Wednesday, March 11, 2020

A Leg To Stand On: The Most Common Conformation Flaws in Realistic Equine Sculpture


"Conformation" is a ubiquitous concept in the horse industry and so it is with equine collectibles, influencing everything from buying decisions to placings to aesthetics. Yet it has many variables, each a sphere of fascinating study. In overview, it helps to determine function and usability according to the horse's discipline. Each discipline then often commands its own points of conformation, sometimes specifically so. Conformation also factors into our personal taste, those things that tickle our fancies...or not. What's more, each breed, sub-type, region, and family line can have its own particular conformation, making it distinctive and consistent. Adding to this, the different genders can have their own secondary sex characteristics that can differentiate one from another. Conformation can also differ between individual horses, entailing those quirks that make each one unique. Going further, the different ages can introduce their own effects as the body matures. Horsemanship, conditioning and management all have their effect, too, by changing the nature of the muscle condition and even some alignments. All in all then, the issue of conformation is a complex one full of nuance and detail. For these reasons, the better we grasp the concepts, the more informed choices we can make. 

But a few points beg mentioning. First, it's important to understand that conformation isn't the same as anatomy. They are two different subjects. For example, an Arabian and a Clydesdale both have the same anatomically structured cannon bone, but it's conformation that makes them different. Or a Saddlebred may have a different slope to the hip than a Quarter Horse conformationally, but the pelvic girdle is the same anatomically. Or a Lusitano can have a more convex skull and a Thoroughbred a straight skull conformationally, but both those skulls are anatomically consistent. Essentially then, anatomy is the blueprint of the species and conformation entails the superficial variations of that blueprint, often generated by selective breeding. In this sense, anatomy relates to what's realistic whereas conformation largely deals with what's preferred. So an error in anatomy is to make an error in realism whereas an error in conformation is to create an error in perfection. As such, a sculpture can be conformationally perfect but anatomically flawed, rendering it unrealistic. On the flip side, a sculpture can be anatomically close to correct (no sculpture is 100% accurate as only nature can do that) and be conformationally flawed, but still be realistic. What does this mean? Well, it's not a bad idea to remain open to the possibility that perhaps the artist chose to infuse some conformational issues or physical quirks into their piece for their own creative reasons. How that affects our own sensibilities is our own prerogative, but it's something to consider.

Second, everyone has their own opinion of what's conformationally "perfect" and that's okay! But it does put an artist in a precarious position since it seems there will always be someone out there disapproving of their piece. Complicating the issue is that breed type can be folded into conformation, and how "right" that is can be highly subjective to taste, even fads or fashion. More still, some breeds have or are morphing into new forms to adapt to changing times, creating a bit of friction over what's considered authentic. This means that the idea of perfection is more a bubble than an X-marks-the-spot, and that's okay too because a bubble allows for more variation to appeal to different tastes. It also helps to hedge the bet towards genetic diversity, an overriding concern for any breed with closed books.

Third, it can be useful to categorize conformation into a hierarchical order for evaluation. For this, we can break it down into three specific categories, in order of importance:
  1. Functional conformation: Structures consistent to the equine blueprint that ensure well–being and soundness according to the target discipline. In a sense then, it's "biologically practical." 
  2. Type conformation: The bubble of characteristics that differentiate breeds or types, often referred to as "points of type." It also incorporates gender, regional, or familial differences. 
  3. Aesthetic conformation: The structures that define our own tastes. It may also relate to individual variations, trends, fads, or fancies, making it the most subjective factor. 
Functional conformation is the foundation of "using" structure. It bears mentioning, however, that exceptions always exist as there are plenty of hardworking, sound horses with what could be considered flaws by some. Moreover, usability can also depend on the nature of horsemanship, management, and conditioning so those should be considered as well. Above all though, it's good to remember that the horse is biologically based first on function and perhaps it's best our evaluations are as well. As for type conformation, it definitely plays an important role in what's desirable, creating the recognizable "outline" of a breed. Think of it as "brand identity." At its most basic, it's what separates an Arabian from a Quarter Horse from a Clydesdale from an Exmoor. More refined, it's what differentiates the *Morafic family from the *Bask family of Arabians, for instance. We should understand however that type conformation is best when balanced with functional conformation, avoiding exaggerations that compromise function. Lastly, aesthetic conformation entails all those little touches that add "flavor" to appeal to different tastes. For example, some people like dainty heads on their Quarter Horses whereas others prefer the more robust type of head. 

But all in all, let's discuss a little bit of functional conformation since it tends to be more objective. In this, let's explore some of the most common conformation hiccups in realistic equine sculpture so we can learn from them.

Back Too Short

When we discover how to measure proportion effectively using bony landmarks, it becomes evident pretty quickly that the equine back is normally longer than we may believe. This is perhaps because many of the collectibles we grew up with were stylistically very short-backed, some unnaturally so, conditioning us to favor it. Yet nature needs the equine back to be a normal length for biomechanics and to accommodate the organs, and in particular for mares, to gestate foals. Now this isn't to say a long back is the ideal alternative as it can be significantly weaker for riding. It's to say that the equine back should fit within an average spectrum of what's normal. That said, however, we know that certain breeds have backs on the shorter end of the spectrum. The Arabian, and some of its derivatives, can indeed have one less vertebra on occasion, for example. Yet this is perfectly fine if not overly exaggerated like it can be in art. But more still, every individual, type, and breed has its own distinct spectrum, so it's important to pay close attention to the back length when designing a sculpture. Stallions and mares can differ as well on occasion, helping to make mares appear "lower to the ground." Even different ages can have their own distinctions since the spinal column is among the last to solidify its growth plates. Foals are a good example of a really distinct type of back length compared to the rest of the body, for instance.

Here's a basic guide for proportions where everything is easily based off the head length. However, please understand this is just a guide and not applicable across the board. (Also understand that the horse depicted is believed to be a mare.) Each breed, type, family line, gender, age, and individual has their own specific set of proportions. This guide is just a baseline to gauge those variations. It's a springboard, not dogma.

Calf Knees

This is a particularly common error perhaps because there's some confusion as to what constitutes a "straight leg." Even conformation books can get it wrong in illustrations.

Functionally, a correct, straight foreleg has a radius meeting the carpus at more of a 90˚ angle thereabouts. Therefore, a plumb line will bisect the radius and bony column to emerge at the bottom of the bisected cannon bone and behind the coffin bone, onto the frog. 

However, this alignment can appear over-at-the-knee to the uninitiated, and many conformation books depict calf knees as correct as a result. Yet a calf knee is a significant fault as it weakens the forelimb and can even be prone to bone chips in the carpus or tendon injuries in the lower leg. Now it's not to be confused with a foreleg under stress such as we sometimes see with the planted forelimbs of racehorses in that support phase of the gallop. A proper foreleg will usually withstand these pressures whereas a calf-knee generally won't, resulting in injury.

On the other hand, genuine over-at-the-knee structure is usually an injury to the foreleg’s tendinous check system causing the carpus to project forwards without adequate support. 

Literal Straight Forelegs

Another aspect of evaluating straight forelegs is from the front. Here the correct anatomical alignment is a slightly knock-kneed stance just like our own femur with our tibia. In other words, the equine cannon and radius shouldn't be aligned straight up and down like a rod, but angled inwards a little bit at the knee, towards the median. It's a subtle alignment, but perfectly natural. In fact, if a straight line between the cannon and radius does exist, the horse can be bow-legged in front. 

Literal Straight Hindlegs

Similarly, the idea of a “straight” hindlimb has been interpreted to mean literal straightness when viewed from behind, an error quite common in conformation books. It's no surprise then why we'd find this hiccup in sculpture. By "literal straightness" we find that the plane of the hindlimb is straight forwards from stifle to toe, meaning that the toe points forwards when standing square. Yet this is actually a form of bowleggedness.

In their natural configuration from behind, the hindlimbs are oriented on a slight outward plane from stifle to toe, with all the bones aligned on the same plane when standing square. That means hind hooves typically point a bit outwards at the toe because, biomechanically, the stifles must clear the broad posterior portion of the belly. This isn’t to be confused with cow-hocks in which the hindcannons angle away from each other. Correctly planed hindlimbs have parallel hindcannons. Now it should be mentioned that as the hindlimb is extended backwards more, it tends to straighten out as the stifle is drawn away from the belly, even rotating a bit inward in extreme extension sometimes. But life is full of exceptions, of course, so pay attention to reference photos. 

Here's Ellie demonstrating that outward plane of the hind leg.

Crooked Hindlegs

A good rule of thumb for hindlimb alignment is measured from the side in a plumbline from the point of hip, to the point of hock, and down the back of the cannon. This plumb line is often consistent whether the hind limb is planted forwards or backwards when standing. Keep in mind, however, that balance shifts can influence these articulations away from the plumbline. 

Post-legs occur when the hindleg is placed in front of the plumbline whereas camped-out occurs when the hindleg is placed behind it. Sickle-hocks occur with too much angulation at the hock, orienting the hindcannon away from the plumbline. Post-legs don’t have much reach and are prone to involuntarily locking the stifle which can injure the stifle joint. On the other hand, camped-out legs can be more unstable and wobbly, often prone to spavins.

However, because they move primarily in non-suspended gaits, it's claimed that some gaited breeds can be regarded a little bit differently. Specifically, some believe that acceptable angulation lies within a range from the ideal plumbline to one that touches the front of the hindcannon. Nevertheless the hindlegs shouldn’t be more angled than this or be sickle-hocked. (On a side note, post-legs in gaited horses are a significant fault because this can lead to ESAD over time.)

Now inspecting from behind, the hind cannons should be parallel to each other. If they divert away they're cow-hocks and if they converge at the hoof, they're bow-legged. What's more, some draft breeds should be "close-hocked" which shouldn't be confused with cow-hocks. Instead, "close hocks" are when the cannons are properly parallel to each other, but are situated very close to each other, sometimes even touching. The Clydesdale is a good example. It's believed this places the feet neater into crop furrows.


We also have to consider two crippling conditions: ESAD and DSLD. ESAD (Equine Suspensory Apparatus Dysfunction) is a term for a problem in the suspensory apparatus, which inhibits the horse from properly supporting himself through the lower leg. It appears to be caused by several things ranging from injury, overstress, peculiar conformation to genetics. It can be associated with coon-footedness, and so often presents as very sloping pasterns with a broken axis at the coronet when standing square. Similarly, DSLD (Degenerative Suspensory Ligament Desmitis) is a painful, bilateral degenerative condition of the suspensory ligaments, usually in the hindlegs, which hinders their supportive properties. As DSLD progresses, the fetlocks sink increasingly downwards, causing the pasterns to become progressively parallel to the ground while straightening the stifle and hock. Think of a post-legged horse with sloping hindpasterns when standing square. The causes of DSLD are also suspected to be genetically based, but can be brought on by overstress or peculiar conformation as well. Unfortunately, however, some sculptures exhibit ESAD and DSLD perhaps because the artists didn't know what these conditions were. 

Shoulders and Hips Too Short

When it comes to motion, a long shoulder and hip are ideal with many breeds. In this, the shoulder from the tip of the wither to the point of the shoulder should be about one head length while the point of the hip to the point of the buttock should also be about one head length. The long shoulder provides scope to the forelegs while the long hip helps to provide that necessary rear drive powerhouse. However, these can vary sometimes so pay attention to references.

It should be mentioned that the slopes of the shoulder and hip are also important but differ according to breed and discipline as it influences motion quite a bit. For this reason, it's important to pay attention to them in references. 

Puffy Joints

Another common problem with sculpture, puffy leg joints that resemble "balloons" can indicate injury or pathology. In life, the knee, hock, and fetlocks should be crisp and "clean," displaying the distinct, characteristic bony landmarks and bony shapes consistent to their anatomy. At times some of the ligamentous and tendinous features can be seen as well. The same could be said for the cannons and pasterns though they tend have this issue to a lesser degree.

Balance Inconsistent to Breed Type or Discipline

The "uphill" or "downhill" balance of the body is a function of performance and therefore often of breed type. For example, those breeds classically bred for riding such as the Arabian, Morgan, Iberian, and Saddlebred have level or even slightly "uphill balance." Think of a sedan. Many breeds meant for jumping and eventing can be of a slightly more uphill balance. In contrast, those breeds destined for bursts of speed tend to have "downhill" balance such as many Quarter Horses and some Thoroughbreds. Think of a drag racer. 

What is uphill or downhill balance? Well, it's the relation of the base of the neck (where the neck connects to the torso) to the LS-joint (the hinge joint between the last lumbar and the sacrum that curls the pelvic girdle under the body) when standing. If the base of the neck is more or less level with the LS-joint, the horse is level-balanced. If the neck base veers higher, then the horse is "uphill." And, predictably, if the neck base veers downwards, the horse has downhill balance.

Yet some sculptures don't factor this in which can be a problem. For example, a downhill Saddlebred or an uphill foundation QH can both be considered off-type.

Too Skinny or Too Thick a Tailbone

The size of the tailbone is an extension of the spine, so at the root it implies the size of the spine itself and should, therefore, be in anatomical scale to the sculpture. However, many sculptures have tailbones that are too skinny indicating a weak spine. In contrast, others have tailbones that are far too big and out of scale.

Pathological Hooves

Finding a good foot can be difficult in sculpture because what constitutes a quality foot may not be understood. Indeed, many references or conformation books actually depict problem hooves so it's important to have an independent knowledge base. Even so, its exact qualities are still being discovered and debated in science and it'll be fascinating to see where it all pans out. The subject is quite complex though as science is revealing just how nuanced horse feet truly are. Curiously, it seems there's no "one size fits all" kind of good foot but a spectrum since the foot molds itself to the horse's lifestyle. I wrote an extensive series on the foot already in Steppin' Out: Hooves From An Artistic Perspective (a 12-part series) so please refer there for a comprehensive look. (Now admittedly, I need to update it according to some recent studies, but all in all, it gives a pretty good basic idea of many of the issues involved.) In particular, this segment, this one, this one, and this one give an overview of the possibilities within the bubble of "good foot."

Specifically though, many sculpted hooves have problematic relative proportions, contracted heels, are club-footed, have ringbone, have a broken axis, or are long toed-low heeled. Some are imbalanced, too, even sweeping off to either side. Others have dishes or bulges while some are too small. Undulating coronets tend to pop up, too, and many sculpted feet lack medial-lateral and dorsal-palmar balance as well. Misshapen or small frogs also crop up sometimes. Or some hooves are "mechanical sinkers" in which the hooves have particularly long hoof capsules which may have been a desire to make the hoof larger. Yet the size of the equine foot isn't measured by the length of the hoof capsule but by the breadth of the coronet. A scientifically arrived equation for evaluating hoof size can be found in my post here

Please note with (B) that this alignment shouldn't be confused when the foot is positioned backwards and the joints have to flex to keep the hoof connected to the ground. These alignments only apply to a horse standing square.

Ending Thoughts
Conformation is an important issue with horse people and so it is with equine artists. It encapsulates so much of what the public keys in on, what many consider to be a "good sculpture." Being so, it ensures that our pieces will be authentic in a way that most people recognize. Through conformation we can also help to depict horses in a way that advocates for their wellbeing and even promote those structures important to us like breed type. So there's just no way to artistically capture the animal without also having to consider it on some level. 

Yet its power isn't necessary expressed by following conformation tenets doggedly, but understanding them well enough to weigh them in context to our piece. What's necessary? What's optional? What's harmful? What's neutral? With a deeper understanding then, we can create work closer to our vision while still ringing true in the show ring. We might also begin to appreciate each horse more as an individual perhaps, delighting in their quirks as "flavor" rather than as flaws. 

Studying conformation also opens the door to a whole new horizon of understanding this graceful creature though all its myriad forms and functions. It's neat to learn about the differences between a racing Quarter Horse, a cutting Quarter Horse, a reining Quarter Horse, a WP Quarter Horse, a Hunter Quarter Horse, and a halter Quarter Horse! So many options! We can gain more appreciation for this critter, too, as we explore what his body is capable of doing with just a few tweaks here and there. It can also be helpful to realize that conformational variety within a breed can be a good thing by accommodating versatility and appealing to many tastes. 

Put it all together and the subject of conformation infuses a whole new level of fascination and possibility into our work. It definitely ensures we'll never run out of new things to sculpt! So have fun exploring the wonderful world of conformation! It's fun, not hard to learn, and adds so much dimension to our creative adventures!

"Recognizing the need is the primary condition for design." — Charles Eames


Saturday, January 25, 2020

Action Jackson

Learn to love questions and helping others find more!

Creating equine realism definitely isn't easy and the learned skillsets take years to developand sometimes we need help. Happily for that, help can come from anywhere, even in genres not related to ours! I can't tell you how much I've learned from monster design to special effects make up to prosthetics to collage to graphic design, for example. 

To that end, becoming and staying a pro-active learner is a great thing because it keeps us hungry and our work evolving. Wonderfully, all we have to do is reach for that new information enthusiastically, translating into research, attending classes, workshops and seminars, reading peer-reviewed papers, lots of comparative study, artistic exercises, watching videos, amassing references and analyzing them, blog reading, forum discussion, and on and onalways asking questions, staying curious. Luckily, too, the Internet is a wealth of information from how-tos to presentations to analysis on color genetics, anatomy, conformation, and biomechanics, artistic technique and creative philosophy. It's all out there at our fingertips just waiting to be mined!  

Being so, it's a good idea to indulge these avenues first before vetting assistance, especially from a working artist. Doing our homework first is critical because remember who you're sourcing and their limitationsa working artist. And all a working artist has is timethat's it, their most critical and limited resource. It's the single factor that lets them refine their art, do their own research, produce their art, and make their art in the first place to earn a living. Yet assisting someone who hasn't done any homework at all can be inordinately time consuming, and that can be a serious time sink. 

Now this isn't to say that helping someone shouldn't be done. Absolutely not! It's also not to say that seeking assistance is inherently inappropriate. Definitely not! And it's not to say that helping rote beginners isn't a good idea either. Nope! Sometimes, helping them can be some of the most satisfying ways to spend one's time, especially when they're earnest and invested. I also believe that helping others is our obligation, that we should "pay it forward" when we can. The more artists who reach their potential elevates all our efforts since the more brains that work a problem means more solutions. 

But it does suggest that there's a necessity to come to the assistance with a better idea of what's involved than absolutely, utterly nothing. Why? Well, "a damp sponge absorbs more than a dry one." In other words, if we don't know some degree of what's involved, whether through study or observation, most of what's going to be shared may not be fully understandable, if at all. It can go right over our head! And the more advanced the lesson, the more this is the case. Additionally, much of our help can only come online and that has its own limitations. Also, talking at a beginner level can be tricky for a seasoned artist since so much can be inadvertently taken for granted. However, to be fair, it can be a good lesson for them to do just that from time to time to clarify ideas and processes and, perhaps in doing so, refine these things further. The best way to learn how to perfect something is to teach it! Plus, beginners often come to the problem with totally fresh ideas, making learning symbiotic. What a wonderful thing!

Keep in mind, however, that each potential teacher is different as is each learner. Everyone comes to the table with different artistic styles, personality traits, motivations, and expectationsand sometimes we may not be a good match. Yet it's important that each party be simpatico in order to foster a good working relationship. So if that match isn't suitable, it's okay to give thanks and move onto someone else who may be a better fit. Put another way, forcing a bad fit can antagonize both parties, making the likelihood of help less forthcoming.

Put all this altogether and in congeals into a pretty good rule of thumb: Try not to present uniformed questions to working artists and try not to force the situation. Truly, a basic working knowledge of the issues at hand will gain the most out of the experience and make the most of everyone's time. Also, be highly specific, and the more advanced the issue, the more specific the question. For example, don’t ask something like, “How do I sculpt a head?” That's far too general and big an issue, often an enormous undertaking to even address. Sure, the teacher can dole out a few simple, starter suggestions which can work great, but that has its limitations, too. So often the better tactic is to take what you already know from your homework, and just do it in order to figure out what specifications you need the most guidance on. Because it's usually better to ask questions that beg quicker, more concise, more helpful answers. For instance, “What are some alignments of the head I can use as guides?” Or, "what tools are best for sculpting the head?" "What shapes are best visualized for sculpting an eye or nostril?" "I'm having this x-problem with my you recommend some trouble shooting?" Or, "what clay and solvent to you recommend for x-kind of work?" Or "How do you achieve more symmetry?" The more specific the question, the more practical the answer, and the more likely we'll get an answer and quickly. 

On that note, it's not a good idea to impose too much on a working artist's time and energy. They're usually very busy running their studios and have done their own hard work to earn their skills—and it’s important we do the same. Really, only when we truly get stuck or confused or overwhelmed is their advice best applied. That means continual questions that eat up more and more of their clock is a surefire way to create friction. But this isn't due to vindictiveness, it's out of necessity. A working artist simply cannot afford to help so often. This is usually the reason why some artists, being so busy, tend to be rather succinct in their help, simply offering useful links, books, lists, or articles for our own edification. It's just a reality with their limited time resources. Yet this is also why many artists have already compiled lists, articles, books, or blog posts on common subjects that would answer many of our questions. To tell the truth as well, it's important for learners to struggle and work things out on their own. It encourages pro-active learning, experimentation, and valuable lessons on arting. There's value in having knowledge earned rather than just handed out. This isn't to say we should let learners struggle needlessly though. It's to acknowledge it can be worthwhile to wrestle with our skills every so often, and that goes for seasoned artists, too.

Above all though, try to avoid assuming a seasoned artist is being unfair, hostile, secretive, or mean if they opt out of helping. The reality of that working artist may mean their resources are already stretched quite thin so offering help simply isn't in the cards. Everyone has their reason and assuming the worst isn't only unfair, it can poison the well. 

Again, let me repeat that I believe we're obligated to help others in their arts. It's good for them, good for us, and good for the community by advancing our arts and building cohesion and commonality between us. It's just that we need to approach it with a bit of investment on our part in a way that works with the limitations of the situation. That being so, helping others and seeking help can also be a terrific way to build relationships, personal and professional, which can be immensely rewarding all 'round on many levels. And in this rebirth of the DIYer, helping others is even more critical than ever! The next generation of artists are our future and we cannot let them wither on the vine if we hope for all this to flourish. In this spirit then, it's all the more reason to better understand what's involved when seeking that help so that more beginners are less intimidated asking for it and more seasoned artists are prone to providing it. 

One of the great things about this genre is its propensity to share information. Truly, it would be wonderful to see this even formalized into annual artist retreats or workshop events to balance out the competitive-heavy theme of our social gatherings. I dream of a day when such things will happen in equal measure as shows. Not saying competition is a bad thing! But it would be nice to have another facet of participation, and one that coincidentally happens to facilitate participation in that competition at the same time.

That said, a mentor program is a completely different situation to all this, one which I'm not speaking to. Mentorship is a wonderful avenue for helping others that's often much more time-rich than cold-calling a working artist. For that, Mares In Black has a terrific mentorship program that may be of interest to you.

Anyway, there you have it. Hopefully some useful advice for getting advice. My best advice in all this? Stay curious. It encourages enthusiasm, fun in learning, exploration, and fresh thinking always positive things. Seek, stretch, ponder, and rethink. And apply what's learned from others and make it your own. Don't be afraid to put your own spin on things! And pay it forward whenever possible. Consider this tooone of the best ways to learn is to teach! Want to know where your knowledge gaps are? Teach. Want to know where you can improve your process and Eye? Teach. Want to learn current theory and new hypothesis? Teach. Want to bump your work to the next level? Teach. Want to truly fathom a subject on deeper levels? Teach. So whoever said "those who can, does; he who cannot, teaches" was so very very very horribly wrong! Instead, I prefer Aristotle's wiser take, who said, "those who know do, those who understand, teach." So beginners, don't be afraid to seek help! Just frame it in a way that'll best cultivate the situation. And seasoned artists? Do what you can to further the efforts of others. It's rewarding in its own right as well as for you. Collective learning is what people do best and fostering it enriches our community in countless ways, planting seeds that will grow and spread deep roots that will blossom a nicer garden for us all. 

"True teachers are those who use themselves as bridges over which they invite their students to cross; then, having facilitated their crossing, joyfully collapse, encouraging them to create their own." ~Nikos Kazantzakis


Thursday, January 2, 2020

Gathered Wisdom

Creating our art can be a roller coaster ride of triumphs and frustrations, elation and discouragement, enthusiasm and self-doubt. We seem to be traveling this strange, unpredictable journey where we self-actualize both our potential and ourselves in partnership. As such, it asks for inner reflection and outward seeking which can certainly be fascinating, but it's also a bit overwhelming to be honest. Whatever this journey is about, and it's different for each of us, it never seems to end, does it? An endless, hidden trail that winds and dips always into unknown territory.
It can be helpful then to have a toolbox of handy advice to keep close to heart, guiding us on our curious journey and helping us stay centered and eager in our creativity. Just for that, I've been lucky to have picked up some great tidbits over the years from other artists, teachers, friends, and family, even random strangers. I've also learned some "art life hacks" that keep me going through the ups and downs of that emotional roller coaster. So I'd like to share all this hoping these morsels will feed you on your creative trail since we all need nurturing words to sustain us from time to time.

Ten Guides

To start, I've gleaned ten core ideas from others that have kept me moving in the right direction. Truly, whenever I start to feel like I'm spinning my wheels or churning out junk, or even questioning why I'm doing any of this at all, I go back to these ten and re-absorb their wisdom. Hey, sometimes we have to backtrack a bit because it's easy to get a little lost in our meanderings. For that then, these ten dollops of insight are...
  • Your pencil has an eraser—use it! It's okay to change your mind.
  • Let things evolve. The piece will tell you what it wants—don't fight it.
  • Never go part way. If anything you purposely neglect now will bug you five years from now, fix it.
  • Know when to say "done." We only improve when we create lots and lotsand lotsof finished pieces.
  • Anything can be made less intimidating. Simply envisioning things in familiar shapes, lines, and forms can do wonders.
  • Start simple and then get more complex. Creating something is a progressionbe patient, keep at it, and give the process "room to breath."
  • Never be married to something. Everything we do should be open to change to forward the whole concept.
  • Try to be kind to yourself. Allow yourself the foibles of the learning curve and the fact that every artist will periodically create bad pieces throughout their career. Give yourself permission to be human. Learn to forgive yourself.
  • Protect your joy. Do anything it takes to preserve the visceral enjoyment of arting. Take a break if needed. Switch gears and create in a different way, even with different media and types of art. Just keep creating, whatever form that takes.
  • Never rain on someone's parade. Each of us is creating our art on our own terms, at our own pace, with our own evolving Eye. And the will to create art can be a very fragile thing. So if we're kind to ourselves, be even kinder to others.
It's no surprise then that when we absorb this good advice, we tend to have an easier time on our creative journey. We essentially become more serene with our process, ourselves, and with others, and that's just as important as learning a new technique or refining our Eye. 

Five Foundations

While I've been lucky enough to have learned the Ten Guides from others, I've also been able to solidify Five Foundations that work for meand maybe they'll work for you, too. Now some I learned through observation, but others I absorbed from someone's role modeling. Curiously, role-modeling can be a powerful thing even if we don't see its effects right away. Some planted seeds just take more time to grow. So that said, the Five Foundations are...
  • Always actively observe. You never know what you can pick up with open eyes, ears, heart, and mind because useful information can come from anywhere. Truly, sometimes the best lessons come at us sideways. And learning isn't always about technique. Our methods can only take us so far. Indeed, even if we used the very same tool or the very same media or the very same method as an esteemed artist, that doesn't mean we'll be producing the same caliber work. The truth is that the deeper learning is that which refines our Sight and our ability to Translate that into our media. What tools and media we use are important, of course, but they're only the means to express our Understanding. 
  • Mistakes aren't to be feared but embraced as teachers. It may be a cliche, but practice truly does make perfect. We have to do and redo, fail and fix, over and over and over and over again for even one bit of progress to be made. But don't become despondent if that progress doesn't happen where you wanted it—it was made, but sideways. The more we start and finish, the faster we grow even if that growth isn't always predictable. Just go with the flow and keep finishing. Also don't forget that every piece will always have ugly stages—so keep going. Trust the process, trust the references, trust yourself, and keep going. A lot about achieving the desired result is successful follow through, of going far enough in the process to achieve the effect you want. Curiously, there's such a thing as "underworked" just as there is "overworked."
  • "Comparison is the death of joy" says Mark Twain. He's absolutely right. Fight the urge to compare your work and accomplishments to others as it'll only cause a kind of death inside, a kind of grief. Frustration, envy, resentment—these are the things that poison our every well and leave us feeling defeated and cast aside. They deceive us and whisper lies in our ear that we're inadequate, untalented, unsung, and wasting our time. Yet time is always well spent being creative! And you're far more talented than you know and have far more potential than you suspect! So instead, be proud! Own it! You beat your own drum and march to your own tune, and no one in the entire Universe makes your music or even could if they tried. It's absolutely worth all your hard work, sacrifice, and enthusiasm. So do good work consistently and always seek improvement, and it'll all come together.
  • You're only as good as the last piece you finished. In other words, try not to judge your abilities on work you did ten, five, even a year ago. They represent a very different situation in your life than the right here and now. So instead, gauge your abilities based on the piece you just finished right now, and then with your next piece, try to improve on that if you wish. And understand that improvement is incremental, and it comes in fits and starts. And even the tiniest improvement can lead to huge jumps forwards—you just never know. So keep reaching for that brass ring even if it seems relatively insignificant. And truth be told, breaking up our development into baby steps tends to create a friendlier framework for taking those big leaps anyway, so don't hesitate to deconstruct things a bit. Anyway, understand that our progression is always happening—even when we're not working—so what we create today is a much better read on our abilities than what we created yesterday. There's great hope in that, isn't there? So much potential! So don't short-change yourself by making assumptions based on past work.
  • Find the still point in your heart and in your head to create your best work. Distraction is a funny saps our energies and causes us to stray from the moment, the critical here and now that's everything to an artist. What does this mean? It means that whatever your creative situation, learn to stay in the moment between yourself and your piece. Seek to quiet those voices that seep into our heads from social media. Put on music or a video that lends white noise to help you get into that groove. Put on noise-cancelling headphones if needed. Your creativity is your healer, your rejuvenator, your own personal headspace that's all yours. Do whatever it takes then to protect that zone because that's where you not only work best, but you feel best working. It's your sanctuary. 
One Truth

Smoosh all that together and we have a pretty good "arting hack" to foster our creativity and even more importantly, for staying creative. Because it's so easy to just throw up our hands and be done with it, isn't it? To walk away to find some other diversion. Or perhaps it isn't. Perhaps this brand of creativity is stuck deep in our drive and so all our frustrations do is remind us of our perceived inadequacies. Either which way, disappointment, the kind we self-generate when we don't meet our own expectations, is always with us whether we're a beginner or a seasoned artist. That toxic brew of self-doubt, insecurity, deflation, stirred by those little unpleasant voices, will always try to poison us no matter how much we've achieved.

Yet at the same time, we're human, right? Why are these things that seem to drag us down framed in such a negative way then, as though they were enemies? They're a part of us, too. Maybe, instead, they're there to keep pushing us to reach our potential, to ask more of ourselves as a challenge to grow and explore. Think about it—without them, would we even work half as hard to stretch? If we were continually pleased with out work, where's the impetus to improve? In a sense, they're the grain of sand in our oyster, fashioning our skills—and ourselves—into a pearl. And that's the crux of it, isn't it? When we have to face our fears—pull them near and look them in the eye—we have to make peace with them, and we have to make peace with ourselves. 

Because truly, we cannot war with ourselves if we hope to truly progress. It takes up too much mental energy that should be focused on other things. It's also emotionally painful and, if bad enough, can create a feedback loop that begins to associate creativity with negativity. But the problem isn't us per se. The issue is the nature of the learning curve, and that issue is the same for everyone. See, "learning curve" is a misnomer. It's not actually a smooth, steady curve. Boy, is that bogus! Instead, it's like a tangled up ball of yarn, unpredictably going up, down, sideways, backwards, squiggly weird, loopidy loop, criss cross, knots even!, twisty whisty, and any which way but straight forwards. What's more, there's a proverbial cat also batting that ball all over the place, pupils wide and tail whipping 'round. Creativity is chaos itself. What we literally do as we improve then is to wrestle ever more of that chaos into something more closely resembling what we envision. Our expectations and our abilities get closer and closer together.

Because what a "learning curve" also doesn't address is how different aspects of our knowledge base and skillset will improve at different rates. Yanno...if there weren't enough fans on this fire, we have to add this one, too? Gah! But it's true. For example, what we see in our head may be very sophisticated, but our abilities with our tools, our media, our mental library, and our Translative skills just aren't up to snuff yet to fully realize that vision. What's the result? A big blob of WTH in front of us...aaaaaaaand then, of course, frustration, disappointment, deflation, insecurity...and those little voices again. If we don't recognize this for what it is—the unavoidable glitches in a learning curve—we're going to inevitably deduce that we're simply incapable, that what we're doing is a waste of our time and care. But going back to the Ten Guides and the Five Foundations, we remember that "Success is not final, failure is not fatal; it is the courage to continue that counts." Wise words from Winston Churchill. We must do and redo, fail and fix to fail and fix again, learn and relearn over and over and over in order to reach our expectations. And every little improvement—many of which we won't notice until after the fact—are cumulative and build on each other in a wonderful synergy of accelerated growth. There's no such thing as a "small improvement!" Each one is a huge leap forwards. Celebrate it! You did it! "Each horse is practice for the next," is great wisdom a dear friend told me years ago which I keenly remember as I start every new piece—and look back at every finished one. Honestly, knowing when to say "done" and having the courage to start a new piece is perhaps the single most important trait for an artist in this genre.

But if we can see that our hiccups are a learning curve eccentricity rather than a reflection of our innate abilities, perhaps we can keep all those voices from fanning something even worse inside us—fear. We're human beings. We have dualities. As such, our natures are torn between curiosity and fear...and fear usually wins if we aren't very careful with our assumptions and reactions. "Confronting fear is the destiny of a Jedi." "Fear is the mind-killer." Rudyard Kipling also observes, "Of all the liars of the world, sometimes the worst are our own fears." And, of course, from the little green man himself, "Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering." 

Distill it then and it all comes down to fear—fear of our assumed inabilities, fear of failure, fear of getting stuck, fear of what other people will say, fear of biting off more than we can chew, fear of not being as good, and on and on. Fear can be a bottomless well it seems. But all the established artists have faced their fear, in all its forms, defiant against its many tactics, and have come out the other end singing. Yet fear is never conquered outright—it has to be fought again and again. This being the case, perhaps great artists aren't born but made through deliberate self-actualization only because it takes more than talent but also equal parts moxie and gumption. And each of us has far more of that than we may realize if we just believe in ourselves a little bit. Because here's the thing—we don't have to have this amazing confidence. We don't have to know what we're doing all the time, or even part of the time. And we don't have to see exactly where we're going every step of the way. We just have to believe in ourselves a little bit. 

So that's the one, last Truth: believe in yourself, a little bit more every day. Luckily, the Ten Guides and the Five Foundations will help you on that journey. Practice them relentlessly and it'll become easier and easier to believe in yourself and trust in your potential. Now granted, that may seem totally incredulous when we're stumbling or totally screwing up on a piece. But the truth is that these moments usually herald a breakthrough, when our expectations and abilities are about to take one more step towards each other. Because we're struggling for a reason, right? If we didn't struggle, we'd still be operating with our old paradigms, yes? It's only when we're about to jump to a new one that our skills start to itch! So trust in yourself and forge ahead, full steam! If needed, seek other inputs through new research, new references, even critique from trusted sources. Just keep moving forwards.

You'll also probably find a greater composure and serenity in your work when practicing these ideas. "Like water off a duck's back" is a quip I often say because I like the idea of our stresses rolling right off us, unable to gain a grip. Really, it helps to eliminate as much stress as possible from our studio life because serenity works to generate the Zone that lets our creativity resonate at its best frequencies. It's like the sound-proofing that keeps the noise of the world out. But serenity isn't necessarily a product of great confidence—it's a product of complete acceptance. Acceptance of being human—that mistakes will be made, but we can fix them and learn from them. Acceptance that patience and work are the way towards merging our expectations with our abilities. Acceptance that not everyone will like our work, and that's okay. Acceptance that everyone is on a different learning curve and that's a good thing. Acceptance that our fears are part of us, but also a part that needs careful management and even more kindness. Acceptance of all the things we cannot control because learning happens in its own time and pace. Acceptance that no artist can produce perfection. Only Nature can do that. All we can do is our level best at that moment, and that's all we can ask of ourselves—and that's more than enough. And above all, accept that you and what you create are worthwhile even when you feel the most despondent and alone. It may be really hard to believe at that moment, but trust me—it's true.

Put it all together then, and that's a pretty good map for blazing your own trails on your own terms! And maybe over time, you can discover your own guides. Each of us represents a unique experience, so it's likely you'll find new pathways unique to yours. There's no wrong way! There's only your way and if that way feeds your good vibes, that's the best way there is! Happy trails!

"The most splendid achievement of all is the constant striving to surpass yourself and to be worthy of your own approval." ~Denis Waitley

Related Posts with Thumbnails