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

The box diorama: supercharging the diorama

The typical diorama uses a flat board as the structural base. This configuration has a number of limitations. It doesn’t usually include a background, which means the artist is constrained to working on only one surface when recreating a scene, lessening the overall verisimilitude. Another drawback is that this configuration requires premium real estate when displayed—either a book shelf or an empty stretch of wall where it can be attached with brackets, usually at waist level. This can be an issue when space is limited.

Enter the box diorama, sometimes called a shadow box. Leveraging multiple surfaces, it offers the artist complete control over background elements as well as lighting. There is also more control over what the viewer sees, since the box can only be viewed from the front. This makes it easy to add hidden supports to display aircraft in flight. And since the box diorama is usually displayed at eye level, it takes up no more space than a painting.

When I decided to create a showcase for my Spinner model from the film Blade Runner, it was clear that the box diorama was the way to go. In the film, the Spinner was shown only at night, which showed off its dazzling lights to maximum effect, and made its medium blue paint scheme appear dark blue. I wanted to capture both these elements.

My next post will feature the completed Spinner Over Police HQ box diorama. Stay tuned!

-Ivar

Encounter in North Africa (1:35)

In this scene, a boy and his sister come upon the awesome sight of a German tank trundling down a village lane. The long barrel Panzerkampfwagen III was one of the most elegant armour designs of WWII.

Lots of experimentation went into mixing the right shade of desert yellow for this Tamiya kit. The wall was scratch built.

-Ivar

Modern art is the biggest scam in the history of art

A dramatic change in the world of fine art took place in the late 20th Century. The acceptance of modern art into mainstream culture irrevocably changed the way we define art. While the origins of modern art went as far back as the 19th Century, it didn’t enter the forefront of cultural consciousness until many decades later. Aided by the post-WWII rise of mass media, movements such as abstraction, expressionism, and pop art were given the support they needed to mutate the world of art.

The more I look at modern art, the more I realize that it is the biggest scam in the history of art. For many millennia, art had to meet certain prerequisites to be considered worthy of the label. Before accepting a work of art into a gallery, the curator typically asked common sense questions such as:
· Does the artist have talent?
· Does the artist have something interesting to say?
· Does the artwork tell a story or convey a message?
· Does the artwork do justice to its subject?
· Does the artwork have aesthetic value?
· Does the artwork represent a substantial investment of time and energy on the part of the artist?
· Does the artwork evoke an emotional or intellectual reaction?

With the introduction of post-WWII modern art, these prerequisites (with the possible exception of the last one) went out the window. Suddenly, artists with no discernible skill or creative talent were catapulted into the limelight and revered as great artists. The speed at which this happened suggests that the redefinition of art was not part of a natural evolution, but of a pre-planned strategy, conceived behind the scenes and foisted on an unsuspecting public. In the space of a few short decades, the world of art was turned on its head.

Why, you ask, would anyone wish to do this, and what would they gain from it?

To tackle these questions, let’s begin by looking at the economic model on which art is based. For many millennia, wealthy families, who were typically called benefactors or patrons, used their power and influence to selectively support artists and projects which furthered their agenda. A simple example would be a wealthy family commissioning a family portrait for the sake of posterity.

The patronage model served the art world for several millennia, and it provided a benefit to both patron and artist. It was a culturally neutral model, because wealth was distributed amongst artists in such a way that the competing influences of rich families would usually cancel each other out. No single family had enough wealth to completely overshadow another and cause broad social or cultural changes by virtue of the projects which got the green light.

But then something changed in the 20th Century: the concentration of wealth increased to such a degree, that for the first time in history, some families had accumulated enough riches to change the destinies of entire nations. Rather than being content with commissioning portraits of themselves, these wealthy families wanted more. They decided to leverage the world of art to change society itself.

The rich and powerful wish to remain that way. By exerting an influence on popular culture, which includes art, they have a means to achieve their end. How then did they achieve their goal?

The nobles who lorded over their fiefdoms in medieval Europe knew that the simplest way to stay in power was to keep the serfs weak, disorganized and dependent. The last thing they wanted was for their serfs to develop a capacity for independent, critical thought. That could lead to them questioning their lot in life, which is how revolutions start. Serfdom was eventually abolished, but the same techniques which kept it alive are still being used today. They’re just more carefully disguised.

So what does this have to do with modern art?

By glorifying the trite and the trivial, modern art retards the development of high aesthetic appreciation and intellectual discourse. It’s another self-preservation tool in the toolbox of the wealthy elite, and it’s used to stop the serfs from getting too smart. You don’t need a lot of brain cells to process Andy Warhol’s painting of a soup can. Now compare that to Michelangelo’s David. The elite don’t want you thinking too deeply about great works of art and the questions they raise about society, culture, religion, and life. Those are dangerous thoughts, because if enough people think them, they could overturn the whole apple cart. And that is something the elite fear.

Given their control of the mass media and academia, it was easy for the elites to push their agenda in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, and tear down the principles that had defined art for many millennia. Newspaper critics were instructed to write glowing reviews of artists who a few hundred years ago would have been committed to an asylum. Art professors were told to sprinkle their lectures with talk of “irony” and “uprooting assumptions” to create a phony mystique around modern art and hide its inherent worthlessness. And gallery curators had to follow the same script or be shunned as outcasts in the artistic community.

None of this was important enough in the general scheme of things for the average gallery goer to protest. Most artists (and wannabe artists) didn’t complain either. In fact, they were thrilled, because having no talent was no longer an obstacle to becoming a famous artist. Anyone willing to shock the public with works that were increasingly obscene and disgusting, was guaranteed a spot in the limelight. If all this seems hard to believe, do a quick Internet search using the terms “CIA ugly art” and see what you get.

Looking back at the carefully orchestrated madness that took over the world of art in the late 20th Century, we now have the benefit of perspective. At this point, we can call out modern art for what it is: a social engineering tool which was not a natural phase in the evolution of art, but a catastrophic mutation.

Dioramas are the antithesis of modern art, because they meet the time honoured criteria of art which I outlined earlier. If you have a good eye and a steady hand, and spent several months designing, building and perfecting your latest diorama, you probably achieved an artistic accomplishment which would put many modern artists to shame. So instead of supporting the cultural brainwashing agenda and attending your local art gallery’s Jackson Pollock exhibit, take my advice and invest in a new set of brushes instead (something Pollock didn’t have a clue how to use).

-Ivar

Taking it to the next level: the diorama as an artistic progression from the model kit

In a previous post, I commented that most diorama artists start out as plastic model kit builders. Then at some point in their evolution as a modeler, they progress to dioramas. This is the typical path for most diorama artists, and for good reason.

Plastic models are the three-dimensional equivalent of paint by number kits in the world of painting. When you buy a paint by number kit from a craft store, you get a board or canvas with pre-marked outlines indicating areas to paint. Each area has a number corresponding to a paint colour to use. And all the required paints are included in the kit.

With a plastic model kit, much of the work is already done for you as well. All the pieces that go into the model are pre-formed; you simply snap or glue them together and then paint the model. Detailed instructions are given, with numbered steps guiding you through the assembly process. There is also a painting guide included with the instructions. Much like paint by number kits, plastic model kits are an easy way to get into the hobby for an aspiring artist.

More seasoned hobbyists will go a step beyond the basics. The experienced kit builder will not only paint the model, but will also weather it to enhance the realism of the finished product. The more advanced paint by number artist will mix colours and create skillful transitions from light to shadow, creating a much finer result.

After successfully completing several dozen plastic kits, the kit builder may wish to take on a new challenge. This could involve modifying a kit (for example, converting a Spitfire Mk1 to a Mk2), or adding something to it (for example, scratch building a landing chute for a Vulcan bomber, as shown in the photo at the top of this page). Kitbashing, in which parts from several models are combined to create an original result, is another option for the experienced builder. Other modelers will want to go a step further, creating an entire scene which incorporates one or more plastic kits. And so goes the evolution from kit builder to diorama artist.

The word “evolution” connotes progress, and I think it’s the right term in this case for several reasons. First, creating a diorama requires the artist to use his creative imagination and come up with a scene he wants to depict. Second, it requires that he apply design principles to maximize the visual impact of the scene. Third, it requires knowledge of specialized modeling techniques, such as miniature landscaping. None of these skills are needed to build a plastic kit out of the box.

Dioramas aren’t the only evolutionary path available to the plastic kit builder. Some modelers go on to create original works from scratch. A miniature ship or plane can be carved out of a block of wood, or crafted from other materials (large museum miniatures are usually custom built, since there are no commercially available kits of the subjects in sufficiently large scales). Other modelers want to see their creations perform the same functions as their real life counterparts. So for those who aren’t content with a static helicopter, they can build a radio controlled one that actually flies.

The path that you take in your evolution as a plastic kit modeler will depend on your personal interests and skills. Will you sculpt original pieces out of a block of wood, build aircraft that actually fly, or create compelling scenes in miniature as a diorama artist? The choice is yours.

-Ivar

The smartphone and the diorama artist

Some technological advancements do more harm than good. The smartphone is a good example. The original idea behind this seemingly harmless little gadget—providing people an affordable, mobile communications device along with Internet access—was sound enough. And in the hands of a responsible and self-disciplined user, this is exactly what the smartphone would have provided.

Unfortunately, responsibility and self-discipline fell by the wayside, leaving us with the typical smartphone user of today: an attention craving narcissist with a short attention span and a need for instant gratification. Addicted to social media, games, and the app of the moment, this mindless drone has eschewed the physical world for the instant gratification of cyberspace.

Aside from the obvious need for artistic talent, what are the personal qualities that make a good diorama artist? Traits like patience, dedication, a long attention span, the ability to concentrate, and a strong work ethic come to mind. The smartphone is a threat to all these things, because it prevents these traits from developing in children and weakens them in adults.

As smartphone prices have dropped, the number of users has multiplied exponentially. They are now part and parcel of the urban landscape, meandering down crowded streets at half the pace of normal pedestrians, head down, frantically texting with both hands. They don’t watch where they’re going, so others are forced to jump out of their way to avoid collisions. They remind me of the Borg in Star Trek: The Next Generation, those half-human, half-machine aliens that served a central machine consciousness called The Collective and had no independent will of their own.

Did the scientific minds behind the smartphone anticipate that their nifty little invention could encourage and amplify some of the worst aspects of human behaviour? Probably not. But it’s fair to say that the marketers who popularized this attention deficit device understood the commercial benefits of addicting an entire populace to their product. With each new game and app, the addiction intensifies.

Most addictions are harmful because they either directly endanger the health of the addict or alter them in a negative way. Let’s look at what smartphone addiction does to people.

Text messaging is one of the cornerstones of the smartphone’s feature set. Since this technology encourages brevity, full sentences are no longer used. Messages are radically condensed. After repeated exposure to short messages, the brain adapts, and longer messages become harder to process. After a while, no-one has the patience to read sentences or paragraphs.

People used to read books on public transit. Now, everyone is playing with their phone. We’ve become so used to abbreviated character strings that wading through an entire book seems like a chore. Our attention spans are getting shorter by the day.

Phone drones are not just on the city streets. These automatons indulge their addiction in cafes, restaurants, and even movie theatres. Try talking to one, but better make it quick. At the first opportunity, they’ll turn away to check their phone. This constant phone checking begins as a habit, and then develops into a nervous tick repeated hundreds of times a day.

Killing conversation is not the smartphone’s only achievement. By making the brain lazy, it also affects our ability to concentrate. A good test of this is how far you can make it through a novel. Can you remember all the subplots and minor characters? Or do you find yourself getting frustrated at the amount of mental energy you need to stay on top of the story? The proportion of the population that reads fiction has been declining for decades, so you’re not alone if you feel that getting through a long novel is a struggle.

If people don’t have the attention span to engage in a passive activity like reading a book, how does this bode for creators, builders and inventors, where even greater energy and mental discipline is needed? Michelangelo spent two years creating his David. Without the rigorous work ethic he held himself to, this monumental task might have taken much longer, or may not have been finished at all. I wonder how many modern day artists gave up halfway through creating the masterpiece that would have catapulted them to fame, because they got bored and decided to squander their time on Twitter instead.

And regardless of whether you’re a painter, sculptor or diorama artist, you need to have the ability to tune out external noise and concentrate single-mindedly on a task. In other words, you have to be comfortable with being alone with yourself. For the phone drone, this is a horrifying prospect.

The lack of research on smartphone addiction is surprising when compared to the enormous efforts taken to curb vices like cigarette smoking. Cigarettes still claim more lives than fatal traffic accidents caused by texting drivers. But unlike smokers, drivers who text often kill innocents along with themselves. So they aren’t harmless.

The damage wrought by the smartphone—which can be summarized as fundamentally weakening mental stamina—has gone largely undocumented. Social and psychological phenomena are notoriously hard to quantify. There are no smoking guns and no corpses to count. Apart from the odd YouTube video or independent blog, there is virtually no discussion of the effects of this tragically misused piece of technology. The mainstream media is silent on the topic. And there is a reason for this.

To governments and global elites, a socially alienated, weak willed, and undisciplined populace is highly desirable. People are easier to control when their attention spans are too short to make critical arguments against the status quo, and when they give up their real friends for ones they’ve never met, courtesy of Facebook. Because when their friends are gone, they must turn to the government for help.

Governments also like to know who you are, where you go, and what you do. Your smartphone provides them with this information. It’s a core component of the surveillance state, and you’re paying for it. And even better for governments, anything you text, say or tweet on your phone is evidence that can be used against you for the rest of your living days. We’ve opened Pandora’s Box, and we don’t even know it.

-Ivar

The irresistible urge to build

Anyone who’s attended a sociology class is probably familiar with the nature/nurture debate. That is, the opposing points of view about why people are the way they are. The “nature” side argues that biology is destiny, and that everything about human behaviour can be explained by genetic makeup. The “nurture” side, on the other side, makes the case that social circumstances, and childhood in particular, determine behaviour.

If you want to figure out where your love of building dioramas came from, the nature/nurture framework is a good place to start. Consider the “nature” side. Do your parents or grandparents share your interest? Even if there’s no-one in your family tree who built dioramas, there might be an architect, sculptor, engineer or painter. In that case, it’s likely that you were a recipient of a certain gene set that predisposed you to becoming a diorama artist.

Now look at the “nurture” side. Do you remember being exposed to childhood events that could have inspired your interest in dioramas? Maybe you went to the museum on a school field trip and were enchanted with big dioramas of medieval battles. Or you had a friend with an amazing collection of model cars. Or a teacher with a train set that took up his whole basement (as I had).

Depending on whether you speak to a sociologist or biologist, you’re likely to get vastly different answers about the origin of your interest in dioramas. The funny thing about academia is that by funneling students into specialized study streams, the educational system encourages tunnel vision. And the longer you stay in school, the worse it gets. I still remember my university sociology professor fervently denying that instinct was what caused birds to fly south in the winter. If I were to run into him today, I’d have some fun with this. I’d ask him if flying south was reserved for bourgeois birds. I’d suggest he start a crowd funding campaign to help the poor oppressed working class birds who couldn’t afford to summer in the tropics. Workers unite!

Lest we become victims of tunnel vision like my well intentioned but deluded professor, it probably makes sense to take the middle ground and acknowledge that most of the time, both nature and nurture come into play. For myself, I can say that it was definitely a combination of the two that got me into dioramas. How about you?

-Ivar

The missing piece of the puzzle

I recently put the finishing touches on a diorama I almost finished three or four years ago. This particular diorama, Vulcan Homecoming, eventually became the header image for this website (you can see it at the top of this page).

When I was wrapping up this project three or four years ago, I had looked everywhere for a set of 1:200 scale airfield personnel. Unfortunately, that item was not available anywhere at the time.

Then last summer, I remembered that what was missing from this diorama was the airfield personnel figures. Once again, I did a quick Internet search. To my delight, the product I had been looking for a few years ago was now in stock at a European retailer. I immediately ordered it.

The figures are so tiny that I found them easier to paint after gluing them into place. An added challenge was working with the small rectangular base that each figure comes with. On a larger figure, the base can be easily removed without damaging the figure, but in this case, I didn’t want to risk it. Instead, I drilled small indentations into the tarmac so the base would be flush with the surface of the airfield. This required some puttying and repainting to get everything looking right.

The extra work was worth it. The figures give the diorama an extra dash of verisimilitude. Since they’re so tiny, you have to look closely to see them. The fine detail pulls the viewer in. From a short distance, you can’t quite make out what’s there. So the first reaction people have is “Hey, what’s that?” Then they look closer, and their next reaction is, “Cool.” Details make a difference.

-Ivar