Ram, goat, sheep—all the same?

A curious thing happened during the year of the horse: my animal drawing improved. With a long-held love of the horse, I was driven to develop my ability to render a recognizable steed. And along the way I gained considerable familiarity with snouts, hooves, flanks, shanks, and manes. With the next animal sign in the Chinese zodiac being ram (just about any variety of sheep or goat seems to suffice) I felt some comfort in sitting down to paint one for a new year’s greeting.


The ram does not have quite the same popularity as horse and there’s not the same body of artwork to study. Nevertheless, I have found a few resources to draw on in my study of the animal.

  1. Cheng Shifa has a body of work online that includes hundreds of images of young female shepherds with sheep or goats.
  2. How to Paint Cute Animals by Fang Shu-Shiung is the only book I’ve found with step-by-step instructions to painting goat.
  3. Line drawings in the Mustard Seed Garden Manual and Jane Dwight’s Chinese Brush Painting Bible can shed some light on goats and cheep.


My big book on Chinese symbolism by C.A.S. Williams provided some insight into why sheep and goats seem to be interchangeable as representatives of this zodiac sign. Apparently the Chinese symbol for goat reads as “hill-sheep”.

The creature symbolizes ‘retired life’ (oh dear, that would make me ‘an old goat’…. yikes!) My book also has details of an ancient legend involving five venerable magicians arriving on goats in the city of Canton and bestowing riches in the form of wheat stalks that will forever provide nourishment. Once they announce their purpose the visitors vanish, whereas the goats turned to stone. Hence, Canton is referred to by some as the ‘city of rams’.

My book also says the lamb is a symbol of ‘filial piety’, noting it kneels politely to take its mother’s milk. That’s a curious point, as every little lamb or goat I’ve encountered seems to strongly butt its way into every ‘body’, human or sheep-like, whether after milk or attention. (We took a visiting ‘grand-niece’ to the Beacon Hill Petting Zoo last summer and were swarmed by the herd of little goats; when I squatted to get a better picture several creatures climbed up my back as though I was a rock.)

Jane Dwight’s Bible of CBP weighs in on both sheep and goat, noting the sheep represents ‘filial love’ as well as male principles (because its sign is yang) and goat represents ‘love of children’.

Painting goat/sheep

Dwight’s goat is done in outline with sidestrokes of wash to convey the hairy coat. Her sheep is done with lines and then curled broader strokes to portray the denser, wool fleece.


Hindsight tells me I could have used light and dark curly strokes more effectively, but I do like Dwight’s method.

Fang’s book focuses on a variety of goat (Ankara) that resembles the Canadian Rocky Mountain sheep and he renders them with line and wash work as well. I tried a ram in just ink on a cream paper


When I first tripped over some of the many creations of Cheng Shifa that show little shepherds with their various charges—old and young, male and female, singles or larger flocks—I was attracted to the simple ink work of the animals as well as the effective figure portrayals. With several years of CBP study under my belt I am getting quite practiced at deciphering brushwork, order of painting, and so on.

For my first goat studies, I selected some of the simpler Shifa images as inspiration, and followed the basic order of eyes, head, neck, torso, body and legs, with ink-wash sidestrokes to suggest the hair/wool coats.

From my previous cat and horse studies I suspected there would probably be some proportional ‘rules of thumb’ to help understand their body shapes, but as yet have not found any. Their foreheads are flatter than horse’s and the eyes are spaced further apart than most animals. They have distinctive beards or tassels hanging below their chins. Some species bear horns on both the male and female, and of course the young are rounder, cuter, and their movement is the epitome of ‘gambol’. Here’s a study sheet I painted while learning about eye and ear placement:


My goats:

Most of the goat paintings I found in my library involved a single animal in a nondescript setting; here’s one I painted  based on a new year’s card a friend brought into art group:


I also completed this line drawing for a new year’s greeting card:


I tried a similar composition based on one of Cheng Shifas’ creations:



Recalling that I had experimented a few months back with using milk as a resist in several ink paintings that included sheep, I revisited the technique with this composition:


And while hunting for the older painting I re-discovered some other sheep-themed sketchbooks I have collected. One featured numerous pen and ink sketches of contrasting black and white lambs which translated well to CBP techniques.


My lamb studies were interrupted with ‘mail call’ and to my delight the new Spin-Off magazine for the first quarter of 2015 has not only a sheep on its cover, but a whole spread on some 15 breeds valued for their wool.  Now that was timely–I have much more ‘wool to gather’ in my art room for sure.


It will be a happy new year, indeed!




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