A horse of a different color—the zebra

One of the most striking horse relations is a denizen of African plains and forests, the zebra. Whether the creature is black with white stripes, or white with black is a centuriesold debate.

Wikipedia weighs in on the discussion quite fairly by saying it is black with white stripes, BUT the white sections have an underlying coat of dark hair!

This entry has lots of good info on the animal–its distribution, characteristics and so on. A curious fact is the supposed purpose for the unique coloration—apparently the stripes of several zebras in motion together cause a phenomenon called ‘motion dazzle’ which confuses natural predators such as the lion. For most humans, the effect simply dazzles.

One theory holds that the striping serves as “visual crypsis” or camouflage, i.e.the distinctive coloring serves to help zebras hide in plain sight. Predators have difficulty in distinguishing (motionless?) zebras from surroundings, particularly in shade or at night. One source I found makes the analogy to wheel turn, or barbershop pole spin, both motions that confuse perception. Another suggestion is that the coloring repels nasty flies; yet another that the striping serves some form of “social signaling”.

I found an abundance of images online to help understand the stripes; here’s a few examples:

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I take heart in learning the several sub-species vary in size, some being more mule-like, and others closer in proportion to donkeys. From my reading I conclude the plains species must be the one portrayed in my CBP inspirations. The entry also notes inter-breeding has led to so-called hybrids like the zebroid, zeedonk, zony, and zorse.   Admittedly, those sound more like high school adolescent hijinks.

Nevertheless, adding zebras to my equine painting repertoire seems a natural leap, especially with the inspiration of a Rebecca Yue instructional demo. In her book Chinese Animal Painting Made Easy she composed a herd of zebras in retreat that caught my eye.  I love it when you can achieve tremendous impact with minimal effort.

Painting Zebra:

When it comes to painting zebras, the approach seems to be simply outlining a horse-like creature with a black nose, bristly mane, donkey-like stature, sharp two-part hooves, and then adding stripes.


The plains species, which is commonly seen in zoos around the world, has wider stripes than the largest species, named Grevy in honor of a president of France who acquired one in the 1880s.


In profile the stripes on this Grevy zebra are easy to study.

I surmise Yue’s subject is a plains zebra. The striped patterns tend to follow body curvatures, appearing almost vertical along the trunk and body, and moving on angles down the rump. Bellies and lower extremities are marked to a lesser degree. Yue suggests using a simple drop-and-drag brushstroke. Manes tend to be naturally shorter on zebras than most horse breeds; and would require some jabbing strokes with a very dry brush. One of my oil painting books recommends using burnt sienna at the base of the dark-haired mane, which could easily be done in CBP as well.

My zebra study:

I played only a bit with preliminary ink studies for my zebras, mostly because the ink stripes looked like they could take a LOT of time to get right! I told myself it was because the horse rump shapes were fresh in my mind, coming off a few days of horse painting. Sometimes in this art form though it doesn’t hurt to boldly go ahead with a full composition, trusting one’s instinct. The strokes are basic, the inking of outlines will either work, or not. If not, well the loss is minimal. Ink, paper, water adds up to a low cost creative investment.

And if it works, well then you saved yourself some time. And again, if not, then you know what shapes need a little preliminary study and trial. To get the true effect of “motion dazzle” with my herd of retreating zebras I wanted their bodies to overlap in places, and to have some further ahead (away) than others. In CBP one has to be mindful of leaving white paper (or touching up later with white paint) between objects that overlap.

Animals of one kind in any composition can be challenging to draw all of a similar proportion, to foreshorten when they appear at different distances, and also to adjust shapes for animals retreating or advancing. Profiles can be so much easier. Another ‘safe’ choice is to paint dust at the feet of a herd, or place them splashing in water—then you don’t have the worry of getting all the hooves ‘just right’. The more hooves you have, the more places to misjudge!

Yes, lone creatures posed in profile do make for striking compositions, BUT one has to wonder how many times the artist chose to do that because of the challenges with MORE creatures, semi-profiles, foreshortening, etc. Thank goodness there are some size variations in animals (as in humans) based on gender, breed, health and age. And one of the pluses of CBP is that traditionally we strive to capture the spirit of a subject, less so than a realistic rendering. Hence a subject that is a bit mal-proportioned could simply be the artist’s choice!

Here’s my “Zebras on the Move”:

ZebrasOnThe Move

Delightful Lotus asked me where my herd was going. (One of the great benefits of painting in a like-minded art group is just this sort of input).  Did my painting need more context? Would the addition of calligraphy and chop “finish” it sufficiently?  Maybe this would be a fine candidate for the addition of traditional ribbon and border papers.  Perhaps there was a reason I couldn’t find the right shade of rusty mat board I planned for this painting.





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

3 Responses to A horse of a different color—the zebra

  1. mrsdaffodil says:

    Your post and your painting are delightful. I’ve always been fascinated by zebras.

    • barbmek says:

      Thank you, thank you! I DID have such fun with the zebras and was pleased to find such a helpful instructional composition to guide me. Once I read about the stripe pattern variations, painting them was much easier than I thought. Have you tried painting them?

      • mrsdaffodil says:

        No, I haven’t tried painting them, but years ago I was acquainted with an artist who had made a large painting/collage of a zebra. The stripes were made from cut-out pieces of newspaper and it was a striking piece. Unfortunately, she lost that piece and many other paintings in a house fire. So sad, they were irreplaceable art works, but she and her family weren’t injured at all.

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