This post was written to help provide you with a broad overview of how to paint a cow skull and get started with this art form. I have other posts dedicated to specific processes and I will try to link out accordingly.
Step 1: Find a Skull Dealer
You need to find a skull or a skull dealer. I recommend hitting up local flea markets. I do not recommend purchasing skulls online due to their fragility. Craigslist is acceptable because you can inspect it and pick it up yourself just like if you were at a flea market.
Step 2: Picking the Right Skull
If you intend to take an animal skull and turn it into art, I would recommend purchasing the highest quality skull you can find. I define high quality as the following:
- Good horns – look at the horns. Buy polished ones that have been sanded. If they haven’t been sanded, they won’t shine. It’s okay if they have a few nicks in them. Too much sanding and the horns become extremely fragile. So look for a skull with a few nicks but not too many.
- Solid bridge - Look at the bridge of the nose, aim for a good solid and full one like this. Try to avoid ones like these, they look goofy and take away valuable “canvas” space. I respect that you may have the rare artistic vision of painting a skull missing a bridge, however, most people will view the skull head-on and this is a crucial focal point that we’re missing. Plus, the nooks and crannies of a skull are an absolute pain to deal with (thin bone, dirt, etc.), the bridge covers of a lot of mess.
- Teeth - This is a personal preference, but I prefer my skull to have all of its teeth…and not look like the guy I’m buying them off of. Just looks more complete.
- Horn color - You’ll want to be conscious of the horn color and the palette of colors you’re intending to use. The skulls mainly range in the black/brown/grey categories but it can make a big difference. If you intend to use black, find horns with black in them and viceversa for brown.
- Horn attachment – Find horns that have an attractive quality in their attachment to the actual calcium. The ones I purchase always have rope wrapped around the connection point (plus a few hidden screws to keep it all in place). Some sellers have perfected the attachment and don’t use rope. Others will leave a really gnarly and jagged edge. I stick to the rope because of the rustic appeal. — I know I’m mentioning a lot about horns, but keep in mind that people often purchase just the horns or even blank skulls (I know, beats the hell out of me too) for their beauty. When hung on a wall, these horns act as a beacon and garner a lot of attention.
- Horn width - Be conscious of the horn span. I like to buy right in the middle. Bout 3ft 9 inches. No 4 or 5 footers, but not the measly 2 footers.
- Smell – Odd. I know. But get up to the skull, specifically near a cavity (eyes/under the bridge/behind the neck vertebrae) and take a good wiff. Caution: It’ll smell slightly repulsive. If it smells flat out rank, don’t purchase it. It means the the flesh eating beetles didn’t do their job and that their is still flesh in the inner cavities.
- Price - Do not pay over $70 for a skull. You’re getting ripped off. $70-$90 should be an immaculate skull as described above, perfect horn attachment and no other issues. If you’re at a flea market, haggle with the people as long as you can. Also, make sure you cover the ENTIRE flea market to gather pricing information. I buy mine for $50, the guy has them priced from $60-$70. I start him at $40 and we eventually get to a standstill at $50, ’tis is life. I also recommend that you buy near the beginning of the day and near the start of the market to ensure you buy the highest quality skull possible. However you can also make the argument that you go near the end of the day on the last day of the market in order to try and strike a deal due to desperation.
Step 3: Transporting Your Skull:
To ensure we protect the integrity of your skull, we need to make sure we get it to your home/studio safely. If possible, I highly recommend that you bring a buddy to hold the skull on the drive back to your place (flea markets can be rather out of the way from civilization). DO NOT PUT THE SKULL IN YOUR TRUNK. It will break. Unless of course you cushion it with a copious amount of pillows and fluff. None the less, I don’t recommend it. I also recommend sitting your friend in the backseat with the horns pointed away from you (Final Destination anyone?).
Step 4: Cleaning and Priming:
Before you start painting your skull, we’re going to need to clean and prime it. First, have a good open space to paint, one in which you can turn the skull easily as well as a good space to flip and turn it. Next, if you’re not in a studio, put something underneath it. Newspaper, beer boxes, whatever. I just unfold Shiner boxes and let it be. Now it’s time to clean it. Grab a paintbrush and dust off your skull. Depending on the stripping process/elements that the skull was exposed to there may be quite a bit of dirt/dust/spiderwebs/and the occasional dead flesh eating beetle (these guys will drop out once you’ve flipped the skull out a few times). After it’s dusted, prime it. Use whatever you’re comfortable with though. And do NOT skip over this step. Sure, you can get away without priming some canvases, but with bone you’ll want to use it because the porous nature of the minerals. It’ll soak it up and create a fairly smooth and solid surface for you to paint on. Let it dry. Make sure to do the teeth as well. For a more detail, please see my post on preparing your skull and removing odor.
Step 5: Planning
Plan what your design is going to be. Don’t skimp on this step. Some quality thought and special attention to color can go a long way. I put together a Bull Skull Design Template that allows for you to print out a skull outline and to sketch out your ideas. (It’s actually the depiction of a bison skull but it’s more practical for drawing on, bulls are just too narrow)
Step 6: Painting
I start off by spray painting a base color if my design calls for it and at the very least I spray paint all of the interior cavities that I can reach (pays off down the road). If you spray paint be sure to wrap the horns. The first time I did this I used saran wrap and 4 rubber bands to protect the horns. Now I’ve started using old undershirts + rubber bands to protect them.
Unleash yourself. Warnings though: Be patient. Take your time. Bone is more difficult than canvas. Constantly check perspective (hold it up periodically as if it were hanging on a wall). Don’t be cheap about any part of it. Perhaps I’m a little too attentive, but I even go as far as detailing the inner-teeth/roof of the mouth.
Side note: Do not paint the horns. I personally think that is a waste. I consider myself an organic and those horns are absolutely raw and beautiful as they are. Your synthetic polymers only bastardize that bit of beauty.
Step 7: Finishing Touches
Be sure to go back over the details of your painting and look at the various fissures that are on the skull. Often it’s easy to leave a bunch of white showing from one angle, but not another.
Also. The rope around the horns. If your rope is anything like mine, it’s kind of ugly and blank looking. What I do is take a brown oil based stain + a few Q-tips and apply it to the rope. It creates a really nice grey/brown (kind of blends in with the horns no matter the color) that really fills in any “visual gaps.”
The final coat. Go to your local craft supply store and purchase some acrylic gloss. I buy Tree House Studios – Clear Acrylic – Gloss coating (once I finish the can I’m on though I’ll probably opt for the super gloss coating). Follow the instructions and apply a hefty coating to your skull. This will pretty much protect it from everything except hell’s wrath, not to mention it’ll give it a real nice professional shine. Make sure to cover the horns again and to let it dry for 24 hours in a well ventilated area before interacting with the skull again.
And there you go. You’re done. There are multiple ways to hang it. The way I do it is with some heavy duty wire wrapped around the neck vertebrae that’s attached to the head. BE SURE TO NOT DO IT AROUND ANY WEAK BONES. IT WILL FALL. Then just put it on a hook and you’re good to go. Enjoy!
P.S. – Use Pledge on the horns to polish them.
Here are some photos from the first skull I did.
Dedicated to the vastness and unique dimension of artistic expression that can be experienced on bones of animals, in particular, Texas longhorn skulls.