Apply Your Color Theory Lessons into Painting a Horse


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Final product image
What You'll Be Creating

We have learned what light and shadow are to imagine forms. We have taken a good look at all the fundamentals of color and its properties. We have also learned a lot of tricks that are crucial in adding life to the picture. Now it's time to use all this knowledge and take it to practice. We're going to draw a horse based on my tutorial, so you can easily join in, even if you've got no skills in drawing animals. 

Also, I'm going to talk about using colors only, without referring to any particular software (or a kind of pigment). No matter what your favorite program is, and whether it's free or you paid for it, you can follow this tutorial easily.

Before we start, however, there are three important things that must be said:

  • Make sure you've read all three articles of this series. Simply following this tutorial will teach you a lot of things, but in the articles I've explained how to apply these tricks to every situation possible;
  • You don't need to, and even shouldn't, follow my steps thoroughly and precisely. Just look what I did and do the same, but don't redraw the example. Interpretation beats re-creation every time - you learn more when you try to understand why I did something, instead of just redrawing it all step by step and waiting for the effect to come by itself;
  • Shading is based strongly on one's style. Therefore, style applies to almost every step of this tutorial - if I say "brighten it slightly", you can brighten it aggressively and see what happens. It's all your choice, and my choices aren't by any means the most correct - they're just the ones I liked the most. Interpret them and make your own!

1. Prepare the Sketch

The sketch isn't an obligatory part of every painting, and you don't even need to know how to draw to paint very well. However, for simplicity's sake, we're going to create a line art as a base. You don't need to draw it digitally yet, although it's easier and cleaner to have the ability to remove some lines instantly.

Step 1

First, we need a pose for our animal. I've chosen one of gallop, using the schemes from my tutorial about horses. 3D poses are very useful here, since we're going to put lighting on it. If you're having any problems at this stage, don't panic - this article on drawing poses should help you. Again, choose any pose you like - your horse can be jumping or sleeping, actually, it doesn't even need to be a horse! Keep this sketch simple, don't try to draw perfect straight lines, it doesn't need to be clean either.

Step 2

The next step is to build the forms - in other words, bundle every part of the skeleton into a simplified body. Imagine you're trying to put every part of the body into some kind of sharp edged box. The less sides you get, the better.

It can be very problematic to you if you don't know at least basic perspective. Bad news is there's no workaround. You will not be able to calculate the light direction accurately, if you don't build the right forms - you need to know where all the sides of the figure are. Yes, you may guess it, and that's where so called talent comes to play, but it's going to limit you sooner or later. Good news is you don't need a talent, perspective can be learned! For a start, you can use tutorials of Calin Teodorescu, like this, this or this.

Step 3

Time to add muscles. You don't need to be 100% accurate, but watch to place them on the right planes (sides of the forms). Don't remove the previous line art! We're going to need it.

Step 4

Details are usually left for the last stage of painting, but now it's a good time to at least find a place for them.

Step 5

Now comes the hardest part of the sketching. We need to create a wireframe of the whole body. 

You need to think like a 3D printer for a moment. The horse must be sliced into layers, each with a slightly different shape. It's like you had a solid cuboid and carved into its walls on various depths. The lines of wireframe are able to indicate such a depth - the further they are from the cuboid's wall, the deeper they go. I made the horse's body a bit exaggerated so that the effect was clearly visible.

2. Basic Shading

Step 1

Since our animal's body form is well established, we can start coloring it. The first step in digital painting should be to create the base, a clipping mask for all the other layers. This shape should be clean and opaque.

Step 2

The next step is to put flat colors. As we noticed in the articles, they are local colors, unaffected by the lighting. This time, I made them darker to create a base for ambient occlusion.

Step 3

We can use ambient occlusion to create a form slightly illuminated by ambient light. Our goal is to brighten a peak of every bulge and leave every crevice between them dark.

Step 4

The border between the crevices and peaks shouldn't be too sharp (we're talking about smooth forms, after all). Blend them slightly without losing the shapes.

Step 5

In result of smoothing the crevices, some of them might have been lost. You can stress them carefully, using simple lines to cut off the forms. The lines shouldn't stand out, they should almost blend from the distance.

Step 6

Time to place direct light. Let's say that the light source is placed conveniently right in front of the horse. It's warm and bright. The planes it touches become brighter and warmer. How to check what planes are those? Well, that's what all the line art is for!

Step 7

Where there's light, there's also shadow. The areas blocked from the light sources should be darker and colder (since any light coming there will come from my foreseen cold ambient light).

Step 8

Our horse isn't as blocky as the form-line art we used, so we need to smoothen the borders, blending them.

3. Reflected Light, Specular Light and Texture

Step 1

As usually, we're going to use the sky as our source of scattered reflected light. First, let's make the shadowed areas much colder.

Step 2

The weak, scattered light can affect every part not dominated by the direct light.

Step 3

Our horse looks pretty good at the moment, at least as long as we keep the line art. Once it's removed, we can see how "plastic" the horse seems. If it's the effect we wanted, then it's not any problem, but let's see what can be done to make it more realistic.

 The plastic feeling comes from the unbelievably smooth material we've used. Lights and shadows are blended perfectly, without any perturbation. That's what we need to add, some little obstacles on the surfaces that disturb the blending. The easiest and the most effective way is to pick colors from the terminator and paint over them using harder, smaller brush. Basically, we want to hide all this soft coloring under new, harder one, keeping the shading.

This is also good moment to define the skin. Slight wrinkles or "seams" between muscle bulges make the surface more realistic and less dull. Also, from time to time you can add a spot of new color, even as extremal as green or red - mixed with the general color they won't be recognizable, but instead they'll feel like a new shade of it.

This is the last moment you can check the overall diffuse reflection and fix it if needed.

Step 4

Our horse is very matte, as if it was running underwater. Let's add some shine to its hair! The exact placement of specular reflection is a big, complicated topic, so for now let's just assume it's going to be placed almost in front of the light source. Remember to put these reflections only on shiny materials - soft muzzle with specular reflection would suddenly look hard.

Since our material isn't glossy, only a bit shiny, don't use strong stripes of warm white. Make it irregular, as if the specular reflection was disturbed by irregularities of the coat.

Step 5

Specular reflection on a irregular surface is never very sharp, and it usually scatters quite beautifully. Let's use this effect to create a stronger contrast between light and shadow.

Warning: if the material is actually wet or oily, this scattering doesn't occur.

Step 6

Let's add stronger reflected light in the shadow to balance both sides. Remember - reflected light cannot be brighter than the light area and it can't even touch it!

Step 7

When you consider the shading done, you can go into details. This tutorial isn't about painting hair, but I can give you some advice that has to do with shading:

  • Don't use black as a local color for black hair. This way you'll not be able to create any shadows for them! Use dark orange (brown) for warm shade of black and dark blue/violet for cold black;
  • As with everything, don't start with every detail defined. The base should only show the direction, and too many details (single hairs) will only hinder the shading;
  • Specular reflection is exceptionally good-looking on hair, but it doesn't mean you need to place it everywhere. Natural hair is rarely shiny, sometimes even making it all matte will give you better effect;
  • Don't shade every individual hair! Focus on whole strands. The level of detail needs to be uniform in all the picture, and if you painted all the hairs individually on the mane, you would need to paint them all individually on the coat too!

Step 8

Sometimes when all the shading is done and all the details have been added, suddenly we can notice some mistakes that we didn't catch before. It's because now we can see the picture as a whole and we're not obliged to ignore any unfinished parts anymore. So, this is the time for the last fixes. It's important not to spend too much time at this phase - the picture will never be 100% done and sometimes too much polishing will actually ruin it. Take a break, have a cup of coffee, then come back and see how it looks from distance.

Take a value check. See if any reflected light dominated direct one, or if the shadows are placed correctly. As you can see, the whole horse is properly illuminated, without strong contrast and burned shadows.

As we noticed in the articles, background is crucial for proper shading. For example, my horse running through this white space should also get bright reflections of it on the lower body. However, as long as it's just a presentation and we assume the horse had been cut out of some other environment, that's OK.


Finally you had a chance to use all these tricks in practice! As you can see, painting is a series of deliberate actions, and even when an artist works in creative frenzy, they still plan it all subconsciously. If you spend some time practicing it, it will become your second nature and you won't need to think "now it's time for specular reflection... and then I'll need to add reflected light...". You will just paint!

If you think that my horse look too shiny, or too warm, or too muscular - think what would happen if I changed just one step, if I shifted brightness slider some more or less at one point. The method I've just shown you is completely open for style! Therefore, it doesn't mean you'll get the same effect as me. The goal of this tutorial was to show you what you do when painting. The process itself, the order of steps and actual values of hue, brightness and saturation are all up to you - and that's what I love about art! 

And if you just skimmed this tutorial to look at pretty pictures and your only thought was "I'll never bee that good", cheer up! You can do it and you don't even need any talent for this. Learn to draw simple shapes (line control), then practice forms in perspective (if you master perspective, you'll outdo many talented artists out there). Read my articles from this series and paint shaded blocks, and once you can do it, you can also build complicated figures of them. If you need more motivation to start, there's a read for you.