Friday, July 1, 2011

Up Close and Personal

An email suggested an interesting question about those references lists: how do we know if we're a beginner, intermediate or advanced sculptor?

Things get murky here because by what measure do we determine that? Is there some sort of test to identify our level? Are there prescribed steps involved in getting from one to another? Can an expert make an independent assessment? Does our work reveal our skill level? Do our reference materials reveal the extent of our knowledge base?

These questions do have a "yes" answer attached to them because there is an objective basis to equine realism. We aren't splattering paint on a canvas or carving abstract lumps of clay. And no matter how much we like how a piece turned out, in the end we're accountable to much more.

We already know this. We use anatomy charts, we do research, we seek critique, we pursue improvement to make our work "more realistic." We also are able to determine those works more convincing than others. Deeper still, we may see if our newer work is an improvement over our older work. We instinctively know an objective foundation exists; otherwise how do we determine our goals?

But there's also a "no" attached to those questions. This task-master art form is founded on science, art, interpretation and application, and learning it is tricky business. Most of all, our internal experiences are unique because we each perceive different things and things differently, and at different rates. We each grow into understanding in our own unique way. In the truest sense then, our journey is a solitary one and why self awareness is so critical. In short, only you can answer the question for yourself.

Nonetheless, it should be said that the provided levels of beginner, intermediate, and advanced are artificial distinctions - they don't really exist. There are no levels. They were organized that way only for simplicity and guidance, but not as a determiner. So don't assume you're a beginner if you're using a "beginner" reference, or you're advanced if you're using an "advanced" reference. I use all those references for different reasons myself. Your mind knows what it knows independent of a level, as some of what we know may be remedial, some may be highly skilled, with a whole mish-mash in between. Learning also occurs in variable ways, and so we may be ready for some advanced ideas early on, or perhaps need to revisit beginner concepts, for example.

That said, at times we may find ourselves asking, "Now what?" If I had a nickle for every time I was there myself, I'd be able to buy you a great big brightly-colored cake...with ice cream! But we do best discovering the answers in our own way, so let's ponder some guiding ideas to answer the question for ourselves...

Beginners often think about logistics and tend to:
  • Find sculpting a new piece intimidating.
  • Need instruction on the "how's" of sculpting.
  • Be focused on learning the "horse-shaped object" basics.
  • Still be exploring media and technique, having not yet found the clay or method that suits them.
  • Find that proportion and planes are the biggest challenge, and for good reason - they're two of the toughest, but most basic, aspects of sculpture.
  • Get confused by anatomical references, especially when it comes to application.
  • Find information regarding horses confusing and conflicting (because it is).
  • Have shallow perceptive abilities - they're new at this after all.
  • Sweat the small stuff before considering The Big Picture when sculpting. 
  • Work on a sculpture for a very long time, trying to get it just right.
  • Be a "damp sponge," and eager to learn without conceit, prejudgment or prejudice. In that, beginners have much to teach us. 
Classic beginner question: "How do I do this?" 

Intermediates often think about technicalities and tend to:
  • Find sculpting a new piece challenging.
  • Sculpt "tighter," concerning themselves more with the correctness and precision of sculpted anatomy.
  • Rely heavily on the anatomical formula; "sculpt by numbers." 
  • Be focused on sculpting "ideal" specimens. 
  • Increase the degree and amount of detail on sculptures.
  • Weight conformation and breed type heavily, usually adhering to conventional wisdom on such things.
  • Start attending workshops and seeking critiques.
  • React to the confusing and conflicting information regarding horses with resistance.
  • To compare their work against other artists, and can be competitive.
  • Start developing distinctive habits.
  • Form strong opinions about what is correct in life and in art, perhaps becoming dogmatic about it. [Note: This is why this stage is a crossroads. We either stay on this rigid path to remain a perpetual intermediate (albeit sophisticated), or we become beginners again to jump to the advanced stage.] 
Classic intermediate question: "How can I make this better?"

Advanced sculptors often think about sensibilities and tend to:
  • Find sculpting a new piece meaningful.
  • Sculpt "looser" within the bubble of reality, on purpose; know how the rules can be tweaked. 
  • Sculpt a piece according to a narrative, deep idea, or message.
  • Be focused on sculpting what's regarded as interesting.
  • Look for idiosyncrasies rather than the "perfect specimen."
  • Be competitive with themselves; seek colleagues for comradeship.
  • Be aware of habits; more self-aware.
  • React to the confusing and conflicting information regarding horses with informed responses, typically beyond convention.
  • Understand the deep aspects of horses, and the art form.
  • Make independent evaluations and choices, having a self-earned, independent knowledge base.
  • Take on instructive or teaching roles. 
Classic advanced question: "What does this mean for my work?" 

If we find ourselves identifying with questions from more than one category - that's normal. Where we identify most could be where our overall understanding is thereabouts, or perhaps not. It all depends on what our gut tells us.

All in all, we should be patient with ourselves, and give ourselves permission to make mistakes. Lots of them. And it's interesting how we come full circle in this. Novices tend to be fearless of mistakes because they expect to make them, but intermediates tend to become fearful of mistakes because they want to avoid them. The advanced sculptor is faced then with hidden mistakes, and so must learn how to be fearless again. Something to think about as we ponder these questions.

"Progress in art does not consist in reducing limitations, but in knowing them better." ~ Georges Braque

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