Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Method, The Madness and The Mystery—Part 3

With me, creativity and chaos go hand in hand.

We're now at Part 3 of The Method, The Madness, and The Mystery, a blog series that follows the sculpting of "Himmy," a Dutch Draft stallion. If you've missed the previous parts, you can start at Part 1.

Materials and Tools

In this part, I'm going to introduce the media and tools I'll be using to bring this guy to life. At first I wasn't going to include this information, but then I realized that the "stuff" an artist uses is as personal as her subject matter. So it's interesting to take a moment to contemplate why we use the stuff we dothey speak of us and our method, don't they? I mean, the nature of whatever we choose to use is a reflection of our nature, too.

For example, I'm a ridiculously impatient artist. Waiting is something I definitely don't do well at all. I get bored, restless, and anxious very quickly, which is a real challenge for me, creatively speaking. Just ask my family—getting me to focus on anything that simply doesn't interest me is like trying to herd crazed, greased piglets hopped up on Red Bull and Cinnabons. Predictably then, I can lose interest in a piece almost instantly if there isn't something constantly tugging at my interest. It also means that if I'm having to wait too long for something to cure, dry or congeal, that piece can be in real trouble of never being finished. Now you'll understand the media I use and why I work the way I do when we get to those sections. What does your media and tools say about you?

But all this also provides a good bit of advice: while I may be sharing my stuff here, keep in mind that doesn't mean you should jettison what you use. If your stuff works for you, go ahead and keep using it and simply incorporate some of my ideas as you see fit. As I mentioned in Part 1, there's no way you can achieve what I do, even with the same stuff because you aren't me—and visa versa. That's the awesome thing about art!

One caveat I've got to mention, though. The primary sculpting medium I useGapoxio®definitely isn't for everyone. In fact, most artists seem to really dislike the stuff. Even more, it has some health issues so it's not to be trifled with or used casually. Personally, I love the stuff because it cures quickly (remember that impatience bit) and its "feel" dovetails perfectly with two things I already love (it's like a cross between pastry dough and ceramic clay). Nonetheless, its short working time is something many artists find antagonizing, among other things, so if your personality does better with a more open media, find one or stick to what your using.

And there are other epoxy clays. Apoxie Sculpt®, Apoxie Clay®, or Magic Sculp®, or Amazing Sculpt® each have their own properties, and most tend to be far more open than Gapoxio 
(I haven't used Amazing Sculpt personally, but I hear it has a nice workability). There are plenty of other modeling two–part clays out there, too, often used by the miniature or modeling industries, but I'll leave all that for a different post. And, of course, there are the ceramic and oil clays. Wax counts here, as do oil clay/wax combos, polymer clay and PMC. Finding what works for you is simply a matter of using it. No amount of description is going to communicate "which wand wants you," so ya just gotta get your hands dirty.

Regardless, one quirk you may notice about my armature "system" (if you can even call it that) is that it's unattached to a base. This is due to using epoxy, which cures quickly and so allows me to manhandle the piece as I sculpt. Non–curing oil clays are going to need support scaffolding, and for some ideas on that, check out the handy tutorial on Lynn's website. So just keep in mind that my armature system is specifically designed for what I use and may not be directly transferable to other media, especially non–hardening media. Despite all this, however, almost all of the sculpting ideas I describe in this series can be applied to any type clay, or any type of sculpture for that matter, even ice sculptures, fabric sculptures, animation, prototyping, and 3D rendering. So…onward!

The Stuff

Clothes hangers: Yep, I like their stiffer mettle. But traditionally, you'd use aluminum wire which you can get at just about any home improvement store, and usually for far less than at a sculpture supply. I'm a collector of wire, actually, because you just never know when some gauge or characteristic will come in handy.

Thin wire: To wrap around the primary armature wire to provide tooth for the epoxy. I simply use beading wire, usually of 22 or 18 gauge.

Aluminum foil: To help bulk up the piece since epoxy is heavy.

Masking tape: To fix down the aluminum foil to provide a more stabilized surface to start sculpting. I borrowed this idea from Kerri Pujatee.

Aluminum Mesh Wire: Great for creating support "nets" for manes and tails.


Apoxie Sculpt®: To bulk up the armature just below the "sculpting theater," the layer where I do the real sculpting in

Gapoxio®:  This is what I use to actually sculpt. For my purposes, it holds detail and accepts nuances like no other media, its only equal being porcelain.

Isopropl Rubbing Alcohol: A solvent for the epoxies. You can use water, too.

Messo: A 30/70 mixture of Liquitex® Gesso and Liquitex® Modeling Paste, which I mix together and thin a bit with water to paint on veins, moles, chestnuts, ergots and other teensy tidbits with a plucked liner brush. We'll get to that in more detail in the final stages.


I started out sculpting with pencils, of various sharpness, and my fingers. But after going through all sorts of tools, I still came back to those designs that were essentially glorified pencils and fingers. Curious how simple is best. Anyway, I've provided images where needed because perhaps you may find something of similar shape already on hand.

Main Sculpting Tools

These are the types of shapes I tend to use most often for the epoxy clay. I have plenty more for various things, though. The third one from the top, currently encrusted with epoxy and oil clay, is the one I use most. 'Tis my trusty pal! I bought it from Sculpture House and find it immensely helpful despite its simplicity. Perhaps because of its simplicity. For clarity, it kinda started like this, though that isn't the same tool. The one I have has been handcrafted from steel, and I don't see it in their current inventory. But you get the picture. I also cut the handle ends off the paint brushes I've destroyed from coldpainting or epoxy smoothing before I throw them out. Those rounded and pointed ends are super handy, too!

Ball Styluses 
I wrote about these in a recent newsletter post. I find them very helpful! 

Lockable Compasses:
 These work great for me since I portion out a sculpture based on the head length, and so all I have to do is measure and lock, and then I'm all set. You can get plastic ones pretty cheap from office supply stores or store sections, too, so you can get a bunch, label them with painter's tape, and lock them to the head lengths of various sculptures currently underway.

Prospek® calipers: I use these all the time for taking incremental measurements and a multitude of quick comparisons. You can get them here. I actually have four pair all over the place because I use them that often! What makes these better than other calipers I've used is that they work like chopsticks, allowing me to gauge proportion quickly with just one hand.

I use these to measure angles, like for the the hip, shoulder, and eye (we'll get to that later). And don't forget the footsies! Using this gizmo to measure the angles of the hoof walls compared to the coronets helps along symmetry and preferred structure. Even in a moving piece, with hooves off the ground, I can still make sure I hit the angles I want. More on that later, too.

Brushes: Yes—brushes! I use brushes with rubbing alcohol to smooth, soften the tool sculpting, and add nuance to the curing Gapoxio. But I also use them for oil clay, ceramic clay, wax, and PMC. Be sure they're artificial fibers and soft, though I use stencil brushes for specific textures (we can visit that later on). Just keep in mind they're going to be destroyed eventually so if you find them for sale, scoop 'em up! I tend to use filberts, angles, and rounds of various sizes (scale the size of the brush to the scale of the piece), but use what works for you.

Shop rags: I use shop rags for all sorts of predictable things in the studio, but mostly to dab my alcoholsoaked brush before applying it to the epoxy. I prefer old T–shirts and old socks due to their lack of "shed," but if I'm pressed, I'll use paper towels or those blue shop towels, too.

Sandpaper: I typically smooth out my sculptures with the brushes and alcohol to such a extent that I don't really need to sand after curing. As such, I tend to use fine textures, though coarse is handy for flattening hooves (we'll get to that later) and for some textures. I also like manicure emery boards for hooves, and they're available at beauty supply stores, or store beauty sections. Regardless, I tend to only use wet/dry sandpaper to cut down on dust.

Files: An assortment of fine miniature files can be useful at times, and they're available in many craft and hobby stores, and even some hardware stores. 

Rio Rondo Carbide Scrapers: Like the files, these are handy for strategic shaping or material removal for resculpting.

My Hands: Our fingers are really our best tools after all!

My Brain: Remember what we talked about last time in Part 2.

Dremel®: Since epoxy clays harden as they cure, I can't simply remove bits I don't like as with non-hardening clays. I need for a power tool to do that job for me.

Dremel FlexShaft Attachment: Cuts down on the vibration and is much lighter and easier to use rather than holding the actual Dremel in your hand, and that can be a big deal for delicate work, or if you have carpal tunnel problems.

Tool Bits: For my Dremel, I like using shaping grinder bits like these (I got them from Harbor Freight) and some of the Dremel grinding stones (especially the conical ones), sanding drums, and shaper drill bits. But I don't use these bits to shape and carve, but to strategically remove cured epoxy to resculpt over that area in an improved way.

Epoxy Dust Recommendations

I use protective glasses and a high-grade respirator. You'll also need some sort of system that sucks up the epoxy dust and debris that's generated because you do not want epoxy dust laying round and tracking into your home. I like to use a high-powered ShopVac with a blue micro filter to catch every teensy bit, but an industrial filtered intake would be even better. I also wear a smock that stays in the Dremel area (to keep my clothes clean), I wipe down everything with a damp cloth afterwards, I wash my piece thoroughly, and then wipe my soles before coming back into the studio (which is in the house). Epoxy dust of all kinds needs to be disposed of very carefully, like ceramic dust.  Every sculpting media has its own perks and hazards, so use common sense and heed all tool and media instructions and warnings.

References: Yes, our references are tools, too! This includes life study, education, workshops, critiques, photos, diagrams, illustrations, our mental library, or anything we refer to as we work. We'll get to those in just a sec. Just in case you've missed it, though, you may want to scoot on over to my blog post on how to take your own reference photos for some additional insights.


RustOLeum Painter's Touch Primer®: I like to create a consistent finish and to lock in the messo additions after sculpting is completed. I prefer the grey color since it's neutral and tends to photograph best when against a white background, also making it easier to "cut out" of photos in Photoshop for promotional purposes.

The Plan

Every realistic sculpture needs a Plan, a blueprint for construction; otherwise known as the set of proportions used to plot out the piece. As both a material and a tool then, here's The Plan I'll be using for Himmy.

Created in Photoshop® and stored on my iPad (which comes with me into the studio), this outline represents the target body type Himmy wants to be, and those proportional relationships will show me how to get there.

The Plan is essentially a map, a point–to–point direction of how to get where I want my clay to be. Because think about it—when I'm sculpting atop a "skinny" armature, how am I going to get my clay out to, say, the point of the shoulder, the tip of the stifle, or to create the breadth of the cannon bone, brow, or barrel? Before Himmy is bulked up, those points are just air, so I have to project my Eye to that outermost point and take my epoxy clay to that point. But I can't do that effectively if I don't have some means to objectively measure where that point is in relation to my current coordinates—and "objectively" is key here. As we discussed in Part 2, our Reality Filter works to skew reality, which is why compasses, calipers, and protractors are necessary to provide fixed, objective measurements.

The Plan isn't just a onetime reference, either. I'll refer to it continually to recheck my measurements until Himmy is complete because it's uncanny how things can go way offtrack if not reined in constantly by fixed points. That darned Reality Filter just wants to see what it wants to see rather than what actually isbut it can't argue with a compass! BOOYAH.

I also find that three "core" measurements of particular importance exist, those being the shoulder, hip, and the girth (the patterned measurements, above). For my method, these serve as The Pillars that form the foundation around which the rest of the body is built. So if any of those three are off, the structures "emanating" from them—the forelegs and neck from the shoulder, the torso from the girth, and the hindquarter and hindlegs  from the hip—will also be off. And that's a lot of work to fix later…bleah. I should also note here that one of my quirks is to always make the back way too short in these initial stages. I've tried all sorts of workarounds and…well, they don't work for me. At this point, I've accepted this annoying little hiccup and simply leave the barrel as one of the last features to finish so I can chop the torso in half while it's still pretty much in armature form. Trust me thenwe'll get to this later as well.

But have you noticed what aspect of The Plan isn't shown? Yes—the front and the back views (also the top view, but we'll get to that further along). The equine scapula isn't attached to the torso by bone, but only by a sling of muscles and other flesh. This gives the foreleg very fluid motion while also protecting a large herbivore dependent on running escape and bucking removal of attackers from breaking a collar bone every time he plants a foreleg. It also means that chest width changes depending on muscle quality and development. This is why Quarterhorses have such wide chests—their muscle quality simply orients their scapulae further away from the body. It's also why Big Lick Walkers have such wide chests
all that weight from the pads and stacks build up so much muscle on the forehand, like a weightlifter, he begins to resemble a bulldog. On the other hand, it's why horses rescued from starvation are so narrow and scrawny—all that muscle loss orients their scapulae closer to their rib cages.

But even so, it also means chest width will change depending on motion, and in Himmy's case, his galloping forelegs and "rolling" drafter movement will be an influence. I've tried different kinds of chest measurements for this, but still haven't found anything as good as simply eye–balling it and making a value judgment, using a hefty pile of references as guides, of course. Sometimes Nature just can't be pinned down and we just have to go with a trained sense of proportion and structure as our best guess.

Another thing to notice about The Plan, above: it's of a standing horse, but Himmy is galloping. This is where a functional understanding of anatomy comes in. Because I know how those joints move and how the skeleton and musculature change as they do, I know how proportion also changes. Equines don't move like articulated anatomy charts, like jointed paper dolls, or like action figures. Muscles don't function like cables or bungee cords, either, and flesh isn't static. Instead, joints have unique articulations and cumulative effects, making them far more organic than at first glance, while muscles contract and change shape, making them amoebic and gooey.

On top of all this, equine design is programmed with certain aspects of natural coordination and structural cooperation that, being unique in the animal kingdom, help to define equine motion. If I don't account for them as well then, no amount of realism elsewhere is going to compensate for that error. Quite literally, Himmy won't be depicting a realistic horse because he won't be moving like a real horse. Anatomy and biomechanics are truly synonymous. That means I can't bend my armature according to my whims—I obliged to follow specific anatomical rules dictated by Equus, by definition.

For more tidbits on some of those necessary equine coordinations, you can download my article, "Anatomy Analysis: Legs, Basic Mechanics of the Equine Limbs," I wrote for the RESS Technique Booklet 2 in 2003.

Altogether, this knowledge will help to keep Himmy from appearing stiff and contrived and also allow me to make educated judgments for projecting where proportional points would be if Himmy were standing. In other words, I'll be able to "unravel" his galloping position into a standing one, or "curl" it into a galloping one from a standing position. There's a big difference between knowing anatomy and understanding anatomy.

Now About Those References

Perhaps just as important is this idea: the proportions contained in The Plan are an amalgamation of measurements I've chosen for Himmy (or rather those he's chosen for himself). The two key words in that sentence are "amalgamation" and "chosen." The former implies a meshing of many and the latter suggests a series of value judgments. 

Unless we're sculpting a portrait, we have complete freedom with our clay. But all too often I've watched as many sculptors draw from only a few reference photos, diagrams or sketches in the belief that's all they need. It's not. In fact, that tactic is going to sabotage their efforts right from the getgo. Why? Nature is all about diversity and change. Nothing in Nature is static, but a chaotic burst of variety, choices and options—a grand, glorious experiment in DNA, physics, and chemistry. It's truly mind–boggling if you really try and wrap your head around it.

And the point is—you can't.

There's no way we could ever conceive of most of Nature's manifestations. Our imagination is simply far too limited. Don't we tend to design most of our sci–fi sentient aliens based on a humanoid design, for example? And though we may create fantasy animals of wilder characteristics, all the same, we're still bound by what's familiar to us. Crack open just about any sci–fi how–to and we find it still applies basic anatomy of Earth's creatures to creating new alien species. Even scientists apply a narrow spectrum of circumstances by which to predict life on other worlds without really considering that this framework has no real basis in objectivity. Let's face it, we really don't know all the parameters for life only because we're living on a sphere of limited options, and that prejudices our perspective. So know it or not, your imagination is automatically biased by presumptions, judgments, filtering, preferences, and preconceptions about what reality isand about what it could be. That darned Reality Filter, again. It even applies to our imagination!

That's key. Why? Because that's precisely where the problem lies when we use too few references. When we do so, what we're really doing is making an assumption that's all we'll need to realistically recreate the target visual. That's to say our brain is tricking us into believing we already "know enough" by formulating preconceptions about how our sculpture should look.

But it's wrong.

Equines move fast and moments are fleeting. Things change, and change quickly. But our brains aren't designed to recognize all those minute changes and details contained within those seconds. Just watch any HD slo–mo video for proof. Instead, our brains are designed to simplify the visual into The Big Ideas and to filter out all those "fiddly bits" it deems unnecessary, or isn't fast enough to prioritize and process. Our brain isn't a conveyor of reality, but an interpreter of realitythat Reality Filter again. In this way, our brain is much like Lucy in the chocolate factory when it comes to deciphering things secondbysecond. No wonder then why it gets us into so much trouble when it comes to realismit's precisely all that secondbysecond stuff we need!

Put it all together and it means we're just not going to know the true reality of the moment or the full kaleidoscope of possibilities no matter how keen our observational skills and with just a few images to guide us. It also means we need to find a way to put back in what our brain has filtered out. So we do this by studying and comparing dozens, even hundreds, of images depicting the same body part in the same position among many different individuals to amass a mental library of options and to create a new trip circuit that reminds us to look for those options. All of this keeps us guessing and searching, keeping our mind open about the nature of things, and also gets back to Living Moment as we discussed in Part 2. 

"Compare," in particular, is an important concept here. Comparing similar circumstances allows us to pinpoint both the anatomical necessities in that circumstance along with the differencesthose fleeting, situational changes that propel our work beyond a sterile anatomical diagram. Over time, all this comparison trains our brains to learn the anatomical patterns more meaningfully while, at the same time, guides it to distinguish the individual characteristics of the Living Moment, recalibrating our Reality Filter to take in more information. When we return to our clay then, we don't only have a better grasp of the rules, but just as importantly, we better know how and when to tweak them. 

Your Mental Library—A Indispensable Resource

Now getting to that concept of a "mental library"—don't take it for granted! Each time we look away from our references to use our tool, or imagine how we want our piece or section to look, we're drawing on our mental library, that collection of assumptions, preconceptions, and concepts we employ to shape our clay. So though our hands actually smoosh the clay, it's our mental library that guides them how to do it. Just like how all the best libraries have lots and lots of books then, so our mental library needs lots and lots of guides. We stock our "shelves" through hours of field study, research, practice, artistic exercises, and all those comparisons.

This never ends, mind you. Just as more books are being written every year to fill library shelves, so our mental library should stay current and ever–growing. Nature is far too diverse and changeable for us to ever believe "we know enough," or that any of our assumptions remain adequate. Our work will begin to homogenize the moment we fall into that trap as we unconsciously lapse into rigid habits and formulas when sculpting a creature far more organic than our preconceived notions.

What The Heck Does All This Mean Already?

So getting back to those proportions in The Plan for Himmy, "amalgamation" and "chosen" indicate that I've carefully studied gobs of Dutch Draft stallions and have chosen specific proportional relationships for Himmy, or rather he chose them for himself (wink). I'm not simply taking a photo then of a Dutch Draft Stallion I like to use as inspiration or as direct reference. Instead, I've created a composite individual carefully constructed from many examples, like Frankenstein's Monsteronly without the bolts in the neck, and all that bellowing and lumbering around. This makes Himmy a singular individual, a unique representation that cannot be singled out as a copy, making Himmy my own work, my own artmy Voice. Being so, he ceases to be a rote duplication, but an expressive narrative of a believable soul, and that's just as important to me as the technical specs of this artform.

Indeed, no other artform can squish our Voice more than realism because having to follow those rules asks us to dampen our aesthetics. Luckily we can still let our Voice out, and we'll discuss those tactics later, but meanwhile you can download my article, "Artistic Authenticity; Using Your Voice," I wrote for The Boat in 2009 here

Phew, that's a lot to chew on! Gnaw on all this and then we'll get to…

NEXT TIME: Part 4: The Three Ps

"My basic view of things is—not to have any basic view of things. From having been exceedingly dogmatic, my views on life have gradually dissolved. They don't exist any longer…"  ~Ingmar Bergman

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