Select Delivery Region:
Our magazines
In this section

How to draw the horse by Ruth Buchanan

Posted on Tue 20 Nov 2018

How to draw the horse

Artist Ruth Buchanan shares key techniques for making a successful drawing of the horse.


Working drawing in graphite and watercolour of cob, Jester

Drawing should be enjoyable.

Sketching in particular should be fast, immediate and about catching a moment that can be developed later, or simply for the joy of capturing a movement and attitude.  The techniques outlined in this article are based on my experience in life drawing and they can be used for any subject. The subjects I consider the most are people and horses and, although horses are a  challenging subject, it is possible to learn by looking, breaking down what you see into shapes, angles and tones and the five Ps: patience, persistence, practice, practice and practice. Most people think of drawing a horse as a linear outline, starting at the ears and continuing through the full silhouette. It is possible to draw like this but I think it is the most difficult approach, as you need an inherent understanding of form and proportion.  In drawing workshops I ask people to work through a series of exercises based on ten approaches to drawing.

Drawing from life

I draw from life whenever I can. Horses move, but tend to repeat movements so I have more than one drawing on the go and return to them as the horse returns to position. Drawing a horse moving at speed is usually part seeing a line of movement and part drawing from the image in my head. A useful exercise to develop this is to look at a simple object, then cover it up and draw it. With practice you can move onto more complex objects and, eventually animals, moving at speed.

Drawing from photographs

I also use my own photographic reference to develop my drawings into paintings. The single lens of the camera (as opposed to our two-lens vision) can distort the image, especially with a large animal such as a horse. Seeing and drawing first helps me to correct this effect in my drawing.  When drawing from life I use a range of techniques. Having practised the exercises I can choose a ‘colour’ and ‘mix colours’ to note the information I will need for painting.


The simplest way to learn to draw animals is by using simple shapes. It is called maquette drawing, but I have also seen it referred to by other names.  By making alterations to the width of leg, neck and size of feet, and by altering the depth of girth you can show different breeds.


Start with a square. Divide that roughly in half to give a rectangle for the body and another for the legs.  Draw three offset and  overlapping circles within the upper rectangle for the the body, quarters and chest.


The line slightly above halfway in the bottom rectangle shows the top of the knee and the bottom of the hock (bend in the hind leg). Sketch the leg joints as ovals and circles, then connect these for the legs.


Use a triangle shape for the neck and a wedge for the head, add a circle for the cheek. The hooves are roughly triangles.


From this frame you can sketch in the outline of a horse.


This approach owes much to skeletal anatomy. It is useful for movement and lower limbs and feet as drawing them is very dependent on the three angles of the lower leg – cannon bone, pastern and hoof. 



Using key points and large bone structures I drew angles and the line of the neck and back to make a frame.


I then found an outline. This technique is especially useful for the hind legs and establishing the width of the horse’s thigh.


I added some light shading, starting to cover the framework lines.


Engineering head measurement

‘Engineering’ is my term for a more mechanical approach to drawing. It covers two approaches that can be used for constructing the basis of a drawing and is a useful exercise but I find that it can lead to stiff, stilted results, so I use it more for checking my drawing rather than constructing it.

Proportional measuring uses a headlength measurement to establish proportions elsewhere on the body. The system fits most horses (not foals and some ponies) regardless of breed. The examples (right) show a draught horse and a racehorse. Even if an individual horse does not exactly ‘fit the mould’, where and how they deviate from it is useful information when achieving a likeness, and I always check this when referencing for a commissioned painting.

Triangulation uses three points to map out key areas of the drawing by finding and replicating the angles between them.

Starting at the ‘poll’ and, using a chopstick, I measure the head then replicate the angle to the hock. It gives a better proportional reading to take a long line across the whole horse. A third point is established by drawing an angle line from the poll to the fetlock. By then drawing the line of the angle from the hock to the fetlock I get a starting point of three modes with which to triangulate and map out the other key points of the horse. As an exercise, combining the two ‘engineering’ techniques is a good way to learn a sense of proportion and angles, which are key to getting a horse to ‘look right’.


When I work in a linear way I look for lines of movement and lines that describe what is under the skin rather than just an outline: the vigour of working muscle, the cable taughtness of tendons and the sharpness of tonal change where a bone sits close to the skin. Sometimes I use the point and sometimes the side of the media to denote form and texture.

Here you can also see the rough constructions

Equestrian artists often have to draw people, too!


The ability to see and use negative space is said to be one of the things that marks out an artist. Simply put, the negative space is the area and shapes outside a silhouette. If we can see those shapes and ensure they are drawn correctly, it assists the correct proportion and shapes in the ‘positive space’ ie the subject itself. I think of it as pieces of a jigsaw. As an exercise I can draw the negative space to create a silhouette, but in day-to-day drawing I more often use it to ‘check’ the subject shapes that I am making.

An image with fence lines in the background helps to make enclosed negative space shapes

I can continue to draw in to the subject, again looking for internal negative space shapes

Tip: If you struggle to see negative space, close or cover one eye. This replicates stereoblindness, the inability to use both eyes to construct a three-dimensional view of the world. Instead you see things more as a set of interlocking shapes.


This technique keeps the pencil or pen in contact with the page as much as possible. Tone can be built by working over the same area, but ensure that you have a paper tough enough to withstand that. As I work I start to edit, and for this reason I try to keep the lines light, but not hesitant, at first gradually strengthening and modulating the weight of the line as the image is refined and built. Good for movement and hairy ponies!


The best purely tonal drawings are worked without reference to outline, or rather the outline is created by changes of tonal value. It helps to have some knowledge of muscle structure.  It is easier to use charcoal or pastel to make a tonal drawing, but if using a pencil it is better to use the side of the lead rather than the point. Good for depicting muscle and mass.


You could create a tonal drawing on dark paper with white pastel or chalk, in which case you would be looking at the lights rather than the shadows to sculpt form, but I prefer subtractive drawing. For this approach the whole sheet is covered in charcoal or graphite and an eraser is then used to rub out the lights. With charcoal especially, you can create tones within the lights by varying the pressure. If you make a mistake using white chalk or pastel then it is quite difficult to erase, but with subtractive drawing you can just add more charcoal or graphite and re-draw. Once the subtractive part is done, you can add more charcoal or graphite to create deeper darks when needed. This technique gives a softer, more expressive and atmospheric feel to the drawing than using the starker white on dark ground, and is good for promoting confident mark making.  Inset in this subtractive drawing of an Arabian horse is the first stage of the eraser drawing, before the darks were added.


Planes are a form of perspective. Imagine a child’s mobile with the fascinators hung from a frame. The nearest fascinator to the viewer is on the near plane, the farthest is on the far plane and the ones in-between will be on their own or shared planes. Understanding planes in a drawing is excellent preparation for painting; it also makes the aim clearer for shading as, although I am working on a two-dimensional surface, I am also mapping where elements sit in space.


There are considerably more than ten approaches to drawing, but in my mind the last in any set should be the artist’s personal approach to the subject. I like to think of approaches as colours on a palette. Which colour you choose at any given time is up to you, but to have the colour there in the first place takes practice. You can select and combine approaches, either for your own notes in sketchbook from life, or to create a drawing with interest, movement and inflection.

This article is taken form The Artist January 2018

Ruth Buchanan worked and taught in graphic design and illustration. She exhibits nationally and internationally, and her work features in private and corporate collections in the UK, Europe, USA and the Middle East.
Ruth teaches for Pure Artwork Studios, Oxfordshire, and has led workshops throughout the UK and in the USA.

More from Ruth

To paint an Amur leopard step-by-step please click here.

For top tips for drawing animal feet please click here.

How to draw the horse by Ruth Buchanan


Please login or register to enter your comment click here

  • Thank you that was most helpfull

    Posted by on Wed 21 Nov 13:33:31