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: 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.)
Continue reading

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: The Subversive Imagination

My sentiments about this book can really be summed up best by one of the author quotes on the back of the book:

If you want to think about what’s happening to the arts across the world today, you need to read this book. It brings the reader face to face with a lot of new situations. An unavoidable book. After that, you can start arguing like hell with it.” (John Berger, back cover)

The Subversive Imagination is a collection of essays by artists of various forms gathered under the auspices of discussing the role of art in society. Considering my interest in sociology and social responsibility and the subtitle of the book (“Artists, Society, and Social Responsibility”), it seemed like an interesting book that would be well worth reading. I suppose in a way it IS worth reading, and certainly has some good ideas and comments in some of the essays… that is, if you can put up with the intellectual arrogance of the essays. I’m sorry, but it really just ends up irritating me when I read page after page (essay after essay) of over-intellectualized ego-stroking. The essays themselves varied in topic and style, but they all carry an underlying theme: to sell art is to sell out, and the only art that is worthwhile is never appreciated by the masses.

Really, my particular stance on this sort of dreck boils down to two basic sentiments. First: art, in particular visual art, is the communication tool of the masses, and as such is made impotent by the intellectuals and academics that try to wring every last iota of value or meaning from it. Artists that choose to target that group simply serve to perpetuate the elitist myth surrounding art. Second: I disagree with the “intellectual movement” in general. By this, I am not talking about the discussion, study, critique, or appreciation of art or any other subject, so much as when the accessibility of that subject is intentionally stratified. In all my reading, I’ve yet to see one of these “academic” “intellectual” books say anything that could not have been said more simply, eloquently, concisely, and accessibly. Further, I’ve known too many “intellectuals” to not believe that at least some of the time, this stratification is done intentionally.

Moving right along to another gripe: Carol Becker, the editor and anthologist behind the book, is the Associate Dean at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. This professional attachment has colored her work as editor. She makes a point of stating that there are a variety of opposing stances found within the essays, yet the majority (not all) of the essays not only come to the same conclusions, but get there along the same routes. It just makes the whole book come off as a self-fulfillment, a way of proving her own opinions as valid and important.

Of course, for all my complaints, there is still a lot of merit to what is said in the book, regardless of whether you agree with it (or, as in my case, their method of delivery). There was an interesting essay by Kathy Acker called Dead Doll Prophecy, discussing her experiences dealing with irate publishers after she released a book comprised of a montage of other works (which in essence is no different than creating photomontage with other people’s photographs). It pointed out the absurdity of the current gallery/publisher philosophy in a not uncommon but still unfortunate scenario. One particular publisher was informed that Acker had used a few snippets of an author they publish, and contacted her publisher to shut down publication of the book, and to demand a public apology from Acker. Neither publisher bothered to check to see how much had actually been used (an amount well within fair use), nor what the author (the actual copyright holder) felt about it. They continued to threaten and harass Kathy for many months, during which she received counsel from several lawyers to just ignore it, including the lawyer of the other author, but finally simply gave up and signed the apology, because she wanted a moment’s peace. I realize and acknowledge the need to protect one’s intellectual property, but so many corporate entities take it too far, knowing full well that they can bully whoever they want, so long as they’re small enough to not be able to bully back.

Another interesting (though heavy handed) essay was written by Elizam Escobar, a Puerto Rican freedom fighter, poet, and artist, who is currently serving an extended sentence for conspiracy to rebel. He is, at times, eloquent, though at other times his choice of words get in the way of his message. Nothing he says is greatly revelatory, in my opinion, but it is interesting to read, regardless. His discussion of the searching process of finding a balance between personal art and art for a cause (whether that cause is money or politics is relatively unimportant) was particularly familiar and relevant. Without the opportunity to do art that satisfies the self, it becomes increasingly difficult to find value in the art done for others. That said, it is hard to justify doing art just for yourself if it means neglecting work that puts food on the table.

Overall, I’m glad I read this book, and I would recommend it to anyone studying art and sociology, but I would not recommend it to the general artist or art appreciator. It’s got a LOT of flaws, but it does have some worthwhile discussion on the topic of art in society. As far as I’m concerned, it has more merit as something to argue against than as a seminal body of thought on the topic.

Becker, Carol. The Subversive Imagination. New York: Routledge, 1994.

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.

Annotation: Ways of Seeing

Originally published in 1972 as a companion follow-up to his BBC television series, John Berger’s Ways of Seeing is a remarkable and interesting book from start to finish. Even the cover is nontraditional, ignoring the standard need for a cover separate from the rest of the book. Instead, they simply took an excerpt from the book, and used that as the cover. This establishes the sort of book this is from the very get-go: challenging the current deified, over-intellectualized view of art in modern society.

Standards are meant to be a groundwork, a starting point to grow from. They are not meant to be a constraint, a restriction as to the only “proper” methodology, but that is exactly what they have become. To fall back to an art medium I’m more familiar with, in photography one of the most commonly referenced “standards” or “laws” is the law of thirds, which is a guideline for composing your image. There are plenty of reasons to use this guideline, not the least of which is our natural predisposition to “sacred geometry” which a thirds-based image tends to satisfy. That said, photographers can end up trapped by this law, and become incapable of doing anything but this. They become chained to it, and often become incapable of appreciating any image that deviates from it. It is not until these deviations, these abnormalities become accepted by the artistic elite that they become accepted as a worthwhile technique. This has been my sentiment for quite some time, and I found Berger’s essays on this subject both cogent and topical. In particular, I found the statistics provided by Pierre Bourdieu and Alain Darbel on public perceptions of museums and art particularly interesting, as well as his discussion of the historical causes of this shift.

Interestingly, some art students argue that this shift never took place, and that this was always the nature of art. These are also the same art students that declare that “art is dead” so ardently, which I personally feel is the cliché battle cry of those who are afraid to contribute to it. Once again falling back to photography, I can pretty safely argue that this shift from art for art’s sake and as a commercial entity into the deified realm restricted only to the social elite is entirely within the realm of possibility, and with historical context as referenced by Berger, seems a virtual certainty. I have been witnessing the same progression in the field of photography for most of my life, and have discussed the topic with others who have been in the field for well over 40 years. With the advent of inexpensive scanners and printers, it is easier than ever before to accurately reproduce a photographic work, with or without the consent of the photographer. This has forced professional photographers to undergo a shift of their own: they must either shift into charging for their time and creativity rather than on a per-print basis, or face financial extinction through individuals purchasing a single print and duplicating it themselves. In order for this shift to work, however, there must also be a cultural shift in mindset to view hiring a photographer as a service, not as a product: you are purchasing the photographer’s creativity, not the print. This is, in my mind, incredibly similar to the cultural shift that painters underwent when lithographs and other methods to reproduce their art became available. The artists needed a way to justify their profession, and the social elite needed a way to continue to separate themselves from the masses, hence the shift to the importance of having an “original”, and to have the name of artist mean nearly as much (or more) as the painting itself.

I think I may have talked myself into a corner here, so allow me to clarify what I mean: the art community was forced into a paradigm shift in order to survive. This is pragmatic and understandable. While it is unfortunate, I do not consider this shift necessarily a bad thing. What I do consider bad is the way the social elite took this shift and bent it towards their own purposes — namely in further stratifying themselves from the rest of society.

As you can probably guess, the first essay in Ways of Seeing really struck a chord. I’ll let it rest for now, and instead move on to the rest of the book, which decidedly also merits discussion. His second essay, which was a montage of images gathered to form a visual essay was interesting. I found it directly relevant to one of his later essays on depictions of women in art, and I found both essays to be significantly less heavy-handed and accusatory than other essays and articles I’ve read about the topic. (While the objectification of women is a damnable thing, taking an accusatory, hateful tone about it is quite possibly even less effective or useful than simply doing nothing. Demanding reparations does nothing more than encourage resentment.) In particular, the use of female sexuality in commercial art is really rather directly pointed out, and the distinctions he makes between being naked, and being nude, and it explains my own personal choice to prefer the direct earnestness and honesty of an image of someone who is naked versus a picture of a nude. That is not to say that nudes don’t have their own place, and the objectification of the human form (male or female) can be used towards great effect as a method of artistic abstraction, much in the same way that a building can be made a thing of abstract shape and form through perspective, becoming something that is no longer a building (or in the case of nudes, a person). But as far as portraits, or human expression is concerned, I would far prefer to see someone naked because that is the most primitive, honest expression of themselves, than to see someone posed and nude because someone else wishes it.

I’m going to skip over the essay on the nature of art as a method of proving your possession of something else (a ship, a piece of land, a prize animal, a spouse or child, et cetera), because I feel like I’ve already addressed this in my discussion of the first essay, and go on directly to the essay on the use of art in advertising. This brought up some interesting points both in favor and against the ways art is used to sell things other than art, as well as how “corporate art” can still be considered art. Here’s my take on it, after reading his essay: of course it’s still art, and of course the social elite brand it as “selling out”. Use of art in advertising brings art to the masses, countering the whole push to keep art as a tool of social stratification. Whether it is through direct use, or through emulation of a classic piece of art, it allows the masses to have access to works that they might otherwise never see, and never appreciate or be enriched by. There was significantly more use of art in advertising and publicity in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, at which point there was a backlash, when the notion of use of art in advertising was a form of selling out and devalued the merit of the art really gained enough momentum to be noticeable. By the late 90s to now, there has been significantly less use (though it still does happen), and I can’t help but feel that this is part of the over-intellectual stratification, an attempt to retake art as solely the purview of the elite. Looking through the images included in the essay, while dated in composition, it is obvious just how much more direct influence prior art had on advertising compared to modern day.

Frankly, I blame the academic institution at large. While there are always exceptions, I find it remarkable and frightening how many schools of “art” I have seen that do nothing more than churn out more embittered, brainwashed pseudo-intellectuals that serve to do nothing more than maintain an entirely unnecessary stratification fostered by their professors (who themselves have been ensnared in this mindset). They obscure this stratification by hiding behind muddy definitions-through-lack-of-definitions of art, trapping their students in the circle of asking “what is art?” Well, here is a definition: art is a method of expression. That is my definition, and as far as I’m concerned, that’s all a definition it needs. That, of course, is not acceptable to those who wish to deify art, because that definition intrinsically makes it accessible to anyone who wishes to express themselves. It returns art to the masses.

Mind you, I am not making a distinction between “good” art and “bad” art. That is a largely subjective arena, and can really only objectively be discussed on the merits of particular techniques, and subjectively on whether you (the individual) like it or not. Really, whether art is good or bad does not matter to the larger definition of art itself — the artist either expresses themselves well, or they don’t. They either have good technique, or they don’t. (I am well aware that nothing is truly binary, which is why I generally place things in three categories, things I like, things I don’t like, and things that I may not like but respect. But for the sake of the discussion, I’m keeping it generalized.)

John Berger has certainly raised some very interesting subjects, in a coherent fashion that are still just as relevant today as it was when it was written 30 years ago. I would gladly recommend this to anyone interested in art (and in fact already have). Considering just how topical this book remains, it really serves to prove just how hard it is to break through the established mindset. I can only hope that at some point, it ceases to be topical, and instead becomes historical.

Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. New York: Penguin Publishing, 1973.

Annotation: Drawing As A Sacred Activity

Trying to find my own balance with the connection between spirituality and art has taken me to a number of books, not the least of which would be The Artist’s Way, and Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, neither of which I am directly talking about here (which is good, because I have not yet finished either of those books). It also introduced me rather directly to a book by Heather C. Williams called Drawing as a Sacred Activity.

It isn’t exactly a new concept: using art as a form of therapy has a lot of history behind it. But then, the issue for me has never been an ignorance of the merits of art. My issue has always been (and continues to be) getting past my internal censor to allow myself to DO the art. I do not have the technical ability right now to be able to create what appears in my mind’s eye, not as I would like it to be. Because of this, I am extremely critical of my own work, and allow myself to become paralyzed by this self deprecation. Which leads me to the blurb on the back of the book:

…many people are not encouraged to embrace their creativity. So they quietly shut down that part of their inner lives. Even people who learn to embrace their creativity may find themselves blocked by past emotions. Heather Williams has developed playful yet profound exercises to teach not only the technical but also the emotional skills that artists and nonartists alike need to create and heal their lives. (Back Cover)

Help me get past my past emotions and help me get back in touch with my creativity? Sounds good to me! It was this blurb on the back cover that got me to check the book out of the library. At worst it would be hokey, and I could lampoon it in my annotation. Instead, I was impressed with the honesty of her writing, and found that her advice genuinely made sense. While I have not managed to put much of it into practice, I have every intention to do so.

A good deal of the book is spent doing exercises, and ways to interpret those exercises. They start out very simply, with drawing basic lines, then moving onto doors and windows, then tables, chairs, and finally moving on to clothing and living things (trees, flowers, et cetera). She also recommends drawing with your non-dominant hand for a while, particularly in free-drawing, because it taps distinctly different parts of the brain, parts that often end up being tied to emotional response and memory. It is through this non-dominant drawing that we can often finally come to terms with things that have been blocking us for years. I definitely plan to work on this more, in the hopes that I can finally get past whatever it is that is keeping me trapped in the sentiment that my artistic ability is no better than a third-graders, no matter how good or bad it actually is. (In some ways it is more annoying to those around me than it is to myself. I merely trash my own work, which is an established routine for me at this point… those around me, though, are left confused and exasperated as to why I’m so hard on my work.)

I found her chapter on drawing animals far more interesting on an intellectual level than I did on a technical level. Her opinion (and I tend to agree) is that animals are an excellent way to learn to draw compassionately, which is more in tune with your own emotional well being. Animals (especially pets like dogs and cats) love unconditionally, and do not hide behind false pretenses. They will behave in exactly the way that most suits them at any given time, regardless of who is watching. This really struck a chord, because that is what I seek in my close relationships: an ability to behave exactly as I choose, without fear of judgment. I can be as goofy or relaxed as I’d like, without fear of reprisal. I can think of nothing that makes me love as absolutely and be as unconditionally happy as having that feeling with someone else. THAT, to me, is one of the core essences of love.

I’d say the biggest thing that I learned from this book is that a drawing doesn’t have to be technically perfect to be good, as long as it is emotionally honest. The corollary to that is that not every piece I draw must be technically good in order to not be a failure. There are some very childish, simplistic drawings in this book (admittedly, most of them were done with the artist’s non-dominant hand), but they still succeed in their goal: to honestly convey the artist’s feelings.

If the spoken and written word is the way that our thinking mind communicates, then the visual image is the way our emotional mind expresses itself. That may be an over generalization (where, for instance, does music fall in that range? It is an imperfect analogy at best), but it does convey what I am trying to say. I look forward to putting this (and what I learn from other books) into practice, and perhaps, finally, become comfortable with my own creativity.

I was a bit skeptical when I started the book, but now that it is finished, I am glad I took the time to read it. Anything even brushing up against the spiritual runs a strong risk (in my opinion) of being hokey rubbish, so discovering that I had not wasted my time with this one is really rewarding. I would definitely recommend it to anyone in a similar position to me.

Williams, Heather C. Drawing As A Sacred Activity. Novato: New World Press, 2002.