Sunday, October 11, 2015

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

Introduction to Part IV

Hello again! We're continuing this 5–Part series exploring the nature of realism as it relates to realistic equine art. We’ve already digested quite a bit about equine realism and some of the concerns it entails when we try to actually recreate it. There’s nothing easy or straightforward about it! In the previous installment, for example, we explored many of the qualities of the "good convince," that type of equine sculpture or finishwork that appears realistic at first, but lacks the fundamentals of realism when we pick it apart.

As before, presented examples come from the collection at Brookgreen Gardens, America's largest sculpture garden located in beautiful South Carolina. So to continue this exploration, let’s delve into more issues we'll encounter when we wrestle with equine reality in this fourth installment…off we go!

More to Reality than Meets the Eye

We can probably now understand that realism is more complicated than simply duplicating what we see! We also recognize the need for precision when we speak of realistic art because only by using exacting language can we reinforce the difference between looking real and actually being more real—the difference between a recognizable horse and an actual horse—and so better realign our work towards more helpful goals. We also see that realism isn’t produced simply by being knowledgeable about equine biology. We need to be adept at applying that knowledge, too. In other words, knowing and doing are two different things when it comes to equine realism. 

This brings us to one of our best and most helpful tools: a solid mental library. Born of life study and an attentive study of references, we draw upon it constantly to guide our hands. And while we can know a great deal about anatomy and color genetics, we still can lack a sufficient mental library to direct that knowledge into our clay or pigment. Again, because interpretation and translation are two different things.

Complicating matters is this: our skill set in equine realism is simultaneously highly specialized and absurdly interdisciplinary. Sounds like a contradiction, doesn’t it? Sure does! Nonetheless, we need a very specialized skill set built on wearing a dizzying array of hats if we ever hope to cast an effective illusion. In fact, the more hats we wear well, the better our work. But what farrier will have to marry our knowledge of anatomy, art technique, and composition? How many veterinarians will have to know our proportional tricks, techniques with pigment, or sculptural knowledge about muscles?

Our work is also a progression of skill and expectation, since a mental library is built up over concerted time and effort. It takes work and care to build up an effective one, and in many ways, it’s what defines a beginner from a seasoned artist; the better the mental library, the more experienced we can say the artist. What’s more, equine realism is a balance of qualities, each maximized to the full effect we can muster at the moment. No one comes to their media fully prepared the first time!

And we use our mental library all the time. Indeed, it’s not our books, charts, or diagrams that first speak in our ear—it’s our mental library, that little inner voice, that first tells us when something is “off.” Ultimately, too, it’s a mental library that helps us to make our sculptures unique individuals contained inside complete and unique moments. As our experience with the living subject grows, not only are we exposed to more personalities and phenotypes, more coat effects and colors, but we also gain a deeper understanding of equine reality—we simply gain more experience to then infuse into our media. Then, in doing so, this allows our portfolio to express the fuller breadth of our potential and the subject’s reality.

For example, plenty of people know what an equine scapula looks like and how it moves. But that’s not enough for our purposes. This is why veterinarians aren’t automatically infallible realistic equine artists, and why those of us without veterinarian degrees can create credible realistic work. In order to truly understand biology sculpturally, we need to recognize the possibilities within nature and apply them in a situation–specific way. So, for example, studying the equine scapula in life as functioning in many different circumstances and in many different equines amasses a mental database full of various possibilities we can then draw from when we sculpt. Or inspecting the coat of many different chestnuts under many different conditions and conditioning provides us with a wealth of mental library fodder we can apply to our pigments. This is a very different way of interpreting the animal than any other equine professional, another reason why our skill set is so unique and uniquely expansive.

When it comes to a mental library, life study doesn’t have to be “active,” either. Simply paying attention around horses can be useful because when we do, there’s a passive sub–routine at work in our perceptions that programs into our minds what looks right and what’s possible. The more hours we log then, the more we expand our library. This is why we’ll often find artists perfectly content to watch horses move from the sidelines for no other reason than to watch. Or why an artist may get excited over the prospect of horses in a neighborhood parade. Any encounterno matter how casualwith our subject is potentially useful! Keen observation is our first step, and it should never turn “off.”

But here again we find another pesky Catch–22: how do we determine what looks right and what the possibilities are if we don't have a baseline to compare against? That’s because a mental library has no context without an understanding of anatomy or color genetics, and it’s this reciprocal interdependence that spawns the yin and yang of realistic art. Put another way, we may have a solid mental library in our heads, but without some fixed foundation in facts, it can be hard to fully apply. Our practical knowledge (our mental library) simply needs scholarly knowledge (our anatomical or color references) to have a basis of relative comparison. We can think of the latter as being a springboard for the former, in this regard. So this is why life study and book–smarts go hand–in–hand, and it’s also why a dependence on only one eventually leads to frustration—one without the other is incomplete. 

Yet like the theme of balance found in many other points made in this discussion, it’s at this intersection where the balance between reality and unreality can be unintentionally uncoupled. 

For instance, without a deep mental library, we may not be able to create beyond our biological comfort zone provided by anatomical or color references. Because of this, the depiction of all our sculptures or finishworks can start to homogenize and develop a kind of inorganic artificiality, since the scholarly work we draw from is inherently limited. Indeed, it’s easy to become too dependent on one kind of anatomical interpretation, one found in an anatomy chart, and become needlessly timid about expressing the countless options nature actually offers us. In similar fashion, our finishwork can become unrealistically uniform if we cannot appreciate all the variability color genetics and circumstance present. For instance, what about Bend Or spots on a chestnut, fading on a black mane, or unique splotching on a sooty buckskin? Effective realistic painting is as much about capturing the individual genetics and circumstance as it is about duplicating characteristic coat effects.

Without a good mental library, we may also not be able to ever identify our persistent blind spots. If we study the work of artists who tend to get things right, or we identify those aspects of our work that most ring true, we usually find a broader mental library guided those features since it was less likely that mistakes would slip through. In fact, one of the best antidotes to a blind spot is life study paired with keen analysis of good reference materials using objective means to measure and compare (such as calipers).

Strategically using a photo–editing program, like Photoshop®, can help us build a solid mental library, too, while also correcting any unconscious skews. For instance, using it to alter the scale of a photo is a useful technique, especially helpful with finishwork when it comes to the correct scale of effects. Scaling down a fleabit dapple grey reference to 1:32 scale, for example, can really help us better picture how those coat effects should look on our miniature piece. This is useful for sculpture, too. For example, scaling down a reference photo of an Arabian to 1:32 shows us the true scale of what those joints, cannons, facial features, and ears should be, things that will be necessary to attain with our sculpting tools. We can apply this to braiding as well, this being a highly effective tool for such use. Do this enough times and our mental library automatically becomes better attuned to scale.

Altogether then, it’s clear that the careful, keen observation we practice in life is equally as important as the book–smarts we’ve cultivated if we hope to gain a more reliable perception of reality. Plus, these two approaches practiced together can help us attain more objectivity, allowing us to exchange those “reality glasses” almost anytime we wish!

Along those lines, anatomy charts and diagrams are immensely useful as guides, but if we supplant life itself with them, we run the risk of falling short of our goals just as easily as making things up. Here, too, the objectivity of an illustration should be balanced with the subjectivity of life to help us recreate a convincing depiction of equine reality in inert media. (For more discussion on this topic please refer to the blog post Now About Those Anatomy Charts…Parts 1–2.)

Beyond Reality

So what does all this mean? What’s the gist of it all? Okay, let’s step back a moment and consider an idea, one that can help us organize all these thoughts into something coherently useful…

Just as there are many ways to convey reality in either sculpture or pigment, there are different ways to artistically approach that reality, too. What the heck does that mean?! Well, while there’s more than one way to communicate reality, there’s also more than one way to compose it. Said another way, the composure of a piece can be a separate element from our design, or simply put, we can distill this into two polar opposites along a sliding scale, specifically, a representational way to express reality and a naturalistic way. Understanding these poles and the gradients between them can help us when we compose our pieces. So…

The representational approach tends to focus on “just the facts, ma’am.” It’s literal, clinical, often idealized, and meant to exemplify an object such as an ideal breed specimen, or an ideal movement such as the passage. The core nature of the work is that it represents something, almost like a technical illustration. Portraiture fits under this category, since it’s meant to literally represent a specific individual.

In contrast, the naturalistic approach aims to depict the equine experience, much like wildlife art. It’s meant more to convey an idea, and one that often elicits emotions, memories, or psychological responses. Basically, it seeks to capture the fuller experience of “equineness" because the intent is more to capture the animal doing something, typically “horsey,” rather than being something, typically humanidealized. For instance, a depiction of a pony scratching his head, a bucking horse, or a horse with a swishy tail and droopy lip, falling asleep. And any aspect that may be representational, in this situation, is incidental rather than the point of the piece.

The same can be said of finishwork. A paintjob that’s meant to represent “overo” as an iconic portrayal, for example, can be quite different from one that just happens to be “overo.” To illustrate, the former will often be done as through the animal was meticulously show–groomed, with perfectly clean white expanses, and perhaps blackened hooves. It’s meant to represent “overo” in the most idealized form. In contrast, the more naturalistic approach would add perhaps some staining to the mane and tail, muzzle, and even perhaps the lower legs along with natural “pasture hooves.” It’s “overo” in the natural environment, idiosyncracies and all, not meaning to represent a perfect coat. 

Now granted, much equine realism lies along a sliding scale between these two poles, and that’s a good thing. Equine realism should have ambiguity, or room to express on multiple levels. Nevertheless, understanding these two basic poles can help us figure out what we’re doing and why, as an overall arch to our work, or with each individual piece. When we recognize that equine realism can be about iconic representation as well as about natural novelty, not only do we gain more clarity, but we also perhaps expand our possibilities. We also see that neither pole has a monopoly on expressing the equine experience. A literal approach need not have any less “life” than a wildlyposed depiction when planned accordingly. And we can play within the sliding scale between them, even blend specific elements of each in novel ways.  

Being so, however, there’s a critical component that both must share—“life.” Essential for our ends, those pieces with it gain the most attention, which is an important phenomenon to notice. This is because "life" incites a reaction, causing us to respond with our own experience and psyche, that that’s a powerful and desirable effect. This suggests that realism isn’t about just capturing clinical reality in a bottle, like an anatomy chart in clay. It requires something beyond that cool objectivity to entice our imagination and give our illusion anima. In this sense, objectivity needs some subjectivity to provide that necessary “oomph” that makes our piece compelling and emotionally fulfilling. 

So how do we infuse this “life” into our work? How can we inject more "equine–ness" into our piece to help it shudder to life?

The primary way is through equine expression. This is a topic we’ll get to in another series, but meanwhile, it’s important to understand that the equine not only has a plethora of facial expressions, but a host of others throughout his whole body. Indeed, the equine is emotion in motion embodied, even while just standing. A crook of the brow, a tension in the chin, a shift in balance, or shake of the tail, a flick of an ear…minute quirks such as these can really bring a sculpture to life. It’s not all about elaborate postures and wild expressions! Equines are even more about subtle motions, revealing an ongoing series of communicative expressions from the nuanced to the overt. The equine never stops expressing with his body, and every touch we add to our media injects life and moment to our piece in potent, appealing ways.

For instance, the look of the eyes is important—it’s said the eyes are the window to the soul, for good reason! How the lids convey softness, tension, piqued interest, or other inner emotions is immensely important, able to add quite a bit of anima all by themselves. Plus equines use their brows and lids quite a bit, too, and since they’re some of the few fleshy, mobile portions of the head, we get to play with them with wonderful results—so have at it!

Equines also express through the tension or relaxation of their muzzles, so study the lips, chin, and even the nostrils for changes that suggest emotional feedback. We all know the magic of a “pooky lip” when a horse is “full of beans,” for instance, and we’re all familiar with a pinched lower lip when he’s pugnacious or stressed. As for the chin itself, it’s highly expressive, too! When it’s bulbous and droopy it can indicate relaxation whereas when pinched and bunched it can suggest excitement or disquiet.

And don’t forget the ears! They’re beacons of equine expression that never stop moving. For instance, they can clearly indicate what’s grabbing his attention while at the same time indicate how lively and attentive he is to his surroundings. They can reveal if he’s in a happy, good mood, or as we all know when they’re laid back, when he’s grumpy or angry. Ears are so revealing, in fact, we can think of them as little flags perched on top of his head, broadcasting much about his inner world to us.

But just as much, study his whole body when trying to decipher his expression. His physical reactions to his experience are clearly communicated through his entire physique, and it’s a lot of fun to pick out those quirks to infuse them into our clay. For example, study balance shifts, leaning, or muscle tensions and relaxations—how he holds his body in any given moment can divulge a lot. Or when he’s relaxed, his muscles soften and his motion becomes more fluid while, in contrast, his muscles become tense and his motion more rigid when he’s stressed. Or if he's feeling feisty and full of it, his motion can become more bursting, springy, and "popy." His body is very much a billboard for his emotions, and once we learn to read it, we have ample fodder for our media.

In particular, study emotion as it’s expressed through the spine. Because all motion begins there, equines express emotions through it as well! For instance, the posture of the neck, the tension of the back, the angle of the sacrum and the behavior of the tail all conspire to provide us a treasure trove of expressive communication. They also work as an entire system, and each of their contributions can add up to a lot of emotional content.

For instance, let’s consider the spine of a show–stretched Morgan stallion, in the first situation fired–up and in the second, calm and mellow. To convey his excitement and impulsiveness in the first example, even in the relative composure of a show–stretch, we could elevate and add tension and arch to his neck, perhaps tucking and tipping his head to the side to peek at us, then hollow out his back a snidge more and so add more level to his sacrum, and finally flag his tail. This would indicate an active, “squiggly” spine that’s about to burst into movement any second. Now let’s consider the second, a low–key example. Here we could relax his neck and open the throat. We would leave his topline more full and smooth while at the same time allow his sacrum to remain in a more rested position. Finally, we can have that tail sitting calmly or just slightly arched, to flow serenely through his hind legs. This is how the spine can express emotions, too.

But we don’t just have expression in our arsenal! We also have composition, a powerful tool that expands the possibilities within the genre. While realism doesn’t allow us to get away with much, it does encourage a deft application of design to elevate our work. This is why savvy artists carefully plan their sculptures to forward an idea, narrative, or evoke an emotion—they don’t just plow into a sculpture without some kind of governing concept. It’s this story that guides all the creative choices for the piece such as how it’s positioned, how body parts flow, how the expression is portrayed, what equine behavior is unfurled, how physics come into play, etc.

For example, how we position our sculpture in terms of the flow of line and curve, the orientation of an angle, or the eye being pulled effectively to various areas of interest can add dynamic life to our piece. Equines move gracefully, almost musically, and paying attention to every tidbit of our sculpture helps to forward that idea. The grand arch of a crest, the round power of the hindquarter, the snappy action of the knee or hock, the appealing musculature of the shoulder—every curve, bend, alignment, edge, intersection, bulge, and depression add up to a symphony of structural relationships that can make our sculpture sing.

Learning to pull the eye around the piece fluidly or abruptly, or a mix of the two, can do much to forward the “feel” of a piece as well. For instance, a triangle–type of composition can enhance the impression of excitement or precipitous motion whereas a circular–type of composition can impart a controlled, coiled sense of power. As for finishwork, how we orient blocks of color or pattern can do much to accentuate a piece to flatter it best just as much what color we chose for it. The line of a blaze down the face, for instance, can really complement the profile, or the placement of a tobiano pattern can enhance the look of the hindquarter. So when it comes to our task, it’s just not what we do that’s important, but also how we do it.

To that end, being sensitive to motion and the changeability in life can also help us. The equine is constantly moving—yes, even a standing horse is moving! There’s always something going on with him whether it's the wisp of mane, the wiggle of a relaxed muscle, the twitch of the muzzle—there’s life energy and moment infused into him. So if our design can capture that mercurial kinetic energy, we’ve taken one more step towards actual realism. 

In addition, horses don’t just move like paper dolls, rigid and locked, but fluidly and lively. The skeleton may have fixed points of articulation, but those points are dynamic! So instead of thinking of a horse as a jointed horse toy, where we just bend and flex and call it a day, think of him as a slinky supported by four jointed legs attached by rubber bands to the “torso.” There’s so much shifting going on just to stay upright, let alone move!

For that then, coordination and balance, and the accompanying muscle tensions and relaxations, are immensely useful to forward our goal. Understanding how to decipher all these subtle actions in the living horse helps us to impart them in our sculpture, and they really go far to infuse energy. The subtle twist of the spine, the coiling of the pelvis, the tension reflected in the musculature of a planted leg, the shift of the forequarter in relation to the hindquarter, or how the body’s weight is shifted and shared between the legs and what that means for the pasterns, and many other such effects all play their part. Put them all together and they result in a piece that appears alive and animated, like it could walk off the table. When our eye is tricked into believing a sculpture could move at any moment because it’s moving fluidly like a real equine, we’ve taken yet another step towards realism.

When it comes to anatomy, too, it’s not all about the skeleton! The flesh—or “goo”—that encases it is a whole different matter. Flesh shifts, slides, smooshes, and pooches as the skeleton moves, causing muscle masses to distort and morph into forms other than what we see in an anatomy diagram. By the same token, the hide—which is typically stripped off in dissection—is rich in texture that lends interest and idiosyncracies to the coat. What’s more, ripples, stretching, wrinkles, moles, veins, bulges, and depressions all confer life to our sculpted surfaces, a kind of reality that takes our sculpture beyond the flat anatomy chart and into the pasture. So don’t forget the magic of flesh and hide! (For more discussion on this topic, please refer to the blog post The Goo Factor.)

These and many other compositional elements work together to forward the idea of reality just as much as biology (we’ll get into this in detail in another series). Indeed, realism is as much about energy, feel, and our reaction to this majestic animal as it is about accurate depiction. That means our work’s ability to incite emotions and inspired responses is just as important as structure. Truly, realism is best served when our work is compelling as well as correct.

For this, though, our design does best when these things are harmonized together as a whole. One odd bit, errant angle, or overdone (or underdone) element can interrupt that energy and flow to disrupt the eye which, ultimately, compromises our illusion. For example, a prancing piece with a foreleg stretched too far forwards can cause the eye to shoot out of the composition rather than being folded back in. Or the planted upright foreleg on a galloping sculpture tends to “stop” the sense of speedy, flowing forward motion, and so it's often better to portray that foreleg slightly angled backward to amplify the sense of coursing speed. Many bases are problematic in this regard as upright supportive posts have the same “stopping” effect. 

Overall then, it could be said then that composition and design helps to transform a realistic piece into something transcendental, elevating the genre beyond the clinical. And so a degree of contrivance isn’t only acceptable, but necessary to make our work really come alive. There’s nothing wrong with artistic license if it forwards the goal of creating a compelling realistic illusion that elicits an emotional response.

But structurally piecing together a realistic work isn’t the whole story—again, we also must breathe life into it! There should be something about the piece that makes it appear as though it has a true living soul. In a sense, we each are a Dr. Frankenstein in our respective studios since our creations won’t live until we breath the essence of life into them. So somehow we must capture the spark of anima, a living spirit, and suffuse our piece with it.

And that can only begin one way: we connect with this animal for who he is, as a living being, autonomous and self–contained, and beyond merely what he does for us. When we can shed our fixation on utility we impose on himour humancentric focus—we can begin to appreciate this animal as a kindred soul. We can then start to perceive him as a sovereign individual attempting to makes sense of the perplexing world of these strange, demanding bipeds, and imbued with his own emotions, motivations, and agendas that are curious and quirky. Each animal has a reality all his own—just like us. 

And here’s the elusive mystery of realistic art—the quick of our flame. Along with all the other necessary skills, we should cultivate great sensitivity and humility if we are to peek inside this animal’s spirit. Too often we can get caught up in what we do with horses and forget to appreciate them just as they are, simply being horses. We also can fall in love with a certain breed, discipline, or ideal—human-made contrivances—and forget to fall in love with horses. We can get too wrapped up in our methods, or become distracted by our goals or deadlines, and forget the profundity of our subject and lose sight of the fragile element we’re trying to capture. So while it’s important to remember what they do for us, what they do for our soul is even more essential. One soul recognizes another, speaks to another, so when we can contemplate how they touch ours can we begin to touch theirs.

In a sense, therefore, we need to fall in love with each piece we're creating so that this synchronicity flows out of our hands and into our media. Truly, if we don’t have a passion for the soul we’re creating, we’re going to miss it—we’ll certainly end up creating the body, but not all the “inner stuff” that brings that body to life. Because only when our piece has a soul can it capture our heart like a real horse would, and that’s as much a part of realism as anything else.   

This brings us to a cardinal tenet of realism—remembering the context of our creativity. While we’re busily trying to infuse objectivity into our work, it’s important to remember why we’re creating this kind of work in the first place. It’s not really to become more technically proficient, and it’s not to master our media—that's just incidental to this art form. Our real motivation, what truly drives us, is our love of the equine. At the core then, we’re not only creating technical realism but, even more, we’re materializing those wonderful steeds that gallop in our dreams and who feed our fascination. We’re recreating this magnificent beast as an hommage, and when we come to our work with this kind of respect, we’ll definitely produce a portfolio that rings true.

This also happens to be how we take our work out of the confines of our media and into the realm of personal meaning, which when all is said and done, is the true essence of realistic art. Not only does our work have to read realistically to our head, it has to feel realistically in our heart. We know we’ve hit our mark then when our work isn’t only more realistic, but also pushes someone's buttons on a deeply personal level. Triggering a memory, seizing hold of the heart, igniting the magic, endearing itself to someone—we can’t duplicate reality more authentically than that!

Conclusion to Part IV

Yet more to mull over! It’s so interesting to learn how our work is a balance of reality and unreality, and that how we perceive reality is actually a form of unreality. Know it or not, these two things are inseparably married in our work, and that’s where all the fun stuff happens!

In the final installment then, we’ll discuss the actual tightrope we walk each time we take tool to clay or pigment. There will be a lot to discuss and ponder, but it should be a fun exploration!

So until next time…grab your balancing staff!

"Experiment, experiment, experiment—until it finally flows from within you. It is a hard road. But the result is also a deep inner satisfaction." ~Jack Dickerson

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