Drawing Lesson: Sketch a Running Horse

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Sketch a Horse

sketch of a horse
The horse sketch in progress. D. Lewis

Learn how to sketch horses following this step by step tutorial by Dan Lewis. Dan shows you how to use traditional sketching techniques to draw the main directions and find the big shapes of the composition to create a lively sketch.

This is a little different to the photo-realist approach of starting out with an outline. For this tutorial, you need to learn to trust your own eye and hand. You can draw from Dan's reference photo or follow his example using a picture of your own horse.

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Running Horse Reference Photo

running horse reference photo
The horse photograph used as a reference for this tutorial. Dan Lewis, licensed to About.com, Inc.

Here is a horse photo that we'll be using for this lesson. A large, crisp image is really important. This one had a busy background, so I've cleared all that away so you can see the horse very clearly. 

If you want to draw your own horse or a different photograph, it's very easy. Simply try to follow the idea: capturing the basic structure, shading, and so on.

Finding Horse Photographs

Using your own photograph or one that is public domain is really helpful when drawing horses. You want to be able to share your work online, publish, or sell it without any copyright restrictions, as well as respecting the photographer's ethical rights.

Use the advanced search in Google Images to search for images that are free to share and modify. If you plan on selling work, use the 'commercial use' option. You can also search on Flickr for Creative Commons licensed works, as well as on Wikimedia. For example, take a look at these horse pictures on Wikimedia commons.

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Composition and Boundaries

sketching a horse -the outer boundaries
The outer boundaries of the horse's silhouette. Dan Lewis, licensed to About.com, Inc.

I have tried to indicate more of the early stages of this horse drawing as everything else hinges on the start. It might look a little odd if you're used to drawing an outline first because we start off by looking at the overall proportions.

The more careful and accurate you can be in these first stages, the easier things will fall into place later on. Draw very lightly; these images are darkened so they will show up on your computer monitor.

The first step in sketching the horse is to get a general feel for how the entire image will fit on the paper.

  • Try to visualize the finished image and indicate where the outside boundaries will lie.
  • Work from the largest shapes and gradually “whittle” them down to the smallest.
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Sketching the Horse's Structure

continuing to work on the structural sketch
Continuing to work on sketching the structure. Dan Lewis, licensed to About.com, Inc.

Don't get distracted by details at this stage.

  • While finding these big shapes, also look for the main angles that are making up the big shapes.
  • Indicate the area across the shoulder, rump, and legs.
  • Also, indicated the height for the belly.
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Correcting the Structure

correcting the structural sketch
Correcting the structural sketch. Dan Lewis, Licensed to About.com, Inc.

Right away, I’m noticing my initial neck and back lines feel too high. This is the point to correct these big shapes. You want to get them right before you find yourself too far into detail. The details will never be right if the big shapes aren’t correct.

I tend to move around the picture a lot at this point. It's almost like trying to “feel” my way around it while double checking proportions, angles, plumb lines, etc. At this stage, it feels a little like sculpting in two dimensions. I sort of push and pull things around a bit until I get a good feel for the shapes involved.

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Finalizing the Structure

Finalizing the structure of the horse sketch.
Finalizing the structure of the horse sketch. Dan Lewis, licensed to About.com, Inc.

At this point of the sketch, the structure is almost complete. From here the horse will rapidly come to life because we've taken the time to get the structure right.

  • Adjust the angle of the horses back and brought the top of his neck down a bit.
  • Indicate more angles in the legs.
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Looking for Edges

Tightening up lines and looking for edges. Dan Lewis, licensed to About.com, Inc.
  • Start tightening up some of the lines you're comfortable with.
  • As you do this, begin to find some of the bony prominences in the shoulder and legs. They “feel” like they need to be sharper lines than the more rounded soft parts.
  • Learn to look for where you think there should be hard and soft edges.
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Add Shading

sketching horses - begin the shading
Begin the shading lightly. Dan Lewis, licensed to About.com, Inc.

Now we're going to start shading the horse sketch. At this point, I’m just starting to color shapes in. Start light with your shading. Be patient and you’ll be amazed at how it builds up.

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Continue Shading

shading broad masses
Shading broad masses. Dan Lewis, licensed to About.com, Inc.
  • Start by looking for your darkest and lightest tones and find a middle tone.
  • Shade in masses. Be careful to not get wrapped up into detail yet.
  • Squint your eyes as this will make it impossible for you to see too much detail too soon.

Remember, patience is a virtue!

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Developing Values

horse sketch - developing values
Developing values. Dan Lewis, Licensed to About.com, Inc.

Continue working throughout the entire sketch comparing values (lights and darks) with neighboring shapes. At this point, it’s entirely up to you how much you want to work on details and what kind of a finished look you want to go for.

  • Use a kneaded eraser to help pull subtle lights out from your shadows.
  • Look for reflected lights and if things aren’t quite looking right, double check with another good squint of your eyes.

Often times, when we get into the detail work, we fail to see the whole picture and our values can get a little off.

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The Completed Horse Sketch

the completed horse sketch
The completed horse sketch. Dan Lewis, licensed to About.com, Inc.

Ta-dah! Now, look at what you did! The completed horse sketch does not have too much fussy detail. Yet, with the key shapes drawn very accurately, the sketch is full of life without being sloppy.