Thursday, March 1, 2018

Heads Above The Rest!; Exploring The Science and Art Of The Equine Head for Sculpting: Part 18


Welcome back to this exploration of the equine head, anatomically, biologically, and artistically! We’ve learned a lot since Part 1 and we’ve now moved onto the practical considerations of our job as realistic equine artists. Truly, we not only have to convey technical accuracy, but we have to translate all that artistically in a way that prevents us from making unique mistakes not present in the real thing. It should be noted then that evaluating a real horse is entirely different than evaluating a realistic sculpture of one. How so? Well, we can take anatomy totally for granted with the real thing, can’t we? By the very fact we're observing a living horse, for example, means we're already looking at an anatomically correct specimen, right? But the same cannot be said of art work. We can take nothing for granted in a sculpture. That's because, eing made by fallible human hands, errors—both technical and artistic—inevitably get infused into the clay. Subsequently, the artist has much more to consider in both the living subject, references, and their art. For this reason then, we simply need a more interdisciplinary knowledge base and skill set than most other equine professionals.

To this end, let’s discuss some troubleshooting ideas to help keep us on target. We'll inevitably make mistakes—it's just the nature of the beast—so attaining accuracy is more about correction than anything else. Yet this means we must perceive a problem in the first place, and that’s hard to do when immersed in our aesthetics and blindspots. Consequently then, our check n’ balance techniques become our most valuable assets by more objectively guiding us through a sculpture. So to this end, let’s consider some…


As sculptors of equine realism, we must accept one inescapable truth: Only nature can create an accurate horse. What that means is this—despite all our best attempts, our work will always have technical errors because we’re human, we’re fallible. And that’s okay. Truth be told, that prospect gives us a carrot to chase, and that helps to give meaning to our efforts. Indeed, to tease out our blind spots means we have to peel away more and more of our pretenses and conceits, coming ever closer to a state of humility and insight that lets in more objectivity into our Sight. We cannot achieve maximum realism with an ego—they are mutually exclusive. What does that mean? It means the more we strip away what we insist on seeing—by shedding our ego, or what we think we know—the more we actually See. For more ideas on this issue, refer to my blog series What’s Reality Between A Couple Of Friends...And A Bunny?

For this reason, one of the best skills we can develop is an ability to effectively troubleshoot, especially when it comes to weeding out our blind spots. Absolutely, being able to identify to then fix a problem serves us well since no artist sculpts perfection the first time around—everything needs a bit of tweaking! The good news here is though—whatever we create, we can recreate, again and again until it’s as right as we can muster at that moment. Nothing is permanent and nothing is “too precious” not to change.

So the first step is to log hours of life study that entail actually touching the animal. Running our hands over his body can do much to clarify structures and program them into our hands. Indeed, long hours of grooming many horses is probably one of the best things we can do for our education. We also need to amass a goodly library of quality reference photos. In particular, references should depict the same or similar positions, gestures, or postures from multiple angles so we can “3D print” our sculpture more accurately. That means only using one or two images for inspiration isn’t enough—we need dozens, and we need to know how to decipher and translate them into our clay accurately. Undeniably, it’s one thing to look at something and something quite another to actually duplicate it in clay. To help us with all this then, we also need a proportional measurement system that’s accurate and adaptable along with a pair of calipers to apply that system. It’s also a good idea to sketch heads along with other artistic exercises to help program these structures, expressions, proportions, and alignments into our brains.

Nevertheless, expect to go off–track throughout the sculpting process—it’s just inevitable. That means the real trick to sculpting realistic work is developing the ability to identify errors in the first place so we can correct our work as we go. This means that each sculpture presents us with an opportunity to ferret out our blind spots and get one step closer to more accurate realism. In kind with this is also developing the ability to actually make those corrections—similarly, it’s one thing to identify an error and quite another to actually correct it. There’s a huge difference between Seeing and Doing. Complicating things, the equine body is holistic—no part works in isolation so an error can be systemic and not spot–specific. For instance, misplacing the ear can throw off the placement of our nostrils or mouth, or an asymmetry of the right eye will throw off bilateral symmetry. For these reasons, we need to constantly recheck our alignments, proportions, and reference photos, and from all angles, not just from the side or front. So we should become accustomed to turning our sculpted heads over and over as a means to inspect it from multiple angles.

But it’s useful to know where to start, too. Different alignments, proportions, and associations have a sort of hierarchy, a way of stacking on each other to build on the one previous. If we can start with the most basic correlations first then, we can work our way through the others and, in this way, checklist our way through just about any problem. Before we start though, we should realize that the head is a strange part of the equine to sculpt. Since so much of it is subcutaneous, it’s both the easiest part to get right, owning to its many landmarks, and the easiest part to get wrong, it being so complicated in structure. If we’re going to see artistic stylization or errors then, we’ll often see it most profoundly in the head. Because of this, it’s best to focus on the big ideas first then progress to finer details later rather than the other way around or all at once. We also need to keep rechecking our work to make sure those landmarks and structures align. Only when we get enough experience under our belt would we be able to do more simultaneously, so start with baby steps at first. 

That said then, if our head looks odd, we can approach troubleshooting in this order:
  • Check the width of the head and crown—are they too narrow or wide? Also check the space between the jaw bars—could an imaginary clenched fist fit between them? And is the width between the jowls harmonious with the width of the cheeks or divergent?
  • From above, is our head properly tapered being wider between the jaws and widest at the brows?
  • Check proportion. Is the head the proper size for the body from the side and from the front? Are cranial and fleshy features in proper proportional relationship with each other? Is the head sectioned into thirds, or consistently to our reference photos?
  • Consider scale—is everything in scale to the size of the piece and to each other? We should understand that the smaller the scale, the harder it becomes to sculpt a good head because as scale shrinks, the more important becomes precision and proportion. And as the size shrinks, the size of the sculpting tools becomes more of an issue as well. Both of these reasons is why the head is often too big or clumsily sculpted on miniature scales, something avoided with extra care and special micro tools. It cannot be over–emphasized how important scale is to realism. To sculpt any one aspect out of scale is a technical error just like a knee bending the wrong way.
  • Identify and trace the skull in our sculpture in a photo, a handy trick the refreshes our memory of key landmarks. If possible, trace the skull on reference photos, too, using the landmarks as guides. Sometimes this can really help clarify the head, especially if it’s a type unfamiliar to us or a head with lots of eccentricities. This can be especially helpful when sculpting Arabians, Kladrubers, or Iberians, too, since their concave and convex heads are prone to becoming stylized in sculpture. 
  • Check to see if features are “seated” into the skull properly. Are the ears set into their bullas and not perched on top of the head or too low on the sides of the head. Are the eyes placed into the orbits accurately? Are the nostrils nestled into the nasal notches?
  • Check for symmetry on the bilateral sides of the face, inspecting the head from multiple angles. Do key alignments, landmarks, and features correlate with their pair? 
  • Check the internal axis of the skull—does it match that of our reference photos?
  • Check placement, or where cranial features are situated as landmarks and key alignments. In doing so, recheck the EENA, this being such a basic alignment it often reveals the core problem. In fact, it’s a smart habit to recheck the EENA often. 
  • Check the alignment of the jaw with the zygomatic arches and ears since this arrangement organizes the placement of the mandible and so, by association, the tear drop bone from which we can build the lower part of the head. Also make sure the teardrop bone is aligned with the EENA since a tilted teardrop bone can distort the building of the head. Also check the alignment of the jaw as it can be shifted backwards or forwards, away from alignment with the zygomatics and ears, and that can skew the building of the head as well. 
  • Check the proportion, planes, and placement of the eye since so much of the head can be built around it. First then, check bilateral symmetry. Then check placement against the EENA, double–checking its alignment and set with the last molar to avoid placing the eye too low (towards the nostrils or jaw) or too high (towards the ears or the forehead), too forwards (towards the forehead) or too downwards (towards the jaw). Remember that a typical horse's head is divided into thirds. Then check its angles and planes, making sure the eyes lay on the sides of the head and aren’t angled forwards like a dog, but angled in just enough to be correct for an equine, about 33˚ with the median. They also shouldn’t be oriented flatly either, like a squid or fish, but with a top rim protruding a bit outwards and a lower rim dipping a bit inwards. Then check the canthi angulation against the EENA. After that, check its proportion and shape of the globe to make sure it isn’t too big or too small, or too buggy. Be careful to align the pupil relative between the canthi, ground, and head position, too, so things aren't tilted oddly. Check technique to make sure sculpted details like lids and wrinkles are neatly done and fleshy–looking, avoiding tears, pills, ridges, and grooves that are too wide, or other symptoms of flawed technique. Also confirm the eye doesn’t have Basset–like eye rims that sag from the orb, often due to using a tool that’s too wide to draw the line of the eye, but instead are tightly flush. Next, confirm the structure of the zygomatics with the set of the ears and the alignment of the jaw with the back of the eye. Also, from the front, are the arches angled towards the crown at the top and outwards at the bottom, opposite of the orbits? Does the “U” trial up to the forehead and does the “Y” direct itself towards the front of the ear? Does the back of the jaw align with the zygomatics at its “button”? When seen from all sides, it’s also important that the eyes be bilaterally symmetrical in their size, shape, orientation, and landmarks, so take extra care here.
  • Check the planes of the head—are the angles at which things plane correct for an equine head, for the breed, and for the individual we’re sculpting? Getting the planes right is painfully important since they essentially establish the “equine–ness” of the head itself, blocking in the facial features at their most basic level. Indeed, we can sculpt a piece almost entirely using planes alone to create a realistic sculpture—simply study the works of Herbert Haseltine for some good examples. And be sure to check planing not just from one angle, but from multiple angles. 
  • Make sure the lower line of the jaw flows and properly terminates at the imagined lower incisors. Many sculptures have a broken lower jaw because this line is broken.
  • Check the jaw musculature to make sure it isn’t too bulky as to be the widest part of the head. It should be flat and run down from the eyes, with the exception of heavily–muscled jowls of many Quarter Horses. Also be sure that there’s not too much bulk on the sides of the face under the nasal bone—this area is often quite narrow. 
  • Recheck the orientation of fleshy features. Also check to see if they’re too flat or too protruding—the equine head is a study of balance between pookey out bits and pookey in bits.
  • Recheck shapes—are features shaped properly? For example, does our sculpted nasal bone resemble an hour–glass, and not straight or triangular? Does it have curved edges along its border or harsh ridges? Are we sure its median line is subtle and not gouged in, and does it avoid going all the way down between the nostrils? Are the nostrils the correct shape and consistent to the exertion depicted in our sculpture? The jaw is often wrong, too, usually being distorted in shape. For example, it can be sculpted as a semicircle or oval, or sometimes too boxy, like a square. Instead, the jaw has a distinctive shape like a slightly skewed half–circle. Along with that, seen from the bottom, the jaw bars should form a triangle between the jaws and where they meet at the chin, and not be parallel. Are the jaw bars also rounded, or are they improperly knife–thin or squared off? 
  • Inspect the head to make sure the fleshy parts look fleshy and the bony parts look bony. Confusing the two can create an unconvincing result.
  • Recheck the head to make sure it lacks the common problems already discussed. We can work down that list like a checklist.
  • As for the muzzle, if it begins to look strange, first check the alignment of the nostril and mouth with the EENA. For instance, many times a muzzle can be thrown off–course by a mouth that’s misaligned or misplaced too high or too low. Then check its proportion, placement, and planes, and relative symmetry. And remember the axis of the head and whether it’s convex, concave, or straight when it comes to nostril placement. That’s because a convex head will have nostrils laying more midline to the EENA whereas a concave head will have nostrils seated more midline above it. Also check to make sure the nostrils aren’t seated too high towards the eye, or too low towards the tip of the face as though they’re “sliding off the end” of the muzzle. Or are they tilted upwards like a pig snout? Also check to make sure they’re consistent to breed type. For example, Arabians tend to have nostrils oriented more parallel to the EENA whereas Quarter Horses usually have nostrils more perpendicular to the EENA. And be sure the nostrils are functioning in concert with the level of activity depicted in the piece, or synchronized to the narrative or expression desired. And are they the correct shape? Also check if the nostril and chin are properly seated in relation to each other because a chin shifted too far forwards or backwards can distort the muzzle as well, or even indicate a Parrot Mouth or Undershot Jaw. Furthermore, check that the muzzle mimics the look of the flesh in this area, being elastic, soft, and fleshy rather than hard, polished, or smooth. Also consider the relationship between the upper and lower lips in their contrasting alignments or how they express the individuality of the head. Also confirm that the shapes are consistent such as the boxy and blunted upper lip and a rounded lower lip to avoid creating camel lips or human lips. From the front, make sure the muzzle isn’t too wide or too narrow either, and make sure the nostrils are set at the correct distance from each other as well. Are the flutes of the nostril flare indicative of the overlying musculature with their unique shape, depressions, and bulges, or are they incorrectly a solid, triangular flute? Are the flared nostrils too small or too big? Sometimes we can get a little carried away and sculpt nostrils that are too big to be accurate. And from the front, do the nostrils angle inwards at the median at the top and away from the median at the bottom rim? As for technique, are the rims of our nostrils rounded, even, and fleshy, or do they suffer from pilling, tears, knife–thin edges, ruffles, or unevenness? 
  • Now if we’ve sculpted an open mouth, it’s often a good idea to lay in the first four incisors first (top and bottom) then work outward, finally ending with the tushes. Also be sure the adjoining border between the first top and bottom incisors lays on the median plane of the skull so the rows are centered. Are the teeth the correct scale? What’s more, the incisors shouldn’t exhibit a problem with wear like a “smile” or “wave,” and shouldn’t be crooked, asymmetrical, uneven, or have other malocclusions. They also should be sculpted and detailed to match the age of our depicted sculpture, and be shaped like equine incisors and not like human ones. We also need to attend to the crown details as per shape and coloration because they’re important details that reflect the age, narrative, and well–being of our depicted subject. So that means we also need to recheck our teeth against an age and shape chart regularly to ensure accuracy.
  • When regarding the ears, placement is a primary issue since misalignments are common such as being skewed from the EENA, from the jaw line, seated too inwards towards the median, or out too far out, forcing the head to become unnaturally wide. They can also be perched too high on the crown with the bulb seated outside the plane of the skull when it should sit inside its bulla, or they can be set too far back towards the neck as well. Aside from placement, sculpted ears should also mimic the delicacy and curvaceous distinction of the real thing. They shouldn’t be misshapen or coarsely done as afterthoughts. We also need to make sure the ears are appropriate for the breed, age, and gender. They need those distinct anatomical details, too, such as that curious inner curve and fold of the inner rim near the “V.” Rims should be rounded and delicate, and wrinkles should be fleshy and neatly done.
  • Check the head against the other artistic errors detailed in Part 16 and make the necessary corrections.
Making it a habit to constantly recheck our heads in this manner helps to keep us on track. The point isn’t to just barrel through it then, but to take it in steps, paying special attention to the skull’s features. If we get the skull itself as correct as possible, chances are everything else will fall into place by having reliable landmarks. Also remember to keep facial muscular in scale and pay special attention to those aspects that pooch out and those that dip in because the equine head is very "3D" and not flatly muscled.

Conclusion To Part 18

Without a doubt, the ability to mediate our errors is as important as knowing what to infuse into our clay in the first place. So much can go awry, and so quickly and covertly, we should always be on our toes. Good work is as much about what isn't there as about what is, and it’s our measurement and rechecking techniques that steer us in the right direction.

Yet by the same token, we learn a lot from our errors, don't we? It could even be said that what we learn from them is more important. Without errors, much of our knowledge base would be superficial and stagnant since learning lends meaning to our efforts. Without a doubt, the journey exploring both our strengths and pesky points opens up avenues of discovery otherwise untapped. As such, forging ahead boldly and armed with a slew of troubleshooting techniques is the ticket. Timidity is a liability in equine realism because we won't stretch and test our boundaries, and if anything required boldness, it's sculpting this animal! So until next time…boldly go where you've never gone before and explore!

“For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.” 
~ Aristotle

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