My developing horse sense: equine study part 2, the Body

As noted in my last post, once I grasped how to paint a horse head in monochrome ink, the body flowed quite naturally from it.  Ning Yeh’s second lesson on Horse in his book Chinese Brush Painting: an instructional guide was the resource that contributed most to my breakthrough.  Here’s how it works.

Paint a left-facing horse head near the top of your paper, and then visualize extensions to the three neck lines you painted: one to each front leg and the middle one to the centre of the chest, just between the legs.


These three lines merge into end lines of your imagined ‘brick-shaped’ body, illustrated later in this post.

My book on sketching animals by Jack Hamm is the most detailed resource I’ve ever seen on horse anatomy, complete with comprehensive sketches of horses trotting, running, cantering, and galloping. Yes, it can all get a little overwhelming. And you can also gain new respect for dressage judges, skating and gymnastic judges, dance coaches, just about anyone who trains their eye to assess dozens of different elements to a pose in mere seconds. The good news is that while learning the fine points, you can zero in on each one in turn, before putting them all together.

Giving your horse legs:

The forelegs to a horse are easier to understand than the hind legs, perhaps because the hind ‘hip’ is buried up high in its rump and the part corresponding to a human ‘knee’—that joint which bends to the rear—appears higher in the hind leg than we expect. The horse bones extending forward from the human ‘ankle’ equivalent are longer than in a human, so that joint (the hock) is often misjudged as the knee-equivalent.


Learning a few terms and clarifying the parts to a horse’s hind leg are the hard parts, painting them is relatively easy, once you know how. Yeh’s method for painting the horse’s body, legs, and tail continues the same principles as for the face, neck and mane. He combines line and then ink work, each stroke flows naturally into the next, and the relative size of parts are all based on the distance from eyes to lip, that length that was twice the distance from ears to eyes.

Yeh explains that visually one may think Chinese brush painters are exaggerating the chest proportions, but suggests that early CBP who painted horses did so while living with emperors, who probably owned the most magnificent steeds in the realm! He also notes that back then horses were part of the warrior image and no doubt painting them literally ‘larger than life’ was intentional. The proportions do result in vibrant looking horses, and one can tone down the lines and ink work if desirable to convey a more docile and ‘workaday’ specimen. Spirited steeds have great appeal for me.

Here are the steps:

STEP 1: Line and ink work for the Chest. With your hard brush loaded with dark ink you define the powerful shoulder and chest muscle lines that roughly follow the “boxy” front end of your imagined brick. The far shoulder lines are done in dark ink, the nearer ones are defined with a medium tone (Yeh achieves the lighter tone by dipping a dark loaded brush in a little water, mixing the color in the brush, and removing excess moisture; an alternative is to have a pool of medium tone ink ready and load with it directly.)

These five sets of defining lines are quickly inked in starting on the left, moving down from near the base of your neckline. Before you touch brush to paper, visualize three imaginary “extensions” of the lines you made for the neck—the second flows down and to the right to suggest the centre of the horse’s chest, the other two continue into the bones of the front legs, either side of centre. Your lines will be suggesting the muscle structure covering those bones. And the height of that chest “box” section should be the same as that length you created from eyes to lip on the head.

Make two thin-thick strokes as shown and hook back slightly, then place a second downward stroke to the right of the first that ends in the first hook; move to your right and jab in a third downward line which suggests the centre line on the chest. Load with the medium tone and proceed to do the shoulder closer to you in much the same manner, with two sets of downward strokes. The distance between your fourth and fifth sets of lines should be a little wider than the corresponding distance between the first and second set—i.e. the shoulder closer to you appears wider than the shoulder further away.


Your brush still has some medium ink in it and you now use that to apply two wide strokes from the top down, covering (coloring) the far shoulder. Again consider where a few tiny strokes or happy dots might visually “complete” the muscle definition.

STEP 2: Line and ink work for the front legs. Yeh does not use anatomical names for horse body parts, and he is living proof that one does not need to when painting great horse images. I use the terms for convenience, and because I learned their names as a child right along with my own body parts.

Yeh considers the front legs as having three parts (roughly equivalent to 1. the forearm, 2. the cannon-fetlock, 3. the hoof) He points out that the length of the first is equivalent to the length of the second two combined, and yes…that distance coincides with the magical eye line-to-lip distance already used to gauge a proper chest height!


Something you grasp quickly when seeing his lesson on video tape is that he executes each leg from the top down, in a series of seven practiced strokes that are applied like stacking three sets of parentheses, ending in a solid (bone) stroke. You will recall the ‘bone stroke’ is a CBP staple, created by ‘tucking in’ the tip of your brush at the start and the end of a solid line.


Yeh explains that the ‘soul’ of a horse is in its lower leg (the cannon, fetlock, pastern and hoof part) and hence that section may be exaggerated a bit. His preference seems to be to use line work for the hoof (moku) and not ink in a connecting pastern, only suggest its presence with the hoof placement. I tend to ink them in.

With the front legs, there are numerous possible variations depending on how your horse is animated.   Just remember that the front leg bends at the “knee” only toward the back of the animal. All of these “poses” can be defined using the same pattern of seven strokes.


My several Chinese Brush painting books dedicated to the horse include diagrams such as this to help understand the footwork.

Yeh recommends painting the near leg in medium ink and the far one in darker ink. He leaves the closer leg without additional ink (color work) but applies a series of strokes to the far leg in much the same manner as he executed the cheek on the face—two strokes down, two up with the last leaving some flying white on the forearm part of the leg.

For a first horse in profile, a common posture for those two front legs is recommended; once you develop a comfort level with their fluid execution, then you can lift one or both in charging motion, and figure out where the hind legs should be in relation to the positions of the front leg. Xu Beihong, the great horse painter, favored two common stances—one standing and the other at a gallop (he did a few posed from behind, often with the head twisting back to ‘groom’ or scratch an itch.) Typical poses involve either ‘gathering up’ the feet under the horse, and thus pulling in the length of his body, or extending his legs. DO make sure, no matter how fast the run, one foot is always on the ground.

Here is a good as anywhere to paste in two ‘no-nos’ for positioning horse legs. These two inaccurate/mythical poses seem to have been absorbed into general consciousness as realistic, but they are not. Do NOT paint horses with legs on the same side extended more than 90 degrees, or have them crossed underneath the poor beast.


STEP 3 Body work. Yeh continues with his approach of line work to define shape first, followed by color work to enhance the three-dimensional look. He admits that perhaps his line work suggests lean stomach lines more often as not, but again justifies the practice in support of creating horses that command our admiration and attention.   The suggested line work is one down the back, and one/two connected strokes along the lower stomach.

Again, from Hamm, I’ve learned that horse bodies conveniently fit in a box, i.e. are proportioned like a square. Your eye quickly picks up on this.


I’ve noticed that most CBP images of horses politely ignore the ‘naughty bits’ or merely suggest their presence in a male horse, with a few sketchy, curved lines. (Those lines never convey a sexually aroused male horse, and for that matter, female horses ‘presenting’ to a male are not portrayed either.) Yeh suggests a few curved, medium ink swipes along the lower belly—color work–to enhance the dimensional quality and roundness of the body section.

STEP 4 Hindquarters. (rear end). Return to visualizing how the basic body shape, a flattened brick, would appear in perspective, and determine where a centre line down the top of the horse’s back would extend into the far distance; you want to be sure your line work suggests a hip on the other side of that centre line, as well as a hip on the near side. You could place a tiny, very light ink reference mark for the dock or starting point for the tail to emerge from the rump.

This is the three-dimensional "brick" shape to keep in mind as you flesh out your horse body.

Plan where the tail will emerge; visualize a dotted line to correspond to the horse’s spine. Your line work defines the rounded body.

Yeh prefers to have a short line for the far hip, a two-part joined big curving line for the rump, and a final line coming down the rump and ending in a hook to the left, thus defining the thigh. He also inks in the front of the thigh (the flank) and dabs a few light ink marks on the rump to suggest muscle definition. That whole area of ‘rump’ and thigh is heavily muscled and very rounded; you should be looking at a gap to be filled by the (closer) hind leg that is much the same width as the corresponding ‘gap’ you had emerging from the front chest box before you extended your line work into the (closer) foreleg.

STEP 5 Back Legs. Study of photographs of horses and live models will help your eye become accustomed to accurate posing of hind legs. Do remind yourself the ‘knee’ is in the flank and the next joint down (the hock) is really an ankle, hence the forward direction of movement.

Note the proportions in a horse hind leg are the same as for a front leg (the length of the top section is equivalent to the sum of the two lower segments, and yes that equals your reference distance of eye-line to lower lip.) Yeh works the ink in the same manner as for the front legs and uses darker ink for the far leg, as it is in shadow.

Depending on the angle you are viewing your horse, there may be some foreshortening of the distant leg needed. Yeh executes the lower shank, fetlock, and pastern with a wide bone stroke, and then defines the hoof with lines only, leaving the spot for the “crown” of the hoof blank. Sometimes it is necessary to widen the end of the pastern just above the hoof (that’s the part on the well-known draft horse called Clydesdale that is bulbous and hairy-looking). For guidance Yeh shows a rear hoof line reaching forward, head-on, and pushing backward.


STEP 6 Tail.

Finally, we get to the part the child in all of us loves to do—a swishy tail. There are a number of ways to do them. Some painters do indeed resort to dry brush curved strokes in order to get a loose, hairy look. Yeh explains a method involving “pressure down” strokes as he did with the mane. I like the look of his style because the initial pressure part tends to really ‘plant’ the appendages into the muscle structure of the animal, contributing to the dimensional look. (My art friends tell me the stroke is handy in some birds as well.)

Here are a few of my completed single horse studies:

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And then some involving two horses interacting.

SoHappyTogetherCard copy

HorseRunning TogetherCH copy


When painting two together I’ve noticed many artists strive for different coats—black and white, grey dappled next to either black or white, a roan with a black, and so on. These combinations can add interest to your composition. My CBP books also feature horses in different weather (snowy scenes are common). The groups of eight that stand for luck apparently harken back to a famous general who had a stable of eight fine horses. Several comps involving a girl in a swishy red robe ‘breaking’ horses introduces another favorite subject of mine, figure drawing.   One could easily stay with horse painting for months, maybe years. Only 12 years to the next horse year, you say?

This entry was posted in Chinese Brush Painting, painting horses. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to My developing horse sense: equine study part 2, the Body

  1. Jacqueline Foo says:

    Thank you so much for sharing!! Next year being the year of Ram, the male of a sheep with horns. Will you care to share how you would paint or draw it, too? Thank you once again! Blessings, Jacqueline

    Sent from my iPhone

    • barbmek says:

      Hi Jacqueline:
      Absolutely! We have already started looking for instructions and examples in one of my art groups, and so far have found very little. There are tons of images showing goats with young female goatherds painted by a Cheng Shifa whose style I like, and apparently goats, sheep, and ram are all acceptable as symbols for the year. But I have just acquired two new horse books and so my horse studies will continue for now. How about you?
      the Reluctant Rat

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