Thursday, December 21, 2017

Heads Above The Rest!; Exploring The Science and Art Of The Equine Head for Sculpting: Part 14


Welcome back to this series examining the equine head from both an evolutionary, anatomical, and artistic perspective. Being a visual species, we naturally gravitate towards the heads of other creatures, and that makes getting the equine head right critically important for the appeal of our work. And as artists working in realism we also need an interdisciplinary understanding to create both accurately and meaningfully. 

So far we’ve delved into the evolution and anatomy of the equine head, so now let’s start exploring its artistic aspects. That’s because it’s not enough to simply know about the structure of the equine head—we also have to translate that into our media, too. And there’s a big difference between knowing and doing, and in few other art forms do we have to know and do so much. To that end then, let’s jump in!…


When it comes to the skull and flesh, each individual has variation to the blueprint, just like us. That means each of our sculpted heads should be different in cranial qualities and how the fleshy features manifest. Nonetheless, most of the equine skull is subcutaneous bone and palatable under the skin so the head owes most of its shape and size to the skull itself, providing plenty of landmarks to guide us as a result. This means the more life study we do, especially when we actually feel the horse’s head to “program" the structures into our hands, the more clarity we gain. So on the skull, the most ready landmarks to orient our sculpting are:
  • The tip and ridge of the masseteric ridge (teardrop bone).
  • The bony structures surrounding the eyes, especially the zygomatic arches.
  • The Salt Cellar.
  • The nasal bone (and its median groove).
  • The forehead (sometimes the temporal line, or the external frontal crest, can be felt on the forehead as well).
  • The poll.
  • The bars.
  • The caudal rim of the rami plus the mandible “button” underneath the zygomatics.
  • In the space between the jaw bars, at a point just in front of the jowls, we can feel the underside of the Basihyoid bone of the Hyoid Apparatus.
As for the teeth and gums, the front twelve incisors are easy to see if we lift the lips. The tushes are also easily seen from the side if inspecting a stallion or gelding. If we’re quick (and the horse is accommodating), we can even study the tooth surfaces of the incisors, too. The molars and possible Wolf’s Teeth are more difficult to see, so if we can observe a dental exam that uses a mouth speculum, it’s educational. Being so, we might even be able to catch a glimpse of the Palantal Drape, tongue, and the ridged hard palate.

The external aspects of the nostrils are easily palpated and observed. The front and back rims of the nostrils are evident as is the upper fold of the posterior rim over the anterior cartilage at the top "V" where the two rims meet. The tail of the comma cartilage can be palpated and sometimes seen as a subtle bump. The false nostril is abundantly clear when the horse flares his nostrils or snorts, too. The features on the muzzle can also be easily seen and felt from the lips to the chin to the whiskers (or just the whisker bumps if the whiskers have been shaved). The lips are easily seen and felt, and the corner of the mouth makes an important landmark. Likewise, his eye area can be gently felt from the eyelashes to the eyelids to the whisker bumps. The outer aspects of the ear flute, bulb, and its details are easily seen and palpated as well, even the twist and fold of the inner rim near the "V" where the two rims meet at the bottom.

Facial musculature can either appear as generalized, in moderate detail, or in crisp detail, or "dry," depending on the breed, individual, management, climate, level of exertion, or circumstance. "Dryness" can also be expressed in different locations of the head with other areas being more generalized—it all depends on the individual and circumstances. Yet because the skull is mostly palatable under the skin, nearly every fleshy facial feature is a landmark, depending on how crisply it’s expressed. Yet six fleshy features are stand-outs as useful, more consistent orienting landmarks:
  • Quadratus labii inferioris
  • Depressor labii inferioris
  • Levator labii sup. alæque nasi
  • Zygoamticus major
  • Buccinator
  • Masseter
These bony and fleshy landmarks help to guide our proportions, planing, and placements so we get things right. The equine head is very precisely constructed, so it's important to orient things properly for it to look right. Just one feature that's off can skew our entire head into error. This means it's important to continually check our work as we sculpt since things can go sideways rather quickly without constant vigilance. In particular, sculpting expression tends to cause us to lose sight of the head's technical structure so we need to pay special attention when we do so.

Key Proportions, Abstractions, and Alignments

Knowing how to measure the general dimensions and alignments of the equine head is necessary for an accurate result so here are some handy relationships we can apply. However, these are only basic, generalized guides, so think of them as templates from which to make comparisons to create variations. Indeed, different individuals, genders, ages, breeds, and species vary, adding diversity to our possibilities. But we all need a baseline, right? Condition and management play their role, too. For example, nutrition can influence the bony cranial development of youngsters. Always use good reference photos for this reason, and learn to see the anatomical structures underneath the skin. And make ready use of protractors, rulers, and proportional calipers—they’re our best friends when sculpting the head. 

In fact, breaking down the horse’s head into simple shapes can help us quite a bit. So with all that in mind, here are some useful general associations:
  • The length of the head in front of the eyes is elongated—the horse’s head is stretched forwards in front of the eye. Because of this, the typical equine head is usually divided into thirds: (1) from the base of the ear “V” to the front canthus of the eye then (2) from that point to mid-head then (3) from that point to the end of the muzzle. However, different breeds and individuals can vary. 
  • The depth of the skull from forehead to the bottom of the ramus is about 1/2 the length of the head, generally speaking. Some individuals or breeds may be more or less, and old horses are often less, especially through the bars, since their teeth have reached their terminal end.
  • The last molar lays almost right below the eye, about near the middle off the teardrop bone, while the first premolar lays about midway under the Buccinators.
  • The back of the jaw draws up to the zygomatic arches, aligning with its “button” underneath the zygomatics. 
  • The ear canal is aligned with the zygomatic arches and the orbit.
  • The "V" at the bottom of the ear usually protects parallel to the median to pass in front of the front canthi. However, different breeds or individuals can vary depending on brow width.
  • The alignment of the ear–eye–nostril (EENA) often forms a straight line. Notice that the teardrop bone and the mouth generally parallel the EENA, too. However, the EENA can vary between individuals, breeds, or species. 
  • The internal axis of the skull is what tends to dictate head shape. Specifically, the equine head can be categorized into three basic types: (1) the arched or sub–convex head, (2) the concave head, and (3) the straight head, with plenty of variations in between. What this means is that the axis of the head can be variable dependent on the individual, family, or breed, with a central axis being bent down, bent upwards, or straight, respectively speaking, beginning generally around the tip of the masseteric ridge. For example, many Iberian, Kladrubers, Lippizzans, or Draft breeds have an arched or sub–convex head in which the entire nasal portion of the skull drops downwards from the EENA, producing a distinctive “ram–head” appearance. In contrast, Arabians and some pony breeds may have a dished head in which the nasal portion is lifted slightly upwards from the EENA (though sometimes Arabians have a straight EENA but with a dished nasal bone and jibbah). In contrast, Morgans, Saddlebreds, stock breeds, and Thoroughbreds tend to have straight heads that more closely follow the straight line of the EENA. This means the shape of the head usually isn’t created by the shape of the nasal bone, but created deep inside the skull with its internal axis. This is why sculptures that merely change the nasal bone without attending to the head axis may look odd. For example, they can appear too “dolphin-like” if a dish was created by gouging down the nasal bone with the added dome of the forehead. Sometimes we also see the jaw bars suffering reduction as well, making the head appear fluted, “seahorse-like,” or pinched in the middle (and when the nostrils are flared, we have an odd trumpet–like shaped head). On the other hand, a head can be made to be too thick if made to be more convex by simply adding a curve to the existing nasal bone.  
  • From the front, we can form a "T" between the anterior canthi and the median line of the head. The same can be said for the tips of the teardrop bones, the nostrils (when symmetrically resting or flared), and the corners of the mouth (when symmetrically held). This helps us to maintain symmetry between the two sides of the face.
  • The anterior and posterior canthi of the eye are angled at an approximate 42˚– 44˚ angle to the EENA. However, different individuals or breeds may vary. 
  • The angle of the lower angle with the "button" of the zygomatic somewhat echoes this 42˚– 44˚ angle.
  • The orientation of the eye has two general planes. The first angles inwards at the bottom and outwards at the top. The second angles ever so slightly forwards towards the front canthus.
  • Seen from the top of the head, looking down on it, the eyes are angled about 33˚ to the median line of the head. However, some breeds or individuals have more of an angle or less of an angle.
  • When seen from the top or front, the basic shape of the head is like a kite with a taila diamond for the forehead and the tail for the nasal bone.
  • When seen from the front (nose on), the top rim of the eye protrudes a snidge farther out whereas the bottom rim of the eye dips a snidge farther in, causing the plane of the eye to angle inwards at the bottom.   
  • When seen from the front, the brows are usually the widest portion of the cranium, with the bulge of the eyes themselves usually the widest part of the head itself. However, in horses with narrower heads, their brows can be about as wide as the ear bulbs. Also the eyes of senior citizens can be more sunken due to reduction of the fat pad behind the orb. On the other hand, on some muscular stock breeds such as the Quarter Horse, the robust jaw muscles over the ramus may be the widest part of the head.
  • The chin usually ends somewhat near the back of the nostrils, or to varying degrees in front of it if he's relaxed or dozing.
  • The top branch of the “Y” vein flows from the front canthus of the eye to the front of the teardrop bone while the second branch flows towards the nostrils.
  • When seen from the front, the skull forms an elongated and inverted isosceles trapezoid due to the narrower mandible and broad brows.  
  • The muscles of the mouth and cheek form nested “Ws.” However, the Buccinators can be more like a solid wad of flesh or a slightly different configuration, too, depending on the individual so pay attention to this area and look for variations.
  • The nostril forms a “6” on the right side and a backwards “6” on the left side. 
  • The front rim of the Alar cartilage of the nostril forms a “C” when relaxed and more of an “L” when dilated. 
  • When seen from the front, the “V” at the top of the nostril, where the rims meet, is oriented more towards the median than the lower aspect of the back rim, which protrudes more outward. This puts the nostril on an inward slant towards the top, predominantly along the back rim. In contrast, the comma cartilages tend to orient more upright, often with an elegant inward curve in the middle. 
  • The top aspect of the zygomatic arches is like a "U" oriented towards the poll while the lower aspect is like a "Y" oriented towards the ears.
  • The zygomatics can exhibit some variety in how prominent and "cut" they are, so pay attention when looking for variation.
  • The bulbs of the ears and the brows of the eyes are about as broad as the wings of the Atlas bone.
  • The ears are set on the crown of the head, on the sides, seated into their bulla right behind the line of the rami, not perched on top.
  • The ears are positioned behind the jaw alignment and behind the zygomatic arches on either side of the crown, in front of the occipital crest and seated into the skull. The bulb being rounded and obvious, aligns with the EENA, and is rigid and firm. This alignment of the ear on the skull doesn’t really vary like the EENA because the seat of the ear is more an anatomical feature than a conformation one. 
  • From the front, the "V" at the bottom of the ear tends to sit on a plane parallel to t he median that runs in front or just inside the front canthi, depending on breed or individual variation.
  • The back of the jaw should flow up to the back to its “button” underneath the zygomatics; the "button" of the zygomatics sits right in front of the back line of the ramus.
  • From beneath, the jaw bars form an elongated triangle, widest at the rami to meet each other at the chin. They’re rounded, not sharply rimmed, and have an underline that represents the individual characteristics of the particular horse.
  • From the top, the nasal bone should be centered on the median line, and often has a subtle hourglass shape with rounded sides.
  • The upper lip can be thought of as a little box that twitches, pooks, tweaks, stretches, and wiggles, being actively mobile.
Other Artistic Considerations: Part 1

Now we come to more specific concepts dealing with artistic interpretation, these things being unique to our practice of art. That's to say, as realistic equine artists, we have to wrestle with things that can only happen in clay, those missteps we generate ourselves because of our blindspots and knowledge gaps. But we're going to split Artistic Considerations into different parts since the topic is such a big one. This way we can more fully discuss the issues without generating a blog post that goes on forever! So let's go!…

For starters, it’s important to understand that the concept of a “pure breed,” with fixed registrable bloodlines or closed stud books with fixed “points of type,” didn’t exist prior to the Victorian age. Specifically, this trend started with the Thoroughbred, the oldest known registry being the English Jockey Club formed in 1752 as a means to guarantee parentage to make racing fair. Then following in 1876 was the Percheron Horse Association of America. Indeed, the era of the “purebred” arose within this cultural background typified by class elitism and eugenics. The concept developed a prejudiced side, too, being steeped in Western European ideals of superiority in relation to other cultures, or even within its own class system. Quite literally, having a “purebred” horse instead of a common horse was akin to driving a Rolls Royce compared to a junker. And it was simply accepted that elite Western ideals of perfection were far superior to that of other cultures, and so all horses were evaluated with that prejudiced perception despite the unique gene pool, distinct function, rich history, or cultural backdrop that may have formed other breeds.

Also, previously, horses were classified in context to their job or as land races. That’s to say, horses were usually bred according to their use rather than their “pure” bloodline or points of type. Therefore, horses were usually classified as riding (including gaited), draft, stock, racing, carriage, etc. types. Or sometimes “Farmer Bob” simply bred a distinctive type for his own use. So because horses were bred for a specific purpose, there existed more realistic expectations of a phenotype. We buy certain automobiles to fit a specific need, don’t we? We don’t buy a sports car to use it like an SUV, and we don’t buy a sedan to use it as a utility truck. Well, horse breeding was approached in much the same way since the horse was predominantly a utilitarian animal.

When the engine replaced the horse, however, his role changed entirely. He found new value in sport, showing, and recreation. This threw open the door even wider for the concept of “pure breed” to flourish with its elite closed stud books, glamorized mythologies (many which often were fabricated), and distinctive “points of type,” a kind of brand identify for a breed as it vied for market dominance. In this way, the “purebred” became big business and as fixed “points of type” gained importance as a kind of breed advertising, such pressures began to override functional structure, making the equine blueprint vulnerable to exaggeration or faddish skews. Closed registry books also fixed the gene pool which not only jeopardized genetic diversity, but also forced a single phenotype once bred for a specific purpose to now be applied to multiple uses in order to prevail in a market that profited best from versatility. Truly, some breeds have become so changed that many lineages are unrecognizable from their foundation stock. In fact, the deterioration of foundation archetypes has become so troublesome in some breeds that “preservation breeding” has become a buzzword. But perhaps the most unfortunate by–product of this dynamic is the creation of “lawn ornaments,” those specimens so deformed by the intense selection for "points of type" that they're nonviable, as sometimes seen with the Arabian and Quarter Horse, for example. And one of the most common areas of nonviable traits entails in the head since it’s often strongly associated with breed identity. The result are heads that feature deformities and exaggerations of type that render the animal unable to function normally. Indeed, the rise of wheezing in the Arabian, for example, is a sad byproduct of the capricious selection for an ever–deeper dish, or "extreme head." On the other hand, fads can cause a breed's characteristic head to change in type altogether such as we see with the Saddlebred influence on Morgans, or the Arabian influence on American Iberians or Quarter Horses.

Yet this isn’t to say that all change is wrong. There’s an inherent responsibility in any domestic breeding program—it’s called “animal husbandry” for a reason. And one of the duties is to ensure the perpetuation of a gene pool into the future, and sometimes that requires a modification to phenotype to remain relevant in the market. What does all this mean for an artist? Well, put it all together and it means it’s smart not to take breed rhetoric or mythology at face value. Being familiar with a breed’s objective history and archetypes, especially before modern or faddish pressures, is a good balance for making informed decisions. We should also be skeptical of what wins in today’s halter arenas only because these classes are highly vulnerable to questionable priorities. Being so, it's smart to take what breeders, trainers, and judges claim with a grain of salt. Very often some are too "immersed" to be objective about biology, anatomy, biomechanics, and genetics. 

Above all, we need to remember the evolutionary biology of the equine head. It's a study of economy—every bit is there in a specific way for a biological reason. Being so, it has very little fudge–factor for our aesthetics or misinterpretations. With so little room for error then, cranial structure cannot be fudged—we need to be clear about its construction to get it right. That's because so much about the equine head is literal with so much being subcutaneous flesh and bone. So if we make a mistake somewhere, that will likely develop into a systemic problem that will skew everything else. Yet, at the same time, it's easy to get confused since so much is interlaced together, alternately becoming deep and superficial layers. It's also made up of all the fleshy components of the body: bone, cartilage, fat, tissue, muscle, tendon, ligament, fascia, and hide, all of which are specialized for the head itself, giving us an array of effects we have to mimic properly in a relative tight space. Plus, facial muscles come in multiple forms. For example, some are flat or strap–like while others have fleshy muscle bellies like the Buccinators while still others are in-between like the Masseter. And on a thin-skinned, “dry” face, much of the fleshy delineation is often readily seen, making precision even more important. So when recreating fascial musculature in clay, we need to pay attention to these qualities when considering the shape and thickness of particular bits to avoid creating a head that’s too bulky, puffy, bulbous, or meaty, or alternately too skinny or angular. What's more, we have to pay close attention to detail and texture since the tiny aspects and surface topography of the hide on the face is so varied, "morphable," and variable between individuals or breeds. The ears, muzzle, and nostril exhibit a high degree of motility and sensitivity, too, and the brows and lower lid are fleshy and expressive, especially so with the upper lid and brow. All of these features have peculiar placements and angles indicative of an equine, too, which we also have to get right. And we also have to consider expression! All this conspires then to make sculpting the equine head especially tricky. Indeed, it's a part of the body most often flubbed up in sculpture for good reason. So it's a good idea to do lots of research, artistic exercises, checks and balances with proportional tools, life study, and of actually touching the heads of many horses to program their features into our hands. 

Nevertheless, we do have those handy general visualization guides to help us. For example, when we understand that the ear, eye, and nostril are important fleshy landmarks that are skeletally oriented, that gives us better use of an EENA template. Another to remember is that the head is mostly subcutaneous bone on the dorsal and ventral aspect, and mostly subcutaneous, fleshy muscle along the sides. For this reason, we need to sculpt the bony parts convincingly as bone and the fleshy bits as flesh; otherwise our head won’t be as believable as it could be. For instance, the hourglass–shaped nasal bone should appear hard while the cheek’s Buccinators should appear fleshy. In contrast, the ears, nostrils, and lower nasal portion are made of cartilage and should appear appropriately "bendy." For example, ear flute itself is relatively thin, making the ear malleable and able to be bent and distorted easily. 

As for the ear, it's built as a delicately fluted “scoop." The inner rim is rounded and more deeply curvaceous whereas the outside rim is flatter and less curved. Of special note is the “V” where the two rims meet at the bottom since it has some interesting features. In particular, the bottom of the curvaceous inner rim, near the "V," has a curious fold, twist, and crease which change as the ear rotates, a detail often missed by artists. Instead, many artists simply make this area a normal straight rim by mistake. The ears have wrinkles, too, which are typically located where the pinea meets the skull when rotation folds the skin. For example, when pricked–forwards, wrinkles can be found between the pinea and the head along the median line whereas if they’re laid back, wrinkles can be found along the back of the bulb. The pinea also often has visible veins, notably along the back of the flute and around the ear bulb, which really lend a sense of thin skin and fine hair for sculptures depicting hot bloods or even to imply athletic effort. Sculpting clipped ears can also better showcase a sculpture of a halter horse, and so note the soft, delicate ridges inside the ears. On the other hand, fuzzy, unclipped ears can be a wonderful touch for drafters, ponies, feral horses, or for those horses shown in a natural state. Note that the ear hair is oriented inwards or forwards and not so much outwards, towards the rims. Also minor faults such as Lop Ears can add a bit of character to a piece meant to be eccentric. Likewise, ears with nicks, cuts, missing tips, etc. can imply an interesting backstory which can be effective for sculptures of feral horses, ranch horses, wild horses, or roughstock. In fact, certain breeds have specifically notched ears for identification such as the Icelandic Horse. Ear tags might also be a curious option, accurate for certain populations tagged for research. And because ears are a consummate tool for adding life to a sculpture, their expressive qualities go far to impart genuine equine character and narrative. For example, his ears can be pricked and drawn together more when tense or intently focused on something, or drooping in a floppy “V” and slid a bit further down the sides of his crown when he’s sleepy, relaxed, or dozing off. They can be floppy and wobbly in response to motion, too, such as we see on some gaited horses (especially gaited mules), or when he’s shaking himself.

Ear size and shape can also be a function of breed, gender, and age. For example, smaller, curvy ears are typical of an Arabian as is the pronounced curl of the Marwari. On the other hand, larger, longer ears are typical of a mare, and proportionally larger ears are common with foals. What’s more, some breeds actually require the ears to be a certain length such as the Shetland with ears that shouldn’t exceed 5” long (13cm). Also, the ears may also seem to be placed closer together on the crown on some breeds such as the ASB, Kathwari, Marwari and Akhal–Teke. This is usually caused by the narrower structure of the crown of such breeds as compared to the Arabian or Quarter Horse who have wider crowns. Nonetheless, pay special attention to any varying attributes of the ear since individual nuance plays a role.

As for relative head width, it's also a function of individual variation, breed, and even gender and age. For instance, Arabians tend to be quite broad across the brows whereas Iberians can be quite narrow. Likewise, foals can appear broad across the brows thanks largely to the contrast with their undeveloped, narrow lower faces whereas old horses can appear more narrow due to the atrophy of collagen and flesh. Stallion heads can appear broader due to their cranial muscular development whereas mares can seem more slender. Paying attention to head width is important since it plays such a big part in both the appeal and believable breed type of our sculptures. On top of everything, the equine profile can also exhibit a spectrum of undulating characteristics distinctive to each horse—each of our noses are different and so are those of horses! So we need to pay special attention to the horse’s profile to capture breed type and individuality. Again, all this presses the issue of studying heads from multiple angles and using references from multiple views. Honestly, the more angles and dimensions familiar to us, the better we are at "3D printing" it out in our clay and so the better we become at identifying errors to troubleshoot them.

Conclusion to Part 14

That may be a lot to chew on, but we're not done yet! In Part 15, we'll continue with these artistic ideas and guides. Approaching the equine head from both an anatomical and artistic point of view can be helpful since each is symbiotic when it comes to equine realism. Truly, it's not enough to know about anatomy, we also have to translate what we know accurately and skillfully into clay. So while these two different skill sets need to be developed on their own terms, we also need to marry them together through our interpretative techniques. And that takes its own special care.

On that note, it's smart to interpret the equine head from multiple points of view. For example, from conformation and breed type to functionality and viability to expression and soul to overall beauty and appeal. All these concepts are interdependent and interdisciplinary because the head is a holistic system. Therefore, understanding how each feature is structured and functions separately as well as within the overall system really helps to clarify matters. To that end, we'll explore more artistic considerations in Part 15. So until next time…learn to See the equine head from many points of view to get the whole picture!

“I obliged myself to explore where I might otherwise not have. And that’s what ‘mind-flexing’ is all about – making those brain-muscles work so that you feel empowered to pursue your own vision.” ~ Tony Smibert

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