Monday, April 20, 2015

Mapping Out Success: Equine Topography


We all know that understanding equine anatomy helps to ensure a convincing realistic sculpture. But not many know its more sublime advantage, that of pinpointing anatomical landmarks to guide an artist throughout the creation of a sculpture. 

These landmarks identify the actual dimensions and placement of the bones and muscles themselves, helping the artist to better visualize and translate equine anatomy into the sculpture. Together, these landmarks can be likened to a kind of map, or “equine topography”, which offers several invaluable benefits for sculpture. First, using topography allows a sculpture to be approached much like a connect-the-dots between the anatomical features, making sculpting easier and less intimidating, no matter what the pose. Second, familiarity with this topography enables an easy and accurate deciphering of reference photos and life study, which, in turn, help to guide the sculpting process even further. Third, it offers fixed points by which proportion can be measured and applied to sculpture, regardless of position. Fourth, it promotes symmetry by offering fixed points by which to gauge dimensional relationships. Fifth, these reference points are consistent across breeds and species because they’re based on the equine blueprint, meaning they can be applied to any equine sculpture. And sixth, these points comprise those bony and fleshy features that lay the foundation to realism. That is to say a sculpting lacking these landmarks can't be considered realistic by definition. So understanding these critical points of reference gets us pretty far along in the realism department!

There are two layers to equine topography—the skeletal and the fleshy. Subcutaneous, easily palpated bone serves as the skeletal landmarks while muscle group configurations form the fleshy landmarks. An artist shouldn’t rely on just one layer, but be well versed in both for the best results. This is because both layers are interrelated and work together to guide the artist, plus knowing both allows one to measure proportions and symmetry with greater precision.  

But in order to use these landmarks, an artist needs a few things up her sleeve. First, good proportional calipers are essential; they're truly a sculptor’s best friend. For that, I recommend the Prospek® proportional calipers (Figure 1). Second, a lockable compass is very handy for quickly measuring proportion. Third, a protractor, preferably one made of clear plastic with a pivoting ruler (Figure 2) helps us to measure angles, such as for the shoulder, hip, pasterns, and hooves. Both the lockable compass and the protractor can be purchased at an office supply, hardware, or art supply store. Fourth, the artist should have a thorough understanding of how the skeleton is constructed, where the joints are located, and how the whole system functions together. Fifth, a solid grasp of the superficial muscle layer and major muscle groups is required to interpret what’s happening under the skin. And sixth, the artist should cultivate the dedicated habit of checking the reference points throughout the entire sculpting process. Indeed, the rule of thumb for a realistic artist is to understand precisely what we’re sculpting and check often; then check again. It's easy for things to go awry when we're so deeply immersed in sculpting, and these techniques and tools help to keep us on target.

Skeletal Landmarks

Learning the skeletal landmarks isn’t difficult. The best way is to gently palpate them on real horses, visualizing the whole skeleton as you go. But if that isn’t possible, gaining access to a real equine skeleton or a well-done sculpture of an equine skeleton (such as found in Zahourek Systems EQUIKENTM) can be beneficial, too. I also highly recommend the anatomy classes taught by Lynn Fraley here in Boise.

Then, hone your eye by practicing with photos, trying to recognize some of these landmarks in them, to extrapolate the whole skeleton inside the depicted animal. You may also want to print out and draw the skeleton on those images to train your eye. Once you’re able to see “into” the horses in the photos, you’ll better be able to see “into” your sculpture. And since the anatomical blueprint is consistent with all equines, these landmarks can be used with all equine sculptures, offering the artist greater confidence and freedom when designing the sculpture.

Fleshy Landmarks

Muscles and other fleshy components of the body attach to the skeleton in certain configurations, which allows many of their groupings to serve as their own landmarks for sculpting. This means it’s important that muscles are not only sculpted correctly as they appear in life, but that they’re also oriented correctly on the sculpture’s "skeleton". 

Now this may sound like a rather daunting task, but it’s actually a fortunate biological correlation. Why? Because once an artist can see the skeleton inside her sculpture, laying on the musculature is that much easier. When you can see the internal infrastructure, then adding on the muscles is simply a straightforward exercise.

It works in reverse, too! In and of themselves, the muscle groups can help an artist tease out the skeleton during life study or interpreting photos because their origins, insertions and arrangements are clues to the bony system underneath. On a horse, it’s the flesh we see, not the skeleton, right? 

So the ability to recognize the major muscle groupings is essential not just for their own sake, but to also deepen an artist’s capacity to project reality onto her sculptures. In doing so, you can see how the two layers of topography, the bony and the fleshy, are inseparably intertwined and work together for the best advantage.


How the dimensions of different body parts relate to each other is critical for creating a realistic sculpture. Undeniably, a single misstep can instantly destroy the illusion, or even depict a fatal conformational flaw. Proportion also plays a significant role in differentiating the age groups, the genders, the species, and even the breeds, so being able to measure this aspect faithfully is important.

Yet measuring proportion is typically a mystifying and confusing procedure for those new to sculpting, which tends to inspire some rather tenuous assumptions. For example, some search for a magic formula to churn out the needed numbers while others simply go by “eye” and hope for the best. Some even wish to believe that certain breeds have a “cookie cutter” set of dimensions, as though one set of measurements should apply to all individuals of that breed. Some even use their drawings to use as a proportional guide. 

But the truth is that measuring proportion is really quite easy once you understand anatomy, or rather, once you're able to recognize the skeletal landmarks. However, there are a several things to keep in mind when considering proportional measurements. For starters, the methods for gauging proportion are as individualistic as the artists themselves, because what may work for one person, won’t for another. For example, I’ve tried to design a sculpture based on scaled dimensions from real measurements, but I simply cannot make this approach work for me, though it works beautifully for others. So it’s important to experiment with many different approaches to find one that works for you. Second, proportional measurements should be sympathetic to the individuality of each animal, since each is physically unique, just like you and me. And, finally, proportional relationships often fall prey to “fads,” such as the penchant for overly long necks or tiny muzzles or small hooves, so it’s important for an artist to think of function first, rather than letting herself be overly focused on fashion.

Nevertheless, the method for measuring proportion presented here is one I have developed and used for over twenty years, and I hope it’s one you may find useful. It’s quick, it’s easy, it accounts for individual variation, it’s readily adaptable to any equid, in any position, it’s easily translated from photos or life study, and it utilizes an artist’s natural penchant for visual evaluation. But, it does rely on a good understanding of the skeletal landmarks, so be sure you’re “boned up” on them before using this method.

But how it works is simple: structural relationships are standardized and gauged against one standard measurement, that of the head, measured from the poll to the end of the muzzle. This is where the lockable compass comes in handy—once the measurement is taken, it’s locked, making it a simple task to make multiple comparisons on the sculpture throughout the sculpting process. It also helps to mediate the common fault of sculpting the head either too big or too small.


Symmetry applies to the bilateral halves of the animal—each paired feature should be as perfectly matched as possible, in placement, dimension, orientation and composition. For example, eyes should be matched and level, leg bones should be of equal dimensions with their pair, muscle development should be consistent, etc. But we also have to consider that, like us, horses have slight asymmetries to their faces and bodies. This is fine in a sculpture as long as the degree of the asymmetry lies within the bounds of what would be acceptable or healthy in life. But outside of this spectrum, there’s rarely a more effective way to obliterate the illusion of reality than looking head-on at a sculpture’s head and finding that the eyes are considerably askew!

While bilateral symmetry is essential, it’s not the easiest thing to achieve. Let’s face it: every artist has her “good side” and “bad side” of working, so it’s understandable that many artists lament about having to match the other side! But once an artist grasps equine topography, she’s one step closer to making this painstaking process easier. The habit of rechecking the landmarks and the dimensions of the body with calipers, the compass and the protractor, will do much to guide an artist towards symmetry. 

Also, another handy tool for achieving bilateral symmetry is a contour gauge (Figure 3).
Mind you, this gauge works best on a hard material, like epoxy or hard clay, but with a gentle touch it could probably be used on softer media. This tool is very useful for comparing the symmetry of paired body parts since it forms the pins around an area and holds that profile, which can then be immediately compared to the other side.

Another trick, one particularly helpful for head symmetry, utilizes a digital camera and photo editing software (such as Photoshop Elements®) to manipulate the images. Once you complete one side of the head, take a good digital shot of it from a full side view. Download this image into your computer, flip it horizontally in the photo-editing program, scale it to the proper size and now you can use this as reference for the other side. Or, you could print the image out on clear acetate. You can even scale the images of both sides and overlay them on top of each other, making one semi-transparent, to directly make comparisons. 

And don’t forget to check the paired sides or body parts from all angles. These bilateral pairs must match from all views, so don’t check just one aspect, and don’t ever think that no one will notice! Eventually, someone will.

Some Proportions that May Surprise You!

Once you start to practice measuring proportions with these skeletal and fleshy landmarks, you’ll soon find some surprising revelations. The divergence of what the mind thinks it sees and what’s actually there is certainly interesting! The stylized depiction of equines is a rather common sight in art, having a long historical precedent. However, as realistic artists, we’re presented with a certain degree of responsibility to the subject that perhaps obligates us to different priorities.

For starters, you’ll see that the backs on most sculptures are unnaturally short, some markedly so. Nature created the horse’s back to be of a certain length to accommodate the necessary viscera to digest grasses, to run over long distances and to gestate large foals. The more the back is shortened, the more these organs are compromised. This isn’t to say that a long back is a good idea, but that there is a medium length that is optimal for the animal’s biology. However, you’ll notice that this medium length, the normal length, is considered “too long” by many folks with eyes that have been skewed to favor a back that's too short.
Also, accurate measurements reveal that most models, like too many real horses nowadays, have necks that are far too long. Most definitely, long is not necessarily “better,” a typical fallacy found in today’s horse industry. Indeed, the more the neck is lengthened, the more those cervical bones are lengthened, unnaturally stressing the ligaments and tendons that hold the chain of cervical vertebrae together, as well as the nerves that govern movement. It’s no wonder then that those horses bred to have unnaturally long necks are often plagued by subluxations, muscle problems, uncoordinated motion and nerve damage. 

The reality is that it’s the shape and set of the cervical chain, not the length, that’s important. There are two basic kinds of “ideal” necks for riding—the arched neck and the straight neck. They both share the same cervical orientation with the only difference being the set onto the torso. This means being well versed in bony landmarks is essential to both deciphering these necks from life and duplicating them properly in sculpture. 

To begin with, the arched neck is set high on the torso with a shallow curve as it leaves the first thoracic vertebra. It projects immediately upward into a long, openly curved "mitbah", attaching to the head with an open angle. These necks are typical of Arabians, Saddlebreds, Morgans and many Warmbloods, and others historically bred for riding. The straight neck has the same configuration, but is set lower on the torso, projecting straight out, rather than up, such as found on stock horses, many Thoroughbreds and other breeds historically bred for speed. A mention of the swan neck is in order, too, since it’s often maligned as a conformation flaw. However, this is unnecessary because it’s simply an arched neck with more slender musculature, such as is often found on Akhal-Tekes.

Finally, precise measurements will illuminate how inaccurate the facial features are on many sculptures. The equine face, perhaps more than any other body part, is subject to the most extreme degrees of idealized stylization, most notably on the halter-dominant breeds, such as the Arabian. The equine head is also the site of many artistic misinterpretations because the artist may be operating under unknown blindspots or gaps of understanding. But in reality, let’s face it—the face is one of the hardest things to sculpt! It’s complicated, detailed, and the source of so much expression and “soul." Indeed, it’s the primary thing we humans identify with, as a visual species. However, the good news is that because so much of the head is subcutaneous bone, so mastering equine topography can go far to helping you imbue lifelike, convincing heads on your sculptures.


Undeniably, equine topography is essential for a realistic artist to study and master. Understanding the anatomical relationships not only makes the sculpting process easier and more accurate, it also frees the artist to design sculptures from her own vision, rather than being enslaved by photos or anatomical charts. Most importantly, it gives the artist license to study how real flesh morphs and behaves during motion, which no anatomical chart can possibly illustrate. This means the artist is now able to use her true voice, in full confidence and freedom, to express all the wonder and diversity of the equine world. 

In the end, utilizing equine topography lends more authenticity to a sculpture while also opening up infinite design possibilities for new artistic explorations. Perhaps most important of all, it reveals that all equines are individuals, blessed with infinite variations on the blueprint, which can only serve to inspire creativity and deepen the appreciation for this remarkable genus.

Recommended Tools
Prospek® proportional calipers: Item #32839 from Jerry’s Artarama,
Contour gauge: Item #14412 from MicroMark,
Lockable compass (it comes in a set with a protractor): Item # 55733-1009 from Dick Blick,
Protractor with Arm: Item # 8872209 from MisterArt,
Proportional scale: Item # 5473-1005 for the 5” or # 55473-1083 for the 8.25” from Dick Blick,
Photoshop Elements®:
Zahourek Systems-EQUIKENTM model:

"A painting that is well composed is half finished."
~ Rohan Baikar

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