Saturday, July 31, 2010

COMIC-CON 2010 (part 4)

At Comic-Con, artist Neal Adams defined a comic book artist as:
someone you put in a closet with a drawing table, a lamp, a radio, art supplies and you slide paper under the door and he'll keep filling it up -- just so he can get new paper to draw more.
There must have been a thousand artists at Comic-Con who fit that description. Some of them were still blinking as their eyes adjusted to being out in the light. At tables on "artist's alley," in booths and leaning up against fire hydrants, you saw them inking highly detailed backgrounds and individual strands of hair. They didn't seem to be weighing the costs and benefits of their actions, the way sensible people would. They drew unfazed by the economics or the logistics of what they were doing.

There must have been 423 of them specializing in slick, polished images of huge breasted barbarian women in leather and chain mail bodices. (Question: if there are only 360 degrees in a full circle, how is it possible that there are an infinite number of angles from which to draw barbarian women bending over?)

Most of these pictures were keyed to grab at your attention -- every muscle flexed to the max, every gun blazing, every body extended mid-leap. Walking down a corridor of such overwrought images was exhausting.

Most of these pictures were technically accomplished. The artists had clearly sacrificed huge chunks of their lives to acquire technical skills. Some of the art-- a very small percentage-- was even excellent.

I would not live my life the way these artists do, but from a safe distance I can admire their willful disregard for actuarial tables. I am reminded of Archy and Mehitabel's famous Lesson of the Moth, in which Archy asked the moths why they continued to bang their heads against an electric light bulb in an effort to fry themselves in the beautiful fire. He asks one, "have you no sense?"

plenty of it he answered
but at times we get tired
of using it

As Archy returned to his rational life, he remarked,

i wish
there was something i wanted
as badly as he wanted to fry himself

Friday, July 30, 2010

COMIC-CON 2010 (part 3)

Comic-Con provides a unique vantage point on the digital future of the popular arts. The invention of digital media had an obvious quantitative impact on art, but I always listen at Comic-Con for early evidence of a qualitative impact. Everybody knows the quantitative benefits: computers enhance the efficiency, speed and precision of the creation and distribution of images. They permit sharper, more consistent pictures than traditional tools can. They expand the range of possible subject matters by overcoming previous limitations on scale. For example, animators today have the ability to show individual strands of hair, or flowers in a field, or faces in a crowd that once would have been economically impossible to convey. Yet, it is not clear that any of these miracles crosses the line between quantitative and qualitative change. Contrast digital art with the invention of oil paint, for example. Many historians believe the invention of oil paint transformed the nature of art qualitatively. It gave artists versatility and sensitivity to create rich, glowing surfaces (such as polished marble, radiant jewels and-- most importantly-- human flesh).


 This is supposed to have helped inspire the transition from the medieval obsession with the afterlife...


to the Renaissance focus on the human body and our physical world. For me, the most fascinating question about the future of digital art is whether HCI (human-computer interaction) has the potential to trigger a similar kind of change. Can it help make our images more sensitive? Better designed? Can it lead to better compositions? More poignant or evocative or profound images? Can it help make artists visually smarter, or perhaps release some primal aspect of aesthetic communication that has been straightjacketed so long by the limitations of earlier media we're not even aware of it? One of the more promising areas discussed at Comic-Con emerged in a presentation by USC professor Henry Jenkins on "Transmedia," which he defined as:
The systematic dispersion across multiple platforms of a unified and coordinated entertainment experience, with each platform making its own contribution.
While in many respects transmedia is a marketing concept, it can also alter our experience of creative content by mixing genres together in what seems to be a new and potentially rich way. Digitalization enables people to become part of a movie, or to experience the movie through multiple points of view; to immerse themselves in a story and to later extract parts of it to take back to their own world; to incorporate the content in their own play (think of people using youtube to adapt and perform their own versions of the songs they see on Glee); to move the content from one medium to another, the way bees cross-pollenate. Jenkins impressed me as smart and disciplined. It's too early to tell, but this strikes me as a variation on the creative experience worth thinking about as we shape our stories and other creative content.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

COMIC-CON 2010 (part 2)

John Henry said to his captain,
"Well a man ain't nothin but a man,
But before I let that steam drill beat me down,
Lawd, Lawd, I'll die with that hammer in my hand."

Tim Lewis 2000

We have had several discussions on this blog about the expanding role of software in the creation of art. I have argued that programs such as Painter and Photoshop allow people to purchase a level of talent that previous generations had to struggle for years to master. Others have responded that you can't hide bad digital painting/drawing in Corel Painter or bad character animation in Maya any more than you can hide bad oil painting.

Our discussions have ranged across a wide variety of theoretical scenarios. But in the words of the great Yogi Berra,
In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.
One of the great things about Comic-Con is the opportunity to watch experts perform live demonstrations of the latest art software. After watching the current software in action, I have no question that it artificially provides a user with a remarkable level of technical skill to draw and paint.

I was particularly impressed with a demonstration of Z Brush. I watched the demonstrator use a scanned photograph to establish the topology of a face and then choose from seemingly endless options to customize the face into the image she wanted, selecting not just the skin tone, but how shiny or textured the skin would be, or even how conspicuous the pores would be. When it came to creating the hair, she pulled up a hair cap from a sphere, selected whether she wanted the "hair" or "fur" option, and then simply pulled the hair down to the desired length and cut and combed it the way she wanted. The computer placed her at a level that it would have taken a traditional artist many years to master.

I later looked at the demonstrator's drawings created without the benefit of a computer. They were not nearly as sophisticated or technically skilled.

The benefits of the computer were truly amazing, but I'll tell you something else that I found even more impressive. The demonstrator shyly revealed that she had just resigned from a plum position with the acclaimed computer animation and graphics studio Blur to take classes at the Los Angeles Academy of Figurative Art. The audience gasped. But she said, "I go home at night and I draw and paint, and I feel so happy!"

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

COMIC-CON 2010 (part 1)

The ancient marketplace of Byzantium swarmed with traders, cutthroats, fishermen and merchants selling spices, livestock, textiles and goods from all across the known world. Its crowded stalls and narrow streets reeked with exotic smells and clamored with a dozen languages. When normal language failed, the vocabulary of commerce always prevailed.

[I just returned from the world famous San Diego Comic-Con-- always a mind-altering experience. This week I am posting a series of observations about my experiences there.]

The exhibition hall at Comic-Con is an airplane hangar sized petrie dish, where the conversion rate between artistic talent and cash is renegotiated thousands of times each minute. Art is bought and sold in every form, both as originals and in all manner of tangible and intangible reproductions. Oil paintings from the past are marketed alongside vapor ware from the future. The tools for making the next generation of art-- magic brush pens from Faber-Castell, Tombow and Prismacolor, or software from Z brush-- are marketed like the magic wands in Harry Potter.

For me, one noteworthy story about the value of art comes from these beautifully painted animation backgrounds which could be purchased by the fistful on the last day for $10 apiece.

Original paintings produced by skillful artists cost less than a printed poster.

Walking the exhibition hall, you developed an appreciation for the fact that the price of art is tied less to its quality than to its function. No matter how talented the artist, or how these images look, they were produced on an assembly line for high volume use, and the artists had already been paid once by their corporate employer.

The price of these paintings was discounted far below their inherent quality because the pictures had already served their primary function.

The same observation can sometimes be made about the price of illustration art generally. It often sells for less than its artistic quality would justify when compared to gallery art, because the primary cost of creating the art has already been covered by its initial commercial sponsor. Once an illustration has fulfilled its primary function, the secondary collector can sometimes purchase the work of a talented artist who in a rational world might be unaffordable.

Sunday, July 18, 2010


English illlustrator W. Heath Robinson (1872-1944) was hardly an adventurous guy. Meek and withdrawn, he loved to stay at home surrounded by his books. For excitement he puttered in his garden.

In just about every way you can imagine-- his wardrobe, his manners, his relationships, the food he ate, his morals-- Robinson lived a cloistered life. He courted his future bride on Sunday afternoons dressed in a top hat, frock coat and high collar. Even after he mustered the courage to propose marriage, their engagement lasted for nearly five years (he didn't believe in acting impetuously).

Yet, Robinson fell instantly in love with Japanese woodblock prints-- an exotic art form that had newly arrived in England by way of Paris.

He loved their flat decorative patterns, their asymmetrical and diagonal compositions, their creative use of high viewpoint, and their stark use of negative space. He was smitten by the clean, simplified line and highly stylized designs of Utamaro, Hiroshige and Hokusai.

Robinson adapted these qualities to his own work. He went from drawing in the conventional style of English illustrators of his day: drawing with a cleaner line, using checkerboard and other decorative patterns to enhance his designs:

Note that Robinson didn't plagiarize Japanese images. This is not a story of cultural theft. Instead, it is a story of the wonderful panmixia that characterizes the language of forms. Robinson combined the abstract qualities of Japanese prints with his own style to come up with a genuine hybrid approach. (He was not alone-- the arrival of Japanese woodblock prints in Europe also came as an inspiration to artists from Aubrey Beardsley to Van Gogh).

I especially like the fact that Robinson, who was a cultural hermit in every other respect, immediately understood and appreciated the intentions of artists who were geographically, culturally and socioeconomically on the opposite side of the planet.

Robinson had never traveled, spoke no foreign languages and had no exposure to different cultures and styles. But geographic boundaries and language restrictions are no barrier to the appreciation of forms. Forms travel without a passport and communicate instantly in a global language.

This kind of cross-fertilization continues today in the work of illustrators such as Yuko Shimizu, who are far more open to the potential of other cultures than Robinson was:

Technology also facilitates this cross fertilization of images and styles. When you think how long it took for that first steam ship to introduce exported prints from Japan to European audiences, our own advantages in this area seem overwhelming today.

Sunday, July 04, 2010


Decades after fine artists embraced photography as a tool for drawing and painting pictures, illustrators remained wracked with guilt about the practice.

Artists such as Cezanne, Van Gogh, Degas, Gauguin, Toulouse Lautrec and Eakins enthusiastically used photographs as a starting point for their work.

They openly enjoyed the exciting new medium. But illustrators-- nursing a giant inferiority complex-- remained concerned that using photographs might somehow be cheating.

Norman Rockwell recounted his shame when he began to use photographs:
At a dinner at the Society of Illustrators, William Oberhardt, a fellow illustrator, grabbed my arm and said bitterly., "I hear you've gone over to the enemy." "Hunh?" I said, faking ignorance because I realized right way what he was referring to and was ashamed of it. "You're using photographs," he said accusingly. "Oh...well... you know...not actually," I mumbled. "You are ," he said. "Yes" I admitted, feeling trapped, "I am." "Judas!" he said, "Damned photographer!" and he walked away.
More than a century later, commenters to this blog hotly debate whether Norman Rockwell's use of photographs undermined his artistic legacy.

Fine artists never felt compelled to justify their methods. Illustrators on the other hand, remained defensive. As a result, the most thoughtful, self-conscious analyses about the use of photography in art tend to come from the field of illustration rather than gallery painting. One of the more articulate artists on this subject was the talented Austin Briggs, who used reference photographs early in his career but soon discovered the limitations of photographs as a tool for quality art:
It was only as I discovered that I did not really possess an image of the object I desired when I took a snapshot that I relegated the camera to its proper place: that of a gatherer of information which has not yet been digested. Only when I reverted to the laborious task of drawing the object directly did it begin to reveal its hidden forms.

Briggs' splendid drawings made from photographs clearly showed how he digested data and probed for the hidden forms.

Photographs provide an undeniable head start by translating three dimensions into two dimensions for the artist. Nevertheless, Briggs described how artists still need to make important choices in order to distill information from a photograph and find the hidden forms most meaningful to the artist. The glory of drawing is that it is a limited medium; it cannot mechanically capture all data the way a snapshot does, or reproduce a snapshot, and still be successful.
It is also well to remember what [drawing] is not. It is not tone, value or color, although some semblance of all these qualities may be obtained by the sophisticated use of line. Line (drawing in its most straight-forward meaning) is the most limited medium, being solely a matter of measure. It is long or short, angularly obtuse or acute and subject to measure. Measure is the characteristic of line... and line is drawing.

It's necessary to know the limitation one is dealing with in order to use its positive qualities to its fullest advantage. To draw an oak leaf is "an exorcism of disorder" Without knowing what a line cannot do we'd try to express the whole leaf with it, but once we know what a line cannot do, we are on our way toward expressing the leaf in the marvelously simple way a line can function. We begin to to look for the object's anatomy, its real shape reveals itself to us because we must speak with such limited means.

Thumbnail sketch by Briggs captures the essence of the forms

Note how Briggs digested information from photographs in this award winning series for TV Guide.

It does not bother me if a drawing starts from photographs as long as the artist exercises his or her judgment and taste in reducing the photograph into a line medium. That is the part of the artist's job that most interests me.