Saturday, April 18, 2015

Your Artistic Voice


Being a creative type entails many unique challenges, doesn't it? We’re faced with time management, prioritization of projects, learning new methods, refining our ideas, struggling with existing works, and meeting the demands of our own expectations. It’s enough to keep you running in circles! Yet one challenge that often gets taken for granted is nurturing our Voice.

What is a Voice? It’s that unique artistic point of view that makes your work unique. It incorporates your style, your ideas, and your convictions, and when strong enough, it makes your work as distinctive as a fingerprint. Those artists with particularly fresh Voices can revolutionize a genre, or challenge the establishment.

Artists with a Voice share three important characteristics, even if their styles vary tremendously. First, they tend to take their work seriously, respecting both the quality and integrity of their work. Second, they typically have something to “say,” and say it clearly and confidently. Third, they submit to the will of their Voice and work to protect it.

Your Voice is perhaps your most important creative asset. It sets you apart from other artists and establishes a body of work that cannot be duplicated. Your Voice also lends diversity to the genre, enriching its development and expanding its market appeal. Perhaps most important, however, using your Voice is artistically fulfilling because it reaffirms what you love to do. Truly, the more you use your Voice, the more enjoyment you find in creating through it!

Yet finding your Voice can be a difficult task. There are many distractions that can sabotage the process. Therefore, finding it takes a level of self-awareness and dedication that requires a degree of conscious effort. Yet once you’ve found it, it can fizzle out as you maneuver through the market, especially during fickle times. Beware! You can lose your Voice if you’re not careful!

How can you find your Voice, and when do you know you’ve found it? How do you know when it’s distinct and meaningful? How can you culture it into its full potential? Then once it’s bloomed, how do you protect it? Finally, how can you apply it in ways that promote your goals? 

Both Soothing and Shrill

The interesting thing about an artistic Voice is that it cannot be taught or givenit must be discovered individually and earned. 

This creates a dual meaning for the concept, one that’s both demeaning and supportive at the same time. To advise you to find and use your Voice is to imply you don’t already have one. This can not only be confusing to you, but insulting! At the same time, this advice offers you an opportunity to peel away safe artifices to reveal a truer, braver self in your art. 

The essential problem is the inherent Catch 22: Only through using your Voice can you attain your full potential, yet to find your Voice, you must admit to a fundamental artistic deficiency. This is no easy thing to do. Not only is it uncomfortable to acknowledge, but also it may be difficult for a developing artist to recognize her inadequacies.

Yet finding your Voice is possible. However, using it can be a risky prospect. While it has the power to elevate your work, it also can put you in the line of fire. You cannot hide behind artistic contrivances, such as copying another’s style or methodologies. You cannot mask your inner self with safe ideas and superficial interpretations. You won’t be able to get away with “halfway” because “average” won’t be good enough. Instead, you will bear your true creativity in full view of an often critical public, and this takes a degree of temerity. An artistic Voice is only for the confident and those who truly are dedicated to their art.

For those artists, however, the rewards are well worth the risk. A Voice creates a kind of creative monopoly based on the unique vision that no other artist can duplicate. This helps to develop a collector base, which is the essence of making a living at art. It also creates its own kind of marketing, since your name can be attached to a specific visual of the subject matter. When people can recognize your work at a glance, you’ve made a distinctive mark on their memory. Using your Voice deepens your creative experience and opens up dimensions in your work that were previously veiled. In the end, your respect for your work, the subject, and the work of others, grows and reflects positively in your artistic life and in the larger community. Only when you create a genuine piece of artwork with your Voice do you come to appreciate deeply the process, the subject, and the work of others.

Finding Your Voice

Your Voice is a funny thing. It’s both a part of you, but also not. It’s guided by your hand, but guides it, too. It works best in that “unthinking” state of creation, but needs thought to be unlocked. It thrives on freedom, but appreciates pathways. It also can take on a life of its own and is quick to argue when you impose on it. It’s uncompromising, honest and bold, and knows exactly what it wants. It’s your true artistic self. When you fight it, its qualities appear as negatives, but when you accept it, those qualities become welcomed positivesit’s all a matter of perspective.

Uncovering your Voice is no small matter, however. There’s no linear process to discover it, and some artists simply stumble upon it, while some need years of effort. One thing is certaina Voice doesn’t magically appear, fully formed and potent. It’s not like a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. It’s more like a seed buried deep inside every artist. It requires cognizance and nurturing to growit cannot do these things on its own.

The good news is that there are ways to tease it out, to coax it to sprout. One useful method is to study the work of other artists you admire or disfavor, and try to pinpoint exactly why you like it or why you don’t. Don’t stick to the obvious, either. Study works from the vast spectrum of art, from the ancient to the modern. Only through full exposure to “light” can your seed begin to grow by helping you establish a set of boundaries that will heighten your awareness about your own work. Correspondingly, seek out training and instruction, through workshops, books, advice, etc. Exploring the subject from other points of view, and being exposed to the processes of other artists, can help you hone your artistic characteristics.

Along those lines, joining artistic groups or guilds can be similarly helpful. Essentially, look for inspiration anywhere you can, and it doesn’t have to be just within equine art, either. Finding out what inspires you is half the battle for finding your Voice, because that’s what provides its fuel and essence. Consequently, a useful trick is to immediately sketch out every inspirational idea you have, while that iron is hot. It doesn’t have to be painstakingjust capture the energy and the idea. Snatching those inspirations out of your most creatively buoyant moments and capturing them on paper is a terrific means to develop an overall picture of what your Voice values. This can help you map out your boundaries rather quickly, too, because this works almost like the sonar “ping” on a submarine. Keep these sketches and reflect back on them from time to time because each one is that “ping.” Your reaction to it over time is the “ping” bounced back onto your creative radar.

Once you have an idea of your artistic boundaries, then is the time to experiment and take risks. You have to work outside your comfort zonesthere’s no way you’re going to find your Voice unless you go out on a limb! Take all your inspirations and lessons you’ve learned and work to make them yours. Don’t copyallow yourself only to be informed by admired works. This also means you’ll probably careen through the extreme points of your boundaries, but keep “pin-balling.” You’ll overstep and overdo artistically, or be too timid or milquetoast, but that is part of the process. You have to test your boundaries along with your moxy to push them. Finding your Voice isn’t only about discovering the roots of your work, but also finding a bit about yourself. Eventually, you’ll find yourself pulling those boundaries in ever-closer, and your work will communicate a more rounded expression of your Voice. Subsequently, you’ll find your work becoming more consistent and distinctivewhen this happens, you know your Voice is growing!

As you explore, be conscious of which admired works or ideas are working to influence your art, and also be aware of what parts of you are making it your own. Note which parts “flow” and which parts cause you to struggle. Yes, you have to get into the “groove,” and thinking about what you’re doing can disrupt that. Learning to be reflective at key points during the process allows you to pick apart how that development is evolving. Becoming a Zen master with your work is indeed about letting go, and to do that you need “artistic memory” as autopilot. To gain this, you must first be hyperconscious of what you’re doing. Only in the knowing can you learn to forget! 

Don’t let your Voice slide into easy speaking during this process. Timidity won’t let it bloom! Gently prod it forward by allowing yourself the freedom to follow your predilections and curiosities without qualification. This nurtures your Voice’s eccentricities, those things that make it distinct. As you progress, continually seek to accentuate those idiosyncrasies and work to minimize a generic or “safe” interpretation to guide it. Once your Voice has become confident, it can take over as autopilot, but it needs this initial “programming” first.

Some Caveats

However, some common traps await you at this point because it’s easy to drown in these inspirations rather than be guided. Honestly, it’s often at these moments you can find yourself disliking your own work! For instance, you may come to believe that the genius of your mentors allowed their Voices to appear quickly and effortlessly. You begin to think they simply have a unique gift you’ll never have. It’s true they may be naturally gifted, and creating their work comes to them easier than it does for you. However, don’t forget they also worked to find and refine their Voices. They may have struggled and stumbled just as much as you are now. So perhaps the reason why you cannot achieve their heights is because you’re trying to speak with their Voices rather than with your own! There’s only one artist who’s an expert with your Voiceyou!

Another temptation is to believe you’re failing in comparison to those works you admire, no matter how much you try. This can lead to a lot of unnecessary frustration, possible disillusionment, and a desire to quit completely. What you may not realize is that when you reach these low points, it’s not that you’re “failing,” it’s because you may be stifling your own Voice. Take an objective look at what you’re doing to identify where you’ve run counter to your Voice. If that means taking a breather from the piece, do so. Forcing the issue doesn’t work. At this point, it may be a good idea to study the body of works of your mentors to discern how their Voices appeared and evolved. Seeing how they worked through their issues may prove helpful to your efforts. 

One thing to keep in mind, however, is the nature of realistic equine sculpture. Remember this is an absurdly narrow focus with a rather stringent set of demands. This means that those Voices that respond well to these demands will succeed, whereas those that don’t will struggle. There is risk inherent in this because we cannot control the nature of our Voiceit is what it is. While we can attune it closer to those demands, it’s a delicate balance to weigh your Voice against the peculiar expectations of an ever-exacting market. On the other hand, it cannot be denied that realism demands more than simple mimicry to be convincing. A level of “artiness” is necessary to create an impression of realism beyond what is technical duplication, while also infusing the soul, moment and “spin” that makes it art. This is precisely where your Voice can shine! Nonetheless, realize that discovering your Voice in this realistic venue is rather like rouletteyou’ll never know what your winning number is until you spin the wheel, but the odds aren’t stacked in your favor. The choice is to sacrifice everything in your pursuit of artistic authenticity, or to stay safe and never be true to yourself. It’s up to you.

"Inevitability, Mr. Anderson"

In many ways, finding your Voice is inevitable with a serious artist. It’s akin to artistic maturity. Over the years, you naturally will want to cut the umbilical of safer copying and formula to walk on your own two creative feet. When you do, you’ll find comfort in your own creative language regardless of the subject matter or artistic challenges. 

So how do you know when you’ve found your Voice? Well, it’s something you just know when it happens. It’s an ease in the mind and the hand, and a serenity that comes with acceptance. Your work will “flow,” anxiety or desperation will vaporize, and you will find a “still point” of quiet confidence. Furthermore, you’ll know it’s meaningful when you create unique, consistent quality, results that people can recognize easily as your work. When your Voice has resonance, it generates its own meaning and authority, sometimes independent of your original intentions! A developed Voice also allows other people to layer on their own interpretations of your work, which enhances their experience and appreciation for your unique point of view. In this way, a mature Voice is distinct and allows other minds to experience it on their own terms.

Like adulthood, artistic maturity is earned through slogging through the developmental yearsit cannot be circumvented with short cuts. You will come out the other side as yourself, with self-assurance and composure. When you’ve reached this other side, you may find that those aspects you tried to mimic in your mentors’ work do not exist in your new work. This is because your Voice has made your work entirely your own...and better for it!

Cultivating Your Voice

There’s no simple path for cultivating your Voice once you’ve found it. However, what is necessary is that you (1) recognize it, and (2) believe it to be worth protecting. 

So perhaps cultivating your Voice is more akin to weeding around your little sapling, to give it optimum space to grow. One way to do this is to check yourselfare you being informed by your mentors, or copying them? It’s seductively easy to lose yourself in another style or approach and become a copycat. Another way is to make sure you aren’t falling into a creative rutare you doing the same things repeatedly? Yes, your work should be coherent with your Voice, but this doesn’t mean playing it safe all the time is good for it, either. Unless you’re taking a risk with each new creation, you may be smothering your Voice over time. Do you find yourself getting bored with your work? If so, try different strategies to invigorate your creative juices! Sculpt different subject matter, or adopt new methodologies. Take a field trip to a museum or stable to reconnect with those inner drives. Attend workshops or retreats to relearn the passion for experimentation and learning. More often than not, your creative engine just needs a good jolt.

You also can over-fertilize your little sapling! Too many ideas and too many unfinished projects can spin you around in a big whirlwind of nothing learned. In order to find and develop your Voice, you need to create a lot of art piecesfrom start to finish! This is where a kind of prioritized discipline comes into play. You need to dedicate what it takes to focus on finishing enough similar work to create the “control group” that allows your Voice to reveal its patterns. Too much chaos will simply drown it out. With consistency your Voice will bloom, and then you can apply it to all those other ideas waiting on the sidelines. In turn, you’ll find the expression of those other ideas are stronger for it, as well.

Be sure not to over-prune your little sapling either! Let it grow wild for awhile and develop its own character. Do we like trees that are perfect, or those with appealing eccentrics? When it comes time to prune and how, you’ll know itthat’s your Voice starting to reveal its boundaries. Let it inform you, however. Don’t force it. Otherwise you risk chopping off branches of unforeseen benefit. Getting input from seasoned artists can be useful herethat bonsai master may have gems of insight for you!

Applying Your Voice

Now that you have your Voice, it’s time to start using it! The handy thing is that no matter the subject matter, or the artistic style you choose to express it (i.e. realistic, abstract, impressionistic, etc.), somehow your Voice will come through. So don’t be afraid to create through it! What you’ve found is something special and unique, so be proud of it! It will give your work distinction and a foothold in the market. You’ll have clarity in how you want to approach your work and find that it’s fun to apply your Voice to all sorts of challenges and new ideasso don’t hold back!

Curiously, you’ll find that whatever goals you previously had, your new ambition will be to use your Voice once you’ve discovered it. In other words, using it becomes the driving force, the journey and the destination. As you continue to develop and apply your Voice, you’ll find that your prior objectives may change, sometimes dramatically, taking your artistic future into unknown and unexpected directions. Follow it. As Joseph Campbell wisely advised, “Follow your bliss.” Only you, in all the Universe, have this path, and in many ways, our unique gift obligates us to walk it.  

Nevertheless, you may wonder why your Voice is importantwhat do you have to offer that’s so special? Why can’t you just create as you want and stop trying to be “more?” These are valid questions that are important for you to ponder. Indeed, art is a pastime for many, not the overriding passion as it is for some. Undoubtedly, the measurement of your zeal will determine not only if you find your Voice, but also how exuberant it grows. Again, the choice is up to you.

Yet whether you throw yourself into your art or entertain it as a diversion, your Voice may be more important than you know. To begin with, when artists work from their Voice, plagiarizing other work tends to diminish. Your Voice demands original ideas and original authorshipit seeks to communicate its individualism. Also, your Voice asks for effort, it expects you to try your best each time. This not only has a cumulative effect on your body of work, but it also helps to advance the art form. Similarly, your distinctive Voice adds to the diversity of ideas and interpretation of the subject matter, which isn’t only important for the genre, but also inspiring to artists who have just started cultivating their talents.  Finally, using your Voice is a statement. You’re staking your claim in the creative world and showing you have confidence and pride in your work. Collectors value commitment and dedication, and they respond positively to artists who do not compromise their creative identity. In this way, using your Voice makes your work distinctive and collectibleonly you can create it! This can add value and novelty to your work, too, which are important factors towards the creation of a collector base.

Maintaining Your Voice

As with our work, our Voices refine over time. Expect it to change and evolve as you grow and age. Even artists who’ve been creating well-received work for decades are still exploring their Voices!

Stay open to new ideas, methods and interpretations. When you choke these off, you squelch your Voice’s full potential. What usually results is a creative plateau you seem unable to escape, or an urge to “do more,” but an inability to achieve it.

Challenge your Voice from time to time! Stretch it and put it to harder work. For instance, try tackling work you believe is “too intimidating,” or “beyond” your scope. You’ll probably surprise yourself, discover more about your creative drives, and learn to trust your Voice. Sculptors often are benefitted by occasional flatwork of some kind, whether as quick sketches or full-blown finished works. Also, consider creating work entirely outside your creative focus or habits. For example, if you create mostly miniature works, try working big. If you create mostly full-body sculptures, think about sculpting a bas-relief or bust. Reinterpreting the subject matter in different styles, such as abstract, is useful for developing your Voice, too. It forces you to perceive things with altogether different ideas, offering new routes for your Voice to explore. In doing so, you’ll bring this wisdom back into your usual work to enrich it in ways you couldn’t have predicted.

Allow your Voice to set down roots. Don’t try to force it into something it isn’t, but don’t keep it in hibernation, either, by not finishing what you start. Don’t confuse your Voice with too many ideas and projects at once. Stay focused. It needs to develop a root system first, then it’ll be robust enough to handle the creative onslaught. Listen to your Voice and allow it to guide your choices. During the process, sit back and cogitate what you’ve created. Try to identify how your Voice is informing your hands and where you’d like to push a bit harder, or where you need to ease up. Learn to trust it and submit to it. A deep-rooted Voice is like an old treeyou can lean against it for relief and savor its shade when things get “too hot.”  

However, no matter how well-developed your Voice becomes, it needs continual care. You’ll always have to employ steps to protect and feed it, and give it room to transform. In many ways, this is a good barometer for your own creativityif your Voice has stopped evolving, perhaps it’s time to take an introspective moment.


Finding your Voice takes time, so don’t get discouraged if you don’t find it immediately. Don’t try to “fake it” either, but let it emerge in its own good time. When you do find it, your Voice will give your work authority and distinction in ways otherwise unattainable. You’ll find new dimensions of enjoyment and expression, creating a positive feedback loop.

Artistic identity and integrity are the essence of your Voice. This means that only when you find your Voice can artistic authenticity also emerge from your studio. It's these things that define quality and meaningful work, regardless of its style or skill level. So plant your tree, protect it and help it grow. In the end, we all can enjoy a collective forest with far more diversity than we ever imagined!

Recommended Reading
Finding Your Visual Voice: A Painter’s Guide to Developing an Artistic Style (spiral-bound) by Dakota Mitchell. 2007. ISBN-10: 1581808070 or ISBN-13: 978-1581808070.

Art and Fear; Observations On The Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Bayles and Ted Orland. 1993. ISBN: 978-0-9614547-3-9.

"Your vision will become clear only when you look into your heart. Who looks outside, dreams. Who looks inside awakens." ~ Carl Gustav Jung


Friday, April 17, 2015

The Din of Opinion: When Does Free Speech Become Spree Speech?


Working in a close-knit community like the equine realism market has tremendous social benefits. We come to know our fellow colleagues and collectors on a familiar, even personal basis, often finding support and kinship born of similar passions that form lasting bonds. In many ways, we live in a metaphorical “small town,” one tightly intertwined by shared events, overlapping interests, and the Internet. We begin to feel comfortable and at home in such a small community and set down roots we hope will be lasting and fruitful. Closely-knit venues also offer unique advantages for business. A few great pieces and a couple of carefully placed ads can result in tremendous benefits through such focused exposure and an extensive grapevine. In this way, good work is allowed to sell itself, letting artists focus more on studio work rather than intense marketing plans. Truly, doesn’t it feel wonderful to operate in a genre that feels so much like a community?


On the other hand, is it always really such a rosy picture? Couldn’t this casual familiarity be a liability at times? We have to admit that familiarity can breed an environment a bit too casual, especially if professional standards of social interaction are inadequate. We can indeed become less guarded in our manner of speaking and exercise less control over the intent of our words when we get too lackadaisical. Being so, we can become ever more relaxed voicing our public opinions regardless of their impact. In essence, we can become "tone deaf" to our own words and implications. Over time, we may get bolder still, feeling downright entitled to voicing our opinions despite the consequences. If we’re not watchful then, it’s deceptively easy to poison this community not only for ourselves, but also for those who share it.

Now some would have us believe that unfettered opinion is simply being honest, adult, lively or in touch with realitybut is it? What kind of reality does it really serve? Because just as easily, others can call such an environment vitriolic, immature, targeted, cruel, or disenfranchising. Is there really a difference between being helpfully honest or being needlessly abrasive? Can our public opinions be accountable to a communal responsibility, or are they our rightful ammunition to fire at will? Which scenario is more beneficial for personal growth and the development of the activity, or does that even matter?

Indeed, when dealing with something as subjective as art, let alone quality art, the array of opinions is as dazzling as a fireworks display. For every situation there’s a comment, and for every creation there’s a criticism. Part of being a mature artist is to accept this reality as part of the deal we signed. The reality is simple: We publicly display our creations and people will talk, for better or for worse. Deal with it, right? Because it’s unreasonable to expect this process to stop simply for the sake of our feelings. The human animal en masse simply isn’t that generous when it comes to such matters. Rather, an artist is better served by developing coping mechanisms to weather these comments gracefully, and to learn from them when necessary. 

We must remember, too, that the art venue we've chosenrealistic equine sculptureis a tight focus with a razor-sharp set of expectations that slice through market and studio alike. This means that realism isn’t as subjective as we may think it to be, particularly when comparative competition is thrown into the mix. Because when we compare pieces and ask, “Which is more realistic?” we’re walking down a narrow path that becomes narrower still each time that question is asked. No matter how we may lament it then, the tolerance within this focus for imaginative forays or learning curves isn’t as forgiving as we may need or want.

On the flipside, being a seasoned artist means knowing the strengths and weaknesses in one’s work, and striving to reconcile them. So isn’t any outside opinion a means for an artist to gain clarity? How will an artist know she’s off-track if she never hears otherwise? Yes, white lies are a social necessity, but when we’re dealing with an art form as relentless as realistic equine art, are such fibs really beneficial for an artist? Criticism, when appropriate, can be helpful, right?

We have to be honest with ourselves, too, in that seeking critique from private individuals doesn’t always work to our best advantage. If we are dependent on another person’s “eye,” that eye may be burdened by its own blind spots or misinformation. A private setting sometimes compromises the honesty of the critique as well, with an over-riding concern about hurt feelings. The “court of public opinion,” on the other hand, is inclined to spout unabashed candor in copious amounts since all sympathy for the artist is stripped away by the objectification of the situation. Still, being “cruel to be kind” may not be so bad! Pearls of wisdom can be found in public commentary, so why not utilize this inevitable situation? Here, the artist also gets the benefit of many opinions and accompanying tangents and discussions, all of which could offer fantastic avenues of improvement otherwise undiscovered.

Public discussion about an artist’s work also is a way for the community to figure out the issue of realism, not only for their own buying decisions, but also as the basis for communal expectations, which translates into how artists will refine their creative directions in the future. This is important to keep in mind because the basis of gauging realism not only is to compare the artwork to the living subject, but also to compare artwork to other artworks. The fact is that the community needs to talk about these comparisons not just as a natural outcome of trying to improve its own awareness, but as a facet of progress within the genre.

In addition, when we layer on a competitive element, such as in model horse showing, showers need to be able to discuss the realism of any given piece to learn how to become more successful within the activity. For example, it’s been this very dynamic that has improved the anatomy and depiction of color genetics within the model horse genre over the years, and which will continue to hone expectations in the future. In short, trying to “gag” these kinds of discussions for the sake of one’s feelings is literally to impede the progressive success of the art form itself. Perhaps nowhere else than in the model horse market does this dynamic come into sharper focus: The unending conflict between the expectations of the collectors and the boundaries of the artists in this elaborate game we call "showing model horses." Often artists working in that genre are confronted with a set of demands that can test the patience and mettle of any creative mind. So which has more precedence? The needs of the showers dependent on the artwork to participate, or the needs of the artists who provide the game pieces to the showers? It can’t be ignored that the showers’ opinions are vital since they vote with their dollars, yet if an artist is pushed beyond a breaking point trying to win these votes, how is that beneficial to the vitality of the activity?

We also must recognize that it takes all kinds to make a world, and so our respective communities are simply microcosms of the larger social patterns already present. Human nature is what it is, no matter where it’s found. Simply looking at the gossip columns or grocery tabloids proves that a large percentage of people are drawn to the sordid twists of life. It’s not a peachy world all the time, and we need to expect the rough spots, even in our curious little community. An artist should learn to shrug off such things and avoid internalizing them as personal failures. It’s part and parcel of being an artist, and especially so as an artist in this demanding game. 


Nonetheless, is the situation really that one-sided? What’s the real nature of spewing opinions into a community? While it can be said that public opinion can offer valuable insights, it also can be said that not every opinion holds the artist, or the art form, in its best interests, either. When we layer competition onto an artistic endeavor, too, doesn’t the motivation behind public opinion adopt a new connotation? 

For example, many public opinions are offered as “just a thought,” or claimed to be innocent little ponderings, usually with little consideration for the implications that train of thought will seed into the minds of others. A single carelessly planted insinuation can have unfortunate ripple effects, no matter how innocently intended. Words and ideas have tremendous power, especially when it comes to touchy subjects within a community, and even more so in a competitive community. Once implanted, these effects cannot be erased and we cannot take back what harm they have done! Add into this an active rumor mill and unmoderated forums, and we have a recipe for unjustified damage to someone based only on a self-indulgent comment. Do we really get to say whatever we want, whenever we want, just because we have the ability? Does “because we can” literally translate into “we should”? Is that appropriate behavior within a professional community? 

In the model horse venue in particular, there’s the added layer of tension between collectors and artists because of the unusual structure of the activity itself, in which artists create the winning game pieces used by collectors in the game of showing model horses. An observant artist will see patterns of bad public behavior because of this and be able to keep it in a healthy perspective. For instance, some participants feel compelled to fire off public opinions that are outright hurtful or condemning, either towards artists in general, or to target a specific artist. Note how many of these attacks are justified with, “it’s just my opinion,” the typical camouflage for many an agendized comment. With this tactic, almost every artist in the model horse venue has been “leveled” at some point, as the blade of agendized opinion attempts to hack off the head that rises just a little too high for someone’s sensibilities. As the weapon of choice used by malcontents, an artist is well advised to recognize it. 

For example, we might be publicly berated for being “too big for our britches,” or “too hoity-toity” for any number of reasons. Perhaps we’re adopting new protective policies, or pricing our work to reflect its improvement, or becoming more selective in what commissions we take, or changing our sales methods, or producing in a new medium such as bronze or ceramic. Even our artistic style can come under fire, and not because there’s something wrong with it, but because someone is trying to cut us down to size…their size! And so our work might be chided for any number of reasons just to chop us down. Simply put, the very things that establish and distinguish our success are those very things that make us a target for “leveling,” as though no one should be too good or too successful. 

Unfortunately, leveling is relatively common in the model horse venue, in many manifestations, due to the venue’s unique structure that spawns a deep-seated fear of disenfranchisement that pervades the entire community. People want access to winning work, but if artists start to "think too much of themselves" some people worry they'll be denied access to their works. Indeed, some participants are fearful they’ll be left behind in the competition if artists get too big or if quality gets too good or the activity gets too serious. In other words, “if you can’t beat ‘em, chop ‘em down.” It's a form of collective bullying that an artist is advised to counter professionally by always taking the high road.

However, perhaps even worse is the proclivity of some artists to attack others with public assaults or snide aspersions. Not only does this set a terrible example for the on-looking community, it also gives license for others to engage in this destructive behavior as well. When artists are turned into competitors rather than colleagues, we'll find this effect at work. But is this really the best way to build a future for our community?

Additionally, if a market goes through a rough patch, such as with a poor economy, it can destabilize sales and often cause old paradigms to collapse. As a result, we can see artists take even more pot shots at each other in public view, often directed towards those who are succeeding. Many also are fearful about their future in the activity, fueling the impulse to lash out at those who appear to be the engines behind the changes by launching words intended to demean, besmirch, insinuate, or intimidate. Sometimes these aggressive opinions are voiced with the intent of righting some perceived injustice, but with no thought to the larger issues that should outweigh any one individual’s situation. Let’s face itmost of these incidents can be distilled into a concern more focused on personal gratification rather than the greater good of the community. In the end, what's actually accomplished are lingering bad feelings within the community that far outweigh any meager triumph accomplished by a personal crusade. People tend to forget that an opinion isn't a fact, and merely believing in our opinion doesn't make it any more factual.

There are other considerations, as well. One malicious or careless opinion might adversely affect not only an artist’s credibility, but also everyone who collects that artist’s work. This has far-reaching consequences beyond intensified derision in an already divided communitythere are implications of defamation of character (which includes libel, slander, and damaged business), which is a serious legal matter. Yes, libel and slander only pertain to malicious falsehoods, but how many times has an opinion masqueraded as truth and been used as a weapon? The nature of any public opinion does have legal ramifications, such as yelling “fire!” in a theater, sexual harassment in the work place, or spouting racist hate speech. Even armies of attorneys carefully guide comedians or commentators who utilize the combatative style of public speaking so popular today. “Free speech” does have limitations under the Bill of Rights, and closely observing the daily legal wrangling on that issue continually illustrates this point. Will it finally take a lawsuit to curb this kind of public behavior in our community?

Along those lines, does free speech have further obligatory limitations in a small, insular art community? It would seem that the very nature of basing an entire economy and competitive activity upon subjective realistic art demands even more care in how we treat each other with our public words. Remember, "beauty is in the eye of the beholder," and even deeper, "reality is in an individual's perception," therefore anyone’s perspective on quality is equally right and equally wrong until proven otherwise by actual facts (not opinions). The question then becomes: What kind of community do we wish to build for the future? Can we shape it through our public treatment of each other now, especially when we disagree? Perhaps how we handle a subject is just as important as the subject itself?

This brings us to something every highly successful artist needs to fully understand as an important caution: Our words have more weight in the community so people will likely interpret them as more than “just an opinion.” Like it or not, our success comes at a price when it relates to our free speech, because reaching a certain stature means our words will be interpreted through a new filter. So even if we think we’re simply speaking our well-intended, innocent opinion in public, others won't regard our comments this way, but with far greater weigh initiated by our successful stature. This means we can inadvertently contaminate online discussions by appearing as an arrogant bully to anyone with negative baggage while those who agree with us can be targeted as cloying sycophants out to get into our good graces. This is the Catch-22 bias that comes with success. And this is how success can predispose artists to a miserable online experience only because so many envision themselves as no different from anyone else. Yet not understanding this effect usually means they end up as targets for all sorts of public attacks or nonsense, and limp away battered and bewildered. 

The fact is that popular artists don’t get the same kind of free speech others enjoy. Like it or not then, we must be more careful with our public words, and be selective about where we interact online. For example, avoiding public forums and opting, instead, to interact with like-minded colleagues on private forums often is the better option. Or seek forums with ardent, rational moderation. We must always “take the high road,” too, and act with utmost professionalism, even when the attacks are ridiculous and base, if only to minimize blow back. We should never hand anyone ammunition to fire back at us! It also means that adopting a “familiar” way of public interaction online isn’t a good idea, either. We should be careful with what we reveal about our personal life, too, along with our personal opinions, because anything we post or say quickly can be turned into return fire.

Yet just as an artist is expected to react in a mature and professional fashion in the public arena, shouldn’t everyone lobbing their public opinions be expected to behave in the same way, too? Aren’t we all accountable to the community we share? This question is perhaps most pressing in the online aspect of the community. Anonymous posting on forums (either through tag names, neglecting to sign a name after a post, or other means) can hardly be considered credible, no matter how seemingly rational a comment may be. A professional owns her words because this helps to create an air of responsible commentary when we’re held accountable to them. It’s difficult for irresponsible speech to prosper when people aren’t allowed to hide behind anonymity. It also can’t be dismissed that many public volleys of opinion appear to serve an ego trip rather than serious, compassionate discussion on pivotal philosophical ideas. Some people in the art or model horse community truly love to hear themselves talkand some love to hear themselves slam others they resent even more.

Subsequently, some comments seem less intended to address a serious allegorical problem than to make some snide insinuation targeted at someone. If we notice, these kinds of posts are rarely based on substantiated information, relying instead on hearsay, bullying, emotional provocations, knee-jerk reactions, ill-informed opinion, or some other ugly agenda. What’s more, those types who flourish within this kind of environment are drawn to it because their behavior finds validation there, allowing it to become ever bolder and brasher. It often can feed on itself, too, resulting in an excess of opinionated posts to the point where one wonders how such people find the time. The ultimate result isn’t a more dynamic, intelligent discussion that fosters the open sharing of diverse and learned ideas, but one made poorer as people are driven away by the unpleasantness. In other words, rampant, unaccountable free speech has the exact opposite effect it intends in a close-knit community.

For that reason, perhaps we need to acknowledge that there's a kind of artistic “hate speech,” or “spree speech” that runs unchecked in our community under the guise of free speech. Just like hate speech is intended to intimidate and brutalize targeted groups or individuals, this tactic does the same to certain sects in our community. Yet how can we differentiate between a genuine opinion and something that’s caustic? If it’s not the subject being discussed then, is it how that discussion can morph into something other than philosophical ideas and rhetorical debates, and into something else?

Perhaps this is the tipping point where a simple opinion ceases to be free speech and takes on this darker guise. When we objectify our peers and steer a discussion into something maliciously self-serving and personally combative, does our opinion become harmful rather than helpful? This is an easy slippery slope to plunge down, since the Internet allows human beings to be turned into dehumanized words on a screen, or our fellows at shows to become opponents rather than contemporaries. For the sake of our collective future then, it may be more helpful to self-edit our public behavior with respect for our fellows, rather than pander to a free speech free-for-all. Truly, when does the weight of our possibly self-serving public opinion override the greater good, or the harm or hurt it could do to another person? 

To that end, it should be noted that people are watching and listening. Make no mistakeevery word we speak in public reveals reams about us, good or bad, and people take notice. We'll develop a pattern of behavior in the eyes of others, which can serve to our credit…or not. This especially has weighty consequences for an artist since her public words are often her public face, especially online, which can directly impact her business or standing within the industry, or with colleagues. There has been more than a few times where positive public behavior has created new connections between people, and just as many times when being tone deaf to one's own words has caused negative professional consequences. 

Then again, what about an opinion on a controversial issue that’s well intended, informed and potentially helpful? We must recognize that in order to gain consensus and standardization, a community does have to discuss key issues, many of which are uncomfortable or cause something to be singled out. Here perhaps is where spree speech can do the most harm if left uncheckedwhen these essential discussions are commandeered by spree speech, the possibility of intelligent discussion is corroded, not only compromising any progress that could have been accomplished, but also leaving poisoned waters in its wake. Indeed, one begins to wonder if the community is even capable of an informed and professional discussion on controversial topics without it becoming a war zone. 

Clearly, an artist must understand that some opinions are valid and some aren’t if she intends to keep her positive perspective intact. Likewise, some people voice their opinions with good intentions, and some do so with bad intentions, while others are simply oblivious to anyone’s else’s reality but their own. Being tone deaf to one's own public words can wreak untold havoc in a community. Andyes“free speech” has a rather loose definition in this country, but when this right isn’t exercised in the spirit in which it was drafted, it can harm a community, and even the freedom and prosperity of others. Enduring the rants of even the most unbalanced people as they exercise their perceived freedom of speech may be the price we pay for this freedom, but we can learn to keep their behavior in perspective and make responsive judgments about the people making them. We can avoid those people, avoid the forums they frequent, block them, or employ intelligent moderation on public lists.

To that end, we need to recognize the implied motivation behind an opinion to determine if it’s truly free speech or spree speech. At the same time, we must be able to identify our own motivations behind our words to ensure we’re speaking in a way that builds cohesion rather than contempt. These often under-developed skills can take time to learn, but they are pivotal for steering a career down healthy paths and for ensuring the long-term greater good of the community. 


That said, we should also realize that we all make mistakes from time to time with our words because we are human. The Internet is especially prone to missteps in verbiage or interpretation because it lacks all the social nuances, tonal inflections, body language, situational pressures, and spontaneity so important for normal human communication. So perhaps a sister skill we all need is the ability to forgive each other faster than our compulsion to launch a retaliatory public attack. Like “WOPR” in War Games, it’s probably better metaphorically to learn the art of not starting a war, and simply play chess!

One thing we always should bear in mind is how small the equine art communities actually are. Word gets around, and we’re all interdependent on each other in some form or another. How we treat others in public ultimately determines how each of us is treated, in very immediate, direct ways. Each time we speak in public, perhaps we should be more mindful of the kind of future we want, not just for ourselves, but for each other, as well. In this way, we can make sure we’re practicing free speech rather than indulging spree speech, and we are allowing the neighborhood to grow and become a fun and nurturing place for all of us.

"The rule in carving holds good as to criticism; never cut with a knife what you can cut with a spoon." 
~ Charles Buxton


Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The Need For Context: Harmful Fallacies That Can Compromise Your Realistic Equine Art


As equine artists, we all love equines for their beauty, power, intelligence, generosity, and quirkiness. Luckily, life and creativity offer us countless ways to express this animal in our art, allowing us to explore this beast's experience in every conceivable way. And we'll learn much through our artistic excursions, about our subject, about art in general, and about ourselves, too. One of these is learning about context. What is context? It’s an overall perspective that fixes our priorities on advocating for this animal as our overriding creative priority. “Isn’t this what I already do as an equine artist?,” you ask. Well, perhaps…and perhaps not.

Because sometimes equine art can validate harmful conditions unintentionally. We don't mean to do this, but perhaps we get caught up in the visual we're capturing, or perhaps we don't know enough to make more informed choices, or maybe we're caving in to perceived market pressures that appear to demand a specific likeness. But put it all together, and our art may be endorsing conditions contradictory to our subject's well being. To avoid this then, we need some of that context to decide which images are consistent to our convictions and which compromise them. 

It’s not the same thing to sculpt equines and then to sculpt equines in context. It’s easy to be lulled into the idea of improving upon nature, which is usually guided by our human perspectives rather than nature’s intentions. All too quickly, we can lose sight of equine biology, evolutionary history, and psychology in pursuit of our own ideals of perfection. It's an easy slippery slope. This isn’t reserved just for artists, however; it’s equally true within the equine world. Breeding decisions based on spurious criteria to achieve “perfection” can result in congenital pathologies that then become validated by award ribbons. Riding technique isn’t immune, either, often becoming diluted by misinterpretations that cause the animal anxiety, pain, and sometimes injury. If we end up validating these situations in our clay…was that really our aim?

Artists should bear in mind that only nature can create a factual horse. Why is this important to know? Well, the act of artistic creation automatically imbues a level of stylization or error no matter how we try to avoid it. Artists also tend to idealize in various degrees, for various reasons, and often we hear the adage, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” But when it comes to equine realism, we tend to stay on target best if our definition of “beauty” lies within a biological context rather than just an aesthetic one. Remember, there's 65 million years of evolutionary history that shaped this animal according to very specific criteria, and it seems he doesn't have so much physical fudge-factor as some facets of modern showing would have us believe.

This is why when an artist works within context, her work remains honest and respectful to the subject. In contrast, when we don't, our work can quickly slide into fallacious visuals that promote harmful practices. For example, we can see a difference between the Mona Lisa and Barbie® because recognizing idealized caricatures of our own form is relatively easy, being so familiar. To us, it’s clear that the Mona Lisa seems more like a real woman while Barbie is a contrivance of the female form, one that’s an impossible and unhealthy standard to boot. All body image issues aside, if we were to point to one as "more realistic," it would probably be the Mona Lisa, right? Yet this distinction isn’t so forthcoming in equine art. There's a blind spot of sorts with the equine form. Perhaps it’s because we burden the animal with our need to perfect our world, or maybe we're more interested in our ideas of perfection than we are with biology. And we must admit that humans have a tendency to overlook the dignity of things not human, with terrible results. We objectify to a fault in our pursuit of "perfection." Mix that with the pressures from the show ring, and it's easy to see where trouble can brew. Whatever the reason, this presents an interesting conundrum to artists: Realistic art demands faithfulness to life, but where is the line? How do we create more Mona Lisas rather than Barbies? 

This question has important implications because our visuals become a potent force in shaping a culture’s perceptions and, likewise, art has a tendency to absorb a culture’s ideals of beauty and validate them. It's a synergistic cycle. What tends to happen in this relationship is the creation of a feedback loop that produces an ever-exaggerated paradigm of “beauty.” This is clearly illustrated in the images of fashion models and super heroes through the past thirty years. The trend has now become so strong that Photoshop® is used extensively to make images even more "perfect." It also applies to what is produced in modern breeding of domestic animals. Indeed, studying the synchronicity between many halter horses and their respective breed type exaggerated and validated in art makes this point obvious. A particularly clear illustration is the relationship between the Arabian “halter” horse and Arabian horse art over the past 100 years. Simply compare the original “desertbreds” to the halter horses of today, and we see breeding decisions based on the artistic imagery rather than function. Indeed, we often hear the claim that the Arabian horse is “living art,” but sometimes it appears admirers have interpreted this concept literally! Talk about objectification.

This begs another question: As a realistic equine artist, do we have a moral responsibility to the animal? 

Before we can answer that, it’s a good idea to recognize and analyze some perceived ideals first to gain some ground. For that purpose, fifteen ideals are presented here, and almost all are derived from the show ring environment (it being the primary engine generating misleading paradigms). Knowing where ideals originate is important to know, because understanding their background allows a us to identify where things went wrong, and why...and what will our choice be now that we're armed with this knowledge? For this purpose, this discussion seeks to provide some context to these common fallacies that, though pervasive in the show ring, should give us pause in the studio. So let's go!

Big Eyes

Most conformation books state a “large eye” is desirable; however, this concept has been skewed into exaggeration. Although horses have the largest eyes of any land mammal, the eyes on some sculptures far out-proportion those of any normal horse. This could be caused by our human interpretation of infant characteristics as adorable, docile or pretty (referred to as “pedomorphosis”). People also are a visual species so making eye contact a natural component in our response behavior. 

Likewise, there’s a tendency to sculpt eyes bulging out of their sockets, usually to create the “big buggy eye” often thought appealing (especially in Arabian circles). However, this feature can indicate hypothyroidism or Anterior Segment Dysgenesis (ASD) in a real horse, so isn't necessarily a good thing to mimic. 

In reality, a “large eye” doesn’t mean larger than normal, simply not smaller than normal. The orbs of all the breeds are of similar size, and it’s the conformational differences in cranial and fleshy formation that makes certain lineages appear to have a “larger” or “smaller” eye. For example, the smaller stature and thus smaller head of the Arabian appears to have a larger eye than the bigger Clydesdale, but the fact is their eyes are really about the same size! This is why ponies appear to have even bigger eyesit's their smaller head that causes this effect.

[Note: A related issue is a forward-facing axis to an eye’s sculptural alignment. Oddly enough, some lineages of horses, especially Pasos, are developing more forward-facing eyes as people select for this humanized trait. Yet nature designed equine eyes to sit on the sides of the head to produce the necessary field of vision.]

A Long Neck

Some believe that a long neck is a benefit, with some going as far to claim a horse’s neck can never be too long. Yet it certainly can! This sentiment is born out of some fundamental misunderstandings of how a horse moves or what constitutes “good movement.” The fact is that a “short” necked horse is equally (if not more) athletic as a “long” necked horseit all depends on the horsemanship.

All horses only have seven neck vertebrae. So to add length, new neck vertebrae don’t magically appear, but each existing vertebra must elongate through progressive selection. This is how the giraffe acquired his long neckhe also has only seven neck vertebrae! What’s more, all the fleshy connections and mechanisms and all the nerve networks and impulses must elongate, but beyond what nature intended. In those animals bred with this paradigm, it’s no wonder that cervical dislocations, nerve damage, and back and neck problems have increased.

Additionally, the spine (of which the neck is a segment) is the last aspect of the equine skeleton to mature (i.e. for the growth plates to ossify), occurring around 6-7 years of age. However, in those lineages selectively bred for long necks (such as Saddlebreds, or to be very tall), this ossification of the spinal growth plates can take as long as 8 years.  

Boiled down, when the cervical chain is too long, athletic ability, suppleness (and eventually soundness) are actually compromised or impaired, not improved. Long-necked horses can also be difficult to ride and gather into bascule, having a tendency to avoid the bit (often due to back pain) and to “rubberneck,” (which shouldn’t be confused with being supple). This is probably why most horses with “nice long necks” tend to be unrideable, or remain in halter competition. There’s a good reason why a giraffe can’t do half the things a horse can do!

Biologically, a horse’s neck should be in balance with his body, and be integral to his biomechanics, balance and coordination. However, this balanced neck generally is far shorter in nature than what the ideal demands. It’s a good idea for an artist to study the neck lengths of ancestral types, or wild and feral types, to get a better understanding of what nature intended. Indeed, wild and feral horses typically achieve feats of agility, sure-footedness and coordination most show horses can only dream about! 

If a neck is a bit “too short” for our aesthetic taste, it’s not as tragic as we might think. Many people point to the short, thick necks of Mongolian ponies as a “clear illustration” of why a long neck is better. However, this is a misunderstanding of the neck biomechanics needed for riding by confusing three different structural issues. For riding, a “good” neck is defined by three separate characteristics: (1) Shape, (2) set, and (3) length. It’s the shape and set of the neck that play far more important roles in performance than length. This is why a short, arched neck with a mitbah is easier to ride than a long ewe-neck attached to a hammerhead. So a Mongolian pony’s neck isn’t “undesirable” (in Western terms) due to its length, but due to its shape and set.

[Note: Dr. Deb Bennett wrote a very clear discussion on the shape, set and length of the equine neck in her book, Principles of Conformation Analysis, Volume II.]

A Deep Dish

A prevailing misconception is that the Arabian “jibbah” creates room in the skull for more brain mass (or, alternately, to increase air intake). Predictably, the quest for the most “classic head,” with the deepest dish and the most pronounced jibbah has intensified each year. If you compare the Arabian profiles of ancestral desert bred photos to those of today, it’s clear the difference is significant. 

Under natural circumstances, many Arabians do have a dish created by the jibbahyet it usually has a more discrete design than often seen in the showring or artwork. This is because the jibbah actually evolved in a desert environment as a means to cool and add moisture to the hot, dry air to protect the sensitive inner tissues of the respiratory tract. Indeed, many desert animals have this very same construction to their head, suck as asses and donkeys. This means the jibbah is a function of the sinus, not the brain case (or breathing capacity). This is why Arabian horses used for sport tend to have “plainer” heads, whereas halter horses (in particular, the “lawn ornaments”)  tend to have “classic heads.” It does beg the question of which is the more responsible cranial structure, despite all the “buts” about beauty and type. In truth, the Arabian head should be similar to that of any other light breed, but with a slightly bulging forehead. Remember, the original use of the Arabian was that of a hardy, enduring performance marvel so to compromise that for the sake of more type seems to be a spurious decision. 

Because the reality is that an extreme profile can be a serious and painful lability for the animal. Why? For starters, it causes air swept into the sinus cavity to hit the delicate membranes at an abnormal angle, causing the tissues to inflame painfully and bleed. It also forces the roots of the upper molars to puncture the floor of the sinus cavity, resulting in various physical (such as “bleeders”) and behavioral problems (due to pain). It interferes with breathing, too, as wheezing has become more prevalently heard ring side of Arabian shows. Unfortunately, many of these animals cannot be used, and some even have to be euthanized. Often we can find their disfigured skulls as cautionary examples in many equine dentistry schools such as The Academy of Equine Dentistry in Glenns Ferry, Idaho. The walls of their meeting room are lined with "exotic-headed" Arabian skulls used as cautionary tales.

Unfortunately, however, because a “classic head” is considered so beautiful, it’s an obvious bonus to feature prominently in Arabian art. Not only does it take center stage, but it often becomes even more exaggerated as well, resulting in a depiction of Arabians with dolphin-like deformed domed foreheads and crushed nasal bones, with muzzles so small one wonders how the animal fares with the necessities of life. Which brings us to

A Fine Muzzle

A small, refined muzzle now constitutes “good breeding,” whereas a coarse, large muzzle tends to indicates "poor breeding." In particular, the Arabian ideal demands a “tea cup muzzle,” compelling breeders to produce horses with ever-smaller muzzles (some alarmingly small). As expected, this trend is mimicked in artwork (and often exaggerated), creating heads that seem to end in a point, like an ice cream cone. Yet a “tea cup muzzle” never meant a muzzle small enough to fit into a teacup, but one sensitive and delicate enough to sip from one.

Biologically, the entire evolutionary history of the equine can be defined by his head. Nature designed it in a functional way, with all the necessary means for sustenance existing in his muzzle: The intake of air, food and water. To do so effectively, he requires a muzzle of goodly size and proportion to his head and body mass. In short, there’s no such thing as a muzzle that’s “too big.” The equine head is purely functional—there's no ornamentation or accoutrements for battle, such as horns or antlers. It's a study of elegant biological economy for an animal dependent on running at high speed for some distance.

This is why an undersized muzzle can create biological complications, such as interference with the rooting of the teeth (compromising the ability to nip and chew food, or to hold the bit) and impeding the intake of oxygen by reducing the volume of the nasal passages. In large breeds, such as Sporthorses and draft horses, a small muzzle is particularly worrisome because these types require copious amounts of food to sustain their mass. When it comes to the equine design, a small muzzle most definitely isn't a bonus.

A Refined Head

Current ideals of animal beauty aren’t self-evident or timeless. More often, they are rooted in the past based on historical cultural or class prejudices, especially during the Victorian period, not necessarily what was  biologically sound for the animal. 

One such ideal is the comparatively small head. This was more a function of class system prejudice born in the Victorian 1800s rather than intelligent breeding. In the past, the common horse used by the working class had a heavy, large headand what upper class aristocrat would want to be seen with a “common horse”? As the horse switched emphasis from a utilitarian animal to that of sport and recreation (i.e. status), the desire for a smaller, “finer” head intensified. Horse paintings, which were the only means to glorify and immortalize prize animals before the advent of the camera, idealized horses with curiously small heads as an artistic expression of this underlying preference. Stubbs and Delacroix are good examples of this enforced stylization. Consequently, most common horses of today have smaller heads than those of yesteryear.

As expected, this visual has influenced the breeding shed for decades, which is why equine heads have been shrinking ever since. For example, compare historical photos of any ancestral types that established a “pure breed” and you’ll see they had larger heads. Indeed, analysis with calipers through Eadweard Muybridge’s book, Animals in Motion, gives a good illustration of the growing differences in head size between the “common” horse and the “purebred” horse during the 1800s (which also serves as a good illustration for natural back lengths, discussed shortly). Also, compare the heads of domestic horses to those of feral or wild counterparts and the distinction is even more pronounced. Susan McBane noted this trend in her book, Conformation for the Purpose, The Make, Shape and Performance of the Horse: “Domestic horses, however, nearly all have longer necks and smaller heads than their primitive ancestors because we have selectively bred for this characteristic of beauty” Indeed, we still hear this sentiment today, such as the Takh described as "coarse," or “primitive" largely in reference to his comparatively large, heavy head. 

Notwithstanding, evolution designed the equine head for things far more important than our arbitrary idea of beauty. It houses the massive batteries of teeth necessary for grinding up abrasive silica grasses, while also containing his only means for deriving sustenance of air, water, and food. His hearing and sight are housed in his head, as is his means for vocalization. Predictably then, serious complications can arise when a large body mass with high performance demands depends on a head that’s too small to accommodate these energy needs. Indeed, when the head shrinks, so do all these features needed for top performance. 

A realistic equine artist should also know that the equine head is integral to his biomechanics, in particular, his balance and coordination. It's a significant weight on the end of the neck, and so, by extension, the spine. For this reason, his head should be in balance to his body and more faithful to proportions informed by nature. To that end, artistic guidance can be found in ancestral types, or in wild and feral counterparts. 

It’s curious that other “ideal” physical distortions are present in those old paintings, as well, such as long necks, giant eyes, small muzzles, light bone, and small hooves, all in direct contradiction to the common man's working horse of that time. All are vestigial “ideals” mostly from the Victorian age in response to elitism which are still influencing breeding decisions today. Even the anatomically “correct” works of Stubbs are thus distortedhey, he could paint a totally realistic horse, but he had to sell paintings! His works, though technically inspiring, depict a Barbie-version of the horse.


There’s been a trend within some breeds, especially show horse types, of downplaying distinguishing features and adopting those of another breed as a means of "improvement." Ultimately, this results in a kind of homogenization that dampens the uniqueness of that given breed. For example, the Saddlebred influence on the breeding of Arabians or Morgans, or the “exotic” Arab-like heads on American Iberians or Quarter Horses. 

Shouldn’t each breed be celebrated for its unique features, which are often rich in history and culture to boot? Moreover, shouldn’t artists be “keepers of the grail” when short-term breeding fads threaten the physical distinctiveness of a breed? 

However, sometimes this homogenous effect can be inadvertently expressed in art as an artistic blind spot, such as a fixation on a particular phenotype that bleeds into all other phenotypes. For example, an artist enamored of round, squat pony types may infuse that “ponyness” in her depiction of other breeds creating pony-like Sporthorses, Saddlebreds, Quarter Horses or Shires. Again, this is where knowing the history and ancestral types of a breed are important in order to duplicate them with greater authenticity. Each breed is unique, and those special, distinctive qualities need to be preserved rather than presumed otherwise.

Breed Type

The concept of a “purebred” horse, with fixed, registrable bloodlines, isn’t how it’s always been. It’s actually relatively new to the species, a recent artifice born during the Victorian Era, in a cultural background notorious for class elitism and eugenics. For example, the oldest known registry is the English Jockey Club, formed 1752 as a means to ensure the horse that was registered to race would be the one actually racing. However, the idea caught on, and the Percheron Horse Association of America would follow suit in 1876. Then the idea really caught on as a marketing gimmick that played to the prevalent Victorian ideas of eugenics and Western European superiority over the rest of the world, even socioeconomic classes within Victorian society. Quite literally, having a “purebred” horse instead of an unregistered, common horse was akin to driving a Rolls Royce® instead of a used clunker.

Because previously, “purebreeds” didn’t exist. Instead, horses were classified in the context of land races. Also, they were usually bred according to their use, not their bloodline or breed type, such as for riding (including gaited), draft, stock, racing, carriage, etc. Sometimes “Farmer Bob” simply bred a distinctive type of horse for his own purposes. This meant horses were bred for a specific purpose, producing more realistic expectations from a specific phenotype. We buy certain automobiles to fit a specific need, don't we? W
e don’t buy a sports car when we need an SUV and we don’t buy a sedan when we need a utility truck. Horse breeding was approached in much the same way prior to the Victorian era because status as related to the horse had this very different dynamic. 

However, when the engine replaced the horse, his role changed entirely. He found new value in sport and recreation (i.e. status-based activities), which threw open the doors even wider for the concept of “purebreed” to flourish. With its elite closed books, glamorized mythologies (which often were fabricated) and distinctive “points of type" (a marketing gimmick), a kind of war-between-the-breeds was fueled, as each vied for market dominance. In other words, “purebreed” rhetoric and mythology became marketing ploys to the growing business of selling "purebreds."  

One byproduct was the fixed “points of type” gaining increased importance as a kind of breed advertising, pressuring it to override functional structure, or making it vulnerable to fashion or exaggeration. Closed registry books also fixed the gene pool, which not only jeopardized genetic diversity, but also forced a single phenotype once bred for a specific purpose now to be applied to multiple uses to prevail in a show-oriented market. Truly, some breeds have become so diversified or changed that many lineages are unrecognizable from the foundation stock. The end result tends to be a degeneration of the original phenotype that had gained so much fame for its functionality in the first place. In fact, the deterioration of foundation archetypes has become so troublesome in some breeds that “preservation breeding” is a buzzword.

Perhaps the most unfortunate byproduct is the creation of living “lawn ornaments,” or those specimens so deformed by the intense application of breed type that they cannot function soundly. This isn’t to say that all change is wrong. There is an inherent responsibility in any domestic breeding programit’s called “animal husbandry” for a reasonand one of the duties is to ensure the perpetuation of a gene pool into the future. It does seem, though, that the duty applied to horses has gotten off-track with many breeds.

What does all this mean for an artist? Boiled down, it’s probably a good idea not to take a registry’s rhetoric or a breed’s mythology at face value. Being familiar with a breed’s objective history before it became fixed by the concept of “pure bloodline” is a good balance for making informed decisions in the studio. 

A Short Back

Many conformation books state that a “short back” is a positive attribute. Again, that ideal has been taken to extremes in the show ring—and thus artto create a visual of an abnormally short back. For example, to accentuate the abusive “Big Lick” movement, selective breeding in some Tennessee Walker lines has created backs so short, the animals resemble hyenas. 

Likewise, the short back phenomenon finds the most extreme expression in artwork. Either through an artistic blind spot, an exaggeration of breed type, or an inferior method for measuring proportion, many sculptures depict backs so short one wonders where the saddle is supposed to fit if it were a real horse. Of particular concern are mare sculptures with short backs because, in life, this gender requires roomy torsos for pregnancy. There’s an important biological reason why mares appear more “rectangular,” or “lower to the ground” compared to stallions. 

The natural equine back is far longer than what most people realize, which quickly is revealed by a deft use of calipers. Some breeds, such as drafters and carriage types, have even longer backs, being an animal used for pulling more than for riding. The idea of an equine back that’s “too long” is a human concept, probably a byproduct of riding theory. Still, “good” motion can become just as stiff and uncoordinated if the back is too short just as if it were “too long." More importantly, though, it reduces room for the the viscera, which can compromise the animal’s health. 

Fine Bone

We’ve all heard the conformational ideal of “fine, refined bone.” Over time, this ideal has been misinterpreted to mean slender cannons and small joints, which is why many show breeds have been losing substance steadily over the decades such as Arabians, Quarter Horeses, Morgans, and Saddlebreds. Cannons also have been getting longer, especially in the foreleg, and joints have been getting smaller. As expected, many artists employ this visual, even exaggerating it, to create sculptures that appear to be careening on stilts rather than viable legs.

In reality, the ideal of “fine, refined bone” means a clean-legged, or crisp topography to the leg’s fleshy and boney structures, meaning that it’s free of faults or pathology that could impair soundness. It has nothing to do with the circumference or length of the cannon! In fact, a big-boned draft horse can have “fine, refined bone,” too.

Statistically, a horse should have a cannon bone of normal (or short) length and with at least seven to eight inches of circumference per 1,000 lb. of body mass, regardless of breed. This ratio easily can be gauged in the studio using proportional measurements. But this is why Arabians are reported to have been so sound—they simply had more bone per their total mass, being smaller in size to say, a Thoroughbred or Warmblood. It wasn't because their bone is denser either—they have normal density for their mass. Horses tend to lose bone density with size, so a Thoroughbred, Warmblood or drafter has less bone density only because of their size, not because of their breed. For this reason, ponies are notorious for their soundness only because they have ample bone and normal bone density for their mass.

Straight Legs

A common phrase in conformation books is, “The legs should be straight.” But what does this mean? It's indeed true, given the meaning hasn’t been misconstrued, yet this is precisely what tends to happen, especially in America.

It’s fair to say that Americans have largely forgotten how to breed a correct straight foreleg. Calf-knees are now the norm because they do appear “more straight” compared to a correct alignment, which appears “over at the knee” to most. In other words, “straight” leg now is interpreted literally rather than within context to equine biomechanics. Artists easily fall prey to this misinterpretation, as the plethora of calf-kneed sculptures testify.

A correct “straight” foreleg has a radius aligned to the carpals at 90˚, with the carpal layers evenly stacked and aligned onto the top of the cannon. This 90˚ should be consistent down the leg, roughly forming a straight line that bisects the entire boney leg column from the external tuberosity of the radius, through the radius, through the carpals, and through the metacarpal.

[Note: We shouldn't confuse a correct foreleg with one that’s genuinely “over at the knee.” This is the result of an injury to the check ligaments, allowing the carpus to buckle forwards. Also, a properly aligned foreleg can assume the appearance of a calf-knee under extreme stress, often seen in racing stills.]

The hind legs also have their own version of this fallacy. We’ve probably read in many conformation books and registry standards the need for straight hind legs when seen from behind, with myriad diagrams depicting hind legs with toes facing forwards when standing square as “correct.” However, like with the forelegs, the concept of a “straight" hind leg has become confused, mostly in America, into a literal meaning. In reality, this kind of “straight” actually depicts a kind of bow-leggedness! This is why horses with these “straight” legs produce an odd wobbly, outward “hock popping” motion when moving, which can lead to reoccurring lameness.

Instead, nature designed the equine hind limb to have an outward rotation, so that the toe points outwards when in stance, with the cannons still parallel to each other. This aligns the entire hind limb, from the stifle to the toe, on an outward rotation, which allows equine biomechanics to function properly and ensure sound motion. Remember, the posterior of the equine barrel is wide, and the stifles must move around its outer perimeter for forward flexion and extension. Yet a forward-facing plane interferes with this motion, which is why such horses often have inferior motion compared to those with natural alignment. Yet it’s this natural alignment that typically is confused with cow-hocks, and so becomes interpreted as a fault.

Artists should be highly skeptical of the conformational “ideals," particularly with the legs. Much has become misunderstood or skewed by fashion, since function too often is removed from form nowadays.

Hoof Size

Breeding for smaller feet within the halter agenda of certain breed circles has been the fashion for some time. Perhaps smaller feet make the body look bigger (such as with Quarter Horses) or make the legs appear more refined (such as with Arabians), though it’s difficult to find a concrete answer as the primary reason. The trend has entered into artwork, of course, often resulting in sculptures with feet so small they appear to walk en pointe in ballet shoes. 

To remain sound, it’s essential for a horse to have feet proportional to his mass. Equines are a species based on motion, and every aspect of their biology is dependent on motion in order for them to grow and function properly, and included in that equation is foot size.

Previously, identifying a foot that was “too small” was more a visual exercise, but now we have a real measurement even artists can use. The equation can be calculated on a calculator, as follows: 
  • Measure the circumference at the hairline, right below the coronary band (in inches). 
  • Multiply the horse’s weight (in pounds) by 12.56 and hit the “equals” sign. 
  • Divide this first number by hairline measurement (in inches) and hit the “equals” sign.
  • Divide this number again by the hairline measurement (in inches) and hit the “equals” sign. The answer should be between 68 and 78. If the number is higher than this range, the horse’s mass (or the sculpture’s depicted mass) is too much for the feet.
  • Or as the equation: (12.56 x W) ÷ C2 = R

The sum (R) is the ratio of the body size to foot size, described in pounds per square inch. In results, (R) should amount to no more than 78, or 78 pounds per square inch, the maximum loading for an average performance horse. Statistically, ratios higher than 78, particularly those higher than 83, tend to develop lameness issues. Scale this down, and an artist can use this ratio by estimating how many inches the sculpted coronets are and then estimating the weight of the the depicted sculpted horse if alive, and then plugging the numbers into the equation.

Hoof Shape 

The long toe-low heel (LT-LH) hoof trim has been standard practice in many sports disciplines in the belief it increases speed or gait quality by lengthening stride. Because this trim is ubiquitous and proponents are quite vocal about its purported benefits relating to performance, many artists fall into the trap of simply sculpting what they see without objective understanding. Yet the shape of the hoof is of critical importance to soundness, with very little room to fudge structure. For an in-depth discussion on the quality of the feet, please refer to my twelve part series, Steppin' Out: Hooves From An Artistic Perspective.

Likewise some artists have adopted this LT-LH structure in their sculptures in crisp detail, perpetuating this harmful shape. But the truth is a healthy foot looks radically different, with a short toe and rounded edges (again refer to my hoof series "Steppin' Out" for more information).

Quality Horsemanship

Artists sometimes need to be part psychologist to tease out how human bias can influence ideals. For example, people are inclined to have a “more is better” attitude. This tendency drives people to “improve” ideals by separating them from their causal mechanics and magnifying them through gimmicks, contraptions, or shortcuts. In particular, when this behavior is applied to something as complex, nuanced and interdependent as the underpinnings of horsemanship, those underpinnings usually are forgotten, and the gimmicks become the "correct" way of doing things. For instance, this is how the distortions of set-tails, Broken Neck Syndrome, and rollkur have replaced what would have been offered by a happy horse through proper horsemanship. 

People also have a tendency to “idol worship” and, in so doing, forget the truths that created the ideal in the first place. As a result, it's replaced by something false, often wholly artificial and forced, and sometimes abusive. In this way, aspects natural to the horse become transformed into artificial extremes that require unnatural, often forceful, practices to produce. This is how the “Big Lick” overtook the natural gait of the Walker, and how false collection now dominates the dressage arena.

Consequently, it’s a good idea to keep context in mind when choosing how to portray our subject matter. A useful rule-of-thumb is this: If a horse requires artificial contrivances, misinterpretations, or force to produce a look or motion, it’s good to question whether it’s appropriate to validate in art work. 

In Frame

Which brings us to "frame riding." The ideal of a “proper frame” that produces collection has become entrenched in modern riding based on its claim that how the head is carried contributes to, even creates, self carriage. The inevitable result is “push-pull” riding, wherein the horse is “pushed” with the rider’s leg into the fixed bit and “pulled” into the desired head position, thenvoila!we have collection. If the horse doesn’t respond, the solution is to initiate more forward motion and more pulling on his head. Indeed, we may remember a riding instructor bark to us, “Push him harder and hold himhold him!,” as horse and rider go ever-faster and more out of control around the arena (and how tired their arms and back are afterwards). What this actually does is cause physical and mental trauma to the horse, and that's definitely not self carriage.

For one, it forces the horse into a crooked spinal alignment to protect himself by bracing his poll, loins, spine and ribcage. This stiffens his entire body and even locks specific places (such as his jaw and loins), which not only causes him pain and cumulative damage, but also can be frightening by essentially trapping him. It’s no wonder why equine body working has boomed in past years! It’s also why foaming mouths, teeth grinding, wry tails and general unsoundness are so common. Nonetheless, to untrained eyes these animals appear collected, and so the unfortunate cycle continues.

The frame theory essentially was a “fast food” repackaging of the principles of collection as a means to sell it wholesale to a largely uneducated riding public fixated on winning a ribbon rather than genuine horsemanship. It's a dumbed-down regime, and so much so as to be wholly incorrect, demonstrating a complete misunderstanding of the biomechanics of collection. Predictably, the frame paradigm sprouted various more missteps as competitors resorted to ever more desperate measures to mimic cheaply what should have been done honestly. This is how rollkur has infiltrated the dressage world, for example.

The fact is head carriage is just a byproduct of collection, not the means to produce it. This means that no matter how a rider cranks the head or “reminds” the horse with bit-jerking, genuine self-carriage will never be achievedonly a cheap facsimile will be expressed. A horse in true self-carriage naturally assumes the desired head carriage on his own, as an inevitable mechanical consequence of bascule. This is because collection is a posture the horse assumes on his own, and maintains with each step, that remains even on a loose rein.

In truth, collection begins in the spine, starting with the coiling of the loins to raise the back (“or rounding the back”). This raises the base of the neck, compelling the cervical chain to arch and “telescope” to drop the head at the poll like a plumb into the desired vertical position (which only can be achieved with a passive rein, otherwise the entire process can be shut down by defensive responses by the horse). Also, this rounding of the spine reinstates the necessary anatomical gentle arch of the spinal column, allowing the horse to essentially carry the rider efficiently. This is why kissing spines don't appear in horses taught to carry their rider thusly. [Nearly all skeletal depictions of horses are wrong by illustrating a straight spine; the natural orientation is a slight arch.]

And contrary to popular belief, the poll doesn’t have to be the highest point to “be on the bit.” As long as the base of neck is raised and the cervical chain and spine are arched and the throat open, the head can be guided in any position and still be “on the bit.”

A horse in true self-carriage is unmistakable. His motion floats across the ground with strides of such ease, suppleness, energy, agility and lightness, that he appears ungoverned by gravity. Perhaps most importantly, his eyes sparklehe’s joyful! This is because collection isn’t just the proper way to ride, it’s a form of equine therapy. It’s a remedial posture necessary for a horse to carry a rider comfortably and soundly by reinstating that natural arch to his spine, which allows him to rely again on his passive dorsal rebound system. This makes motion easy, comfortable, safe and energy efficient. 

In contrast, false collection is exhausting and injurious. We’ll find such a horse plodding along on the forehand, with a lumbering, lifeless stride and the appearance of being braced or “weighted down." Or conversely, he may move with excessive "popping" up and down of the forehand as he bounces rather that demonstrates true impulsion. What’s more, his face usually looks resigned or pinched, and he may froth at the mouth or exhibit other body language that reveals inner stress (the froth is created by an agitating tongue, not by a “wet mouth”). Biomechanically, false collection shuts down the passive dorsal rebound system, thereby affecting his overall biomechanics in significant ways, which is why falsely collected horses tend to be clumsy, uncoordinated, and prone to injury.

Another symptom of false collection is “Broken Neck Syndrome (or “Double Hinged Neck” in Morgan circles). This is caused when the base of the neck isn’t lifted, but the head is “pulled” into position with the reins (or contraptions), compelling the animal to brace his poll and neck muscles defensively which causes his neck to flex not at the poll, but between the 2nd and 3rd cervical vertebrae, with a telltale kink in the crest overlying this joint, making his neck appear “double-hinged.” The rest of the neck muscles look braced, especially the cervical serrati, as he continues to defend himself. Not only is this articulation painful, but it also closes his throat and locks his jaw. There’s a sad reason why horses held in this position often produce a gruntly wet sounds, sometimes with their tongue sticking out and a panicked look on their faces: They’re choking! A horse doesn’t naturally articulate his neck this way unless taught, and once learned it becomes difficult to reverse. 


It's commonly held that how an animal is built can “predetermine” whether he’s suitable for collection or not, paving the way for a host of untruths about which breeds or types are better, or more "suitable," at dressage or just basic riding. This is one of the reasons why non-Warmblood breeds find prejudicial treatment in the competitive dressage world, which largely has forgotten the true meaning and application of dressage, or “dressing a horse.” If this weren’t true, shouldn’t competitors instead be using “poorly conformed” horses for competition to show off their true horsemanship prowess?

An artist should understand that because collection is a biomechanical postureit’s consistent with all breeds and all conformation. All horses can do all horse movements because they share the same anatomical blueprint. That means all equines can attain self-carriage and do all the prescribed movements dressage or haute ecole requires. There's no reason why a Shetland can't piaffe or a Belgian can't passage. The truth is the idea of “suitability” is a prejudicial myth that’s more a function of marketing propaganda to sell a certain type of horse. Because it's just a matter of style, isn't it? Yessome structures lead to different kinds of motion, but that's more about style than "suitability." Prejudice based on this is a function of fashion, not fact. And how relevant is that when it comes to genuine horsemanship?  So don't be afraid to challenge convention! We can be advocates for the horse rather than pander to peoples' capricious notions.


We artists weaken our credibility when we accept the imposed ideals of perfection for our work without thinking. We need to regard this animal within the context of his biological underpinnings first, and our conceptions of beauty second. And we have a unique giftwe can circumvent these dilemmas found in the show world altogether, to portray our subject in deeper and less objectified ways. It is possible to sculpt more Mona Lisas when we better recognize the potential of Barbie-fying our work.

That said however, what each of us chooses to do with our art work is our own choice. Ultimately, however, being aware and informed offers an opportunity to make honest decisions by avoiding all the detours that could diminish our sculptures. In this way, our work gains more authority and authenticity, amplifying the depth of our portfolio.

Delving deeper into our artistic motivations by challenging the dominant ideals of perfection also allows introspective moments to renew our commitment and admiration for this noble animal. In the end, our work will represent advocacy for our subject rather than unaware mimicking of what we see in life. Plus, promoting healthy visuals can help further the efforts of those who also endeavor to breed and use the animal in ways consistent to his biology, in ways more faithful to his well-being. As such, our work can become elevated above some of the distortions and misinterpretations too often found in the horse world today—and that's a very good thing.

Recommended Resources
PRINCIPLES OF CONFORMATION ANALYSIS-VOL. I-III, Deb Bennett. 1992. Fleet Street Publishing Corp., 656 Quince Orchard Rd., Gaithersburg, MD  20878. Available from Equine Studies Institute, PO Box 411, Livingston, CA 95334. For more information:
HORSE GAITS, BALANCE AND MOVEMENT: THE NATURAL MECHANICS OF MOVEMENT COMMON TO ALL BREEDS, Susan E. Harris. 1993.  Howell Book House, Macmillian Publishing Co., 866 Third Ave., NY, NY 10022. ISBN: 0-87605-955-8
MAKING NATURAL HOOF CARE WORK FOR YOU, Pete Ramey, 2003. Star Ridge Publishing. ISBN: 0-9658007-7-6
HORSES IN ACTION: A Study of Conformation, Movement and the Causes of Spinal Stress, R.H. Smythe, M.R.C.V.S., 1963, Charles C. Thomas, Publisher, Springfield, Illinois. 
CONFORMATION FOR THE PURPOSE, Susan McBane, 2000, Swan Hill Press, 101 Longden Road, Shrewsbury, SY3 9EB, England. ISBN: 1-84037-052-1
BRED FOR PERFECTION; SHORTHORN CATTLE, COLLIES AND ARABIAN HORSES SINCE 1800, Margaret E. Derry. 2003. The John Hopkins University Press, 2715 North Charles Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21218. ISBN: 0-8018-7344-4.
ANIMALS IN MOTION, Eadweard Muybridge, 1887. Dover Publications, Inc. (1957), 31 East 2nd Stree, Mineola, NY 11501. ISBN: 0-486-20203-8.


THE INNER HORSEMAN, Equine Studies Institute, PO Box 411, Livingston, CA 95334. You must be a member to receive the newsletter. For more information:


"I must take responsibility for my work. That word may be grandiose, but there's an ethic involved in creation." ~ Cecilia Davis Cunningham

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