Mari Lwyd, Step By Step

by KillTheHero Studios

by KillTheHero Studios

I’ve had a few requests on my Deviant Art site ( to post a step-by-step showing how I create an acrylic painting. While I don’t really think of myself as any kind of amazing painter, I am always interested in how something is created, so I thought I’d do my first blog here bout my latest piece of art, Mari/Mari Lwyd.

I paint a lot of images inspired by my love of mythology and folklore, so my first step is always research. In this case I wanted to create an image of the Goddess Mari. Mari is known to the Basque people of France and Spain, but there is a lot of evidence that she was worshiped by the Celts. One such piece of evidence is the ritual of the Mari Lwyd, involving a contraption made of a horse’s skull, decorated in ribbons and flowers, used in a yearly ritual in Wales. So I wanted to paint both Mari herself, and the Mari Lwyd horse skull.

My first step was to choose reference photos to use. I wanted a woman who looked very Welsh (light skin, dark hair, British features), and I’ve also had a mad crush on Radeo Suicide for a long time, so I chose a published image from the Suicide Girls website of Radeo Suicide:


And an image of the Mari Lwyd:

524 - Chepstow, 3 Tuns, Heb Enw Mari

My next step is to draw the design on the canvas. I use willow charcoal: it is easy to correct mistakes and to fuss with, and it blends well into the acrylic paint. I started with drawing the figure of Mari (in the photo you can see the reference photo on my computer screen, and the drawing as I begin it):

Mari 2

After I draw in the Mari Lwyd, I begin filling in general areas of color. I always like to hone in on details of the eyes, lips, and nipples to begin. For the eyes I used Hooker’s Green, Pthalo Green, Green-Yellow, and Black.For the lips and nipples, Alizarin Crimson, Virmillion Hue, Windsor Violet and Titanium White. I used Yellow Ochre for the reigns. I filled in the basic shape of the mass of hair in Ultramarine Blue, which is the color that will lie under the Mars Black in the finished piece:

Mari 4

As I start to work with color, I sense the color harmonies I will use. I always work with a color wheel nearby, to check my color choices. Here’s a photo of my studio: you can see the area where I sit and paint, and the stuff that surrounds me; reference photos, books, color wheel, straight edges and angles, and piles of recent work. I always paint in natural light, it helps me see colors better. (My partner Lauren’s paintings are also there, leaning against the bass fiddle in the corner. She likes to copy illustrations from medieval manuscripts).

Mari studio 2

Once I have the drawing done well enough, and the smaller features filled in, I start to play with color and to fill in areas of shadow. Seeing the dark shadow areas helps me harmonize colors in the lighter areas. I used Windsor Violet, Alizarin Crimson and Payne’s Grey to begin filling in the darkest areas. I use very small brushes, by the way, including a 10 filbert, an 8 filbert, and a small angle shader:

Mari 5

Next I start working on lighter colors, on the Mari Lwyd skull, and on the background. In this case I filled in large fields of red (Alizarin Crimson and Virmillion Hue) and Cadmium Yellow. I also began the skin tones with a mix of Virmillion Hue and Titanium White

Mari 6

I continue developing the skin tones, the background colors, and the details of the face and body. I knew I wanted a very lively painting: it’s pretty static now, with the figure seeming ‘still.’ I planned to add the flowers, ribbons, and patches of color to add movement. For the skull I mixed a grey of Mars Black and Titanium White, as well as using some Payne’s Grey. For skin tones I continued using the mix of Virmillion Hue and Titanium White. I also began detailing the fabric sway from the horse skull.

Mari 8

Finally I began to add flowers and ribbons, and finalize the facial features, the colors and the shading, and go back over some smaller details. I used several yellows, reds and Powder Blue for the flowers. And here it is:

Mari Lwyd

Take a look at my Deviant Art page for an explanation of the mythology, and to see more of my paintings and photos:



  1. Noviah · November 12, 2015

    This has been an excellent breakdown of your process! Love your studio. My one hope is to see larger pictures next time, for a better look at the goings on in the pieces


    • KillTheHero Studios · November 13, 2015

      Done. I made them larger.



      • Noviah · November 14, 2015

        Oh yes, much better! Beautiful string bass


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