Producing a really good painting can be a very satisfying experience; when colour, tone and composition come together to make a picture work, it feels great, doesn’t it?

When it comes to painting animals, there is an added requirement of capturing the character of the animal. I have painted a fair number of animals in my time; all have been very different in character and form, but all rely on the same techniques to paint them.

The first, second and last rule of painting animals is references! This is why I like to take my own photographs and study my chosen subject in person. However, if you decide to use reference material of an animal that is not your own, research your subject well and find as many pictures of the animal taken from different angles as possible. Knowing what’s going on behind your chosen subject will help you turn a two-dimensional reference into a three dimensional one.

When I find a subject, I like to take lots of photographs from different angles then, when I’m ready to start, I sift through the photographs to find the best one. It’s a bit like selecting the lead actor from the chorus line – all the other photographs will support the image I have chosen.


I was lucky enough to gain permission to photograph a small dairy herd in my local area, and I took over 100 photographs as they assembled in the milk yard. Being so close to them, I could observe their different characters. Back in my studio, I laid all the photographs out and selected the images I liked best.

Black and white cows





I always use Bockingford 200lb Not paper for animal paintings, because it is the whitest paper I know and therefore important for luminosity. It also takes a considerable pounding and never seems to deteriorate.

I used Winsor & Newton Artists’ watercolours for all the paintings featured on these pages. For Ready to Graze Again, for instance, I used the following colours:

• French ultramarine and burnt umber for the darkest parts of the picture

• Light red and manganese hue for the nose

• Naples yellow and permanent rose for the flesh tones.


I can’t impress upon you enough the importance of this first stage: careful drawing will give you a greater chance of success with painting animal portraits. Take your time – getting the proportions right is difficult, but vital, for achieving a successful picture.

Careful observation is essential. With long muzzled animals like cows, for instance, the temptation is to elongate the nose when, in fact, it is foreshortened. Looking at a front-on picture of a cow, the nose will be much bigger in proportion to its eyes and forehead, which lie back on a different plane.

Patience, perseverance and a good set of dividers to measure off against the photograph will see you through! When you’re happy with the drawing, you can start to paint.



The eyes

How to paint cow's eyesBegin with the most difficult element – the eyes. It’s no good painting a breathtaking picture of a herd of cows, then ruining it by making a terrible job of the eyes! This is the stage when you will discover whether you have adequate reference material. To paint a successful eye, the reference needs to offer you everything you want, and more.

By the time you have finished, you should have two bright, liquid eyes looking out at you. With the eyes complete, move on to the rest of the head.

The head

Step 1 The darkest tones

Paint the darkest tones first. Through these strong tones you will be able to describe the bone structure and veins beneath the surface. It is here that the many references you are using will come in handy as you will see why the dark tone is being created and better understand the cow’s structure. Careful observation around the eyes is needed; the eyelids and the eyelashes all have to be observed and painted with care.

Step 2 Pale washes

With the darkest tones painted, put a pale wash all over the cow, except the eyes, then apply subsequent washes to build up tones in between.

Step 3 The nose

Painting the nose is always interesting as it is created, in general, through light and dark tones. Again, careful observation of your reference is essential for this stage.

Step 4 Further washes

How to paint cows






The cow should now be looking like a cow, and the final stage of painting the head is to pull it all together with further washes. Don’t be afraid to remove tone with a soft brush if you’ve gone too dark – it’s with this process that you will find the Bockingford 200lb Not paper stands up well.

The rest of the cow is a similar process to the application of dark tones and then further washes to create the smooth texture of cow’s hide.


Basic rules

1 The eye is an orb, shaped by light and shade.

2 Always retain a highlight in the eye – it is what gives it life. Even if you can’t see one, include a highlight. Once you have your highlight, protect it. You could add some white paint later, but it will lack the luminosity of white paper.

3 An eye is an indication of character in an animal; all the emotions can be portrayed through it.

4 An eye is wet and shiny. Achieve a realistic look by using strong tone. In many cases, the eye is the strongest part tonally of an animal.

5 Paint the eye in the reference and not the eye you think you see. The danger is that you create a caricatured eye and, rather than a painting of an animal, you end up with a cartoon character.

This extract is from an article in Leisure Painter, July 2007 issue.