Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Method, The Madness and The Mystery—Part 2

I suspect this is how "my team" feels when I start a new piece. My tools were too busy weeping to pose for this pic. My hands won't even talk to me.

Welcome again to The Method, The Madness and The Mystery, a sculpting series following the creation of a frolicking Dutch Draft Horse stallion, "Himmy." If this is your first time here, you may want to pop on over to Part 1 to get up to speed.

In this Part 2, we're going to discuss some initial philosophies when I sculpt a new piece. Now I'm sure you're thinking, "Can we just get onto the sculpting, please?," but I assure you that introducing these ideas now will help you understand some points and choices later. So

The First Steps

When I start a new piece, I like to define some goals I'll use to decide when the piece is finished and successful. These goals are different with each sculpture and are part of the inspiration for their creation because, along with the fun and fulfillment, I consider each new sculpture a new learning opportunity, a new means to push my skills. I actually prefer to create "on the edge," of finding that boundary where I'm uncertain, nervous, and unfamiliar…and jump. Though I may be risk adverse in life, when it comes to art, I have no sense of self–preservation. So if I'm not thinking to myself as I sculpt, "What the heck am I doing?! This is going to be a disaster! I'm never going to be able to pull this off! What was I thinking?!," then I'm not pushing enough.

For better or worse, I also don't trust comfort zones and find that, at least for me, complacency tends to breed a false confidence that dampens "my team's" ability to really rise to the occasion. Instead then, I like "everyone" to be on wide–eyed Red Alert, and that only happens when I've thrown myself into a metaphorical howling abyss—screaming. Who needs sky diving when there's art? Just as in life then, horses are also teachers in the studio, and so Himmy will teach me to:

  • Nail the proportions and build of a really heavy draft horse.
  • Imbue a lively personality without appearing wild or unruly.
  • Recreate a winter adult coat fluttering in the gallop.
  • Achieve a sense of weightlessness despite his hulk.
  • Produce a sense of nimble speed despite the base.
  • Recreate a sense of billowing, splattering kicked snow.
All that means I'll keep working on Himmy until I've achieved these goals to my liking. But some of them won't be easy. In fact, I consider Himmy to be the most difficult concept I've tackled so far because of them. That may seem surprising, since Himmy appears to be relatively straightforward, but those goals actually entail elements more systemic than musculature, type, or texture. What's nagging my sense of confidence then? Life.

Here's the thing…realistic art aims to duplicate life as accurately as possible to fool the eyebut art is entirely different from life. Said another way, inanimate clay and a living animal are two totally different things. Really think about that. Let it soak in for a moment. Though that statement may sound absurdly obvious, it's surprising just how many artists don't fully anticipate the implications for realistic sculpture. What—how? Because it implies that sculpting what we see isn't how one sculpts realistically. Now I've been working on a sculpting series that deals with that specific issue in much greater detail, but in the interim we'll approach it from this angle…

Unconsciousness vs. Consciousness

In life, our brain 
automatically processes three functions of an equation commonly regarded as "reality." Being automatic, they're instantly recognized and processed by our unconscious mind both in field study and our studio and as such, tend not to be readily identified by our conscious mind.  

First are the natural physical forces, The Universals, such as kinetic energy, force (including centrifugal and centripetal force), gravity, mass, inertia, cause and effect, drag, friction, resistance, impulsion, thrust, contraction, rebound, center of gravity or mass, leverage, tension, equilibrium, acceleration, fluid dynamics, and a host of other effects. Using Himmy as an example, we instantly know that if he were alive, he'd be a massive hulk (being a draft horse), he'd be moving fast (since he's galloping), he'd be benign (since he's happy and excited) and that what he's running through is puffy and crunchy (we know the texture and qualities of snow). Our brain does this on autopilot as a function of the fight or flight response because it wants to make sure that Himmy won't trample us before it decides to admire him. We usually don't even notice this initial deduction has been made—it being so automatic—that is, if Himmy isn't running at us! Then we get out of the way before we look again.

Second is biological reality, what we think of as "anatomy." In its simplistic form, this allows us to identify a horse as a "horse" and different from a cow, hippo, or platypus. By the time we're old enough to sculpt realistically, we usually recognize a horse from a donkey, from a mule, between the breeds and perhaps even the genders. In targeted training for equine realism, we can then recognize sculptures with more accurate equine structure from others; we can recognize progressive degrees of equine feasibility in sculpture. We are then better able to factually and objectively answer the question, "If that sculpture of a horse was alive, would it be a viable horse?" These are The Givens, those aspects of structure that define the basis of equine realism—anatomy and biomechanics*. No piece of realistic equine sculpture can be "realistic" if it doesn't come as close as possible to technical accuracy, by definition, since looking like a horse and factually depicting a horse are indeed two very different things. For more discussion on equine realism in sculpture, you can download my article, "Walking the Tightrope; The Unreality of Realism," I wrote for The Boat here.

(*For the purposes of this series, biomechanics will now be considered interchangeable with anatomy, since the former is simply an inevitable expression of the latter.)

Third, once our brain has been educated—which is safe to say with horse enthusiasts—it automatically pinpoints The Variables, those factors that create further distinguishing aspects such as breed standards, conformation, grooming, tack, and preferred movement. With more training, the better we become at ascertaining these nuances. Having said that, however, no amount of prowess in The Variables can compensate for errors in The Givens when it comes to equine realism, which is precisely why they're Variables.

Our brain processes all of these three factors unconsciously so that our conscious mind can take them for granted and thus be freed to focus on those aspects that appeal to us—and there are lots of 'em with such a captivating critter! These features are The Irrationals, those aspects of our equation that are spontaneous and may be specific to cause and effect, such as individual features, expression, gesture, personality, presence, posture, motion, hair movement, etc. Indeed, The Irrationals are usually those very particulars that often inspire a new piece in terms of concept, design and composition. And like 
The Variables, no amount of prowess with The Irrationals can compensate for errors in The Givens. 

The fifth factor to all this is us! Our goals, our skills, our discipline, our workmanship, our knowledge base, and all those elements our brain draws upon to drive us in this art form—but we'll leave that for another blog series. Now there is a sixth factor, which is

Is Reality Really What We See? 

The sixth factor, the one staring me in the face, are precisely all those components not registered by my conscious mind, The Invisibles. I don't have the luxury of automatic processing with clay. It's just an inert lump. Instead then, I have to recreate self-contained, complete universe from scratch, so I have to readily recognize everything. Simply put, my brain cannot take anything for granted so that yours can. I refer to this hidden ingredient as "Living Moment" and it factors back in all those elements processed under our radar and so tend to go unseen.

See, here's the other thing about realism: despite all the elements we have to consider as we work, we still cannot factor out our own brains. And this is exactly the reason why simply sculpting what we see isn't how one sculpts realistically. Can you guess why by now? Yes! It's because your brain actually functions as a Reality Filter. What's more, your own unique circumstances of nature and nurture culminate into an individualized, custommade Reality Filter all your own. And the same applies to each of us. This is why different sculptures have different degrees of accuracy, and it's also why each of us pick up on different things when looking at the same horse or sculpture. It's why different artistic styles exist, too. So because each of our Filters has a unique set of priorities, goals, blind spots, habits, aesthetics, proclivities, and preconceptions, we each have our own unique view of reality. Ultimately then, all of our different Reality Filters are what account for every differing factor in realistic equine sculpture.

That's where my problem lies, and on two fronts: not only do I have to tackle my own Reality Filter, I have to tackle yours as well. This means I must constantly revisit the question, "What really constitutes reality?" In doing so, I'm obliged to address those very things unprocessed by my consciousness only because I can't rely on my Reality Filter to show me what reality actually is. This is why I prefer a Red Alert situation. Hey, no one on my team can get comfy when everything we're engaging is suspectincluding my own mind!

And it's here where Living Moment comes to our rescue. It's truly enlightening when you take a new look at something and strip away all your preconceived notions about how it should look. Only when you do thatonly when you can do thatdo you start to see reality as it really is rather than how you want it to be. Indeed, what reality is and what we think it is are two very different things, thanks to our Filter.

So because Living Moment involves effects usually imperceptible to our conscious selves, we need to learn how to recognize, interpret and translate them to infuse them into our clay. Yet our brain cannot do this on its own—it has to be shown how and then guided to maintain that state of awareness throughout the sculpting process. But this is neither easy nor intuitive because we're asking our brain to bring what's registered on the "automated" unconscious level up into our "manual" conscious level for objective analysis. Plus, our unique Reality Filters means those particulars are usually different for each of us. So in a way, Living Moment is to an artist's brain what Self–Carriage is to a horse. And like each horse is an individualone who will need different training methods to address his unique personality quirksso each of our brains will need its own customized training to help it perceive and translate Living Moment.

We'll explore some ideas on that to get you started, but once our brain gets the knack of it, it really keys in on the constellation of fleeting events unfolding every second as we begin to recognize how the different substances, structures, textures, components, features, emotions, and reactions in life are thus affected. Through this, innumerable little touches that input actuality into our sculpture are revealed, exponentially increasing our creative choices and taking our work beyond representation and into narrative, beyond formula and into serendipity. Only then do we start to See the full spectrum of reality and realize that we cannot separate a believable subject from a believable universe, that we cannot sculpt realism in a contextual vacuum. Realism isn't about sculpting a factual horse then, it's about sculpting a factual reality that happens to feature a horse.

So What Exactly Does All This Mean?

Boiled down, Living Moment addresses just thatsculpting a factual reality, a complete universe. Because of this, it incorporates the physical forces and biological consequences our brain would otherwise take for grantedand thus tend to omit from clay—that impart a sense of immediacy, a sense of "realness," a degree of "changeability" beyond The Universals, The Givens, The Variables and The Irrationals. Altogether, the concept recognizes that no one moment is alike as each unfolding one is entirely new. This suggests that we cannot sculpt any two sculptures alike, right down to our anatomical interpretations. Heck, it suggests we cannot even sculpt each side of our subject the same! In all, we're quietly reminded that not only is each animal a unique individual, but each moment is unique, too. For some ideas on what that means for sculpture, refer to my twopart anatomy interpretation series here and here.

Practically speaking then, one way to think of Living Moment is that our sculpture is like a movie stilla single frame within a continuumwith these storyline components:
  • The Universals create a believable setting.
  • The Givens create a believable visual.
  • The Variables create believable value judgements.
  • The Irrationals create a believable individual.
  • Living Moment knits all this together into a believable plot.
  • Our mind is the interface.
In other words, Living Moment refers to the physics and biology applicable to our equine figure within the context of the scene portrayed. That means I won't be sculpting a draft horse galloping in the snow. That's only thinking of part of the equation. Instead, I'll be sculpting a universe in which a draft horse happens to be galloping in the snow. That's the full equation. Perhaps you can see now that there's a big difference between depicted movement and depicted Moment.

The Essential Dilemma

When we grasp this idea, we then start to see the implications for our sculptures. For instance, Living Moment indicates that aptitude in The Givens isn't enough. Sure, clinical expertise can take us pretty far in realistic equine sculpture, and it definitely takes quite a bit of effort to achieve in any measure. The equine is arguably one of the most difficult subjects to sculpt realistically, having stymied countless artists throughout the ages. Even Degas admitted great difficulty with the subject! So there's good reason why technical precision is such a struggle in the beginning of our careers, and why we work so hard to continually refine it.

Yet no amount of clinical accuracy can help us express the quintessence of a living creature or the transitory essence of life, as mountains of technical illustrations, anatomy charts, and representational pieces prove. So if we want our efforts to go beyond this, we're asked to go beyond positioning a 3D anatomy chart in different poses with different breed outlines. Flipping this over then, another implication is that the more we strive to sculpt with absolute clinical precision, the less realistically we tend to sculpt. Accurate anatomy may be at the basis of realistic equine sculpture, but if that's all we focus on, we're going to miss the most important component itselflife.

We'll explore all of this throughout this series, too, but it all comes down to this: just as horses "fill in" for us (as Tom Dorrance so wisely taught us), our brain fills in for art as well, and for realism in particular. Here's the deal summed up by this blunt quote: 
Realism has to be such high quality, you can't fake it. It's all hanging out there like the laundry. ~ Nelson Shanks
This art form is a kind of magic trick in that I'm trying to convince you that the illusion I've created is real enough to suspend disbelief for just a moment. Realism cannot be faked, fudged, or phony, which is why the more gripping works appear "more realistic" because they are more realistic. By definition, realism isn't something we can just make up—it's dependent on rules, The Givens. The more rules we perceive and employ then, the more convincing our work becomes.

But therein lies a trap, the belief that the more adept we become in duplicating the rules, the more correct and convincing our sculptures automatically become. And this is true
but only to a point, remember. Because we all know that Nature is as much about rules as it is about breaking them, and that idea applies to our sculptures as well. That is to say we must come to know the rules so well, and so far beyond a chart or illustration, that we also discover how and when to break them, too. And it's Living Moment that guides us.

We are sculpting living animals in mercurial moments, not anatomy charts or registry diagrams. So our work must be equal parts precision and organic if our brain is going to be truly tricked because this is what our brain already registers in life. Really, does your brain see a skinned horse galloping around a paddock in life, like an animated anatomy chart? No. It sees a living, organic horse. Put another way, your brain already factors in that organic nature unconsciouslyit simply takes it for granted because it takes the fact the horse is living for granted. Indeed, your brain automatically strips away features of the Living Moment to simplify the visual.

But when we look at a realistic equine sculpture, our brain unconsciously looks for that organic naturethat mental function is spinning in a loop looking for that stimuli in the sculpture that it finds in life. And in a piece that follows The Givens too literally, that circuit is tripped almost as effectively as if The Givens had errors. When our brain cannot find that organic, Living Moment element in a sculpture then, it will attempt to "fill in" for that missing ingredientand the moment it's forced to do so, the piece registers as "not real," and POOF—the spell is broken.

—yesthe quickest way to break this spell are errors in The Givens, but the more subtle way is an inadequate infusion of Living Moment. And in certain pieces especially, Living Moment can play a far more critical role in that spell's power than just about anything else…and Himmy is exactly that kind of piece. 

The Challenges

So in case you haven't guessed by now, five key Living Moment elements that will take center stage with Himmy are:

  • Weight vs. weightlessness (Himmy vs. his gait)
  • Impulsion vs. rooted (his gait vs. the base)
  • Resistance vs. velocity (his coat vs. the wind generated by his gallop)
  • Mass vs. fluffy (Himmy vs. the snow)
  • Flesh vs. velocity, impulsion, resistance and suspension (Himmy's fleshy bits vs. the act of galloping in snow)
And that's just the tip of the Himmyberg! If I'm successful then, Himmy will appear as if he's moving very fast and nimbly, as though he's floating during that suspension phase of the gallop, but also come across as the massive, powerful hulk of a horse he is. If I'm really successful, you'll also "feel" the crisp air ruffle his winter coat, you'll "hear" the snow crunch and pop as his dinner plate hooves smoosh and fling it, you'll "sense" the rumble of his hooves as all that bulk thunders by, you'll "see" the fluffy snow splatter, billow and spray under the kick of his heels, you'll "listen" for his snorting breath and blows, and you'll "connect" to his happy, joyful attitude. He'll have context; his moment will be complete. Altogether then, if I account for Living Moment well enough, your moment be transported to his moment and—for just a second—you'll share something with each other that mimics the same feeling you would have if he were real and you were there with him. 

That's the magic trick. And I sure hope I can pull this bunny out of the hat!

NEXT TIME: Part 3: Materials and Tools

"What is magic? In the deepest sense, magic is an experience. It's the experience of finding oneself alive within a world that is itself alive. It is the experience of contact and communication between oneself and something that is profoundly different from oneself; a swallow, a frog, a spider weaving its web…"  ~ David Abram

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