What Are They Thinking?

Characteristic facial expressions, postures, and movements are the key to an understanding of animal psychology and the soul of animal art.

Long observation

And how, we ask, does one succeed in observing all these points when everything happens so quickly? For answers, we can only say that practice and familiarity with what is likely to occur allow us to register, however imperfectly, the fleeting phases of the profound emotion we have just witnessed. I have dwelt at some length upon these mental and muscular reactions of a tiger under a given stimulus because they are typical of all the feline tribe, both large and small, and present a striking contrast to what occurs in the case of a horse, for example, under the same conditions.

This latter animal, a swift-running, grass-eating creature, must of necessity be built on very different lines from those of the flesh-eaters. Yet it can and does show anger, fright and kindred expressions whenever the necessity arises. Food, for an animal of this type, is easily procured and involves no struggle with a victim or another individual of its own species. Hence no powerful emotions are involved, no show of anger, no bodily contortions. Yet the horse on other occasions may exhibit tremendous and violent action. A stallion fighting with another male displays extreme ferocity as, rising on its hind legs, it strikes terrible blows with the fore feet or seizes its adversary with its powerful teeth, cutting, slashing and maiming a weaker or more timid antagonist. Mares on the other hand wheel and kick with their hind legs delivering a shower of well directed blows against a real or fancied enemy. Indeed a vicious horse, in its own way, is quite as formidable as the tiger itself, especially in captivity where its lack of fear of man counts heavily in its favor. Primarily, however, the horse is in all its actions far removed from the flesh-eaters and certainly in a wild state depends upon its superior speed and stamina to out-distance its enemies. Standing gracefully on its one-toed feet, long-legged, deep-chested and powerful, it is eminently fitted for a life in the open where speed and endurance count so much in the struggle for existence.

Rarely do we see animal reproductions that reveal a truly profound insight into the character of the creature represented. A survey of many contemporary works suggests that a too superficial knowledge of this fascinating branch of artistic expression has proved a distinct handicap to otherwise clever producers, and that a closer study of the living animal would be of great advantage to the profession as a whole.

Movement baffling

Animal painting is a difficult art, more particularly if one is serious minded and not just dabbling with no real aspirations in any particular line. The mere fact that, as a rule, our animal model is in more or less continuous motion in no wise lessens our problem, and the play of the muscles over the body skeleton as the creature moves to and fro is calculated to make a beginner decidedly head-weary before many hours have passed. The various and complicated motions of so familiar an animal as a horse when walking, running or jumping are full of a peculiar rhythm, but owing to the rapidity with which these movements are executed, they are certainly baffling to the untrained eye, whether we regard them as subjects for artistic rendering or as physiological material of a very interesting sort. Indeed, a day spent before a restless animal will probably send one back to the studio in a rather chastened and humble mood.

But don’t let us be discouraged at these first attempts, because after all we may be able to produce fairly good things from quiet models, landscapes, perhaps, still life or even human figures—objects which stay put as it were, and which do not get up and walk right out of the picture or curl up and go to sleep in a dark corner! Apparently it may all resolve itself into the fact that we are not sufficiently prepared to do the work which seemed so easy at the start, that it has proved to be far more difficult than was at first apparent and perhaps it behooves us to begin all over again and get at the subject in quite a different way.

Far more than in figure painting, therefore, it is necessary to know something of the anatomy of the creature you desire to portray, and you simply must acquaint yourself with the important points in its general physical make-up. But one must also have an insight into the psychology behind the animal’s actions because this psychology is the controlling element in its emotional responses.

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