Annotation: Amano

After my annotation of The Dream Hunters, it should be abundantly obvious that I am a huge fan of Yoshitaka Amano’s work. To say that he is my favorite living artist goes without saying, and could possibly be compared to saying the sky is blue, or that Bush is an idiot: all of these statements can be found to be true with only the barest hint of research. Of course, that is neither here nor there, and really only serves as a way to justify just how much I’m going rave about Amano in this annotation.

The biggest irony to me, however, is that no matter how much this paper raves, the essay written by Hiroshi Unno in this book still surpasses it in extremity. He quite literally declares Amano’s work the ultimate blending of Art Nouveau, Art Deco, American and European comics, and traditional japanese manga and ukiyo-e. This is roughly akin to saying that Amano makes the best Amano-esque works, since he’s really the only one currently blending all of those styles. I don’t really understand why Unno bothered. The essay is at the end of a rather large compendium of Amano’s work from the past twenty years: by the point we reach the essay, we already know Amano is fantastic, so why is it necessary to write such a pandering follow-up? Perhaps it’s a cultural difference, but it really did feel like an unneeded ego-stroke to me.

The bright side, of course, is that it is just one essay, and really has no impact on the actual work in the book. The rest of the book is remarkably lacking in anything written — there are titles and basic print information, but even that is in Japanese most of the time (makes it hard for those of us who don’t understand kanji to glean anything more than the date). Of course, this doesn’t hinder my enjoyment of the artwork in any way. Short of trying to be ironic in his titles, it doesn’t really matter what the actual title is, so much as the content of the picture.

All of the works in this book are pieces that he has turned into prints (the subtitle of the book, in fact, is “The Complete Prints of Yoshitaka Amano”). In 1991, he began getting into the field of printmaking, and has been using it as his medium of choice for over a decade. It is interesting to get to see works from different points in his career compared side by side, and really get to see first hand how much his abilities as a printmaker have grown. His earlier works (circa 1991, 1992) are far simpler, using more solid colors and direct lines, while the majority of his 1993-1997 work gets significantly more complex and active, creating more robust worlds and detailed costumes and characters. His latest work (1997-2003) is extremely complex, utilizing gradients and subtle nuances of color and line to create works that are arguably TOO busy to fully appreciate.

I will be the first to admit, my favorites are the ones from the 1993-1997 era. They are in my opinion the perfect balance between form, color, and complexity. This is the period that he did most of his character design work for the anime Vampire Hunter D as well as his work on Final Fantasy 3 (6 in Japan). Some great examples of this period are prints 451 and 452 (the actual names are in Japanese kanji). These are conceptual artwork he did for Final Fantasy 3. 451 shows an image of a girl in a red outfit perched atop a giant, gargoyle-ish robot, looking out over a vast technological city. The robot, and all parts of technology are monotone, greys, blacks, and occasionally perhaps a tinge of sepia for highlight. The girl is colorful (green-blonde hair, and a flamboyantly red costume complete with arm length gloves), as are the almost festive hot air balloons floating in the sky. This combination itself is rather pleasing on its own, but becomes all the more relevant when you are aware of the background of that world: it is a world with fairly advanced steam technology, as well as long-dormant magic that is being re-awakened and harnessed to create something called “magitek” (a hybrid of magic and technology). The aspects of the technological world that have a magical aspect are the same aspects that have color within the picture.

Print 452 is a one-off of the girl and robot specifically. It also uses this monochrome-technology/color-magic concept, but focuses more on providing detail to the robot. It is in 3/4 view (looking at the machine from slightly above and in front of it), and allows you to see both the legwork on the bottom half of the robot as well as the cockpit on the top. Overall, the machine is remarkably well thought out, without getting into too much technical detail. The legs are splayed and stable, with the body resting firmly on them, while the cockpit is small yet functional, with a few humanistic touches, such as small fins rising up on either side of the body, and a windshield to help deflect wind and debris when traveling. All in all, it is very utilitarian, and suits the “Imperial/militaristic” theme of its in-game creator (the Empire). What really makes it a great image is that it succeeds in actually creating the sense of something that would actually be used, something that makes sense for the given world, regardless of whether it’s physically possible in our own reality. This is the sign of good concept art: it doesn’t have to be real, but it does have to be reasonable, which is an important distinction to have.

Another series of prints that succeed in being reasonable without necessarily being real would be his sequence of angels or angel-like beings (once again, the titles are in Japanese). The angels are beautiful and ethereal, with flowing bodies that seem suited to the notion of angels. What really sets these apart from most depictions of angels that I see is how he does the wings. Most arts that bother showing the body-wing connection really seem to just graft them to the shoulder blades and call it done. As can be seen in print 61, the wings of Amano’s angels seem much more connected, more natural, more believable (as far as wings on a human body can be believed at any rate, which returns us to the real vs reasonable argument). They slope down the body in much the same way that our arms do, which makes eminently more sense for allowing them to fold up against the back when at rest. While the more common “grafted” method is more akin to a bird’s folded wing, that choice does not really make as much sense for an upright being (bird wings fold onto the back of the bird… if the bird’s back was upright, that method would not allow the wings to truly rest). Amano’s choice seems a far more functional one for the type of being he is drawing.

Something I’ve noticed in Amano’s most recent works (circa 2001) is that he’s started to work in a lot more concrete, saturated color. Prior works tend to have a more wispy, almost sketchy style, with colors that are bit more watered down. That is one thing I actually liked from Unno’s essay: he points out this style and finally puts into words what I’ve been feeling about it: he creates worlds as if they were underwater. It perfectly explains the melding of solid and fluid lines. The majority of Amano’s work is in this fashion. It is not until his more recent works that an entirely more saturated and concrete style begins to appear, a good example of which is print 900 (2001), which is an image of a geisha-like woman (it is also the cover of the book). Her hair is far more saturated than most, as are the flowers and ribbons in it. Her lips are a vivid red, her eyes demure and rimmed with eyeliner. Her robes are a light pink with a golden floral pattern, and feels more concrete than earlier works in a way that I can’t really put a finger on. I suspect it has something to do with the clear lines to the flowers in the robe.

Something that Amano has done for each Final Fantasy game is develop a silhouette image used as the logo on the title screen. Unfortunately, none of these images are in this book. That said, there is some work he did in a similar style that are really quite appealing. Prints 323 through 329 are done in this style, starring Kingyohime (Princess Goldfish) from another series he did. They are a single shade of vivid red, and are the epitome of his “water woman” motif. The upper portion of the woman is vivid, and white like the background, with just a faint edge giving her form. Her hair and her dress are what is colored, her hair floating around her, and her dress flowing down to an amorphous form that is sometimes like an ornate fish tail, other times billowing clouds or waves. They are prints that I would love to have hanging in my house.

This is a fantastic collection of artwork, and well worth the money to pick up. There are some images I wish they had printed a bit larger, as I feel that some detail was lost because of it, but on the whole I am very impressed with the quality of this book. The paper is high quality, and the printing top-notch. I would definitely recommend it to any art lover, especially to anyone who enjoys Amano’s style. I may be a bit of a fanboy when it comes to his work, but that is because it genuinely deserves that level of appreciation. I sincerely feel that in the future his work will be counted as some of the finest of this era, much in the same way that we laud Rembrandt, Da Vinci, and Michelangelo now.

Amano, Yoshitaka. Amano. New York: Harper Design International, 2003.

Annotation: The Art of Living

Shortly after finishing Bayles and Orland’s Art & Fear, I was discussing some some points from the book with a friend of mine, who suggested that I read The Art of Living, as there were a lot of parallel thoughts between the two. He lent me his copy, and I sat down and read through it relatively quickly. It was interesting to read, but to be honest, it fits more into a spiritual component than it does art.

The Art of Living was written by Epictetus, one of the early Stoic philosophers living between 55 AD and 135 AD. He was one of the philosophers exiled by Emperor Domitian in 94 AD, after which he founded a school in Nicopolis, on the northwestern coast of Greece. Unlike some of his contemporaries, he was a bit more pragmatic in his writings, preferring to keep the language accessible to more than just the academics of the era. His thoughts on philosophy and man’s potential were well grounded and thought out, and have influenced some of the greatest leaders in history. Currently, two of his works are known to have survived the ravages of time: the Enchiridion and the Discourses. The Art of Living is a collection of thoughts from both works, gathered and translated by Sharon Lebell.

A recurring topic in this book is the concept of being true to yourself, and it’s this topic that caused my friend to recommend it to me in the first place. On several occasions throughout the book, Epictetus talks about the need to remain true to yourself, and not get bogged down in the desires of those around you. He almost begrudgingly acknowledges that those around us influence our acts, whether we like it or not, and uses that as an argument about being selective in who you choose to spend your time with. It may sound like an elitist statement, but after some thought, it’s true. People can be nice, but not necessarily productive, and regardless of your best intentions, that will slow or even stop your own productivity. To some small extent, it is why I was willing to move somewhere completely new, where I didn’t know any body: an opportunity to make a clean break and start rebuilding my creativity and productive capacity.

Another interesting recurring theme in The Art of Living is his emphasis on keeping things personal, but objectively so. Don’t worry about what your neighbors are doing unless it will impact your own wellbeing (at which point, why are you living next to such people), and don’t view what they are doing as negative simply because it isn’t something you agree with. Boiled down to its essentials, he’s saying that good and bad are largely subjective, and that it’s best to avoid the distinction if possible, as it just causes unnecessary stress. He’s very zenlike about it all, and goes so far as to say that if you are robbed, simply view it as those items returning to the world that gave them to you. It’s not a negative, it simply IS. The world is not conspiring against you: you are a part of the world, and it would serve no purpose to conspire against oneself.

There are some aspects of his work that seem somewhat hypocritical (which is not entirely unexpected: the basis of philosophy is ideas, and one idea may or may not contradict another. It doesn’t invalidate the other, since the two do not necessarily have to build off each other). The most hypocritical point I could see was that he reinforced several times the need to not fall into the trap of acting like other people, but then turns around and says quite explicitly to find a worthwhile individual to emulate, to help provide focus to your self-improvement. I can see the reasoning behind both statements, but the statements themselves are bit contradictory to me.

Overall, I found The Art of Living an interesting book and worth the time to read. It was interesting to read a philosopher who came to many traditionally eastern conclusions through western philosophy, and I generally found myself agreeing with his ideas. The next step, of course, is putting those ideas into action, but I think it is a good step in the right direction. I would definitely suggest reading Epictetus (perhaps not this translation, however, instead going to the original bodies of work) to someone interested in spirituality and philosophy, but I would be hard pressed to genuinely recommend it to someone with a focus on art.

Annotation: Art & Fear

From what I understand, Art & Fear is an often recommended book at Vermont College. After reading it, I can fully understand why — it is succinct, realistic, and to the point. Instead of dancing around the concept of art, it views it as a very real part of people’s lives, and a valid profession to pursue, and deals directly with the concerns and fears that keep people from actually doing what they WANT to do. If more books about the creative process in bookstores were this straightforward, I think we would see a lot more people pursuing jobs they would actually be happy in.

We all make excuses from time to time. We all procrastinate some of the time (some more than others), and we all occasionally have trouble starting new projects, no matter how much we love what we’d be doing if we only STARTED it. What I found particularly useful about Art & Fear is that it points this fact out and tells us to get over it. This is not new information by any means, but it is still useful to have it reinforced in a written fashion. Regardless of whether or not their opinion should actually be listened to, our society places weight and value to published opinions, so it is very worthwhile to have what SHOULD BE (but often isn’t) common sense collected and placed in a written form.

One of the central points of the book is to destroy the illusion that art is a heroic or romantic endeavor. I absolutely agree: the image of the starving artist is not something that should be idealized — no one wants to be poor and wondering how they’ll pay the rent next month, and the people who try to effect that image generally have trust funds backing them up. It completely misses the point of WHY the genuinely “starving artists” came up with X, Y, or Z great piece of art: hunger is a POWERFUL motivation to actually get work done. Instead of sitting around talking about the nature of art, they were busy creating it, because that’s the only way the bills will get paid.

Another central topic of the book is to stop worrying so much about other people’s opinion of your art, and to just do it for yourself. I both agree and disagree about this. A commission can still be art: if not, we should be discrediting most of the most famous artworks throughout history, as the majority were commissioned works. In those circumstances, yes, I can understand taking into account the opinions of the commissioner. As far as making works for yourself: opinions should be listened to, but not necessarily obeyed. They are, after all, opinions, not orders. Just because someone (or even many people) don’t like something, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t serve exactly the function you intended. I suppose in the grander scheme, if you aren’t comfortable enough to make your own decisions over what opinions have merit to YOUR intentions and which don’t, then it’s better to just ignore them all.

One of the things that I find interesting about Art & Fear is that they explicitly avoid discussing creativity. They address it only long enough to say that they will not be discussing it, and had been assiduously avoiding even using the word for most of the book. Frankly, I think this really helped them keep their focus in the book, as well as keeping it more real and pragmatic rather than abstract and theoretical. Discussing creativity definitely has its place, but upon inspection, that place is not not in a discussion about making art. It’s a bit like talking to an aerospace engineer about the dreams of going into space that motivated them to get into the field: it’s certainly rewarding, but doesn’t do much for the task at hand.

I found myself identifying with a lot of what was said in the book. I am extremely critical of my own work, overly so, and allow myself to become paralyzed not just by the fear of other people not liking my work, but also the fear that they WOULD like my work. I am in many ways more scared of succeeding than I am of failure. With failure, I can console myself by saying I gave it my best shot, but that I’m just not very good at it (or optimistically, good at it yet). With success, however, I feel burdened with a form of responsibility, the expectation from others (and myself) that since I succeeded once, I should be able to continue to succeed. I am in turn deathly afraid of creating art as a profession, for fear that others might have to rely on my abilities. It has been said that a perfectly good way to destroy a hobby is to make it a profession, and I think part of what is behind that statement is that there is the additional burden of responsibility of others relying on your work that hinders your enjoyment of it.

Both overall and broken down to its particulars, I think this was a well written and extremely valuable book to read. I would heartily recommend it to anyone exploring any sort of artistic endeavor. It is the best kind of self-help book: the kind that tells you to get out of your own way and just DO it. There’s no hokey magical method to suddenly make fantastic, wonderful art, and the sooner we accept that, the better.

Bayles, David; Orland, Ted. Art & Fear. Santa Cruz: The Image Continuum, 1993.

Less Than Two Weeks to Closing

Sorry I haven’t been posting regularly recently. Part of it is hecticness involving school and packing for the move and financials, but the other part is a lack of motivation to post. The weather is back to being in stasis (clear blue, mid-80s, every day), I haven’t been working much (not that I can really talk about what I play, anyway), and I haven’t really done anything interesting in a while. That’s not to mention the roofers banging on my ceiling as they retar the roof of the apartment and the mind-numbing heat actively conspiring to keep me from getting anything productive done.

That said, here are a few updates as to what’s been going on and how things have been going. I’ve managed to keep up with school, and have two packets left to the semester. I’ve been taking a beginner figure drawing class over at University of Washington for the past few weeks each Saturday (my last class was this past Saturday), and I’ve got a sketch-dump up here. (For what it’s worth, that’s an entire sketch dump of my sketchbook, not just classes or even since class started.)
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Rain in Seattle

For the first time in several weeks, it is raining in Seattle. It has been sunny and hot for most of the summer, and the entire area is wrapped in a drought. It was discussed on the radio that with the ground where it is, if we got a torrential downpour, it wouldn’t help… so instead, we’ve gotten exactly what we needed: big droplets of water, falling at a steady pace. I can hear the pitter-patter as it falls through the trees outside my window, through which a gentle cool breeze is blowing.

I’ve got Nick Drake playing on my computer, and I’m listening to the rain, talking to interesting people. It is all relaxing in a way that only quiet rainy days can allow.
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Crazy Wacky Cool

I’m in the process of collecting my stuff to mail my packet for school down at the coffee shop Eli and I found in downtown Bellevue. The fact that everyone is so amazingly friendly and laid back suddenly makes more sense… turns out that easily 75% of the folks who work there are Baha’i. Chris was talking to them while I was working, and mentioned that my name was Nabil… they all kinda arched an eyebrow and asked me about the name… “Oh, yeah, I’m named after an early historian of the Baha’i Faith”, “Yeah, we’re all Baha’i’s here.”

Blink, blink. Cool! They’re all really interesting people, and interested in art and philosophy and other nifty shit, and aren’t nearly as… hmm (how to say nicely), fundamentalist/overzealous as some of the east coast Baha’is I’ve met (this is not saying those people are bad people… it’s just that I disagree with that level of zealousness, even for religion. It’s not for me.) Turns out there is a substantial community in Bellevue, and another large community in Seattle proper… from the sounds of it, the Seattle group would probably be the best fit to go hang out with, as they tend to be a bit more laid back, like this group at the coffee shop.

Just thought I’d share, because I thought at the very least Mom and Dad would be amused. Hi guys!