Sunday, January 4, 2015

What's Reality Between A Couple of Friends…And a Bunny? Part 2


Welcome back! In this series we're discussing how our perception can jumble our efforts in equine realism. It's not an easy thing to untangle, but it is doable and worth doing if we wish to open up the potential of our work.

In Part 1, we discussed what perception is, as defined by this series, and also some of the symptoms that typify an unaccountable way of interpreting our subject. The idea of Sight, as opposed to sight was introduced as a way of differing better perceptive abilities. A cute, fuzzy bunny is our wee guide through this maze, pulling from Alice in Wonderland and that infamous rabbit hole. And down that hole we went! So in this Part 2, we’ll be exploring three basic inroads into our perception to learn how to help it along in our favor.

So…let’s go!


We ended Part 1 on that positive feedback loop that pushes our talents to new heights by feeding our perception new options. This compels our hands to automatically follow suit, and this is how our work improves. To get this loop started then, let’s think of our perception as having three inroads, all essential and dependent on one another. 

The first is our knowledge base. Equine realism fares best with an independent, interdisciplinary, varied education beyond conventional wisdom. Accepting responsibility for our own education not only feeds our brain lots of intriguing information, but it cultivates the cool detachment needed to weigh information in ways consistent to our values. Deepening our knowledge base also puts our creative ideas to the test through study, comparison, and artistic exercises, and the more our knowledge base expands and deepens, so does our art. The importance of proactive study cannot be overstated because Sight only comes to those who work for it.

"It is what you learn after you know it all that counts."
~ Earl Weaver 

And there are loads of avenues for such study—in books, online, in the field, and in class—and it’s worth working for with so many exciting new things to learn! Science is now studying the equine with fresh eyes and new technologies, too, producing surprising results that have direct application to sculpture. For instance, the science of equine podiatry has made huge leaps in understanding in ways that dictate how we should sculpt the feet. In fact, science is finding that much of conventional thought is incomplete or completely mistaken, so we should be ready to unlearn what we have learned. It’s no coincidence that the further we journey beyond the status quo, the closer we come to fascinating truths that have direct relevance to our creative decisions.

As for the second, that is observation—life study—the conscientious study of the circumstantial, physical, structural, and psychological aspects of our subject. Included here is the ability to faithfully translate all that complexity into our clay because—remember, it’s not enough to know, we must also do!

Fortunately, the ability to astutely observe, decipher, and translate is an acquired skill, able to be taught, learned, adapted, and improved. Granted, some are more naturally adept than others, but it can work for anyone willing to make the effort. And it does take our concerted concentration. Equines are creatures of moment and motion, so everything happens quickly! From the crook of an eyebrow to a shift in balance, it all unfolds in the blink of an eye. Our handy camera and anatomical references are certainly lucky tools at our disposal by providing a frozen moment for a reminder or clarification.

But life study is crucial. Sculpting equines from inside a fishbowl, from the assumptions found in the studio or the pages of anatomical tomes, can only work for so long. Equines embody too much life, vitality, and consequence, and we need to connect with them on that level. We also need to relate personally because we’ll absorb the organic nature of biology, the kinetic interplay of physique, the resonance of personality, the anima of presence, the energy of the moment, and the magic and mystery of life. We rediscover physics, vitality, serendipity, and all the indescribable minutiae that inject breath and immediacy into our sculpture. 

We ferret out those anatomy charts, too, more able to translate between the illustrations, the living critter, and our clay. We begin to notice structural similarities and differences, the rules and exceptions, actively developing a fuller mental library of anatomical patterns as well as all the fun happenstance. Eventually, we realize that realism isn't just about what's similar, but even more about what's different. And we learn that each animal is a distinct individual imbued with dignity, circumstance, and a unique internal experience, all of which can be expressed in clay.

"The uneducated person perceives only the individual phenomenon, the partly educated person the rule, and the educated person the exception."
~ Franz Grillparzer

Beyond shows, exhibitions, and rodeos though, we should get out there down n’ dirty among them, perhaps sitting quietly to observe on their terms. Listening. Smelling. Feeling. Seeing. Staying open. Imagining. Trying to experience the world from their point of view. What would it be like to be a horse? How 'bout a foal or old timer? What's it like to function in the parallel, alien world of humans? Can we speak horse language? Can we feel what their body feels with all the tensions, relaxations, twitching, snorting, weight, balancing, twisting, stretching, shaking, whinnying, snorting, and chewing? What is their hide doing? What are their muscles, posture, and balance doing? What would a tail feel like when swished against our side? How much effort would be needed to get up from a roll? How would sunshine feel on so much surface area? 

Without a doubt, chillin’ in the grass with these gracious souls for a couple of hours, interacting and attentive, can reveal more than a whole day ringside. Even an hour of conscientious grooming can teach us more about his body, senses, and presence than any photograph or chart. When we groom, we should gently run our hands over his body, allowing our hands to absorb the planes, bumps, and surfaces into our perception. And how does his mane and tail feel?

Slowly and surely then, the artifice absorbed over the years may start to fade, and suddenly we realize we've changed. We cannot come to perceive our subject differently—or our clay differently—if we remain the same. We discover this truth:

To change our work, we must first change ourselves. 

And then there’s the third inroad, which is probably the most important, and that is this: stay curious, open, reflective, and flexible. Ponder and reconsider, don't take anything at face value, especially our own notions. For instance, think of a body part, say, a lifted shoulder. Let’s close our eyes and picture it in every detail in our mind, the articulations, the bony topography, the muscle delineations, the planes, the hide, the details like capillaries and even bug bites. The lay of the coat, the rippling flesh, and the stretch of fascia. Now let’s open our eyes and actually look at a lifted shoulder—what did we get right? What did we get wrong? What did we miss? The more we do this with the living animal and our references, the more we train our perception to pick up on actual structure as well as all the little details.

Questioning our expectations and assumptions helps to avoid comfort zones, and regularly checking our composition against the living subject and our references helps to expose blindspots. The more we try to get our sculpture exact, the more we’re asked to consider. So when we think, "I know enough," or "I've always done it this way,” or “that’s about right,” those are the moments when we allow our perception to get the better of us.

It’s a natural human tendency though; we each have the innate hubris of homo sapien. Yet equine realism asks us to shed just that because we aren't dealing with humans. We’re tasked with conveying the authenticity of a whole ‘nuther being, one with a completely different reality than our own. It's curiosity that helps to override our perception's insistence on its own reality at the expense of another’s because our subject isn't the only one under the microscope.

Indeed, there are big differences between critical thinking and second–guessing, introspection and narcissism, reflection and self–doubt, aren’t there? Having the confidence and courage to turn inwardly to analyze ourselves, to candidly self–critique and put our work (and ourselves) to the test, to ask the hard personal questions and employ the necessary changes—regardless of comfort zones—are needed to reduce dependence on the automation of our perception.

And while these three inroads are products of our perception—yes—employing them together can help to train it, and better Sight is soon to follow. The more cultivated and synched they are are, too, the more our perception improves. We may then develop our own artistic checks to ramp our perception up even more. Blindspots, faulty premises, incomplete understanding, misguided expectations, and flawed techniques burble to the surface, and we begin to think differently about how we’re doing things. That’s our first step into a much broader experience in equine realism. 

It's invigorating to recognize our self–sabotaging mistakes as well as things we didn’t previously know! It's like discovering the art form fresh all over again, only now we have the ability to make some real headway. Yet metaphorical journey is continuous largely because recalibration of our perception isn’t permanent. It automatically resets to defaults, even if a new kind. It's like standing on a big, jiggling block of Jell–OTM. It needs constant readjustment and attentiveness. 

Why? Well, many reasons. For one, our perception can only see what it wants to see and nothing more. Being a closed feedback loop, our perception is effectively self–reinforcing, self–reliant and self–serving. And having evolved to work in tandem with the pattern recognition response, it likes to reach a new equilibrium and then stay there until a new one is generated. That is to say it falls into a resting state of lowest energy by default, and must be coaxed into higher energy states with proactive prodding—with each new piece and with each new educational opportunity. 

"The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend."
~ Henri Bergson

Which brings us to this conundrum: our perception not only Self–colorizes, but prefers the path of least resistance when interpreting reality. Having to process huge amounts of information quickly forces such economy, but realistic equine sculpture does best with a fuller investment. The good news is our perception can be induced into establishing new, better defaults with each new sculpture, essentially creating a “new normal” each time. As a wise friend once said, “Each new piece is practice for the next.” This is exactly what happens as we improve—we progressively set newer, better equilibriums in our perception.

But it can take a goodly sum of energy to bump our perception into a new equilibrium, doesn’t it? And that’s another important point: 

Outside energy is required to reset our perception into better equilibriums. 

Being a closed feedback loop, our perception cannot reset on its own but needs outside influence to shake it loose. Influences such as life study, new techniques, unconventional references, proactive research, astute critique, guided instruction, classes and workshops, and artistic exercises are good choices. We literally need other realities to reevaluate our own because we need a comparative basis. 

But we can’t just attain a new equilibrium and then call it a day. Nope. Because our perception is quick to resettle—even revert— and that means we have to keep going, we have to apply this mode of improvement as an ongoing process. And that takes constant vigilance and bravery. 

Yes—bravery. There will come a time when we’ve mastered our techniques, our process and our media, and the remaining journey will begin to reflect inward. Our problem will inevitably become personal. The more advanced we become, the less our improvement has to do with methodology and more to do with our psyche. At some point our dissecting eye must turn inwards even though that’s not often such a comfortable headspace. Having to question not only how our perception is functioning, but why it’s doing so, cannot be accomplished without first addressing who we are through the same cold lens of objectivity. Having the will to slaughter our own sacred cows and conquer our psychological peaks is unnerving, but it is required.

It’s this inward dissection that lifts equine realism above mere clinical duplication, making it more meaningful than a 3D printer. This splendid creature asks us to search for Truth—the truth in our art, the truth in our subject, and the truth of ourselves. Over time, we’ll find that this inquisitive voyage keeps us eager and empathetic, attributes that serve us far better than any chart or loop tool in the long game. Because here's the catch: 

Unlike many things in daily life, realistic equine sculpture suffers from autopilot. 

Sure, we’re beholden to the biological pattern of “equine,” but our habits, presumptions, comfort zones, tendencies, preferences, trusted notions and other defaults can sabotage our efforts, and right under our nose. To us, our sculpture just “looks right.” Yet blindspots flourish within our autopilot, so trying to create consciously helps us to curb that sneaky problem.

Yet caution is needed every step of the way. As we recalibrate our perception, we risk establishing new unwelcome autopilots; we’re not only introduced to new ways of getting things right, but also to new ways of getting things wrong. These new defaults can also compound with previous ones, accumulating into one big wad of trouble. Our trusty set of calipers can be our best friend!

That said, autopilot settings aren’t all bad. In fact, some may serve as a kind of ritual. Some media, like ceramics or bronze casting, may actually require specific habits. The trick then is to identify those dependencies that serve us well from those that self–sabotage, and any time is a good time to rethink strategy! 


Mash all this together and it means one thing, doesn’t it? And that is this: 

All we can ever do is interpret and translate our own individual approximation of reality, not actual reality itself. 

No matter how refined our perception, all we ever have to work from is merely an approximation of reality. And no matter how much we believe our approximation to be true and accurate, it's still only an artificial construct strained through our biological limitations, social conditioning, and psychological discriminations. What’s more, the fervor of our belief doesn’t make our reality any more authentic than someone else’s reality. Everyone believes their version of reality is the trusted and true version, just as we believe in ours.

So let's think about this for a minute. What’ve we got? Another really important point, don’t we? Yet it’s one so easily forgotten in this demanding, fact–based art form, but no less critical to keep close to heart. What is it?…

We all perceive reality differently. 

And there it is, another paradoxical duality inherent in our art form: we may all be striving to capture objective reality, but that objective reality is different for each of us! Like the previous “everybody’s a critic” example, actual reality may be out there—undetectable beyond our limitations—but our perception simply can’t recognize it without specific guidance.

And it’s this probability that ushers in a host of new concerns. To start, we should remember that outside guidance, like a critique, presents a reality just as subjective as our own, bringing with it its own potential skews. And remember that it’s our perception that divines what we need from that critique, resulting in yet another potential skew. So even deciding what we need for our development has its own tenuous kinks.

Luckily, our art form comes to the rescue! Equine realism is a technical art form, right? We may be creating art, but there's still the objective factuality of the living animal as well as a plethora of technical illustrations we can study, measure, and compare against. This how we create equine realism in the first place. It’s how we distinguish whether one sculpture is more realistic than another, too. By its very nature, equine realism has an objective baseline, so it’s not as ambiguous or “open to opinion” as one might think. It’s no coincidence that the more actual reality we imbue into our clay, the more realistic our work becomes. It’s also no coincidence why this straightforward principle always works for all realistic equine art.

"Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away."
~ Philip K. Dick

Happily, this technical baseline is also conditional, teachable, learnable, quantitative, distinguishable, and consistent, the very qualities we exploit to make our work “more realistic.” We instinctively recognize this. The fact that technical accuracy automatically increases the realism of our work is proof of its objective nature, isn’t it? Either a sculpted hind leg is constructed more like an equine hind leg or it isn’t, and that quality can be directly compared against the living animal for confirmation when our perception is refined enough. This is why anatomy is our go–to, sure–fire antidote for structural mistakes, and it’s why we study anatomical illustrations, amass so many photos, and engage in field study. Instinctively, we seek that objective baseline we know is necessary for our clay.

This means it’s not objective reality that’s in question then. Instead, it’s our interpretation of reality that’s up for grabs. So remarks downplaying the objective nature of equine realism are actually saying, "I don't know enough about the technical basis of this art form to accurately recognize what's right or wrong well enough." It's a plea for patience. And—hey—no problem! We're all at various stages of growth. Being a learner—indeed, staying a learner—is vital for advancement, and just as we all perceive reality differently, we absorb and implement reality at different rates, and in different ways. Our journey is as unique as our perception.

But we do ourselves a disservice when we turn our perception gaps into excuses. We may all have different motivations, but our perception can be trained to any point we wish. The moment we decide to stop then is the moment when the excuses have to start, and that’s fine—we all have our limits. We should just be certain we can flourish within them.

Because this trap is reset for us at every turn, predisposing us to repeat our mistakes simply because we don't perceive them as mistakes. And that's another important point: 

It’s against our perception’s nature to eagerly tell us what it goofed or filtered out, meaning that what we don't perceive is far more influential than what we do. 

Each sculpture is the sum of its parts, a patchwork of skill, experience, enthusiasm and wisdom encapsulating a moment in our development. But all said and done, each sculpture is shaped more by what isn't expressed in the clay than by what is, our every omission a result of what our perception cannot recognize, and that has to do with what we are more than what we know.

So attending to our perception isn’t just about our subject or our sculpture—it’s about us, too, on a deeply personal level. So a time will come when new tools, methods, or media will cease to be the panacea, and our growth will start to include the hidden corners of our psyche. No longer about technique, our progress will turn inward, as such:

At some point we’ll become our own greatest obstacle, so for our work to grow, so must we. 

The fuller scope of our journey, this presents an opportunity to not only enrich our work, but ourselves as well. Because know it or not, every "lightbulb moment" was always preceded by a shift in our Self rather than the other way around. Relaxing our grip on trusted norms gives our perception permission to allow in new information, and then—and only then—do those bulbs start blinking on. And we may not be aware this shift is happening, but only through a change in our Self can we change our perception.

Developing the habit of rooting out what goes unSeen is a smart move. Our artistic flurries are wonderful, of course, but we can't forget to "color within the lines" Nature has drawn for us. In many ways actually, these mandated boundaries can be more of a challenge than just making stuff up. Tinkering with rules, seeing how they're bent or broken, and noting how they add up to the timeless mystery of Nature is an exquisite awakening.


Learning how we absorb and use information holds the key to our sustained growth. Or in other words, knowing how our biology works helps us to better convey the biology of another. It’s not easy, though. Perception is a slippery thing, having two troublesome complications. 

To begin with, refining our perception is the single most difficult skill to develop only because we’re literally working against ourselves. We have to work within our perception in order to hone it, and that’s a bit of a hitch, isn’t it?

Making this more difficult, most resources at our disposal ignore this issue altogether, and we’re left to our own devices to flail between information and interpretation. If that weren’t enough, our thinking tends to solidify after we’ve reached a certain proficiency level. We may even start to believe we know all we need to know, having found a measure of success. And the greater the success, the more this idea can take over, making an artistic plateau imminent. This is why we make leaping advances in our early days, but level out later in our career. It’s not our skills that stop evolving, it’s us.

All this is why continued evolution for our psyche can be more difficult for advanced sculptors. On one hand, there are fewer resources to exploit. Educational opportunities tend to only address the practical avenues of understanding, such as methodology and design theory. Even fewer venues approach the subject in the specialized way equine realism requires. And fewer still offer the holistic, interdisciplinary approach that best serves equine realism. For example, it’s unlikely we’ll find a sculpting class that incorporates horsemanship, management, and farrier principles, or a dissection class that includes artistic visualization and design principles, or a horsemanship clinic that integrates sculpting technique and process.

Such is life. But this is the reason why advanced artists often approach their creativity sideways, exploring vastly different modes of creating in order to unlock more of their Self to broaden their perception. They instinctively know it’s not their skills that necessarily need attention at that point, it’s what’s going on inside their heads. It’s also why the more skilled we become, the more self–reliance we’re forced to adopt since conventional avenues of education gradually lose their relevance.

But all this places the advanced sculptor in an ever more vulnerable position. For this reason, their remaining blindspots are particularly difficult to expose only because they’re the ones that have survived, perhaps even evolved as they did.


Unlike other art forms, equine realism is accountable to something beyond our making—the living animal—and that’s certainly a tough act to follow. Along with sculpting skills then, our perception needs a degree of finesse often beyond that of other artists, even beyond other equine professionals. Our knowledge base is unique and uniquely expansive, being interdisciplinary and practical yet also philosophical and balanced between science and aesthetic. Above all, our perception cannot take anything for granted.

But again, because knowing and doing are two different things, we have to apply this knowledge, too, and in rather unique ways. But doing so in our clay is no easy task since much can get muddled between our understanding and applying that understanding. Think back to when we were beginners. Our work was less convincing not necessarily because our skills were primitive, or that our familiarity with clay was new. It was because our perceptive abilities were rudimentary. So as our perception refined over time, we could shape our clay in more believable and confident ways. If we really think about it then, every progressive step we’ve ever taken is the product of an improved perception, with the shrewder strokes of our tools being the ends rather than the means. 

As we grew beyond the obvious then, we may have found an even deeper perception, “the moment,” that cocoon of reality that seats our subject into a complete universe. Just like us, an equine is the sum of an on–going, complex, and ever–changing equation composed of variable factors that include (but aren’t limited to): biology, physics, emotion, behavior, balance, motion, circumstance, character, narrative, posture, species, age, instinct, gender, fitness, management, weather, horsemanship, lifestyle, habitat, conformation, disease, injury, grooming, stimuli, and serendipity. Being able to perceive the entire unfolding equation second–by–second is a learned skill and through it, we move past anatomy charts to give our sculptures greater factual scope.

But that's only half the story! Why? Well, because we’re part of the equation, too! Our Reality Filter influences all these observations, like Schrödinger’s cat, making our task both objective and subjective. At every stage, our perception predestines what we absorb, making our work the sum of our blindspots as well as our strengths. And this effect presents an interesting choice for the advanced sculptor. After all our years of success and study, it’s only natural to assume that our status quo is sufficient for continued success, and that’s probably true. But that does mean our methodology, our thinking, and our work could become fixed and monotonous. Choosing not to stray too far from our trusty formulas may be safe, but wanting to break free and stride towards a greater potential isn’t so scary.

Because it may seem like an unsettling liability to know we cannot fully trust our perception, but we can frame it another way: it can be an opportunity to remain proactive and curious. In this way, equine realism becomes a path rather than a practice, a philosophy rather than just an activity. In this light, we’re called to muster uncommon dedication, and even more, we’re pulled into this animal’s world on his terms, and that takes us closer to the deeper meanings of this art form. 


Because what we cannot See is more influential in our work than what we can means that when we observe, we need to remember that our perception is selectively making subjective comparisons. That in mind, we may be able to coax it into opening up its selective process to generate a more complete mental library. If we know how we’re looking at something is heavily influenced by habit, perhaps this gives us the wherewithal to stretch a bit farther.

Only through attentive management can our perception help unfurl our true potential, or lead us to the new concepts we’d need to solve a peculiar design challenge. And the more advanced we get, the more this practice will become necessary. Keeping our Self in absorption mode, just like it was in our early days, can go far in leaping off plateaus, or avoiding them altogether. Remember the heady excitement in a class as our Self entered into a frame of mind more open to everything? We can maintain this frame of mind every time we enter our studio, too, to maintain this momentum indefinitely!

And that means training our perception never actually stops, it just goes through cycles and phases. The more we perceive, the more we realize there is to perceive, and the whole cycle begins again to feed on itself, drawing us continually forwards into new possibilities. It’s precisely this positive loop that we describe as “growth" because all “sculpting more realistically” really means is a perception opening up to more, newer, better options.


So that’s it for now. In Part 3, we’ll peruse a particular aspect of perception that can stop us in our tracks: fear. Learning how fear influences what we do can go far to help us achieve newer heights of creativity and authenticity in our work.

So on that note…another cuppa?

“What an artist learns matters little. What he himself discovers has real worth for him, and gives him the necessary incitement to work.” ~ Emil Nolde

Recommended Resources
PERCEPTION IS REALITY, Dr. Jennifer Paweleck-Bellingrodt
THE METHOD, THE MADNESS AND THE MYSTERY, ongoing blog series, Sarah Minkiewicz-Breunig
Stanford Prison Experiment, 1971, Philip G. Zimbardo.


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