2018 Yuletide Cards are On the Way

Winter Woodpecker: Ink & Watercolor

Winter Woodpecker: Ink & Watercolor

As of today, all our Yuletide cards are on the way to their recipients (or at least they will be when the USPS picks them up tomorrow!). My artwork for the card design is shown above. Naturally, the copyright notice does not appear on the card itself; it is included here only so that my artwork does not mysteriously become someone else’s design without my permission!

Mary and I discussed whether a Woodpecker was a “seasonal” bird, then we discovered that the USPS had already issued a set of stamps called “Winter Birds”, which included a woodpecker (albeit not a Downy Woodpecker)!

 

The Correct Scale for Artwork

Life Study, 2003

Life Study, 2003

The image above is a scan from a life drawing in pencil that I produced in 2003. This was one of several drawings that I recently had scanned professionally, because the original image size is simply too large (about 24” x 19”) for my equipment.

The issue of the “right size” at which to create artwork has concerned me several times over the years, and I generally haven’t received much guidance on the subject.

When I was growing up, there seemed to be a general attitude (even among my teachers) that the goal of producing artwork was to create a “pretty picture to hang on a wall”, so the “correct” size was simply that at which you wanted to be able to view the picture.

As I described in an earlier post, it was only when I arrived at Imperial College, and became the Publicity Officer of the H G Wells Society there, that I was faced with the requirement to produce artwork that was intended for reproduction. Thus, my original artwork didn’t automatically need to be the same size as the reproduced version.

Avoid Magnification

My initial drawings and paintings were created rather casually on a standard A4 pad, and it was only when I needed to reproduce those as posters that it dawned on me that the posters would be A3 size, i.e., double the size at which I’d created the artwork. In the case where I’d produced a black-and-white line drawing, as below, the result didn’t look too terrible, but some of the others looked quite bad when enlarged!

Comic Strip Artwork, 1981

Comic Strip Artwork, 1981

I learned a harsh lesson from that experience, and, since then, I’ve always endeavored to create my original artwork at a scale larger than 1:1, relative to the final displayed size.

Comic Strip Techniques

I did learn later that much artwork for magazine or newspaper reproduction, such as comic strips, is normally created at twice the size of the intended final reproduction. That was one of those “commercial techniques” that nobody bothered to teach me during my artistic training!

Vector Artwork & Infinite Scaling

In a post on my professional blog, The Two Types of Computer Graphics, I explained the fundamental difference between bitmap and vector representations in computer-based artwork. (Some seem to believe that such artwork is “computer-generated”, but that isn’t the case. Although the computer provides the hardware and software to record the image, it still requires a human artist to perform the actual drawing or painting.)

Whereas bitmap graphics are created on a matrix of pixels, and thus have fixed dimensions, vector artwork consists of shapes entirely described by mathematical functions, which have no predetermined dimensions. Thus, in principle at least, vector artwork can be rendered at any size with no loss of resolution. I featured an example of vector artwork in another recent post, and it’s shown again below. The forms consist entirely of geometric shapes, which the computer can render at any size, so there’s no loss of resolution (although lack of artist-provided detail becomes obvious as the image is magnified).

Egret Shock Wave, 2018

Egret Shock Wave, 2018

Size is Proportional to Time

Returning to the large life study shown at the top of this post, as I became more practiced at such drawings, I tended to make them larger, because that allowed me more control in areas where I wanted to include precise details (such as the face, as shown below in another similarly-sized drawing).

Life Study Detail, 2003

Life Study Detail, 2003

The price to be paid for choosing to produce larger drawings, of course, was that it took me far longer to shade the entire drawing satisfactorily! For that reason, I never actually produced many such drawings.

The advent of computer-based artwork, and the fact that we often now view artwork of all kinds on computer screens, requires artists to think more carefully about the “correct size” for their work; it’s no longer just a question of what will “look good” hanging on a wall!

Life Study, 2003

Life Study, 2003

Almost a Winner

Townscape 1550, painted in school at age 14

Townscape 1550, painted in school at age 14

I painted the picture above, depicting a fictitious medieval city, in school, at the age of 14, and thought little of it at the time. It was just another one of many that I churned out during my Ordinary-level classes in Art. We were largely restricted to inventing subjects from our imaginations, because there was little reference material available and we weren’t allowed to leave the school during classes.

However, about a year later, my teacher chose this particular picture as an entry in a national art competition, where it was awarded a “runners up” certificate.

That was not the first recognition I’d won for my art skills, despite never having sought prizes for any of it. In fact, the first prize I ever won for anything was for drawing, at Newby County Primary school when I was aged 6. The award I was given for that was a copy of the book Little Grey Rabbit finds a Shoe, by Alison Uttley. Given the nature of the book, I’ve always suspected that the person responsible for obtaining the prizes had assumed that the winner would be a girl, because it didn’t seem like an ideal choice for a six-year-old boy!

Digital Salvation

Unfortunately, in the case of my 1974 painting above, and as with many of the other surviving paintings that I did at school, the cheap poster paint that we had to use is decomposing. You can see many white blotches in the blue sky, looking somewhat like aerial smoke bombs detonating! Those were not originally present, but are the result of the white paint compound separating from the tinting chemicals.

Thus, I recently took the opportunity to scan the painting before it deteriorates further, which was partly what prompted me to write this article now. The original dimensions are about 16“ x 11”, thus too large for my scanner. However, I was able to scan the paper in parts, then stitch the result together in such a way that the edges are almost invisible.

The Kellogg’s National Exhibition of Children’s Art

It seems that the American cereal company, Kellogg’s, organized a National Exhibition of Children’s Art in London every year, from the 1960s through to some time in the 1970s. The only online record of it that I’ve been able to find is a copy of an invitation to enter the “exhibition” in 1976, which apparently appeared on the back of packets of Corn Flakes. (The clichéd “happy corporate collage” artwork on the cereal packet is amusing. Of course, they couldn’t possibly promote a children’s art exhibition by using…er…actual children’s art, could they?)

As far as I recall, I was unaware of those exhibitions at the time, and my entry in the 1975 contest was entirely initiated by my teacher. I definitely didn’t fill in any back-of-a-cereal-packet entry form. The only official acknowledgement that I received was the certificate below (which isn’t even dated). Nobody invited me to attend the actual exhibition, during that or any other year.

The Undated NECA Runners-Up Certificate

The Undated NECA Runners-Up Certificate

It was certainly also the case that my parents did not encourage me to exhibit my artwork. Unfortunately, they took a pessimistic attitude to most things along the lines of, “it’s not worth trying because you’re bound to fail”. When faced with other parents who actively helped their children in such activities, they simply dismissed such behavior as being “pushy”. Nothing worse than a “pushy parent”, you know!

Competitive Art? I’d Rather Not!

While I have no objections to art exhibitions, I have become increasingly skeptical of the benefits of “art competitions”. After all, who has the competence or authority to decide which works of art are “better”? Yes; you can determine that one artwork is better-drawn or better-executed than another—that one artist is more technically competent than another—and I do that myself all the time. But does that make one artwork “better” than the other? Not necessarily. If you must turn an exhibition into a competition, wouldn’t it be better to make it a “artist contest” instead of an “art contest”?

I understand that, even in a non-competitive exhibition, there has to be someone to decide which entries will “make the cut”. Given that Kellogg’s were soliciting entries for their exhibition on the backs of cereal packets, someone would obviously need to review all entries, even if only to determine which entries met the basic conditions (e.g., to determine that they were actually produced by children). That kind of basic judgment doesn’t really turn an exhibition into a contest, unless the promoters deliberately aim to do that.

Unfortunately, we live in a culture where some people seem to want to turn every human endeavor into a contest, so when someone promotes contests in inappropriate areas, all too many people support the idea, instead of treating it with the skepticism, or possibly even contempt, that it may deserve.

It’s true that I have entered my own artworks in exhibitions that involve judging and prizegiving, such as my Moggies cartoons, which were displayed at some Sonoma County Fairs. Sometimes my entries have won, but sometimes they received no award at all. I try to maintain as detached a view as possible of those events and the responses to my entries.

Encouraging Originality

Surely, art is about the wide variety of ways in which artists see and interpret the universe, and reducing all that to a contest misses much of the value of art. The judgments that are necessary to determine contest winners will inevitably give the impression that one or two viewpoints are superior to all others, thus discouraging the very exploration and variety that is essential to art.

Deconstructing the Future

The City of the Future (When I was Ten)

The City of the Future (As I envisaged when I was Ten)

Here’s a “throwback” to a drawing that I produced at the age of ten, to illustrate a story set in “the future”.

Last week, Mary and I went to see the documentary movie Deconstructing Sergeant Pepper, in which Scott Freiman analyzes the musical innovations that went into the creation of the Beatles’ 1967 album*. We both enjoyed the movie, because it doesn’t get bogged down in technical detail, but at the same time doesn’t shy away from technical issues when they’re relevant. The presenter even discussed the Automatic Track Doubling circuit that was used to create echo effects, although he didn’t go so far as to display a circuit diagram!

(* We saw the movie at the Rialto in Sebastopol, but it will be screened again in other theaters around the US, along with other documentaries in the same series.)

Of course, I was just a young boy of six or seven when the Beatles were creating that innovative music, so I didn’t really grasp what was going on in the world around me. In retrospect, I do recall a general mood of optimism and change during those years, but I’m not sure to what extent that was shared by the adults around me, or was simply an aspect of my youth. I’m fairly certain that any such optimistic Zeitgeist was not shared by my parents!

Seeing the “Sergeant Pepper” movie did, however, bring to mind recollections of my own youthful expectations about the future and my role in the world. In 1970, I produced the drawing above to illustrate a story that I was writing at school. My story was ambitiously set in the year 2461, but was inevitably a “product of its time”. The tower I drew was supposed to be a city, but it also happened to be a rocket. The style was clearly inspired by the claims of 1960s-era architects about future buildings, but my innovative design also incorporated the boosters from the first stage of the Saturn V spaceship!

Goldfinger or Glassfinger?

London Wall in the Rain, 1981

London Wall in the Rain, 1981

Respected architects of the post-war period, such as Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, and Ernö Goldfinger claimed that twenty-first century cities would be “managed environments,” probably consisting of huge glass-clad skyscrapers. Many of these architects clearly saw the creation of such cities as being socially beneficial.

Goldfinger himself wrote in 1941:

Cities can become centres of civilisation where men and women can live happy lives. The technical means exist to satisfy human needs. The will to plan must be aroused. There is no obstacle but ignorance and wickedness.

Creativity & the Tyranny of Good Intentions

The fact that I was encouraged to spend time writing such a fantastic story at school seems surprising in retrospect. I do recall that, during my primary schooling, there was significant emphasis on “creativity”, in that we were encouraged or even required to write and draw every day.

If that policy was intended to turn all of us into creative adults, it seems to have been an utter failure in most cases! For me, though, it was generally enjoyable and probably beneficial, and I’m only disappointed that the emphasis of our education changed later to uncreative, rote preparation for exams.

The heart of this disconnect was, and still is, that there is a huge gulf between the kind of people that educators want to produce, and the kind of people that employers actually want schools to produce.

I’ve seen evidence that the emphasis on creativity in schools in those days was actually quite new, and stemmed from the “progressive” educational ideas that had been laid out in the Plowden Report, but the schools I attended were not notably progressive. The Church of England school that I was being forced to attend when I produced the story containing this illustration prided itself on being anything but progressive!

The book “Progressively Worse” by Robert Peal contains an interesting discussion of the history and consequences of progressive education in Britain.

Life Drawing Practice

Life Drawing Sample. Cricklade College, 1985

Life Drawing Sample. Cricklade College, 1985

This article describes some of my experiences while learning to draw the human figure. I practiced my skills by attending “Life Drawing” classes in various locations.

As I mentioned in a previous post, while studying for my electronics degree at Imperial College, London, I also took time to continue practicing my artistic skills, attending a part-time class at St. Martins School of Art. I wonder whether I am the only ever Imperial College student to have done that (please comment if you know otherwise)?

After graduating, job transitions took me to various locations, but I tried to continue practicing my artistic skills wherever I went. Given that learning to draw the human figure is perhaps one of the most demanding tasks an artist can face, I frequently attended “Life Drawing” sessions, which typically involve drawing or painting a live human model.

I’ve always felt that the goal of being able to draw well (at least since the invention of photography) is to be able to conjure up convincing scenes that don’t exist in reality. However, in order to be able to do that for images that involve humans, you have to have a thorough understanding of the structure of the human body, which of course is a very complex shape. As far as I know, the only real way to obtain that understanding is to practice drawing actual humans, hence the benefit of life drawing classes.

Cricklade College

In 1985, I started working for Link Electronics, which was a company in Andover, Hampshire, that designed and manufactured television cameras for the BBC and other worldwide customers. I discovered that Life Drawing classes were being offered at Cricklade College nearby, so I began attending regularly.

During that time, we had a regular model (shown in the pencil drawing at the top of this article), who was in fact the wife of a local sheep farmer. While we were drawing her, she would sometimes regale us with tales of how she’d just been up all night, birthing lambs!

(Incidentally, the models at life drawing classes usually pose nude, and this was the case at Cricklade. Therefore, I’ve cropped the picture above so that it won’t be “NSFW”!)

Those life drawing sessions sometimes gave rise to some amusing situations. One evening, when it was almost dark, I was arriving at the college and getting out of my car when someone walked past me and said “hello”. In the dark, it took me some time to realize that she was our model, to which she responded, “Don’t tell me; you don’t recognize me with my clothes on!” If someone overheard that remark, I wonder what they made of it?

Pencil Technique

As a result of these practice sessions, I evolved a standard technique for pencil drawing. I preferred to draw in pencil because it was relatively fast, and required minimal preparation, while still allowing for some correction of errors. I mentioned in an earlier post that the idea of sketching in pencil was something I learned at school. My earliest drawings were typically laid straight down in pen, which left no chance for error correction.

Nonetheless, speed was of the essence in life drawing sessions, because live models cannot hold their poses indefinitely. Even in a very relaxing pose, most models would need a break after an hour, and most poses were held for only five to thirty minutes. Therefore, even if my technique allowed for the correction of errors, there was usually little time to do that.

My technique certainly did not follow “conventional wisdom”, and in fact I found some standard advice to be counter-productive. The details of my technique are:

  • Pencils. I found it best to use an HB “writing” pencil instead of the usually-recommended soft drawing pencil. I found that the softer pencils wore down too quickly, and that their marks had an annoying tendency to smudge. The Eagle writing pencils seemed to have smoother graphite composition than so-called “drawing” pencils, which provided a more uniform line.
  • Paper. I used thin marker paper rather than heavy Bristol board or watercolor paper. Again, the smooth surface of the marker paper allowed for more subtle shading effects, because the pencil line did not “catch” on irregularities in the paper surface.
  • Sharpening. I did not use a pencil sharpener. Instead, I sharpened my pencils by carving off the wood with a knife, leaving about 5mm of graphite projecting, then rubbing the tip to a point using sandpaper. This was a technique that I’d actually learned at school during Technical Drawing O-level classes (it was never mentioned in any art class). The benefits were that I didn’t have to sharpen the pencil so frequently, and could adjust the shape of the point to provide either a very fine line or a broader “side” stroke.

Improving with Age

Even as a child, I attempted to draw the human figure, but I was always embarrassed by the results. In fact, I would often contrive ways to tell stories without having to draw human figures, just to get around the painful limitations of my skill. I chose characters that were easier to draw, such as dinosaurs or “Daleks”, such as the page below, from a strip that I drew at the age of eight.

Part of a Daleks Adventure, drawn when I was 8 years old

Part of a Daleks Adventure, drawn with a blotchy ballpoint pen when I was 8 years old

It wasn’t until I was about 22 that I began to feel that I could draw the human figure sufficiently well that the results wouldn’t be an embarrassment. That turned out to be a useful skill, since I obtained “commissions” from fellow Imperial College students to produce posters for various university election campaigns. Typically, the student wanted to be shown in some fantastic situation that, for practical reasons, couldn’t be set up in reality, so it was necessary to synthesize a pose that did not actually exist.

Typical of this technique was the poster that I produced for Pallab Ghosh, a Physics student who was standing for the office of Student Newspaper Editor. Pallab wanted to be depicted as Superman (not my idea!), and of course it was important that the illustration would be recognizable as being Pallab. Apparently, my poster (shown below) did the job, because Pallab duly won his election! (For some of Pallab’s own recollections of his editorship, see https://www.union.ic.ac.uk/media/iscience/old/article_template_typ.php?articleid=10.)

Pallab Ghosh as

Pallab Ghosh as “Super-Editor” (Superman)

The drawing of Pallab is not pencil, but was in fact done with a black ballpoint pen (many such pens, in fact. because, as I’d learned from earlier experience, the tips would eventually become clogged with ink!). This was another benefit of attending the part-time class at Saint Martins School of Art, because I could “look over the shoulders” of practicing full-time artists, and was able to copy that technique from one such artist.

I also had a technical reason for selecting that particular technique. Although it may not be obvious in the reduced-size image shown here, there are actually no shades of grey in the drawing. All “shading” is achieved via very fine black lines. At the time, the scanning equipment that we used to produce these posters didn’t cope well with continuous shading, so I felt that this technique would lead to a better scanning result.