Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Viability and Functionality: The Umbrellas

"Thinking about it all just makes me sleepy," says Ellie.


Realistic equine sculpture has many facets to it, ranging from science to sculpting technique. It's an art form rich in esoteric nuance yet at the same time wellreceived in popular culture. Many people appreciate the beauty and power of horses. 

But we should know that we've chosen a very difficult subject to convey—the equinewithin an even more difficult art form to convey him inrealism. This animal leads each of us down our own paths, being both subject and master, and as long as we're willing to follow where he leads, welcome insights wait for us 'round every corner.

In the past few days, we've addressed some of these insights in previous blog posts. We discussed the nature of anatomy charts, how our perception plays a part in our efforts, and how anatomy and conformation are two separate issues. We're also dissecting some more ideas in an ongoing series about a particular sculpture.     

With this wad of ideas now under our belt, let's take a look at a couple more. By themselves, they both form an umbrella over many of the ideas we've considered so far, and together they help us navigate through this art form. Even more, they help us to advocate for this animal through our clay. So what are these two ideas? Well, they're viability and functionality, and let's get busy dissecting them


We may find that the concept of "viability" pops up from time to time when discussing realistic equine sculpture. But what does it mean? Is it the quality of the media? The workmanship of the piece? Does it speak to the archival nature of the materials? 

Nope! Viability simply regards the technical aspects of a piece in terms of anatomy and biomechanics. So when a piece is described as "viable," it means that it's technically consistent to an actual equine, that it possesses a topography that's faithful to the living subject, right down to the smallest detail. Folded into this expectation, of course is workmanship, which shouldn't compromise realism either. In a sense then, viability is just a handy term to convey "technical accuracy" or "realistic." W
ith that in mind, we can say

Viability is the artistic depiction of a biologically accurate equine.

Note "artistic depiction," which confirms that viability is an artistic interpretation, an approximation. We can't ever get things 100% right, but we can get really close! Also note "biologically accurate," which focuses on the anatomy of the animal rather than the conformation; we focus on his biology, not his good looks. That means viability pertains exclusively to anatomical (and biomechanical) concerns, being a measure of the sculpture's structural authenticity. So consider this thought experiment: If our sculpture was magically turned into a
real horse with real bones and real flesh, would the result be a viable equine? Could it function and flourish as a real horse? So no matter what we stack on later, viability is always our primary goal to ensure we're really sculpting probable equines.

But the pesky little thing about viability is this—it's the one aspect our brain takes most for granted. Let's face it, before we got into sculpting equine realism, we probably didn't pay much attention to the complexities of anatomy when admiring a real horse. Instead, we probably marveled at his beauty, movements, color and maybe even how his mane and tail flowed so nicely. In short, we appreciated our subject as a lover of horses, not as a recreator of horses. 

But everything flips when we become a recreator! And that's because we can no longer take anything for granted. The gist of our magic trick: we take nothing about our subject for granted so that others can. Indeed, the closer our sculpture is to an actual horse, the more people can process it as they would a real horse. But if our sculpture has errors in realism, it can trip a circuit that forces us into that "uncanny valley," busting our magic trick. (For more discussion of this, check out my ongoing blog series, (The Method, The Madness and the Mystery.) 

So to perform this feat, we need to See much more expansively and deeply than any other equine professional. It's simply a matter of criteria. Equine professionals don't have to factor in anatomy the same way we do only because the real animal possesses correct equine anatomy by default. At no time then, for instance, would a veterinarian, trainer, breeder, judge, etc. ever have to determine if the anatomical structure of a hock on a horse is equineit already is. But we don't have any givens. Instead, we have to recreate equine everything, and that includes viability. And that's important to consider since we can create the hock of a gnu, okapi, giraffe, dog, cat, or cow 
just as easily, or we could simply make it up. The very act of artistic creation introduces totally new criteria to the evaluation process. 

Likewise, we also need visual abilities and design skills that transcend many other art forms since we're asked to draw from both sides of our brain simultaneously, this being both a technical (anatomy) and aesthetic (creativity) art form. Indeed, someone working in impressionism, abstraction, illustration, drawing, surrealism, or whathaveyou won't ever have to apply the same technical 3D understanding our art form requires. That means our creative skill set is also unique. 

And those are the hidden kickers of our art form: our fundamentals are the very things everyone else can take for granted. It also means if we're doing our job really well, others won't really notice how well we're doing it! DOH!

This in mind, it's no small request for an equine anatomist or paleontologist to be able to identify our sculpted anatomical features in our sculpture as equine, and perhaps going further, also the age, gender, and species. Even more, a veterinarian should be able to pinpoint typical injection or incision sites, bodyworkers should be able to locate key meridians, skeletal targets, muscle groups and body points, farriers should be able to identify the foot features, and students should be able to train off our sculpturesor any number of direct applications in which a real horse could be used. These aren't arbitrary expectations or unreasonable criteria—they're the byproducts of a solid recreation of an equine. And that's what viability addresses, this direct correlation to a living equine through our clay. 


So now we come to the idea of functionality. As we learned in a previous series, anatomy and conformation are best interpreted as separate issues. So just as viability addresses anatomical accuracy, functionality addresses conformational integrity. Here our question then becomes: If our sculpture were to be magically turned into a real horse with real bones and real flesh then, would its build result in sound, enduring, athletic motion? This in mind we can then say that

Functionality entails the structural traits that ensure a sound, happy, healthy equine.

Note that beauty or points of type aren't included here because such notions are best left as subjective negotiables. In many ways, too, the equine's beauty is a byproduct of his functionality, a kind of graceful economy. By keeping function at the forefront of our criteria, we can stay on
track with that economy.

Plus, chances are we want to sculpt a horse with sound conformation and avoid those that cause harm. For this then, functionality asks us to judge our sculpture just like a real horse, and in doing so, we look for configurations, dimensions, structures, or pathologies that would promote or compromise the implied soundness of our sculpted horse. 

But not all conformation is created equal. As we learned in a previous series, we can split conformation into two categories: functional conformation and aesthetic conformation. The former entails those features that preserve or enhance a horse's soundness while the latter involves aspects of "beauty" and points of type, features that don't contribute to performance but are preferred for aesthetic reasons.

When it comes to functional conformation, there are some basic features that help to keep any horse sound when working (See Recommended Reading, below). Being so, they're rooted in biology because the more an animal is built according to it, the sounder he tends to stay, regardless of the breed or use. Such things as adequately–sized muzzles, eyes of normal size, a profile that isn't extreme, proper bone, quality feet of proper size, normal length of neck, and correctly aligned legs are just some of these components.

Now these may seem like conditions not worth mentioning because we'd like to assume that all horses are bred responsibly. Yet, unfortunately, this isn't true all the time. In fact, some breeds with a strong "halter" contingent are bred primarily with aesthetics in mind, prioritizing looks over function. This tends to skew "halter" horses towards exaggerations of type, to the point where the animals are essentially unusable for real work. Arabians that wheeze due to their "exotic" heads and Quarter Horses who are lame due to tiny Long Toe–Low Heel feet aren't such anomalies today as one might think. And pathological feet are ubiquitous in the domestic horse population, adding further complications.

So there's a spectrum of traits within the conformation bubble, and such criteria can vary with breed, family lines, fashion or region, too, resulting in a cavalcade of esoteric features. But suffice to say, each of us will come to our own idea of what constitutes "good" conformation and breed type. Whatever it is, however, we should keep equine biology in mind. 
For that, a good litmus test is this: if our sculpture were real and by chance became feral, would our depicted horse flourish or fail? When weighing the answer, we can better weigh those traits we infuse into our clay.


So the first question we have to answer is, "Does our sculpture depict a viable equine?" In order to create one, we have to tease out which points rely on rules (anatomy) from those that rely on invention (conformation). To illustrate this, let's consider a horse's scapula with viability in mind. What would be the features of viability we should recognize? Well, we need to peek at:
  •  Its location on the skeleton.
  •  Its orientation on the skeleton.
  •  Its shape and dimensions.
  •  Its surface properties, including knowing which are subcutaneous and which are buried under flesh, and how.
  •  The distinguishing “lumps and bumps” that serve as necessary landmarks. 
  •  How it functions. 
  •  Its relation and relative dimensions to neighboring bones and joints.
  •  Its growth properties so we can sculpt it correctly for a foal, weanling, yearling, or adult sculpture. 
  •  The placement, structure, and function of overlying flesh such as muscles, ligaments, tendons, veins, capillaries, fascia, hide or other details.
  •  Its relation to its counterpart on the other side: Are they matched and symmetrical?
  •  Is the scapula moving in coordination with the stance or movement depicted?
  •  Bonus points for knowing why equines don't have clavicles.
  •  More bonus points for knowing how certain breeds like Pasos and Iberians develop that distinctive "winging out" movement of the foreleg as it relates to the scapulae.
  •  Even more bonus points for knowing how the equine scapulae function within a shoulder sling system.

Now let’s regard this same scapula from a functionality perspective, making qualitative determinations, as follows:
  •    What is the length of the scapula? 
  •    What is the angle of the scapula?
  •    What is its relative angle to the humerus?
  •    Is the shoulder wellmuscled without being loaded?
  •    Does the scapula have free action?
  •    Are there any injuries or pathologies present?
  •    Bonus points for knowing how the shoulder muscling relates to chest width.
  •    More bonus points for knowing how a straight shoulder relates to action.
  •   And more bonus points for understanding how the scapula's angle with the humerus contributes to foreleg action.

Clearly the criterion are quite different for either sphere of interest, and we may notice that this exercise is exactly how we'd pick anatomy and conformation apart from each other, too. Thus armed with this distinction then, we're better able to troubleshoot our way out of any problem we could ever encounter when sculpting equine scapulae. When we can determine whether it's our anatomical interpretation or conformational specs that are off, we gain a more surgical precision in correcting trouble spots.

Now with all these previous discussions, we already know our job isn't just about knowingit's even more about doing. What we know is only as good as how we translate itWhen interpretation and translation are synched then, that's when we tend to produce our best work, and our process seems natural and easy. But when hiccups occur, we can get into trouble in five general ways.

For starters, we can lean on our anatomical illustrations a bit too much, sculpting every possible detail with painstakingly precision. Not all sculpted features have to be dissectioncrisp, or every little bit given equal emphasis—remember, anatomical diagrams are illustrations created from dead horses. It's knowing when to sculpt crisply, when to sculpt softly, when to sculpt hard, and when to sculpt gooshy that takes our sculpture past diagrams and into the realm of life. Life is full of diversity in how flesh manifests, dependent on the individual and the moment. So just because an anatomical illustration crisply defines muscle groups, fascia, tendons, sinews and other flesh, doesn’t mean this is how they appear in life, or with every individual. Diagrams are best used as guides rather than canon only because we have to recapture the life in our sculpture that an illustration lacks.

Second, we can get confused by what it means to be anatomically correct. Simply adding correct gender bits or details like whisker bumps, ergots or veins doesn't constitute "anatomically correct." The sculpture merely has details, that's all. And no detail can compensate for biological inaccuracies because in realism, a factual error is still a factual error. 

Third, we can come to believe that having ideal conformation is akin to having correct anatomy, erasing the distinction between conformation and anatomy altogether (as with conformatomy discussed previously). Yet a sculpture can have splendid conformation, but be riddled with anatomical errors, which doesn't occur in life. Only in art can a sculpture have a breedy head and a perfect set of shoulder, yet also have asymmetrical cannons, inverted muscle groups, and an improperly bending elbow. Applying conformation to determine the realism of such a sculpture is simply applying the wrong criteria.

Fourth, missteps in our interpretation and translation abilities can cause us to misunderstand references, research materials, and critiques. Not only does this hinder our potential, but it also tends to promote homogenization in our body of work, as our sculptures become produced more by our defaults rather than our decisions (thanks to our pattern recognition response). For example, we can unintentionally sculpt the cousins of Equus caballus as too horselike, but a horse with long ears doesn't make a mule just as a horse with stripes doesn't make a zebra. This effect can even occur along tighter confines, too. If we're enamored of Saddlebred type, for instance, we can unconsciously contrive all our sculptures with that phenotype, creating Saddlebredlike drafts, ponies, stock horses, etc. 

Five, we can get overwhelmed by all the information involved in sculpting equine realism. Indeed, this art form throws a lot at us very quickly, and unless we can organize and prioritize this onslaught of data, we can get into trouble fast. For instance, we may unconsciously default to the safe habits of our comfort zones, risking an inevitable plateau. Yet when we can create independently of our accustomed templates, we can explore our potential to its fuller breath. For that then, organizing our priorities can do much for simplifying all the factors at play in each sculpture. 

Along those lines, too, being inundated with all the factors at play can cause us to miss many subtler ones. For example, we may operate unawares of the delicate balance between anima and technical accuracy. Those famous Ellenberger anatomical illustrations are certainly informative, accurate, and clear—yes—but at the same time, they’re rather clinical and static, aren't they? In contrast, the famous painting, The Horse Fair by Rosa Bonheur may portray horses full of life, but they're rendered in the stylized way popular at that time. Our quest lies in the spectrum of the middle road in the attempt to create an anatomical depiction injected with life's anima. And that's a tricky balance to strike, especially if we're already feeling overwhelmed.

But remember, there are many ways to sculpt realism as there are artists, so staying open to different ways of interpretation can only benefit our clay. One such way involves the tricky balance between what is obvious versus what's suggested. Implying something in our clay can sometimes produce a better result than taking the literal approach lifted directly from a technical illustration. We have to always remember the context of an anatomical diagram: it's a contrived, tidy interpretation of what's actually messy and organic. This is why sometimes hinting at structure can be more effective than sculpting it literally.

Along those lines, injecting life into our piece doesn't necessarily mean wildly contorted positions or overt stylization either. Simply paying attention to each fleeting moment can help us infuse little touches into our sculptures that work together cumulatively to impart the effect we want. The flick of an ear, the swish of a tail, the twitch of an eyebrow, or a balance shift can go far in adding life to our composition. 

When we get discombobulated between our interpretation and translation, we can sometimes adopt dogmatic rules or rigid preferences. A good example is the adage “form follows function,” which is widely applied anywhere horses are evaluated. But we're only now coming to truly understand equine biomechanics thanks to new technologies and provocative new theories, some of which blow holes in this longheld belief, particularly in regards to the feet. Each horse is an individual, and horsemanship and management play key roles in how a horse moves, something that "form follows function" has a problem addressing.

Similarly, an interpretationtranslation circuit that's jumbled can blind us to how conformation ideals can actually hurt horses. The oneupmanship of the show ring, especially in the halter classes, encourages ever more extremes in structure and type with many breeds. Yet the equine blueprint is an exquisitely balanced machine that cannot take much fiddling before it starts to bottom out. For instance, the wheezing now being heard in Arabian halter competition due to "exotic" heads, or the post legs found more prevalently in Quarter Horse arenas are good examples of this effect. So learning to tease anatomy apart from conformation (as we learned in a previous series) helps to maintain a grounded perspective. When we come to know the whys and hows of equine biology, it becomes harder to tweak it.


Viability and functionality are two important aspects in our decision making process. One ensures we're sculpting equines while the other guarantees we're sculpting equines responsibly. Applying them not only increases the realism of our work, but its authority as well. And with our process firmly rooted in facts, our clay echoes our informed Voice, and that means we can sculpt any equine subject we wish with greater confidence. 
And as we do so, we'll be asked to undertake proactive research and investigation, leading us to even more curiosities to express in our clay. That's definitely a positive feedback loop worth promoting!

As we move in this direction, we'll find new inspiration and excitement in our studio, the very things that produce our best work. So until next time, may viability and functionality lead you to new, thrilling horizons for your work!

"Nature possesses far more variation and invention than we do…for an artist, it's a matter of seeing and choosing." ~ Mark Adams

Artistic Authenticity; Using Your Voice, Sarah Minkiewicz-Breunig
Artist As Farrier: Part I, Sarah Minkiewicz-Breunig
Artist As Farrier: Part II, Sarah Minkiewicz-Breunig

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