My weblog ELECTRON BLUE, which concentrated on science and mathematics, ran from 2004-2008. It is no longer being updated. My current blog, which is more art-related, is here.

Fri, 29 Aug, 2008

Modernist Architecture

One of the things that I have occupied myself with this summer is a visual journey through twentieth century modernist architecture. There are very few of these buildings in the greater Washington, DC area, as far as I can see. Tysons Corner, near where I live, has a lot of big new buildings, many of them built in the 70s and 80s, but none of them have much architectural distinction, and some of them are downright ugly. I am looking for the kind of modernism that is usually referred to as "clean" and "functional," which takes after the ideals of Corbusier and the inheritors of Frank Lloyd Wright's style.

I grew up in a classic mid-twentieth-century ranch house, planted in an outlying suburb of Boston. It was built in 1955 in a place that used to be a forested hill. The developers, heedless of site or ecology, cleared all the forest and carved off the top of the hill to make a flat enough place to build these one-story houses. The houses had a distant echo of Frank Lloyd Wright in their wide overhanging eaves, "picture windows," and low profiles, but Massachusetts does not have prairies to give vistas through those windows. Fifty-three years later, the forest has grown back, re-seeded into those suburban backyards from original patches left in swampy areas ("wetlands") which by law could not be drained or developed. The picture windows now look into a close-grown forest of evergreens and swamp poplars and chokecherries and other New England jungle foliage. Open spaces where I used to play softball and Frisbee are now deep forest again. The ranch house that was designed for an open space has been buried in the trees.

At one point I thought about being an architect. Many years ago I studied architectural rendering (hand-done, pre-computers) at a distinguished graduate school of design, and was much impressed with the work of the architecture students which was often displayed on the bare concrete walls. I was deterred from going into architecture by many insurmountable difficulties. At that time I had no ability or knowledge of mathematics, and I knew that architecture needed mathematics. And architecture school cost a lot of money, and it would be just as mean and competitive as the other graduate school I had left some years before. And even more, I was told that there was no work for new architectural school graduates, so don't bother. Therefore I did not go into architecture. However, I still love buildings. They are my favorite things to depict. I have a natural affinity for them. I don't have to struggle to draw buildings the way I do with people.

I often frequent this site, "Mid-Century Modernist," in order to enjoy the heritage of American design from the 50s and 60s. But I would like to see this mid-century modernist architecture in reality rather than in pictures or plans. This means that I will have to visit California, where the majority of this style was built. Southern California is rich in modern architecture, especially San Diego and Palm Springs. You can get architecture tours which show you the most interesting and important buildings. In the California sun and open territory, these structures are in their proper element. I hope to make the pilgrimage someday.

Posted at 5:23 am | link

Tue, 26 Aug, 2008

Back to mediocrity

The Olympics are over, and everyone is tired, including me. But what a show, and so colorful! Those Chinese sure like red stuff. I've been drawing athletes in action for the last two weeks trying to capture in my imagination the grace and power and agility I saw on the screen. This Weblog is old enough that longtime readers can recall my effusions about the 2004 Olympics, from the August 2004 archive. I felt much more hopeful then than now that I would ever learn anything mathematical and physics-oriented. Currently I am so busy with other work (at the day job, mostly) that I barely get to contemplate a calculus limit, let alone solve limit problems.

I still am a sucker for excellence. I value excellence, or competence, or achievement, more than anything else in the world. I honor it wherever I see it. I watched the TV and Internet coverage knowing that I was being shamelessly manipulated emotionally and mentally, but I didn't care. I was seeing excellence, or at least striving for excellence, even if the girl fell off the beam or the fencer got struck down or the runner lost at the last few meters. At least they tried.

Later in 2004, I forgot all about the Olympics when the Boston Red Sox won their first World Series in 86 years. I thought that was excellent, too. What about art excellence? I constantly visit the sites of commercial artists who work for games and movies and illustrations. There's a lot of this art and I find it thrilling. It's colorful, too, like the Chinese Olympics with their costumes and fireworks. I am a spectator, not a participant. I'm a consumer, not a producer. By the time I get around to having the opportunity to do something myself, it is already 4 in the morning and I should not be up at this hour at all.

Posted at 4:06 am | link

Sun, 17 Aug, 2008

Just do it? No way

Whenever someone says to me, "Just Do It," I have lost my respect for them. They have no idea what it is like to be me, nor do they have any knowledge of classical culture and how things are learned. Let me explain.

Let's say that I want to do some art or craft or sport. Drawing, writing, composing music. Or maybe computer programming or woodcarving or, for Ghod's sake, kayaking (which I would never do anyway, because it's dangerous and I hate water.) Well, it will be a long time before I ever get to do any recognizable example of that thing. Because the learning period will be long and difficult. And in the classical tradition, the apprentice (me) can do nothing on my own without passing the skill tests under the master's supervision.

So for art, for instance, I must go to art school for years and learn all the techniques needed to do art. Drawing, painting, perspective, color, composition, all of those things must be mastered before the prospective artist can create works of his/her own. I don't have much formal art education, which is a shame, and no doubt has seriously curtailed my professional life as an artist, but I have learned from other artists and from practicing by myself. I am entitled to do creative work of my own because I have done so much practice. Now, as I explained a few posts earlier, I am struggling to learn to draw human figures, a skill I did not do well. I will have to draw hundreds and hundreds of drawings before I feel qualified to re-incorporate human figures in my art work. If you know anything about drawing human figures, you may know that it is extremely difficult, and that the margin for error is very small. Any tiny mistake in drawing a figure, any little area of stiffness or wrong proportion or uncertain line, and your drawing is a loser.

Similarly, with music. In order to really do music, you cannot just sit down at the piano and improvise. I took piano lessons in my youth, and at no point did the piano teacher ever ask me to improvise anything. It was unthinkable. You learned piano (or any other instrument) by doing scales and arpeggios and more scales and then simple etudes and pieces written for training. And then only after that were you allowed to play anything by a known composer like Beethoven or Mozart, and even then only the simpler pieces, because you didn't have the skill to play anything else and you wouldn't for a long long time. As for understanding music, you had to take music theory for years, and learn harmony and counterpoint and fugues and other classical musical structures, before you would ever think to try to compose something of your own. I was privileged to take first year theory and counterpoint from a private tutor, but I never went on to the other years for various reasons. Therefore I am not entitled to do any musical composition of my own. As with drawing, the "music" produced by an untrained attempt at composition is easily identified as inferior. You cannot "break the rules" unless you know them and can work completely within those rules.

This has been my experience with math and physics as well. I know that there is interesting and creative work to be done in these fields, but I am lifetimes away from ever doing that. I have been studying math for 7 years now, and I am currently reviewing first year calculus. I had to start from middle-school arithmetic, back in 2001, and recapitulate my high school math for 5 of those years before I got anywhere near something that might have been taught me in college. And all these years, so far, all the math and physics I have ever done is training exercises, divorced from anything in the real world. I have never done a physics experiment nor done any mathematical "research," and I may never do so.

A couple of posts ago, I told you how difficult learning is for me. I am not being cute about this, and I'm not lying. In order for me to get anything through my obtuse and viscous brain, I have to go through a long, algorithmic series of small steps and problem sets. It takes me a whole year or more to just learn the basics. I cannot leap ahead, because I am scared and confused if I do that. I don't even turn the pages to the rest of the book, before it is time for me to work with them. This is how I learned Photoshop, and this is how I learned algebra, and this is how I am attempting to learn the music software on my computer ("GarageBand"), though knowing that any of my attempts to make "music" on this system will never meet "classical" standards. It will not be music.

This is why, when I long for a new skill or consider a creative possibility, I feel overwhelmed. There is no "just do it." There is no "try or not, there is no try" as the obnoxious Yoda sort of put it in one of those annoying Star Wars films. If I want to, for instance, learn computer programming, or even HTML (Web language, that is), I am facing years and years of step by step, tedious, repetitive learning and training before I ever do anything "real." I don't even know where to start. OK, where to start? Here's a giant book that weighs five pounds and has 1000 pages. Here's page 1. Work through the whole book, chapter by chapter, and I might know something elementary about the subject when I get to page 1000. Shall I start now? I might be finished with the book by 2010, if I apply myself diligently.

Posted at 2:33 am | link

Sun, 10 Aug, 2008

Falls Church can be a hip place

Even though it's always dangerous for me to go out alone under any circumstance, I sometimes am able to leave my electronic cloister and take a walk downtown on a particularly beautiful sunny Saturday afternoon, as I did yesterday. I need to do more physical activity for my health, so I took the risk. I was able to walk about a half a mile, which is at least something. One of my destinations was, naturally, a coffee house.

Stacy's Coffee Parlor has been around for a few years now. It's in a somewhat rundown shopping area which has not yet experienced the axe of "renewal," though new construction is going on all around it. Unlike the big corporate coffee giant, Stacy's is unique and independent, and it is like a bit of college town atmosphere in this otherwise businesslike suburb. This Saturday it was mostly empty, except for a group of science fiction and fantasy fans who were meeting there for entertaining conversation about weird science.

As a sketch artist, I need to keep up my sophisticated status. And sketch artists who are in the cool zone have Moleskine sketchbooks. They are prohibitively expensive, which is why I hadn't gotten one before now. But I was able to get one on sale so it was now in my backpack. But it was also sketch-free and unused. I was too nervous to draw in it. What if I did a wretched drawing on one of these precious pages? Especially the first drawing! My Moleskine drawings have to be super-good to justify my use of such a status symbol.

Since coffee houses are familiar territory, I decided to do a coffee house drawing on the first page of the Moleskine. This took me about an hour, while I sipped coffee or water and heard bits and pieces of the conversation. The drawing, thank goodness, looked all right, and my perspective was pretty good. And then after a while the science fiction fans discovered me and my drawing. They were impressed by it and even more, they wanted copies, which they were willing to pay for! I made a deal and they will get 15 copies for them to give each other as presents. So my Moleskine has an auspicious beginning.

Pen and marker drawing on Moleskine. The yellow color is the "natural" color of the sketchbook page.

Posted at 4:24 am | link

Thu, 07 Aug, 2008

Art and purpose

I have been spending this summer doing, among other things, sketches of human figures from model books. The general art-school doctrine is that you can't learn to really draw figures well from photographs, but as I explained earlier, I don't have easy access to "real" life drawing sessions.

Recently I had a conversation with another artist in which I tried to explain why I was doing the figure drawings. The other artist viewed drawing (and other art) as an end in itself. The art exists, and is made, independently of any relationship to a viewer, a collector who would pay for it, or any purpose other than its own existence.

I grew up with artists who believed in the aforementioned doctrine of art only for its own sake. Therefore the default career for an artist is teaching in some kind of academia, which supposedly frees the art-maker to create things which need not have any connection with anything other than the artist's need to make art. Any art shows or displays are then disconnected from any desire to sell art, since the artist already is supported financially by the academic job.

I don't think that way, which makes me a "lesser" breed of artist to the purists. I have fought this ideological battle over and over again. I have not taken a job teaching art; I do commercial signs instead. I would love to make enough money to support myself with my own art, but there are any number of voices in our society and in my own social neighborhood which say that this is completely impossible, so don't even try. Since I do not make a living by my own art, I thus prove that it is impossible. (Is this circular reasoning?)

I finally asked the question: Does art have a purpose? I am not satisfied with art that just sits there and looks pretty, or exists just to please or lull or titillate its viewers. Many artists do figure drawings that are just models sitting there in leisurely poses. Some of these get bought, but that isn't why they were done.

I am doing figure drawings because I have a purpose in mind. It's not to make pictures of poses. It's because I want to make illustrations in which people appear, and I want the people to be drawn well. Some of these illustrations would be in graphic novels, others would be fantasy scenes, and others might be costume designs. There may be other illustration possibilities which I don't know about right now. Some of these may be sources of income. Once upon a a time, I made money as an illustrator. If I don't try again, I'll never know. Right now I am still in the realm of the purists, drawing and painting things which are seen by only a handful of people and which are safely kept away from the dirty, low-class commercial world.

Posted at 3:48 am | link

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