Pigments and Dyes: Where Do Colors Come From?

Our contemporary world is dominated by digital images on movie screens, computer monitors, smart phones and tablets. The millions of colors we see there are nearly all the result of electronic magic.

Surrounded by all these new ephemeral images it is easy to overlook, or even forget, that artists’ materials originally came from very real sources. Some of those sources were, and are, common, but some are quite exotic. In future posts I’ll talk about other art materials but for this blog post let’s take a quick look at pigments and dyes – the substances that produce the colors used to make paints and inks as well as for coloring fabrics.

Pigments differ from dyes in that they are generally insoluble, meaning they don’t dissolve in the water, oil, varnish or other medium used to make up most of what we call paint or ink. Tiny particles of pigment are merely suspended in the medium. Dyes, on the other hand, are either liquid already or they easily dissolve in the surrounding medium.

This definition generally holds true but there are exceptions (It can be confusing, I know).

The most basic pigments come from plentiful sources and produce what are often called “earth tones.” Burnt wood, for example, produces charcoal used to make black. Different clay soils are used to create ochre and browns such as burnt umber and raw sienna.

cave painting of animals

Charcoal, soot, clay and iron ore were common pigments used by pre-historic people creating images on cave walls. Looking at these cave paintings we can see the limited range of colors produced by those commonplace pigments.

Throughout history other pigments were discovered or developed and it’s usually quite interesting to learn about their origin. Let’s look at a few examples…

Lead-tin-yellow dates back to the 13th century. It was developed by artisans working to create crystal glass and was a common yellow used in oil painting until the 18th century when it was replaced by Naples yellow.

Lead-tin-yellow obviously contains lead and is not a healthy product. Lead, however, is only one of the poisonous substances artists have used for pigments. Vermillion, for another example, is a warm red color verging on orange. It was originally made by grinding the mineral cinnabar which contains mercury, a substance that is toxic even to touch.

Other colored pigments were originally produced using minerals and various organic substances that are quite rare and were traditionally used very sparingly. Lapis lazuli, for example, is a semi precious stone used to make the color ultramarine blue. Because it is rare, 16th century artists charged extra for a painting that featured that color.

In this painting by Johannes Vermeer you can see the use of both lead-tin-yellow and ultramarine blue.

Oil painting by Johannes Vermeer

An even more exotic coloring agent was the dye used to make Tyrian Purple. It was harvested from the mucus of a species of snails. The use of Tyrion Purple dates back more than 3,000 years to the ancient Phoenicians. Because this dye was so rare and difficult to make, the color purple was reserved for the garments of royalty and extremely wealthy individuals.

Indian yellow is another of these exotic pigments and was very popular with Dutch painters in the 17th and 18th centuries. Indian yellow was the basis for the pale, luminescent depiction of sunshine in many of their landscape paintings. The pigment, however, did not originate from an equally romantic source. It was made from the urine of cattle who had been fed an exclusive diet of mango leaves. The practice of essentially starving cows in order to acquire a small amount of coloring agent was eventually outlawed in the early 20th century.

Our final example of an organic source for a coloring agent is carmine that produces a deep red crimson color. Carmine is one of those agents that can be either a pigment or a dye and that’s partially what has made it so valuable. Extracted from ground up cochineal insects common to Central and South America, carmine became very popular with painters and garment makers in Europe after it was introduced by returning Spanish explorers during the 16th century. This is the dye used to color the robes of Catholic Cardinals and it was the color source for the English army’s redcoats.

oil painting portrait that uses the color carmine

You might think that carmine would have fallen by the wayside in today’s world of synthetics but that’s not the case. Even though there are alternatives, carmine is still used in paint as well as cosmetics and food coloring.

These are only a few examples of the coloring agents used by artists over the years. Today there are synthetic versions of most of the colors we use but nearly all of them refer back to colors originally developed from more organic sources.

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An Ocean of Books

interior view of the Tianjin Binhai Library in China

All photos by Ossip van Duivenbode

I’m a lover of books. My house contains shelf after shelf of books, some I’ve read, some I may read soon, and some I’ll probably never read but their title reminds me of something I need to remember. I love to look at them, to see the patterns made by their colored spines. When I’m surrounded by books I feel both safe and challenged.

When I stumbled upon an article in ArchDaily about the new Tianjin Binhai Library in China I was immediately drawn to the images of the library. Designed by the Danish architecture firm MVRDV, working in conjunction with the Tianjin Urban Planning and Design Institute, the 362,000 square foot five story building is part of a larger cultural complex.

exterior view of the Tianjin Binhai Library in China

The central metaphor for the building is that of an eye, a place to see (learn) and to be seen (a community gathering place). Another apt metaphor is an ocean of knowledge, wave after wave of books, undulating across the walls.

interior view of the Tianjin Binhai Library in China

All these elements that I’m calling metaphors actually have practical applications. The large spherical eye holds an auditorium. The waves are shelves that not only contain books, but double as stairs and seating.

Design is essentially about form and function and this project is an example of a successful interweaving of these two ideas. Yes, the building is a visual show-stopper but the functional needs of the space are never secondary.

Since this blog is an auxiliary resource to our book Design: A Beginner’s Handbook I thought it would be useful to take a moment and look briefly at some of the ways the architects have used the elements and principles of design to create a building that balances form and function.

interior view of the Tianjin Binhai Library in China

Line, shape, space, texture, unity and variety, balance, scale and proportion, pattern, and rhythm. All of these elements and principles have a role to play in this building.

Look at how the large spherical shape of the auditorium pushes into the void in the ceiling, creating a rippling effect that continues into the lines of the shelving. The positive/negative shape relationship between the sphere and the recess in the ceiling set up a dynamic tension between the two forms that is balanced by the rhythmic undulation of the linear shelves and stairways.

interior view of the Tianjin Binhai Library in China

Line is a primary element used in the library. From the topographic map-like forms of the ceiling, to the shelves that wrap around the atrium’s interior, line is used to move both the patron’s eye and body through the space. The curving lines create monochromatic patterns that contrast with the short vertical colored lines found in the books displayed on the shelves.

Of course, the books make sense in a library but they also serve to add visual texture to the building. In the original design for the library all the books were to be real and accessible to library users. Unfortunately, and against the advice of the architects, in order to meet a production deadline, the upper bookshelves don’t hold real books. Instead they are backed with metal plates printed with images of books. The plan was for these upper areas to contain real books that could be reached through rooms on the other side of the shelf. The hope is that in the future the original design for this area will be implemented. Thus, for now two types of texture, real and implied, are evident.

interior view of the Tianjin Binhai Library in China

The architects have successfully used scale and proportion to balance the building. The large spherical auditorium is counterweighted by the patterned detail of the books and the lightness of the flowing lines. In addition, the scale of the atrium comfortably holds the auditorium. On one hand, patrons using the library are dwarfed by the scale of the space but the architects have ingeniously turned areas within the linear shelving into intimate reading and meeting areas. Instead of being threatened by the scale users are embraced.

interior and exterior views of the Tianjin Binhai Library in China

The image above shows an interior and exterior shot of the library. The outside of the building uses dark, rigidly geometric horizontal lines in a strict even patterning. Initially, this seems to serve only as a contrast to the white wavy lines inside but on closer inspection the relationship between the two types of lines becomes clear. The facade becomes a cutaway, as if a straight vertical cut was made into the building and the ends of the undulating lines had been revealed – imagine cutting an egg in half to reveal the interior. It’s a wonderful detail that visually integrates the inside and outside of the building, while serving a very practical function. The outside lines are actually louvres that help to control light levels and provide passive climate control.

You can see that the architects have carefully integrated form and function by using the elements and principles of design to achieve functional ends.

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Fool The Eyes: Artists Who Use Their Skills To Challenge Our Perception (Part 4)

In this series of blog posts we have been exploring artwork designed to cause viewers to look again (and even again) at what they think they are seeing. So far we have discussed examples of imaginary space and hidden symbolism, things used out of context, and meticulous imitations.

As you can tell, this topic is quite extensive. I think we could easily do another four-part series of posts and still not fully cover it. But I want to wrap up our discussion today. So let’s go out with some flashy and fun stuff.

I’m talking about mirrors.

The artists in today’s post have used mirror reflections like other artists use brush strokes or sculptural textures, and the results are super charged. The objects they have created challenge our perception right to its foundation and cause us to question everything we’re looking at. What is it we see in front of us or behind us? What is above or below us? Where are the solid elements and where is the empty negative space?

Let’s look at a few examples…

Lucas Samaras’ early works were performance based pieces and installations. Later he became known for his manipulated Polaroid photo self-portraits. A consistent theme in Samaras’ work has been “self-investigation.” What better way to do this than by looking in a mirror.

In 1965 Samaras created Mirrored Room, a sculptural installation in which every surface is reflective. A viewer entering the room becomes lost in an infinite loop of visual information that turns normal space into a challenging, fragmented version of itself. The viewer becomes a kaleidoscopic player in the scene while the table, chairs and structure of the room almost disappear.

mirrored room installation by Lucas Samaras

Yayoi Kusama is known for her obsessively patterned installations using a seemingly endless number of dots. The dots cover walls, floors and individual objects in her installations and cause the camouflaged objects to be visually subordinate to her larger installation.

Like Lucas Samaras, Kusama built her first Infinity Mirror Room in 1965. Since then she has created several major installations based on mirrors reflecting dot patterns ad infinitum. In each of these spaces viewers get lost in an etherial, all-encompassing field of dots extending out seemingly forever.

Kusama’s environments are meditative and encourage the viewer to feel as though they are hovering over an immense field or floating in deep space.

mirrored room installation by Yayoi Kusama

Alyson Shotz is an artist who has often used reflective materials such as silvered beads, prismatic discs and mirrored surfaces in her large scale sculptures. She is interested in exploring the viewer’s perception of an object in its surrounding space.

Her sculpture titled Mirror Fence is meant to be seen out in nature in the company of grasses, trees and shrubbery. In this busy environment the fence materializes and then disappears time and again as the wind blows the foliage, the light changes, or the viewer shifts location.

The usual positive/negative alternating space relationship we expect to see when we view a picket fence is turned on its head. The fence slats and the empty spaces between them trade places as solids or voids. The gaps between the slats often seem to be more substantial than the solid fence.

If you are reading this in e-mail click here to see the video.

Phillip K. Smith III lives in southern California and much of his artwork is site specific – installed on location and responding directly to the desert or ocean beach. His installations often include mirrored surfaces that interact with the location and cause the viewer to look again and again at the scene in front of them.

Lucid Stead is a modified abandoned cabin located in the desert near Joshua Tree, California. Smith filled the windows and doorway with mirrors. He also mounted long horizontal mirrors on all four sides of the shack. During the day the effect is one of looking right through the structure. The roof seems to float above a stack of levitating boards. At night, computer controlled colored lights are projected on the windows and doorway from inside the cabin.

Smith says this piece is about light – reflected light and projected light. It is also about the ever-shifting quality of light unique to the desert.

art installation with mirrors on exterior of building by Phillip K. Smith lll

Anish Kapoor is a sculptor known for creating eccentric formalist shapes with unique color and surface textures. In 2004 he was commissioned to create Cloud Gate for permanent installation at Millennium Park in Chicago.

Cloud Gate is a 110 ton stainless steel sculpture with a polished mirrored surface. It is 66 feet long and has a 12 foot high arch in the center that allows visitors to walk under the form. “The Bean” as it has been nicknamed by Chicagoans reflects the city’s skyline and the sky. As viewers approach the form and walk around it they see distorted reflections of themselves and their environment.

Kapoor has noted that the horizontal nature of the form complements the intense verticality of the downtown buildings. The shape emphasizes a view of the clouds and the plaza while minimizing the visual presence of the surrounding skyscrapers.

Anish Kapoor "The Bean" a large reflective metal sculpture in Chicago

In each of these examples the reflective quality of the mirrored surfaces dramatically challenge what we would normally see if the forms were plain. They are all simple structures that have been magically transformed. Their mirrored state gives them another quality that must be examined again and again by viewers trying to make sense of what they see.

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Barack and Michelle Obama, Two Portraits

In the spring of 2015 we presented two posts about the art of portraiture, Portraits in the Age of Selfies and I’m Not Whom I Seem: Fictitious Portraits. I was thinking about these posts when I read that the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery had just announced the names of the artists who will create official portraits of the Obamas.

In thinking about what these portraits may look like I am reminded of what I wrote about the nature of portraiture:

Why create a portrait in the first place? Is it to leave behind a mark on the world in the form of an image that will outlast one’s life? Is it part of an important historical record? A commemoration? A form of communication? And what does it capture? A real likeness or an essence? A possible persona that differs from reality? Is it a reflection of the person portrayed or of the maker of the image?

When I think of a presidential portrait I imagine an unadventurous painting that does little to reveal the uniqueness of the person portrayed. The importance lies in the stature of the person, not in the quality of the art work itself. Based on the two artists chosen to create portraits of the Obamas I think we may find something different this time.

Kehinde Wiley has been selected to paint President Obama and Amy Sherald will paint First Lady Michelle Obama. Kehinde Wiley is a well-known portraitist, whereas Amy Sherald is a relative newcomer. What they both have in common is that they are African-American artists who investigate ideas of race and power in their work. In addition, both have a highly individualized style of painting that is outside of the forms used in past presidential portraits.

The Obamas were presented with the portfolios of approximately twenty artists who were pre-selected by the curators of the Portrait Gallery. Apparently Wiley had been an early contender but Sherald was added at the last minute after winning the prestigious Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition grand prize put on by the National Portrait Gallery, the first woman to win the prize.

remake of historic oil painting by Kehinde Wiley

Kehinde Wiley “Officer of the Hussars”

I wrote about Kehinde Wiley in August, 2015 and you can read that post by clicking on the highlighted text. Wiley is known for artworks that recast Old Master paintings, replacing white men of power with young black men from the streets, thus giving them the respect and prestige that society denies. Many works use elaborate patterning that invades the pictorial space and references other cultures and times. He has also painted non-historical works that include female and male figures, all of whom are people of color.

oil painting portrait by Kehinde Wiley

Kehinde Wiley “Shantavi Beale ll

Receiving the commission to paint President Obama is a dream come true for Wiley. Since 2008, when Obama first became president, Wiley has expressed his interest in making such a portrait. In 2012 he reiterated his interest, admitting that he had already completed several studies and that “The reality of Barack Obama being the president of the United States—quite possibly the most powerful nation in the world—means that the image of power is completely new for an entire generation of not only black American kids, but every population group in this nation.

stained glass by Kehinde Wiley

Stained Glass – “Saint Ursula and the Virgin Martyrs.” On left is the original created in 1535, on right by Kehinde Wiley

Writing in the New York Times, critic Roberta Smith raises an interesting question about the potential of Wiley’s painting, “Mr. Wiley’s flamboyant portraits of men, in particular, give them a worldly power and often a gravitas that they don’t necessarily possess in real life. That is part of his work’s irreverent, perspective-altering force. It will be fascinating to see if Mr. Wiley rises to the occasion of painting a world leader like former President Obama, who already has a big place in history and plenty of dignity.

painted portrait by Amy Sherald

Amy Sherald  “Miss Everything (Unsuppressed Deliverance)”

Unlike Wiley’s images of grandeur, Amy Sherald paints African-Americans engaged in everyday activities. Her usual working method is to discover people on the street and invite them be the subject of a painting. She hand-selects their wardrobe, either from clothing she has found or from their own closet. You could say she decides who they will be and how they will be seen.

painted portrait by Amy Sherald

Amy Sherald “Equilibrium”

Sherald paints the ordinary, and finds grace in simple gestures. Painting Michelle Obama should present an interesting challenge – finding the common humanity seen in her previous artwork, while recognizing the political power and importance of the First Lady. Of Michelle Obama Sherald has said, “She’s an archetype that a lot of women can relate to — no matter shape, size, race or color. We see our best selves in her.”

painted portrait by Amy Sherald

Amy Sherald “Innocent You, Innocent Me”

Sherald employs a striking painting style that juxtaposes flat areas of vibrant color with gray scale renderings of the subject’s skin. The formal aspects of the work – shape, color, line, texture – are as important as the subject matter. At the same time, according to the critic Roberta Smith, the use of a range of grays for the skin “recalls old photographs but mainly gives the figures a slight remove from the rest of the painting, one that also signals their awareness of the obstacles to their full participation in American life. This simple device introduces the notion of double consciousness, the phrase coined by W.E.B. DuBois to describe the condition of anyone living with social and economic inequality.

The two portraits by Wiley and Sherald will be completed in early 2018. I eagerly await the unveiling.

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The Dog Ate My Blog Post

In my years of university teaching I heard many excuses for late work, and yes, “The dog ate my assignment,” was one of them. So here I am today, joining the ranks of those derelict students and proclaiming “The dog ate my blog post.”

In truth, I put off completing the post, positive I’d have time on Wednesday to finish it. Unfortunately, that extra cup of supposedly decaf coffee kept me awake – I stayed up all night reading a trashy murder mystery, hoping it would put me to sleep. No such luck and so I spent my day sleeping instead of fulfilling my obligations to this blog.

All is not lost. We have years of great posts for you to read and today I’m going to repost one of them about the artist Regina Silveira. Her work is often described as “dreamlike” and that is the state I had hoped to enter when I (unsuccessfully) went to bed.

A Different Perspective: The Art of Regina Silveira

Art installation by Regina Silviera

I recently came across the work of the Brazilian artist Regina Silveira. Looking at her art I found myself thinking about presence and absence, and  how we perceive and understand the world. Dreamlike, her installations and sculptures transport the viewer to a place where the rules of reason are suspended.

Art Installation,"Abyssal," by Regina Silveira

When we look at a work of art that uses traditional Renaissance perspective to represent three-dimensional space we believe that the thing we are seeing is an accurate rendition. We don’t think about the intangible things that can’t be shown. We believe the image is truthful in it’s scientific geometry. Silveira turns this idea on it’s head. She intentionally distorts perspective, often employing anamorphic distortions. She says she “sought for perspective to function as a kind of philosophical gaze on the world of appearances.”

Art installation by Regina Silveira

In the installation above Silveira has drawn a set of stairs in a corner of a room, covering two adjoining walls and the intersecting floor with her perspective drawing. Imagine being in that space and trying to figure out where to place your feet. The room becomes unmoored and the viewer is bewildered and unstable. Silveira’s intent is to get the viewer to question ideas about representation and perception.

Anamorphic projection by artist Regina Silveira

This installation is an example of an anamorphic distortion. The photo actually shows two different versions of the installation but I’ve used it because it clarifies how this type of projection works. In order to see the image on the left a viewer entering the gallery needs to stand in a specific location where the matrix of perspective markings line up. At any other point in the space the marks appear random and nearly unrecognizable, as seen on the right.

Art installation by Regina Silveira with image of projected shadow

Art installation by Regina Silveira with image of projected shadow

Silveira works with both perspective and light & shadow. In these works it is the distorted shadow that is the true representation, revealing the core qualities of the object.

Central to Silveira’s concerns is the idea of the indexical sign. Sounds confusing but the idea is actually quite simple. “The indexical sign is the mark or trace that something or someone leaves when passing.” A footprint (which she has used extensively in her later work), fingerprints, a shadow from an unseen object, a photograph, these are all examples of indexical signs. They tell the viewer that something is absent, and yet in what may seem a contradiction they infer the presence of this missing thing.

Art installation by Regina Silveira with image of projected shadow of a readymade by Marcel Duchamp

If you are familiar with the work of the artist Marcel Duchamp you will realize that the installation above depicts the absence of one of his Readymades. The pedestal is empty, the shadow a ghost of the missing sculpture.

For those of you reading our book Design: A Beginner’s Handbook you’ll find that Silveira’s work is a good example of the topics covered in Chapter 4 Space, and the Gestalt Principles discussed in Chapter 8 Unity and Variety.

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Fool The Eyes: Artists Who Use Their Skills To Challenge Our Perception (Part 3)

In two earlier posts we described the work of artists who create artwork that challenges the viewer’s perception – work that goes beyond simple representation and fools the eye as well as tricking the mind.

The first post looked at anamorphic perspective and how a scene painted on a flat surface – when viewed from a specific point – could be transformed into a convincing version of deep space or a home for hidden symbolism.

The second post showed the work of two artists who have used improbable objects (or creatures) as believable stand-ins for common elements of portraiture. One of the artists also asks viewers to look more closely at the materials used. Are they real or are they simulations?

This third post in our series looks at two artists – separated by nearly 100 years – who just flat out want to trick viewers into thinking they’re seeing real things, not a painting or a sculpture depicting those things.

The first artist is the 19th century painter William Harnett. Harnett was part of a larger tradition in art history that is generally categorized using the French term “trompe l’oeil” meaning “deceives the eye.”

Harnett came to the United States from Ireland in the mid 1800s and worked for years in the meticulous and demanding craft of metal and wood engraving. While working as an engraver he also took painting classes.

In 1880 Harnett returned to Europe for a few years to continue his studio education. It was during this time abroad that he settled on his goal of painting scenes celebrating the objects of everyday life. His most famous images from that period are a series of four hyper realistic paintings, each titled “After The Hunt.”

hyper realistic painting by William Harnett

For the rest of his career Harnett continued to paint intimate still lifes set in shallow space. Building on his training as an engraver he focused more and more on capturing the small details of each object… details that revealed age, weathering and damage caused by repeated handling.

hyper realistic painting by William Harnett

This focus on everyday objects made Harnett’s paintings popular with middle class merchants who bought art. The paintings were often exhibited in public places such as taverns and offices. In these environments Harnett’s paintings were usually the subjects of vigorous discussion and comment. A saloon in New York City, for example, took bets on which elements were real and which were illusions.

hyper realistic painting by William Harnett

Our second artist is the sculptor Duane Hanson.

Hanson – who died in 1996 – was known for creating life size, ultra realistic sculptures of human figures. Some of his sculptures are made of fiberglass and some are bronze. With both materials the sculptures started from castings of actual people.

Once the form was complete Hanson carefully painted the surface of the figures (including details like blemishes, varicose veins and bruises) and added hair (including eyelashes and body hair). The finished figures were then dressed in clothes he found in thrift stores. The final touch was the addition of props such as shopping bags, luggage, handcarts, tools etc.

hyper realistic fiberglass sculptures by Duane Hanson

Hanson’s early sculpture from the middle 1960s focused on dramatic scenes depicting hot social topics of the day such as abortion, race riots and the Vietnam War. In the 1970s he shifted his attention to more subtle and timeless forms that captured universal qualities of the average person in middle America.

hyper realistic fiberglass sculptures by Duane Hansen

Although they share some superficial qualities with wax museum figures and store mannequins, Hanson’s sculptures are much more poignant and insightful. They describe aspects of the human condition as seen in a particular time and place. Ultimately his figures are archetypes that represent all of us.

hyper realistic fiberglass sculptures by Duane Hansen

Both Harnett and Hanson focused on common everyday things. They both paid a huge amount of attention to the details of their subjects – details that reveal the effects of time and use. In both Harnett’s paintings and Hanson’s sculptures nothing is new, untouched or stylized. Every element has a story to tell, and it’s a familiar tale we easily recognize.


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Unknown Spaces: The Photographs of Willa Nasatir

installation view of photographs by Willa Nasatir

Today I’ve chosen to write about the photographer Willa Nasatir and to use her work as a way to begin a discussion about artistic process. Many of you reading this blog are students or beginning artists just learning how to master your craft. As you become more confident and experienced you’ll learn to balance control with intuition, with allowing the work itself to be in charge.

abstract photograph by Willa Nasatir

When I think about Nasatir’s process, the highly abstracted and mysterious photographs make total sense. I can use my own experiences in the studio to unravel the images. My work has always been conceptual and highly rational, and yet, once I’m actually making things the irrational takes hold. I find connections that lead to new connections. I let the materials and process carry me to unknown places, to solutions for problems I was unaware of. It’s as if I’m not there, as if the work is creating itself. It is this experience that I use when viewing Nasatir’s work.

abstract photograph by Willa Nasatir

The first thing to know about Nasatir’s photographs is that they are totally analog. There is no digital manipulation, no use of an image-processing program like Photoshop. Rather, Nasatir still works in a darkroom where she develops her prints. To begin she brings together objects and scraps, many found on the streets, which she assembles into temporary sculptures and then photographs. The sculptures are surrounded by mirrors and other reflective surfaces that bounce light and create shadows, resulting in ghostly effects. In her earlier work she subjected the prints to physical actions – sanding them, setting them on fire, pouring acids on them – and then rephotographing the mangled prints (often more than once) to create the final image. More recently, she has eliminated the physical destruction of the photographic surfaces and instead photographs the works just twice, the second time through scrims or plexiglass that distort the image. (I should note that although Nasatir uses a traditional photographic darkroom she does not employ long used effects such as double exposures.)

abstract photograph by Willa Nasatir

In discussing her work Nasatir makes clear that the work is about more than process. Even with a firm conceptual framework underlying the work she still allows the finished photos to emerge from the unpredictable give and take that occurs in the studio.

abstract photograph by Willa Nasatir

Nasatir views many of her photographs as abstract portraits. In an interview with Lauren Cornell in Mousse Magazine Cornell asks Nasatir about the nature of the body in her photographs: “Often the body feels like an ‘unknown space’ in your photographs. You’ve said that you prefer to depict the ‘experience of the body’ or a ‘trace of it.’ Does this more transitory, latent form of portraiture feel more true to you?” Nasatir replies that “… I like the idea of creating a contained world in my studio where the subject doesn’t exist outside of the pictures. By looking at the photographic gestures and filmic tropes we use to imbue a subject with violence, nostalgia, or sex appeal, and then applying those to a composition of objects, I feel closer to a world of fantasy.

In other interviews Nasatir has talked about her interest in “depict(ing) the felt experience of the body without showing the form of the figure itself.” The objects used in the sculptures become stand-ins for the human form, part of an abstract narrative that references human emotions. As viewers we naturally try to make sense of the objects and their relationship to each other, forming our own unique storylines.

abstract photograph by Willa NasatirPhotography can be many things. Nasatir is well aware of its use in documenting the world and as part of an economic system that sells things. She intentionally removes her work from these realms. The other-worldly images send the viewer into the subconscious where memories may be either true or false and where we are never sure of the substance of what we see. The processes used in Nasatir’s studio reinforce the content of her work.

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A Simple Line (2)

During this last week I’ve spent time reviewing the content we’ve covered in this blog. Today I want to repost an article from early 2015. I think you’ll find it useful.

We all recognize a line. We read lines of text; we walk and drive down the line of a road; we stand in lines; we first learn to draw by coloring inside of the lines; we…

Yes, lines are common and all around us but in the hands of an artist or designer a line can become something unexpected and extraordinary.

I thought it would be interesting to pull a few images from our “Line” Pinterest board. So here are some of the ways that artists, designers and architects put line to use.

Line drawing, pen and ink over chalk

The Italian artist Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio) drew this quick sketch in 1507. Working with pen and ink over chalk he used gestural line to capture the essence of the relationship of mother to child. Shape, movement and value are all defined with a combination of contour line and overlapping lines of various weight.

Compare Raphael’s use of line to this contemporary piece by the sculptor Fritz Panzer. Panzer has made a three-dimensional contour drawing from wire – a room size installation of a domestic kitchen.

life size three-dimensional drawing of a kitchen made from steel wire

Justine Khamara is another contemporary artist who has used line to make a three-dimensional image – in this case, a portrait. She mounted a photograph onto a board that was cut into thin lines and then partially reassembled.

photo sculpture

A different take on the idea of a portrait is found in this line drawing by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres.

Pencil on paper, a drawing over a woman and child

In this early 19th century portrait of Mme Victor Baltard and her daughter Paule, Ingres worked with pencil on paper, employing a precise and clean contour line that is as vital as the intricate cross-hatched lines that define the three dimensional forms of the faces and fabric pleats.

I don’t know what Ingres would make of this contemporary bronze sculpture by the artist Alison Saar (I know I love it). It’s a portrait of sorts and like Ingres, Saar uses line as an important aspect of the work. In this instance, the linear strands of hair/branches transform the woman into a mythical figure.

Bronze sculpture of a woman

In all these examples line has been used to make realistic works of art, but it can also be used abstractly, as seen in this wall painting by the artist Sol LeWitt.

brightly colored lines painted on the wall of a gallery

The vertical lines of color are extremely static and through juxtaposition make the flowing curved lines appear to move.

Line and movement are a natural combination.

In this last example Foster + Partners has designed a building for the United Arab Emirates pavilion at the 2015 Milan Expo.

aerial view of architectural pavilion

Seen from above the undulating walls of the pavilion suggest movement. At ground level this linear movement becomes real as visitors are guided in a controlled way through the space.

To see more examples of works that use the design element of line visit our Pinterest board.

You can read about line in chapter two of Design: A Beginner’s Handbook.

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Fool The Eyes: Artists Who Use Their Skills To Challenge Our Perception (Part 2)

In an earlier post we started a discussion about artists who have used their illusion-making skills to manipulate the viewer’s perception in mysterious or super convincing ways – to fool the eye and trick the mind. You can read that first post here.

Today we continue the thread by looking at the work of two additional artists who are separated by hundreds of years.

The first artist is Giuseppe Arcimboldo, a 16th century Italian painter.

Arcimboldo began his career painting traditional frescoes as well as designing stained glass windows and tapestries. He then became one of the official portrait painters at the Hapsburg court in Vienna. Later he became court decorator, set and costume designer at the royal court in Prague.

It was in Prague that Arcimboldo developed a fascination with creating mind-bending illusions filled with symbolism. Here he started combining unexpected natural elements into arrangements that resemble people posing for a traditional portrait. Combinations of fruits, vegetables, flowers, sealife, twigs and leaves, or even common items such as books and barrels became stand-ins for cheeks, lips, eyes, hair, torso and arms.

Portrait painting using fruit images by Giuseppe Arcimboldo

The symbolic portraits Arcimboldo produced during the last half of his career are extraordinary. Even today – in a world loaded with manipulated visuals – they seem startling and clever, filled with pictorial invention.

Portrait painting using sealife images by Giuseppe Arcimboldo

Some images were based on actual individuals but most of these “portraits” are of types of people – representatives of different trades and occupations. Other images are of allegorical characters symbolizing the seasons of the year or elements of nature.

Portrait painting using images of barrels and containers by Giuseppe Arcimboldo

During his lifetime Archimboldo was modestly successful and recognized by other artists. After his death his name and work quickly drifted into obscurity. It wasn’t until the early 20th century when he was rediscovered by the Surrealists that his work once again gained widespread attention.

Our second artist is Richard Shaw, a contemporary sculptor in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Like Arcimboldo, Shaw has created character portraits built from odd collections of other items. Old paint cans, used brushes, stumps and twigs, wine bottles, and even a toilet bowl float are combined to make representations of human figures. These whimsical and humorous portraits are reminiscent of both outsider folk art and 20th century surrealism. They are also deeply rooted in the Funk Art movement that emerged from the Bay Area in the 1960s.

Shaw says of his work, “I am trying to create a poem about a person, using humor, irony and elegance.”

ceramic figure by Richard Shaw

The characters Shaw creates are fun to look at and his inventive combinations of what were once discarded materials are very impressive. The sculptures become even more impressive when you realize that they are hand made entirely of porcelain clay. None of what you see is the original material.

ceramic figure by Richard Shaw

Shaw collects objects from a wide variety of sources and makes casting molds from them. He then fills the molds with porcelain slip and lets it dry. After the cast porcelain is removed from the mold it is fired in a kiln. It is then decorated with specially formulated glazes and fired again.

Although Shaw sometimes paints glazes directly on the porcelain, most of his final surfaces – with their complex range of detail – are made from decals. He creates the decals himself using a special silk screen process. When the decal is immersed in water it floats free of its paper backing and can be gently transferred to the cast porcelain. Once the decal is affixed to its new surface and dried, the porcelain is fired in a kiln a final time.

ceramic figure by Richard Shaw

Both Arcimboldo’s and Shaw’s figures are built with recognizable elements borrowed from other realms. By focusing on the formal aspects of each element, instead of their functional descriptions, these artists have given new meanings to well-known items. They have also caused viewers to look again and again at a simple collection of objects.

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Art and Design

In December it will be three years since we published our book Design: A Beginner’s Handbook. In structuring that textbook we decided to use simple real-world examples of the design elements and principles. We opted to demonstrate the application of those principles in the worlds of art, design and architecture by posting on FacebookPinterest, and in this blog.

Periodically I like to step back and reaffirm the connection between the book and the blog. The book was written for beginning art and design students, as well as for a general audience with an interest in the arts and a desire for a more in-depth understanding.

Over the two and a half years we’ve published this blog we’ve covered the work of contemporary artists, written about the application of specific design elements and principles, provided design exercises, discussed artistic movements, added lists of resources – from artist’s residencies to free photographic websites, shown how to evaluate an individual work of art…the list just goes on.

Some of our postings are written for beginners while others require more experience – experience which is available if you read our book and review a range of prior postings on our site.

Today I’d like to encourage you to spend some time reading these earlier posts. If you haven’t already read our book you can download a free sample through Apple’s iBooks Store.

cover and two pages from an art and design textbook


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