Tuesday, August 14, 2012

How to Make an Amazing Custom

Didn't think I'd make such a bold title for this, did ya?

Here's the basics: the creation of a high quality customized model horse starts before it even begins. Research, practice, and vision all have a hand in building a model that will make people go "Wow!" If this sounds like a lot of hard work... it is. It took me 10 years (and probably about 5 years of that was actually practice, all the while researching) until I felt I was "good." Notice I said "good" and not "great." Others may disagree (which I humbly thank), but a point I want to make is that there is *always* room for improvement.

This is an example of some of my earlier work... always room for improvement!

No Artist is perfect. There is always opportunity to grow and learn. never assume you are perfect, or worse, better than fellow artists. Everyone has their strengths and weaknesses. Never allow yourself to get too big of a head, nor should you constantly trash your own work. Every piece you make should just be another important chapter in your own library of experience.

This post will cover the advice I would give if someone was doing a custom that would have repositioning, a breed change, flaw or conformation fixes in an effort to live show or sell to someone with high standards.

Now that I've given the preliminary attitude and mindset, on to the important steps that one should take to create a beautiful custom.

Research and Credibility

This is the most important step of all. Before you even touch a model, be ready to look up everything about your goal breed, gender, position, and color. Research is a constant thing, most artists I know would never turn down a good reference photo of something especially clear, unique, or beautiful.

Cigar has been inspiration for many.

Getting the basics in ABCs (Anatomy, Biomechanics, and Conformation) is super important. I cannot stress this enough. Anytime you move a leg or neck, you are changing the angles and muscles involved in those angles. Learning how it really looks like and effects the whole body on a live horse will be crucial to how you can better "envision" the change on plastic. Reading books is especially handy for this.

This is my list of books that I personally suggest, I have linked them all from Amazon but if you can find them elsewhere, feel free to find the best deal! None of these are required, but they are all VERY handy and are in my personal library.

Anatomy, Biomechanics, and Conformation: this is the foundations of any model and these books come highly reccomended. I reference them often, especially when doing something new.

Breed Books: you really can't have too many of these, and honestly there are many books out there that cover many horse breeds, try and find one that is current.

Color and Genetics: While learning inheiritance is not required, it is helpful for determining if a color or color combination is possible.
  • Horse Color Explained Out of date as far as research on how certain genes work, but wonderful photos and still very handy. Kind of rare and out of print, contacting the author may do you good.
  • Equine Color Genetics, Third Edition Previous editions are worth picking up if you can't spring the cash for this latest edition, they just won't have as much current info on how some genes work)
  • Horses in Living Color Really, this is just a pretty picture book but definitely worth picking up if you can
  • Equine Tapestry: An Introduction to Colors and Patterns A new book by my good friend Lesli Kathman, and it's a fantastic, simple look at a basic overview of color in plain English. She's currently writing books that go more in depth about how color has shaped and been shaped by various breeds throughout their history. Equine Tapestry Volume I is the first of her 4 volume set which concentrates on Draft and Coaching/Carriage breeds (ponies will be next!). Also, I linked it from *her* site so that she receives more of the profits than if it was ordered through Amazon :)

Other Helpful, Fun, or Useful Books

One piece of advice I feel I must stress: study real, live, breathing, moving horses of all shapes and sizes in person at any opportunity you can from all angles. This is a common piece of advice but a damned good one. Being an artist that tries to recreate the real thing, this is the best thing you can do for yourself and your customs. If real horses are not available to you, gather reference photos and videos as much as you can. They aren't quite the same, but sure do help regardless.

Go on regular reference hunts: Google Image Search is your friend. Pick up books about various breeds, check out official breed registry websites, learn a little about equine color genetics. Knowing what each breed is known for, what isn't allowed, and what colors they can be go a long way in the credibility of your custom. If only you could see my files... (something like 20 gigs? *cough*)

Historical reference can also be handy: did you know Lippizans were once appaloosa?

Having a photo of a real horse in the same position, color, etc. is nice, but not required, unless it's a really rare thing. Part of our job is to convince fellow hobbyists that says, "Yes, this happens, here's my proof." A Tobiano Pinto Standardbred Pacer racing? Rare, but it happens. Not everyone can know every single thing about every single breed or discipline. If you want to do something that's truly unique, look it up, make sure it can happen, or else a judge isn't going to believe it.

I could go on and on about research and your own education but really there's no other way but actually going for it. Be open to every breed's standards and disciplines. Try not to let personal preference overrule your learning, even if it comes to questionable or abusive practices. It is popular opinion to avoid sculpting/depicting the truly damning aspects (Big Lick Walking horses, the bulging muscles of the Impressive-bred Quarter Horse, Rolkur in Dressage, etc.) but please do read up on them so you have an informed opinion. Whether you decide to do these is up to you.

What can this picture tell you?

I want to mention one last thing before I move on. The most valuable advice I have ever gotten was from my high school Art teacher, Mrs. Eyster. It was also the most simple: LOOK at your reference. Actually look at the details and try to actually replicate them. For the longest time I used to just take the general idea of a piece, process it through the ol' Cindy-matic Brain Filter, and it came out... similar, but definitely me, not what I was on the reference.

You don't need to get overly anal about it, but try and learn and "listen" to what the reference has to teach you. Did you know when the hind leg is cocked, the hip drops? Or how when the head and neck go down, the whole back/barrel raises up? Did you know you can lock a horse's whole hind leg in place by flexing only its fetlock? Does that red dun actually have leg barring? No? Oh wait, it does, it's just so faint! Oh look, the dapples of this grey are smaller in this area than in that one! That's the sort of thing to look out for.

Picking the Right Mold

Choosing a mold for your idea (or, sometimes in my case, "listening" to what a mold lends itself to be) is a big decision. You can't build a palatial mansion on a swamp. What mold you start with determines the very essence of your custom, determining it's proportions, size, and general feel. Unless you become very advanced and are using a mold strictly as an armature, or you cover it head to toe in epoxy, anywhere from 50% to 95% of that model's surface will be visible. Be happy with what you're starting with.

It's easiest to start with a mold that is similar to what you want the final result to be. Using a Thoroughbred to be a Quarter Horse may take some effort, but far easier than if you started with Draft horse.... ok, that's too obvious. Though I have seen a Thoroughbred be turned into a Belgian... but that is a true case of using a model as an armature.

Oh, the changes you will do...

The most popular or new molds don't necessarily mean they are correct. A lot of them are in that Breyer and Peter Stone are striving for competitive horses in their Original Finish form, but even they have flaws on almost every piece released. It is up to us as the customizing artist to fix these flaws so that they are competitive in the more demanding Custom division.

There are many ways people feel they can select these "more correct" molds. Some feel that certain sculpting artists are better than others. Some have certain attachments to a certain mold. Just because a mold is older doesn't mean it's not good enough to customize.

Ok... maybe some aren't...

As far as plastics go, I personally love the old Maureen Love Classics. I also like Sue Sifton, Sarah Rose, Brigitte Eberl, Kitty Cantrell, and some of Sommer Prosser's work and the latest generation of Stablemates. These, however, are *my* preferences. I like them because they are generally correct in their ABCs and some have a very fleshy, life-like style to them. ALL of them have their flaws that the artists tend to do every time, however. No piece is without flaw, and even after "fixing" them yourself.

As cut-throat as it sounds, some models just show or are better received than others. Sure, you could customize a Family Arabian Mare... but the Proud Arabian mare is just so much better accepted. After learning appropriate ABCs, some models are just riddled with flaws and other problems that either take too much effort to fix or can be better done with a different mold.

Practical Advice

Nothing can replace practice and trial and error. Time and effort are the true shapers of talent. This includes familiarizing yourself with your materials and tools, and doing what works best for you. Learn techniques from whoever will teach. Expand your horizons and try different epoxies, paints, and tools. Figure out what you like to work with and your customs will show it. That said, give each technique and materiel a chance: no one became an expert immediately.

That is the one thing to remember: no one started off being perfect or mind-blowingly amazing. Don't let the object of perfection intimidate or frustrate you as it did me. I took a 4 year break from touching anything because I just felt I couldn't get my customs smooth or correct enough. While one should strive for smooth, clean, correct pieces, keep in mind that live horses themselves sometimes have random bumps, divots, and white or black specks/hairs on them.

My first finished piece in years

Also, no one will look at your model as closely and as intimately as you have. You've seen this custom naked! The judge spends, on average, about 10-30 seconds looking at your model. That is just enough time to get the idea and check out anything particularly eye-catching, but not enough to see if you left a nubbly of paint goop in the off-side armpit. The overall impression of your model is what they are truly seeing. Make sure that what they see is how you see it as a glance, as an accomplishment to be proud of, and not as you see it under a magnifying glass where you see things that just aren't there anymore because you covered it with epoxy and paint 6 months ago.

Your Audience and Vision

One of the cardinal rules of art is to create what you want, not what someone else wants. For those who plan to sell their customs, this puts one in a bit of a dilemma. Maybe you'd like to make a horse in that awkward, downward stage of gallop, and you may even have a picture of a horse doing it. But it looks funny and doesn't show the horse in a graceful state. Same thing goes for funky hair, or maybe a funny curled lip. Being able to do any of these in a interesting and beautiful way is hard, especially in a 3-D environment.

A lot of this has to do with the previously mentioned practice and learning of new techniques. Being able to eye something and see if it looks pleasing to the eye as well as correct takes time and gut instinct. This is the talent that so many artists strive for, and not just model horse artists either. Flow, balance, and use of color or texture is something anyone in any art class will learn about, but it's actual application that separates the great artists from the good.

Crazy idea, fun result!

Coming up with creative ideas is something some people are just prone to do and can't be taught. But that's where learning all you can comes into play. The craziest idea can turn into the coolest custom just because you thought of it because you just happen to see it. One can start making connections that most just don't think about. Yeah, everyone's done a Peter Stone Standing Arabian into a National Show Horse or American Saddlebred, but how many people look at Weather Girl and think "Sliding Reiner?"

There comes a time when purposely putting flaws on a model (such as cow hocks, or a droopy lip, or even a superficial scar) is endearing and gives the piece character (because it truly reminds them of a real horse), but might not show well because, in real life, this would be a flaw. Niche buyers may gobble this up, or perhaps even certain judges will look past it and award it anyway "because it's cute." This is a risky move, but fun to do sometimes.

Slightly uneven legs in a jumper adds character and realism.

In short, most buyers are very well educated and know what looks right and wrong. Some have strong preferences for a particular breed, pose, discipline, etc. They LOVE something new, unique,or exciting. Don't try too hard though and I wouldn't suggest making several versions of the same thing. As I said, they like something unique. Whenever someone asks me to make a "copy" of something I've done before, I refuse.


That's all for now, as long as this post ended up being, I feel as if I could still go on about this topic. There has been lots of  drama, controversy, and opinions about what make a good custom, and it's so easy to see customs get ripped on. People need to understand that all artists start somewhere, and a lot of this I figured out for myself or had to learn from others. I highly suggest anyone to go to the workshops at Breyerfest, purchase how-to videos from various artists, join online forums like Model Horse Blab, or go to any local shows to see what's showing. Ask opinions, process them, but form your *own* opinion. Follow common sense and ABCs. And after you've learned a lot, don't be afraid to teach others. Without mutual education among our hobbyists, we'd all be in the dark ages.

Friends in the hobby are a great thing!