Learning to see as an artist

There’s a great scene in a movie of a famous painter asking his student what colour the clouds are. The student, responding instinctively, says “white.” Seeing the painter’s look of disappointment, the student takes a closer look at the clouds, and then observes several colours.

What makes this scene great is the way it encapsulates a common failing of would-be artists: their lack of discipline in using their senses to perceive the environment. We become so accustomed to relying on instinct and memory to interpret the world around us, that we forget to use our eyes. It seems rational enough to say that clouds are white, but that answer is a knee-jerk response based memories of what clouds look like (perhaps from a Wikipedia photograph), rather than in-the-moment observation.

Many of our daily actions are governed by a kind of perceptual shorthand in which we rely on past knowledge and experience to move through life. We discount the present moment and tune out the environment. This is usually a practical tactic for urban dwellers suffering from sensory overload, but it works against our development as artists.

If we create art by interpreting the world around us, then the first piece in that process is the interpretation part. It is also the most critical part. Get that wrong, and everything that follows will also be wrong.

So how do we turn off our pre-programmed responses, stop being robots, and re-engage our senses? To paraphrase one of the tenets of Buddhism, “live in the moment.” This means paying attention to what you see, hear, taste, touch and smell, right here and right now. Just to qualify this, I’m not suggesting you change religions. But opening yourself to your environment and opening up your sensory capacity to its fullest potential can make you a better artist.

I’ve found that it helps to focus on one sense at a time. There are some simple steps you can take to develop this focus. For example, when eating dinner, don’t listen to music, read, or watch videos at the same time. Concentrate 100% on the taste of the food. You’ll find you enjoy your meal much more, and feel more satisfied at the end. Multitasking is overrated. It’s also at odds with our biology. Our brains are like one-CPU computers, meaning we can only concentrate effectively on one task at a time.

To wrap up, I’ll leave you with this Buddhist parable, which comes right to the point (from dailybuddhist.com):

A man traveling across a field encountered a tiger. He fled, the tiger after him. Coming to a precipice, he caught hold of the root of a wild vine and swung himself down over the edge. The tiger sniffed at him from above. Trembling, the man looked down to where, far below, another tiger was waiting to eat him. Only the vine sustained him. Two mice, one white and one black, little by little started to gnaw away the vine. The man saw a luscious strawberry near him. Grasping the vine with one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other. How sweet it tasted!

-Ivar

Thunderbird 2 and the “kits versus toys” conundrum

There is usually a clear dividing line between plastic kit manufacturers (like Tamiya) and toy producers (like Hasbro). As far as I know, Tamiya has never produced a toy and Hasbro has never produced a scale model kit.

But some companies make both kits and toys. Bandai, Aoshima and Takara Tomy fall into this category. The quality of kits produced by these firms tends to be less consistent than you’d find with a dedicated kit manufacturer. This isn’t surprising given that their primary target market is children.

It goes without saying that five-year olds have a vastly different set of criteria than adults do when it comes to hobbies. Some five-year olds like to put their prized possessions in the sandbox. Others like to chew on them. I’ve yet to see any adult modellers taking part in either of these activities (if you know an adult fitting this description, please take them to a psychiatrist immediately).

Takara Tomy recently introduced both a large toy of Thunderbird 2 from the new Thunderbirds Are Go TV series, as well as a “Real Kit” of the same subject in 1:144 scale. The former product is aimed squarely at five-year olds. It features opening sections, moving parts, a detachable pod with Thunderbird 4, and built-in sounds. This seems to be a well thought out product which kids should like.

The 1:144 Real Kit, however, has some shortcomings:
1. The kit is hard to distinguish from the toy. In fact, eBay listings for the two products are so similar that it’s hard to tell one from the other.
2. It is a snap together kit with a choice of stick-on markings or waterslide decals. These features indicate that the product is aimed at novice modellers.
3. Like the toy, the kit features a removable cockpit roof. This creates a huge gap at the bottom of the roof and ruins the scale look of the kit. Authenticity was obviously not a priority in the design of the kit.

Considering these compromises, it’s clear that Takara Tomy rejected the idea of a serious scale replica. Instead, the company attempted to create a product that would appeal to both children and adults. This was a mistake for two reasons.

First, the Real Kit is not sufficiently different from the toy in price or appearance. This may result in the two products cannibalizing each other’s sales.

Second, the Real Kit was designed under the assumption that most Thunderbirds Are Go viewers are kids. This fails to take adult viewers into account, who grew up with the original Thunderbirds series and are now enjoying the new reboot as a trip down memory lane. Many of these returning viewers are experienced modellers willing to pay top dollar for authentic kits of their favourite subjects. They have fond memories of the original Thunderbirds series and still admire all its wonderful hardware.

Takara Tomy would have been much wiser to follow the example of FineMolds, whose Star Wars kits set a new standard in quality for sci-fi subjects. Their enormously successful 1:72 Millennium Falcon which I discussed here is a case in point. The FineMolds Falcon was a rarity: a mass produced, high quality sci-fi kit aimed squarely at experienced modellers, with no compromises made to attract younger modellers.

In addition to compromising the quality of their kits, companies like Takara Tomy, Bandai and Aoshima also do a disservice to modellers by associating kits with toys. This tarnishes the image of scale modelling. Buying a kit from one of these companies is a bit like buying a stereo from a guy with a van parked in an alley.

But at the end of the day, having an average quality kit of the new Thunderbird 2 is better than nothing. Given the relatively low demand for sci-fi kits, we have to take what we can get. So if you decide to pick up Takara Tomy’s new Thunderbird 2, be prepared to do some extra work to get it up to standard. The basic shape of the kit looks accurate enough, and most of its shortcomings can be overcome with a little care. Just make sure to throw out the stickers. Or even better, mail them back to Takara Tomy with a note stating that scale modellers don’t use stickers!

-Ivar

Visual sleight-of-hand with forced perspective at Museo de la Miniatura

Before the age of computer generated special effects, movie makers used several tricks to make the most of miniature photography. One of these tricks is called forced perspective. This technique exaggerates the apparent depth of a scene by placing large scale objects near the camera and small scale objects farther back. For example, placing a 1:10 scale miniature tree close to the camera and a 1:20 scale tree further back increases the apparent distance between the two trees.

Forced perspective compensates for the limited depth of field of cameras (the range of objects in a scene which are in focus). Without it, a miniature set depicting a large area, such as a battlefield, would be very deep, and it would be difficult to keep everything in focus.

On a recent trip to Guayaquil, Ecuador, I stumbled across Museo de la Miniatura. This museum houses a series of dioramas illustrating the history of Guayaquil. The dioramas are a few metres wide and over a metre high, and have lighting that changes as a pre-recorded narrative is played over speakers. What impresses me most about these dioramas is their masterful use of forced perspective. Although not designed for filming, these expertly crafted dioramas employ forced perspective to inject more visual depth into a confined space.

One of the dioramas is pictured above. Although you might not realize it from casual observation, the train tracks are not parallel, and the models near the front are larger than those in the back. This creates a scene of much greater apparent depth. Due to the need to create miniatures in multiple scales, forced perspective is more time consuming for the artist than creating a standard diorama with everything rendered in one scale. But the end result is brilliant.

I used forced perspective back in my film student days, creating a set of three landing pads for a spacecraft touchdown scene. By making each landing pad in a different scale, the scene had much more apparent depth, and it worked better. This project was done entirely on 16mm film and all special effects had to be done in-camera. With forced perspective, I was able to keep everything in focus.

The near total reliance of today’s filmmakers on computer generated effects has a downside, in that much of the ingenuity which used to lend magic to filmmaking is now all but obsolete. Techniques like forced perspective aren’t needed when you have software that takes care of everything.

It’s nice to know that at Museo de la Miniatura, the magic of forced perspective is alive and well.

-Ivar