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

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