Wednesday, June 8, 2016

The Master's Edge: The Importance Of Quality Workmanship


Greetings everyone! There’s an aspect of our work that’s the very foundation on which we build our reputations and mastery. And while many of us exhibit superlative qualities in this matter, our genre overall is showing cracks in this infrastructure. 

What's this aspect?...It’s workmanship.

Our primary mode of competition has models exhibited in an up–close, personal inspection compared against their fellows on the table. In order to compete successfully at such a show, models are expected to have quality workmanship to do well. But what does that mean? How do we know it when we see it? It can be ambiguous when it seems that so many participants seem to have very different ideas about it. Yet on the other hand, we can't afford to quality workmanship, it being the unquestionable basis for our work. Without excellence here, our work isn’t up to its potential no matter how stunning in design or how amazing is one aspect. So it's a startling and strange contradiction.

It’s also important to notice the hallmark of a quality artist: consistency in workmanship. If someone could buy our work sight unseen and not be questioning their purchase upon arrival, we know we’re on the right track. We should also know that quality workmanship is timeless—it can stand the test of time, maybe even indefinitely. On the other hand, if we find our work becoming “dated” in an ever–advancing art form, we probably have some workmanship issues to address.

That said, despite all our advances the last thirty years, there still seems to be cursory treatment of workmanship overall, and it’s having some cumulative negative effects, two being quite significant. First, it’s “dumbing–down” our art and steering it away from what was once a clear path. Even OF Tests are now being compared to Repaints as equitable, which illustrates the issue. There should be an enormous difference between a production piece and a painstaking artisan piece. Second, people are paying large sums of money for customs or repainted Artist Resins, and upon inspection, are disappointed by its quality, or how it performs under a savvy judge. This, in turn, makes the market even more difficult for everyone and judging particularly frustrating.

Nonetheless, there’s another problem with workmanship. On one hand, it’s claimed as an assurance of a required standard (as we hear with the term “live show quality”) but, on the other hand, no such standard actually exists. There’s simply no consensus as to what the term actually means. Consequently, a pervasive confusion about what constitutes “quality workmanship” typifies the live show experience, a condition that’s become counter–productive. Indeed, the term has become so misconstrued today that many showers, particularly new showers, are inadvertently purchasing or creating work that falls short of this unspoken standard. 

To mediate this then, this discussion seeks to identify and define the points of “quality workmanship” to weigh in the creative process, gauge during a purchasing decision, or be judged at a live show. It attempts to confirm the importance and points of quality workmanship and, more importantly, to alert collectors so they can make better purchasing decisions and judges can decide better rankings. And perhaps these posts will alert some of us about some blindspots we may have—because we all have them. 

Furthermore, it helps to clarify the specific points to look for, which are mostly objective and learnable. But it’s also important to understand that these points ask and don’t ask. It's not a question of “What is good art?” Instead, it's a question of, “Does this piece represent the high technical foundation for good realistic 3D equine art?” That’s to say we may not particularly personally like that pinto pattern or color on a piece, but it sure has exemplary workmanship. So there can be a big difference in what we personally like versus which one is more exemplary in workmanship. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” but we’re still obliged to pin the best workmanship despite our “beholding.” (For more in–depth discussion on these matters, please refer to my LSQ Guidelines, 2nd Edition for more in-depth discussion on this topic.)

So to start, let’s define “quality workmanship.” What is it? Does it have to do with prepping? Sculpting? Painting? The condition of the model being judged? The answer is “yes” to all of that, plus more! And we’ll get to all of it in this series. But in the meantime, we can define “quality workmanship” as: 

Highly skilled technical and creative workmanship that enhances realism when personally inspected.

As we progress through this post, we’ll find that each point is described consistently to this definition. In short, everything hinges on quality workmanship that maximizes realism in an inanimate model. As such, these points are divided into two categories, The Essentials and The Optionals. The former are those features that are mandatory (objective features) while the latter depends on our personal opinion (subjective features). Finally, please keep in mind that this series is intended to apply only to Customs and Artist Resins. It’s not intended to apply to Original Finish models.



Prepwork is the initial treatment of the sculpture to provide the “canvas” for painting. Being so, it should be absolutely meticulous and diligent. All surface imperfections caused by the sculpting or molding process should be removed so as to appear they never existed in the first place. Quality prepping removes every tidbit that wouldn’t exist on a real horse. And there’s no substitute for thorough prepwork. No matter how beautiful the paintwork or the sculpting, the prep job should be of equal merit: careful, precise, and with attention to detail without compromising the intrinsic characteristics of the “blank” body. However, don’t fault a piece that’s textured by the artist’s style. One should definitely develop the ability to tell the difference between “supposed to be there” and “oops.” 

Overall, we can say that good prepping is totally invisible, exhibiting no aspect that would betray the cleaning and prep stage. Being so, quality workmanship should lack these issues in prepwork, as follows: 
  • The absence of a primer coat to “glue” the paint to the piece.
  • Crackling, drips, ridges, blobs, or debris embedded in the primer coat.
  • Primer that’s inappropriate for the material and not applied smoothly, lightly, and evenly. 
  • Primer that has drips, ripples, bubbles, “pilling,” pock marking, or wrinkling.
  • Mold flashing: These are raised or depressed edges that outline areas of the body where the mold pieces met to cast the piece. All flashing should be expertly removed without compromising the piece’s intrinsic qualities.
  • Chasing: Often on plastics, the mold seams have been clumsily cleaned, leaving chatter marks or harsh chasing. Sometimes a prepper will even create them as they clean the piece too carelessly. All seams should be fully removed in a smooth, even fashion as to become invisible and consistent with the rest of the piece.
  • Seals: On plastic Customs, this is the manufacturer identification stamp, often found on the inner thigh or groin, that needs expert removal that doesn’t distort the anatomy of the inner leg. However, on Artist Resins, all identifying information such as signatures, dates, titles, numbering, etc. should remain intact.
  • Pinholes: Small pits the size of a pinhead or smaller, often caused by the molding process. 
  • Divots: Like pinholes, but larger.
  • Bubbles: Air bubbles that have only partially erupted from the surface, which can be small or quite large.
  • Gouges, Scratches, or Scrapes: Areas that suffered damage from the casting or initial cleaning process. 
  • Sandpaper marks: Little scratches where inappropriate rough sandpaper was used, or the area wasn’t polished enough. 
  • Pilling: Small bits of material in places of detail or complexity (usually manes and tails), that aren’t consistent to what we’ve find on a real horse. They’re either caused by careless sculpting that neglected to smooth them out, or by problematic primering or casting.
  • Dusting: When the primer was applied too far away from the surface, causing a grainy texture to the model.
  • Pock marks: Areas that bear a patterned texture in the sculpture often caused by problems during the casting process or primer that rippled. 
  • Mismatched seams: When different mold parts don’t meet evenly along their seams, one aspect of the sculpture will be inconsistent to the other. This causes asymmetries, often most obvious in the face or the belly, and sometimes along the topline. And the more askew the mold seam, the lesser quality the model. It’s often a better course to fill one side up to meet its corresponding side than sanding one side down.
  • Channels: A strip of the surface that lies deeper than the surrounding area, often following a mold seam. They can also manifest as a long “valley” on top of a mold seam as the artist tried to make each meeting side equal when, instead, filling one side with epoxy would’ve been the better option. These valleys are often typified by sandpaper marks. 
  • Ripples: Sometimes an artist will coat the original in gesso, which can leave grooves, ridges, or ripples on the surface that are reproduced when cast. Not to be confused with intended fleshy or coat qualities.
  • Swirls: Sometimes the casting medium behaves strangely, leaving razor thin, swirling grooves randomly over the model.
  • Missing parts: Sometimes areas don’t cast properly and end up missing on the final cast such as ear tips, hoof parts, mane/tail tendril ends, nostril rims, etc. They need to be recreated to match the original intent.
  • Tear–outs: When a mold is damaged internally, an accidental fill at the site of that damage will occur in the castings. These tears usually happen in complicated, tight areas of the sculpture and when cast, manifest themselves as foreign blocks of resin. They need to be removed from the casting in such a manner that the corrections are consistent to the rest of the sculpture and duplicate the original intent.
  • Imprinted remnants: Sometimes accidental artifacts are left on the model which can get reproduced when cast. Such things include fingerprints, pet hair, dollops of unintended clay or other foreign matter. It should all be removed from the casting or Custom in the prepping stage.
  • Reinforcement wires: These are often used for resin casting in the legs or hair tendrils and sometimes protrude through the resin surface. If they aren't filled over, they can leave an inconsistent patch of smoothness surrounded by a thin oval ridge where it meets up with the resin.
  • Sprue: A channel through which resin flowed to fill the mold during the casting process. Left intact, they appear as resin rods radiating from the casting and are usually removed during rough cleaning. The most common sprue is on the belly, but a sprue can be particularly deceptive on manes or tails with complex tendril design, so good prepwork will take great care to match the original intent of these areas.
  • Cracks: Cracks are partial breaks and can occur around areas of fill or those that are particularly delicate or vulnerable, often around pressure points or areas of load stress. Those that are repaired should be done so as to be unseen, sturdy, and match the original intent.
  • Breaks: Breaks are when a piece of the model becomes detached from the rest of the body. Those that are repaired should be done so as to be unseen, sturdy, and match the original intent.
  • Lifting: Lifting occurs when the fill material releases its hold on the model’s surface and raises up, sometimes in large chunks. This can occur with improper preparation of the model’s surface, or filling material, or improper care or storage. Lifting requires repair by an experienced person skilled in such matters, and those that are repaired should be done so as to be unseen, sturdy, and match the original intent.
  • Bloating: If a plastic model is allowed to get hot, the plastic will soften and the air inside can expand, causing it to bloat. This can be directly linked to lifting.
  • Destruction of Style: Each artist has a unique sculptural technique so it’s essential to remember that good prepwork is invisible, melting into the style and technique of the original artist’s sculpting. When we don’t match the original artist’s touch, what should have been cohesive and consistent becomes distracting and clumsy.

The sculpting of the piece should be equally finessed with a consistent surface and realistic renderings of surface contours and anatomical structures. In this, technique and materials come to the fore so that sculpting technique has, as follows:
  • No aspect of sculpting that compromises the illusion of a real horse with inferior technique, materials, or carelessness. 
  • Consistency in skill, texture, and style; harmony and uniformity are essential.
  • A surface free of inappropriate bumps, lumps, pits, divots, scratches, or other careless incongruities. Indeed, in no way should it appear the artist dropped the ball or fudged it. On top of that, sculpted hair should be convincing as flowing hair, and skillfully rendered. 
  • A smooth technique free from a “pilling."
  • Believable treatment of flesh, bone, hair, hide, flesh, and horn.
  • A confident execution of sculptural technique that’s not confused or executed messily with blobs, sags, irregular textures, etc.
  • Details that are accurate, and aren’t rendered too harshly with a slashing action (often seen with wrinkles, veins, muscle definition, facial detail, and sculpted manes and tails). 
  • Skillful design that avoids awkwardness or oddness that would “stop the eye” and inhibit a credible and beautiful duplication of a real horse. 
  • Confidence, skill, and deliberate methods as though the artist meant every step. Quality sculpting or customizing techniques should always be an asset to realism and never a liability.
  • For Customs, altered areas that are consistent in style, skill, formation, and texture of the untouched original plastic. The transition should be so smoothly done that it’s indistinguishable where the original surface ends and customization begins. Truly, a good customizer is a good mimic, and the more minimal the custom, the more important is mimicry. 

Anatomy entails the physiological structures that define the equine, and includes equine biomechanics. It’s based on equine biology, evolution, structure, and genetics pertaining to the genus Equus. Because realism is the goal, consequently a piece should be as anatomically faithful to equine structure as possible; if a real horse has it, so should the piece, or if a real horse doesn’t have it, neither should the model. So because our focus is equine realism, by definition, no piece can be of true quality workmanship if it lacks this technical authenticity even if all other aspects are superior. This means that factual technical anatomy is the primary basis of quality workmanship for our purposes. Truly, a significant enough error here can sink the whole effort, so research and learning to See are critical. 

On that note, anatomy includes all the physical structures authentic to a real horse, as follows:
  • Technically factual characteristics of the skeleton, musculature, flesh, and hair.
  • Technically factual biomechanics. 
  • The respective areas should be convincing as bone, flesh, hair, hide, and horn.
  • Consistent physics as they affect the body and hair.
  • Symmetry of the body with bilateral pairs.
  • Correct rendition of veins, moles, wrinkles and other such details.
  • Faithfulness to equine behavior.
  • Accurate secondary sex characteristics (gender differences).
  • Consistent age characteristics.
  • Any other facet of sculpture that would convey a technically factual depiction of the equine.
Nevertheless, technical realism is a difficult property to describe since it depends upon one’s perception and depth of knowledge. These are developed over time with diligent research, analysis, observation, and artistic exercises. But if we aren’t aware of equine anatomy well enough to identify truthful accuracy, it’s recommended to engage in independent research or seek the advice of learned fellows. Always objectively scrutinize each potential purchase from an anatomical point of view first.

It should also be mentioned that “correct” anatomy doesn’t mean that everything seen in an anatomy chart should be reproduced in meticulous detail. Horses are fleshy, mercurial animals, and their body surfaces go through many changes as they move, and change in ways that don’t seem to be consistent to what we’d expect to see in an anatomical chart. We need to see “living flesh” in a piece for it to be topclass quality. For more discussion on this and other topics, please refer to my blog post, “Now About Those Anatomy Charts and Viability and Functionality: The Umbrellas.)

We should also understand that there are many ways to express equine realism, even within its narrow set of standards. When we can See anatomy completely, we're better able to make these distinctions with greater insight and confidence. (For more discussion on this topic, please refer to my blog post, The Unreality Of Realism; Walking The Tightrope Between Fact And Fiction.)


Applied finishes should exhibit genetic authenticity, mastery of the media, skillful interpretation of life, and artistic eye–appeal, using a rich and varied palette. It should also be consistent in quality and practiced technique, and thorough, precise, and in–scale as well as keenly attentive to authentic detail and effect. The pigments should be expertly blended with as smooth a finish as the media and technique will allow. No debris or dust should be present in the paintwork, and it should compliment the sculpture. Above all, finishwork shouldn't appear cursory, or rendered in a flat, dull, or hurried manner. Simply put, if it’s not on a real horse, it shouldn’t be in the finish work.

So beware—finishwork exhibits some common problem areas, as follows:
  • It doesn’t follow colors, effects, or patterns based on genetic fact. All paintwork must be consistent to authentic data or corresponding reference photos, being neither fudged nor made up. However, nature does throw oddities at us which can be found in specific breeds, bloodlines, or regions. For that reason, studying realistic coloration and on what types of horses they occur is important for creating a believable model. Without a doubt, it’s also good policy to provide photographic documentation or historical data for finishwork that depicts a very rare or odd type of coloration.
  • Areas left unpainted, often in intricate areas such as groins, manes, tails, or inside open mouths.
  • Airbrush dapples with a bald spot in the middle (like tiny donuts) or “spider legs” radiating from, caused by an airbrush that randomly spit out pigment at too high a pressure.
  • An airbrush finish that’s pebbly or having areas of “wash” where the pigment was too low or allowed to pool too thickly, respectively.
  • Painted in a flat, boring, lifeless manner, lacking the necessary shading, highlight, and tonal use of pigment, and detail.
  • Use of an unvaried and overly simplistic palette.
  • Drips, ridges, lumps, crackling, bumps, ridges, blobs, scratches, wrinkles, fingerprints, pet hair, or other inconsistencies or foreign matter that would mar a harmonious, methodical, clean finish. 
  • Bald areas in the paint where the artist neglected to layer on enough pigment for an even opaque finish, often seen on appaloosa patterns (in both the spots or white areas), or pinto patterns (in the white areas). 
  • Sloppy and unconvincing mapping, sometimes with grey pigment regardless of the body color.
  • Forgotten features such as chestnuts, the palmar surface of the foot, or the insides of ears left as the body color.
  • Basecoats textured too far away from the natural texture of a living horse, to include overly bumpy or pebbly surfaces.
  • White markings with bald patches because not enough white pigment was applied to create an even, opaque finish.
  • White markings with drips, wrinkles, cracking, ripples, brushmarks, ridges, or blobs.
  • A lack of precision in areas that demand clean lines. For example, sloppy eyes and eyelids, careless borders between the coat color and markings, uneven mane in relation to the crest, hurried detailing of the tail hair on the dock, or uneven, sloppy lines between the coronet and the hoof.
  • Hooves given a cursory treatment with one flat color or simply two hastily applied colors, lacking the attentive shading and detail that duplicates the look of real horn. 
  • Shoes painted grey or white rather than silver. (Note: black hoof polish can obscure the clenches and shoe with black pigment.)
  • Pinked areas on white markings that are flat and harsh, not delicately shaded so as to appear fleshy.
  • Heels, soles and frogs painted only a monotone dark color (or just the hoof color), lacking independent shading and detail to duplicate the characteristics of these features.
  • Eyes with a possessed or staring appearance because of unskilled shading and detailing. 
  • Features of the eye such as the pupil, iris, sclera (eye white) and tear duct painted incorrectly or clumsily.
  • Detail areas such as faces, veins, chestnuts, horseshoes, etc., painted in a hurried, sloppy, or indifferent manner such as painting the insides of ears only one color.
  • Highlighting on veins, wrinkles or eyebrows not directly and neatly on top of them, but veering off onto the body.
  • Shoes painted grey or white rather than silver. (Note: black hoof polish can obscure the clenches and shoe with black pigment.)
  • Patterns, ticking, or markings that don’t mimic the lay of hair growth patterns.
  • Thinly haired areas (such as eyes, muzzles and groin) painted in an “unfinished” manner using only the body color, and lacking sufficient shadings and pigmentation to visually “set them back” into the body color.
  • Use of pigment inconsistent to the tone of the living subject such as too–orange pinked markings or black chestnuts.
  • The typical “20 minute airbrush job” that’s flat, uninspired, and hurried, using perhaps only one, two, or maybe three colors. 

The “devil is in the details” and they definitely count for quality workmanship. Details include ligaments, tendons, veins, nerves, capillaries, whisker bumps/moles, chestnuts, ergots, wrinkles, eyelashes, shoes, clenches, "plumbing," or any other accentuating aspect of a real horse the artist saw fit to instill in the sculpture. In addition, scars, chipped hooves, knotted manes, or other feral touches are welcome as well. If a real horse has specific details, so should a corresponding quality piece. Nonetheless, all these details should be accurate, precise, skillful, convincing, and reveal the artist’s powers of keen observation and duplication. However—details can be poorly done such as the following:
  • Shoe jobs that are incorrect such as those that exhibit unawareness of the farrier arts. For instance, glue–on model horse shoes of the wrong size and shape, or fabricated shoes not flush with the bottom of the hoof.
  • Nails located on the wrong parts of the hoof wall, being at the quarters rather than towards the toe.
  • Veins, capillaries or nerves that don’t follow the anatomical blueprint, or don’t appear fleshy.
  • Wrinkles that are hard looking, regimented, artificial, and clumsy rather than fleshy, happenstance, and soft.
  • Whisker bumps located on the wrong areas of the face.
  • Whisker bumps that are too pointy, or too large, or likewise too small.
  • Chestnuts of the wrong texture or located in the wrong place, or a lack of chestnuts altogether.
  • Hide details that fail to be convincing as soft, squishy, mercurial flesh.
  • Coat characteristics such as clips or shark’s teeth that fail to be convincing, incorrect, or are sloppily rendered.
  • Hooves that are clumsily or sloppily painted and fail to appear as actual horn.
  • Eyes that are sloppily painted within the eye itself and with the lids.
  • Facial shading that fails to appear fleshy and consistent to life, whether natural, clipped, or “oiled.”

This brings us to proportion, or the structural comparisons between the different components of a horse. Quality workmanship exhibits the proper proportions of a real horse, with no aspect out of proportion to the rest. Proportion can also relate to proper conformation as long shoulders, hips, and short cannons testify, and can also pertain to breed type as drafters are quite different proportionally from light breeds, for example. Common errors in proportion are, as follows:

  • Heads that are too big.
  • Muzzles that are too small.
  • Pasterns that are too short.
  • Croups that are too short, with the dock seeming to creep up the toppling.
  • Eyes that are too big.
  • Hooves that are too small.
  • Frogs that are too narrow or small.
  • Legs that are too thin or too bulky.
  • Cannons that are too long.
  • Backs that are too short.
  • Joints that are either too big or too small.

The issue of scale is critical to quality workmanship since it directly speaks to what we’re doing: technical authenticity, i.e. realism. What’s scale? Well, it’s how consistent to proper size each feature of the model is depending on the size of the model. That means each anatomical feature, each stroke of the sculpting tool, each fleabite, each bit of “ticking” to every other detail of the piece from sculpting to painting to hairing should be authentically sized to the proper scale. Hairing should be carefully done to avoid out of scale bouffants, too. Altogether, it means that regardless of the scale of the piece, every feature is consistent to the proper size it would be on a real horse somehow shrunk down to that size. In a very real sense, the issue of scale speaks directly to our goal of realism since any portion that's out of scale essentially makes our finished piece unrealistic. This is particularly essential on “minis” which can suffer abnormally large joints, facial features, hooves, or details, or ambiguous definition, and a lack of precision. 

A handy trick is to take a good scan of our intended reference photo or coat color and use a photo editing program to shrink it or enlarge it to the actual size of our sculpture or Custom. That really helps to train the eye. 


A model should have “soul,” that charisma and anima that speaks and breathes. It should also emulate real equine nature and behavior so it’s a convincing replica of the living animal. This doesn’t mean extreme or wild expressions, but simply that the piece should communicate an individual soul. Indeed, quality workmanship asks that a model be a thoughtful and authentic depiction of a living personality to be truly convincing.


These “optionals” are subjective, dependent on our own tastes and aesthetics. Being so, they aren’t as fixed in their requirements as The Essentials. There are plenty of anatomically correct horses out there (by default) who have problematic conformation. However, there exist no horses that are conformationally correct with anatomical errors. By simple definition, the latter is unrealistic. If anything, such specimens would represent a dire injury or pathology, or possessing features that aren’t even of Equus caballus at all. This is what makes anatomy far more important than conformation when it comes to realism. Nevertheless, ideally quality workmanship has both in spades.

Breed Type

Based on the historical, practical, and characteristic physical points that define and identify a breed, points of type are distinct and unmistakable. Because showing models like real horses is the goal, a piece should be as “typey” as possible without veering into problematic exxageration. In other words, structure shouldn't only be accurate and functional, but also “breedy.”

Breed type includes all the physical structures authentic to a real horse, as follows:
  • Those specific points of type indicative of a breed or type of equine.
  • Those specific features characteristic of the phenotypic variations found within a breed.
  • Points of type that identify a regional type of equine, or cultural priorities for breeding a type of equine.
  • Those features of type that identify a historical archetype or foundation population.
  • Points of type typical of current trends or priorities.
In short, if a breed or type of equine is characterized by it, so should the piece have it, as accurately as it is with the real horse, yet functional according to equine biology.  However, it should be noted that different people value different aspects of breed type. That’s to say people tend to have their own idea about what constitutes their own “ideal” look to a breed. Add in all the possible variations a breed may have, and we have quite a smorgasbord of opinions! That said, there generally tends to be a distinctive look to any given breed that most people use to identify it, and that should be regarded as the baseline from which to build further evaluation. 

That given, such features are varied and expansive, and awareness of this diversity depends upon one’s perception and depth of knowledge. These are developed over time with diligent research, analysis, observation, and artistic exercises. Consequently, if we aren’t aware of breed type well enough to identify truthful accuracy, it’s recommended we engage in independent research or seek the advice of learned fellows. 


This entails those characteristics and qualities instituted by human motivations that qualify an animal as “ideal.” This concept of “ideal” can pertain to how the animal looks, referred to as “breed type” (see above) and also to those preferred structures or qualities that promote ideal movement or performance.

Each breed has its own set of particulars in this regard since each breed is expected to possess its own characteristic look and motion. For instance, the long sloping hips and shoulders of Trakhners promote long, sweeping strides, the heavy musculature and straight necks of Quarter Horses help with cattlework, the close–hocked stance of Clydesdales aids plowing, and the upright neck and open humeri angles contribute to a Saddlebred’s flashy foreleg motion.

What’s more, some aspects of conformation can be thought of as “functional conformation” because they deal specifically with universal qualities related to equine evolution and physiology. Specifically, functional conformation protects against pathologies that could cause pain and injury to the animal when put to work because it’s aligned to equine biology rather than aesthetic taste, fashion, or exaggerated type. Straight legs, non–extreme heads, good hooves, good joints, good bone, and other points that promote the health of the horse are good examples, and apply to all equines. For this reason, functional conformation can be thought of as more important than other features of conformation.

Conversely, poor conformation is believed to predispose a horse to unsoundness or off–type motion, and it’s these inferior qualities that are selected against in the real horse show ring. For instance, calf–knees, sickle–hocks, bow–legs, ewe–necks, off–plumb hind legs, small hooves, overly long necks, upright pasterns, and cow–hocks are common functional flaws. Therefore, the more functional conformation flaws present in a piece, the more compromised its workmanship status.

Put it all together and we can think of conformation to include these qualities, as follows:
  • The lengths, angles, dimensions, orientations, and other characteristics deemed “ideal” by a breed’s registry or community.
  • The structural qualities that produce preferred, characteristic motion or performance.
  • Those cultural preferences that typify a breed or type.
  • Those features that characterize a regional or family variation within a breed.
  • Those conformation qualities typical of a historical archetype or foundation population.
  • Conformation indicative of current trends or changing priorities.

Permitted Color: Many breeds have color restrictions that prohibit or modify the registration of any given individual, therefore, this category regards whether a specific color, effect, or pattern is authentic to the stated breed or type. For this reason, color can be an important component to a breed’s identity, making a prohibited color or pattern a significant flaw in what we consider as good workmanship.

Being so this category regards every feature that relates to the permitted colors, to include:

  • The coat, mane, tail, feather, skin, hoof, and eye color.
  • Permitted markings, patterns, or effects.
  • Historical colors, to include those no longer present in the population.
  • Permitted variations of accepted colors, patterns, or effects.
However, nature does throw oddities at us, which can often be found in specific breeds, bloodlines, or regions. For that reason, it’s smart to provide photographic documentation or historical data for finishwork that depicts a very rare or odd type of coloration. Individual research on this subject, with an objective and skeptical mind, is also highly recommended.

The Caveats Regarding Conformation And Permitted Color 

Conformation and type entail the lengths, angles, and characteristics instituted by human motivations that qualify an animal for human use and ideals. However, everyone has a different idea about what that “ideal” actually means. Talk to five different people and they’ll all have a different opinion in these areas, even regarding the same horse or model! That means conformation and type have to be regarded on a per model basis, with the understanding that judges will be applying their own idea of what is “ideal,” and that ideal may be very different from ours. Even so, every successful live show enthusiast is usually highly educated on these subjects, and the better the workmanship, the more these components are factored into the piece.

Nonetheless, it has been argued that a quality workmanship should possess a good representation of its intended breed, yet that’s an ambiguous and problematic expectation at times. Why? Well, for many important reasons, as follows:

  • Plenty of living horses have undesirable conformation or type, yet are still characterized by equine anatomy. That means they may be flawed conformationally, but they’re still technically realistic. And the same applies to models. We need to keep in mind that when we judge model horses, we are judging realism, how technically accurate a model is to a real horse—by definition—and that doesn’t always entail “perfect” conformation and type. While each model is a gradient of “good” conformation then, it should always be as technically accurate as possible.
  • However, we’re also judging work made by the work of human hands and not nature. That means there exist plenty of models with “good” conformation and type that are flawed anatomically. They may appear typey, but their flaws in The Essentials reduce the quality of the workmanship.
  • Conformation and type are best regarded in balance with equine evolution and physiology, or what is often referred to as “functional conformation.” And often, functional conformation can conflict with current trends in breeding, so we should know our equine biology to make informed decisions.
  • It should be mentioned that many aspects of conformation and type are mostly hypothetical anecdotes rather than proven theory. At best they’re tenuous correlations and at worst, they’re marketing propaganda. Also conformation and type are notoriously prone to fashion, bias, misinformation and exaggeration, much to the detriment of the living animal. Undeniably, the truth is that plenty of poorly conformed or ugly horses perform beautifully and stay sound whereas plenty of “ideal” specimens end up as “lawn ornaments.” And what’s undesirable about a happy, useful horse?
  • Which standard of conformation and type are we supposed to apply to a model? Do we apply modern standards we find today or also those phenotypes found throughout a breed’s history? This speaks directly to an underlying contradiction in model horse showing, specifically the clash between “historical” judging and “now” judging. Historical judging acknowledges all possible representatives within a gene pool throughout history whether or not they’re favored by modern standards. For example, historical desert Arabians can compete equally against modern showring Arabians, and old foundation Quarter Horses can compete equally against modern halter Quarter Horses. Even chestnut Friesians can compete equally against black Friesians (given the shower provides documentation) since it’s genetically possible even though the registry currently disfavors the color. In contrast, “now” judging only acknowledges current, modern representatives of any given gene pool as per current registry rules. This type of judging is most like showing a real horse today, only recognizing current forms and presentation of the breed and shutting out much of what was, and still is, possible. In its extreme form, such judges favor those models in the textbook modern halter pose, with grooming, coloration and phenotypes currently fashionable, faulting all others regardless of workmanship. So it’s important to understand from which perspective we wish to focus our show string, and to carefully choose which judges we show under; otherwise our perfectly fine model may not show well through no fault of its own.
  • Likewise, can it be said that there’s only one standard of conformation and type for each breed? In reality, most breeds can be typified as having several acceptable variations due to bloodlines, uses, region, culture, preservation breeding, or tradition. Even very modern representatives have phenotypic variations, so which is more “correct”? Again, that’s up to our personal taste as well as that of the judge.
  • The concept of “breed” or “pure bloodline” is a rather contemporary western notion born of the Victorian era thanks to that period’s fascination with eugenics, elitism, and profiteering. As such, these concepts have been adopted and perpetuated by registries and the industries they support, sometimes relying on mythologies and rhetoric. So regard such things lightly and don’t discount the part–bred or grade horse. 
  • It’s important to remember that horses were bred as landraces by individuals or cultures for a specific use with rather open gene pools. In fact, the original application of “type” was to discern between a riding horse, a racehorse, a carriage horse, a warhorse, a workhorse, etc. Also, type could apply to a region or culture a kind of horse could be found. In other words, horses were classified and bred according to their job or regional isolation, not according to their bloodline or “points of type.” However, when the idea of “purebred” became ingrained in a status–hungry Victorian culture, gene pools were sealed with “closed” registry books, causing these previously open populations to now have to operate outside of their original uses. It also meant that rigid points of type were exalted to set them apart from all the other newly established “purebreds” to compete in the horse market. Today, this idolization of these points has caused many breeds to degenerate, especially in the halter divisions. We have Arabians and Quarter Horses with detrimental structure due to an exaggeration of fashionable type, for example. So it’s important to take “extreme” type with a grain of salt, and remain firmly dedicated to type within the biological limits of the animal to ensure well–being.
  • We all know what happens when people try to “one up” each other for status, money, and power. Truly, the conceit can be so extreme that we can hear people refer to non–purebreds as “mutts,” “mongrels,” or other derogatory terms. Is this a fair assessment if those animals who are functional and happy?
  • Much of modern conformation and type dogma is based on westernized ideals of perfection, and so can be a form of subtle snobbery towards non–western cultures, breeds, types, or colors. Indeed, the Akhal–Teke often unjustifiably suffers from this prejudice despite the breed’s functionality. So try to avoid this trap and evaluate each breed based on its own special merits.
  • Remember: A good rule of thumb is to know the basics of functional conformation for good workmanship and regard everything else with a grain of salt.
  • In terms of permitted color, don’t forget that color mutations are happening all the time, so some curious oddities can pop up from time to time. Some of these mutations are specific to a region or bloodline, meaning that we have to be careful to match the mutated color with the correct breed. That’s to say we can’t apply a Shetland pony pattern onto our Paint horse sculpture. Breeds simply have their own characteristic mutations that need to match up to be correct.
Ultimately, good workmanship should instill qualities consistent to the stated breed or type, especially in the halter classes, with the understanding that variation and different tastes color the placings. Therefore, it’s important to research judges to show under those who tend to have criteria more aligned to ours.

Artistic Style: This is another consideration for workmanship, and one that may never find resolution (but should it?) as it relies entirely on our own taste and goals. We are an activity based on creativity, which naturally involves a level of individual expression and unique vision. In fact, many participants find great delight in the variety of interpretations of the realistic equine form, and one could say it’s one of our strengths as a community. Indeed, there’s more than one way to convey reality! But it also speaks to the paradox between a desire for clinical realism and an appreciation for artistic style, even to the extreme of caricature. But let’s be honest, there’s no getting around a level of artistic style in any type of creative output, no matter how technically realistic it may be.

Yet it can be said that some artists are more successful at finding a balance between style and technical realism, and it’s these artists who tend to dominate the show ring. That considered, however, those pieces that are heavily stylized can find success too, so there is some leeway in what our activity expects. So, boiled down, it’s important to understand what our tastes are and what to expect when we purchase models aligned to them.

Quality Hairing

Hairing was commonplace in the past, but is now quite rare, making it more of an option than a necessity. Nonetheless, a quality hair job still has the same high standards now as it did in the past. For starters, the hair must be of high quality material such as ramie or viscose, and be of realistic scale, tones, texture, and appearance. It must also be applied precisely and with an exacting hand to best mimic the look and lay of real hair, and be trimmed and groomed to duplicate the look of real manes, tails, or feathers. It must also be styled to be consistent to the representative specifics, or the movement depicted by the model.

Specific issues that would compromise hair workmanship would be, as follows:

  • Glue that's suffused throughout the hair. It should only be present, at its most minimal possible to accomplish the job, along the crest and tailbone.
  • Glue that has yellowed or discolored.
  • Glue infused throughout the hair.
  • Bald patches.
  • If rooted, the slot along the crest is too wide .
  • Hair that's too profuse, knotted, uncombed, “ratty,” puffy, matted, or fuzzy.
  • If the hair is dirty or discolored.
  • Not of a realistic length, texture, and lay to emulate the real appearance of horsehair.
  • Hair the wrong tone for the coat color.
  • Hair improperly trimmed, groomed or styled.
  • If the hair at the dock forms a sloppy border or is improperly trimmed straight across rather than forming a crescent.
  • If the end of the tailbone unnaturally protrudes through the hair. 
  • If styling mousse or gel can be seen as a sheen on the body surface of the model.
  • If hairing is out of scale to the model.
  • If hairing is sloppily or clumsily done.
Workmanship Myths

Quality workmanship hosts a lot of confusion so plenty of false beliefs are floating around that need straightening out, such as the following:

  • Not all champions have quality workmanship due to the confusion as to what it constitutes, even with judges.
  • There’s little correlation between a model’s price and its workmanship status because plenty of expensive models don’t have thorough workmanship while plenty of less expensive models do. 
  • Advertising a model as having quality workmanship does not make it so. If a model is advertised as thusly then, don’t take the claim at face value. Research who did the piece and when, ask about care or repairs done to it, ask about return policies and if there was a show record, ask how it placed, and under what judges and when. If in doubt, seek advice.
  • If a model is advertised as “NAN Qualified,” “Multi NAN Qualified,” or having won NAN cards, don’t interpret these claims as a guarantee of quality workmanship. Frankly, there are many NAN qualified models and NAN champions lacking adequate workmanship thanks to the persistent confusion regarding the concept. 
  • Although many artists claim to create quality workmanship, don’t take this claim at face value. There’s no guaranteed correlation between an artist’s claims, popularity, or bravado and quality workmanship. We should do our research and evaluate each piece on its own terms.
  • Popular molds don’t necessarily correlate to quality workmanship. And be careful about getting excited over new pieces because it’s possible that they lack this essential quality. We should rely on our own judgment, trust our instincts, and seek outside advice if warranted.
  • Newer works are not necessarily of better quality than older works. Granted, while skills can grow over time, quality workmanship is a standard independent of artistic development. 
  • The misguided belief that quality workmanship has to catch one’s eye or be pretty or flashy to be successful in the show ring is common. The truth is that The Essentials are the fixed standard, independent of heartstrings, the “wow factor,” or personal taste, and it’s consistent to all models. A responsible judge won’t be duped by what is commonly referred to as “Pretty Horse Syndrome,” those models that are certainly eye-catching, but sorely lacking the steadfast components of quality workmanship. 
  • We will often hear people boast about the amount of effort that went into a model’s creation, implying that it must have quality workmanship as a result. But the truth is that while it does take a lot of time and effort to create a quality piece, it can take that same amount of energy to create one that isn’t. The only thing that matters is if the quality is there, not the degree of effort it took to create it.
  • A Custom doesn’t require a certain degree of alteration to have better quality. The truth is that quality workmanship hinges entirely on degree of its qualities, and not the degree of alteration. Indeed, many altered pieces are reduced in workmanship because of introduced errors.
  • Quality workmanship isn’t the same for all scales. While each piece should absolutely adhere to the criteria, the smaller the scale, the harder this becomes, particularly on “minis.” Indeed, a mini presents a unique challenge in this regard simply due to its size. For example, getting the scale of anatomical features (like the joints and eyes) or painted aspects (like ticking, dapples, and cat–tracking) are much harder than on a larger piece. Precision becomes more difficult as does meticulous prepping since seams and molding relics tend to obscure more of the sculpture. So pay extra attention to minis. If they’re truly of quality workmanship, they should be difficult to identify from a larger piece in a good photo. They should also be able to “hold their own” against larger pieces on the table.
  • Some shows will offer breed classes and “workmanship” classes, as through these things were separate issues. The idea is to allow superior paintwork on inferior “bodies” to have a place to succeed. However, this can cause a confusion about what it is we’re actually supposed to be judging, leaving judges to wonder when they judge the workmanship classes, “Isn’t this what I already judged in the Breed classes?” So we shouldn’t allow this contraction to confuse us: quality workmanship means that a piece should be able to enter both the Breed and Workmanship classes with equal success because it entails both the sculpture and the finishwork.
Custom Corrections

Customized plastic models often entail additional work to correct sculptural or molding problems to make the finished product more realistic. Much of this depends on the choice of the initial plastic model slated for customization since many molds are inherently more realistic than others. A good rule of thumb is that the more realistic the original plastic, the less corrective work is required during customization. If we’re unsure which models are good initial picks, seek advice.

Regardless, plastics typically need attention in these areas, as follows: 

  • The sculptural fixing of body parts that have been distorted or damaged during the casting or molding process such as curvaceous long bones of the legs (“spaghetti legs”), misshapen ears, faces, hooves, joints, or other asymmetries and distortions caused by the mass production process.
  • The sculptural correction of anatomy or conformation in areas where the original plastic is lacking.
  • Infusion of details to include veining, capillaries, genitals, nerves, whisker bumps/moles, wrinkles, chestnuts, etc. 
  • Restoration of compromised details such as resculpting areas that have been filled for the casting process or resculpting details that have suffered erasure or distortion. For example, resculpting of the groin, frogs, soles, ears, inside nostrils, the groove between the jar bars, or the depression between the lateral cartilages of the foot, or restoring veining, capillaries, nerves, whisker bumps/moles, wrinkles, chestnuts, etc.
It’s important to understand that some artists have an incomplete understanding of anatomy and may either choose more unrealistic plastic models, or their own corrections lack realism. Even though these models may be novel and exciting, it’s good policy to be well informed about quality workmanship before making a decision. 


There’s no better platform from which to launch our artistic endeavors than consistent quality workmanship. It defines all that we do, asking all those points to clear a bar—a bar that gets higher every year. This can make the creation of quality workmanship a bit intimidating, but if we break it down into its constituent points, we can baby–step our way towards success.

Now while these points may seem obvious as words, they aren’t when it comes to application. It's one thing to know something and entirely something else to do it. That's because everyone perceives existence differently and we need to be patient with each other since everyone’s on a learning curve. (For more insights on our perception, please refer to my blog series, What’s Reality Between A Couple Of Friends…And A Bunny?) There’s always room to grow, and always a way to improve our own quality workmanship.

But that also means that we may have errors in our own Sight that need amending just as much. This is how a thorough understanding of quality workmanship can gives us the means to improve our work, but to also defend it if need be. When we have facts—given to us by an understanding of quality workmanship—we’re in a better position to justify our creative decisions. We also increase the authority of our work and the strength of our Voice, two big positives. (To learn more about our artistic “voice,” please refer to my blog post, Your Artistic Voice.)

Above all, we should remember that quality workmanship is timeless. It’s careful thoroughness means that it will help our work to retain its value and be competitive for years to come, reassuring our collectors of a good investment. Quality workmanship also provides a stellar “first impression” to anyone who’s looking at or buying our work for the first time. When the hype about our work is validated by its actual quality, our reputations are bolstered, and that increases sales. Absolutely, collectors need to trust our work; they should never think they were a victim of “bait and switch.”

In the end, when we’re confident in our creativity, our satisfaction in our studio increases and we become ever more eager to explore our potential. This expands our body of work and cultivates its diversity and depth. Putting in the extra work is so worth the effort, and taking the time for research and development of our workmanship has huge payoffs in the long run. And it’s just a darned good feeling to say we’re “done” and be truly satisfied that we’ve done the very best we can. Besides to max out our abilities provides a new baseline for us to jump from into the next exciting project! And so it goes, ever forward and joyful!

So until next time…Yes! Jump in!

"You can't fake quality any more than you can fake a good meal."
~ William S. Burroughs

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