Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Creativity: Blogs & Balance

I just listened to an interview of a journalist who began his career covering the freedom marches that were a part of the civil rights movement in the 1960's.  His anecdotes were fascinating, but as he talked about his work in the 40 years since then, I realized that he saw everything through a 1960's lens.  The world was black and white - not racially, but in terms of good and evil.  This made me wonder how much of our lives and worldview are set in our 20's never to be changed or even questioned.  The reporter was obviously smart and well educated, but he seemed to have lost his curiosity and creativity 45 years ago.  Or perhaps he had simply limited his curiosity and creativity to non-journalistic parts of his life.
This line of thought led me to consider the creative people I have known.  The pattern I see in my "artsy" friends is that they are very creative and adventurous in one part of their lives, but very settled and staid in other parts.  Several excellent artists I know have developed a "style" which is a constant in an otherwise scattered life.  Most architects have a style of design and drawing which is consistent, but is developed in a number of ways, like variations on a theme.  Imagine the bureaucrat that "swings" on the weekend, or the rock star who has a traditional home life.  It's all a balance.
I found the interview noted above on the internet.  And, since this blog and a large portion of the stuff I browse through each day is on the internet, this seems a good place to make an observation on creativity and blogs.  I remember reading a blog comment stating that "an essay was like a painting, but a blog was like a mosaic."  Now many blogs are simply electronic essays, but it is true that most have the granularity of a mosaic's field of different stones.  Each post is often a world of its own, but taken together, a blog of a hundred posts reveals a pattern that reflects the author's view of the world.  An essay perhaps starts with a worldview, while a blog ends with a worldview.  Or said another way, the essayist begins with a clear idea of the point he wants to make, while the blogger is daily groping around for an elusive theme which becomes more clear as the blog develops.

So, which approach is right?  Which is more useful?  It seems to me that it depends on what kind of world you are living in.  A world that is confidently coherent is an essay world, but a world that is redefining itself is a blog world.  And in the same vein, a person confident in their understanding of their world will tend to write in an essay-like way with arguments and bold statements.  A person trying to make sense of a new and uncomfortable situation will write in a scattered and questioning way, which will mature and develop over time.
And what about creativity?

I would say that creativity is more likely to develop in an uncomfortable, searching, blogger format, but will eventually be expressed in its highest form via the essay.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Aliens and Aphrodite

Two articles caught my eye recently. Both address the problem of design and beauty, which is central to my book.

Michael Mehaffy and Nikos A. Salingaros: The Architect Has No Clothes, in Guernica, an on-line magazine of art & politics, analyses the alienation of designers and the society that they serve...

Empire State Plaza, Albany, NY (wikimedia commons)

"Have you ever looked at a bizarre building design and wondered, “What were the architects thinking?” Have you looked at a supposedly “ecological” industrial-looking building, and questioned how it could be truly ecological? Or have you simply felt frustrated by a building that made you uncomfortable, or felt anger when a beautiful old building was razed and replaced with a contemporary eyesore? You might be forgiven for thinking “these architects must be blind!” New research shows that in a real sense, you might actually be right."

The authors go on to cite a number of studies that show that architects see the world differently than ordinary people (they call it 'Architectural Myopia'). To any second year architectural student this is obvious (and the parents of said student are seen as kindly but boorish). To any "ordinary" person who has dealt with an architect, it is equally obvious that said architect is interesting and perhaps brilliant, but has a curiously inhuman view of reality.

This is one of those times when "nurture", or the education of a person, makes a profound change that can overwhelm the natural human inclinations. It is also important to note that the most "out there" architects are below the age of 30. Older architects seem to settle back into a design attitude that takes into account the need for architecture to accommodate real people, while keeping an "architectural" sense.

The authors go on to date this Architectural Myopia to the early 1900's, driven by the industrial revolution and the breakdown of the traditional order. "Peter Behrens, the father of corporate branding, was given the challenge of developing the first architectural “branding” for the buildings of the German Electrical Equipment Firm AEG. He did so by using elementary industrial geometries, formed into a romantic and iconic expressive shape. The building itself was now a kind of billboard for the company—an attention-getting new product design in its own right. It was not a coincidence that three of his young colleagues went on to profoundly shape architecture in the 20th Century: Le Corbusier, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and Walter Gropius."

I am not sold on their solutions to this problem (community involvement, etc.), but the article certainly nails the problem. Read the whole thing.

Old New York State Capitol Building, Albany, NY (wikimedia Commons)

Beauty Now in the Eye of the Algorithm - New image recognition technology judges photographic aesthetics looks at a new computerized way of recognizing "beauty"...

"New technology from Xerox can sort photos not just by their content but also according to their aesthetic qualities, such as which portraits are close-in and well-lit, or which wildlife shots are least cluttered."

This lead paragraph covers the strengths and the limitations of such a program. "Close-in", "well-lit", and "uncluttered" are all good rules to follow in getting a pleasing image. And I'm sure that an algorithm can be created that covers a dozen other rules. This computerized system is especially useful in portraits, where the focus is on a familiar thing, but the "beauty" is in studying the variation in detail.

What is missing here is that humans are drawn to more then a set of rules. Once the rules are established and applied regularly, someone will do the exact opposite, just to stand out. Eventually lots of people will be "rebelling", and you will find a new "style" that is surrounded by its own rules. The new style gets established, new rebels go to work, and the cycle keeps going. The Style magazines of the New York Times are a constant reminder of this never ending rebirth.

As much as I like new technology, I doubt that computers will ever "settle" the definition of beauty. However, using new programs to explore the question sounds like fun.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Hard and Soft Shadows

Back when I was just a "kid with a dream" I met the preeminent architectural perspectivist, Steve Oles.  He was one of those rare people who are both a genius and a gentleman.  The gentleman was soft spoken and courteous,  with a barely noticeable southern accent.  The genius manifested itself as we walked through midtown Manhattan, and he pointed out the various effects of light in the city canyons.

One of his comments regarded the play of sharp and fuzzy shadows cast by the tall buildings and closer structures.  I had seen the shadows before, but I hadn't "seen" them.  And so, some examples and comments on hard and soft shadows...

This watercolor shows sunset light casting shadows on the wall.  Soft shadows on the right from the window opening, and sharp shadows from the lamp and chair.

The same effect shows up in this pastel of the New York Public Library.  The soft shadow is cast by the building across 5th Avenue.

The soft gradation on the Woolworth Building above, assumes a low sun catching the tower top only, producing a strong articulation in the sunlight, and a more subdued modeling in the cool shadows.

The typical Beaux-Art elevation, like the entrance above, assumes sharp shadows cast by the elements of the building itself.

This rendering of the same building shows a complex interplay of soft and hard shadows, and window reflections.  It is a very un Beaux-Art effect.

Although soft shadows occur most naturally (and usefully) in exterior renderings, a large interior space with glass roof can produce the same soft shadow, which can also be very useful in framing and composing a rendering.

Whereas the sunlit areas show soft and hard shadows, the areas like the parking lot above produce ambient light shadows below and between the cars.  These are the "occlusion shadows" that show up as pools of soft darkness between objects in ambient light situations.

These shadows occur all around you all the time.  Everyone expects them without realizing it consciously.  So use that expectation to rearrange your composition and refocus your rendering.

See also Natural Spotlights.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Using Dark and Light 1

Illness in the family is keeping me busy, so this will be quick.

I saw this photo in the Economist magazine.

It reminded me that I should throw out some examples that use dark and light to define an object.  You might think that a blue industrial building against a blue sky would yield a building that "melts" into the background.  It can, but does not have to.  The sky has an amazing amount of variation, even if it is cloudless.  Try taking a series of photographs of a clear blue sky, pointing in all directions including straight up.  When you compare the photos side by side, you will notice a lighter horizon area, and also a lightening toward the area near the sun.  This is not new or earthshaking, but is good to know if you are illustrating architecture.

So, if you are interested in making a building stand out you can simply reverse the grading of light to dark so as to make it contrast with the background.  Again, simple and obvious, but all too often overlooked.

This pastel shows the same trick, except that (being an aerial view) it uses the light sky and darkish city streets as the foil for the tower's reversing values.

This sketch of a proposed cottage in Maine (from Arthur Guptill's Sketching and Rendering in Pencil) shows that anything can be used for the defining contrast.  In this case the sunlit wall at the right is nicely shown off by the dark trees behind. while the dark roof works against the lighter sky.

This watercolor of cherries in a bowl illustrates the natural shadows that can define such a concave shape.

In portraiture the same rule is often applied.  A figure in side or three-quarter lighting will have a dark and a light side.  Playing this off of a graded mid-tone background can pop the subject out nicely.

A reflective glass building can have a lot of complex patterns happening, but it still needs to stand out in some way.  I decided to try a dusk view for this tower in China, creating a glowing facade at the base, and a dark on light contrast at the top.

This pencil drawing of a highrise proposal at Canary Wharf in London uses a reverse value trick that goes back 100 years and more.  Just because it is old doesn't mean that it isn't effective.

In architectural illustration reverse values work best with long structures like towers.  It can also be used with long, low facades.  In the Rainbow Bridge US Customs Inspection Building at Niagara Falls, the sunlit end on the left is placed against a dark rack of clouds, while the other end is dark on light.  This helps to break up the necessarily long building, giving the image more interest.  The rainbow was my own "over the top" idea which was not in any way the responsibility of the architect or client.

There are no limits to the variations you can try once you start playing one plane off another.  And the strong value structure leaves you open to color experiments.

Of course you don't have to paint gradients across the entire image.  You can darken or lighten at the edges where it counts, and let the viewer's imagination do the rest.  The slight shading above the reclining nude defines the shape crisply, while the parallel dark and light lines anchor the figure to the ground.

This barely touches on the subject, so I imagine I'll be back sometime.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Stability and Statues

Politicians are necessary - at least they have existed throughout human history, and have been a part of human progress.  A politician has to take 100's, 1000's, even millions of people, each with different interests and characteristics, and convince them to pursue a common goal, with the politician in charge.  Of course this can be done with violence and coercion, but it is best achieved with persuasion.  Democracy, where the people believe that they originally envisioned the common goal, and are merely handing the management of it to the politician, is the most effective system in that the people are entirely behind the idea and the politician.
On the other hand, following Penn Jillette's piece in the Wall Street Journal of Sept. 10, 2011, titled Who's the Real Illusionist?... I hope this is not too cynical.  Politicians are essentially full time magicians on the public stage.  they have to make a majority of "subjects" believe in, like, and vote for them.  That task is fairly easy in a small tribal group, but a polyglot mix of hundreds of millions of people is harder to crack, even with mass media.  And, note the "politicians" includes high level bureaucrats, union leaders, college presidents, non profit leaders, upper military officers, and any number of minor, over-credentialed, ambitious wannabee organizers.  The game appears to be 3 card monty, and the trick to master is the "lift shuffle", where the result seems random but is actually controlled.  The incentive for the politician to work hard to create the illusion is personal power (and resultant wealth).  The incentive for the public to believe the politician's illusion is stability, or the suppression of uncertainty.

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.  -from the Declaration of Independence
Bottom line... in a "free-market" political system (non coercive, multi-party, free-speech) the politician is a necessary "broker", in that he/she listens to voters and tries to find a middle ground amenable to the majority.  Yes, many pols in "safe" districts will be mindlessly partisan (there being no downside), but most pols live in fairly balanced districts (district voter registration doesn't tend to run higher than 60% for the majority party, and only 60-80% of eligible voters tend to be registered).  So when people say "all politicians are corrupt", or "they don't care what I think", they are saying what I used to think; but I was and they are wrong.  Corrupt and unresponsive pols need to be voted out of office, but the rest are at least necessary to a stable society, and the best are worthy of being put on a pedestal (after they are dead, of course).

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Camera Clipping

A recent Economist article called "Cameras get cleverer" reports on digital cameras that take multiple images at different exposures and then assembles the optimal pieces into a complete picture, assuring consistent light and detail throughout the final image.  This solves the photographic problem called "clipping".  If you have a digital camera you will occasionally take a photo where sections of your picture will look like they were cut out, or will flash on and off, indicating that the light is too strong or too weak for the sensors to record any detail.  Film cameras have the same problem, but simply give you an image where there is no detail, in spite of what you saw through the viewfinder.  This is why early photography of buildings was always done during an overcast day where sunlit surfaces were not too bright and shadows were not too dark.
The Economist called the resulting computer adjusted image (above) "preternaturally well lit".  I would call it creepy myself.  It saves the details, but loses the reality.
Artists have always wrestled with the same problem, but the adjustment was filtered through the eyes, mind and experience of the artist.  Areas in shadow were subtly detailed, while well lit but non-essential elements were abstracted or ignored.  The choice of emphasis made it Art (The Captives by N.C. Wyeth).
Architectural illustration tends toward the over-lit "preternatural" in too many cases.  Some things need emphasis and detailing, but much can and should be left to the imagination.
The above rendering of an astronaut's memorial gives considerable detailing to the semi-silhouetted memorial, but leaves most everything else an abstract suggestion.
The photo-montage of Broadway near Times Square shows the limits of even a good photograph.  The building details are limited and the lighting is glaring.
This rendering of the north end of Times Square gives the same atmosphere as the photo-montage, but eases the contrast and allows detail at the focus of the view.  The central building is handled in such a way that color and space are understandable without having to blacken the context.
The elimination of clipping comes naturally to anyone sketching.  The shadowed areas under the arch were nearly black in a photograph I took, but the concentric "dentils" were plane to see when sitting across the street. 
Of course the artist's job is not illuminating the shadows.  Sometimes you need to obfuscate to get your point across.  My older brother is brilliant and driven, but we don't always see "eye to eye".  My watercolor of him seems to sum it all nicely.

In art, as in any highly unusual, complex question, be eccentric, be indirect, and always more across the grain looking for the underlying pattern.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Frans Hals and the Computer

There is a show on Frans Hals at the Metropolitan Museum in NYC (open until Oct. 10).  He is known as an early practitioner of the "painterly" approach, where the "finish" of a painting is loose and lively.  As has been known for some time, he did not just toss off a portrait in one sitting, but instead worked up an image in layers in the traditional manner.  Once the portrait was nearly done he would "finish" it with a flourish that would bring a spontaneity and life to the portrait.
I've never been a great fan of Hals.  His compositions always seemed limited, and sometimes even awkward.  The painting Yonker Ramp and his Sweetheart is one of the few that I like from a compositional point of view.
It also demonstrates his sure eye for color, and his loose, gestural brushwork mixed with accurate representation of materials such as cloth, leather and lace.  The degree of fine detailing juxtaposed with gestural painting can be jarring in some of his paintings.

The Cavalier Soldier, above, shows quite a contrast between the masterful handling of skin and hair, and the almost anal attention to detail in the embroidered sleeve.  Perhaps this was a matter of satisfying a picky client - which brings me to my point.

The addition of gestural strokes to a carefully layered painting is one of the answers to the problem of computer rendering.- the problem of dull, literal detail.  Whatever you have built into a computer model will show up in the rendering, no matter haw inconsequential it is.  Many surfaces will render with the bland sameness that is mathematically correct, but is visually boring.  And any natural elements, like trees or people will lack the liveliness that is expected from living creatures.
The usual solution to this problem is to "loosen" the final rendering in some way.  You can process it through a graphic "filter" to make it emulate a pencil drawing or a gouache painting.  You can scribble the final print with pencil or pastel.  Ink rendering over a print is also possible.  The use of computer tablets has made this process more "forgiving" and variable then ever before.  The following are a series of detail examples with some explanatory notes.

Above is a rather rough print on watercolor paper with pastel scribbled on.

Here is a lobby at dusk, heavily overlayed with pastel.

And, another pastel loosening.  This time on plain matte inkjet printer paper.

In this case a rendering was filtered with "dry brush" in Photoshop, then was layered with the edges of the same rendering to create a hard dark edge.  And finally a print was heavily worked over with pastel.

This dusk street view was a simple print on plain paper, with freehand ink.

Above is the same ink over rendering, except it was done on a computer tablet.

This abstract was a rendered model, layered with a filtered black and white version, and finally painted with airbrushed ink.

This sepia building was rendered, adjusted in Photoshop, and then layered with ink lines on a computer tablet.

Above is a rendering with obvious "bit mapped" stone.  The resulting image had the snow drifting added in Photoshop.  Below is the same detail area "finished" in a painter program, and merged with the original rendering.  Note the softness and brush texture, along with the more realistic inconsistencies of the stonework.

The possibilities are endless, and the problem has yet to be "solved".  The client will always want detail, and the illustrator will always have to balance that against the artistic needs.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Knowing when to Quit (sometimes & someplaces)

Some of the most interesting pieces of art are the ones that fall into your lap.  When you are painting or sketching and you get an effect that is arresting; half real and half abstract.  Like the watercolor portrait above, interrupted after a couple of washes.

Or this nude, which seemed to work without going into any serious detail.

Or this elevation with some simple shadow casting.

Of course you don't always feel like just stopping.  But if you have a little confidence and experience you can quit on certain areas, and continue on in others.  The above washes already have an interesting feel, but I wanted to get into some Ultramarine Blue to balance the warmth.

Even at this point I wanted to add higher contrast and detail, so I moved on, but limited the work to the broken pediment area.

There is a magic in seeing the concrete reality of the sculptural ornamentation, while seeing areas of stained paper.  It is an effect that I strive for, but it will never be at the level of masters like John Singer Sargent, as shown in his watercolor sketch below (called Bedouins).  In this detail the brisk brushwork and brash colors sit side by side with what must have been careful modeling of the faces.  (image from Wikimedia)