Wednesday, November 9, 2016

How to Paint the Figure in Trompe l'Oeil

Here is a detail from the finished painting, enlarged because I used very small brushes.

You can use any background you like. I used an old faux-painted limestone sample I had lying around, but you could just as easily do this on faux bois to imitate the look of carved wood. The only stipulation I'd make is that to get the best effect, your background should be no darker than mid-range on the value scale.

In the next image, you can see the brushes I used. One small pointy one, and another splayed out and busted one. When doing shadows, I'd paint with Mr. Pointy then stipple and soften with the busted one. I'm not very fussy about materials or brushes. When I was young, I used to read all those manuals and study hard to learn the "secret" materials that would give me the edge. The only secret, I learned, is your eyes.

Step 1
 If you look closely in Step 1, you can just make out the pencil lines I used to establish the basic design. I took a photo of a bas relief panel at the Met as my reference. This is actually the first time I've used a photograph of actual relief as reference material. Mostly, I'm either inventing relief or copying another trompe l'oeil painter's work (who probably also invented the relief). This was a great chance for me to exercise Rule # 1 in illusionistic painting: Paint what you see, not what you know. 

It's all too easy to fall back on what we "know" about Form rather than simply using the evidence presented before our eyes. "Shadows are dark; highlights are white; reflected light goes here; etc." These are all learned rather than observed truths. [Painters use old tricks such as flipping their image upside down, or examining their work in a mirror, to escape the natural tendency to paint what we think we see.]

Step 2
Step 2 shows the completed shadows. There are no highlights at all here. You can see that the effect is 99% complete already. We could easily leave it like this, and call it a day.

I build the shadows very slowly using Ultramarine and Raw Umber acrylic paint, mixed with a little matte varnish (which dries quickly so I can keep working) as a medium.

The shadows are built up in layers. I never try to establish the darkest dark in the first pass. It's much more tentative then that. I build up darks in translucent glazes, always erring on the lighter side. I tend to work back and forth all over the image, as opposed to finishing each area completely as I go.

Step 3
Step 3 is my first pass at highlights. They might be hard to detect on your screen, as they are very subtle, but they are there. I used an opaque white, mixed with yellow and a little purple. I've heard that some people like to shift the hue of their highlights in opposition to the background color in order to make them pop more. [In other words, if the background hue is yellow (as with mine), they might shift their highlights into purple so that they jump out at you.] I don't do this. I use a lighter value of the background.

Use highlights very sparingly! As subtle as mine might look to you, when I look at the opening detail image of this post, the highlights jump out at me as being too strong and brushy. The image looks like it's been dusted with snow.  The shadows are soft and muted, as they should be, but the highlights are harsh, overused and overly delineated. We want to avoid this at all costs. (It was too late for me).

Step 4
 In Step 4, the only difference is that I carefully glazed the chest, top of the head, and the right knee with a second highlight. I decided that those three areas should be a little more prominent than they were.

It will be easier to see the differences between stages if you view these images in slideshow mode, and scroll between them.

Step 5
 Step 5 might be hard to see, but I think it made a difference. Since all my highlights were already laid down, the only way I could make the relief pop a little more was by darkening the background. I explained the reasoning behind this in a separate post about relative value, here.

I certainly didn't want to add any more highlights, as mine were already too bright. Instead, I used a very washy ultramarine/raw umber glaze and stippled it all around the top right corner, outside the main figure.

I also used a glazed version of my highlight color and subtly lightened the bottom left corner (again, outside the figure only).


To give you an idea of how light/dark my values are, here is a chart that shows you (below)...

Along the top you see 3 swatches of color. These represent averaged tones taken directly from the finished piece. Directly underneath them, you see 3 grey values (A, B, and C). These are the same colors from the top line desaturated so as to see value only. Below that, I plotted A, B, and C against the Munsell value chart. You can see that the entirety of my painting occupies roughly three value steps on the Munsell chart (from 6 to 9). No white, and nothing at all on the lower half of the chart.

Some more detail photos...

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

I bet you a million dollars you fail this color test

The human eye is as good a camera as can be made from a scrap of meat and a dash of jelly, but our ever-distrustful brain works hard to overrule our eyes at every turn. "Grass is green," our brain tells us. Our eyes see something else, myriad shades across a spectrum, but they are mute. It's our brains that do all the talking. 

See the blue tiles on the top side of the big Rubik's cube on the left, above? Ok; how about the yellow tiles on top of the right Rubik's cube above? They are the same color. You're not seeing blue on the left, nor are you seeing yellow on the right. What your eyes are actually seeing is the same color. It's your brain that has created a difference. If there was ever proof that seeing happens in your brain and not in your eyes, this is it.

The test was to see them both as the same, and you failed. So I'll be spending my million dollars on cocaine and nose jobs, in that order.

Harry Chapin ruined family car-trips across the world with "Flowers are Red..."
but he certainly made an impact. I still remember all the damn words. [video link]

What on earth is going on in our brains? Diane Ackerman explains in A Natural History of the Senses. "We are not really cameras. Our eyes do not just measure wavelengths of light. As Edwin Land, inventor of the Polaroid Land Camera and instant photography, deduced, we judge colors by the company they keep. We compare them to one another, and revise according to the time of day, light source, memory." 

Beau Lotto, founder of Lottolab, a hybrid art space and scientific laboratory, investigates the crossover between what our eyes apprehend and what our brain perceives when it comes to color. Watch his fascinating TED talk here, if you haven't already seen it. He's produced some incredible graphics that fool the eye so completely that I had to check in Photoshop using the eye-dropper tool to make sure I wasn't losing my mind (including the three color tests reproduced here).

In the Image above for example, how would you feel if I told you that the x-shaped piece at the center of both of these building block contraptions is the same color? On the left it looks blue, and on the right it looks yellow, but all of that is happening in your head based on assumptions your brain is making about the environment surrounding each x-shaped piece. In fact, they are both standard 50% grey, and not a "color" at all. Bring that image into Photoshop and check if you don't believe me.

Lotto explains in his TED talk that the perceptual function of color, not surprisingly, has a basis in evolution. It's a point with which Ackerman agrees in her book. "Every college student at one time or another has asked what it means to know something," she says, "and whether there are simple perceptual truths that people share. We watch color television because our ancestors had eyes cued to the ripening of fruit; and they also had to be wary of poisonous plants and animals (which tend to be brightly colored)."

At dusk, we still see a blue mailbox or a red car, but they are everything but. "Even though it's sunset and the quantity, quality, and brightness of light have all diminished, we still perceive the blue mailbox as blue, the red car as red." Conceptual categories like Red and Blue lump disparate phenomena together, such as a flower "hit by glare, rinsed with artificial light, saturated with pigment, or gently bathed in moonlight."

"Otherwise, our ancestors wouldn't have been able to find food at sunset or on overcast days. The eye works with ratios of color, not with absolutes. Land was not a biologist, but a keen observer of how we observe, and his theory of color constancy, proposed in 1963, continues to make sense. 

The brown tile on the top and the orange tile on the side are in fact the same color.

In the end, perhaps the words we use to describe colors have more to do with the idiosyncrasies of the particular culture in which we are raised than a relationship to what's actually out there. "Not all languages name all colors. Japanese only recently included a word for blue," continues Ackerman. "In past ages, aoi was an umbrella word that stood for the range of colors from green and blue to violet. Primitive languages first develop words for black and white, then add red, then yellow and green; many lump blue and green together, and some don't bother distinguishing between other colors of the spectrum. 

"Because ancient Greek had very few color words, a lot of brisk scholarly debate has centered around what Homer meant by such metaphors as the "wine-dark sea" Welsh uses the word glas to describe the color of a mountain lake, which might in fact be blue, gray, or green. In Swahili, nyakundu could mean brown, yellow, or red. The Jalé tribespeople of New Guinea, having no word for green, are content to refer to a leaf as dark or light. 

"Though English sports a fair range of words to distinguish blue from green (including azure, aqua, teal, navy, emerald, indigo, olive), we frequently argue about whether a color really should be considered blue or green, and mainly resort to similes such as grass green, or pea green. The color language of English truly stumbles when it comes to life's processes."

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Fractal Geometry in African Villages: Lessons from an Outsider

In the 1960s, the Italian architecture firm Superstudio proposed the eradication of all architectural difference under a ubiquitous grid that they called a "Model for Total Urbanization." This is one of their posters.

"The exception proves the rule." How many times have we heard that without really understanding it? It was Cicero in ancient Rome who first said it, and what he implied was that exceptions presuppose the existence of a norm (to which they are the exception). We always look to outsiders, the exceptions to the rule, to help define ourselves as normal. Outsiders have always defined insiders. An old military adage says that you need a great enemy to create a great army. For ancient Greece, it was the Spartans and Macedonians who provided the "savage" exception that proved the superiority of the civilized Athenian polis, or city-state. For the West, a monstrous "other" occupying the rest of the world provided evidence of the dubious superiority of its own worldview.

The Western gridded "ideal city," as imagined by Fra Carnevale

In popular imagination, the exceptions to Western civilization still represent everything uncivilized, chaotic and savage in the world. When Edward Said and Claude Levi-Strauss came along in the '60s and pointed out that, hey, just because other cultures are different doesn't mean that they are devoid of their own internal logic and structure, we began to open our eyes to the fact that maybe, in the end, we had something to learn from "them." We'd gotten so blind to the veil we've fabricated as a frontier between city/country, order/chaos, insider/outsider, West/Rest, that we'd lost sight of the fact that ours is just one of many ways of being in the world, and that the veil is an illusion.

Somewhere in America

Case in point: the gridded and bordered modern city that sprang up in Europe towards the end of the Roman Empire - with its straight lines and corners retained by a circumscribing wall - quickly became the template for Western life. They were initially walled defensive positions (called Oppida), but the Romans soon became aware of their greater (in the long run) symbolic significance: The walled city is a locus of power. Those outside the walls were the medieval "wildmen," or savages beneath consideration. It established a clear - if fictional - boundary between the order of Man and the chaos of Nature.

The Universe is Euclidean, its rigid geometry tells us. The very linearity of modern cities came to represent the mythic Western advancement from barbarian to citizen, from chaos to order. The more squared-off the space, the more civilized its occupant. The barbarians lived outside the polis amid the chaos of nature, and "Nature," as Katherine Hepburn reminded Bogart in African Queen, "is what we are put in this world to rise above." Consequently, linear gridded space became the Western standard.

Hardly a coincidence that Star Trek automatons, "The Borg," occupy a cube.

By the 15th Century, Linear Perspective gained favor as a way of reifying what had already become a pervasively geometric worldview, literally set in stone by the Romans.  Perspective appealed to rich patrons because it backed up their notions of the hierarchy of social power (think majestic cathedrals with impossibly soaring trompe l'oeil ceilings inspiring awe among the plebs). Artists of Europe clamored to learn the rules of Linear Perspective as a way of codifying a "civilized" worldview, which flattered their clients by portraying them as higher-order citizens. Even if anyone had been aware of another way of seeing the world, they wouldn't have cared for it. West is best, and all that.

Every day I walk the streets of New York City, I'm aware that to get across town means zig-zagging at right angles across an artificially imposed grid that by its very inorganicness was designed to position the works of man as superior to those of nature.

What would an alternative even look like? We're so used to what we've got that it's hard to picture it, but we don't have to: When the fractal geometry of African villages was "discovered" by the West, it provided the exception that exposed the tenuousness of the norm we've come to accept. Certain villages in Africa (such as Tiébelé on the Ghanian border) have been organizing themselves for centuries according to mathematical principles that were only discovered in the West in the 1900s.

The classic Mandelbrot fractal set

Whereas the Western gridded polis denies Nature by proposing space as a system of stackable finite blocks, fractal architecture suggests an unfolding of space according to principles of organic growth. Each unit of fractal geometry relates intrinsically to its neighbor, regardless of scale. There is no frontier, no hierarchy of space as in the West.

Fractal sets are everywhere in Nature

Fractal architecture could never produce a Versailles, for example, that so self-consciously set itself apart from the populace that surrounded it. The "self-similarity" of fractal geometric modules would preclude it. Western architecture relies on the grid as an exclusionary device - you are either inside or outside the square - but fractal architecture seems to suggest that we all have the same potentiality.

I always worry that I'm writing too much in blog posts, that they're too long (because who the hell reads blog posts?), so I won't be getting into the weeds about what fractals are, except to say that they began as an outlier set of mathematical rules once considered to be useless oddities - Euclid's outsiders.

The fractal architecture of Ba-ila village, in Southern Zambia

The realization that whole communities live according to a spatial map that is entirely different to ours was an eye-opener. Watch this TED talk (and buy the book) by this fascinating mathematician who traveled Africa on a Fulbright scholarship, standing on rooftops and recording the fractal geometry he saw all around him. And next time you're sitting at a traffic light, imagine a world that has no right angles.

Ron Eglash mapped the fractal set at the heart of community life for Ba-ila villagers

Tiébelé, Ghana

Monday, March 14, 2016

How to Paint Reflections on Water

Sommarnoje, Anders Zorn
showing lengthened and broken reflections beneath the boat and pier.

The post title is a tad misleading, as it is more about seeing and understanding than painting. Why do reflections appear longer in rippled water compared to smooth water? Why do reflections not appear at all in very rough water? Is there any quantifiable way for painters to measure the correct length of reflections, besides just painting a bunch of wiggly lines?

And if you feel like a little musical accompaniment while you wrap your head around some math, try Claude Debussy's "Reflections in Water."

I'm going to let my illustrations do most of the talking in this post. I hope that they're clear enough that you will be able to understand the principles just by studying them.

Figure 1

In Figure 1 above, there is a pole [AB] standing out of the water. You can imagine looking at it along sight lines that run through an imaginary picture plane. The top of the pole intersects the picture plane (the canvas you're painting on) at point A1. The visible bottom of the pole above the water would appear on your canvas at point B1. If the surface of the water was as smooth as a mirror, the reflection of your pole on the water would be painted on your canvas extending down to point C1. Notice too that the angles x, y, and z are the same when on a perfectly flat surface.

Figure 2

If there was a concrete pier as in Figure 2, the reflections would end up looking as they do in Figure 3, below. Note the reflection of the pole in the water below. If you study Figure 2 you will understand why the reflection simply peeks out a short length below the pier reflection instead of appearing to be the full length of the pole itself.

Figure 3

Fur Traders descending the Missouri, George Caleb Bingham

In the beautiful painting by Anders Zorn that opens this post, we see that the reflection of the boat extends downwards quite a bit below where one might expect. Why? Simply because water is never as smooth as it appears in our illustrations above. Despite what Caleb Bingham might have us believe (above), water almost always has some visible movement causing ripples or waves. These waves cause the reflections to distort and extend lower on the canvas.

The reflection of a pole in rippled water [Fig. 4] would thus appear to extend in a broken line all the way down our canvas to point D1. I hope that by studying the next couple of illustrations you can understand the effect of broken water conditions upon reflections.

In addition, rougher bodies of water appear to be brighter overall than smooth bodies of water. The fascinating reason has something to do with Galileo, and can be found in a separate blogpost, here.

Figure 4

The Champion Single Sculls (Max Schmitt), by Thomas Eakins

Thomas Eakins, famously mathematical when it came to constructing his paintings, drew an illustration [Fig. 5] in one of his notebooks that shows why the reflections in rippled water appear "wiggly."

Figure 5

I've created my own version of the same phenomenon [Fig. 6], with some added notes that might help clarify what's happening.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

The Quadratura of Francesco Natali

Francesco Natali created these wonderful baroque quadratura and wall frescos in a little church in Pontremoli, Italy. I'd hoped to write a lengthier post about this church, its fabulous history, and the charming work of this lesser known Italian artist, but I think you'd rather just see the photos. So here they are.

I uploaded a ton more photos of the Church on my Flickr page, here.

Remove the stone lintel in the small niche (above) and it reveals a deep crawl space used to secrete
dissidents and refugees during World War II.

Incidentally, this church weathered Allied bombardment and was even liberated by the Buffalo Soldiers, America's historic all-Black Infantry (originally Cavalry) division in World War II. They stormed the town only to free a group of jews hidden in a specially-designed crawl space disguised behind one of Natali's decorative niches in the church sacristy (photo above).