Oh those eyes!

by cheri sabraw


P.T. 109 12×16 oil on linen 2018 I live in a rural setting and walk by these girls every day. One morning very early when the sun was perfectly low, this piebald Angus girl came up to the fence. Imagine my delight when I saw her number was 109, my birthday. The red tag and the green grass hanging from her mouth, along with the light, made it a perfect setting for an oil painting.

Painting an animal sets the artist up for criticism, unlike painting a tree or flower.

There’s always an old cowboy at the show who will let you know immediately that a certain muscle is wrong.

I’ve just finished reading Leonardo by Walter Isaacson, a long and detailed biography of Leonardo da Vinci, who, I learned, never stopped his dissections of the human body. In fact, when he was painting the Mona Lisa–which he carried around for 16 years making changes to it–he dissected the mouths of corpses, trying to get that mysterious smile just right.

The last time I dissected anything was 50 years ago in sophomore biology. Those stinky slimy frogs, bathed in formaldehyde, were enough for me to change my mind about vet school.

I cannot paint an animal until I put the eyes on. Then, somehow, the creature  becomes easier for me to draw and paint.

This girl, a piebald Angus, begged for a photograph, which I dutifully snapped. The light was perfect. Her face was in half-shadow with a large orangey-pink nose and a red tag. But what really cracked me up was that she stopped chewing her fresh green grass when she saw me trudging up the mountain. That mouthful of grass is, I think, what makes this painting sweet and maybe one you would stop to look at a bit longer.

For me, it is the eyelashes that draw me in and those are not enhanced!


Nebraska Reverie


by cheri sabraw

I remember back to 1988 when, as the journalism instructor at the high school level, I made a serious mistake in judgement. Suffice to say that something was published which should not have been. I learned all the laws of libel that year.

For someone who prides herself in doing the right thing, I felt deflated, bruised, and naive that year. I told my husband that I was going to quit as the journalism instructor.

He reminded me that when I looked back on my journalism career, I would always see it in a negative light. He advised that I go back for one more year and do it right.

That piece of advice was sage. Not only did I  go back and “do it right,” I lasted another ten years in that role.

To that point, I believe that the same is true in most endeavors, including artistic expression.


After I decided to start over,  I spent another 12-15 hours working on  a smaller version of the first rendering. When I finished that piece, I realized the filly was too big! My perspective was wrong.

Should I attempt a third painting of the same subject?

The answer was yes.

I redrew the images and decided to change the background. I envisioned the Cedar River in Nebraska, the setting of my painting. I envisioned low trees along the river and positioned it far in the background.

With the advice of Kayti Sweetland Rasmussen, I moved the filly into the foreground and left her mother with her head in the grasses.

I painted in an old windmill with the sun’s rays on its rotors.

Kayti reviewed the painting and suggested color by the filly’s legs.

I’m happy with the results and title this painting “Nebraska Reverie.” It is for sale.




Screen Shot 2018-02-28 at 3.37.36 PMby cheri sabraw

This acronym, KISS, is of my own invention. It stands for “Keep It Simple, Stupid.”

Having taught the writings of Henry David Thoreau for 18 years, I should practice what he preached. “Simplicity, Simplicity, Simplicity!”  he said often as he strolled through the woods at Walden Pond.

When it comes to painting, design, and execution, Mr. Thoreau’s words apply.

Last week, I attempted to paint a scene from this  lovely photo.

Here is my first version on a large 24×36 inch canvas.


Several problems exist in this painting, not the least of which is the headless filly! I decided to paint the mare as a dark bay horse to provide contrast with the yellowy-green scrub.

The filly would become a light chestnut to complement both her mother and the scrub.

Fillies and colts are difficult to paint because their bodies are not proportionate. They are growing. (Think of a German Shepherd pup which must grow into its enormous ears that stand up at about 4 months of age. )

This filly is not as muscular or as old as the one in the photo. My rendering of her  hind quarters was decent but not accurate. Her forelegs were better but her neck was too short so off with her head!

I thought the dark shadows in the foreground were enough to draw the eye down and anchor the horses to the earth.


Then the trouble began.

Since I was working wet on wet, when I tried to put her head back on, the colors blended. I kept fiddling with her muscles and proportion. Finally, I darkened her coat and that was the beginning of the end.

Her hindquarters now were wrong as were her hind legs.

The next rendition shows a better filly body and head.


I kept painting, wet on wet, still believing I could salvage the work.

A painting of a horse must be anatomically correct or some old cowboy will walk by the painting and point the error out. I began what I call “over-fiddling,” and although I improved her conformation, rear hocks, forearm and elbow, she now looked different in texture from her mother. I found that part distracting.

So, I complicated things which I tend to do in life.


I lightened her face and tried to add the western sunlight highlights.

At that point, I felt that I, too, was in the weeds.

So why not leave the horses and address the fact that the green in the background looks odd?  I sent a photo of my painting out to some trusty friends who observed that perhaps the values (light and dark tones) were off. Agreed!


I painted the distant hills brown, added more scrub and warm orange color to the land. I also painted in shadows but because was painting wet on wet, the shadows blended with the yellow making them blue instead of green.

Now, this elegant scene on which I was working was a choppy muddy mess with a nicely rendered simple mare and little one who had been over painted and now looked out of place.

Complicate! Complicate! Complicate!

I’m going to start over today on a small piece of linen canvas.

Hopefully, next time, I will have a painting that is simply elegant.


The importance of drawing


by cheri sabraw

Although it seems obvious, the importance of drawing images that will appear in your paintings cannot be overstated.

I suppose if one is an abstract artist this statement is not true, but for those of us trying to paint realistic images, especially animals, making sure that the proportions and the anatomy are correct is tantamount.

How many times have you ruined a perfectly good (and expensive) canvas or linen board because you just jumped in and started painting?

I can count at least 10 paintings that are tucked in the back of my closet because I didn’t spend the time drawing.

Now, I draw all my horses first.

I use charcoal and a sketch pad. When I am satisfied that the animal’s anatomy and proportions are accurate, then I draw the figure right on the canvas in light charcoal. Oh I know. Experienced painters say to use a light wash of raw sienna or burnt umber to draw but I’d rather use a light charcoal and my hand rather than an extension of my hand–the brush.

Whether you are painting a landscape with an olive, redwood, or pine tree, it helps to draw first.

That way, you can also see the composition you have created and make changes before commiting to the use of paint.

Oil paint is expensive. Why waste it?


Jerry 8x10 oil on linen