Thursday, June 27, 2013

Wood Redux

American Gothic by Grant Wood is reportedly the 2nd most recognized painting. Second to the Mona
Lisa, and everyone under the sun has taken a turn at parodying it. My wife and I went to Eldon Iowa as part of a weekend jot, and we had someone take our picture in front of the same house Mr. Wood used in his famous painting. The cloths were provided by the visitor center, and the photoshopping provided by me to make the image look just right.

Someone is actually living in and caring for the house. They make money by selling pies in the front parlor. I think they make quite a bit of money too. Everyone was walking out with pie in tow. It was fun going there.

I'll be adding to the image making series of this blog in a bit. The best parts are coming up.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

A Blueprint For Image Making (Image Making Series - Part Six)

In any art form there are enduring discussions that are never really resolved. For instance, whether stream of consciousness is really a legitimate writing style, or, the viewpoint that turning a photograph into a digital painting is neither art nor photography, or, the question of whether abstract expressionism is art at all?

There are many that believe that a photograph should be just that, an image with little to no digital work done to it. Then there are the absolute purest that believe anything digital cannot be fine art photography  which should use a film camera and silver gelatin prints or some such. Then there is the hierarchy of art itself, where even if photography may be accepted as art, (such as an Ansel Adams print) it nonetheless is a lower art form compared to painting or sculpture.

The codification of art forms is best left to art historians and those that feel compelled, for whatever reason, to define boundaries around image making be it their own or other's.

Is this image by Jerry Uelsman art or simply Photoshop magic, and should be relegated to Tom Foolery? I don't think it useful for image makers to be concerned with those types of judgments, if in establishing those conceptual boundaries, it then limits their personal visual vocabulary.

I would like to state the following as a common ground to all image making in order to avoid spurious or otherwise nonconstructive stances and evaluations about image making.

All images are created with a medium, have associated tools, are framed or have a setting, and are created with a purpose in mind. Going one step further, all images are created following as set of principles, and those principles are composed of elements. The major differentiating factor of all images is there purpose, and certain principles are followed to fulfill that purpose.

For example, there is distinction between graphic design and photography, and that can plainly be seen in the differing content of their principles (listed in prior posts). Ansel Adams belonged to Group f/64 who had their own manifesto. He followed principles outlined in the zone system which is a technical and aesthetic set of guides for establishing proper graphic values in an image. And of course art movements in general have manifestos and principles, making images created by members of the group look similar.

Given the above, the blueprint of image making is:
  • Purpose - Why is the image being created: self expression, advertising, fashion, decor, scientific, journalism, fine art, avant garde, etc.
  • Principles - A set of statements, guidelines, techniques, and values which aim to emphasize, take advantage of, or change a way of seeing. These are the macro compositional determinants which differentiate one style from another.
  • Elements - The methods of manipulating a medium in a particular manner in order to adhere to the chosen principles. These are the micro compositional  constituents used in a deliberate manner when creating a certain style.
As an example, from a photography point of view if the purpose is to create fine art photography then you must adhere to expected norms/principles. Using an inkjet printer may already set you off the mark. Longevity of the print is a considerable factor in acceptance as a fine art print in many circles. Inkjet prints (as of yet) do not last as long as silver-based prints. If your purpose is to break with that tradition, then you have to know what you are up against and how to address biases which are built into any set of principles.

To further the example, if you are using a digital camera, then you must address your image's lack of film grain which is a classical element of style in fine art film photography. On a close up appreciation of an image film grain plays a critical rule. Your purpose may be to move beyond film, creating or emphasizing a micro compositional replacement for film grain. A new level of texture and detail that was impossible in the pre-digital world. In this case your purpose is clear. To follow and/or challenge principles/norms typical to fine art photography, and do that by addressing and challenging how digital images are judged on a detailed 'grain' level.

The best approach in image making is to first determine the images purpose.

Given its purpose, then adhere to (or set out to break) the set of principles which most closely address that purpose. The principles then will help determine how to use the media in creating the elements in composing the image.

An image's purpose, principles, and elements are not necessarily locked together however, and can be (and probably should be) rearranged to suit your image's particular purpose. Imagine surrealistic paintings like Dail's, but using pointillism elements like George Seurat an Expressionist painter. In Dali's Portrait of a Dead Brother to the right, this results in a fairly atypical Dali painting. The flat pattern of dots is in sharp contrast to Dali's surrealist style of fairly realistic painting, albeit sur-real.

Surprising results can be had if creating a layout for a magazine (the purpose), but using principles from the surrealism or fauvism art movements. Instead of creating a visual hierarchy based on a more typical approach following basic graphic design principles, a more playful and conceptual image may be created.

It is not typical, and not often recommended, to use principles from an art movement when creating an ad. Their ultimate purposes are very different. The images to the left are both for New York Giant Pizza business. The top image is designed using basic graphic arts principles. The bottom image is very surrealistic, and its meaning for advertising is unsure, but might pull the viewer in and hold their attention. However they still might miss that it is an ad, and miss your purpose in having it in a magazine.

It is much more clear how the classic design elements line, form, shape, etc are used to deliver a message in the top ad. It is far less clear how a surrealistic style serves the purpose of an ad in the bottom image.

A layout technique often taught in design school is named after the painter Piet Mondrian. The top image to the right  is a typical Mondrian painting, the image at the bottom right is a Kevin Cline ad using the same checkerboard organizational approach. This is an example where the principles of the De Stijl art movement can be used for another purpose successfully.

This series of post is focused on the principles of the PPA and classic principles taught in books and schools. However, there are as many sets of principles as there are art movements and graphic art styles which in turn dictate their own particular use of the elements of design. Becoming aware of them, and appreciating how they may be used for your image making will ultimately make you a more accomplished image maker.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Elements & Principles of Design in Glass Art (Image Making Series - Part 5)

I taught glass fusing for several years, and was often asked how to turn little bits of glass (frit) into an image. Students were often at a lose how anyone could do images with just little bits of glass. I believe this to be true in any medium if (as mentioned in a prior post) the student is only allowed to work with one or two of the elements of design. For example, to create an image using only point, it is as though you told them to speak but only use verbs, no nouns, but yet the whole graphic style of stippling is just that. This image by Gregory Colbert is done using only dots/points.

I gave them frit, but also glass powders, stringer (spaghetti-like pieces), rods of glass, shards, and large pieces of glass of many colors. Nonetheless, even with these options how to construct a whole image from pieces posed to them the same problem as photography or design student often has when ask to mentally deconstruct a photograph into its constituent elements of design.

I created the poster below as a teaching aid. In each cell is an image of a glass art piece, and each cell represents the intersection of an element of design (on the left) and a principle of design (across the top).

This is a 40x30 inch poster so it will be hard to see detail here. If anyone wants a copy ($25 plus shipping) then let me know. 

Let's take a few examples of how it works. Follow the  tone/value row over three cells from the left. That is the intersection of tone with emphasis/contrast. In that cell the image of little cubes of glass are arranged so that there is a tonal emphasis. Simple but effective. A common Professional Photographer's Association rule is to have the highlight or brightest part of an image be on the subject, thereby drawing attention where you want it... on the subject.The last two cells of the tone/value row are the intersection of the proportion and balance principles. The bird is balanced in the composition by the island on the left, and also the bird's proportion is used effectively, giving visual clues that the bird is close while the island is far. All of that is done with black glass powder sprinkled very meticulously on a white sheet of glass.

We take proportion/scale for granted. Of course, you might think, the bird is close and the island far. However this is a learned perception. Learning to interpret distance by scale of objects occurs when you are very young. An example of this is the story of an Amazon explorer and a forest dwelling native. The native had very little experience seeing objects at a great distance, having lived in the dense forest all his life. The explorer took the native to an open plain and showed him cattle roaming on the plain at a far distance. The native's response to seeing the cattle was something to the effect of "look at those flies over there".  

The principles of design exists simply because they help us create images which take advantage of innate or learned modes of perception, enabling quick understanding and appreciation, and avoiding visual confusion.  

In the last two cells on the right of the color row is the intersection for repetition/rhythm cell. Here color and patterns/shapes give rise to the principle of repetition or rhythm. This glass dish was done by cutting  colored patterns out of glass sheets and then arranging them in an order creating rhythm. Repeating pattern is something that the human eye-brain looks for to create a sense of order and understanding which is higher order function of perception.

In a well known experiment by Blasdel et al. a cat was raised in an environment where it could only see vertical bar patterns. The results where that when released from this environment is had difficulty seeing other bar patterns.

Design elements then, are sensations and the design principles are components of our cognition. Thought of in this way an image's visual strength depends on one or more of the principles being present and complementary to the subject. If you want to strengthen the image, then the elements composing the dominant principle(s) should be used to further strengthen the composition. This is the blueprint for construction of any image.

For example, in the color row's third cell from left the subject is the wolf and moon. Contrasting colors where used to emphasize the subject as well as the elements of direction, line and shape which serve to draw us into the subject. It is the contrasting colors however that create emphasis on the subject and ultimately tells us what the subject is. If the dog and moon were aqua, then they would be reduced to yet another pattern/shape and would be equal to the other shapes in the visual hierarchy.

Creating a visual hierarchy is key to any composition.

The elements of design make one or more of the principles dominant, severing the ultimate purpose of bringing our focus on the intended subject of the image.

When a visual hierarchy is absent or weak, then the viewer's response to the image is simply to turn the page so-to-speak. It is the strength of the hierarchy that draws the viewer in, giving the image a sense of visual gravity. Even before the viewer is aware (cognition) the eye-brain preprocessing of sensations has already decided for you that the perception is not worth moving forward to full consciousness (your full attention). Without a visual hierarchy an image is boring, typical, messy, or disorganized and your response to this stimulus is to turn the page.

There are always exceptions to any rule, and sometimes breaking the rules can also create a sense of visual gravity as in a Jackson Pollock painting. Breaking the rules is sometimes the point if only to be contrary, pretentious, or leading edge. Human perception and cognition however have taken several eons to develop. We all see things a certain way which is more-or-less held in common. For the image maker, learning to capitalize on that programmed in way of seeing is what the principles of design are about.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Using the Elements & Principles of Design for Effect (Image Making Series - Part 4)

The Bored Panda site has some cool stuff. I found this image by Matt Molloy there. Matt has taken the prosaic image of a sunset and re-visioned it. There are a collection of these sky-scapes at Bored Panda that are worth looking at. I mentioned in a prior post about finding your inner vision of everyday subjects... but how? It was suggested that this is accomplished by focusing on the elements of design. Engravers use line almost exclusively. When doing an engraving on metal (for example portraits on paper money) the engraver is must express tone, pattern, form and all the rest just using lines. This is an extreme example where all the elements of design are expressed using only one element, line.

I've seen in design school where students are forced for weeks to use only black and white (value) and pattern. Pattern without form tends to be flat and one dimensional, cartoonish. On top of that if you are a color person being forced to only work with gray values can be tedious. Nonetheless, the hope is through the assignments the student will discover and enter the realm of a flat world without color. May be boring, but you will walk away with design skills you didn't have.

Being forced to be creative using only one or two of the elements of design is challenging, and at times humiliating when your efforts are the worst in the class, or, enlightening when you see what others have done with a minimal set of tools. In this example by Alistair Boddy-Evens tone is built using only line, resulting in the beginnings of form.

 We all have our favorites within the elements of design. If you don't know which is yours, then that would be your first mission for discovery.

If you decompose Matt's image you will find the rule of thirds used for the macro part of the composition. Highlights should be on the subject and the subject should be located on one of the nodes of rule of thirds. In this case the highlight is the subject, the sun, which leads to the next point.

Now consider the principles and elements of design - the micro constitutes of composition. Repetition is a strong factor in the repeating pattern of clouds. The repetition forms a strong set of lines which all point to the subject via directional movement. Often line's main purpose is to lead the eye to the subject.  Center of interest is also evident albeit weak. The over-blown white spot (the sun) really isn't interesting. If this were an ad, and the product or message was placed at the sun's location, then the whole composition would be leading you to what the designer intended to be the purpose of the image. That is, to capture your attention and then lead you to the product or message which replaced the uninteresting area of the sun.

Harmony and color are obviously used well too, but you would expect that of a landscape. Nature is seldom without harmony and proper use of color. Contrast is a very strong factor both in color (cool versus warm) and in values. There is also the psychological contrast of the the stark sentinel-like powerline towers standing against the 'moving' sky.

You could start out to paint or otherwise design an image like this if the idea just popped into your head. Often however the process of discovering your inner image comes simply by playing with something that intrigues you, and sometimes just by happy accidents that you then push even further. I could explain the creation of this image as through it were the result of one such happy accident. It would occur when a photographer feels the need to do something with an image, to take it to the next level, and in this case to address a technical issue.

Matt's image, as most sunsets, presents high contrast and high dynamic range problems for photographers. Today's technology cannot expose for both bright and dark objects in one exposure. One technique is to take three images of a subject, exposing for highlights, average, and dark areas. Then through the magic of Photoshop combining all three images into a single correctly exposed image. What if when combining the images they ended up slightly misaligned? In the case of the sky moving, if your exposures were fifteen seconds apart the clouds would be in different locations, making perfect alignment of the whole impossible.

Matt's imagery is based on just that, the combination of many images of the sky as the clouds move. He might have seen that as a technical problem to correct, or instead see it as a happy accident. In the process of trying to create a properly exposed image, the misalignment was seen as potential, and when pushed further a whole new motif was discovered. If you are open to that discovery, and evaluation of that potential through the principles discussed, images are in a constant state of new potentiality.

The re-evaluation, re-visioning, is critical. Happy accidents can't be depended on, but you can hone your eye to see potential and polish it by further manipulation of the design elements, but how? Which ones? Well, how about fruit slices re-visioned.

In the top left image the slices are reduced to pattern. In the top right line is a dominate element. In the lower left the slices are back lite and translucent. This technique emphasizes value, and the image on the lower right show color contrast and directional moment. There are books dedicated to illustrating this type of experimental re-visioning. Jim Krause has a whole series of books focusing on visual play for a purpose, helping designers see things anew.

Each element of design can be tweaked and your response to that change is positive or negative. For example, color contrast or a whole hue shift throughout the image either brings the image closer to you or a sense that it feels off, resonates less with you. Changes in tonality could enhance a sense of line or directional movement, increasing a sense of dynamic movement. In the example of Matt's image, layers of images could be shifted further off alignment to enhance one of the elements of design, further abstracting the image, and making patterns that are unnatural, but nonetheless fascinating.

It is your inner image.
All the principles and elements discussed, and all the variations of each will only be tweaked by you in a particular way. It is an inner image because it is discovered by subtle changes in the image, one by one, each in its turn resonating with you or not. The inner image does not pop into your head full blown. It is discovered by patiently turning the dials of design until it comes into focus.