Sunday, June 17, 2012

Mirrors and Mist

I’m not into Rap music, but Friends Forever by “Vitamin C” is one of my daughter’s favorite songs. So when I recognized the melody at a memorial service this weekend I checked with the musicians and was told that it was Johann Pachelbel’s Canon in D major. Not being a classical music aficionado I checked him out and found that he was a precursor to Bach, who developed a style involving multiple instruments playing different melodies; an almost geometric development of short musical statements. The musical term “Canon” is, according to Wikipedia, “a polyphonic device in which several voices play the same music, entering in sequence.” It is like a “round” (such as Row, Row, Row your Boat) in that different sections of the musical line fit together in harmony. If you watch the YouTube video you can see each of the 3 violins taking up the same musical passage from left to right.
Johann Pachelbel Canon in D Original Instruments from Voices of Music on Vimeo.

Watching the video reminded me of one of the more subtle tricks in the visual arts; the repetition or mirroring of a central shape in the surrounding picture field. The “Masterpiece” column in the Wall Street Journal, by Karen Wilken (Sat/Sun June 2-3, 2012, page C13) featuring Titian’s 1509 portrait of Gerolano Barbarigo noted the repetition technique: “From farther away, the portrait seems solemn and graphic, constructed with a few big, curved shapes against a neutral background.” The effect is not blatant as in some abstract graphic work, but is instead hidden behind a fa├žade of reality.

Robert Bateman is an artist who, besides being a great wildlife illustrator, is brilliant at playing with patterns. The Ghost of the North – Great Gray Owl shows a nearly colorless painting of an owl with the surrounding branches echoing the shape of the owl’s head and feathers. In the Golden-crowned Kinglet and Rhododendron the red cap of the Kinglet on the right is repeated expansively in the flowers on the left, creating a beautifully balanced composition.

Of course birds aren’t buildings, but there are occasionally opportunities to play the same game when illustrating architecture. Buildings are large, so repeating shapes have to happen in similarly large things… such a clouds. The clouds beyond this convention center mirror the wedge shape of the building itself.

Sometimes the surrounding parking, roads or landscape provide the needed shapes. The preliminary sketch of Terminal One at JFK airport includes the sweeping approach roads which mimic the flowing shape of the terminal behind.

Landscape is usually a contrast to the rectilinear nature of buildings, but if you explore the shadows of a building you might find an unexpected shape that can be repeated. The oil sketch below takes the curve of the building shadow at the top of the bluff and reproduces it twice in the hill side and the river bend below.

If the rendering focuses on a portion of a building you might find patterns in the design elements and the shadows that can be used as a theme. Below is a shadow study for the Tokyo International Forum, where a zigzag pattern is repeated in the overhanging volumes, the far escalator, and the foreground shadow.

When using computer rendering programs, pattern repetition becomes a matter of luck. Trying out a number of different view and light angles gives you a chance to stumble upon an abstract find such as the image below.

Once you get into the middle of the built environment you start to see repeating geometry everywhere. Whether it is a single building or a city, rectangles proliferate, squares are scattered across the viewing field along with a few triangles and circles here and there. Architects are natural pattern repeaters, and to paraphrase Shrek, “it’s getting them to stop repeating that’s the trick.”

So, to some extent the preceding notes are a waste – who needs to learn to sneak repeated shapes into a rendering when the architecture does it for you? This brings up the reverse problem in any illustration, how to keep your subject from getting lost in the context and background shapes of a picture. Illustrating a single building in an open landscape is like painting a portrait, the focus is obvious and doesn’t need any emphasis. When you are faced with a new building set in an urban context however, it is a different matter. Bateman created and solved this problem in his painting Galloping Herd – Giraffes.

Bateman’s use of dust raised by the running giraffes to separate the central giraffe from the rest of the herd can be applied to the urban context. Dust doesn’t typically obscure the atmosphere of large cities, but rain, snow or mist certainly does. The misty street scene is a favorite theatrical backdrop of mine. The sketch below shows a conceptual idea for a Broadway view. The subject building is shown with some detail, but the surrounding buildings are left as silhouettes.

When you are dealing with buildings which are standing close together in the urban fabric it can be disconcerting to see one building clearly detailed while the next is a silhouette. A dusk view can make a more believable image by spotlighting the subject building, while letting surrounding buildings take on the cool, flat colors of the evening. The pastel sketch below uses this technique to make a cool curtain of skyscrapers that  compliment the warmly lit hotel.

When you are trying to work out the focus of an urban scene it helps to do a few quick sketches to explore the possibilities. Below are a set of sketches for a modern glass curtainwall tower set among other tall buildings. You can see that none strongly separates the tower from the context, but some are more successful visually than others. And, as in love and war, being obvious is not always the best strategy.  It's all in the wrist balance.

Aerial views are especially problematic in that one building can get lost in the dense urban thicket. My default approach is to assume a cloudy day, and allow a “spotlight” of sun to fall on whatever I’m illustrating. This has the dual advantage of being realistic (everyone has seen the effect from an airplane), and being dramatic. The aerial below of Laclede’s Landing in St. Louis applies this technique to a waterfront development.

Of course whether you want to clarify or obfuscate is up to you. A commercial job will normally demand clarity and specificity. But, the further you get into the esoteric “artsy” world the more an unfocused approach will be tolerated. Indeed, at the height of the cultural pile you might find that reality disappears, and you will be left with a goldfish bowl of architectural dreams. Be sure to wave as they float by.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012


I occasionally toss a philosophical question at my practical daughter to get her to do some abstract thinking (a bad habit from my limited humanities training).  Yesterday I showed her Ode on a Grecian Urn by John Keats, and asked her whether she agreed with the famous final statement: "Beauty is truth, truth beauty”.  Being wise she said she did not know, and asked what I thought.  I, being a fool started to talk and analyze and tie myself in a knot.  Obviously I needed to clarify it in my mind before I opened my mouth.  As such… the following is an outline of my considered thoughts (or perhaps a rambling thicket of random thoughts).  This is a summary of personal research and opinion, so read on at your own risk.

First, in cold rational analysis, beauty is not truth, and truth is not beauty.  There is obviously overlap in certain areas of human thought and activity, but in general the examples where truth=beauty are minimal.  And, all of this is going on in our heads anyway, so… never mind.
At the other end of the ‘aphorism chart’ you have: “Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder.”  In other words beauty is entirely a matter of personal preference.  Yes, but how much individual choice do you have.  We don’t have wildly differing ideas of beauty, but we also don’t all love the same color or shape for instance (note that I’m a visual artist, and so will emphasize that area throughout the following).  We are a mix of freedom and conformity, and this border land is what follows.

Human Nature (based primarily on The Second Conquestof Earth by E.O. Wilson):   Brain wave analysis shows that humans prefer approximately 20% redundancy in abstract shapes.  We like a balance of the familiar and the unfamiliar.  We also prefer a balance between complexity and simplicity; we hate boredom, but don’t want to be bewildered.  Finally, we prefer images or views that provide a hierarchy of things to focus on; we dislike a blank world, but similarly hate a world with infinite points to focus on.

Human Nature (based primarily on The Blank Slateby Steven Pinker):   Meta-studies of human groups show that humans prefer open fields with scattered trees, similar to the savannah where early humans developed.  We like to see or be close to bodies of water.  And we prefer a panoramic view of our world.  Scientists who study these preferences suggest that they are “hard wired” via natural selection over thousands of years of human development.
In terms of physical beauty, humans prefers healthy looking things: symmetrical, uniform and conventional.  For instance most societies consider female beauty to include a 0.7 waist to hip ratio, although different cultures will favor thinner or fatter overall body types.

Cultural Variety (based on various sources):   Female beauty is the best documented area of cultural divergence.  For centuries foot binding was the way to get your daughter noticed (and married) to a rich and discerning man in China.  A woman’s elongated neck (produced by wearing metal rings) was the ticket to upper class marital bliss in old Burma.  A “full figured” woman is considered beautiful in Nigeria, while in California plastic surgeons seem to rearrange faces and figures to match the latest fad.
Internal cultural preferences are usually set by the ruling class, the elites and the taste makers in the media.  Up until the 19th century the western elites were fat and pale, reflecting their access to plenty of food and their freedom from hard outdoor labor.  The modern “leisure” society features thin tanned elites, reflecting their access to health clubs and Caribbean vacations (people who are fat and pale are now considered poor, ignorant rednecks in our tolerant worldview).  We are also swayed by dominant foreign countries.  In the 18th and early 19th centuries France was the dominant European power (England forged a colonial empire, but France dominated Europe).  French fashion, language (lingua franca), arts and science were mimicked by the elite of other European states, and eventually were spread around the world.  The 19th century saw the rise of the Anglo-sphere which established the universality of the English language and “anglo” culture.  Now nearly every potentate in the world is dressed like any state senator from Kansas.  We revel in the exotic third world “eco-vacation”, but the world is becoming an American strip mall.

Architecture and art have followed the path of cultural hegemony.  The Roman/Hellenistic style was fashionable in Renaissance Italy, but that gave way to the French Beaux Art movement in the 18th and 19th century.  A scattered rejection of tradition I’ll call “modernism” dominated the 20th century, bolstered by the hegemony of the United States following World War II.  Whatever comes next will be an outgrowth of what has gone before, influenced by whatever polity dominates the world at the time.
Just one other thing I have to add to the cultural discussion.  The “modern” art movement rejects historical precedent, but embraces, or rather, worships innovation.  This is due to the artistic tendency to mimic and symbolize whatever is central in their world; and science is central now.  The value of scientific exploration and innovation is unquestioned, but mimicry of something which is important does not guarantee beauty (or importance for that matter).  Is every new thing beautiful?  No.  Is every new thing interesting?  Yes, by definition.  In our worship of “the new” we have relegated beauty to a minor position behind the “fresh”, the “edgy” and the “transgressive”.  Perhaps this is a phase which will lead to unexpected beauty, just as any good artist has to go through failure to master their art.  We shall see.

So, have I made myself clear?  No?  My schizophrenic outline pits the free individual against the preprogrammed individual.  Which is it, freedom or programmed?  The answer unfortunately is Yes.  We humans are a mix of ant and angel: a rational Dr. Jekyll attached to a psychotic Mr. Hyde.  We analyze and rationalize our gut reactions, and mindlessly defend our scientific discoveries.   Analysis and rationality is something we have built our modern world upon, but for the human animal the aphorism may be more than enough to live by and easier to remember than the algorithm.  The reality is that “In the eyes of the beholder” explains most of human experience.  And perhaps Keats meant that in the end: “- that is all /Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know”.