Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Method, The Madness and The Mystery—Part 1

This is how those Apoxie® Sculpt tubs look like to me.

This is Part 1 of a how–to series that explores the various techniques, philosophies, goals, and screw ups challenges that come into play when I sculpt a new piece. In it, you'll follow the creation of Himmlisches Herz, Dutch Heavy Draft stallion in approximate 1:12 scale, happily galloping in the snow. His name means "Heavenly Heart" in German, "Himmy" for short, and he's the first draft horse I've sculpted for production as an edition.

Brace Yourselves

To start it all off then, this Part 1 is a kind primer, an introduction, to the mayhem that's about to ensue. Why? Because this series is being written as I sculpt. There's no planning. No organization. No sequential logic. You're going to get the playbyplay as it unfolds. So if things seem chaotic, nonsensical, disorganized, haphazard—even a bit madthat's just standard operating procedure here. Really, "method" should be regarded only in the loosest possible interpretation because I pretty much wing it with each piece. Besides, what's creativity without adventure? 

This sums up my sculpting sensibilities. (The Mincing Mockingbird is my personal visionary.)

You'll probably notice some eccentricities in my methodology, too, such as how I measure proportion, my sculpting sequence and some of my prerogatives, but we'll get to all that later. But most of all, I aim to complete this fun fellow by March 5th (give or take a week). This impending deadline is deliberate, it being a kind of artistic exercise for me as well as a personal dare. I figure the best idea when back in the proverbial saddle is to start with a good gallop!

I'm also not convinced that the correlation between quantity of time and quality of art is infallible, even when it comes to realism. Granted, realistic equine sculpture is a highly technical, specialized art form that cannot be rushedit takes a goodly amount of time, resolute discipline, and painstaking attention to detail to ensure a quality piece. But I also remember the brilliant sculptures that were finished in relatively short order along with those works said to have taken inordinate amounts of time, but were seriously flawed regardless. I believe that our dedicated efforts should gift us with an economy of action so that our processes speed up and our problemsolving more targeted, with only the logistics of the media or the events in our lives to slow us down.

Yet even with all that, the rapid deadline is for Himmy's benefit, too. This sculpture portrays a draft horse galloping in the snow, right? Sure. But only at first glance! Dig deeper and we find he presents an enticing challenge. How? Consider the circumstance this piece encapsulates: an enormous 2,000 lbs (907 kg) animal speeding nimbly at a gallop through billowing snow. That's quite a juxtaposition of opposites!

We'll get to those issues next time, but meanwhile I have to consider this: a piece like Himmy often does best with a sense of urgency. A sculpture heavily dependent on motion is at risk of being overworked into a duller version of itself. And I do love the initial stages of bulking up an armature. Those blobs of clay and the casual abstraction born of working rapidly seem to capture the essential energy and charm that should lie at the core of the finished piece. And I've found, at least in my case, the faster I complete a piece like Himmy, the more of that primary energy is preserved.

Getting a bit ahead of myselfI love the armature stage! There's so much excitement when creating a new piece, and somehow that energy pours into the armature. My job is to keep it in there!

We're going to explore these themes and much more throughout this series, but first

The Common Question With An Impossible Answer

Years ago I wrote a howto series for the RESS ezine, The Boat, documenting how I sculpted Oliver, my Haflinger foal sculpture. Aptly entitled "The Birth of a Foal; The Method to my Madness," it helped to answer the common question, "How do you sculpt?" I'm often asked this question, as are many sculptors I'm sure, since the sculpting process can seem both bewildering and intimidating to those unfamiliar with the process. 

The upside is that I can go on and on about process, inspiration, and creative choices until the cows not only come home, but have a leisurely dinner, sleep and dream lovely bovine dreams, wake up the next day and then meander back into the pastureand I'd still be yappin'. And so a simple question is thus transformed into an epic saga spanning back to my first fumblings with crayons, my wee noggin filled with yellow and purple ponies romping around on stick legs and swishing broomlike tails. The downside, of course, that an otherwise curious, lifeloving soul is turned into a glassyeyed, lifehating zombie in no time at all.

So having blathered myself horse (ha ha!) and having created legions of traumatized zombies over the years, stillI must admit it's no easy question to answer. Oh heck, who am I foolin'? It's unanswerable! Sure, I can convey some aspects. I can even demonstrate some ideas and methods. I may even be able to relay some creative insights beyond structure or technique. But after all is said and done, the indescribable complexities of the whole experience knit with my own inner workings to congeal into a convoluted mishmash unique both to me and and the piece. This is true for every artist, and why an artist and her work are essentially the same thing.

It's also a matter of complexity. Despite how it may appear, realistic equine sculpture isn't just smooshing clay around until it looks like a horsethat's only the welcome by-product of years of study and practice. Skill makes anything look simple. So asking an artist how she sculpts is akin to asking a neurosurgeon how she performs brain surgery. Said another way, the question itself is so oversimplified that, quite literally, the only applicable answer is, "Well, I just sculpt it." That isn't to be rude, but to demonstrate the problematic nature of the question and, if anything, it reveals how perplexing the process can seem to nonartists.

Adding spice to the pot, each piece has a strange tendency to take on a life of its own. Honestly, every piece I've ever sculpted has seized control as if to use me as a conduit to self-actualize itself into being. It's the sculpture that makes my decisions and will even disagree with me and, curiously, always wins the argument. Even more curious, each sculpture seems to shape me in equal measurewe create each other. I'm not yankin' chains when I say that every time I finish a piece, I marvel, "I did this? How in the world?I can't believe I sculpted this!" But my experience isn't uniqueit's a common theme in many studios. Who can say what moves an artist to create as she does, but describing how a clear, complete idea in the hands of an experienced, confident sculptor always goes sideways simply because the sculpture "felt like it" is tricky to explain, at least without sounding like a complete goofball.

As if that wasn't enough, methods evolve in tandem with the artist. It's not just a matter of finding better techniques, either. Sometimes certain approaches simply fit with one's nature or way of working, or perhaps certain steps have a deep meaning that lend depth to the process. So it's not just the finished work that speaks of the artist's personality, but also the means by which she created it. This is why each piece is a kind of creative time capsule, a snapshot of the artist's essence.

Compounding all this, artistic creation is a solitary pursuit. Despite our collaborations or group efforts, and regardless of workshop settings, social settings, or shared studio arrangements, we retreat into our own mindspace the moment we focus. And so, sequestered in our own internal world, the creative experience is entirely our own, and our relationship with a piece is both deeply personal and very privateand there's no way to actually share or convey this experience in the full breadth of its bearing. Being so, the only way then to truly understand how I sculpt is to essentially be me. But again, this is true for any artist and, in this way, creativity is a struggle to make the intangible within all of us real, to be shared, to communicate and to connect.

In this sense then, the question really isn't how I sculpt, but why I make the creative decisions I do that culminate in a finished sculpture. It's really the whys that reveal far more because think about it—an artist has an infinite number of choices at any given moment when creating a new piece. It's not just a matter of an ear flick, head turn, leg position, or tail swish, either. It actually has far more to do the flick of the sculpting tool, the angulation of a plane, the texturing of an area, the accentuation of something here but not there, the smoothing of a feature like this but not like that, and a myriad other critical choices that go beyond mere posture, expression, or design. So asking the whys for those specific choices gives us insights into the artist's inner workings that can provide more useful ideas to take back into our studio.

How to Put The Impossible Answer Into A Useful Perspective

Put all this together, and there's really only one notion that best describes creativity: it's a mystery! Even to the artists themselves. And that's a wonderful thing. So while we may organize our thoughts or formalize our methods to teach them, or even streamline our techniques to facilitate productivity, it's that ephemeral component that always keep us guessing, wondering, and exploring.

That said, none of this precludes our sharing what we can. And let's face it, one of the fun things about creating art is sharing! It's also good for people to know a bit about an artist's process and motivations, if simply to gain a deeper appreciation for the ideas and efforts that percolate in the studio. It helps others to connect with our work and gain a better understanding of us on a personal level, too, because art is as much about our pieces as it is about our processes and our personality.

We also help other artists when we share. Heck, working in the same art form means we're all going to face similar challenges and probably have to problemsolve similar aspects. The more brains that work a problem then, the faster that problem is solved, and the better off we all are in this demanding art form. And even if we use the same methods and the same tools, our results are still going to be different thanks to that magic intermingling of self and stuff that lies at the heart of the mystery. Our work is as individual as we are, and that's brilliant. 

But before we start, here are some suggestions to keep this series in a useful perspective:

  • I'm only able to relay those components that can be broken down into shareable bits through images or words. Yet art is something learned through "feel" and there's no substitute for doing. So for the handson experience, I highly recommend Lynn Fraley's workshops. They're well–designed, artistically oriented, and lots of fun!
  • Always remember that what works for me may not work for you. Our methods aren't sacrosanct, but are just individually customdesigned habits, formalized steps that create a kind of predictability and comfort zone. So feel free to tweak any techniques I present to fit your own sensibilities and needs.
  • Similarly, the materials I use aren't for everyone, but the methods are certainly adaptable to any sculpting media. In fact, I use the same ones in slightly different ways for epoxy, ceramic, PMC, and oil clays. So please don't feel obligated to use the same sculpting medium I do. Instead, it's often better to simply use your own and adapt my techniques.
  • Put all that together and it means this: using the very same techniques and the very same materials that I use isn't going to produce the same results I achieve. Only I can produce those results because I am me—remember, that's the mystery of creating art. The best I can do is to convey some of the ideas that got me there, and the best you can do is take what you find useful and make it your own. This is how sharing techniques is so much fun!
  • The paradigms that guide my choices are founded on a blend of modern science and my own ethics that rest entirely on the wellbeing of the horse, from an evolutionary and biological point of view. I'll explain as I go, but know that Himmy will have features not present in my older pieces only because I've learned new information that produces different choices.
  • Please direct all questions to my Facebook studio page or email them to me. Keep in mind that I intend to share emailed questions on my Facebook studio page, since chances are if you have that question, so do others!
  • Don't be afraid to make mistakes. Rather than think of each mistake as a failure, instead think of each mistake as a learning opportunity, a chance to explore, question, and discover something new. Sculpting equine realism is one of the most difficult and demanding art forms ever, and you aren't going to master it any time soon, even if you have natural talent. So kick back and enjoy the journeyand be kind to yourself. And keep in mind that I've been sculpting for over twenty years. I've made a lot of mistakes, learned from themand I intend to make many more.

So in the spirit of the method, the madness and the mystery, let's kick off this sculpting series! We'll jump right in with Part 2, but until then you can download "The Method to my Madness" to start greasing the creative gears. In the meantimestay creative!

"The act of creation, making anything, is an alteration. We cannot eliminate the medium or ourselves from the process, and both are limited. We create decisive moments by devoting our time and attention to specific things. This is the greatest gift we can give anyone or anythingpieces of our life." ~John Paul Caponigro

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