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).




Sunday, April 17, 2011

Dark Muses II: Creative Forces Driving Science and Art

Note this is Part of a series:

#1) Dark Muses I: The undercurrent of "Art" in Weird literature

#2: Dark Muses II: Creative Forces Driving Science and Art (you are here) 

#3:  Historical Anatomy: Composing Bodies and Representing the Invisible Soul 

#4) Weird, Dark Art Design: Implicit vs. Explicit Gore and Horror
__________________

Scientists and artists have long had inherent faith in their creative processes and the muses that motivate them. Scientists cannot a priori predict their theories for they begin only as mere hypotheses, like unadulterated marble blocks waiting to be carved.  Likewise, art cannot be described genuinely before its creation.  By testing hypotheses, theories emerge; by sculpting marble blocks, statues are birthed.  Artists are guided by creative forces; ultimately, art (not the artist) must reveal and represent itself.  As one works paint on a canvas, muses participate, the artist becoming an instrument and medium of sorts.

Although the Red Muse of Lords of Dyscrasia is fictional, I do rely on real muses for inspiration.  I generally subscribe to the philosophy of agnosticism, a term coined in 1869 by Thomas Henry Huxley who was an ardent supporter of his contemporary's theory of evolution (Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species, 1859).   In his primer book on science, Huxley expounded on nature's inherent sourcing of man's art:

Thomas Huxley (1825-1895)
Although this distinction between nature and art, between natural and artificial things, is very easily made and very convenient, it is needful top remember that, in the long run, we owe everything to nature; that even those artificial objects which we commonly say are made by men, are only natural objects shaped and moved by men; and that, in the sense of creating, that is to say of causing something to exist which did not exist in some other shape before, man can make nothing whatever...Carpenters, builders, shoemakers, and all other artisans and artists, are persons who have learned so much of the powers and properties of certain natural objects, and of the chain of causes and effects in nature, as enables them to shape and put together those natural objects, so as to be useful to man (Huxley 1888) i
The difference between artist and scientist was once more obscure than today.  The processes of exploring the unknown via art or science are different but the methodologies share the same motivating source and subject.   For me, scientific and artistic muses connect the naturally divine to the artificially materialistic; practicing creative processes brings comfort, satisfaction, and revelation of life's mysteries; following creative muses is enlightening.  Along these lines, I have long been a resolute agnostic, refusing to arbitrarily ascribe a name, face, or religion to all that is incomprehensible (read god), but as scientist and artist, I do have a faith using creative processes to connect with the ineffable.   

The creative Muse assumed an essential role in Lords of Dyscrasia, albeit a broader inspiration than that revealed in Greek mythology; as the Muse's primary curator, Grave does echo the role of Hephaestus the smith and Endenken Lysis assumes the role of Prometheus, antagonizing the gods and procuring their fire; and Maeve is not unlike Pandora, a beautiful harbinger of pain and pawn of the gods, crafted out of earthly elements by the smith Hephaestus.  So it is appropriate to investigate the inspiration behind the gothic classic The Modern Prometheus (1818) in which Mary Bryce Shelly, guided by muses, grappled with the themes of Science, Art, and Spirit.   Her character Victor Frankenstein, the infamous artist and scientist, pieced together materials from cemeteries to create life via alchemy.  In her prologue, she described how her muse worked though her:


My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie. I saw-with shut eyes, but acute mental vision-I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together.  I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion.   Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavor to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.  His success would terrify the artist...ii
In a correspondence to his friend and contemporary author, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert Ervin Howard (1906-1936) explained his interaction with the muse that inspired his Conan yarns.  Howard is often credited with being the originator of today's Sword & Sorcery genre with his characters: Conan the Barbarian, King Kull, Solomon Kane, and Bran Mak Morn.  In December 1933, Howard wrote to Smith about his Conan muse:
 
Gary Gianni's Looming Dark Man (Muse, Bran Mak Morn)
 'While I don't go so far as to believe that stories are inspired by actually existing spirits or powers, though I am rather opposed to flatly denying anything, I have sometimes wondered if it were possible that unrecognized forces of the past or present--or even the future--work through the thought and actions of living men.

'This occurred to me when I was writing the first stories of the Conan series especially. I know that for months I had been absolutely barren of ideas, completely unable to work up anything sellable. Then the man Conan seemed to grow up in my mind without much labor on my part and immediately a stream of stories flowed off my pen--or rather off my typewriter--almost without effort on my part. I did not seem to be creating, but rather relating events that had occurred. Episode crowded upon episode so fast that I could scarcely keep up with them.
'For weeks I did nothing but write of the adventures of Conan. The character took complete possession of my mind and crowded out everything else in the way of story-writing. When I deliberately tried to write something else, I couldn't do it.
'I do not attempt to explain this by esoteric or occult means, but the facts remain. I still write of Conan more powerfully and with more understanding than any of my other characters. But the time will probably come when I will suddenly find myself unable to write convincingly of him at all. This has happened in the past with nearly all my rather numerous characters; suddenly I find myself out of contact with the conception, as if the man himself had been standing at my shoulder directing my efforts, and had suddenly turned and gone away, leaving me to search for another character.' iii
So where do muses lead us?  In fairy tales, the ignis fatuous (a.k.a. will-o'-the-wisp, fool's fire, jack-o-lantern, or corpse candle) is a  luminous, nondescript light that hovers over wetlands and obscures forest paths.  These lights are thought to trick people into hellish traps or endless, foolish journeys.   In Lords of Dyscrasia, I liken the role of the ignis fatuous to that of fiery muses rather than evil temptations.  I acknowledge a longstanding fascination with Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydian and his deathless, zombie soldiers the Cauldron Born who served Arawn Death-Lord.  The Cauldron Born zombies were based from the magical Cauldron of Arawn mentioned within the Welsh medieval manuscripts the Mabinogion; therein, fallen soldiers could be cast into the pot to be fully rejuvenated.

The idea of cooking with souls and men, giving life back to the dead (whether fully sentient or zombie like) builds on the themes of alchemy and the link between body, soul.  This recipe for resurrection transmutes the soul from the unreachable chaos back into earthly elements.  For Lords of Dyscrasia, the Forge assumed the role of a magical cauldron but with a more direct link to artistry; the notion that the magical fire responsible for the forge's power may be a mobile fire was very exciting to me; a dead man could be placed into a forge, be rejuvenated by its fire, and then leave the vessel an undead man with the magical fire still burning him!  This symbolism has roots in mysticism, as the divine fifth element as been described as an astral fire, with roots in alchemy; here Alexander Roob summarizes this in his Alchemy and Mysticism:
It is said of the philosopher and thaumaturge Empedocles that he claimed the existence of two suns.  The hermetic doctrines also include a double sun, and distinguish between a bright spirit-sun, the philosophical gold, and the dark natural sun, corresponding to material gold.  The former consists of the essential fire that is conjoined with the ether of the 'glowing air'.  The idea of the vivifying fire - Heraclitus (6th century B.C.) calls it 'artistic' fire running through all things - is a legacy of Persian magic.  Its invisible effect supposedly distinguishes the Work of the alchemists from that of the profane chemists.  The natural sun, however, consists of the known, consuming fire, whose precisely dosed use also determines the success of the enterprise.iv

i Huxley, T. H. (1888). Introductory, Science Primers. New York, D. Appleton and Company. p8-9
ii Shelley, M., Ed (1993). Frankenstein 1818 Text. Oxford World's Classics. New York, N.Y., Oxford University Press.
iii Lord, G. (1976). The Last Celt: A Bio-Bibliography of Robert Ervin Howard. Hampton Falls, NH, Donald M. Grant Publisher, Inc., p57
iv Roob, A. (2006). Alchemy & Mysticism. Los Angeles, C.A., Taschen Press. p25

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Dark Muses I: The undercurrent of "Art" in Weird literature

Note this is Part of a series:

#1) Dark Muses I: The undercurrent of "Art" in Weird literature (you are here) 

#2: Dark Muses II: Creative Forces Driving Science and Art

#3:  Historical Anatomy: Composing Bodies and Representing the Invisible Soul

#4) Weird, Dark Art Design: Implicit vs. Explicit Gore and Horror
_______________________________

Muses lead us to produce art that conveys beauty; but what is 'beautiful' in weird art?   Howard, Smith, and Lovecraft wrote many letters to each other discussing their weird works and their place in literature.  Like Poe, they also published topical essays on the role of the weird in literature.  Composing alone and exploring the dark still allows for the need to commune and share.  These artists had a passionate desire to uphold and employ literary styles; short stories and poems were their primary medium; not the novel or trilogy productions that predominate today.

Over the decades, many of these letters were published in periodicals and books, and they are generally still accessible today via reprints and used booksellers.  By seeking guidance on composing this weird work, I found solace (and challenges posed) by investigating how these 'weird' fantasy writers mused about Death (Soul) , Beauty (Muses), and Alchemy (Science).  I include a section on Edgar Allen Poe, who inspired and preceded the others.  As with Howard, their personal philosophies are visibly demonstrated in their fictional work.  Their quotes reveal the goals, credibility, and character of weird writing.

Harry Clarke - Masque of Red Death
In his 1846 essay Philosophy of Composition (available on-line), Poe reminds us, that as artists, we must do more than imitate.  We must uniquely evoke emotion in our souls:
Were I called on to define, very briefly, the term Art, I should call it 'the reproduction of what the Senses perceive in Nature through the veil of the soul.' The mere imitation, however accurate, of what is in Nature, entitles no man to the sacred name of 'Artist.' i
The notion that the soul is best tapped via the senses is rampant in alchemical history, as Leonardo Da Vinci's notes on becoming a painter are often quoted, "The eye, which is called the window of the soul, is the principal means by which the central sense can most completely and abundantly appreciate the infinite works of nature."   But is this path via our senses one that the soul can reversibly traverse?  Poe addressed this notion his 1842 short story Oval Portrait, as a soul is literally drawn out of a subject and transported into a portrait, killing the former:
Turning to the number in which designated the oval portrait, I there read the vague and quaint words which follow: "She was the maiden of rarest beauty, and not more lovely than full of glee.  And evil was the hour when she saw, and loved, and wedded the painter.  He, passionate, studious, austere, and having already a bride in his Art; she a maiden of rarest beauty, and not more lovely than full of glee; all light and smiles, and frolicsome as the young fawn: loving and cherishing all things: hating only the Art which was her rival: dreading only the palette and brushes and other untoward instruments which deprived her of the countenance of her lover. ii
Weird literature appears obsessed with this goal of transmuting intangible spirits into objects of art.  In a letter to pulp fiction writer E. Hoffman Price, Lovecraft succinctly defined the nature and purpose of the weird artist/writer in terms all too similar to that of alchemist vocabulary:
The genuine artist in the weird is trying to crystallize in at least semi-tangible form one of several typical and indefinite moods unquestionably natural to human beings, and in some individuals very profound, permanent, and intense...moods involving the habitual lure and terror and imagination-stirring qualities of the unknown or half-known, the burning curiosity of the active mind concerning the fathomless abysses of inaccessible space which press in on us from every side, and the instinctive revolt of the restless ego against the galling limitations of time, space, and natural law.  When a writer succeeds in translating these nebulous urges into symbols which in some way satisfy the imagination-symbols which adroitly suggest actual glimpses into forbidden dimensions, actual happenings following the myth-patterns of human fancy, actual voyages of thought or body into the nameless deeps of tantalizing space, and actual evasions, frustrations, or violations of the commonly accepted laws of the cosmos-then he is a true artist in every sense of the word.  He has produced genuine literature by accomplishing a sincere emotional catharsis.iii
In other words, the goal of the weird writer is to transmute the ineffable into a digestible symbol for the curious to consume, even if it scares them!  Lovecraft wrote an essay on how to write weird fiction called simply Notes On Writing Weird Fiction (available on-line), in which he also reveals his motivations (this was published post humorously and is now readily available on the internet):
My reason for writing stories is to give myself the satisfaction of visualising more clearly and detailedly and stably the vague, elusive, fragmentary impressions of wonder, beauty, and adventurous expectancy which are conveyed to me by certain sights (scenic, architectural, atmospheric, etc.), ideas, occurrences, and images encountered in art and literature. I choose weird stories because they suit my inclination best-one of my strongest and most persistent wishes being to achieve, momentarily, the illusion of some strange suspension or violation of the galling limitations of time, space, and natural law which forever imprison us and frustrate our curiosity about the infinite cosmic spaces beyond the radius of our sight and analysis. These stories frequently emphasise the element of horror because fear is our deepest and strongest emotion, and the one which best lends itself to the creation of Nature-defying illusions. Horror and the unknown or the strange are always closely connected, so that it is hard to create a convincing picture of shattered natural law or cosmic alienage or "outsideness" without laying stress on the emotion of fear.iv
 
Goya's Saturn Devouring Son
In line with making fantasy real, he posits his real beliefs within his fiction! Hence he holds his fictional artists to outlandish criteria and immerses them in absolute terrible circumstances. Below, the narrator from Pickman's Model (1927) reflects Lovecraft's literary opinions:
 "You know it takes profound art and profound insight to turn out stuff like Pickman's.  Any magazine-cover hack can splash paint around wildly and call it a nightmare or a Witch's Sabbath or a portrait of the devil, but only a great painter can make such a thing really scare or ring true.  That's because only a real artist knows the actual anatomy of the terrible or the physiology of fear - the exact sort of lines and proportions that connect up with latent instincts or hereditary memories of fright, and the proper colour contrasts and lighting effects to stir the dormant sense of strangeness" v

"You know, in ordinary art, there's all the difference in the world between the vital, breathing things drawn from Nature or models and the artificial truck that commercial small fry reel off in a bare studio by rule.  Well, I should say the really weird artist has a kind of vision which makes models, or summons up what amounts to actual scenes from the spectral world he lives in." vi
Likewise, Howard funneled his views of weird art though his characters.  For instance, in The House in the Oaks (a story posthumously finished by August Derleth). Howard uses the artist Humphrey Skyler to speak on his behalf (this section was written by Howard):
The effect of horror is best gained when the sensation is most intangible.  To put the horror in visible shape, no matter how gibbous or mistily, is to lessen the effect.  I paint an ordinary tumble-down farmhouse with the hint of a ghastly face at a window; but this house-this house-needs no such mummery or charlatanry; it exudes an aura of abnormality-that is, to a man sensitive to such impression.vii
 In fact his contemporary Clark Ashton Smith (1893- 1961) agreed.  Of these authors, Smith was the most eclectic in craft, being also an illustrator, sculptor and poet.  In an October 24th 1930 letter to Lovecraft he described his strategy of using aesthetics to heighten the reading experience of his weird works: 
My own conscious ideal has been to delude the reader into accepting an impossibility, or series of impossibilities, by means of a sort of verbal black magic, in the achievement of which I make use of prose-rhythm, metaphor, simile, tone-color, counter-point, and other stylistic resources, like a sort of incantation. You attain a black magic, perhaps unconsciously, in your pursuit of corroborative detail and verisimilitude. But I fear that I don't always attain verisimilitude in my pursuit of magic! However, I sometimes suspect that the wholly unconscious elements in writing (or other art) are by far the most important viii

Smith's Genuis Loci
In his 1948 story Genius Loci, an artist, Amberville, turns mad when he paints a landscape that happens to embody the effigy of the land's deceased owner, Chapman.  Here Amberville's art is described by the narrator to have captured the evil soul of the landscape:
I examined the drawings attentively.  Both, though of hurried execution, were highly meritorious, and showed the characteristic grace and vigour of Amberville's style.  And yet, even at first glance, I found a quality that was more alien to the spirit of his work.  The elements of the scene were those he had described. In one picture, the pool was half hidden by a fringe of mace-weeds, and the dead willow was leaning across it at a prone, despondent angle, as if mysteriously arrested in its fall towards the stagnant waters.  Beyond, the alders seemed to strain away from the pool, exposing their knotted roots as if in eternal effort.  In the other drawing, the pool formed the main portion of the foreground, with the skeleton tree looming drearily at one side.  At the water's farther end, the cat-tails seemed to wave and whisper among themselves in a dying wind; and the steeply barring slope of pine at the meadow's terminus was indicated as a wall of gloomy green that closed in the picture, leaving only a pale of autumnal sky at the top. ix
From Clark Ashton Smith's awesomely dark Zothique yarns, he overtly expressed his personal views as poetically.  In his 1934 short story The Weaver in the Vault, his character Grotara is last surviving of a three member party commissioned to explore distant ruins to retrieve the remains of a mummy; below, Grotora dies by the evil, but beautiful, force of the aesthetic Weaver:
He could not tell the duration of the weaving, the term of his enthrallment.  Dimly, at last, he beheld the thinning of the luminous threads, the retraction of the trembling arabesques.  The globe, a thing of evil beauty, alive and aware in some holocryptic fashion, had risen now from the empty armor of Yanur.  Diminishing to its former size, and putting off its colors of blood and opal, it hung for a little while above the chasm...After that, there were ages of fever, thirst and madness, of torment and slumber, and recurrent struggling against the massive block that held him prisoner.  He babbled insanely, he howled like a wolf; or, lying supine and silent, he heard the multitudinous, muttering voices of ghouls that conspired against him.  Gangrening swiftly, his crushed extremities seemed to throb like those of a Titan.  He drew his sword with the strength of delirium, and endeavored to saw himself free at the shins, only to swoon from loss of blood. x
Edgar Allen Poe (1809 - 1849) subscribed to evoking melancholy to stimulate 'Beauty'; this instead of fear.  In his 1846 Philosophy of Composition, Poe revealed his views on experiential beauty by detailing the deliberate construction of his poem The Raven:
Regarding then, Beauty as my province, my next question referred to the tone of its highest manifestation-and all experience has shown that this tone is one of sadness.  Beauty of whatever kind in its supreme development invariably excites the sensitive soul to tears.  Melancholy is thus the most legitimate of all the poetical tones... xi
However, any excited emotion in the reader might also signify a successful piece of beauty; even if fear is secondary to melancholy.   Poe indicates this in his "The Masque of the Red Death" in which he describes the architecture plan of a seven roomed palace, hermetically sealed from a plagued town, each room decorated like a splotch of oil paint upon an artist's palette.  This story affected me greatly as I designed the Red Shade.  Poe's gothic writing is so fluid as to be more poem than prose, more painting than poem, and he confidently marks the point when he succeeds in making the guests tremble.  As the strangely masked, unknown visitor interrupted the party:
...there arose at length from the whole company a buzz, or murmur, expressive of disapprobation and surprise-then, finally, of terror, of horror, and disgust.  In an assembly of the phantasms such I have painted, it may well be supposed that no ordinary appearance could have excited such sensation... xii
i Poe, E. A. (1956). The Philosophy of Composition, Selected Writings of Edgar Allen Poe. Boston, M.A., The Riverside Press Cambridge.  p452-464
ii Poe, E. A. (1956). The Oval Portrait, Selected Writings of Edgar Allen Poe. Boston, M.A., The Riverside Press Cambridge. p171
iii Schultz, D. E. (1991). An Epicure in the Terrible : A Centennial Anthology of Essays in Honor of H.P. Lovecraft (Hardcover). Madison, New Jersey, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press (July 1991) p 216
iv Lovecraft, H. P. (1937). Notes On Writing Weird Fiction. Amateur Correspondent
v Lovecraft, H. P. (1927). Pickman's Model. Weird Tales.
vi Lovecraft, H. P. (1927). Pickman's Model. Weird Tales.
vii Howard, R. E. (2001). The House In The Oaks, Nameless Cults. Oakland, CA, Chaosim Publications. P168. 
viii Behrends, S. E. (1987). Clark Ashton Smith: Letters to H.P. Lovecraft West Warwick, RI, Necronomicon Press.
ix Smith, C. A. (1948). Genius Loci and Other Tales, Arkham House.
x Smith, C. A. (1995). Weaver in the Vault, Tales of Zothique. West Warrick, RI, Necronomicon Press. p86.
xi Poe, E. A. (1956). The Philosophy of Composition, Selected Writings of Edgar Allen Poe. Boston, M.A., The Riverside Press Cambridge, p452-464
xii  Poe, E. A. (1956). The Masque of the Red Death, Selected Writings of Edgar Allen Poe. Boston, M.A., The Riverside Press Cambridge.  p174
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Saturday, March 5, 2011

Creepy Microscopy: Animated Myelins and Tentacle Stick Figures

Always on the lookout for spooky textures detected with a microscope or revealed in my kids' drawings, I have been enthralled and terrified to watch soap dissolve.  To be scared like me, you'll need to read lots of Lovecraftian horror stories...then use a microscope to monitor soap hydration.  Obviously, there are limited folks who'll fit that call to order, so below may suffice:

Polarized Light Microscopy (PLM) is really cool method that reveals ordered structures within microstructures like nylon fibers, mineral grains, and wet soap. [For gearheads wanting to learn more, check out the interactive (Flash and Java) Tutorials at Florida State's Microscopy University and the separate primer on using PLM to study cystals: Birefringent Crystals].

  

Ref-1 Hydrating Soap

Fran Rosevear (1912-2010) was a Procter & Gamble phase chemist and microscopist who authored seminal papers of PLM for characterizing surfactants (soap) as they hydrate (get wet).  The tentacle like structures in the "Neat" phase are bilayer tubes (see images).  If you watch water enter dry soap, you can witness these structures form; Rosevear called the analogous, equilibrated structure "oily streaks".


Myelins are flexible crystals, laminated tubes of the same oily streak structure described by Rosevear.  Watching them be born is a real hoot.  They emerge like wiggling snakes as water works it's way into concetrated surfactant.
Ref-2 Oily Streaks

Here are some myelins I witnessed form using Differential Interferrence Contrast  microscopy (a form of PLM).  Do these not scream "Lovecraft dreamed me into existence"?  The myelins look like swelling brain matter.  If I did not know better, I might claim they were sentient worms instead. 

 
 
Mike Cates of the University of Edinburgh and collaborators have been studying myelin formation and have some more compelling images.  This image was shared by Louisa Reissig's presentation: Myelin Formation during the Dissolution of Lamellar Phase @ the 81st ACS Colloid & Surface Science Symposium (June 24-27, 2007), Newark, DE.

Here is another image from literature, this one from nonionic systems (BH Chen, C. M., JM Walsh, PB Warren (2000 ). "Dissolution rates of pure nonionic surfactants." Langmuir.)


Okay, so I worked visions of evil tentacles into the Lords of Dyscrasia Book trailer (another post). This is the second video featured in the trailer:

These structures (and the horrors they evoke) are also affecting my creature design for my sequel to Lords of Dyscrasia.  Below, I share imagery my son drew up for me:
  
Connor's tentacled monsters - (created ~2010)  


Yes, I have been known to ask my kids to contribute to the creative process.  For completeness sake, I share some my daughter dreamed up a few years ago: 

Erin's "Blood Skeletons" (created ~2003)

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Anatomy: Lessons from Aikido, Leonardo Da Vinci, and Monks

Aikido
Could I become a better artist by being thrown around like a sock puppet?   Newby Aikido students (myself included) quickly gain a new perspective of anatomy as they attempt to "roll properly"...only to flounder like a fish-out-of-water.  Being more aware of posing, posture, and balance is allowing me (to my surprise and delight) to enhance my approach toward composing figures.

In Cincinnati there is an local interest in Aikido, a martial art that focuses on rolling, momentum balances, and defense rather than stereotypical punching and kicking.  At the World Fantasy Convention 36 in Columbus this past Oct. I introduced myself to a local fantasy writer Stephen Leigh Farrell  (author of The Nessantico Cycle and The Cloud Mages Trilogy) -- a coworker teaches Aikido with him so I had a story to introduce myself.  Stephen  was clearly as enthusiastic about "throwing" people as much as he was encouraging them to write.  Turns out, another co-worker/friend of mine teaches Aikido so I signed up and am being thrown on a weekly basis now ("I am so a white belt" as my niece once said proudly about her own martial art expertise).

I am far from being an Aikido expert, but a key to "proper rolling" seems to be considering your body a set of axes (a "x") such that you can roll across one of them (thus limiting damage to your spine and transferring momentum across your body).  Below I illustrate this by sharing an image from the oft-reference book of Westbrook and Ratti called Aikido and the Dynamic Sphere, an illustrated introduction: I draw over the image of a man rolling with  primary and secondary axes indicated.


This "primary and secondary axis" approach toward understanding and composing figures is nicely explained by Jim Pavelec (fantasy illustrator and author of Hell Beasts, a guide for drawing evil creatures).  I met him also this October in Columbus at theWorld Fantasy Convention 36 .  In his Hell Beasts book he details "Gesture" as:
"Gesture, or the overall movement and pose of a figure, is the foundation of any good composition, giving your drawings the fluidity and force necessary to capture the viewer's eye.  You can set the mood for an entire piece by first laying out a simple gesture drawing consisting of only a few lines...There are two types of gesture lines: primary and secondary.  The primary gesture line is the fluid mark that runs along the figure's centerline.  For example, when looking at the humanoid figure from the front, the primary gesture line goes from the head, through the center abdomen, then to the pelvis, where it sifts into either the action leg or the weight-bearing leg....Secondary gesture lines,or rythym lines, are lines that flow through the form connecting secondary body parts such as limbs, tails, wings, and tentacles..." p14

This zombie is about to roll!
http://www.jimpavelec.com/books/hell-beasts/