Saturday, July 2, 2016

DABPPRR: Equine Realism Easily Organized


Realistic equine sculpture entails many things from understanding anatomy to skill with art technique to indepth knowledge about horsemanship. So many things and so interdisciplinary that, in fact, it can appear incredibly intimidating to comprehend.

Yet it doesn't have to be that scary. We don't have to feel overwhelmed or live in doubt about our ability to grasp all the issues in play. If only we could find a way to organize the issues we need, perhaps that might help us tackle all this in baby steps. And we can.

So let's find out how...

The Concept

One of the tricks to understanding how to improve within equine realism is clarity: clarity of understanding and clarity of purpose. But what's clarity? Well, when we have a deep knowledge base and truly understand how to best convey it in clay and pigment, that's clarity. In other words, it's an ability to confidently convey what we See in life into our media, with accuracy and skillfulness. Yet the truth is that no other animal is surrounded by so many issues we must weigh in order to produce a convincing and compassionate result. Know it or not, we've chosen the most complicated animal form to render artistically, making clarity of such importance as to be the defining factor between good work and great work. Being so, clarity takes time to cultivate, and even more mistakes to learn from, but when it comes to such a complex subject as the horse, the only way around it is through it.

So to foster our own clarity, perhaps we could create categories that could organize ideas for us? So we could create a checklist of sorts? And again, we can. In this, every single issue involved can be distilled into seven basic categories: 
  1. Design
  2. Anima 
  3. Biology
  4. Physics
  5. Perception
  6. Research
  7. References
Or "DABPPRR," for short. Knowing how this works can help organize our thoughts to hone our creativity to an ever finer edge, and being thus organized, we perhaps gain a degree of confidence and conviction that may have eluded us previously. That is to say, the issues surrounding our subject aren't willy-nilly chaotic. They have a kind of order, and once we see it, we gain a better idea of what to work on and how to mediate blindspots or knowledge gaps.

Now it should be known that these categories have no order. They're simply arranged to spell out the acronym "DABPPRR" for easy memorization. It should also be mentioned that every aspect of DABPPRR is geared towards attaining more realism in our work, or rather, improving our work so it creates a better impression of a real, living horse.

To spur this along then, let's discuss DABPPRR and what it means...

Design: The Vision

How we compose our piece can make or break it—it can speak to the majesty of the horse or fall silent. But what is it? Well, it's basically how our piece is put together from a design and composition point of view. How do all the parts come together to accentuate the narrative and further a coherent piece? For example, that planted foreleg may "stop" the sense of forward motion in a galloping sculpture, or the way in which that mane and tail are flowing is awkward, or the expression depicted doesn't fit the idea, or maybe the angle of the leg just doesn't work with the lines of the piece. How does everything flow together? Is it harmonious? Does the eye move around the piece, or does it get stuck somewhere? 

Design also deals with negative space and the flow of line in a way that creates a pleasing, cleverly constructed piece. And this not only applies to the sculpture, but the sculpture married to finishwork, too. 

As artists we have to make judgement calls in how each portion is positioned, and our work does best when it's oriented in a way that matches our subject's fluid, athletic, graceful motion. And when we apply a finish, the nature of the pigment should complement the piece, not create a disharmonious, distracting result. And we do this by paying attention to composition and design rather than just banging out whatever we want without thinking. There are ways to design a piece that forward the narrative along as well as accentuate the quality and "horsiness" of the piece.

Under design also comes our Voice or our artistic style, too, or the way in which we portray realism. Because—hey—the truth is there's more than one way to portray it! But there's also a sliding scale of realism as in some works are more accurate and believable than others, and we want to nudge our work to the "more realism" side, don't we? 

Anima: The Spirit

Now we come to the "emotional weight" of the piece, or its ability to communicate a real, living soul. And that's nothing to sneeze at. The equine is an animal that moves us, that inspires and captures our heart. Therefore, it's not enough that our piece be just competently done, it has to be compelling, too. It has to grab and hold us, just like the real thing. It should make us dream and imagine, to react to the piece as though it was a real, beautiful horse. And to do that, it needs a "soul," a personality...character. Without it, our piece will appear lifeless, artificial, and remote rather than provocative and enchanting. 

And what does a personality do? It expresses itself! But It's not just how we paint the eye! The horse is an animal that expresses himself throughout his entire body, all the time, and in any combination of emotional declarations. In other words, there's a great deal that goes into constructing an arresting presence that goes far beyond a brilliant paint job. Indeed, it ranges from expression, posture and balance to the tensions and relaxations of the body to the movement of the mane and tail to the psychology of his behavior to his natural instincts. 

In this, we have to train ourselves through field study and research in order to perceive just how his body is conveying his inner landscape. If we know how to listen, the horse is speaking to us all the time, and those are important words for us to hear. Not only does it feed our artistic soul, but we become better able to build more nuanced narratives and subtler designs that layer expression in such a way that allows our piece to really speak to us in fuller ways. Our arsenal of expression then goes beyond simply twitching an ear, and into the bigger words of equine language. 

As such, our sculptures begin to speak with a life of their own, they begin to live on their own terms and reach out to us...and that's exciting. And it makes us hungry for more! 

Biology: The Foundation

This entails every biological aspect of our subject from anatomy and biomechanics to his natural coordination to color and pattern characteristics to the principles of horsemanship. Essentially it's everything that entails the biological, body aspects of the animal to include details, conformation and breed type to proportion, planes, and placement of anatomical features to all the little details we add in sculpture or paintwork (such as the staining of manes, tails, and feathers to scars, wrinkles, veins, brands, and dirt). And because they deal with his body, braids, clips, and other conventions of show grooming are also included here. Don't forget technical finesse with the media, either! Quality skill with the materials leaves no trace of the creative process, but is invisible to best mimic a real horse...because if a real horse doesn't have such relics, neither should our work.

That makes Biology the biggest category of the seven since it entails so much information and skill which must be learned through field study, research, practice, and hard work. Yet despite everything we're obliged to juggle here, it's all within our grasp given a bit of gumption and diligence. 

Physics: The Forces

Now when it comes to Physics, this involves all the natural forces acting on our subject as a matter being alive in a Universe with natural laws. That means the issues of mass, balance, impact, resistance, centrifugal force, impulsion, torsion, inertia, etc. all come into play, influencing his body, motion, posture, and even his emotions. Indeed, our subject shouldn't exist within a "reality vacuum" but within a real Universe of action and consequence. 

And we must recreate them; we cannot take them for granted. That means we need to see the passive flow of hair, the rippling of muscles, the effects of force on the body, the power of impact, and all the rest, plus all the tensions, relaxations, responses, resistances, releases, and other reactions to a "living moment." If we forget to input all this into our sculpture, we're going create a static, awkward, unconvincing piece that doesn't look like it belongs in a factual reality. It'll simply lack that living immediacy of life in each passing moment.

In this way, Physics speaks to "actuality' that adds so much "real life weight" to the body we sculpt. Physics also enhances our Design abilities to take the effectiveness of our work to the next level. For instance, the passive flow of the mane and tail can add a tremendous degree of movement as well as showcase the forces indicated in the piece.

Perception: The Sight

This is our ability to infuse objective reality into our work, taking it beyond our Voice and into the realm of equine realism's primary goal. And everyone has a different level of perception, which is why each artist infuses a different level of objectivity into their work. Or in other words, it's why some works are more effectively realistic than others. But this is good news! It means that it's not a matter of inherent artistic ability, it's the ability to perceive better than others—and that's something learnable and attainable, at least to a better degree.

Our perception, therefore, is something we have to work at, train, and shape into a helpful tool. It's also something that becomes better over time if we're doing things right. Indeed, this is exactly how we gauge our rate of improvement.

Perception also refers to how we understand the factors that go into creating a realistic equine sculpture or finish. For example, do we understand the contrast between anatomy and conformation? The nature of viability and functionality? The anatomical landmarks? And many more issues like them.

And our perception doesn't entail just the living subject, it also pertains to how we do so with our references plus how we translate all that into our clay. We have to do more than know—we have to do, as well! Knowing something is a very different task than doing something, especially when it comes to artistic media and objectivity (which also relates to judging). 

Research: The Rock To Stand On

Learning all these things takes proactive study, sacrifice, and a willingness to take risks, and lots of practice. Field study, workshops, booksmarts, artistic exercises, clinics, retreats, and many other venues for learning are just waiting for us to soak up their wisdom, so make ready use of them. Most of all, being with horses can be the most illuminating and inspiring way to learn. In particular, grooming them, running our hands over his body to program the planes into our mind, can be very helpful. Then lounging him on the lounge line can help us see his physical workings better as we're able to focus on specific portions changing in a controlled, repetitive setting.

And no matter how much we come to know or think we know, each of us has knowledge gaps we'll continually need to amend, so it's in our best interest to never stop seeking and learning. Indeed, the moment when we think we "know enough" is precisely the moment to dig back into proactive learning again. Science is also revealing a great deal about the equine, proving that many long-held ideas and practices have been wrong. And it's these things we need to stay on top of in order to create informed work. For example, almost everything we believed about the equine foot is wrong!

References: The Guide 

Now we come to our own reference library, or which various books, clippings, photographs, diagrams, and other guiding resources we have at our disposal. Yet make no mistake, building a solid reference library takes time, effort, and money, but a good one is worth its weight in gold. It will guide us and act as templates against which we can compare and contrast to make more informed creative decisions.

Good references also beg questions, especially when it comes to the practices imposed on this gracious animal. Many management, breeding, training, and riding paradigms harm our subject, but which are now institutionalized into normalcy. Unless we can differentiate between these and those that are responsible, our art will simply mimic those things we may not have wanted otherwise. Plus continuing a misguided perspective skews every other aspect of DABPPRR for us, making it a systemic problem that's not easily rooted out. 

Luckily, however, other components of DABPPRR help to change this condition such as additional Research, a changed Perception, and a better grasp of Biology. In this way, we discover that each element of DABPPRR is interdependent and interdisciplinary, and so our Reference base should be as well.


Having to account for all that equine realism entails is clearly a layered endeavor, as DABPPRR clearly illustrates. A simplistic understanding or approach then certainly won't help us here. But it also means it's not so bad, given we can organize all that we learn into one of these seven categories. This helps to create balance and thoroughness in each, which only serves to improve our abilities that much more. 

It also lends structure to our proactive education and improvement so we aren't out there, spinning our wheels willy-nilly and wasting precious time. Organization also lends substance to what we learn by providing an implied set of goals. Absolutely, when we can specifically target our weak areas and perceive our strong points better, we increase the potency of our efforts even more. Having purpose is always a good plan!

In this manner, our clarity will sharpen and many things previously unknown to invisible to us will start to pop out. For this reason, we can more effectively fix problem areas, taking our work to bigger leaps in quality much quicker. Our work will gain more authority and our confidence in our own work will heighten, plus our appreciation for the equine will deepen as well, as our overall understanding grows and expands.

And what's more clearly beneficial to us than that? So until next time...don your DABPPRR hats and create with confidence!

"Self–organized criticality is a new way of viewing nature...perpetually out–of–balance, but organized in a poised stage."
~Per Bak

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