Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Heads Above The Rest!; Exploring The Science and Art Of The Equine Head for Sculpting: Part 19


Hi there! Here we are again in this 20–part series exploring the equine head from anatomical, evolutionary, and artistic perspectives. We’ve covered a slew of ideas so far and have come full circle to biological matters, curious things to ponder about this magnificent animal. For instance, it may seem like overkill to have considered the equine head in such detail, but we should come to understand that every tiny feature is there in a specific configuration for a biological reason. Nothing is superfluous about the equine head, nothing is specious—everything is there for a critical purpose. So let’s wrap up this examination with some additional ideas to ponder…


Equidæ enjoyed a long run and developed into a diverse and numerous genus, a real stand–out in the grand scheme of evolution. Few families are as lushly populated as this one! Equidæ also enjoyed a relative goodly degree of plasticity and experimentation with diversity. For example, what were once considered different prehistoric species may actually have been natural variation within a single species much like how a Clydesdale and Arabian are both Equus caballus. That said, the modern horse has relatively little plasticity insofar as strong alterations to phenotype such as that of the dog since his structure is so specialized by his evolutionary biology. Indeed, there’s relatively little fudge–factor in his blueprint in order for him to remain viable. What's more, people like to use the horse for sport or recreation, and they're expensive to keep further dampening the profound extremes we see in the dog such as with the bulldog or pug. For example, the Miniature Horse is still built closer to a typical horse than a pomeranian is to a wolf.

Even so, no lineage is invincible when it comes to extinction. The fossil record tells the tale: Originally the Perissodactyla were the most plentiful and diverse hooved animals on the planet, filling a multitude of niches and exploding into a dizzying array of forms. Then the evolution of Artiodactyla boomed to replace the Perissodactyla as the dominant hooved animal. Even today the Artiodactyla are more plentiful than the Perissodactyla, with most wild equids rare today or facing extinction such as many asses, hemonids, many zebras, and the Takh. Ultimately, it’s believed that climate change, and perhaps also disease and human predation, drove Equidæ to extinction in North America, and nearly so in Eurasia. Today, only sixteen (or seventeen if we count the Takh as a separate species) of Perissodactyla exist: Equidæ (seven living species, all of which are believed to have diverged from a common ancestor about 4-5 million years ago), Rhinocerotidæ, (five living species), and Tapiridæ (four living species). Now compare that to the estimated 172 existing species of Artiodactyls! 

How poignant that of the multitudes of animals thought to be descended from Hyracotherium, so few have survived to the present day that Perissodactyla is considered to have one of the highest extinction rates among mammals. Truly, to think we almost lost the horse completely is a sobering reminder. In fact, the species was in such peril that, quite possibly, he might very well have gone extinct if not for domestication. Yet even in this respect, Equidæ is unique among domestic animals, not only having a long continuous evolutionary history before domestication, but also because Equus caballus was essentially pre–formed before domestication unlike most other domestic animals which became shaped by later breeding criteria. Not the horse, though—he came “as is” for the most part. Even today, he’s still very much basically the same as when he was first domesticated, relatively speaking. That’s to say, there’s a huge change between a wolf and a chihuahua, but not so much between modern Equus and those who were first domesticated. Indeed, the species can turn feral very quickly and successfully, still being so close to the wild. Yet the animal also has an unprecedented degree of genetic diversity for a domestic animal, something quite unusual, suggesting that domestication took place over a long time deriving from many herds over wide regional areas. This also suggests that the genus as a whole was relatively tameable and trainable, hallmarks of the species even today.

We also should remember that the equine is utterly unique in the animal kingdom. This is a large herbivore with a big sloshing gut who can run at high speed for long distances with uncommon agility and nimbleness. He's also intelligent, expressive, brave, friendly, and trainable, and is capable of trust and willingness. No other in the entire animal kingdom can come anywhere close to those combined traits and abilities. He's also very old! When we look at a horse, we're looking at a 55 million year old creature. And to think how this animal is so taken for granted in everyday life! There's so much to appreciate about this animal, so much to celebrate.

What Does It All Mean?

So what’s the point of all this for gosh sakes? Why discuss the head in such depth? Is all this backstory really that important for us to know? How is knowing any of this useful for actually sculpting a head? Is it really that relevant to art? 


His biological history gifts us with perspective, and perspective is the foundation of an informed creative philosophy. So the question really is—why would we need such perspective?

For many reasons, actually. For starters, this animal is deeply entrenched in domestication’s framework, bringing with it all the problematic ideas that come with it. As artists working within realism then, the influences of domestication are never far from our decisions. They’ll impact the saleability of our work, our reputations, and how well our work is regarded in direct, powerful ways. So if we’re unable to objectively weigh those influences, not only do we risk validating visuals that may run counter to our convictions, but we lose control of how we want to frame our work, of our Voice. Indeed, to accept arbitrary ideals of perfection is a risky proposition at best, especially when we don’t understand their biological context. Yet we have a unique opportunity—we can circumvent these distractions to portray our subject in deeper ways that celebrate his evolutionary past and “biologic.” Truly, only when we gain perspective do we become empowered, allowing us to defend our work from a biological basis. And, ultimately, being informed lets us delve deeper into our own artistic motivations, giving us introspective moments that renew our commitment to this noble creature. It becomes rewarding, too, to design our sculpted heads in ways that are confident and factually–based since we know we’re doing right by this animal, and that adds a deeper dimension to our creative experience. Speaking of which, only recently has science started unlocking objective, empirical data regarding this animal. As such, it’s alarming just how much conventional notions were alarmingly wrong, calling into question many of the ideals from years past to present day. Unless we have perspective then, we’re simply going to parrot these outmoded ideas and compromise the credibility of our work. 

The story of his head also reveals that the horse is far more than our own capricious whims, especially when it comes our art. As such, regarding his cranial blueprint as engineered by nature as nonnegotiable parameters is a smart tactic. The thing is, our notions about a head’s beauty may not actually synch with biological limitations and, therefore, don’t promote his well–being. Only being grounded in cranial biology teases out what’s harmful because without an evolutionary perspective, it’s alarmingly easy to be seduced by rhetoric which is pervasive and pressuring, especially when it comes to art. Ultimately then, perspective gives us the ability to finally accept that equine head structure isn’t a matter of our taste, but one first of function.

Perspective also deepens our appreciation for this amazing animal by illustrating just how unlikely is the horse. This implausible and archaic animal is a living relic from the ancient past, representing a direct line 55 million years old. Even more, he’s just one surviving remnant of Perissodactyla and the last living genus of a previously enormous and diverse lineage now gone. And this long journey could have ended quite differently—we have Equus today thanks purely to chance! He’s a living time capsule, a priceless treasure from the past, and we only have temporary guardianship of this animal far older and more complete than us.

That in mind, we also shouldn’t forget that evolution is an on–going process. Equus hopefully has countless millennia ahead of him, bringing into question many modern standards that appear to ignore biological reality, placing this precious Perissodactyla lineage in a precarious position. It’s exactly here where the greatest caveats lurk for artists since the equine head is too often targeted for “improvement” based on aesthetics or fashion. Yet the equine head is something produced by millions of years of environmental pressures, honed to a pinnacle of mechanical efficiency—and long before our mercurial notions of beauty came to be. So stepping back to view it from an evolutionary standpoint lets us see the entirely of his biological history in all its complex glory. Undeniably, the horse’s head is an ancient, unique prize from prehistory, singular in all the animal kingdom. Splendidly perfected by nature, it’s the epitome of biological grace and economy. It’s beautiful exactly the way it was produced by evolution—why mess with perfection? Our question then becomes whether or not we should advocate for his biologic or instead for prevailing fads? 

In turn, we should recognize that many breeds have a great deal of pressure to conform to an ideal of head type. Yet these ideals are often distorted by the typical human sentiment of “more is better,” of exaggeration as improvement, and only in art do these trends become unnaturally amplified. Sometimes, too, head type is influenced by off–type fashion such as Arabian–like heads on Quarter Horses or Iberians, or Saddlebred–like heads on Morgans. What do we want to validate in our work? That’s an important issue to ponder because it compels us to keep learning, questioning, and reevaluating. In fact, sculpting accurate, accountable heads encourages us to remain continual learners, to keep forging ahead with our proactive education, and that benefits the rest of our efforts in untold, unpredictable ways. When we grasp that we’re beholden to something bigger when we sculpt our heads, we also gain more humility and receptiveness, and that endows our efforts with more profundity.

Nonetheless, the answers to these issues are up to us. We cannot deny that if we weight biological function over aesthetics, or promote foundation archetypes we may be going against the grain, and that impacts how our work is received. Are we willing to accept that? Yet it can also be said we can be advocates for our subject, promoting those features that lend themselves to his wellbeing and functional authenticity of breed type. And in order to defend our work, biological and historical context gives us a rock to stand on, a means to more objectively justify our creative choices. This lends more authority to our work, and who can argue with that? As “keepers of the grail,” we can champion this animal against the continual onslaught of misinformation and mercurial fads, some of which are spurious and deleterious. We can speak for something that cannot defend itself, and speak in a language that’s clear and immune to that which is fickle, impulsive, or wayward. So what do we want to say with our work? It’s a question worth considering.

Conclusion To Part 19

Extinction is a part of life, integral to the system of natural experimentation and pruning of the great tree of life. And lucky for us, this genus has survived eons of circumstantial culling to become the exquisite example of bioengineering he is today. How fortunate we are to be able to celebrate this ancient creature!

Our work has several layers of meaning to us, and as we work we may perhaps discover more. And shouldn’t biological understanding be one of them? When we grasp the full importance of his biological history we can truly shape our clay in ways that pay homage to this wondrous creature, realistically and responsibly. More still, we gain insights to create with more technical accuracy, improving the realism of our work. Truly, knowing the whys of his structure means we’re even more motivated to get things right, and that spurs progress. Absolutely, part of being a good equine artist means being both good researchers and good learners, and part of that entails the whys of his anatomy. We can take nothing for granted. So until next time…come up to speed with his evolution for a deeper understanding of his course today!

“You evolve not by seeking to go elsewhere but by paying attention to, and embracing, what’s in front of you.” 
~ Anonymous

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