In The Studio: Starting Three New Small Works Of Mongol Race Horses

Mongol racehorse #1

I’ve started a series of three small paintings of Mongolian race horses and thought I’d share the step-by-step of doing more than one painting at a time. First up was to choose my reference photos, picking three heads that would work together in a group.

naadam race

I generally never post my reference images on the internet for obvious reasons, but in this case I wanted to show you the kind of photos I have to work with. The one above was taken at an aimag (province/state) naadam a couple of years ago. I was able to go out in the chase car for two races, so had a rare opportunity to shoot both stills and video not only as the jockeys, horses and trainers rode out to the starting point, but to travel parallel to the riders as they raced back. Looking through the many hundreds of race photos I’ve taken over the years I found a quite visible difference, which makes sense, in how fast the horses ran in the first part of the race and how much they’d slowed down by the last third or so. This really affected leg position and sense of the effort on the horse’s part as expressed in the body language.

But for this set of three I only wanted the heads, so was looking for variety in coloring, angle and generally interesting shapes of light and shadow. I started with drawings, thinking in terms of “notan” the Japanese method of simplifying an image down to two values….light and dark or light side/shadow side. I was also working on capturing the expression, the bridle and some of the shapes in the manes.

Mongol racehorse #2

I had originally intended to include the rider’s hands and legs in the frame, but those shapes seemed distracting, especially cut off at the edges, so right now my plan is to leave them out. But that could change…

Mongol racehorse #3

The top two pieces will be 8×8″. The one above will be 8×10″. So an arrangement of two squares with a rectangle between them.

The next step was to scan the drawings and project them onto the pre-toned canvas panels, sketching each one lightly with a pencil.

MR 1

The panels were toned with Winsor Newton raw sienna. I indicated all the shadow shapes with a mix of that and a little Winsor Newton violet dioxazine, which creates a warm brown tone that is still related to the background tone.

MR 2 (1).jpg

I scanned the panels with my Epson XP-830 printer/scanner/copier and then imported them into Photos for cropping, color correction and any other adjustments. This works pretty well for small pieces that I want to post to my blog or other social media.

MR 3.jpg

I like working this way because it gives me a lot of control over how much detail I add and where. I also like to leave “lost and found” shapes. What is important to me, though, is accuracy of both the horses and their tack, not detail per se. For me the game is to see how much I can simplify and leave out.


Art Warm-up For Mongolia; An Album Of Studies

Gers north of Bayanhongor, Hangai Mountains, July 2010; watercolor on Annigoni 100% cotton paper

My intention is to do at least one sketch a day this trip. So I wanted to be in a groove before I leave. I also needed to refine my portable art studio. So I spent yesterday working from previous trip photos as if I was at the scene, reliving a little of what it was like to be there and imagining having just enough time during a lunch stop to get out the paint and do a quick study. So none of these took more than about 20 minutes.

The idea is to work fast, get an impression down and move on. Here’s what I’m taking this year:

My portable field studio

The bag is a re-purposed point and shoot camera bag and it’s turned out to be perfect. In the front is a roll of drafting tape, kneaded rubber erasers, extra mechanical pencil leads and a pencil sharpener. Next pocket back is a set of water soluable Derwent colored pencils. In the back are Sakura Micron pens in a variety of sizes and colors, a couple of draughting pencils, a couple of mechanical pencils, a sandpaper pad, blending stumps, a tube of white gouache and a watercolor brush that breaks down to half its length.

The watercolor set is from Yarka. I use napkins, slightly used, from restaurants, for rags. Extra brushes go in the bamboo carrier. Water for painting goes in the collapsible plasticized cloth “bucket”.

Gobi landscape, July 2010: watercolor on vellum bristol; I ultimately decided against taking the bristol paper in favor of more watercolor paper

The support is a piece of lightweight foamcore. The drafting tape, which is lightly adhesive, doesn’t pull up the paper surface.

For paper I’ll have my Moleskin sketchbook journal and a stack of 7×7″ watercolor paper cut down from a pad that I got many years ago in England, brand unknown, and, so that I can work on a toned surface (inspired by Thomas Moran’s location studies of Yellowstone that he did while traveling with the Hayden Expedition) a pad of Anigoni 100% cotton toned paper, which happily takes a variety of media.

Here’s some more of my favorites from yesterday, all done from photos that I took on previous trips to Mongolia:

Gull, Orog Nuur, Gobi, July 2010; trying out the watercolor paper; I haven’t done any watercolor work at all for a long time, so needed to figure it out again.
Gobi, July 2010; did this one in both watercolor, shown here, and the vellum bristol to see which I liked better; both work, but the watercolor paper allows for more edge variety.
River valley north of Bayanhongor, Hangai Mountains, July 2010; Two studies on the Anigoni toned paper; watercolor with white gouache
Horses at Gun-Galuut, August 2011; I wanted to practice doing animals before I was sitting in front of the real thing. Watercolor, Micron pen; I started with the watercolor, then did the penwork, then went back and knocked in the shadow areas and the water; about ten minutes
Horses at Gun-Galuut, August 2011; watercolor and Micron pen on w/c paper; each about 15 minutes
Baga Gazriin Chuluu, July 2010; lots of rocks where I’m going, so did a couple of studies; Notice that it’s not necessary to finish everything to the same point, especially when time is limited; watercolor
Ikh Nartiin Chuluu, August 2011; rocks with an argali; watercolor

New Drawings of Takhi

It’s been awhile since I’ve done some finished graphite drawings and that’s what I’ve been doing this week. I’ve always loved to draw, so it was fun to just sit with a pencil (a General’s Draughting Pencil) and paper (Strathmore 300 vellum bristol) and work from some of the takhi photos I’ve shot during my trips to Mongolia.

Tahki Stallion
Takhi foal
Takhi Stallion Head Study
Takhi Stallion "Snaking"

A French equid researcher I know told me that this body position is  known as “snaking”. It’s purpose is to get the stallion’s harem moving quickly. His low body position is suggestive of a stalking predator and triggers the response he wants from his mares. I’ll probably be doing a painting of the whole scene at some point, so this is a useful study.

All of these horses were photographed at Hustai National Park, which is an easy two-hour drive west of Ulaanbaatar.

New Painting, New Drawings And An Interesting Call For Entries

Sort of an odds and ends Friday as the year winds down. The deep freeze is over here in coastal Humboldt County and it’s back to nice normal rainy weather with nighttime lows in the 40s. I’ve been getting in some good easel time of the past few weeks. Here’s a new argali painting from reference that I shot in July at Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve. I watched this group of rams work their way across the rocky slope for almost an hour. “Uul” is Mongolian for “mountain”.

On The Slopes of Baits Uul, Gun-Galuut 18x24" oil on canvasboard (price on request)

I’ve also decided that I want to paint not just the domestic Mongol horses, but the people who ride them. Which brings me back to wrestling with human figures, as described in an earlier post. I get a better result if I can scan the drawings rather than photograph them and also wanted to really hone in on accuracy, so these are smaller and done with a Sanford Draughting pencil, but on the same vellum bristol (which erases very nicely). The heads ended up being only 3/4″ high, which is pretty small, but it reminded me of a story from art school that I thought I might pass along.

One of my teachers was Randy Berrett, a very good illustrator who chose to work in oils. This was kind of masochistic, in a way, because it added a layer of complexity when he had to ship out a wet painting to meet a deadline. In any case, he was showing some examples of his work in class and one was a really large painting of the signers of the either the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution, I can’t remember which. Someone asked why he painted it so large. Randy’s answer really struck me at the time and has stayed with me. It’s something worth remembering when planning a painting. He said that he wanted the heads to be at least an inch high and that requirement controlled the final size of the painting. I’ve sized more than one painting on the basis of that criteria since then.

The first drawing combined two pieces of reference. One of the horse and one of the man. In the latter, he was in front of the horse’s head. In the former, I didn’t like the pose of the horse. Moving the man back works much better. The sweat from a winning horse is considered to be good luck. There are special scrapers made to remove it.

Scraping the sweat after the race, Baga Gazriin Chuluu
Local herder, Erdene Naadam
Boy on horse, Erdene Naadam

Part of the reason I did the previous two was to see if the images “drew well” and to work on horses coming forward at a 3/4 angle. The final two are head studies, in which the heads are 1 1/2″ from forehead to chin.

Local herder, Erdene Naadam

Local herder, Erdene Naadam

Finally, the folks at Eureka Books in Old Town, Eureka have decided to hold a special art show. Here’s the Call for Entries.

Mongolia Monday- More Horses and an Interesting New Book

Continuing on from last week, here are some more horse drawings. I’m looking for interesting gestures and angles other than from the side.



Next week I plan to do some sketches of various combinations of horses to see how they look.


Here’s a link to a story that was on CNN last week. It’s about an autistic boy whose father and mother take him to Mongolia, both to be healed by shamans and to spend extensive time on horseback.

And, as it happens, a dear artist friend of mine just sent me an autographed copy of the book that has resulted from the trip, The Horse Boy. I’m only part of the way in, but it’s a facinating book on a number of levels- the treatment of autism, Mongolia, its horses and shamanism. I’ll do a review once I’ve finished it. Suffice to say for the moment that the author experienced the same patience, tolerance and good will that I have during my travels there.

Hey Ho, It’s Back to Work I Go

I don’t know about other artists, but after a long trip it takes a little internal shove for me to get going again. I need to shake the rust off, get in the groove, just….start…..working.

I also spent some time thinking about my work procedures. I love to paint and tend to dive in, flail around and pull it together, or not. I’ve got some ideas about what I want my work to look like and have come to conclusion that I need to spend more time on the preliminaries, especially for larger works. That means drawing, drawing, drawing. Plus value and color studies as needed.

Winter is when I try to push my work to the next level and experiment and, since the first winter storm of the year arrived yesterday, I guess it’s time.

This week I’ve done a pile of charcoal drawings of the Mongolian horses, which I got fantastic reference photos of. I’ve always struggled for some reason with poses where the horses have their heads down, grazing, so I decided to get a handle on that once and for all. What worked was doing the body first and then adding the head. I’d been doing it the other way around, to my eternal frustration.

Here’s a selection of some I feel came out ok. They are done with a 6B extra soft General Charcoal pencil on 2 ply Strathmore Vellum Bristol and are unretouched. I’m always looking for what will add to the illusion of three dimensional structure and a body in space and what will help me get a handle on the anatomy.

These took 15-20 minutes each.

I also want to get some action into my work, so here’s a couple of running horses.

No idea if any of these will find their way into paintings, but I enjoyed doing them.


“Artistic growth is, more than anything else, a refining of the sense of truthfulness. The stupid believe that to be truthful is easy: only the great artist knows how difficult it is.”

Willa Cather