Painting a Historic Carousel Dapple Horse

A dapple grey
I thought I would go crazy, seeing spots before my eyes, before I could figure out how to get a carousel horse to look like the dapples in the old photographs and paintings I had come across. In doing research I found out that a dapple grey wasn't a recognized breed and yet it was considered the most popular horse to own during the Victorian period. Where did they get these horses? WHO was breeding them? Were they a genetic accident?

I looked up pictures of Lipizzans and Arabians and Pintos and Appaloosas but none looked like the photos of the early carousel and rocking horses. Heck, my oldest son's first horse even qualified and she was half "Welch" and half "American Saddler". The more I looked, the more photo references I came across of the carved replicas. They appeared on carousels and on rocking horses from England to France, Germany to America. They all looked similar in an abstract sort of way. Why did the painters insist on painting these spotted horses?

It took three tries to get the spots just right
I was ready to give it a shot. Why not? It is only paint, right! The first horse I tried my dapple spots on I ended up painting three times. Back to research and the telephone. I called everyone I knew who painted carousel animals. Everyone had a different method, of course, none of which worked for me. Some were convinced that the mane and tails were supposed to be black, others maintained that they had to be white. One guy said he used q-tips. Okay. I had now reached the point of frustration.

This wrapping paper unlocked one of life's little mysteries
Then one day, I came across wrapping paper with an antique rocking horse on it that was perfect. Now, mind you, I already had a file full of reference photos and clippings. I had also jumped fences, dodged cows and other critters in order to waltz up to strange horses to take close-up photos of their body parts. Including big, huge draft horses and Morgans, no mere Budweiser Clydesdales for me. I was driven. I was determined to figure this one out. And there it was, the answer to my dilemma on wrapping paper. Where the horse was white, it had black spots, and where it was black, it had white spots.

I then remembered stories my father used to tell about horse thieves who would paint stolen horses with spots to change their color. They would dip eggs into stove black ( a thin paint used on cook stoves and pipes) and using both ends of the egg, paint small and large spots on the horses. It was also used to disguise the age of the horse, the more spots, the younger the animal. So all I needed was a round brush that I could use to create these elusive round spots.

I had this marvelous 1890's Allen Herschell horse in my studio. It was repaired, sanded, primed - a pristine white creature who was begging for the spots of a true "carousel" dapple grey. In my earlier attempts I had used enamel paints and all my spots had blended together. Primer dries faster and has more texture and if I applied a clear finish over the top, it would be durable. All I needed to do was add the spots. Since both my primer and my enamels were alkyd based, they could be mixed.

The finished Dapple Grey, on the carousel in Republic, Washington
Out came all my reference pictures and a very worn "relaxed" stencil brush the diameter of a quarter. Using it and a 1" inch cheap bristle brush I began to paint with the black flat (low-luster) enamel and white primer. I shaded and dappled with the 1" brush, pushing the paint onto the horse, and I used the stencil brush to apply the alternate colored spots. By using the inexpensive brush, I could abuse it to create the hair texture I wanted. By working wet-in-wet and moving quickly around the horse, my elusive dapple spots began to appear.

The primer dries faster than normal enamel paint so I was able to create the "hairs" of the individual spots by coming back to an area when the paint began to get "tacky" and push or stencil the alternate colored spots into it. Nearly straight black gave me the dark shades at the knees, around the hoof, and at the withers. Then I stippled a blend of black and white using the "dry brush" onto the black to give the effect of hair in the shaded areas. I kept going around and around the horse, a spot here, a dapple there. I worked fast, stepping back often to check out the "look" with my reference photos. The adrenaline was rushing, it was happening. I had created a true, historic dapple grey carousel horse.

My favorite horse to paint now is the dapple because I have conquered the challenge. When you do this, it becomes your favorite because you know what it took to get you there. This little Allen Herschell can be ridden on the restored merry-go-round in Republic, Washington.

The other points I would like to stress:

  1. Build a "reference" file of photos and clippings to aid in your painting.
  2. Always work in "paint families". In this example I used alkyd enamels, oil artist paints, and primers that are all linseed oil based . . . or of the same paint family.
  3. The colors used on an antique animal should be appropriate to the colors popular for the same period. These colors can be found in photos or paintings of houses, interiors, and even fashions of the same period.

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Bette Largent is a professional carousel horse restoration artist from Washington State, and the author of Paint The Ponies, a guide for those who are interested in learning the art of painting carousel figures.

Click Here for information on ordering her book.

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