Still playing with ponies: painting horse

Of all the traditional subjects, there’s one that keeps drawing me back—painting horses. I flip through a book on bird painting, and I see how the composition lines could be used with horses instead of magpies. I attend a workshop on herons, and I discover the different ways to show feathers can be applied to gleaming horseflesh. An effort to improve my figure painting leads to putting figures on or beside horses, and eventually to omitting the figures entirely. I keep painting horses.

Horse in Chinese history:

The spirit of Equus has been intermingled with Chinese mythology, culture, and development for at least 5000 years.  Some of the highlights are touched on in this article, which tells us the Chinese invented the horse collar, harness and stirrup–all essentials to working with horses.   Ironically their horse breeding programs have not been terribly successful, yet they are now home to one-sixth of the world’s horse population.  I can appreciate that they revere the horse on a par with the dragon, purely a mythical creature.  My interest in horses often leads to surprises.

My recent discoveries:

  1. What color is your horse?   While my childhood featured grey, white and chestnut brown horses I’ve come to admire a greater range of coloring among the breeds.  Then there are those with long manes, tufted fetlocks and miniature proportions.   I found a Wikipedia article explaining the coloring found in horses.  It includes  a lot of exotic names like brindle, dun, dappled, roan, cremello, and pinto. Then another find provided even more details about subtleties of color resulting from different outer coat hairs or aging effects.

Both articles are helpful to an artist; groupings of eight are deemed lucky in CBP and hence most often I’m considering what variations to put in such a group. When painting a duo, I prefer the contrast of a black and a white horse together. Another article included a visual showing the range of facial markings from stripes, blazes and snips, to combinations thereof.




I tried some different coat colors in a recent painting; in the final version the foremost brownish horse here became a pinto.

  1. Polo (jiju) has made a comeback in China:

When hearing polo referred to as the ‘sport of kings’ I tend to think of British royalty.  Apparently it was also played by all members of the Imperial palace in ancient China, not just the wealthy rulers.   Some older Chinese brush paintings depict polo matches, often with young women as riders.  This site includes a good example of a polo match from during the Western Han dynasty (205 BC to 25 AD).

The manner of painting horses then may seem a little odd to us (the horses look fat with pointy short legs). It could also be that the kind of horses then owned were indeed stockier than those we see around us today. Horses were highly expendable then and many died in the numerous tribal wars. One Emperor Wu sent 60 thousand men to Turkey to replenish his stables. Now that must have been quite the shopping trip!

A polo skirmish combines two of my favorite subjects (figures and horses) so I have been playing with possible scenarios.  Fewer players interacting would be easier than showing full teams.



This arrangement has a variety of horse postures, but perhaps looks more like an RCMP musical ride practice with polo sticks.

  1. Chinese horse painting history, a visual synopsis.   Now that I’ve gained some familiarity with the various Chinese masters of horse painting and the hallmarks of their style, I can see that a few of my books provide an historical perspective.

The oldest style seems to be paintings by Han Gan (706-783) and usually a profile of the emperor’s favorite steed, Night Shining White is provided as example.

Night ShiningWhite

The many chops–those red colored seals–on this painting reveal the provenance or history of ownership.

From an even earlier time, there are a few rather heavy-set horses that resemble those in the polo scene linked above. They look an awful lot like the ancient cave paintings found in France and Spain.


Then there’s the distinctive work of the Italian missionary Castiglione, or Lang Shining, (1478-1529) known best for his 1724 scroll depicting 100 horses.   It is currently housed in the National Museum in Taipei.

This image appears in CBP books on horse painting as representative of the style used in his huge–310 inches long!–scroll.  One description of his major life achievement notes that he prepared small sketches as “patterns” for the many individual little scenarios that make up the lengthy scroll.


More recent is the work of Liu Danzhai (1931-2011). He often painted a pair, one black one white, in a very yin-yang manner.

LiuDanzhaihorse2 LiuDanzhaiHourse

And then of course the horse-painting master Xu Beihong (1895-1953) wowed international audiences with his distinctive style. His animals appear lively, animated, and even ‘happy’.   Here’s a typical horse composition by Xu Beihong showing his distinctive line and color work.  His work is often featured on calendars.


I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge Ning Yeh’s Celestial horse painting, because his tutorials helped me understand the anatomy and proportions involved in rendering a horse that truly looks horse-like. Here’s an image showing his distinctive style:


And another contemporary from Taiwan who paints a similar ‘Celestial horse’ is Yeh Fei Pei.  I discovered another CBP artist online collected several of Yeh’s horses facing in different directions and painted them in a circle.  That appeared to be a good exercise to start an afternoon in the art room.   I managed to get only three in a circle:


  1. Paper matters. When I first begin to study a painting subject I turn to my basic stock of good practice paper, Moon Palace. Last year when friend and mentor John Nip noticed I was working on horses, he brought me some textured paper (Dragon Cloud) saying simply ‘good for horse’. These last few weeks I found he was sooooooo….. right. My horses on Moon Palace were okay, but when painting on his paper with very sticky black ink, and a combination brush, I had better immediate results when striving to mimic Liu Danzai’s pairs of horses. Some of my art friends have favorite brands of ink sticks that yield deep blue-black ink; I discovered that bottled ink left sitting (while you go for tea about 30 minutes!) can evaporate and yield a similar sticky dark ink!  This painting emerged on my paper in a matter of a few minutes, because the ink had reached that ideal state of ‘stickiness’ and most of the horse’s head was done in one stroke. Once the head was in place, the rest of the body easily followed.

my happy horse


  1. The Rhyming Horseman. While poking around some of my favorite used bookstores I discovered a book with interesting horse sketches in it. The book was written by a favorite author (Grant MacEwan) and told the story of a Captain Stanley Harrison of Qu’Appelle Valley, SK. Turns out the man contributed significantly to horse breeding in Canada AND truly loved horses—he sketched them AND wrote poetry about them. He was inducted into the Saskatchewan Sport Hall of Fame as a builder of thoroughbred racing in Canada.

MacEwan ‘s book is a good read, the sketches are enticing, and the poetry provides wonderful imagery as well as galloping rhythms to prepare one’s mood for painting horses.  Here’s one gem:

I Know Great Horses Live Again

Somewhere in time’s own space
There must be some sweet pastured place
Where creeks sing on and tall trees grow
Some paradise where horses go,
For by the love that guides my pen
I know great horses live again.

6. My equine research also led to some curious and almost comical findings.  Near the end of this article the author expounds on the use of horse images in feng shui. He warns about using images of bucking horses (could cause a broken limb) or placing a galloping steed facing the doorway (your fortune will disappear), but showing one at full gallop, directed appropriately of course, could encourage your fortune to arrive post haste.  I’m all for that–one galloping herd of horses coming right up!

Galloping Home

Here’s my composition with a pinto in the foreground and the lead horse’s face given a blaze marking.







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