The Scream – Inspiration via Acute Boredom

Scream Head IllustrationI’m a drawer, I doodle, I always have, and I intend to never stop.  I’ve drawn in class as long as I can remember.  On my progress reports my teachers would often write that I was a good student, but my only problem was that I drew during class.

Now, looking back after 31 years, the majority of which have been spend in class learning everything from reading English to writing Japanese, thinking about Algebra, Calulus, intermediate dynamics, biomaterials, engineering, chemistry, physics, everything inbetween, all culminating in a Doctor of Science title from ETH Zurich, I can tell you with aboslute certainty that doodling, and continuing to draw in class was one of the best decisions I’ve made in life.

Drawing in Science and Engineering classes forms the perfect Arience – mix of art and science. I talked about this notion of Arience at the 2009 Swiss StartUp conference (Idea Generation and Development). When half of your brain is bleeding – trying to understand the diffusion equation or the basics of colloids science, it just makes sense to exercise the creative centers and draw something.  My biggest critique of my engineering classes at Michigan State University (MSU) is that very few of the professors took time to understand this concept.  Teachers of all levels should take the time to understand their students, and to understand how their students learn.  In the end it makes you a better teacher.  Trying to apply a rigid I-know-it-all teaching philosophy to every student is harmful and highly counter-productive to learning.  And if you’re not interested in teaching, well, don’t become a Professor – just go to the private research sector.

scream.jpgBy far the best drawing I produced at MSU was started during a Chemcical Engineering course on Colloids.  I wanted to learn about colloids science to better understand the application of 3D printing and rapid prototyping technology to the manufacture of 3D hydroxyapatite bone scaffolds.  The class started out fine but the lecture consisted of Dr. Ofoli runing through a black and white PowerPoint presentation for about an hour and a half during the evening.  Although the slides were prepared before class, he wouldn’t let us download them for class to takes notes with, “because then students wouldn’t come to class.”  So, basically I didn’t learn anything during class, all I was doing was trying to copy everything from the presentation before he flipped to a new slide.  The woman who sat behind me would draw Manga all night, and one night my brain had had enough and drew a giant screaming head inspired by Pink Floyd: The Wall.

My frustration culminated one night when my brain was about to explode and I drew a giant screaming head while listening to notions about colloids and chemical interactions.  I dropped the class soon after the first exam, not because I didn’t find the topics interesting, but because the learning technique was so completely opposite to my natual way of learning, it had simply become a huge waste of time to attend the lecture, and since I had the book, I could just learn whatever I needed.

scream_hand.jpgTo finish the screaming head sketch I scanned it and started some basic work in Photoshop.  Using my Wacom tablet I erased part of the head and then added an arm – drawn later on a separate night. I didn’t like the original shape of the head so I re-drew the head with my Wacom and then made the head more alien-like, with oriented pen strokes.  In the end, after writing Revolt from the Singles Table, I realized it was the perfect graphic to place opposite Chapter IV.

“Only a determined removal of the viels of society sets the soul free…a beast approaches.”

Sometimes art influences science, sometimes science inspires art.  Sometimes boredom sparks a new idea, sometimes you use analogies to develop new concpets in different fields.  Whatever the outcome, find out what works for you and exploit it.

Photoshop in My Analog Days

perspective-1.jpgPhotoshop is one of the coolest, most influential programs I’ve used in my computer life. Before I had a digital camera I had a Mac Cube, that beautifully designed simplistic computer which has never been equaled for elegance and class. It was a good time, I put contact paper on my walls and wrote on them whenever an idea took hold. Poetry, philosophy, thoughts on existence, everything that came into my head. The problem with drawing on static walls is that the ideas and pictures become locked in a certain place, a specific arrangement. Photoshop freed me from that. As soon as I got Photoshop I knew it would be pointless to use it with a mouse and picked up a Wacom Graphire tablet for $80 or something. From there I started experimenting with combining sketches and doing the color digitally.

In retrospect, it’s obvious that my background in Photoshop learning started in my Math, History, English, and Chemical Engineering classes. I wouldn’t say I was totally bored in school, but y=mx+b doesn’t need to fill the entire brain, and the vast expanse not consumed by redundant analysis of the Scarlet Letter were used to draw various things in my class notes. The problem is that you then have to run through old homework assignments on colloids to find that cool sketch of a screaming head, and much like Ulysses for writing, Photoshop has been great for giving life to random class sketches.

With Photoshop, a scanner, and a Wacom tablet, I knew I had it made. My first real attempt at creating something was a composite of hand-drawn sketches scanned with a Microtek machine and manipulated on screen. I included a portrait, taken during a biomedical engineering student meeting at Michigan State University (MSU). Somehow I guess it was the precursor to the current self-portraits on Flickr and my website.

geu_gnome-1.jpgI called this first thing “Perspective” I guess because, well, I have no idea. I was introduced to Pink Floyd: The Wall during this time, so it made sense to include a brick type structure, which was being demolished by small worker guys with devil legs and no hair on their heads. I also like the look of Marvel and Magneto from the X-men, so I added something with muscles and a cool Spartan helmet. It started as a few separate hand sketches which were digitized, and then colored in Photoshop.

Here was the workflow:

Draw random stuff
Scan sketches with flatbed scanner
Open in Photoshop
Cut up the sketches, just taking the ones I like
Assemble sketches so they sort of fit together
Ink over with a Photoshop brush
Expand and draw other strange images
Add color on separate layers for everything
Save and forget about for 8 years

dog-1.jpgIt’s been cool to look at what I do now with a sweet camera like the Sony A900 and what you can do today with Photoshop, and compare it to what I was doing nearly a decade ago in my apartment. What I edit photos today, it’s always with a Wacom tablet, adding to the shadows, manipulating the density of darkness on arms and cheek bones, using the exact same drawing techniques developed in Geometry class when I thought of how cool it would be to draw an issue of the Punisher. Photoshop is a sweet program, but like Altair Hypermesh, it hasn’t changed much in the past 10 years. There have been some essential changes, but the core philosophy has stayed the same. If you have a cool idea and some drive, you can create some tripped out stuff. It’s just the drive to create which is important and will propell you forward, not matter if you’re working on Smart Materials, a photo shoot, or a sketch during a chemical engineering class.


Photography and Photoshop – Getting Digital Style

I’m sort of on a Style quest.  This isn’t meant to mean that I’m trying to define a certain photographic style because I read online that I need to do so.  Getting a certain style, or look in my digital images in just an extension of the process that started many years ago.  I started out in photography with mountain photography, documenting trips in Colorado or New Mexico, which eventually shifted to locales like Bolivia, the Swiss Alps, and now to parts of Japan.

Photography is a natural part of travel, and in Europe I took the time four yeas ago to head out with a universal train pass shooting about two rolls of mixed 35 mm and 6×4.5 for a month in places like Austria, Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary, and Germany.  The point was that I wanted to see what I liked shooting and didn’t care much for – to figure things out.  Eventually I moved to off-camera lighting with a Strobist education, and now I’m expanding further into the freedom provided by Photoshop – initially inspired by the work of Joey Lawrence.

Photoshop is one of those crazy amazing programs where anything is possible, but if you just randomly click things without any feeling for the result you’ll never really use the program for anything beyond an amusing supplement for television.

It’s important to remember that Photoshop is just a visual translator, an avenue for the user to express a visual representation of an idea.  Like most computer programs, the actual user-computer interaction sucks.  Many of the elements of Photoshop like the paintbrush tool are traditionally controlled by a computer mouse – one of the least bio-mechancially compatible gadgets ever invented.  It doesn’t matter the shape, number of buttons or color, the mouse was not designed for a person to easily interact with the computer.  It was developed because in the age of post-DOS early Windows programs, it was the most basic component that could be produced to allow user-computer interaction beyond the keyboard.

I’m still waiting for the day when mechanical design and analysis programs like Pro/E and ANSYS are sold with VR-goggles and three-dimensional motion gloves to enable real user-program interaction.  If you really want to start interacting with Photoshop and making it an extension of your imagination and body – drop the standard mouse and pick up a graphic tablet.  Mine is a basic small Wacom from like 8 years ago – superior to any of the latest button-crazy-curved-but-non-ergonomic mouse designs found today.  Plus, it’s small enough to pack along to all corners of the Earth with my dented G4 PowerBook.  I’ve been drawing in class since kindergarten – sketching with a pen or pencil is my natural visual expressive process – so using a mouse with Photoshop is just imposing a handicap.

Once you get a feeling for what Photoshop can do by starting out with some basic online tutorials, buy yourself a sketch book and drawing implements.  My current favorites are a Moleskine sketch book, standard pen, and Japanese ink pen.  The Moleskin has heavyweight pages that soak up excess ink are great for shading.

The Japanese ink pen is essentially like having a paint brush in your pocket.  You can buy different brush lengths, and are generally available in art stores.  As I’m in Tokyo at the moment, I plan on bringing a small bag full back to Zurich.  When you feel like it, draw something, anything, fill in lines, create shadows, contrast, change the feeling from happy bunny to evil man-eating alien with a few pen strokes.  That’s really all Photoshop does, just on a much larger scale.  Get used to doing it with simple sketch books, and you can start opening up the creative flood gates in Photoshop.

Photoshop is great for doing contrast and brightness adjustment, but if that’s all you’re using the program for save yourself the hassle of having all the other features and go with a simpler program like Gimp, Lightroom, Aperture, Light Zone, etc.

The reason I’m exciting about using and abusing Photoshop in the coming year is the amazing possibilities with selective lighting and local image adjustments.  Using a graphic tablet and painter techniques one can really start using the program as an extension of the mind-body and use it as a creative tool to create – as opposed to modifying images.  I always knew these things were possible, I just never took the time to explore them before.

I don’t know where I’m going with Photoshop, but I love the possibilities, I love using the program as an extension of my mind and starting to visualize the creation and evolution of images from the initial image capture to the thing my mind originally envisioned when I tripped the shutter.

Sketching – Awesome Not Digital Photography

I’ve been fascinated by photography for sometime.  In particular I like trying to capture moments of movement and darkness that cameras and eyes usually never get.

But sometimes you get bored, don’t want to drag along a camera and look for another way to express some creativity.  Most of my progress reports at Detroit Country Day School focused on similar theme,

"Mark is a hard worker, blah, blah, but needs to focus more on his studies and less on drawing during class…blah, blah, blah."

So lately I’ve been getting back to my roots.  Those long tentacles that have been developing in school since I could pick up a pencil.  Drawing, the first artistic love of my life.

I used to draw in every class from History to Math, even Graduate level Colloid Science.  For some reason the professor didn’t appreciate this very much.  When I asked him what I could do to improve my understanding of colloids he cited my sleeping in class and attention to sketches as evidence that I was a poor student.  Of course, he was oblivious to the fact that the woman sitting behind me drew more often and far more elaborately during his PowerPoint lectures than I ever did.

In reality I draw in class to keep the visual centers of my mind occupied, and to balance the resources needed to retain information in the long-term memory banks.  As the keen reader might imagine, my teachers have never really understood or cared about this technique.

Back to the recent past, I took in two concerts recently: Kosheen and Juliette Lewis.  My cameras stayed at home while I sketched the events as they occurred – true Gonzo Sketching Journalism.

Kosheen is an electronic-themed singer from the UK.  The music is something like relaxed Jazz feeling a-la techno music experience.  Her show on Wed. April 18th was in the Zurich Volkshaus venue.  It’s close to Helvetia Platz, just a stones throw from Xenix and only a few blocks from the strip joints on Langstrasse, the Red Light District of Zurich.

Volkshaus has a nice theater-like setup.  The lobby entrance includes bouncers and a bar.  Walk through the doors and you’re on the main floor with the stage at the end of the room.  Sometimes you want to dance in-front of the stage, sometimes you just want to relax and enjoy the experience.  We went upstairs to the balcony section where we had free roam of unreserved wood seating.  Hanging from the ceiling was grand chandelier-type lighting.

I like having choices in life, Volkshaus is a cool venue because you can be part of the show on the floor or just chill by the roof rafters.  The balcony also gave a nice vantage point for sketching.  On the floor the action would have been moving too fast to draw anything, but in the thin air I could sit back and let the scene materialize on the paper.

It felt good getting back to my drawing roots.  Unless you’re taking a high-quality camera to the show, your photos will most likely turning out looking black with some detail of the people on-stage.  By sketching the scene you can make things as clear or obscure as you like, add whatever elements are needed and leave out the distracting ones.  Plus, it makes you look at photo subjects in a different way, combining this slow exposure technique with your photographic vision helps develop an eye for the interesting elements of a scene which your pocket digital camera would have probably glossed over.