Friday, April 12, 2013

The Method, The Madness and The Mystery—Part 4

Welcome back again to The Method, The Madness and The Mystery, a sculpting series that follows the creation of Himmy, a Dutch Draft Stallion in approximate 1:12 scale. It's been a bit longer than I planned to post this Part 4, so if you need to come up to speed vamoose over to Part 1 to restart.

So, onward…in this installment, we're going to delve into more sculpting concepts so you'll understand my creative choices as we go along. I promise the actual hands–on sculpting is right around the corner, but I work so fast and get so absorbed, I figure it's better to get all this on the table now before things get really crazy. Let's dive in

The Three Ps

As we'll explore in greater detail throughout the series, I rely on three primary elements I call the Three Ps ("3Ps" for short). They kick in the moment I envision a new piece and remain front and center until completionand they are, in order of importance:
  1. Proportion: The dimensions characteristic of the species we're sculpting, factoring in breed or type, gender, age, individual, and posture. 
  2. Placement: The anatomical orientation of each body feature consistent with the species we're sculpting, factoring in breed or type, gender, age, individual, and posture.
  3. Planes: The angle, slant, curve, or twist of each body feature characteristic of of the species we're sculpting, factoring in breed, gender, age, individual, and posture.
Using the 3Ps to block in the big ideas, they create a kind of sculptural map of the figure. In this way, Proportion can be thought of as the point–to–point layout, like the roads, Placement pertains to where towns or cities cluster while Planes refer to the mountains, hills, plateaus, valleys and rivers of the landscape. Indeed, a piece can register as "horse" with just these three components. Take the work of Herbert Haseltine, for instance—his horses were pretty much just studies in the 3Ps and they're lovely! [You can learn a little bit more about Planes in Part 1 of my anatomy series.]

Considering this then, my first priority with Himmy will be to lay out the 3Ps correctly. I'll pay close attention to them throughout the process, too, only because the problem with something as fundamental as the 3Ps is that when they go haywire, they tend to do so in ways so subtle and systemic, they'll contaminate just about every aspect of the piece. And that means their ensuing complications take on that elusive "I can't put my finger on it" quality, and that's no place I want to be. There's an upswing to this, however: if such a problem does arise, it's a sure sign an error lies within the 3Ps, and so immediately rechecking them usually pinpoints the problem without excess hassle. We'll get to all that as it comes in this series though, since this kind of hiccup tends to be situational.

Now About Proportion…Again

Proportion has the #1 slot and a second mention here, becausewellyesit's really that important. Big Picturing all this, recreating a realistic horse in clay is actually about recreating a series of specific proportional relationships, isn't it? Every length and bend of our armature, every stroke of our tool, every dollop of clay, every point we decide "that's enough," and even "I like that," are all actually manifestations of Proportion. It's no surprise then that Proportion exists within a builtin trip circuit, one that can bust our illusion right from the getgo if it's off. Like if we were to make our piece 5x life–size, make one hock 2x smaller than its pair, make the head a 2x bigger than natural, or any other Proportional anomaly, the believability of our sculpture will be trumped almost immediately, and even before our brain gets to anatomy, motion, expression, etc.

With that in mind, there are a few curious aspects of Proportion definitely worth mentioning now. For one, certain Proportional skews can become habitual, either as a byproduct of our aesthetic or as an outcome of inadequate technique. For another, the effects of Proportion can change as a function of scale.

We each have our own aesthetic, our own unique artistic style that happily makes our work distinctive. So if a sculpture is a manifestation of a specific set of Proportional relationships, then our aesthetic can be thought of as our own set of habitual Proportional relationships, yes? Contained within that set, of course, are our strengths and quirks, but also our deficiencies, most commonly in the form of blind spots and biases—and it's here where our Proportional skews reside. And being biases and blind spots, these skews persist right under our radar—we think we're doing it correctly—but which only reiterates the importance of our Proportional tools and techniques. This gets back to the recalibration of our Reality Filter we discussed in Part 2 and Part 3, and we'll get to how all that works as we go.

Now while some of these skews may be caused by a glitchy Reality Filter, interestingly enough some can be shared. This is likely due to certain ideas about conformation getting exaggerated in clay, as sculptors attempt to perfect their visuals. Some examples are "fine bone" turning into spindly legs, a "long neck" becoming more giraffelike, and "well muscled" resembling more a Marvel® character than equine athlete. Many sculptures also possess backs so alarmingly short, one wonders where a saddle would fit if it were a real horse! Yet despite the want for a "short" back," equine torsos are far longer in lifeby designthan what many sculptures would have us believe. The truth is, indulging the "more is better" philosophy may work for chocolate, but for realistic equine sculpturenot so much. All things are relative.

Another plausible reason is simply this: our subject is a complicated form to interpret let alone sculpt, and we may distort thingseven unconsciouslyto make them more familiar. For instance, I've seen pieces with humanized features, like eyes that face more forwards, nostrils with a more funnellike configuration, and gaskins muscled more like human thighs. Similarly, I've seen sculptures imbued with features from companion animals such as the eyebrows of a dog or the ears of a cat.

In particular, humans have an inborn penchant for neotenous characteristics. Constant and unconscious, this tendency influences what we judge to be endearing, attractive, and even beautiful. We even breed companion animals to more resemble our babies. Ask any group which is cutera Papillon or a Desert Tortoiseand the winner is an easy prediction, and all simply due to instinctive drives to favor infantile features. (For the record, I'll take the tortoise!)

But when it comes to equines, neotenous features are diametrically opposed to the wellbeing of the animal. For instance, short heads, small muzzles, deep profiles that create a "stop," inordinately large or bulging eyes, or any other feature neoteny would convince us is "more attractive" are questionable at best. The long, robust and purely functional head of the equine is a result of 65 million years of practical evolution, so attempting to force this efficiently engineered nonhuman design to align with our neotenous proclivities doesn't make much sense, does it? But being instinctive, neoteny will find its way into our work regardless, so we must be "ever vigilant," as myfiender friend, Laurie, once described her eternally watchful blenny. If it does seep in, a common example is making our sculpted eyes notably large, "soft" and "liquid," to the point of being unnaturally large. It may be appealing, since it triggers that instinct, but nevertheless we should still recognize this is our equivalent of a bigeyed child velvet painting.

Now as for how scale influences Proportion—here's where things get funky. On large pieces, like monuments, Proportional errors can go undetected more readily because our brain is forced to scan over a piece to then reintegrate that patchwork into a cohesive whole. Compound that with perspective distortions, and scale alone can mask just about any Proportional error. Imagine trying to determine the overall Proportions of The Da Vinci Horse at Meijer Gardens when standing by the sculpture's knee. We stand well back from a monument to "get a better look," don't we?  And there's good reason we pointup a maquette.

Yet the opposite kicks in with small scales—when our brain can process the entire piece at once, Proportional errors can pop out front and center. Even more, Proportion becomes an everincreasing issue as scale diminishes, for some key reasons. For one, absolute precision gains greater importance the smaller the scale, since even the tiniest of Proportional errors become massive deviations. Take Dante for instance, sculpted in 1:16 scale. Being that the average length of a Murgese head is about 20", Dante's head is 16x smaller at 1.25". So imagine the equivalent of 1" on Dante—an equivalent measurement that makes a world of difference with nearly every aspect of his structure at that scale. There's little room for error. The smaller the piece, the greater the precision.

It also means we cannot apply the same sculpting ideas to smaller scales as we would to larger ones. For example, sculpting the coronet ridge on a 1:32 scale actually equates to extreme ringbone, and becomes increasingly extreme as size diminishes. Or defining the eyelids and zygomatic arches on a small scale in the same way we would a larger piece can result in Frankenstein–like effects produced by excessive definition. When it comes to detailing, too, such as moles and veins, hinting at them becomes increasingly effective as scale decreases. This can even impact which tools we use and how we use them. I've seen small scale pieces with disproportionally enormous eyes, ears, joints, cannons, hooves, or muzzles simply because the tools used were mechanically unable to manipulate the clay in scale. Our tools must shrink with our sculptures!

Put all this together and it's evident that scale matters more than literal definition when it comes to realism. Put another way, scaling up and scaling down doesn't apply only to the mean size of the sculpture; it applies to every feature of the piece. Since realism demands no discernible difference between scales, our thinking and tools also have to adjust to the size of our piece, and our only ally in this is an effective application of Proportion. It alone brings the issue of scale to the forefront and, in so doing, asks us not only to sculpt with absolute precision but to also rethink how we're sculpting in order to maintain the sense of scale.

Subsequently, I'll be making very different decisions for Himmy in his 1:12 size than I would if he were 1:9 or even lifesize, and yet even different decisions for Zuggie in 1:64 than with Himmyand all due entirely to scale. In many ways, sculpting convincing small scales is a real test of our abilities by forcing key elements to the fore. Practically speaking, any developmental deficiencies will become increasingly obvious the smaller the scale we attempt. So if our teeny pieces appear disproportionate, clunkier, coarser, less detailedless believable overallthen we have some clear ideas on what to amend in our skillset.

And there's more good news in all this: being so fundamental, if we get the Proportional relationships correct on our piece, then Placement and Planes simply fall into place as a natural and inevitable outcome. And being tangible and objectivewe can measure Proportion, remember—necessary corrections become selfrevealing when we know how to correctly determine those measurements. See, sculpting realism isn't so impossible! We just need to understand the fundamentals and their practical applications, that's all.

The Equuscape

But to effectively apply the 3Ps, we gotta be able to recognize anatomical landmarks as well. Landmarks? On the body? OK…let's backtrack a bit. What's the defining characteristic of any map? What makes a map a map? Yes—fixed points of relative position to each other. We use these points to determine where we are to then decide where we want to go and how to get there.

Well, anatomical landmarks work much the same way. These palpable points of the skeleton and key muscle groups act much like constellations to guide us over the animal's body whether it be life study, our references, or our sculpture. And though we may be talking about a gooey living body, a 2D static photo, or a lump of wire and clay, anatomical landmarks are still just fixed points of relative position to each other. Together then, they create a kind of topographical equine map, or Equuscape

Just as a conventional map gives our feet freedom and direction, so does the equine map for our hands. The beauty here, of course, is that all these coordinates are directly transferable between the living animal, anatomical charts, reference images, and our sculpture. And being as how the Equuscape applies to the entire genus, any equine subject can thus be extrapolated using the very same map. It also means that no posture is beyond our capabilities either, since we can orient, measure, and predict our progress from any point to any other point with that same map, too.

Here are some skeletal landmarks you can use to orient yourself on your map.

Here are some fleshy alignments related to those skeletal landmarks.

And that's nothing to sneeze at. The equine is a creature defined by motion and rich in variation, providing an abundance of inspiration to keep any artist busy for a lifetime. But remember that those of us who chose to work in realism are obliged to specific boundaries, all those precise biological rules set down by Equus. So despite all the creative ideas this animal generates in our head, we still can't just make it up.

How does this impact our work in practical terms? It means we have to mentally project where our clay has to go before we get there, or put another way, we always have to know exactly where we are in order to decide where we need to goand at any point in our process. This ability to project forwards, to predict the boundaries and influence of the rules well before we get to that point, is perhaps the most difficult skill specific to realism we're asked to master. Luckily for us, it's right here where the equine map can be extra helpful. 

Stepping back a bit, all those boundaries seem constraining at first, don't they? It's easy to interpret them as a series of "no," as unwelcome limitations to our creativity. Yet when framed within the concept of the Equuscape, of projection across the equine map, don't they instead become an indispensable boon? For if there are boundaries, we can anticipate them, can't we? Much like how our autopilot learns our neighborhoods and home turf, letting us navigate our familiar roads almost as second nature, so we can apply that mechanism to sculpting this animal. Learn the map well enough, in fact, and going "point to point" comes as naturally as driving to the grocery store. Learn to use the map well enough then, and our ability to predict forthcoming coordinates, no matter their configuration, comes just as easily. The end result is a faster process and more varied work, created in more confidence and clarity. See, limits aren't so bad!

In tandem, our ability to recognize how movement changes the 3Ps is a natural outcome. As discussed in Part 3, horses don't move like paper doll anatomy charts, or like jointed action figures. Our subject is a living, organic, fleshy creature, and his body is as changeable as the moment. If we cannot capture this quality in our work then, all we're really doing is just sculpting anatomy charts articulated into different positions, aren't we? This is representational art, work that is of something rather than about something. Realistic art is often criticized from this perspective, and for good reason. So if we want to achieve more in our own work, it may be time to rethink our approach and hopefully this series will provide some ideas.


But it doesn't end there! Being a sculptor, working in 3D, requires we account for all sides and all angles, and this ushers in some new stepsone of the trickiest being Symmetry. This refers to the bilateral halves of the animal, specifically those paired features that should be matched in dimension, orientation, and composition. That makes Symmetry not only an element of Viability (which we'll discuss next time), but also a perfect example of that idea introduced in Part 2 of how "my brain cannot take anything for granted so that yours can." 

So let's consider the equine skeleton from that perspective: all those paired skeletal featureswith all their tuberosities, condyles, shapes, ridges, planes, curves, pointy bits, dimensions, orientations, angleseach and every one of their characteristicsaren't all cattywompus, are they? No. They have structureorder, alignments, infrastructure. They have paired relationships; they mirror each other. They have Symmetry. If I haven't attended to Symmetry then, I've made a technical error all the same. 

However, Symmetry is one of those components of realistic sculpture that tends to get overlooked the most, for two primary and connected reasons. First, we can simply become blind to it, typically induced by the "wow factor." As sculptors, we can get so immersed in our work that we just lose sight of the rules and boundaries. We've all been there, done that. It's an easy slip. On the flip side too, we may be so blown away by the appeal of a piece, we just don't recognize its mismatched deviations. We've all been there and done that, too. Sometimes flawed molding techniques can skew an otherwise Symmetrical sculpture as well, such as when flexible molds are strapped too tightly.

It all boils down to this: our brain can only process one view at a time. We don't have a second pair of eyes (ideally those on stalks) that would allow us to wrap around the piece for a simultaneous second view. Instead, our brain interprets each new view as an isolated event, as a discreet package of data, a "snapshot" of sorts. To perceive a sculpture en toto then, it must link these separate views into a continuum, connect these "frames" backtoback into a "movie." And as we discussed, the larger the piece, the more of these frames it must connect.

But the wow factor seems to steer our brain's moviemaking magnificence right into the skids, causing it to either connect the frames improperly or to create errors in each frame to force consistency. Do we see every continuity flaw in a movie we're thoroughly enjoying? No. Well, it's the same here, too. It's in the skips "between" the frames where asymmetries persist, andagainit's our toolsour calipers, compasses and protractors—that provide the means to address them. As we become more skilled, the better able our brain gets at making those movies, allowing us to detect discrepancies more intuitively. With experience, we simply become better at detecting continuity errors, and with even more, our little moviemaking machine can even prevent us from making many of them in the first place.

All this distills down even further into the real reason why Symmetry is such a universal trouble spot: the uninitiated eye simply takes it for granted. It's one of those aspects of mental processing that just gets disregarded. Let's face it, we didn't pay attention to Symmetry when admiring a real horse before we got into sculpting equine realism, did we? Why? Because we never had to. Symmetry was already present in the living animal by default. DNA took care of it for us! So we didn't even think about it, enjoying the personality, mannerisms, movement, type, color, the way the mane or tail swished, or any number of more obvious features instead. Honestly, when you watched The Black Stallionone of the many mesmerizing things that struck you about the lovely Shetan wasn't Symmetry, was it? 

Not so with realistic sculpture! I don't get to sit back and focus on cherrypicked aspects of the subject. NoI have to recreate the entirety of the animal completely from scratch; I have to focus on everything. Nothing can be taken for granted only because DNA isn't involved in the creation of my sculpture. In practical terms then, my struggle with Symmetry exists on two fronts: not only is it a non–given with its own challenges, but the mere act of sculpting introduces totally new asymmetries unique to the creative process. Referring back to the previous discussion, we each have a unique set of habitual asymmetries that reside in our blindspots, or are integrated into our process or aesthetic. That makes them even harder to detect being so nestled within a conflict of interest loop, but we'll get to methods on how to spot and fix them as we go. Suffice to say that no matter how experienced we may be, these pesky little quirks linger. It's just that human element.

Soback to Symmetry…for instance, I have to make sure the sculpted eyes are matched, level and angled symmetrically, the fore cannons are of equal dimensions, the humeri are the same length and set, the pelvic girdle is intact, the teardrop bones match in length, angle and dimension, the ears are the same size and set, the Atlas "wings" mirror each other, the ichii are the same length and angles, the pasterns match in length, width and structure, muscle structure is consistent on either side of the neck…along with a multitude of other physical relationships inherent in any equine subject, and regardless of motion or posture. Indeed, if I listed the actual number of Symmetrical relationships I have to account for with every single piece, you'd be reading for quite some time.

And don't forget any errors the sculpting or molding process may introduce! Artistically generated asymmetries can range from blatantly obvious to painfully subtle, but they won't reveal themselves in movement, as one would pinpoint lameness in a living horse. Being embedded in a static sculpture, I have to assess them in situ, and that too is a learned skill (which we'll get to later on). A couple of obvious artistic asymmetries, for example, are flounderlike eyes or mismatched cannons, but subtler errors are an asymmetrical loin, mismatched sacral tuberosities, disparate radial features, or divergent elbows. When it comes to realistic equine sculpture then, no feature has less importance than anotherevery aspect of the piece is of equal merit.

All this is why Symmetry is so hard to achieve in clay and harder still to perceive in sculpture—not only are we asking our brain to switch to analysis mode when gorging on a visual feast, but we're asking our brain to put equal emphasis onto something it habitually interpreted as irrelevant in life. And that's trickier than it sounds. Going back to The Black Stallion, next time you watch the movie, give cranial Symmetry equal attention to more artistically obvious aspects such as Shetan's head type, expression, ear movement, eye motion, nostril dilation, whisker bump organization, eyelid wrinkling, venous structures, chin pooching, jaw action, or forelock wisping while enjoying the film. Not easy, is it? 

That's not because we're incompetent, however, it's because this kind of artistic acuity isn't naturalit's not how our brain evolved to process an image, as we discussed in Part 2. Asking our brain to afford the same consideration to the Symmetry of the ilia, for example, or the zygomatic arches, the femoral joints, the pisiforms, the mandible joints, the lateral cartilages, the nasal bone, the rib cageand everything elseas it would dedicate to conformation, type, coat texture, movement, gesture, the twist of the neck, curve of a muscle, lifting of a foreleg, or any more obvious element is making it work in new ways.

And so like most things in realistic equine sculpture, dealing with Symmetry is a learned skill. It's not one that comes automatically in life study, analyzing references, or working clay. As such, it's yet another skill unique to realism, and one of those invisible attributes of a convincing realistic sculpture because if it's well executed, you'll never notice it.

I got these puppies from MVS.

In all fairness, though, horses do have slight asymmetries to their faces and bodies just like us, some being inborn and others the result of injury, poor horsemanship, deficient nutrition, or problematic development. All this is fine for our clay, of course, given that these asymmetries are necessary (as with portraiture) or intended (as with a narrative). To invoke fairness again—Symmetry is tough to achieve, isn't it? We all have our "good side" and "bad side" of working, and some of us may also have a hard time flipping over a visual in our head. (Photo editing software is sure handy in the studio!) Some sculptors have also been known to distort Symmetry to manipulate the composition for artistic reasons. For example, some have arbitrarily lengthened a body part so that a piece will stand properly on a flat surface, or lengthen a flexed long bone so that leg doesn't appear shorter than its standing pair. 

Lucky for us, unintended asymmetries are avoided with technique (which we'll explore as we go) and with casting methods that don't cause distortion. We can also use the 3Ps and the Equuscape to guide us towards Symmetry, since they organize all those reference points into more predictable order. Stepping back and thinking about it then, Symmetry is a natural outcome of their application, isn't it? Indeed, if any aspect of our sculpture's topography is off, how could Symmetry even be possible? Therefore, rechecking our map as we work is an invaluable habit to adopt—just don't forget to check it from all angles. Our work is 3D and so requires a 3D inspection!
I say that the art of sculpture is eight times as great as any other art based on drawing, because a statue has eight views and they must all be equally good. Benvenuto Cellini
For more discussion on topography, download my article, "Mapping Out Success; Equine Topography for Sculpture" I wrote in 2007 for The Boat here.

Trouble Shooting

I'm going to make mistakes. A lot of them. It's inevitable. Himmy may also change his mind and demand tweaks throughout the process. It happens. So here's the deal: I don't believe the main characteristic of a skilled realistic sculptor is necessarily an ability to avoid mistakes. Rather, I believe it's the ability to problem solve one's way through the impending challenges presented by any sculpture.
A painting is a series of corrected mistakes. Robert Bisset
Mistakes aren't the enemy. In fact, I welcome them. They reveal a lot more than what I get ballpark right, and so provide stepping stones for further advancement. They also reveal a lot about me as an artist, and may illuminate areas I need to address personally.
Where you stumble, there lies your treasure. Joseph Campbell
What's the enemy then? Ourselves. If we interpret a mistake as a failure, as an indication that we're incapable, we betray ourselves. If a failure compels us to quit out of frustration, that's a learning opportunity lost. And if we believe we're so adept and knowledgeable that we're no longer capable of making mistakes, a new set of emperor's clothes are in the making for us.
Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep. Scott Adams
So you're going to watch me stumble and deduce my way through Himmy like a crazy person. We'll discuss various strategies and logic for all that as we go because, suffice to say, I have legions to share!
The higher up you go, the more mistakes you are allowed. Right at the top, if you make enough of them, it's considered to be your style. Fred Astaire
And I freely admit that I feel paralyzed by intimidation at times. Despite my 20+ years sculpting this critter, some pieces are so overwhelming in scope and novelty, it's hard not to be. I'm human. I often expect so much of myself, that I become my own most demanding critic. I've chosen perhaps one of the most difficult subjects on the planet to sculpt, since I not only have to juggle the technical specs, but all the variations, hidden nuances, and value judgments that go along with this animal, too.

Who says Excalibur is embedded in a rock? My impossible challenge is embedded in clay! Each new piece isn't just a new sculpture—it's a new journey, a new endeavor that will require my full investment of focus, emotion, dedication, discipline, and hard work. It will ask 100% of my commitment. I'll be exhausted afterwards and hopefully by the end, I'll be satisfied with how all that investment panned out. I cannot stop this journey until I am.

So chew on all that while I prepare… 

NEXT TIME: Part 5: Three Critical Realizations

"When you slow down enough to sculpt, you discover all kinds of things you never noticed before." ~ Karen Jobe

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