William Holman Hunt – Intricate Brushwork And Vivid Colors

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William Holman Hunt (2 April 1827 – 7 September 1910) was an English painter known for his incredibly intricate paintings and clever use of color. He also founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848, which was a group of artists who rejected the mechanistic approach adopted by artists who succeeded Raphael and Michelangelo.

William Holman Hunt, Photo By Julia Margaret Cameron
William Holman Hunt, Photo By Julia Margaret Cameron

He was actually not all that successful initially and was criticized for alleged clumsiness in his works (which seems like harsh criticism based on his paintings). He eventually became famous for his detailed religious paintings, such as:

William Holman Hunt, The Light Of The World
William Holman Hunt, The Light Of The World
William Holman Hunt, Christ And The Two Marys, 1847
William Holman Hunt, Christ And The Two Marys, 1847
William Holman Hunt, May Morning On Magdalen Tower, 1890
William Holman Hunt, May Morning On Magdalen Tower, 1890

But I am not writing about Hunt for his religious paintings. Instead, I am writing about Hunt for his naturalistic animal paintings which I am fascinated by. The painting below is how I become familiar with Hunt’s work and it is still my favorite. The painting demonstrates an incredibly high level of detail and some clever use of color. It almost looks surreal.

There is a beautiful contrast between lights and darks. Interestingly, Hunt retained a high level of detail even in the darks. I usually prefer to leave the darks to be slightly ambiguous. The faded background also gives you a break from the intricate detail and creates a sense of depth in the painting.

If you look closely, you can break the painting into three areas – the foreground with the detailed sheep and vegetation; the middle ground with relatively less detail and some interesting shapes and patterns; and finally the background which provides a gradual decline in color and detail until you are left with nothing but a faint tint of color.

Even if you are not a fan of this style of painting, you have to admire the level of craftsmanship.

William Holman Hunt, Our English Coasts, 1852 ('Strayed Sheep')
William Holman Hunt, Our English Coasts, 1852 (‘Strayed Sheep’)

Here is a similar painting by Hunt named “The Scapegoat”. In the Bible, a scapegoat is an animal which is ritually burdened with the sins of others then driven away. So there seem to be strong religious undertones even in this painting.

William Holman Hunt, The Scapegoat
William Holman Hunt, The Scapegoat

I wish Hunt had created more of these naturalistic animal and landscape paintings, but the focus seemed to be on the religious settings.

What You Can Learn From William Holman Hunt

Hunt’s style is not for everyone. But regardless of whether you like the style of not, you can learn much from the incredible display of detail and use of color.

Hunt also provides some great demonstrations of how to paint realistic animals. I personally think he painted the animals more skillfully than the human subjects. It is unfortunate that there only seems to be a handful of these animal paintings by Hunt, as he clearly favored religious settings.

Thanks for Reading!

Thanks for taking the time to read this post. I appreciate it! Feel free to share with friends. If you want more painting tips, check out my Painting Academy course.

Happy painting!

Dan Scott
Draw Paint Academy

11 comments on “William Holman Hunt – Intricate Brushwork And Vivid Colors”

  1. Re: william holman hunt, how unusual to be using those colours during the 1800’s . In an elderly relations house during the 1930’s I remember their pictures were all dark and dismal, just think what they had missed. I too like the strayed sheep picture, the animals actually looked to be quite individual characters, thank you, Hazel

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  2. Hi Dan, Yes I also like the animal paintings of William Holman Hunt. His use of colour and detail is extraordinary.
    I don’t know if I am seeing something intended by Hunt, but did you notice the large dark shape in the strayed sheep painting, it looks like a sheep lying down, with its head sloping down at the top left corner. ?? As if the land is a type of sheep also gone astray ?
    Umberto Pardini

    Reply
  3. Thank you for this text. I’m interested on more of your observations and examples. It is very educative how to analise and what to look on the paintings.
    Best regards

    Reply
  4. Love learning about certain artists I may not have heard of. Especially liked “The Light of the World” for its use of color and light. At some point, could you perhaps recognize the contributions of a female painter of renown.

    Reply
  5. Dear Dan, somehow I’ve lost your article ‘Seascapes’ but I wondered if you had found Donald Demers, F.J waugh and my favouurite Charles Vickery seascapes, also someone very different Matthre Snowden , so few brush strokes and so effective, hope you enjoy their seascapes, regards Hazel

    Reply

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