Sunday, February 28, 2010


The mighty Titanic ruled the seas for almost four whole days before it struck an iceberg and sank without a trace in the black waters of the northern Atlantic.

A souvenir postcard from the Titanic, found in the coat pocket of Edith Brown, a small girl lowered into a lifeboat just before the great ship sank.

The lesson of the Titanic was obvious: humans had lost perspective about their place in the universe. Their insignificant little inventions had made them vain. Ancient Greek tragedies repeatedly warned about the folly of such hubris.

The icebergs must have had a good laugh over our "unsinkable" little boat.

The iceberg that sunk the Titanic, photographed by the captain of the Leyland Line steamer S. S. Etonian

Yet, less than a century later, icebergs are getting their asses kicked by global warming from our inventions. Fifty percent of the glaciers have vanished from the earth. Looks like we humans have scored a TKO in the second round. Who's laughing now?

I was thinking about this recently when I beta tested a movie studio's prototype for the next generation of digital drawing tool. The advancements, and the potential, were really quite spectacular.

I am one of those who believes that art has some core attributes that are timeless and immutable, and probably grounded in the designs inherent in nature. Sure, electrical engineering has provided us with dazzling alternatives to a pen or brush for making marks on a surface, but in my view such tools so far merely skitter along the surface of art, with no transformative effect on those immutable underlying values of art. Digital art competes in a race where the rules have been established by traditional art. It attempts to satisfy the same standards of design and composition developed by traditional art. As a technique for making marks, digital media are being judged by the same eternal criteria as the marks left by Rembrandt, Michelangelo, or the first cave painters 35,000 years ago.

But as those smug icebergs learned, eternal truths don't last nearly as long as they once did.

Consider how quickly and pervasively digital media have conquered the world; in most places they are more accessible than a brush and paint.

More pervasive than museums or galleries.

Becoming more pervasive than books.

Consider, too, how talents that once commanded respect in the arts because they were difficult and rare (such as the ability to achieve a good likeness, or the ability to master the color wheel) are no longer difficult or rare. Chaucer once lamented the burdens of an artist:
The lyf so short, the craft so long to learne,
Th' assay so hard, so sharp the conquerage
Today, when any high school student can photoshop a likeness or rotate through color alternatives with the click of a mouse, can these artistic talents possibly command the same respect? At the same time certain talents are being devalued, different talents have taken on new significance. Digital media have provided drawing with new criteria for excellence such as motion, lighting variations, integrated media (interweaving drawing with sound, narratives, etc.) and a variety of other time-factoring qualities.

The yearning to make static drawings move is not new. Some artists achieved it with blurring or speed lines or other illusions of movement. Some did it using sequential images. As a young boy before the era of animation, the great illustrator Al Parker hit upon the idea of drawing pictures on the paper rolls that operated the keys on his family's old player piano. When his family sat in their parlor listening to the piano, the boy was able to watch his pictures roll by:

Cuddlin' and cooin' with Mary Lou in cherry blossom time

Contrast Parker's early primitive yearnings with the ways Steve Brodner is able to use digital medium to make his pictures move. Here, he paints icebergs but weaves a narrative into an accelerated painting process and ends with animation:

is another enterprising combination of conventional drawing and the potential of digital media:

Efforts such as the above are faltering first steps, but the devaluation of traditional talents, the rise of new capabilities, and the broad, grass roots accessibility of digital media may be combining to transform those once-immutable artistic standards. Just as the Titanic got the last laugh, digital media may be the catalyst for an epochal change in art-- as significant as the transition from magical thinking (when animism and totemism ruled art) to viewing art as a physical object. As significant as the transition from representational images to symbolic images. As significant as the invention of writing.

Is that the slow dripping of melting icebergs I hear?

Saturday, February 13, 2010


William Hatherell was a Victorian era illustrator who worked for magazines such as The Graphic, Harpers, Scribner's and the Century. Today he is mostly remembered for crudely printed images such as these:

The printing technology in Hatherell's day was pretty primitive. Combined with cheap paper stock, it stripped Hatherell's work of much of its sensitivity and expressiveness. Of course, like all resourceful artists Hatherell made the best of his limitations; he emphasized strong compositions and high contrasts that could survive the publication process.

But he did more.

Hatherell might easily have used the disadvantages of his medium as an excuse for dashing off fast, limited work. Many artists did. In fact, his employers encouraged him to do so, in order to increase productivity and profits. Instead, Hatherell worked carefully and deliberately, crafting sensitive pictures with subtle features that were undetectable to his larger audience. As one contemporary noted, Hatherell stubbornly refused to lower his standards:
Hatherell became noted for his refusal to be pressured into hasty work. For illustrating current events, for instance, he used models, often carefully posed in his backyard....
When you go back and look at Hatherell's original pictures, you can see the extra effort he put into touches such as subtle shading and expressive faces and gestures:


These delicate touches were difficult and time consuming. Many of them would be undetectable by the reading public. Why did he do all that extra work trying to get it right? Perhaps he shared the view of Robert Fawcett, which I have previously cited on this blog:
The argument that "it won't be appreciated anyway" may be true, but in the end this attitude does infinitely more harm to the artist than to his client.
Easy to say for one picture. Hard to sustain for a career.

Note how well Hatherell handles the positions of the fingers, or the definition of the flowers which would be lost in the printed version.

Hatherell toiled his entire life accepting that publication would degrade the quality of his pictures. He had no defense to this handicap except his wits and his personal integrity. Of course, today almost any artist can publish sharp, high resolution images to the world at the push of a button. We tend to underestimate the competitive advantage that this gives our work over the work of our talented predecessors such as Hatherell.

Hatherell and some of his peers were a lot better than we remember them today, based on their published work. Now that it is possible to recapture the true quality of their original pictures, we owe it to them to honor all those long afternoons they put into trying to get it right when they thought no one might ever know the difference.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010


I love this sweet combination of art and science:

Henry Hexham illustration forThe Principles of the Art Militaire, 1637

For me this drawing combines the beauty of the physical world (that funky little cannon could've been drawn by R. Crumb or George Herriman) with the beauty of the mathematical principles underlying that world. The artist who drew this had to labor under two sets of laws: the laws of perspective and the laws of physics. I respect the discipline required to make such pictures.

As far as we know, Pythagoras of Samos was the first human being to recognize the connection between mathematics and the design of the world, 2500 years ago. Arthur Koestler wrote about the awesome significance of that moment:
[Pythagoras'] influence on the ideas, and thereby on the destiny of the human race was probably greater than that of any single man before or after him.... [His] was the first successful reduction of quality to quantity, the first step towards the mathematization of human experience-- and therefore the beginning of science. Pythagoras discovered that the pitch of a note depends on the length of the string which produces it, and that concordant intervals in the scale are produced by simple numerical ratios.
Pythagoras took his new way of ordering the world and proceeded to go nuts with it, even using it to calculate what he believed would be the "music of the spheres"-- the musical hum of the planets in their orbit. (OK, OK, so not every new application was successful, but Pythagoras definitely set human science on its path.)

Bertrand Russell claimed, "Physics is mathematical not because we know so much about the physical world but because we know so little: it is only its mathematical properties that we can discover."
Russell may have been one heck of a mathematician, and he was certainly correct that quantifiable discoveries can be pure and true and beautiful, but his position reveals that he was no artist. An artist would've understood that art enables us to discover properties even beyond what math can confirm.

We have previously
talked on this blog about the beauty inherent in the rigorous craftsmanship of car illustrators who painted cars to satisfy not just the artistic taste of art directors but also the humorless committees of car company engineers, who rigorously inspected every detail of an illustration to make sure it conformed to the car's schematic diagrams. It was the job of these illustrators to combine math and art, and find the poetry in geometry.

Today, the processing powers of supercomputers have enabled us to merge numbers with shapes and colors in ways Pythagoras never dreamed of. The T square and triangle, primitive tools we employed for centuries, have been replaced by software. Cars, space ships and a wide variety of other images are now composed using CAD and CGI. But no matter how art and math have merged, always-- always-- the artist needs to be listening for that music of the spheres.