A Blog About Oil Painting

Paintings With Animals in Them

/ / Animal Horse Landscape Painting Sheep

I find landscape paintings to be more engaging when they have animals in them, although I often change my mind as to why this is. The most likely reason is that they remind me of the Yorkshire countryside and the area around our previous home in Virginia. So most likely it's nostalgia rather than sentiment.

In my painting career I've treated animals and landscapes as separate types of paintings. I've rarely combined the two, except where a portrait required a realistic setting. This year I was determined to change that—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 horses in a field by artist Simon Bland

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. That has the effect of making the scene feel serene and still.

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.

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 up-cycled 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.

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. Everything competed for attention. 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.

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.

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. 

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.


Example 6 - A Hybrid Approach

A landscape painting with cows by artist Simon Bland

Side by Side. 9x12, oil on linen. 2017

In this final example, I first painted a landscape expressly for the purpose of adding animals to it, but let the initial painting dry before including them. The main reason for this was that I couldn't settle on a convincing design using my reference photo.

I experimented with several types of animal in different configurations until I settled on these Highland Park cattle.

Cows are perhaps the hardest of all farm animals to add to a landscape painting. They lack the horse's graceful curves, the simple elegance of sheep, and they require very careful painting to be recognizable. In this picture I couldn't get away with a single color and value to represent the parts in shadow—I painted them with four or five different grays plus the highlights.


Painting landscapes with animals in them can vary considerably in difficulty depending on the complexity of the setting, the type and position of the animals, and the lighting.

There is one thing that remains constant: you must be able to paint an animal in silhouette without any kind of visual aid except a photograph. The small scale of the figures and the existing paint layer makes grid lines useless. Like it did for me, it may take time and practice to get it right.

Lessons Learned:

  • It is much easier to add animals when they are back lit.
  • Match the temperatures (i.e. avoid cool bodies in a warm background).
  • Cool/warm temperature contrasts in the animal's body adds interest.
  • Adding animals on top of dry paint gives you the ability to rethink the composition at any stage.
  • The further forward in the picture that the animals come, the greater the amount of effort needed to paint them.
  • The animals are there to add interest, but the picture is often about something else.
  •  The figures of the animals have to be anatomically correct, even though they are small.