Friday, March 16, 2012

Everything is Relative

A few articles ago I talked about the concept of “the general to the specific”, which is sort of a big concept that is useful across a wide variety of problems. Today I want to talk about another big concept, “everything is relative.” This is one of those concepts that isn’t immediately obvious to a lot of beginners, but once you understand it, it can really change everything.

First, what do we mean by “relative”? Relative in this context means that how we perceive one thing, is dependant on other things around it or related to it. In art, everything in the image you create are viewed against the other elements in the image, and shape how we perceive them. Let’s look at some of the various ways we can use this relative perception.

Relative size
I think one of the easiest ways to illustrate that everything is relative is to consider size. I want you to imagine the biggest spider you’ve ever seen. I remember once finding an orb spider that had made a web over my porch. He was at least 2 inches long. Relative to almost any other spider I had personally seen, this spider was HUGE. However, if a hungry raven had flown down with the intent to eat that spider, well that tiny spider wouldn’t have stood a chance. The spider is only “huge” relative to other spiders I’ve seen. Relative to a raven, it’s tiny.

Relative color and value
Relative color is where things start getting interesting. We all understand the concept of warm colors (yellow, orange, red) versus cool colors (blue, green, purple). They are warm or cool relative to the other colors on the color wheel. However, we can take the colors individually and talk about a warm yellow (for example cadmium yellow) versus a cool yellow (like lemon yellow). How we think about color is relative to the other colors in consideration. This is especially true in your art, and realizing this helps you to look at color more objectively, and to make more interesting color choices.

Credit Edward H. Adelson, Professor of Vision Science at MIT

Consider the above image. If I ask you which color, A or B, is lighter you'd most likely answer B. In fact the answer might be so obviously true that you'd immediately suspect, correctly, that there is a trick.

Credit Edward H. Adelson, Professor of Vision Science at MIT

With a little help, we can see they are actually the same exact color. There are two factors at play making this work. Part of it is the perceptual illusion based on our expectations developed from a life time of seeing shadows. The other part is the relative color based on those near the colors in question. In one, the color is surrounded by darker colors, making it appear light in comparison, in the other the opposite is true.

whether the grey square seems light or dark depends on what color surrounds it.

French artist Eugene Delacroix said, "I can paint you the skin of Venus with mud, provided you let me surround it as I will." He understood that how we perceive a color is based entirely on what is around it.  

Knowing this, you can more easily understand that to make something appear blue, does not always require that you use blue right out of the tube. In fact, sometimes you don't use blue at all. Grey, brown, purple, or green can all pass for blue in the right circumstances. To make something appear black, you will most often avoid actual black, but it will appear black relative to the other colors around it.

As you learn to paint, you will often find yourself mixing what you think will be the perfect color, only to find that when you dab it onto the canvas that it appears entirely different when surrounded by the other colors. You have to constantly be ready to reexamine and question the color and value choices you have made.

You can also use the concept to enhance other qualities. You can help make a human being seem strong and resilient, or soft and vulnerable by changing what surrounds them. 

Imagine a World War 2 fighter plane, flying out to take on an alien invasion. It's going to appear to be primitive technology. Now imagine it flying over a battlefield filled with Roman soldiers with swords and horses. Now that same plane is practically magic! 

There are endless ways in which the phrase "everything is relative" can be applied. You have to remember to establish the base line in such a way that it sets the stage for the qualities you want to highlight.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Overcoming Artist's Block

Every artist encounters Artist Block, that familiar feeling of wanting to produce but having NO good ideas or inspiration. You feel like everything you start to put down is something you’ve done a million times already. When you are a beginning artist, it’s a killer. You think it’s your fault, that if you “were really an artist” you would have a constant wellspring of inspiration and drive. Artist Block feels like a wall, and many people let that wall stop them not knowing that there are ways around that wall, if you know where to look.

Many people start with seeking inspiration in places that have made them excited about creating their own art in the past. Maybe it’s watching some cool movies, or flipping through art books, magazines, or websites. This can indeed work, but there is a very real danger that seeking inspiration instead turns into simply watching a movie or reading a book. In other words, the danger is you just decided to do something else instead of working on your art. Oops. It’s a bit of a trap, and I know I’ve fallen into it, and I’ve heard plenty of other artists say much the same. For this reason, I don’t recommend this, and I think we can find some better options.

One of the most immediate ways to deal with artist block is to simply work through the feeling. Sometimes just the act of starting the brain working on those visual problems can get it jump started and back on the right track. A good place to start is to do some warm up studies. Studies aren’t meant to be great artistic achievements, and thus don’t take as much “inspiration” as they do observation and thinking. By getting your brain thinking and active, you may find that sluggish feeling of artist block slip away, and creativity taking it’s place. This isn’t always the right solution, but it seems to work well when the problem isn’t a deep artist rut, so much as it’s just not being in the right mental space for being productive. It’s easy to get distracted by other things in life, and this solution works well to help you gain back your focus.

More fundamental artistic ruts, I believe, are caused by needing to stoke the artistic fires in more fundamental ways. You need to get out and DO some stuff, gain some experiences that are worthy of wanting to express creatively.  It’s my personal opinion that the best Artist Block busting experiences are things you haven’t seen or done before, or at least things you rarely do. Going to a zoo might be great, but if you go once a week, it’s probably not going to be the shake up you need to really jolt your inner muse. If you are a city kid, maybe you need to go camping, or spend a day riding a horse. If you have always lived in the country, maybe you can go to a big city and visit some huge natural history museum.

There are thousands of things you have never done before, that are likely within your reach. If your dream is to one day draw fantasy characters, have you ever actually held and swung a sword or an axe? If you want to design characters for first person shooters, have you ever spent a day playing paintball, or gone to a gun range to fire real guns? These are all great examples of things that would directly enrich your understanding and excitement for a topic. The more you can back up your art, not just with visuals, but with actual experiences and emotions, the more you have to draw on when you are creating.

That isn’t to say that you should stick to activities that directly relate to the type of art you like to do. Even better sometimes are other things that are interesting to you, but unrelated. Some of the most interesting artistic ideas are combining unrelated things in unexpected ways. Don’t limit yourself, explore everything.

Fighting an artistic rut isn’t something to only worry about when you are having the problem. You can take preventative measures by remembering to get out and do something new and exciting every now and then. Everything you see and do becomes material for your future expression.

Below are some photos from one of my "Rut Buster" excursions. This one wasn't the most thrilling, as it was simply taking some photos around the city I live in, New Haven, Connecticut. These amazing relief sculptures are found on many of the buildings around Yale. Hundreds of people walk past them every day and rarely look up and appreciate their beauty. In fact I'd go so far as to say that many probably don't notice them at all and never realize they are there.

Wait, is that the Burger King?

Outside one of the Yale libraries, paying tribute to the early materials for making paper.