Cows on Zuercher Rd: How I Drew a Cow

I realized looking at the last painting that I put all my time into painting the landscape and just hoped the cow would come out. Needless to say, that doesn’t work. The cow is the focal point!

I was leaving the cow as an afterthought because I was intimidated by it. I don’t know anything about cows. I’ve never drawn a cow. I have only painted cows once. So looking at my reference photo, I see all sorts of bumps and humps, and I don’t know what any of them are. Is that bump fat? Bone?

So I figured I’d spend a bit of time sketching cows, and learning at least a LITTLE bit about their anatomy.

Drawing Imaginary Cows

Turns out the internet doesn’t care much about sketching cows. There are a ton of websites showing how to draw a cartoon cow, but not much at all about how to draw a real cow. I looked through what I could and learned two things: 1) the cow anatomy is similar to the anatomy of most quadrupeds. 2) think of a bunch of cylinders.

So, with some very very very rudimentary knowledge of cow anatomy (they have bones, and four legs…) I sketched a few from my imagination while I sat in the lobby while my daughter was in dance class.

It is clear to me that I don’t know what I’m drawing. I’m really making it up, and guessing a lot. So, I did a bit more digging and found out how their legs bend. Before I drove to a bar in Cleveland to watch the Browns beat the Jets on Monday Night Football, I sat in my car in a parking lot and drew this while actually looking at the photo reference.

I posted that to Reddit and asked for suggestions. The only one I got was to reinforce the directionality of the light source, which was great feedback. So, this morning I spent a little more time on that sketch and ended up with this.

This really did help me a lot. I still don’t know the first thing about bovine anatomy, but at least I have a better feel for this cow standing in this photo.

Oh – also, I noticed that the cow’s tail basically hangs straight down. This is boring. By just whipping it a smidge, the cow becomes much more dynamic.

Doing this has given me more confidence, which I know will come across in the painting. I’ll practice drawing cows a bit more. Then, I’ll practice painting a few, and then I’ll get to work on this painting again.

Cow Bones

Tonight I looked up a cow skeleton and drew a simplified version. I don’t care exactly how many vertebrae there are etc etc, I just want to look at what bones are closest to the skin, and how does the bone structure impact the animal’s posture. I have no idea if this is how you are “supposed” to do it. At any rate, I drew this very simplified version of a cow skeleton, and put some skin on it. Then, I went and bolded the parts of the skeleton that appear to come closest into contact with the skin, these are the bits of the cow skeleton that you see on the outside, and they explain a whole lot of the bumps and humps on the cow.

A few things that I noticed:

  1. The legs do this “less-than, greater-than” thing. Imagine a barrel. At the front, there’s a <, and at the back, there’s a >. Look at the skeleton, see what I mean? The cow is an HTML tag.
  2. If you look through a cow’s butt into its rib cage, you’ll see a diamond shape, not an oval.
  3. The cow’s back is pretty straight.
  4. The cows hips are a crazy weird box thing sticking way up in the air. This looks super goofy. I need to study the cow’s pelvis some more, I don’t understand it.
  5. The cow’s jaw is massive.
  6. The cow’s neck is basically an enormous skin bag hanging from its chin.

How I Drew a Cow

I took some photos of the process I used to draw a cow from my imagination. And before anyone from Disney sees this and wants to holler at me for doing it all wrong…

I couldn’t find much of anything on the Internet to teach me this, so I had to make do. Please don’t mistake this for: “this is how you should draw a cow.” This is supposed to be, “I couldn’t find a blog post teaching me how to draw a cow, so this is what I did.”

This is the barrel of the cow. See the diamond shape I was talking about? Starting with this shape helped me because I instantly defined the cow’s mass. From here on out, it’s all about how the cow is going to keep that hulking stomach off the ground.

Yeah, the hips are too far apart. I drew that rib cage as if it went all the way to its ass. It doesn’t. I’ll fix that later.

Next, I drew those greater than and less than signs. And no, I don’t know why I chose this angle – it’s pretty hard to draw.

The legs basically stick down from those < and > signs. The front legs go pretty much straight down. The rear ones have to angle back a bit before they move down, because the angle on the hips in the rear (the >) is much smaller than the angle on the shoulders (the <).

I then drew a line for where the neck bones would be, which is tough because of this angle. Then, I drew a circle to put a head on it, and some ears sticking out to the sides. Then, some curves to suggest where the meat of the legs will go. This is where it’s helpful to know about the whole HTML cow thing. Inside each < and >, there is a whole bunch of meat. That means big muscles. That means round bumps.

I erased a lot of the lines to clean it up a bit. This is when I realized that I drew the rib cage as if it runs all the way to its hips.

It doesn’t.

Because the hips attach to the spine, instead of the rib cage, the pelvis is much narrower than I originally drew it. To fix this, I just erased the passenger-side, rear leg, and moved it in a bit. From here on out, it’s basically just a matter of defining mass by putting shadows on the spots that aren’t getting much light.

Armed with these new insights, I drew two little cow buddies from a photo I found online, or maybe it’s a cow and a bull, I don’t know. (Cows have horns, don’t they? It’s not just bulls?)


Next, I’m going to paint a few cows. Then, I’m off to try my painting again.

How I Painted a Cow

First – I know once again that this is just a study. So, there’s no pressure. Which is nice. To reinforce this, I grabbed a piece of paper with a failed painting on the back, which had also been walked on quite a bit by the cat. It’s pretty much garbage.

Look how ruined that paper is!

I sketched the cow from my photo onto the paper. I kept in mind that I want to highlight the gesture of the neck, it’s a small curve, but I think it’s important to show the cow’s movement to look at me.

Then I painted a very sloppy background. I don’t care about this. I just want some values there to put the cow against because when I go to do the real painting, the cow will need to stand out from a background.

Then I flooded the cow shape with a fairly even-valued wash, with warmer tones on the spots that will be in light, and cooler tones on the spots that will be in shadow. I don’t care about coloring “inside the lines” at this point. I’m just putting some initial tones down to start mapping out a light source, and to define the highlights. From here on out, if it’s not painted, it has to stay white.

Then, I used some clean water to lift highlights on the eye brows, around the nose, and on the ribs. That’s it… now – let it dry. I’ll come back to it tomorrow to start noodling around with the value structure, and maybe get some fun colors going, and an interesting brush stroke or two.

To paint the cow, I started with some raw Umber and UM Blue to make a grey, and used this to punch up some of the shadowy areas. I then dropped tiny bits of indie blue into the cracks and crannies and let it wander into the grey. Once that dried, I went back over the lit areas with some Quin Gold added to the grey. I then used some more raw Umber to turn that into a more neutral brown and applied it to the mid-tones. I dropped a dab of blue here and there, and a whisper line of dark valued pigment in some places to add a bit of a painterly feel.

All in all, I think the cow turned out ok. I don’t like the shoulder facing the sun, on my next try, I’ll blend that into the chest beneath the ear so it doesn’t look quite so much like the front of the cow was pasted onto a cow looking sideways.

Ok… now on to the painting. This time, I’m going to try it on some nice new paper, which means I’m committed to pretending like my next one isn’t a draft. EEP!

Tricked You!

One of these cows got hit by a meteor.

I decided to spend some time tonight practicing cows. I wanted to get to the point where I was comfortable painting a cow without drawing one first, so I drew zero cows. Instead, I just went in with some pigment and gave it a whirl. I need to do about eleven million more of these kinds of exercises… it was quite fun.

One of them was so bad I slashed it out. My daughter was watching, so I told her it got hit by a meteor. She painted “Boom baby!” next to it.

I learned that when I paint this way, the randomness of watercolor really shines. Instead of getting frustrated and trying to smoosh the pigments into the right place, I found that I could make a random mark on the page, and eventually turn it into a cow.

There’s something very Rorschach about it. No matter what kind of mark it was, If I didn’t try too hard, I could slap some hips and ears on it, and my brain turned it into a cow. But, the minute I tried to force that mark, if I tried to make it turn the cow’s head this way, it turned into a dog or a bear.

Which proves one of my biggest lessons to date: When in doubt, don’t.

I also think I realized what Joseph Zbukvic meant when he said “horses are all about the ears. If you can’t get those right, you might as well go home.” I was thinking “cow” the whole time, so my brain was pretty much a hammer. It’s not surprising that I saw cows in so many of these inkblots. But what really surprised me was that I saw the cow the minute I painted the ears. It really did seem like putting ears on any blob turned it into a cow.

This isn’t me bragging. I’m not saying “ look how awesome I am.” This is me realizing something very very important. To make a random squiggle of lines look like a cow, all I have to do is trick your mind into looking for a cow. To a hammer, everything is a nail. It’s my job as a painter to turn you into a hammer. Then it’s your job to see cows.

And, I think that is the purpose of the background and foreground. I shouldn’t paint these things because I want you to see trees and clouds and atmosphere and mood and all that other bullshit. The only reason to paint a background is to grab the viewer’s mind by the lapel and shake it, screaming “Cow! Cow! COW, dammit! Look for a cow!” If I can get you looking for cows, you’ll find them, even if they aren’t there.

Three more things. First: What you don’t paint is arguably more important than what you do paint. When you are learning to drum, one thing they say is “remember, silence is a note too.” This applies to watercolor in spades. When you are painting, you don’t have to connect every squiggle. Leave the tail disconnected from the body, it’s fine. The mind will pin it where it belongs, and there will be more enjoyment on the part of the viewer when they are allowed to become part of the process of creation. Don’t spell out exactly what the thing is – allude to it. Usher the viewer to build a cow from those squiggles on their own. If you do that, the results seem to be so much more pleasing because as the viewer I get to create along with you.

Second: Color really doesn’t matter. Value is all that matters. I think I get this a little better now. When I was wrapping up, I decided to put this whole thing to the test. I dunked my brush into some purple paint, and just squiggled it on the paper. Then, I painted my less-than, greater-than lines, and just kind of dragged the brush around, watching what the pigment was doing, and coaxing it here and there just a bit. I know I need a neck, I need ears… so I just grabbed any color and used it to try to paint a cow.

And I actually really like how she came out. Kinda funny really.


Ok. For real this time. Tomorrow, I’m going to paint this scene.