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 façade 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.

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