Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Breaking the Law! On Rules and Rule-Breakers.

There are only three Universal Rules: 
a.) The speed of light is constant. 
b.) People who wear sunglasses indoors are either blind or assholes. 
c.) That's it.

But all rules have exceptions. Like; a man should not wear short shorts, except if you're Steve McQueen. Or; no good deed was ever performed by anyone with an upturned collar, except if you're Nehru. Okay, so maybe those are Truisms and not Truths, but the point is that there's hardly a rule that doesn't have an exception. 

"I make it a rule never to get involved with possessed people.
Actually it's more of a guideline than a rule."

The American realist painter Thomas Eakins' one simple rule of linear perspective, "twice as far, half as big," is mathematically demonstrable and seems pretty irreducible. Just like E=mc2, the best rules are the simplest ones. But what about the curious case of blind people who have had restorative vision surgery, only to realize that  piles of dirt close by and mountains far away look the same? Even "obvious" rules such as big=close and small=far are accepted conventions that we've had to learn.

A rule's validity stems only from our willingness to invest it with importance. In a relative universe, Truth becomes simply the lowest common denominator. Even the universal speed-limit of light can be broken. Nothing in the universe can travel faster than light? Not according to quantum physicsWhen it comes to Painting, there are a bazillion rules. The only question becomes, which ones do we choose to abide by? Classical realists might argue that strict dogma is essential. But is it?

The same argument for classicism in Painting played out in Opera. Wagner wrote extensively and pedantically about his craft. He passionately wanted to reform music and firmly believed that opera should adhere to a strict classical doctrine. Verdi, on the other hand, when asked (in response to Wagner) what his own theory of opera might be, answered only that, "my theory is that the theater should be full." Verdi's argument that the market dictates the rules sounds quite modern. Times have changed, people are less formal. I've been known to eat my dinner over the kitchen sink, and I've never once mowed the lawn in a suit and tie like my grandfather. Nobody reads books anymore or cares about your belief in tradition.

That being said - and Verdi's dismissal of Rules notwithstanding - as soon as we pick up our pencil and sketchpad we accept the confines of a common language: the pencil is confined to making certain marks, the paper is a certain size, the marks we make must speak a language that communicates to people. In other words, those marks better look like something recognizable. We indoctrinate our kids from day one by rewarding their doodlings with oohs and aahs, but only if they look like they're 'supposed to.'

You say, "what about Pollock? He didn't paint 'things.'" Who cares about him. If Clement Greenberg hadn't touted him to a bunch of bored east Coast intellectuals as the new vision of rugged American individualism, and if the CIA hadn't supported him financially in their anti-Soviet propaganda campaign during the Cold War, he would never have made it. The truth is, we don't celebrate real rule-breakers; they disappear into our lunatic asylums. True outsiders fall through the cracks and are never seen or heard from again. The people we deify as cultural barometers might be left of center but they're still distinctly on our side on the fence, and know very well how to play the game.

The point is: Rules are as mutable but ever-present in Art as they are in Life. There's nothing more boring in painting (or anything else) than someone who follows all the rules. Look at Komar and Melamid's experiments with crowd-sourced creativity. They produced paintings according to what everyone wanted to see, and the result looked like the bastard hellspawn of Thomas Kinkade and Hallmark Cards. We do like our artists to have the appearance of rebellion, but their work had still better look good hanging over our new couch.

This generation's resistance of the Rules is a tepid mix of some leftover punk rock anarcho-silly "rules are for fools" ethic, its disaffected lack of engagement with the past, and a ridiculous belief that all of us deserve success despite a lack of knowledge, skill, or any discernible talent whatsoever. Nevertheless, all the rebels hanging out in the mall still end up looking the same, which proves my point: In the end, there are no renegades and even rebels follow the rules.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Prehistoric Painted Illusionism

Praxinotropes use mirrors around a central column to reflect the inside of the drum. The "overlapping" images create the sensation of movement.  

People like to be fooled. We find the notion of illusion entertaining, and go out of our way to believe in magic. Long before David Blaine, Imax theaters, and Florentines faffing about in velvet hats, there were much hairier creatures crawling around in caves, creating a visual magic of their own. 35,000 years ago, painters made their way into the belly of the earth and left behind a spectacular tableau of aurochs, horse, bison and elk, often composed of curious double images. 

The Chamber of Lions, in Lascaux, depicts curious double images, once believed to suggest the motion of their subjects.

Archaeologists have long suggested that the double images are attempts to breath life into the stone; that under flickering torch light the animals are seen to dance and move. Early experiments in kinematics - or motion pictures - built on this principle by using a spinning barrel with staggered images on the inside that appear to move when spun, called a zoetrope or praxinotrope. Recently, however, a couple of artists provocatively suggested that these ghost-like double images are not illusions of movement but are in fact illusions of depth.* 

On the left, the camera is focused on my finger, and shows a blurred double image of the X on the wall.
On the right, the camera is focused on the X, and the double image is instead my finger.

A simple experiment explains their idea: Hold your finger up in the air between your eyes and this page, and focus on it: You see one finger. Now shift your focus to the page behind it, and magically there appears to be two ghost images of your finger hovering. The double image of your finger is thus understood to be closer to you than the single image of the page. Simples! 

Every child is familiar with this basic optical trick. It’s the optical displacement of an object caused by our binocular vision (or stereopsis), known as “parallax,” and it’s a binocular depth cue that babies learn as early as four months out of the womb. In order to navigate 3-dimensional space, we learn from a very early age to interpret our world via optical cues such as parallax, and organize it into "near" and "far," for example.

Perhaps our primitive ancestors were harnessing this basic navigational tool and using it to create images depicting not movement through space, but space itself. If so, they'd have beaten the linear perspective discoveries of Alberti by, oh, 34,000 years or so.

* [In a talk by Ryan and Trevor Oakes, titled “Seminal Notions: The Idea and Practice of Perspective,” given at the Chicago Humanities Festival.]

Thursday, April 30, 2015

"Who Do We Think We Are?"

If there was a sub-heading for my new book, this would be it. An alternative title would be, "Why I have not been blogging of late."

As anyone who's had the misfortune to be within earshot of me in a bar will know, I've been writing a book. There's not a day that goes by without me blurting it out loud on the subway in NYC on my way to work. It started out as a broad history about our attempts to describe 3-D space on 2-D canvas, but it pulled way back to become a story about how we create the idea of ourselves ... of reality, really.

I'm uploading what may end up being the first chapter. I do hope someone out there will read it. If you are that person, please let me know what you think.

I would include an introduction, but I have not written it yet. Let's just say; it's to do with outsiders, hermits, garden gnomes, weirdos, oddballs and everyone that society considers to be a kook. I believe that these people are fundamental to the conception of what civilization is.

Anyway; here it is... Please download the PDF at the link below, and you can open it on any one of your devices.


[Download free PDF book sample here]

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Perspective drawings by V. Pellegrin, 1873, and Ernest Norling, 1929

Fig. 1

Okay, I get it. Perspective is boring. Especially arcane drawings from some 19th century manual by the Professor of Topography at some Military School. True, the text (which you can read here) is as thick and dense as Dermot Malone who beat me up when I was a kid, but the drawings are amazing. Take the first one (Fig. 1), for example.

It shows how to draw a square in perspective (lmno), a column in perspective (m1, n1, q1, p1), and how to draw shadows cast in perspective (v2, u2, p2) ... all in one tiny little drawing. Note that the shadows also recede. Not only do they stretch back towards the horizon, but they have their own distance point at F1, which is a theoretical point that would be way under the ground somewhere. You know where to place the shadows by marking the intersection points between lines going back from the column towards the horizon, and lines cast by the sun (above and behind) that pass through the top corners of the column (p1, q1, u1, v1) and recede to F1. Simples.

Now you can delete this email and go about your day. See you in another couple of months with some more useless info. Bye!

I admit; some might be a tad complicated. But they still look cool.

Continuing from Figure 1, this shows an obelisk in perspective and how to construct appropriate shadows.

Maybe these next ones are a bit easier to follow. They're by Ernest Norling from Perspective Made Easy (1929). Maybe I should have posted these first, but they're not as cool-looking as Pellegrin's. And besides, nobody's made it this far into the post anyway.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Exotic Recipes from Artists' Apothecaries

Run by the Quakers until it closed in 1933, the Stabler-Leadbetter Apothecary Museum is a step back in time.

Wherever I go, I collect samples of local earth. I scrape ancient statues into old film canisters with a pocketknife and keep them for my collection; the rainbow-colored sandstone of Petra is a particular favorite. I keep it in a box under my bed next to the bald eagle eggs. Relax, I'm joking. I ate those eggs ages ago. 

Swirls of color in sandstone, Petra, Jordan [Ed Trayes, photographer]
But pigment has always had a colorful history; explorers travelled to the four corners for centuries specifically to plunder color, until chemists in the 18th century wrested the practice from the hands of alchemists and their hired goons and took it indoors to the laboratory. But to this day, certain colors retain hints of their exotic past. Red ocher, for example, is a constant reminder of our stellar origins. Iron oxide is forged in the belly of dying stars that explode and scatter their contents across the galaxy. In fact, Mars still sends a kilo of it to us every day. (I wrote a whole post about it, here)

Companies like De Mairo Pigments still sell natural lapis lazuli pigment
Not content with simply smearing our canvases with dirt, we've forever ranged across the earth to uncover ever more exotic pigments. As with any modern luxury item, the rarest pigment conferred a whiff of superiority upon anyone rich enough to afford it. The expensive pigment cinnabar was conspicuously splashed all over the walls of Pompeii. We assume that they just liked the color red, or were colorblind, but in the same way that we line up to buy the latest designer excrescence, perhaps they simply had to have it because it was new and exotic. Ancient Egyptians wore lapis from Afghanistan and iron beads from Mars. Venice, by the late fifteenth century, had developed an offshoot of the apothecary specifically for artists, called vendecolori, which sold pigments like the exotic oltremare da venezia – lapis lazuli imported from the mines of Badakshan, and first described by none other than Marco Polo.(1) 

The deep saturation of "Pompeiian Red" is due to the addition of fine granules to the pigment.
Wax was applied to preserve and protect the finish.

Before this time, it was perfectly natural for artists to run down to their local Apothecary for the ingredients of their craft, but these were closer in spirit to shaman's huts than laboratories. Records of Apothecaries dating as far back as 1,500 BCE in ancient Egypt show over 800 recipes and 700 different drugs.(2) Not all of the ingredients were exotic in a "strange and alluring" way, some of them were just plain weird: By the time the Renaissance rolled around, these ingredients naturally expanded to include all sorts of herbs and ground minerals of every kind and color, soaps, cosmetics, gems such as amethyst and emeralds, oddities like “ground unicorn horn” (rhinoceros horn that came through Spain from Africa), tobacco (also through Spain in the fifteenth century), sulfur, mercury, the skin of roasted vipers, dried earthworms and human faeces (most prized being those of young children), bizarre elixirs and, of course, illegal poisons like arsenic and hemlock: Shakespeare’s Romeo picked up the poison he used to kill himself from an apothecary. 

Victorian Medicine Case [source]

Combine this with the practice (for certain illustrators of Islamic illuminated texts) of making the finest brushes from hairs gathered from the inside throats of kittens, and it's easy to see why artists were traditionally looked at sideways. As for me, I'll stick to ordering from the catalog.

Recommended reading:
"Color," Victoria Finlay, Random House
"Colors: The Story of Dyes and Pigments," Abrams Discoveries

(1) Vendecolori a Venezia: the reconstruction of a Profession,” ­Louisa C. Matthew, The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 144, No. 1196 (Nov., 2002), pp. 680-686
(2) A History of Pharmaceutical Compounding. Secundum Artem ,” Allen, Jr, Lloyd, Volume 11 Number 3.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Q: Why is the Sky Brighter over the Sea when it's Windy?

Breezing Up, Winslow Homer
A: Ask a sailor. 

There was a time when reading the weather meant more than just clicking an app on your smartphone. Seafaring Greeks, Vikings or Moors weren't concerned about choosing appropriate footwear for the long walk to the car, or remembering to pack a sweater to brave frigid air conditioners in corporate HQ; they needed to learn to read natural signs of approaching weather because their lives depended on it.

Becalmed mariners have long known when a stiff wind is approaching because the sky over the sea gets brighter in that direction. Why? It was a mystery for years until Galileo Galilei came along and applied his massive brain to the problem. The famed mathematician and astronomer was known to take long walks on the beach while contemplating the heavens, and while sitting on a hill overlooking the ocean one day, it suddenly occurred to him.

He had been pondering the question of the texture of the moon: Since the moon appeared so bright in the night sky, did that mean that its surface was mirror-like? Was it so smooth that it reflected the sun's rays directly towards the eyes of this earth-bound observer? Or was it rough and rocky?

His Eureka moment came while witnessing the effect of approaching wind on the water. As the wind picked up, it would roughen the surface of the water. If the sun was shining at the time, and the air being dense with moisture, the now fractured surface of the water would bounce the reflection of the light source (the sun) in all directions, where it would be scattered by the humid atmosphere and appear bright:

"From such waves, as from many mirrors spread over a wide area, there would originate a much brighter reflection of the sun than would exist if the sea were calm. Then that part of the vapor-laden air may be made brighter by this new light and by the diffusion of that reflection.  
This air, being high, sends also some reflection of light to the eyes of the sailors, while they, being low and far off would not be able to receive the primary reflection from that part of the sea which is already being ruffled by the wind twenty or thirty miles away. And that is how they perceive and predict a wind from afar."
Galileo's theory that rougher surfaces appear brighter than smooth surfaces led him to claim that the surface of the moon must be rocky and not glass-like; a theory that would be proven correct many centuries later when we finally stood on it. I say "we": I had nothing to do with it. 

He proposed a thought experiment to illustrate his point: Imagine that the sun is shining on a bright white-washed stone wall. Now, imagine hanging a mirror on that wall and stepping across the courtyard. Which looks brighter; the mirror or the wall? Spoiler alert: it's the wall.

Man in Armour, Rembrandt van Rijn

What's this got to do with painting? 

Medieval illuminators knew to think of gold-leafed areas of their panels as dark compositional elements, even though symbolically they represented the effulgent light of the Lord. It was obvious to them that while the applied gold surface may have been reflective, it was not shiny: it was physically dark under normal lighting conditions

Basically my point is this: paint shiny surfaces dark except for their specular highlights.

You should also look at this post regarding the technique for painting reflective surfaces like gold.