Sunday, December 31, 2017

Heads Above The Rest!; Exploring The Science and Art Of The Equine Head for Sculpting: Part 15


Here we are again, back with more artistic considerations. There's a tremendous amount to weigh when we sculpt an equine head. It's not simply a matter of duplicating what we see! Nope! In reality, there's a whole slew of things we have to juggle if we hope to recreate both an accurate and accountable version. But accountable to what? To the equine, of course! This animal is so routinely objectified, we may no longer be aware of it anymore. What's more, these objectified ideals aren't always informed by his evolutionary biology. This suggests that we cannot shape his head any which way we like because there may be ethical obligations we need to consider. We need to remember that the equine head is the product of pure function with no consideration for our fickle ideas about beauty and perfection—yet look how perfectly beautiful function turned out to be!

But in relation to that, we have to regard the head from an artistic point of view, too—in equine realism, illusion informs fact and fact informs illusion. That's to say we use facts to create a convincing illusion of a real horse, and to do so we need the knowledge to shape our clay plus the practical skill to actually do it accurately. Our sculpting tool is only as effective as the knowledge that guides it—but just the same—our knowledge is only as useful as the tool that expresses it! Knowledge and technique—they may be different ways of looking at our subject but, nevertheless, both are needed for a convincing "breathing" illusion. This is why paying special attention to improve each independently and symbiotically really helps us grow artistically. So let's continue our artistic exploration, starting with the eyes!…

Other Artistic Considerations: Part 2

The eyes are often difficult to sculpt owing to their distinctive angles and orientation on the skull plus their fleshy features and potential for expression make a complicated feature even more so. The upper lid and brows are highly expressive by being drawn up to the forehead. While the lower lid is less mobile it can, nevertheless, still deepen its curve to appear more “doe–eyed,” "big–eyed," alert, “wide–eyed,” or gentle. Together then, the lids can open large and round with happy interest or be squinty with distaste or anger, or to shade the eye from the sun or wind. In turn, the bony zygomatics can be quite pronounced or more rounded and generalized, depending on individual variation or age. The brows can also be similarly more pronounced or less so often depending on individual variation. Sometimes the nature of the brows can be breed–specific, too. For example, the "toad eyes" on Exmoor ponies or the "snake eyes" on Tekes. What's more, the muscles of the forehead can become more defined or "pooch" based on his expression and mood, sometimes becoming more chiseled with concern or excitement. Those muscles may even be meatier by nature such as on stallions or many muscular stock breeds. However, keep in mind that the nature of the eye can vary a bit among individuals or breeds, so use good reference photos and do field study. 

As for the nostrils, they can be a bit fiddly to sculpt, too, owing to their mobility and fleshy nature. Honestly, what makes them so appealing is also what makes them so tricky! For instance, their high flexibility, of being able to expand greatly or change shape, or even orientation in relation to each other, can be a delicate balance of form, size, and angle. Yet we need to get them right since they add a lovely visual line to the end of the muzzle and instill a sense of living vitality. As for the front rim, which is cartilage, it’s rounded, strongly shaped, and bulbous, especially at the top where it meets the posterior rim at the “V.” When seen from the front, also note the network of wrinkles between the paired comma cartilages, wrinkles which often crisscross in a checkerboard pattern when relaxed or deeper upright ones when the nostrils are flared. And notice the delicate wrinkles often found around the lateral, back rim. When flared, these comma cartilages are pulled together more (seen from the front), narrowing the space between them and causing more pronounced wrinkling, crinkling, pock marking, and buckling. When pulled together this way, they can even lift up, causing a subtle ridge on the top of the muzzle, above about where they curve downward. More still, the outer rim, which is fleshy, can be rather thin and fine (often on hot bloods) or thicker and fleshier (often on warm or cold bloods). When flared, the false nostril can also billow upwards, creating an elevated flute with the top of the nasal bone and lifting the “V” upwards, above the surface of the muzzle. The true nostril also doesn’t always billow as an even puffed–up triangular flute, but also can as a series of complex curves, bulges, and depressions consistent with the overlaying fleshy connections. For this reason, it’s a mistake to sculpt a flared nostril as a solid, evenly–expanded triangular flute every time. Being highly pliable, too, nostrils can also markedly change shape and size, even able to be slightly twisted or lifted up on the end of the muzzle. Indeed, when we compare the nostrils between rest, expression, mobility, and dilation, we can see pronounced changes. Being so, nostril activity can be rather subtle and delicate or outright explosive and intense. Like when a horse “snorts and blows,” we can see how the nostril’s shape changes quite distinctively, or how a mere twitch, quiver, or dilation can make a big difference. That’s because horses don’t use their nostrils just to breath, but to communicate as well, or scent the air, clear the nasal passages, shut off the airway, or express their mood. And like the eyes, whiskers adorn the nostrils, and when shaved, leave their correlating fleshy whisker bumps that add essential details for sculpture. For all these reasons then, field study is very helpful since nostrils are so textured and variable.  

The muzzle can also be a complicated area to sculpt owing to its subtle curves, flexibility, and individual or breed variation. The nostrils form its anterior dorsal aspect, shaping the profile depending on their nature while the boxy upper lip adds a distinct blunted bulb at the end of the muzzle with the lower lip usually adding a rounded rim below it, and finally ending at the chin which can be of varying shapes and sizes depending on breed, individual variation, or age. For example, foal faces may have nearly nonexistent chins, having instead a larger, pouty lower lip. What’s more, since the muzzle is so flexible, mobile, and expressive, it's very quirky and changeable with circumstance or mood. For example, it might twitch or the lower lip might bob up and down, or might even become pendulous and droopy if he’s relaxed or dozing off. On the other hand, the muzzle can become tense, stiff, and pooched (often with a “pooky” upper lip) when he’s angry, anxious, excited, pugnacious, or stressed, and often with a pinched chin that can pooch and distort in nearly any direction. His muzzle might even be tweaky with mobile lips if he’s feeling goofy and silly. Muzzles also vary with breed such as the neat, dainty, "dry" muzzle of the Arabian compared to the boxier, blunter, meatier muzzle of the Quarter Horse to the larger, less defined fleshy muzzle of the Clydesdale. Muzzles also vary with each individual, lending plenty of options for our clay. Yet the one thing we should notice is its texture from its fleshy, elastic, warm–velvety–soft nature to the wrinkled, crinkled, folded, bumpy, buckled, pock marked, and whisker bump fleshy surface. The chin can even become crinkled and pock marked as it's tensed and pinched. Indeed, muzzles are irresistibly tempting to touch so we need to capture that in our clay to really set off our sculpture. Indeed, a common misstep is to sculpt the muzzle with little consideration for its texture, fleshiness, and variability.

As for the mouth, we should pay special attention to the structural relationships between the lips. The anterior portion of the top lip is blunt with a boxy, nearly prehensile portion, sometimes with a depression in the middle. It’s also often narrower in front than at the corners of the mouth where it’s often wider, in contrast to the lower lip which tends to be broader and squared at the front, rounded and bulbous, becoming narrower at the corners of the mouth, almost like being an inverse of the upper lip. However, this contrast is less pronounced or nonexistent in many horses, forming lips of more or less equal protrusion, so it all depends on the individual. Even so, the lower lip can lay below the end of the upper lip, or even protrude beyond it in a pout, something often found with foals, relaxed horses, or horses with particularly fleshy muzzles. As for those mouth corners, notice how the upper lip curves around and can slightly overlap the corner of the lower lip just a snidge at times? Also note that when the mouth is opened, the lower and upper lips aren’t abrupt sheets of flesh inside the mouth (like our mouths), but are folded inwards, particularly at the corners, creating inward flaps. Being so stretchy, the lips are also often wrinkled to varying degrees depending on the individual. Also notice the texture between the upper lip rim and the nostrils, on the sides of the head. That area can have all sorts of fun things to sculpt! Adding to it all, his lips are also very expressive, indicating his mood and emotional state, able to be loosened, slack, twitched, tensed, pinched, pooched, twisted, undulating, or stretched. The lips also serve as his “hand” to explore and investigate, often seen when he “mouths” objects, or when he grasps and gathers food into his mouth with great precision.

When considering his head, we also have to account for age since as the years go by, his head changes, too. For example, foal heads are distinctly different because they lack the cranial and muscular development of an adult. Remember, these are the heads of infants and equines definitely have neotenous characteristics. That means foal heads aren’t smaller or bonier versions of adult heads, but distinctly different due to these infant characteristics. As a result, their structures are rounder, softer, more generalized and less pronounced. And because they lack the distinct bony development of an adult, teardrop bones, nasal bones, zygomatics, and orbital development are less pronounced, appearing flatter, rounder, less distinct, more delicate, and softer. Think of less distinct angles and protrusions, and generalized “filled in” cranial structure. Indeed, few features on a foal head are abrupt, pronounced or harsh. The actual shape of the cranium is markedly different from an adult as well, often with foreheads that are softly broad, domed, and sometimes bulging, and are more rectangular from the side, with immature, underdeveloped mandibles (jaws and bars) and undeveloped jaw musculature. Remember they’re still drinking their mother’s milk and don’t need to do all that chewing just yet. From the front then, foal heads are more softly diamond–shaped than an adult’s more rectangular shape owing to the foals underdeveloped mandible and lower maxilla. And remember that foals don’t have adult teeth, but “milk teeth,” a detail necessary for a foal sculpture with an open mouth. On certain breeds, too, the convex or concave nature of the head axis will be present even at infancy, sometimes markedly so. Their cranial muscles also tend to be more generalized and less obvious, though there are always exceptions, most notably with Arabian or Teke foals who can have relatively “dry” heads even at a young age. Nonetheless, foal eyes tend to be proportionally larger, and located more towards the muzzle than in the adult, or rather, foal heads tend to be shorter between the eye and the nostril. The brows are also softer and less distinct. Similarly, when compared to the rest of the head, the ears are often proportionally bigger as well. Muzzles tend to be smaller, more dainty, and neater in comparison, too, owing to the immature milk teeth, with much less pronounced upper lips, and with delicate, little nostrils. Their lower lips also tend to be bigger, bulbous, and pouty in relation to their tiny pinched chins (sometimes chins can even be almost nonexistent). Foal muzzles often aren’t developed enough to produce those “inverted lips,” too. 

On the other hand, a senior citizen also has a distinct head. Specifically, all those big, deep–rooted teeth have been worn down to nubs, actually changing the shape of his head, so what was once a more wedge–shaped head has become somewhat more rectangular because there no longer exist those long tooth roots. What’s more, his incisors lengthen and angle outwards much more, becoming “long in the tooth,” changing the look of his muzzle as well. Collagen also begins to break down, causing his lower lip and chin to droop and his muzzle to appear softer and slacker, often becoming droopy. His lower lip will often hang loose as a result, a charming effect. Muscles can slacken, too, sometimes causing the musculature of his entire head to soften and become more generalized with bony aspects becoming more pronounced. For instance, the zygomatics often become more pronounced as does the Salt Cellar. However, sometimes his head will become “drier” as fat is lost, so it really depends on the individual and circumstance. Nonetheless, the post–orbital fat behind the eyes also usually atrophies, causing the eyes to sink in a bit (some people confuse this with a “pig eye”). In turn, this can cause his brows to become more pronounced as the eye sinks into the socket. His head overall, therefore, often appears more frail and weathered. He may also develop cataracts though they rarely cause complete blindness. However, they do cause an opaqueness in the eye, a detail for painters. White hairs will also proliferate around his temples, eyes, teardrop bone, and nostrils. In life, keeping weight on a senior citizen can be a real challenge for various reasons, but mostly because of his spent teeth. Those that do keep a good weight still basically have the changed head characteristics though perhaps not so extreme. However, those who don't often appear more bony and gaunt as the aging effects become amplified because, sadly, he’s essentially starving to death. We see this with seniors who aren’t properly managed with tooth care or feed, or with feral or wild horses left to their own devices. Nonetheless, all these changing features combine to give the senior citizen a distinct look, one important to capture for the authenticity of our sculpture.

Head structure can also vary with gender as secondary sex characteristics are present in the horse. For instance, a stallion's head appears “meatier” with a deeper jowl and more powerful jaw and temporal muscles plus usually smaller ears. On the other hand, a mare’s head is usually more feminine, being more rectangular in profile with softer, “drier” cranial musculature and shallower, less–muscled jowls and temporal area. Their ears are typically longer than that of a stallion, too. As for geldings, they’re a mixed bag since they usually sport a physical eccentricity that disqualified them from breeding. That means their heads represent a lack of testosterone that would soften a stallion’s head, and sometimes with some idiosyncrasy that helped to cull them from breeding.

Above all we should remember that each horse’s head is different just like our own so pay attention to field study and reference photos—a set of calipers and a protractor are useful tools here. A firm grasp of cranial anatomy is critical here as well to use as a template so we can spot the breed–based or individualistic variations. Now this isn’t to say that the structures are different—they’re all anatomically the same since they’re equines—but the uniqueness of each head can have some differences in how the cranial features and musculature manifest. So if we recreate the head the same way on every piece, we risk a formulaic trap. Instead, it's better to express each of our sculpted heads with fresh Eyes to avoid habitual interpretation that would diminish our ability to capture individuality.  


But it doesn't end there! Nope—we have another fundamental issue to consider: scale. Whatever size we're sculpting, scale is a fundamental component to our efforts—it's part and parcel to the very basis of our job in equine realism. Indeed, its influence is so strong that even one portion that's too big or too small will destroy our illusion instantly—it takes just one slip. For this reason, we need to attend to scale throughout every facet of our process and techniques from our visualization tricks to our sculpting techniques and even our actual tools. Truly, using a tool that's inherently out of scale will skew our work just as surely as anything else. Likewise, we need to religiously use our scaling techniques, scaled tools, and a good set of calipers regularly to stay on track because the very act of sculpting can cause scale to skew very quickly.

In addition, we can think of Proportion as a part of scale even though it's also its own topic. That's because Proportion must intrinsically be in scale to the size of the overall piece. Likewise, Placement is connected to scale as well, in that it entails how we shrink or expand the distance between each feature. In similar fashion, even Texture and Expression are connected to scale since we have to gauge how they reduce or increase in size dependent on the scale of our piece. For example, creating eye lids out of scale to the eye area will produced an unrealistic, sometimes caricatured look, especially if expression is pronounced.

In a very real sense then, we can deduce the observational skills and artistic abilities of an artist based almost entirely on their reproduction of proper scale throughout their piece. It's alarmingly easy to get off track, and often quickly and right under our noses. Being so, scale also demonstrates an artist's diligence and commitment since it requires constant vigilance.

As for errors, a common one is to sculpt eyes that are too big, sometimes to the point of "Jackie O sunglasses." In similar fashion, many times the orbs are too bulgy out of their sockets, creating a bubble–like effect. In response then, the brows and lids can be unnaturally enlarged or extreme to compensate, or the grooves between them are too broad, producing an overall eye area that's obviously out of scale. At times, nostrils can be far too big or too small, particularly when flared. Furthermore, chins are often too big, and mouths too short or too long. At times we'll also see the zygomatic arches sculpted too small or too big, typically with the "button" of the mandible out of alignment with them as a result. Similarly, we'll often find tear drop bones that are too big or too small which can throw off the look of the head immediately. Commonly, too, we'll find veining, moles, chestnuts, and other details like wrinkles, far out of scale, typically being too big. Texture can also be out of scale as we might see with inappropriately enlarged rippling, pock marks, or squiggles.

The Seven Fundamentals

Related to all this are seven basic qualities that lay the technical foundation for what we do in equine realism. These seven components are integral to everything we do, and if we get any one of them wrong, our work just won't be accurate. Each one is an artistic consideration regarding cranial anatomy (and by extension, anatomy in general), and so each helps us to get things right. These Seven Fundamentals are:
  1. Anatomy (to include Biomechanics)
  2. The Five Ps: Proportion, Placement, Planes, Precision, and Presence
  3. Alignments
  4. Scale
  5. Texture
  6. Detail
  7. Expression
When it comes to these Seven Fundamentals then, sculpted heads can exhibit some typical anatomical (and biomechanical) inaccuracies, especially given just how complicated this feature is to sculpt. Most often anatomical planes are incorrect or landmarks are misplaced or even nonexistent, distorting the head away from reality. Sometimes the head is unnaturally too wide, often on the top half of the head with the bottom half being much more narrow, creating a strange pinched, duck–like effect to the face. This error can often be associated with trying to capture certain points of breed type such as with Arabians or Quarter Horses. More rarely we'll see the opposite though it does happen often on a more subtle level. Often times we'll find the mouth opening at the chin rather than the entire jaw dropping from the joint behind the eye. Or even sometimes if the mouth is opened properly behind the eye, the line of the jaw doesn't match the lay of the bottom incisors, creating a broken jaw. Asymmetries are common as well between both sides of the face. Or the median line down the skull is crooked, bent, or misplaced, causing all the features to be skewed in relation to each other and also away from proper alignment to this disecting line. Ears are also often misplaced being either placed too close to the eye, too far away from it on the neck, or too high on the crown, "perched" on top rather than seated into the skull. 

When it comes to the Five Ps, Proportional errors are also common. For instance, we often see heads that are either too big or too small for the body (most commonly too big). Biomechanically, the head is at the end of the spine—a counterbalancing weight at the end of a long "noodle." Therefore, a head not in proper proportion to the rest of the body can be a functional liability, and if the sculpted disparity is large enoughwhich can easily happenit may even be unrealistic. This error is often a product of an artistic blindspot exacerbated by a flawed proportional measurement system, or neglecting to use calipers regularly. Jaw bars that are too thick can happen, too, or they can be set too close or too far apart from each other, creating a head that's too narrow or two wide altogether, or too wide on the bottom aspect, distorting the rest of the head. Often a forgotten feature of the head, the jaw bars definitely have a delicate balance to each other and to the rest of the head, and getting them right helps to form the proper scaffolding for a correct head. As for ears, we'll find some that are too small, but more often those that are too big in relation to the depicted species, gender, age, or breed type. For these reasons, it's smart to record our proportional measurements such as the head length and the "thirds" sections with our proportional calipers. That way we can quickly and accurately recheck our work as we go with a fixed measurement. Errors in Placement and Planes are common as well since it's easy to skew them, too, if we aren't checking them regularly. Precision is also an oftenforgotten aspect of sculpting the head which always needs careful attention. The anatomical aspects, surfaces, topography, textures, features, and expressions all depend on the precision of our hands and tools—the better the Precision, the better the result. Absolutely, a sloppy, careless, cursory, or imprecise hand will cause our illusion to collapse just as quickly as an anatomical flaw. For example, eye lids that are clumsily, imprecisely, or messily sculpted with "pills," tears, distortions, unevenness, and other oversights simply won't be convincing despite the accuracy of everything else, will they? A lack of Precision doesn't only cause anatomical errors in this way, but also artistic distractions that compromise the overall impact of our piece. Because of this Precision is often a defining factor of masterful work. 

Alignments pertain to the relative relationships facial features have with each other like the EENA and we've already discussed others in Part 14. Nonetheless, some common errors with Alignment are features that are misplaced or distorted. Again, asymmetries are a typical error here. For example, misshapen joints that don't have their topography properly lined up between the two sides or aligned properly on the tops of the bony shafts. And as for Scale, we've already discussed that here.

Now as for Texture, this refers to the nature of the surface topography of the hide insofar as little bumps, squiggles, wrinkles, ripples, pock marks, striations, and other little fleshy details that typify the hide, hair, and skin. Equines don't have a hyperpolished, smooth surface but are rich with all sorts of fleshy little things happening on his body surface, and this is where field study comes in handy by reestablishing what's so often stripped away during dissection. But this issue is often a feature of artistic style as long as we recognize this as a function of style rather than reality, it has some context. That said, errors can be found here as well, most often with being sculpted too harshly so that they lack the delicate fleshiness that so often typifies them. Or we find them to be regimented and so fail to convey the look of organic nature. Sometimes they don't blend into surrounding areas, making the effect look contrived. For instance, wrinkles that have an abrupt ending with the surround flesh rather than blending gradually into it. Scale is a common problem with Texture, too, often being far too big. We have to always remember that fleshy details are characteristically squishy, subtle, varied, and organic so our interpretations should reflect those qualities to maximize the effect.

Now for Detail, that pertains to all the additional minute fleshy tidbits like veins, moles, eyelashes, inner ear ridges, and other little touches that add believability to our piece. Detail is sometimes flawed by not being anatomically accurate, not reflecting the fleshy or bony nature it intends to mimic, being out of scale, or crudely sculpted. For example, veins that aren't bilaterally symmetrical, aren't patterned organically or realistically, are too big, or are carved–grooves rather than protruding squiggles. Another flaw are moles that are popped on rather than blended into the surface. Or moles with a cave in, like a collapsed souffle. Eyelashes are often out of Scale, not being the delicate wisps of hair they are in life. Detail also suffers from similar flaws as Texture does. 

And, lastly, we have Expression which entails gesture, emotion, "soul," and narrative as we discussed already in Part 13. It can be flawed by not matching the narrative of the piece, being expressed too strongly (like with overly extreme moving eye lids), or being inconsistent to both anatomy, coordination, or natural equine behavior. On the other hand, sometimes it's absent altogether, giving the sculpture a vacant, vapid look.

Altogether then, every aspect of our efforts, from the overarching idea to the most minute detail, should mesh together harmoniously so that no one element is a distraction. That's because if our eye is "stopped" in a way we didn't intend, the desired impact of our composition will be weakened. Truly, one wrong note can cause the entire piece to clank rather than sing.

Conclusion To Part 15

Artistically portraying the equine is pretty tough—we have a lot to juggle and our knowledge base needs to be uncommonly interdisciplinary, objective, and expansive. This is one of the reasons why honing keen observational skills is so important. Simply put, the better observers we are, the better our work becomes since we’ll simply perceive more to infuse more into our media. To help with this, simplifying the equine head into simple concepts at first to later refine is a proven technique for getting things right. In other words, start with the big ideas then move onto the little ones. For this, understanding some simple relationships between form and structure can guide us through the initial stages of the creative process, gifting us with greater confidence in our efforts.

Yet we also need to blow past rhetoric and convention to instead regard the subject from a more objective point of view. Yet, on the other hand, we cannot careen so much into technicality that we end up creating soulless, clinical representational art that fails to capture the spirit or narrative of this animal. So much about compelling realism is to also convey the inner experience of our subject. To this end, giving thought to these and other artistic considerations can guide us to a more authentic portrayal of this animal that also expresses his complex nature.

Deeper still, there's a lot of "energy" in the initial moments of building a sculpture, isn't there? Those first few stages where we block in the big ideas really seem to capture the personality and flow of the piece beautifully. So much "elemental spirit"! Now if we can keep that energy contained within our composition to the very finishing touches, we've accomplished a great piece of equine art. And one of the best ways we can preserve this defining "feel" of each piece is to have a firm grasp of the fundamental structure of our subject and how it all fits and works together. Pair this with fluency in EquiSpeak and we've got ourselves an invaluable tool box! Connecting all this together is our ability to abstract our subject's structure to snatch the "elemental life," the "essence of anima" to infuse into our clay. Again, we can do this best by working from the big ideas first then progressing to the little ideas. If we get distracted by minutiae too early, that energy is going to drain out and we'll be left with a piece of depleted "spirit," of a "flatness" that can only happen with overworking and undisciplined focus. So understand the hierarchy of sculptural creation when it comes to equine realism: Big ideas first! Always try to simplify structure into basic shapes first and focus on Proportion, Planes, and Placement. Only after that's been done can we best progress to refining and defining. Keep those Alignments consistent, and always keep Scale in mind with every tool stroke. Once all of this is done, that's when we can start to focus on Texture, Detail, and other fiddly bits, and all without sacrificing the emotional narrative we intend. We can do it when we have an effective approach and process! Anyway then, until next time…careen headfirst into discovery and exploration!

“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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