Sunday, August 20, 2023

Moving Forwards With Fear

Creating art isn't for sissies or put another way, it’s not for the faint of heart. Sure, it’s got its charms, but at the same time, it’s fraught with some pretty powerful lows, lows powerful enough to compel some people to stop or not even start at all. Lows strong enough to give even the most accomplished artist a run for their money despite all their success. This is because the act of birthing something that never existed before brings with it certain cautions that can blindside or even overwhelm us if we aren't prepared. Indeed, when we bring something forth from our insides, something that's inherently deeply personal, we poke a sleeping tiger within us, one with a pesky, nagging voice that tries to hold us back. This slumbering beast is fear and we all have it, even the most skilled, famous artist ever. We’re human after all. So the trick isn’t about extinguishing that fear, it’s more about living with it, working around it, moving through it, and creating within it that’s the ace up our sleeve. How do we do this though? Well, brass tacks, it takes the antithesis to fear: love. Love for our muse, love for our efforts, love for the pieces we create, love for the sharing of our works, love for all of it, including ourselves. Elizabeth Gilbert would probably refer to it as "coming home." And from that love emerges courage. A whole lotta courage! Chin up, deep breath, eyes forwards, step forwards and all that. Steeled, resolved, blind courage. But how do we find that within ourselves when it can be so hard to muster? Well, we draw from our moxie, that’s how, the cousin to courage, that “darn the torpedoes” attitude that imbues us with cheek and a bit of recklessness. Because, truly, if there’s one thing fear cannot stop, it’s recklessness! Also birthed by love is another powerful ally in our pushback, good ol' curiosity, that inquisitive streak that draws us forwards in our investigations and creative explorations. Stoke those fires of interest then and you'll find that your fears will quickly take a back seat and pipe down. So find those partners within yourself and cultivate them so they grow wild and free because the more love, courage, moxie, and curiosity you have, the less sway fear has over you. But how do we do that?

Well, perhaps with insight into the nature of that beast, we can begin to see its weaknesses and falsehoods and once we finally do, it looses a lot of its bite force. Oh, it’ll still bite, don’t discount that, but its chomp will simply be a meager pinch and not the tearing trauma it once was. Every human soul wrestles with itself on some level, that's just the way of it, but we can manage it a little bit better with some insight. In this spirit then, let’s explore three big components of creative fear: Imposter syndrome, insecurity, and anxiety. With just a little bit of understanding here we can glean some big pay offs in our ongoing battle against fear.

We work so hard for our successes, don’t we? Long hours, study, earnest work, patience, diligence, concentration, sacrifice, angst…it just goes on and on. So when we finally strike it big and reach the top, it’s like a trumpeting of angels, it’s a tickertape parade, it’s the profound satisfaction of job well done, of having “arrived.” Right? Wrong. More times than not, what actually happens deep down is a lingering sense of being a fraud, a charlatan, an inadequate who doesn’t really deserve the kudos. It’s also a sense that you’ve fooled most people this time but soon that bubble will burst and the big reveal of what a huge joke of a phony you actually are will be obvious to the entire world and it’ll be humiliating, horrifying, and a complete disaster. This is imposter syndrome and to some degree, every successful artist has it. Why? Because it’s a very human response to the absurdity of success. It can be incredibly preposterous and unbelievable to win this proverbial lottery. Yes, we may have invested everything into our success — but plenty of other artists do who never get anywhere, right? So what’s so special about us? It can truly feel like a bubble about to pop because it seems to rely on intangible things that can blow apart at any moment. This is why being told, “Well, you worked so hard, you deserve your success!,” just doesn’t seem to satisfy so much, does it? If anything, it can make things worse. Honestly, so many other artists work even harder, are even more skilled, but who just never seem to win that elusive brass ring. So we don’t feel as deserving in comparison, do we? And that feeling busts past our proper sense of worth and accomplishment with such blithe ease, we can be left completely deflated and worried instead of proud and elated. If we aren’t careful then, some artists find imposter syndrome so debilitating, it can compel them to withdraw, to even stop creating all together! Now this is the disaster! Again, love, courage, moxie, and curiosity will be our saviors here: The love that compels us to create, the courage to continue despite the lingering sense of deceit, the moxie to embrace our success even when we feel we don’t deserve it, and the curiosity to see if we can continue the streak by topping ourselves. Instead then, allow imposter syndrome to morph into humility, a humbleness that instills a sense of gratitude and wonder at the bizarre circumstance of it all. Give yourself permission to enjoy the limelight with grace and generosity — so many others never get that privilege.

Most people are insecure. Heck, probably everyone is on some level about something. Being human has its built-in burdens. When it comes to arting though, a lack of confidence can be a particularly destructive thing. See, the thing is, inspiration is actually an extraordinarily fragile wisp, something supremely vulnerable to fear. So many people are struck by inspiration at some point in their lives but fail to follow through not for a lack of talent or access to materials, but because of a deep-seated insecurity about making it real in the first place. “I’m not good enough,” “I don’t have the talent,” “I just can’t do it,” "I'm not an artist," and a litany of other self-perceived deficiencies plague too many folks. So much art never gets born this way! But it doesn’t end there. Know it or not, even established artists can struggle with a lack of confidence on a daily basis. Many wildly famous performers struggle with crippling stage fright, for instance. The truth is though: This is normal. It’s normal and natural to question your abilities when faced with big goals and lofty ambitions. And the bigger the dream, the harder the questions. So again, the workaround isn’t to deny it, but to embrace it — take hold of your insecurities and start to pick them apart, start to see what generates them. Here, curiosity will be particularly helpful to you. Could it have been a callous comment directed to you as a child about your art? Could someone you admired have made a careless comment about what you created? Are you comparing yourself to others and thinking you come up short? Are you afraid of shame and ridicule? What’s getting in between your inspiration and your follow through? Here, too, courage and moxie can be assets because at some point, you'll just have to throw caution into the wind and jump in. Don’t let inspirations wither away! Chase after them, make them real out of sheer gumption and in spite of your fear. And here love can jump in to deliver a one-two punch because here's the thing: That inspiration came to you — and only you — out of all of history. Listen to it, follow where it leads, give it your whole heart and, absolutely, you’re going to surprise yourself in ways you never imagined! Do that enough times and you learn to hold confidence more firmly. Because that’s the thing — confidence isn’t only something someone just has. Confidence can also be learned, and learned by doing something over and over again so you become proficient at it. Learning and confidence are sisters. And in all actuality, confidence is overrated. All we really need is the willingness to keep going despite our insecurities. Stubbornness and resolve can be great fakes for confidence! So have the courage to keep going just one more step and find that moxie within yourself to fling yourself into the fray even when you’re questioning everything you’re doing. And always hold tightly onto the love you have swirling inside you for what you're doing because it can bust through any roadblock. Mix all that together and you've got a potent concoction because, above all, you’ve got to be willing to give yourself the chance to surprise yourself!

This brings us to our latent anxieties about arting, or more to the point, the fear of making mistakes, of not being perfect. The fact is that when we art though, we're going to fail. That’s inevitable. We're going to fail and fail a lot. We’re going to lose count of all our faceplants. But that’s not the gist of the matter, is it? Because what many people mistakenly assume is that a mistake is the end. Stop, it’s over! You screwed up! Game over! But, no! See, what they haven’t figured out yet is that a mistake isn’t the end — it’s the beginning. A mistake is the start of improvement, the prerequisite to success, the pathway to enlightenment! Absolutely, mistakes are learning itself. No artist ever created without making mistakes! No artist simply cranks out high caliber work without first earning it through a slew of missteps! We have to be pretty bad at something before we get pretty good at it! In fact, it’s the artists who make a ton of mistakes and learn from them who advance the fastest with the deepest understanding. And remember this: Whatever you make, you can unmake, and make again! You are the creator and destroyer here. Making corrections is perfectly fine as you go, too, there's nothing wrong with using your eraser! You never have to commit to the first attempts. Most art ever created goes through a series of revisions and refinements as it evolves, nothing unusual about that. Mistakes are simply part of the process of creation. So bring on the mistakes! Big ones, little ones, stupid ones, surprising ones, confusing ones…bring them all on! May they be glorious and grand! Every mistake we ever make will unlock our potential more and more. And know this: Every artist has a Bad Art Day and every artist creates bad art at some point. That’s all part of the learning process and the journey of discovery. In this light, bad art isn't a failure, it's a stepping stone. If anyone has a problem with that, well, that’s on them, not you. You got this! Because here, again, courage and moxie will serve you well — the courage to try again, always again, and the moxie to remember that all you’ve learned is just one more powerhouse in your arsenal! Curiosity lends a big helping hand, too, because you'll need that for troubleshooting, study, critique, and investigation. And, of course, love leads us by the gentle hand, always guiding us forwards. Just remember that you’re in control here so don’t let the fear of mistakes take it from you. Embrace your mistakes, rejoice in them, and soon that nagging fear will transform into even more curiosity. “How will I mess this up?” can really mean, “What amazing thing will I learn today?,” can’t it? Frame it that way and you’re well on your way! What's more, BrenĂ© Brown has a lot of sound advice for you when it comes to criticism, whether from other people or self-inflicted.

Art isn’t to be trifled with. It asks us to be monumentally vulnerable, and that's by no means an easy feat for anyone. So sure we can engage art on a whim, which is great and necessary from time to time, but if we're diving in deeper, it becomes a path, a Way. See, if we’re doing it conscientiously, we’re also learning, even about ourselves, at the same time we bring something new into reality. We create ourselves, too. Framing creativity in this way, as a framework for discovery, isn’t just a mere indulgence, it can be a necessity to root out those very things that hold us back. It’s what also stokes the fires of love, courage, moxie, and curiosity. Every inspiration may be the match, but unless that fire has fuel, it’s doomed to snuff out. So do yourself a favor — cut yourself some slack and allow yourself to be in love, be courageous, be cheeky, and be curious if just to create some art. Often what’s bad for fear is good for you. So give yourself a chance to surprise yourself! You have more to offer than you know, you’re more capable than you believe, and even if no one ever sees what you created, you’ll have the satisfaction of your own journey. Make arting less about creating for approval and more about creating for your own personal satisfaction and you’ll have found that fuel for your inspirational spark you can fan into a rampant blaze of empowerment. When faced with that wall of fire, your fears will back off, making room for the true gift of creativity — joy! And once you've tapped into your joy, it's over for fear. We may always bear our fears to some degree, of course, but joy is a stronger compulsion, one that also happens to feed love, courage, moxie, and curiosity in a positive feedback loop that drives us forwards in the best ways. So while fear may be the swirling storm around you, all that good stuff inside is the rocket fuel that propels you right through with a sonic boom. So it's not about stamping out our fears, it's about engineering a creative attitude that can create joyfully and purposefully in spite of them. Do that and you'll surge forwards with an unstoppable creative empowerment that'll carry you through every challenge! Don't you owe it to yourself to embrace what can bring you such enrichment? Don't let fear rob that from you because — yes — you are deserving of all the treasures arting has in store for you! Tap into your love, courage, moxie, and curiosity, and make those fears take a backseat because you have wonderful things to conjure up! So dial it up to eleven and pop that knob off with joyful abandon! You can be your own art hero!

The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.
— Joseph Campbell


Thursday, June 29, 2023

Artistic Awareness: The Third Eye Of Creativity


As dedicated artists, we endeavor to create our very best work each time we dive in, don’t we? We try so hard and invest so much of our heart and soul into each piece we create. But what if one of the biggest impediments to our work wasn’t our perceived lack of skill or talent, but an issue with something a little trickier? Like our artistic awareness? What is artistic awareness? It’s that learned ability to bring unconscious habits progressively into our conscious creative efforts. What does that mean? In practice, it’s about actively trying to root out our blindspots and plateaus by regularly taking stock in our philosophies, habits, Seeing, and skills then revising as necessary. It’s an active challenge to those notions we lean on, especially the unconscious ones, a regular questioning of what we’re doing and why. When we do this, we can make progressively more effective creative decisions that increases not just the realism and detail in our work, but potentially our enjoyment in what we’re doing by making things more of a curious adventure. 

Because here’s the thing, it’s incredibly easy to get stuck in a force of habit, a formula, a way of doing things that’s familiar and easy to us when it comes to something as difficult as equine realism. This is such a tough art form, it’s surely tempting to find a crutch wherever we can get it. The problem though is that these crutches are linked to our blindspots which lead to plateaus which ultimately stall our progress. Indeed, if we have goals that we’re regularly not reaching, it’s probably because of this problem, not a lack of talent or skill or discipline. This is because it’s our blindspots and plateaus that have more power in our work than our strengths. That may seem like a bit of a Catch-22…and it kinda is…but this realization does put us on a sure path because if we remain cognizant of our creative choices by regularly taking stock in our philosophies and skills, we can fuel-inject our progress. That’s to say, when we understand that blindspots operate right under our noses all the time, to introduce biases, errors, and a grip on obsolete ideas, we have a better shot at rooting them out to make some real progress. There’s a big difference between an unconscious skew and a deliberate decision so making more of our job about the latter, we gain the power to take our work in any direction we want. In this sense then, artistic awareness lets us "self–educate" ourselves in a continued, open–minded, and unafraid way to better See and target those aspects that need attention with greater precision. To brass tacks it then, it’s really this ability that’s the hallmark of an advanced artist. It’s not necessarily the quality of work that's the giveaway, but the ability to consciously create and troubleshoot that demonstrates their prowess. It’s more about expert insight gifted by more deliberate decisions rather than running ramshot in the dark. In a nutshell then, artistic awareness is all about empowerment, the power to gain real and substantial control over our creative decisions. 

Your chances of creating deeply hinge on the quality of your awareness state.

— Eric Maisel

But even more than that, artistic awareness is also about understanding that we’re fallible human beings who’ll make mistakes — and that’s okay. When we can reconcile this, we open the door to not only a lot more objectivity, but also much more inflected kindness, something deeply important in this relentless taskmaster of an art form.

Perhaps then the biggest favor we can do ourselves is learning how to remain a "damp sponge” rather than a dry one or wet one. Why? Well, because a damp one absorbs more than a dry one, right? But a damp one absorbs more than a wet one, too, one already saturated with “enough” ideas. So if we stay learners, we have a better shot at flushing out our blindspots and breaking through our plateaus. Yet we also come to free ourselves from the baggage of criticism, public opinion, misinformation, and even our own doubts and insecurities as we gain more confidence in our own abilities to guide ourselves. Over time, this can lead to less grasping of conventional ideas, habits, and formulas as we morph into something more explorative. Ultimately through artistic awareness then, we gain creative autonomy, a better ability to make our own decisions based on real information that we ourselves have excavated from our work.

Why Is That Important?

When we experience the changes inherent in this kind of journey, we're changed, too. When we open ourselves up to other potentialities, we also find ourselves rethinking what motivates us and that’s actually pretty important. Why?

Well, for one, working in equine realism means we're portraying an animal embedded in a buzzing cloud of ethical questions, value judgments, and differing opinions, all of which we must wade through to come to our own conclusions. Even so, it can get confusing with all the mixed messages out there when we have to make decisions true to our values and goals. Really, most artists make a questionable decision not because they're inhumane, but because they're misinformed. Realism obligates us to a kind of accountability not found in many other art forms so staying grounded and self-educated is key. In this, our convictions may change as we gain more insights and that's a good thing. Forward evolution is always a very good thing. But all this means that if we’re engaging this over-arching journey of Seeing unaltered, chances are we aren't venturing far enough into our internal explorations.

Second, realism has such a high standard, one weighable against the living example—and that's a hard act to follow! And despite all our work, none of us are going to attain 100% objective reality in our clay or pigment or printsand maybe that's a good thing. But how we handle this Don Quixote dilemma then is a measure of ourselves and that's meaningful to appreciate. Because the truth of the matter is there are many different ways to express equine realism accurately, there isn’t One Right Way. There are many paths to the goal! And in this we have room for interpretive style and aesthetic touches that makes each artist unique and each piece truly a miracle.

Third, the difficulty of our quest has many traps lurking in wait for us. The trap of frustration, the trap of envy, the trap of resentment, the trap of rivalry, just to name a few. But when we've truly learned the lesson that artistic awareness gifts us, we cease to compete against each other to instead turn our attention onto ourselves and our own goals, working to establish our own standards and ambitions, and setting out to reach them on our own terms. Because giving 100% to any piece is all we can ask of ourselves, right? So if we stretch, reconsider, scrutinize, and practice to the very edge of our abilities — and that includes challenging our blindspots and plateaus — that will show in our work and keep it vibrant, evolving, and engaging. In doing so, we become less inclined to compare our work and successes with those of others, better preserving our joy and enthusiasm in what we’re doing. Absolutely, there are few things that can kill off our motivation more efficiently than comparing ourselves to others. Stay on target with own your work without apology. Your magic is wholly unique in all the Universe! The magic of other artists isn’t yours — and you don’t need it! Embrace and revel in your own!

Comparison is the death of joy.

— Mark Twain

And fourth, the path to progress is going to be littered with our own internal baggage, burdens that hold us back that are often of a deeply personal nature. For instance, I was invited to critique a lady’s paintjob but in a roundabout way, it ended up not really being about the paintjob. Through some rather pointed guided introspection, she discovered that she was blocking herself not with her choices, but with the awful voice put into her head by her Aunt who once told her as a child that what she drew was wrong — and that voice was still telling her that what she was painting was wrong when it really wasn’t. But it’s often unacknowledged internal battles such as these that can be a chronic roadblock for us which means that how much we’re willing to dig, confront, and reconcile can sometimes make or break our progress. Daunting prospect, isn't it? But often necessary.

And, fifth, this brings us to perfectionism. Now I wrote The Perfectionist Paradox about this issue back in 2021 and it’s worth a read. But suffice to say, this art form does ask for a lot of perfection yet this very thing can become our worst monster so easily! Learning to find balance when confronted with this lofty expectation then is a continual effort on our part, but a worthwhile one to mull over from time to time. Indeed, there’s a huge difference between striving for perfection and a fear of failure just as there’s a massive difference between setting high expectations and nothing ever being up to snuff. We have to accept mistakes and see them for what they really are: Learning. So what is driving our perfectionism? Fear? Ambition? Curiosity? Maybe a bit of all three? Really root around and get to the heart of the matter. Truly, discovering its engine can do a lot not just for our improvement, but a lot more for our creative happiness in the long run.

Sixth, given the nature of realism, we're going to get stuck on a plateau at some point and will have to somehow scramble our way off. Indeed, if we're approaching our work in a proactive way, each piece will be underscored with a drive to understand more than before, if even just a little bit. Our same ol' modus operandi just isn’t going to help us move forward, will it? How could it? We need new aspects that would boot us out of our self–made status quo. This quote by Albert Einstein comes to mind, “Insanity: Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” This art form asks us to evolve forwards so periodically kicking our own status quo to the curb to stretch, explore, challenge, and confront our own conventions is an important part of following through. It can be intimidating and even frustrating, but it’s the only way to pop blindspots and jump off plateaus. It’s so darned easy to lean too much on familiar formulas and comfortable ways of interpretation, isn’t it? All that familiarity is great for sure, but the problem is that it comes with our habitual blindpots, the same ol’ missteps over and over again. We gotta rattle our own cage from time to time to see what falls out!

Seventh, know that our perception is a one–way circuit: Change happens first in our perception to then flow into our work, not the other way 'round. So if we want to fix anything in what we See, we have to target our perception first. Change our Sight and we change our work. Even more though, this also means that our magic wand lies within us! And we each have one — one unique just to us. So if we can accept that we always have a lot more to learn — a lot more opportunities to See differently — we gain a lot more responsiveness and traction in our growth. Hard talk here: It doesn't matter if we believe our methods have worked for us in the past with great success. That may be so. But a plateau is always waiting for those who get too comfortable. The real measure of success is our ability to continue evolving no matter how long we’ve been at this, in whatever direction our own magic takes us.

Human beings, by change, renew, rejuvenate ourselves; otherwise we harden.

— Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

To accept fallibility and to therefore stay open to possibility helps us to continually challenge our own conventional thinking, feeding a drive for discovery so critical for growth. Keep our mind open then, especially about our own potential, and our work will always remain fresh and innovative. Stay curious and always question, especially when we become comfortable in our work.

But know that you aren’t alone. We’ve all been there. It’s all just a natural byproduct of learning to then unlearn to relearn again and again. And we all have to start somewhere right? And from there on in, we all have to restart somewhere, too. And the platform we jump from is our habitual way of doing things, our momentary plateaus. So if we can finagle it so they stay temporary, they become springboards that launch us to the next stage rather than mesas we get stuck on, frustrated and confused. Never underestimate the power of rethinking, reimagining, reevaluating, or the moxie to introduce the unfamiliar, maybe even the radical into our work. Be bold! Be brave! Believe in your gumption! If our blindspots and plateaus live inside us, aren’t we then our greatest obstacle? But then we’re also our greatest hero, right? If the tricky bit lies within us, we can fix it with a bit of self-directed moxie — we got this.

Personal Metamorphosis

And this is the real reason why realism can be so darned hard to master—it's not just a matter of media, technique, concepts, references, interpretations, or our subject. More than anything it's a matter of ourselves. How so? Well, we cannot dig through what we See without first discovering why our skews and blindspots exist in the first place because these are things knitted right into our perception — and that’s rooted in who we are. Rummaging through one dissects the other if we’re digging deep enough. For example, why do we sculpt the eyes so  buggy? Or why do we paint the appy spots so skewed? Why did we paint our ticking so out of scale? What are we Seeing wrong? Why are we Seeing it wrong? What are we not admitting to ourselves? What are we trying to deny or avoid? Why? How can I fix these blindspots? Am I hesitant? Procrastinating? Resistant? Why? How did I end up here? What was I neglecting? Why? Did my ego get in the way? Did I have a skewed sense of quality? Did I become too comfortable in how I do things? Why?

Do you see how this rabbit hole just gets deeper and deeper if we’re really digging? But that’s exactly what’s also needed to proactively root out blindspots and plateaus — we have to address our inner landscape. See, a blindspot or plateau tends to happen for a reason, and one that has less to do with arts technique or media and more to do with personal reasons. Yet it's precisely this introspective feature that's not usually addressed when we consider these things. Make targeted introspection a habit then and we'll find that our inner landscape has far more influence on our media than we ever suspected; what we cannot See in our work is a manifestation of what we cannot See within ourselves and so we may continue to self–sabotage our efforts. Yet this is a very personal matter to unravel and no one can do it for us. We have to be willing to do it at regular intervals, too, because as our skills advance so do our blindspots and plateaus. This exploration isn't always comfortable but we have so much to gain such as artistic and personal growth, and much more connectedness with this lovely creature.

So it's not always inaccessible instruction, inadequate technique, deficient talent, or problematic media that roadblock our way. We can also induce our problems from the inside to skew our Sight. But—hey—that's good news! It means we have the exclusive power to come to our own rescue, doesn’t it? We don't have to depend on anyone or anything—we're in control, and we can do so in our own way, in our own time. It's okay then to question ourselves, our perceptions, our skills, our motivations, our ambitions, our values, and our goals. Indeed, it's a healthy exercise. Nevermind if everything we've ever done has brought us success. A willingness to stay hungry will serve us well.

Art that serves an artist best is an experiment in expanding awareness.

~Peter London

Because consider this: Questioning ourselves doesn't mean we're insecure, paranoid, self–doubting, or overly sensitive. It means we're confident, centered, and devoted enough to give careful thought to what we're doing rather than just blindly doing it. Cogitating our inner experience aligns our consciousness with the creative moment, bringing our locks and keys closer together to release our true talents. Make this a habit and we might be surprised by what we learn about our talents, our subject, and ourselves!

It is a profound human waste for people to go through life half–hearing, half–seeing, and only dimly aware of the range of their own perceptions and capabilities. 

~J. Ken Clark

Think about that for a moment. To me this is a fundamental idea and one I revisit often. Because if we wish to continue moving forward, this notion lies at the base of that adventure, doesn't it? I want to seed this little idea: Excelling in realistic equine sculpture isn't so much about learning the ropes—the ropes will always be there, dangling for anyone to grasp—but instead it has more to do with learning about ourselves since we're the only ones who perceive that particular reality that gets infused into our clay or pigment. This makes realistic equine sculpture not only a creative journey, but a personal one as well. Every challenge or barrier we'll ever encounter is just an expression of something inside us that holds us back, and so it's within our power—and only our power—to tackle it. We created it and so we can conquer it. It’s really just that awesome.

Because in my wanderings through the equine art and horse industry, I've discovered this unexpected truism: The more we come to truly understand ourselves, the better our work becomes. And this is the great final gift the noble equine offers us on this path: We’re transformed into souls able to meet him and our fellows on that special plane found only through Awareness — we can look and finally See each other.

Skill is less important than awareness. 

— Graham Collier


But to wrap it up in a nice package, we can think of the fruits of artistic awareness as STEM: Seeing more effectively, Translating with greater accuracy, Evaluating with more acuity, and drawing from a Memory with more scope. And the more we develop our awareness, the greater the benefits of STEM. This is because Seeing, Translating, Evaluating, and Memory are four different components that all go into a realistic sculpture or paintjob. We have to better perceive what’s actually there to then interpret that in our clay to then step back and take stock, all the while drawing from a mental library supplemented by field study and reference photos. How well developed these four components are and how well they harmonize together will determine not only the quality of our work but how much we advance with each effort. 

And blindspots hide in each one and so understanding the nature of each component can really help us target their particular soft spots. For instance, if we’re consistently making our front hooves asymmetrical with each other but we can see that they’re annoyingly asymmetrical, we have a Translation blindspot problem. Something about our tools or technique is going haywire and so we need a new method to sculpt hooves. Or on the other hand, if we’re habitually sculpting faces in the same way, we might have a blindspot in our Memory. Here then we need to expand our knowledge base to include more manifestations of cranial shape, facial musculature, and textural details through more varied field study and analysis of reference photos. Now if we suspect there is a problem in, say, that appy pattern, but we can’t put our finger on it, chances are we have a blindspot in our Evaluation process — we need better troubleshooting techniques. But perhaps the trickiest of all blindspots to ferret out are those that lie within our Sight because they entail our perception filter of reality. It’s hard to see how we’re going wrong when we live inside the proverbial fishbowl. In this then we need to employ more artistic exercises, study, comparisons, and research — and more practice — to hone our Sight into something less burdened by habitual crutches. 

Learning to tease out our blindpots into these four components can really help us bust them apart easier and faster because we now have a kind of system, don’t we? We have a plan, a method, not just a shot in the dark. Actively develop your STEM and you’re well on your way to independent, autonomous progress at a pace you might not have thought possible of yourself! How cool is that?

Summing Up

Learning to develop our artistic awareness isn’t just a basic step forwards, it’s the foundation for all our steps forwards, one that will always sustain our growth and support every direction we choose. And through a more developed STEM, we can then better identify the quirks in our efforts that give rise to our blindspots and plateaus to become more fearless in rethinking what we believe to be self–evident in our work. We won’t ever root out all our blindspots or avoid all plateaus, we’re human after all. And would we really want to? Maybe not. But we can certainly continually deepen our awareness and intensity our STEM whenever we feel we need a bump forwards. And this is the quality of an artist who excels — they play the long game, using each piece as a kind of stepping stone towards their artistic goals. That’s to say they don’t become complacent and comfortable, but instead stay hungry for evolution and discovery. They stay learners. Their perception thus remains plastic and adaptable and so their Sight ever-evolves forwards, with each piece being a bigger discovery than the previous. And it’s through artistic awareness that we first open the door to all these gifts. Discover it, develop it, and employ it and you’ll find that Third Eye that guides you more effectively through any piece you undertake. Even more though, you’ll find that you’re capable of far more than you ever dreamed possible and what better view of your inner self is that?

"The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend." 

— Henri Bergson


Thursday, June 8, 2023

Back To Reality: Camera Distortion and Other Conundrums

Some years ago, I wrote Mapping Out Success: Equine Topography that detailed a basic proportional method I use for my work. And for the most part, I still use it. Everything is based off the head measurement, making this method fast, easy, and adaptable. Even so, I’ve made some revisions over the years that are worth noting which I've since detailed in Measuring Proportion: Ahead Of The Game. But now let’s talk about something we all do…let’s talk about working from reference photos.

Photos are often our primary means to glean the information we need for our sculptures and our paint jobs, especially if we don’t have access to real horses. But here’s the thing, if we don’t have real horse experience or information based on real field study, we may miss an important point: Photos present their own issues and we need to compensate for them. Such things as lens distortion, perspective, lighting, and lack of diversity all introduce distortion of some kind and unless we’re aware of it, we may inadvertently infuse those distortions into our work.

Lens Distortion

All cameras, to some degree, introduce lens distortion into the image. Also known as optical distortion, it essentially causes straight lines to become curved in the image. There are three basic types of lens distortion: barrel distortion, pincushion distortion, and fisheye distortion. Barrel distortion is most common in phone cameras and with wide angle lenses. Pincushion distortion tends to happen with telephoto lenses. Zoom lenses can exhibit both barrel (at the shortest focal length) to pincushion (at the longest focal length). On the other hand, super wide-angle lenses tend to have fisheye distortion. The better the lens though, the less distortion which is all the more reason to buy the best lenses you can afford. That said, those lenses that more fully compensate for distortion are expensive, so just keep that in mind. For instance, take a look at these images…

The longer shadow line is the adjusted correction.

The longer shadow line is the adjusted correction.

The wider shadow line is the adjusted correction.

Images courtesy Maria Hjerppe

Note: Maria used a Canon L lens which is their (very) high end range lens. Yet notice how even with such a spendy lens we still have distortion? A lower range lens will have even more distortion.

Those are the same images overlaid onto each other, one unadjusted and the overlaid one adjusted and made more transparent so you can see the difference. It's subtle, but there. The discrepancy would actually make more of a difference for more precise things like the placement of facial features on the head or the length of the cannons, for example, where just that little bit can really mean a lot.

(It should be noted here that if you're taking your own photos, you can apply lens correction in many photo editing programs and apps. Look for it in the program you use. However, it's important not to apply this to photos you haven't taken as you don't know what sort of correction has already been applied and you risk over-correcting.)

So the trick here is being able to recognize these distortions and to also fully understand the technical nature of the lenses you use when taking your photos. It’s also important to stay within the frame center, the center of the focusing field, when taking any shot not only to minimize distortion but to set up a standard protocol for consistent images. Here’s the thing, the smaller the focal length (the wider the angle), the more distortion will happen at the edge of the frame, generally speaking. This is called volumetric anamorphosis and it essentially means that the further away from the frame center we are, the more stretched in perspective and the more bent in lens distortion the subject will become. 

To dampen all this, know the capabilities of your lens, take the photo well back from the subject, and keep the subject perfectly centered in the frame, vertically and horizontally. (This also happens to be good advice when taking shots of sculptures for your portfolio.)


There are four primary ways perspective distortion happens. First is the distance between the subject and the camera. Cameras don’t have doubled-up vision or, in other words, they don't have depth perception so they see the world in a very flat way. They don’t compensate for perspective like our brains do. When it comes to angle shots then, the fore parts will be enlarged as compared to the rear parts, often markedly so. Indeed, the closer the camera is to the subject at an angle, the more pronounced this effect. We’ve all seen the typical nose shot that makes the schnoz appear extra large, for instance. And phone cameras are especially prone to this effect so be careful using their images for references. Second is the angle between the subject and the camera, or the horizontal or vertical rotation of the lens around the subject. Here again we see enlargement or distortion of those parts closest to the lens and when we involve an angle, this can create an elongation effect and even alter the angulation of things, something serious to consider when designing conformation or the orientation of patterns. Third is the distance between the lens and the ground which has that same effect. This can make body parts appear longer or shorter than they really are, another important consideration when constructing conformation and patterns. And fourth, the camera’s focal length plays a big part in perspective distortion so know exactly what your lens is capable of capturing at what distances. 

But all this is why having field study measurements and real horse experience can be so important to guide our adjustments back to reality. All in all, ideal perspective shots have been taken at a distance to help mediate that magnifying effect and knowing how to compensate back down to normal proportions through experience is a plus, too.


The quality, intensity, and angle of the incoming light is a powerful effect in our photos. It can skew colors well away from their actual tone or it can obscure anatomical features outright, for example. Being able to adjust lighting in a photo editing program then becomes especially important if we want to reveal as much detail, surface features, and true-to-life qualities we need. In fact, we can use the Levels or Exposure adjustments in Photoshop, for instance, to lighten a dark photo to expose more detail or anatomical contours. Likewise, the Color Balance toggle will become critical to use for color compensation for paintwork. One thing to keep in mind though, a dark photo can be more saturated in color even when we lighten it which can skew color away from reality. To mediate this, de-saturating the lightened photo a wee bit can often better reveal its truer intensity. On that note, some promotional photos have jacked up the saturation levels to intensify the color of their horse for more eye appeal, so keep that in mind as well. 

Now when it comes to reference photos, finding images that have directional lighting is ideal because that angle helps anatomical features pop out. (White grey or double-dilute colors are particularly ideal here, too.) It can also reveal surface textures much better, a great boon for sculpture. Not ideal is a photo taken with strong shadows or even an overcast day because the former can obscure features while the latter flattens the lighting and so doesn’t reveal as much information as we’d might need. Even so, overcast days can be really useful for pattern translation as it avoids the harsh shadows that can obscure or confuse the track of a pattern. Worst though is a “blown out” photo in which the lighting is too bright because the exposure setting wasn't correct. This situation destroys a “blown out” area’s information completely since there’s just no way to adjust lost information back into a blown out photo, unfortunately.


It’s smart to have multiple images of the same body part at the same angle in the same motion between many different individuals and moments in order to pick out what’s consistent and what’s different. Or with horse color, amassing multiple images of the same color, pattern, or effect. Indeed, it’s in comparing the differences and similarities that we start to pick out those things that are nonnegotiable and which things are options, even curious oddities. This helps our portfolio stay fresh and innovative rather than falling into habit and formula, two things which can be handy at times, but which tend to more often get us plateaued in our development. But if we strive to make each of our paint jobs or sculptures a bit different with all those options, we not only learn a lot of cool stuff along the way, but our process becomes a lot more fun and interesting to boot. Just as much, though, doing all this comparing also trains us to develop a deeper mental library which helps when compensating for lens and perspective distortions. Simply put, having more data in our heads just gives us more to play with and that spells more accurate work, more detailed work, more interesting work, and work that’s a lot more fun to paint or sculpt.

There’s this, too: Not everything we see in a photo or in a moment or an individual would actually translate attractively into a paintjob or sculpture. Sometimes we have to edit our work for the sake of the final impression. Like some areas may have so little detail they’d be boring and so we need to inject some to liven up the clay or pigment. Or perhaps a color patch on a sculpture does nothing to flatter it so we have to tweak it to marry better. We may also be familiar with the weird distorted limbs on race horses during photo finishes. The limbs aren’t actually distorting like that, it’s the limitations of the camera’s mechanics that are causing those goofy contortions. Add it all up then, it’s having a deep mental library born of comparisons from a diverse collection of reference photos that helps us in this department.

The Takeaway

So what’s the big takeaway from all this? Well, that photos aren’t gospel, they’re guides. Even the very best ones are suspect to some degree, and be particularly careful when using close up images. What's more, some professional photographers actually stage their subject and use a lens that accentuates certain desirable features to help along the final result. Hey, when you have to cater to the expectations of the owners, things get murky. Also actively try to compare different images taken at different distances if only to program your brain for identifying distortion better. We also need to supplement our references with a developed mental library born of practical experience. It’s not enough to simply copy something from a reference photo as close as we can. Instead, we need some interpretive powers to translate what a fallible camera with technical quirks is interpreting into a flat format. Maybe in the future, cameras will have AI to make those compensations our brains do so well, but until then, we have to mediate these factors with our knowledge base and awareness. Meanwhile, we don’t have to be duped by our photos into inadvertent misinterpretations. We can steer our proportional measurements back to reality with a bit of know-how and resourcefulness! 

Reality leaves a lot to the imagination.

— John Lennon

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