Archive for the ‘Featured’ Category

Guest blogging on viz.

Monday, November 16th, 2009

In my Playground of the Autocrats triptychs, I’m painting images about history.  That is, I’m creating right-brained images embracing left-brained content.

In a similar vein, I contributed some guest posts to the University of Texas at Austin’s visual rhetoric website, viz, about art which incorporates ideas from science, history, and other left-brained fields. You can check them out at:

JoJo the Joey by Danie Mellor

JoJo the Joey by Danie Mellor

“Danie Mellor: Environmental and socio-historical ideas in fine art”

“Nina Paley’s THE STORK”

“Julian Voss-Andreae: Science in Fine Art”

“Introduction: Seeking logos in fine art”

While you’re there, take a look around viz. for more fascinating content, especially on science in art.

Portraying the vast flatland of the Playground – Part 2

Friday, July 17th, 2009

This is Part 2 of the description of a creative process. To read it in chronological order, please read Part 1 first.

At the end of my last post, I presented icons and Russian folktale illustrations each of which had a central image framed with secondary images that added to its meaning. Below is a detail of the center panel of my triptych The Most Exposed Terrain on Earth. It shows the way in which I used the image-frame technique to help resolve my own challenge: to convey the endlessness of the flat Russian steppes, 3,500 miles wide.

Center panel of The Most Exposed Terrain on Earth

Detail: Center panel of triptych The Most Exposed Terrain on Earth

My frame is a collage of landscapes by 19th century Russian painters. These painters were collectively known as the Peredvizhniki (usually translated into English as either the Wanderers or the Itinerants). Many of their most famous works portray the Russian steppes. Through the repetition of these beautiful images of the land, I hoped to help convey the vastness of Russia’s flatness.

There is a deeper emotional level to this collage than the purely informational one. The Peredvizhniki may not be household names in the US, but they certainly are in Russia. They are to Russian art what the great Russian novelists are to the country’s literature.  The Peredvizhniki are profoundly Russian. They are of the land. The Russian people feel their work deeply, and identify with it. These paintings hold all the love and sorrow and suffering of the Russian people over the long course of their history.

Detail, center panel, The Most Exposed Terrain on Earth

Detail, center panel, The Most Exposed Terrain on Earth

My own goal as well with Playground of the Autocrats is to embrace all the aspects of human life: knowledge, pain, joy, satire, humor, suffering. Close examination of many of the figures in the crowd scenes in Playground reveal attention to the many sides of human experience.

I’ve never been able to understand why the Peredvizhniki aren’t better known in the United States. Some of their paintings were shown in the Guggenheim’s Russia! exhibit several years ago.  Elizabeth Valkenier, Columbia University’s Russian art expert, has published several books about them, such as the the terrific The Wanderers, Masters of 19th Century Russian Painting.  And there’s a wonderful book by Mikhail Guerman, The Russian Impressionists and Post-Impressionists.

But the Peredvizhniki are much less widely known here than are the European Impressionists.  My use of their paintings in my frame is my homage to their greatness.

In my next post, I’ll get to the music and lyrics of Playground of the Autocrats.

Portraying the vast flatland of the Playground – Part 1

Friday, July 17th, 2009

In “Escaping Flatland,” Edward Tufte describes the challenge faced by people who work in the field of visualizing complex information. These designers invent ingenious ways of portraying multi-dimensional data on the “flatlands of paper and video screens.”

My challenge in the first triptych of Playground of the Autocrats was the same, with a twist. I needed to find a way of depicting 3,500 miles of flat land within the dimensions of my 24″ x 48″ triptych.

Painting a single, particular view of the Russian steppes would not have been so problematic. Many artists have done it magnificently. But what I wanted to convey was that there are 3,500 miles of steppes, and that nowhere else on earth does such a vast open landscape exist. It was a lot of information to visualize in one relatively small artwork!

Maps, of course are one excellent way of conveying information about large areas of terrain. As you may have gathered from my last post, I love relief maps! I included a relief “globe” in my character design for Ivan the Terrible (one of Stalin’s fairy godfathers in Playground of the Autocrats). Ivan is on top of the world, dancing on his playground.

Ivan the Terrible on top of the world

Detail of triptych THE MOST EXPOSED TERRAIN ON EARTH: Ivan the Terrible on top of the world

I superimposed the caption “The Nomad Express: 3,500 open miles” across Russia. And I added arrows that marked the Mongol invasions across the vast open land.

Playground of the Autocrat's globe

Playground of the Autocrat's globe (Detail of THE MOST EXPOSED TERRAIN ON EARTH)

In addition, I wanted to layer in a more evocative portrayal of the vastness of Russia’s territory. Along with the map’s analytic information, I wanted to give the viewer a feeling of what it was to live in that wide-open, vulnerable landscape.

My animation script of Playground of the Autocrats had included a sequence of the Russian land as a reclining Mother Russia. As the lascivious godfather Ivan the Terrible conceived it, she was a peasant woman exposed to “rape by barbarian tribes.” Someday, when an animated version of Playground is realized, I think this will be a terrific sequence, as the terrain morphs into a 3,500-mile-long woman in Ivan’s imagination. But when I tried to create the image in a still form, it became too complex. Maybe I’ll tackle that route in another triptych.

Meanwhile, I had thought of another way of visualizing the endless Russian steppes. I drew on another centuries-old technique: many icons’ main images are surrounded by a frame of smaller images that convey additional information. Icons and religious art in general were the way Bible stories were communicated to illiterate populations. Hence, they are a wonderful model for how we can visualize information today. (The famous art historian Meyer Schapiro wrote a revered book about illustration of religious texts, called Words, Script, and Pictures: Semiotics of Visual Language.)

iconsbrdrs

Icons with borders of additional images

Russian folktale illustration, most notably perhaps the renowned Ivan Bilibin, followed in this tradition. Bilibin loaded up his borders with wonderful supplementary images that enhance the feeling of the central drawing, if not adding to the story. In the example on the right, the main illustration has a full-color border, while the surrounding text has a sepia-toned border with yet more fantastic, complex drawings.

 

Ivan Bilibin illustrations with borders of additional images

Ivan Bilibin illustrations with borders of additional images

In my next post, I’ll describe how I utilized the borders of “The Most Exposed Terrain on Earth” in this tradition. You can read that post here.

Landscape as Foundation: “The Most Exposed Terrain on Earth”

Wednesday, July 15th, 2009
Playground of the Autocrats Triptych 1:  The Most Exposed Terrain on Earth

Playground of the Autocrats Triptych 1: The Most Exposed Terrain on Earth . 24" x 48"

For an introduction to this topic, see What is Playground of the Autocrats?

I named my series of triptychs Playground of the Autocrats in part because a playground is typically flat. Sure, there are vertical structures built on it. But the ground itself is usually flat, providing unhindered opportunity to play.

The foundation of Russian society was literally its ground: the endless, flat Russian steppes. We often don’t give enough consideration to the ways in which different landscapes can shape the societies that live on them. We’re all aware that given natural resources are available only in particular geographic areas. Given crops can grow only in certain latitudes. Rivers facilitate travel. Coastlines and good harbors present opportunities that don’t exist for landlocked countries.

Beyond that, though, the very shape of the landscape can have a profound impact on how people live on it. We see this most easily in extreme landscapes. In the eons before motorized transportation, extremely rugged mountains often produced uncohesive social systems made up of very independent subunits. When it’s hard to get to the neighboring village because there are steep ravines and cliffs between you, there will be less communication and joint activity than if the intervening ground were flat.

Mountains also form barriers that protect against enemies. For most of human history – before we had motorized vehicles and airplanes – a high mountain chain made it very hard to get your army up and over to attack people on the other side. Even today, we see the impact of rugged terrain in Afghanistan: it has defeated many modern foreign armies that have sought to control it.

Throughout history, armies have chosen the highest points in the landscape for their forts and castles. Think the ubiquitous Italian hilltop castles. Think Masada. Think Dracula’s Bram Castle.

hilltopcastlesimages2

In the millenia before airplanes, the highest point in a landscape enabled inhabitants to see the approach of invaders from far off. The enemy would have a hard time trying to climb up a cliff to attack people ensconced above. Heights gave gravitational advantage to the residents whose arrows and hot oil could gather momentum falling downward, while the enemies’ arrows had to fight gravity on their way up.

At the other extreme, what about countries where the land is completely flat? What if you had no mountains forming a protective barrier around your country? What if there were no high cliffs to build your forts atop? In those cases, the inhabitants had to devote great energy and resources to coming up with other means of defense.

Of course there have been many castles and forts built all over the world on level ground when there was no other choice. This high-ground thing is a matter of degree, not absolutes. But in general terms, a vast, flat landscape was harder to defend than a mountainous one.

And if we look at relief maps of the world, we can easily see that Russia encompasses by far the largest flat expanse on earth: 3500 miles of open land.

In case you doubt this particular relief portrayal, here’s a different one:

And another:

Westerners often mistakenly think the Urals formed a barrier protecting European Russia. But in fact the Urals are for the most part low and easily-traversed. In addition, their southern end peters out in the open steppes: it’s easy to enter European Russia via the steppes at the southern end.

russiamapwispyurals

I believe that the openness of Russia’s terrain has had a profound impact on its development of a highly centralized state, beginning with the traumatic 13th century Mongol invasion and centuries-long occupation. I’ll talk more about the reasons why in another post.

Playground of the Autocrats

Friday, July 10th, 2009

plygrnd-autocrtshome-pgcaptions

 

Playground of the Autocrats is a series of triptychs that I’ve been quietly working on in my own time, behind the scenes, for the last 4 or 5 years. These mixed media triptychs are influenced by a combination of art animation and Russian history, icons, and folktale illustration. I consider them fine art, but until recently, I wasn’t sure whether anyone else would. However, one of the series, individually titled Home Security at Any Crazy Price, was selected by Nan Rosenthal for a political art exhibit she curated in early 2009, Contemporary Confrontations, at the Katonah Art Museum in Westchester County, just north of New York City. The New York Times review of the show referred to my “Home Security” as an “homage to Joseph Cornell…filled with wonderful goodies.” So I now have Rosenthal’s and the Times’ official stamp that this work is indeed fine art….

Playground of the Autocrats involves a degree of detail that is probably more obsessional than I would like to admit. Each triptych has taken a good two years or so to complete. This is partly because they contain so many figures and other details, each of which is intensively researched. For example, as my models for the peasants I painted in Home Security’s center panel, I used photos of actual 19th century Russian peasants that I found via a lot of searching on the internet and in my old Russian history books. The military figures I painted are based on popular books on Russian military history, whose illustrations have in turn been researched by the authors and artists.

"Home Security At Any Crazy Price," by Anne Bobroff-Hajal . 36" x 40" . Acrylic and digital images on canvas and board . 2009

As for the Playground of the Autocrats characters (Peter the Great, Ivan the Terrible, and next Catherine the Great) who appear in each triptych, I carefully designed and collaged them together from odds and ends reflecting their true historical actions and times. I’ve endlessly worked over each verse of the lyrics they sing with the aid of my beloved Rhyming Dictionary by Rosalind Fergusson (the only rhyming dictionary organized to work the same way my brain does).

Why do all this? one might ask. Sometimes I wonder myself. But the answer is that this is simply who I am as an artist.

Still, preparing to launch this thread, I started searching around the internet trying to figure out which blogging category Playground of the Autocrats fits into best. Is what I’m doing conceptual art? Is it political art? But my goal isn’t to push a particular political agenda. I’m mainly interested in visualizing my ideas about social systems, Russia’s in particular, in a fun, whimsical, and moving way (I’ll make you laugh, I’ll make you cry).

So maybe what I do is more akin to political cartoons? But my highly detailed work, designed to be gazed at for a long time, is different from political cartoons’ brilliant, quickly-readable commentary on single contemporary events. My work is about historical developments over the very long haul – centuries, not days. While I adore clever political cartoons, that’s not really what I’m doing.

Maybe I do something closer to comics or graphic novels? But I don’t have any page-turning! And my work – though it’s quirky and (I hope) humorous – is more academically-minded. So am I into something like information visualization? Hmmm. While I’m captivated by the likes of Edward Tufte, I’m creating art, not social science. Above all, my goal is to evoke emotional and esthetic responses as well as thinking ones.

In short, I don’t seem to fit into any single art or blog category. But I sure touch on a lot of them, many of which I find enthralling. I will refer to all in posts to come.

Portrait composition: Old World vs New?

Monday, July 21st, 2008

A client requested a portrait of her son’s family based on snapshots taken in a New York City park (click here for my earlier posting on painting from snapshots). In the photos, the family was surrounded by the park’s enclave of greenery. My client hoped I could also include the city street beyond the park, which appeared in another photo. Her son and his family might move out of the city some day, so she wanted their portrait to capture this urban chapter of their lives.

I resonated with the client’s feelings. I’m always eager to portray my subjects’ worlds in the backgrounds of their portraits. Additionally I wanted to include the cityscape because it was a complex, atmospheric visual element to play off the human subjects.

It also created an interesting challenge in the composition of the painting: In order to fit the street and buildings into the background, the family would have to be placed relatively low on the canvas. The city street would appear above them. And because they were sitting amidst a lot of very green foliage, the cityscape could easily end up looking almost like a separate painting stuck incongruously onto the top of the family portrait. Was it possible to create a unified painting with these disparate horizontal areas?

Subject placement in portraits today

The vast majority of portraits place the subjects’ head/s above the horizontal midline of the painting, often close to the top of the canvas. (Heads are most often centered from side to side.) The head is almost always the top-most visual element in the painting. This positioning leaves no doubt as to what is the most important element of the painting: the face and head of the subject.

This type of composition has of course generated many wonderful paintings over the centuries. Here are some terrific contemporary examples. Please click on any image to see a larger version on the artist’s website.

portrait

Portrait by Patricia Wilkes

Portrait by Jiawei Shen

Portrait by Ron Hales

Portrait by Ron Hales

holder

Portrait by Fanny Rush

http://www.artrenewal.org/articles/2007/Salon/hires/F-403.jpg

Portrait by Scott Tallman Powers

Portrait by Ying-He Liu

Portrait by Christopher Alexander French

Portrait by Toby Wiggins

But is this the only composition that can create a successful portrait? The internet allows a survey of composition in contemporary portraiture in the United States and Britain. Four major portrait websites, among others, provide images of many artists’ work:

  • For the US, PortraitArtist.com, and PortraitsInc.com.
  • For England, The Royal Society of Portrait Painters (therp.co.uk) and CommissionAPortrait.com. (These include artists from other European countries who are represented by these two British agencies.)

In my endless prowl for visual ideas, I’ve surfed through the work of hundreds of portraitists on both sides of the Atlantic (and some in Australia, China, etc). The more I’ve looked, the more I’ve perceived a pattern that I find surprising, intriguing – and puzzling. While it’s true that most portraits on both sides of the pond follow the compositional rules outlined above, our Old World colleagues seem to venture “outside the box,” as it were, more often than we do. Here are some of the many examples of portraits by British artists (and portraitists from other European countries represented in England) in which major visual elements appear above the head of the subjects. As everywhere in this post, click on any image to see a larger version on the artist’s website.

Portrait by Sergei Pavlenko

Title: Maria Cabanas and Maggie Maguire Size: 18 x 14 inches Medium: Oil Year Painted: 1990 Collection: Private

Portrait by Jason Sullivan

Title: Nicky Clifton Brown Medium: Oil Year Painted: 2005 Collection: Private

Portrait by Susan Ryder

Title: Dame Sandra Burslem Medium: Oil

Portrait by Alastair Adams

Portrait by Heidi Harrington

Portrait by Dick Smyly

Title: Professor Sir Peter Lachmann FRS Size: 107 x 71 cm Medium: Oil Year Painted: 2003 Collection: Academy of Medical Sciences

Portrait by Jeff Stultiens

Portrait by Rene Tweehuysen

holder

Portrait by Fanny Rush

In fact, there are many portraits by British painters (or Europeans represented in England) in which the heads of all subjects are placed on or below the midline of the painting, with other major visual elements above the heads.

Portrait by Alastair Adams

Portrait by Rene Tweehuysen

Title: Homan Potterton, Director of the National Gallery, Dublin Size: 30 x 40 inches Medium: Oil Year Painted: 1987 Collection: Private

Portrait by Andrew Festing

Portrait by Tom Wood

Portrait by Vincent Yorke

Portrait by Oisin Roche

British-represented European artists are also unafraid to allow vast space above their subjects’ heads. They are able to do this without diminishing the importance of the subject, but adding to it.

Portrait by Heidi Harrington

Portrait by Laurence Kell

Portrait by Heidi Harrington

Yuqi Wang, represented by British CommissionAPortrait.com, trained in China and now based in New York, is a master of this technique.

Portrait by Yuqi Wang

Another very effective British/European variant allots a lot of space above the subject’s head, with another dramatic visual element off to the upper side.

Title: Sir Eric Anderson, Kt, Provost of Eton Size: 152 x 107 cm Medium: Oil Year Painted: 2004 Collection: Eton College

Portrait by Paul Brason

Portrait by Marilyn Bailey

Portrait by Rene Tweehuysen

Portrait by Andrew Tift

Title: Simone Size: 74 x 61 cm Medium: Oil Year Painted: 2004 Collection: Private

Portrait by Michael Reynolds

Title: Richard King, Sculptor Size: 102 x 76 cm Medium: Oil Year Painted: 2002 Collection: Private

Portait by Jeff Stultiens

In contrast, I’ve come across very few American portraitists who place all the subjects in a given painting low on the canvas. Yet when they do, they are as likely to produce magnificent paintings as the Europeans do. These two, of J. Lindsay Embrey and William Paley, are by Portraits, Inc artists (artists are not identified on this website).

J. Lindsay Embrey and William Paley by Portraits, Inc. artists

June Allard-Berte is a rare American portraitist who has done a number of portraits with major visual elements in the upper half of the canvas, above subjects’ heads that are on or close to the midline. In general, Allard-Berte gives an unusual amount of attention to composition: “Her sense of composition is superb; it is endlessly inventive, elegant, and nearly always strikes just the right balance with subject. It neither over nor underpowers the strength of the person.” http://www.portraitartist.com/berte/bio.htm Allard-Berte’s talent for composition is very special.

Portraits by June Allard-Berté

American Bart Lindstrom rose to the challenge of a high space over a fireplace with a wonderful composition placing his subjects low on the canvas with a brook flowing through a forest above them. Yet Lindstrom doesn’t seem to have used this type of composition elsewhere.

The American Alexandra Tyng has used it several times to create paintings that are real gems:

Portraits by Alexandra Tyng

But these examples are few and far between among portraitists in the United States. Interestingly, it seems that American portrait painters who venture outside standard centered composition are much more likely to place the subject to one side of the canvas or the other than they are to place new visual elements above subjects’ heads. Here are some terrific American examples of placing the subject off-center horizontally:

Portrait by Portraits, Inc. artist

Portrait by Marvin Mattelson

Portrait by Garth Herrick

I don’t know for certain what causes this cultural difference between England and the US (which I believe extends to other issues besides composition). But it’s interesting to speculate. Is it because a country with centuries-old self-confidence in its aristocratic bona fides feels eager to venture outside the confines of traditional portraiture? Is it because Americans see themselves as needing to dominate their surroundings, while the English are either more humble or more secure, so they feel free to allow their surroundings to appear higher than they are? Perhaps the tradition was begun by British aristocrats who felt their stature was enhanced by their chandeliers, high ceilings, and walls covered with paintings and tapestries. Perhaps they saw such finery above their heads as metaphoric crowns that proved their wealth and nobility rather than belittling them. And perhaps from there, the British became used to portrait composition with other kinds of important elements above the heads.

Portrait by Andrew Festing

Portrait by Richard Foster, no longer available on the internet

Title: The Royal Family; A Centenary Portrait Size: 366 x 249 cm Medium: Oil Year Painted: 2000 Collection: The National Portrait Gallery

Portrait by John Wonnacott

Title: The Goold Brothers Medium: Oil

Portrait by Alastair Adams

Last, here is my own portrait with the cityscape as the highest element.

Integrating the city street into the background was complicated because, although in reality it had been behind the family, it didn’t appear in the photos I used for them. I had to make judgments about the cityscape’s scale, placement, angle, etc, in comparison with the park foliage, trees, and people. I eliminated certain components from the street photo: a car and several pedestrians. I had hoped to find a way to keep these in the painting, but ultimately they were distracting and not such attractive elements for the eye to wander over. So in the end they got painted out, and I had to extrapolate street shadows and sidewalk to fill their places.

There are several vertical elements that bind the park to the city street: the yellow and gray traffic light, greenery on the left edge, ivy-covered tree trunk, and street light pole. I carefully adjusted each of these so together they would all help ground the street behind the park.

Color also ties the layers together: I altered the actual clothing colors in order to echo the building colors, thus binding the uppermost and lowermost components of the painting. In other areas of the painting, green foliage, working from the very bottom of the canvas up to the trees along the street, also pulls the disparate elements together.

Looking at “out of the box” composition by both Americans and Europeans has enticed me to think more about placing subjects lower on the canvas than other complex visual elements. Given the magnificent paintings that have been achieved by others, I hope it will add to my repertoire and result in unique, rich portraits.