Thursday, October 8, 2015

The Unreality of Realism; Walking the Tightrope Between Fact and Fiction, Part I

Introduction to The Unreality of Realism

Artists who specialize in equine realism eventually have to confront what it is they’re actually doing, not in the subjective sense, but in an objective sense. This can be a unique position within art. Other creative forms usually call for a kind of personal introspection for direction or a new concept for inspiration, one usually shaped entirely by artistic whim. Yet our discipline demands something more. 

The result is a singular dilemma for us. Our work isn’t weighed against a social backdrop, a political perspective, a new art movement, or an influential predecessor. We don’t answer to schools of art theory or concepts rooted in abstraction or mercurial sentiment. Instead, we’re accountable to something beyond our making—it’s life itself that’s the measure by which our works are judged. That’s a tough act to follow!

And this is precisely where we can sink while charting our course into realistic art. Enamored with the idea of creativity and capturing the world around us, we gleefully sail onward, but without any kind of reading of our course. As equine realism artists, however, we can’t sail our ships anywhere we please. The art form has rules and boundaries, and this realization can deepen commitment in some, or arouse frustration in others, particularly when expectations become ever loftier. 

So while life is the barometer of our works, we should remember that when we compare our work to reality, what we’re really doing is comparing our perception of reality to our work. And perception can be very different from reality itself because what we deem to be “reality” now may not be a wholly accurate assessment. Plus, our recognition of reality evolves as we develop, and so ever more objectivity appears in our work the more we become aware of it. It’s a ongoing process, not a one–time event. Or rather, it’s a sporatic, chaotic, and unpredictable process instead of a clear, straight line. This means each of us will grapple continuously with this tug–of–war between our perception of reality and reality itself as we try to unlock increasingly more objectivity in our work.

As realism artists, too, we can become annoyed when our work doesn’t meet our expectations, especially when we feel helpless to engineer solutions. So to offer a beacon in the fog, let’s take a look at “reality” and what it means to be a realism artist in this 5–Part blog series. Perhaps if we have a better grasp of this madness, we can navigate our ships with more confidence and clarity.

Getting Real with Reality

As realism artists, we’ll grapple with the concept of, “What is reality?” Or to put it another way, what does it mean to create realism? As such, we’ll find debates about this question not only within our mind as we dive into each new piece, but also among artists working within the genre. These discussions are important for helping us understand the nature of what it is we’re creating, and how we’re creating it. 

Nonetheless, these discussions also need to be regarded with a grain of salt. What we’ll often find is that they end up acquiescing to ambiguity rather than attempting to pin down reality related specifically to realism art work. So rather than getting real with reality, the unspoken consensus is to accept a kind of unreality for the greater good of the community. This makes sense since we artists tend to be an amicable bunch. We enjoy the company of like–minded souls and dislike excluding our fellow birds of a feather. This perspective is valuable, and should not be compromised. 

Yet while this tactic is friendly, it also can be destructive to those who may not understand that this deduction is a social courtesy rather than a logical conclusion. Without this awareness, a developing artist can careen into trouble when lulled into the belief that she can follow her heart rather than her head—and realism is first governed by the head. Put another way, we’re obliged to understand and follow the rules first before we get to bend or even break them. 

But in order to better understand what we're doing, we first need an objective grasp of reality. While this would seem painfully obvious, it’s actually not so intuitive. Sure it’s easy to say “duplicate what you see,” but it’s entirely another matter to actually duplicate what’s actually seen! This is because when it comes to realism, we don’t have a one–way flow of perception as we would if we created entirely from our whims in which “good” is determined simply by our liking the result. When it comes to realism art, this “liking” is only part of the equation. Exploring realism may be an artistic whim, but actually practicing it definitely isn’t because the genre is too demanding; we can’t make up the rules as we go, ceasing to create realistic work altogether, by definition. 

Reality check: Realistic art is a discipline.

It’s why we labor to expand our understanding of what it means to be equine, often making great sacrifices in time, energy, and money to seek that awareness. It’s why we toil to develop increasingly tedious methods that better mimic effects, or capture minute details. Our resource library seems ever–expanding, and we may thrill with delight at the one great revelation a unique image provides. It’s why our judgments of “good enough” change as our perceptions advance. And so we need dedication to our craft with a peculiar brand of zeal in order to achieve our goals and weather the highs and lows of our arduous journey. Equine realism simply requires a great investment of learning, experience, and a vast pile of mistakes to gain ground—it’s a learned skill with an everdeepening ocean of mastery. In short, realistic art is earned through devotion, and we won’t progress if we can’t dedicate ourselves in some measure. 

Reality check: Realistic art is a commitment. 

Likewise, we should accept that our imagined explorations have definite, inarguable limitations—nature imposes boundaries we cannot cross. As artists this means we have to keep our creativity in constant check to make sure our creative sensibilities are on track. This can be an unexpectedly difficult task! We also can’t hold anything too precious. For instance, even though we may like a certain effect artistically, we’re forced to jettison it if it doesn’t jive with reality. This situation can be particularly bitter for developing artists who still are grappling with the steep learning curve. They may not see the artistic excursions their eye is taking and end up producing something well below their expectations. On the other hand, they may also not see where they’re getting it right, and so underestimate their progress. 

Reality check: Realistic art isn’t so tolerant of unchecked artistic license.

It’s a good idea to remember the flow of our current: realism isn’t just a means to express our creative voices willy–nilly—we deliberately chose to express them within this demanding, constricting art form. There are plenty of other ways to explore equines artistically, so why realism? We each must answer this question in our own way, and revisit it periodically to successfully sail these waters. But this does explain why realistic art tends to attract a certain type of creative mind, one almost fixated on getting reality as right as possible.

Reality check: Realism isn’t the best creative fit for every artist, or artistic pursuit. 

If we’re to find personal satisfaction within the insatiable demands of realism then, we should know our creative selves completely. Indeed, understanding that we’re in for a long haul can help us sail through self–doubt and vexation. And so we also should learn to rejuvenate our resolve with each new work, regardless of set–backs or seemingly impossible challenges.

So it’s not actually a matter of having the inherent skill for realism, though many artists seem to have great ability in this regard. Instead, two other ingredients are more necessary for success. First is a kind of stubbornness to devote oneself to an art form of such an insistent and specific nature. And second, it takes a goodly measure of humility. We should accept that what we’re creating may not be “realistic” enough while at the same time allowing our creativity to be guided by rules not of our making. In short, we need to leave room for mistakes, and the learning from them. That can be difficult to accept when we want to get things correct right out of the gate! But again, achieving more objective realism takes time and effort, and lots of mistakes. It’s a great adventure, one worth sailing, yet there are high waves to be bested!

Reality check: Realism will test our mettle. 

Taking all this into account, we begin to understand that realism isn’t something we simply bang out in a moment’s creative impetuousness. It takes time. It takes craft. It takes mastery. It takes gumption. It also means we must be real with reality.

What is Reality?

While this seems like a simple question, it’s actually a profound riddle with important consequences for realistic equine art. Truly, if we don’t engage this question with each new piece, our vision can become clouded and we’ll sail off–course. So let’s look at how this question affects what we create because it’ll illuminate not only our path, but the full scope of the art form we’ve chosen. (For more discussion on the nature of reality and our perception, refer to the blog series What’s Reality Between A Couple Of Friends…And A Bunny?, Parts 1–6.

Plus seeing this question in action can be more illustrative because so much about realism is what we absorb, and not what’s described. No amount of words, no matter how carefully chosen, could ever adequately communicate the idea to us in ways we can visually recognize. Just like life, realism is experienced. So to help us gain deeper insight, let’s take a virtual tour through selected works at Brookgreen Gardens, a wonderful sculpture garden in South Carolina, USA.  

For starters, notice how there isn’t just one way to express reality. We see that the “bubble of believability” isn’t as miniscule as logic implies, and that sculpting what we see isn’t as straightforward as it would seem. Instead, there exists a spectrum of possibility within the genre, and we see that physical reality can be conveyed in various ways—all of which are equally successful. For instance, some approaches are very "tight" and precise, each line and curve put there deliberately, almost like Reality HD. In contrast, others are "looser" and more implied, like Reality Impressionism. Then there's the whole spectrum in between! The point is, "reality" can be conveyed many different ways, all effective and all equally valid.

We also find that different interpretations appeal to different tastes, and it’s in this wiggle–room where individual style blooms, allowing diversity to spice the art form to keep it from stagnating into something sterile. Let’s be real—if all artists sculpted or painted reality the same, it would be a barren art form, wouldn’t it? So not only is individual interpretation inevitable, it’s necessary to keep the genre relevant. We’re creating art, remember.  

However, we can see that while there may be more than one way to express reality, there’s also more than one way to pitch off course! If we’re truly paying attention in our observations, we see that our bubble has boundaries, that realism isn’t as subjective as we may think it to be. Rather, the objective physical actuality of the animal guides us, meaning we get to play within these consistent compass points:
  • Anatomy
  • Biomechanics
  • Scale
  • Equine behavior
  • Anima (or “living soul”) 

These are the four qualities all believable realistic equine sculpture possesses, by definition. And if we’re paying even more attention, the more faithful a sculpture is in these aspects, the more likely it will register as “realistic.”

Now one could suggest that conformation is one of these absolutes, yet it’s not. It’s more of a subjective layer we get to infuse on top of those four attributes. (For more discussion on this topic, please refer to the blog post Anatomy and Conformation, Parts 1-4.)

Paintwork is similarly corralled by its own set compass points:
  • Color genetics
  • Physical properties (of hair, hide, and skin)
  • Scale
  • Tone
  • The immediacy of the individual’s moment and lifestyle 

And predictably, the more a paint job accounts for these physical realities, the more “realistic” it appears, too. So as long as we hold true to these compass points for sculpture and paintwork then, we know we’re on the right track.

It doesn’t end there, however. Dissecting these compass points even further, we find that bone, muscle, sinew, flesh, hair, and horn need to be translated in certain ways to remain convincing. For example, we can’t sculpt fleshy looking bone, or bony looking flesh and hope to fool the eye. Or whether we sculpt our mane with an impressionistic approach or in meticulous detail, it still has to look like hair, and not like a fin, a tentacle, a sheet of metal, or like mashed potatoes gouged with a fork. 

Likewise with painting, we can’t pink–in areas with orange, or map markings with purple. Paintwork also needs to adhere to a certain level of neatness and precision so that eye color doesn’t lap up onto the lid, or coronet color doesn’t smear onto the hoof. Dappling and other coat effects can’t be too impressionistic, either, but clearly be what they’re meant to be.

Even deeper, however, we find that realism is a balance between the precise and the organic. In other words, we should be sensitive to when nature requires them to be precise and when it lets us sculpt with a more amorphous touch. For instance, sculpting the eye, or the symmetry of paired anatomy requires absolute precision whereas the delineation of muscle groups, or the flow of hair permits us far more freedom. The same goes for paintwork. There are times when reality necessitates total exactitude, like the boundary between the hide and the hoof, the painting of the eye, or the delineation between hide and mane, yet other times a looser approach works better such as the flow of coat tones, the delicacy of a grey muzzle, or the softness of pinked areas. 

Now when we step back and consider all this, it implies that while there are many equally effective ways to convey realism, there also exists a gradient within the bubble for how effective those depictions actually are. For example, when we compare different realistic interpretations to life, we see that some are more effective at getting the point across. So while we may like what we see artistically, we still can perceive that one’s “more realistic” than another. That’s to say, our brain can register different degrees of realism to make it’s own judgment. This means there isn’t only a limit to realism, beyond which a piece ceases to be realistic, there also are degrees of greater realism within the bubble, like gradations in an archer’s target. Otherwise, how does an artist decide her work isn’t realistic enough, and then strive to make it more so? 

Yet that said, if we’re being particularly observant, we find that this bubble of believability also has inherent characteristics that contribute to this distinction of “more realistic.” Bluntly put, there’s more to realism than technical accuracy. This is because we can’t regard our subject within a vacuum. Instead, we should account for physics and “the moment.” Our subject evolved on a planet with a specific set of physical forces such as gravity, centrifugal force, and leveraging power, just to name a few. Even fluid dynamics applies to such things as the movement of the hair, or the rippling of flesh. So even with all these effects, our depicted subject should be consistent with the perceived physical environment in which he presumably exists. A sculpture that doesn’t convey the mass of a 1,000 pound living animal within a believable physical world, for example, won’t register as “realistic” even if the anatomy’s rendered with adept skill. It simply lacks context within reality itself. So if we sculpt a trotting Thoroughbred with pasterns that don’t convey the downwards force of impact, for instance, our sculpture won’t ring true just as easily as if we misplaced a muscle group.

Similarly, the living subject exists in a continuum of cause and effect, of time and circumstance, and so “the living moment,” that ongoing succession of fleeting instances that blink in and out of existence, is pivotal for realistic equine art as well. Each moment contains a unique kinetic expression of the animal’s body, emotion, intention, and experience, and throughout his entire physique. Then poof! That moment is gone to be replaced by a new one, with a host of new effects. For example, the changing expressions we see on an impatient or restless horse, seen not just on his face, but expressed throughout his whole body, right down to the shifting tensions of his spine. Or for another example, a sculpted mane may look like hair, but if it doesn’t act like hair, with all the spontaneity hair experiences with each passing second, it’s not as convincing as it could be. Likewise, if an expertly sculpted mane isn’t supported by the painter’s hand, the result can fall short as well. One must reinforce the other to really drive home the impression of reality. Realism tells us that structure and force are joined at the hip, since they go hand–in–hand in real life, too. 

Now if we observe closer still, we see other, perhaps subtler aspects of realism implicit in the believability bubble: “living flesh” and thus, “living movement.” These two concepts also help to propel the depiction of anatomy beyond the technically accurate, the inert into dynamic, living reality. This is because understanding the technicalities of anatomy is only half the equation. Having chart–smarts is great, and even necessary, and will definitely serve us well—but they can only take us so far. Eventually we’ll find such things fail us, especially if we want to take our work to a new level. That’s because technical accuracy is not enough—there’s life itself we must also consider! 

It's handy to think of the equation this way: one–half is the clear, neatly delineated aspect of technicality, and the other half entails messy and organic life. Said another way, the first half is order and the second half is chaos, two sides of the same coin. If our perception is really keen then, we find that all the most effective realistic portrayals of any living subject possess a deft combination of these two components whether in sculpting or finishwork. And so our aim isn’t just to duplicate the technicality of our subject, but also the living expression of that technicality.

In other words, there’s a huge difference between an anatomical diagram and real life. So we can’t just technically recreate the anatomical blueprint neatly and accurately and think we’ve captured everything—we have to infuse chaotic life into it as well. For instance, to paint a dapple grey, we can’t just apply technically correct dapples, but also apply them as chaotically and spontaneously as they appear in life. They shouldn’t be regimented, orderly, or like a series of organized polka dots. Technical restrictions and anarchic randomness exist simultaneously in nature because just as life is founded on structure, it’s equally founded spontaneity. Being so, we’re obliged to capture this dichotomy in our own equine realism. 

Yet it’s precisely this chaotic element that can cause us to stumble most. Not only are we forced out of the certainty and security of anatomy diagrams into the realm of the organic and unpredictable, but most of the effects of chaos are either fast, mercurial, and instantaneous, and so can often go unseen by the uninitiated, or they're complicated, situational, and counter–intuitive, and so we can inordinately struggle with them. However, when we look for them actively in our references and life study, we can better see them in action to infuse into our media, and this why some pieces look rather static while others appear as though they’ll start breathing any minute. (For more discussion on this topic, please refer to the blog post, Now About Those Anatomy Charts…Parts 1–2.)

This brings us back to the ideas of “living flesh” and “living movement.” We can conceptualize living flesh as the ongoing moment by moment fleshy peculiarities, changes, distortions, and movements caused by articulation, physics, and the relationships between anatomical features. In this sense, living flesh addresses the passage of time because we’re asked to recognize that no two moments are exactly alike. For example, how muscle bundles interact in response to activation, or how they pooch, squish, or slacken in response to motion and posture, how flesh jiggles, distorts, wobbles, or ripples with physics, or how skin crinkles, wrinkles, or stretches with articulation are just some of the considerations within this concept. Just as much, too, it pertains to those aspects that obscure, distort, or otherwise morph and disguise the crisp and ordered depiction of anatomy we see outlined in an anatomical diagram. Living horses don’t appear as simplistic, jointed anatomy charts for good reason, this being one of them. 

In turn then, we can think of “living movement” as those ongoing and fleeting postures, quirks, coordinations, adjustments, countenance, presence, and physically expressed emotions and energy found in the living animal adapting and responding to those changing moments. So, here again, we’re dealing with the passage of time, the play–by–play articulations and motions of each passing moment. If we’re looking closely enough here then, we see that motion is continuous regardless of what the animal is doing, including the expression of emotions. The equine is always in motion, even when seemingly standing stock still, or fast asleep.

So what does living flesh and living movement mean for sculpture? Well, basically this…we can neither render our sculptures all the same way nor in the same manner as an anatomy chart would have us believe. Instead, each should be interpreted as a unique snapshot. The unconventional, the changing, and the fleeting are just as important as the commonalities. So look for unexpected, individual details, and quirks in structure and emotion! They're not only fun to incorporate into our work, but add interest, uniqueness, and depth to our portfolio. 

All this brings us to a related concept…since each species has its own unique blueprint, each has its own characteristic expression of living flesh and living movement. Now marry all this to the species’ characteristic behavior, and we’ve got our proverbial genie by the foot! For instance, a bear doesn’t look like a bear just because it’s built like a bear. It looks like a bear because it also moves like a bear. There’s more to “bear–ness” than simply looking like a bear! Our brains inherently pick up on these additional, inherent features in life to draw from when we actually look at a bear sculpture, which is why some bear works appear more “bear–y” than others.

So to apply this idea to our subject, horses look like horses not only because they're built like horses, but also because they move like horses. That may seem obvious enough, but consider this: what if our equine sculpture exhibited a gallop more akin to the flexible spine and rolling gait of a running lion, or the stiff–backed, short–gaited dashing stride of a hyena? Our brains would instinctively detect these divergences, and our illusion would be compromised just as easily as if we had sculpted the knees bending the wrong way. 

Therefore, the living flesh and living movement of the equine aren’t unique only moment–by–moment, but also within the animal kingdom. What’s more, these two things mesh together with that familiar, unique equine anatomy plus equine behavior to convey what it means to be wholly equine. Put it all together, and we have a sculpture that truly reads "equine-y."

Yet, again, this is another aspect of equine realism that can trip us, especially if our observational skills aren’t honed enough, or we haven’t practiced enough pro–active education and life study. Our mental library expects this essential “equine-ness” in our work as it perceives in life, but if any one of these four components falls short, so does our illusion, and regardless of how accurately the anatomy is depicted.

Conclusion to Part I

Clearly there’s more to realism than just sculpting what we see, or even sculpting according to anatomy charts! In Part II then, we’ll explore the nature of reality and how we can make it work for us instead of against us.

So until next time…keep it real!

"It's through my artist's eyes that I see wonderful things in nature that I never saw before." ~Kathy Connelly

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