Hello again! In this six–part series, we're exploring our perception of reality, an influence that has direct ties to realistic equine sculpture. How interesting that the trickiest challenges aren't about training or resources, but about what makes us who and what we are!
In Part 1, we explored how our perception is merely our own interpretation of reality, not reality itself. Being the interface, our perception colors everything we think, feel, reason, assume and do with our own unique point of view, which is why different perceptions present different versions of reality. That is to say everyone interprets reality differently.
And because our perception is an individually–customized, conflict of interest feedback loop, it skews our interpretation of reality without us ever realizing it! We simply believe our interpretation to be self–evident and absolute, and so trust it implicitly. And therein lies the problem. The only way to circumvent its influences is to understand its foibles because, remember, our perception cannot become more objective on its own…it needs our help.
And the same applies to its other hardwired traits we're discussing in this series. So in Part 2, we visited with three inroads to perception that help us to expand it. In Part 3, we considered fear, in some of its varied forms, and how it sabotages our efforts. Throughout, we’ve used the metaphor of Alice in Wonderland’s White Rabbit, embodying a little guide through all these topics like an adorable Dante through our own internal Inferno. What’s not to love about a fuzzy, wee bun as a wise mentor? Anyway…
Because the believability of our work depends on our ability to consciously manipulate our perception, the only way to do that is to be aware of its influences, so let's get down to business…
The human brain is supremely designed to find patterns, from visual cues to correlations between cause and effect. Getting right down to it, pattern recognition really is what the human brain does best, and indeed, some even argue that all human behavior can be explained by this simple mechanism alone.
Pattern recognition is such a part of what we are that it insinuates itself into everything we experience, and so influences all that we become. Language is a learned pattern of communication, for example. Identifying objects, family and friends requires pattern recognition as well. This trait even compels us to fancifully see things, like objects in clouds, or The Man On The Moon. It even influences such simple pleasures as music because, really, what's music but a series of formalized, pleasing sound patterns? No wonder our brain finds it so soothing! Indeed, the repetitive structure of pop songs exploit this quirk for big profits.
And how we live our lives is patterned behavior. For instance, we describe rehabilitation as "breaking the cycle." Our rationale is also patterned behavior, one shaped by triggers customized by our unique nature and nurture. Even the consumer choices we make come down to pattern recognition, from brand loyalty to consumer research. What's a product review but a report on patterns of performance?
Expanding out, culture and societal functioning come down to formalized patterns as well, from the different professions, religious beliefs, political ideas, and even parenting and education. What's a tradition? An institutionalized pattern of behavior. What's a store? A correlation between what one wants and how to get it. And what’s science but simply a methodical process to discover nature’s patterns? Because even in the really big picture, the entire Universe is dictated by physical patterns established by the natural forces. Stepping back and thinking about it then, we see that everything really is one enormous, outrageously complicated layering of patterns. How clever of our brains to have keyed in on this!
That said, our grey matter is a curious thing, and with one interesting glitch: being so hell–bent on pattern recognition, it will actually make patterns up where none actually exist. In other words, our brain demands a pattern to make sense of any given situation, and if it cannot find a correlation, it'll fabricate one arbitrarily. This effect underlies all superstition, conspiracy theories, astrology, “cold reading,” and the belief in a "lucky streak," for example.
It makes sense though, as a pattern imbues predictability and so the opportunity to make preemptive, prepared choices, the primary way we survive and better our situation. It's no surprise then why we’d tend to forecast order and harmony in a seemingly chaotic world.
Because, in contrast, the unexpected and random confuse our brain. We tend to find such things upsetting for this reason, because the unpredictable cannot be anticipated or manipulated, can it? It may even represent a threat. Indeed, isn't our first reaction to something unexpected a fleeting moment of fear? This is why horror movies and disaster films terrify us, and why doomsday cults wield such power over their followers. It's also why we're taken aback when we walk into our surprise birthday party!
So what does all this have to do with sculpting equines realistically? A whole heckuva lot, that’s what! Because what's anatomy and biomechanics? Think about it. They're life's biological patterns for Equus aren’t they? And biological patterns are so consistent with each animal that paleontologists can use them to deduce the niche of even those long–extinct. Just take a look at Linnaean taxonomy. Now there's an institutionalized category system based on biological patterns!
That means anatomical diagrams for horses are simply codified expressions of the biological pattern for Equus which, for our purposes, we can think of as the "master pattern,” the official template. Each equine species has its own individual variation and, likewise, environmental pressures, age, gender, and breed are additional interwoven patterns. By the same token, conformation is just another series of distinguishing patterns layered onto the master template.
For all these reasons, realistic equine sculpture can be thought of as an exercise in pattern recognition. Broken down to its most basic level, how we design a sculpture is guided by those patterns we perceive in life. Even our methods, media and style are based on patterns, being our "force of habit." Taking it further, life study and workshops are really opportunities to recognize new patterns, or refine those we already know. Learning to "sculpt better" is just a simple way of saying we’ve learned new, better patterns.
And when we can get out of our brain's way to absorb new patterns without preconceived notions, we call this “an open mind.” Really, what's a preconceived notion but a pre–made pattern we intend to impose onto a new situation? But how can meaningful learning occur when we already think we know the correct pattern?
Because when we're doing it right—when we engage a learning situation with an open mind—doesn't our brain spin for hours after a class? This is because our grey cells not only love to discover new patterns, they love processing them even more! They'll do it for hours. Days. Months even. Even while we sleep! In short, our brain is a total spaz when it comes to patterns.
So, okay then…accurate equine realism really is just a matter of recognizing the necessary patterns, right? Once we establish a diligent habit that recreates the necessary patterns authentically, we'll create more realistic work by default, yes? It's like assembling furniture out of a box! Wooot! We've got it made!
Well, no. Not really. In fact, that kind of thinking is exactly where things go wrong.
THE BUNNY PATTERN
Yes, anatomical patterns are recipe–like, within the grasp of anyone determined enough to learn. And, yes, they can be broken down into bite–sized pieces for learning. But that's true only to a point. What we may not know is that this point burbles up far quicker than we may realize, and all because of our brain’s adoration of patterns. That's the important bit. To understand how this phenomenon happens then, let's explore eight loopholes in our pattern recognition response:
1. Our brain automatically and immediately begins to pattern recognize the moment it processes something. And we cannot prevent our brain from doing this, it being a hardwired response.
2. Our pattern recognition response is governed by our perception; it's only as accurate as our perception allows.
3. The pattern recognition response will compel our perception to automatically default to order, regimentation, and formula.
4. Our perception will direct our hands according to the patterns it not only recognizes, but the patterns it makes up.
5. While we cannot duplicate life's patterns perfectly, our perception will convince us the patterns we do duplicate are absolutely reliable and factual.
6. Our pattern recognition mechanism is vulnerable to social pressure and conditioning—it's not inherently objective—just like our perception.
7. Our perception—and therefore our pattern recognition response—will cause us to presume the muscle groups and delineations even before we start sculpting, making all the real life quirks more invisible to us.
8. Nature is as much about chaos as it is about order, so relying too heavily on static patterns can present a conflict with real life.
Add all that up, and we have a deep pile of creative doo–doo when we assume realism is just a matter of duplication, don’t we? For instance, it's now understandable how our anatomical habits become the only interpretation that "looks right" to us—whether looking at the living subject or at our sculpture. This is because that pattern isn't only all that we perceive, but our perception also tells us it's undeniably correct. Quite literally, our perception becomes so enamored of its habitual anatomical patterns that it cannot See anything else. So to dig deeper for more insights, let's chat about those loopholes a bit more.
Starting with #1: Our brain automatically and immediately begins to pattern recognize the moment it processes something. And we cannot prevent our brain from doing, it being a hardwired response.
Our brain processes patterns all the time. It's so positively pattern–happy, in fact, it'll contrive them just to make itself happier. In some ways, art is merely the brain entertaining itself with self–generated patterns. Pattern recognition also is an instinctive response. We cannot will our brain to stop doing so anymore than willing our body to stop metabolizing. When an angry, teeth–baring dog lunges at us, what's our first response? Yes—to jump back. Our brain's ability to pattern recognize is so hardwired, we literally cannot think fast enough to stop it from happening.
Now if a pattern repeats with enough predictability, our brain is so delighted, it cements that pattern into a kind of rule. Our brain loves this. We call it "learning." For equine realism, that means the moment we practice our craft—even when we think about it—our brain promptly gets to work, busily directing the process according to our rules right into our waiting clay.
For equine realism then, this means our brain is likely to pounce onto anything that appears somewhat consistent or correlating as a rule. But these rules aren’t always fact, especially when it comes to aspects of the equine, and especially when human intention is involved. A notable example is false collection. That means when our brain settles down after its enthusiastic discovery, we must challenge it further by asking, "why?" This simple question asks us to explore and sometimes to make a further judgment—and it's a critical second response.
But on the upside, it also means that learning makes our brain immensely happy. The more it learns, the better a learner it becomes. So give it new patterns to chew on! Evaluate them, ponder them, apply them. Your brain will be thrilled, you'll find new satisfaction in the studio, birds will sing, rainbows will appear, forest animals will break out in song...and that spells one thing: better work. And a lot more fun. OK, two things. ("Amongst our weaponry...")
Now we come to #2: Our pattern recognition response is governed by our perception; it's only as accurate as our perception allows.
As expected, our perception introduces some complications to our pattern recognition. Oh heck, let's not mince words. It presents the most formidable complications when it comes to pattern recognition! Here’s the problem: how we design a sculpture is guided by those patterns we perceive in life. And there's the rub.
Our perception and pattern response work together; they are symbiotic. Whatever our perception cannot See then dictates those patterns we cannot See as well. That's quite a seething mass of mental entanglement, isn't it? Lesli Kathman wrote a really interesting post on her blog, The Equine Tapestry, indirectly addressing this very issue in this statement:
You’d be surprised how often breed type can override your eye when it comes to spotting similarities (or differences) in patterns. Transferring the pattern over to a different body type can force you to really see things. That’s one reason why the illustrations in the book are on generic horse shapes rather than ones specific to the breed or type being discussed.
The same effect applies to realistic equine sculpture; we only key in on those patterns we can See. In a way then, deepening our perception means we train ourselves to recognize previously unSeen patterns. And it’s this tricky mechanism between our perception and our pattern recognition that can get us stuck. Like a computer frozen in a loop, our hands cannot explore new options when we're drawing from an unschooled perception that generates the same old flawed patterns over and over. We know something is wrong, but we lack the deeper perception to See new patterns that would break this cycle. So to move forward then, we need fresh information, an “update" of sorts. Our mental motherboard can only run programs as good as the commands we write into it.
Another problem is that we may not See our patterns as flawed, thanks to blindspots in our perception. This is the reason we make the same repeated errors in our body of work, even despite media, process, or the type of work we’re creating. The only way out of this cycle is, again, an "update." Change our perception, and we change the patterns we can apply.
Adding fuel to this fire, how we perceive the subject in (1) life study, (2) in reference photos and, (3) in our sculpture and then (4) against each other are many different perceptions. Just like Lesli's example, our brain interprets the same patterns differently in different situations. This is how we can have a firm grasp of an anatomy chart, but fail to transfer that level of insight into our sculpture accurately.
So altogether, here's the kicker: only when we've got a handle on our perception can we begin to trust those patterns we're recognizing and duplicating, whether it be life study, our references, or our sculpture. A rather daunting task, isn't it? And people think this art form is just a matter of duplicating what we see!
As for #3: The pattern recognition response will compel our perception to automatically default to order, regimentation, and formula.
This is an unconscious reaction, most often triggered by tedious, repetitive tasks. Because if we're paying attention to what we're doing, we See just how quickly and unconsciously our hands begin to move in a uniform, regimented way. For instance, if we've ever ticked a roan or sabino paint job, or painted a dapple grey, we'll end up with something that looks contrived and artificial rather than indicative of nature’s organic chaos if we don't remain conscious of every brushstroke.
And the same happens in sculpture. For example, we can sculpt manes with long sweeping tendrils in a systematic, regimented way, to resemble unbroken “ropes” from root to tip, like we sculpted it with a fork. Or we’ll have a horse shaped object blob on our armature and trace on the muscle groups without thinking, reverting to a regimented force of habit rather than being an organic reflection of real life.
Another example is applying the same muscle configurations for a standing horse onto a piece depicting motion, which needs moving muscles not static ones. Another is repeating the same anatomical formula on each new piece even though we’re sculpting different individuals or breeds. Drafters, Quarter Horses, Saddlebreds, Arabians, and Shetlands all have very different expressions of that anatomical blueprint, both bony and fleshy. These and more illustrate our perception’s need for predictability and order even though nature is amoebic and messy. But that’s the important idea: they don't speak to an artist's skill, they speak to an artist's state of mind. Unfettered, that pattern–loving part of our perception would repeat the same pattern in the same way on every sculpture. It's not that we're incompetent sculptors, it's simply our pattern recognition running amok in our process.
But that's not the whole enchilada—another bite is how repetition is comforting to our perception, which can make our body of work predictable, or worse, can slowly constrain our ability—and desire—to explore. It may feel confidence–lifting at the time to gain a handle on the complexities of anatomy, but the more we concede to that synergy between our pattern recognition and perception, they tighter they’ll rein in our potential in our long game.
Because here's the bug in the system: our perception has a difficult time imagining and recreating truly randomized, irregular, or incidental aspects. It's just not designed to naturally process those effects precisely. This is exactly why sculpting manes and tails can be so difficult, for instance. Or why infusing incidental changes to flesh can be a bit unnerving at first because they don't "look right." It's why painting roans, sabinos, dapple grey, silver dapple, somatic mutations, and other chaotic colors require such careful attention to seeming disorder, or what I refer to as "ordered chaos.”
In the picture (above) is our verbenum bush, dilapidated and sad, thanks to winter. It looks like a burst of chaos, doesn’t it? But if we look closely we see the structure of it…the leaves about three inches apart, the twigs on a branch about five inches apart, and so on. Painting color—and sculpting anatomy—is exactly like that. There’s chaos and there’s order, so sculpting anatomy isn’t just about recreating the order, but about recreating the chaos, too. More still, understanding the order not only allows us to better See more chaos, but also improves how we tweak it. That verbenum is a literal metaphor for what we do! The trick of recreating effective realism then is to nail both the order and the chaos, or put another way, to duplicate nature's messy organization!
But to recreate these effects, we cannot rely on our perception to automatically do so simply because it cannot on its own…well, not as nicely messy as nature does, at least. We have to help it along with targeted training and processes that facilitate serendipity paired with vigilant monitoring of the outcome. It’s also helpful to take breaks to come back to the piece with a fresh eye. (One handy trick for painting is to shrink or enlarge the pattern image onto a photo of our sculpture in actual size in Photoshop and study where we presumed and what surprised us.)
But this is why some modern artists who created such chaotic–looking paintings relied so heavily on the process to create that disorder. Study how Pollock created his "splatter" paintings and you see an artist deliberately working around his pattern recognition response. Do be afraid of life’s eccentricities!
Now #4: Our perception will direct our hands according to the patterns it not only recognizes, but the patterns it makes up.
Like a one–two punch, our perception forces us to contend not only with our subjective interpretation of reality, but its fanatical need for a pattern of any kind, even those it arbitrarily contrives. This one hiccup alone can spin our interpretations right off the map—and without us ever realizing it.
We most often fabricate patterns unconsciously because we find them pleasing. In this way, some of our concocted patterns are a function of our own unique style—and that's great! When we consciously make such aesthetic decisions that our work becomes authoritative, so it’s when these things happen unconsciously that we need to attend.
As for #5: While we cannot duplicate life's patterns perfectly, our perception will convince us the patterns we do duplicate are absolutely reliable and factual.
We're foible human beings after all. No matter how hard we try, we cannot create a truly objective depiction of the equine—only nature can do that. As such, no matter how vigorously we amend our hardwiring, nevertheless style, value judgements, blindspots, and aesthetics will creep back into our work in some form. That's not always a bad thing though! When we have conscious control of them, that’s the goal, and these features can actually lend interest to an art form that could so easily degenerate into clinical sterility.
But it's easy to forget this principle as we work. We have a little “YES Gremlin” in our heads, the voice of our perception, that assures us we have things right, we've got the right ideas, we're on the right track, our assumptions are correct, and what we're creating is absolutely spot on in every respect. It’s our greatest little cheerleader, but it also throws the toughest obstacles in our way.
It's smart to remember that pattern recognition is a learning mechanism designed for survival. In simple terms, those ancestors who couldn't quickly connect claws, teeth and growls with gruesome, gut–spewing, shrieking death learned that association a snidge too late. Those unable to predict the seasons or animal migrations probably just starved to death. Or those who couldn't connect the cause and effect of constructing better tools, weapons, shelters and clothing probably bit the dust, too. More sophisticated, those who predicted a culture's social patterns advanced even faster. Look how successful Steve Jobs was at it! It's that sort of thing.
This is why our perception is alarmingly eager to latch onto any pattern—real or imagined—it finds as irrefutable truth…it must. Six million years of evolution designed it thus, and for very good reason. To follow through on the deal then, it works ceaselessly to convince us that these "irrefutable facts" probably apply to similar situations as well. It must. Better safe than sorry, yes?
If a bush rustles, for example, we spook instinctively, don't we? We call this the "fight or flight" response, but it's really our pattern recognition being triggered. We don't know what's doing the rustling—it may be a tiger or a kitten—but six million years of grisly experience compels us to connect the unknown with a threat. Our next reaction usually is then to pause after the fact and think, "wait a minute." What this reveals is that our established patterns are real and universal to us by default until proven otherwise.
This is a big issue for realistic equine sculpture. Our Yes Gremlin compels us to automatically apply our learned patterns across the board—our habits, formulas, beliefs, preferences and preconceptions—since the "wait a minute" reaction is only the followup. But the snag is that equine realism benefits most when these two reactions are reversed, when "wait a minute" is the first response and patterned behavior is the followup. This harkens back to what we learned earlier in Part 2: Unlike many things in daily life, realistic equine sculpture suffers from autopilot. This reversal of reactions allows us to sift through all our assumptions with a fresh eye.
But it's not so easy. By design, our Yes Gremlin entrenches itself like a tick, making it uncomfortable to dispense with our rules even when presented with incontrovertible evidence to do so. Flat Earthers are still around, for example, and doomsday cults persist despite their predictions routinely being proven wrong. It’s that cognitive dissonance thing we touched on in Part 3. And we may think we're immune to such reactions, but the truth is that even we will refuse to believe actual fact in favor of our perceived truths given the right buttons are pushed. It's not because we're stupid, it's because we're hardwired to do so.
This is because our perception configures an interpretation of reality into something we can mentally handle—it's a psychological mechanism as much a processing mechanism. And so it will protect itself when threatened, and part of its defense is to shut out or shut down those patterns it simply cannot reconcile at the moment. Applied to realistic equine sculpture then, this manifests as an unconscious unwillingness to create beyond conventional preferences, ideals, or propaganda and, even more importantly, our own preferences, ideals, or dogma.
This means two things. First, each of us will grapple with this internal effect more often than we may think, but how we do so will determine how we grow. And second, each of us can only come to certain truths in our own time—when we're ready. And that point is different for each of us. The trick is being able to recognize those times, and act on them in meaningful ways.
All said, trying to stop our Yes Gremlin from yapping in our head isn't going to work. He's going to yap no matter what. Instead, coaxing him to yap "wait a minute" rather than "yes, you're so incredibly, completely, absolutely, unequivocally right" can be the more helpful tactic. This isn't to say we should create constantly in a state of self–doubt—where's the fun in that? It's to suggest that all our assumed patterns are best held gently. This is a very useful approach for equine realism for this reason…
#6: Our pattern recognition mechanism is vulnerable to social pressure and conditioning—it's not inherently objective—just like our perception.
Now we come to a curious twist, in that both nature and nurture influence those patterns we perceive and recreate. In turn, this influences what we regard as "correct" or "wrong" even when these ideas are misinformed.
Being a social species, we have an internal drive to conform and belong—we naturally follow what others are doing. Indeed, many psychological experiments prove that our need to conform can even outweigh our ethics. Following the trends and fashions in the horse industry is another good example, as is the practice of applying various improper training methods (such as rollkur) “because everyone else is doing it and winning.” When we start looking for this conforming habit, we start to see it in many unexpected places, even realistic equine sculpture. People become conditioned to what things are “supposed” to look like when—in life—they aren’t actually constructed that way. For instance, the preference for unnaturally short backs is a pervasive skew.
Now coming to #7: Our perception—and therefore our pattern recognition response—will cause us to presume the muscle groups and delineations even before we start sculpting, making all the real life quirks more invisible to us.
Our forced presumptions dictate what we see, so unless we act otherwise, we’ll always come to our sculpture with them. This is great if we’ve been able to prove that those rules are correct, but what if they’re not? This is how habitual blindspots persist despite media or composition. We have to prove that our rules are on target before we allow them to embed in our perception too deeply. This is where calipers are our best friend.
In fact, when our perception is developed, we can even manipulate our pattern recognition to establish newer, better patterns. For instance, we can deconstruct the equine into simple shapes and planes to improve our work, simplifying what's complex into more digestible bits.
In fact, when our perception is developed, we can even manipulate our pattern recognition to establish newer, better patterns. For instance, we can deconstruct the equine into simple shapes and planes to improve our work, simplifying what's complex into more digestible bits.
As an example, here's a basic horse head reduced to some correlations and patterns, made easy by deconstruction. Note the reversed "6" for the nostrils, the "W" and the "M" for the cheek muscles, how the back of the jaw aligns with the zygomatic arches of the eye, and how the teardrop bone and the lips align somewhat parallel to the bottom of the ear, eye and nostril. Also note how the head is broken into thirds. Every horse head is a variation on these themes. Explore and have fun!
And finally, #8: Nature is as much about chaos as it is about order, so relying too heavily on static patterns can present a conflict with real life.
There it is. The crux of the entire issue between pattern recognition and equine realism. On one hand, "life happens," on the other, our brain works ceaselessly to establish order. We exist in an ongoing tug–of–war between what is and what our brain thinks it ought to be. This is one of the reasons why there are so many different interpretations within an art form as technical as realism.
It's understandable why this core idea is most often forgotten, given the nature of equine realism. When trying to convey such a seemingly incomprehensible fleshy mass as the equine, the tidy patterns offered by anatomical diagrams are just too irresistible for our brain. But as we learned in my previous blog series about the use of anatomy charts, the living body and kinetic moment are equally ruled by chaos as they are order. Flesh has its own agenda far beyond any static chart. For this reason, developing our ability to See and recreate chaos in equal measure to orderly patterns helps our sculptures come alive. If real life manifests as both order and chaos, our sculptures are improved by following suit.
This brings us to the idea presented by that verbenum bush that it's not enough to recognize patterns, it's knowing how and when to tweak them—and why—that's the real trick to realism. Said another way, it's not how well we duplicate patterns that speaks of our talents, it's how we tweak them. Realistic sculpture isn't just about what's similar, but also about what's different. This brings us to…
THE BUNNY’S QUIP
Because our pattern response is so invasive, asking ourselves why we're sculpting some feature a certain way is as important as how. This not only helps to deepen our perception, but also encourages us to identify which of our patterns is faithful and which may be flawed. Practice this enough times and it becomes a habit in itself, and that’s one of the ways we artistically grow.
Because that's exactly what a plateau is: a jammed patterning response (and perception). A plateau isn't a result of boredom, a lack of inspiration, laziness, or even burn out. Those are merely symptoms. It's the result of our hardwiring just repeating familiar patterns over and over. So if we hope to develop, we can only do so by unjamming it; we have to "kick our own habit." How curious that the very aspects of our art we rely on the most have the greatest potential to inhibit our progress!
And so we come to two issues at the heart of an artist's creativity: style and process. They are the two "parent habits" from which all our other tendencies derive, and being so, they define our body of work. Predictably, they also happen to be the stronghold for our perception and pattern recognition. This is all well and good, given we practice them in conscious awareness…so let's dissect them a bit more…
What we like to create (our aesthetic) and how we create it (our process) congeal together to form a creative fingerprint, a unique set of patterns that only we can create. So if either our aesthetic or our method changes—thanks to a changed perception—so does our work. And it’s this partnership between style and method that poses some interesting propositions when it comes to pattern recognition.
To begin with, realism entails duplicating life's patterns as authentically as possible. It's implied then that our success relies on the minimization of our own reality in lieu of life’s actual patterns. The more objective the better, yes? Not so fast. Because of our perception, we create our own patterns in the very act of duplicating those in life. Our work is automatically subjective for we are human and not machine—and that's a mighty fine thing. Again, it's in the pursuit where the juicy stuff happens, where the entire point to our work bubbles to the surface. What's that? Well, it’s a greater understanding and deeper appreciation for this noble animal and ourselves. What machine can boast that?
Further along, we also have to juggle with how much of ourselves we scour away in favor of clinical precision. How much of our own patterns do we wish to change, suppress, remove, or prevent? It's a delicate balance, and one not so straightforward, either. Presumably, our style can actually accentuate reality in a sculpture by triggering emotions or memories not accessed by strictly clinical means. If we're to capture the soul, presence and anima of our subject along with the energy of the kinetic moment, we're usually called upon to exercise some artistic license.
Because isn't part of the appeal of art, even realism, having the artist "in" that piece, too? Our unique patterns lend a special twist to this art form as well as to this creature. A machine can burp out a clinical replica sure, but only an artist can breath life into it. Only art can speak to our hearts the way this animal does.
And each time we touch our clay, we make this judgement call, either consciously or unconsciously. The point with understanding our perception and pattern recognition then is to heave as many of our unconscious acts into the conscious state so we can make more informed, deliberate choices—to create in greater awareness. And when it comes to pattern recognition, self–awareness is a tool more powerful than anything our hands could grasp at the workbench.
But that's precisely what makes pattern recognition such a tricky thing to juggle—when and how do we trust our own eyes? There's a big difference between technical accuracy and living accuracy. The two are not the same. Simply compare an anatomy chart to a living horse! If we rely too heavily on anatomy charts then, we can be seduced into sculpting a static anatomical pattern that cannot fully capture the living anatomy of our subject. But this isn’t to knock anatomy charts! They inspire habits of bone and muscle that lend authenticity to the sculpting process—we all need a baseline from which to start. And repeating the same pattern in some measure feels safe and familiar, welcome emotions in this daunting art form.
The trouble comes when we want to grow because as helpful as those diagrams are, technical precision can only take us so far. That anatomy chart may seem "what looks right," even a fail–proof recipe that automatically bestows proficiency. Yet the truth is it cannot deliver the full breadth of our task simply because of what it is—a static, artificial, contrived interpretation created from a dead horse.
Now granted, it’s not that this approach doesn't work—it certainly does. But the inevitable result is a homogenous body of work because the same anatomical interpretation was used to carve in the template regardless of what the composition actually required. Our work therefore becomes mechanical rather than expressive. (I wrote a bit more about these effects in a previous blog series about the use of anatomical charts, for instance.)
The charts beguile us into thinking anatomy is like a simple recipe, but our subject isn't as straight–forward as bran muffins. What's interesting is how fervently our brain reduces complexity down to very simple patterns, which can be helpful at times to be sure (see the diagram above). But sometimes it can over–simplify to the point of misconception (conformation dogma is a classic example). Nonetheless, equine realism being so outrageously intricate—no wonder our mind simplifies wherever it can!
But living accuracy is wholly different. This approach asks us to sculpt beyond our contrived formulas to recognize that the dots we're connecting belong to an organic, living creature whose flesh and physics don't care one iota about what makes us comfortable. We may find our formulas safe, right, proven, and attractive, but real life does’t adhere as strictly to them as we may think.
We each come to this issue in our own way and have our own answer. Yet the method is always the same: we're obliged to let go of those very things we believe are most reliable in our process. We basically have to stop accepting our own habits at face value. That can be scary, but this kind of artistic introspection is the only way to break the hold pattern recognition has over us.
But how can this be? Wasn’t the whole point of sculpting more realistically getting more technical objectivity in our clay?
Yes! But to take our work to the next level requires we take this concept even further, into the realm of living anatomy—a realm that promises more realism than any illustration. We’ll be asked to recalibrate our perception and mediate our pattern recognition response in order to convey this living creature whose flesh and hide don’t adhere all the time to our neatly imagined patterns.
But if our patterns works and people like it…and, well…we like it, what's the point of breaking a perfectly good, successful habit?
This is the pivotal question we come to when we practice our art. We’re at the exact point where we’re asked to stop from the shock of that proverbial rustling bush, and ask "wait a minute” before running off. Because the answer is a private decision, and one we come to in our own time. But before we make it, we should know two things.
First, whatever our answer, "forever will it dominate your destiny," as Yoda would say. Because we should know there are trade–offs to safety and comfort. If we chose them, plateaus may await us and we may even risk accumulating more blindspots. Worse yet, we open the door to objectification, as our subject is stripped of life’s serendipity and reduced to formula. Then when we want to kick it up a notch, we really have nowhere to go, do we? Just more of the same.
And second, it’s going to be uncomfortable for a time when we chose to embrace chaos along with the order. So if we feel doubt, unease or defensiveness—that’s normal. It’s our perception freaking out, and our pattern recognition response being poked. Breaking an addiction is never a pleasant process! And the more uncomfortable the process, the more entrenched was our perception…but it also means the more potential for growth! We’re becoming as beginners again, and if we can muscle through that, a whole new way of looking at our craft—and ourselves—is our reward.
It’s moments like these that provide valuable insight into our perception and our Self—so use it! Because we've all been there. I’ve been there, most definitely. Quite literally, this series is a discussion about my own experience in the hopes of exploring yours. Above all, it doesn’t mean we lack talent or worth, we simply need to get a handle on our hardwiring.
Now granted it must be said that we do have to learn the correct patterns in the first place; we gotta learn to "sculpt tight" before learning how to “loosen” in that we must know the rules first in order to break them effectively. The only trouble is when we stop at the formula as the end–all and be–all rather than using it as a jumping board into an ocean of options.
THE BUNNY GIGGLES
So whatever satisfaction we derive from our formula, it’s our true potential that lies beyond it, waiting for us when we decide to reach for it. How do we do that? By perceiving our efforts in a different way—jostle our perception and we automatically jostle our pattern recognition response.
For instance, think of manes and tails in an abstract way, deconstructing them as a series of layered shapes and planes (like in the previous horse head diagram). These aspects of our sculpture are truly some the trickiest to pull off, for sure! So study manes and tails in photos and in life study—note how they’re passive to physics. Also think of those masses as "mermaid hair, swirling according to air currents paired with the motion and energy of the animal. And think how those masses would add moment and momentum to the piece. (Here’s a tip: make hair look wispy by making the ends thin rather than like cut rope.) Studying hair intently is a good first step to take our perception beyond formula so start there. Find the oddities.
Once we feel comfortable with this, move onto the body. For starters, try sculpting without anatomical patterns. Once we learn anatomy, we need to stop fixating on it. So rather than think about anatomy charts and muscle definitions, start thinking about abstract planes, curves and shapes instead. Think how the hide and fascia slides, pooches, pulls, stretches and wrinkles over the muscle masses and in response to movement and moment. Deconstruct the subject, and discover what this individual animal exhibits in abstract apart from an anatomical illustration. Start with the big ideas and then move into the specifics. When we don't contrive the subject according to our preconceived, static patterns we can learn to See the momentary, how the static pattern changes with motion, balance, physics, and even emotion. Do this enough and we begin to seek out those features that fly in the face of formula, adding interest to our body of work. For example, the pectorals change a great deal—study those first to get an idea. Again, look for oddity and try to figure out the mechanical why.
Along those lines compare many individuals in the same position, working to find what’s shared and what’s different in all the tiny details of flesh and hide. More often, it's the differences that lend believability to our portfolio rather than what’s the same.
Another trick: sculpt upside down, and use anatomy charts and references the same way. This helps to snap our perception away from its pattern fixations and rattles its cage. Another tip is to use a hand mirror to "reverse" our sculpture for periodic checks.
Draw. It doesn’t have to be involved. Just pick a reference photo and draw it, as realistic as possible, then compare the two, perhaps even using Photoshop® to overlay the two. Where were we right? Where were we wrong? Do this exercise enough times and our blindspots will start to pop up for us to zap.
Using Photoshop again, manipulate reference photos by hitting the “Invert” option. This will reverse the light and shadow of the image, perhaps helping the planes, masses and curves to come to the fore in a fresh way. Or use the “Black and White” option to simplify what we See.
Another idea is to associate a new piece with an emotion or impression rather than an appearance. When our sculpture has something to say beyond, “I’m here,” the more we’re opened up to tidbits that would help convey a narrative.
Study lots of reference pictures. Sort them by movement and angle—and study study study. Look to see what’s the same and especially what’s different. What are the differing little details and quirks of flesh and hide? When we can compare twenty–five Saddlebreds with lifted right forelegs from the same angle, for example, we develop a better mental library of all the options. As my friend Lesli Kathman offers…
There really isn’t any substitute for looking at hundreds and hundreds of variations of the same pattern. But even more than that, I would recommend the practice of sorting that collection. Nothing helps the eye spot trends like arranging like with like.
Use calipers religiously—the Prospek® calipers are great for quick comparisons. They can be used for gauging proportion and marking the placement of muscles and bony landmarks so we can start putting things were they actually go rather than where our pattern recognition wants to put them.
The thing to remember is that we cannot stop our pattern recognition response, but we can certainly manage and manipulate it. When we pay attention to what we're doing—and why we're doing it—we can start taking control.
TEA TIME WITH THE BUNNY
Clearly then, sculpting equines realistically isn’t really just about sculpting what we see, is it? Nope! We have to contend with a headful of hurdles, so it takes time and effort to make our hardwiring a more helpful tool. But what a worthy effort! We’ll end up with “upgraded” hardwiring that lends freedom and vitality to our work, able to process more information faster and in greater resolution.
It all starts by not taking anything at face value—especially our own way of interpreting things. It continues through giving ourselves more credit and breaking through our own Self–made patterns, turning each sculpture into an exploration rather than just extrapolation. These are our first steps into a vast spectrum of possibilities.
And so our little, long–eared wizard asks, “More tea?” Why sure! It’s always a good time for tea! So until next time…drink up!
PAINTING CONVENTIONS; FACT OR FANTASY?, Part I-II, Sarah Minkiewicz-Breunig (RESS article)