Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Vanguishing My Balrog

If you saw me last week, I was a dead-ringer for Beaker.

With the office tour over, it's time for the real gist of my office-cleaning escapade: smiting the monster lurking in my office closet. This creature had been growing over the years, becoming a snarling behemoth of excess. Something had to be done, and Gandalf was nowhere to be found. I think he bolted.

 My office closet before the scouring. The thing to note (besides the decrepitude) is the empty space below the lowest shelf. Previously what stood there were piles of references, stacked from floor to shelf. Solid. The only thing they lacked was mortar to make a wall.

I have an obsession: collecting reference photos for sculpture. For as long as I've been seriously sculpting, I've snatched up any magazine, calendar, photo or newspaper clipping that contained an interesting anatomical insight or design idea. I used to immediately pop them into organized binders, but then, well...I got out of the habit and ended up storing them in that closet space. And so they accumulated, like a paper stalagmite. For six years.

So to call "done" with my office, I first had to deal with that block of paper. I was on a mission. For five solid days I was planted in front of the TV watching "Murder, She Wrote"* on Netflix, ripping out the images I wanted. I didn't have time for email and barely for eating. See, the faster I got this done, the faster I could get back to work in the studio using them.
*(I love that show because it reminds me of Mom, and watching the show with her every week when I was in high school.)

This was our living room scene for five days. Lovely, huh? When I say "ever-suffering" hubby, trust me - I mean it. You can see Angela Lansbury on the tube, just in the corner there.

My Mom and hubby lament every year, in an ever-increasing tone, "Don't you have enough photos now?" And the answer to that is "no." Alas, it always will be "no." The reason being these little snippets serve three imperative functions:
  1. They freeze moments in time, and that frozen moment provides a wealth of direction throughout the sculpting process beyond what an anatomical chart could provide.
  2. They illuminate unexpected physical effects that happen too fast for our eye to catch.
  3. They reveal the similarities and differences between the same anatomical features on different individuals, when those aspects are in the same position.
The two latter points are of particular interest to me. Sculpting the equine means repetition - and lots of it. But my nature instinctively rebels against what's familiar (hey, I had a mohawk in high school), and life simply offers too much diversity to settle for the same ol' sculpting formula over and over again. I'm not interested in predictability, or comfort zones. I want to discover what I don't know. I want possibilities! I want to wallow in life's chaos! That's where the fun happens - the fleeting quirks posture, flesh, physics and gesture that make each living moment a complete universe. A new sculpture isn't just an opportunity to express a unique soul, but an opportunity to express a unique manifestation of life. 

This is why heaps of reference photos are so precious to me: they provide the freedom to make anatomical  and situational comparisons to find new ways to sculpt this animal. They provide choices.
Here are some of my current binders, in which a horde of reference pix have already been organized. Mind you, I still have to get all these recently ripped out pages organized into binders, too, but I'll leave that for another day. (That's a cool vintage custom by Kathleen Moody living in there right now.)

Here's my bookcase of anatomy references, and it's these resources that are listed in my Reference Listing. You might wonder why I have so many. Here's the thing: anatomical descriptions and drawings are just a person's attempt at making sense of organic, messy nature. Being so, each person has a unique spin on the same subject, and so each offers a novel insight that can be invaluable at the right time. Don't just rely on a few anatomy books!

The most common mistake I encounter in my field are those who don't use enough reference photos for a sculpture. Too often only one to five are thought sufficient to complete a piece, or worse, that only one inspiring image is necessary. Then they wonder why they get lost during the process, or create inadvertent errors of realism. And even if we've memorized technical anatomy, we risk an overly-clinical, sterile result if we sculpt with just this level of awareness. Remember, reference photos provide choices and glimpses into the mercurial nature of flesh and physics.

Consequently, I'll usually spend about two days sifting through my images to compile the portentous stack required to complete a single sculpture. But never take a reference photo at face value. Its primary purpose is for comparison against the living animal, the sculpture and other reference photos. 

The trick of our trade is that we must account for every aspect and angle of our subject, like a 3D imaging machine. Yet we also need fluoroscope eyes to see inside this animal simultaneously, in each changing moment. As such, perceiving the subject as a sculptor is entirely different from perceiving him as a painter, lay person, photographer, veterinarian, trainer, horse judge, or breeder. Indeed, our discipline requires such a unique skill set, that equine professionals, painters or photographers cannot sculpt convincing realistic horses automatically, as counter-intuitive as that may seem.

To achieve a 3D imaging brain and fluoroscope eyes, there's a "training trinity" of sorts: field study, anatomical knowledge and reference photos, in that order. A deficiency in any of those three elements will spell trouble in the studio.

Here's a happy green guy illustrating the trinity for realistic equine sculpture.

This is why I advise novice sculptors to apply themselves earnestly in field study. Don't just look at a horse - observe the animal with an analytical eye and take nothing for granted. Remember, you must recreate this animal from scratch with a blob of clay! We must develop Sight because when we can't See a horse, that's where our frustrations fester.

There are lots of exercises for developing your Sight, but here's one: in life study, pick a specific body part on the animal and study it in complete focus, from multiple angles and phases of motion, to program it into your brain. Repeat. Again and again, with different horses and different situations. Don't forget - you are literally programming your brain. 

To cement this learning, run your hands over that body part to program that area into your hands. In fact, grooming is one of the most valuable artistic exercises you can do, so use that time for creative calisthenics. For example, close your eyes while you run your hands over the animal's body to allow your hands to learn the animal's body without the prejudice of the eyes (be sure to employ common sense and safety measures though). 

Here's another: Learn to see the skeleton beneath the flesh, even in motion, but pay equal attention to how flesh responds to movement and physics, note how gesture and emotion affect the body, and remain sensitive to the changing moments that flit by in infinite variation. Field study truly is a never ending pursuit and I still regard each horsey experience as an opportunity to update my mental library, to upload a new sculpting OS. 

Stacked on top of that bin is a pile of calendars. They often make the best reference photos because they usually depict horses in interesting poses, and the images are big and clear. When the New Year rolls around, I'm not jazzed for the holidays, but for the new calendars coming out! Who knows what gems they'll hold! But wait until they go on sale well after the New year, since they'll be much cheaper. You also can get them cheaply off Amazon mid-year.

I also tell novice sculptors that they must sacrifice if they want to learn and continue to grow. Great work doesn't come cheap, and it certainly doesn't come easy - it takes time, discipline, dedication and money. Lots of it. So if they aren't willing to do what it takes - in the full scope of what that means - they're likely to spin their wheels.

Most of all, however, I urge them to be patient with themselves. Learning to sculpt realistically is a process, and one that never stops. Honestly, learning accelerates the longer you're sculpting, if you're doing it right. But each of us learn in our own good time, so don't use the sculptures of others to compare your development - use your own work.

But back to reference photos. Practically speaking, the are the bridge between life study and anatomical knowledge. By freezing the living moment, they let us apply analytical tech specs to the organic, kaleidoscopic subject. That gift lets us refine our understanding of living anatomy as compared to technical anatomy - because the two aren't the same thing. Never forget that anatomy charts were created from dead horses, and so they're incapable of telling us the true story of the living subject. Though we may need a technical base, we cannot be weighed down by it - our work needs the buoyancy of life.

All said, we cannot depend on any one branch of the trinity to carry us forwards because they all work together. I suspect this is how many sculptors, both novice and veteran, get stuck - the novice is unaware of the trinity's importance whereas veterans become contained by their ingrained habits. Working to constantly develop our trinity fuels our curiosity and, most importantly, keeps us questioning our own sensibilities. 

Here's my office closet after the exorcism. In those bins are the product of the week's labors, and you already saw the other one in the studio shot. To dress it up, I'm currently looking for a bead curtain to hang, since we took off the closet doors long ago. I love bead curtains!

Now what hubby and Mom don't know are the boxes and boxes of reference photos in my storage barn that have been awaiting binder treatment for years. But in order to get to them I first have to clean out my storage barn, which, incidentally, has become a formidable Monument to Disorder a thousand times worse than my office ever was! Oy! My world has become a monster-breeding safari park.

Then my problem becomes one of space: where to put all these treasures once they're binderized? My shelves are filled to capacity already and I don't have any more house to comandeer! Heeeey...I bet I could push out my studio by another ten feet to make more room...hmmm. Yeah, that might work....

"Look at the earth crowded with growth, new and old bursting from their strong roots hidden in the silent, live ground, each seed according to its own kind...each one knowing what to do, each one demanding its own rights on the earth...So, artist, you too from the deeps of your soul...let your roots creep forth, gaining strength." ~ Emily Carr

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