Thursday, June 11, 2015

You're Welcome

I made this and stuck it on my wall to remind myself whenever I need reminding. Just rip one off and carry it with you throughout the day. Here's the artwork below so, you know, now you can be awesome too.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Shut that Door! How to Paint Doors in Perspective

Domenico Remps
Artists are often confronted with painting doors, windows and shutters ajar. This creates a problem: How do we make sure that the door actually fits the frame when it's seen half open?

Surprisingly, mistakes are more common than you'd think, even among master painters.

Vanitas trompe l'oeil, by Cornelis Gysbrechts

It's a head-scratcher that's bested the best. Cornelis Gysbrechts was a Flemish trompe l'oeil master known for his paintings of cupboards containing household objects depicted with stunning realism. Often, he included an open glazed door that revealed the contents within. However, his realism falls flat every now and then because if we were to close over his cupboard door we'd see that it does not fit the frame in which it is sitting.

Not only that, but if we extrapolate the vanishing lines created by the glazed doors, we can see that they don't converge at distance points (above). At least make your lines converge at the vanishing point. This is a pretty big error, but it's not the biggest problem with the painting: it should be pretty obvious that if those doors closed, they'd be too big for the opening and crash into each other.

At least make your lines converge on the horizon

To avoid this mistake, how do we determine the shape and size of our swinging door? Viewed from directly above, any opening window or door would describe a perfect semi-circular arc in space. Seen from an oblique angle, like say, standing in front of it, that perfect arc gets distorted to look like an ellipse.

How do we draw the shape of our ellipse? Viewing distance is the major factor. Here are the rules:

• The shorter the viewing distance (i.e. the closer the viewer is to the action), the wider the ellipse. 

• The longer the viewing distance (i.e. the further the viewer is from the action), the tighter the ellipse.

The above illustration explains how. The cyan rectangle represents Gysbrecht's open cupboard. Draw a circle in perspective (dark green ellipse) with its center at the bottom of the hinged door. My blue dotted construction lines should help you figure it out. Explaining it in words is useless. I set my viewing distance here for about 6', or twice the approximate width of Gysbrecht's 3' canvas. It's too detailed to explain how/why in this post. Just note that now there are green ellipses above and below the door frame on the left and right. Anywhere your door swings (the doors are those pink shapes) its edges should touch the ellipse. Presto; correct perspective.

(A) shows an infinitely long viewing distance. (B) shows a very close viewing distance.

I did another post on viewing distance that might help to fill in. You can see it here.

Now, in the case of the Domenico Remps cupboard the intended viewing distance is very short. Objects are painted more or less life size, and the whole scene is painted as if we were standing directly in front of the cupboard and opening the doors ourselves. However, Remps dispensed with the rules here because if we were truly standing that close, the open doors would be subject to extreme foreshortening (as in B, above).

In actuality, with a viewing distance of 3' or less, the leading edge of the open doors would loom out towards us dramatically and seem quite large. Firstly, this would mean that his doors would be too large to be contained within the frame of the canvas - which would break the golden rule of trompe l'oeil painting. Which is ... all objects should be fully contained within the canvas. In other words; if objects are partly cropped by the frame, then it's a still life and not trompe l'oeil.

Still Life by Champaign (left), Trompe l'Oeil by Hoogstraeten (right)

See the difference above? But that's a different lesson. Back to the topic at hand...

Where were we? Oh yeah, painting doors in perspective. Secondly, it would make an ugly painting. So Remps bent the rules. But they still apply nonetheless. His open doors will clearly close tightly if we swung them shut. He simply tweaked the viewing distance to give himself a tighter ellipse (as if we were viewing from far away) so that he could fit the entirety of the open door within his canvas. Why? It looks better that way. It doesn't matter that it breaks with the illusionistic realism elsewhere in the painting. It was an artistic decision.

Nevertheless, he made sure that no matter what, his doors were still painted according to the rules of linear perspective. They could close if he wanted them to. This is the important point regardless of the viewing distance: make sure your doors can close.

This problem does not apply to doors alone.

Above, we see that a fine trompe l'oeil painting from the Uffizi of an illustrated book is spoiled because of the unnatural size of the pages. Overlaying an ellipse reveals that one of the pages in particular (highlighted in orange) is way too big for the book. If that book were closed, the highlighted page would stick out an inch beyond all the others. If anything, because the open pages are slightly curved, their edges should fall inside the ellipse and not outside.

Below, I took a photo of an antique map and overlaid an ellipse to demonstrate that the edges of the stiff open folds align perfectly along the ellipse.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Thomas Eakins Perspective Fail

Thomas Eakins' The Champion Single Sculls (1871) is a Realist masterpiece of balance and restraint. As a painter, he was famously meticulous when it came to constructing space according to the rules of linear perspective.

Preparatory drawing for Single Sculls, by Thomas Eakins.
His preparatory drawings for Single Sculls show the length to which he went to create a believable behind-the-canvas world, using a fine grid on the ground plane (in this case, the surface of the river).

His reflections are impeccable. Except for one major discrepancy. Why are there no reflections of the bridge or clouds? The dark land mass to the right of the bridge is on the same plane, and is seen reflected in what is clearly a smooth surface, and yet the bridge isn't. Why not?

Eakins' Single Scull painting, modified to include bridge and sky reflections

Even a stickler for the rules like Eakins knew how to bend them every now and then for the sake of artistry.  When reflected in the water, his stylized and decorative clouds produce a graphic effect that takes away from his sense of "realism." The same applies to the reflection of the bridge. If he'd included their reflections, they'd have created strong graphic shapes that place emphasis on the horizon and negatively impact the balance he has created between foreground, middle distance and background.

I took the liberty of adding the sky and bridge reflections (above) so you can see my point, and placed the modified (left) and original (right) paintings below for easy comparison...

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Tutorial: How to paint trompe l'oeil gold beading

Creating the "gold" beaded molding above this painted curtain was a relatively simple affair. Because there are so many of them across the whole surface (of which you're only seeing a small crop here), it pays to simplify the technique so that you don't lose your mind or, more importantly, your money. Here's how I did it.

First, I used blue tape to section off the area I wanted to paint, and laid down a wash of yellow ochre toned down with some raw umber.

  Next, I striped along the top edge with a line made from cadmium yellow, yellow ocher and a drop of white, and along the bottom edge with a line of burnt sienna, burnt umber and a drop of yellow ocher.

 Then I cut a stencil. This will be for the dark areas between the beads.

 Use a stencil brush to pounce a dark color made from burnt umber, raw umber and ultramarine, repeating your stencil across the full length of the molding.

Here's how it looks after I take the stencil away (above).

I used a fine pointed brush to lay a stroke of burnt sienna and burnt umber along the left edge of each bead. Notice that my stroke is slightly inside and away from the bottom edge of each bead. This gives the illusion of a reflected highlight.

Then, I added a small stroke of titanium white with a hint of cadmium yellow for the bright specular highlight. It too is placed in and away from the top edge of the bead.

Lastly, I added a dab of cadmium red opposite the specular highlight, and removed the blue tape.

Here's a close-up of how the completed molding looked. You can see that I used a similar method (but different colors) for the grey tongued molding along the top. This technique is quick, and useful in many scenarios.

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.