Friday, July 27, 2012

Sky Perspective

At first glance this image looks like a rather boring aerial photo of western Kansas.  But the sky is queer, with rectangular clouds.   Actually, the sky is a chunk of land from Google Earth, desaturated, cooled and flipped.  It illustrates the similarity between land and sky in that each follows the rules of perspective, diminishing and flattening as field or cloud approach the horizon.

A one point perspective grid using a diagonal vanishing point can be the basis for any simple landscape view.  Not only clouds, but roads, rivers and ocean waves can be worked out over such a grid.  Actual scale is unnecessary in such a grid; just mark off a horizontal line, connect each mark to a central vanishing point, and a diagonal will mark the receding horizontals at the intersection points.

Of course the grid is simply a general framework to keep the image believable.  Clouds vary in size and shape.  They may be lined up in some orderly manner, or they may be scattered willy-nilly over the sky.  The ocean might have regular waves near the shore, but complex weather conditions can form chaotic waves in mid ocean. 

Undeveloped land is often a Jackson Pollack abstract of meadows, trees, lakes and rivers, which have only a passing acquaintance with a perspective grid; but the grid still rules in perspective.  The balance between rules and free expression is the foundation of our perception of reality, and is also the basis of realistic art.

If you are dealing with natural land and sky forms a strict grid is a waste of time.  The rough perspective that gives any landscape painting a sense of reality can be expressed with simple sketched lines.  The serpentine mirrored lines above suggest a vista without any detail or effort.

A seascape such as the sketch above is essentially a cloud study.  Many artists have sketched clouds, and I long ago promised myself that I would dedicate my retirement years to the subject.  I imagine that the release from hard geometry and finicky detailing will be a return to childhood.

H. F. Farney, an artist of the American Indian, captured the horizontals and acute diagonals of the plains landscape in his Toilers of the Plains.  Note that his clouds compliment and mirror the low sweep of the landscape; a landscape that was quite familiar to me from my early years in the Midwest.

Canaletto is famous for his views of Venice, but it is obvious that he studied the structure and moods of the sky.  The Church of La Salute shows the perspective of flattening clouds at the horizon, as well as towering cumulus and color gradation across the sky.  Canaletto tends to be ridiculously detailed, but also entirely believable and (appropriately for Venice) serene.

John Stobart is a contemporary marine artist and a favorite of mine.  Like Canaletto he creates a perfectly reasonable cloudscape which complements the subject in terms of color, composition and narrative.  His Entrance to the Chicago River Looking West in 1876 is one of innumerable examples of his skill.

This rendering of the Casa Italia at Columbia University gave me no latitude for creativity outside of the sky.  I may have been a bit buzzed when I drew the clouds, because they have a curious abstract relation to a music score.

My rendering of the new town of Celebration in Florida is more conventional in its handling of sky and clouds.  The most interesting aspect is the fading of the sky and clouds compared to the landscape and buildings, an effect that is typical for a sunny day with scattered clouds.  Closer clouds have a certain form and volume to them, while the distance renders them flat and eventually melts them into the haze.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Truth and Artistic License

A review of the truth, or lack of truth in architectural renderings.

Truth in Advertising...  We are always “spinning.”  Humans tend to exaggerate, massage and forget the past, and the same applies to the way we present ourselves and our work to others.  I once knew a couple who always acted insanely happy with their marriage, children, house, careers… everything.  I later learned that they had all the same trouble and disappointments as the rest of us; they simply “sold” it all as wonderful.  There have been few projects I have worked on that were strictly honest.  The preliminary sketch below was part of a legal presentation to prospective owners, and was truthful in all aspects from the brick color to the placement of streetlights to the typical angle of the afternoon sun.  It is hardly my favorite rendering, but accurate it is.

A typical honest lie is the use of axonometric drawings.  There are times, such as the long street shown below, when a street level perspective simply can’t show the entire space.  An axonometric drawing can present information but at the same time be completely unreal.

Similarly, if something is standing in between you and the object you want to see, an illustrator can eliminate it.  The preliminary sketch of my rendering of I MPei’s Louvre shows the underground architecture by dissolving the foreground plaza.  The glass pyramid is revealed to be a brilliant solution to an old circulation problem, as well as a brash architectural statement.

Interior illustrators have always wrestled with the problem of looking through walls.  This corporate headquarters staircase would have been distorted if I hadn’t backed up through an existing wall.  The outline of the wall opening can be seen in the faint dotted line on the left.

Computer renderings deal with the same interior wall problem by having cutting planes that can be placed in various places in the model.  The lobby below is being viewed from outside the glass curtainwall.  The mullions and glass have been eliminated in the original model.

The smaller the space the more distortion you can expect.  Elevator cabs are a special case in that any normal perspective would distort the ceiling or the floor or both.  A computer rendering would have a problem with this, but a hand layout can solve the problem easily by simple using a sliding vanishing point.  If you locate the vanishing point for the ceiling and floor in the drawing below you will find that they don’t correspond, but are slightly shifted vertically so as to lessen the distortion.

Sometimes the client will want to see something which is useful to know, but which is not a real situation.  The color sketch below shows a private terminal at JFK airport.  It is all perfectly accurate, but the silhouette of the Manhattan skyline (just below and left of center) cannot be seen from there.  You would have to level parts of Brooklyn and Queens to have a line of sight, and even then it would be smaller.  However, for people unfamiliar with New York City the silhouette provides a useful landmark to orient themselves and the terminal.

Finally, there is the problem of glass, and how much you can see of an interior during daylight.  The answer in the real world is “not much”.  In the layout below you can see that I wished away the glass (and some of the structure) so as to see straight through the building.  In the photo of the finished building you can see into the building, but it is at dusk, when the artificial light can challenge the dying daylight. 

Viewers of an illustration will go far to believe an interesting story, and will forgive much fudging to experience more of a building than is normally possible.  It is a delicate balance which becomes easier as you experience and observe the different buildings, materials and lighting.  An old artist friend once said to me, “if it’s right but looks wrong it’s wrong, and if it’s wrong but looks right, it’s right”.  My own motto is “establish the facts first, then lie and manipulate as needed.”  Or more delicately stated, “get out the old Artistic License”.

Friday, July 6, 2012


“I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong.”  - Richard Feynman

The previous post on beauty leads to the obvious question of truth in human existence.  The following are some personal notes suitable for cutting through the mental thickets surrounding Truth.

Truth would seem to be a nice simple idea compared with “everybody has their own idea of” Beauty. However, looking at some quotes I dug up suggests otherwise.  The Bible talks of misleading external appearances, the “whited sepulchers,” suggesting beauty can camouflage what is ugly and evil.  Which is just another way of saying that beauty is “skin deep.”  The beautiful “gold digger” and the “diamond in the rough” are well worn phrases describing the disconnect between truth and beauty.  “In vino veritas”, suggests that truth comes from honesty and transparency, not to mention drunkenness.  Occam’s razor states that truth is related to simplicity.  Truth can be “ugly” and “brutal”, and Churchill famously said that the truth was so precious during wartime, that it had to be surrounded by a “bodyguard of lies.”  I could go on quoting from the “marketplace of ideas,” and noting the ideas that have “stood the test of time,” but the “cliché meter” would blow up so I’ll stop here.

Perhaps the degree of truth is related to the institution that proclaims “truth”.  For instance science tells the truth, while novels don’t.  Actually that definition doesn’t really work either.  Scientists 100 years ago considered Phrenology to be a serious science.  As physicist Richard Feynman said, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.”  Conversely, novels often convey a deep human truth imbedded in a pudding of lies.

I think I need to state some basic principles here.  I believe that there is a consistent truth out there; let’s call it capital ‘R’ “Reality”.  What we call truth is our human attempt to capture, model and record that “Reality”.  The model that we hold in our mind which reflects “Reality” is what we call “Truth”, let’s give it a capital ‘T’.  While “Reality” is unlimited and unchanging, subject to some deep but partially knowable laws, “Truth” is subject to the whims of our emotions and self interest, and our limited senses and brain.  It is charmingly naïve to believe that there is some perfect beauty.  It is not so charming, and it is certainly naïve to believe that human “Truth” equals absolute “Reality”.

While “Reality” is unknowable it is a consistent sounding board for our pursuit of “Truth”.  If your idea of “Truth” leads you to burn your finger and stub your toe, you may be on the wrong path.  So are we back to the “eye of the beholder”?  Not quite.  Whereas beauty can be very personal and idiosyncratic without harm, “Truth”, if it wanders too far from “Reality” can get the individual killed, or can condemn a group to extinction.  A poor person or a soldier on the battlefield had better have a close connection between his idea of “Truth” and the reality of “Reality”.  A rich person can get away with criminality or addiction which would destroy a poor person.  Similarly, a country with an out-of-touch ruling elite can make life miserable for everyone, and get themselves killed into the bargain.  From Caligula and Ivan the Terrible to Hitler and Stalin, absolute (and absolutely insane) rulers have run roughshod through the masses (for the good of the masses of course).  Without the “hard” truth of “Reality” to drag us back we would live in a fantasy world of our own making.    Perhaps someday technology will advance far enough to create such a “science fiction” virtual world, but I would recommend keeping a life jacket handy if you ever sign on for that cruise.

So “Truth” will always be at best an approximation of “Reality”.  We are stuck looking at Plato’s shadows in a cave.  My own rules for “Reality” are:
1. Always test your conception of the “Truth”. Read the opposition, and compare both sides with historic examples, related studies and human nature. “Truth” is found via skepticism.
2. Understand that, although hard science is the most rigorous model of reality, scientists are still only human, subject to confirmation bias. Feynman has a point.
3. Social Science is always fascinating, but is challenged by both confirmation bias in the scientist and “spinning” by the subjects of the study. On this field traditional morality and progressive values fight.
4. Religion, politics, art and business are all simply rationalizations of our instinctual moralizing. The foundation of nearly everything we do or think is wrapped up in our basically emotional brain. Doesn’t mean it is right or wrong, just means there is a lot of contradiction, Ad Hockery and outright lies.
Final admonition:  That we aren’t busy killing each other in small primitive groups is amazing. The peaceful daily life of civilization is an anomaly, and we should be thankful for it, and careful that we don’t undermine it.