Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Goo Factor


As sculptors of equine realism, we have to balance many facets of the animal in order to recreate a convincing result in clay. Being so, there are many variables at play, all existing in a sliding scale of accuracy. Yet at the basis are our anatomy charts, reference photos, field study, and various tidbits from our mental library, all working together to get us as close as possible to achieving that coveted goal of "realism."

As such, bony landmarks, muscle configurations, veining patterns, proportion, planes and angles consume our attention to help ensure we hit our mark. Conformation, breed type, gender characteristics also play their part. Gesture, expression, posture, and composition contribute their necessary qualities, too, as does technique, tool contours and smoothing methods. All these things add their unique and critical touch to our work, hopefully recreating this splendid creature in as faithful a manner we can muster.

Yet there's one aspect of this animal that's so sublime and mercurial that it rarely gets its fair due. And because its qualities morph so quickly and quirky, they literally go unseen by most. It's no surprise then why anatomy charts lack it altogether, since as a matter of course, it's stripped clean away to reveal the "more important" muscle masses and bony orientations. For all these reasons, many sculptors end up overlooking it completely as well, focusing almost entirely on everything but this one quintessential aspect.

Yet this missing element is as important as anything else, even as much as bone, muscle, planes, placement, and proportion, capturing a rare degree of realism by lending life and instance to flesh itself. Without it, in fact, it's impossible to convey the essence of living flesh altogether! So if we want to keep our sculptures from appearing too mechanical, more like postured anatomy charts rather than living, breathing beasts, this vital component is an equal imperative in our priority list.

But what is it? What's this elusive substance that goes so unaddressed so universally? What could possibly have that much power in our work, yet be so ignored? What could be so critical that goes so missing?

It's goo.

Yes—GOO. That mushy magical, that warm wonderful, that glorious gooey, goopy stuff we can call GOO.

It's one of my very favorite things! Along with the ABCs (anatomy, biomechanics and conformation), goo is equally important for a convincing equine sculpture, to create one that looks like an actual living animal rather than a static reproduction. Put it all together, we can call it The Goo Factor.

It dawned on me some years back as I was pondering how to take my sculptures beyond the lifeless illustration of an anatomy chart and into the world of fleshy, kinetic animals. Then ta-da! I had an epiphany of sorts, inspired by oogling the goo on my plump ratties—it was all about goo. I realized I couldn’t just sculpt the muscle masses as I understood them, or as they were depicted in all my anatomy chartsI had to sculpt as they existed in life. And that's very different from a chart. Flesh doesn’t just hang on the bones like an inert mass nor is it always taut and firm. It has a life of its own, a resonance with movement and moment, which must be infused to capture that look of living realism.

What Is Goo?

No matter how fit or fat the animal, all horses have goo. But what is it exactly? Well, it entails all the flesh, really, since all flesh has a goo factor to it. But we can also think of it as fascia, hide, skin, fat and mushy bits that lie atop and between muscles, tendons, ligaments, and bone, which resonates and reacts to movement. It's all the "extra bits" in a way. In other words, goo entails all those fleshy parts that wrinkle, wiggle, jiggle, goosh, smoosh, and moosh.

As important as they are for sculpture, however, they're often the very things removed during dissection, which is why they rarely end up in an anatomical illustration. Yet these things are so very important if we want to give our sculpted flesh as much real life as our conjured personality because just as movement is to anatomy, as character is to an individual, as moment is to posture, goo is to flesh. It imbues character, quirkiness, life and moment to our sculpted flesh, so with it, our sculpture will appear alive, dynamic, more as a living, breathing, fleshy creature. On the other hand, without it, our sculpted flesh will appear mechanical and static, as rigid and dead as an anatomical chartor worse, noexistant. Our body of work will appear homogenous, too, since that's all an anatomy chart can offer us. All living horses have living goo, and our sculptures do best to mimic that as best we canwhich isn't easy, to say the least.

Because goo is changeable! It's squishable, mooshable, oozeable, stretchable, wrinkable, compressible, poochable, touchable, and oh, so inviting. Don't we love to ooze the gooey parts of our pets? The gushy, warm, fleshy, soft portions like dog ears and faces, and the bellies of cats? Or the entirety of a rotund rat? 

Well, horses have goo, too! Their fleshy muzzles and eyebrows are obvious examples, as is the fleshiness between their forelegs. Other examples are wrinkles and folds at the neck and at strategic areas of bending and twisting. Their muscles can be gooey as well, especially the pectorals, which distort, mush and stretch in relation to foreleg position. They can even jiggle and wriggle in motion, too. The neck is also quite gooshy, being amoebic in articulation, seeming to gain length when stretched and to shorten when tucked. If we play close attention, too, we'll even see the neck muscles ripple and swing in unison with inertia, say around a tight turn, or over a jump.

The Missing Factor

But there's another kind of goo often unnoticed, but vital nonetheless: fascia. This magical stuff usually gets the short end of the stick in dissections and anatomical illustrations, being treated like a disposable connective tissue of no circumstance. But the fact is fascia is anything but disposable! It glues the skin on, houses the "fly shaker" muscles, binds the entire body together, wrapping around everything, giving shape and support to the muscles, suspending the organs, and creating a network of interconnected, communicating systems. 

Together, it constitutes the largest percentage of body tissue and is all made of collagen. Aside from its many structural functions, it also serves as a heat sink, cushions and reduces friction and creates areas of needed expansion (like around vessels, veins and arteries). There are five basic kinds: 

  1. “Spiderweb”: acts as a supportive, suspensory network.
  2. “Bubblewrap": serves as a heat sink, reducer of friction, provider of expansion space, and is also a major kind of contouring fascia. Generally, it has air in it or sometimes watery fluid and often oily fluid. For example, there's a lot of bubblewrap fascia under the scapula and round the point of shoulder to mediate all the friction.
  3. “Tarp”: non-stretchy and wraps something such as the aponeurosis of the torso.
  4. “Gel wrap”: wrapping in jello-like loose connective wrapping, often serving as a heat sink.
  5. Tensor Fascia Latae (TFL): it pops the patella off the “thumb stay” of the femur to release the stay apparatus, or to “take the patella off the hook." It helps in lateral work by working as an abductor and a weak protractor and guards against locked stifles. It often manifests as an obvious strip from the point of hip to the stifle.
Clearly, there's much more to fascia than previously thought! Indeed, it could easily be argued that fascia is as important as muscles and bone in the living animal, and so the same can be said for sculpture, too. Most often, it's fascia that helps to give hide its various textures and character, whether at rest or in motion. Because if we pay close attention, we find that flesh has surface eccentricities, so we shouldn't be afraid to input some oddities into the surface of our sculptures to accentuate the appearance of living flesh. Ripples, bumps, stretches, wrinkles, and other curiosities are typical of the equine hide, features that need our attention just as much as musculature.

Paying attention to goo not only adds life to our sculpture, but can heighten the sense of motion and moment as well. Depicting skin that stretches, pooches, ripples and wriggles can add kinetic features to our piece that can amplify the sense of effort and speed. Carefully placing wrinkles or oozy goo in a composition can also heighten the sense of flesh and mass, adding weight to our piece. 

So What's The Hoopla With Goo? 

In a nutshell, goo adds life to anatomy. Without it, structure remains mechanical, inert and sterile; our piece will appear as a static sculpture rather than as a living animal. Goo also accentuates everything else in a sculpture. For example, goo makes hard bony areas or firm muscle masses more believable because of the contrast it creates. Delicate wrinkles on a firm neck or mushy veins on hard bone really help to impart the idea of a living animal with real mass and immediacy. Goo is also a blast to sculpt, with curves and gooshy features that allow an artist to play, providing a welcome contrast to the technical demands of realistic sculpture. And, ultimately, goo offers a deeper understanding of the structure and physics of the animal, beyond the strict mechanics of the anatomy, which can deepen our appreciation for our craft.

The truth is that anatomy is the blueprint—yesbut without imbued life, a sculpture is simply a representational facsimile of that blueprint. This is fine unless we really want to capture that rare anima that brings our sculpture to life. We must remember that every anatomical chart ever conceived was created from studying dead horses, and unless we compensate, our work dependent on those charts will be equally lifeless. Part of that compensation is factoring in goo, that peculiar nature of flesh, in order to instill vitality into our clay. Because if we step back and really think about it, we see that the living animal doesn't move like an articulated anatomy chart, like a jointed paper doll. This is because the animal's bony anatomy is encapsulated in goo which compresses, expands, mooshes and gooshes in tandem with articulation and inertia.

So What Kinds Of Goo Is There?

What kinds of goo exist? Well, a lot! Wherever there’s something fleshy and mooshy, there’s goo. For instance:
  • Wrinkles: These are folds of skin, either small and delicate or rather bulbous, in larger rolls. They can appear on the neck, throatlatch, between the ears, between the forelegs, on the pastern when flexed, in the elbow area, on the flanks, on the hindquarter or were the buttock meets the back of the gaskin when the hindleg is flexed or extended. They're also common on the face, such as the brows and muzzle, and that wonderful squishy chin. Studying the living animal and photos will reveal that wrinkles are very common and can appear in the most unexpected places. Because wrinkles are folds of skin, they can also be more substantial like those on the crest of a Welsh Cob stallion or Drafter, or sometimes on the torso if the horse is really bending around, perhaps to scratch his barrel. And it doesn’t matter if a horse is wiry or pudgey, various types of wrinkles always occur, and so infusing them into our sculpture will do wonders for adding life's texture and “touchability."
  • Depressions and Concavities: Goo also manifests itself in the depressions and concavities muscle assume, especially when in motion, as the flesh is mushed, gooshed, pushed, pulled and pooched, forming dips and channels that don’t exist when the horse is simply standing. Remember, the horse is a 3D animal and so his muscles don’t simply move over each other, they also dip in and out and smoosh around each other during contraction or relaxation. That is to say, muscles don’t only move back and forth and up and down, they also move in and out. This kind of goo does amazing things for sculpture by instilling a sense of mass and fleshiness, keeping it from becoming a “flattened” technical depiction of anatomy we see in a diagram. Truly, muscles aren't stiff, fixed masses, but kinetic and squishy, dynamic features, producing lovely contours as they react to each other in motion. 
  • Sliding Skin: The skin isn’t attached to the muscles or bone on the whole of its inner surface as though natured coated it with spray adhesive and smoothed it evenly over the muscles. Rather, it’s “tacked down” by fascia at random points, allowing the skin to slide over muscles or bony areas with relative ease. And the more mobile an area, the more likely the skin is “slideable" over that area. For example, the skin on the elbow has a lot of sliding ability, which you can watch every time a horse lifts his foreleg. Also look for this effect on the ribs, stifle and shoulder. Watch how a horse flexes his hindleg and see how the stifle slides under the skin, or when a horse breaths deeply, how his ribs ripple underneath. 
  • Amoeba: When studying motion, it’s important not to interpret the body as moving like a stick-figure or an articulated paper doll. Granted, movement occurs at the joints and those joints have parameters for articulation, but within those parameters is life. That means it’s a mistake to think only of the skeleton and forget that its cloaked in flesh that smooshes and stretches during articulation. This is the amoebic nature of flesh and understanding this concept is essential for realistic sculpture. For example, notice how the neck seems to “lengthen” when stretched or “shorten” when tucked? Or how the neck seems “longer” when the scapula is extended back or “shorter” when the scapula is lifted upwards? Or on the hindquarter, a deeply flexed hindleg will cause the gaskin to smoosh into the hindquarter musculature, with all sorts of wrinkles and gooshing. The skeleton does articulate, but it doesn't do so in a vacuum! Always remember that it does so enveloped in goo! Which leads to…
  • Distortion: Because the skeleton is buried in flesh, which is smooshable and stretchy, when it articulates, muscle bellies are stretched and gooed, distorting away from their normal appearance when standing. And the less an area is characterized by subcutaneous bone, the more this distortion can happen. Indeed, one of the most lovely and interesting aspects of movement is how the flesh changes as a consequence. The neck, pectorals, triceps, and hindquarter are typically the sites of the most distortion, so observe them on real horses to get a better understanding of just how much this effect comes into play when interpreting motion.
  • Stretching: Flesh also stretches! Clear examples of this can be seen in the elbow and flank area as those little skin flaps that stretch when the limb is extended. Another clear example is the skin overlaying the girth and triceps area, which can be seen to stretch when that forearm extends forwards. Also muscle bellies can be stretched during extension, which is easily observed around the shoulder and hinquarter when the respective legs are extended forwards or backwards, or in the pectoral area, when the forelegs are abducted.
  • Muscle Resonance: This sublime manifestation of goo occurs when inertia acts upon relaxed portions of flesh, making them jiggle, flop or ripple in resonance to the physics of movement. For instance, a bowed posterior portion of the forearm on an extended foreleg because the flexor muscles are relaxed, how the triceps goo and hollow when relaxed, or the Sternomandibularis muscles jiggling, rippling, or bowed due to the inertia of a sharp turn or spin. Our eye often misses these moments, but when our Eye is honed, we'll be able to observe such effects in living horses, and then in photos. They add a wonderful touch to sculpture!
Tips For Infusing The Goo Factor

Ok, so now we know about goo, let's get it into our clay, and here are some tips: 
  • We should know our anatomy. Goo can distort or hide anatomical structures, so if we’re going to learn about goo, we have to first know about anatomy, otherwise we'll get confused. We have to learn the rules before we can break them!
  • Life study is a must. We cannot learn about goo by simply studying photos or anatomical diagrams. We have to seek out the living animal and spend a lot of focused time observing how living flesh behaves. 
  • Don’t overdo. The sculpture will look odd if we make the effects too extreme by getting carried away. The trick is to find an interpretation that gets the point across that’s both technically accurate and artistically pleasing. 
  • Know our goo. Work to identify the different types of goo and under what circumstances they appear. For example, wrinkles are always present in one place or another while amebic goo mostly occurs around areas of flexion or extension. Also, several types of goo may happen simultaneously, such as wrinkles, with concavities and distortions, so also pay attention to cumulative effects. 
  • Remember what goo is. Always keep in mind that goo is pliable flesh with a squishy, soft, warm quality. It’s seductive and alluring and begs to be touched. So we need to keep the goo in our sculpture fleshy and soft looking, avoiding methods that would make it appear harsh, regimented, or mechanical. That's to say our goo shouldn't look like joint wrinkles on an artificial limb. 
  • Preplan our goo. Because goo is an integral part of our finished sculpture, it’s important to consider how it’s applied. For example, large bundles of rippling muscle on a Quarter Horse are fun, but aren't accurate on an Arabian. Jiggling muscles on a standing sculpture will look strange as would static goo on a moving sculpture. So identify the appropriate types of goo and the necessary degree needed for it to complement our sculpture. 
  • Think in terms of curves. Avoid straight lines and straight planes when sculpting muscle masses. Horses are made of flesh, not polished sheet metal.
  • Details count. Veins and moles contribute to the illusion of fleshiness, so instill them when appropriate.
  • Study other artists. Taking note on how other artists sculpturally express goo will help us decide how we wish to approach it in our work. 
Because of its fleshiness, sculpting goo can be tricky. So for a head start, avoid these common missteps:
  • Bundling: Characterized by a discreet bundle of wrinkles, tightly amassed around an articulated area and possessing a definite border between wrinkles and the surrounding unwrinkled flesh. In truth, wrinkles fade in and out and blend gently with the surrounding flesh with no real border; it’s all very chaotic, gentle and gradual. 
  • Measured: Each wrinkle shouldn't be the same size or width nor should they be evenly spaced and regimented. In reality, wrinkles tend towards different widths and various distortions in a more chaotic fashion. Remember, a wrinkle is a bit of folded, soft flesh, and so our sculpted hide shouldn't behave like a segmented accordion.
  • Slashing: Again, a wrinkle is folded flesh, so we should try to avoid tooling that causes a slashed, harsh, or grooved look. Keep them soft and fleshy.
  • Channeling: Muscle masses are round and curved, and the defining grooves between them are often softer and more mercurial than an anatomy chart depicts. So we should avoid tooling that creates a harshly carved groove into the clay to denote muscle definition, with sharp edges and lacking that rounded, softened nature of living muscle masses. 
  • Excess: So much about recreating convincing goo is knowing when to apply it and when not to, and in which areas and why. If we don't apply goo, our sculpture will appear too static whereas if we apply too much, it'll appear lumpy and odd. Goo is a very powerful element to our sculpture, so be clear about how to apply it.
How To Study Goo

Field study is ideal for studying goo! Watch horses in person during motion, and the lunge-line is a good starter by creating a focused situation. Pay particular close attention to the shoulders, throatlatch, forearms, elbow area, hindquarter, neck, ears, lips, chest, genitals and barrel. Look for the wrinkling, wiggling, jiggling, rippling movement with each stride and phase of movement on the horse’s body. Slow motion video is also a great way to study how goo resonates with motion, how it ripples, jiggles and distorts in synch with the nature and force of the horse’s movement. 

Then turnaround and attempt to decipher and identify goo in photos. This type of training can train us about goo very quickly, better enabling us to imbue it into our clay. In fact, we’ll discover that goo is a whole new level of understanding that deepens our appreciation of equine anatomy and lends interest to our sculpture.


Anyone can apply anatomical charts and diagrams to copy the anatomy faithfully into sculpture. That's easily done with a bit of discipline and gumption. But it takes a new kind of understanding to mimic the life of that anatomy, to capture and reinstate the fleshy, rippling, gooshy nature of living flesh. Indeed, an anatomy chart is one thing, but living flesh is entirely another.

Its the understanding of goo that helps us transcend the technical by adding character, moment, and life to that anatomical base. It brings the moment to the surface—literallyand communicates the mass and movement of the animal in ways a strict technical expression can fail to convey. In doing so, we've gone one step closer to capturing "living realism" in our clay, expressing this lovely animal more completely and faithfully.

So, until next time, ooze in that glorious goo!

"There is a better chance of getting an exciting painting from a laboured study with texture than from a fine drawing without it." ~ John Sloan


Thursday, April 23, 2015

Blooming In the Dark: The Dark Side of Creativity


When we achieve a great accomplishment, we feel buoyant and bright, don't we? As we should—we've probably surmounted some great challenge, or brought to fruition a cool idea and it came out better than we had hoped. But the truth is, we can crash and burn, too. We’ve all experienced periods of inadequacy and frustration. Sometimes, these feelings can be so strong, they keep us out of our studios altogether. This is normal. The ups and downs of the creative process are part of our private lives as artists.

The only problem is if these down periods last too long. They may be normal, but they're definitely not pleasant, so any strategy that cuts them short is useful and welcome. After over twenty years in this biz, I've found that certain tactics work really well to keep that sense of buoyancy flowing through all our projects.

Strategic Arting

So how do we stay eager and motivated in our studios when the lows drag us down? Here are some ideas to keep those creative fires burning bright, even in our most frustrating moods:
  • Maintain perspective: Adopt the idea that we create our work, our work doesn’t create us; our worth isn’t dependent on what people think of our art, only on what we think of it. To create art based on chasing down people’s approval has only one destination: Faceplant central. It can also dumb down our work as we appeal to the lowest common denominator and we want our work to be distinctive and fresh. So instead, creating art on our own terms boosts our joy, and that shows in our work. Don’t worry about the restit’ll fall into place.
  • Stay open-minded: A rut can induce boredom that saps passion right out of the studio. Really, keeping our skills stretched to the point of breaking is far more important than many artists realize. Only through audaciousness do we tap into our passionand all great art is first a product of passion. So push your envelopes and dispense with comfort zones! Try new things and stretch beyond what you think you're capable of creating. Creating on the edge of your gifts not only adds excitement, but you'll end up happily surprising yourself, too.
  • Build bonds: Being an artist is a solitary endeavor, and that can lead to feelings that feed disillusionment. Finding supportive, social groups of like-minds can be just the ticket, and often the best choices are forums hosted by organizations, clubs, or groups dedicated just to artists. We all need encouragement and support from time to time, especially from those who sail in the same boat. We'll also find ideas and opinions that fuel our creativity, adding to a diverse body of work that keeps us interested.
  • Cultivate quality: Taking pride in our craft validates our work, and our sense of self-worth. Yet “quality” doesn’t mean just good quality materialsit also means good quality work. Always put 100% of yourself into each piece, creating consistently high quality work that builds confidence and reliability for your collector base. And working to stay artistically progressive reminds us that we are capable of far more than we may believe.
  • Clarity: Having a clear, honest understanding of why we chose to create within equine realism can be instrumental in keeping disillusion at bay. But it’s not enough to say, “because I like it.” Realism is no easy discipline, and we need more meaningful reasons to reaffirm our commitment. How people respond to our work often mirrors how we regard our relationship with it, so give it some thought. When we have something clear "to say" through out work, our narratives deepen and our work becomes more meaningful.
  • Explore: Equine realism is inordinately demanding and myopically focused, and our muse may need variety from time to time. We could enroll in art classes, and maybe even in creative outlets totally unlike our profession, such as stained glass, plein air painting, weaving, or ceramics. We may find a need to develop these other outlets parallel to our realistic work, because we not only have to stay open-minded about our art, but about ourselves, too! Our creativity can be applied to any number of things, and interestingly enough, they usually reflect back to inform our realistic work.
  • Baby steppin’: While practice makes perfect, driving ourselves crazy in the process isn’t constructive. And sometimes we can attempt more than we’re capable of at that moment. So rather than be hard on ourselves, it’s better to just giggle it off, and switch gears. The point isdon’t stop and stew! Switch gears! You can always come back to a difficult project later, perhaps when we're better prepared.
  • Welcome change: As we grow, our art, expectations and interests will change, too. Embrace it! Perhaps the expectations of our collector base have shifted, or some new fresh approach has raised the bar. We need to say current. The moment we become resistant to metamorphosis, we cease to be artists that create compelling work. And change won’t ruin our reputations, destroy our customer base, or threaten our livelihoods. Opportunity evolves with us.
  • Stoke the fire: Sometimes all we need is to re-experience “horse life.” Getting personal with the real deal can do much to reinvigorate our passion for this beast. So attending horse shows, visiting stables, or even taking riding lessons can give us healing opportunities to chill with horses and snap some reference photos. Likewise, visiting galleries, museum exhibits, art shows, open studios, or foundry tours are beneficial. Artist retreats and workshops are terrific outlets, too. Every so often, we need to be reminded why the horse fascinates us, and why we’re artists that specialize in their expression.
  • Keep it positive: If we find ourselves overwhelmed, shuffling pieces around can do the trick. We can either waste time battling a problem piece (and inevitably create a lesser work), or better use that time (and emotional energy) to work on something else. Working on several projects at once, or having different ideas to shuffle between can go far to keeping our interest piqued. Conditioning ourselves to equate our creative state of mind with negative emotions is destructive. So having lots of sideline projects can help us make a detour rather than stopping altogether.
  • Experience life: Our “other” selves are just as important. Family, friends, pets, extra-curricular activities and even travel all play significant parts in our life that come back to support our art life. In a sense, they provide distance and perspective because working in our studios without “taking a breath” can be suffocating. Plus, our creative “subroutines” need time away from the studio, and so our downtimes are just as important as our active times.
  • Create different kinds of work. For instance, bas-relief, medallions, plaques and other such gift items can go far to keep our interest. Maybe take a ceramics class, or a painting class. The possibilities are endless. The point is, apply your creativity to many ways of expression, as that will keep it fueled and fired up.
  • Appreciate irony. Our view of our work often isn’t shared by others, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. More often, it’s ironic. For instance, many of our perceived mistakes or hard sells often turn out to be our most popular pieces! So we should learn from these unexpected results because in them lie gems of insight about ourselves, our choices, and how our work is perceived. 
  • Reevaluate. We cannot create in a vacuum. The reevaluation process asks us to stretch ourselves because when we can recognize our problem areas, we can learn how to amend them. And so we can proceed with our art with a clear and reasonable understanding of our next step, and that certainly can keep us motivated. So work to find blindspots or areas of our process that need tweaking. Sometimes this alone can reinvigorate our interest in our work as we learn to sculpt "all over again."
  • Self-value: Most of all, we shouldn’t minimize our talents. Respecting ourselves and our abilities maintains our sense of pride and worth. We also can recognize those things that make our art special, and work to enhance it. If all we do is fixate on the faults in our art and our presumed inadequacies, we’re creating a negative feedback loop that erodes our desire to create at all. Always remember that your art is special and unique, and work to protect that idea.

Ending Thoughts

Though we may not know it, every minute in our studio is a series of motivation-induced moments strung together by a continuum of passion. Each moment inspires the next, and so it goes until we complete our piece. It’s critical to protect this delicate chain of psychological events.

How we work to reclaim our happiness when confronted by disillusionment speaks much of our commitment to our art. Yet are our darkest moments really all doom and gloom? If we step back and think about it, don’t they really give us an opportunity to progress? In this way, our disillusion really is a kind of gift, without which we wouldn’t have that pivotal opportunity to grow. In fact, when these moments happen, aren't they a way of our art telling us we need to change something? When we feel at our weakest really is the moment when we fathom our true strength, and it’s within this revelation that our enthusiasm can be reignited in wonderful ways that surprise us. 

"Anxiety and uncertainty doesn't mean you should stop or run away—it very likely means you're right on track. Outside the comfort zone is where the best creativity and your best life live." ~ Susan Baili, M.D.


Monday, April 20, 2015

Mapping Out Success: Equine Topography


We all know that understanding equine anatomy helps to ensure a convincing realistic sculpture. But not many know its more sublime advantage, that of pinpointing anatomical landmarks to guide an artist throughout the creation of a sculpture. 

These landmarks identify the actual dimensions and placement of the bones and muscles themselves, helping the artist to better visualize and translate equine anatomy into the sculpture. Together, these landmarks can be likened to a kind of map, or “equine topography”, which offers several invaluable benefits for sculpture. First, using topography allows a sculpture to be approached much like a connect-the-dots between the anatomical features, making sculpting easier and less intimidating, no matter what the pose. Second, familiarity with this topography enables an easy and accurate deciphering of reference photos and life study, which, in turn, help to guide the sculpting process even further. Third, it offers fixed points by which proportion can be measured and applied to sculpture, regardless of position. Fourth, it promotes symmetry by offering fixed points by which to gauge dimensional relationships. Fifth, these reference points are consistent across breeds and species because they’re based on the equine blueprint, meaning they can be applied to any equine sculpture. And sixth, these points comprise those bony and fleshy features that lay the foundation to realism. That is to say a sculpting lacking these landmarks can't be considered realistic by definition. So understanding these critical points of reference gets us pretty far along in the realism department!

There are two layers to equine topography—the skeletal and the fleshy. Subcutaneous, easily palpated bone serves as the skeletal landmarks while muscle group configurations form the fleshy landmarks. An artist shouldn’t rely on just one layer, but be well versed in both for the best results. This is because both layers are interrelated and work together to guide the artist, plus knowing both allows one to measure proportions and symmetry with greater precision.  

But in order to use these landmarks, an artist needs a few things up her sleeve. First, good proportional calipers are essential; they're truly a sculptor’s best friend. For that, I recommend the Prospek® proportional calipers (Figure 1). Second, a lockable compass is very handy for quickly measuring proportion. Third, a protractor, preferably one made of clear plastic with a pivoting ruler (Figure 2) helps us to measure angles, such as for the shoulder, hip, pasterns, and hooves. Both the lockable compass and the protractor can be purchased at an office supply, hardware, or art supply store. Fourth, the artist should have a thorough understanding of how the skeleton is constructed, where the joints are located, and how the whole system functions together. Fifth, a solid grasp of the superficial muscle layer and major muscle groups is required to interpret what’s happening under the skin. And sixth, the artist should cultivate the dedicated habit of checking the reference points throughout the entire sculpting process. Indeed, the rule of thumb for a realistic artist is to understand precisely what we’re sculpting and check often; then check again. It's easy for things to go awry when we're so deeply immersed in sculpting, and these techniques and tools help to keep us on target.

Skeletal Landmarks

Learning the skeletal landmarks isn’t difficult. The best way is to gently palpate them on real horses, visualizing the whole skeleton as you go. But if that isn’t possible, gaining access to a real equine skeleton or a well-done sculpture of an equine skeleton (such as found in Zahourek Systems EQUIKENTM) can be beneficial, too. I also highly recommend the anatomy classes taught by Lynn Fraley here in Boise.

Then, hone your eye by practicing with photos, trying to recognize some of these landmarks in them, to extrapolate the whole skeleton inside the depicted animal. You may also want to print out and draw the skeleton on those images to train your eye. Once you’re able to see “into” the horses in the photos, you’ll better be able to see “into” your sculpture. And since the anatomical blueprint is consistent with all equines, these landmarks can be used with all equine sculptures, offering the artist greater confidence and freedom when designing the sculpture.

Fleshy Landmarks

Muscles and other fleshy components of the body attach to the skeleton in certain configurations, which allows many of their groupings to serve as their own landmarks for sculpting. This means it’s important that muscles are not only sculpted correctly as they appear in life, but that they’re also oriented correctly on the sculpture’s "skeleton". 

Now this may sound like a rather daunting task, but it’s actually a fortunate biological correlation. Why? Because once an artist can see the skeleton inside her sculpture, laying on the musculature is that much easier. When you can see the internal infrastructure, then adding on the muscles is simply a straightforward exercise.

It works in reverse, too! In and of themselves, the muscle groups can help an artist tease out the skeleton during life study or interpreting photos because their origins, insertions and arrangements are clues to the bony system underneath. On a horse, it’s the flesh we see, not the skeleton, right? 

So the ability to recognize the major muscle groupings is essential not just for their own sake, but to also deepen an artist’s capacity to project reality onto her sculptures. In doing so, you can see how the two layers of topography, the bony and the fleshy, are inseparably intertwined and work together for the best advantage.


How the dimensions of different body parts relate to each other is critical for creating a realistic sculpture. Undeniably, a single misstep can instantly destroy the illusion, or even depict a fatal conformational flaw. Proportion also plays a significant role in differentiating the age groups, the genders, the species, and even the breeds, so being able to measure this aspect faithfully is important.

Yet measuring proportion is typically a mystifying and confusing procedure for those new to sculpting, which tends to inspire some rather tenuous assumptions. For example, some search for a magic formula to churn out the needed numbers while others simply go by “eye” and hope for the best. Some even wish to believe that certain breeds have a “cookie cutter” set of dimensions, as though one set of measurements should apply to all individuals of that breed. Some even use their drawings to use as a proportional guide. 

But the truth is that measuring proportion is really quite easy once you understand anatomy, or rather, once you're able to recognize the skeletal landmarks. However, there are a several things to keep in mind when considering proportional measurements. For starters, the methods for gauging proportion are as individualistic as the artists themselves, because what may work for one person, won’t for another. For example, I’ve tried to design a sculpture based on scaled dimensions from real measurements, but I simply cannot make this approach work for me, though it works beautifully for others. So it’s important to experiment with many different approaches to find one that works for you. Second, proportional measurements should be sympathetic to the individuality of each animal, since each is physically unique, just like you and me. And, finally, proportional relationships often fall prey to “fads,” such as the penchant for overly long necks or tiny muzzles or small hooves, so it’s important for an artist to think of function first, rather than letting herself be overly focused on fashion.

Nevertheless, the method for measuring proportion presented here is one I have developed and used for over twenty years, and I hope it’s one you may find useful. It’s quick, it’s easy, it accounts for individual variation, it’s readily adaptable to any equid, in any position, it’s easily translated from photos or life study, and it utilizes an artist’s natural penchant for visual evaluation. But, it does rely on a good understanding of the skeletal landmarks, so be sure you’re “boned up” on them before using this method.

But how it works is simple: structural relationships are standardized and gauged against one standard measurement, that of the head, measured from the poll to the end of the muzzle. This is where the lockable compass comes in handy—once the measurement is taken, it’s locked, making it a simple task to make multiple comparisons on the sculpture throughout the sculpting process. It also helps to mediate the common fault of sculpting the head either too big or too small.


Symmetry applies to the bilateral halves of the animal—each paired feature should be as perfectly matched as possible, in placement, dimension, orientation and composition. For example, eyes should be matched and level, leg bones should be of equal dimensions with their pair, muscle development should be consistent, etc. But we also have to consider that, like us, horses have slight asymmetries to their faces and bodies. This is fine in a sculpture as long as the degree of the asymmetry lies within the bounds of what would be acceptable or healthy in life. But outside of this spectrum, there’s rarely a more effective way to obliterate the illusion of reality than looking head-on at a sculpture’s head and finding that the eyes are considerably askew!

While bilateral symmetry is essential, it’s not the easiest thing to achieve. Let’s face it: every artist has her “good side” and “bad side” of working, so it’s understandable that many artists lament about having to match the other side! But once an artist grasps equine topography, she’s one step closer to making this painstaking process easier. The habit of rechecking the landmarks and the dimensions of the body with calipers, the compass and the protractor, will do much to guide an artist towards symmetry. 

Also, another handy tool for achieving bilateral symmetry is a contour gauge (Figure 3).
Mind you, this gauge works best on a hard material, like epoxy or hard clay, but with a gentle touch it could probably be used on softer media. This tool is very useful for comparing the symmetry of paired body parts since it forms the pins around an area and holds that profile, which can then be immediately compared to the other side.

Another trick, one particularly helpful for head symmetry, utilizes a digital camera and photo editing software (such as Photoshop Elements®) to manipulate the images. Once you complete one side of the head, take a good digital shot of it from a full side view. Download this image into your computer, flip it horizontally in the photo-editing program, scale it to the proper size and now you can use this as reference for the other side. Or, you could print the image out on clear acetate. You can even scale the images of both sides and overlay them on top of each other, making one semi-transparent, to directly make comparisons. 

And don’t forget to check the paired sides or body parts from all angles. These bilateral pairs must match from all views, so don’t check just one aspect, and don’t ever think that no one will notice! Eventually, someone will.

Some Proportions that May Surprise You!

Once you start to practice measuring proportions with these skeletal and fleshy landmarks, you’ll soon find some surprising revelations. The divergence of what the mind thinks it sees and what’s actually there is certainly interesting! The stylized depiction of equines is a rather common sight in art, having a long historical precedent. However, as realistic artists, we’re presented with a certain degree of responsibility to the subject that perhaps obligates us to different priorities.

For starters, you’ll see that the backs on most sculptures are unnaturally short, some markedly so. Nature created the horse’s back to be of a certain length to accommodate the necessary viscera to digest grasses, to run over long distances and to gestate large foals. The more the back is shortened, the more these organs are compromised. This isn’t to say that a long back is a good idea, but that there is a medium length that is optimal for the animal’s biology. However, you’ll notice that this medium length, the normal length, is considered “too long” by many folks with eyes that have been skewed to favor a back that's too short.
Also, accurate measurements reveal that most models, like too many real horses nowadays, have necks that are far too long. Most definitely, long is not necessarily “better,” a typical fallacy found in today’s horse industry. Indeed, the more the neck is lengthened, the more those cervical bones are lengthened, unnaturally stressing the ligaments and tendons that hold the chain of cervical vertebrae together, as well as the nerves that govern movement. It’s no wonder then that those horses bred to have unnaturally long necks are often plagued by subluxations, muscle problems, uncoordinated motion and nerve damage. 

The reality is that it’s the shape and set of the cervical chain, not the length, that’s important. There are two basic kinds of “ideal” necks for riding—the arched neck and the straight neck. They both share the same cervical orientation with the only difference being the set onto the torso. This means being well versed in bony landmarks is essential to both deciphering these necks from life and duplicating them properly in sculpture. 

To begin with, the arched neck is set high on the torso with a shallow curve as it leaves the first thoracic vertebra. It projects immediately upward into a long, openly curved "mitbah", attaching to the head with an open angle. These necks are typical of Arabians, Saddlebreds, Morgans and many Warmbloods, and others historically bred for riding. The straight neck has the same configuration, but is set lower on the torso, projecting straight out, rather than up, such as found on stock horses, many Thoroughbreds and other breeds historically bred for speed. A mention of the swan neck is in order, too, since it’s often maligned as a conformation flaw. However, this is unnecessary because it’s simply an arched neck with more slender musculature, such as is often found on Akhal-Tekes.

Finally, precise measurements will illuminate how inaccurate the facial features are on many sculptures. The equine face, perhaps more than any other body part, is subject to the most extreme degrees of idealized stylization, most notably on the halter-dominant breeds, such as the Arabian. The equine head is also the site of many artistic misinterpretations because the artist may be operating under unknown blindspots or gaps of understanding. But in reality, let’s face it—the face is one of the hardest things to sculpt! It’s complicated, detailed, and the source of so much expression and “soul." Indeed, it’s the primary thing we humans identify with, as a visual species. However, the good news is that because so much of the head is subcutaneous bone, so mastering equine topography can go far to helping you imbue lifelike, convincing heads on your sculptures.


Undeniably, equine topography is essential for a realistic artist to study and master. Understanding the anatomical relationships not only makes the sculpting process easier and more accurate, it also frees the artist to design sculptures from her own vision, rather than being enslaved by photos or anatomical charts. Most importantly, it gives the artist license to study how real flesh morphs and behaves during motion, which no anatomical chart can possibly illustrate. This means the artist is now able to use her true voice, in full confidence and freedom, to express all the wonder and diversity of the equine world. 

In the end, utilizing equine topography lends more authenticity to a sculpture while also opening up infinite design possibilities for new artistic explorations. Perhaps most important of all, it reveals that all equines are individuals, blessed with infinite variations on the blueprint, which can only serve to inspire creativity and deepen the appreciation for this remarkable genus.

Recommended Tools
Prospek® proportional calipers: Item #32839 from Jerry’s Artarama,
Contour gauge: Item #14412 from MicroMark,
Lockable compass (it comes in a set with a protractor): Item # 55733-1009 from Dick Blick,
Protractor with Arm: Item # 8872209 from MisterArt,
Proportional scale: Item # 5473-1005 for the 5” or # 55473-1083 for the 8.25” from Dick Blick,
Photoshop Elements®:
Zahourek Systems-EQUIKENTM model:

"A painting that is well composed is half finished."
~ Rohan Baikar

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