Friday, October 9, 2015

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

Introduction to Part II

Hello! We’re back to our explorations of reality, and what it means for our realistic equine artwork. We’ve learned that there’s more than one way to effectively express reality, yet there also exist limitations imposed by nature itself, defining what it means to create "equine realism." In short, we have a "bubble of believability" to work within, yet even within this bubble exist gradients of "convince-ability." 

Examples throughout this series are located at Brookgreen Gardens, a wonderful sculpture garden in South Carolina. Enjoy! So let’s get down to business and explore some of the quirks found in reality that relate to the creation of our art form. Let’s go!…

Is Reality the Same for Everyone? 

Here perhaps is the crux of the issue, a question we’ll be asked to confront and reconcile repeatedly throughout our career: Is reality a universal constant? And the short answer is: “yes” and “no.”

“Yes” in that realism has a standard that's objective, observable, tangible, and defined. All we have to do is look to the living animal to see our goal clearly. We can touch him to feel his anatomy, and get up close to see how the coat effects are produced by each individual hair. We can study his behavior and how his anatomy responds to movement, moment, and physics. We can make anatomical illustrations from dissection, and map his DNA to identify his color genetics. We can’t deny this fact. But isn’t this obvious? Don’t we already know this to be true? Otherwise we wouldn’t refer to life study, or our piles of reference photos, or the of stacks of anatomy illustrations that guide us in our work. So in this sense, reality is a universal constant for our art form, one we all refer to when piloting our course—it’s our North Star. 

However, another undeniable fact is that we aren’t equine DNA. We’re imperfect human beings who are attempting to duplicate through creative expression what equine DNA already does—an entirely different equation! And it’s in this aspect that the “no” applies. So while the “yes” represents objective reality, the “no” represents our subjective interpretation. This isn’t necessarily bad, however. In fact, it’s only through the “no” that life is breathed into the genre by allowing us to play inside the bubble with our own individual voice. And play we should!

Yet like all things born of human impulse, the “no” is complicated. As it can elevate our work to new heights, it can just as easily, and in the blink of an eye, pitch us off course. It’s also within the “no” that we find distortions to the question of “what is reality,” plotting us into troubled waters if we aren't wary. 

So what’s the secret? How do we maximize the benefits of the “no” while simultaneously minimizing these unwanted obstructions? The trick is not to deny one for the sake of the other. We are the sum of our gifts and our flaws, and so it is with our art. It's what makes us unique, and our art unique. Therefore, the secret is knowing how to strike a manageable balance between reality and unreality, of finding a workable equilibrium between the “yes” and the “no,” while still remaining inside the bubble. Yet this is easier said than done! 

To learn how to manage the “no” for this purpose then, let’s explore how it can be transformed into something beneficial for us rather than remain something problematic. 

As artists, we cannot help but infuse ourselves into our work; we are our art. This is good! It makes our work distinctive, and adds vitality to our portfolio. Yet realism obliges us to manage that infusion, to prohibit too much of our whim from imposing on what is supposed to be more objective by definition. So while we strive to protect those creative stylings that establish our voice, we also work to carve out those notions that compromise the believability of our work too much. We do this naturally as we progress—we call it “making our work more realistic.”

To complicate matters, however, this process remains an ongoing and ever–changing re–evaluation throughout our artistic development, no matter how advanced we become. So because these judgment calls are rather convoluted, especially when we're newly developing, it's precisely here where our troubles with reality tend to begin. That said, however, we'll often find some useful insights if we push forward for the sake of exploration.

Because—yes—there's plenty of room for interpretation. Typically, this is linked to artistic style since there are many ways to achieve similar ends. For example, each artist will sculpt an Arabian differently, but still within that essential bubble. Or each artist may present a different narrative with their Arabian sculpture, adding new layers of meaning. There’s also the infusion of novelty—what did the artist do differently to make a piece unique not only in their portfolio, but from that of everyone else's, too? It’s in these aspects where subjectivity born from the “no” is welcome as a positive influence.

Yet it’s here where the “no” can turn rather quickly, too. The essential Catch–22 is this: while reality may be objective and observable, each person perceives that reality differently. Moreover, our individual perception will change as we artistically progress—our perception isn’t static. Its progression marks our progression. So this point isn’t only where our artistic style begins, it’s also exactly where our troubles begin. 

These differences in the perception of reality can be caused by various influences. Our individual genetics can prepare us for certain degrees of acuity, such as our sensitivity to certain color wavelengths can predispose our eyes to see color differently. It also may be a lifestyle issue because some of us have more access to real horses for life study, or can travel to workshops and seminars more so than others. But the bottom line is this: our ability to perceive reality is based entirely on the degree of objective awareness we can achieve at that moment. Said another way, we can only perceive as much reality in any given moment as our brains are able to recognize and translate it into clay or pigment. 

In a very real sense then, we each create our own “self– colored” glasses when perceiving objective reality. This is precisely why each artist's work is “tinted by different colors” of tool or brush stroke. Everything we do derives from these reality glasses from our aesthetic to our techniques to our expectations to our goals to even deciding what project we'll tackle next. As our interface and filter of reality, they predetermine everything we do and think about our work and our subject, as well as work of others. So it's also why we hear the abrupt question, “Is that artist blind?” And the twist of that question is this: maybe not—maybe it’s the one who's asking that's “blind”! This is the inherent problem with different subjective perceptions of objective reality—each of our interpretations of reality will be different. Who’s right? And how can we objectively prove it? (For more on this discussion, please refer to the blog post What’s Reality Between A Couple Of Friends…And A Bunny?, Parts 1–6.)

When we study a horse to sculpt or paint him, our mind automatically goes about processing what it sees as a series of weighted judgments. But this isn’t done objectively, as hard as we might try. Being human, what actually happens is all of our creative baggage gets factored into these judgments and colors our sight, ultimately skewing our perception and artistic interpretation of reality. And because our artistic baggage is unique, so are each of our interpretive strengths and skews. This is important to understand not only to refine our ability to recognize objective reality, but to cut ourselves and our fellow artists some slack. Only when we can accept that our own glasses prohibit us from Seeing reality as clearly as needed can we adopt a more helpful rather than hurtful approach to equine realism—especially when it comes to our own work.

Such an attitude also lets us freely exchange these reality glasses for a new pair for a new view! Only when we realize we’re wearing self–colored glasses in the first place do we gain the ability to discard them in lieu of new ones—and at will—for a fresh take. This is a powerful, pro-active tool for growth and improvement. Indeed, if we stubbornly believe in the infallibility of our own interpretation of reality, we’re stuck with the glasses we're already wearing, aren't we? And what if they’re fundamentally flawed—only we can’t see it? Thanks to the blind spots intrinsic to our current pair, how would we really know? Big problem, eh? Especially since the only way to see our current blind spots is to pop on a new pair!

That said, though, we should understand that when we pop on a new pair, when we swap out our old glasses for new ones, we’re simply trading our old issues for new ones—and so it goes throughout our career. By progressively adopting newer, fresher, and ever–clearer “reality glasses” do we make our work “more realistic” over time. Our problem isn’t one of our hands then, it’s one of our perception.

This is how the same sooty bay can be painstakingly and beautifully painted by two different artists in ways that look markedly different from each other, but still both lay within that bubble of believability. It’s also why a smooth, even, cursory airbrushed roan can look real to someone, yet appear unrealistic to someone with a more perceptive eye.  

This effect is even more pronounced in sculpture because the process is more complicated, prone to introducing a whole passel of blind spots into our work right under our noses. Yet while these skews may be appealing and we may not even perceive them as blind spots at the time, we should remember what realism is fundamentally about—objectivity. And so we strive to strike a new balance with each new piece as we grow, and our bubble shrinks a little bit each time we stretch. 

Consequently, there comes a time when those aspects that no longer serve our perception are expelled en masse from our interpretations, and our work takes a huge leap forwards: this is exactly how artistic evolution occurs. We see it all the time, too—from the beginner who starts creating significantly better work almost overnight to a workshop providing us with huge strides forwards to the seasoned artist who makes a fundamental breakthrough after a creative hiatus. But the thing is, we don’t necessarily get better at sculpting or painting per se, we get better at objectively perceiving and translating reality into our media. In short, it’s our perception that’s gotten better, not necessarily our skills. Indeed, our skills will naturally go wherever our perception leads. For this reason, we can define our progress as the honing of our perceptive abilities, or practically speaking, the ongoing minimization of our blind spots while simultaneously preserving our voice. 

So what’s a blind spot exactly? Is it always bad? Well, no! Along with those that pester us, we also have positive blind spots, those inherent strengths in our work that come unconsciously. That in mind then, we can think of a negative blind spot as anything that unconsciously steers our perceptions (and so our interpretations) away from what we desire, which in this case is objective reality. Because of this then they hide in our conventions, stylistic habits, aesthetic, and quirks that naturally pepper our art. Even so, they can also derive from those we studied under, our schooling, the works we admire, the aspects of our work we like and dislike, and our artistic goals. Indeed, anything influential can be suspect.

But a blind spot isn’t created just by those things that are present—even more importantly they’re generated by those things that aren’t! Trickier still, a blind spot by omission is far more influential for steering our work off–course, and keeping it there. How so? Well, when it comes to a present blind spot, we usually have the body part there, only it has an error or two to it. But when it comes to a blind spot by omission, entire components may be missing, often causing more serious flaws. What we don’t See, we don’t notice, right? And so those things we’re unable to perceive in reality never get introduced into our work in the first place. And it’s easier to change the blind spots generated by our adopted conventions than it is to change those created by our own unconscious omissions. 

Predictably then, identifying blind spots is hardest when we attempt to decipher reality in our own works because they’re of our own making. Talk about a conflict of interest! This is exactly why we can See errors in other artists’ work, but often not in our own. In this way, too, making our work "more realistic" is a continuous effort to remove unwanted blind spots without generating too many sneakier ones.

Again, though, not all blind spots are bad but, in fact, can be important aspects of our voice to preserve and refine. Yet herein lies another Catch–22—don’t we have to recognize our quirks first in order to decide what to do with them? But how do we recognize them in the first place if they're created by an unconscious skew? Indeed, if we could See them clearly, they wouldn’t occur ipso facto, would they?

In this lies a good question of realism art: why are some artists more successful at achieving realism while others can fail despite their best attempts? It’s not because those struggling lack talent, and it’s not because those who are more successful have more. Simply put, it’s because those who create more realistic work can perceive more objective reality, whether in life or in their work. They not only clearly see the boundaries of the bubble, they also see the possibilities within it: they simply can See more. Years of study and exercising their artistic Eye have resulted in greater acuity for picking out more objective facts from life almost immediately, providing great clarity when it comes to interpreting reality whether in the pasture or the studio. 

But there’s the great hope for those who struggle—this skill can be learned! Open our mind up enough, apply ourself enough, and be objective enough, and we may find ourselves capable of far more realism than we ever thought possible. Always remember that we are only able to perceive the reality we’re equipped to See at any given moment. Seeing and thus achieving more realism is a process, and a slow one learned one step at a time. No one gets it all in one go! 

This means that our ability to recognize and convey realism is a function of our earnestness in our artistic development. The harder we push ourselves to come closer to the objective goal, the more our eyes refine and the more we uproot our blind spots. This is why we see errors in our past work and muse, “What the heck was I thinking?!” And this is a profound moment—we should never undervalue our ability to be annoyed by our past work! Our trek towards realism requires missteps. We have to perceive when we’ve gone off track just as much as when we’re on it. In fact, this is one of the reasons why we try on different stylistic renderings as we grow, or why our style evolves as our sensibilities change. What we’re doing isn’t fruitless—we’re unconsciously exploring the boundaries of that believability bubble. How far can we push it? Where does our perception end? What’s realistic to us now? These issues evolve as we do. As a result, we can look back in our portfolio and often see a definite progression towards more realism.

But this is why settling for the status quo in our studio can be so perilous—when it comes to equine realism, most growth is pro–active. It takes hard work, keen effort, decided sacrifice, and great diligence to decipher and translate this immensely complicated subject, and an overly satisfied attitude actually protects the very quirks that can inhibit our progress. We should remain eager for new reality glasses, and try them on enthusiastically to explore the teetering balance between reality and unreality.

Nonetheless, because the ability to perceive and translate reality can be taught and learned, it suggests that it can be codified, too, at least to some degree. Remember, the bubble has boundaries. Artists, collectors, and judges are using their own codified reality when they make their judgments, and we all know some are better at that than others. Even more revealing, those most adept tend to find consensus quickest! It’s this overlap that suggests that realism can indeed be objectively assessed on some level. 

But perhaps most telling here is that becoming a better realism artist means doing precisely this—of refining this ability with each piece. If we’re challenging ourselves, our perception of reality isn’t static, but constantly evolving as we seek ever–more objectivity in our work. Base an entire community on just this effect happening in dozens of studios independently, and we have a steady upswing of that bell curve. This is how old interpretations and methods become outdated so quickly, and how communal expectation gets higher as each artist raises the bar in his or her own way.

Also remember that realism tends to attract a rather peculiar mind—one that naturally seeks more and usually bristles at being told it “can’t.” And so the bubble is under constant and uncommon pressure to shrink by the very nature of the artists themselves. And the more savvy the eye, the smaller the bubble shrinks. A clear demonstration of this effect can be found in the ceramic equine figurine market as those artists have taken their craft to dizzying new heights in a comparatively short time, and all in the deliberate pursuit of more realism.

So we can see that the question of whether reality is a universal constant is a complicated one. While our subject is objective, our attempts to duplicate him are subjective. And the bridge between the two is where all the fun, crazy, inspiring, and frustrating stuff happens! But it’s in this understanding that we can begin to work within realism with better understanding of just what we're doing, and why.
The Reality of Realism

Trying to extrapolate how realism will evolve in our chosen field can be a useful exercise to help identify those aspects of our skill set that need attention—because we cannot expect the pursuit of realism to remain static. As that bubble shrinks over the years, the cumulative effects of these unspoken judgments become more pressing, or in other words, what we regard as acceptable realism today may no longer apply in the future. We can't get by with made–up pinto patterns anymore, for example! Indeed, we’re starting to see significant, even revolutionary, shifts in expectation even now, especially in finishwork. 

Perspective is always helpful in this regard. For this, it can be illustrative to study a similar activity—wildfowl carving. This activity was born from the practice of carving hunting decoys, but took on a life of its own when those folks applied themselves and turned their hobby into an art form. Sound familiar? When we study these works from their early beginnings, we see a definite progression towards more realism as each artist pushed the envelope and bumped up expectation with each new work. The cumulative effect is now a genre typified by stunning realism, but possessing a depth that would keep any artist busy for a lifetime. Because, once again, we not only see a variety of artistic interpretations, but that the reality of a duck, for example, can be expressed in various ways, all of which are equally convincing. And as expected, we may find that some work appeals to us more than others due entirely to the unique voices that express them.

But the thing to take notice here is that though we may know nothing about a Wigeon Hen, for instance, our brain still can discern when one sculpture of a Wigeon Hen is basically more realistic than another. This means we’re capable of recognizing “more realistic” even with unfamiliar subjects, implying we have lots to rethink when we’re unable to do so with our own work. 

Conclusion to Part II

Lots to chew on, eh? Maybe now we can come to more fully understand just how complicated sculpting or painting realism actually is, and give ourselves more credit for the work we’re trying to achieve. Even more, hopefully it’ll inspire us to be more gentle with ourselves as well. Expecting too much, too fast is often a source of frustration and disappointment, especially for new artists, so we should go easy on ourselves. We need the proverbial "room" to bump around in and explore our surroundings so we get better at deciding when we need a new pair of reality glasses when it becomes necessary.

Indeed, there’s much to attend to and balance if we wish to concoct a finely–tuned illusion, and we aren’t done yet! In the next installment then, we’ll discuss the nature of a "good convince" and what that means for our own equine realism.

Until next time then…happy swapping those reality glasses!

"Whatever has happened in my quest for innovation has been part of my quest for immaculate reality." ~George Lucas

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