How to Draw a Horse Portrait in Colored Pencil

Description of the outer parts of the horse
Imagno / Getty Images
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Draw a Horse Head

Warmblood Hunter in Colored Pencil. (c) Janet Griffin-Scott, licensed to, Inc.

In this step by step tutorial, Janet Griffin-Scott takes you through the stages of creating a beautiful horse portrait drawing in colored pencil. It begins with the outline and she works you through building the detailed tones and textures to create a stunning realise portrait.

Janet has drawn an outstanding Warmblood hunter horse for this lesson. By adopting the color choices appropriately, you can modify the steps to create a picture of your own horse.

Due to the differences in colored pencil brands, Janet isn't too exact about naming the colors. Of course, colors look different on different screens too. Simply use whatever seems like the closest choice from your own selection of pencils.

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Preliminary Sketching

horse drawing - preliminary sketching
Preliminary Sketches. (c) Janet Griffin-Scott, licensed to, Inc.

We will begin with a preliminary sketch that is broken down into basic shapes. This sketch is done quite heavily, on lightweight paper, as it will be transferred onto drawing paper when complete.

If you are sketching directly onto your drawing paper, you need to draw very lightly. This is because we're working in colored pencils and you do not want to leave too much graphite or indent the paper.

  • Notice that the underside of the neck can be taken from the outside of a curve, ie, the circle underneath the horse.
  • The eye is an oval, as is the nostril.
  • The shoulder is always a neat circle.
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Horse Head Outline

horse drawing outline
The completed outline for the horse head drawing. (c) Janet Griffin-Scott, licensed to, Inc.

Once completed, the preliminary sketch is transferred to the surface. In this case, a Strathmore drawing paper with very little texture is chosen.

Very few outlines are added as the photo is very detailed and easy to work from. If you aren't confident with line drawing, tracing some key reference points can be useful. Keep in mind that accuracy is important to the success of realist drawing.

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Drawing the Horse's Eye

drawing the horse's eye
Starting with the eye and face. Janet Griffin-Scott, licensed to, Inc.

Once your sketch is transferred, it's time to begin working on the drawing itself. Follow along and take it step by step and your horse will begin to take on a new life.

  • The horse's face is started, working in sections that are divided by bridle parts.
  • Begin with the eye first, as this is key to getting a good likeness of the horse.
  • Use shades of brown and black and work carefully around the eye area. 
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The Horse's Eye in Detail

horse eye detail
A detail of the horse's eye. (c) Janet Griffin-Scott, licensed to, Inc.

This detail shows the horse's eye close up. Notice how the highlights have been reserved - left as a white paper - while strong darks in and around the eye are established.

Tip: Unlike traditional watercolor technique, the black pencil can be used effectively in colored pencil drawing.

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Layering Colored Pencil

horse drawing, layering colored pencil
Layering colored pencil. (c) Janet Griffin-Scott, licensed to, Inc.

After some work, much of the head is completed. This is done using layers and constantly referring to the photo for color accuracy and the shape and textures of the face.

  • Initial layers often follow the form while final layers follow the direction of hair growth.
  • Blend all the colors with Q-tips but do leave darker strokes to suggest individual hairs.
  • Place bridle and bit details in preliminary shades of brown and red.
  • The ear interiors are darkened and shadows laid down on the outside edge.
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Drawing Horse Hair

horse hair texture - click to see full sized image
Smooth directional layering creating the fine horse hair texture. (c) Janet Griffin-Scott
  • Beginning layers of yellow and red go down and onto the neck while darker browns are used for the neck muscle outline.
  • Start the braids on the neck in black, pressing lightly. Again, leave areas white where the highlights are. The strokes follow the direction the hair grows.
  • The shadow on the neck is lightly roughed in.

Tip: Sometimes a hard spot in the pencil lead scratches the surface. Try to minimize this by filling it with other colors of softer leads.

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Drawing the Horse's Plaited Mane

drawing the horse's plaited mane
Drawing the horse's mane. Janet Griffin-Scott, licensed to, Inc.
  • More braids are added. Use the photo to get it accurate in terms of how many, the shape, the shadows at the base of the braid, and the neckline underneath.
  • Scrape off any spots of dark color that collect in raised up spots that have a lot of layers. Those blips can carefully be scraped away with an Exacto without disturbing the layers and the surrounding work.
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Plait Drawing Detail

plait drawing detail
Plait drawing detail. (c) Janet Griffin-Scott, licensed to, Inc.

It's important to take a closer look at the detail of the neck and mane to show the hair texture and mark making.

The hair of the mane is quite shiny - notice the crisp highlights against the strongly drawn darks. On a shiny surface, highlights tend to have sharp edges, while a matte surface will make edges softer.

Always refer to your reference image when drawing highlights - they need to be correctly placed. The position of highlights and shadows helps to model the three-dimensional form. Even in a small detail, they all add up to convince the eyes of the realism of the subject. Incorrect highlights will make it look a 'bit wrong' even though the viewer might not be able to identify 'why' that is.

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Completing the Tack

completing the shoulders and drawing the horse's bridle
Refining the shoulders and adding detail to the tack. (c) Janet Griffin-Scott, licensed to, Inc.

This is where it is crucial to know what the equipment looks like. If you don’t get the accuracy right, this is the first thing people will notice when they view the work.

There's a saying that if you are a writer, write what you know. Likewise, if you are an artist in any media, you should paint or draw what you know. For this reason, it is very helpful to spend time and energy researching your subject so you don’t make mistakes.

  • The muscles and contours of the shoulder and chest are sketched in, using darker browns and reds.
  • A vinyl eraser is key here in removing areas that get too much pigment.
  • Use a tissue to blend large areas on the neck, then add small strokes back in to suggest hair and details.
  • Add more layers to the bridle, bit, and reins, carefully drawing in the lacings on the reins.
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The Completed Horse Head Portrait

horse head in colored pencil
The complete Warmblood Hunter portrait in colored pencil. © Janet Griffin-Scott, licensed to, Inc.

Here is the final drawing of the horse, with a few details added in with digital magic. I scanned and color corrected the drawing, and I have laid in a gradient background using Photoshop.

Some people will call this cheating. I can laboriously put in a colored pencil background, but I do not see any problems with using the digital tools to my advantage. It is also possible to adjust the colors in hue, value, and intensity using the software.

It is immense fun to manipulate the drawing now that it is finished. Experiment and have fun!