Painting 28mm Horses with Oils

Posted by in Miniatures

Scott Merrifield, my 28mm guru, has commented more than once that he likes the way my French hussar horses look (thanks again, my friend). Scott uses acrylics, as do most miniature painters these days, I understand. Well, I use oil paints. I started many years ago using oils and I just never felt comfortable with acrylics – they dry too fast for me, among other reasons. I very much admire miniatures painted with acrylics and wish I could use them but I’m too old to change now. For those of you who don’t know how tall a 28mm horse is, it’s about 1-3/4 inches tall.

Anyway, Scott and I have discussed getting together for a little horse oil painting lesson but it hasn’t happened yet and may never happen the way things are going, so here is a tutorial about how I do it for Scott and anyone else who might be interested.

Oils are transparent (mostly), so they do some interesting things by virtue of their transparency. They create depth, for example. They are shiny (like horseflesh and horsehair). Oils don’t dry quickly, so different colors can be blended together on the figure for several days before they are completely dry. Shadows and highlights can be blended directly on the figure. The blended transitions look natural. And turpentine erases all mistakes. I think the ultimate combination would be horse painted with oils and rider in acrylics. Someone else will have to try that and show me that I was correct.

Here is a photo of a pair of my French hussars (from the 5th) on bays. If you like the effect, read on. Here’s what you’ll need:

Some tubes of oil paint from Grumbacher or Windsor & Newton. Burnt Umber, Burnt Sienna, White, Black, and maybe Mars Yellow or something close to that for Palominos and Buckskins. Turpentine (the low-odor kind, unless you love wearing a mask). Those tubes of paint will recreate any horse color found in the world. Gesso, brush on or spray, to provide a medium that oils adhere to. I think they stick to arcylic primers also, but I use Gesso because that’s the medium on the canvases I paint.



If you’re new to oils, underpainting with an acrylic color similar to the base color you’ve chosen for the horse will prevent the white gesso from being revealed if you happen to blend through. You won’t have to deal with that if you paint an undercoat.





The first step is to prime the horse. I am using a Perry Brothers Hussar horse in the photos. Gesso is acrylic, so I don’t see why another acrylic primer wouldn’t work. If you’ve never used gesso, don’t apply it too thick!

The second step is to apply the base color that you’ve chosen for your horse, and I am using Burnt Sienna (reddish brown) straight from the tube in this case, to make a bay horse (brown with black mane, black markings). For painting the body, I’m using a #2 brush with a TINY bit of turpentine. Too much and you have a wash. Experiment a little and you’ll see. You can also go straight to paint with no turpentine. Like water with acrylics, turpentine helps varying degrees of flow, depending on what you want to do.


Base differences

Here is a good way to see how oil paint and turpentine can work: experiment on the horse’s base before you start on the figure. Use Burnt Umber straight from the tube, then with a little turpentine, then more turpentine. You’ll quickly see all the possibilites and get the idea. The front of the base is straight Burnt Umber, middle with a little turpentine, back with more turpentine in the mix.




Base Color

Start on the rear of the model. Lay that first little bit on its behind and spread it around. Oil paint goes a long way. You can use a stabbing motion with the brush for an interesting effect. The opaque or transparent quality can be controlled by the amount of paint used and you will (I hope) see that the paint does a nice job of simulating horseflesh texture.





Black Line

Third step. Take a little black on a #010 or other small brush. Line around the schabraque and all the contours of muscle sculpted on the model. You’ll probably do it again later to deepen the shadows.





Black Blend

Here’s an interesting effect, caused by the properties of oils. Go back to the #2 and with a light stabbing or stippling motion, blend (or in some cases, pull) those black areas into the body color just a little, not too much. What you want to do is stab with the brush where the two colors meet to blend them together. What was a solid black line should blend into the Burnt Sienna, creating a natural looking transition. You can re-inforce those shadows until the effect you want is achieved.





Step Four. Highlights. The shadows are roughed in. The highlights on the muscles are brought forward with white or any other light color. I am using white with a tiny bit of Mars Yellow here. With the #010 brush, pick up a tiny dot of the light color and put that TINY dot on, for example, the center of the big rear leg muscle. Not too much.





Highlight Blend

Use a clean, small brush (no paint or residual turpentine) to lightly stab the lighter color of your choice into the Burnt Sienna to lighten and bring that muscle contour forward. Not enough contrast? Repeat until you have the effect you want. Want a highlight on the top surface of the horses rear? A tiny dot in the center of each side will get you started. Blend that dot outward in all directions.

The paint will remain wet and workable for a few days unless you use a light box or other type of dryer to speed up the drying process. Different colors stay wet for different periods of time. Burnt Umber will dry on my palette overnight. The Mars Yellow on the palette was still wet when I returned home from Atlanta after a week! Black and White stay wet a long time.

You may want black or white stockings or a white blaze on its head. You can lay the beginnings of black stockings but you should finish them on the second day. The blend between body color and stockings is subtle and completely natural looking when executed correctly. White stockings and blazes are different than black and you’ll have to wait a little longer. White will blend and won’t be white enough until you wait a while for the horse to dry. Make a chestnut horse with the same body color but with a blonde mane and tail.

To finish this model, I’ll add an infintesimal amount of Mars Yellow or Burnt Umber to White and paint the sheepskin. When that is completely dry, I’ll make a wash of turpentine and Burnt Umber and let it fill the recesses sculpted into the schabraque. If you want to dry brush highlights anywhere, say on the horse furniture or the mane or tail, remember the area should be completely dry before you drybrush or – blend will happen (you may want a little blend. It looks more natural for highlights, I think).

The finished product (the hussars themselves are not complete, but the horses are). Three fine looking light cavalry mounts, no doubt hoping they will not be included on the trip to Moscow. Those of you who have these figures from the Perry brothers may notice the sword arm position of the hussar on the right in the group of three. I changed it with a little green stuff in case you’re wondering.


  1. 4-16-2012

    FANTASTIC tutorial! Looking forward to the photos. I still hope soon to get a chance to see you do this in person.


    • Richard

      Thanks, Scott. You are my first comment… ever.

  2. 4-19-2012

    I heard a couple of guys talking about this in the New York subway so I looked it up online and found your page. Thanks for the work you’ve put into this.

  3. 4-23-2012

    i came across your blog just to look, but i had to leave this comment to say how much i appreciate your work. thanks for the help.

  4. 4-28-2012

    i like it…keep up.

  5. 5-16-2012

    could you tell me when you’re going to update your posts?

    • Richard

      Thanks for the question. I usually update my posts when I have something new to say. Right now, I’m just beginning to populate the site with all the information that I want to share, and that’s a lot, considering all the subjects that I am interested in.