When I was still in primary school I was given a book called How to Draw Horses and Ponies by Frank Smith. I was already drawing horses obsessively, but I took a jump forward after reading this. The book had a number of horse sketches, beginning with very simple geometric shapes. Basically it showed an ‘armature’ of the horse’s form.
Armature generally refers to the underlying support structure of a sculpture. However it is also sometimes used in describing the way artists sketch out the basic geometric structural shapes of a figure (horse, human – anything!) in drawing. This is how I’m using it in this post. (See my super simplified armature drawing above).
If your horses are coming out looking like goats, tables or … just not horses, using armature may be a simple way to get a clearer idea of the horse’s natural proportions and to see what the difference is between what you think you see and what is actually there. It’s amazing how many assumptions we bring to the way things look. Even when they’re right in front of us.
Some people have an aptitude for starting at a detailed corner of the picture and working through. But most will benefit from blocking in the main shapes before proceeding to detail (I won’t really be talking about detail here – but much of it is to do where light and shade fall on your subject).
Another interesting approach is to get a cheap horse magazine and draw geometric shapes over the pictures. Your hand will remember the feel of these shapes once you begin to draw free hand. You’ll also get closer to seeing what’s actually there. Plus you may start to move away from the hard-edged shapes of basic armature and incorporate the horse’s natural curves into your first sketch – giving a more natural, gestural feeling overall (see the dog).
When you are drawing or painting, always step back regularly to look at the whole picture. You'll be surprised by how often the picture starts to look out of proportion if you forget to do this.
An example of horse drawing where you can see some of the geometric shapes I've used to flesh out the horse and its musculature. This is a little different from the concept of armature - which is a more stripped-down, skeletal version. (This horse was my model for finding some acupressure points!)
Once you know the rules, you can enjoy breaking them … Using geometry to build shapes is a great start, but it’s just as important to draw with free expression. You will also find that you work out your own shortcuts to build the anatomy of the horse.
Here’s a human subject sketched out using an armature style technique.
Ideally, as an artist creating a flat image, you will simply draw armature using your eye, but here is an in depth breakdown of the armature of the horse by sculptor, David Lemon. The precise shape he creates for his sculpture is wonderful to watch – you can see how the simple lines relate to the underlining skeletal structure of the horse. This video takes time to watch, but is very worthwhile!