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Painting Horses

It is worth knowing a little bit about horse colours before painting them - unless, of course, you intend to paint your horses in a similar way to the Bayeux Tapestry where they come in a variety of interesting colours including red, green, blue and yellow!

There are six basic horse colours:


White - Pure whites are very rare. Most have a greyish or cream tinge, especially manes and tails and many 'white' horses are actually light greys.


Black - not quite as the name says. The manes and tails are mostly black but the bodies are more blackish brown


Chestnut - brown body (often reddish or golden brown) with mane and tail of the same or lighter colour


Bay - usually dark brown with black mane tail and lower legs


Dun - light brown or tan with black mane tail and lower legs plus a black line down the back


Grey - varying shades of grey usually with black mane and tail.

There are plenty of variations on these as well as rarer colourings. Most horses also have white markings on their faces and lower legs.


Horses depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry

A very good complete chart on horse colours and variations can be found here.

Horse colours.jpg

My Horse Painting Style


I have found the trick to painting impressive looking horses with a minimal amount of effort is to build up the coats with a variety of washes. First spraying with a white undercoat (yes even for black horses) then applying a thin base coat in a lighter colour than the intended outcome. on top of this goes a darker ink wash and finally a raw umber wash. The following take you through an illustrated step by step guide as to how I paint my horses.

horses step 1.jpg

Step 1

The horses are painted with a base coat over the white undercoat which has had a very thin wash of Raw Umber (see My Secret Ingredient). The base coat is applied thinned down with  water so as to bring out the detail.


 I will be painting (from left to right) a Grey, Chestnut, Bays, Black, another Bay, and a Dun.


The Grey gets no base coat. If it was going to be a White I would highlight the raised areas with pure white. The Chestnut and first Bay get a light red-brown base coat. I use Wacofin N Rehbraun (fawn) which is probably the most useful colour for many horses base coats.  .


The Black and the second Bay are painted with dark brown and the dun gets a light sandy brown. Blacks are never really truly black. There is almost always a tinge of brown which comes out especially in sunlight. This is why the black gets a dark brown base coat.

Horses step 2.jpg

Step 2

Each horse now gets a wash over the base coat. This will change the colour quite considerably. It is a good idea to play around with different washes over the same base coats to get variety.


Coat d'arms various ink washes are excellent, giving a nice gloss and depth of colour over the base coat. For the Grey. however I used Liquitex Mars Black as it is much more translucent than the Coat d'arms paints and I do not want the horse to become too black. For the others the washes used are (from right to left) Coat d'arms Chestnut, Brown, Black, Brown and Flesh ink washes.


You can see the difference made by using a different wash over the two horses originally painted red-brown and dark brown in the above photos.

grey mane and tail copy.jpeg
chestnut main and tail copy.jpeg

Step 3

I next paint the manes and tails. I use a dark grey for those horses who will end up with black hair.


For the Chestnut I have used a slightly lighter and more golden colour than the body. Alternatively you could use the same colour or one much lighter such as cream or sand. The black hair will get a black wash on top to bring out the details

white touch up.jpg

Before painting the straps and saddle cloths I fix up, with white, any areas where dark paint has slopped over the edges.


As the reins and straps will be black in this case, it is not necessary to do them. However if they were to be natural leather, as with many of my ancient horses, they too would need to be touched up.

before wash.jpg

Step 4.

Saddle cloths, blankets, straps and saddles are next. You do not have to be too careful in those areas that will be obscured by the rider. When these are done I apply a final very thin raw umber wash over everything in the same way as I do when painting men.


You can see the difference the raw umber makes in the photo below. The details are brought out into sharper relief, the coat is deeper, there is automatic outlining and little mistakes are covered up. I find it rarely necessary to paint the eyes after the wash in small sale models as the raw umber does it for you. I do tend to do them with 28mm horses.


Finally I paint the metal work and add the white markings to the legs and faces. For this I use an off white as pure white would be too bright. I do this after the final wash as the raw umber would make it go a bit too yellowish. The horse is now ready for its rider.


Sometimes I will dry brush the tail to bring out the detail a bit more. This is often particularly necessary with black hair. It was not necessary in this case as the umber wash did the job for me

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