Simon Bland

A Blog About Oil Painting

Paintings With Animals in Them

by Simon Bland / Sep 30, 2017 / Animal Horse Landscape Painting Sheep

Throughout my painting career I've painted both animal and landscapes. Yet combining the two has always been difficult. 

Over the summer I spent some time on a series of paintings with animals in them. In this blog post I talk about the things I learned while painting these pieces.


Example 1 - Adding Animals to An Existing Painting 

An oil painting of a green field with distant treeline and horses in the middle ground. There is a feeling of light coming through the trees.

North Bluff Horses. 9x12, oil on linen mounted on panel. 2016/17

Although I was  fond of the original version of this painting, I came to believe it was missing something and decided to liven it up with a few horses.

I chose to place them in the middle-ground so that they could be done as simple figures. They are close enough to be recognizable, but not so close that they needed detailed painting.

The existing paint was totally dry so I added them directly on top using a small brush. The horses are based on multiple reference photos taken at different locations—I don't have a photograph where the horses appear like this together.

Once the new parts were dry I scumbled over the top of the horses and the surrounding areas to soften up the edges and transitions.

Part of that process involved pushing the trees back so that they wouldn't overpower my new equine friends. Of course, I overdid all of this and had to revisit the painting several times before I was comfortable with it.

Difficulty:  Hard

Lessons Learned:

  • It can take longer to alter a landscape than it does to paint the original.
  • It is much easier to add animals when they are back lit.

Example 2 - Adding Animals to An Existing Painting

An oil painting of sheep in a field. The picture features a warm palette with minimal use of green.

Corner of the Field. 8x10, oil on linen mounted on panel. 2015/17

This is another example of a painting that I upcycled by adding a few animals. In fact, it's a plein air painting that I later repainted in the studio.  When it dried I added the sheep directly on top of the new paint with a small brush.

In this case there was no need to adjust the lighting or atmospherics with scumbling. It made the process much easier.

Note how I've made the sheep's bodies look warm to match the temperature of the dry grasses in the field. They are painted with two values: a shadow and a light.

Difficulty:  Easy

Lessons Learned:

  • Keep the composition simple
  • Match the temperatures (i.e. avoid cool bodies in a warm background)

Example 3 - Including Animals in a New Painting

A high key oil painting of sheep in an open field with distant horizon line. Cottonwood trees are seen in the distance.

Cottonwoods. 11x14, oil on linen mounted on panel. 2017

I did this painting with the animals built in from the start.

The painting is based on multiple plein air studies, the most useful of which was one of a farm that raised sheep. I learned on that outing that it's futile to paint lots of white sheep in a green field with a dramatic sky overhead. Simpler is much better.

Having learned my lesson in the field I made many changes to the composition, including: moving the horizon line, pushing the distant mountains back, and changing the color scheme. I also removed most of the clouds from the sky. A few sheep in the field were enough to create interest without overwhelming the viewer.

Due to the back lighting, the sheep appear as a simple dark blob with a stripe of light across their tops. Yet they are instantly recognizable as sheep. There are few other farm animals that are this easy to do.

Interestingly I named this "Cottonwoods" and included those trees in the distance because the painting panel is recycled. I had written the name of the original painting on the back and felt stupid about having to cross that out and call it something else. It was much easier just to add a few cottonwood trees instead.

Difficulty: Easy

Lessons Learned:

  • The key and the light direction make a huge difference to the outcome.
  • Multiple plein air studies can be used to create one studio painting.

Example 4 - Including Animals in a New Painting

A small oil painting of a horse in a pasture. The sketch features strong paint textures, scumbled effects and a cool palette.

Untitled (horse in a field). 6x8, oil on linen mounted on panel. 2017

Another painting where I added an animal in from the very beginning. Paint textures everywhere.

The small size made this one fairly easy to do, although I kept revisiting it to make changes. I followed my own rule and scumbled a cool layer over the horse to go with the cool greens in the field. 

Difficulty:  Easy

Lessons Learned:

  • Let the paint transform the landscape
  • Cool/warm temperature contrasts in the main masses add interest

Example 5 - Including Animals in a New Painting

Oil painting of a landscape with three horses.

Hale Farm (working title). 12x24, oil on linen mounted on panel. 2017

In this painting I replaced the hay bales that were in the field with a few horses. I thought they looked more interesting.

The larger size made this one more difficult, needing several layers to complete. I paid particular attention to the horses—making sure their figures were painted correctly and gradating the values in their bodies so they didn't look pasted on.

Overall, this was a fairly difficult one to do. Most of my effort went into the foreground grasses, not the figures.

Difficulty:  Hard

Lessons Learned:

  • The figures of the animals have to be anatomically correct, even though they are small
  • The animals are there to add interest, but the picture is really about something else (the light in this case)