from the closer eye.

In Ning Yeh’s video lessons he divulges a handy little family secret. Remember that I said he was a fourth generation horse painter? Well, he and his mentors employ what he calls ‘happy dots’ whenever they look at lines or a composition just completed that seems just a little ‘off’. This often happens as you swoop around this cheek line; you may have left just a tad too much space between the short under-chin line and the start of the curve, so you jab in a little ‘happy dot’ to fill the space. It pulls the two elements together. AND, it looks like you planned the transitional ink mark all along!

Try it on purpose a few times and you’ll see what I mean. (Thanks Ning Yeh for sharing family secrets!)

Step 6 The ears and forehead. To finish the line work for a horse head Ning then places the ears, two pointed shapes, each further up the head from each eye. Note the one closer to you appears larger and the further ear will have less detail. You can ink them with an up-down stroke each, or with more strokes to show how they are being held. (Those more familiar with horses know their ears are a prime means of signaling others; they play a huge part in horse ‘body language. If the subject interests you, take a look at this blog by Birgit Stutz on horse ‘body language’.)

And finally you quickly dab in a line from the last ear down towards the far eye (not ALL the way) to complete the face. Again, if once you lift your brush you wish it longer, add a dot instead of trying to extend the ink line.

Step 7 Ink Work (shading) The next Yeh steps are amazing in their effectiveness and execution. He uses four sequential strokes to ‘color in’ the horse head, giving it depth and roundness. These strokes are placed over the part of the head closest to you. The brush is first loaded with dark ink, tipped off, and then dipped in clear water to develop a slightly transparent quality. You then need to remove the excess moisture from the back/heel of the brush with paper towel.

The first three strokes are done in succession, without lifting brush from paper. Start at the closest ear tip and move down to just above the eye, continue stroke two by pushing the brush around the corner of the eye, and then smoothly move into a third stroke that follows the line of that cheek/jowl. You can really PUSH this rounded stroke so that the brush flattens against the paper. Lift your brush. Observe your brush closely; it should have splayed bristles with some ink-wash remaining. Quickly swipe that splayed brush down the nose of the horse, achieving the uneven shading as you lift off. You may need to tip your brush in water (but keep the bristles splayed) if it’s too dry; you may need to add a second stroke to finish the width of the face. Lastly, regroup your bristles and dab in color on the far ear. Voila, the head is done!


The top study shows color work for the face; the lower one illustrates color work for the neck painted after inking in three lines.

Step 8 Finish with a neck and mane. Add three lines to suggest the neck. Note the placement of two semi-parallel ones leading out of the cheek, and an upper one following in much the same manner from behind the ear. A horse’s neck is thick and powerful, so gauging that width is important.

The ink work for the neck is done in much the same way as for the head. Load the brush with dark ink, dip it in water, remove the excess moisture, and then plant four sidestrokes. The first one fills in the top, the second fills in from the eye down the neck, the third goes back to wipe between those first two, and your fourth fills in the space between two lines. All of this ink shading should blend smoothly with the face shading, and stay within the bounds of the neck.

The mane is best portrayed with darker ink and a dry brush. At first glance you might think the mane is executed with side stokes. Instead, Yeh describes what he calls a ‘pressure down’ stroke. He recommends loading the brush with dark ink, removing excess moisture, and then while holding the brush vertically, exert pressure as you move away from the neck. Gradually release the pressure and curve as you lift off with bristles split. The aim is to place one larger stroke midway down the neck and add a smaller similar shape below it; this is the traditional CBP compositional application of the ‘host and guest’ principle. Fill in similar smaller strokes above the first, between the ears and in front if needed–that you determine by considering how the wind is moving around your horse head.


Ning Yeh breaks his horse lessons into two. I found that practicing the head paid off. Soon I could work the strokes fluidly, in quick succession. The loading got easier. Some horses looked wonky indeed, but I kept going. Some had necks that were too skinny, some had eyes two close, nostrils morphed into deformities. I kept going. The good news is that proportions and alignment of the remaining body parts ALL stem from how your head turns out. So, practicing heads until you can execute them easily makes good sense. Here’s a few of my heads from recent compositions, coincidentally all right-facing.



My two CBP books showed a number of monochrome and colored compositions inspired by Delacroix sketches. I sought out the originals and found them most inspiring; here’s one of his pen-and-wash sketches:


Here’s one of my early ‘head only’ compositions, inspired by the Delacroix sketch, once I had gained some familiarity with Yeh’s technique.


Head studies on their own can result in pleasing compositions, but my aim was to master full-bodied steeds if I could.  And thanks to Ning Yeh ‘s exceptional guidance, I’ve had an easy ride.  The experience is not unlike learning to ‘give a horse its head’ and just let the animal take you home on his own. Happy trails, indeed.



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