Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Goo Factor


As sculptors of equine realism, we have to balance many facets of the animal in order to recreate a convincing result in clay. Being so, there are many variables at play, all existing in a sliding scale of accuracy. Yet at the basis are our anatomy charts, reference photos, field study, and various tidbits from our mental library, all working together to get us as close as possible to achieving that coveted goal of "realism."

As such, bony landmarks, muscle configurations, veining patterns, proportion, planes and angles consume our attention to help ensure we hit our mark. Conformation, breed type, gender characteristics also play their part. Gesture, expression, posture, and composition contribute their necessary qualities, too, as does technique, tool contours and smoothing methods. All these things add their unique and critical touch to our work, hopefully recreating this splendid creature in as faithful a manner we can muster.

Yet there's one aspect of this animal that's so sublime and mercurial that it rarely gets its fair due. And because its qualities morph so quickly and quirky, they literally go unseen by most. It's no surprise then why anatomy charts lack it altogether, since as a matter of course, it's stripped clean away to reveal the "more important" muscle masses and bony orientations. For all these reasons, many sculptors end up overlooking it completely as well, focusing almost entirely on everything but this one quintessential aspect.

Yet this missing element is as important as anything else, even as much as bone, muscle, planes, placement, and proportion, capturing a rare degree of realism by lending life and instance to flesh itself. Without it, in fact, it's impossible to convey the essence of living flesh altogether! So if we want to keep our sculptures from appearing too mechanical, more like postured anatomy charts rather than living, breathing beasts, this vital component is an equal imperative in our priority list.

But what is it? What's this elusive substance that goes so unaddressed so universally? What could possibly have that much power in our work, yet be so ignored? What could be so critical that goes so missing?

It's goo.

Yes—GOO. That mushy magical, that warm wonderful, that glorious gooey, goopy stuff we can call GOO.

It's one of my very favorite things! Along with the ABCs (anatomy, biomechanics and conformation), goo is equally important for a convincing equine sculpture, to create one that looks like an actual living animal rather than a static reproduction. Put it all together, we can call it The Goo Factor.

It dawned on me some years back as I was pondering how to take my sculptures beyond the lifeless illustration of an anatomy chart and into the world of fleshy, kinetic animals. Then ta-da! I had an epiphany of sorts, inspired by oogling the goo on my plump ratties—it was all about goo. I realized I couldn’t just sculpt the muscle masses as I understood them, or as they were depicted in all my anatomy chartsI had to sculpt as they existed in life. And that's very different from a chart. Flesh doesn’t just hang on the bones like an inert mass nor is it always taut and firm. It has a life of its own, a resonance with movement and moment, which must be infused to capture that look of living realism.

What Is Goo?

No matter how fit or fat the animal, all horses have goo. But what is it exactly? Well, it entails all the flesh, really, since all flesh has a goo factor to it. But we can also think of it as fascia, hide, skin, fat and mushy bits that lie atop and between muscles, tendons, ligaments, and bone, which resonates and reacts to movement. It's all the "extra bits" in a way. In other words, goo entails all those fleshy parts that wrinkle, wiggle, jiggle, goosh, smoosh, and moosh.

As important as they are for sculpture, however, they're often the very things removed during dissection, which is why they rarely end up in an anatomical illustration. Yet these things are so very important if we want to give our sculpted flesh as much real life as our conjured personality because just as movement is to anatomy, as character is to an individual, as moment is to posture, goo is to flesh. It imbues character, quirkiness, life and moment to our sculpted flesh, so with it, our sculpture will appear alive, dynamic, more as a living, breathing, fleshy creature. On the other hand, without it, our sculpted flesh will appear mechanical and static, as rigid and dead as an anatomical chartor worse, noexistant. Our body of work will appear homogenous, too, since that's all an anatomy chart can offer us. All living horses have living goo, and our sculptures do best to mimic that as best we canwhich isn't easy, to say the least.

Because goo is changeable! It's squishable, mooshable, oozeable, stretchable, wrinkable, compressible, poochable, touchable, and oh, so inviting. Don't we love to ooze the gooey parts of our pets? The gushy, warm, fleshy, soft portions like dog ears and faces, and the bellies of cats? Or the entirety of a rotund rat? 

Well, horses have goo, too! Their fleshy muzzles and eyebrows are obvious examples, as is the fleshiness between their forelegs. Other examples are wrinkles and folds at the neck and at strategic areas of bending and twisting. Their muscles can be gooey as well, especially the pectorals, which distort, mush and stretch in relation to foreleg position. They can even jiggle and wriggle in motion, too. The neck is also quite gooshy, being amoebic in articulation, seeming to gain length when stretched and to shorten when tucked. If we play close attention, too, we'll even see the neck muscles ripple and swing in unison with inertia, say around a tight turn, or over a jump.

The Missing Factor

But there's another kind of goo often unnoticed, but vital nonetheless: fascia. This magical stuff usually gets the short end of the stick in dissections and anatomical illustrations, being treated like a disposable connective tissue of no circumstance. But the fact is fascia is anything but disposable! It glues the skin on, houses the "fly shaker" muscles, binds the entire body together, wrapping around everything, giving shape and support to the muscles, suspending the organs, and creating a network of interconnected, communicating systems. 

Together, it constitutes the largest percentage of body tissue and is all made of collagen. Aside from its many structural functions, it also serves as a heat sink, cushions and reduces friction and creates areas of needed expansion (like around vessels, veins and arteries). There are five basic kinds: 

  1. “Spiderweb”: acts as a supportive, suspensory network.
  2. “Bubblewrap": serves as a heat sink, reducer of friction, provider of expansion space, and is also a major kind of contouring fascia. Generally, it has air in it or sometimes watery fluid and often oily fluid. For example, there's a lot of bubblewrap fascia under the scapula and round the point of shoulder to mediate all the friction.
  3. “Tarp”: non-stretchy and wraps something such as the aponeurosis of the torso.
  4. “Gel wrap”: wrapping in jello-like loose connective wrapping, often serving as a heat sink.
  5. Tensor Fascia Latae (TFL): it pops the patella off the “thumb stay” of the femur to release the stay apparatus, or to “take the patella off the hook." It helps in lateral work by working as an abductor and a weak protractor and guards against locked stifles. It often manifests as an obvious strip from the point of hip to the stifle.
Clearly, there's much more to fascia than previously thought! Indeed, it could easily be argued that fascia is as important as muscles and bone in the living animal, and so the same can be said for sculpture, too. Most often, it's fascia that helps to give hide its various textures and character, whether at rest or in motion. Because if we pay close attention, we find that flesh has surface eccentricities, so we shouldn't be afraid to input some oddities into the surface of our sculptures to accentuate the appearance of living flesh. Ripples, bumps, stretches, wrinkles, and other curiosities are typical of the equine hide, features that need our attention just as much as musculature.

Paying attention to goo not only adds life to our sculpture, but can heighten the sense of motion and moment as well. Depicting skin that stretches, pooches, ripples and wriggles can add kinetic features to our piece that can amplify the sense of effort and speed. Carefully placing wrinkles or oozy goo in a composition can also heighten the sense of flesh and mass, adding weight to our piece. 

So What's The Hoopla With Goo? 

In a nutshell, goo adds life to anatomy. Without it, structure remains mechanical, inert and sterile; our piece will appear as a static sculpture rather than as a living animal. Goo also accentuates everything else in a sculpture. For example, goo makes hard bony areas or firm muscle masses more believable because of the contrast it creates. Delicate wrinkles on a firm neck or mushy veins on hard bone really help to impart the idea of a living animal with real mass and immediacy. Goo is also a blast to sculpt, with curves and gooshy features that allow an artist to play, providing a welcome contrast to the technical demands of realistic sculpture. And, ultimately, goo offers a deeper understanding of the structure and physics of the animal, beyond the strict mechanics of the anatomy, which can deepen our appreciation for our craft.

The truth is that anatomy is the blueprint—yesbut without imbued life, a sculpture is simply a representational facsimile of that blueprint. This is fine unless we really want to capture that rare anima that brings our sculpture to life. We must remember that every anatomical chart ever conceived was created from studying dead horses, and unless we compensate, our work dependent on those charts will be equally lifeless. Part of that compensation is factoring in goo, that peculiar nature of flesh, in order to instill vitality into our clay. Because if we step back and really think about it, we see that the living animal doesn't move like an articulated anatomy chart, like a jointed paper doll. This is because the animal's bony anatomy is encapsulated in goo which compresses, expands, mooshes and gooshes in tandem with articulation and inertia.

So What Kinds Of Goo Is There?

What kinds of goo exist? Well, a lot! Wherever there’s something fleshy and mooshy, there’s goo. For instance:
  • Wrinkles: These are folds of skin, either small and delicate or rather bulbous, in larger rolls. They can appear on the neck, throatlatch, between the ears, between the forelegs, on the pastern when flexed, in the elbow area, on the flanks, on the hindquarter or were the buttock meets the back of the gaskin when the hindleg is flexed or extended. They're also common on the face, such as the brows and muzzle, and that wonderful squishy chin. Studying the living animal and photos will reveal that wrinkles are very common and can appear in the most unexpected places. Because wrinkles are folds of skin, they can also be more substantial like those on the crest of a Welsh Cob stallion or Drafter, or sometimes on the torso if the horse is really bending around, perhaps to scratch his barrel. And it doesn’t matter if a horse is wiry or pudgey, various types of wrinkles always occur, and so infusing them into our sculpture will do wonders for adding life's texture and “touchability."
  • Depressions and Concavities: Goo also manifests itself in the depressions and concavities muscle assume, especially when in motion, as the flesh is mushed, gooshed, pushed, pulled and pooched, forming dips and channels that don’t exist when the horse is simply standing. Remember, the horse is a 3D animal and so his muscles don’t simply move over each other, they also dip in and out and smoosh around each other during contraction or relaxation. That is to say, muscles don’t only move back and forth and up and down, they also move in and out. This kind of goo does amazing things for sculpture by instilling a sense of mass and fleshiness, keeping it from becoming a “flattened” technical depiction of anatomy we see in a diagram. Truly, muscles aren't stiff, fixed masses, but kinetic and squishy, dynamic features, producing lovely contours as they react to each other in motion. 
  • Sliding Skin: The skin isn’t attached to the muscles or bone on the whole of its inner surface as though natured coated it with spray adhesive and smoothed it evenly over the muscles. Rather, it’s “tacked down” by fascia at random points, allowing the skin to slide over muscles or bony areas with relative ease. And the more mobile an area, the more likely the skin is “slideable" over that area. For example, the skin on the elbow has a lot of sliding ability, which you can watch every time a horse lifts his foreleg. Also look for this effect on the ribs, stifle and shoulder. Watch how a horse flexes his hindleg and see how the stifle slides under the skin, or when a horse breaths deeply, how his ribs ripple underneath. 
  • Amoeba: When studying motion, it’s important not to interpret the body as moving like a stick-figure or an articulated paper doll. Granted, movement occurs at the joints and those joints have parameters for articulation, but within those parameters is life. That means it’s a mistake to think only of the skeleton and forget that its cloaked in flesh that smooshes and stretches during articulation. This is the amoebic nature of flesh and understanding this concept is essential for realistic sculpture. For example, notice how the neck seems to “lengthen” when stretched or “shorten” when tucked? Or how the neck seems “longer” when the scapula is extended back or “shorter” when the scapula is lifted upwards? Or on the hindquarter, a deeply flexed hindleg will cause the gaskin to smoosh into the hindquarter musculature, with all sorts of wrinkles and gooshing. The skeleton does articulate, but it doesn't do so in a vacuum! Always remember that it does so enveloped in goo! Which leads to…
  • Distortion: Because the skeleton is buried in flesh, which is smooshable and stretchy, when it articulates, muscle bellies are stretched and gooed, distorting away from their normal appearance when standing. And the less an area is characterized by subcutaneous bone, the more this distortion can happen. Indeed, one of the most lovely and interesting aspects of movement is how the flesh changes as a consequence. The neck, pectorals, triceps, and hindquarter are typically the sites of the most distortion, so observe them on real horses to get a better understanding of just how much this effect comes into play when interpreting motion.
  • Stretching: Flesh also stretches! Clear examples of this can be seen in the elbow and flank area as those little skin flaps that stretch when the limb is extended. Another clear example is the skin overlaying the girth and triceps area, which can be seen to stretch when that forearm extends forwards. Also muscle bellies can be stretched during extension, which is easily observed around the shoulder and hinquarter when the respective legs are extended forwards or backwards, or in the pectoral area, when the forelegs are abducted.
  • Muscle Resonance: This sublime manifestation of goo occurs when inertia acts upon relaxed portions of flesh, making them jiggle, flop or ripple in resonance to the physics of movement. For instance, a bowed posterior portion of the forearm on an extended foreleg because the flexor muscles are relaxed, how the triceps goo and hollow when relaxed, or the Sternomandibularis muscles jiggling, rippling, or bowed due to the inertia of a sharp turn or spin. Our eye often misses these moments, but when our Eye is honed, we'll be able to observe such effects in living horses, and then in photos. They add a wonderful touch to sculpture!
Tips For Infusing The Goo Factor

Ok, so now we know about goo, let's get it into our clay, and here are some tips: 
  • We should know our anatomy. Goo can distort or hide anatomical structures, so if we’re going to learn about goo, we have to first know about anatomy, otherwise we'll get confused. We have to learn the rules before we can break them!
  • Life study is a must. We cannot learn about goo by simply studying photos or anatomical diagrams. We have to seek out the living animal and spend a lot of focused time observing how living flesh behaves. 
  • Don’t overdo. The sculpture will look odd if we make the effects too extreme by getting carried away. The trick is to find an interpretation that gets the point across that’s both technically accurate and artistically pleasing. 
  • Know our goo. Work to identify the different types of goo and under what circumstances they appear. For example, wrinkles are always present in one place or another while amebic goo mostly occurs around areas of flexion or extension. Also, several types of goo may happen simultaneously, such as wrinkles, with concavities and distortions, so also pay attention to cumulative effects. 
  • Remember what goo is. Always keep in mind that goo is pliable flesh with a squishy, soft, warm quality. It’s seductive and alluring and begs to be touched. So we need to keep the goo in our sculpture fleshy and soft looking, avoiding methods that would make it appear harsh, regimented, or mechanical. That's to say our goo shouldn't look like joint wrinkles on an artificial limb. 
  • Preplan our goo. Because goo is an integral part of our finished sculpture, it’s important to consider how it’s applied. For example, large bundles of rippling muscle on a Quarter Horse are fun, but aren't accurate on an Arabian. Jiggling muscles on a standing sculpture will look strange as would static goo on a moving sculpture. So identify the appropriate types of goo and the necessary degree needed for it to complement our sculpture. 
  • Think in terms of curves. Avoid straight lines and straight planes when sculpting muscle masses. Horses are made of flesh, not polished sheet metal.
  • Details count. Veins and moles contribute to the illusion of fleshiness, so instill them when appropriate.
  • Study other artists. Taking note on how other artists sculpturally express goo will help us decide how we wish to approach it in our work. 
Because of its fleshiness, sculpting goo can be tricky. So for a head start, avoid these common missteps:
  • Bundling: Characterized by a discreet bundle of wrinkles, tightly amassed around an articulated area and possessing a definite border between wrinkles and the surrounding unwrinkled flesh. In truth, wrinkles fade in and out and blend gently with the surrounding flesh with no real border; it’s all very chaotic, gentle and gradual. 
  • Measured: Each wrinkle shouldn't be the same size or width nor should they be evenly spaced and regimented. In reality, wrinkles tend towards different widths and various distortions in a more chaotic fashion. Remember, a wrinkle is a bit of folded, soft flesh, and so our sculpted hide shouldn't behave like a segmented accordion.
  • Slashing: Again, a wrinkle is folded flesh, so we should try to avoid tooling that causes a slashed, harsh, or grooved look. Keep them soft and fleshy.
  • Channeling: Muscle masses are round and curved, and the defining grooves between them are often softer and more mercurial than an anatomy chart depicts. So we should avoid tooling that creates a harshly carved groove into the clay to denote muscle definition, with sharp edges and lacking that rounded, softened nature of living muscle masses. 
  • Excess: So much about recreating convincing goo is knowing when to apply it and when not to, and in which areas and why. If we don't apply goo, our sculpture will appear too static whereas if we apply too much, it'll appear lumpy and odd. Goo is a very powerful element to our sculpture, so be clear about how to apply it.
How To Study Goo

Field study is ideal for studying goo! Watch horses in person during motion, and the lunge-line is a good starter by creating a focused situation. Pay particular close attention to the shoulders, throatlatch, forearms, elbow area, hindquarter, neck, ears, lips, chest, genitals and barrel. Look for the wrinkling, wiggling, jiggling, rippling movement with each stride and phase of movement on the horse’s body. Slow motion video is also a great way to study how goo resonates with motion, how it ripples, jiggles and distorts in synch with the nature and force of the horse’s movement. 

Then turnaround and attempt to decipher and identify goo in photos. This type of training can train us about goo very quickly, better enabling us to imbue it into our clay. In fact, we’ll discover that goo is a whole new level of understanding that deepens our appreciation of equine anatomy and lends interest to our sculpture.


Anyone can apply anatomical charts and diagrams to copy the anatomy faithfully into sculpture. That's easily done with a bit of discipline and gumption. But it takes a new kind of understanding to mimic the life of that anatomy, to capture and reinstate the fleshy, rippling, gooshy nature of living flesh. Indeed, an anatomy chart is one thing, but living flesh is entirely another.

Its the understanding of goo that helps us transcend the technical by adding character, moment, and life to that anatomical base. It brings the moment to the surface—literallyand communicates the mass and movement of the animal in ways a strict technical expression can fail to convey. In doing so, we've gone one step closer to capturing "living realism" in our clay, expressing this lovely animal more completely and faithfully.

So, until next time, ooze in that glorious goo!

"There is a better chance of getting an exciting painting from a laboured study with texture than from a fine drawing without it." ~ John Sloan

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