Friday, May 27, 2011

Making and Mixing Paints - Medieval vs Digital Technology

 Tablet Technology is Revolutionizing Painting!

Finally, artisits can "draw" directly on digital screens: on the go, with unlimited color selection....and the ability to work on layers, literally mix colors within a layer, and "undo/redo" multiple edits...and instantly dry/rewet paints...it's crazy!  Some iPad Drawing Applications with mixing abilities include Art Rage and Layers. Technology for traditional computers include premium Digital Tablets from Wacom (the Cintiq), All-in-One Tablet PC's like Dell's Inspiron,  and Adobe's Photoshop CS5.5 Mixer Brush and Bristle Tips that allow for rotational control of asymmetric "fan" brushes in addition to the awesome, pressure sensitivity.

How did Medieval Artists live without these? 

Early painters could not go to Walmart or Amazon to purchase "traditional" paints or sketch pads. The industrial production of paints did not emerge until the late 18th century (ref: Colors: The Story of Dyes and Pigments by Francois Delamare and Bernard Guineau).  So in addition to learning how to produce art, early artists also had to learn where to find the base materials (minerals for pigments, extracts for dyes, skin for canvases, etc.) and how to cook them into paint.  They had to procure their own minerals to grind, plants to extract dyes from, etc.;  they often mingled with their compatriot shoppers of Apothecaries, the physicians and herbalists.  It was only a century ago that industrial demands for color took over the responsibility for making paints away from the painter: 
"Many of the functions of medieval art have been usurped in modern times by the machine.  The two most extensive fields of medieval art production--books and textiles--have been taken over almost entirely nowadays by the forces of mechanical production.  We need not raise the question here of whether there is any loss for us in that..."; Daniel V Thompson (The materials and techniques of medieval painting Dover 1956)
Victoria Finlay literally traveled the world to reveal the origins of pigment production, and she reminds us that there were challenges to storing paints too.  Her book "Colors" directly ties the natural sourcing of pigments and the cultures that are intimately tied to them; "Colors" amplifies the historic cultural, and spiritual, connections between pigments and the artists who harvested them:
"For centuries, artists had stored their paints in pigs' bladders.  It was a pain staking process: they, or their apprentices, would carefully cut the thin skin into squares.   Then they would spoon a nugget of wet paint into each square, and tie up the little parcels at the top with string.  When they wanted to paint, they would pierce the skin with a tack, squeeze the color onto their palette and then mend the puncture.  It was messy, especially when the bladders burst, but it was also wasteful, as the paint would dry out quickly.  Then in 1841 a fashionable American portrait painter call John Goffe Rand devised the first collapsible tube..."(p19 of Victoria Finlay's Color - A Natural History of the Palette 2004 Random House)
The process of preparing one's own materials was, and still can be, a meaningful part of the creative process. 
It was once an expectation that artists were also scientists, sourcing their own materials and working them from the earth, such that their material gathering affected their style. One of the first "technology" books that evolved from compilations of secretive recipes and pseudo-legitimate alchemy was the Mappae clavicula;: A little key to the world of medieval techniques.  It is a compilation of compilations which maintains a sense of poetry and naive embellishment; translated and reprinted by the American Philosophical Society in 1974 in the Transactions of the American Philosophical Society; original illuminations available as a virtual book on the Corning Museum website.
"We forget that throughout the history of medieval art there were no prepared packaged paints, inks, or parchments leaves.  The locating of particular pigments required a familiarity with nature which was so intimate as to be incomprehensible to us today.  It required a knowledge of not only the unchanging elements of nature, but of those that vary with climate, with geography, with the time of year.  The eggs of a specific insect, at a specific time in its life, would yield a particular pigment. At other times, the eggs would be useless. " (p22 of 1974 Mappae Clavicula: A little key to the world of medieval technique)
Magic Paint 
Cyril Stanley Smith and John G. Hawthorne put into perspective how the technology of paint making was obscured with early chemistry (alchemy).  Artisans were largely ignorant of their science; and/or they were not rewarded for determining/revealing the truth:
"When there were no purified chemicals in labeled bottles and no general theory to guide him, the artisan would not lightly change his practice.  Moreover, the more spectacular recipes are the least likely to be omitted by a compiler: feeding a virgin goat with ivy and using his mixed blood and urine to carve crystal will impress the layman more than the suggestion simply to dip in turpentine." (p18 of 1974 Mappae Clavicula: A little key to the world of medieval technique)

Note, Smith and Hawthorne, translators of the Mappae Clavicula, also translated Theophilis'12th century On Divers Arts , a treatise on arts written by practicing artist. Pigments, glass blowing, stained glass, gold and silver work.  They highlight that many of the ingredients of these medieval recipes are identified by their geographic origin (location) since natural "chemicals" were not purified then and compositional heterogeneity across regions affected color.
 

This is reinforced in the 15th century work The Craftsman's Handbook "Il Libro dell'Arte" by Cennino d'Andrea Cennini (translated by D.V.Thompson). Cennini describes how his father introduced him to the sources of various pigments and plants by walking the countryside.  His spiritual experiences with being an artisan radiates throughout his detailed handbook:
"To approach the glory of the profession step by step, let us come to the working up of the colors, informing you which are the choicest colors, and the coarsest, and the most fastidious; which one needs to be worked up or ground but little, which requires another; and just as they differ in their colors, so do they also in the characters of their temperas and their working up."
Action Steps

1) Digital Painting: While playing with our new Dell Inspiron tablet/all-in-one and iPad (Adobe's mixer brush and Layer's App) ... dream about purchasing an Wacom Cintiq tablet.

2) Medieval Technology: Planting dyer's garden now with help from my wife; the goal is to harvest these materials this year/next and then begin experimenting. I will be attending this year's Monticello Natural Dye Workshop to get bootstrapped. Note to self: use glass jars to store the paints, as reinventing "pig bladder tube technology" lowers the return-on-investment.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Character Design: Cirque du Soleil OVO and the Dark Crystal

The Awesome Performance & Character Design in Ovo
Evokes Memories of Awe from Dark Crystal Experience

Creatures are a key element of Fantasy works.  They are usually represented on a colossal scale (dragons, the Star Wars Rancor, etc.) or on a humanoid scale (like the mythogical Minotaur...or the orc armies of Tolkien's Middle Earth).  To be surprising and scary, creators of new monsters are motivated to be unique (familiar creatures inherently have lost their sense of strangeness that makes them fantastical in the first place).  Creating novel things becomes increasingly difficult as the historic pool of creatures accumulates; this May, I was inspired to see how the Cirque du Soleil reinvented their offerings with "Ovo", a theatrical fantasy based on an imaginary insect world whose unique richness stems from its character/creature design (this was my first experience, though it is the 25th show design in as many years for the Montreal based entertainment group).

Ovo - Cricket Costume

It seems Cirque du Soleil needed a new excuse to allow their talented performers to show off, and they hit the mark really well.  All the designs meshed as an integrated world: the sets, the costumes, the choreography, music...somehow the entire event appeared as one place.  Designing costumes that not only look insectan, but allow performers to perform athletic feats without distraction had to be challenging for designer Liz Vandal

Was there a story?  Not really...though it wasn't needed.  The performance was entirely eye-candy.  Was there conflict?  Almost no conflict existed in the storyline, with some minor comedy coming from the Foreigner character trying to woo the Ladybug (of course, there was the ever present man-vs-nature conflict with the contortionists, acrobats, etc. continually snubbing their noses at gravity and muscle contractions).  Except for a few moments that I cannot explain....


A Fleeting Battle Brought Mysterious Conflict!
Mysterious walking sticks brought tension to the stage. These stilt walking bad guys tried to approach the Foreigner, but the Ladybug fought them off. Were these Walking Sticks?  Or Jim Hensen's Landstriders? I cannot identify these creatures by name since they were not represented in the program or online (by deduction, they were not "fleas", "roaches", or"mosquitoes").  I share a snapshot of the Official OVO Program booklet since I was unable to locate an image online to reference. To highlight the Walking Sticks I desaturated the surrounding set (below image).
These instantly evoked the awesome "Land Striders" from the 1982 Dark Crystal Movie.  Of course, the Land Striders were literally big puppets, powered by stilt-walking puppeteers...though I recall them being the "good" type of creature.


Dark Crystal Land Striders


Ovo - Walking Sticks?



Dark Crystal Sequel Brewing
Dark Crystal Skeksis
Now I remember...the Land Striders were largely dismembered by the evil Garthim beetles (allies of the bird-like Skeksis).  Looking for inspiration on designing creatures?  I recommend procuring the The Dark Crystal (25th Anniversary Edition) which provides featurettes revealing behind-the-scenes designs, including commentary by the Dark Crystal's conceptual designer, the acclaimed Fairy artist Brian Froud.




Froud has a distinctive style that seems to bring real-life to his fairies--even take life away to preserve their real-forms...as in Lady Cottington's Pressed Fairy Book : 10 3/4 Anniversary Edition; In addition to sketches, the book was designed to preserve (to a squished degree) real fairies. 

Froud's Pressed Fairy

Froud's  Fairy















It is interesting that even in 1982 (before ATM's and microwave ovens really hit their strides...let alone computers as we know them), Jim Hensen was inspired to bring "life" to the movies that the new band-wagon of special effects could not (Star Wars was rocking the movie world then).  Over three decades later, there is still a reliance on technologies that do not necessarily impart a sense of real-life in our characters.  The Dark Crystal's Garthim beetles were as real as the Scarabs in the live performance of Ovo, and arguable more real-feeling than many of today's digitized creatures.  The challenge for artists is figuring out how to really animate our fantasy characters with pen and paper (Ovo has done it for the stage).   

Well, like many other promising movies in the 2011 Sword and Sorcery film queue, there is a sequel brewing that may reinvigorate the awe of the Dark Crystal for another generation (see below links). 


Dark Crystal Garthim

Friday, May 6, 2011

Images Have Skeletons Too

 Scientific Image Analysis 
can be a great tool to learn about composition
Key Points:
  1. Images have real backbones ("structure" or "composition")
  2. Viewers eyes gravitate toward edge detection; as an artisit, you must use composition to lead your viewer through your landscape
  3. It is fun, although excessive, to reveal composition with scientific algorithms.

Art Analysis

Frazetta's Tanar
An inspirational side bar: I stumbled across a cool blog @ Ideas Made of Light that dissects the composition of fantasy art (and others), including Frazetta's "Tanar of Pellucidar", M.C. Escher's "Relativity", and Dali's "Gala Contemplating...Abraham Lincoln".

This is a fantastic website for lovers of Art & Science, since it comprehensively reveals compositional design concepts with easy-to-understand visuals.  If you want to understand art better, or be a more deliberate designer, check these case studies out ... then apply what you learn.





Russ's Image Analysis Book
Image Analysis

I am a huge fan of John Russ, a retired North Carolina State Professor and image analysis/metallurgist expert.  The analysis methods he often applied to solid state matter are also used to quantify microstructures within soft matter mixtures (i.e. paints and consumer products like cosmetics, toothpaste, and conditioners :) ).  His Image Analysis Processing handbook-6th edition is just being released.  Image Analysis can also be used to analyze Sword & Sorcery cover art to reveal compositional design!  Woo-hoo! 



Shape Analysis of Positive / Negative Space

Let's apply some John Russ's image analysis (employable via the Photoshop interface as "filters") to reveal the composition within the proposed my Lords of Dyscrasia cover art.  I shared a draft of this entry to John and his son Chris (who leads Reindeer Graphics and collaborates with his father authoring books and code), and they rightly clarify that, in artistic terms, the below procedure "is a shape analysis of positive or negative space."

Here is what we'll get:

(1) a skeleton of features within the primary focus, the "Intensity Skeleton"
and (2) a demarcation of the primary "Contrast Interfaces" that lead the viewer's eyes about the image


To do this, we'll apply a series of operations to our color image.
1) First, we'll isolate the intensity levels by transforming the RGB (red, green, blue) image into HSI (hue, saturation, intensity) map; we'll disregard the hue and saturation for this work and focus on the intensity.
2) Next, we'll apply a median filter to remove the high frequency details since we aim to look at the gross composition (a Gaussian blur).
3) Thirdly, we'll transform the grayscale image (256 gray levels) into a binary image (2 levels, black and white) by common thresholding (we choose a critical gray level that turns all lower to black and all higher to white).
4) Finally, we'll fill-in-holes via a morphology filter.
This prework enables us to derive our skeletons. To mark out the features within the primary focus (figures and fire), we...
5) Recolor our binarized image with a Euclidean Distance Map.  This will re-shade all black regions with a new intensity dependent on the proximity to the white area. This effectively will make a landscape in which the peaks (the skeleton) can be isolated
6) To isolate the backbones, we threshold our distance map and select values that contain only the peaks.
7) To visualize the backbone of this internal structure within the focus area, we overlay the skeleton atop a version of the original.


Okay, we are also interested in contrast (contrast mechanisms differentiate the many imaging modes used in microscopy). In common terms we are looking for the edges, or interfaces, between key regions.   
5b) We'll still need our distance map.  We'll go back to image 4 and take a different path. 
6b) This time we'll isolate the edges by thresholding and coloring the opposite peaks (in this case the lightest shades of grey).
7b) We'll overlay them atop a version of the original
8b) And compare these heavy-duty mathematically derived drawings to a simple free-hand estimate (an ellipse).

Hopefully this supports the design I worked in up-front.   The idea was to draw the viewer's eye toward the skeletal hero (the undead, anti-hero Endenken Lysis).