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A Beginner's Guide for Painting a Custom Model Horse in Bay with Pastels, Acrylic & Colored Pencils

Updated: Jun 9, 2019

National Model Painting Month (or NaMoPaiMo) is a worldwide model horse painting event organized annually by Jennifer Buxton of Braymere Custom Saddlery every February. Somehow, the stars aligned and the customizing bug hit me in January, giving me time to pick and prep a model. I ended up (technically) finishing my model by 12:59am on February 28th and I'm really proud of how my first attempt turned out.

Painting a model for the first time can be daunting, and a lot of the tutorials I came across online were a little outdated. I learned a couple of things along the way, so I wanted to share them here for other first-time pastellers to lessen the learning curve. I hope it helps!

Start with a prepped and primed model sealed in one or two coats of Testors Dullcote or Model Masters Lusterless. Matte sealer is used in between every layer of pastels to provide "tooth", or a textured surface for the powders to adhere to. Always be sure to let the matte sealer dry completely before trying to add more pastel or you risk pulling off previous layers.

Remember to ALWAYS wear a respirator mask when using spray sealer and pastel! Your face will be very close to your model and the solvents and fine pigments are not good for your health. Model horses are NOT worth getting seriously ill over! I like this respirator mask because it's comfortable, easy to breathe through, and protects you from dust and vapors (unlike a regular dust mask).

I used a Breyer Mini Whinnie, but use whatever scale of model you're comfortable with.

Next, choose a reference picture. Do not try to paint a horse without a reference picture, especially for your first attempt! Your reference does not have to be the same breed or build as your model; you're just using it for the body color and any white markings. I chose this gulastra plumed bay Thoroughbred because I liked the depth of his coat.

Now grab your pastels. I like Pan Pastels because they're convenient, not messy, and highly pigmented. The key to pastelling a model is to start with very light colors and gradually transition to darker colors over the course of many thin layers. Starting with too dark of a color or moving too dark too quickly can lead to undesirable graininess. If you have a hard time picking out colors (like me), try using a program with an eyedropper feature and place it over different areas of the horse to see what undertones the browns and blacks have.

Using an eyedropper tool to pinpoint colors in a reference picture.
You don't need a fancy program to find an eyedropper tool. Try MS Paint, Photoshop, or even Instagram's "story" feature (like I used!). Notice the orange tones in the upper left sample, the darker red-orange in the upper right, the purplish brown of the lower left, and the dark red-brown of the lower right.

Pan Pastels for painting a bay model horse
The Pan Pastels I used for this horse. Top: yellow ochre tint, yellow ochre, burnt sienna, copper. Bottom: burnt sienna shade, burnt sienna extra dark, red iron oxide extra dark, black.

We apply the pastels with a brush. I like this set because they pick up and apply the pastel well and the sizes are great for small models. Pastelling is rough on brushes, but these seem to hold up well.

Dab your brush in the lightest color and apply it all over the model in a scrubbing motion. A larger brush is ok here. You want to work the dust into all the nooks and crannies. Work on one small area at a time so you don't miss any spots. Feel free to skip the mane and tail and any hooves that will have socks. Brush off any excess pastel with a large fluffy brush, like a makeup brush. You can also blow it off, but be careful not to get any droplets on the pastel. The first layer will be very subtle, but will darken up a little after a coat of matte sealer. The progression below shows the first coat of yellow ochre tint, first coat after sealer, and the second coat of yellow ochre tint.

After a couple of layers, the yellow ochre tint will not get any darker. Time to move onto the next color, yellow ochre.

Yellow ochre Pan Pastel on a model horse
Our horse halfway through his first layer of yellow ochre.

Continue layering yellow ochre and sealer until the color deepens enough to move onto the next color. You may run into a little graininess, but you can usually work it out by adding another layer of the same color or by moving onto the next shade. Below: check out varying levels of graininess that I was able to overcome by adding more layers of burnt sienna (one shows a boo-boo after I dropped him while he was still wet).

To add some sheen and depth to your pony, you can add some metallic lustre powder or metallic Pan Pastel. I chose to add the copper Pan Pastel here and layer the darker matte shades on top so the sheen wouldn't be too overbearing. I sealed with Krylon Crystal Clear gloss sealer here to smooth out any unevenness and help prevent future graininess. Any time you use a gloss, you'll have to layer Dullcote on top or else the pastel won't stick for the next layer.

From here, I built up layers with burnt sienna extra dark, but I began avoiding the belly and upper legs since those areas are the lightest/orangest in the reference picture. Switch to a smaller brush if you have one. If you accidentally over-shade an area, use a kneadable eraser pressed onto the area to lift off the pastel.

To help the darker colors blend better, I scraped a little burnt sienna pastel out of the pan into a plastic palette and added a little more burnt sienna extra dark, red iron oxide extra dark, and black with each layer, sealing in between with Dullcote or Krylon Crystal Clear. Avoid using straight black because it can look flat and lifeless.

Pastel mixing palette
My pastel mixing palette. The color at 3 o'clock is mostly burnt sienna. 4 o'clock is burnt sienna extra dark + red iron oxide extra dark. 5 o'clock is mostly black with some 4 o'clock mixed in. The mess around the wells is from taking a dab from two wells and mixing them on the brush. Some clumps are ok here; the pastels are so fine that the brush will break up them up.

Remember to add dark shading to the lower legs and face according to the reference picture. The knees, hocks, fetlocks, eye sockets, muzzle, and genitals are nearly black on bay horses. You can also add a little shading to the muscle creases.

When you're happy with the body color, it's time to add white markings. I drew the socks and a simple blaze on with a white Prismacolor Premier colored pencil. Seal the pencil markings when you have them how you want.

White markings outlined in colored pencil.

The key to painting white markings is many thin, slightly off-white layers. You could use a cheap craft paint, but it needs to be watered down to a milk consistency or else it will dry gloopy. If you want ready-to-use paints, Golden High Flow acrylics are a great choice. This line is made for airbrushing, so they're thin, have a nice working time before they become tacky, and are highly pigmented, so you'll cut down on layers of white. Using straight Titanium White would look very stark, so I made a mixture of Titanium White, Titanium Buff, and Pearl White. The pearl gives an optional brightness and sheen to the white. I prefer to store my mixture in these paint bottles.

My "white" mixture definitely looks cream on this white cap, but dries to a natural white on the horse.

Clearly not all containers are created equal. The Pebeo bottle (right) hasn't leaked once, but the first bottle (left) did nothing BUT leak.

Using a very small brush, start carefully filling in the white markings with the paint; I really like the Windsor & Newton Series 7 Kolinsky sable size 000. The first few layers will be patchy, but just try to keep them even and brush out any bubbles. It's safe to add another layer when the previous one is no longer tacky. This paint bonds to the surface underneath almost instantly, so mistakes may need to be removed with rubbing alcohol on a brush. But use a light hand because the alcohol will start to dissolve the underlying sealer as well. Seal every few layers to prevent getting a ridge where the whites begin, and keep adding layers until they're solid white with no patchiness.

After painting the eye whites, I added irises in a dark brown and tiny pupils in black.

For the hooves, use a thinned shell-colored paint. I used Createx Wicked Colors Universal Flesh Tone right out of the bottle. A hoof without a white marking would be a dark greyish-brown color instead. To add hoof stripes, I sealed the shell color and used a microbrush to carefully apply parallel, irregular stripes in black pastel.

I painted the mane, forelock, and tailhead black (a regular bay's tail could just be painted all black). Add a little bit of brown to the black to make it look more natural. I added subtle highlights to the mane with a dark grey pencil to add interest. To create the gulastra plume, I layered many lines of black and white pastel pencils, blending with a Q-tip and sealing periodically to prevent muddiness.

You can also use a peachy pastel pencil to add pink shading where the hair would be thin, such as behind the hooves and at the bottom of the blaze.

A custom bay Breyer model horse
This is the "finished" photo I posted for NaMoPaiMo. I ended up glossing his eyes and adding more layers to his tail later on. He looks shiny here from spraying the Dullcote too close.

I used two coats of Liquitex Gloss Varnish to gloss his eyes and really bring him to life. The final model (click arrows to scroll):

No matter how your model turns out, the most important part is that you have fun doing it! I highly recommend joining the NaMoPaiMo Facebook group any time of year; there are lots of informative questions and answers, and the members are there to help and cheer you on year-round. I hope to see you for NaMoPaiMo 2020!

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