Sculpture Foundations II: Equine Anatomy and Armature - Susie Benes

Air Dry Clay Sculpture Foundations II: Equine Anatomy and the Armature

This is a follow up to the first post on the subject of armatures for air dry clay.

In this article, we'll look at how I approach the anatomical aspects of my equine sculptures.

Modern unique clay horse sculpture for equestrians

Anatomy is a central concern in my sculptures

Anatomical Concerns - when it's just not right 

I often find that my dissatisfied with a sculpture relates to anatomy: the tail is not in the right spot, or the front legs are too far under. Something just doesn't look right.

I am not after conformational perfection, but as a rider and horse lover, honest anatomy is important in my work. If it is off by too much, I find it interferes with the visual impact of the sculpture.

 

Armature Anatomy - getting it right from the start

An armature locks in the proportions from the very beginning, and it can be difficult to measure them out beforehand because you're essentially building the sculpture from the inside out.

It is helpful to study the equine skeleton to understand how the bones come together and to help structure the armature accordingly.

 
An awesome equine anatomy reference for artists by Mikki Senkarik


The image above hangs in my studio for anatomy reference and I use it regularly. It is super helpful. Thank you Mikki.

Note: these are not hard and fast rules, and allowances have to be made for different breeds, how old the horse is, and what I am hoping to achieve with the sculpture. 

I use a caliper or reference stick (usually just a thin wooden dowel) cut down to the length of the head and then use it to measure the other parts such as legs and girth to ensure that the horse’s appearance is consistent throughout.

Sometimes I play with anatomical features, such as making a foals legs longer, to emphasise aspects and experiment with ideas.

Horse sketch by equine sculptor Susie Benes
Sketching ideas and colours helps you to develop an idea

Sketching

I don’t generally make complex 2D drawings before getting to work. I find that translating something that started off as 3D in my head into 2D and then back again a pain in ass. I do sketch ideas, but I do not like to tie myself down and usually let the sculpture "tell" me how it want's to develop.

Maquettes

Once I gather, physically and mentally, the reference materials I need (sometimes I use a picture to help with positioning of the joints and muscling), I start by making a maquette: a small study or 3D model of the larger sculpture. This method helps to define the final form, and provides a useful 3D reference when sculpting.

arabian foal horse sculpture by sculptor Susie Benes
An Arabian foal maquette in front of the larger sculpture armature


If I’m working on a small sculpture I generally skip this part, though sometimes I may make several versions of the same thing before I’m satisfied. When I was making the Foals Rush In series, I threw out a considerable number of foals before I was able to arrive at something I liked.

horse foal sculptures air dry clay and wire by Susie Benes
Some of the third batch of Foals Rush In sculptures

 

Bulking Out the Armature

After the armature has been built up, it can look funny, especially the head. I find myself stressing that the proportions are off. Many artists scale up in a very precise way, such as printing enlarged photos and then building an armature in front of them, but I like the creating process to flow organically, and to not get caught up in calculations. 

Horse sculpture Susie Benes
A sculpture being bulked out with aluminium foil and duct tape


Finally, I bulk out the sculpture, usually using aluminium foil, to keep the whole thing as light as possible. Adding too much armature material can cause problems once the clay is put on top. Sometimes it’s better to use more clay, which can easily be removed, rather than trying to cover an exposed armature.

 

Strong Armatures Make Strong Clay Sculptures

This is especially true for air dry clays, which require time to dry to achieve maximum strength. The payoff for all the work on the armature is a sculpture that is not only strong and anatomically truthful, but also wonderfully lightweight (as compared to a same-sized sculptures in traditional materials). 

This approach has allowed me to do things that might not be available in traditional media: such as wall mounting  very 3D sculptures like the one below, combining wire and clay such as Suspending Gravity II, or using fabrics like How I Learned the Posting Trot: Ginger.

Meditative foal horse wall sculpture by Susie Benes
"Meditative Foal" is a wall mounted sculpture about 1ft tall

 

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