Moo Cards

I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned them before, but their recent announcement for Moo Business Cards prompted me to call them out again. Each card can be customized, and allows for a wealth of photographic and other artistic material to be added and given away. Given the high quality, full-bleed custom work that is done, the pricing is really pretty good. Definitely worth checking out if you need some business cards done and want to do something a little different. MOO’s Website

Annotation: About Looking

This is the second book I’ve read by John Berger this semester. The first, Ways of Seeing, was excellent, cogent, and topical, all without being too over-intellectual or stuffy. With that in mind, it seemed like an excellent idea to pick up another of his books, to continue to the authorial conversation. Unsure which to pick (he has several collections of essays), I selected somewhat randomly, and ended up with About Looking, which proved to be likewise cogently written, but not as consistently so, and certainly with a more academic vocabulary (this is not a good thing). There were a variety of excellent points and ideas brought up in the course of the book, but it really failed to make as significant an impact as his previous work.

I think that perhaps the reason the book doesn’t work as well for me is how it was collected. The essays are in no apparent order (neither subject nor date seem to have any influence), other than — and this may be my own perception — the longest essays are in the front, and the shorter, more cogent essays are in the back. He opens with a 28 page essay about how the perception of animals has changed in society, and the man-animal relationship has changed as well. He made some excellent points in it, in particular concerning the role of zoos in our urban society, as well as the social misperception of zoos. A zoo is a place to see what animals look like, not to see and be seen by animals. Of course, all his excellent points could have been said in half the space if he stopped beating around the bush for so much of the essay. It felt (and this sentiment extends to a lot of the essays) like he knew he had something he wanted to talk about, but wasn’t sure how to say it, and the essay is his process to get it out.

The rest of the book is a bit more directly topical, and the collection is loosely broken down into “Uses of Photography” and “Moments Lived”. The photography section I suppose is fairly clear, but what exactly does “Moments Lived” mean as a subject title? Apparently, it means “new takes on the motivations of artists,” if the actual content is any indication. I’ll get to it more in depth in a moment, but first, the photography section.

Technically speaking, these were four separate essays, written over the course of a decade (1968 to 1978), though not necessarily in chronological order. Subjectively speaking, it read like one long, rambling essay. As a photographer, I was a little taken aback by his somewhat antiquated views of photography. He talked at length about how they serve as a method to capture a moment in time, as a supplement (and sometimes replacement) to memory, unlike traditional painting. He is entitled to opinion, of course, but I am also allowed to completely disagree with compartmentalizing photography like that. The “capturing of memories” is a minor part of photography (though I will admit, it IS a pretty significant portion of the popular sentiment about photography). Photography can also be used as a very potent tool in creating abstract imagery, as well as creating a range of emotions that can be every bit as distinct and strong as a painting. As much as Berger was trying to tout the values of photography, I think in the end, he ended up doing it a disservice, which is unfortunate.

The majority of the book fell under the “Moments Lived” section, and was in my opinion the strongest writing in the book. in each essay, it was clear the author knew what he was talking about, and really brought some interesting insight into various works of art (mostly paintings, but some sculptural work as well). In particular, I really appreciated his juxtaposition of Francis Bacon and Walt Disney, with one taking a pessimistic conclusion and one taking an optimistic conclusion, both from the same underlying concept and intent. Also worth noting was a recurring topic between several essays on how birthplace influenced the art of several artists, both in subject matter as well as style. For instance, Courbet was born in the foothills of the Jura mountains in France. The most direct and obvious tie to this area is his predominant use of minimal horizon (very little sky is shown in the majority of his work), which directly relates to the towering mountains blotting out most of the horizon when he was growing up. Another example would be Fasanella’s cityscapes (in particular of Manhattan). They succeed in capturing the sentiment of finding privacy while simultaneously being on display that many other artists fail to capture, because quite simply, they’ve never truly lived in that fashion.

My favorite essay is the one he closed with, entitled “Field”. It had nothing to do with any artist, and most precisely captured the sentiment of the section title. The essay describes a simple, uncultivated field that sits amidst the trees near a set of train tracks that he has to pass on his way home from work. Occasionally, he has to wait for a train on the tracks, and when doing so, looks over and sees the meadow between the trees, a short distance away. He watches two birds playing, or butterflies doing what butterflies do, or a cat stalking some invisible prey, or any of a variety of simple things happening in the meadow, and feels as enriched and rewarded by it as he feels about any work of art.

The latter half of the essay completely misses the point, however, and relegates this sublime moment to a set of rules that must be applied for any sort of effect, which he partially uses as an excuse to not actually visit the field, lest the feeling be destroyed. After such a strong start, too. The first half of the essay struck a very strong chord with me, as it managed to at least partially describe a sentiment that I am constantly trying to explain. Walking around on the half-snow half-mud in Vermont in late March/early April, where the world is just starting to wake up again, and you can hear the trickle of a stream still partially obscured by ice in the distance. Wind playing with leaves on an empty street at dusk, where the lights are just starting to come on, but it’s still light out anyway, and there is a crisp, real taste to the air. Sitting in the grass in the shade of some trees, looking up through a gap in the branches and watching the clouds float by, while butterflies flutter nearby. Standing in the woods after a snowstorm, in that brief “warm” spell that sometimes follows snowstorms in New England, and listening to the snow drop off the overladen branches.

It’s experiences and sentiments like these that fill me with an enormous sense of personal peace and well-being, and I try to be receptive (not vigilant… that would defeat the point) to these moments whenever I can.

Despite its faults, I still feel this was a pretty good collection of essays, and I’m glad I read them. I would probably suggest this book to people who enjoy art essays (whether for school or personal enjoyment), but at the same time, I would probably also suggest AD Coleman’s Critical Focus as a counterpoint and companion to this book. Between the two authors, I think a really great creative sentiment can be painted.

Annotation: Leonardo Da Vinci: The Mind of the Renaissance

While I found Vezzosi’s writing interesting and intelligent, and found the subject well researched and scholastic in tone, I can’t help but feel like this book should have instead been called “Leonardo Da Vinci: The Mind, The Man, The Myth”. What it comes down to is that despite all the research about Da Vinci that has been done over the years, very little is verifiably known: most of our “facts” about him are taken from journals (some his own, others from his contemporaries), which are ultimately an entirely subjective view. There is this notion of him as a seer and visionary, which is largely due to his self-portrait and the use of his likeness in Raphael’s painting of Plato. That’s not to say that he wasn’t visionary and innovative in his work and ideas, but rather that the assumption of a benevolent old man is ultimately conjecture.

Though a relatively small book, Leonardo Da Vinci: The Mind of the Renaissance is extremely dense, using a high quality paper to allow for high quality reproduction of his artwork. It is also dense in the another sense of the word, in terms of the amount of information that was packed into such a small space. Organized in a chronological/geological fashion, the book is broken down into several sections, starting in Vinci (his birthplace), and ending in Amboise (where he died). Considering that his works often spanned several years, this is really as good a method to organize his life as any.

Leonardo definitely had an interesting life. Despite being born as an illegitimate child, he was taken into his father’s house and raised largely as if he was. Really, the only aspect of family life that he was not able to participate in was the family business as Notary to several noble houses, including the Medici family. (The role of Notary required a level of gentility that his illegitmacy prevented.) He taught himself to write, which the author attributed a large amount of the mirror writing Leonardo is famous for (also, in conjecture, the idea was posited that he may have been dyslexic, which would also contribute to his adoption of backwards writing).

At the age of 17, he entered an apprenticeship in Florence, studying under the famous artist Verrocchio, during which time he became well respected among his peers, contributing to several remarkable works, including The Annunciation, and the Dreyfus Madonna (as well as the similarly composed Madonna with Carnation). He had already gained a mastery of painting at this time, but was able to refine that mastery while also learning more about sculpture, collaborating with Verrocchio to create Verrocchio’s David and Putta with Dolphin. Even after being admitted to the artists’ guild, he stayed with Verrocchio’s studio for several more years before finally heading out on his own.

Leonardo worked on several commissions while in Florence, working to curry favor with the Medici family, whom was the ruling family of Florence at the time. He achieved a moderate level of success, but after reaching something of a dead end, he found an excuse to travel to Milan, where he tried to get a position as engineer in the Ducal Court. His attempts did not succeed, but he did achieve moderate success as an artist in the area, until finally he began working for the Duke of Milan, Sforza, designing a giant bronze horse statue that was never completed. (This is a well known story: war broke out, and the 66 tons of bronze that Leonardo had managed to accumulate for the project was taken in order to make cannons.)

The entire region was embroiled in a variety of alliances, wars, invasions, and political intruiges, and Leonardo largely managed to play every side. He primarily worked for Milan and Florence, but he also worked for France and Pisa at several points, in various roles ranging from royal artist to war and civil engineers. He maintained ties with the Medici family, which allowed him to become an engineer/artist for Pope Leo X (a member of the Medici family), where he enjoyed relatively free reign over his projects (in fact, he worked for a man known as “il Magnifico”, the Pope’s brother). It was at this time that Raphael used Leonardo’s likeness for his fresco The School of Athens.

After il Magnifico grew ill and died, Leonardo decided that it was time to seek his fortunes elsewhere, taking the king of France up on a prior invitation to come and paint for him in Ambiose. Leonardo enjoyed his time in Ambiose, though he no longer was working with color as much as he had in the past, due to an injury to his arm (since he was ambidexterous, it really only hindered his work a little, but still enough to make it worth mentioning). He designed and (with the help of the King) initiated the building of a new city, Romolontino, in France, though work on it ultimately ended due to complications at the build site. Leonardo remained in Ambiose for the rest of his life. He remained well respected throughout these years, and purportedly, died in the presence of the King, whom had great admiration for the artist. (The actual accuracy of the legend is subject to considerable debate, apparently.)

I really enjoyed Leonardo Da Vinci: The Mind of the Renaissance, and found it quite informative about this master artist. I would recommend it to those looking for a grounding in the background of the arist and a general sense of what works he did, though for a more in depth look, I’m sure there are more robust works about Da Vinci, that would probably serve that purpose in a more complete and enriching fashion. Frankly, I’m not sure what I’m impressed more by: the works he completed, or the works that never made it out of his sketchbooks.

Vezzosi, Alessandro. Leonardo Da Vinci: The Mind of the Renaissance. New York: Henry N Abrams, Inc., 1997.

Annotation: Wabi Sabi

Considering that it is virtually impossible to define the Zen philosophy in a succinct fashion, it should be largely unsurprising that an art-form that grew out of Zen required an entire book to even begin to explain. That is not to say that the author evaded the question, far from it: the fault (if it could be called such) lies directly in the subject. I found the topic of wabi sabi fascinating, while at the same time finding my own tastes justified within a larger school of thought on art. It really all comes down to impermanence. In fact, that is the subtitle of the book: the Japanese art of impermanence.

Of course, that title might be a little misleading. While yes, they do discuss the tea ceremony and other transient events as art, there is a great deal more to wabi sabi than that. It is more an acceptance of your surroundings and letting nature have a role in the creation of things. The example used that really encapsulated the feeling for me best was when he was discussing ash-glazed pottery. The author described an old kiln that is still in use, though it only burns once a year. The pots are placed in or near the flue, and as the ash is pulled upwards through the chimney, it glazes the pots. Each pot is in a different spot in the kiln, and so the glaze is different for every pot. That act of abandoning the work and letting nature take its role in creation is wabi sabi in a nutshell, for me at least.

The words wabi and sabi both have extensive histories, during which time they have gained enough meanings to become too ambiguous to have a direct and literal translation. The basic gist when used together, is finding beauty in solitude and natural desolation. The author related a story of Sen No Rikyu, master of the tea ceremony, whom had a marvelous garden with flowers in it that his guests would pass through to reach the tea room. The Emperor, Hideyoshi had heard of the garden, and in particular desired to see the morning glories in it. He was invited to a tea ceremony, and upon his arrival discovered that all of the morning glories had been cut. Upon arriving to the tea room, he discovered a single, beautifully arranged morning glory adorning the tea room. This sort of attention and focus really appeals to me, aesthetically speaking, and grounds my sentiment that simplicity and letting things fall where they may can prove to be provocative and striking on a level that more complex and ordered images might not achieve. (A case in point: one of my favorite pieces that my mother has painted is a single maple leaf, done in ink and water color… she’s done a variety of more complex and detailed images, but my attention is invariably drawn to the leaf.)

Overall, the book manages to avoid being pretentious, which makes it a significantly better read than it could have otherwise been. There are a few points where the subject was treated a bit too much like a golden calf (notably, in the introduction itself), but they are thankfully few and far between. Mostly, the sentiment I gathered out of the book was that the author had a genuine interest in (and knowledge of) the material.

Wabi Sabi is broken into a few parts. It starts out with a reasonably in depth history of the art form, which grew out of Zen philosophy when Buddhism first started making a cultural impact in Japan. This was a fascinating topic for me, and really elucidated a lot about the origins of different forms of Buddhism. One thing that really interested me about it stems from an ongoing conversation I have had with my father about Baha’i Art. He is of the sentiment that there largely isn’t any currently being made, and that what is currently touted as such is really nothing more than ecclesiastic art. Reading about wabi sabi really drove home that idea. Wabi Sabi is essentially Zen Buddhist art. Yet it rarely if ever has anything to do with images of the Buddha or others. What makes it stem from Zen Buddhism is that it is a representation and extension of the philosophy that underlies Zen Buddhism, not that it depicts religious scenes, individuals, or icons.

The next section discusses the interrelationship between wabi sabi and the culture it originated in. I was less impressed with this section, though I can’t put a finger on exactly why. I think what it comes down to is that in trying to make a distinction between Japanese culture and American culture, the author relied too much on his own opinions, and less on objective observation and facts. It was clear that he had lived in Japan for several years, and disagrees strongly with the adoption of aspects of western civilization.

The third section discusses wabi sabi art specifically, and was pretty interesting. This is where the author talked about the ash-glazed pottery that so intrigued me, as well as going a bit more in depth about how the philosophy behind wabi sabi can be applied to various kinds of art. It was a little short, however, and made the next section somewhat jarring, since the fourth section quite literally laid down basic ground rules for using different materials in your designs. The whole notion of setting down firm rules of how materials must be applied seemed to go against the entire notion that he had been describing for the rest of the book. I think that there is a lot more flexibility to the form than what he laid out.

The fifth and final section was a personal diatribe on the state of things in modern western society, and an argument to justify why adopting wabi sabi principles is important. I largely agree with him: we are an increasingly disposable society, with huge amounts of luxuries and technology, all the while lamenting our unhappiness. In the current generation especially (the post-gen-x generation), there is an overwhelming sentiment of feeling spiritually lost, a disconnect with our surroundings and ourselves. I can’t help but feel that encouraging the sort of reconnection with nature that occurs in wabi sabi art would help that sentiment.

While it had very little to do with drawing explicitly, I would definitely recommend this book to anyone interested in eastern art It was well worth the time to read it.

Juniper, Andrew. Wabi Sabi. Boston, Tuttle Publishing, 2003.

Annotation: Keys to Drawing

When I decided to do a studio study on drawing, I mentioned this to my aunt, who is an artist and art instructor both privately and for Lebanon College in Lebanon, New Hampshire. I mentioned that I was planning to read Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, which she heartily endorsed, but also suggested another book that she uses in her classes, which is Keys to Drawing, by Bert Dodson (whom is apparently currently living in Bradford, Vermont, just up the road from her). It’s not an overwhelmingly large book, but is absolutely packed with useful drawing advice, including an index of concepts and terminology in the back that has already proven useful to me in understanding the vocabulary of drawing.

One of the things that I really appreciate in Keys to Drawing is that the author doesn’t assume anything. He explains everything quickly and clearly, from how to hold the pen or pencil or charcoal or conte crayon (and why and how it varies depending on the medium, as well as your intended style), to shading techniques (pressure shading versus cross hatching, for instance), as well as giving probably the best explanation of perspective and vanishing points I have seen to date. His method involves determining where eye level is, and then using your pencil to act as a level to measure outward to determine the vanishing point. This allows for a more concrete sense of place to draw from, since these two aspects also establish the viewpoint of the image. (This might seem a bit obvious when drawing from life, where the viewpoint is your own, but when drawing from your imagination, it is significantly more useful to have a quick and easy method to figure out the viewpoint you want to draw from.)

There are a variety of styles of drawing that are addressed in this book. I found it interesting to see how they were connected, since Dodson often makes a point of showing pieces at various stages, including separate drafts (something that doesn’t often get discussed). There are several occasions where he goes from an almost abstract gesture drawing to an outline drawing, to a rough sketch, to a final, textured and shaded piece. Seeing this process fascinates me sometimes more than the drawing itself.

Something that I definitely need to improve upon is what he discusses in chapter six, “The Illusion of Texture.” There is a LOT of information there, and I found myself a little bogged down with it, as I have not yet reached a point in my own ability that I’m really making use of texture and shading, save some prototypical charcoal shading. I’m just starting to “get” shading – texture is still somewhat beyond me.

In chapter four, “The Illusion of Light”, Dodson actually hit upon something that I was familiar with from photography, which is tonal relationships and reduction. Creative use of focus can abstract an image into basic tonal relationships that can then be more effectively drawn: it returns to the merit of non-photorealistic art, which I am a proponent of. If drawing a snowy landscape (as in Dodson’s example), it is not necessary to draw every tree and detail of the piece – in fact, more the opposite. You end up bogged down in details that the viewer’s eye would gloss over anyway. By reducing the image to tonalities and shape, you retain the idea of the landscape without miring the eye in unnecessary detail. You can then more easily draw focus to the elements YOU want. This is the purpose (or one of them, anyway) of depth of field in photography, and is just as valid an artistic element in drawing or other visual arts.

Worth noting in Dodson’s particular method of drawing (which he readily admits to, and even discusses at the end of chapter 3) is the use of slight exaggeration of form for artistic or dramatic effect. Unless you are insisting upon photo-realism in the image, a certain amount of exaggeration will creep in, so why not embrace that fact and choose where that exaggeration will go? If the subject of your drawing is tall and thin, a certain amount of angularity to his figure probably makes sense, elements that can generally be seen in the shoulders, the set of the jaw, and the elbows. Neither the author nor I am saying to necessarily make his elbows the size of his head, but a slightly more angular, pronounced joint will probably work well to establish the concept of the individual’s figure more effectively than sweating over whether it is precisely accurate.

I keep returning to the subject of exaggeration, conceptualization, and the need for non-photorealistic style in drawing for a variety of reasons, most of which stem well beyond the scope of Keys to Drawing or this annotation. There is certainly a place of photorealistic art, and I have the utmost respect for the artists that pull it off, especially in an imaginary work (Alex Ross, for instance). That said, in this era of computer generated photorealistic art, there is still a very valid and necessary role for non-photorealistic art. The eye views it differently, and draws different information from it than it would in a photorealistic variation. Additionally, the mind tends to retain more information from non-photorealistic art than it does with its photorealistic counterpart. By engaging the mind to process the more abstracted image, it creates a more concrete impression in the synapses of the brain. I’m digressing, however, and getting further away from my point: despite my background in photography, I am more interested in abstraction and non-photorealism than otherwise.

It is my interest in abstraction that motivates my desire to create imaginary worlds, whether is in comics, games, traditional artwork, or cartoons (or even in writing, though I haven’t done any creative writing in quite some time). I call it an interest in creative media, because it is too broad to be restricted any further than that. With this in mind, I would say that if I was pressed to recommend just one book on drawing, I would probably choose Keys to Drawing over Betty Edwards’s Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. What it comes down to is that Betty’s book teaches you to draw objectively (not exclusively, but that does seem to be the focus), while Bert’s book teaches you to the tools to draw, and lets you make the choice of how objective or subjective you wish to be. Of course, I don’t really have to choose just one, so really, I recommend both.

Dodson, Bert. Keys to Drawing. Cincinnati: North Light Books, 1985.

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: 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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Essay: Realistic Art versus Fantasy

Over the course of the past semester, I have been attempting to learn to draw, with the longer-term goal of character design. This dual intent (learning the elements of figure drawing in general, and learning to create unique imaginary characters) has created an interesting juxtaposition of styles, namely that of the fantasy character, and realistic figure drawing. They are distinctly different in nature, while retaining many similarties. In fact, one (fantasy) builds upon the other (realism).

Because we dwell within the world, the world is inherently subjective in nature. There is a certain amount of distortion to what we see that is dictated by our vision, our mood, and our perspective of a given situation. To draw or paint realistically is to objectively draw a subjective world. There is a lot to be said for this stylistic choice, not the least of which is that it allows for an understanding of shape, form, and proportion that can be applied to any form.

Conversely, fantasy art is a bit more amorphous, it is not itself strictly a style so much as a parent genre which contains multiple styles. The shared definition of all these styles, however, is that they acknowledge the subjective nature of what we see, and consciously work to extend that subjectivity. From there, the definitions fragment, some choosing to create an idealized version of the world (traditional comic book style, proportionally slightly larger than “realistic proportions”, perfect body types), others choosing to modify or enhance basic structure (anime or manga style comes immediately to mind, characterized by big eyes, small mouth, proportionally smaller than “realistic proportions”).

When you consider these two working definitions, it becomes readily apparent that fantasy art has grown out of realism. What it comes down to is that the most effective way to break any rule is to have a firm grasp of the rule in the first place. While it is certainly not the only way to learn, there is a great deal to be said for learning the rules of human proportion and form if only so you know how to break them, while keeping the figure reasonable. That is to say nothing of universal aspects of figure drawing (realistic or fantasy), such as foreshortening, shading, and perspective.

I say these are universal, because regardless of style, the goal of creating a character is to make it believable and “real” in the eyes of the viewer. The human mind is happily willing to accept a fantasy creation, as long as there is nothing jarring it from what it normally expects from the eye: depth, and perspective. If the drawing lacks appropriate shading or foreshortening, the image will lack texture, it will lack depth, instead appearing flat. Perspective sets the stage for the viewer, gives the image a sense of place (even if that place is nothing more than the paper it sits on), and without it, again the image is flat and unbelievable.

In Non-Photorealistic Computer Graphics, the author briefly discusses this concept, and why realistic graphics have advanced so much more quickly and completely than non-photorealistic graphics (stippling, for example). Ultimately, it comes down to the fact that because of the nature of realistic graphics, we are able to quantify the process in such a way that is easily understandable to a computer. Non-photorealistic graphics lag behind in this because beyond these key concepts, it is extremely hard to quantify what elements are needed to generate an image using a computer that is believable to the eye. Interestingly, the mind retains more data looking at abstracted (non-photorealistic) images than it does looking at realistic images, which is indicative of the willingness of the mind to accept an idea that is not necessarily realistic.

Of course, discussing the mind’s willingness to accept a fantastic creature or environment is not to say that the mind is immersed in the world to the point of being unable to distinguish it from the real world. More the opposite: the mind is able to acknowledge the fantasy while allowing for an emotional distancing not available in realism. A perfect example of this would be Looney Tunes. Bugs bunny is by no means mistakable for a real rabbit, or a real person for that matter. He does dastardly things to Elmer Fudd, things that we would never condone in the real world. Cartoons are able to be blown up, shot, crushed, flung through the air, mangled, and in some cases killed, without impacting us in the way that such events happening in a realistic painting would. Yet, we still are able to laugh and cry with the antics of these fantasy creatures. This fantasy world, this abstraction, allows us to distance ourselves from these acts, while still allowing us to identify and emotionally respond to the “art”. Even small children are able to make this abstraction — even if they don’t realize that Bugs and Daffy don’t really exist, they are still aware that they are “different”, and able to do things normal people can’t.

The more real the style, the less the mind will abstract the art. Anime is moderately realistic, and is often accused of being too violent for minors. Gainax Productions created an anime television series called Neon Genesis Evangelion back in the 1990s, which ends in a fashion that still makes me feel uneasy and ill in a way that even live footage of atrocities don’t make me feel. They spent the entire series putting the characters in situations that test them physically and psychologically, showing their frailties and humanity, endearing them to you… and then systematically kill each one in a brutal manner. In some ways it is made more disturbing by the fact that it IS animated in a near-realistic style, because it keeps it from being truly abstracted, yet still separate enough to keep you from thinking they are real. You would think that would make it less disturbing when they die, but in fact it’s the opposite: as each is killed, you can’t help but think in the back of your head, “but they’re not real, and why bother killing them if they aren’t real? It’s a fantasy world, they did their job, they should be able to at least live, even if not necessarily happily ever after!”

Moving on from the psychology of fantasy art versus realistic art, lets look at a few different examples of fantasy art, and how they are influenced by realistic art. A good example of taking the principles of realistic drawing and applying it to a fantasy setting is the work by Yoshitaka Amano, such as his work in The Dream Hunters. His work is a combination of anime and realistic proportions placed in fantastic situations, plus a sketchy, flowing, personal style that gives a unique flavor to his work. His sense of proportion is clearly drawn out of traditional realistic figure drawing, with the hands, and bodies being well formed and realistic. The eyes and face is more akin to an anime style (small mouth, larger eyes), and the hair, clothing, and environments are wildly varied. If I were to simplify his style into some generalizations, bodies (human or otherwise) tend to be more concrete, with strong definition. The environment varies on the piece, depending on whether the environment could be considered an entity in the piece or not. Everything else, including the clothing on the figures, is secondary and drawn in a wispy, ethereal manner. The nature of it being a piece of fantasy is established with every stroke.

As a juxtaposition, Alex Ross also does comic illustration, but in a photorealistic style. His work is exquisitely detailed, and gives a sense of reality to comic book heroes like Superman (Kingdom Come), or Captain America (Earth X). In the graphic novel Kingdom Come, Ross documented his process at the end of the book, which was fascinating to learn about. What is particularly interesting about this style given the medium is that you are talking about perfect beings given realistic flesh, which establishes fantasy through the idea of perfect beings. A particularly striking image introduces chapter 2 of Kingdom Come, involving row upon row of superbeings, and standing amongst them is a comparatively frail old man, a simple preacher who is the central point of view of the story. (Coincidentally, the preacher is modeled after Alex’s father, also a preacher.) This contrast establishes the fantasy, even in a realistic style.

This does pose the question of where, exactly, the line between fantasy and realism occurs, if artists can use realism to create fantasy? It has been argued that Albert Bierstadt, who painted a variety of gorgeous landscapes in the west, had distorted reality to make the landscape even more grandiose. If so, would that qualify as fantasy art? And if that is the case, then really any painting becomes circumspect as not being truly “realistic”. Ultimately, I think it comes down to two things: the medium, and the creation. The medium (the style and materials) serves as an initial (and most obvious) method to determine the nature of whether it is meant as a realistic depiction of a person, place, object, or event. The secondary assessment comes from the content of the painting itself. Alex Ross draws in a realistic style, but it is fantasy art because he is drawing beings flying through the air, lifting cars over their heads, and shooting rays out of their eyes. (If these events ever do start happening in real life, I suppose we will have to reassess this.) Bierstadt, on the other hand, painted realistically, but used “objective” means to reach his slightly exaggerated conclusions, such as shifted viewpoints and skewed perspectives.

Bierstadt is by no means the only one. In John Updike’s collection of critiques, Just Looking: Essays on Art, he discusses the same use of shifted viewpoints in Vermeer’s work, View of Delft: “Many of the buildings still stand, and it can be seen that Vermeer moved them about for aesthetic effect.” (Updike 24) That Vermeer, an artist widely considered to be one of the most precise and talented painters of his day, would perform these shifts and exaggerations, and no one argues his work as a “fantasy” reinforces the belief that exaggeration or alteration can still be a part of realism, so long as it is applied as an objective view.

Given what I’ve brought up thus far, namely that fantasy versus realism is objectivity versus subjectivity, and that the line between fantasy and realism can be blurred or even broken in both directions, really there is one more key distinction to discuss: the role of imagination and creativity in realistic and fantastic art.

There is a great deal more to art than just technique, even in situations where you are simply “recording what you see.” The act of seeing is what makes the world subjective, no matter how objectively you may try to view it. It is our creativity and our imagination that allows us to choose the viewpoint, the pose, and the focus of the piece. Our personality, our creative impulses, contributes to the mood and atmosphere of the piece. For example, in John Singer Sargent’s piece, The Daughters of Edward D. Boit, the expressions on each child’s face is clearly influenced by both the act of having to pose for a painting, as well as the actions of the painter.

This creative influence is magnified in fantasy works. Where the realist might draw a stump in a forest, a fantasy artist might extrapolate on that stump, letting their imagination run wild. Perhaps the stump is home to a gnome, or faeries? Perhaps this stump is all that is left of a mighty forest that once towered into the clouds? We have no way of knowing, which frees the artist to create their own fantasy, without a single concern about whether it is objectively feasible. (The trees and towns and creatures of Dr. Seuss immediately come to mind.)

Ultimately, the only true separation of fantasy and reality is in the eye of the beholder. The artist can have every intent for his work to be treated in a particular fashion, but if the people who view his art disagree, who is to say that one is more correct than the other? If the artist intended it to be a mystical fantasy realm, and someone comes along and says “Hey, you really managed to capture the feel of Morocco quite well. Were you out in a boat to get that perspective?” Who is to say that one is any less true than the other? More often, the reverse is true, where an artist objectively and realistic depicts a location, person, or event, and is then accused of having made it up. As has been said in the past, “One man’s fantasy is another man’s reality.” Both are equally valid when it comes to art.

Sources Cited:
Gaiman, Neil; Amano, Yoshitaka. The Sandman: The Dream Hunters. New York: DC Comics, 1999.
Krueger, Jim; Ross, Alex; et al. Earth X. New York: Marvel Comics, 2002.
Strothotte, Thomas; Schlechtweg, Stefan. Non-Photorealistic Computer Graphics. San Francisco: Morgan Kaufman, 2002.
Updike, John. Just Looking: Essays on Art. Boston: MFA Publications, 2000.
Waid, Mark; Ross, Alex. Kingdom Come. New York: DC Comics, 1997.

Annotation: Magic Worlds of Fantasy

It is very easy to get caught up in the notion being an artist in such a way that you fail to make any art at all. The idea of being a famous avant garde artist is far more romantic than actually making avant garde art, and as such is far more alluring than simply making art whatever way you can, whatever way makes the most sense to you. That idea is the basis behind Magic Worlds of Fantasy: it showcases four relatively unknown artists that the author had come across who ignored the idea of an artist, and simply made art.

Before I get into talking about the book, I should mention that none of these artists were using drawing as their medium, so really the artwork gains more of its relevance in the act of creation and the philosophy behind the book more than discovering drawing technique or style that I like. That said, there is a lot of value to be found in this sort of book. I find that it is very easy to get wrapped up in the “proper” way of doing things, so a book that says to find something I enjoy and then make art out of that is really quite delightful.

The author, David Douglas Duncan, was a good friend of Pablo Picasso. As such, when he traveled around the world on his own artistic journeys, other people would approach him to ask about Picasso, and (occasionally) to bring gifts or art to be passed along. It was through this process that he came across several artists who were not well known by anyone, and really pursued art purely for their own sake. They might never have ended up in a gallery or museum, though their art was certainly good enough, because it wasn’t their purpose.

The book opens with a brief essay about the author’s relationship with Picasso, including a collection of “posters” Picasso did for some of his friends, each one with the same elements but each unique and individualized. The idea of Picasso’s house is really quite appealing: when he opened his doors, he opened them wide, to any who could claim his friendship. Diplomats, priests, paupers, circus performers, it didn’t matter. If anyone took offense to this panoply, no one mentioned it: a friend of Pablo was a friend of theirs. There is so much to be said for this idea, the idea of a space where individuals of varying fields could all be comfortable and interact regardless of social status. It’s an idea that I personally would love to foster, but have no idea how to go about doing this.

The first artist in the book is a housewife in England, who used scratchboard to create fantastic, dreamlike creatures and locations. Her work was clearly her own, though I could see some references to early Chinese art in some of her linework. Born in war-torn Berlin, she invented robust dream worlds in her mind in order to block out the bombed out buildings around her, and continued to tell stories and draw from this imaginary world once they fled to Switzerland. She discovered scratchboard when she was 8 or 9, and fell in love with the medium, working in it ever since. Most of her work was made to accompany the stories that she would tell her own children.

The second artist highlighted was a retired psychologist who would go out into the woods and find interesting patterns in the bark of various trees, and photograph them. Some of them are extremely abstract, to the point where it is not entirely clear whether it is a photograph or a painting. Wild swirling mishmashes of color combined with variegated texture to create unique images. As a psychologist, he had always been fascinated by finding order in chaos, so when he retired from psychology, he picked up a camera and became fascinated with the patterns and order and shapes found in the bark of trees.

The third artist is the most fascinating to me. Hsueh Shao-Tang was a tailor in pre-Communist China, and fled to escape Mao’s army. He was then conscripted by Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist army, and forced to serve in Taiwan for several years. After finally being discharged, he trained as a chef, and became a chef for diplomatic envoys to foreign countries. The author discovered his work while visiting the house of an ambassador in Switzerland, where he had been master chef for several years. The particular style of art that he does is what is particularly fascinating to me… he collects canceled stamps, and cuts them up into small pieces, which he uses to create elaborate and detailed mosaics. Some of the work is truly impressive, and is clearly enhanced by the texture and variation that is provided through the medium, such as a mosaic dragon he created, where the texture of the scales is created through the shape and color gradation of the stamps he used. It’s absolutely brilliant work.

The fourth and final artist showcased in this book is a widowed Baroness who likes to wander through old growth forests barefoot accompanied by a great dane and her camera. She has some really phenomenal nature photography, which is my own personal hobby. None of it is necessarily innovative — to a certain extent, a photograph of a cobweb is a photograph of a cobweb — but there is an underlying voice that permeates all of her work, which reinforces the basis of art: there are only so many variations of a still life: what makes it unique, expressive, and “art” is the addition of the individual’s viewpoint and creative voice, the focus that they choose to apply to it.

On the larger subject of art, I thought this was an interesting book, worth the time to read it. On the specific subject of drawing, it’s certainly less relevant, but I still feel my time was well spent by reading it. No art (if you could call my chicken scratchings art) exists in a vacuum, and viewing alternative mediums definitely helps energize my mind as to what things I could do.

Duncan, David Douglas. Magic Worlds of Fantasy. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978.