Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The Unreality of Realism; Walking the Tightrope Between Fact and Fiction, Part V

Introduction to Part V

Hello, again! We're back to this 5–Part series about the nature of reality in relation to equine realism, this being the last installment. We’ve touched on many subjects so far from how our perception colors reality to what we can learn from a “good convince” to the peculiars of a mental library to infusing a "soul" into our piece.

And now then it’s time to get to the fine line we actually walk as artists working in this field. Because know it or not, we each start a new one to walk with each new piece, and how well we tiptoe along depends on a few factors that help us keep our balance. So let’s get to tippytoeing!…

The Tightrope

In our ponderings here, we’ve explored many aspects realism entails, and so we may have a better understanding of where our heads and hearts need to be as we work. But all that said—how do we actually walk the line? 

We now come to our tightrope, one we each walk on our own. Our tightropes can’t be shared, since each of our experiences is distinct and singular. They also don’t cross or parallel because none of us perceives reality in quite the same way. To each of us, our reality is all we have, self–evident and complete, and so each of our tightropes is our’s alone to teetertotter aloft. Yet this is a good thing because it allows us to customtailor a truly effective perspective in relation to it, one that can guide us throughout all our efforts in this difficult art form. It also turns a critique into something more potentially useful by providing a totally unique view if our work, helping to pinpoint our blind spots more obviously.

All in all, too, walking a tightrope keeps us careful, keeps us measured and firmly–planted by asking us to make each step really count, to be more assured and secure. When we approach our work thusly, it’s more likely we’ll make lasting, meaningful advances rather than temporary, superficial ones. So what are some aspects of our tightrope we’ll have to balance?

First, perhaps, we need to remember that “anything goes if I like it” may not always be compatible with our chosen art form. We can’t forget we have rules to follow, and those rules are being written more precisely for us each time we improve. Leave it to us to create our own harder work! So if we seek to improve, we should expect our job to get naturally tougher, more demanding and exacting. If this is an enticing prospect, we’re in a good space. But if we think this will paint us into a tighter corner, this probably isn’t the most desirable art form to work in for the long–term only because this effect amplifies with progress. We need the rare ability to enjoy learning rules and, even more, to relish learning how to break them. But this is often easier said than done!

This is partly because working in equine realism is a bit of a slippery slope—a bit of improvement here necessitates a bit of improvement there, or a revelation there leads to a revelation here. Something always seems to lead to another. This ongoing, unpredictable cycle takes us to many tangents only to pull us back to the core of our task, like some crazy yo–yo. And this not only happens with each piece, but within our entire body of work, making our efforts more of a madcap rollercoaster ride rather than a steady ferris wheel. Unless we can remain happy and enthused in this kind of relentless unknown setting, we’re going to burn out rather quickly, or find undue frustration.

What’s more, if we’re uncomfortable with our sense of truth challenged on an almost per piece basis, we’re going to make ourselves unhappy. We should be able to defend our work since equine realism doesn’t care much about our feelings, or how much we think of our work. It also cares little for what we believe reality to be. It only cares about how much objectivity we can infuse into our work in any given piece, and that means we can’t get too comfortable or complacent. We should always think about challenging ourselves in significant, even scary ways so that we stay on our toes and stay hungry. This can be exhausting at times, so learning how to pace ourselves and take breaks will become an important survival skill to practice!

Because if we feel ourselves start to resent the kind of confinement realism introduces, which is normal, it may be time to indulge other creative outlets, if just as a temporary diversion. Because if the want for more realism doesn’t come naturally, with all the headache that entails, what’s the point? Creativity must first be natural and fun! So we shouldn’t become anxious if we need a break—this is to be expected from time to time. Our brain also needs down time to process information so while we’re indulging our other interests, our mind can work on issues at hand. This is why when we return to our studio, especially after another creative departure, we often have an “ah–ha” moment, or the famous “fresh eye.”

Believe it or not, a kind of discontentment in our work can cause us to unduly chase public kudos, too. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of this, since it helps to push us towards greater goals and bigger expectations, but we can run into problems if it starts to overtake our motivations or becomes a distraction. The thing is, each new piece ushers in a new kind of public adoration, and the public simply likes what it likes and there's often little making sense of it. And who are we to decide for them? If we spend most of our time trying to then, we’re in for a host of headaches, indeed. In the long–run, it’s best to create what we love, and leave the rest for serendipity. And when we love our work so much, how could we ever tire of creating it?

The same goes for perfection. As artists working in equine realism, each of us has a perfectionist bent to some degree, some more than others. It’s a double–edged sword, isn’t it? On one hand, it can propel our motivations to the dizziest heights while on the other, it can paralyze us with self–doubt. But we need it, nonetheless. Working in realism demands it, in fact; otherwise how do we achieve the almost OCD–like precision it requires? In this light, learning how to manage our perfectionist tendencies can be thought of as a route to creative maturity. Keeping things in perspective, and knowing when we’ve gone as far as we can go on a piece are as much about artistic sophistication as anything else. Indeed, there’s nothing wrong with perfectionism as long as it doesn’t drive us perfectly mad in the process!

Because, above all, we should find contentment in our work. Creating our art should be satisfying and deeply rejuvenating, something we eagerly look forward to at every opportunity. We can’t—and shouldn’t—always be on edge in our studios. Now a bit of tension is alright as it keeps us eager and striving. We need a flame burning in our bellies to ignite the want to push ourselves and grow. But overriding stress is simply destructive. It can cause us to pummel ourselves with doubt and failure, creating a negative feedback loop. So while there are artists who dazzle us with their seemingly magical abilities, remember they earned them through a lot of hard work. And like them we can, too, when we apply ourselves. Don't forget that realism is a process—our brain needs time and practice to work out all the technicalities, and all this happens in its own head space. If patience is a virtue in life, it’s a downright survival skill in equine realism!

The point is, it’s often better to gently nudge our brain into the right direction rather than beat it relentlessly. Don’t expect to get it all at once. And know that some aspects will come easily while we’ll have to work harder at others. We even may have to revisit specific aspects for clarification, perhaps repeatedly. Nothing wrong with that—this is how we learn. Just keep at it because all these small cumulative baby–steps add up to big, eventual leaps! Truly, we may not be aware of it at the time, indeed we may adamantly not see it whatsoever, but our perception is making progress with each piece whenever we push our expectations. 

It’s also useful to think about each step in an emotional context—which part contains the most electricity for us? If we do preliminary sketches before we start a piece, for example, do they contain the essential energy of our concept? Does this energy get translated into the finished work? If not, how did it get lost? Or if in the initial claying-up of the armature or blocking-in of our paint job, how can we keep this energy infused throughout the process to the end? How much about our ability to perceive reality and recreate it lies in the thrill of it? The challenge and the immediacy of reality cannot be denied, but they also can be intimidating and overwhelming. We’re drawn to this binding art form for a reason, and perhaps at the core it’s because we find real life exciting. If we can keep that enthusiasm infused into the creative process, this can add fuel to our creative fires to help us steam through the eventual difficulties.

It’s also important to understand that the discipline of realism will test our mettle—are we up to it? Our skills, knowledge base, gumption, and verve will be put to the test with each new piece since equine realism won’t ever let us rest, for the most part. We’ll be asked to give 100% each time when we apply ourselves because that’s what it takes not only to work in this genre, but especially to improve in it. And that’s a lot to ask of any artist, all the time. Seriously, there will be times when we just want to let our hair down—so to speak—and just cruise along. To a point, too, we can do this, since our experience and choice of subject matter can help us here. And it’s important to do this from time to time, too. All work and no play—well, let’s just say it can wear us down. But there are ways to reframe hard work, too. When we can turn something challenging into something playful, we’ve done ourselves a great favor!

Equine realism will challenge us to find our own self–affirming criteria as well, those points we apply to our work to determine if our efforts have been successful or not. Kudos and show placings may be great, but unless they align with our long–term goals, they can be an inadequate means to gauge our progress. And there are few things more frustrating than to have been taken off track by incompatible criteria! These gauges will be different for each of us, but adopt them we should to avoid stressing ourselves over things that just aren't relevant to our prerogatives.

This art form will test us another way, too: we’ll discover great things about ourselves we may not have anticipated. That’s because this discipline will ask us to confront our own inner demons as we work in order to purify our perception. Insecurity, inadequacy, indecision, laziness, anxiety, arrogance, cattiness, stubbornness, denial, prejudice—all our worst parts will be magnified during the process of refining our perception. That’s because we’ll be having to confront our own individual interpretation of reality—in particular, how it could be quite wrong—and we cannot do that effectively without practicing some pretty heavy–duty introspection.

And these are the very things that can hold us back, being elements of that little voice that says “we can’t” and the impulse that tempts us to swipe at someone who can. In many ways then, the process of increased perception is a kind of cleansing, a purging of the debris of what we think to be true in favor of what is actually more true. And if we’re doing this right, if we’re really digging in, this can be an uncomfortable and perhaps a bit threatening endeavor, causing us to become uneasy, or even irritated at times. But the only way around it is through it: to accept a truer version of reality means we must first disprove our old one, and that isn’t always the most pleasant of experiences. It can be hard to let go of so much that underpinned our ego and previous successes in order to accept newer realities with increased humility. But practice this enough times and it gets easier, and the easier it becomes, the easier popping on new reality glasses gets, with wonderful results for our work! The pay–off is so worth the effort and angst!

Because truth be told, one of the worst ways to self–sabotage our efforts is to stay married to the reality that panders to our ego. And our interpretations, our methods, our processes, our way of working, our habits, our aesthetics, our goals, our likes and dislikes, our successes, our failures—everything involved in what we do in our art is part of "our reality." We may feel more comfortable, perhaps more reinforced, justified, and affirmed, but if that reality is flawed—and how do we know?we’re going to have eventual problems with objectivity. Only through humility—with ourselves, our work, our methods, our subject, and with each othercan our abilities grow since that provides the creative parallax, so to speak, for us to gain ground. When we can cooly accept that our version of reality may be flawed—especially when it provided great success and popularity—we open ourselves to new ones, and that’s the pathway to improvement. 

In this sense, each piece will ask us to unlearn what we've learned in order to introduce a new version of reality. Indeed, when we get stuck, or when we're fighting a piece unduly, that usually means a new version of reality is trying to introduce itself, only we aren't listening. There's a big difference between "muscling through it" and simply railroading a piece. Taking a break and paying attention to what the piece is trying to tell us—to let it guide us—is usually the far better strategy, not just for the piece itself, but also for our longterm development. Indeed, when we learn to take a step back and let each piece become our guide into a bigger reality—when we turn the creation of our portfolio into a kind of broader exploration—do we actually take a step forward into amplified improvement and intensified curiosity.

And curiosity is essential for realism. In fact, we can think of equine realism itself as a kind of materialization of our shared curiosity as each of us explore what it means to be "equine." Indeed, it's our inquisitiveness that leads us down the roads we take with our aims or our media, and it's our curiosity that gets fed when we cram our heads full of new information. It's our questioning that compels us to take on more ambitious work, and it's our searching that leads us to adopt the methods and compositions we do. Most of all, it's our investigations that ask us to dump those methods, media, or mentalities that hold us back in lieu of new ones that propel us forward. In contrast, we stagnant when we lose our curiosity. We just go through the motions, don't we? We fall back on our habits and conventions, and simply create work on "cruise control," often relying on our fame and familiarity to carry these works. As a result, such pieces become as routine as our sensibilities so it should come as no surprise when they get lost in the din of work out there, or even within or own portfolio. Without curiosity, our reality becomes lackluster and uninspired, and it shows in our work. So critical it is, in fact, that it defines the difference between those who'll plateau and coast from those who'll forge steadily forwards towards greater heights of achievement. If we wish to grow and evolve then, and to create a portfolio of truly standout work, staying curious is by far our best tactic. 

Another means to walk our proverbial tightrope is to consciously engage our balance of reality and unreality. We can do this through a series of questions we ask ourselves at the start of each new piece, such as:
  • Why do I choose to create within realism? Has this motivation evolved as I developed? How do I see it evolving in the future?
  • What aspects are so important to me that they’re nonnegotiable elements even in my pursuit of more realism?
  • Can I see where I went wrong and also where I was right in my previous work? How can I avoid the mistakes while still perpetuating the desirable elements?
  • What’s my confidence level with my art? In what areas am I more confident, and in which am I more unsure?
  • Do I believe in my work? Can I defend it? 
  • Do I find myself bouncing between different people’s opinions about my work without one of my own?
  • What will be the measure by which I gauge the achievement of my goal? Is it an objective measure?
  • What are the favorite aspects about my work and process? Which are my least favorite, and perhaps seek to change?
  • What new thing do I wish to accomplish with this piece? Why are those aspects new, and why haven’t I tried them before?
  • Am I willing to have all my preconceptions and notions about reality challenged, and potentially proven wrong? Can I accept this without taking it personally? And even when it compromises the validity of my previous work?
  • What do I plan to do when I realize my version of reality is flawed? Keep with the status quo or make big changes?
  • What am I willing to do to improve? Am I willing to make sacrifices, such as spend money and energy for workshops or classes, or keep working at it relentlessly until it’s right, or take time from the studio for research? Do I have access to horses for life study, and am I willing to devote hours to such observations?
  • What about this piece will ask me to engage pro–active education? What new aspect will it demand of me to get it right?
  • Do I plan to visit shows, exhibitions, galleries, collections, and museums in order to study realistic works in person?
  • How dedicated am I to my art? Am I content to achieve a certain level and then coast, or do I want to push my capabilities indefinitely? 
There are no wrong answers to these questions, there are only our answers. Each of us finds our own equilibrium in the duality between reality and unreality in our ongoing internal dialogue, but the point is to engage it. Actively contemplating the question, “What is reality?” when we take up brush or clay allows us to create within a conscious act, and only then do we start opening up those parts of our creative self that feed on this kind of self–awareness. Do this enough times and ironically we find that our realistic creativity becomes progressively and unconsciously easy, and our ability to see objective reality becomes easier and comes more naturally. We finally begin to gain more clarity, not only making our work easier to create, but setting us up for new challenges that take our work to even more ambitious heights of realism and meaning.

Learning to think about what we’re doing while we’re doing it is a useful trick. It keeps us on target in the grand arc of our goals as well as helping us ensure that each piece is a progressive stepping stone to those goals. We don’t need a plan per se, but at least a guiding trend that keeps us forging ahead in ways that makes sense to our prerogatives. Allowing our work to “stack up” in meaning and depth in this manner feeds our enthusiasm, challenges our sensibilities, and refines our skills in ways that not only let us walk that tightrope, but dance on it, too! Our efforts will appear more effortless, our work more play, and our sensibilities more rooted in fact and objectivity, and all that comes back to reaffirm our work in ways unattainable otherwise.

In the end then, increasing degrees of realism can only be achieved by an open mind, one capable of perceiving a new reality when needed. Allowing a fixed, unyielding way of perceiving reality to compromise this necessary, unfolding transformation won't only stunt our growth, but can also cause us to work against ourselves. Equine realism is hard enough—why make it harder?

Conclusion to The Unreality of Realism

It’s easy to become discouraged in equine realism. Heck, we bit off a lot more than most people would ever want to chew in a lifetime! The important thing then is to not give up. If we truly love realistic equine art, then we owe it to ourselves to find a way to work through the frustrations because—above all—they are transitory. 

No realism artist, no matter how experienced or skilled, simply bangs out a brilliant sculpture with blithe ease. They batter themselves earning it. So while it’s easy to become annoyed, even angry, remember that these emotions are coming from gaps in our understanding—and gaps can be filled. Root down to the source of that anger then, and perhaps we can find a useful insight, some core truth we can put to good work. Never forget that like our frustrations, our annoyances and angers are also transitory.

Take small bites—don’t bite off big chunks to choke on them! It’s better to gain a thorough understanding of one stage than an incomplete one of multiple stages. Learning to create realistically takes time, so don’t expect too much, too fast. And when we fall off our proverbial horse, get back on! Mistakes are part of the process of learning, so don’t fear them. Every seasoned talent has been earned through a plethora of mistakes and detours, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

In many ways, the search for realism can be thought of as a search for greater clarity of perception. In turn, we apply this clarity to make more informed creative decisions. The more we perceive of objective reality then, the more we can make useful sense of it to stay true to our goals. Not everything found in reality may be a good fit for our art work, so being able to actively and intelligently filter through it all lends credibility to our work and validity to our criteria. These two aspects together give us something to stand on when we must eventually defend our work, or muscle through a creative direction—we need them.

And because realism cannot be described in words, it has to be seen, and deeper still, it has to be felt. It’s only through our eyes and our gut that we can judge between reality and unreality, and clarity is something that’s learned and earned. As we refine our expectations then, we refine our Eye, and so it goes in an endless cycle to unfurl ever more reality for us, inevitably and naturally. 

Despite all this, it’s perhaps most important to remember our passion—the equine. Looking to him for guidance, inspiration and a warm, fuzzy, horse–smelling shoulder to cry on when we need it (and we will) can do much to keep us motivated when our own abilities seem to conspire against us. Always remember, if we engage our art with a sincere, eager heart, tackling this realism thing really isn’t so impossible! We can get real with reality, and in ways so profoundly helpful, it’s unreal!

"Artistically I am still a child with a whole life ahead of me to discover and create. I want something, but I won't know what it is until I succeed in doing it." ~Alberto Giacometti


Sunday, October 11, 2015

The Unreality of Realism; Walking the Tightrope Between Fact and Fiction, Part IV

Introduction to Part IV

Hello again! We're continuing this 5–Part series exploring the nature of realism as it relates to realistic equine art. We’ve already digested quite a bit about equine realism and some of the concerns it entails when we try to actually recreate it. There’s nothing easy or straightforward about it! In the previous installment, for example, we explored many of the qualities of the "good convince," that type of equine sculpture or finishwork that appears realistic at first, but lacks the fundamentals of realism when we pick it apart.

As before, presented examples come from the collection at Brookgreen Gardens, America's largest sculpture garden located in beautiful South Carolina. So to continue this exploration, let’s delve into more issues we'll encounter when we wrestle with equine reality in this fourth installment…off we go!

More to Reality than Meets the Eye

We can probably now understand that realism is more complicated than simply duplicating what we see! We also recognize the need for precision when we speak of realistic art because only by using exacting language can we reinforce the difference between looking real and actually being more real—the difference between a recognizable horse and an actual horse—and so better realign our work towards more helpful goals. We also see that realism isn’t produced simply by being knowledgeable about equine biology. We need to be adept at applying that knowledge, too. In other words, knowing and doing are two different things when it comes to equine realism. 

This brings us to one of our best and most helpful tools: a solid mental library. Born of life study and an attentive study of references, we draw upon it constantly to guide our hands. And while we can know a great deal about anatomy and color genetics, we still can lack a sufficient mental library to direct that knowledge into our clay or pigment. Again, because interpretation and translation are two different things.

Complicating matters is this: our skill set in equine realism is simultaneously highly specialized and absurdly interdisciplinary. Sounds like a contradiction, doesn’t it? Sure does! Nonetheless, we need a very specialized skill set built on wearing a dizzying array of hats if we ever hope to cast an effective illusion. In fact, the more hats we wear well, the better our work. But what farrier will have to marry our knowledge of anatomy, art technique, and composition? How many veterinarians will have to know our proportional tricks, techniques with pigment, or sculptural knowledge about muscles?

Our work is also a progression of skill and expectation, since a mental library is built up over concerted time and effort. It takes work and care to build up an effective one, and in many ways, it’s what defines a beginner from a seasoned artist; the better the mental library, the more experienced we can say the artist. What’s more, equine realism is a balance of qualities, each maximized to the full effect we can muster at the moment. No one comes to their media fully prepared the first time!

And we use our mental library all the time. Indeed, it’s not our books, charts, or diagrams that first speak in our ear—it’s our mental library, that little inner voice, that first tells us when something is “off.” Ultimately, too, it’s a mental library that helps us to make our sculptures unique individuals contained inside complete and unique moments. As our experience with the living subject grows, not only are we exposed to more personalities and phenotypes, more coat effects and colors, but we also gain a deeper understanding of equine reality—we simply gain more experience to then infuse into our media. Then, in doing so, this allows our portfolio to express the fuller breadth of our potential and the subject’s reality.

For example, plenty of people know what an equine scapula looks like and how it moves. But that’s not enough for our purposes. This is why veterinarians aren’t automatically infallible realistic equine artists, and why those of us without veterinarian degrees can create credible realistic work. In order to truly understand biology sculpturally, we need to recognize the possibilities within nature and apply them in a situation–specific way. So, for example, studying the equine scapula in life as functioning in many different circumstances and in many different equines amasses a mental database full of various possibilities we can then draw from when we sculpt. Or inspecting the coat of many different chestnuts under many different conditions and conditioning provides us with a wealth of mental library fodder we can apply to our pigments. This is a very different way of interpreting the animal than any other equine professional, another reason why our skill set is so unique and uniquely expansive.

When it comes to a mental library, life study doesn’t have to be “active,” either. Simply paying attention around horses can be useful because when we do, there’s a passive sub–routine at work in our perceptions that programs into our minds what looks right and what’s possible. The more hours we log then, the more we expand our library. This is why we’ll often find artists perfectly content to watch horses move from the sidelines for no other reason than to watch. Or why an artist may get excited over the prospect of horses in a neighborhood parade. Any encounterno matter how casualwith our subject is potentially useful! Keen observation is our first step, and it should never turn “off.”

But here again we find another pesky Catch–22: how do we determine what looks right and what the possibilities are if we don't have a baseline to compare against? That’s because a mental library has no context without an understanding of anatomy or color genetics, and it’s this reciprocal interdependence that spawns the yin and yang of realistic art. Put another way, we may have a solid mental library in our heads, but without some fixed foundation in facts, it can be hard to fully apply. Our practical knowledge (our mental library) simply needs scholarly knowledge (our anatomical or color references) to have a basis of relative comparison. We can think of the latter as being a springboard for the former, in this regard. So this is why life study and book–smarts go hand–in–hand, and it’s also why a dependence on only one eventually leads to frustration—one without the other is incomplete. 

Yet like the theme of balance found in many other points made in this discussion, it’s at this intersection where the balance between reality and unreality can be unintentionally uncoupled. 

For instance, without a deep mental library, we may not be able to create beyond our biological comfort zone provided by anatomical or color references. Because of this, the depiction of all our sculptures or finishworks can start to homogenize and develop a kind of inorganic artificiality, since the scholarly work we draw from is inherently limited. Indeed, it’s easy to become too dependent on one kind of anatomical interpretation, one found in an anatomy chart, and become needlessly timid about expressing the countless options nature actually offers us. In similar fashion, our finishwork can become unrealistically uniform if we cannot appreciate all the variability color genetics and circumstance present. For instance, what about Bend Or spots on a chestnut, fading on a black mane, or unique splotching on a sooty buckskin? Effective realistic painting is as much about capturing the individual genetics and circumstance as it is about duplicating characteristic coat effects.

Without a good mental library, we may also not be able to ever identify our persistent blind spots. If we study the work of artists who tend to get things right, or we identify those aspects of our work that most ring true, we usually find a broader mental library guided those features since it was less likely that mistakes would slip through. In fact, one of the best antidotes to a blind spot is life study paired with keen analysis of good reference materials using objective means to measure and compare (such as calipers).

Strategically using a photo–editing program, like Photoshop®, can help us build a solid mental library, too, while also correcting any unconscious skews. For instance, using it to alter the scale of a photo is a useful technique, especially helpful with finishwork when it comes to the correct scale of effects. Scaling down a fleabit dapple grey reference to 1:32 scale, for example, can really help us better picture how those coat effects should look on our miniature piece. This is useful for sculpture, too. For example, scaling down a reference photo of an Arabian to 1:32 shows us the true scale of what those joints, cannons, facial features, and ears should be, things that will be necessary to attain with our sculpting tools. We can apply this to braiding as well, this being a highly effective tool for such use. Do this enough times and our mental library automatically becomes better attuned to scale.

Altogether then, it’s clear that the careful, keen observation we practice in life is equally as important as the book–smarts we’ve cultivated if we hope to gain a more reliable perception of reality. Plus, these two approaches practiced together can help us attain more objectivity, allowing us to exchange those “reality glasses” almost anytime we wish!

Along those lines, anatomy charts and diagrams are immensely useful as guides, but if we supplant life itself with them, we run the risk of falling short of our goals just as easily as making things up. Here, too, the objectivity of an illustration should be balanced with the subjectivity of life to help us recreate a convincing depiction of equine reality in inert media. (For more discussion on this topic please refer to the blog post Now About Those Anatomy Charts…Parts 1–2.)

Beyond Reality

So what does all this mean? What’s the gist of it all? Okay, let’s step back a moment and consider an idea, one that can help us organize all these thoughts into something coherently useful…

Just as there are many ways to convey reality in either sculpture or pigment, there are different ways to artistically approach that reality, too. What the heck does that mean?! Well, while there’s more than one way to communicate reality, there’s also more than one way to compose it. Said another way, the composure of a piece can be a separate element from our design, or simply put, we can distill this into two polar opposites along a sliding scale, specifically, a representational way to express reality and a naturalistic way. Understanding these poles and the gradients between them can help us when we compose our pieces. So…

The representational approach tends to focus on “just the facts, ma’am.” It’s literal, clinical, often idealized, and meant to exemplify an object such as an ideal breed specimen, or an ideal movement such as the passage. The core nature of the work is that it represents something, almost like a technical illustration. Portraiture fits under this category, since it’s meant to literally represent a specific individual.

In contrast, the naturalistic approach aims to depict the equine experience, much like wildlife art. It’s meant more to convey an idea, and one that often elicits emotions, memories, or psychological responses. Basically, it seeks to capture the fuller experience of “equineness" because the intent is more to capture the animal doing something, typically “horsey,” rather than being something, typically humanidealized. For instance, a depiction of a pony scratching his head, a bucking horse, or a horse with a swishy tail and droopy lip, falling asleep. And any aspect that may be representational, in this situation, is incidental rather than the point of the piece.

The same can be said of finishwork. A paintjob that’s meant to represent “overo” as an iconic portrayal, for example, can be quite different from one that just happens to be “overo.” To illustrate, the former will often be done as through the animal was meticulously show–groomed, with perfectly clean white expanses, and perhaps blackened hooves. It’s meant to represent “overo” in the most idealized form. In contrast, the more naturalistic approach would add perhaps some staining to the mane and tail, muzzle, and even perhaps the lower legs along with natural “pasture hooves.” It’s “overo” in the natural environment, idiosyncracies and all, not meaning to represent a perfect coat. 

Now granted, much equine realism lies along a sliding scale between these two poles, and that’s a good thing. Equine realism should have ambiguity, or room to express on multiple levels. Nevertheless, understanding these two basic poles can help us figure out what we’re doing and why, as an overall arch to our work, or with each individual piece. When we recognize that equine realism can be about iconic representation as well as about natural novelty, not only do we gain more clarity, but we also perhaps expand our possibilities. We also see that neither pole has a monopoly on expressing the equine experience. A literal approach need not have any less “life” than a wildlyposed depiction when planned accordingly. And we can play within the sliding scale between them, even blend specific elements of each in novel ways.  

Being so, however, there’s a critical component that both must share—“life.” Essential for our ends, those pieces with it gain the most attention, which is an important phenomenon to notice. This is because "life" incites a reaction, causing us to respond with our own experience and psyche, that that’s a powerful and desirable effect. This suggests that realism isn’t about just capturing clinical reality in a bottle, like an anatomy chart in clay. It requires something beyond that cool objectivity to entice our imagination and give our illusion anima. In this sense, objectivity needs some subjectivity to provide that necessary “oomph” that makes our piece compelling and emotionally fulfilling. 

So how do we infuse this “life” into our work? How can we inject more "equine–ness" into our piece to help it shudder to life?

The primary way is through equine expression. This is a topic we’ll get to in another series, but meanwhile, it’s important to understand that the equine not only has a plethora of facial expressions, but a host of others throughout his whole body. Indeed, the equine is emotion in motion embodied, even while just standing. A crook of the brow, a tension in the chin, a shift in balance, or shake of the tail, a flick of an ear…minute quirks such as these can really bring a sculpture to life. It’s not all about elaborate postures and wild expressions! Equines are even more about subtle motions, revealing an ongoing series of communicative expressions from the nuanced to the overt. The equine never stops expressing with his body, and every touch we add to our media injects life and moment to our piece in potent, appealing ways.

For instance, the look of the eyes is important—it’s said the eyes are the window to the soul, for good reason! How the lids convey softness, tension, piqued interest, or other inner emotions is immensely important, able to add quite a bit of anima all by themselves. Plus equines use their brows and lids quite a bit, too, and since they’re some of the few fleshy, mobile portions of the head, we get to play with them with wonderful results—so have at it!

Equines also express through the tension or relaxation of their muzzles, so study the lips, chin, and even the nostrils for changes that suggest emotional feedback. We all know the magic of a “pooky lip” when a horse is “full of beans,” for instance, and we’re all familiar with a pinched lower lip when he’s pugnacious or stressed. As for the chin itself, it’s highly expressive, too! When it’s bulbous and droopy it can indicate relaxation whereas when pinched and bunched it can suggest excitement or disquiet.

And don’t forget the ears! They’re beacons of equine expression that never stop moving. For instance, they can clearly indicate what’s grabbing his attention while at the same time indicate how lively and attentive he is to his surroundings. They can reveal if he’s in a happy, good mood, or as we all know when they’re laid back, when he’s grumpy or angry. Ears are so revealing, in fact, we can think of them as little flags perched on top of his head, broadcasting much about his inner world to us.

But just as much, study his whole body when trying to decipher his expression. His physical reactions to his experience are clearly communicated through his entire physique, and it’s a lot of fun to pick out those quirks to infuse them into our clay. For example, study balance shifts, leaning, or muscle tensions and relaxations—how he holds his body in any given moment can divulge a lot. Or when he’s relaxed, his muscles soften and his motion becomes more fluid while, in contrast, his muscles become tense and his motion more rigid when he’s stressed. Or if he's feeling feisty and full of it, his motion can become more bursting, springy, and "popy." His body is very much a billboard for his emotions, and once we learn to read it, we have ample fodder for our media.

In particular, study emotion as it’s expressed through the spine. Because all motion begins there, equines express emotions through it as well! For instance, the posture of the neck, the tension of the back, the angle of the sacrum and the behavior of the tail all conspire to provide us a treasure trove of expressive communication. They also work as an entire system, and each of their contributions can add up to a lot of emotional content.

For instance, let’s consider the spine of a show–stretched Morgan stallion, in the first situation fired–up and in the second, calm and mellow. To convey his excitement and impulsiveness in the first example, even in the relative composure of a show–stretch, we could elevate and add tension and arch to his neck, perhaps tucking and tipping his head to the side to peek at us, then hollow out his back a snidge more and so add more level to his sacrum, and finally flag his tail. This would indicate an active, “squiggly” spine that’s about to burst into movement any second. Now let’s consider the second, a low–key example. Here we could relax his neck and open the throat. We would leave his topline more full and smooth while at the same time allow his sacrum to remain in a more rested position. Finally, we can have that tail sitting calmly or just slightly arched, to flow serenely through his hind legs. This is how the spine can express emotions, too.

But we don’t just have expression in our arsenal! We also have composition, a powerful tool that expands the possibilities within the genre. While realism doesn’t allow us to get away with much, it does encourage a deft application of design to elevate our work. This is why savvy artists carefully plan their sculptures to forward an idea, narrative, or evoke an emotion—they don’t just plow into a sculpture without some kind of governing concept. It’s this story that guides all the creative choices for the piece such as how it’s positioned, how body parts flow, how the expression is portrayed, what equine behavior is unfurled, how physics come into play, etc.

For example, how we position our sculpture in terms of the flow of line and curve, the orientation of an angle, or the eye being pulled effectively to various areas of interest can add dynamic life to our piece. Equines move gracefully, almost musically, and paying attention to every tidbit of our sculpture helps to forward that idea. The grand arch of a crest, the round power of the hindquarter, the snappy action of the knee or hock, the appealing musculature of the shoulder—every curve, bend, alignment, edge, intersection, bulge, and depression add up to a symphony of structural relationships that can make our sculpture sing.

Learning to pull the eye around the piece fluidly or abruptly, or a mix of the two, can do much to forward the “feel” of a piece as well. For instance, a triangle–type of composition can enhance the impression of excitement or precipitous motion whereas a circular–type of composition can impart a controlled, coiled sense of power. As for finishwork, how we orient blocks of color or pattern can do much to accentuate a piece to flatter it best just as much what color we chose for it. The line of a blaze down the face, for instance, can really complement the profile, or the placement of a tobiano pattern can enhance the look of the hindquarter. So when it comes to our task, it’s just not what we do that’s important, but also how we do it.

To that end, being sensitive to motion and the changeability in life can also help us. The equine is constantly moving—yes, even a standing horse is moving! There’s always something going on with him whether it's the wisp of mane, the wiggle of a relaxed muscle, the twitch of the muzzle—there’s life energy and moment infused into him. So if our design can capture that mercurial kinetic energy, we’ve taken one more step towards actual realism. 

In addition, horses don’t just move like paper dolls, rigid and locked, but fluidly and lively. The skeleton may have fixed points of articulation, but those points are dynamic! So instead of thinking of a horse as a jointed horse toy, where we just bend and flex and call it a day, think of him as a slinky supported by four jointed legs attached by rubber bands to the “torso.” There’s so much shifting going on just to stay upright, let alone move!

For that then, coordination and balance, and the accompanying muscle tensions and relaxations, are immensely useful to forward our goal. Understanding how to decipher all these subtle actions in the living horse helps us to impart them in our sculpture, and they really go far to infuse energy. The subtle twist of the spine, the coiling of the pelvis, the tension reflected in the musculature of a planted leg, the shift of the forequarter in relation to the hindquarter, or how the body’s weight is shifted and shared between the legs and what that means for the pasterns, and many other such effects all play their part. Put them all together and they result in a piece that appears alive and animated, like it could walk off the table. When our eye is tricked into believing a sculpture could move at any moment because it’s moving fluidly like a real equine, we’ve taken yet another step towards realism.

When it comes to anatomy, too, it’s not all about the skeleton! The flesh—or “goo”—that encases it is a whole different matter. Flesh shifts, slides, smooshes, and pooches as the skeleton moves, causing muscle masses to distort and morph into forms other than what we see in an anatomy diagram. By the same token, the hide—which is typically stripped off in dissection—is rich in texture that lends interest and idiosyncracies to the coat. What’s more, ripples, stretching, wrinkles, moles, veins, bulges, and depressions all confer life to our sculpted surfaces, a kind of reality that takes our sculpture beyond the flat anatomy chart and into the pasture. So don’t forget the magic of flesh and hide! (For more discussion on this topic, please refer to the blog post The Goo Factor.)

These and many other compositional elements work together to forward the idea of reality just as much as biology (we’ll get into this in detail in another series). Indeed, realism is as much about energy, feel, and our reaction to this majestic animal as it is about accurate depiction. That means our work’s ability to incite emotions and inspired responses is just as important as structure. Truly, realism is best served when our work is compelling as well as correct.

For this, though, our design does best when these things are harmonized together as a whole. One odd bit, errant angle, or overdone (or underdone) element can interrupt that energy and flow to disrupt the eye which, ultimately, compromises our illusion. For example, a prancing piece with a foreleg stretched too far forwards can cause the eye to shoot out of the composition rather than being folded back in. Or the planted upright foreleg on a galloping sculpture tends to “stop” the sense of speedy, flowing forward motion, and so it's often better to portray that foreleg slightly angled backward to amplify the sense of coursing speed. Many bases are problematic in this regard as upright supportive posts have the same “stopping” effect. 

Overall then, it could be said then that composition and design helps to transform a realistic piece into something transcendental, elevating the genre beyond the clinical. And so a degree of contrivance isn’t only acceptable, but necessary to make our work really come alive. There’s nothing wrong with artistic license if it forwards the goal of creating a compelling realistic illusion that elicits an emotional response.

But structurally piecing together a realistic work isn’t the whole story—again, we also must breathe life into it! There should be something about the piece that makes it appear as though it has a true living soul. In a sense, we each are a Dr. Frankenstein in our respective studios since our creations won’t live until we breath the essence of life into them. So somehow we must capture the spark of anima, a living spirit, and suffuse our piece with it.

And that can only begin one way: we connect with this animal for who he is, as a living being, autonomous and self–contained, and beyond merely what he does for us. When we can shed our fixation on utility we impose on himour humancentric focus—we can begin to appreciate this animal as a kindred soul. We can then start to perceive him as a sovereign individual attempting to makes sense of the perplexing world of these strange, demanding bipeds, and imbued with his own emotions, motivations, and agendas that are curious and quirky. Each animal has a reality all his own—just like us. 

And here’s the elusive mystery of realistic art—the quick of our flame. Along with all the other necessary skills, we should cultivate great sensitivity and humility if we are to peek inside this animal’s spirit. Too often we can get caught up in what we do with horses and forget to appreciate them just as they are, simply being horses. We also can fall in love with a certain breed, discipline, or ideal—human-made contrivances—and forget to fall in love with horses. We can get too wrapped up in our methods, or become distracted by our goals or deadlines, and forget the profundity of our subject and lose sight of the fragile element we’re trying to capture. So while it’s important to remember what they do for us, what they do for our soul is even more essential. One soul recognizes another, speaks to another, so when we can contemplate how they touch ours can we begin to touch theirs.

In a sense, therefore, we need to fall in love with each piece we're creating so that this synchronicity flows out of our hands and into our media. Truly, if we don’t have a passion for the soul we’re creating, we’re going to miss it—we’ll certainly end up creating the body, but not all the “inner stuff” that brings that body to life. Because only when our piece has a soul can it capture our heart like a real horse would, and that’s as much a part of realism as anything else.   

This brings us to a cardinal tenet of realism—remembering the context of our creativity. While we’re busily trying to infuse objectivity into our work, it’s important to remember why we’re creating this kind of work in the first place. It’s not really to become more technically proficient, and it’s not to master our media—that's just incidental to this art form. Our real motivation, what truly drives us, is our love of the equine. At the core then, we’re not only creating technical realism but, even more, we’re materializing those wonderful steeds that gallop in our dreams and who feed our fascination. We’re recreating this magnificent beast as an hommage, and when we come to our work with this kind of respect, we’ll definitely produce a portfolio that rings true.

This also happens to be how we take our work out of the confines of our media and into the realm of personal meaning, which when all is said and done, is the true essence of realistic art. Not only does our work have to read realistically to our head, it has to feel realistically in our heart. We know we’ve hit our mark then when our work isn’t only more realistic, but also pushes someone's buttons on a deeply personal level. Triggering a memory, seizing hold of the heart, igniting the magic, endearing itself to someone—we can’t duplicate reality more authentically than that!

Conclusion to Part IV

Yet more to mull over! It’s so interesting to learn how our work is a balance of reality and unreality, and that how we perceive reality is actually a form of unreality. Know it or not, these two things are inseparably married in our work, and that’s where all the fun stuff happens!

In the final installment then, we’ll discuss the actual tightrope we walk each time we take tool to clay or pigment. There will be a lot to discuss and ponder, but it should be a fun exploration!

So until next time…grab your balancing staff!

"Experiment, experiment, experiment—until it finally flows from within you. It is a hard road. But the result is also a deep inner satisfaction." ~Jack Dickerson

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Saturday, October 10, 2015

The Unreality of Realism; Walking the Tightrope Between Fact and Fiction, Part III

Introduction to Part III

Welcome back to this 5–Part blog series exploring the nature of realism as it applies to realistic equine art. So far we've addressed our perception, some of the demands realism asks of us, the issue of blind spots, and the nonnegotiable components of realistic equine sculpture or finishwork.

In this Part III, we're going to address some issues pertaining to those works that may appear realistic, but may be lacking in those fundamental qualities that would actually make them more realistic. As before, examples provided come from Brookgreen Gardens, the premier American sculpture garden located in South Carolina. If you have the opportunity to visit, it's a must–see. You won't be disappointed! Anyway, enough jabbering and onto discussion…

Unreal Realism

We come now to the issue of the “good convince,” that work which appears to recreate reality accurately, but actually doesn’t. Or rather, there's a big difference between a recognizable horse (figurative equine art) and an actual horse (realistic equine art) when it comes to our chosen art form. (For more discussion on this issue, please refer to the ongoing blog series The Method, The Madness and the Mystery.)

And the problem is a sticky one. On one hand, we may find such work quite appealing regardless, which is finewe love particular artworks for our own reasons, and that's a good thing. Yet on the other hand, this can confuse the issue of realism into almost impossible tangles, creating an arena of doubt that can be detrimental if we’re unable to recognize this kind of work for what it is. In turn, this can cause us problems when we're trying to identify our own blind spots, or muddle those features we must balance when making our own creative decisions—and we can get stuck againIt can also set up obstacles for developing artists new to this genre by obscuring the issues of objectivity.

Now granted, all realistic equine artwork can be regarded as "good convinces" by definition since we cannot recreate reality with total accuracy—we aren’t equine DNA. And no artist is ever perfectly objective when it comes to realism, and never will be. That said, however, we must remember that the basis of this art form—biological objectivity—is, in part, learnable, teachable, and able to be improved. That's to say, we can make our work "more realistic" when we fold more biological accuracy into our work, the primary goal we work towards throughout our careers. And our brains can be tricked by the most effective works, something we find both thrilling and desirable.

When it comes to the good convince then, “looking real” may be effective enough, because our brains so want to be tricked, but when it comes to equine realism, we haven't gone far enough. Again, our brains can discern different degrees of increased realism within the believability bubble, so those works that once appeared realistic at first may reveal fundamental errors when dissected from a biological standpoint—and this is the nature of the good convince. When we too quickly embrace the “no” of the question, "Is reality a universal constant?," we can miss some important insights that could have been useful to us. So to help our impulses gain more discretion, let’s take a look at some traits of a good convince to learn from them.

For starters, subtle anatomical errors tend to permeate good convinces. For example, the back of the jaw may not line up with the zygomatic arches, or one side of the Atlas neck bone is collapsed inwardly as compared to its other side. The set of the ears may be too far back on the head, the hock may be too pointy, the knees may be articulating at the wrong layer of carpals, or the the many angles of the eyes may be incorrect for an equine. The topographical structure of joints may be inconsistent to reality, too, possessing, omitting, or misplacing necessary elements, a common error. The structure of the stifle may be "off" in a bent hind leg, the scapulae may not be moving independently, or the elbow may not be leveraging with the radius properly. Even more subtle, the articulation of a flexed neck may place too much bend and "meat" above the 2nd and 3rd cervical vertebrae, or subtler still, the spine may not be moving consistently to the depicted motion. Perhaps the foot is improperly articulated within its 3joint system, or the fore and hind hooves diverge from their characteristic shapes. Even more, muscles may be missing, or misplaced, or some may be invented, or perhaps they're moving inconsistently to the portrayed movement. On the other hand, maybe one muscle group may not be tying into the accompanying one properly, or too far up or too far down on a neighboring body part. Further still, it could be that the necessary textures of bone, hide, hair, and horn are muddled, too, and not reflecting their relative qualities. Overall then, the piece may appear to have correct anatomy with a cursory inspection, but when we dissect it with a penetrating and educated Eye, we find serious flaws of a more advanced nature.

What’s our insight?: Accurate anatomy is a technical aspect, not just a visual one. Each component is context for the next. 

Along those lines, asymmetries of paired limbs or bilateral areas are common with a good convince, too. The long bones of the limbs may not match in length or dimension, for example, or paired features of the head may be crooked, or mismatched. For example, the nasal bone may not be centered on the head, the forehead and crown may be lopsided, or the eyes are crooked or misangled when compared against each other. The perfect box of the pelvic girdle may be broken as well, or the spine may not be seated into it symmetrically. Paired hooves may also not match in size or angle, or paired joints may also be asymmetrical, not matching in dimension, structure, or topography. Scapulae and humeri are often mismatched as are femurs, and the tuber ischii. This goes for muscles, as well. For instance, the musculature of the shoulder on the right side may be significantly more robust than that of the left side, regardless of the motion depicted. Or muscles may be missing or misplaced on one side, but present and correct on the other. Indeed, asymmetries are typical of the good convince, and they can range from glaringly obvious to quietly nuanced.

What’s our insight?: A big component of technical anatomy is symmetry, and unless we attend to it properly, our anatomical depiction will be flawed all the same.  

Correct body balance is often off with a good convince as well. For instance, a walking sculpture may not depict the relative upanddown motion of the forequarter and hindquarter, or the hindquarter may not be dipped downward in a Morgan–type of show stretch. Characteristic body shifts, twisting, bending, or leaning typical of certain equine motions may also not be present, or the rib cage may be inert and static despite the motion depicted.

What’s our insight?: How body areas move in relation to each other is also a feature of anatomical accuracy, so we must attend to it properly to maintain our illusion of reality.

Equines are graceful, agile, athletic, expressive, and fluid in their motion. Indeed, no other animal combines their power, speed, agility, emotion, elegance, and size, and so their movement may be one of the things we often find so beautiful about them. Unless we can duplicate these qualities in our sculpture then, we're going to miss themand a good convince often does. Here, motion can appear stilted, contrived, stiff, and choppy, lacking the natural allure and refined coordination so characteristic of equine motion. The piece may appear awkward or unbalanced, too, as though different parts are moving independently of each other and the body. This is often caused when the spine isn't taken into proper account, and so the torso and the legs aren't moving in synch, or perhaps the legs are composed in a way that appears almost haphazard and afterthefact. Legs may also be articulated in a manner that's clumsy and incomplete, causing an interruption in the line and flow of natural equine motion.

What’s our insight?: Equine motion is as much a part of anatomy as any bone or muscle group. Unless we accurately account for it in our sculpture thenwith all the nuance, grace, and power inherent in the equinewe risk a piece with compromised realism all the same.

Or perhaps the sculpting technique isn’t as refined as it could be, resulting in inaccurate pilling, tears, or other sculptural relics. Areas that require technical crispness and precision such as the joints, coronets, eyes, and head may be ambiguous, bulbous, too generalized, or uncertain, too. Also, the sculpting style may be unable to dance between the hard and soft approaches realism asks such as a harsh and heavy–handed approach applied to every aspect of the sculpture. For example, a strong, pronounced treatment of all the muscles when many required a softer, looser approach, or all the veins are equally amplified when some needed a more “now you see them, now you don’t” quality. Similarly, we may see that the sculptor was unable to be precise or delicate when necessary, and so we find areas of fudging, coarseness, bumpiness, or imprecision when the opposite was needed. For example, thick, clumsy eyelids or wrinkles, or bumpy coronets, ear rims, eyes, or hooves. 

When it comes to painting, a good convince has its own characteristics in this regard, too. For example, the technique may not accurately duplicate the effect in life, often lacking the visual texture or proper scale. Painting can be formulaic, too, leaning more towards rigid stylization than what we see in reality, which is often mercurial and spontaneous. Methods or media can be used inadequately, creating artistic debris in a paint job, or the use of color may be more habitual than real, used as a kind of “paint–by–numbers” formula that isn’t quite consistent to life. Again, areas that ask for precision such as the eyes, coronets, mapping, hooves, or hairlines along the crest or dock may be muddled, messy, or careless.

Or perhaps the overall artistic interpretation may be too rigid and fixed—too routine—and unable to sway from a literal, formulaic depiction of anatomy, color, texture, or phenotype. Here we often see an inadequate factoring in of those “living” qualities so necessary for imbuing life’s spontaneity as the artist simply cannot create beyond their comfort zones. 

What’s our insight?: That the artistic styles and creative methods we employ are as integral to achieving a realistic result as our knowledge of biology. That is, how we create and what we create are akin to the same thing.  

A good convince also tends to excel in conformation and breed type at the expense of biological accuracy, and may even exaggerate these aspects to “wow” the eye. In short, they tend to “ping” along those concerns related to a quality horse, yet still depict one that's non–viable. (Again, please refer to the blog series, Anatomy and Conformation, Parts 1–4 for more discussion on this topic.)

What’s our insight?: Biological accuracy doesn’t depend on conformation or type. Rather, the goal is achieved through very different criteria—those compass points from Part I again.

Similar to conformation, show grooming can blind the eye to the biological flaws in a sculpture. For instance, beautifully sculpted or painted braid work, an array of lovely dapples, expertly done quarter marks, or an accurate depiction of pads or shoeing can distract us from those components intrinsic to actual realism. 

What’s our insight?: No amount of grooming’s “spit and polish” can compensate for flaws in realism. Instead, the depiction of reality starts with biology, not with fancy dress. 

Along those lines, a good convince can inordinately rely on the amount of detail in the sculpture or paintwork. Yes—details are important, but they certainly aren’t where realism begins or ends. If we take an objective step back, we find that no amount of detail can recoup what’s lost with flawed anatomy just as much as anatomy cannot compensate for flawed details. Similarly, no amount of painstaking detail in a paint job can compensate for the wrong tone just as much as a perfect tone cannot compensate for incorrect or messy details. 

What’s our insight?: Realism depends on all the pieces of the puzzle fitting together as a whole—one wrong piece and the whole illusion is compromised. 

A good convince often is flawed in proportion in terms of what’s biologically feasible (not in terms of normal variation). Somehow nothing fits together quite right, as though the piece was cobbled together from several different sculptures. Or perhaps the head is far too big, the hooves or joints unnaturally small, or the hip oddly too long. Similarly, if the sculpture was transformed magically into a real animal, it couldn’t function, just like how Barbie® couldn’t function if she were a real person.

What's more, real proportions often are quite different than what we can be accustomed to in art, perhaps due to our penchant for idealizing something we admire. This effect can compound and skew our eye into creating stylized proportions or body parts, which sometimes can become further exaggerated through the filter of our artistic style. Common examples found here are unnaturally short backs, long necks, cannons that are far too long, deep Arabian dishes, abnormally large eyes, narrow legs, small muzzles, or oddly short croups that make the tail appear perched on the back itself rather than erupting from the dock. 

What’s our insight?: It’s often more realistic to create proportions we find in life rather than those we find more beautiful, more amplified, or “better.” Using calipers religiously with good references always is a good idea.

Given that each part of an equine’s body has myriad variations on the blueprint, no two horses are exactly the same. Each horse is an individual, just like us. So, in essence, we sculpt a unique portrait of a singular, individual horse with each new piece we create, no matter how idealized the depiction. But a body of work based on good convinces usually cannot express this nuanced diversity we see in life, and so it tends to skew towards a habitual interpretation of equine build or phenotype, resulting in a portfolio that’s homogenous and predictable; it basically looks like the same basic interpretation, only in different positions.

Similarly with paintwork, perhaps the portfolio shows a preponderance of muted, pastel–ed, "dusty" tones when many colors require vibrant, clear tones to properly represent. Many types of bays, for example, require "clean" colors for them to appear realistic.

What’s our insight?: Unless we can express life beyond a routine, habit, or a phenotypic or aesthetic preference, we’re going to run into trouble with realism.

A good convince often has problems with scale—scale of body parts and scale with painted features. For example, eyes and muzzles may be sculpted unnaturally large, or ears rendered oddly too small. Joints, hooves, or shoe clenches may be far too big and bulky, or the relative scale of muscles is incorrect or inconsistent. As for paintwork, ticking on roans or intricate patterns is often out–of–scale, as are dapples and dun factors. 

Scale is a critical issue when it comes to realism, and it’s a little bit different from the concept of proportion. While proportion generally addresses how each body part compares to each other, scale entails the relative size of something in relation to the overall implied size of the body. And the smaller the piece, the more imperative scale becomes because now even the smallest inconsistency can translate into a big out–of–scale problem.

Yet scale is often inadequately addressed when our mental library can only deal with the presence of something rather than also its scale. That’s to say, as long as something is present, its scale is often of little relevance largely because we couldn't properly scale up or scale down body parts and coat effects. For instance, miniatures with absurdly large (and often indistinct) joints or ghoulishly–sculpted heads because the tools used were too big. Another common example are “ticked” roans or fleabites with comparatively large or long streaks of applied pencil or brush that are out–of–scale for the size of the animal depicted. Indeed, if the finishwork represented a real animal, such ticks would be 3–4” long!

What’s our insight?: One of the fundamental underpinnings of realism is the sense of scale. It’s not enough then that body parts or coat features are merely present, they must also be in–scale to be correct.

Equine color is a varied, complex, and situational array of eye candy. In fact, one of the first things we notice about any given equine is his color and markings. It's almost too much of a good thing—as if this animal wasn't beautiful enough, nature imbues even more lovely qualities with his coat, hair, eyes, and hooves! Could we be any luckier as artists? Our possibilities are endless.

Yet equine color does have its set of specific effects and tonal qualities. For example, certain types of dappling only show up on certain coats such as the difference between sooty dapples, silver dapples, pangarĂ© dapples, dapple greys, and "bloom" dapples. Ticking, mapping, roaning, and patterns should follow the coat growth while hoof striping should have that inlaid, embedded, "bruised" look to them. Certain coats are characterized by a graininess to them, too, such as dapple grey, roans, and sooties, since composite colors such as these are comprised of all the individual hairs working together to produce an overall effect. Pinked areas should appear soft and fleshy, imbued with the characteristic unique tones of unpigmented flesh. The mane, tail, and feathers should be shaded and detailed to best mimic the look of myriad strands adding up to a whole, possibly even having the coloration and staining at the roots or tips typical of an unwashed coat. Areas that required great precision such as the eyes, ears, chestnuts, face, hooves and hairlines should be neatly and painstakingly done to keep them both appealing and tidy. All in all, quality finishwork looks as though the artist maxed out every aspect of tone, effect, detail, and quality so that it looks realistic and complete.

So just as good convinces exist in sculpture, they happen in finishwork, too. Here, the tone is often incorrect such as a silver dapple that's too blue or too greenish, or a palomino that's too red or bright yellow. Dapples are a common giveaway, too, since the incorrect type of dapple may be applied, or the dapples themselves don't mimic the look and interlay of real dapples, appearing more as contrived polka dots or Figure8s. The coat color may be flat and uninspired, often typical of a cursory treatment of the airbrush that only used 2–3 colors layered simplistically and quickly on each other. Patches of color may follow a routine treatment rather than what we find in life, often seen on roans, greys, and sooties, especially around the face, or on the body. The coloration and shading of dark skin may be done with flat black, and lack the delicate fleshy shading and tonal variance typical of these areas. Hooves may be simplistically painted, with streaks of thinned black paint used as striping rather than being shaded and treated to look like real horn. The mane, tail, and feathers may be painted a flat color throughout, lacking the tonal variances typical of such textures. Or the eyes, hooves, or other areas that needed precision and care were painted in a sloppy, hurried manner. Overall, a good convince appears almost half–done, as though the artist could have gone the extra mile, but didn't.

Furthermore, a good convince in finishwork often has relics from the process apparent in the color. For example, airbrush blotches or speckling, hair, brushstrokes, or fingerprints in the pigment, white expanses with bald or streaked areas, areas forgotten and left unpainted such as the underside of tails or inside the mouth and ears or between the lateral cartilages, mapping of the wrong color and often without hair texture, brush work with marks, breaks, or pilling, and many more. Basically, anything that would mar well–done, complete and smooth finishwork can be thought of as a good convince.

What’s our insight?: When it comes to finishwork, our job is equal portions what we paint and how we paint it. Paying close attention to every detail as well as every overall effect is necessary to concoct a convincing illusionwe need to "max out" finishwork in order to appear real.

We also find good convince sculptures lying beneath brilliant finishwork, presenting us with mixed messages. The same applies the other way around—an expertly sculpted sculpture beneath good convince finishwork. While these pieces may be beautiful on some level, they aren’t as realistic as they could have been.

What’s our insight?: One–sided achievement has a problem blending into a realistic whole. This means that the ability to objectively determine realism in both sculpture and finishwork independently can be equally important. Also, one cannot compensate for the other; the complete whole is necessary.

Finally, a good convince can tug at our heartstrings more than our heads—our emotions are targeted more than our studies. And because reality tends to be replaced by fanciful whims, strong artistic styles can even morph into caricature if left unchecked, taking our work well beyond what’s viable, or realistic. (For more discussion on the concept of viability, refer to the blog post Viability and Functionality: The Umbrellas.)

Yet it’s in this aspect that we can most struggle to find balance between reality and unreality. On top of this, many people prefer to be emotionally moved over being rationally satisfied when forced to chosebecause we’re creating art. This isn’t to be dismissed! Art requires more than clinical representation; otherwise we lose the magic that’s the essence of life itself. Horses move us and unless our work does the same, we haven’t recreated a realistic experience either. That's definitely a critical insight.

Yet at the same time, we should remember our chosen art form—its boundaries don’t stretch very much, but often tend to burst. So if we push too hard by allowing our whims to go unchecked, we’ll end up popping that believability bubble just as easily as anything else. There’s a definite balance of qualities involved!

What’s our insight?: It takes as much emotionality as rationality to create a solid piece of realistic work.

Conclusion to Part III

Lots to ponder, isn't there? There's far more that goes into recreating reality than meets the eye because everything that we can take for granted in the living animal, we cannot in our media. This is the challenge of realistic equine art—what can our perception See and what can we infuse into our clay or pigment? It's the gist of our struggles. (For more discussion on related topics, please download the LSQ Guidelines.)

So in the next installment, we’ll discuss the value of a mental library as well as different schools of thought in realism, as it all helps us to gain more clarity in what we’re trying to do with our own realistic equine artwork.

"And obviously, from our own personal point of view, the principal challenge is a personal challenge." ~Richard Branson

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