Saturday, October 10, 2015

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

Introduction to Part III

Welcome back to this 5–Part blog series exploring the nature of realism as it applies to realistic equine art. So far we've addressed our perception, some of the demands realism asks of us, the issue of blind spots, and the nonnegotiable components of realistic equine sculpture or finishwork.

In this Part III, we're going to address some issues pertaining to those works that may appear realistic, but may be lacking in those fundamental qualities that would actually make them more realistic. As before, examples provided come from Brookgreen Gardens, the premier American sculpture garden located in South Carolina. If you have the opportunity to visit, it's a must–see. You won't be disappointed! Anyway, enough jabbering and onto discussion…

Unreal Realism

We come now to the issue of the “good convince,” that work which appears to recreate reality accurately, but actually doesn’t. Or rather, there's a big difference between a recognizable horse (figurative equine art) and an actual horse (realistic equine art) when it comes to our chosen art form. (For more discussion on this issue, please refer to the ongoing blog series The Method, The Madness and the Mystery.)

And the problem is a sticky one. On one hand, we may find such work quite appealing regardless, which is finewe love particular artworks for our own reasons, and that's a good thing. Yet on the other hand, this can confuse the issue of realism into almost impossible tangles, creating an arena of doubt that can be detrimental if we’re unable to recognize this kind of work for what it is. In turn, this can cause us problems when we're trying to identify our own blind spots, or muddle those features we must balance when making our own creative decisions—and we can get stuck againIt can also set up obstacles for developing artists new to this genre by obscuring the issues of objectivity.

Now granted, all realistic equine artwork can be regarded as "good convinces" by definition since we cannot recreate reality with total accuracy—we aren’t equine DNA. And no artist is ever perfectly objective when it comes to realism, and never will be. That said, however, we must remember that the basis of this art form—biological objectivity—is, in part, learnable, teachable, and able to be improved. That's to say, we can make our work "more realistic" when we fold more biological accuracy into our work, the primary goal we work towards throughout our careers. And our brains can be tricked by the most effective works, something we find both thrilling and desirable.

When it comes to the good convince then, “looking real” may be effective enough, because our brains so want to be tricked, but when it comes to equine realism, we haven't gone far enough. Again, our brains can discern different degrees of increased realism within the believability bubble, so those works that once appeared realistic at first may reveal fundamental errors when dissected from a biological standpoint—and this is the nature of the good convince. When we too quickly embrace the “no” of the question, "Is reality a universal constant?," we can miss some important insights that could have been useful to us. So to help our impulses gain more discretion, let’s take a look at some traits of a good convince to learn from them.

For starters, subtle anatomical errors tend to permeate good convinces. For example, the back of the jaw may not line up with the zygomatic arches, or one side of the Atlas neck bone is collapsed inwardly as compared to its other side. The set of the ears may be too far back on the head, the hock may be too pointy, the knees may be articulating at the wrong layer of carpals, or the the many angles of the eyes may be incorrect for an equine. The topographical structure of joints may be inconsistent to reality, too, possessing, omitting, or misplacing necessary elements, a common error. The structure of the stifle may be "off" in a bent hind leg, the scapulae may not be moving independently, or the elbow may not be leveraging with the radius properly. Even more subtle, the articulation of a flexed neck may place too much bend and "meat" above the 2nd and 3rd cervical vertebrae, or subtler still, the spine may not be moving consistently to the depicted motion. Perhaps the foot is improperly articulated within its 3joint system, or the fore and hind hooves diverge from their characteristic shapes. Even more, muscles may be missing, or misplaced, or some may be invented, or perhaps they're moving inconsistently to the portrayed movement. On the other hand, maybe one muscle group may not be tying into the accompanying one properly, or too far up or too far down on a neighboring body part. Further still, it could be that the necessary textures of bone, hide, hair, and horn are muddled, too, and not reflecting their relative qualities. Overall then, the piece may appear to have correct anatomy with a cursory inspection, but when we dissect it with a penetrating and educated Eye, we find serious flaws of a more advanced nature.

What’s our insight?: Accurate anatomy is a technical aspect, not just a visual one. Each component is context for the next. 

Along those lines, asymmetries of paired limbs or bilateral areas are common with a good convince, too. The long bones of the limbs may not match in length or dimension, for example, or paired features of the head may be crooked, or mismatched. For example, the nasal bone may not be centered on the head, the forehead and crown may be lopsided, or the eyes are crooked or misangled when compared against each other. The perfect box of the pelvic girdle may be broken as well, or the spine may not be seated into it symmetrically. Paired hooves may also not match in size or angle, or paired joints may also be asymmetrical, not matching in dimension, structure, or topography. Scapulae and humeri are often mismatched as are femurs, and the tuber ischii. This goes for muscles, as well. For instance, the musculature of the shoulder on the right side may be significantly more robust than that of the left side, regardless of the motion depicted. Or muscles may be missing or misplaced on one side, but present and correct on the other. Indeed, asymmetries are typical of the good convince, and they can range from glaringly obvious to quietly nuanced.

What’s our insight?: A big component of technical anatomy is symmetry, and unless we attend to it properly, our anatomical depiction will be flawed all the same.  

Correct body balance is often off with a good convince as well. For instance, a walking sculpture may not depict the relative upanddown motion of the forequarter and hindquarter, or the hindquarter may not be dipped downward in a Morgan–type of show stretch. Characteristic body shifts, twisting, bending, or leaning typical of certain equine motions may also not be present, or the rib cage may be inert and static despite the motion depicted.

What’s our insight?: How body areas move in relation to each other is also a feature of anatomical accuracy, so we must attend to it properly to maintain our illusion of reality.

Equines are graceful, agile, athletic, expressive, and fluid in their motion. Indeed, no other animal combines their power, speed, agility, emotion, elegance, and size, and so their movement may be one of the things we often find so beautiful about them. Unless we can duplicate these qualities in our sculpture then, we're going to miss themand a good convince often does. Here, motion can appear stilted, contrived, stiff, and choppy, lacking the natural allure and refined coordination so characteristic of equine motion. The piece may appear awkward or unbalanced, too, as though different parts are moving independently of each other and the body. This is often caused when the spine isn't taken into proper account, and so the torso and the legs aren't moving in synch, or perhaps the legs are composed in a way that appears almost haphazard and afterthefact. Legs may also be articulated in a manner that's clumsy and incomplete, causing an interruption in the line and flow of natural equine motion.

What’s our insight?: Equine motion is as much a part of anatomy as any bone or muscle group. Unless we accurately account for it in our sculpture thenwith all the nuance, grace, and power inherent in the equinewe risk a piece with compromised realism all the same.

Or perhaps the sculpting technique isn’t as refined as it could be, resulting in inaccurate pilling, tears, or other sculptural relics. Areas that require technical crispness and precision such as the joints, coronets, eyes, and head may be ambiguous, bulbous, too generalized, or uncertain, too. Also, the sculpting style may be unable to dance between the hard and soft approaches realism asks such as a harsh and heavy–handed approach applied to every aspect of the sculpture. For example, a strong, pronounced treatment of all the muscles when many required a softer, looser approach, or all the veins are equally amplified when some needed a more “now you see them, now you don’t” quality. Similarly, we may see that the sculptor was unable to be precise or delicate when necessary, and so we find areas of fudging, coarseness, bumpiness, or imprecision when the opposite was needed. For example, thick, clumsy eyelids or wrinkles, or bumpy coronets, ear rims, eyes, or hooves. 

When it comes to painting, a good convince has its own characteristics in this regard, too. For example, the technique may not accurately duplicate the effect in life, often lacking the visual texture or proper scale. Painting can be formulaic, too, leaning more towards rigid stylization than what we see in reality, which is often mercurial and spontaneous. Methods or media can be used inadequately, creating artistic debris in a paint job, or the use of color may be more habitual than real, used as a kind of “paint–by–numbers” formula that isn’t quite consistent to life. Again, areas that ask for precision such as the eyes, coronets, mapping, hooves, or hairlines along the crest or dock may be muddled, messy, or careless.

Or perhaps the overall artistic interpretation may be too rigid and fixed—too routine—and unable to sway from a literal, formulaic depiction of anatomy, color, texture, or phenotype. Here we often see an inadequate factoring in of those “living” qualities so necessary for imbuing life’s spontaneity as the artist simply cannot create beyond their comfort zones. 

What’s our insight?: That the artistic styles and creative methods we employ are as integral to achieving a realistic result as our knowledge of biology. That is, how we create and what we create are akin to the same thing.  

A good convince also tends to excel in conformation and breed type at the expense of biological accuracy, and may even exaggerate these aspects to “wow” the eye. In short, they tend to “ping” along those concerns related to a quality horse, yet still depict one that's non–viable. (Again, please refer to the blog series, Anatomy and Conformation, Parts 1–4 for more discussion on this topic.)

What’s our insight?: Biological accuracy doesn’t depend on conformation or type. Rather, the goal is achieved through very different criteria—those compass points from Part I again.

Similar to conformation, show grooming can blind the eye to the biological flaws in a sculpture. For instance, beautifully sculpted or painted braid work, an array of lovely dapples, expertly done quarter marks, or an accurate depiction of pads or shoeing can distract us from those components intrinsic to actual realism. 

What’s our insight?: No amount of grooming’s “spit and polish” can compensate for flaws in realism. Instead, the depiction of reality starts with biology, not with fancy dress. 

Along those lines, a good convince can inordinately rely on the amount of detail in the sculpture or paintwork. Yes—details are important, but they certainly aren’t where realism begins or ends. If we take an objective step back, we find that no amount of detail can recoup what’s lost with flawed anatomy just as much as anatomy cannot compensate for flawed details. Similarly, no amount of painstaking detail in a paint job can compensate for the wrong tone just as much as a perfect tone cannot compensate for incorrect or messy details. 

What’s our insight?: Realism depends on all the pieces of the puzzle fitting together as a whole—one wrong piece and the whole illusion is compromised. 

A good convince often is flawed in proportion in terms of what’s biologically feasible (not in terms of normal variation). Somehow nothing fits together quite right, as though the piece was cobbled together from several different sculptures. Or perhaps the head is far too big, the hooves or joints unnaturally small, or the hip oddly too long. Similarly, if the sculpture was transformed magically into a real animal, it couldn’t function, just like how Barbie® couldn’t function if she were a real person.

What's more, real proportions often are quite different than what we can be accustomed to in art, perhaps due to our penchant for idealizing something we admire. This effect can compound and skew our eye into creating stylized proportions or body parts, which sometimes can become further exaggerated through the filter of our artistic style. Common examples found here are unnaturally short backs, long necks, cannons that are far too long, deep Arabian dishes, abnormally large eyes, narrow legs, small muzzles, or oddly short croups that make the tail appear perched on the back itself rather than erupting from the dock. 

What’s our insight?: It’s often more realistic to create proportions we find in life rather than those we find more beautiful, more amplified, or “better.” Using calipers religiously with good references always is a good idea.

Given that each part of an equine’s body has myriad variations on the blueprint, no two horses are exactly the same. Each horse is an individual, just like us. So, in essence, we sculpt a unique portrait of a singular, individual horse with each new piece we create, no matter how idealized the depiction. But a body of work based on good convinces usually cannot express this nuanced diversity we see in life, and so it tends to skew towards a habitual interpretation of equine build or phenotype, resulting in a portfolio that’s homogenous and predictable; it basically looks like the same basic interpretation, only in different positions.

Similarly with paintwork, perhaps the portfolio shows a preponderance of muted, pastel–ed, "dusty" tones when many colors require vibrant, clear tones to properly represent. Many types of bays, for example, require "clean" colors for them to appear realistic.

What’s our insight?: Unless we can express life beyond a routine, habit, or a phenotypic or aesthetic preference, we’re going to run into trouble with realism.

A good convince often has problems with scale—scale of body parts and scale with painted features. For example, eyes and muzzles may be sculpted unnaturally large, or ears rendered oddly too small. Joints, hooves, or shoe clenches may be far too big and bulky, or the relative scale of muscles is incorrect or inconsistent. As for paintwork, ticking on roans or intricate patterns is often out–of–scale, as are dapples and dun factors. 

Scale is a critical issue when it comes to realism, and it’s a little bit different from the concept of proportion. While proportion generally addresses how each body part compares to each other, scale entails the relative size of something in relation to the overall implied size of the body. And the smaller the piece, the more imperative scale becomes because now even the smallest inconsistency can translate into a big out–of–scale problem.

Yet scale is often inadequately addressed when our mental library can only deal with the presence of something rather than also its scale. That’s to say, as long as something is present, its scale is often of little relevance largely because we couldn't properly scale up or scale down body parts and coat effects. For instance, miniatures with absurdly large (and often indistinct) joints or ghoulishly–sculpted heads because the tools used were too big. Another common example are “ticked” roans or fleabites with comparatively large or long streaks of applied pencil or brush that are out–of–scale for the size of the animal depicted. Indeed, if the finishwork represented a real animal, such ticks would be 3–4” long!

What’s our insight?: One of the fundamental underpinnings of realism is the sense of scale. It’s not enough then that body parts or coat features are merely present, they must also be in–scale to be correct.

Equine color is a varied, complex, and situational array of eye candy. In fact, one of the first things we notice about any given equine is his color and markings. It's almost too much of a good thing—as if this animal wasn't beautiful enough, nature imbues even more lovely qualities with his coat, hair, eyes, and hooves! Could we be any luckier as artists? Our possibilities are endless.

Yet equine color does have its set of specific effects and tonal qualities. For example, certain types of dappling only show up on certain coats such as the difference between sooty dapples, silver dapples, pangarĂ© dapples, dapple greys, and "bloom" dapples. Ticking, mapping, roaning, and patterns should follow the coat growth while hoof striping should have that inlaid, embedded, "bruised" look to them. Certain coats are characterized by a graininess to them, too, such as dapple grey, roans, and sooties, since composite colors such as these are comprised of all the individual hairs working together to produce an overall effect. Pinked areas should appear soft and fleshy, imbued with the characteristic unique tones of unpigmented flesh. The mane, tail, and feathers should be shaded and detailed to best mimic the look of myriad strands adding up to a whole, possibly even having the coloration and staining at the roots or tips typical of an unwashed coat. Areas that required great precision such as the eyes, ears, chestnuts, face, hooves and hairlines should be neatly and painstakingly done to keep them both appealing and tidy. All in all, quality finishwork looks as though the artist maxed out every aspect of tone, effect, detail, and quality so that it looks realistic and complete.

So just as good convinces exist in sculpture, they happen in finishwork, too. Here, the tone is often incorrect such as a silver dapple that's too blue or too greenish, or a palomino that's too red or bright yellow. Dapples are a common giveaway, too, since the incorrect type of dapple may be applied, or the dapples themselves don't mimic the look and interlay of real dapples, appearing more as contrived polka dots or Figure8s. The coat color may be flat and uninspired, often typical of a cursory treatment of the airbrush that only used 2–3 colors layered simplistically and quickly on each other. Patches of color may follow a routine treatment rather than what we find in life, often seen on roans, greys, and sooties, especially around the face, or on the body. The coloration and shading of dark skin may be done with flat black, and lack the delicate fleshy shading and tonal variance typical of these areas. Hooves may be simplistically painted, with streaks of thinned black paint used as striping rather than being shaded and treated to look like real horn. The mane, tail, and feathers may be painted a flat color throughout, lacking the tonal variances typical of such textures. Or the eyes, hooves, or other areas that needed precision and care were painted in a sloppy, hurried manner. Overall, a good convince appears almost half–done, as though the artist could have gone the extra mile, but didn't.

Furthermore, a good convince in finishwork often has relics from the process apparent in the color. For example, airbrush blotches or speckling, hair, brushstrokes, or fingerprints in the pigment, white expanses with bald or streaked areas, areas forgotten and left unpainted such as the underside of tails or inside the mouth and ears or between the lateral cartilages, mapping of the wrong color and often without hair texture, brush work with marks, breaks, or pilling, and many more. Basically, anything that would mar well–done, complete and smooth finishwork can be thought of as a good convince.

What’s our insight?: When it comes to finishwork, our job is equal portions what we paint and how we paint it. Paying close attention to every detail as well as every overall effect is necessary to concoct a convincing illusionwe need to "max out" finishwork in order to appear real.

We also find good convince sculptures lying beneath brilliant finishwork, presenting us with mixed messages. The same applies the other way around—an expertly sculpted sculpture beneath good convince finishwork. While these pieces may be beautiful on some level, they aren’t as realistic as they could have been.

What’s our insight?: One–sided achievement has a problem blending into a realistic whole. This means that the ability to objectively determine realism in both sculpture and finishwork independently can be equally important. Also, one cannot compensate for the other; the complete whole is necessary.

Finally, a good convince can tug at our heartstrings more than our heads—our emotions are targeted more than our studies. And because reality tends to be replaced by fanciful whims, strong artistic styles can even morph into caricature if left unchecked, taking our work well beyond what’s viable, or realistic. (For more discussion on the concept of viability, refer to the blog post Viability and Functionality: The Umbrellas.)

Yet it’s in this aspect that we can most struggle to find balance between reality and unreality. On top of this, many people prefer to be emotionally moved over being rationally satisfied when forced to chosebecause we’re creating art. This isn’t to be dismissed! Art requires more than clinical representation; otherwise we lose the magic that’s the essence of life itself. Horses move us and unless our work does the same, we haven’t recreated a realistic experience either. That's definitely a critical insight.

Yet at the same time, we should remember our chosen art form—its boundaries don’t stretch very much, but often tend to burst. So if we push too hard by allowing our whims to go unchecked, we’ll end up popping that believability bubble just as easily as anything else. There’s a definite balance of qualities involved!

What’s our insight?: It takes as much emotionality as rationality to create a solid piece of realistic work.

Conclusion to Part III

Lots to ponder, isn't there? There's far more that goes into recreating reality than meets the eye because everything that we can take for granted in the living animal, we cannot in our media. This is the challenge of realistic equine art—what can our perception See and what can we infuse into our clay or pigment? It's the gist of our struggles. (For more discussion on related topics, please download the LSQ Guidelines.)

So in the next installment, we’ll discuss the value of a mental library as well as different schools of thought in realism, as it all helps us to gain more clarity in what we’re trying to do with our own realistic equine artwork.

"And obviously, from our own personal point of view, the principal challenge is a personal challenge." ~Richard Branson

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