People gravitate towards the face because that’s how we’re naturally wired. With this in mind, it’s important an artist be mindful when painting a sculpture’s face, pay attention to tone, texture, detail, precision, and impression.
Truly, the face is characterized by lots of details and nuances that are essential for a paint job to mimic. But artwork is as much addition as subtraction, so an artist needs to know what to showcase and what to downplay, and facial shading is a clear illustration where this skill is important. So let’s look at some ways to achieve a life-like impression with some simple approaches.
It should be noted, however, that we won't be discussing the painting of eyes or markings since these warrant their own tutorial. We'll just be focusing on the contours of the equine face and how we can help them "pop" and appear textural, detailed, and fleshy.
First, we have to identify those skeletal parts of the face that need highlighting and those that need shading. Such skeletal things include the zygomatic arches, the nasal bone, jaw bars, and the teardrop bone. And remember, subcutaneous bone should appear hard and solid, not fleshy and squishy. A handy way to achieve this is using bold blocks of highlight and shadow. However, be mindful of certain coat characteristics that call of the bony areas, or certain areas of the head, to be darkly shaded. For example, on many greys and sooties, for example, the teardrop bones are dark.
Next, we need to identify those fleshy parts that deserve similar treatment such as, for example, the jowls, the buccinator bellies, the muzzle, the eyelids, eyebrow wrinkles, forehead musculature, and fleshy details and textures. Keep in mind these are gooshy areas and should be given a treatment that instills a fleshy nature into them. A handy way to mimic this is to use a bold shading treatment with embedded subtle tonal differences, with a squiggly, multi-layered treatment to highlighting, texture, and tone. Indeed, squiggles of light color are particularly helpful in the expanse between the eye and nostril.
Third, identify those details that should be specially highlighted such as veins, wrinkles, eyelashes, ear fuzz, ripples, subtle bumps or depressions, or other little touches. Like with fleshy parts, these squooshy details should appear gooshy and soft, not hard and firm. A good way to achieve this is a subtle layering of color and tone to make them sit back in some places and pop out in others.
Fourth, we need to pay attention to hair growth such as forehead whorls or the flow of composite grain or fleabites. Likewise, hair details should appear fuzzy or silky, and a diffused use of paint with subtle, strategic, striated detail can do much to mimic this effect. For example, drawing in “hairs” with color pencils and then softening them with a burnisher or airbrush to make them “sit back" into the coat.
Once we have a good handle on the sculpture’s facial features, we can now paint them. The thing to keep in mind is that it’s our job as a painter to showcase those aspects that are terrific and minimize those that are problematic. In short, we should flatter the sculpture in a lifelike manner, and that can be achieved by the following:
- Think of the face being lit from a single light source, somewhere in the front, about five inches from the sculpture’s nasal bone and forehead. This helps to mimic the angle of the sun's light if we were studying a real horse. So where the light hits is where the highlight should be concentrated and where it doesn’t should be where there shade is applied. Therefore the “tops” of things need highlight and the “bottoms” of things need shading.
- We should paint like we mean it. Be confident and avoid a confusing use of pigment. Keeping our ideas clear and facial features distinct helps to foster the impression of mass and factual anatomy.
- The face has to make sense visually or it’ll be distracting. Every single detail and portion of the face should be treated with a meticulous hand. Messiness, confusion, or carelessness with our media will ruin the result. Plus, our paintwork should never appear hurried, sloppy, or inconsistent to the underlying sculpture. For instance, eyelid and eyebrow wrinkle highlights should be exactly on the tops of the wrinkles and the shading should be exactly within the folds of the wrinkles. Likewise, vein highlights should be on top of the veins and not slip off onto the facial musculature. An unsteady hand defeats our purpose.
- Detail counts. While some pieces have a simplistic approach to facial shading, they would do better with more thought and detail. Yes, a horse’s face often doesn’t have all of the hyper-detail some sculptures or paintwork has, but we’re dealing with inanimate objects that have to mimic life, and usually a simplistic approach to facial shading fails to mimic this impression. We don't want our piece to look like a painted model, do we? So pay extra attention to details, deliberately accentuating them with pigment thoughtfully and carefully. Look for squiggles, ripples, and tiny striations to accentuate, too, to really "wake up" the face.
- Know which to emphasize and which to give softer treatment. For example, the zygomatic arches and buccinators do well with a bolder treatment whereas the muzzle can often use a subtler touch.
- Be mindful of coat colors and characteristics such as pangare, sooties, greying patterns, or other such coat characteristics because these require different pigments and treatments. As for cremellos and other similar dilutes, we can simply substitute flesh tones for charcoal tones. The same ideas apply.
- If the sculpture’s facial structure is incorrect, it’s best to minimize those areas that are inaccurate and focus on other areas that are correct rather than fight matters and artificially manipulate things with pigment. Perhaps a pattern or marking can help disguise and distract. Nevertheless, while an incorrect sculpture can be elevated by skilled paintwork, the problems will still be visible to a trained eye, so we should just do our best. We should seek to paint the best pieces we can.
- Determine the physical exertion, grooming, or environment the sculpture represents before shading the face. For instance, a thin-skinned Arabian on a hot day will have markings that are slightly pinked, especially if the animal is show groomed. Likewise, a piece depicting an animal in a gallop or hard exercise, pinked markings can help the impression of physical exertion and pumping blood. On the other hand, a horse on a cold day or with a winter coat won’t have much pinking in his facial markings other than the extreme areas of his muzzle. Similarly, a horse with a tightly clipped face, such as a show Arabian, will have more dark skin showing and influencing the body color, so pay attention to where and how it manifests.
- It's often fun to create a soft, "pasture-like" effect of muzzle shading by adding tans and greens to the boxy upper lip and lower lip rims. At times, it can also be a good idea to tint greys away from stark black and white mixtures to instead infuse some tans and browns to "warm up" the mixture.
- Don't always think in terms of body color and and black for skin aspects. In reference photos, look for greys, tans, greens (grass staining) and other colors that can add realism and dimension to our blacked areas. Also look for highlighted areas such as the nostril rims, muzzle wrinkling, and fleshy bits that do well with a bit of accentuation with soft, lighter color.
- Make sure the intensity of the facial shading is consistent to the intensity of the body shading since both need to harmonize. A body given cursory treatment looks odd with a face that’s been super detailed or visa versa. Keep the big picture in mind.
- Ears shouldn’t be ignored, but given the same special treatment as the rest of the face. This means that their insides should be shaded to highlight their gentle ridges if clipped or have their hair shaded and highlighted if fuzzy. The ear rims should also be neatly done as well as the “V” where the ear folds join the head.
How to Shade Faces
Note: Apply the correct skin tone to the color as we have to consider not just dark skin, but pink, brown, and "lavender" skin.
- Basecoat the entire head the same color as the body.
- Block in any tonal differences indicative of a pattern such as pangare or grey.
- Block in the charcoal shadings of the eye, nostril, and ear.
- Line the top ridges of the eyelids and brow wrinkles in a light grey or light version of the body color, and the crevices of the wrinkles in dark charcoal or a dark version of the body color. Also use the charcoal color to add that "eyeliner" around the eye and to define the front corner of the eye. Go back and fix any oopsies with the appropriate color.
- Use black or dark charcoal to color in the nostril (inside the "V" where the two rims meet, too) and line of the mouth. Then line the rims of the nostrils and muzzle wrinkles in a light grey or light body color, whichever works best for the situation.
- Paint the inside of the ear with black or charcoal, then use light grey to paint in the gentle ridges inside the ear and subtle highlights. The closer these ridges are to the ear rim, the more we can incorporate the basecoat color or an ear liner color into this mixture so it blends nicely with the ear rim. For hairy ears, paint the whole fuzzy inner ear a dark shade of the basecoat and let dry. Then lightly dry brush on a highlight color, with the brightest tones on the very tips. Then use a liner brush or color pencils to define strategic little hairs. Also be mindful of the tonal differences and color characteristics of ear hair since they vary with each individual and color. Then we can add detail with a color pencil or a liner brush to paint in the ear rims in the appropriate colors.
- Lay in the facial shadings, underneath the skeletal and fleshy structures, plus the “salt cellar," or the hollow within the zygomatic arches as well. The shade color should be most intense in the remotest areas, but diffuse into the basecoat. Examples of what to potentially shade: underneath the zygomatic arches, the lower area of the jowls, on top and underneath the teardrop bone, the buccinator bellies, down the middle of the nasal bone and some of the soft fleshy details from eye to muzzle. We should also shade the space between the jaw bars. Regardless, choose to shade where it's strategic for the sculpture, flattering it best and being most accurate to its facial structure.
- Lay in the highlights. Think of concentrated streaks of highlight placed in very specific places and forms. Keep the pigment bright and clean. Examples of what to highlight: each ridge of the nasal bone, the tops of the zygomatic arches, the ridge of the teardrop bone, the tops of the buccinator bellies, the jaw bars, and the jowl underneath the eye and diffusing towards the bottom into the shaded part. Again, keep the sculpting of the sculpture in mind when choosing highlighted areas.
- Squiggle in brighter, tighter, and more concentrated highlight in strategic areas of the fleshy areas to make them appear gooshy such as around the muzzle, under the eye, the expanse between the eye and the muzzle, on the buccinator bellies, and on the jowl. Squiggles help to make these areas appear fleshy with their complex web of underlying muscles and fascia.
- Use the basecoat color to blend everything, then go back and deepen shading or brighten highlight as needed. Add extra tones and tints as needed, and continue to fudge and detail and then…
- After we’re satisfied, highlight veins, nerves, tiny fleshy details, and wrinkles.
- Lay in markings and do the eyes. Then finish with putting a dab of dark flesh color deep inside the nostrils. Be sure to shade the markings and eyes as well, avoiding a flat paintjob with these features.
- Something to consider is that not all things in nature translate well into sculpture. For instance, a coat color may come right up to the eyes, muzzle, and inside clipped ears of a real horse, but this effect isn’t so flattering on a painted sculpture because it looks unfinished. Champagnes can be particularly challenging for this reason.
- Some paintjobs fail to shade and highlight the face adequately, resulting in a flat, artificial look. The sculpture ends up looking like a painted model rather than a living animal. Things are too static. We need to capture that look of organic flesh and we do that with a strategic placement of color and technique. Use shade, highlight, mid-tones, light and dark squiggles, ridges of color and softly highlighted details to bring out its fleshy life.
- Another stumble is when the artist simply paints the ears, eyes and muzzle a flat grey with little shading or detailing, again creating a flat, unconvincing appearance. The same also applies to "blacking" the face, applying flat, stark black rather than soft shadings and highlights to accentuate the look of fleshiness and boney aspects. Attention to nuance and detail makes all the difference!
- Pay attention to tonal differences characteristic of a coat pattern or characteristic for an authentic result.
- It's a common mistake to paint the head "warm" colors but use "cold" colors to paint the charcoaled areas. This creates an unrealistic and distracting look. Harmonize them. "Cold" body colors should have "colder" charcoal shadings and "warmer" body colors do best with "warmer" charcoal shadings.
- Use shade as an “outliner” and highlight as a means to attract the eye to specific areas. In this manner, we can manipulate the eye to travel around the face.
- We can use fine liner brushes, pencil pastels, or color pencil to further detail markings, eyes, or other facial features. Keep it subtle though because stark pencil work can be distracting when set against more blended, subtle media. Always harmonize the media.
- Don’t be too timid with shade and highlight. We have to recreate the look of mass and anatomy, remember. And in the sea of sculptures with flat facial shading, anything with pizzazz will get the attention.
- We should keep our pigments clean by not muddying them with too much inter-mixing and over-working.
- An accurately sculpted head does well with a "tighter" treatment of pigment whereas a problematic head does better with a "looser," or more generalized treatment. With a problematic head, it's also a good idea to draw more attention drawn to the eyes, markings, and expression. Remember, we want to emphasize the great parts and minimize the questionable parts.
- If we’re airbrushing, we can do some nice blocking-in by spraying on the highlight color from a very oblique angle from the front of the face, then spraying on shade color from a very oblique angle from under the face, allowing the sculpture to “catch” the pigment. This technique works very well with glazing ceramics, too.
- Dark parts look smaller than light parts, so if a facial aspect (such as a nostril) is awkwardly large, simply keep it darker toned. Or, on the other hand, if an area is too small, use white markings or starker highlight to make them appear larger.
- The forehead has a lot of detail, so don’t simply paint it a flat color. Look for soft ripples, squiggles, and bulges of musculature. Also look for how expression influences how to shade and highlight.
- The horse’s head is mostly subcutaneous bone so we should understand cranial anatomy to know how to treat certain areas with paint and technique.
- Don’t ignore the ears! Look for wrinkles, veining, hair growth patterns, and other details we can recreate. It doesn't necessarily have to be on the sculpture itself for us to duplicate it in pigment.
- A face looks best if the ears, eyes, and nostrils have the same level of interest value, the same degree of treatment, so be sure to harmonize all three.
- All details don’t need the same intensity of pigment. Indeed, a life-like quality can be best served with differing intensities in strategic locations. For example, perhaps the “Y” vein on the face looks best with a brighter highlight while any veining on the jowl or ears will do better with subtler highlighting. Even more, perhaps that "Y" vein should have highlight of varying intensities on it! Similarly, maybe the eyebrow wrinkles look good with a bolder treatment of highlight and shade whereas the muzzle wrinkles are more convincing with a softer, fleshier touch.
- Study the work of other artists to discover how they tackled certain aspects. In doing so, we can learn how to best use our media to its fullest advantage. With practice and observation, too, we can learn to shade faces with great results.
- We should gather lots of good reference photos and concentrate on how we would paint them on a static sculpture. Ponder where highlight and shade occur plus the occurrence and look of details, squiggles, ridges, ripples, striations, and other little features. Compare and contrast, and pay attention to breed and individual variations. This helps us to develop a crucial mental library and the freedom to express the face with broader ideas than what's expected.
- Because each face is individualistic, so should our facial paint job. So approach each painted face with a new, fresh idea. Avoid habit, formula, and try to ignore what's expected by convention. We should study to find what lies beyond the box and seek to infuse it into our painted faces.
Shading faces is a complicated proposition that shouldn't be treated haphazardly or carelessly. It's not an afterthought. Indeed, skillful coloration of the face can make or break a sculpture all by itself. Taking time to go the extra mile can make all the difference!
The horse's face is full of beautiful details and tonal changes and it's fun to capture as much as we can in a paint job. It really helps to bring the sculpture alive and to add expression and texture to an otherwise static statue. We also add variety and depth to our body of work plus we learn more about facial structure and nuance to boot. We should take our time and observe, observe, observe then refine our methods and approaches to not only capture reality, but to accentuate it to really breathe life into our sculpture. It's fun, it's challenging, it's rewarding, and it's inspiring. And it helps us to really look at a horse's face with a more observant Eye and that informs our future work. Enjoy!
(Oh! By the way, there's a really good tutorial on painting eyes here!)
(Oh! By the way, there's a really good tutorial on painting eyes here!)
"Seeing artistically does not happen automatically. We must constantly develop our powers of observation."
~ Eugene Delacroix