Sunday, April 01, 2012

Horse Heads


Update July 2018: 
Horse Head origami sculptures like these have been shown at the BETA International Fair in Birmingham (for the equestrian crowd there), at the Chi Mei Museum in Taiwan, and in art exhibits at the Beit Meirov and the Hankin Design Galleries in the city of Holon, Israel. I am pleased for all the attention via Pinterest.

Enjoy the pictures! Horse lovers who wish to own the actual objects should contact me at  


This turns out to be a very popular sculpture, with an appeal to horse lovers everywhere, both inside and outside the origami world.

I'm often asked often how I came up with it. The answer is basically what you would expect. I have several ‘full horse’ models that I'm still tinkering with (have been since 1989....). On one,  the ears were unsatisfactory; so, in 2004 while out at a fast-food shop I did a blow-up-study focusing only on the head.  That left excess paper, which got folded out of the way in overlapping flaps.  The results—a little like barn or stable doors with the head peeking out—pleased me; and so, a New Model.  Recently (2011), prompted by a fan who was enthused by just this shape, I picked the  model up again and put much improved eyes & ears on it.
Now, the above is easy enough to say. But it also happens that during those seven years of gestation, the thinking in origami has progressed, and mine has along with it.

1. For instance: one of the obsessions now in origami design is the color change. Paper has two sides; if they each have a different solid color the folded model can have a single contrast of colors between them.  A lot of design effort is presently invested in putting the color changes exactly and only where it is right for an animal.  The pioneer of this sort of thinking is Neal Elias in the mid-20th century, whom I've written about before; its leading modern exponent is probably Quentin Trollip.

But I would like to ask an even more primitive question. Is the limit here really only one contrast, for a sheet that has two colors on each side?

Notice that when a paper surface is curved (conically or cylindrically), the light reflects off it as a graduated shadow, which alters the hue in an eye-catching way. Then there’s another kind of shadow, created by pockets that drink up the light: these increase the contrast right at the lip of the pocket. So it is possible to design a model that takes advantage also of these variations to a hue. For each initial color, instead of just its hue-as-flat, you have now also the hue-as-curved and the hue-as-pocket-shaded; so six hues in total, or 14 possible contrasts.

Look again at these Horse-Heads and count how many I have used.

2.  I’d been thinking about the role of the closed back in origami. What makes it preferable for an origami animal to have a smooth, unbroken layer of paper at its back—rather than a seam of folded layers which come together along the spine? Is that something about how we see an animal, or how we relate to an origami representation of one? I believe it was Yoshizawa who was first—as in so many other things—to notice this about origami animals; at any rate, many of his famous models take care to avoid the open backs used by many current designers (notably John Montroll), which are generally much easier to come up with.

Since the horse model I was studying had a closed back but still an ‘open head’, rather than a smooth surface across the ridge of its nose—this aesthetic fact was especially irksome for me, and I tried to deal with it in various ways.

Now, a join of layers along a central ridge, can usually be pulled apart to expose the smooth surface underneath. If this process is continued an ‘open back’ gives way eventually to a ‘closed back with folded ornaments alongside it’. How “eventually”? At what point does ‘open’ turn into ‘closed’? A series of experiments ensued.

The ‘exposed’ light-colored ridge of the Horse Head here, is one result. And my more recent work in Animal Heads takes even fuller advantage of these ideas.

2. Simplicity.  There are so many meanings of this term in origami.  The champion of one kind of simplicity is—again—Yoshizawa, in his iconic Butterfly (of course not all his models are exemplars of this quality). And there the term just means, that in a very few steps, you get a change of form, a metamorphosis from a simple square into the distinctive shape of Lepidoptera, with the parts all in the right place.  Nowadays there are much fancier Butterflies flittering about—Michael LaFosse’s, and a nice antennaed variation by Robert Lang—but none come close to Yoshizawa in Value for Money: results for the number and ease of moves involved.

How to bring this idea up to date?

My model is not nearly so simple, coming in at just under 20 moves.  But it is still simple for the striking results. The relatively minimal manipulation of the paper, is apparent in the smoothness of the resultant sculpture.

But I achieved the economy by a different method than Yoshizawa’s.  The number of steps were minimized by trying to have each accomplish several things at once.   The following won’t mean much to those who haven’t made this model (and I’ve taught it so far only to a few groups and individuals), but:

  • The same 2 folds that form the dip of the nose, also directly create the nostrils
  • Just one rabbit-ear makes both the (incipient) eyes and (the incipient) ears
  • The move that bends the head off the neck, narrows the ears too
  • There’s a ‘triple-ripple’ on the mane, but it’s actually made by adding a single crimp to what’s already there
  • The move to form the “stable doors” also creates the curve at the nape of the neck

and so on.

4.  Representation vs. Signaling. Technical folding, while we’re at it, strives for increasing accuracy via an increasing amount of detail.  This gets you the ‘wow effect’, but at the expense of the viewer not being able to follow the folds with his mind’s eye: a pretty big loss. And there are other costs. Here I wanted, in a relatively followable piece, to obtain the striking appearance not from fancy footwork and not from micro-representation, but from labor of a different kind: the labor of looking.  Look at an animal and see what about it makes it most striking, most distinctively itself,  most winsome to us, and capture that. A horse sticking its head out of a stall, almost asking to be stroked on the head—that is an animal signal, evolved among other things also in the relation that’s developed between equine and human. It is what works for us; it is designed to appeal.  If you pay attention to these "g-spots", you can get your wow without having to go technical at all.

5.  How a Paperfold is Read. Finally—this is a subject that Herman van Goubergen has made pretty much his own—some folds in a paper animal look like a head, others like eyes (sometimes when you don’t want them to), some like legs, etc. In short each bit stands for something else.  You are always reading the model as...,  seeing-it as....  --Can this be played with?

Of course the above description holds true no less for a bit of charcoal rubbed on paper or on a cave wall; or a bit of stone chipped this way or that. Art that represents has been with us at least 30,000 years.  But somehow with origami the whole subject seems to be getting brought up for discussion again; maybe because of the ease with which you can flip a fold or move it slightly and have its significance change; but I suspect also because of the speed with which the mind is willing to hover over a model and read and then differently reread the tiniest indications.

Here it is perfectly clear that the light part of the paper is supposed to be the white patch which a horse sometimes has on its forehead; continuing in the same light color it becomes the mane, then wraps around and becomes the pillar, or the doors of the ‘stall’ out of which the horse is poking its neck. You see that the sheet is continuous, and you know that you are reading the two ends of it differently, and yet this doesn’t in the least obstruct your enjoyment of the work. On the contrary!

Not quite an optical illusion, but maybe an optical teaser.

Known Influences / Nice Images

A classic--the Selene Horse (here and here)
Great shot of ponies  swimming and struggling to keep heads above water
Sculpture by Nic Fiddian Green, toiling out there in his studio in England
And in a more abstract and modernist vein--equally great--Deborah Butterfield

Exhibition History
This model has been displayed at the 2012 Beta International Fair (a Horse-themed trade show), in Birmingham, England, and at the Italian and Spanish origami conventions in 2011 and 2012. Versions are currently on display at the Jerusalem gallery that represents me.  If you're in Israel, please stop in at:

Rakia Gallery
18 Shlomzion Ha-Malka Street

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Equine Sculptural Origami


I'm writing this post on the occasion of the huge equestrian trade fair going on this week in Birmingham in the UK. A few Horse-Heads of mine are on display there, very much like these:

"Horse Heads", by Saadya, Feb 2012. Uncut sheets of Canson watercolor paper are pre-inked on one side and folded while wet.

These are origami sculptures: that is, they obey the rules of the new game of origami (start from a single sheet, and make your shape entirely by folding, without cutting), while trying to stay true also to requirements of traditional sculpture (an older game with a lot more rules...)

The display at the fair is meant to draw attention to a neat invention by Josephine Unsworth--about which, more below.


You visitors to the Birmingham Fair (and my regular readers too) might like to know that I am putting together a museum exhibition devoted entirely to horses and equestrian subjects. Besides my own things there will be work in it by some of the top origami designers in the world today. Origami is an entirely new medium for sculpture, with lots of potential for expressing an animal's personality, energy, soul --and a disarming magic that may be specially suited to the mysterious soul-bond we have with this particular beast. At any rate: it is unlikely you will have seen equine sculpture of this kind in person anywhere before.

This exhibit will travel, so if there's a museum or high-end gallery in your neighborhood that would be interested in hosting it, I'd be happy to hear from you. (The same goes for my regular readers and interested visitors around the world: drop me a line.)

"Origami Equestrians", by Saadya,1992. From a square sheet of contact paper + foil.  (Henkin Gallery of Design, Holon, Israel.)

A few years ago at the Tikotin Museum of Japanese Art (Haifa, Israel), I was privileged to be given the chance to assemble a large exhibit of artistic origami which had as a centerpiece this magnificent series of galloping horses, by the great Uruguayan origami artist Roman Diaz. This is the caliber of the work that I am aiming for now. Sculpture in origami, that can hold its own against anything done in any other medium, over the last 6,000 years.  Let those who think that "origami is just craft" go on with their chatter.

Roman Diaz (Uruguay), "Wild Horses". (Tikotin Museum of Japanese Art, Haifa, Israel.)

Finally--a word about my "sponsor" this week at the Birmingham BETA International fair, the optician Josephine Unsworth, who has a terrific, horse-sensitive invention she is launching there. It's a replacement for the blinders and nose-binds in use for centuries, that keeps a racehorse focused on the region in front of it (where it has stereoscopic vision) by making it peer through sort of goal posts positioned on the sides of its head. This lets the head and eye assume more natural positions, which means a less-stressed animal and in the end, a better racer. I really liked the concept-- a whole new way of considering what and how a horse sees, what makes its vision comfortable--and the thoroughness of the research that backed it up; which is why I joined forces with her. And the product that resulted is fresh, simple, well-thought-through: Just like good origami.

Wishing you a fun and prosperous fair

Saadya Sternberg.