You can take it from me! Anatomy keeps it real!
Welcome back to this four–part series dissecting the differences between anatomy and conformation in regards to realistic equine sculpture. In Part I-III, we were introduced to definitions and distinctions between them, as well as the mistaken idea of conformatomy, a mash up of anatomy and conformation that blends these two every different concepts into one idea. Now in this final Part IV, we'll explore how all these ideas pertain our work, so here we go!
APPLICATION TO SCULPTURE
When we take up tool to clay to realistically capture this animal in sculpture, it's not just a matter of learning the various techniques. That's the easy part! It's the whys that often prove most challenging, and fewer whys are trickier than those found in realistic equine sculpture. As we start, too, we probably come to our sculpture loaded with ideas cultivated in the real horse world, and ordinarily this would be fine if not for its imposition of preprogrammed expectations that can complicate our efforts.
The thing is, we can't have what we're habituated to overlook in life transferred into our clay. Instead, we have to pay close attention to everything since we have to recreate it all in clay from scratch. This situation makes the issue of anatomy and conformation a rather complicated one. Each is rich in detail and exception, and each has the power to impact our sculpture for better or worse.
As we know from a previous series, it's a mistake to think that creating realistic equine sculpture is simply a matter of duplicating what we see. And curiously enough, this concept touches on the dichotomy between anatomy and conformation, too. To truly understand how, let’s explore three realizations unique to equine realism.
The first realization is that a recognizable horse and an actual horse are two different things when it comes to this art form. As touched on in Part II, we learned what looks like a realistic horse and what is a realistic horse aren't the same thing. Now most situations accept a recognizable horse, such as we see in parade floats, animation or even toys. Realism, on the other hand, specifically asks we go one step further to recreate an actual horse, a sculpture with biological authenticity. To do this, we have to infuse more anatomical precision into our clay, which is why increased technicality equates to heightened realism whereas decreased technicality reduces realism. This is neither coincidental nor circumstantial.
This means that technical errors aren't causal mistakes—they're errors of realism. Therefore the more technical errors present, the more unrealistic the sculpture becomes. For example, if we sculpt a horse with dog–like hocks, cat–like ears, or just make stuff up, we haven't actually sculpted an equine, have we? Equines look and move like equines because they're built like equines, making anatomy much more than an incidental feature. That means anatomy isn’t just another feature of equine realism—its the feature of equine realism. It makes the difference between a figurative sculpture (based on conformation) and a realistic sculpture (based on anatomy) a substantial one.
But we may wonder this, "If many people can still identify a figurative horse sculpture as a horse, what's the big deal here? Can't we just enjoy the piece at face value? And aren't many examples of figurative horse sculptures lovely and just as inspiring in their own right?"
Well—yes. That’s all true! Art is about enjoyment and connection, first and foremost. And creativity is a beautiful thing, indeed. But we have to remember the art form we chose. Do we think of rainbow zebras or ponies grinning with human teeth as realistic? Well, neither are improperly bent joints, inaccurate musculature, or any number of other technical mistakes. Being beholden to technicality first means that the possibility of untrained eyes not recognizing anatomical errors is only incidental. In realism, a factual error is still a factual error.
This tells us there exists an objective basis to realistic equine sculpture, and that this basis can be taught, learned, and improved upon. In fact, that's how we improve, right? So when we believe that someone is more skilled at determining realism, what we're really saying is that they identify the distinction between a recognizable horse and an actual horse better. Simply put, they grasp the technical basis of the art form better, and with a bit of gumption we can, too.
The second realization meets with the most resistance, and understandably so—it seems a bit ridiculous at first. What is it? It’s the assertion that no other professional will have to know what we know, or in the way we have to know it given the idiosyncratic nature of our task. Or put another way, our operating paradigm is unique and uniquely expansive compared to both the art and horse worlds.
Because equine realism asks for actual horses built from scratch, our work benefits from an interdisciplinary education integrating the knowledge bases of veterinarians, researchers, dentists, scientists, paleontologists, vet techs, behaviorists, trainers, breeders, grooms, judges, riders, showers, breeders, geneticists, farriers, bodyworkers, ring stewards, inspectors, and other equine professions. This is because we have to encapsulate all that is “equine” in a single sculpture. Know it or not, we pull from all these fields with every single new piece, and the more we know, the more we can infuse into our clay.
But working in art also means we have to pull from concepts regarding composition and design, as well as ideas from sculpture, illustration, casting, mold–making, drafting, design, 3D imaging, photography, animation, filmmaking, graphic design, technical writing, collage, flatwork and most anything else related to the artistic process. And the better we are in this regard, the better our sculpture will be constructed.
Each of these fields represent only one piece of the total equine art puzzle, so the more pieces we gather and connect, the closer to an actual horse we can create. Just as much, too, we gain a more complete and defensible knowledge base, lending authority to our creative decisions. We also gain a level of objectivity, too, and that helps us to navigate the horse world better, to avoid visuals contrary to our values. If we’re researching and educating ourselves properly then, we’re going to fuse science, horsemanship, and art together, blending them into the colorful cocktail with the addition of our unique viewpoint.
But this isn't to say we're qualified like those professionals. Of course not. They're trained experts! But we will draw from their fields, holistically knitting them with our creativity to create a unique, specialized perspective. Indeed, let's flip it around…doesn't each respective professional struggle to evaluate an actual equine sculpture with the same precision and subtlety we require? Can any of them recreate an actual horse in sculpture without the additional training in our specific skills? Seeking critique from a trusted colleague within this art form is an unspoken rule for good reason.
It's not because they're incompetent, however. Absolutely not! These separate fields simply have never been required to consider the animal from our viewpoint before. Everything we factor in as routine vigilance—let alone the high proficiency skills—just isn't on their radar because it doesn't have to be.
What veterinarian has to consider if the barrel is planed properly for an equine? What photographer has to decide if the ears are situated on the skull accurately for an equine? And what judge has to decide if an entry's stifle is articulating like that of an equine? They don't have to worry about such things being factually wrong like we do only because they inspect real, living horses—they’re already dealing with factually correct specimens.
For example, a veterinarian may be thoroughly versed in equine anatomy, but applying that knowledge in the same way we do is a very different task. A trainer may be an expert in conformation and movement, but applying those concepts in the same way we do requires a new kind of perspective. A color geneticist may thoroughly understand color characteristics, but applying that knowledge to recreate even the simplest tobiano pattern in pigment is a whole new kettle o' carrots.
And now we come to the third realization, that being we can’t just know, we also have to do. We're sculptors—we have to translate all that we know into our clay! If knowing is important then, the matter of translation is even more so, and as such, introduces an avalanche of singular complications found nowhere else but in art.
What vet tech will get confused drawing blood from a living animal because someone sculpted the jugular area incorrectly? What kineticst will work with a horse whose atlanto–axial joint is tucked? (The critter would be dead!) What judge has to determine if the muscle groups are all there and configured properly for the composition? What breeder could simply lengthen the hips of foals to improve conformation? And what the heck would a trainer be riding if her steed's spine articulated like a greyhound, had the shoulders of a bear, and the jawline of a crocodile? And so it goes for the entirety of the animal, every feature, every detail, every little touch is a function of artistic interpretation.
Think about it—consider recreating every feature of this animal from scratch, and with such accuracy that any sculpted portion could be confused for its living counterpart in a photograph. But all we have in front of us is a twist of wire, a lump of clay, some tools, a few images, a knowledge base, and a vision. Just like all the other facets of our craft, no equine professional will have to account for anatomy in the same way we do only because living equines already have accurate anatomy by default. Therefore there’s no need to develop the ability to distinguish actual equines from recognizable equines when working with the real deal.
That means there's no need for other professionals to decide if the hock's external tuberosities are constructed according to Equus caballus in the same way we do, if the pectoralis major is shaped appropriately for the depicted motion in the same way we do, if the foot joints are bending consistent to physics in the same way we do, if the neck wrinkles are properly reflected as folded flesh in the same way we do, if the bony areas appear bony and if the fleshy areas appear fleshy in the same way we do…and on and on. The living animal presents all possible physical manifestations in perfect accuracy already, yet not a single one of these things is present in our clay until we infuse them.
That also means art can present errors that don’t happen in life whatsoever since all our stylistic touches, creative choices, and use of our tools add their mark. For instance, only in the studio could we have “pilling” in manes, grooves from tools, fingerprints, various blobs and pinholes, or any number of other relics from the creative process. Proportional oversights can lead to mismatched limbs, or insufficient smoothing methods that leave grooves, divots, or debris in the clay. And only in the studio can we just fudge things. Castings can also be skewed due to molds being clamped to tightly. Workmanship is as much a part of realism as anything else only because it can distract from the illusion if not of the highest quality. What other equine professional will have to contend with such things in the living animal? And what breeder, photographer, or judge will ever have to regard a living horse who's anatomy was simply made up?
Even still, only in art can we create situational missteps as well. The living animal exists in a real universe with physical laws which are just as critical for realism as anatomy. This “actuality” of life, or “reality HD” seats our sculptures in its own real world, too, so we can’t take physics for granted either. But it takes work to notice all the little details physics inputs into a scene, since they often happen too fast to catch. For instance, if we were hurrying our horses into the barn to escape a downpour, would we stop to judge whether their manes and tails were properly flowing in accordance to wind patterns and directional momentum? Would we notice how the rain drops pelted their winter coats, shifting the hair shafts to create textural patterns? Would we study the shape, angle, and breaking quality of the muddy splashes their rushing hooves made on the soggy ground? Would we notice how our horse squints and blinks his eyes in response to the raindrops hitting his brow?
Realism isn't just about the body or behavior then, but also about the world in which that body exists and the consequence that behavior reacts to; it’s the brass tacks of existence. Sculpting inside a "reality vacuum" is a flaw just as much as sculpting a leg bending in the wrong direction. Cause and effect are equally important as any muscle group! Because what living horse is going to be gleefully trotting into a ring with a motionless mane and tail? Be cantering excitedly, but have feathers that are totally inert? Perform a brilliant slide in the absence of gravity? There are dozens of various physical effects we need to infuse into our clay to add life and immediacy to our narrative.
Put all of this together and it’s clear our skill set isn’t only quite different from any other found in the equine world, but also unusually holistic and interdisciplinary, since we have to wear all the proverbial hats while we sculpt.
Not convinced? OK, let's do an conceptual exercise. Let's imagine an equine hock. Left or right, it doesn't matter. Just the basic hock with all the bones, tendons, ligaments, cartilages, muscles, sheaths, bands, cords, fascia, flesh, hide, and all the other bits that comprise its mass, defining both its interior structure and topographical surface. Envision in detail all those tuberosities, lumps, bumps, divits, shapes, grooves, creases, wrinkles, stretches, pulls, pinches, gooshes, curves, angles, striations, veins, capillaries, ledges, ridges, and all the other features real life presents. Now bend that hock in your mind—go ahead and flex it as much as you want. Now straighten it. Bend it again. Put weight on it. Apply physics and moment to it. Meticulously note its distinct biomechanics working in conjunction with the smooshing and morphing of each of its components during each fleeting, positional change.
OK…now freeze it. Now sculpt it, exactly as in life.
Do you understand the distinction? When conceptualizing that hock, we focus on those qualities that create an equine hock first because we have to answer for that in clay. Only after that step do we also factor in conformation. Yet with that same hock, other professionals would skip anatomical construction altogether and jump directly to conformation to focus on injuries, diseases, mutations, quality structure, size, breed type, soundness issues, quality of motion, etc. That’s to say they’d be focused on determining whether that hock was built well, not if it was built accurately. Yet we have to do both!
And at no point would they have to consider the artistic skill that went into sculpting that hock, too. Evaluating existing reality is one thing, but evaluating reality interpreted through creativity is quite another. And we should remember that all realism is an act of interpretation, and there are many artistic ways to effectively convey realism, even when stylistically distinctive. The work of Anna Hyatt Huntington and Herbert Haseltine come to mind.
Think of it this way…other equine professionals essentially only ever face the question, "What is the quality of that horse?" We, on the other hand, first face the question, "Is that a horse?” And realism asks for our answer in every feature we sculpt from every angle. Because just as we can sculpt equine parts, it’s just as easy for us to sculpt the knee of a gnu, the hindquarter of an ibex, the eye of a dog, the shoulders of a pronghorn—or we can simply make it up as we go. Then on top of that, we have to answer to quality through conformation and breed type, and finally workmanship.
Clearly then, our job is a big one. Not only did we pick a difficult subject to depict, but we chose an even trickier art form in which to express him. A double whammy! This is why any means to gain clarity for our process is welcome, and we can gain quite a bit right out of the gate by understanding how anatomy and conformation are totally separate issues. Once we have this under our belts, our ability to troubleshoot improves immensely.
So let’s first talk about anatomy, since it’s our foundation. Being so, anatomy usually garners the lion share of our attention since it's the measure of realism itself. And luckily there are plenty of resources at our disposal from beautifully illustrated books to workshops. All it takes is a bit of gumption.
Nonetheless it’s still a tricky thing to grasp. Often bewildering and intimidating, it takes time and diligence to understand. Well beyond familiar territory, anatomy is also filled with goofy language and configurations that seem to defy understanding. The books are dry and technical. So as we try to understand this elusive baseline, we can run into some trouble peculiar to its nature.
For one, we can inadvertently express anatomy too literally as we strive to impose order onto messy nature. That may seem incredulous—how’s it possible to have “too much” anatomy in our sculpture?—but the fact is our anatomy charts have their limits. When we lean on them too much, we can end up over–emphasizing anatomy too neatly, and the living animal isn’t so tidy. Taken to the extreme, we end up sculpting 3D anatomy charts rather than portrayals of living animals. Living anatomy is amoebic and organic, full of quirks and oddities that seem to defy what we see in a chart. So unless we mimic this natural chaos along with our charted order, we’ll fall short of expressing life itself, that wonderful alchemy of elemental nature.
Likewise, we can become so obsessed with faithfully duplicating a chart that a kind of anatomy addiction can develop, compelling us to meticulously render every bit of minutiae in sharp, crisp focus. But the living animal isn’t an anatomy chart, and structure presents as a spectrum of definition. For that reason, anatomy charts are best used as guides, as springboards into the deep end of interpretation.
Similarly, the intimidation factor anatomy presents can inspire a habitual approach, or the application of a fixed formula onto each sculpture despite the unique demands of the composition. Applying the same muscle structures, definitions, and orientations regardless of the composition does lend familiarity and predictability, but life isn’t always so static.
On the other hand, we can express anatomy too ambiguously, in ways that seem fudged or noncommittal, or with techniques that lack precision and technical prowess. “Fudging it” is common when we don’t quite understand an area, and we may choose to hurriedly be done with it rather than hunker down and figure it out. While this can serve us for a time, eventually we’ll find ourselves needing a firmer grasp of the structures as we develop.
There’s also the ample possibility of incorrectly sculpting anatomy, which is rather easy to do. Everything from broken necks and busted pelvic girdles to broken bones and ripped ligaments—our errors can manifest any number of ways. We need to stay mindful of the anatomical limitations of the species to avoid depicting the unlikely event of a catastrophically injured horse gleefully cavorting about, for example.
An anatomy chart also often fails to convey texture, in large part because the illustration lacks the hide in order to expose the underlying musculature. Yet our sculpting technique has to correctly mimic flesh, fascia, bone, hide, horn, and hair, along with all the muscle masses. This is where life study and references photos can really help us mediate this omission.
That said, a common misconception is the belief that lots of detail—from moles to wrinkles to eyelashes to what-have-you—equates to "correct anatomy." In other words, a piece with lots of details fulfills the anatomy criteria all by itself. But all those bells n’ whistles are only part of the total equation. All that is “anatomy” entails so much more than fiddly bits—it’s the whole enchilada from muscles to mane. Literally, every aspect about our sculpture is anatomy, and no one element can fulfill that criteria.
Yet all said and done, we may find our technical efforts under–appreciated by a public more obsessive about conformation. To be fair though, people can take anatomy for granted in the living animal, and so conformation is really the only way they can evaluate both horse and art. Indeed, doesn’t anatomy tend to be an entirely new subject for most of us anyway? Chances are we didn’t pay attention to how the metacarpal tendons looked from the back before we started sculpting, for example.
Breeders, judges, and many equine enthusiasts usually aren't versed in the evolutionary history and biological underpinnings of this animal, too, only because they can take it for granted. Being thus unaware, they can become fixated on what the show ring won’t let them dismiss: conformation. Through this, their prowess is demonstrated by their breeding decisions that “sculpt living art" to produce a winning star, and they apply this perspective to art.
So our focus on anatomy is a bit peculiar, but necessary nonetheless for us to duplicate it in clay. We put a lot of effort into getting anatomy right, and take pride in our hard–won milestones. Despite all that, however, most people won't recognize our most prided achievements because the ironic truth is this: when we do our job properly, people can take anatomy for granted!
Now in this light, perhaps we can already predict how conformation is quite different. Unlike nature’s criteria, conformation is more a manifestation of human ambition, a gaggle of characteristics layered onto the preexisting anatomical blueprint. Basically, it’s a catch–all term for the idea of "conforming" to an established standard set forth by an official body. All those precipitating variations and value judgements—born of domestication, commerce, and competition—are human notions, so it's no coincidence that conformation applies almost exclusively to Equus caballus and its hybrids.
Consequently, conformation entails the formalized angles, depths, dimensions, lengths, orientations, qualities, profiles, tonus, types, traits, and other variables relevant to meeting a prescribed physical standard. As such, it includes those “points of type” that characterize a breed. In application then, conformation regards these components as either "good," "neutral," or “bad" to come to an opinion on the usefulness or worth of an individual horse.
That said, we should know that this view is a more modern application that emerged because of showing, particularly "halter" showing. As a result, those animals who meet the standards are held in higher esteem than those who don’t. However, the original application of conformation identified structures that would match an animal to a purpose, or to develop a training and conditioning program that would bring out the best of any given animal based on his build. That is to say conformation evaluation was originally a form of therapy or rehabilitation, applied from a utilitarian perspective, in order to properly “dress” the animal for work.
Indeed, many things were different in the past when it came to conformation. For starters, horses were originally bred as landraces, or people simply bred a type of animal that suited them. For that, conformation was evaluated more on a holistic basis that matched an animal to a job—it was more inclusive than the exclusive air it has today. It also wasn't until the relatively recent advent of “purebreeds,” a fabricated notion born during the Victorian era, that a "pure" line became a commodity in and of itself, and where inheritance overtook other criteria for selection. The application of points of type became popular as a kind of breed “branding” or living advertising of sorts, and the more exaggerated the points, the “more pure” the animal was by this line of thinking. This caused conformation to rise to prominence far beyond its original intent, becoming a measure of outright worth.
Nonetheless, the steady use of conformation standards and points of type has produced a kaleidoscope of phenotypes for just about every aspiration today. Yet having far more to do with status and profits than science, this mechanism has shaped many breeds away from their original archetypes, which is a problem if the modern type is questionably structured. For instance, 1300 lbs halter stockhorses that fit into 00 shoes, or Arabian "lawn ornaments" with extreme heads, long necks, and light bone.
Accordingly, conformation now distinguishes between "good" or "bad" qualities, as applied in halter classes or a keuring. Each breed, type, discipline, bloodline, registry, or breeding program may also have its own set of standards, guidelines, or market pressures. Because of this, we now have a divergence between a "halter type" and a "performance type” with many popular breeds. Conformation standards can thus change or skew standards, influenced by fluctuating trends or fashion, particularly when performance isn’t part of the equation. Put another way, “perfection” can now be separated from utility with many popular breeds. And that’s a caveat artists should always bear in mind.
Anyway, put it all together and it’s clear that conformation is a manifestation of human influence, the story of us as reflected in this animal. So in terms of application, it means that while a Hanoverian, Arabian, Mule, Furioso, Standarbred, Zony, Shetland, Criollo, or Breton may all be equine, it's their distinctive variations to the blueprint that we would interpret as different conformation. We may even apply conformation in finer detail to break those breeds down into family types, lineages, or strains.
All this is why most people would point to conformation as the generator of realism—in life, it does establish how legit an animal appears in relation to its breed. Conformation is also entangled with reputations, status, legacy, identity, history, and ideas about worth, trendsetting, hierarchy, and tradition in both the horse and art worlds, and all that can amplify its importance with real horses and art.
Likewise, most people will likely key in on the conformation of our sculpture to determine how “realistic” it is in this regard, especially breed aficionados. For this, a characteristic breed “look,” or silhouette, outline or stance produces the most robust response, as the pattern recognition response is triggered (as we discussed in a previous series). For instance, duplicating halter stretches or iconic performance poses usually pings strongly with the public. And the more pronounced that look, the better the reaction.
This is also how the human tendency of "more is better" gets intensified—our brain responds so strongly to that quintessential “look” that to intensify its appeal, our tendency is to exaggerate it. So if we aren’t very careful, we risk creating a problematic feedback loop that stimulates increasingly extreme expressions of type, structure, or motion that can spin our piece into the realm of improbability or implied harm.
In this, we come to the curious effect of the studio and show ring reinforcing each other. Because art can offer hyperbolic expressions of reality, even transform such expressions into a kind of idolatry, this feedback loop intensifies. This is why we can find increasingly nonviable characteristics becoming validated in art, as art reinforces the trends in breeding. The current extreme nonviable manifestations of Arabian type and the Big Lick movement in Tennessee Walkers are two examples of what these feedback loops end up endorsing. Art has tremendous power on the sensibilities of the public, and the show ring has tremendous influence in art. Put all these together without perspective and trouble can begin to brew.
Even so, people often have their own idea of what a breed is supposed to look like, and we have to weigh everyone's different idea of perfection to create a piece that maximizes its appeal while remaining biologically responsible. We cannot please everyone, however, something we just have to accept.
With all this feedback based on conformation then, it’s easy to come to the conclusion that the criteria that produces a breed paragon is the very same criteria that makes a sculpture realistic. If we want to make our sculpture really realistic then, it’s just a matter of amplifying those points. Indeed, what’s better than a sculpture that looks like its stated breed? A sculpture that really looks like its stated breed.
With this line of thinking then, if our sculpture screams “Hanoverian,” for instance, this is the true measure of realism, not whether it’s actually built like an equine. Or if a sculpture is unmistakably “Shire,” it’s therefore realistic despite the anatomical flaws present in the piece. Failing to make the necessary paradigm shift from real world to realism, we can become comparatively blind to anatomy and end up applying incomplete criteria to our clay.
No matter how expertly rendered, however, conformation cannot make our sculpture more realistic. It’s simply the wrong criteria. All conformation can do is make our sculpture more consistent to accepted standards of quality, but only anatomy can make our work more realistic by making our sculpture more equine.
It’s an understandable misstep though. Conformation, despite all its variability and circumstance, is still relatively easier to grasp than anatomy, and therefore more tempting to indulge. Determining the slope of the shoulder, for instance, is much easier to do than teasing apart the deep and superficial musculature of the scapula. And crack open just about any horse book and we find layman descriptions, diagrams, and photographs about the topic, making conformation an early indoctrinated idea. It's no mystery then why we'd latch onto conformation more readily and with greater fervor than anatomical material, becoming invested in a subject we interpret as more accessible.
Conformation is also a lively subject as trends, fashion, peer pressure, and fads can sway favor any given year, too. Yet all this should be weighed against our own aesthetic, values, and goals to make sure we’re creating according to our convictions. Not everything we see in the show ring is worth validating in our clay. The light bone, tiny hooves, calf-knees, upright pasterns, and postlegs on modern halter Quarter Horses are good examples of what to avoid despite their prevalence in the ring.
So now we come to perhaps the strongest temptation in equine art: objectification. Elevating conformation—particularly points of type—into the status of idolatry is risky at best. For artists, at least, objectification can distract us from the greater potential of our narrative, and it can diminish the authority of our work. Devotion to our subject is commendable to be sure, just as long as we're careful with how we express it. It’s seductively easy to reduce our subject to looks, even to amplify them in an effort to elevate the visual even more, but there’s far more to this animal than that. Indeed, if we tip too far in this direction, we may end up validating harm through an exaggeration of type that would, in life, render the animal unusable. To stay on track then, it’s helpful to apply equine biology as the barometer of our choices to ensure our depiction reflects physical positives.
Objectification presents another problem: many conformational tenets are produced by poor horsemanship or management. If we don't know the difference between anatomy and conformation then, we're not going to understand this dynamic and infuse such flaws into our work. For example, many conventional ideas about hoof structure are wrong, and wry tail and some hindleg misalignments are actually caused by poor horsemanship, not genetics. Certain types of neck musculature are indicative of poor riding skills, and DSLD/ESPA are examples of genetic flaws made worse by riding. There's also the questionable practices involved with “peanut rollers,” rollkur, and soring. Yet because we may not understand this problem, we may inadvertently infuse all this into our sculpture.
But the equine blueprint is a consummately efficient and finely tuned biological machine shaped for pure function by 65 million years of evolution. There’s little room for alteration, especially for aesthetic reasons, without causing biological complications. For instance, the (increasingly) extreme “classic” head of the Arabian actually compromises breathing and tooth development, and the ever elongating neck introduces nerve damage in the cervical column.
Put all this together and we come to another problem: getting trapped in a mindset unable to grasp the multiple factors at play in either our subject and our clay. If we remain focused on the ideal conformation of the neck, for example, we’re going to miss the possibility that we’ve sculpted our neck with anatomical errors. Or if we’re overly fixated on the breed type in our piece, we’ll overlook how our exaggerations have endorsed harm.
We now come to perhaps the most pervasive form of objectification when it comes to conformation tenets, that being the idea of “suitability,” or the proposal that certain conformational configurations make a horse exclusively suitable for certain types of performance. Suitability is true to a point—certain physical constructions do lend the animal better to specific types of work, the differences between draft horses and riding horses is a clear example. Yet this idea has been taken to extremes in the horseworld, to the point of promoting fallacies. For instance, claiming that Arabians, Saddlebreds, Tekes, or Morgans aren’t “suitable” for dressage is more a product of propaganda and marketing than fact. All horses can do all horse movements, so it’s just a matter of style rather than aptitude that underlies this claim—and that’s definitely not related to ability. So we shouldn’t let such ideas deter our creative choices. Remaining open-minded not only promises more fun, but advocacy for all equines.
Yet there’s one curious thing about conformation and equine art that runs a bit counter-intuitive: despite the common fixation on the subject, it’s curious just how many sculptures have conformational flaws. Even flaws so pronounced that in life, the depicted animal would be lame. Crooked legs are a common manifestation, as are distortions in proportion, especially the neck. Straight shoulders and short humeri, barrels, and hips are also common, as are pathological feet and puffy joints.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
Equine realism isn't so much about pure aesthetics as many other art forms. First and foremost, we have to answer to biological fact, those technical aspects forming the prerequisites of what it is to be equine.
That means how we evaluate realistic equine art is intrinsically different than how we’d evaluate a living horse; the two require different criteria. Because only in art could a depiction of a horse be "less equine" than found in reality, since only in art does anatomy have to be inspected as a separate artistic factor. Therefore, if anatomy isn’t at the top of our list, we're can compromise our work in three ways:
• We cannot truly understand conformation in all its ramifications.
• We can inadvertently validate unethical practices.
• We won’t be sculpting equine realism, by definition.
So to clarify all these ideas, let’s consider a flip–flop applying them. Okay…so the anatomy of a flip–flop is a simple sole with a Y–shaped band originating between the big and second toe and expanding out to the sides, connecting to the sole behind the ball of the foot. All flip–flops have this blueprint—that's how we classify them as flip–flops, that's how we know they're flip–flops.
Now the conformation of a flip–flop entails all the variations they could have and still be classified as flip–flops. So whether plastic, leather, fabric, reed, woven, molded, thick–soled, thin–soled, with a slight heel or wedge, or whether the Y–shaped band is a ribbon, leather, braided cord, sequined, beaded, or studded—they're all still flip–flops. Same blueprint, just different styles.
Now let’s take the same idea and apply it to the cannon of a 12–year–old Oldenburg stallion. Left or right…again, it doesn't matter.
Anatomically, we focus on:
- Forming our cannon bone consistent to Equus caballus
- The three bones—the large metacarpal and the two splint bones, and their dimensions and orientations to each other
- Making sure this cannon bone is of equal dimension and quality to its pair
- The tendons, ligaments, fascia, and hide
- The tuberosities, lumps, bumps, divots, curves, angles, grooves, creases, sheaths, striations
- Veins, capillaries, wrinkles, and other details
- Physics, such as morphing due to weight, flexing, etc.
- Making it consistent to that of a 12–year–old adult, and not that of a foal or yearling
- Making sure that our sculpted cannon bone is free from remnants of the sculpting process that would compromise accuracy
We want sculpt an equine cannon bone after all, and not that of a cow, gazelle, or moose, which could easily happen if we aren’t paying attention. And we can't just make it up either because it has a specific set of parameters in order to be an equine cannon bone. And since it’s mostly just bone and hide in that area, we have to sculpt with clean precision. So when we’re done, we should have a factually correct equine cannon bone consistent to our depicted moment, faithful to that of a 12–year–old adult and lacking sculpting relics that would compromise believability. The question we've answered here is: "Is that an actual equine cannon bone?"
Conformationally then, we:
- Judge its circumference under the knee in relation to the imagined mass of the animal ("good bone”)
- Determine if it’s the right length, since being too long tends to compromise soundness
- Inspect to see if the tendons are crisp and clean, indicating it’s free of injuries or disease
- Make sure the the tendons are straight, being neither "tied in" nor “bowed"
- Make sure splints aren’t present, either "high" or “low" splints
- Check to make sure the cannon is set at a 90˚angle to the carpals, and not "calf–kneed," or "over at the knee”
- See if the cannon is set in the middle of the carpals, and not off–set laterally or medially
- Look to see if the cannon runs straight down, being neither base–wide nor base–narrow)
- Study if the cannon faces straight forward, and not toed–in or toed–out, or swiveled on the carpus
- Make sure it’s crisp and “clean” and doesn’t have any lumps, bumps, puffiness, or other indications of unsoundness
- Double check to make sure our sculpted cannon is ideal for an Oldenburg as per registry standards
So when we’re done here, we should have an accurate cannon bone (thanks to the first step that addressed anatomy) that now also belongs to an Oldenburg stallion of sound build. Therefore, the question we've answered here is: Is that a quality Oldenburg cannon bone?
Perhaps now it’s more clear how we can get into trouble if we cannot perceive that cannon bone clearly in terms of anatomy or conformation. When we aren’t inspecting our work for the right things, we’re going to miss critical aspects of it that can make or break a sculpture.
Stepping back, we can think of our job as having three spheres: a technical sphere (anatomy), a practical sphere (conformation), and then an aesthetic sphere (ideology), the latter encompassing everything else, including all those extras that add individuality, beauty, and moment plus workmanship and technical prowess. How they manifest and combine determines the nature of our sculpture.
For instance, if we attend only to anatomy and conformation, the result can be an inert clinical representation, something that lacks the breath of life and moment that would add life to our piece. On the other hand, if we concern ourselves only with conformation and aesthetics, we can end up idol worshipping physique instead of attending to what’s realistic or responsible. Then if anatomy and aesthetics blend without conformation, we have naturalism, an expression of the equine more or less ambivalent to ideas about “perfection.” This is actually welcome, being responsible for many fascinating realistic depictions of the equine. Nonetheless, when all three are in balance with each other—anatomy, conformation and aesthetics—we have a golden cross, a piece that pings on all three points.
We now come to conformatomy, the mash up term referring to the idea that anatomy and conformation are essentially the same thing, that they’re interchangeable. In practice, the assumption is that by duplicating desirable conformation, we’ll automatically recreate accurate anatomy along with it as a default. The idea is that not only do the two go hand in hand, they’re essentially the very same thing.
However, perhaps it’s clearer now how this line of thinking can get us into trouble, especially when it comes to troubleshooting. Indeed, if we don’t have a firm idea of what either anatomy or conformation is and isn’t, our process is going to be mired down by errors and misjudgments.
But conformatomy is an understandable miscalculation and, in fact, most in the equine and art industry share it as well. Even the dictionary or thesaurus can confuse the two. Not a horse show goes by that we don't hear someone explain that "the horse won in halter due to his good anatomy," when, in fact, the judge evaluates the horse's conformation in halter. Or an artist explain her careful attention "to the anatomy of the shoulder to create the proper angle for dressage," when it was conformation that was the concern. A juror may place a sculpture above others because "it had the correct anatomy for a Trakehner," when the reference was actually to conformation. An art critic may scrutinize "the realism of the conformation among the entries," when the actual point of inspection was anatomy. A collector may praise a new purchase for its "very accurate and detailed conformation of the legs and face" when these are specific features of anatomy. And a gallery owner may decide to exhibit an artist's work owing to its "anatomic breed portrayal," when it’s conformation that’s the actual basis of this assessment. And these are just the tip of the ice berg.
The core reason why this confusion happens is because—in life—anyone who evaluates a living horse can take anatomy for granted because it’s already present. This means it’s conformation that’s being inspected, not anatomy. But we don’t have the luxury, do we? Nope! We have to sculpt both anatomy and conformation from a lump of inert clay. This is why knowing the distinction between the two isn’t only immensely helpful for our efforts, but a powerful understanding that can help us problem solve our way out of any trouble spot. That’s to say when we can pinpoint whether an error is anatomical or conformational, we gain a clear understanding of how to fix it.
Conformatomy also generates a kind of false confidence that can cause our development to become lopsided. The ease of leaning on those points that seem more accessible (conformation) can be tempting rather than tackling those that appear daunting (anatomy). So diluting anatomy with conformation produces an incomplete understanding that can sabotage all our efforts, especially troubleshooting.
Conformatomy also obscures the ones–up–manship pervasive in the show ring, especially in regards to breed type. What’s better than an ideal? An ideal to the nth degree! And in the studio, clay offers the unique ability to really take that to extremes, and so we may unintentionally validate harm. If we don’t understand the nature of equine anatomy—because we’re more concerned with conformation—we’re going to miss this glitch, and that can compromise the authority of our work.
Because we lack clarity regarding either anatomy or conformation, conformatomy can cause us to just make stuff up, too, driven by the need to artificially fill-in where our knowledge base has holes. In doing so, we may inadvertently create mistakes in our work. Clumsy technique, harsh tooling, structural misunderstandings, hurried methods, extreme stylizations and other such conundrums tend to be a result of this confusion, for example. Only in the studio can equine anatomy have an extra joint to the stifle, misaligned eye canthi, or a hock that’s too pointy, for example. We may also confuse textures, such as creating fleshy-looking bone, or gouged undercuts that don't exist in equine topography.
Conformatomy also tends to inspire an inappropriate fixation on conformation at the expense of anatomy. Yet conformation can never make our sculpture more realistic, but when we’re caught up in the confusions that go along with conformatomy, we can miss this important point.
Conformatomy also causes us to misunderstand motion, and the causes and effects that go along with it. When we mistake a joint articulation as a function of conformation as opposed to an anatomical one, we run the risk of not only sculpting an error, but of becoming vulnerable to misinformation that could compromise our work. False collection is a clear example of malpractice in the absence of anatomical understanding, as is the long toe–low heel trim on many horses.
Similarly, we might also assume that what we do know—conformation—can compensate for what we don't know—anatomy. But when conformation must fill in this way, it inevitably applies the wrong criteria. The properties and implications of structure and movement also become blurred into a wad of confusion, which is often how we get stuck on a piece.
For instance, say our standing piece won’t stand level, and we deduce it’s because the cannons are too long. We take measurements again, and they come back as accurate, but still…the piece won’t stand level. So we cut down the cannons to contrive the stance, though now it looks really odd. Because we understood neither conformation nor anatomy, we couldn’t see that the real reason the piece didn’t stand level was because the elbows were sculpted too low, setting the entirety of both forelegs too low on the torso. So now we not only have forelegs that are anatomically set wrong, but now also cannons that are oddly too short. Its situations like this that permeate the conformatomy paradigm.
Compounding the problem, conformatomy also encourages a "jack of all trades, master of none" mindset by not only oversimplifying equine structure, but by grossly dumbing down both anatomy and conformation in order to mesh them together. Yet these are two complicated, multifaceted subjects and to strip them of their substance to create a kind of structural shorthand means that many critical ideas get jettisoned altogether. For example, conformatomy will prevent us from truly understanding self-carriage, the biological underpinnings of this animal, and almost all of his biomechanical quirks. Indeed, no part of conformatomy addresses the Reciprocal Apparatus, the axial-atlanto cervical joint, the effects of the serratus muscles on smooth gaits, the posture of the neck in relation to stride length, the twist of the hind leg in extension, the natural coordination between the head and hindquarter, or the function of the pelvis in impulsion. There are critical need-to-know aspects of equine biomechanics that get stripped away when anatomy is dumbed down to blend with conformation.
Along those lines, conformatomy oversimplifies and jumbles the issues of anatomy and conformation so badly that it’s responsible for many of our developmental plateaus. If we want to take our work to the next level, for instance, conformatomy simply has nowhere for us to go. It’s package deal is alarmingly limited, and there are no upgrades available. Indeed, in order to learn more about either anatomy or conformation, the only way is to venture beyond conformatomy’s narrow confines.
Because no matter how we want to rationalize it, choosing to circumvent anatomy leads to only one thing: a marked disadvantage compared to those who don't. Not only does our work become comparatively deficient, but conformatomy only lets us go so far in our development, being an incomplete basis from which to work. So while conformatomy ensures we top out our potential, others are getting better at anatomical translations to worsen our disadvantage over time. This is often how we get left behind in the market as conformatomy ensures we get outpaced in the technicality department.
In a similar way, forcing a more superficial aspect—conformation—to carry the lion's share of the burden for a substantive one—anatomy—can induce us to lose sight of the objective altogether. This is how conformatomy can cause a body of work to slide away from realism, or at least prevent it from getting more realistic. Even with simple due diligence our work should naturally improve, if just a side effect of time, but depending on conformation with such misguided faith means we won't tap into that waiting potential, will we? Conformation simply lacks the factors that would make our sculpture more realistic.
In the same vein, conformatomy constructs a false logic that claims conformation is a failsafe for soundness. Here, we typically come across the adage "form follows function" as though one directly resulted from the other. It postulates that ideal structure leads to sound, ideal motion, and that the form of the horse will produce resultant types of motion. While this tends to be true in some regards, it’s hardly a trusty rule. Nature, equine structure, and circumstance are just too complex for such easy oversimplifications. We all know plenty of “perfectly” conformed horses who remain perpetually lame and scores of “flawed” horses who perform beautifully and remain sound. This is a living, sensitive creature based on motion, so such strict rules are hard to apply across the board.
Now granted, there exists certain alignments that help the animal stay sound, but it should be noted that almost all these features are aligned to nature’s design anyway, some even tend to run counter to some modern aesthetics. As things go then, the most we can say about conformation is that it’s based on circumstantial correlations at best, arbitrary registry standards on average, or examples of marketing propaganda at worst. The horse of yesteryear, before the engine replaced good ol’ horsepower, had very different conformation than the show horse of today. On that note, it's hard to imagine many modern halter horses staying sound for long if put to work, or even surviving feral conditions.
Indeed, horsemanship, management and conditioning play much bigger roles in sound motion than given credit. But a perception governed by conformatomy won’t get that dimension to education, leaving one with a lopsided understanding of our subject's critical backstory. As if that wasn't enough, conformatomy also makes certain we remain ill–equipped to distinguish between viable, accurate structure and fashionable structure because in this, they're both the same thing.
Conformatomy can give us license to avoid confronting these trends as well, to avoid rethinking our own ideals and priorities that seduced us into validating them in the first place. Without biological perspective—a way of understanding equine structure offered only by anatomical study—we may thus inadvertently create depictions of harm. For example, if we’re unaware how unnatural the Big Lick actually is from an anatomical perspective, we may be tricked into believing it’s a humane and trainable way of moving.
Aside from all this, the real problem with conformatomy are the habits it tends to generate. For example, when we fixate on conformation, we tend to tweak anatomy to fit it, rather than other way round. As a result, we may end up with anatomical features incorrectly placed in order to fit some contrived angulation or length. Our work benefits when we think of conformation as merely a layer on top of anatomy to make sure the prioritization remains on anatomy. Because if we're more concerned about how good a piece is rather than how accurate, by definition we're no longer judging realism, are we?
Conformatomy can only thrive with a deficiency in anatomical understanding, becoming more fortified and uncompromising the more we avoid such a "scary" subject. Simplifying something as complex as the equine is a good idea, but this isn’t the way to do it.
Put all this together, and this is how conformatomy traps us. By controlling how we perceive reality, it controls how we think and with that, controls how we shape our clay. And perhaps it's apparent now how confusing anatomy and conformation can sabotage our efforts and impede our understanding of them, and all the other issues involved. Conformatomy simply masks the complexity, nuance, ethical, and situational factors at play in our subject, our interpretations, and our clay, those very things that add immediacy and authenticity to our work.
THE WRAP UP
Put it all together, perhaps now the differences between anatomy and conformation are more clear, and in so being, can be applied with greater confidence. Being able to separate the two gives us a lot more creative freedom and empowerment in the studio, two very welcome outcomes when it comes to art.
Anatomy opens the doors to realism, and conformation opens the door to quality. And together they work to elevate our work and expand our potential. We also develop a deeper understanding of our subject and that translates into an interesting, provocative body of work.
Creating realism and imbuing quality are two aspects we can achieve if we put our minds to it. Embracing both isn't just necessary for realism, it makes good horse sense.
"The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. But the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth." ~ Niels Bohr
Game Mechanics and Animal Fancies, Lesli Kathman
Why Size Matters by Dr. Deb Bennett in Equus issue #361
WALKING THE TIGHTROPE; THE UNREALITY OF REALISM, Sarah Minkiewicz-Breunig
ARTISTIC AUTHENTICITY; USING YOUR VOICE, Sarah Minkiewicz-Breunig
REDEFINING SUCCESS; SOME THOUGHTS ON TRUE ACCOMPLISHMENT, Sarah Minkiewicz-Breunig
CONFORMATION: WHAT'S BEHIND THAT STANCE?, Dr. Deb Bennett, EQUUS Magazine, August 2011, Issue 407, pg.63
CONFORMATION: WHAT'S BEHIND THAT STANCE?, Dr. Deb Bennett, EQUUS Magazine, August 2011, Issue 407, pg.63