Friday, January 9, 2015

What's Reality Between A Couple of Friends…And a Bunny? Part 5


Welcome back again to this six–part series exploring the psychological nature of sculpting equine realism. In Parts 1–4, we explored some aspects of our hardwiring that can interfere with our artistic growth as well as three modes of influence we can use to deepen our perception.

We’ve explored the various facets of our perception and how it puts us on our own customized autopilot every time we come to our clay. If our autopilot settings are synched with reality—that’s great! That’s what we want! But if they aren’t, we can get into trouble with our sculpture rather quickly. So how do we know?

In this Part 5 then we’ll explore how the brain fills–in for us, or goes into autopilot to take action in spite of our intentions. Understanding this mechanism is important for jumpstarting our own pro–active growth any time we wish, so enough jabbering…let’s go!


Our brain is outfitted with a system that fills–in missing information for us. It works in synch with our pattern recognition response, and can even be thought of as an offshoot. It’s what allows us to “smooth out the movement” of stop animation, or the frames of a movie, for instance. And those famous photos by Eadweard Muybridge are another good example. Our brain simply fills–in the missing information to make one frame flow into the next.

And our brain can do the same thing with sculpting. It does this by filling–in areas it finds unclear, even making it up as it goes along, something often referred to as “fudging it” or guesstimating. We aren’t even aware our brain is doing this, and so may carry on in total confidence.

Now if our brain fills–in properly, it works in our favor. Hey, that's one of the perks of a well–trained perception and managed patterning response! However, sometimes we can get into trouble if our perception isn’t so well–schooled, and we can recognize this by some tell–tale signs.

For one, asymmetries can be found between paired components like the legs or on the head. For another, bony and fleshy landmarks will be missing or misplaced, or muscle groups will be rendered incorrectly. They may even appeared “glossed over” in favor of other features of more interest to the sculptor, such as the head or the mane and tail. The neck is a good example, too, as it's often the product of guesstimating to get the head into the desired orientation. More still, transition sections of the body, like the interface between the shoulders and the torso, or the hindquarter and the torso will be asymmetrical and sculpted in a way that implies the sculptor wasn’t too sure about these areas.

But filling–in has a more troublesome aspect to it: the more we rely on it, the more likely we’ll hit a plateau not so easily amended. It makes sense—the more we have to guess, the less we actually know what we’re doing, right? And with the hefty demands of equine realism, that’s a concerning proposition because the more filling–in we have to do, the more we may be shutting out essential elements of our subject. But not only are missing aspects a problem, our filling–in mechanism can get the things it does input wrong or incomplete, too. This is how filling–in can increase the potential for accumulated errors to compound in our sculpture.

This is really one of the differences between sculptures—the more accurate piece simply has less filling–in since more decisions were executed in an informed, confident, and deliberate manner. Equine realism has objective boundaries—we're first beholden to biological rules and physical laws, by definition. We don't get to make things up. The interesting thing is though, a point comes when anatomy charts no longer provide the inroads we need for substantial new progress. For one, they're 2D, aren't they? And for another, they're too neatly organized and static to mimic nature's living chaos. 

Curiously then, this deficiency usually occurs at the precise point where our perception can no longer fill–in for us, having reached the limit of its ability to fudge what’s unSeen. And so we stall-out in a creative plateau, and perhaps uncomfortable at the thought of stretching farther.

Each plateau is a quagmire of our own making, containing those elements we don't register as errors and the aspects that have been filled–in. And every artist—no matter how talented or trained—will plateau at various points for this reason. It’s just part of the process, and nothing to be ashamed about. The only trick is recognizing when it happens and learning how to jump off if we wish.

But even that's easier said than done. Our perception roadblocks this quest by design, and with increasing shrewdness. That's because advanced skills translate into advanced errors that are ever harder to expose. Consciousness is a funny thing, isn’t it? And who would have thought it could interfere with our pursuit of realism? 

Like the rest of our hardwiring, the phenomenon of filling–in cannot be avoided, but it can be managed. By deepening our perception, we also improve our brain's ability to fill–in for us, the two go hand in hand. It should also be said that the organic nature of anatomy calls for a degree of filling–in, right? This is a fleshy, mercurial critter and sometimes all the neat delineations we find in the anatomy chart aren't so crisp and cut on the real deal, are they? Indeed, sometimes filling–in can produce a more lifelike result than faithfully carving in every muscle group! So if we can lift our filling–in response into the conscious, deliberate action of our creative decisions, we can make it work for us in the best way possible.


All this means, of course, that the big difference between perceived reality and actual reality correlates to a big difference between perceived improvement and actual improvement as well. When we work harder, but the outcome remains essentially the same is when we have perceived improvement—it's time to rethink even harder! 

Perceived improvement comes in many forms. For example, it could be the thought that simply sculpting something new is improvement, but little credit is given to how accurately it was executed. Say we sculpt a sleepy eye for the first time, but the planes and placement are inaccurate. Sure, we're doing something new, but are we doing it correctly? So if we were to move from trail riding to jumping and wreck every time, would we consider that improvement?

Actual progress comes with a paradigm shift in our perception so that we undertake something new and execute it correctly. We sculpt a piece twice as big as we’ve ever done before, for instance, and we nail it spot–on—now that’s real growth! Perhaps we sculpt a horse lying down for the first time and we totally rock it! Actual growth is meaningful change, not superficial change because, remember, it’s not enough to know, we must also do. This isn't to say that every step forward isn't to be celebrated! Newness is to be embraced. But we should pay attention to the nature of our steps. 

It's important to know, however, that perceived growth doesn't mean we lack skill, vision, or ability, or that we’re blind, uneducated, or stupid. It just means our perception is unaccountable and filling–in far too much. We're too dependent on our perception’s autopilot and so a fuller menu of choices are invisible to us—and that's fixable. 

“Beyond our most stubborn misperception lies often our fondest dream.”
~Robert Brault

For that, it's useful to know that our perception’s propensity to fill–in tends to find its most entrenched home in our blindspots and our style. In many ways, blindspots are simply another way of saying “filling–in” because what’s a blindspot but an unconsciously fudged feature? And we may be seduced into forsaking too much accuracy for the sake of our style, and that’s a kind of filling–in, too. But again, it's not because we're lazy, arrogant, or unable—we sincerely believe we're hitting the mark! It’s simply our perception, our fear, our pattern recognition, and a lot of filling–in that has ambushed our creativity. This may seem beneficial—and to a point it is—but realism asks us to approach each sculpture as an entirely new experience, and with the ability to make deliberate decisions every step of the way. So lifting ever more of our unconscious habits into the conscious state helps us to maintain quality control. 

We should also know though that our work will always be the amalgamation of both the good and the pesky qualities we have, and embracing both is the most useful means for growth. Implied here is the freedom to keep certain pesky qualities because—let's face it—not everything quirky is unwanted. We're entitled to our own personality and eccentricities, right? Selfawareness is as much about acceptance as well, given our quirks aren't too sabotaging. It's up to us then to decide which pesky bits to keep or modify to best help us along, and that's part of the process.

Squish all this together, mix it with our earnestness and love, and a special kind of magic emerges from inside—at this moment we discover the final exclusive gift selfawareness brings to us, and that is our true Voice. Through all our trails, we've come to recognize—perhaps to our surprise—that we’re truly Seeing this animal for the very first time. 

"The old skin has to be shed before the new one can come.”
~ Joseph Campbell


All this is why the themes of "letting go of the Self" and "selfawareness" have permeated this series, since only through letting go of our old Selves can we evolve. But that said, we'll encounter four curious reactions that seek to detour us on our path as we consider the ideas presented in this series…

First, hardwired impulses are entwined with all that we are, including our distinct individuality. Being so, we may experience reluctance to mess with them, and rightly so. Artists usually have a strong sense of Self, and we pride ourselves on communicating that uniqueness in our work. But that very same Self can impede our potential, too. Think about it: if our Self got us to the point we're at now, how could we change that direction without first changing ourselves? The two go hand in glove. So after the reluctance has passed, consider this idea: messing with these concepts doesn't mean we intend to sell–out, to compromise or destroy our individuality, but to offer it the opportunity to truly grow, renew, and rediscover. 

“I do my best work and have the most fun when I’m not sure exactly where I’m heading. The process of discovery is exhilarating.”
~ Jill Cohen

Second, we may conclude that our perception establishes our unique style, the artistic fingerprint that makes our work distinctive. This may be a critical component to our art and a deeply personal aspect we value—and that's exactly how it should be. So, again, we may react with reluctance, even indignation, at the thought of tweaking them. But, again, once that fear–driven emotion passes, consider this: how can we be sure our style is truly “us" if we cannot authentically identify what makes us who and what we are? When we come to recognize our perception’s tendencies and objectively analyze our Self, don't we discover new ways to make our work even more aligned to who we are? There's a big difference between an artistic fingerprint and a creative cage.

“As soon as a true thought has entered our mind, it gives a light which makes us see a crowd of other objects which we have never perceived before.”
~ Francois Rene de Chateaubriand

Third, success may have induced us into thinking we're already doing "good enough," or perhaps that we've even fleshed out our potential in true form. And that may be absolutely true. But who can say? And that's the point—how can we be sure? Without objective judgements, don't all we really have is just an opinion? And if opinions are the product of the Self, that means they can be just as skewed as our perception. Indeed, it's perfectly conceivable we aren't anywhere near our potential, and a switch in gears is needed to get closer.

Fourth, we're sculpting an animal deeply immersed in human intention and entirely at the mercy of human motivation. We're also doing so in a realistic way, which tends to contain more baggage than many other art forms. Horses are often connected to status and profit, too, and sad to say, these things don't often mix well with the animal’s welfare. With show horses, and halter horses in particular, we have a group sometimes being pushed away from necessary biological parameters by show ring pressures. Today we even hear breeders talking about "living art,” or "sculpting" with their breeding decisions without much thought to the structural underpinnings dictated by evolution. Likewise, we're seeing competition at even the highest levels resorting to coercion, distortions, gimmicks, and shortcuts, with some competitors even conspiring en masse to hide abusive and illegal practices.

“If you can change your perception, you can change your emotion and this can lead to new ideas.”
~ Edward de Bono

Yet we're talking about a sensitive, finely–tuned creature nature designed solely for function within their biological niche. Their structure and psychology are based only on the requirements dictated by equine biology, and their inherent beauty is a result of this biological economy. Consequently, the equine blueprint has surprisingly little room for deviation to maintain the integrity of the whole. Add into this the new scientific findings that suggest much that we know about the genus and how we've managed these animals all along may be fundamentally flawed, casting serious doubt on conventional practices. For this reason, everything from equine podiatry to psychology to biomechanics to nutrition to dentistry is undergoing a kind of upheaval.

Likewise, ideas about beauty and excellence play a big part in our work only because they have such a big influence in real life. But as much as these ideas are valued, it's smart to remember that our concepts of beauty, suitability, or perfection are artificial. Therefore, they may be distorted to suit our own ambitions and standards rather than being in synch with the animal’s evolutionary biology. 

“The greatest obstacle to discovery is not ignorance—it is the illusion of knowledge.”
~ Daniel J. Boorstin

And when our perception has staked such a strong claim on such ideas, we’re prone to interpret informed critique as an ignorant attack rather than as an invitation to revise. Our hardwiring makes this reaction so automatic, in fact, that a reliable litmus test of an artist's self–awareness is how they interpret equine perfection and how they react when challenged. Can objective or empirical proof be offered as a defense? Do we have facts or just an opinion? Informed ideas are okay, of course, but an unaccountable opinion is a tricky thing. 

Why? Because not only does our perception play into questionable practices with equines, it causes them, and so we may risk validating harm to the animal we intend to honor if we aren't able to adequately manage it in the studio. 

“The perception of beauty is a moral test.”
~ Henry David Thoreau

For all these reasons, realistic equine sculpture isn't something we just pick up and dabble in if we wish to truly advance. It's a path. It asks for introspective meditation and conscientious reevaluation, but that can't happen without rummaging about inside our heads. Learn to make this a gentle habit, and we come to know our subject and ourselves in meaningful new ways and that, in turn, translates into progressive jumps within our body of work. We also come to put aside fame, objectification, awards, and status as measures of our achievement to instead embrace curiosity, truth, union, and compassion. It's no small statement to say that advancement in equine realism is equal parts learning about ourselves and learning about our subject, on the deepest levels. 

“So much of what we do and see and think is through our private and individual filter of perception.”
~ Mary Timme


Yet we should know that the effects of our hardwiring can't be removed entirely from our process. What we can do, however, is learn now to recognize when its starts to take over to then make informed decisions about how to proceed. But there’s no real need to hurry or force this journey—it cannot be rushed. It needs to unfold in our own time and in our own way.

“The reality of life is that your perceptions—right or wrong—influence everything else you do. When you get a proper perspective of your perceptions, you may be surprised how many other things fall into place.” 
~ Roger Birkman

So what's the point of the art form then? What’s our little long–eared wise wabbit trying to ultimately reveal to us? He may have something different to reveal to each of us to be sure, but all said and done, perhaps it all comes down to this: learning how to gain conscious control of our craft so we can make more choices that are also more informed. In this way we don’t only advocate for the animal, but for ourselves, too.

“What we call art would seem to be specialist artifacts for enhancing human perception.”
~ Marshall McLuhan

That’s a lovely promise, isn’t it? That we can be less burdened by unconscious rules to more freely and joyfully express the reality of this wondrous animal and, in so doing, explore who we truly are as well. To be able to create in a fearless, confident way, and come to our clay filled with renewed resolve and exhilaration is a wonderful thing, isn't it? When we start to See our efforts in this new way, isn’t it funny how this gracious animal gifts us the opportunity to See ourselves in a new way, too?

"Art doesn’t begin with a brush and palette, but with the artist’s ability to perceive life. You have to learn how to live before you can learn how to paint.”
~ Dean Mitchell

The bottom line is this: our work cannot evolve and grow unless we do, too. This marvelous creature we’ve chosen to celebrate is truly our guide, bearing us towards ever–brighter horizons as we gallop closer to our true potential. Immerse ourself in this blessing, and our work becomes more than just sculpting horses realistically—it becomes buoyant with discovery about all that we are, and all that is this animal we so love. 

That’s one clever, bitty bunny, no? So in that spirit then he wishes you this blessing: may all that you See ever evolve!

"It is not quite accurate to say that the objective of art is to represent what happens to us as a consequence of encountering the world. A fuller description of the task would be to say our aim is to discover what happens to us as we consider things."
~ Peter London

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