Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Common Artistic Errors In Realistic Equine Sculpture


Every realistic equine artist has blindspots. It's just the nature of the game in our chosen genre. In many ways then, we can think of our "artistic style" as the amalgamation of all our blindspots; what we don't See is what characterizes our work rather than what we do when it comes to an objective art form. In this regard, it may be a good thing to keep some of our blindspots to further our own Voice, to stake out our own place in the genre. But by the same token, there are blindspots that actually have a reverse effect: they compromise our ability to attain more realism, and right under our noses. These are the ones we want to ferret out.

That means close, objective observation doesn’t apply just to the living animal, but perhaps even more to our own work. Indeed, when we can't see these kinds of mistakes we're making, how could we ever amend them? And it's in our perceptive abilities—of and between the animal, our work, and our references—that's the mechanism for plucking them out. Because of this, the nature of our perception is critical for improvement, yet it's typically the hardest thing to change. The good news though is that if we can objectively discover the problematic aspects of our work, we can fuel our own progress indefinitely, and to new heights we never dreamed!

The thing is, when we oogle a piece of equine realism, it actually “interviews” with us in a way. Immediately, its first impression snatches our eye, then as we study it, its technical substance should become clear to make a credible, beautiful rendition of the living animal. Therefore, the secret to striking work is having a good “hook” with the technical savvy to back it up. But if our work is peppered with blindspots that compromise that technical base, this hook is compromised as well, and our piece may not "interview" so well when we start to pick it apart. So if we fix these blindspots that steer our work away from objectivity, we actually amplify that hook for a much stronger whollop; our first impression and technical savvy match, and BAM! 

Yet we're back to the problem of how do we circumvent our blindspots if we can't even see them? We can start with the common technical errors found in equine realism. Certain aspects of our subject seem to be a trouble spot most artists, so perhaps if we discuss those, we might be able to rethink our own work and start to carve out other blindspots better. It merely takes a perception shift. It also means that if we avoid these common blindspots, we'll have an immediate leg up in the game. So let's get started!...


The issue of pinto and appaloosa patterns continue to have problems in interpretation despite the ample resources that help us here. Perhaps some misunderstand the nature of a pattern, or maybe they haven't studied the resources, or it could be they just got fanciful and made it up. Either way, this issue can be avoided simply by researching and using good references photos and sticking to them. It's also smart policy to apply a pattern on the breed of horse depicted in the references since it now seems that we can't apply a pattern from one breed and place it onto another, especially when it comes to oddities. This is due to mutations which happen all the time, but which pop up only in certain bloodlines. But because these mutations are often attractively unusual, we're tempted to apply them to many other breeds. We have to resist that temptation. So we can't take a funky pattern from an Icelandic and put it on our Hanoverian sculpture, for example, since that pattern may be distinctive only to the Icelandic. 

Above all, however, patterns shouldn’t be wild imaginations or offhand interpretations. It's odd this still occurs with all the information now out there, but it does. Realism is partially about genetics: how the body, coat, and character of the animal factually manifest 
(the other part is physics, and the other part is anima). So when we slap on a pattern that's inaccurate, we're automatically creating an unrealistic result, by definition. It doesn't matter if the rest of the workmanship is stellar or if the piece is striking and luscious: errors are errors. Indeed, these pieces should essentially be disqualified from placings because they don't represent an equine in the first place. On the flip side though, that also means that the more faithful we are to realistic patterns, the more realistic our piece. And that's good news! It really makes it quite simple for us in terms of what to apply and how and to what.

In addition, what happens inside and along patterns should also be painted authentically. For instance, white areas need flesh shadings and not grey shadings, and mapping is a ticked and mottled combination of white and the body color, not grey, or a flat third color. Patterns should also refrain from edges that don’t duplicate the lay of the hair with all the whorls and splits they have. 
We also need to see expert application of the white and other pattern features. Things should be smooth and even, and opaque where needed, or ticked inscale and with practiced technique. Ridges (especially along the border with the body color or spots) or bald areas in the white areas or appaloosa spots, brush marks, and debris are common flaws. 

Patterns shouldn’t appear contrived or forced, either. It's hard to describe this quality but they should have the necessary spontaneity and genetic “luck of the draw” appearance. And the more chaotic the pattern, the more this component is necessary. For instance, a common fault with Appaloosas are spots that are more or less evenly spaced, shaped, and sized over the sculpture, or pinto patterns that follow muscle delineations rather than tracking over them happenstance. The folding of flesh such as in wrinkles also shouldn't have a pattern drawn straightly over them. We need the randomness and quirkiness of every pattern so it looks grown rather than painted.

Dapple Grey

Dapple greys are often misinterpreted because of their obvious difficulty. Really, dapple grey needs close study and use multiple references paired with exemplary technique to ensure a realistic result. However, the color fails in these common ways, as follows: 
  1. Dapples that appear as regimented polka dots. For example, an unskillful use of the “figure eight” technique of airbrushing that produces neat, even dots all over the model. Or handpainting that falls too quickly into regimentation. Dapples are typified by randomness of sorts, and if we don't capture that, our dapple greys will appear formulaic, contrived, and predictable, something the pattern most definitely is not. 
  2. Ignoring the greying pattern clearly observed during the greying process (not to be confused with dark areas seen on a sweaty, showclipped dapple grey horse). We need to see light areas where they characteristically occur and dark "networks" where they tend to happen. Reversing or misinterpreting the greying pattern is akin to reversing the white and dark areas on a tobiano. 
  3. Dapples can be poorly executed from a technical standpoint with the use of an airbrush. For instance, some have bald patches in the middle, resulting in blotchy little faint "donuts." Or they can have spidery splotches, like blowing on thin paint with a straw indicating the paint was too thin and the pressure too high through the airbrush. Some have pooling of white paint, as we see along the edges of some dapples. 
  4. Dapple greys that are too blended, appearing “powderpuff” and evenly soft. In reality, the pattern is grainy and roany in the dark networks between the dapples. It should also appear darker in some areas and lighter in others.
  5. Dapples that are of even intensity and placed all over the horse. In reality, dapples fade in and out of the dark networks and light areas in various areas, and along the border where they intersect. They aren't the same intensity all over the horse. The same can be said of all dapple coats.
  6. "Banding" is common as is "Patching." Banding is when we see a perpendicular dark area over the barrel with dapples nestled inside, like a reversed Belted Galway. The same can be said of Patching in which dark areas appear in patches with dapples inside, like a Victorian rocking horse. 
  7. Applying white areas with defined, even edges. In reality, the pattern appears like a broken honeycomb with the dark "networks" randomly poking in and out like a tree branch with the white areas. 
  8. Dapples that are contrived being a similar tone, spacing, shape, intensity, and size, typically exhibited like #5, all over the sculpture. However, dapples exhibit great variety in this department; they look like "ordered chaos."
  9. Approaching the color too simplistically by using only two colors of equal intensity and application. For example, merely basecoating the model white and then painting on the black honeycombs to form the dapples.
  10. Stark dapples that lack that diffusion zone between the inner white and the neighboring dark, a particular problem with “star dapples." Dapple Grey dapples should have fuzzy edges, not harsh clean ones, with a more intense inside. 
  11. A lack of detail to the color. For example, "sunbursts" on the gaskin and forearm, the mottling on the cannons and nasal bone, and the “bracelets” on the coronets are often missing. "Tracing" is typically missing, too, where tiny branches emanate from one dapple to connect to another.
  12. Applying the dapples after the dark areas are painted such as the popular "star dapple," so the dapples "sit on top." Instead the dapples should be paintedas much as possiblein conjunction with the dark areas so they "sit back" into the coat.
  13. Painting the dark networks the same intensity and pattern all over the sculpture. In reality, the networks exhibit just as much variety and fading in and out as do the dapples.
Art Technique

Technical finesse in the use of the media is critical or our illusion will fail just as easily as if a leg was bent backwards. Remember: if the real horse has it, so should our sculpture and paint job whereas if the real horse doesn't, neither should our sculpture and paint job. That means we need to pay keen attention to our artistry the moment we touch a piece with our tools. In a sense, everything we do comes down to technique, doesn't it? So from that perspective, workmanship often suffers from the following
 most common problems:
  • Flashing, seams, and seals that are insufficiently removed or pits, scratches, gouges, or other irregularities that are left unaddressed.
  • Details that are obliterated or compromised by overly aggressive prepping or primering. 
  • Foreign matter embedded in the primer or paint job.
  • Blobby, drippy, ridged, rippled, or wrinkled surfaces in the primer or paint.
  • Areas not sufficiently painted to create bald portions, or not painted at all, particularly in tight areas.
  • Sculpting technique that relies too heavily on slashes or sharp creases to get its point across. For example, too harsh a treatment of muscle definition, creating harsh grooves that define muscles rather than soft, fleshy curvaceous indications. 
  • Similarly, wrinkles treated with a slashing or cutting method, lacking the necessary soft, rounded, and fleshy appearance. They often appear too regimented, too, like an accordion.
  • Base coats that are uneven in texture, or so pebbly in texture as to be unrealistic.
  • Sculpted portions too harshly or coarsely rendered, commonly seen with veins, facial features, and manes and tails.
  • Clay "chatter" in which portions of the sculpting, especially in detailed areas like the head and legs, haven't been properly smoothed.
  • Areas not convincing as what they’re meant to represent such as flesh, hair, hide, bone, or horn.
  • “Pilled” remnants of sculpting material left on the surface, usually in manes, tails, and facial features, or blobs in the sculpting material because of insufficient blending and smoothing. 
  • Insufficient smoothing where necessary, or conversely areas that are too smooth as to obliterate hide details.
  • Sometimes critical areas can be left unsculpted, often seen on raised hooves, heels, inside the ears, inside the nostrils, or under the jaw. 
  • A lack of symmetry between bilateral pairs.
  • Muscles that are sculpted too deeply or pronounced for the stance indicated.  
  • Proportion, placement, and planes issues.
  • Anatomical (to include biomechanical) problems with the sculpture.
  • Paint jobs that aren't accurate to equine color genetics.
Eye Appeal

Granted, some colors on real horses are rather eventoned, like chestnut, compared to more blotchy effects such as sooty or pangare. Nevertheless, their coats have a glasslike quality that seems to glow from the inside and with light playing off the surface, we have an attractive sheen, glow, and interplay of color. In other words, even the "plainest" coat color has a 3D effect.

Or course, model horses are a far cry from the real deal and artists have to mimic these coat qualities in 2D pigment. So there's a big difference between a boring, uninspired paint job and a subtle one. Because let's be honest: a model with a flat and monochromatic paint job simply isn't interesting. It may be perfectly done in every other way, but without the “pop," it lacks that hook that catches and keeps the eye. And realistic equine figurines really do best as technically faithful eyecandy
they blend the facts with the fantasy. In other words, it's not enough to be merely competent. We have to be complementary.

A handy way to accomplish this is the use of luscious color, tones, shadings, highlights, and various effects in the paint job to "wake it up," to make it seem more 3D. We can still be subtle and have "pop" at the same time. Without a doubt, a "plain" chestnut, bay, or black can be made to glow like a jewel with a skilled use of pigment regardless of media, application, or tools. 

[Tip: Rather than use the white base as a means to create highlights when airbrushing, try other colors. For example, let's think about highlighting a dark bay painted with an airbrush. Don't just airbrush dark bay color over a white base to create the highlight color! No! Paint over that white base coat with reds, oranges, burgundys, golds, and yellows then shade in with the dark bay color to blend. These different colors will add rich lusciousness to the coat rather than the washy, flat effect whited highlights create.]


When it comes to painting realistic equine sculpture, it's easy to fall into old dogmatic habits of interpretation. Know it or not then, unless we're actively working against our own grain with every piece, we're creating more from these kinds of ingrained habits than we are from reality. And no artist is immune from this effect. Our brains are highly sophisticated pattern recognition machines that deftly identify and duplicate patterns. Even more, our brains will arbitrarily create patterns where none exist. And this is exactly what's happening when we become too enamored of what's expected rather than with what's actually there. 

Now this wouldn't be such a problem if these habits reliably produced realistic results, but more times than not they're incomplete approximations. Indeed, some good ol' objective comparisons typically blow them apart in short order. Strange, isn't it? If we have to practice objective observation to our work already, how do these issues even persist? It's probably because many aspects involved with realistic equine art are difficult to render convincingly. It's also because many just don't See these issues in the first place. When these things happen, we tend to have stylizations, gross oversimplifications, or formulaic versions insinuating themselves as viable options, and then these get accepted as gospel. Ironically, this effect can become so distorted that what's actually correct may appear "wrong" to many people!

Spectrum Of Believability

Sculpting realism isn't as straightforward as many would believe. Not only is it technically complicated, but how we perceive reality has a big impact on how we interpret reality in our media. The fact is, there are many different ways to convey realism equally well, and no artist is truly 100% clinically objective. We're human beings after all, not equine DNA. 

This implies there's a sliding scale of realism, that all work rests on a spectrum of believability based on how it interprets technical reality. In other words, there isn't one way to convey reality, but there are certainly more effective ways of doing so, too. Is our style consistent to reality? Or is it an impediment?


Exactitude is a real problem area, in both sculpture and paintwork. Yet holding a rock
steady hand to produce clean, even lines and borders is critical to realistic work. Indeed, a sloppy pupil looks diseased, or a clumsy border between the coat and the hoof only reminds us that the piece has been poorly painted. Being so, chronic problem areas include the eye, muzzle, markings, legs, detail shading, coronet, where the hair meets the body (such as on manes, tails, and feathers), hooves, and ears. 

Wherever we see total precision on the animal is where we want to see it in the sculpturework or paintwork, without exception. We don't want to fudge these areas by any means. And precision is even more important on minis since even a slight bobble there means a giant booboo, proportionally speaking. 


Everything about the animal has a proportional relationship to another, so it could be said that capturing these relationships accurately is the gist of sculpting realistically. Indeed, proportion speaks to everything we do in clay or pigment, being a whole lot more than simply getting the head the right size! Yet there are some common errors in proportion that need special mention, as follows:
  • Balance: As the horse moves, his whole body is engaged, not just his legs. This is because the spine is the origin if all motion, so the moment he shifts balance or outright moves, his spine is already engaged. However, his leg bones are also of fixed lengths, so his torso must move in synch with them in motion. So when a leg moves, that attached part of the body must follow as the hoof "reaches for" the ground. That's to say the torso's orientation will tip up or down, or rotate synchronized with the mechanics of a particular movement of the legs or neck. Let’s consider a horse standing square. When he stretches his right hind leg back, we see that his pelvis tips down on that side because that side must stretch down to reach the ground. Bones don’t lengthen or contract, which would keep the torso level, but remain at fixed dimensions. It's the articulations that open or close to "shorten" or "lengthen" a limb, and when it comes to this effect, that includes the tipping–up, tipping–down or rotation of the spine to accommodate planted hooves. Similarly, when he stretches his right fore leg forwards, we see his scapula sinks down on that side as that hoof "reaches for" the ground (the fluid nature of scapular motion adds nuance to this motion). So if he stretches both forelegs forward, his entire forequarter would tip down, wouldn't it? Otherwise his feet would be magically floating in the air. Likewise then, if he stretches both hind legs back as in a show stretch, his entire hindquarter drops below the withers. Similarly, if one hind leg is brought forwards and the other extended backwards such as in a good walk, we get the same effect: the hindquarter sinks down. That means the torso doesn't stay level in relation to posture and motion, but seesaws and rotates because the body must follow the legs down to the ground. So, for example, a sculpture depicting a steady walk with the hind legs spread forwards and backwards with one foreleg planted upright shouldn't have hind legs made longer (often through the gaskin) to contrive a level torso, but should have the hindquarter dipped down towards the ground. Failing to account for this effect is another common error because if we were to reposition such a piece into a standing square stance, the hindquarter would tower unrealistically over the forequarter, or the forequarter would tower over the hindquarter. The proportions of the body when standing “square” should always be consistent and synched despite motion. Mistakes here often manifest in a very distinct way. For example, to keep the torso level during a show stretch, a sculpture may have hind legs that are proportionally too long and forelegs that are comparatively too short. In short, the hind legs are lengthened and the forelegs are shortened disproportionately to contrive a level torso. If such a horse were standing square, the hindquarters would tower above the forequarters. This is also often seen with cantering, walking, or collected sculptures.  
  • Symmetry: Horses are bilaterally symmetrical, meaning that one side mirrors the other side from nose to tail. While there’s natural variation with each animal (like with us!), of course, these tend to be natural subtleties in comparison to some extremes problematic sculpture can present. For example, sculptures can have mismatched limbs whose pair has bones of differing dimensions, eyes that are askew or different sizes, muscles of unequal bulk, ears that don't match, or asymmetrical pelvic girdles or Atlas wings, all of which can happen if the artist wasn't careful about measuring paired features with calipers. That means despite posture or motion, all paired anatomy should match. 
  • Distraction: At times the area of a sculpture can be so distracting that the artist forgets to harmonize the whole design. For instance, let’s consider a sculpture in a sliding stop. We immediately see that the hindquarter is unnaturally too large. That's because the artist was so caught up in the power of the hindquarter during a slide, she became fixated on it at the expense of overall proportion. Similarly, let's take a look at a Morgan sculpture. It's clear the hindquarter is too small for the body. But, here again, the artist became too focused on the expressions of the face and robustness of the neck and lost sight of the rest of the body. Proportions are best applied when first regarded as a whole, then as the specifics of a given area. Remember, everything has to harmonize together.
  • Scale: Creating work that's "in scale" is critical for realism, it being a key feature in proportion. Everything we do, from the flick of ticking to the draw of our sculpting tool to the size of physical features must be in absolute scale; otherwise we create an unrealistic result by definition. However, the issue of scale is often peppered with errors from ticking that's too big and cumbersome to veining and whisker bumps that are too large. This is especially true for minis in which a small indiscretion actually equates to a giant mistake of proportion, relatively speaking. For instance, heads, eyes, ears, joints, cannons, and hooves on minis that are just too large. Dapples and many types of patterns on minis are often too large as well. The issue of scale speaks directly to the believability of a coat effect or physical feature. Indeed, if it's done properly, we should have a hard time discerning between the art and the real thing in a quality photo! We should also think that a mini is a larger size since everything is so in scale.

Simply switching the plumbing doesn't adequately change the gender because, in life, genders have a passel of secondary sex characteristics that need attention, too. It’s important that stallions authentically look like stallions, that mares convincingly appear as mares and that geldings are built like geldings. Granted there are always exceptions, but we need to pay attention to secondary sex characteristics nonetheless for a correct overall appearance. For example, we can't turn an Ideal Stock Horse into a mare simply by removing the "bits," or turn a Lady Phase into a stallion by adding them.

So study photos and make objective comparisons to discover the differences that go beyond the “plumbing." For example, mares tend to have longer ears and are "lower to the ground," stallions tend to have bigger jaws, smaller ears, and more robust muscling, and geldings tend to have softer muscling and perhaps some physical eccentricities. Our work does best when it's respectful of these differences, plus it makes the sculpting experience more varied and fun.


Foals usually have inaccurate adult–like color rather than authentic foal coloration. We have to pay attention to color characteristics that typify the aging process such as that foal pang are, fuzz, and "off–color" coats that are so distinctive.

Foals also shouldn't have adult morphology, or lack those natural infant characteristics that distinguish them. For instance, the heads of foals are neither built like an adult's head nor are they bony like an adult's head. They're soft and underdeveloped in their bony structure with soft brows, teardrop bones, and jaws. They often have comparatively bigger ears and broad foreheads as compared to their jowls, too. Their bodies are obviously quite different from an adults as well, so we need to pay attention to every inch. Joints are bigger, and the proportion of the long bones bones is markedly different, as is the definition of the anatomical topography throughout the body. Using lots of reference photos is important with foals since they require such a different approach than when creating adults.


This issue is rather a hot topic since it can be influenced by horsemanship, nutrition, misunderstandings, personal opinion, rhetoric, and aesthetic taste. Plus, we all know a horse that's "inferior" in structure that out–performs and stays sound longer than an "ideal" counterpart. Many also seem to confuse the issue of conformation and anatomy, as though they were the same thing. But they're not, and knowing why is pivotal for our understanding of either subject.

Now while conformational points are easily learned, applying them from animal to sculpture can be tricky due to the introduced complication of artistic interpretation. For example, these problems routinely pop up:
  • Backs that are unnaturally too short, compelling us to ask, “Where’s the saddle supposed to go?” 
  • Croups that are too short, causing the dock to ride up onto it.
  • Necks that are too long which leads to chronic neck and back problems, in life. 
  • Hips and shoulders that are too short. 
  • Bony angles inconsistent to breed requirements.
  • Breed type too extreme for functionality. For example, Arabian heads being too extreme in type which compromises athletic ability and the animal's wellbeing, physically and psychologically.
  • Structure that compromises functionality.
  • Disproportionate parts of the body, especially with heads that are too big.
  • Calfkneed in the fore leg.
  • Offplumb in the hind leg. 
  • Legs lack adequate bone.
  • Legs that are swollen and puffy rather than having the crisp topography indicative of "clean legs." Likewise, puffy, indistinct joints and cannons.
  • Bowed tendons.
  • Feet that are coonfooted or clubfooted. 
  • Bowlegged structure and movement in the hind quarter or forequarter.
  • Pathologies in the legs such as ringbone and splints.
  • Muscle structure and bulk that indicate problematic riding and training.
  • Asymmetrical muscling indicating injury or problematic riding.
  • Muscle abnormalities characteristic of certain syndromes, injuries, or bad horsemanship.
  • Pathological feet, typically having contracted frogs or frogs that are too small. Or they tend to be too small with poor alignments, or they're mechanical sinkers, having high heels, bulbous or misshapen or asymmetrical to its pair.
  • DSLD (Degenerative Suspensory Ligament Desmitis) and ESAD (Equine Suspensory Apparatus Dysfunction) which are serious leg pathologies.
  • Muttonwithers or nonexistent withers. 
  • Eyes that are too large and bulging, indicating hypothyroidism or ASD. 
  • Muzzles that are too small, interfering with biting up, breathing, and processing of food.
And not all points of conformation are created equal. There are those born out of aesthetics (commonly as "points of type") and those derived from functionality, or those features that preserve the animal's wellbeing. The latter should concern us more since it deals with structural features that ensure or prolong the animal's soundness while the former entails subjective aspects of "beauty" or "correct" type, those things that can go off–track rather quickly in the name of "perfect."


Anatomical issues are prevalent, too, perhaps the single biggest source of errors, so it’s important to be wellversed in this subject. The essential thing to keep in mind is that the equine moves and looks like an equine because he's built like an equine. So if we create features inconsistent to actual equine structure we've created something that isn't a horse at all. And missteps can be easy here if we aren't knowledgable because the equine is a pretty complicated animal, so it takes quite a bit of diligence and patience to get things right. But learning about equine anatomy is fascinating and rewarding, so it's well worth the work.

To that end then, despite the many ways we can get into trouble here, the most common anatomical problems are:
  • Incorrect cranial musculature and alignments.
  • Incorrect zygomatic arches, behind and above the eye.
  • Jawbones set too far back.
  • Ears set either too far forward or too far back on the crown.
  • Heads that have incorrect musculature and details, or lack the subtle nature of their musculature and details.
  • A teardrop bone tilted out of proper alignment.
  • Teardrop bone that's too large and bulbous.
  • Incorrect zygomatic arches.
  • Incorrectly structured muzzles.
  • Asymmetry in paired portions of the body such as the head, leg dimensions, and comparative muscle bulk.
  • The surface topography of the musculature is often misunderstood, or inconsistent with the depicted motion.
  • Standing anatomy indicated on a sculpture depicting motion.
  • Incorrect planing of the muscles and face.
  • Problematic proportions.
  • Asymmetrical, or broken pelvic girdles.
  • Placement of anatomical features are off, often causing the surrounding features to be off, too.
  • A hindquarter the same width as the forequarter. Instead, the hindquarter is slightly wider than the forequarter.
  • Shifted pelvic girdles, those not centered on the spine.
  • Forelegs that lack the slightly knock–kneed stance when seen from the front, standing.
  • Hind legs that aren't angled slightly outward from the stifle when standing. 
  • Hind legs that don't have the characteristics series of angled articulations when flexed.
  • Leg joints are often incorrectly structured with incorrect topography of the bony, ligamentary, and tendinous landmarks. 
  • “Spaghetti legs” with warps, twists, and distortions not present on the real animal (without severe injury).
  • Fore hooves and hind hooves are of the same shape and angulation.
  • Cannon and pastern bones with an hourglass shape, too thin in the middle with too much flare on either end.
  • Necks are often too thin, when viewed from above, because the atlas bone is too narrow.
  • A lack of goo and hide details; surface details that don't adequately represent the details of the hide.
  • Formulaic musculature that lacks the natural chaos of "living flesh."
  • Withers that ride up onto the neck, in front of the scapular cartilage.
  • Necks that tie into the withers incorrectly, often at the peak of the withers (see "Crane Neck, below).
  • Incorrect articulation of the neck.
  • Barrels of the incorrect shape being blockish rather than canoe–shaped.
  • Blockish heads with the planes of the nasal bone and area between the eye and nostril being too bulky.
  • Ears of the wrong structure, especially at the base and bulb.
  • Muscles that look like a literal anatomy chart rather than living, mercurial flesh.
  • Nostrils of incorrect structure, especially when flared.
  • Muzzle wrinkles that are too big and evenly spaced.
  • The fore hooves the same shape as the hind hooves.
  • Incorrect structure of the palmar foot.
  • Chestnuts that are misplaced or left unpainted.
  • Incorrect veining, or veining that isn't bilaterally symmetrical.
  • Eyelids, eye rims, and coronets that are bumpy rather than smooth.
  • Confusing the nature of anatomy and biomechanics, which shows up in the sculpture as anatomical errors.

Like anatomy, equine biomechanics is a common source of confusion, and for good reason—it seems complicated! It really isn't all that confusing, and with a bit of research and knowhow, we can begin to decipher how the horse's skeleton articulates (which we'll leave for another blog series).

Nonetheless, like anatomy, the equine moves like an equine because he's built like an equine. That means if we create movement inconsistent to actual equine movement, we've either created a pathology or injury, or a piece that isn't a horse at all. 

Now all biomechanics is, is anatomy in motion, making the two issues essentially the same. However, we'll treat them as separate issues here for sake of clarity. But it does mean that if we aren't well–versed in the skeletal structure and interconnected nature of the joints then we're likely to misinterpret equine movement. So do some research and study to brush up on some fuzzy areas.

The thing is, almost all the problems we find in equine art exist in this category alone. But while they come in an almost infinite variety, the most common are:
  • Movement that's stilted, rigid, and awkward, lacking the athletic, agile, fluid motion characteristic of equine motion. This is due largely to the artist not understanding that motion beings in the spine, not the legs.
  • A "reality vacuum" in which physics aren't represented on the articulations of the body or the hair properly. In other words, a lack of "mass" because the mass of the animal and the forces of physics aren't present in the design of the sculpture. 
  • A tail out of synch with the spine.
  • A bent hind leg on a straightforward plane, from stifle to hoof. Or, worse, an articulated hind leg with a hock that’s angled away from the median rather than towards it, indicating a busted stifle. In life, the stifle pops out around the barrel, angling the gaskin and hock inwards towards the median and outwards. Then the hock’s spiral joint rotates and positions the cannon more forward, keeping it from pointing out on the same plane as the popped out stifle. And the more extreme the hind leg articulation, the more pronounced these effects. Studying photographs of the real animal do much to illuminate this mechanism of the hind leg. (Tip: study the hind leg flexion of Hackneys, Saddlebreds, Racehorses, and Jumpers since they provide very clear examples of this effect.) 
  • Incorrect articulation of the legs, most commonly seen with a ruptured Reciprocal Apparatus of the hind leg or a ruptured Stay Apparatus of the fore leg. Don't forget that whatever the scapula or femur do, so must the radius or metatarsal, respectively. That's to say the angle between the scapula and humerus should synch with the angle between the humerus and the radius, and on down the foreleg. Likewise, the angle between the pelvis and the femur should be complementary to that between the femur and the tibia and that of the hock, and on down the hind leg. In other words, the metatarsal should reflect the femur's angulation, especially when the leg is flexed. The tendinous and ligamentary connections of these limbs oblige both the fore leg and hind leg to articulate like a drafting lamp; their joints don't articulate independently. (This mechanism is referred to as the Reciprocal Apparatus for the hind leg, and the Stay Apparatus for both the foreleg and hind leg.) When we create a system that does have independently articulating leg joints, we've created a horse with a fatal rupture injury. Such errors often manifest as standing shoulders with articulated forelegs, flexed shoulders with standing legs, flexed stifles with standing hind legs, or standing stifles with articulated hind legs, all of which are only possible with ruptured flesh that ties them together. By the same token, we can create an articulated knee with extended elbows, another common error. An addition typical mistake is to create fetlocks that aren't articulated enough to match the bend in the hock, stifle, or hip as though they were loosely hinged at the fetlock joint. In reality those tendons that run down the front and back of each leg pull on the joints of the foot, extending them when the femur is extended, or flexing them when the stifle is flexed. 
  • Similarly, a foreleg that appears like it's being dragged, like the stereotypical caveman. This is because the artist doesn't understand the drafting lamp design of the foreleg.
  • To turn the head, necks are often mistakenly bent laterally at the Atlas joint, the joint between the skull and the first cervical vertebra. However, this joint can only produce a "yes" motion with a teensy amount of some lateral articulation, but only when the poll is flexed. In horsemanship this is referred to as "twirling the head." In contrast the joint between the Atlas bone and the Axis bone (the third cervical vertebra) can only produce a "no" motion, as a swivel mechanism, not as an actual bend. So the proper way to turn a untucked head laterally is to swivel–rotate the joint between the Atlas and Axis bone with the actual turning of the head happening with the joints between fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh cervical vertebrae. It's surprising to find that the head laterally turns at the lower end of the neck and not the upper end, isn't it?
  • Incorrect articulation of the neck. For example, necks that articulate as though the cervical column lays under the crest (“rainbow neck”) rather than replicating the motions and the "gooing" in and out effect caused by its S–shaped structure. Due to that structure, the neck can "lengthen" when stretched or "shorten" when compressed. Misunderstanding this mechanism often leads to necks incorrectly articulated when strongly bent to the side, too.
  • The base of the crest blending into the top of the wither ("crane neck"). In life, the wither has a depression at the bottom of the neck to rise into the point what we call the wither to depress again as it flows into the spine, even when the neck is arched or lowered. 
  • Asymmetrical sides of the neck, especially when the head is turned or tucked.
  • Not understanding that all motion originates in the spine; whatever the spine does, so must the head, neck, torso, pelvis, tailbone, and legs. When we forget this, we can create show–stretched pieces or, in contrast, basculed with normally–standing backs and pelvic girdles. In truth, the spine hollows and the pelvis becomes more level in a show stretch, and the spine rounds and the pelvis curls under during bascule. Similarly, we can create a spine (and rib cage) inconsistent with the depicted motion, resulting in awkward, odd movement rather than the fluid, athletic movement characteristic of the equine. 
  • Static barrels in relation to balance or motion. However, because the spine originates motion, the barrel should swing out over the supporting hind leg, in synch with the spine and the momentum of motion, often referred to as “schwung” in German. 
  • There are two layers of carpal bones in the knee: the first layer adjoining the forearm and the second layer atop the fore cannon. But because of a tight network of ligaments binding the second layer to the top of the fore cannon, the knee can only articulate at the space between the top layer of carpals and the radius and the first carpal layer and the second carpal layer, meaning that the second carpal layer cannot articulate with the top of the cannon. This is why the top bend is more abrupt and the bend in the lower half of the knee is more rounded. So if we create a knee that's articulating at that abutment between the second carpal layer and the fore cannon, we've recreated a fatal rupture in those ligaments. 
  • When articulated, the leg joints are oddly distorted or asymmetrical.
  • Musculature that's formulaic and ever–faithful to the infamous Ellenberger illustrations (or similar) despite stance, motion, or physics. In life, flesh changes and morphs with movement and balance, distorting away from the artificial contrivances of an anatomy chart. In other words, muscles and flesh change away from a static anatomy chart the moment balance is shifted or the animal moves. Really, horses don’t move like jointed anatomy illustrations plus they have goo! This means that our every sculpture should have a different expression of muscles and flesh.
  • A mouth opened at the chin like a trap door, a typical error found in equine sculpture. However, the joint of the jaw lies behind the eye, causing the entire mandible to drop and stretch the lateral facial musculature.
  • Broken pelvic girdles with the two bilateral sides articulating independently, or the "box" is asymmetrical. In reality, the pelvis is a fused girdle of bone, forming a static box between the two bilateral sides, equally aligned with each other and perfectly centered on the spine, regardless of posture or motion. Said another way, the points of the hip, croup, and buttock must always form a perfect box no matter what the spine or hind legs are doing. This means the girdle can only articulate with the femur at the femoral joint and with the spine at the sacroiliac joint (Note: this "joint" shouldn’t actually bend, but “float” due to a tight array of ligaments that lash the pelvis onto the sacrum). 
  • A pelvic girdle that doesn't articulate with the sacrum, i.e. the spine. Again, because the pelvis is lashed to the sacrum, the girdle must do what the sacrum does (and ultimately what the spine does). So if the sacrum is leveled, the pelvic girdle levels, if the sacrum is curled, the pelvic girdle is tucked, if the spine rotates, so must the sacrum and therefore the pelvic girdle. Think of a pipe cleaner formed into a square attached to another pipe cleaner that's straight. Now carefully twist, hollow, or bend the straight pipe cleaner. Do you see how the square one, or "pelvis," moves in synch? So if our pelvic bone has asymmetrically placed points of hip, croup, or buttock (when seen from above and rear), or if the pelvis isn't moving with the spine, we've created a fatal injury.
  • Static shoulders, lacking the fluid nature so characteristic of its anatomy. The shoulders aren’t affixed to the torso by boney connection, but by a muscular and ligamentary network referred to as “The Shoulder Sling.” Therefore, they slide forwards and backwards, and even up or down, dependent on motion and balance.
  • Incorrect flexion at the poll, with the tuck occurring between the 1st and 2nd cervical vertebrae (which is a broken neck), often accompanied with a bulb of crest popping up behind the ears and blending into the crest.
  • Incorrect flexion of the fetlocks and pasterns when the foreleg or hind leg are extended backwards, keeping the angle of the fetlock too closed when, in fact, they open up in this position.

Eyes often have mistakes because they're so difficult to render correctly. They have to be of a certain set and specific angles and of a defined shape, but get any of those points off, and our eye will look odd. But despite the many ways eyes can go wrong, they tend to have these following issues:
  • Tilted Eye: Where the canthi of the eye are misaligned clockwise or counterclockwise with the ear-eye-nostril alignment.
  • Tilted Pupil: When the pupil is misaligned clockwise or counterclockwise with the canthi. 
  • Eyes set too low towards the nose.
  • Human Eye: When the equine eye is depicted with a round pupil.
  • Forward Eyes: Eyes set on a forward–facing axis, more like a dog, rather than on the sides of the head, like an equine.
  • Flat eyes: Eyes lacking a properly rounded cornea, indicating serious disease or infection, or a failure in sculptural technique.
  • Cataracts: When the pupil is painted with a murky or opaque color rather than a clear dark tone indicative of a healthy eye.
  • "Jackie O" eyes: Eyes that are far too large to be accurate for horses, usually a failing in artistic license.
  • Buggy Eyes: A globe that bulges out unnaturally and often indicative of hypothyroidism or other disorders.
  • Possessed Eyes: Eyes that have been painted with a homogenous color, lacking the gem–like quality and color depth so typical to the equine eye.
  • Brows of the eyes are often exaggerated to unnatural proportions or are too pointy.
  • Asymmetrical eyes.
  • Frog Eyes: When the eyes are placed too high on the head, often distorting the brow to become too protruding and large.

Nostrils are another area that's tricky to sculpt, meaning that they can go wrong any number of ways. They also dovetail into the upper lip and mouth, which can complicate matters if we're already having problems with the muzzle. For this, the ear–eye–nostril alignment is a helpful guide to make sure we don’t misalign our sculpted nostril in an unrealistic way. And even though each horse is different, and even each breed has subtle differences, this alignment is a helpful baseline to use to compare variations. 

However, the most common nostril problems are:

  • Proportion issues: They're either too big or too small in comparison to the head.
  • Pinwheel: When the nostril’s axis is rotated clockwise or counterclockwise on the head.
  • Misplaced Nostrils: Placement often too low (resembling an anteater or tapir) and sometimes too high (resembling a pig).
  • Incorrect planes: When seen from the front, the angulations of the two rims are in error, lacking the proper medial slant. In one way, they're too perpendicular to the head, when seen from the front, making them appear flat. Or angled outward at the upper "v" rather than inward. Artists often plane nostrils improperly, so be sure to study from life and from good reference photos.
  • Inconsistent flare: The dilation of the nostril should be consistent to both the movement depicted and the emotion conveyed. It’s not realistic to have a relaxed nostril on a galloping sculpture, or a flared nostril on a sleeping horse, for example.
  • Incorrect flare: When the false nostril and the true nostril are flared in a way that's inconsistent to life. Often we see this manifest as a solid tube of flare rather than the complex depressions characteristic of the false and true nostril when flared.
  • Rims too thin: The anterior rims of the nostrils are formed by thick cartilage and therefore aren’t paper thin or sharp. Even the most delicate nostrils have a nice rounded edge to them due to the underlying cartilage or fleshy nature of that area.
  • Crooked: While nostrils are rather flexible and mobile, they should still appear symmetrical at rest. Notice how they're somewhat “fixed” at the upper “v” where they meet? This can be used as a somewhat flexible “anchor” point from which to judge their motion, both on our sculpture and while deciphering photos.
  • Overdone: Keep the nostrils in artistic balance with the sculpting of the entire head. So try to avoid drawing the visual to the nostril because it’s been sculpturally overplayed.
  • Lack of Detail: Nostrils have a lot of detail! All those wrinkles, moles, crevices, protrusions, flares, and subtle contortions are essential elements.
  • Timidity: Nostrils are an important component of expression, so we shouldn't be bashful using them on our sculpture to portray emotion. Study how real horses use their nostrils while expressing and seek to communicate that in clay.

The ears are a complex series of curves and angles with lots of tiny complex details, making them a truly tricky feature to sculpt. Indeed we cam tell a lot about a sculptor's skills simply by studying the ears (and the legs) they sculpt. Being so difficult, there are many errors to be found, but some specific things to avoid are:
  • Cat Ears: A common fault distinguished by a cat–like or triangular ear shape. 
  • Spoon Ears or Llama Ears: A fault found on some mule, ass, or donkey sculptures where the enlarged ears fail to resemble equine ears, but appear as strange elongations on the top of the sculpture’s head.
  • Displaced Ears: Ears set too far forwards, backwards, upwards or too low on the skull; ear(s) out of alignment with their anatomical position.
  • Distortions: Often seen when the artist doesn’t understand the subtle nature of the equine pinea, creating ears shaped like radar dishes or flat hollows, for example. 
  • Asymmetrically Placed Ears: When ears aren’t matched in their placement or alignment. Repeated checking helps to mediate this common mistake.
  • Asymmetrical Ears: When the ears are different shapes or sizes. 
  • Oversized or Undersized Ears: When ears aren’t consistent to proportion, age, type or gender. 
  • Lack of detail: The lower "v" where the rims meet has a complex and detailed series of folds which need to be expressed in sculpture. The rims just don't come together to simplistically form the "v.


The muzzle is another complex feature, full of nuance, texture, and detail. Again, we can learn a lot about a sculptor's skills by how they render the muzzle. To that end, here are some typical flaws to avoid:
  • Misalignments: When the line of the lips is incorrect, which tends to throw off the other alignments.This can also happen when the line of the mouth is placed too high or too low, or angled too high or too low.
  • Camel: When the boxy upper lip or perky lower lips and chin are missing, giving the muzzle a collapsed camel–like appearance. 
  • Human: Again, when the boxy upper lip or fleshy lower lips and chin are missing because the sculpture has lips more like human lips.
  • Distorted: When the structure of the muzzle isn’t consistent to the underlying skeletal structure of the maxilla or mandible.
  • Asymmetry: When at rest, the paired features of the muzzle aren't consistent in placement, size, or shape.
  • Meaty: When the muzzle lacks delicacy but is bulky and lacking in detail. Even the "coarsest" heads have nuanced muzzles.
  • Mis–sized: Muzzles that are too small.

The equine head is a marvel of bioengineering, being absolutely streamlined and super efficient to do what it must do: provide the means of life to an animal built for running on the open plain. But that doesn't mean it's easy to sculpt! Oh, heck no! In fact, it's easily one of the hardest features to sculpt well. Yet again, we can learn a lot about a sculptor's skills simply by studying their heads. So to improve our work, avoid these common flaws:

  • Trapdoor Mouth: An open mouth articulated at the chin rather than behind the jaw.
  • Aligator Mouth: When an open mouth is open too profoundly, making the head resemble an alligator rather than an equine.
  • Misplaced Teardrop Bone: A facial crest titled clockwise or counterclockwise, or placed too far forwards or too far backwards, or too far down or too high on the head.
  • Displaced Jaw: When the mandible has been placed too far forwards or too far backwards on the head, making it misaligned to the back of the zygomatic and ear.
  • Displaced Mouth: A mouth line placed or tilted either too high or too low.
  • Asymmetry: Bilaterally mismatched facial features, either being mismatched in size, shape, or placement.
  • Hammerhead: When the eyes, brow, and zygomatic arches are too large and broad, when seen from the front.
  • Ghoulish: When the brows, zygomatic arches, cheekbones, and jaw are too broad and massive.
  • Puffy: When the bony planes of the skull, especially between the eye and nostril and down the nasal bone, are puffed up and swollen and planed incorrectly. 
  • Harsh Nasal Bone: When the nasal bone lacks the subtle hourglass curves and curves of its edges, but appears as a harsh bar with sharp edges.


The chain of tailbones is a delicate thing. Flexible and expressive, it plays a vital part in equine motion, too. We should remember that it represents an extension of the spine itself, so it should be suitably robust at the root to taper down to the end. Yet many tailbones are thick all the way down, being the same diameter down to the tip. Or they're too thin at the top, indicating a spine that's alarmingly tiny! 


"The devil is in the details" is certainly true, especially in our case! They can make or break a piece so we want to get them as factual as possible. Yet errors in detailing are common, either being absent or improperly done. In particular, detailing exhibits problems in these areas: 
  • Carved feet that are overlooked, being painted only the color of the hoof or simply flat brown rather than having detailed attention.
  • Chestnuts often go unpainted, or are sometimes absent or misplaced.
  • Chestnuts that lack their proper texture and odd shape, being too smooth or round.
  • The face lacks detail, painted or sculpted only in generalized terms. 
  • Wrinkles and veins are ignored in pigment when they do better with a bit of soft highlighting. 
  • Hooves that lack the necessary detail and discolorations. For example, hooves that lack the discoloration typically found around the clenches.
  • Heads that lack the necessary fleshy details and nuanced musculature.
  • Moles that are too big or regimented.
  • Wrinkles that don't resemble soft, folded flesh, more are either harsh, being cut in, or those that resemble an accordion, being too regimented.
  • Patterns that go straight across wrinkles rather than indicating folded flesh.
  • Eyes given cursory treatment rather than having details such as a shaded sclera (if present), shaded iris, correct pupil, a lacrimal caruncle, and a third eyelid (optional). 
  • Hide details and subtleties are missing.
  • "Bits" that are clumsily done, being inaccurate or too big.
  • Veins inaccurately rendered, sometimes being randomized rather than bilaterally symmetrical, or structured incorrectly for the area in which they exist.
  • Mapping that appears “plastic” because it’s a third color, either flat grey or a separate mixture of the body color with white. A better result is produced with thinned white and ticking and feathering the mapping in the direction of the hair growth. A white color pencil or white pastel pencil can add extra detail, if needed. 
  • Essential details in tight places are overlooked such as inside an open–mouth, inside the ears, or on mane and tail tendrils. 
  • Bases painted with a cursory hand, or with inadequate shading, highlight, and detailing to match the respective attention to the horse it supports. The base should match the piece in terms of quality and finesse to make it cohesive and consistent.
  • Muzzle markings that go unpinked, or lack shadings and highlights that reproduce the fleshy, squishy quality of the muzzle. 
  • Areas of the body with a white marking or pattern that aren't shaded with flesh tones such as the elbow, flank, groin, throatlatch, and heel bulbs. The flesh color should be the proper tone, too, being neither too yellow, too red nor too orange. It should be used in a subtle manner and not neon bright as well. Likewise, a common error is to apply grey shadings to white, unpigmented areas rather than the necessary flesh tones (not to be confused with the light elbow of a dapple grey).
  • White markings that are stark white. These areas do better with a bit of toning down for a more realistic effect and a sense "mass." Furthermore, brown tones could be used to simulate dirt around the hooves, particularly on feathered legs (though, of course, white feathers do occur when meticulously show groomed). The same can be said for white manes and tails, which can often do better with tan, brown, grey, and yellow tones to indicate staining and "life." 
  • A lack of precision when precision is paramount. For example, sloppy eyes, coronets, painting of braids, or ears. Details should be absolutely precise.

These common anatomical blindspots typify a lot of realistic equine art. It's easily happens though since the equine can be so complex and subtle in structure and motion. But all it takes are keener observation skills and a deeper, more expansive knowledge base paired with increased finesse with our artistic translations. And these issues can be improved through practice, training, and research. And this is good news
—it's not an impossible proposition! That means turning our blindspots into exciting challenges can help us reframe our efforts that aid our improvement and enjoyment in our studio.

Plus, by avoiding these common technical mistakes, we can heighten the realism in our work beyond that of many others. As such, we'll increase our potential for success in the ring and improve in our sales. We'll find more satisfaction in our work which inspires us to reach even more and that, in turn, compels us to dive into more field study and research. This positive feedback loop therefore inspires proactive education and exploration, a win win! 

This is how uprooting our blindspots can actually be a tremendous form of education for us that reveals our potential more clearly. And that's exciting prospect! To begin to See what was previously invisible is a thrilling "lightbulb moment" that can become addictive. In many ways then, we improve by filtering out more and more of our blindspots, to the point where our artistic style more objectively blends with technical realism in a way that doesn't compromise either one. So the problem isn't necessarily our blindspots per se, but is found in our inability to reveal and mediate them. Change this, and we fundamentally change our work for the better.

It can't be denied that creating a quality realistic piece is a painstaking, disciplined, and dedicated process. The equine has a very specific type of structure and biomechanical parameters that oblige us to duplicate them as closely as we can. And with more technical accuracy we gain more freedom to express the equine more diversely. Every creative step we take then becomes more educational, confident, precise, deliberate, and executed to the best of our abilities as our blindspots begin to fade away. We can even pinpoint new blindspots as they form, which keeps our work on track. And we can choose those that typify our Voice to preserve that distinctiveness of our work without sacrificing technical accuracy. In the end, we have more fun and even more fascination for this quirky animal we so love. And how can we misstep with that attitude? 

So until next time…bust through those blindspots and explore your true potential!

"When you've got it, you've got it. When you haven't, you begin again. All the rest is humbug."
~ Edouard Manet

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