Unlike many other types of art, artists focused on equine realism are confronted with an interesting dichotomy—"artistic believability." That's a bit of an oxymoron isn't it? Having to be both “artistic” and yet “believable” at the same time is a bit of a contradiction, right? As such, there's some tension between these opposing concepts. That's to say realistic work cannot be too artistic; otherwise believability is risked with undue stylization. Yet creating work that's too clinically sterile risks compromising the emotional content of the work, circumventing the purpose of the art altogether. For these reasons, we can think of the fine line between “artistic” and “believability” as the intersection where the real magic of realistic equine art happens, a delicate balance to be sure. So how do we weave them together into the creative tightrope we walk?
Yin and Yang: The Play of Opposites
A kind of artistic Yin and Yang can be said to exist within realistic equine art work, creating a kind of check system within our perception. Not only do they allow us to achieve balance when striding that fine line, but also the leverage to more freely play with the tension inherent in "artistic believability."
So what exactly is this Yin and Yang? Where does this tension derive? Well, we can think of it as the interplay between our acquired mental library and our technical anatomical knowledge. That's to say, between what we think reality to be and what it actually is are two different things. Put another way, it's the difference between what we habitually create and what we should create; they're just two sides of the same coin.
Know it or not, we constantly create within this tension, this tug-of-war between these two opposites. Veer off too much into either direction, and our work suffers, but teeter on the tightrope, and our sculptural abilities thrive. But how can this be?
All art is the creation of human hands, that magical concoction of our strengths, dreams, biases, and foibles. The Yin, it's a crazy amalgamation of all that is "us," no matter its manifestation. Being so, it gives our work a Voice as well as a distinctive creative fingerprint, what we'd call our "style." Indeed, our take on reality is unique which makes our work unique as well. And that works not only to our benefit, but for that of the art form's as well. For one, it lends a new spin on the expression of reality beyond the obvious for there's certainly more than one way to convey it! It also injects the art form with vibrancy and diversity, something very much needed in such a technical genre. Indeedy, when a multitude of brains approach the same problem from different angles, we gain immeasurable insights for our own work.
However, keeping all this in check, guiding it to its final expression, is technicality, the Yang. Despite everything, we're first obligated to anatomical exactitude as a prerequisite for equine realism; otherwise we're simply creating figurative art, or HSOs (Horse-Shaped Objects). The more accurate our sculpture then, the more realistic it becomes, and this is no coincidence. But even in this we need to be careful—anatomical charts can lure us into a false sense of confidence with their neatly-packaged, cleanly-delineated features.
How? Well, life is messy! In fact, it's what anatomical charts lack that deprives our work of so many necessary ingredients. For starters, being static illustrations, they can neither convey the 3D nature of flesh nor the changing nature it undergoes with moment and motion. And since the hide is stripped away to reveal the musculature, we also lack that essential ingredient for our work—the surface texture. We can also get lulled into the idea that all anatomical features are expressed with equal intensity, since every inch on a chart is conveyed with the same level of precision. Yet reality shows us that features exist on a spectrum of expression, and one that changes with moment and movement. Despite the seduction of a tidy chart then, we must never forget that living flesh is remarkably different from illustrated flesh, and getting too caught up in our anatomy charts means that it's life itself we can inadvertently omit from our sculpture if we aren't mindful.
It's precisely for these reasons that our Yin and Yang operate best meshed together, in balance and informing the other, culminating into that unique alchemy of our art. Quite simply, we need artistic license to inform clinical technicality to bring it to life, and we need clinical technicality to lend substance to artistic license to make it credible. Again, two sides of the same coin.
So what exactly constitutes this Yin and Yang? Let's start first with the Yin…
A solid mental library is one of our greatest tools and resources. Make no mistake: the better our mental library, the better our work. One of the reasons for this is because a mental library requires us to get up close and personal with the subject, being amassed through field study and focused observation over a long period of time with multiple animals in different circumstances. This degree of comparative inspection and intimate connection is invaluable for our clay, but it does take time, effort and dedication, and so there are no short-cuts. Observing the real deal in the mercurial moments of motion has no other substitute. Indeed, it's these sharply-focused, comparative experiences that program an unconscious understanding of how equines move, look, behave, smell, sound, etc., and on such a visceral level, accurate sculpting can become more of an instinctive act rather than a struggle. It can even be said that the best sculptors are those with the best mental libraries, their minds able to log and store the myriad of visuals the animal presents, to then accurately reproduce them in clay. And that's an important point: a visual memory doesn't does pertain to the living subject, but also to our reference materials and our sculptures. Being able to apply life's lessons to photos or clay is of equal importance as our interpretation of living flesh!
Speaking of which, when we have a goodly amount of real-life, comparative observation under our belt, we can then apply our Eye to photographs and charts. Being able to decipher between the living subject, reference photos, and anatomical charts—to have them all make sense to us without confusion or getting stuck—is the final culmination of our mental library. But again, it takes work! Comparing hundreds, even thousands, of photographs—especially at the same angle in the same position—goes far in programming the multiple expressions of reality into our noggins, gifting us with insight into the options and exceptions that instill life into our clay. That's because effectively sculpting anatomy isn't just about learning the rules, but learning how those rules function in life, even how they bend or are broken outright on occasion. Unlike a static diagram or photograph, living flesh changes. Absolutely, horses don't' move like articulated anatomy charts!
Put all this together and we then have the ability to instinctively recognize when something is "off" in our sculpture. We may not have the clinical knowledge yet to identify exactly what—that comes with the Yang—but we can at least See that something is wrong. That's the first step.
So now we come to the Yang, or rather, the technical aspect of our craft. Here's where objective reality resides, the technical believability of our work. In this we're asked to convey the reality of "equine" as accurately as possible since anatomical faithfulness is the basis of realism itself. In a sense, we can think of the Yang as 100% absolute objective accuracy, as our goal or guideline. We aim for it with each piece and work hard to refine our understanding in field study and research. It's what guides our tool strokes and compels us to go that extra mile to ensure symmetry and consistency. It's our barometer by which our work is measured, by ourselves and by others, against the living subject, against references, and against other sculptures.
And it's worth the extra effort; the more clinically accurate our piece, the more realistic it becomes. Technical accuracy and believability go hand-in-hand. Admitted or not, all the best sculptors rely on technically precision to impart reality, leaving such things as conformation and breed type for further down the priority list. Why? Well, conformation can only make a sculpture more "suitable" while type can only make a piece appear as its designated breed. But in no way can either increase the realism of a sculpture—only anatomy can do that. Conformation and type are simply the wrong criteria if we wish to establish equine realism. That's because being suitable and looking like a stated breed are merely incidental whereas actually being built like an actual equine is the very foundation of our efforts; otherwise we're sculpting HSOs.
For this reason, we lean heavily on anatomical texts and diagrams, take workshops and classes, and perhaps even attend a dissection for further understanding. What's more, we may tweak our process, seek better materials and tools, and find newer ways to troubleshoot. We find more effective ways to compare our work to our references and study the work of others for insights. We use our calipers and other fixed measurements to define a level of objectivity within our creative endeavors, applying equine topography, planes, proportion and placement to find reliable landmarks upon which to plan our composition. Altogether, we're basically trying to tease out more objective reality to infuse into our clay, forever aiming for that lofty goal. The point is we already know these steps are necessary because we intuitively comprehend we're beholden to a reality beyond the one we perceive, one that defines our efforts in ways that make us constantly stretch.
And know it or not, but in doing so we're also trying to take our mental library beyond our blindspots, to ferret out those unconscious biases that compromise the believability of our work. Because it's in our mental library—the Yin—that our blindspots and biases perpetuate and within the technical aspect—the Yang—where the solutions can be found. And this is exactly how we improve our work—our work just doesn't "get better," it gets more believable by having more technical accuracy infused into it. Do this while also refining our style and our technique, and we have what we'd regard as "improvement," and improvement that tends to enhance our own long-term satisfaction in the studio. So our Yin and Yang don't just function together, they improve together as well.
Yammering On About Yin and Yang
And that's an important experience. Why? Easy—the living animal is no easy act to follow! Realism is difficult enough, but realism with this convoluted creature is even more precarious, and so it's easy to get discouraged, frustrated, or intimidated. Indeed, we can feel defeated even before we start! So maintaining self-actualizing growth and improvement can go far to keep our momentum in the studio humming.
And momentum is important. Our brains need time to absorb and process all things anatomical in order to develop that deep mental library and penetrating technical Vision. Our brains need time to learn how to synchronize them, too. Indeed, someone can know a lot about anatomy, but lack a sufficient mental library to direct that knowledge effectively into clay. Yet without a thorough understanding of anatomy, a mental library has no context. Moreover, unless our Yin and our Yang are more fully developed and synchronized, we may not even be aware we have these deficiencies! We simply believe we have an adequate understanding yet fail to convey that credibility into our clay—and not even know it.
And that's no small thing. Because not only did we pick an immensely complex subject to portray realistically, but the delicate balance the art form asks of us is a tricky thing for an artist. We love art. We love horses. And horses are such passionate creatures, so full of life and movement! If ever there was a subject perfectly suited for artistic portrayal, it's definitely the horse! So it's easy to get caught up in the creative moment and lurch off course as a result, imbuing our sculpture with too much style to be believable. Yet it's just as easy to dial down our flair too much to produce something devoid of vitality or soul, that elemental anima that connects to us on an emotional level.
Finding that rare balance, that mercurial mix of style and technicality will always be a challenge for us, especially as we grow. Learning and advancement—like life—are messy. They're unpredictable, surprising and unexpected. So we can expect our mental library and our grasp of technicality to be likewise uneven, meaning that we need to give ourselves the mental space to make mistakes and recognize corrections. Anyone who learned to walk a tightrope first tripped from time to time!
Yearning For The Yin And Yang Of It All
Artists who excel in this art form are those who are able to strike a rare balance between creativity and technical fact, between this Yin and the Yang of equine realism. It's a peculiar art form, this one. So whether instinctively or with work, it doesn't really matter—what matters is the final outcome. This is perhaps why equine realism tends to attract a certain kind of creative mind, one that essentially thrives on rules and variations on a theme.
"There is always more to be found by exploring the same subject again and again."
~ Dion Archibald
The balance may not be easy, and we may always feel as though we're fumbling within it, but being aware of the dichotomy and how it influences our efforts can go far in shifting more power into our willful hands and out of our unconscious tendencies. And that's really the point of understanding the Yin and Yang of equine realism: making more of what was unintentional into intention, of turning the unconscious into the deliberate. When we have greater control of both, as well as the balance between them, we gain more maneuverability in our development and greater freedom in our creative expressions since we aren't so beholden to what we cannot See. So work to develop them, and get them working together, and we can find sustained improvement and continued enjoyment in our studio for years to come!
"One of life's most fulfilling moments occurs in that split second when the familiar is suddenly transformed into the dazzling aura of the profoundly new." ~ Edward B. Lindaman