This blog...

...was initially for pieces done on a computer, but has since become a free-for-all. Here you'll find process work (digital and otherwise), sketch pages and studies, sometimes with commentary.

You can see the rest of my work here.

Remember kids : if you can't make pretty designs, at least make pretty lines!


Sunday, April 29, 2012

Visual Remix

Thanks to all the Anomaly organizers, artists and attendees for creating such an inspiring event!

Disclaimer : Non-proprietary photos/illustrations used in this lecture appear for the sole purpose of study.


This talk, Visual Remix, is partially about music, and some things it has in common with the visual arts.  Since Anomaly's theme this year is "Study From Life", it's also going to be a talk about life study.  I think we all come to conferences like these feeling slightly blocked, looking for a plan of action to get us out of a rut.  By the end of the lecture -- which is just as much for me as it is for all of you -- I'd like us to feel less blocked, and to leave with a plan of action.  It's a lifelong plan that, if followed, will help us see boundless potential not only in the world around us, but in ourselves.

Have you noticed most people's taste in music starts to congeal in middle age -- maybe even earlier?  Do you have that friend who's still listening to the same stuff they were listening to in school? You get into their car and it's *that album* again.  We reach a point where we associate certain sounds with our identities.  They're familiar, they bring nostalgia and they always hit the spot.  They're comforting.  By contrast, do you know someone who's developed a highly sophisticated ear?  Someone who researches musical acts from previous generations, and is constantly seeking out the latest, "progressive" works?  They seem to get enjoyment from every musical genre.

I think it's possible to be both people -- to stay in love with all the stuff that resonated with you when you were young, and to fold in old and new material to evolve and refine your tastes. i.e. the things you're interested in and get you excited.  Because, in the visual arts as much as in music, it's all about excitement.

Part 1 : Interest And Excitement

How many of you have seen a video series called Everything is a Remix?  It's a fun analysis that points out how practically all human endeavor is built on other people's ideas.  Every piece of art you enjoy exists because, at some point, someone got really excited about something and decided do their take on it.  As the series states, remixing is the combination or editing of existing materials to produce something new.

A very popular take on remixing is the mashup, a smashing together of two or more songs.  Instrumental + A Capella.  Here are a few visual mashups from folklore.

There's the griffin, which is part lion, part eagle...

...the jackalope, which is part jackrabbit, part antelope...

Then you've got mermaids.  Half mer, half maid.

Centaurs : half horse, half creepy looking dude.   (A train wreck of a mashup if you ask me.)

Cthulhu, a splicing of an octopus, a bat and a man.

Chococat, who combines a dessert item with a domesticated animal.  (Slightly more conceptual.)

And my favorite example, the Spidertank from Ghost In The Shell.  Masamune Shirow thought these two melodies would harmonize, and lo -- they do!

In the following mashup exercise (which you can try with anything), I crossfaded a gerbil with an orchid... produce a gerchid.

...and during my demo earlier today, I made a scorpion-girl. 

But how do we arrive at our subject matter to begin with?  How are our tastes decided?  How many of you have heard this stinging remark : "You're just working in your comfort zone."?  Another way to look at it is that you're working in your interest zone.

Here, in this diagram, are our artistic zones.  Think of the whole circle as the experience of life.  On the outside (in violet) we have disinterest, which encompasses everything we don't care about.  Inside (in yellow) is interest, sometimes referred to as our "learning zone."  This represents all the things we willingly seek out and examine in an excited state.  At the center (in green) is comfort, which comes from deep understanding and appreciation.  Notice how the comfort zone is throttled by the interest zone -- it can never be bigger that it.  At the right, we see two opposite states.  The top state shows a small interest zone with a  small comfort zone encased within.  The bottom state -- the more desirable one -- shows a comfort zone that's much larger, because the interest zone around it has expanded.

If you made a circle for yourself right now, what would it look like?  Would it be more green or more violet?  I believe my circle is currently more violet.  My narrow interests have not only put a limit on the amount of crazy mashups I'm willing to try; they've put a limit on the amount of comfort I'm capable of experiencing as an artist and as a person.  I believe this because of the presence of stress -- of discomfort.  When art is inauthentic -- when it veers too far from reality -- it bothers us.  Something is missing.  Thankfully, this "something" can usually be identified and worked on.

Part 2 : Define/Refine Your Loop

A lot of the music I like is loop-based. The fewer notes in a loop, the more repetitive and annoying it is.  (People who hate dance music love to point this out, likening it to a skipping record.) The same holds true with our artistic habits.  On our road to diversity, we must first become aware of the patterns we've already fallen into -- own up to them. We must define our loop!  

I realized my current loop contains three things.  Take a moment to think about the things in your loop.  What are they?

I drew the page above on autopilot.  Pumpkins, girls and nonsense-tech are things I've done countless times before.  But, even with subject matter we believe we know how to draw well from repetition, we can still benefit from additional study.

I spent three minutes assembling the reference above....  

...then refined my loop with this new information in front of me.  I'm happier with the results.  At first glance, the pages aren't that different, but there are a few subtle things I'd missed out on earlier *-- new meaning made -- ignorance identified.  Maybe you've heard the saying "Ignorance isn't what you don't know; it's what you think you know that isn't so!"

*1) Disembodied Head : Pumpkins grow on top of things, so their "scars" come from grass, twigs and other pumpkins they're next to.  My off-the-cuff pumpkin had no such blemishes.
2) Purty Gurl : Anatomically, I'd missed the protrusions of the shoulder blades when arms are lifted above the head.  In the reference shot, Betty's arm's are that way because she's playing with her hair.  It's motivated -- a story point -- making it more fun to draw.  The fact that I didn't put strings on the bikini in the first drawing is a blatant oversight -- lots of authenticity lost there.  Too, I realized I rarely draw women laughing the way Betty is here, and that I tend to choose poses that obscure the hands and feet.  Obviously, I'm not very comfortable with those.
3) Techy Do-Dad : By default, my tech is fantastical and not very "grounded."  The tech chunk I drew post-reference is still fairly nonsensical, but now there's a wider variety of stuff  going on : paint, decals, etc.  Having that Caterpillar vehicle in front of me made my  brain work differently.  My initial version was a flat panel skewed into perspective.  Having reference of a mechanical object in deep space helped me draw more 3 dimensionally.  Additional observation : wherever you find hydraulics, you'll find air tubes.

Once we've made ourselves conscious of our loops, and realized that everything we draw can be improved by keener observation, the pressure of drawing purely from memory can be alleviated.  Even when what we do is 80% imagined and only 20% informed, it's an undeniable improvement over 100% imagined and 0% informed.  Our loops are now ready to expand!

Part 3 : Sampling Tools

How many of you are familiar with something called the 'Signal To Noise Ratio?'  It applies to many disciplines.  If most of what we put into our art is a clear signal, keeping noise to a tolerable minimum, we communicate well.   But this is only half the struggle.  We must not only strive to clarify what goes OUT, but to clarify what comes IN through our senses.  We must be able to see the signals in our noisy world!

I would like to impress upon you the notion that your hand already possesses the motor skills needed to draw and paint.  I would also like to propose that your artistic taste is likewise developed.  All that remains, then, is the ability to see, sort and store information.  What happens when a sample-driven musician goes into the field with faulty equipment -- headphones that don't work or a mic that records only high frequencies?  They could be in the presence of great sounds and not sample them properly due to poorly calibrated equipment.  They get a weak signal, or worse, only noise.

When an artist works directly from life, the signal is strongest.  Everything else -- a photo or an illustration -- is a sample of a sample, and with each, the signals decays.  In the above slide we can see a scene of a mother elephant and her baby.  Because we weren't there to witness this, we only have frontal information on the elephants, and not much of the savanna on either side of them.  If this scene were a song, the photo would be an extracted .wav file a few bars in length -- a limited sample of the story as it exists.  We can cut it down even further, leaving just the baby elephant, or we can edit the baby elephant out, leaving the rest of the scene intact.  See how the signal changes.  The biggest question we should ask ourselves when observing something is, "Is what I'm looking at giving me a clear, complete signal?" and, if it isn't, what else would?

Primitives (God is A DJ)

Johannes Kepler, a German scientist, said "Geometry is God Himself."  Is it surprising then that, as we play God with our art, we use the same building blocks?

Below we see some of the most basic components of shape-making, the primitives (and some variants).  Before leaping into the third dimension, there is much that can be done with them.  

...and even more that can be done when they're combined.  Think of them as puzzle pieces for creating abstract art.  Something may be boring literally, but fascinating abstractly.

Recognizing primitives when we see them -- looking for the clearest signal -- is a valuable skill.  It makes drawing everything more manageable.  For instance, the simplest reduction of this fox's head is a triangle.  Eyes, ears, nose and whiskers are all so much noise at the beginning.

Breaking it down further, we can see more tris...

...some quads... well as a few ellipses.

Here's a picture I took on the way to work.  There's lots of background noise, but can you make out the signal of the tree?  Which primitives would you use to describe it?

Here are some faces.


Let's break them down a bit.

Establish a hierarchy.  Big things first, small things second.  If we get the big things wrong -- if we're not honest with ourselves about what we're looking at -- we often wind up with noisy, weak signal art.

I have a name for the phenomenon of overly complicated shape making, where everything screams out for attention because everything is given equal importance (no hierarchy).  I call it "the cleverness virus."  It's a good way to softball in a criticism : "You've been a little too clever here."  Excessive lumpiness of an outline, too much internal detail, etc.  It's showy -- a demonstration of technical ability -- but, like a track with too many things going on at once, it's tough to make sense of. Catch yourself when you've contracted the cleverness virus and medicate with primitives.

Part 4 : Conceptual Crate Digging

The more records a DJ/producer has in their collection, the more combinations they can make.  Being a good "selector" is an art in itself.

DJ Shadow put it best while on a dig :
"There's the promise in these stacks of finding something that you're going to use. ... It has almost a karmic element...I was meant to find this. ... Just being in here is a humbling experience. ...I honestly feel like the people that dig don't stop digging 'cuz it's a part of who we are. People that don't, you don't have to. It's not going to make a bad dj good, but it'll make a good dj better."

In "The Artists's Way", Julia Cameron suggests that artists need to take themselves on dates.  An artist's date is time set aside purely to go out and become fascinated with the world.  I'm using the term "conceptual crate digging" here because it fits with my remix analogy.  To me, there's nothing better than walking into a record store not knowing what I'll find, and hand picking the few things that really excite me.  Whatever your fancy, it's out there, waiting.  It's not going to come to you.

The digging that's most frequently recommended to artists -- and rightfully so -- is the keeping of a sketchbook.  I became so obsessed with sketching that I completely wrote off another valuable form of digging : photography. Any photographers with us here this evening?

My coworkers at 343 are obsessed with taking photos and admiring the photography of others.  It was pointed out to me that there are many ways their illustrative work is improved by this discipline.

1) It gets them out of the office and into the field, widening their experience and giving them a momentary break from drawing and painting.  As Tom Scholes put it, "You have to input to output."
2) It forces them to pause and look harder at things they might otherwise pass up, creating new associations and insights.  "Isn't that cool?"
3) It makes them selective of the things they deem worthy/unworthy of capturing.
4) It makes them view the world within a frame -- the same frame they're bound by in their illustrative work -- so they're constantly thinking of composition.
5) It makes them pay close attention to lighting conditions and depth of field.
6) It helps them see trends in image popularity.  My friend Gabriel Garza (Robogabo) pointed out that there are three things that make for a popular photograph : a human element (a pretty girl, an old man, a pet or some evidence of human existence), graphic shapes (for instant, unmistakable readability) and pretty colors (because people have a bias for color over black and white).

Nicolas Bouvier (Sparth) shared a thought on how photography trains your brain to be open to the unexpected.

"...The art is to specifically catch that moment, and sometimes it’s not what you are framing, but something around it. You just need to observe a lot (with or without your camera), respect composition rules that will make your shot better, and later on, learn how to transcend these rules in the ways you decide.  Example: We went shooting yesterday in downtown Seattle. There was a patch of light falling on the curb and we stayed there for quite a few minutes because it was ideal. So ideal, in fact, it was becoming an expectation to see something good pop up.  Well, while being focused on that probable event, another event happened on my right side, on the other side of the street. A man, bent forward, was having a hard time walking up the slope.  And above him, these patterns in the architecture clearly emphasized the weight on his shoulders, pushing him down.  I nearly missed the shot since I was so focused on the other event that was 'supposed' to happen.  Still, I snapped only one shot, below."

Because these guys spend ridiculous amounts of money on their fancy cameras and lenses, I'd like to suggest a poor man's solution to get you started.

This cardboard camera was cut from the back of an old sketchbook.  Using it is easy.  Simply close one eye and frame up, zooming with your arm.  Since there's no film or memory card inside, you'll be forced to really look at what's in your viewfinder.  And even though you'll appear crazy to anyone who sees you, the personal discoveries you'll make will aid in retention.  I can still see the following "photos" in my mind.

-I "shot" a fire hydrant with an obvious history.  It had paint on only one one side of it -- the side facing the road.  Someone must have figured pedestrians wouldn't care.  There was tall grass growing up around the base of it : evidence of frequent doggy pit-stops.
-I saw an odd looking parking meter set into a concrete base.  It had been retrofitted to a sidewalk that had been paved long ago.  On top was a curious wedge which, had I not stopped to "shoot" it, would not have revealed itself to be a solar panel.
-I saw bright, colorful flowers blooming above a bed of brown, dead leaves -- a poetic juxtaposition of old and new.


Some photos are good just for their textural quality -- a form of noise, but a useful kind.

Matt Barrett, who's here today, said something interesting about the surfaces in his drawings.  He said he likes to imagine how it would feel to run his hand across them and what sounds might be produced were he to tap on them.  In so doing, he engages his other senses, heightening his interest.

I found that adding a surface can help steer a design in both subtle and drastic ways, as was the case with the two salamanders above.

Other photos are more useful for their color content.  They present schemes that can be used for something else.

Eager to try this out, I applied a random photo's color scheme to a cat soldier (which was, itself, a remix).

Part 5 : Filtration

Music producers use a variety of filters and modulators to manipulate and distort harmonics.  You're probably familiar with autotuning, which is used when a vocalist isn't happy with their performance as-is and desires perfect pitch.

When we're not happy with something as-is, we can filter it visually.

Not interested in the CONTENT?  Change its CONTEXT.  If you've ever cared for the dubstep version of a song more than the original, it's the same idea.

This isn't interesting at all to me.

...but this is.


Another way we can filter is by using projection.  By projecting an emotion onto something, we form a relationship with it.

There's a difference between drawing a turtle and a TRIUMPHANT turtle.
There's a difference between drawing a rock and RETICENT rock, the kind that's trying not to be noticed underneath a patch of moss.
There's a difference between drawing a model and a model who's got a secret she's not going to tell you.

You could see the bush below as reclining up against that wall.  It's lazy. Or is it clingy, grabbing onto the wall for security?

Now that a layer of drama has been created, a bush is transformed from an inanimate object into something more worthy of being drawn.

Can anyone come up with an emotion or personality for this aircraft carrier?
Yell it out.

I think he's a bit smug.  Overcompensating for something, no doubt.
Forming an opinion will make you draw it differently.  You'll remix differently.

Next up... similes.   My showerhead is the mouth of a lamprey eel.  It's got a disc-shaped palate of razor sharp teeth and three little grooves cut into its lips.  Because I made this comparison, I could now draw that showerhead from memory.

This spider looks like a throwing star, sharp and poison tipped.  I'm also seeing a shield, with facial relief sculpture.  Or a gateway.

What does this plant make you think of?
Yell it out.

That simile you just made -- it's an insight.  A way of understanding something.

Don't look to nature for want of a pretty picture.  Look to nature for insight, and pretty pictures will follow.

Part 5 : EQ and Tempo

On a mixing board, each channel has a series of EQ (equilibrium) knobs.  These knobs allow a DJ to alter specific bands of a track -- high, mid and low -- as well as increase or decrease volume.  Sliders on a turntable alter pitch and tempo.  With these tools, a track can be made to sound very different from the original recording.

One knob-tweaking exercise is to play around with a subject's cross sections.  First, envision what the major cross sections of the subject would be, as if chopped into thin slices...

...then modify the cross sections' shapes and proportions.  What kind of results do you get when you reconstruct the subject from these new cross sections?

You can also tweak each individual part of a subject.

If a part is little, make it big.  If it's droopy, make it firm.  If it's angled outward, angle it inward.  Elongate, truncate, inflate, deflate, pull out, shove in...see how much mileage you can get from a single piece of reference.

Make the record spin backwards.  Invert the colors, invert the concept itself.  If it's a bug that walks on water, make into a bug that walks on lava.  Make cute into ugly.  Make macro into micro.

Side note : In the process of drawing the above page, my "takeaway" was that little leaf-shaped form within the ear -- the tragus.  Its use to the bat may be tied to echolocation, but its use TO ME is that it will help me draw a more authentic bat ear!

Parting Words

The famous psychiatrist Carl Jung wrote :

" is the function of consciousness not only to recognize and assimilate the external world through the gateway of the senses, but to translate into visible reality the world within us."

This is the essence of remixing : Taking pieces from our enviornment and presenting them in ways totally unique to our experience.  No two people, given the same source material, will share the same impression, and therefore, no two people will share the same expression.

We can't cease to be ourselves.

Maybe we feel a more studied approach will make us less magical -- less self-made.  Maybe we feel the revelations will come at the expense of our unique identities. Maybe, deep down, we feel it's cheating.

The greatest cheat of all would be to deprive ourselves of the truth.  To deprive our audience of what it craves most : authenticity.

Our lives can, at will, break from our old loops and be remixed into something new. The more interest we can spark outside, the more comfort we'll have inside.  The source material is abundant, the possibilities for excitement...infinite.

Thanks for coming everyone, and happy remixing!

Thanks to Jillian Brooks and Graeme McCormack for reaching out.
Thanks to Alexey, Gabo, Sparth, Kenneth, Tom, Albert, Kory and Matt for inspiration.
Thanks to Kelli Hoover for ref assists.
Thanks to Tatiana Vetrova for the model photo.
Thanks/Apologies to all the individuals whose art I appropriated for the above slides.  You can complain to me if you wish and I'll take them down.


Lyle Moore said...

Paul! this talk was really fantastic. You made so many clear and concise points on being creative and getting out of ruts. I'm sure people in the audiences juices of all types were flowing!!!

Kendra Melton said...

This was awesome! thanks for sharing it. :]

Allison Alexander Westbrook IV said...

Bravo! That was excellent.

Unknown said...

<3 Fantastic! Wish I could have been there in person :3

andrew domo said...

THank-you, thank-you for this amazing talk, Paul! Great seeing you again and I'm so excited to see your future work and look forward to hearing more of your words. Best!


artmdk said...

This talk really struck a chord with me. I have a stronger direction to to take my art and music now. Thanks Paul, You are a beast lord.

Unknown said...

Excellent post, well said

Sam Nielson said...

That was really informative! Thanks.

VertexBee said...

Really informative and inspirational talk, the analogies with music and recording are brilliant ! Thanks, Paul for being such a great artist and mentor !

Adrian Majkrzak said...

Thanks for posting this up Paul. Glad I had a chance to see this in person, too. Incredibly inspiring!

Aleks said...

This was a very good read. Thanks for a great post.

Charles Santoso said...

Thanks for sharing this! Awesome :)

Taylor Fischer said...

Really fun. Its always awesome to hear it from the horses mouth!

more more!

David Delpino said...

hahaha 3 or 4 days ago i saw everything is a remix.. nice post

ChocSushi said...

That spider's pattern--Looks like something from Space Invaders.

Zarvan said...

Awesome talk Paul! Thanks for sharing. It has really widened my understanding!:)

adam rowe said...

This is amazing. As soon as I can internalize all of it, I'm going to turn it in to a series of lessons for my students. Thanks.

Mike Monroe said...

Another solid post man.

Unknown said...

Thanks! This post is very useful!