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.]