The horse’s eye is a complex organ designed by nature in a specific way. This design is necessary for the animal’s survival and, therefore, should be duplicated as closely as possible in sculpture. People also naturally focus on eyes, making correctly sculpted eyes important for believability.
However, the eye can stump sculptors because of its intricacies and peculiar angulations. Even if one of these characteristics is askew, the result is often an unconvincing face. Therefore, this article intends to provide some insights for successful results.
Note: For the purposes of this tutorial, the term “eye” refers to all the features of the eye (the eyelids, eyebrow wrinkles, cranial structure and fleshy configurations) where as the term “orb” refers only to the eyeball itself.
Things To Think About
The horse has the largest orbs of any land mammal. They're set onto the sides of his head, as appropriate for a prey species. Indeed, vision is paramountly important to the horse and, therefore, should be equally important to the artist.
The equine orb isn’t a perfect ball, but an elongated, egg-shaped organ. The equine skull lacks a boney shield between the orb and the brain, and only a fatty pad separates the two. For this reason, senior horses can appear to have a sunken eye as their body fat may be compromised by bad teeth. The orb should also protrude just a bit, but neither too much nor too little; it definitely shouldn't be flat. It’s a delicate balance that an artist should be attentive to reproducing accurately.
The orbs are basically the same general size on all horses, despite breed. It’s the structure of the cranial areas and fleshy parts that make an eye look “larger” or “smaller” on different individuals or breeds. In other words, the orbs are of similar size on an Arabian, Quarter horse, Akhal-Teke, Shire, Warmblood, Shetland, and Lusitano, etc.
The canthi are angled onto the cranium in a consistently basic way. Generally speaking, most horses have their canthi angled about 40˚ - 42˚ to the ear-eye-nostril alignment. Some breeds, such as drafters, may have slightly bigger angles, at 43˚ - 45˚. Life study and photographs can provide a good mental library. It's important to pay attention to these angles because if the canthi are angled improperly, the eye won’t look right. However, don’t assume the eye is shaped the same on all breeds. Indeed, Arabians tend to have a rounder eye and Iberians and Drafters usually have a more almond-shaped eye, for example. So we should pay attention to breed differences when sculpting the eyes.
The horse is remarkably expressive with his eyes and many tiny muscles govern its motion. For example, a frightened horse can draw in his orb just a bit, creating a more sunken eyeball. We should also be mindful of his eyelids and eyebrow wrinkles, which reveal a great deal about his mood and focus. Horses truly have "eyebrows," like dogs.
The equine eye is set high and far up, towards the crown, on the skull. This is because as evolution developed the huge battery of long crowned teeth, the head stretched forward away from the eye socket, orienting it further back and upward to make room for the tooth roots. So we should be careful that our eyes aren’t placed too far down on the head as to interfere with the tooth roots; otherwise we’ve created a sculpture that would pop its own orbs internally with the tooth roots. So generally speaking, the horse’s eyes are set on the upper third of the head. We should also be careful not to set the eyes too close to the jaw; otherwise we've also created an orb that would pop from the tooth roots.
The zygomatic arches are also important to accurately recreate since they’re such obvious landmarks. The clearly visible “U” is formed by the zygomatic arch (Arcus zycomaticus), the orbital arch and the external frontal crest (Os frontale) and is oriented towards the crown, through which the coronoid process of the mandible pokes in-and-out while chewing (we can observe this on the living animal). The bulb, below the zygomatic arch is the condyle process of the mandible, which articulates at the joint of the jaw, behind the eye. In other words, the zygomatic arches and the mandible must be aligned correctly, otherwise the artist has created a cranial structure inaccurate for an equine. In other words, that little "button" created by the zygomatic should sit aligned to the back of the jaw.
The teardrop bone (or facial crest) runs down from the zygomatic arches from behind the eye to about midway down the head and more or less follows the ear-eye-nostril alignment. Also observe that the area below the lower rim of the eye isn’t always flat, but can have a nice bulge of flesh too, often with soft wrinkles.
We should also note the eyelashes and decide if they would be a nice touch to our sculpture. Remember, eyelashes are only missing if they’ve been shaved off. And note any whisker bumps around the eye since they’re often a nice detail to add.
Note: The process described below refers to a “traditional” size sculpture. Adjustments in amounts should be made for larger or smaller size sculptures.
- Have a clean slate. This means that if we’re customizing, remove the entire eye and zygomatic arches. If we’re sculpting from scratch, have this area clear and flat.
- Look at the piece and decide where to put the eye. We should take measurements if we have too and mark in any reference points with a pencil or divots.
- Take a blob of sculpting material about the size of a pea and smoosh it on where the actual eye is supposed to be.
- For the zygomatic arches, make two short snakes, slightly bigger than the thickness of a pipe-cleaner, and place them above the eye blob, arched upwards and towards the crown, leaving a middle hollow which creates the “salt cellar." Then add a smaller snake right on top of the eye blob to accentuate the brow.
- Then make a small ball of sculpting material, about the size of a BB, and smoosh it under the lateral zygomatic arch and in alignment to the jaw to create the "button" that lies below the arches.
- Plane and blend the material into the surface, removing or adding material as needed to create a proportioned, well-placed, and correctly planed, blocked-in idea of the eye. (Another method is to make a ball for the orb, of appropriate size, and lay in the upper brow and the lower rim independently. We need to find the method that works for us.)
- Find and mark the canthi, making sure their angulation is correct to the ear-eye-nostril alignment. These will be the front and back corners of the eye, so be sure they’re consistent to a proper eye size and placement. Then with a sculpting tool, gently draw in and outline the orb. It's recommended to tap in the material to demark it, rather than making a drawing motion which can tear or pull the material and create distortions. Be sure to check it again to confirm it’s correctly placed and sized. To make adjustments, blend away an offending part of the outline and modify.
- When we’re satisfied with this step, use sculpting tools (refer to the recommended tools at the end of this article) to block in the features, adding dimension and form. Round out the orb and refine. At this point, refrain from sculpting in delicate details and concentrate on the “big ideas." Then smooth with rubbing alcohol (or Goo Gone for clay) and brushes then allow the epoxy to rest until it becomes only slightly stiffer than “fresh."
- Now we can begin to focus on the details such as eyebrows, wrinkles, the lower rim, etc. Tip: Dip the sculpting tools in a solvent such as rubbing alcohol for Gapoxio or Apoxie, or Goo Gone for clay, to add lubrication which helps to avoid tearing or distorting the sculpting material while working. But don’t soak. Just coat the tool.
- Avoid using tools for an area that create too broad a "trench." The rims of the eyes should hug the orb closely, right up against it, lacking a "trench" between the orb and the rim. Also remember that wrinkles, such as for the brow, shouldn't have broad "trenches" either, but have discreet creases. However, the main brow can have a broader "trench" at times, so use reference photos.
- Avoid creating brows that are too pointy in 3/4 view. It should be a gentle bump, often with a flattish top.
- Be sure to check the alignments and structure of the eye area continually to stay on track, and continue to add and clean up detail. We can even detail in the third eyelid and the teardrop bud (lacrimal caruncle) in the front canthi if we wish, or we can save that for pigment later. It's up to choice. On certain artworks we can even sculpt in the pupil and rim of the eyewhite for bronze or stone work if desired.
- When done, allow the material to rest even more to stiffen a little more then we can add eyelashes if we wish. To do this, roll out a tiny snake of sculpting material and pop it lengthwise along the top eyelid. Then gently blend this into the eyelid, making sure its shape and qualities relay the idea of delicate eyelashes. They are often longest in the middle and shorter at the canthi. When blocked in, allow the epoxy to rest until the material is slightly stiffer, then delicately sculpt in the hairs, sculpting from the ends of the eyelashes to the eyelid and visa versa. Smooth with rubbing alcohol and brush, do further refinements and re-smooth.
- When even stiffer we can refine and define, then smooth with solvent and brushes. Then finito! At least for one eye.
- When we sculpt the other eye, it's critical that it be symmetrical and symmetrically placed to the first one. Actually sculpting this second eye is the trickier task for this reason, but keep at it. And practice makes perfect!
Things To Keep in Mind
- Avoid creating orbs that are too protruding or bulbous since this can indicate hypothyroidism or ASD (Anterior Segment Dysgenesis), both rather serious pathologies.
- Avoid creating orbs that are too flat or deflated since this is unrealistic as well as unnatural, possibly indicate a puncture injury.
- Avoid creating eyes oriented to forwards on their axis, like a person or dog. The equine eye must sit on the side of the head with the orbs oriented more on their sides, as nature intended, because the horse is a prey animal who needs to see behind him. However, avoid sculpting the eyes flat on the sides of the head as this is equally unrealistic; it's a delicate balance.
- Be sure the eyes are correctly placed on the head and not down so far as to interfere with the roots of the teeth. Constantly check them against the basic guide of the ear-eye-nostril alignment.
- Avoid creating eyes that sit too far out on the cranium like frog’s eyes. This can create an unrealistic ghoulish appearance. So be mindful of the cranial structure supporting and protecting the orbs.
- Make sure the canthi are oriented correctly and consistent with both eyes.
- Be sure the eyes are sized correctly, being neither too big nor too small and that both eyes are of equal dimensions and angles.
- Make sure both eyes protrude from the skull accurately and equally.
- While breed differences exist in orbital structure such as among Exmoors, Drafts, mules, etc., they’re relatively subtle in comparison to some of the artistic distortions seen in sculpture. So avoid creating brow ridges that are too extreme or extended beyond realistic parameters, becoming too heavy or overly protruding.
- Make sure the zygomatic arches are aligned properly to the mandible and to the ears and forehead. Also make sure they're oriented correctly, not tipped down towards the jaw or tipped up too far upwards towards the forehead.
- The planes of the eye are crucially important, so be careful to get them correct in the formative stages.
- Avoid a caricatured structure of the eye. While the eyes of horses in many old paintings are dramatic, their stylized treatment doesn’t look authentic on a realistic sculpture. Yet pay attention to expression. The brows can be either subtle or pronounced is expression so use clear reference photos.
- Keep the eyelids looking fleshy, flexible and soft, and avoid a harsh treatment with their sculpting. They should have rounded edges and appear as soft wrinkles, not slash marks.
- Don’t forget to sculpt in the lower rim of the eye; it adds definition and interest. We may wish to sculpt in the lower bulge too, though it’s not present on all horses.
- Be mindful of detail from delicate wrinkles, whisker bumps to the subtle, nuanced play of eyelids with expression.
- If using epoxy, soft artificial brushes dipped in rubbing alcohol can be used to smooth sculpted details. If using most clays, Goo Gone works much the same way.
- Eyes are easiest to sculpt if we have tools to fit the shapes needed. A pointed spoon-like end is recommended plus a pointed end, a ball end, and a rounded curve end. Tools can be specially designed sculpting tools, sharpened pencils, dental tools, or burnishing tools in spoon-shapes or ball-tips.
- Use a pair of calipers to make sure things are proportionally correct and symmetrically oriented. And calipers are of particular usefulness with sculpting the other eye.
- A handy trick is to draw a straight line down the front of the face with a pencil; it should run perfectly down the nasal bone and bisect the entire head into equal halves. Then use a T-square to draw a 90˚ line to demark the top of the eye, the front canthi and each "button" beneath the zygomatic arches. This gives us reference points for sculpting the other eye. This bisecting line is also useful to make sure our brows are of equal placement and dimensions, too, keeping in mind the movement of each eyebrow should be considered in relation to the other.
With practice and study, sculpting eyes becomes easier with each sculpture. And really, the only tricky part is creating a second eye to match the first! If we keep working at it, it'll get easier as we get the hang of sculpting eyes. As such, our sculpting becomes more accurate and fast, and we learn the subtleties of expression and placement better, too.
"It's through my artist's eyes that I see wonderful things in nature that I never saw before."