Forget the parachute; what color is my horse?

Pinto, cremello, palomino—I’m in love with the colors of horses. Their names roll so musically over the tongue and conjure exotic tastes like a gelato bar menu.

Back on the farm some six decades ago I knew of only three colors for horses. Our team consisted of a big dappled grey stallion and a smaller, all white mare; my mother had owned several horses in her youth that were a chestnut brown, with her all time favorite “Pat” having a white marking down the centre of his forehead to the top of his nose.

Grey, white, and chestnut brown were therefor the choices for little girls coloring horses in their books. I recall trying to achieve our stallion’s dappled effect by rubbing a grey crayon held sideways with my paper over a rough slab of wood.

While studying horse painting this last year, I discovered there are a lot more colors in the range of horse breeds than I ever imagined, and also learned a few different ways to convey them on paper.

Beyond black and white

My early studies of painting horses in the manner of CBP (both spontaneous and outline styles) were mostly rendered in shades of black ink. In Ning Yeh’s painting of his family’s trademark Celestial Horse he uses mostly black ink, with some strokes in medium dark ink to define the more forward body parts. His brushwork also aims for some ’flying white’ down the head from cheek to nose, toward the chest from under the chin, in opposing directions at the top and bottom of upper legs, and of course in mane and tail.


Over the last few months I have painted dozens of these horses, trying to emulate the Celestial Horse of Ning Yeh. My line and proportions are coming along, but getting the far legs darker (in shadow) than the near legs doesn’t always work.

Last year I tried some horses in the Lingnan style, outlining their shapes in grey ink and using white paint with grey washes to convey two white horses drinking at a river.

WhiteHorses3 copy 2

Based on several compositions in my horse-painting books I tried to create chestnut brown horses using red vermillion mixed with ink.

FoalonFeet copy      FoalinStraw copy

Once I discovered the artistic merits of contrasting a light horse against a darker one, AND reached a skill level such that I could create two similarly proportioned horses running together without tangling their legs, then I spent many a day painting pairs: black with grey, grey with red, red with black, and even blue-black steeds romping with dappled greys. Following is a series of pairs painted while exploring the several combinations.


The far horse is dappled with white paint while the grey wash is still damp; the near horse is done the same way using a darker grey for the dappling.


TwoinBlue copy

I like pairs of horses with strongly contrasting coats.

RunningFreeDetail2 copy

In this composition from last year I painted the lead horse in brown shades against a white one. The horse on the right is the only palomino done so far.


Indigo used for a black horse enhances its coat, although in real life the black would appear much deeper in tone.

My main observations for coloring horse flesh:

  1. You want the darker lines detailing the edges and the shadowed muscles.
  2. The leg joints should be darker.
  3. Dappling with white on grey, or darker grey on light grey works for me (as long as I don’t spot too regularly or with heavy white paint) but trying to dapple with clear water over damp grey, getting the water to “push” the damp ink, is as yet not working. There must be some optimal degree of dampness I’ve not discovered.
  4. Using pigments from the Marie’s set of colors in tubes is easiest for getting intense chestnut or brown.
  5. Using indigo or vermillion with ink holds lots of promise for capturing spirited steeds.

Despite the exotic ring to names like cremello and palomino, I still seem to favor dappled grey, white and chestnut. Must be the power of memory, or imprinting.











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