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.