Tuesday, October 13, 2015

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

Introduction to Part V

Hello, again! We're back to this 5–Part series about the nature of reality in relation to equine realism, this being the last installment. We’ve touched on many subjects so far from how our perception colors reality to what we can learn from a “good convince” to the peculiars of a mental library to infusing a "soul" into our piece.

And now then it’s time to get to the fine line we actually walk as artists working in this field. Because know it or not, we each start a new one to walk with each new piece, and how well we tiptoe along depends on a few factors that help us keep our balance. So let’s get to tippytoeing!…

The Tightrope

In our ponderings here, we’ve explored many aspects realism entails, and so we may have a better understanding of where our heads and hearts need to be as we work. But all that said—how do we actually walk the line? 

We now come to our tightrope, one we each walk on our own. Our tightropes can’t be shared, since each of our experiences is distinct and singular. They also don’t cross or parallel because none of us perceives reality in quite the same way. To each of us, our reality is all we have, self–evident and complete, and so each of our tightropes is our’s alone to teetertotter aloft. Yet this is a good thing because it allows us to customtailor a truly effective perspective in relation to it, one that can guide us throughout all our efforts in this difficult art form. It also turns a critique into something more potentially useful by providing a totally unique view if our work, helping to pinpoint our blind spots more obviously.

All in all, too, walking a tightrope keeps us careful, keeps us measured and firmly–planted by asking us to make each step really count, to be more assured and secure. When we approach our work thusly, it’s more likely we’ll make lasting, meaningful advances rather than temporary, superficial ones. So what are some aspects of our tightrope we’ll have to balance?

First, perhaps, we need to remember that “anything goes if I like it” may not always be compatible with our chosen art form. We can’t forget we have rules to follow, and those rules are being written more precisely for us each time we improve. Leave it to us to create our own harder work! So if we seek to improve, we should expect our job to get naturally tougher, more demanding and exacting. If this is an enticing prospect, we’re in a good space. But if we think this will paint us into a tighter corner, this probably isn’t the most desirable art form to work in for the long–term only because this effect amplifies with progress. We need the rare ability to enjoy learning rules and, even more, to relish learning how to break them. But this is often easier said than done!

This is partly because working in equine realism is a bit of a slippery slope—a bit of improvement here necessitates a bit of improvement there, or a revelation there leads to a revelation here. Something always seems to lead to another. This ongoing, unpredictable cycle takes us to many tangents only to pull us back to the core of our task, like some crazy yo–yo. And this not only happens with each piece, but within our entire body of work, making our efforts more of a madcap rollercoaster ride rather than a steady ferris wheel. Unless we can remain happy and enthused in this kind of relentless unknown setting, we’re going to burn out rather quickly, or find undue frustration.

What’s more, if we’re uncomfortable with our sense of truth challenged on an almost per piece basis, we’re going to make ourselves unhappy. We should be able to defend our work since equine realism doesn’t care much about our feelings, or how much we think of our work. It also cares little for what we believe reality to be. It only cares about how much objectivity we can infuse into our work in any given piece, and that means we can’t get too comfortable or complacent. We should always think about challenging ourselves in significant, even scary ways so that we stay on our toes and stay hungry. This can be exhausting at times, so learning how to pace ourselves and take breaks will become an important survival skill to practice!

Because if we feel ourselves start to resent the kind of confinement realism introduces, which is normal, it may be time to indulge other creative outlets, if just as a temporary diversion. Because if the want for more realism doesn’t come naturally, with all the headache that entails, what’s the point? Creativity must first be natural and fun! So we shouldn’t become anxious if we need a break—this is to be expected from time to time. Our brain also needs down time to process information so while we’re indulging our other interests, our mind can work on issues at hand. This is why when we return to our studio, especially after another creative departure, we often have an “ah–ha” moment, or the famous “fresh eye.”

Believe it or not, a kind of discontentment in our work can cause us to unduly chase public kudos, too. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of this, since it helps to push us towards greater goals and bigger expectations, but we can run into problems if it starts to overtake our motivations or becomes a distraction. The thing is, each new piece ushers in a new kind of public adoration, and the public simply likes what it likes and there's often little making sense of it. And who are we to decide for them? If we spend most of our time trying to then, we’re in for a host of headaches, indeed. In the long–run, it’s best to create what we love, and leave the rest for serendipity. And when we love our work so much, how could we ever tire of creating it?

The same goes for perfection. As artists working in equine realism, each of us has a perfectionist bent to some degree, some more than others. It’s a double–edged sword, isn’t it? On one hand, it can propel our motivations to the dizziest heights while on the other, it can paralyze us with self–doubt. But we need it, nonetheless. Working in realism demands it, in fact; otherwise how do we achieve the almost OCD–like precision it requires? In this light, learning how to manage our perfectionist tendencies can be thought of as a route to creative maturity. Keeping things in perspective, and knowing when we’ve gone as far as we can go on a piece are as much about artistic sophistication as anything else. Indeed, there’s nothing wrong with perfectionism as long as it doesn’t drive us perfectly mad in the process!

Because, above all, we should find contentment in our work. Creating our art should be satisfying and deeply rejuvenating, something we eagerly look forward to at every opportunity. We can’t—and shouldn’t—always be on edge in our studios. Now a bit of tension is alright as it keeps us eager and striving. We need a flame burning in our bellies to ignite the want to push ourselves and grow. But overriding stress is simply destructive. It can cause us to pummel ourselves with doubt and failure, creating a negative feedback loop. So while there are artists who dazzle us with their seemingly magical abilities, remember they earned them through a lot of hard work. And like them we can, too, when we apply ourselves. Don't forget that realism is a process—our brain needs time and practice to work out all the technicalities, and all this happens in its own head space. If patience is a virtue in life, it’s a downright survival skill in equine realism!

The point is, it’s often better to gently nudge our brain into the right direction rather than beat it relentlessly. Don’t expect to get it all at once. And know that some aspects will come easily while we’ll have to work harder at others. We even may have to revisit specific aspects for clarification, perhaps repeatedly. Nothing wrong with that—this is how we learn. Just keep at it because all these small cumulative baby–steps add up to big, eventual leaps! Truly, we may not be aware of it at the time, indeed we may adamantly not see it whatsoever, but our perception is making progress with each piece whenever we push our expectations. 

It’s also useful to think about each step in an emotional context—which part contains the most electricity for us? If we do preliminary sketches before we start a piece, for example, do they contain the essential energy of our concept? Does this energy get translated into the finished work? If not, how did it get lost? Or if in the initial claying-up of the armature or blocking-in of our paint job, how can we keep this energy infused throughout the process to the end? How much about our ability to perceive reality and recreate it lies in the thrill of it? The challenge and the immediacy of reality cannot be denied, but they also can be intimidating and overwhelming. We’re drawn to this binding art form for a reason, and perhaps at the core it’s because we find real life exciting. If we can keep that enthusiasm infused into the creative process, this can add fuel to our creative fires to help us steam through the eventual difficulties.

It’s also important to understand that the discipline of realism will test our mettle—are we up to it? Our skills, knowledge base, gumption, and verve will be put to the test with each new piece since equine realism won’t ever let us rest, for the most part. We’ll be asked to give 100% each time when we apply ourselves because that’s what it takes not only to work in this genre, but especially to improve in it. And that’s a lot to ask of any artist, all the time. Seriously, there will be times when we just want to let our hair down—so to speak—and just cruise along. To a point, too, we can do this, since our experience and choice of subject matter can help us here. And it’s important to do this from time to time, too. All work and no play—well, let’s just say it can wear us down. But there are ways to reframe hard work, too. When we can turn something challenging into something playful, we’ve done ourselves a great favor!

Equine realism will challenge us to find our own self–affirming criteria as well, those points we apply to our work to determine if our efforts have been successful or not. Kudos and show placings may be great, but unless they align with our long–term goals, they can be an inadequate means to gauge our progress. And there are few things more frustrating than to have been taken off track by incompatible criteria! These gauges will be different for each of us, but adopt them we should to avoid stressing ourselves over things that just aren't relevant to our prerogatives.

This art form will test us another way, too: we’ll discover great things about ourselves we may not have anticipated. That’s because this discipline will ask us to confront our own inner demons as we work in order to purify our perception. Insecurity, inadequacy, indecision, laziness, anxiety, arrogance, cattiness, stubbornness, denial, prejudice—all our worst parts will be magnified during the process of refining our perception. That’s because we’ll be having to confront our own individual interpretation of reality—in particular, how it could be quite wrong—and we cannot do that effectively without practicing some pretty heavy–duty introspection.

And these are the very things that can hold us back, being elements of that little voice that says “we can’t” and the impulse that tempts us to swipe at someone who can. In many ways then, the process of increased perception is a kind of cleansing, a purging of the debris of what we think to be true in favor of what is actually more true. And if we’re doing this right, if we’re really digging in, this can be an uncomfortable and perhaps a bit threatening endeavor, causing us to become uneasy, or even irritated at times. But the only way around it is through it: to accept a truer version of reality means we must first disprove our old one, and that isn’t always the most pleasant of experiences. It can be hard to let go of so much that underpinned our ego and previous successes in order to accept newer realities with increased humility. But practice this enough times and it gets easier, and the easier it becomes, the easier popping on new reality glasses gets, with wonderful results for our work! The pay–off is so worth the effort and angst!

Because truth be told, one of the worst ways to self–sabotage our efforts is to stay married to the reality that panders to our ego. And our interpretations, our methods, our processes, our way of working, our habits, our aesthetics, our goals, our likes and dislikes, our successes, our failures—everything involved in what we do in our art is part of "our reality." We may feel more comfortable, perhaps more reinforced, justified, and affirmed, but if that reality is flawed—and how do we know?we’re going to have eventual problems with objectivity. Only through humility—with ourselves, our work, our methods, our subject, and with each othercan our abilities grow since that provides the creative parallax, so to speak, for us to gain ground. When we can cooly accept that our version of reality may be flawed—especially when it provided great success and popularity—we open ourselves to new ones, and that’s the pathway to improvement. 

In this sense, each piece will ask us to unlearn what we've learned in order to introduce a new version of reality. Indeed, when we get stuck, or when we're fighting a piece unduly, that usually means a new version of reality is trying to introduce itself, only we aren't listening. There's a big difference between "muscling through it" and simply railroading a piece. Taking a break and paying attention to what the piece is trying to tell us—to let it guide us—is usually the far better strategy, not just for the piece itself, but also for our longterm development. Indeed, when we learn to take a step back and let each piece become our guide into a bigger reality—when we turn the creation of our portfolio into a kind of broader exploration—do we actually take a step forward into amplified improvement and intensified curiosity.

And curiosity is essential for realism. In fact, we can think of equine realism itself as a kind of materialization of our shared curiosity as each of us explore what it means to be "equine." Indeed, it's our inquisitiveness that leads us down the roads we take with our aims or our media, and it's our curiosity that gets fed when we cram our heads full of new information. It's our questioning that compels us to take on more ambitious work, and it's our searching that leads us to adopt the methods and compositions we do. Most of all, it's our investigations that ask us to dump those methods, media, or mentalities that hold us back in lieu of new ones that propel us forward. In contrast, we stagnant when we lose our curiosity. We just go through the motions, don't we? We fall back on our habits and conventions, and simply create work on "cruise control," often relying on our fame and familiarity to carry these works. As a result, such pieces become as routine as our sensibilities so it should come as no surprise when they get lost in the din of work out there, or even within or own portfolio. Without curiosity, our reality becomes lackluster and uninspired, and it shows in our work. So critical it is, in fact, that it defines the difference between those who'll plateau and coast from those who'll forge steadily forwards towards greater heights of achievement. If we wish to grow and evolve then, and to create a portfolio of truly standout work, staying curious is by far our best tactic. 

Another means to walk our proverbial tightrope is to consciously engage our balance of reality and unreality. We can do this through a series of questions we ask ourselves at the start of each new piece, such as:
  • Why do I choose to create within realism? Has this motivation evolved as I developed? How do I see it evolving in the future?
  • What aspects are so important to me that they’re nonnegotiable elements even in my pursuit of more realism?
  • Can I see where I went wrong and also where I was right in my previous work? How can I avoid the mistakes while still perpetuating the desirable elements?
  • What’s my confidence level with my art? In what areas am I more confident, and in which am I more unsure?
  • Do I believe in my work? Can I defend it? 
  • Do I find myself bouncing between different people’s opinions about my work without one of my own?
  • What will be the measure by which I gauge the achievement of my goal? Is it an objective measure?
  • What are the favorite aspects about my work and process? Which are my least favorite, and perhaps seek to change?
  • What new thing do I wish to accomplish with this piece? Why are those aspects new, and why haven’t I tried them before?
  • Am I willing to have all my preconceptions and notions about reality challenged, and potentially proven wrong? Can I accept this without taking it personally? And even when it compromises the validity of my previous work?
  • What do I plan to do when I realize my version of reality is flawed? Keep with the status quo or make big changes?
  • What am I willing to do to improve? Am I willing to make sacrifices, such as spend money and energy for workshops or classes, or keep working at it relentlessly until it’s right, or take time from the studio for research? Do I have access to horses for life study, and am I willing to devote hours to such observations?
  • What about this piece will ask me to engage pro–active education? What new aspect will it demand of me to get it right?
  • Do I plan to visit shows, exhibitions, galleries, collections, and museums in order to study realistic works in person?
  • How dedicated am I to my art? Am I content to achieve a certain level and then coast, or do I want to push my capabilities indefinitely? 
There are no wrong answers to these questions, there are only our answers. Each of us finds our own equilibrium in the duality between reality and unreality in our ongoing internal dialogue, but the point is to engage it. Actively contemplating the question, “What is reality?” when we take up brush or clay allows us to create within a conscious act, and only then do we start opening up those parts of our creative self that feed on this kind of self–awareness. Do this enough times and ironically we find that our realistic creativity becomes progressively and unconsciously easy, and our ability to see objective reality becomes easier and comes more naturally. We finally begin to gain more clarity, not only making our work easier to create, but setting us up for new challenges that take our work to even more ambitious heights of realism and meaning.

Learning to think about what we’re doing while we’re doing it is a useful trick. It keeps us on target in the grand arc of our goals as well as helping us ensure that each piece is a progressive stepping stone to those goals. We don’t need a plan per se, but at least a guiding trend that keeps us forging ahead in ways that makes sense to our prerogatives. Allowing our work to “stack up” in meaning and depth in this manner feeds our enthusiasm, challenges our sensibilities, and refines our skills in ways that not only let us walk that tightrope, but dance on it, too! Our efforts will appear more effortless, our work more play, and our sensibilities more rooted in fact and objectivity, and all that comes back to reaffirm our work in ways unattainable otherwise.

In the end then, increasing degrees of realism can only be achieved by an open mind, one capable of perceiving a new reality when needed. Allowing a fixed, unyielding way of perceiving reality to compromise this necessary, unfolding transformation won't only stunt our growth, but can also cause us to work against ourselves. Equine realism is hard enough—why make it harder?

Conclusion to The Unreality of Realism

It’s easy to become discouraged in equine realism. Heck, we bit off a lot more than most people would ever want to chew in a lifetime! The important thing then is to not give up. If we truly love realistic equine art, then we owe it to ourselves to find a way to work through the frustrations because—above all—they are transitory. 

No realism artist, no matter how experienced or skilled, simply bangs out a brilliant sculpture with blithe ease. They batter themselves earning it. So while it’s easy to become annoyed, even angry, remember that these emotions are coming from gaps in our understanding—and gaps can be filled. Root down to the source of that anger then, and perhaps we can find a useful insight, some core truth we can put to good work. Never forget that like our frustrations, our annoyances and angers are also transitory.

Take small bites—don’t bite off big chunks to choke on them! It’s better to gain a thorough understanding of one stage than an incomplete one of multiple stages. Learning to create realistically takes time, so don’t expect too much, too fast. And when we fall off our proverbial horse, get back on! Mistakes are part of the process of learning, so don’t fear them. Every seasoned talent has been earned through a plethora of mistakes and detours, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

In many ways, the search for realism can be thought of as a search for greater clarity of perception. In turn, we apply this clarity to make more informed creative decisions. The more we perceive of objective reality then, the more we can make useful sense of it to stay true to our goals. Not everything found in reality may be a good fit for our art work, so being able to actively and intelligently filter through it all lends credibility to our work and validity to our criteria. These two aspects together give us something to stand on when we must eventually defend our work, or muscle through a creative direction—we need them.

And because realism cannot be described in words, it has to be seen, and deeper still, it has to be felt. It’s only through our eyes and our gut that we can judge between reality and unreality, and clarity is something that’s learned and earned. As we refine our expectations then, we refine our Eye, and so it goes in an endless cycle to unfurl ever more reality for us, inevitably and naturally. 

Despite all this, it’s perhaps most important to remember our passion—the equine. Looking to him for guidance, inspiration and a warm, fuzzy, horse–smelling shoulder to cry on when we need it (and we will) can do much to keep us motivated when our own abilities seem to conspire against us. Always remember, if we engage our art with a sincere, eager heart, tackling this realism thing really isn’t so impossible! We can get real with reality, and in ways so profoundly helpful, it’s unreal!

"Artistically I am still a child with a whole life ahead of me to discover and create. I want something, but I won't know what it is until I succeed in doing it." ~Alberto Giacometti

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