Thursday, January 7, 2021

Painting the same thing over and over

Two years ago, I signed up to paint my Tot resin "light chestnut tobiano." By the end of February, light chestnut morphed into bright chestnut, but still, I hesitated to choose a similar color for this year's NaMoPaiMo model. After all, "I'd already done that." Fortunately, I read this guest post by Kirsten Eidsmoe before I officially registered.. Thank you, Kirsten, for giving me permission to paint the same color as many times as I need to. It just might be light chestnut with chrome from here on out!

The Particular Pleasure of Painting the Same Thing Over and Over

By Kirsten Eidsmoe, Valdresrose Equine Art

A few NaMoPaiMo’s ago, I remember someone asking for color ideas. The artist had a color in mind, but worried that painting the same color twice in a row wouldn’t be enough of a challenge. I’m here to take the opposite view.

I have a vested interest in this topic, because, over a lifetime of collecting and painting all kinds of model horses, I’ve gradually narrowed my focus to just my most favorite breed, and fjords are famously mono-chromatic.

I’m extreme, but as equine artists we’re all working with a limited palette. Unless you’re doing fantasy, there are only so many colors and patterns to choose from. But the realism and artistry doesn’t come from the color and pattern, they come from the details and execution. Sometimes, narrowing your focus can actually expand your range. 

Find what’s different

Let me tell you about the time I offered to do commissions on a couple of Oksana Kuks’ beautiful fjord medallions. I thought it would be fun to let buyers pick their own colors… I never anticipated that someone would ask for two portraits of her perfectly matched pair of brown dun fjords.

When she sent me the photos, I had to laugh to keep from crying. It’s true, her horses weren’t exactly alike… they had different haircuts and different colored halters. One was a mare, one was a gelding. One was slightly taller. There was nothing obvious I could capture in paint on two identical sculpts – and just heads at that. I nearly canceled the assignment, but I didn’t. I couldn’t. I wanted the challenge.

I know no two horses are ever exactly the same color, so I stared at those reference photos until subtle differences emerged. I studied them until I could take away the halters and the haircuts and tell those “identical” horses apart. One had more grey in the forelock, the other had more sun-bleaching. One had a golden sheen in the coat, the other was more muted. They were individuals. They had different demeanors, even in the photos.

And so I painted. I brought the medallions to my office and showed them around to horsey and non-horsey people alike. I’d ask people to match them up with the photos. I’d ask them which was the boy and which was the girl. When people who didn’t know these horses could get the answers right, I was satisfied I’d accomplished my mission.

“If these hadn’t been portraits displayed side by side, I don’t think I would have looked as hard as I did to find the differences.”
Get specific with your goals – or make smaller goals

One of my favorite things about NaMoPaiMo is the signup form. Specifically, the optional question, “what are your goals?” I’m not sure I HAD any before NaMoPaiMo – no one had ever asked me! But now I think about it, and it helps. Because if you’re going to paint the same thing over and over, you’ve got to be specific about what’s going to make this one different. I promise you though, the options are infinite. 

You can…

Go for a new variation of a familiar color

For my fjords, I get to choose between five “major” colors of dun, but there are so many different shades within each, and different degrees and combinations of primitive markings. For other breeds and colors, there’s even more range. My real fjord lives in a large herd of bay thoroughbred geldings. I cannot memorize their face and leg markings to save my life, but I swear I can pick out each horse by the shade of brown around his muzzle. And even the same horse changes color with the seasons. Think about the variations in a winter coat, summer coat (ooh, maybe they’ll have dapples!), or clipped coat. (There’s also wet coat, as Levi Kroll showed us in 2020!).

“I can never decide whether I love my horse’s winter or summer look best, but I had fun trying to capture both.”

Try a different medium, tool, or technique 

Trying to change your process can be more challenging than going for a different end result. NaMoPaiMo is the best time to shake things up, because you know you’ll be flooded with encouragement, advice, and inspiration. (Remember the “black without black” horses inspired by Mel Miller?) And if you ARE trying a new approach, it can be helpful to stick with a color you know well – not only does it free your brain to focus on the specific things you’re changing, but it also gives you a better comparison for determining what works best for you. 

“Two early attempts at the same color, using different media. Neither is quite what I wanted… time for a third attempt?”
Choose a different scale

See how much detail you can preserve if you go smaller. See how much more you can add if you go bigger. The colors you mix may be the same, but you’ll find new challenges requiring different tools and techniques – and again, NaMoPaiMo is a great time to experiment.

“One of these I’ve been brave enough to paint; the other… maybe a challenge for a future NaMoPaiMo?”
Focus on the details

Realism is in the details. So if you want to do a color you’re already familiar with, your goal can be to ramp up the details – more detailed eyes, hooves, chestnuts, the bits of skin peeking through the hair, the little imperfections that real horses have and so often get omitted –  scars, blemishes, flecks of white or grey. Think about the age of your horse and how to convey that. And don’t forget the dirt. Our model horses need a lot more dirt if we’re going to keep fooling Facebook with our sales ads.
“I was worried this yellow dun would be so subtle it would be boring to paint and boring to look at, but little details like eyelashes and dirty legs made it one of my favorites.”
Do it all the same but do it better

I think this is fantastic goal. If you’re mindlessly doing the same thing over and over again, you risk getting into a rut. But if you try something again with clear intentions for what you want to do better, you WILL do better. I love seeing a continuum of progress in my plethora of brown dun fjords.

Know when you’re in a rut

It can happen even if you’re NOT painting the same thing over and over, but the fewer changes you make, the more likely you are to get into a rut. Know your signs and how to get out of it. For me, I’ve learned that if I’ve gotten lazy about double-checking my reference photos while painting, I’ve probably also stopped trying to make this model better than the last, and it’s time to take a break. If I look at the paints I’m about to mix and feel bored, it’s time to try a new technique. 

A big part of learning to paint is learning how you paint best. Learning to recognize when you’re not painting your best and being able to figure out why is part of that process. In my case the problem rarely turns out to be the color I’ve chosen.

Do what you enjoy 

The point of a hobby is to do something you enjoy, so be careful when you start saying things like “I want to do x, but I should do y.” Sure, there are times you should push yourself outside your comfort zone, but even that should be because you want to.

So… spoiler alert, I’m doing another fjord for NaMoPaiMo. It’s not like I’ve committed to only ever painting this one thing, but I love them and haven’t gotten bored yet. I’m still finding new things to learn and improve. 

Of course, we’re all different. If what you enjoy is going big for NaMoPaiMo, challenging yourself on a project you wouldn’t normally attempt, do it! We all want to see it and will be cheering you on! But you don’t HAVE to. You don’t need to do something drastic – or even all that different – to find a satisfying challenge.


  1. This is reassuring! Part of me wanted to paint a bay Dartmoor, but I didn’t think doing a bay like last year was a good idea. Glad to see that it isn’t necessarily!

  2. This is a great way to look at painting and working in a specialized style way of art. Thanks for sharing.

  3. A lot of great tips here! I especially liked the parts about scars, blemishes, dirt... These are things real horses often have that are rarely seen in model form.

  4. 3 years ago I painted Hugh to a palomino. Last year I painted Ballycor to a palomino. This year I am switching it up to scary dappled gray but maybe a doll might paint something to palomino...

  5. This is helpful especially when I am trying an Appaloosa again and feel I never get them right.