Saturday, February 18, 2017

The Inner Eye: Quick Visualization Tips for Sculpture

I drew this plate when I was six and a half years old!


Sculpting can be a rather intimidating experience, particularly if it’s a newly developing skill. Yet even experienced artists can find certain aspects challenging. A handy trick to work through troublesome stages is to develop an ability to visually abstract those sections into simplified, recognizable shapes or concepts that can act as guides. And everything about the horse can be simplified into shapes and generalized concepts! When we deconstruct the animal into them, sculpting becomes a lot easier to decipher and apply. And then we can stack on more detail in a way that's more comfortable for our pace and methods. We can also pinpoint errors quicker and find solutions with relative ease. Truly, working first with the "big ideas" to refine as we go is a tried and true method for attaining both accuracy and detail.

So let’s explore some of these abstraction techniques and concepts that can make our experience happier and more productive.

Shapes That Evoke Emotion

It can be clever to design a piece based on a geometric shape such as a circle, square, triangle, or trapezoid because sometimes different shapes induce different emotional responses. When we consider this, it can become a powerful took for evoking deeper emotional reactions. For example, a triangle is rather dramatic and flamboyant, and could therefore lend energy to the design. Now in contrast, a circle can appear coiled, controlled, intimate, and introspective. On the other hand, a square can give the impression of stability, steadfastness, pride, and nobility whereas a trapezoid can seem unpredictable, bold, and chaotic. So when we design our compositions along these lines we automatically set the stage for an intended emotional reaction.

And this concept doesn’t necessarily have to apply to the whole piece, but to specific features of the sculpture as well. For instance, the mane can be designed in a series of triangles while the body designed as a circle. Or a billowing mane or arched neck can be nicely balanced by an arched tail, designed as a wide curve billowing downwards. Indeed, the clever use of various shapes can subconsciously lend harmony, energy, provoked emotion, and interest to the design that add impact and emotional draw. 

Likewise, a hollowed, stretched line of the spine in a halter stretch gives a supple, stretchy look while the bowed, rounded line of the spine during bascule gives a coiled, stored-power appearance. Furthermore, twists to the body or neck provoke an energetic response while bends to the torso or neck appear supple, energetic, and athletic. Then in a curved spine, such as when bucking up or with the hind legs flexed under the body, that evokes a sense of chaos and bursts of energy.

Add all this together and we have all sorts of possibilities for capturing and conveying energy and emotion in our piece. This adds complexity to our composition and gives us a lot more options for our creative decisions that guide our piece towards our intended aim.


We should actively develop X-ray vision to accurately imagine the skeleton inside our sculpture to identify bony landmarks that help us translate that skeleton more accurately into our clay. A handy tip is to trace the skeleton and demark the joints (with a penciled dot or broken toothpick) to stay on track as we work. Plus, these demarcations help to establish bone lengths, which means symmetrical pairs can be easily checked with calipers against each other and with references to stay accurate. 

X-ray vision also applies to the musculature since we should be able to visually recognize muscle masses between the living animal, anatomical diagrams, and our sculpture. For instance, how muscle groups converge and organize around skeletal landmarks is important for placing muscles properly. When we do, not only to we gain more technical accuracy but also the freedom to recognize the variations organic flesh presents us, and that lends more creative options.

Another handy way to develop X-ray vision is to simplify the skeleton and the muscles. We do this by distilling them into basic shapes and simplifying the joints into simplified construction.

Simplified metacarpal and 1st pastern bone. From The Horse's Muscles in Motion by Sara Wyche.

Simplified scapula, humerus, and scapula-humeral joint. From The Horse's Muscles in Motion by Sara Wyche.

Simplified hind limb. From The Artistic Guide to Animal Anatomy by Gottfried Bammes.

Simplified skeleton in 3/4 view. From the Complete Guide to Drawing Animals by Gottfried Bammes.

Simplified articulations for the forelimb and hindlimb. From the Complete Guide to Drawing Animals by Gottfried Bammes.

Traveling Eye

How a piece “flows” refers to how the eye is pulled over the sculpture through shape, line, form, detail, color, and negative space. A skilled use of flow keeps the eye activated and flowing whereas a poor use of flow will stop, distract the eye, or let it shoot "out of" the composition. And undeniably, the more the eye is activated, the more it participates in the sculpture so the more it absorbs and appreciates. For example, a galloping sculpture can have its motion "stopped" by a foreleg planted straight up and down whereas angling it slightly forwards or backwards keeps that motion going. The same applies to the mane and tail. If used carefully they can maintain or enhance flow or, if clumsily designed, they can stop the energy altogether. So design manes and tails to harmonize with the traveling eye to keep the energy "inside" the piece. That may mean a tail flowing forwards to bring the eye back up to the head, or a mane flowing backwards to bring the eye to the hindquarter, for instance. Just keep inertia and the passive physics of flowing hair in mind.

Absolutely, the sculpture should work together as a whole, with every design element and detail working together to create a complementary, harmonious impression.

Abstract Shape

Finding basic shapes, symbols, letters, or numbers underlying a body area’s basic idea can be very helpful for simplifying rather complex systems and making them less confusing to sculpt. Really “starting simple” and worrying about the rest later is often a useful approach for sculpture. For example:
  • From the front, the knee is a bit trapezoidal.
  • From the front, the hock is a bit trapezoidal, too.
  • From the side, the knee has a general triangular shape.
  • The nasal bone, from the front, has an hourglass shape with rounded edges.
  • The zygomatic arches are like a "U" for the one that flows to the forehead, and a "Y" for the one that flows to the ear with the "button" of the jaw's condyle beneath it.
  • The ear is like a flute set onto a ball, the ear bulb.
  • The upper lip is like a little box.
  • The hoof is like a cylinder sliced on an angle.
  • The pastern has a bell shape.
  • When standing, from the side, the hindquarter can be a bit diamond-shaped in some breeds and positions.
  • The nostril on the right side is like a number "6" while on the left side it's a backwards "6."
  • The muscling on the forearm is like a "W."
  • The muscles on the sides of the face are like a “W," too, but on its side.
  • The barrel is shaped like a canoe, narrow and long in front like a keel, and wide and round in back.
  • The chest is like an oval, or in some breeds more like a square or circle.
  • The forequarter is like a triangle.
  • The muscling of the neck is like a "M," on its side and curved.
  • The muscling of the biceps is like an upside-down three-pronged "Y."
The "M" of the neck muscles.

The "U" and "Y" of the zygomatic arches and condyle of the jaw (the grey circle).

The sideways "W" of the cheek muscles.

The bell-shape of the first two pastern bones.

The trapezoidal shape of the hock, from the front. The hock shouldn't be smooth and rounded, but have these subtle tuberosities clean and crisp.

The triangular shape of the knee from the side.

From the inside, the triangular shape of the knee.

The trapezoidal shape of the knee, from the front. Like the hock, the knee needs these crisp tuberosities and shouldn't be round and smooth.

The general triangular shape of the forequarter.


It’s always helpful to note key associations or alignments between parts of the body. For example, the alignment of the ear-eye-nostril is an important guide. Specifically, the ear bulb forms a straight line with the bottom of the eye and the bottom of the nostril, with the mouth tending to parallel this alignment. This is a handy baseline to gauge individual or breed variations and to angle the teardrop bone. We also have how the canthi of the eye generally lie within an approximate 40˚- 42˚ angle to that parallel though drafters tend to have a more acute angle. 

And while some associations vary with breed or individual such as the ear-eye-nostril alignment, some are consistent because they’re anatomically based. For example, how the back of the jaw lines up with the "button" below the zygomatics, or how the points of the hip, buttock, and croup, forming the pelvic girdle, connect together in parallel lines to form a rigid box.

What's more, from the front, both the forelegs and hindlegs have a knock-kneed stance and aren't aligned straight up and down, like a straight pole. On top of that, the hind legs are oriented on an outward plane from stifle to toe and not straight forwards (a common mistake in conformation books and sculpture). 

The knock-kneed stance of the forelegs. Absolutely, the forelegs should never be angled straight up and down, like a straight pole.

The knock-kneed stance of the hindlegs. Absolutely, the forelegs should never be angled straight up and down, like a straight pole. From The Artistic Guide to Animal Anatomy by Gottfried Bammes.

Ellie shows us the proper outward plane of the hind limb with her left hind leg.

As a guide for the shoulder angle, we can see that in a good shoulder the elbow will align to the front of the withers. Along those lines, we see that the muscle "bulbs" that sit on top of the pectorals are oriented between the points of shoulder, also being the point where the neck connects to the chest.

Even more, in a quality foreleg, a straight line should bisect the radius, knee, and cannon to touch the back of the heels. That's to say the knee should be set on a 90˚ angle to the carpus so that it's not calf-kneed. On that note, a quality foot, from the side and standing, a straight line bisects the first, second, and third foot bones and the hoof wall and heel match this angle. On the bottom of a quality foot, the branches of the "V" of the frog project to the outsides of the heels; otherwise the foot is contracted.

The sides of the "V" should project outside of the heels in a healthy foot; otherwise the foot is contrtracted.

In addition, a quality standing hind leg has a straight plumbline from the point of buttock and down the back of the hock and cannon. This plumbline should be present when the hind leg is standing under the body, squarely under the body, or stretched back from the body. However, in some breeds this plumbline can flow down mid-cannon, or even right down the front of the cannon.


Squinting our eyes and holding our sculpture up against a backlighting window or light source can be useful for reducing things down to basic outlines, and that can be helpful for troubleshooting breed type, gender, design, proportion, and flow issues. The human brain is wired to recognize commonality and pattern so silhouettes are something we unconsciously identify as characteristic of a breed or individual. This technique helps us avoid veering off-track when wrapped up in the details. So checking our sculpture periodically with this technique can help us identify an underlying problem and avoid skews.

Negative Space

The empty areas created by our scupture are just as important as the sculpture itself and so should be considered as part of our composition. Indeed, they can be used to complement the design elements just as much as the sculpture itself. 

For example, the negative space created by widely placed hind legs can complement the shape made by an arched neck. Or the negative spaces created by mane and tail tendrils can echo each other to pull the eye back and forth between them.

Hard and Soft

It’s important to know which parts of the body are bone and which are flesh in order to sculpt those areas convincingly. For example, some areas of subcutaneous bone are parts of the face and most of the legs (especially the knee and hock down) while some areas of flesh are the neck, triceps, chest, and hindquarter. We need to sculpt the bone "hard" and "crisp," and the flesh organically and softly to get the point across.

For example, this can help us keep those legs from becoming “spaghetti-like," ambiguous, or puffy by asking us to sculpt the subcutaneous bony bits as cleanly and crisply as possible, with smooth surfaces for long bones and crisp qualities, condyles, and tuberosities for joints. In turn, we're asked to sculpt the fleshy bits with texture (see below) and amoebic curves, even strategic jiggles, wrinkles, and ripples. Even better, when we sculpt the flesh to mimic the proper soft, pliable, and living quality it has, the impressions of both those areas and the bony bits will be further amplified through contrast.


Horses aren't smooth, like polished metal. We can often forget this looking at anatomy charts since the hide and fascia are removed to reveal the underlying musculature. But study real horses in person or look closely at reference photos and we see they're riddled with fleshy textures. Wrinkles, ripples, pock-marking, striations, squiggles, bumps, lumps, fascia details, "pebbling," stretching, pooching, capillaries, veins, and a myriad other effects are evident when we start to look for them.

Being so, infusing hide and fleshy texture into our clay will do wonders with bringing the sculpture to life by gaining more authentic realism and believability. It's also fun! Sculpting texture is a blast, and because there are so many variations and options, it can really help to make each sculpture distinct and unique.

(For more discussion on using anatomy charts, refer to the blog post Now About Those Anatomy Charts Part 1 and Part 2.)

Concave and Convex

Identifying deep hollows and the round protrusions of the body structures, especially involving moving muscles, can be extremely useful. Not only are many of them handy references points, such as those for the skeleton or major muscle groups, but they also instill a real 3D quality of living flesh to our sculpture, such as:
  • The “salt cellar” of the zygomatic arches.
  • The arches of the zygomatics.
  • The jugular groove between the Sternocephalicus and the Brachicephalicus.
  • The congregation of important muscles at the deltoid tuberosity of the humerus. 
  • The “poverty line” of the Semitendinosus.
  • The bulk of the Buccinator.
  • The robustness of the pectorals and Biceps femoris group.
  • The tube-like curve of the Complexus and the accompanying hollow beneath it.
  • The bulging or hollowing of the Triceps.
  • Underneath the jaw.
  • The hollow between the gaskin and point of hock.
  • The high hollows where the hind legs meet the groin.
  • The deep hollow beneath the tailbone where it joins the hindquarter.
Muscles aren't flat and they don't shift flatly. They pooch and bulge outward or dip and cave in depending on motion and balance shifts. They also don’t delineate themselves with clean grooves, like sharp furrows in a crop field, or like they were drawn in by a pencils, but with a soft dip, forming a topography of soft curves and hollows that are important to mimic in sculpture. They can also "chatter" in their delineation, forming a row of dimples or "buttons" rather than a straight line.

It's important to maintain this organic, living 3D impression in our sculpture though it’s easy to forget when working primarily from 2D reference photos and anatomical charts. So actively work to study and visualize how those 2D reference materials would actually manifest on a living horse to avoid a literal, flat interpretation as we see on paper. For this, we can inspect our muscle masses from many different angles to make sure they protrude and dip where needed. For guidance then, we need many different references of a specific anatomical area from many different angles in the motion we're depicting. Never work from just a couple of reference photos! We need different angles for this 3D aspect, and different examples to extrapolate options and commonalities.


Paying attention to how the equine body is planed is critical for getting form correct. That's to say the muscles of the body have equine-specific characteristic angles, slopes, bulges, and dips we need to factor in when we block in our "big ideas." Indeed, a realistic sculpture can be almost completely done with planing alone as shown in such work by Herbert Hastletine. Indeed, very little muscle definition can be sculpted, but if the planes are correct, the sculpture will still look realistic and convincing nonetheless. This is also useful for sculpting "smooth bodied" breeds such as the Arabian, Saddlebred, Morgan, many drafters, and Iberian because their bodies rely almost entire on those distinctive planes.

If we wish, after we've properly planed our sculpture as we block it in, we can add muscle definition as needed. But laying in muscles groups contrary to life is one of the quickest ways to get off track, and quickly. Get those planes right out of the gate, we we've accomplished most of our job!


This feature is probably the hardest thing to factor into sculpture because it's not only intrinsically tricky, but each individual is different and each breed or type has its own characteristic measurements. Yet it's one of our top priorities! In many ways, everything about our sculpture is a series of proportional relationships and paired with planing and placement, we pretty much have our sculptures in the bag.

But despite all the variations, we need a baseline by which to gauge them, some basic relationships that can guide us effectively. For that we can use the head, as measured from the tip of the upper lip to just behind the ears then apply that measurement to every other aspect of the body. 

Yet every artist has their own way to measure proportion, but here are two suggested models that work well and give us those baselines needed to create variations...


Using a large hand mirror to see the sculpture “backwards” during the sculpting process is highly effective for rooting out problem areas. This is because it creates an instant “fresh eye" with its new view, which is really good for pinpointing things not previously perceived. 

Similarly, using a digital camera to snap a series of objectifying snapshots during the sculpting process is another excellent method. An additional benefit here are images that can be manipulated in a photo editing program to turn them backwards, giving us another corrective view. Or they can be printed out so we can actually draw on them to problem-solve before ever having to touch the sculpture. And an additional tip…we can scale these photos to our sculpture to compare them directly.

Of course, calipers are our constant ally along with having a grasp of some basic proportions. Then when we understand the bony landmarks of the skeleton, we can use our calipers to ensure symmetry between body pairs or the two sides of the body along with proportion and placement.


Increasing the effectiveness of our sculpture’s impact, we can visualize an idea, story, or emotion we'd like to communicate. Maybe our sculpture has a backstory that guides its design, or many we want to impart the impression of power, nobility, serenity, eccentricity, haughtiness, or joy, and then creating from that standpoint. This adds depth and dimension to our work, giving it meaning beyond simple representation. When we take our realism beyond static representation, we push the art form into new realms of appreciation, meaning, and provocation. 


It can be a good idea to do some preliminary sketches of our intended piece before starting. Often these initial drawings really capture that initial energy that can help us keep it in the clay. We can also explore options with the flow of line and angle which can do much to lasso the essence of our intention. Indeed, equine realism is about energy and "feel" just as much as accuracy. 

In these initial drawings we can also harmonize our ideas together to avoid an odd bit that could throw the whole thing off. We can also work out problem areas on paper first, either answering our questions or directing us to references that would. Our brains need to work out structures and forms, and working in 2D can be a first step.

Plus, we need a hefty mental library in order to do drawings accurately and that encourages us to pro-actively research and explore. The better our mental library, the better we're at pinpointing when something is "off." Indeed, someone can have a solid grasp of anatomy but lack the mental library to infuse that knowledge into clay. Yet without knowing anatomy, a mental library has no context. They really are the yin-yang of equine realism.

Drawing also refines our perception, that critical factor that dictates how we sculpt. Truly, our single most powerful tool isn't our knowledge, our hands, our tools, or our methods, but the keenness of our perception. It governs everything we create. So using 2D work to exercise our know-how and refine our understanding can do much to inform our sculpture work. 

(For more discussion on perception, refer to the 6-part blog series, What's Reality Between A Couple Of Friends...And A Bunny?)


We need to seat our sculpture in a real universe, a real world with real physical laws. So we need to visualize our sculpture as a real animal in real life. What would be the physical forces acting upon this living specimen which should therefore be reflected in our sculpture? 

For example, think about how mass would be shifted and how gravity would work upon such a large animal. Consider the type of articulations and shifts that would be necessary and how the muscles would act, morph, ripple, or jiggle in response. Think about centrifugal force and inertia on the body, balance, mane, tail, and feathers. Hairy bits only move passively and so reflect a lot about the physical forces the animal is experiencing. Consider kicked-up dirt or water on a base, too.

When we create our work in a "reality vacuum" not only do we miss enticing design elements, but our sculpture simply won't be believable. 

Looking Ahead

One of the best skills we can cultivate for sculpting, particularly with the self-hardening epoxies, is the ability to visualize where we’re going. In other words, what we’re about to sculpt next step and how. Remember the horse moves with his entire body; those body parts don't move independently like a jointed paper doll. The horse's body is designed as a whole, interconnected system. That means movement, balance shifts, and physics in one area will affect other areas. Even emotion can influence the body and motion. So we have to design our piece as a whole, not as separated pieces. For this reason, we need to see the big picture and be able to see where we're "going" when we work on an area.

Helping us, we should always have reference material handy for the next step. We should have a goodly mental library born of lots of field study, too. It also takes practice, but it's learnable. So practice at this skill and it starts to become second nature…and absolutely indispensable! Eventually we’ll see the entire finished piece before we’ve even started!

Common Mistakes

Undoubtedly, we all make mistakes. But it’s our ability to identify these missteps through visualization techniques and refinement of our perception that helps us learn and hone our skills. So to that end, some common mistakes include:
  • Losing sight of the basic elements of the equine body and becoming overwhelmed or frustrated in the minutiae. Everything about the horse’s body can be simplified into familiar patterns we can perfect with practice and familiarity. This also means there’s nothing we cannot sculpt given it's framed in a way we can easily grasp, so don’t give up. Learn to deconstruct the subject into simple shapes and ideas, and work on those first before progressing to detail and definition.
  • Creating a confusing sculpture by jumbling up the peculiar qualities of the body. For example, soft looking bone, sheet metal-like flesh, incorrect associations, or inconsistent physics. Also don't invert the superficial and deep muscles. (Check out the blog post Common Artistic Errors in Realistic Equine Sculpture.)
  • Forgetting about the skeleton and consequently creating an unrealistic sculpture. Keep in mind that a skilled sculptor doesn’t just mimic what’s seen, but also what isn’t seen. We need to know topography and landmarks just as much as we need to know what shouldn't be there. And we need to know what's deep down just as much as what's on the top.
  • Loosing sight of the “big picture” and making mistakes in motion, physics, planes, placement, or proportion. (Check out the blog post, The Five Ps: The Foundation of Realistic Equine Sculpture.)
  • Incorrectly planing our sculpture which skews the entire piece away from realism. 
  • Forgetting about the 3D nature of the body, resulting in flattish musculature or flesh that appears “drawn in with furrows” by a sculpting tool rather than having a sense living, smoothy, organic mass, and bulk.
  • Not paying attention to the proper alignments and getting off-track.
  • Forgetting texture which results in an artificial looking sculpture.
  • Haphazard and arbitrary application of the needed information to sculpt a realistic equine. (Check out the blog post, DABPPRR: Equine Realism Easily Organized.)
  • Neglecting to refine our perception to ever-better degrees of precision. (For an in-depth discussion on our perception, refer to my blog series, What's Reality Between A Couple Of Friends...And A Bunny?)
Taking a Break

Truth be told, sometimes simply putting the sculpture away for awhile can refresh our Eye. We become accustomed to a piece while we work on it, often loosing objectivity and the ability to trouble-shoot while becoming “married to” those parts thought too precious to change, even when they're in error or detract from the design. A good sculptor is also a good editor! So if a particular sculpture is continually frustrating despite using these visualization techniques, simply put it out of sight for a while. It'll do wonders. 


These techniques are useful tools in our skill set, being our partners during any sculpting adventure. But we should also invent our own methods, tailored to our needs and sensibilities because each of us interpret and work differently, and so our visualization methods often become as unique as each of us.

And we shouldn't get so frustrated that we feel overwhelmed, inadequate, or deflated. We all have rough times and it's how we work through them that helps us grow and explore. Often times backtracking, re-measuring, and reconsidering will help us get back on track. And nothing should be "precious." If it needs changing, it needs changing. Take the time to get things just right, consistent to our best efforts at the time.

We should also remember when we get stuck it's usually because our methods or perception just hasn't caught up to our expectations. Take a breather. Work on other pieces. Often what we learn doing so comes back to inform our skills that would allow us to tackle that particular piece with more confidence. The point is to keep moving forwards. If we get stuck...don't stop...just change direction!

We have talents and abilities that we haven't tapped into yet. They just need a chance to come forth and bloom. And that's exciting! We shouldn't deny ourselves this opportunity to grow when things get tough! Keep at it, and practice, practice, practice! And above all, have fun!

"In the confrontation between the stream and the rock, the stream always wins; not through strength, but through persistence."
~ Anonymous

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