Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Now About Those Anatomy Charts...


In the last post we pondered some ironies that could be thought of as "realism repartee" about the application of anatomical illustrations to sculpture. Specifically, we discussed these curious contradictions:
  1. We must let go of anatomical illustrations to sculpt truer to life
  2. We shouldn't take anatomical diagrams at face value.
  3. Anatomy charts don't convey body planes well enough.   
These insights aren't only amusing, they're useful corollaries to the realistic sculpture references provided earlier (beginner, intermediate, advanced and "tidbits"). So let's jump right in and continue the exploration, starting with... 

Irony #4: Anatomical illustrations cannot convey emotion.

It's no overstatement to say that equines are emotion in motion. Quite literally, the horse's entire body is his instrument of communication, so moment by moment he emotes through posture, ear position, tensions, relaxations, motions, facial expressions, tail action, and a host of other body language (not to mention breathing, vocalization and scent).
These photos were taken in close sequence - click, click, click. I was intrigued by this fellow because one second he was relaxed, one second he was interested in me, one second he was irritated with the fellow on the other side, and the next second he yawned. So study this lovely beast very closely - can you see how his changing emotions are exhibited beyond his ears? The other effects are subtle, but there. I just wish I took a wider shot!

As sculptors we need to be sensitive to this unceasing stream of messages, but we can become deaf with a fixation on the anatomical equation. Thus if we cannot See all the emotional changes the body undergoes, we risk a body of work as vapid as a diagram.

Irony #5: Anatomy charts cannot provide the truth about surface texture. 

For all intents and purposes, realistic equine sculpture is all about surface topography. Granted we should understand what the inside is all about, but it all comes down to what's on the outside. What our eyes see and what our hands feel essentially is the basis of our work. 

And in real life we don't see skinned horses gadding around in front of us like some nightmarish scene out of a Wes Craven film. So we don't see just the changing and cumulative effects of bones, joints, muscles, tendons and ligaments, we also see the changing and cumulative effects of fascia, fat and skin, those very things stripped off a carcass to create the anatomical diagram. (Not to mention nerves, veins, arteries, lymph system, hair and horn, etc.).

Because of this mandatory step for dissection, anatomy charts cannot show us the most immediate feature for our sculptures, the one we both see and feel: the hide.

Study these examples closely: can you see all the fun stuff going on in the skin, fascia, fat and other hide layers? Not talkin' about veins or nerves here, but all the stretchy parts, striations, wrinkles, crinkles, wigglies, jigglies, chattering, bumps, lumps and other irregularities unique to hide. Also notice how the hide reacts to motion.

 These latter two provide a fun side-by-side anatomical comparison, too. White-grey horses in the right light are terrific for reference shots!

It's for this reason that "illustration" blinds us to a critical feature. Indeed, don't we look through the hide to envision the muscles and bones beneath the skin? That's certainly a necessary step for this exercise, but we should refocus our mental lens to See the hide, too! This brings us to perhaps the most fascinating contradiction of all... 

Irony #6: An anatomical illustration doesn't represent life. 

If we've done our homework in field study, it's patently clear that our subject is dynamic, varied, changing, quirky, and endlessly intriguing. He's alive. That may seem like an absurdly self-evident observation, perhaps even patronizing. We already know this! Right?

Still, all those nicely detailed anatomical illustrations we so enthusiastically depend on were created from dead horses. They may be helpful for navigating the equine body, but their very nature prevents them from imparting the vibrant and ephemeral nature of life. Indubitably, a living horse in the pasture and a dead horse in a wet lab both have the same anatomy, and a diagram may organize that anatomy for us, but being alive changes everything. And it's surprising how easy this is to forget the moment we start working clay.

Living flesh is transmutative and active - it both initiates and responds in an endless symphony of coordination, purpose and effect. Every second, for instance, muscles are tensing and relaxing, twitching and goo-ing, gooshing and stretching, wiggling and resonating, and thus endlessly adjusting and distorting in shape, definition, properties and firmness. They also may slide over each other and shift in a kind of fleshy, gooshy mosh pit. 

It doesn't end there! The physics of motion and moment - of existence within the real world - alter the anatomical formula as well, often radically. Muscles change in motion, no matter how tiny the motion may be (even a standing horse is moving), an important fact that's beyond the capacity of an inert diagram.

Look closely at these photos and try to see all the changes the muscles are undergoing with position and motion. Those muscles that are grouped in large masses, such as the pectorals and around the stifle, are good places to start studying these effects because they're so fleshy. Once you can See muscle morphing there, you begin to see it everywhere, even in those areas more tightly lashed onto the underlying skeleton. 
While it's not such a good idea to apply the same anatomical formula to every sculpture, these photos demonstrate that it also is a dicey proposition to apply it to every position. Simply put, the more a sculpture is "moving," the less relevant a "standing" anatomical illustration becomes as a literal translation. Again, think of the diagram as a guide for deciphering nature, not an actual recipe to "sculpt by numbers." Each new piece represents a new moment, and so our Eye should be refreshed accordingly.

Throwing more ingredients into this extensive concoction, don't forget about centripetal and centrifugal forces, too, because they tweak the muscle masses in their own idiosyncratic ways. Remember that whatever the mane and tail are indicating motion-wise in that regard, those same forces are being visited upon the body, too.

A diagram can't convey how muscles change under force and motion, or the seemingly endless variations of those changes. For instance, study the triceps area in these images, and how they're morphed by their own function. Also notice how the pectorals and the muscles coming down from the neck, around the point of shoulder, and over the scapula are morphing, too.

Then stirring this all up, the joints absorb and rebound the effects of muscle action and physics in their own particular way, further changing the system. So be sure to look for bouncing or jiggling bits, and those areas that snap back into shape.

Well lookie here! We have a distortion on film! This darling little Arab dressage horse had really quick, snappy hoof action, and I wonder if there was a kind of delay for the pulley system to adjust. I'm still researching it. And look how much that ergot protrudes when the fetlock is flexed!
I started looking for it in my other reference shots I took that day, and sure enough, I found it! Not on all the horses, but on many of them and it seemed to be situation-dependent. Thank goodness not all legs are wrapped!

Through all these on-going effects, flesh undergoes a perpetual metamorphosis, in a fleeting continuum of infinite options. Every second is an entirely new and different truth for sculpture - what a wonderful thing! But all a diagram can offer is something static and unchanging.

Take a look at these images and analyze them closely. Study how the muscles change in response in motion, force, posture, load-bearing, tension, moment, etc. I included only the hindquarter of the same horse in each sequence hoping to clarify the point. The red arrows indicate the sequence. 
 These images indicate that one anatomical formula doesn't fit all, but in fact is customized according to each passing, unique situation. That is to say the same muscle configurations, definitions, and properties that apply to one position, individual or moment aren't necessarily applicable to another. Anatomy is a changeable thing, as capricious as life itself, and this is how we learn to distinguish between "living anatomy" and "chart anatomy." 

 Charts also can't show us how anatomy changes away from the formula! Because living anatomy is an vigorous thing, the living animal always exhibits aspects that defy the contrived tidiness of the illustration. But these features often happen so quickly that only a photo can freeze it for us, hence the value of good reference photos.

For all these reasons, our living subject doesn't look like a moving dissection, as though he was an articulated anatomical illustration. It's also why each animal presents us with a captivating, unique visual, meaning that every sculpture benefits from new ideas, even those regarding anatomy. This also is how life study and reference photos compensate for the inherent deficiencies in anatomical charts, and why they work together to help identify what our sculptures may need.

Taking all this together, we gain five inspiring ideas:
  1. Living anatomy is different from illustrated anatomy, so we cannot confuse the two either in our conceptualizations, or in application.
  2. Using many different anatomical references is smarter than relying on just a couple. Each is different in some way, so they're good for finding patterns, or eclectic insights rather than incontrovertible doctrine.
  3. Just like with photos, we need to make comparisons between various illustrations to identify the commonalities and the differences. This reveals the consistencies we should maintain and highlights nature's options. And it's only through the options that we begin to See beyond a chart.
  4. We can't fudge a sculpture and claim we've sculpted it truer to life, or "more right" when we actually don't know what is right. Life provides exceptions and variations, but they exist within a bubble of biological fact - and we need to know the facts within the bubble before we gain the authority to tweak them. 
  5. Realism is achieved more convincingly when we know how to combine a script with improvisation. Living anatomy is an exciting, convoluted, morphing mix of order and chaos. We learn about order in the first stages of our learning, but it's the chaos we're asked to embrace later on.  
All sculptors come to these ideas in their own way, and most importantly, in their own time. It's essential to progress within this exacting and meticulous art form step by digestible step; otherwise we're going to vapor-lock and miss a whole lotta vital lessons in the process. Even established sculptors still are learning! So don't feel the need to start incorporating these ideas right now - come to them when you're ready, and after you truly understand "tight anatomy." They were meant to seed ideas, and over the years you'll realize that they really were only the tip of the ice berg!

All this learning also entails back and forth exploration. Our experience isn't going to be a straight line, as though knowing "A" is going to lead automatically to an understanding of "B." If living anatomy is messy, learning about it is even more! Tangents are the rule for progress in this art form, so don't be afraid to wander a bit.

Most important, we need to be brave. When we're standing at the edge of our learning, we'll never get to the other side if we're desperately clutching onto charts that keep us from pitching into the howling unknown. It takes gumption to let go and take the leap. It's a leap of faith, really. Compared to an illustration's comfy assurance of order, equation, routine and constants, the proposition of capturing the chaos of life can be an unnerving, daunting prospect. There’s so much to take into account, and with each changing second! It's a lot to process.

Ultimately, all this means that how well we keep those charts in perspective both feeds our growth and reveals the depth of our understanding with each progressive step - a rather tantalizing juxtaposition. Therein lies tremendous potential for growth, waiting for us on the other side when we're ready to take that leap. So be bold, stay curious and most of all have fun!

"When an artist of talent makes a painting or a sculpture, he is always aware of the potentials and limitations of his materials; the better the artist, the more likely he is to know just what he can and cannot do with them." ~ Bruce Cole


Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Now About Those Anatomy Charts...


Now that we've cruised down our own version of the information super-highway together, let's address some curious ironies regarding anatomical illustrations. Irony is the patient partner of the realistic equine sculptor, so it does well to notice its presence.

It's no big news flash that anatomical illustrations are standard-issue studio gear, since we all know that structural faithfulness is the foundation upon which realism is based. Logic even implies that if we sculpt accurately enough according to a good enough diagram, we'll produce a realistic sculpture purely by default. 

To tell the truth, figuring out how to "connect the dots" is a terrific learning tool, and a necessary exercise for further understanding. Anatomy really is a form of living mechanics, and so sculpting every little metaphorical bolt and I-beam for a time can be thought of as brass-tacks basics. This approach even can serve us well for a time, and earn us continued success to boot.

But if we're cognizant of our habits, there will come a time when we realize there's far more to realism than matter-of-fact structure. When this happens, we gain access to a whole new depth of perception, and our work finds renewed potential. It's peculiar that a most profound lesson would be gifted to us by a paradox. 

As such, it may become increasingly difficult over the years to ignore an intriguing contradiction within equine realism: we assume anatomical diagrams are reliable for creating realistic equine sculpture, but the truth is they fail us right when we need perspicacity most. 

Let's explore the reasons why because what's more important than the information they contain is what we do with that information. So let's go... 

Irony #1: To sculpt truthful to life, we must let go of anatomical illustrations.

If we're paying attention to the path, we realize that we come to anatomical references as a process. In the beginning, anatomy is an unfathomable wad of perplexing structures, and so we work hard to gain clarity. As we refine this clarity in our intermediate stages, we may adhere to illustrations with dogmatic fervor, faithful to every perceived aspect in meticulous exactitude. As overkill as this may seem, it's a natural stage for learning the rules; we must know how to sculpt tight before we can loosen. 

It's in our advanced stage that all our preparation either finds fruition or fizzles out, thanks to our habits. We either learn to sculpt beyond our illustrated security blanket, or we get burrito-ed tightly within it, confined and constrained by the safe, comfortable formula it provides. But if we wish to express anatomy truly, we need to release our tight grip and turn it into a fancy Globetrotter ball-spinning move. Bringing us to...
Irony #2: Don't take anatomical diagrams at face value.

As seductive as they are, they aren't self-evident. This isn't to say they aren't invaluable guides, but they'll deceive us if we don’t recognize them for exactly what they are: interpretations by individuals attempting to make sense of complex biological structure. 

If we’ve participated in an equine dissection, it’s obvious immediately that nature is messy, tangled and organic. Structures blend into each other, with networks of fascia and other systems weaving everything together into one symbiotic, almost indecipherable whole. It may come as a surprise then that living anatomy doesn't manifest as the neat, discreet packets, delineations and bundles we find so scrupulously depicted in every anatomical diagram. 

As a result, those who attempt to translate this interconnected, dense mass of bone and flesh in an illustration end up imposing their own interpretation of how that should be conveyed. This is one of the reasons why anatomical references are inconsistent with each other, differing in nomenclature, or even which features are identified, described, or organized.

We also should realize that what we see in a chart isn't necessarily what we see in life, or seen exactly that way. Anatomical features also vary between individuals, with different fleshy bits having different degrees of definition, texture, shape or volume, for example, and even bony parts can vary. Fleshy anatomical features even change according to motion or tension, and so we're obliged to factor in the unique moment of our sculpture rather than just transfer an anatomical diagram onto our clay.

In the middle, we have a snippet of the classic "Ellenberger" side view. Now compare that precision to what we see in the examples here - all from stock horses. Note the commonalities, and more importantly note the differences - differences from the chart, and differences between each other. Also note how stance and balance change the muscles. What this means is that we cannot treat each sculpture with the same anatomical formula; use an illustration as a guide.

So peeled back and laid bare, an anatomical diagram really is just someone's opinion. This doesn't mean to disregard them, of course. We construct the best understanding of a problem the more different opinions and ideas we factor into our consideration, and the same applies here. So rather than take any one anatomical resource at face value, it's better to find those references that have an opinion useful for our artistic purposes, and incorporate as many of those useful opinions we can find. And so we come to... 

Irony #3: Anatomy charts have a hard time conveying the muscle planes.

Getting the planes right on a sculpture really is the second step to good realistic work (the first is proportion). In fact, there are many fantastic realistic works that are pretty much nothing but "plane work" (the work of Herbert Haseltine comes to mind). We don't need definition for realism, we need correct planing. For this reason all the anatomical definition in the world cannot compensate for incorrect body planes, yet the same cannot be said of the reverse.

Being so, body planes are as distinctive to each species as the anatomical blue print - because of the anatomical blue print. Planes also change according to posture or motion, and even vary slightly between individuals or breeds. In fact, many anatomical features manifest only as a plane, or play "peek a boo" between a plane and definition depending on the moment. Understand a feature's plane, and you're well on your way to completing a convincing sculpture.

The best way to learn about planes is field study, to run our hands over many equines to get a feel for the "characteristic angles" of our subject, or the characteristic way light and shadow play on the animal. We already do this as sculptors during the "blocking in" process because we know instinctively that planes are an essential element for realism.

However, leaning too much on illustrations distracts us away from what our hands already know, and we start deviating away from reality. This is why those who rely too much on diagrams tend to "flatten" their sculptures, either distorting the accurate planes, or "flattening" the muscles too much.

The blue lines indicate one of the general planes of the hindquarter, as a basic example. An illustration is in 2D whereas the living thing - and our sculptures - are in 3D. So we cannot just carve in the anatomical features lifted from an illustration and expect to produce a believable sculpture.

Next time: PART II

In Part II, we'll consider more of these instructive ironies, plus some important lessons learned. So stay tuned!

"There are no facts, only interpretations." ~ Friedrich Neitzsche


Monday, June 27, 2011

Top Twenty Tidbits

And you thought we were done! When it comes to me, you should know by now that if it's worth doing, it's worth over-doing. No discreet little tastes from my kitchen, baby - it's an all-out banquet! Hey, I was trained by rats, what can I say?

On this list are random treats that add a novel new look at the subject, additional avenues of exploration, or flesh out our subject a bit more. So whether beginner, intermediate or advanced, these twenty goodies offer exciting new routes of learning!


1. THE EMPIRE OF EQUUS: THE HORSE, PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE. 1974. ISBN: 0-498-01047-3. A neat old book filled with interesting biological information. Out of print. Got mine on eBay.

2. BRAIDING MANES AND TAILS; A VISUAL GUIDE TO 30 BASIC BRAIDS. 2007. ISBN: 978-1-58017-699-6. A really handy book! Big clear photos and illustrations really clarify all those complicated little mane and tail bits.

3. ANIMALS IN MOTION. 1957. ISBN: 0-486-20203-8. A blast from the past that's just as relevant today as it was yesteryear. These images really help to train you eye, so get the big book (shown here) and don’t settle for the smaller paperback.

4. POINTS OF THE HORSE. 7th Edition 1968. A book with interesting structural information, and loads of fun old photos. Out of print. Again, I got mine on eBay.

5. THE BIRDIE BOOK. 2001. This CD book is about 700 pages and packed with enough information to make your head explode. It focuses on equine psychology and "deep" horsemanship, both of which are relevant to sculpture for reasons you'll understand once you read it.

6. A PRACTICAL FIELD GUIDE FOR HORSE BEHAVIOR: THE EQUID ETHOGRAM. 2003. ISBN: 1-58150-090-4. This is a literal field guide for equine behavior, just like you'd get if you were to observe lions, elephants or whales - that kinda thing. We need to remember that horses are animals, with their own natural history and life agenda. It's well organized and full of photos, happily mostly of feisty, irresistible little ponies being their pony themselves. I also appreciate the unprejudiced perspective this book has towards horses.

7. UNDERSTANDING HORSE BEHAVIOR: AN INNOVATIVE APPROACH TO EQUINE PSYCHOLOGY AND SUCCESSFUL TRAINING. 2007. ISBN: 978-1-60239-051-5 or 1-60239-051-7. This is a wholly refreshing book! While it’s written from a horse-keeping and riding perspective, it’s relevant to art work because it addresses some important ideas regarding the differences between a happy horse and an unhappy one. It’s also one of the few resources that addresses how poor riding and training techniques can be psychologically destructive to horses, which then manifests as certain postures, expressions or behaviors - things we'd want to avoid in sculpture.

8. THE NATURE OF HORSES: EXPLORING EQUINE EVOLUTION, INTELLIGENCE AND BEHAVIOR. 1997. ISBN: 0-684-82768-9. Excellent quick-read that explores some fascinating biological facts about the equine. Even artists should see more than skin deep!

9. CLASSICAL SCHOOLING WITH THE HORSE IN MIND; GENTLE GYMNASTICS TRAINING TECHNIQUES. 2007. ISBN: 978-1-57076-374-8. I maintain that in order to be responsible sculptors, we must understand responsible horsemanship to avoid depicting harm in our work. So here you’ll find lots of wonderful insights and examples of true collection and happy, calm-minded horses. Forget about the show ring - this is correct dressage.

10. FOSSIL HORSES: SYSTEMATICS, PALEOBIOLOGY AND EVOLUTION OF THE FAMILY EQUIDAE. 1992. ISBN (paperback): 0-521-47708-5. I also maintain that to be responsible sculptors, we must first know the full natural history of our subject to understand - and respect - nature's design. For that, this book is indispensable, and though dry and very technical, it's a good read for the dedicated. I also recommend highly Dr. Deb Bennett's free PDF downloads from the ESI web site on the subject. 

11. TUG OF WAR: CLASSICAL VERSUS “MODERN” DRESSAGE; WHY CLASSICAL TRAINING WORKS AND HOW INCORRECT "MODERN" RIDING TECHNIQUE NEGATIVELY AFFECTS HORSES' HEALTH. 2009. ISBN: 978-1-57076-375-5. Another must-read. An artist is asked to understand the difference between responsible horsemanship and abusive exploitation for the sake of the subject, and this book arms us with the ability to do so.

 12. HOW TO DRAW ANIMALS. 1982. ISBN:0-399-50802-3. You never know where you’ll find some handy insights and this book is a nice surprise. It has a lot of comparative anatomy and the horse info, while simple, has some powerful visual tricks that are very handy. The species' comparisons also helps us to understand what makes a horse so, well - a horse.

13. SUSTAINABLE DRESSAGE. Again, I address the issue of horsemanship, and this web site does a really good job at discussing the difference between true self-carriage and false collection. This series, paired with the other recommended works on the subject, help to guide the sculptor away from the ubiquitous presence of false collection in the horse world, and thus in art. 

14. HORSE ANATOMY: A HANDBOOK FOR ARTISTS COMPRISING THE STUDY OF THE PROPORTION, STRUCTURE AND ACTION OF THE HORSE, AS COMPARED TO MAN, Lewis S. Brown. 1948. It would be easy to say this book is here purely for aesthetics because of all the beautiful illustrations - it easily could be! But the real reason is for all the useful concepts for sculpture and unique anatomical comparisons. Out of print. Got this one off eBay, too.

15. CONQUERORS: THE ROOTS OF NEW WORLD HORSEMANSHIP. 1998. ISBN: 0-9658533-0-6. Another resource that deals with horsemanship again...and so much more! A fascinating read.

16. THE HORSE: ITS ACTION AND ANATOMY. 1996. ISBN: 0-85131-645-X. This book could have been on any of the previous lists, but its more "arty" flavor makes it a better fit here. It's similar to "Calderon," but not so technical and instead has lots of discussion and illustrations about horse structure and motion designed specifically for the artist.

17. BRED FOR PERFECTION; SHORTHORN CATTLE, COLLIES, AND ARABIAN HORSES SINCE 1800. 2003. ISBN: 0-8018-7344-4. This is a must-read for all artists sculpting the equine, as it also should be for all breeders and judges of equines. It gently makes some critical points about breeding, purity, "points of type," market manipulation, propaganda and aesthetics.

 18. ROONEY’S GUIDE TO THE DISSECTION OF THE HORSE. 6th Edition 1994. ISBN: 0-960001152-3-4. This book definitely is a how-to guide - it even has a set of five microfiche pages of dissected areas to correlate with the text and drawings (not for the squeamish). Also included are instructions for converting a dissected hind limb into a specimen that demonstrates the stay apparatus!

 19. REIN POORTVLIET'S HORSES. 1978. ISBN: 1-55670-430-5. This is a wonderful book full of gorgeous paintings and drawings - very inspirational! It's also useful to remember that realism isn't necessarily best served with tight precision. Sometimes a looser approach in the right situation yields a better result.

20. INTERNATIONAL ENCYCLOPEDIA OF HORSE BREEDS. 1995. ISBN: 0-8061-2753-8. This book is pretty exhaustive, and happily includes some little known, or rare breeds. What I like about it is that it reminds us there are a lot more options out there if we're willing to look beyond our little neck of the woods, or the show ring.

Collecting a reference library may seem like a daunting prospect, but it's really a lot of fun. Perusing used books stores for old gems, scouring local book stores for new releases, surfing the web for rare treasures, visiting garage and church sales for dusty tomes, combing through libraries for hidden discoveries all have provided many hours of enjoyment and an indispensable pile of knowledge.

More still, going on the hunt for the one rare nibble of revelation provides an incentive to keep footin' along the path and fuels curiosity for what's around the next corner. Indeed, as our exploration deepens so do our resources, and so a reference library is an ever-evolving resource. 

Regardless, I should mention that these lists were based on my own assumptions about what I think you'd find helpful. The fact is that it's your own special journey to find what will prove most valuable to you. We each have our own unique experience. Just keep your mind open and partake of your search with enthusiasm, since your breadcrumbs are there for the discovering!

And while it may seem like a lot of work and expense, I can honestly say that every bit of information I've absorbed as a result has been singularly critical for my development, and the cumulative effect of each niblet is nothing short of amazing. And the same is waiting for you! When we invest ourselves in something we love, learning becomes a joyful reveling and we come to hunger for more. In this way, we transform into pro-active learners and find that this new mind-set propels us towards unexpected rewards otherwise unattainable.

So go out there, have fun and see what you can unearth! Who knows what dollop of revelation is waiting just for you!

"I am mindful to allow for the joy of exploration and discovery within the framework of each of my works." ~ Tom Francesconi

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