Archive for July, 2010

Engineer vs. Artist Smackdown for Control of My Mind

Tuesday, July 20th, 2010

The more work I do as an engineer, the less work I do as an artist.

I do, essentially, have two jobs.

From 8-5, Monday through Friday, I am a Mechanical Engineer, licensed by the State of California and everything.

I design very practical things in practical ways. If you ever go to the bathroom in Yosemite Valley, your waste most likely leaves the valley through my pump station. A few of you might drink tap water from plants I helped design and build.

Right now I’m busy designing the replacement heating, cooling, and ventilation systems for a large helicopter repair hangar. Last time I was at the hangar it was full of partially disassembled Blackhawk helicopters. Cool!

When I say “busy”, I really mean “really busy”. I took Saturday off last weekend, but was in the office for 13 hours on Sunday. The weekend before I put in about 25 hours between Saturday morning and Sunday night.

Deadlines are keeping me this busy, I have a lot to get done, and not quite enough time to do it all. Still, It needs to get done. Not doing it isn’t really an option.

For the last few weeks, my mind has been calculating pressure losses, looking up electrical load data, sizing ducts, and drafting equipment details.

It is left brain work, and when I get home, I have nothing left, and nothing goes right.

There’s a painting I started 3 weeks ago sitting on my work bench next to my desk. The paint on my pallette has grown a thick skin that I will have to eventually scrape off.

Every day, I look at this painting, and then think about how I should work on it, and I am neglecting it. I just can’t wrap my head around it though.

I can’t wrap my head around how to apply paint to the canvas right now, I can’t think about the risks I take with presentation when I paint, or the emotional resonance I may be trying to capture.

It’s a good thing, that I’m stuck in my left brain right now. I need my left brain, at least until the end of the day when this project submittal goes out.

I don’t just get stuck in left field though. The same thing happens on the right.

When I start digging into art, and get deep into my right brain activities, I have a hard time switching gears to crank out some rough and dirty engineering work. My job suffers when I am productive at night making art.

It’s quite a conundrum!

I think that the answer is to focus on the more “left-brained” stuff during the week. I can prepare paper, edition prints, even print during the week, keeping it nice and left. No creative stuff though. No image development, no painting, no “artsy” stuff. Keep it analytical.

Friday night, switch gears and swing out to the right for the weekend, and let myself hang out in that mode for two and a half days.

I think I have been trying to switch gears too fast, faster than I am naturally capable of.

Anyway, I’ll test this out, and see how it works for me.

Three Insights about Deliberate Practice and Art

Thursday, July 8th, 2010

This is a rather “practical” blog post, just an update on what I’ve been doing. No mushy gushy fun stuff today, just practical nuts and bolts about improving drawing skillz. I’ve been doubling down on this Deliberate Practice thing, spending an hour drawing most nights, this is an update.

I don’t exactly know how Deliberate Practice works, and I’m not going to pretend that I do. I’m not going to write about it with authority when I’m not really an authority on the subject (despite the rules of Blogistan). Eventually, if I keep up my practice, I will have authority on this subject matter, at least with regard to the practice of Fine Art creation.

I’ve said before, and I still believe, drawing is the most important creative skill for an artist. Artistic skill begins with drawing skill, and is capped by drawing skill.

So I want more drawing skillz, please.

While before I just drew, with no plan other than to draw, now I am following a plan. I bought a drawing instruction book, Keys to Drawing to work through. The book has 50 or so exercises meant to develop certain skills. I have worked through the first 6 in the last week, all of which have focused on observation, and recreating what I see into lines and shapes.

So far, I can’t say whether I recommend the book or not, but having a list of exercises has been helpful. I don’t have to think about what to draw, I just have to do the work.

I’ve had some realizations about Deliberate Practice, I have some tips, observations, etc.

First, having a plan works. Well. The first guideline of Deliberate Practice is that it is specifically designed to improve performance. I bought the drawing book mentioned above to fill this requirement. The book is, after all, specifically designed to improve performance. It may not be the best course for me specifically, but it is, in general, designed to improve skill. If I had a drawing instructor, I might get a better program, but I’m pretty sure that any program is more important than no program.

Second, I have to set a timer. If I plan to draw for one hour, I have to set a timer for one hour and work until the timer goes off. Watching a clock doesn’t work, setting the timer does. The process of setting the timer commits me to what I am doing for the time I commit to doing it. Something about it just works. Timers may be the most valuable productivity tool on the planet.

Third, I’m getting worse. This one was unexpected. As I’ve been working through this book, I feel like I’ve been getting worse and worse at drawing. For example:

two sketches of vegetables, side by side

The tomatos on the left were drawn months ago, before I was following any course of practice. The pepper on the right was drawn last weekend, as a drawing exercise from Keys to Drawing

The drawing on the left was done a few months ago, before I implemented any structure to my drawing practice. The drawing on the right was done last weekend as part of my structured practice. I think the tomato on the left “looks better” than than the pepper on the right.

The tomato on the left, however, was drawn the way I usually draw, and have drawn for years. I just applied the skills I already had as best I could. When I drew the pepper on the right, I was looking at the pepper differently, because I was instructed to, and attempted to depict different things about the pepper, and in different ways. In other words, I was using different skills, and different ways to draw, that aren’t as well developed as my “usual” way of drawing.

The big realization for me is that by getting a little worse, I probably am actually getting better. The new skills that I learn,and work to implement into my skill set, aren’t as developed as other skills, so when I use them, it seems like I am worse.

Follow My Progress

I created a set in my account, check out Sean’s Deliberate Practice Flickr Set, and follow along as I update it. I include a short description of each exercise with each of the drawings I upload.

Are you implementing Deliberate Practice into your routine? What are you doing? How are you doing it?

A Short, Irreverent Art History, Part 5

Wednesday, July 7th, 2010


Things Come Back Together

Our story so far: Impressionists revolted against realistic art that was little more than an excuse to make soft core porn, then a bunch of artists got more and more abstract, until subject matter was gone entirely. Artists hit a brick wall, because art couldn’t be any more abstract, so artists started to deconstruct the subject matter and just about everything else about art by making and doing weird stuff.

That brings us to today. Or, maybe a few years ago. Or a decade ago. Or somethin’.

And I’ll be honest. I don’t really know what I’m talking about. The only reason I think this is OK is nobody knows what they are talking about.

I haven’t come across any good theory explaining what the “story” of art is right now.

Modernism is over. They successfully deconstructed subject matter. Post-modernism is over, they successfully deconstructed everything else. (If you don’t know how, read my last two entries)

Things are all deconstructed, so maybe art today is about reconstruction. Maybe the job of the artist is to figure out what pieces and fragments of this “art thing” are important to them, and to reconstruct them into something all their own.

When artists find out how they want to reconstruct things from this mess, they will be use these pieces and fragments to make art that is personal, and universal (the secret recipe of relevancy).

A dab of abstract, a bit of impressionism, with some performance and some reflections of our culture. Artists can take the most meaningful bits and methods from all of art history as we see fit, to make whatever is most fitting.

The tricky thing: there are so many bits, that no single artist will be able to pick up all of them. There are so many methods available now, so many ways to make art that have been proven valid, and some of them even contradict each other. Each artist is picking a few different approaches, those that are the most important to them, and doing what they will with them. Reconstructing them in their own personal way.

Is there a linear narrative to describe what is going on now? We probably won’t know for 50 years or so, when someone writes the new irreverent art history to talk about what they think the 21st century has been all about.

Because, I don’t think we really know. And that makes things pretty darn cool.

In the meantime, I’m gonna be reconstructing things.

A Short and Irreverent Art History, Part 4

Saturday, July 3rd, 2010


Things Fall Apart… When they are forcibly disassembled

The modernists went as far as they could go, they proved the thesis of Modern Art – art didn’t have to have subject matter, it could be a “pure” creation, subject matter and the materials used to make it were one and the same.

In the 1950s, a couple of upstarts thought that was boring, and did something different, and they drew (no pun intended) subject matter from ordinary, daily things. Flags, numbers, soup cans, and shoes. Pop Art was invented.

It’s hard to explain how Pop Art was a radical departure from modernism, but the main departure was to say, “art isn’t some hoity toity, amazing thing, a reflection of ‘high’ culture; anything can be art”.

And then all hell broke loose.

Honestly, it is hard to write this entry of my “short, irreverent” history, because so much happened in the 1960s, 70s, 80s and 90s that was so different from anything that had previously been called art, it doesn’t fit into a linear narrative as well as Modern Art does. It was an explosion that went in many directions at once.

There was performance art, installations, pop art, assembelage, video, conceptual art, digital art, and other bizarre ways to make art. Art addressed gender, nature, consumerism, space and environment, kitsch, and religion.

A lot of art from this time was “shocking” (link is NSFW), and a lot of people would say, just plain strange or uncalled for (another not quite SFW image). Often, when people see post-modern art, the response is, “how is this art?”

It seems like art became random in the post-modern era, but I think there was a common thread, just like there was a common thread in the Modern era. The thesis of Post-Modern art is that there isn’t a distinction between art and life. Anything can be art, if attention is brought to it as art, and anything that was art could be part of life.

Art wasn’t a “thing” to be “made” that would sit in a gallery or museum to be looked at when someone wanted to “experience art”, it was something that happened all around us, all the time. Life is art, and art is life, it has the meaning that we give it, and it obtains meaning when we draw attention to it.

The wall between art and life was brought down. Post-Modern art disassembled the meaning of art, each movement and method unravelled the meaning of art in a different direction.

That’s pretty damn cool.

The problem is that it leaves art completely deconstructed, completely disassembled, lacking any definition and structure. This sucks for artists now.

There are a whole lot of pieces laying all over the floor now that the post-modernist are through with it. It is the morning after a raging, drunken party, and we wake up, the house is trashed, and we have the mother of all headaches.

Up next, the fallout, and where we are now.

A Short and Irreverent Art History, Part 3

Thursday, July 1st, 2010


How Modern Art backed itself into a Corner

This is Part 3 of this series, in which I talk about what Modern Art means. Part 1 talks about the rules of art for hundreds of years, and how impressionists broke those rules. Part 2 talks about how the stones the impressionists threw turned into an avalanche of abstraction. You should read part 2 before reading below (if you haven’t already), because this entry picks up where it ends. This entry is really the second half of Part 2, I cut it into parts because of length.

Like before, clicking on the links below will launch a pop-over image, without taking you away from the page. (Though there aren’t many links in this one)

On to pontification.

Abstraction Hits A Wall

There’s one thing I wonder about when I look at the Modern Art period, and the background for this question addresses why folks sometimes have difficulty appreciating Modern Art.

The most interesting thing about Modern Art was the road that artists traveled down, the ways that artists changed the philosophies of what art is during the first half of the 20th century.

Individual works of art are a record of the road they were on, but it turns out that the journey down the road was more interesting than any of the individual stops. Each of those stops along the way, cubism, fauvism, expressionism, whateverism, don’t always make a lot of sense on their own, because each one is a move further down this “Modern Art” road. They build upon the progress that came before, and push further down the road towards pure abstraction.

When I look at a painting of a white square, I look at it as a step towards pure abstraction, a step towards proving that art doesn’t need a subject, a step towards demonstrating that art was about raw art materials, and what could be done with them. Outside of that context, however, a white square isn’t very interesting and doesn’t make much sense.

This is where Modern Art loses a lot of people. The context is missing. An abstract collection of shapes isn’t always interesting or beautiful, at least from an objective view. The meaning and importance depends on the context in which it was made, and how it expanded the boundaries of art.

The history of Modern Art is the history of this march towards pure abstraction, taken one step at a time. I sense that it was a proud march, artists bravely pushing boundaries and courageously proving art could be more and more abstract.

Getting back to my question about this, what I wonder is, did they realize this road was a dead end?

There is a natural limit to abstract art. There is a point at which art cannot be any more abstract, because it is as abstract as is possible with a tube of paint and a canvas. That limit was reached in the 1940s and 1950s, and this was the destination of the Modern Art road.

When artists reached this destination, everyone discovered that the road wasn’t a road at all, it was more like a pier. There was no where left to go.

Modern Art was a dead end, artists had moved in this direction as far as was possible. Even worse, it was the getting there that was interesting. It isn’t nearly so interesting to stay there. They could either hang out at the end of the pier, or walk back to the shore. Both options are boring.

Luckily, a couple strange guys, Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol, saw a third way; they decided to jump off the pier into the ocean, and that’s when things really got wacky.

Tomorrow, this series continues with the cleverly named Post-Modern art that came after Modern Art.