Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Pigment Pandemonium! Part 1


We each have our own way to paint, often learned from trial and error. Indeed, our painting "signature" is as individual as we are! This lends diversity and depth to our art form, allowing our communal body of work to cater to any one taste with ease. 

Yet we always seek to "punch up" our paint jobs as we grow. How can we make them have more oomphf and distinction? How can we make them more realistic? More technically finessed? That's because there's always a way to create our paint jobs better, and that's a carrot we tend to happily chase. 

That said, a lot of horse color is rather flat when compared to the painted counterpart, but translating life into art requires some license. The job of a good finish then is to psychologically animate a sculpture by imparting mass, volume, factuality, organic nature, and life, blending color genetics and artistic interpretation to marry life and art.

Essentially, what we seek is "artistic naturalism," or the use of those techniques, palette,  and details that infuse realism without sacrificing artist license, or allowing artistic license to get out of hand. That's to say, we want to imbue authenticity without appearing forced or artificial. As such, naturalism allows a paint job to persuade, permitting the imagination to suspend reality for a moment to interpret the sculpture as a living horse, and it does so in a way artistically interesting, non-distracting, and pleasing.

The techniques and ideas discussed here effectively bridge the gap between life and license, and can be applied to different media or styles. Most of all, observation in life study and reference photos is, of course, recommended for further development. Yet discovering how another artist paints can be a helpful exercise, too, so I’d like to share some ideas I employ and perhaps you’ll find some tidbits useful. 

(Note: Liquitex acrylics are used for color examples in this post, but you'll get the general idea for other brands or media.) 

My Philosophy

After painting models for some thirty years, I’ve developed my own style. For example, I usually create pieces with lots of tonal variation and layers paired with highlights and shading, particularly over the play of muscles and the face. I also focus on detail such as facial shading, eyes, hooves, veins, hair growth, and wrinkles. I also tend to favor mapping, dappling, sooty, and pangare in its various manifestations. In short, I paint like Sarah Minkiewicz-Breunig.

So what does this mean for you? Well, it means you should discover, define, and nurture the unique manner in which you paint. Value your Eye and your talent! Explore and discover your own artistic eccentricities and become confident using them. Above all, use your own Voice and refrain from mimicking another artist’s style. This way, you’ll establish your special artistic identity and be able to take deeper pride in your work. Your work will become more authentic and distinctive, and that speaks well of your motivations and convictions.
That also makes painting more fun—and painting should be fun! So keep your interest level up by challenging yourself with each piece. This might entail a new use of color, a new technique, a new pattern, or a new interpretation. If you become frustrated, stop and switch gears. Maybe it’s just not “your day” or perhaps you need to backtrack and rethink your approach. Or maybe your skills need re-evaluation and fostering to get you to that point you seek. So ask advice! Study and reconsider. Trust me, we’ve all made the same mistakes, and we've all been stumped at one point or another. Each of us has also felt inadequate or untalented especially with all the gifted work out there! The thing is, all this is just part of the learning and growing experience. Don't give up! It's imperative you always do the best you can and to find a way to stretch your talents each time you apply brush to sculpture. If you aren't creating on that edge of "What the heck am I doing?!," you may be missing a great opportunity to grow. Keep at it. Perseverance always has wonderful pay-offs!

Also, consider not being so married to a breed requirement. If that Arabian sculpture screams “appaloosa," then just do it! Worry about the rest later. And don’t be so fixated on a specific result because the painting will often change during the creative process. Just go with it and don’t fight it; otherwise you can become frustrated or create an inferior outcome. Paint jobs truly take on a life of their own, so give it life by letting it bloom in its own unique way—as long as you stay within realism parameters, of course!

That said, however, paintwork should appear natural, organic, and life-like, not forced, formulaic, harsh, arbitrary, or clumsy. In this, you should be mindful of your habits.

Of particular importance is the avoidance of regimentation. Our brain's pattern recognition response will unconsciously force your hand to become formulaic, habitual, too ordered and uniform. For example, when we lay in each individual hair of a roan, don't our hands fall into habit rather quickly, using the same pressure, spacing, and length? Yet horse colors and patterns are organic and biotic being expressions of biology and the "luck of the draw" of genetics. This quality is crucial to mimic with all colors and patterns, so real coat qualities and effects should be mimicked as closely as possible to create an authentic piece. In this, technique and media can really shine, so don't be afraid to use mixed-media, too. Also, take lots of breaks when working on a particularly detailed paint job to discourage our pattern recognition response from dominating our efforts. What's more, paintwork should always flatter the piece. That means we need to choose and place colors and markings in strategic areas to best showcase the sculpture. It's part of your job to not only create a technically well-done and accurate paint job, but one that looks good on the sculpture.

Most of all though, remember to take chances. Take risks. Break out of your comfort zone and explore. Yes, you may make mistakes, but you’ll never advance unless you take a plunge. Challenge yourself! In this, don't consider anything too "precious." If it needs changing—change it. Our learning doesn't happen just between piece to piece, but while we're painting a piece, too. So it's important to give yourself "room" to make changes based on what you've learned as you've worked.

(For lots more in-depth discussion and examples in regards to realistic painting, refer to my 3-part series, Painting Conventions: Fact or Fantasy, Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3—sorry in that last Part 3, I never got around to inputting certain images at the end of the installment. I hope to fix that in the future sometime.)


Creating a quality basecoat is imperative as the first step in the painting process. Really, no amount of painting skill can compensate for an inferior basecoat. The basecoat actually begins with the primer, so ask around for a good one. Apply it in two thin coats, not one thick coat. Then I let it dry thoroughly until it’s non-tacky, cool, and hard, usually about 48-72 hours. You want it to be completely de-gassed before painting.

You can use an airbrush to blast on your basecoat, but I prefer to use wedge make-up sponges to apply the pigment basecoat because it creates a sturdy finish. These sponges are cheap, plentiful, and produce a nice, durable finish. But first, I bevel the sponge edges with a pair of scissors to avoid harsh lines or ridges when tapping on the basecoat, and I hold the sponges in a pinched way, so the edges are rounded up rather than flatly touching the coat. Also, I slightly dampen the sponge with water to produce a smoother surface. I simply soak it with water, then squish in a cotton rag. You want to avoid a pebbly finish, so practice. Then I let this basecoat dry and "cure" for 72 hours before continuing. As mentioned, you can also airbrush on your basecoat, applying 2-3 thin coats rather than 1-2 thick ones. Allow each application to totally dry before applying the other, then let the whole thing dry for 72 hours to really de-gas and "harden."

On my palette, I pre-mix the basecoat color (I use about 2 tablespoons of basecoat for a "Traditional" size piece) and tap the sponge in. I usually give it a couple of taps on the back of my hand to make sure I have just the right amount, evenly distributed, and then rapidly, but gently, mush-mush-mush and dab it all over the area I desire. I work in sections, so I repeat this process all over the sculpture until it’s evenly coated. I usually use the neck as a handle, which I basecoat last when the body is done. Some tips are as follows:
  • Don’t make your basecoat complicated; try to use only three colors maximum in the mix because if you have to mix more, you want to have a close match. Also, using too many colors tends to diminish the clarity of the color, it tends to "muddy" the final color. And simplified basecoats also permit you to explore variations more effectively.
  • Sponging can create little bubbles or a pebbled surface if you’re not careful. The dampening of the sponge helps with the pebble surface, but can still foster the little bubbles. To pop them, just go over your freshly sponged area a couple of times while it’s drying to tap them down. Also, if you get bigger bubbles, you’re probably using too much paint or your sponge is too damp, so tap down and try again with a fresh sponge and less paint. You can also blow on the bubbles to pop them, then immediately go over the area again to smooth them out. Now if the damp sponge causes frothing, you’re dabbing too vigorously and your sponge is too wet. Ease down, blow on air bubbles to pop them, and then gently re-dab to smooth the surface and continue with a gentler touch. Practice will teach you the nuances of bubble management, and you may want to practice on a junker model before attempting something more ambitious.
  • Save the basecoat color because it might come in handy later.
  • Don't squish your sponges too hard on the sculpture's surface—just dab and tap.
  • Keep your sponges clean! Dirty or old sponges will leave bits of dried paint or broken-off bits of sponge in your basecoat. I usually use about five sponges per Traditional size model and as I’m finished using them, I pop them into a water-filled container to keep them wet until I can rinse and squeeze them in clean water, under a facet. For this reason, inspect your sponges before you use them. Previously used ones are better because they have a “broken in," softer texture which produces a finer finish, but if they’re too old, they start to disintegrate. So throw them out when they get to this point and use new ones. A sponge is usually good for about 3-5 Traditional size models. 
  • You can use different color basecoats on the same model to block in color. For example, for a bay, you can basecoat the legs and facial features black and the body the bay color. You can use the sponges to do some blending between the body color and the point color. And you can basecoat big white markings with white.  
  • The sponge just won’t go into certain areas, so use a soft brush or airbrush to apply the basecoat in these places, but be careful to avoid brushmarks, puddles, or drips.
  • Work quickly. You don’t want the basecoat to start drying when it’s still unfinished or become heavily textured.
  • Avoid a harsh line to the borders of your sponging areas since this will create fine ridges all over your model. Rather, fan out each sponge area to blend with the next portion you do to create an even, smooth surface and avoid “patchwork” ridges.
  • Keep the sponge slightly damp or you’ll end up with bits of sponge or crusted dried paint stuck in your basecoat. If the sponge is too dry, throw it out and grab a fresh, damp one.
  • You should apply two or three thin coats rather than one thick coat. I typically have to go over the horse twice and sometimes three times. Also, let each layer dry thoroughly before applying more layers. When you’re done, let the horse sit for 48-72 hours to thoroughly dry before you continue to paint.
  • Try to work both sides of the horse at once, i.e. don’t do one side, then do the other. If you have to mix a new batch of basecoat in the middle of the process, it’s better to have the forequarter a different tone than the hindquarter rather than having that occur between the two sides. I usually hold the head and neck and then do the whole body. Then when that’s dry, I finish the head and neck.
  • Keep your hands clean! Paint smeared onto your hand has a tendency to stick to your basecoat.
  • Cut up some sponges into smaller pieces (and bevel them too) for smaller size models or smaller, tighter areas on large models. And actually, you can use the sponge technique to paint your entire horse, like we see with many Vintage Customs! Truly, with skill and cut-up sponges, some people use this technique alone with beautiful results!
  • If you wish, after the second layer has been applied and dried, you can use the airbrush to finish coverage, which is particularly helpful with translucent basecoats.
  • For a heavily textured surface such as on a winter coat, airbrushing is the better option.
Dry Brushing

I like dry brushing and have yet to find a better technique for certain effects on the face and dapples, in particular, being ideal for detailing and providing strong pigment with great precision. I also use it to “pop out” certain strategic highlights or shadows on the sculpture. With this method, too, you can create soft, but highly detailed effects, like delicate shading on the face, accurately shaped dapples, or accentuated definition of a muscle or tendon. It takes practice to master, but well worth the effort.

I use brushes of differing sizes, the largest being a #6 filbert. However, I’ve found that #2 and #4 rounds and filberts are the most useful for my purposes. But use 0s and 2s for fine facial detailing and fine details on dapples. I only use natural bristles since they’re softer and more pliable, and I often find exactly what I need in the cheap $1 bin! These brushes only last maybe five paint jobs, then have to be discarded, so it’s a good thing the cheapies work. 

I snip the brushes down to about...oh...maybe 1/8 inch from the ferrule. I then take medium grit sandpaper, dip the brush in water, and scrub it gently on this sandpaper in circular motions, in both directions. This gives the brush a rounded, velvet finish that helps with blending. I also have some stencil brushes modified in this manner for different coat effects, though I cut them longer, say...1/4 inch from the ferrule.

Don’t use water, thinners, or flow-agents to paint with this method, but just dip the brush in the pigment, getting just a bit of pigment into the bristles. I dab the brush in the paint, just enough, rub it into my workpants to integrate the pigment evenly into the bristles and then scrub it into the horse with tight circular motions. You can make all sorts of shapes from lines to mottling to dapples. But it’s a fine balance between not enough pressure and too much; if you don’t burnish the pigment into the basecoat, you’re not using enough pressure, but if you’re ripping up the basecoat, you’re using too much pressure. Practice will solve everything. Regardless, you can achieve great precision for detailing in this manner. 

Really, this method is great for dappling, though time-consuming. I use two approaches for dapples simultaneously: 1. Scrub in light dapples on a dark background and, 2. scrub in dark honeycombs on a light background. I do a lot of “back and forth” adjustments to get the dapples and the pattern exactly how I want them and so that the dapples "sit into" the coat rather than "float" above it. 

Here are some tips for dry brushing:
  • Keep the brushes clean and wash them often during the painting process. You don’t want them to become gummed-up with drying paint. This helps them to hold paint and remain soft.
  • The brush has to be dry. Any dampness will destroy the effect of this method. So dry your newly-washed brushes on a cotton rag thoroughly and let sit for 15 minutes. Squeeze and "scruff" it on the rag. Because of this, I usually have about three exact brushes in rotation to make sure any moisture can evaporate out after I wash them.
  • You can layer dry brushing to produce lots of complex and subtle tones, and effects. It's also great for squiggly lines which often comes in handy for the face, textures, and dapples.
  • Don’t press too hard when scrubbing or you’ll tear up your basecoat or create smeary effects. Just press down enough to deposit the paint onto the surface in a controllable manner.
  • If you have too much paint on the brush, it'll smear rather than burnish. So wipe off and just rub the out on a cotton rag, and start over.
  • I’ve found that the tube white, as opposed to jar white, is the better white to use for this method since it’s thicker and more intense.
  • Dry brushing is great for adding "tip" highlights on textured areas such as inside the ears, feathers, manes, tails, and fuzzy foal or winter coats.
  • Practice, practice, practice!

I used to do entire models in sponging and dry brush technique and oy vey...it became painful on my hands. So I’ve integrated a bottle-feeding Iwata Eclipse HP-BCS into my methodology and love it. It can produce fine lines for detail to broad strokes, yet still be a great, sturdy workhorse. Airbrushing has been a wonderful addition by allowing me to create new effects, and I use it  to create “big ideas” and to tint, soften, and blend areas as needed as well as creating complex color layers. When used properly with skill and savvy, it'll produce a glowing, jewel-like appearance comparable to oils. The lesson in all this? Don’t be afraid to adopt new tools!

Now I know I'm technically supposed to use airbrush paint. Plus I should also thin down other types of paint to an inky, non-fat milk consistency. But I ignore both of these things (which the Iwata forgives) by using the Liquitex Jar paints (which are already pre-filtered for the airbrush), but thinning them down only marginally, until they’re about the consistency of cream. Then I jam up the compressor pressure to get this thick pigment out of the brush and in this way, I can produce a very intense blast of color. Now for tinting, I'll thin the paint down to more of a wash because I only want a kiss of color. (I’ve also heard that Jo Sonya gouaches are great to use in the airbrush too, so that might be something to explore.)

Anyway, some tips are as follows:
  • Don't approach airbrushing from one point of view, that being one must only go from light to dark or only from dark to light. This can result in a cursory, flat result that lacks the glow and complexity we seek. Instead, intermix the two approaches, layering one on top of the other in any way you need to for the look you want. Go back and forth. Rules? Who needs ‘em?! Experiment and do whatever you need to do for the results you want.
  • A handy trick is to use white or white-based colors as platforms to launch your highlights, tints, or tonal variations. For instance, let’s say you’re painting a bay and therefore basecoated the piece in a burnt sienna color. Take some white or a white/bascoat mix and lay in some lighter areas, regional details, and even highlight some muscles. Now take a “clean color," something devoid of white, say some red oxide mixed with yellow oxide, thin it down and use it to overspray these lightened areas to tint. The more you tint it, the more intense the color. And whammo! You have a highlight that jumps out. And try different tints on different regions of the body to create variation. For instance, you might want more golden tints in pangare areas, redder tints on the forehand, and more copper tints on the hindend. Then you can go back with darker colors to shade, define, and add depth such as going in and shading some muscles and some "big ideas," like the saddle area. Keep going back and forth (don’t be afraid to lay in the white platforms again, even in different areas, and repeat the process since this adds even more depth and “punch”) and you’ll end up with a piece that has a lot of fun stuff to enjoy. I’ve also found this helps to avoid that washed-out, flat airbrushed look that’s so unattractive because I’m using both methods at once and using the qualities of the colors themselves to my advantage. An airbrushed paint job definitley shouldn't look like it took twenty minutes to paint—it shouldn't look like something off a production line. Add complexity and depth with lots of "back and forth" work, and even an airbrush paint job can appear as glowing and complex as an oil paint job.
  • Tinting is laying a very subtle or transparent color onto another to create a soft and indistinct variation. The result is lovely because it’s very potent for recreating the luminescent and translucent quality of the coat without impeding the use of shade and highlight. It embellishes rather than "muddying" the color. Indeed, the horse’s coat often appears to our eye as very clear, glowing color, almost like back-lit glass sometimes in its quality, and tint is very a useful means for imitating this quality.
  • If you have a bottle feeder airbrush, get a bunch of little bottles to hold your variations of paint for the piece. Some colors I premix in the bottles but some I mix on-the-spot to customize it to what I need at the moment. Also have one of these bottles full of window cleaner to rinse between exchanges (don’t spray that onto the model though, but on a rag). Then all you have to do while airbrushing is to switch bottles as you need them. And don't be skimpy! I use about 20-25 colors on a single sculpture! Having all these handy color options at my fingertips really helps with all the “back and forth” work I do. 
  • You can use airbrush medium or a bit of water to thin paint. I use both, depending on the situation. However, I tend to prefer the water because the medium can create a tacky surface. I've never had a problem with water creating an inferior finish. Anyway, get one or two squeeze bottles with long nozzles and fill them with clean water. You can get these from a beauty supply store for about $2 each and they’re about the size of pop can. They’re handy for cleanly injecting water, in precise amounts, into the bottles or the airbrush itself for cleaning.
  • Always clean your airbrush between colors! You want to keep each color "clean."
  • Keep your airbrush clean! When you’re finished, run clean water through it until the spray is clear. Then I use window cleaner to really get it clean. I have a clean ketchup bottle full of window cleaner, which I use to fill a clean paint bottle and run it all through the airbrush. Know now to take your airbrush apart, clean it, and put it back together. Also have a supply of spare parts just in case. For instance, since my paint is so thick when I use it, I go through nozzle caps like crazy because over time, the thick paint expands the opening and distorts the spray. So I always have about two replacements caps on hand to switch them out at a moment’s notice. Thankfully, the Iwata needles are very sturdy and I have yet to bend or break one. (However, for glazing, this media can destroy needles very quickly by essentially sanding them down, so it’s a good idea to have many on hand for replacements.)
  • Use an old towel, rag, or roll of paper towels to test your spray before you apply it to the model. You want to make sure the color and pressure are correct and that the airbrush is behaving.
  • Invest in a good compressor designed for airbrushing. No matter how good your technique or airbrush, if you have an inferior compressor, you’re going to have problems. A quiet one is best, with a condensation trap, and it should go up to 100psi. Ask around to learn more about brands and models. 
  • I get all my airbrush supplies from Coast Airbrush. They also have an airbrush repair and cleaning service!
Color Pencils and Pastel Pencils

I like to use color pencils (Derwents are best because they have a lower wax content compared to pigment content) and pastel pencils to add further details and effects. For instance, they're great for adding detail to hair, hooves, dapples, and for a host of effects. But keep them sharp! And they can be blended or burnished to soften their effect. Above all, avoid the "penciled look" in which we can clearly see a color or pastel pencil was used because the effect is too harsh and literal. It's better to work in layers, too, rather than being heavy-handed right out of the gate. And use multiple colors to blend and soften their edges as needed. We want to avoid a "penciled" look. Truly, pencil accents should be subtle, sitting back into the paint job rather than jumping out. 

We can go back with our airbrush tinting or dry brushing to alter them as we need, and don't be afraid to re-layer pencils over that, too. Lots of back and forth work is needed to use them to their best advantage.

For re-layering, Testor's Dullcote is invaluable between layers because it provides "tooth" for the next layer. Just lightly spray and allow to dry completely before going forwards.

Use of Color

I love color and like it to be “punchy," so I tend to create sharp contrasts with lots of color variation. So use color! There are so many combinations that produce fabulous results and it just takes a bit of experimentation and practice to have fun with it. Really, no paint job should ever be the same, so have fun playing! Make each piece totally unique by approaching each paint job with a fresh Eye and attitude.

Color can also be used to accentuate mass by, for instance, shading under the belly and muscles then highlighting the tops of muscles. In other words, use color as though the model was being hit by a single light source from above. Color can also be useful to showcase certain aspects of the piece such as a nice head, a beautifully rendered mane and tail, or a good set of haunches. Some tips are as follows:
  • Don’t use black to tone down or darken your colors but, rather, use a complementary color. For instance, to tone down Red Oxide, use blues, deep burgundies, or greens to create a rich brown. Or mix oranges and blues together to create yummy browns. Buy a color wheel and you’ll find there are infinite possibilities!
  • Use bold pigments for highlights on "clear" coats like bays, chestnuts, browns, red silvers, etc., such as the cadmiums, oxides, and bright reds, yellows, and oranges. This really wakes up those coat colors. But don’t use cadmiums in the airbrush since they’re toxic and shouldn’t be aerosolized.
  • Avoid the use of pastelized colors (white or white-based colors) to use as highlights for clear brown coats, but use my tinting method previously described. A common fault is often seen on airbrushed pieces which use the white basecoat to create the highlight, essentially creating a mix between white and the basecoat. Avoid this by the use of tinting.
  • Pastelized colors are handy for creamy, dusty, soft colors for dilutes such as dun, grulla, and some roans and silvers.
  • Balance the use of clear tints with pastelized colors for more complex coat colors like palomino, perlino,  cremello, and champagne.
  • For black paint jobs, I use mars black, white and a bit of phthalocyanine blue and/or dioxazine purple to tint highlights. But be subtle since this approach works best when “under the radar."

I like to emphasize sculptural details such as wrinkles, eyelids, veins, rippling, textures, and other fun bits by highlighting them. The face is particularly filled with such details. So I use my fine cut-down brushes to dry brush in these details, and/or a fine liner brush. For this, I use an appropriate highlight color thinned down, dab the excess paint out of the brush on my pants or a rag, and then delicately brush on the highlights. I may go over it a few times to achieve the intensity I want. Sometimes I'll dry brush over it to soften the edges and ends, and create a "transition zone" with the surrounding area. This really helps to improve the living flesh quality of the piece and adds more interest for the eye. Some tips are as follows:
  • Stay subtle. Don’t make liner additions harsh or obvious; you just want to hint at them.
  • Be sure the highlight color makes sense with the area’s color or you’ll create a very odd effect.
  • While you can use the same method with a shade color to accentuate the depressions around these areas the same way, you have to be careful, otherwise you’ll create a harsh look. So use counter-shading in these areas with caution.
  • It’s better to use several washes to achieve the desired intensity rather than layering on a couple of opaque coats. The effect is softer, more subtle, and not so blunt.

Tone, in regards to natural effects, is a bit different from tint. Here, tone is the nature of color on different areas on the horse, or the different color quality of different areas of paint. Tone recreates the coat’s “bloom” on a healthy animal while also deepening the richness of the paint job. Additionally, it adds vibrancy and glow to the paintwork by presenting appealing contrasts of color while also deepening the richness of the paint job, adding a vibrant quality, really waking up the color and interest level of the sculpture.

Tone also refers to the "warm" and "cool" nature of color which can offer lovely contrasts when painted skillfully on a sculpture. That's to say, some colors have what’s called a “warm” tone and some have a “cool” tone. So, for instance, on a rosegrey, the forehand could be toned cool grey while the hindquarter could be toned warm red chestnut. Likewise, on a liver chestnut the forehand toned warm copper and the hindquarter toned cool chocolate. For another example, the tips of a horse’s tail could be toned warm golden brown while the dock could be toned cool cream. Or we can harmonize all the colors towards the "warm" or "cool" spectrum—it's our choice. And mix it up between paint jobs! Approach each differently!

Nonetheless, we should pay attention to the tone of a color as we work from reference photos. For example, a common mistake is to put cold-toned pale manes and tails on sooty palominos when they do better with a warmer tone. Tones have to harmonize together; otherwise the effect is jarring if done without consideration and skill.


I’m a huge fan of pangare and use it quite a bit, in a multitude of variations, to add oomphf and vibrancy to my paint jobs. Indeed, a clever use of the pangare effect can really wake up a piece and add a lot of yummy dimension to your paint job. Plus, it certainly can perk up an otherwise flat color such as chestnut, red bay, and buckskin, for example.

Pangare refers to those pale patches of color around the elbow, chest, inner forearm, groin, inner hindleg, flank, and up the buttock, around the muzzle and eyes and sometimes around the ear, crown, and jugular. Pangare can appear on any color to any degree and, in fact, if you look closely, many horses have a degree of the pangare effect.

For instance, to wake up a clear copper chestnut, the use of some pale golden color for the groin, flank, elbow, and the inner legs adds another dimension to the color. Then, as a variation, mix in some of that copper body color into the pale mix and use that around the ears, crown, and jugular. With this technique you can create all sorts of variations and diversity in the color scheme, and when used in tandem with shading, highlight, tints and tone, that otherwise flat chestnut really brightens up and becomes more complex, layered, glowing, and interesting.


I also love incorporating the sooty factor into my paint jobs. I find it can really make a paint job be interesting with "pop" and different effects. Sooty is caused by the infusion of dark hairs into the body color and they can darken the coat to various degrees of sooty, or it can deposit dark hairs on different areas of the body. Google "sooty color, horse" to find a bunch of different examples. Or even better, refer to the Equine Tapestry's Pinterest boards for more examples...and a plethora of horse colors and patterns! It's a treasure trove.

Sooty can also create dappling, often rather striking, so pay attention to reference photos. Tekes, in particular, exhibit rather brilliant sooty dappling.

Saddle Shading

Saddle shading refers to the often darker quality of color along the horse’s neck, withers, and back, blending down into the body. This often occurs on those rich coat colors with a lot of bloom and/or sooty factors. However, you can create a variant of this by using a more subtle version to add depth to your paint job and a sense of mass to your sculpture. For example, an otherwise flat buckskin color is greatly enhanced by adding in a slightly darker tone along the saddle areas to instill dimension and depth to the overall look. Clear bays, chestnuts, palominos, and champagnes also benefit from this approach.

Coat Sheen

Iridescents, pearlescents, or metallics can be useful for producing that slick, silky sheen so common on a healthy coat. Indeed, some breeds are characterized by a metallic sheen such as Tekes, or even certain colors too, like champagne, and so the use of these additions is necessary. 

They usually come in two forms: as a powder or as suspended in painting medium. They also come in various colors. Some painting techniques readily accept them intergrated into the pigments (such as oils) while others aren’t too happy with this such as dry brushing or airbrushing. 
Either the powder or the liquid version can be used straight or mixed into the palette. For example, iridescent white produces a lovely sheen to white markings, whether straight from the jar or mixed into Titanium White.

But if a painting technique is unhappy having these elements mixed in, experiment to see what can work by thinking “outside of the box." Based on a tip from a friend, I discovered how to best use the Pearl-Ex Metallic Powders that I, otherwise, was unable to use successfully…by dusting them onto a finished paint job! For example, on white horses, straight white or pearl metallic powder can be dusted onto the piece to add an ethereal shimmer. A black piece also benefits greatly from this technique. Or, use unusual iridescents, metallics, and metallic powders for a range of interesting effects. For instance, Iridescent Blue (or Iridescent Violet) mixed heavily into the palette (especially the highlight mixture) will add pizzazz to a black finish. Or add some Iridescent Blue or Iridescent Violet to a silver or grulla palette to create a subtle shimmery blue or lavender cast. Indeed, iridescent blues, reds, yellows, and oranges are effects on appropriate colors and the same can be said for metallics, metallic powders, and pearlescents, too. Each has a slightly different look and effect, so experiment. Interference colors offer another spectrum of possibilities, so experiment with those as well. For example, Interference Blue can add dimension to a black coat or liver chestnut.

Or try dusting on metallic powders after the piece is finished as a last step. Gather large, soft brushes (make-up powder brushes work well) for each family of color (pearl white, browns, greys, golds, silvers, etc.) and label them thusly (don’t intermix the brushes). When the finish is complete, but before the protective spray is applied, use the brush to dust on and burnish in the appropriate metallic powder color, but avoid the eyes and hooves or anything that shouldn’t be shimmery. If you’re working in acrylics, the powder can actually be gently washed off with a brush from these areas. Many of these powders can even go in a kiln at low fire, so experiment.

Shading and Highlight

Skillfully using highlight and shade on a piece will do wonders for recreating an illusion of mass, weight, and realism. To clarify, by highlighting the tops of muscles and shading their undersides, they gain dimension and volume, improving the impression of bulk, weight, and presence. Also shading the underbelly and under the jawline a darker tone can make this effect even more pronounced.

Shading and highlight also offer us the opportunity to infuse new values, tones, tints, and hues into our paint job, so make goodly use of it. But don't get too carried away with it. Keep it just subtle enough to get the point across without being garish; otherwise we create a result that's too stylized to be wholly realistic. Also certain patterns, such as dapple grey, do best by just concentrating on the pattern and omitting most, if not all, of muscling shading and highlight to keep the pattern un-confused.

Nonetheless, try and shade and highlight where you can when appropriate, even inside appaloosa spots. White pinked areas also do well with shading and highlight by accentuating their fleshiness, especially on the face. And don't forget the mane, tail, feathers, ears, and the palmar foot!

(For some insights on shading and highlighting the face, refer to my blog post, Face Off: Painting and Detailing the Equine Face.)

Pigment Basics

To duplicate color effects on a real horse and also create eye-candy that breaths life into a sculpture, we should have a good understanding of color theory. This can also help to avoid a boring paint job or one that’s too garish or overdone. Understanding color theory also gives us more freedom with our palette, allowing us to make each paint job truly distinct and original. And while some prefer to rely on fixed formulas, it’s also a good idea to explore a freer use of pigment since it offers challenging forays into experimentation, discovery, and originality. So use formulas as a springboard for further variations. Color is just waiting to be used, and the possibilities are endless. 

Color use is relevant to nearly all finishing techniques and media, except perhaps glazing, framework, or enameling where chemistry comes more into play. Because we've all heard the mantra: "Burnt Sienna, Burnt Umber, Mars Black...blah blah blah." And, indeed, these "horse colors" are essential, yet an exciting spectrum of non-horsey pigments await too, offering new dimensions and vibrancy to your palette. Don't just use "horse colors!" Expand your options! So think about using blues, bugundies, purples, greens, reds, yellows, oranges, pinks, apricots, teals, violets, and a whole spectrum of unconventional others as modus operandi. When understood and used skillfully, these unconventional pigments produce unique rich colors that add a deeper layer of enjoyment to the process and end result. Honestly, colors can be sublime, so don't automatically dismiss any color from your palette without trying it out first. In this a color wheel can be very useful, as can a color mixing chart. Stay open-minded about color.

What's more, always use high quality pigments, particularly those that have undergone some sort of testing and ranking system (for example, “lightfast ratings”), and then try to stick to those colors with the highest performance rating. Colors to be especially cautious about are purples and greens, so be sure to check their color longevity. And although many popular craft paints have alluring colors and consistencies, they aren't archival quality and should be avoided. It's much better to learn how to mix quality pigments than fall back on pre-mixed, inferior pigments.

(Note: Use all pigments according to manufacturer recommendations. Also, cadmiums, cobalts, zincs, etc. are toxic and shouldn’t touch the skin nor be put through an airbrush and aerosoled, so read product information before using. Liquitex and Golden acrylic paint is also highly recommended in terms of selection and quality.)

Purchase a color wheel and learn how to use it. A color chart is also handy and can usually be obtained from pigment manufacturers. The wheel will tell you which are complementary colors and so help you to open up your palette to more options. The color chart will quickly show you target colors. So let's explore some basic ideas about pigment to better get an idea of the possibilities: 
  • Primary Color: Simply put, pure red, yellow, and blue. Theoretically, these three pigments will produce all colors, with the exception of white.
  • Secondary Color: The color produced by the mixture of any two primary colors. For example, purple (red and blue), green (yellow and blue), and orange (yellow and red).
  • Intermediate Color: The mixture of any two primaries and a third color. For example, orange and Burnt Sienna (which makes a nice bright chestnut).
  • Value: The degree of lightness or darkness of a color by characteristic or alteration. For instance, purple has a dark value, but the addition of white lightens its value. Conversely, pink has a light value, but adding Burnt Umber darkens its value.
  • Tint: Light value typically created by the mixture in of white. I also use it to apply to the color cast of a light area, as I use the tinting technique to add luminescence.
  • Shade: Color of a darker value.
  • Tone: The direction in the spectrum a color leans. For instance, a red-tone brown, a yellow-toned orange, or a brown-toned grey.
  • Hue: Another term for color. 
  • Cool Colors: A family of pigments with a blue tone. For example, French Grey, Ivory Black, Alizarin Crimson, Medium Magenta, Naphthal Crimson, etc.
  • Warm  Colors: A family of pigments with a brown or rosy tone such as Yellow Oxide, Mars Black, Cadmium Orange, Cadmium Red, etc.
  • Warm or Cool Palette: Use of each family exclusively with produce a "warm" or "cool" cast in the paint job. For example, a dapple grey with Mars black will appear warmer than a dapple grey with Ivory Black, which is a blue-toned black. Likewise, other colors can be added into the mix to produce varied results. For instance, with a Ivory Black grey, you can dab in some Burnt Umber to warm it up or some Payne's Grey to cool it down even more. Similarly, a grulla created with Payne's Grey/orange can be warmed with Cadmium Orange or cooled with French Grey.
  • Complementary Color: Any two colors opposite each other on the color wheel. For example, yellow-violet, orange-blue, or green-red. When mixed as pairs, each are passively dulled without loss of individual characteristics, creating some gorgeous colors (such as some unique browns) and harmonies that beautifully enrich finishwork. Use of complementary colors frees the palette from using black, which kills any color’s personality. Rather, complements create tones and values that are richer and more vibrant. For example, we can use this approach to create bays with that bluish or purply cast to the sooty areas. It also weans an artist from depending too much on a manufacturer’s pre-mixed pigments, freeing the palette yet more. Be aware of the use of white though with complementary colors, for creating pale tones like dilutes and champages and certain grullas because white amplifies a color's tone. For example, Burnt Sienna-Ultramarine Blue creates a wonderful dark brown, but just a dab of white will bring out the blue with unpleasant results. Likewise, Red Oxide-Christmas Green produces a beautiful brown, but adding white gives the mix a green-tone. Really, complements are best used in their pure form. For example, use Burnt Sienna-Cobalt Blue for darks on a rosegrey, then use lighter values to add the dapples and details. But when you become more skilled, you’ll find that adding white to complements can work in certain situations, so experiment. 
  • Clean Color: The color right out of the manufacter’s container, which can be used directly on the finish with great effect, too.
  • Muddy color: A mix that incorporates too many colors, which confuses and dulls the final result. We want to avoid muddying our mixes to keep our colors as clean as possible for best results.
Now let's consider the basic approach for the sections of the sculpture
  • Body Color: Create the basecolor, the unifying tone and value of the finished target color, and basecoat the entire piece. For those colors with dark points, you may wish to mix a separate point color and basecoat the points independently. But try interesting recipes rather than straight out of the container. For example, a buckskin comprised of Burnt Sienna-Yellow Oxide-Venetian Rose buckskin, a Payne's Grey-Taupe grulla, a Burnt Umber-French Grey brown, a Raw Umber-Raspberry red bay, a Red Oxide-Real Teal chestnut, a Payne's Grey-Cadmium Orange sooty palomino or a Cadmium Red Light-Ultramarine Blue dark dusty bay. And the more unique the body color (and other hues) the more unique the finished piece. A common mistake is using the same mix on many different pieces, creating a homogenized body of work. Each piece should be proof of mastery of that color or effect, so once done...move on.
  • Shade: The basecoat will need shade colors to lend depth and richness. And don’t use just one, but many and pay attention to tonal differences in shade on real horses to get an idea of the diversity. But rather than creating a shade by darkening the basecoat with black, use a complementary color. For example, use blues, greens, burgundy, teals, and purples to darken red tones for such colors as browns, bays, and chestnuts. Another option is to create a whole new shade color by using another set of complements. For example, if the basecoat is a Burnt Sienna-Red Oxide mix, rather than grabbing Burnt Umber to darken, mix a new batch of Red Oxide with deep blues, greens, burgundy, or purples, or even Real Teal. Similarly, on a Taupe-Mars Black grulla, rather than using more Mars Black for the saddle color, try Payne’s Grey-Cadmium Orange or Payne’s Grey-Red Oxide instead. The possibilities are truly limitless, so explore them!
  • Companions: These are the spectrum of colors that you’ll create to blend, harmonize, and complicate body color, shade, and highlight. Absolutely, don’t approach a finish simplistically, but explore the subtle possibilities with pigment. For example, a palomino shade of Raw Sienna-Burnt Umber can have a companion shade of Raw Sienna-Burnt Umber-Burnt Sienna. Likewise, a “classic” silver dapple highlight may entail a Burnt Umber-French Grey mix while its companion may be a Burnt Umber-Light Blue Violet mix. A good paint job is complex, not simple.
  • White Highlight: The addition of white or white-like colors for highlighting is only appropriate for those colors characterized by a pastel, soft, light, or dusty appearance such as foal coats and certain dilutes, for instance. Also, some effects can require the injection of white such as certain types of dapples and pangare, for example. But we can use whites beneath tints to add glow and luminescence. Really, the skillful use of white opens up a vast spectrum of colors from lovely creamy and soft colors to glowing ones, which are important to master. White also transforms weak, transparent colors (like Burnt Umber, Payne's Grey, hue pigments, Ivory Black, etc.) into opaque powerhouses that can be used for a host of things. But a little bit of white goes a long way, so practice. White can also be integrated by using pre-mixed colors such as Taupe, French Grey, Dark Victorian Rose, Baltic Blue, Apricot, Venetian Rose, etc. Indeed, these colors are extremely useful for all sorts of colors and effects. 
  • Clear Highlight: But the use of white is neither the only means to achieve highlighting nor appropriate all the time. The clear coats, like chestnut and bay, require gem-like brilliance and luminescence, and handy tools to produce this are the cadmium colors (red, yellow, and orange). Use them clean or mix them together for glowing results. They're also extremely useful in complement mixtures to add brilliance. Also, many manufacters have clean colors that also offer opportunites for clear coats such as Red Oxide, Yellow Oxide, Turner’s Yellow, etc., which can also be used alone, mixed together, or mixed with cadmiums for great results, too. And don't forget the use of white to tint over!
Versatile Colors

I’ve found seven colors to be very useful for various things, as follows:

  1. Taupe is handy for muting colors, softening blacks, creating blending hues, warming light values, and creating a good  "dirt" wash for drafter feathers. Truly, Taupe is useful in a myriad of ways. It's also great for silver dapple.
  2. Red Oxide is a powerful ingredient for a multitude of colors. It’s brightened by cadmiums, dulled by complements, and works well in intermediate mixtures, generating a huge spectrum of unusual, beautiful colors. 
  3. Unbleached Titanium or Soft White is very useful for dilute colors, greys, and mealy markings. Their softer cast even calms plain white. Or use them, rather than white, in mixtures for interesting variations. Be warned, Unbleached Titanium can be a bit too green, but a bit of red/brown counteracts this well. 
  4. French Grey blends well with all colors and can be warmed up or cooled down nicely. It’s also a good medium tone for blue eyes. 
  5. Payne's Grey is fun for creating some interesting colors. It's best used with complements or intermediate mixtures to create unusual variations for sooty palomino, smoky rosegrey, or exotic duns, for example. 
  6. Burnt Sienna is an indispensable color. Used with complements or intermediate mixes, it creates many lovely hues. Mixed with whites, it also creates good flesh colors, which can be further varied with the addition of other colors. And then mixed with Raw Sienna or Yellow Oxide and whites, and it creates a useful basic pale hoof color, a platform for further variations as needed. 
  7. Apricot is useful for everything from flesh to hooves, and many other colors. And mixed with intermediates, it creates some lovely greys and bays, too.

Using stark white for markings and patterns isn't always the best choice. Often, our piece benefits by softening our whites to add dimension, mass, and the opportunity to highlight. Softening our whites also tends to marry the whites better with the body color to harmonize the overall effect. We can soften our whites with either a bit of Taupe, golden yellows, or Burnt Umber. Just a small dab will do.

Plus white feathers, tails, and manes often do well with the same approach for the same reasons. And we can deepen the tones for staining, which adds a nice realistic touch.


Mars Black, Ivory Black, and Payne's Grey (which looks black initially) have different tones and potencies. Ivory Black is a cool, translucent blue-black and Mars Black is a warm, opaque black (also very potent in coverage and in mixture). Payne's Grey is an ultra cool, very transparent and very blue-toned black. Because each reacts differently in mixture, all three in the palette will expand your color repertoire.

  • Limit the use of black to darken colors, but rather use complementaries. For example, to quiet Red Oxide, use blues, teals, purples, or greens. Or mix oranges and blues together to create interesting browns. 
  • Use bold pigments for highlights on clear coats (like bays, chestnuts, red silvers, etc.), such as the cadmiums, oxides, and other bright reds, yellows, and oranges. (Remember, however, don’t use cadmiums in the airbrush since these are toxic pigments and should not be aerosolized, so utilize them with another method.) 
  • Another way to highlight clear coats is the white-to-tint method in which a very light value is made of the basecoat with white and applied to the specific areas of highlight on the muscles, regions, and features. Then with washes or sprays of an airbrush, the bold pigments can be applied over the white to make them punch-out even more, then continue to shading and blending. This is because the white gives these pigments a "clean" background to show their nature so they aren’t dampened by the bascoat’s muting effect. This technique isn’t appropriate all the time, so experiment. Nonetheless, it gives you a unique way to build your highlights or tonal variations. 
  • Use white, white-like, or pastelized colors to create a creamy, dusty, or soft color like certain dilutes, foal coats, etc.
  • Balance the use of clear tones and pastelized colors for more complex coat colors like palomino and champagne. For instance, some palominos are creamier whereas some a rather clear-coated, of a purer tint and tone.
  • For blacks, use Mars Black or Ivory Black, a bit of white and a bit of Phthalocyanine Blue or Dioxazine Purple to create a subtle blue or purple highlight which is handy for black paint jobs or black areas.
  • If used skillfully, pigment can visually recreate visual mass, mimicking the bulk of a real horse. For instance, shade underneath muscles and highlight the tops of them as thought the sun was shining overhead. This also defines and accentuates them and provides opportunities for infusing more colors into the piece. But don’t overkill because it's not always a good idea to have each muscle or feature equally spotlighted. Really, choosing which things to bring to the forefront and which to play into the background is a powerful tool to lend realism and interest. Truly, if everything is equally highlighted and shaded, we can end up with a garish, artificial look. Always find ways to infuse diversity into your paint job. 
  • Color can call attention to certain aspects of the piece such as a nice head, beautifully sculpted musculature, or nicely sculpted mane and tail. But it can also accentuate a poorly sculpted area just as easily. So be mindful how you use pigment to accentuate the piece. Showcase the good and downplay the questionable.
  • Keep mixtures simple by using the minimum amount of pigments to produce the target color; it should be no more than three, maximum, practically speaking. The more pigments that are integrated, the muddier and duller the final product. Really, the beauty achieved by skillful finishwork isn’t produced by many colors mixed together, but of many seperate colors used independently, working together. So keep the concoctions as simple as possible and use many concoctions on one piece.
  • Use as many tones, tints, hues, and values on a piece as attractively possible and still remain realistic. So don't limit the finish to merely a body color, shade color, and highlight color, but use various other colors to produce a complex, glowing coat, not a simplistic, boring one. The more colors you use skillfully, the more realistic and lively your paint job will appear.
  • Coordinate the shade and highlight to the color of the coat and with the strategic areas of the body. Consistency to realism and an area's spectrum are essential for the piece to be convincing. For example, a liver chestnut with a cinnamony forehand may need red, copper, orange, and yellow tones whereas his chocolatey hindend may need tan, fawn, sepia, and other brown tones. This also accentuates the impression of  "bloom" by allowing a color to glow with different defining qualities. So pay attention to the tint, value, hue, and tone of each region of the body since they can vary.
  • Always keep harmony in mind; all colors must work together so intensities should be balanced and pigments should be blended with sufficient subtlety. Harmony also pertains to the use or combination of a warm or cool palette. For example, a cool flaxen mane and tail on a warm liver chestnut may look awkward and too artificial and would do better with some warming up. So experiment and discover how colors can work together. Of course, always refer to reference photos, especially when you're unsure how to proceed.
  • Practice, practice, practice! The more you experiment and take risks, the faster you’ll be able to predict how colors behave. And don't ignore unconventional pigments, see what they can do. Every kind of pigment has a place on our palette given we know how to use it!
  • The paint job is a piece's hook, its first impression. That makes it vital for a quality piece, and the foundation for this begins in understanding color and how to use it skillfully and effectively. 
Manes, Tails and Feathers

For a mane, tail, or feathers that require shading or detailing, try this. Paint all the mane, tail, or feathers a mid-tone of the target color. (If the mane, tail, or feathers are white in any place, avoid basecoating that portion to keep it clean.) Then block in tonal differences such as a dark tail on the top, but lighter on the bottom. Do more tonal additions and blending, using the airbrush, painting, tinting method, and dry-brushing as needed. Use shade and highlight to add volume, too, but don't get too carried away—we're painting hair remember! Nonetheless, always sweep the pigment in the direction of the hair flow. Let dry then use color pencils to detail, add striations, accentuate "clumping," and add tonal variations. Keep the sweep of the pencil tidy and methodical; otherwise the idea will be confused and sloppy. Avoid careless, wiggly lines unless you're painting wavy hair. Also follow the sculptural curves to accentuate them rather than compete with them. Do lots of back and forth work between methods, pigments, and pencils so the pencil work "sits back" into the paint job then when you’re happy, you can go back to do some final detailing, variation, and softening.

Here are some tips:
  • Avoid flat color treatments for hair such as manes, tails, and feathers. Shade, highlight, tint, tone, and detail them with as much care as the body, using color pencils, pastels, or a liner brush to add striations of appropriate colors. Study them for color striations, clumps of color, and shadings, too. 
  • Consider adding "dirt" to feathers or tail tips through the use of browns and yellows; that can really add lots of realism.
  • To avoid overspray onto the body, mask out as much as you can with plastic wrap or a plastic bag, secured with tape (but not on the sculpture). This can help mask out anything that might get blasted.
  • Do lots of back and forth work; never paint hair with a linear approach.
  • Apply the pencil in the direction of the hair flow, detailing it.
  • Use lots of tones, tints, and values. Never paint hair in a flat, monotone way; hair should never be painted one color.
  • Pencils can define the hair against the body or along the crest, making wispy, feathery effects.
  • Keep your pencils sharp!
Painting Eyes

(A really good eye painting tutorial can be found here. In fact, there's a lot of great tutorials on that blog!)

Eyes are the “windows to the soul," so the ability to realistically paint a horse’s eye can instill a soul rather nicely. And the equine eye is supremely expressive, revealing changes in mood and nuances of emotion with its brows and wrinkles, so to convincingly paint an eye is paramount for teasing out the inner spirit of a sculpture.

What's more, people are a visual species and even mere eye contact is powerful unspoken form of communication. Thusly, people want to be visually captivated and when their eye is enticed, it pulls their attention with it. So when painting an eye, think of it this way: you’re engineering eye contact between the piece and the viewer. Really, with skillfully painted eyes, your piece will challenge, charm, fascinate, connect, and entice the viewer by targeting instincts wired in the human psyche. Definitely, people have positive responses to pieces who’s eyes “look so lifelike," “looks like he’s breathing," or “looks like he’s looking at me." In short, people will identify with your piece more readily if it relates to them on a natural and instinctual level. In this way with the eyes, an artist can instill a soul to trick the mind into suspending belief and, for a split second, interpret the piece as a living, breathing animal. Yes, eyes really are that important.

But duplicating the soul of a living animal is a difficult task, indeed. We’ve all seen those clumsily painted eyes that quietly disturb us…the vacant look, the lifeless stare, the vapid gaze, or the possessed glare. In all honesty, no matter how brilliant the rest of the piece, poorly painted eyes are a real liability. So this section will offer some insights and techniques that may prove helpful. For that, here are some things to consider:
  • The pupil isn’t round, but a long oval. Though it can dilate to become rounder, it shouldn’t resemble a human eye or dog eye. And, remember, practically speaking, humans tend to engage horses with a light source and that causes the equine pupil to be more oval. 
  • The position of the pupil indicates orb movement. However, the pupil is set on a horizontal plane, in alignment to the canthi (because it’s part of the orb itself), and doesn’t really rotate clockwise or counter-clockwise all that much, spinning independently of the orb. So when the eye rotates, the pupil will remain more or less on this horizontal plane, with minor deviations only in extreme head positions. So avoid rotating the pupil away from this horizontal plane too much. Use field study and reference photos to study the orientation of the pupil during eye rotation.
  • The iris is also oval in shape, not round, so study eyewhites to impart this shape best.
  • Like the human eye, the equine iris has striations radiating out from the pupil, like bicycle spokes, which are especially apparent on blue eyes. On the other hand, the amber (often metallic) eyes of some champagne horses don’t always exhibit these striations. Use good reference photos of the eye you wish to paint.
  • Also note other details like the rim of grey running around the circumference of the iris on some horses. Also notice some blotches or irregularities, which are important to paint into the eye.
  • The horse has a third eyelid, located at the front corner of the eye, seen as a dark, thin membrane. 
  • The eye has a little bulb of flesh, the lacrimal caruncle, which houses tear ducts. 
  • The pupil often has row of dark clusters along its upper edge that can sometimes be present to a lesser degree along its lower edge. These clusters are called corpora nigra (black bodies) or granula iridica (iris granules). It’s believed they shield the lower portion of the retina from overhead sunlight during grazing. If our pupil isn't quite black, but a softer black, we can paint in the corpora nigra with black paint.
  • Horse eyes can be many shades of brown, from amber to chocolate. They can also have a metallic look, which adds in a fun option. They can also be various shades of blue from a pale grey to mottled cobalt; blue eyes have a lot of variability. Greenish eyes also occur as a transition color during the lightening process with champagnes. Plus, eyes with a green or violet cast have been reported, though rare. What’s more, horses can have marbled eyes in which two pigments are jumbled together.
  • The belief still persists that blue eyes occur only in conjunction with an over-laying white marking, but this isn’t true. Blue eyes can occur independent of face white altogether and it all depends on the genetics of the individual. Conversely, a pigmented eye can occur within an over-laying white marking as seen on many living examples.
We also have some artistic considerations to factor into our eye paint jobs such as:
  • Be immaculately precise and tidy when painting the eye and surrounding areas. Everything here should be clear, clean, and decisive, not careless, sloppy, or hurried. This is because they’re one of the first things the viewer will focus on, and biologically speaking, the various bits are anatomically separate.
  • Use shading and highlight on the lid and fleshy areas around the eyes because this makes the expression pop and accentuates the look of flesh. Detail using highlights on the protruding wrinkles and shadings for the folds. Then use the shade color to softly line the lower rim, like eyeliner. Also, highlighting the lower eye rim, lashes (if present), and surrounding veins draws further attention to the area. 
  • Practically speaking from an artistic perspective, avoid bringing the body color up to the eye because it creates an unfinished, distracting look. Add some degree of darker shading around the eye, if color appropriate.
  • Use the gemstone method for shading all eyes, making the iris reflect light like a jewel, glowingly mimicking the effects of light traveling through it. To explain, when light hits the eyeball, it passes through and hits the iris on the opposite side. Therefore, based on a light path that enters at the front and top of the eye, a handy trick is to use the darkest shadings at this point of entry then use the lightest shadings directly opposite this point. In other words, use darker shadings at the top of the iris and lighter ones at the bottom. Here's a flatwork demonstration illustrating the effect.
  • Keep the overall iris tones rich and jewel-like because you want to avoid a possessed look, often caused by a timid use of shade and highlight and an overzealous use of one flat color. Also take care to blend the colors, to accentuate their alluring gem-like quality and avoid a lifeless or staring effect. We want the pupil to look part of the eye, too, and not "floating" on top of it.
  • Don’t be married to a preconceived expression because the piece will often evolve into what looks best, despite your original intentions.
  • Study how eyewhites vary, depending on the horse’s different head positions and expressions. Eyewhites also have a lot of variety in their qualities and details, so pay attention to that, too.
  • Avoid a cartoon-like rendition of the eye and eyebrows when painting (or sculpting). Paintings by Gericault, Delacroix, Da Vinci, and Dreux, for example, exaggerated the eye area for artistic impact. But, admittedly, their horses were hardly realistic in the true sense, so be sure to stay within the range of realistic expression and effect.
  • Use a set of tiny liner brushes, kept in good shape, for eyes to keep the details sharp and tidy. Sharp color pencils can be handy, too.
  • It’s extremely important that your painted eyes glow, like glass illuminated from behind, and this is only achieved through a skilled use of tone, tint, and color. So keep practicing until you’ve gotten the knack of it.
  • Avoid brush strokes, lumps, creases, or physical distortions in the paint that would compromise a smooth, even finish. It’s better to keep the paint in thin layers and washes when painting eyes. 
  • Pay attention to the details of the iris such as the striations and encircling grey line.
  • Practice, practice, practice!
We also have to account for sclera, or eyewhites. They can infuse a lot of expression and when well done, are an extremely powerful tools for mimicking a living animal. But to create a realistic look, refrain from using pure white. Rather, blend in some flesh tones, then greyish, salmonish, or brownish tones and blotches where it meets the iris and around the tear duct. This is due to the blood supply to the eye, the colors of the membranes, and how the iris blends into the sclera. Also, the boundary between sclera and the iris can be irregular, splotchy, or a bit blended in spots, so it isn’t necessary to always paint this as crisp, regular, and even. Painting in the third eyelid can be effective, too. Absolutely, life study and photos are great for developing a mental library of these details. 

Here are some ideas for painting sclera: 
  • Mix Titanium White and Burnt Sienna together, producing a medium pale pink; this is your standard mix. Use this to paint the sclera onto the eye in as you wish. 
  • Take a small portion of this mixture and deepen it by adding a bit more Burnt Sienna and/or Burnt Umber. Add this darkened color to either “tail” of the eye white. 
  • Take a small portion of the standard mix and lighten it by adding more Titanium White. Thin this mixture a little bit with water and paint tiny blotches or streaks.
  • Use the lightened portion to neatly dab in the lacrimal caruncle.
  • Use a deep pink mixture, slightly thinned, to precisely paint in tiny, delicate capillaries. Don’t go overboard and keep it tidy.
  • Use the thinned deep pink mixture and mix in a bit of Burnt Umber. Use this mix to delicately line the outer rim of the third eyelid, defining it. However, I prefer to define the third eyelid only when the eye is rolled back; otherwise, I end up creating an unwelcome effect. Also, be sure to avoid making the third eyelid too exposed or large since this would indicate injury or disease.
Now for painting brown eyes, try some of these ideas: 
  • Use Burnt Umber, Blacks, Burnt Sienna, Raw Sienna, and Taupe (a handy softening or blending color). Adjusting these colors will create most of the tones you’ll need, from amber to chocolate, but experiment with pigment to find new variations. Truly, as you get more skilled, you can add in more colors, even unconventional colors.
  • Thin all the mixtures to a 1% milk consistency and use a #000-#2 soft dry round brush for a "Traditional" size piece. Dip the brush in the desired pigment, dab to remove excess to avoid pooling, runs, or elevated areas because you want a smooth, even finish. It’s better to use a series of smooth washes than a couple of gloppy blops.
  • For a typical eye, paint the whole iris black, then paint over that with your darkest brown, leaving an encircling thin black rim. 
  • Then highlight the lower portion of the iris, opposite the point of light entry, with Burnt Sienna and sometimes also with a dab of Raw Sienna, for more punch. 
  • At the point of light entry, darken the area with a wash of Black. 
  • Blend the three color areas together, careful not to muddy them. 
  • Once you’re happy, paint in the pupil with a mixture of Mars Black with a teensy bit of Taupe to soften so it's not so stark.
  • Add more detail if you wish, such as the thin grey line encircling the iris and some iris striations. You can even add the corpora nigra to the pupil in black.
  • Finally, clean up the surrounding eye rims so they’re precise and defined against the orb. Then do general clean up.
  • As a last touch you can add "eye shine," that metallic bluish reflection inside the pupil with metallic blue paint.
  • Add metallics to the eye colors if you wish, and they’re particularly effective when painting the eyes of champagnes. Keep in mind that sometimes amber eyes don’t exhibit obvious iris striations, as seen on some champagnes, so refer to reference photos.
  • Brown eyes come in many variations, so approach each pair with a fresh outlook. Collect lots of reference photos for guidance.

Blue eyes are fun, aren't they? But they'll quickly look possessed if done improperly. For example, painting them in a flat, simple manner makes them appear artificial and staring. If any eye color does well with shading and highlight, it's a blue eye! Also, albinism doesn’t exist in horses, being lethal in utero, so horses don’t have red eyes. In fact, the term "albino" for horses often mistakenly refers to cremellos, smokey creams, isabellas, or perlinos, but all of which have blue eyes, gaining their color through a very different genetic process than albinism.

Blue eyes come in myriad shades and types, so be sure to work from good photos. It’s important to match the correct tone and shade. Blue eyes usually have the icy-blue-grey base and the bluer the eye, the more pronounced and numerous the blue patches, mottling, and striations tend to be. Then again, some blue eyes are more uniformly blue; remember all the variations! Nonetheless, a common mistake is an even, monochromatic use of blue pigment to make a more blue eye, ignoring the mottling, streaks, and patches on the iris, which creates a staring, possessed look that’s unnerving and unrealistic. Of course, shade the blue eye using the same “gemstone” method used on brown eyes; actively avoid a flat use of pigment to avoid the possessed look. To also avoid this, paint the pupil in a pleasing size, in relation to the iris. Too small and it’s unattractive, but too big and the sculpture will look drugged.

Blue eyes have many details that are important to duplicate. For starters, the iris striations are very easy to see. And look closely and also notice the dark blue color (typically the darkest blue color) running along the circumference of the iris. Also note that just inside this dark rim is a pale and thicker band of color (often the lightest blue color) sandwiched between that and the striations of the iris. So refrain from painting a blue eye with a flat, homogenous treatment.

Nevertheless, for blue eyes, we can apply similar ideas we used on a brown eye, only with different colors. For example:

  • If sclera is in order, remember it indicates the rotation of the orb, meaning that the placement of the pupil must be consistent. So it’s a good idea to block in the sclera before painting a blue eye so you have an idea where to lay in the pupil.  
  • Thin all mixtures to a 1% milk consistency and use a #000-#2 soft dry artificial liner brush. Again, dip in and dab out the excess to help create a smooth, even finish. 
  • For a typical blue eye, use Mars Black (shade), French Grey (mid-tone), and Titanium White (highlight) to create a base color of icy-blue-grey, a medium slate color then paint the entire orb this color. You can use Ivory Black instead too, depending on the circumstance. French Grey by itself is a good mid-tone for bolder blue eyes.
  • Dull Mars Black with a dab of French Grey and block in the pupil. Then subtely blend the edges of the pupil with the iris simply to soften, to make it sit back and become part of the eye rather than looking painted on top. 
  • Then create the gem-stone look by mixing more French Grey in some of the slate mix and blending this new color around the point of light entry. Then take the slate mix and add more white and blend this color around the point of light contact, on the lower part of the iris. Then blend, using all three tones in a black-and-forth manner, without compromising the pupil. Brighten and darken areas as needed.
  • Then add in the details such as the iris striations, blotches, mottling, patches, and rim effects. 
  • For a lighter eye, simply use more white in the base slate mix and if you wish to create a darker eye, simply use more French Grey. If you want to increase intensity, use other blues to add washes or patches. For example, to create bolder bluer patches on the iris, add a bit of Ultramarine Blue, Cobalt Blue, Phthalocyanine Blue, or Navy to this mixture. 
  • Clean up the pupil and eye rims.
As for variations, some double dilutes, like cremellos, can have a greenish cast to their iris while champagnes do as well during the lightening phases of their color. To produce this, merely add in some Real Teal or Baltic Blue to the slate mix and adjust accordingly, then paint just like a blue eye, paying attention to their special details.

A marbled eye combines the two methods into one eye. Keep the colors clear and distinct, to avoid a confused result. It’s a bit tricky, but with some back-and-forth work, it can be a wonderful effect.

Conclusion to Part 1

We've covered a lot of ground, haven't we? And there's more to come! Part 2 will cover more topics, so digest these ideas to be ready. The best piece of advice I can offer is to stretch yourself. Observe, observe, observe to learn to See those features of a coat that would lend more realism to your paint job. Don't take anything for granted. Again, for more in-depth discussion on these and other color components, refer to my article series, Painting Conventions: Fact or Fantasy, Parts 1, 2, and 3. And there's a ton of pictures! Plus a great site for a host of tutorials on all sorts of subjects is here.

It's also important to keep growing. Hitting plateaus is inevitable and we have to push through them to reach the next level of our talent. Never settle for "good enough." We need a bit of a perfectionist bent to our personality, but that can be fun in its challenge and the opportunity to develop better skills.

So until next time...ponder pigment and have fun!

"Taking responsibility is liberating because it allows us to accept that our mistakes are our own—and that  means we have the power to put them right."
~ Paul Foxton

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