How to Use Shadows and Edges for Better Design

Portrait Of Joris de Caullery, by Rembrandt van Rijn

I originally wrote this post to help an art student with his portrait studies, hence the informal diction. This post concentrates mostly on analysis of form and edge control in the design of the portrait. Without these two, the portrait, and indeed, all compositions, fall apart.

We can only see anything because of light, and form can only be revealed through light.

 The light and shadow pattern is a compositional element as much as anything else, and ideally should have a sort of unity to it.

Once you have established the light and dark pattern, utilize the light to model and describe the form, using your basic knowledge of rendering form (ie highlight, light, halftone, shadow core, reflected light, cast shadow)

For example, a rather obscure Dutch artist known as Rembrandt van Rijn painted the portrait shown above:

Notice how although most of the painting, including the figure, is in shadow, the majority of the face is illuminated by light. Notice even more how the light shape is almost a single shape, as is the shadow; this is not a patchwork quilt of values.

Also notice how Rembrandt not only paints more detail in the light, but models the light more; the shadows he left rather thin and flat. This is is a compositional choice that maintains the focus in the light areas and away from the shadows.

And do NOT draw portraits from photo reference unless you have to; always draw from life if possible. (anatomical studies from reference is fine, for obvious reasons ;-))

On Nietzsche and the Love of Life

(photo: bobistraveling)

[Originally posted in response to Ms. Kate's post]

"There is nothing the busy man is less busied with than living: there is nothing that is harder to learn" (Seneca, On the Shortness of life)

Nietzsche's philosophy is the work of one who seeks to affirm life in the face of life's tragedy - a radical affirmation of life.

Say a sacred Yes to life and affirm it, not with Stoic resolve, but with joy and laughter; find joy even in the darkest places.

Have the strength to dance and laugh in the thin air of the mountains' heights.

Have the strength to dance and laugh in the darkest shadows.

Have the strength to dance and laugh.

It is in this context that "eternal recurrence" must be understood; this is NOT a belief in reincarnation.

What if every single moment of your life, good and bad, you were to repeat forever; would you feel cursed, or are you strong enough to feel blessed?

"What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: 'This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more' ... Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: 'You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.'"(Nietzsche, The Gay Science)

To affirm this curse as a blessing, to love your life, your fate, and willingly relive it ad infinitum Nietzsche calls "amor fati," love of fate.

"My formula for human greatness is amor fati: that one wants to have nothing different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely to bear the necessary, still less to conceal it--all idealism is mendaciousness before the necessary--but to love it." -Nietzsche

Not just stoic tolerance of one's lot in life, nor the utilitarian seeking to maximize pleasure, Nietzsche preaches total acceptance of fate.

This love of fate is a hard; Nietzsche never took the easy path: Freud said of Nietzsche, “In my youth he signified a nobility which I could not attain.”

Perhaps, but to love every single moment of one's life remains a worthy ideal worth striving for, 

Radical love of life...

lightness, weight, and everything in between.

A Cultural Interpretation of the British Industrial Revolution

Aaron Fung
This essay explores the role the Enlightenment played in the British Industrial Revolution, specifically the Industrial Enlightenment, as described by Professor Joel Mokyr. Central to the Industrial Enlightenment is Francis Bacon’s philosophy of understanding nature to harness its power for human progress. However, in order for this knowledge to be of use, it had to be spread to those that could make use of it for economic and technological progress; the knowledge had to be popularized and spread. This implies the formation of links between the discoverers of knowledge, such as scientists, and more practical men, like inventors and businessmen: links were formed between savants and fabricants. Finally, Professor Robert Allen’s opposition to the cultural interpretation of the Industrial Revolution is addressed. Allen offers an alternative thesis that cheap coal and high real wages of English laborers are the relevant metric, which led to the creation of labor-saving devices, leading to the Industrial Revolution; this thesis is addressed as well.

Joel Mokyr believes that at the heart of British economic growth of the Industrial Revolution is a set of beliefs formed out of the Enlightenment, which he terms the “Industrial Enlightenment” which he defines as “... the part of the Enlightenment which believed that material progress and economic growth could be achieved through increasing human knowledge of natural phenomena and making this knowledge accessible to those who could make use of it in production” (Mokyr, 40). Mokyr argues that it is this set of beliefs, the Industrial Enlightenment, that both led to and sustained the economic growth of the British Industrial Revolution.

Important to the Industrial Enlightenment is the figure of Francis Bacon. Bacon’s thoughts would play only an ancillary role in the story of economic history were it not for his influence on Enlightenment thought: “...the influence of Francis Bacon was central to the Industrial Enlightenment” (Mokyr, 40). Francis Bacon was particularly interested in acquiring knowledge of nature, through observation. “Man, being the servant and interpreter of nature, can do and understand so much and so much only as he has observed in fact or in thought of the course of nature; beyond this he neither knows anything nor can do anything.” (Bacon, Novum Organum aphorism I). For Bacon, only empirical knowledge gained through measurement and observation could be of any use, and this data was to be used to understand the natural world. “Nature to be commanded must be obeyed....”(Bacon, Novum Organum aphorism III) Bacons seeks to understand nature, to obey natural laws, in order to harness the power of nature.

Mokyr argues that Bacon’s agenda, by the Industrial Revolution, had become widespread. “It was believed that social progress could be attained through the ‘useful arts,’ what we today call science and technology, which should inform and reinforce one another. This belief spawned what has been called ‘the Baconian program.’” (Mokyr, 40) Important to “the Baconian program” is the utility of the knowledge, for in the use of this knowledge one could positively affect society. Bacon himself betrays this bias for utility in the fifth aphorism of the “Preparative Toward a Natural and Experimental History” where he states, “Among the parts of history which I have mentioned, the history of arts is of most use because it exhibits things in motion and leads more directly to practice.” (Bacon, Preparative Toward a Natural and Experimental History aphorism V). The reader gathers from reading the first paragraph of this work that Bacon is concerned with the preservation and safekeeping of knowledge, knowledge that had been painstakingly gathered. It even has categories to be filled by future knowledge gatherers; one would think that Bacon would protect and save gathered knowledge equally. And yet in the quoted text Bacon seems to betray a bias toward the arts, which Bacon defines as “nature as changed and altered by man” (Bacon, Preparative Toward a Natural and Experimental History aphorism IV). Although Bacon is trying to initiate a program of empirical data collection, he does so with its utility to society in mind. Put another way, “‘The major purpose of Baconian natural philosophy is to produce innovations of which nature unaided is not capable’ (Zagorin, 1998, p. 97)” (Mokyr, ,41). Rather than try to go with the flow of nature, like a Daoist, or wax poetic about the sublime power of nature, like a Pantheist, the Baconian program sought to control nature, to harness the power of nature to improve human life.

Just as important as scientific discovery to the Industrial Enlightenment program was the popularization of knowledge. Mokyr describes this as “...making this knowledge accessible to those who could make use of it in production”(Mokyr, 40). This is the forging of links between savants and fabricants, between those who do the discovery and those who could make use of those discoveries. It is one thing to explore the laws of nature in the proverbial ivory tower, far from the concerns of the average citizen. It is often quite a different task to utilize this knowledge for technological invention.

Allen is not convinced that this link existed, and questions the relevance of Enlightenment ideas in the process of invention during the Industrial Revolution. “The biographies of the seventy-nine important inventors show that there were links between the Enlightenment and the inventors, but the connections were sometimes tenuous” (Allen, 252). However, Mokyr is not claiming that these inventors are versed in the intricacies of the debate between Cartesian Rationalism and Baconian Empiricism, just that they are influenced by Enlightenment ideas, even if watered down by cultural diffusion. “The mechanics, ironmongers, and chemists who were responsible for the technological advances of the age were by no means all intellectuals, much less ‘enlightened,’ but they moved in a milieu in which the effects of the Enlightenment were pervasive” (Mokyr, 61). For this reason, a “tenuous” link with the Enlightenment is enough; the individual inventors need not even be conscious of their link to the Enlightenment, much less have these links documented; merely being influenced by the Enlightenment zeitgeist is enough to be a part of an Industrial Enlightenment.

Unfortunately, the cultural diffusion of the Enlightenment through the inventive class is nearly impossible to define, much less quantify. This is precisely Robert Allen’s issue with Mokyr’s Industrial Enlightenment; as a result, he sees the Industrial Enlightenment explanation as meretricious at best. Allen sees such cultural arguments as meretric unnecessary and ambiguous. Instead, Allen chooses to focus on the invention and adoption of labor saving devices in Britain, specifically why they were invented in the first place. He thinks that these labor saving devices “... were adopted in Britain because labour was expensive and coal was cheap” (Allen, 2). These are the two vital metrics in Allen’s thesis, and unlike Mokyr’s Industrial Enlightenment with its beliefs and links, real wages and the price of coal can be both quantified and recorded. According to Allen, English labor had become expensive, so English entrepreneurs sought ways of replacing this expensive human labor with mechanical devices run on cheap coal. “The Industrial Revolution, in short, was invented in Britain in the eighteenth century because it paid to invent it there, while it would not have been profitable in other times and places”(Allen, 2). Higher wages in Britain, Mokyr argues, are indicators of societal trends, rather than muses for innovation. “Higher wages in Britain may have reflected the higher level of skills and competence, due to better training, more able supervision, and a relatively high level of capital per worker.” (Mokyr, 272). As for the beauteous muse of cheap coal, “The early steam engines, presented by Allen as a labor-saving device, actually replaced horses used to power pumps.... This hardly counts as labor-saving”(Mokyr, 269). Mokyr argues that businesses, on the quest to improve profit margins, are interested in cutting expenses, whether they are employees’ wages, inventory, or animals. Indeed, rather than labor-saving, “...after the development of the Newcomen engine the main efforts went into making the engines more energy-efficient and saving fuel..., which would be capital-saving” (Mokyr, 269). Rather than substituting mechanical gadgets for expensive labor, the so-called labor saving devices are invented to save fuel and to make existing processes more efficient.

The promise of the vital metrics of coal price and real wages to explain the Industrial Revolution proves meretricious; though they may be an important part of the story of the Industrial Revolution, they only describe and indicate; these two metrics do not explain. A more comprehensive explanation of the Industrial Revolution remains the cultural explanation, particularly the influence, as defined by Mokyr’s Industrial Enlightenment. As has been shown, central to the Industrial Enlightenment was the Baconian program of harnessing natures power to the betterment of humanity.. In order for this acquired knowledge to significantly progress society, it had to be popularized to those who could best utilize it for economic and technological advancement. In order for this to occur, links had to be made between the discoverers of knowledge and the implementers of this knowledge: links needed to be made between savants and fabricants. Finally, in spite of the impossibility of empirically measuring the Industrial Enlightenment in any meaningful way, it is still more successful than Allen’s attempt at establishing wages and coal prices as the relevant metrics of economic innovation.

Bacon, Francis. "Novum Organum (Aphorisms 1-68)." An Authorship Analysis. Web. 05 Apr. 2011. .

Bacon, Francis. "Francis Bacon: Preparative toward a Natural and Experimental History (1620)." Constitution Society. Web. 05 Apr. 2011. .

Nietzsche, Rembrandt, and How to Find your True Self

Rembrandt van Rijn, Self Portrait

Nietzsche says somewhere (paraphrasing from my notes because I lost my copy of the Portable Nietzsche): Seek out what you love and admire in your self-chosen educators – that is who you are, your true self.

“What have you really loved till now?”

In Nietzsche’s philosophy I admire the affirmation of life, not with Stoic resolve, but with joy and laughter.

I want to extend this concept and apply it to my own area of the visual arts:

One of my beacons in the visual arts is Rembrandt van Rijn not only for the depth of space he creates through technique, but also for the the psychological depth displayed within his work.

Depth is my current mantra for my life; when I become overwhelmed, flustered, I go deeper and seek the calm beneath the surface, beneath the torrents and tempests of daily life; I have a feeling that is where insight may be found.

If nothing else, I am entranced by the beautiful mystery.

[Originally posted as comment in response to Ms. Brook's post

Some Thoughts on Richard Tuttle's 10th Wire Piece and Inside the Still Pure Form

Aaron Fung

On a visit to the SF Museum of Modern Art, the “Tenth Wire Piece” of 1972 in particular caught my eye. Well, perhaps caught my eye is not really the right phrase to describe my fascination with this piece’s ephemeral quality.

It is nothing more than a piece of wire, much like its surrounding pieces, with a rather crude pencil line drawn under it to approximate its cast shadow. At the same time its real cast shadow lies somewhere It was simple, yet elegant, with a fragile quality as though it were quite of this world and yet it was still rough and unrefined as it was a piece of normal wire.

The commonplaceness of Mr. Tuttle’s materials imparts a very down to earth, everyday quality to the piece, while the ephemeral quality of the work is almost unearthly, as if it bordered reality and non-reality. It exhibits both seemingly contradictory aspects at the same time in complete harmony.

It borders on simply not being at all. The wire traced itself about the wall, like a figure skater upon the ice, and where the wire ends on the wall its cast shadow begins. This cast shadow is a part of the entity of the wire in that it would not exist without the wire, and yet it does not exist at all.

Indeed, its one defining characteristic is absence, in this case the absence of light. Without absence and nothingness, it would not exist. But does it truly exist even though we have something that exists that the dictionary has a word for? For how can anything truly exist when its existence is defined only by the absence of something else? Tuttle has no answers, only more questions and more mysteries. In this case the artist sees fit to not only refuse to answer our questions, as an inferior artist would, but leaves the viewer with more questions. How can this discussion get any more mysterious, one may wonder. Not only is there a cast shadow on the wall, but the artist traced another shadow in pencil. The shadow, an unreal and ghostly entity, now has a real counterpart, only it isn’t really because the pencil form is only an attempt to codify this nonbeing into our own reality. It is merely a symbol, though as a symbol it is more real. It is a symbol for a nonreal entity. There is a delicate quality to this pencil line, though more permanent than the nonbeing it represents, it still maintains an aura of fragility, as though it will disappear at any moment. I like this piece as my intellect told me that there was a real work of art here, while my instincts told me that there was absolutely nothing. Like the memory of a pretty face, it fills the mind with an intensity exceeding reality, and slowly fades into oblivion.

In contrast to this rather fragile, ethereal work are Tuttle’s collages. Among them is the monumental piece “Inside the Still Pure Form,” made in 1990. This is a collection of works that comprise of miniature sculptures made with wood bits that Tuttle found about New Mexico and painted abstracts nicely framed.

Perhaps what got my attention most was the raw primitivism of the wooden sculptures. They were crudely nailed and whitewashed in such a manner as scarcely a kindergarten child would be proud. At times I found myself bracing myself, hoping Tuttle was not being self-consciously bad. No craft, no burden of previous experience gleaned vicariously through study of artists who came before. Only Tuttle and the raw power of his artistic imagination to create something that had not yet been thought of before. It is as though he is writing out his thoughts in reality. All this raw primitivism juxtaposed with the refined abstracts, all nicely framed, as though challenging the viewer to dare to categorize. It isn’t a painting, as the abstract expressionists would have created a painting in eras long gone.

And yet it isn’t quite a sculpture. The piece defies categorization; it succeeds on its own terms. Individualism is at its heart. I can almost hear the crude relieves declaring to the more refined paintings, “I may be ugly, but by my will I exist to do as I please and only to please me and no other while you exist only as pretty decoration for some grandmother dreaming of her prime in an era long dead. Your ideals no longer speak to me and are irrelevant.”

Not just this piece, but I saw the entire exhibition as a manifesto of modernity, breaking with the links of the past and bravely marching forward into the future. It was about pushing the limits of what stuffed shirt curators could call art, even going so far as to question why those stuffed shirt talking heads should be the curators of culture when the artist should be. As the artist Tuttle says that his art is art and, therefore, he can use everyday objects that one would not normally consider art. Perhaps a good word to describe the art of Richard Tuttle is humble. It is not humbling in the way a cathedral can make many fall to their knees in adoration of God. Rather, it is humble in taking our everyday experiences and showing them for the works of art that they are. If there is art in found driftwood and pieces of cardboard, then there is art in every day of this gift that we call life. Tuttle’s is the art of the common man, taking art out of hallowed halls of cultural institutions and putting it back within the grasps of the masses. It is the common man waving his fists at the hegemony of the art establishment that speak in an elitist code and exclude many miracles of life from being labeled art.

The Rise and Fall of Phony Empires

Emperor Augustin Iturbide
A number of years ago, my history professor asked me the following question on an exam: How did Iturbide become emperor [of Mexico]? Whose idea was it and what was the process that made it happen?

My answer:
A junta was created that chose Iturbide as one of the regents of Mexico until a suitable emperor could be found. Iturbide's ascendancy to imperial power was largely his own idea. Iturbide ordered his troops out into the streets to demonstrate on his behalf. Following this peer pressure, this "spontaneous" demonstration on Iturbide's behalf was joined by other soldiers, and finally by civilians, all chanting the name of the August Emperor Agustin, much like how French soldier chanted "Vive l'emperor" just a few years earlier at Austerlitz. The mob demanded that Iturbide become emperor, to which Iturbide "reluctantly" (haha) accepted.

What was the process that made it happen? Mob mentality, egotism, and cheap theatrics.

Such is the process by which empires are built.

But how do empires fall?

Death and the Machine: Some thoughts on Frida Kahlo

Adriaen Pietersz. van de Venne (circa 1589–1662) 
The death's head, and especially the skull, has been an image of foreboding throughout history. It is said that the skull and crossbones motif originated with the Templars, to signify their ready acceptance of death in the service of Christ. Pirates have used the symbol, as well as the Braunshweig hussars and English Lancers, who used it to symbolize their disregard for both their own lives and their enemies'. Indeed, the Braunshweig hussars went into every battle dressed in black, in mourning of their dead leader. So much death in the world, so much pain and suffering. There is that old joke about the only guarantees in life are death and taxes. And indeed, death is a major theme in Mrs. Frida Kahlo's work. While Kahlo may have been haunted by the specter of death all her life, she acknowledges it is an inescapable fate.

Death is inescapable, just as the machine is inescapable; the Industrial Revolution has struck and there is no turning back. Frida's paintings portray the United States as a mechanized country that, though industrialized, is dull and dead. By contrast, Mexico is a vivacious agrarian nation that still has that organic spirit. This is part of that nationalistic spirit that is  on the rise in this time period in Mexico. It says that though the United States may be more industrialized and may possess more economic power these are empty triumphs, for in the race to mechanize the United States had lost its spirit that Mexico retains in its agrarian workers, who remain closer to the earth.

However, rather than preach the power of the proletariat, as her husband Diego had with his monumental murals, Kahlo's painting is too introverted, too personal, exploring the depths and recesses of her own self rather than seeking to overwhelm the viewer; rather than didactic political sermon, Kahlo's is an exploratory art.