Terry Miura • Studio Notes

Friday, July 13, 2012

Cows Are People Too~

Cows are people too. No, not really, but I like them. They're pretty casual, ya know? And they got personality (bovinality?).

I did this little study for my landscape class. I tried to demystify the process by breaking it down to simple, digestible steps. So, here's the formula (the F-word) for painting cows; read on.

  1. Have a good reference photo
  2. Draw the cow.
  3. Block in the shadow patterns.
  4. Mix two colors; one for light, one for shadow.
  5. Fill in shadow side, fill in light side.
  6. Distinguish form edges from cast edges.
  7. Add highlights.
  8. Paint background.
If you thought this sounds just like what I described in the last post about drawing and painting the figure, you would be right. The only difference being the shape of the model. In fact I pretty much approach everything the same way. There's nothing innately unique about painting cows or trees or rocks. If there were "how to's" for each thing you include in a painting, you'd have to learn and memorize a thousand formulae, wouldn't you? How to paint cows. How to paint rocks. How to paint pine trees. How to paint the eucalyptus, and on and on. But if you're just painting light and shadow, that's just TWO things you have to worry about, no matter what the motif. And if you make sure the shapes make sense, you can pretty much paint anything. Cows, tractors...same thing. 

In reality, it's not that simple. But the sooner you stop asking "how do I paint cows (trees, boulders, tractors)?" and start asking "how do I paint light and shadow?", the sooner you'll learn to paint.

If you're pissed off by the above statement, I'm sorry! I don't expect anyone to believe everything I say, so if you want to keep on collecting formulae, please, don't mind me. 

OK so the 8-step formula I presented above is, obviously an oversimplification of the process. The important thing is to understand why certain decisions are made, so that you may apply the same process to other things. 

With that in mind, here's the same steps again, with a little more in-depth explanation. 

1.Have a good reference photo which shows a strong silhouette that is easily recognizable.  When you have a strong silhouette, you don't need much else to communicate what the thing is. (In this case, a cow, but it applies to anything else) If you have one or two such silhouettes, the rest of the herd can be just abstract blobs and the viewer's brain will define them as additional cows. This is true whether you're painting cows, or trees, or cars, for that matter.
Also, make sure the cow is directly lit, with a clear light and shadow pattern. This makes modeling a lot easier than if you had a subtler and more complex light situations. (I'm not saying you can't do indirect or subtle light. I'm just saying direct light is easier.)
2.Draw the cow. I use a mix of transparent iron oxide and ultramarine, with Gamsol. Using a brush, I draw lightly and gesturally, trying really hard to get it right before moving on. You can't fix a bad drawing with pretty colors. You gotta get it right. Remember, the process depends on a good silhouette. That means good shapes. If you don't have good shapes, you don't have good foundation. Ever tried to build on poor foundation?
3.Block in the shadow patterns. Pretty much the same as I did with the figure in the last post. With paint, I use the same color that I used to draw with. It could be done fairly dry, or wet like watercolor. But if you do it wet, let it settle a bit before moving on because you can't really paint on top of the drippy surface.
4.Mix two colors, one for shadow, one for light. You can paint the cow any color you like, but as with basic figure drawing / painting, my foundation is two values. So the two colors are just lighter and darker variations of one another. Make sure you warm up the lighter one by adding yellows or oranges or reds. If you rely only on white, your lights will be too cool and the cow will end up looking like its  standing under fluorescent lighting.
 5.Paint the cow with the two colors you just mixed. Keep it simple! Since you already have it blocked in (Step 3), it should be a simple matter of applying opaque colors to corresponding areas. 
6.Distinguish form shadow edges from cast shadow edges. Again, same as on the figure. Form shadow edges are softer because they describe a gradual transition from light into shadow as the form turns away from the light source. Cast shadow edges, by comparison, are sharper. You can make them super sharp until you get used to the idea. Worry about subtleties later.
7.Add highlights. This is where, were I drawing on toned paper, I would use the white conte. The introduction of this third value (up till now there were only two values) suddenly makes the forms look a bit more modeled and complex.
8.Paint the background. I just filled it all in with grassy green. I used this opportunity to refine the shape of the cow from the outside. The head kept looking like a horse's head so it took me quite a bit of going back and forth to make it work. This is where an intimate knowledge (which I don't have) of the animal's anatomy is extremely helpful. I've painted enough cows to be a little bit familiar with its shapes, but not nearly as proficient as some of those Western painters. Horses? forget it. I don't know anything about horses. If I painted horses, they probably come out looking like cows.
One last thing. often the cow in the landscape is standing in grass. This means that there's grass between you, the viewer, and the cow. Therefore, the lower parts of the animal; hooves, and in this case its mouth is obscured by the grass. A softer transition will accomplish this. All too often we see landscape paintings where cows seem to be standing on green linoleum or floating on top of the grass because not enough attention was paid to visually integrating the cow's feet to the ground. Remember, the cows are in the meadow, eating buttercups, not pasted on the meadow. or floating above it.

I hope this long winded explanation of my cow painting wasn't too boring. And I really hope that you don't take this as a formula for painting cows. Rather, it is an explanation of a process for painting almost anything, using a cow as an example.

Wow that was a long post. If you stayed with me this far, thanks! You're a trooper :-D



  1. I dont paint in oils but enjoyed your step by step and love the painting - much of what you say is applicable to all mediums so thank you

  2. Terry, you are too funny sometimes! So now I have a new formula…. TM’s formula to add to my overflowing folder of painting formula’s (lol)…. That’s what I have been doing wrong then, all these years…not following formulas (lol)…. Seriously, nice cow, nice post…how could any one be peed off with you, your blog is always interesting and whatever you paint looks great.

  3. Thanks Sharon, you're right. A lot of this stuff is not specific to oils. It's just foundation of picturemaking, yeah?

  4. Thanks Maggie~ I know I'm opinionated, and I do piss people off when I make pithy statements that goes against what they're comfortable with.

    Thanks for reading this stuff with a sense of humor!

  5. Thanks for this long explanation, I always enjoy your blog, you also describe so well the issues we all struggle with.

  6. It's great to see this summary after having seen the demo. I think it's helping to solidify the concepts you taught. Thank you for writing this thoughtful, useful blog!

  7. Thanks Rene~ I'm glad to hear it :-D

  8. Thanks Sara! Even with a simple study, there's so much information to digest-which I guess makes painting so freakin' hard. But ultimately rewarding.

    I hope everyone else is reading this summary as well.

  9. This is fantastic. And love that this cow is eating grass like a cow should. Oh and the formula. :) Absolutely wonderful and clearly articulated. I tend to take the steps out of order in my paintings and end up reworking parts. I'm going to try to use self control and follow your formula for my next few paintings. Thank you for sharing with your readers around the country!

  10. Your blog is just what I look for- an incredibly gifted artist sharing his talent and skill with an emergent artist like myself. I will use your formulas and wish I lived closer to take your workshops. Thank you Terry!

  11. You're the best. I appreciate you taking the time to explain your process. Thank you! It's exactly why I love reading your blog. There are plenty of artists, but not everyone is a good teacher. I have no idea why you're so generous to us, but I'm grateful. Lisa

  12. Thanks for the great reminder about painting light and shadow!And for the humourous note! :)

  13. Thanks Amy, Sue, Lisa and Tracey! I'm so glad you find this helpful. Thanks so much for letting me know, too.

    Lisa, generous? nah, I do this for selfish reasons. And besides, it's not as if I can take credit for any of this painting knowledge :-)