30 Years in the Making

30 years ago I tried to create a masterpiece. Discover whether I did or not. Or more precisely, learn how I took that “masterpiece” and made it better. And if not better then at least different.

Some thirty years ago while I was in high school I made a self-portrait using inks and water-colors (see below for this “masterpiece”). At the time, I was very much on a self-journey of a discovery of lines. I believed that all art was the intersection and continuation of lines, and as such my great conceit of that time was that all art was just lines morphing from one shape to another shape.

It’s obvious that this is a decidedly too narrow a view of art, but such are the thoughts of a teen living in a pre-internet day with too little access (or curiosity) of the greater art world, and too much hubris to go out and search for it. We’ll get back to this in a bit. First, a quick re-telling of the first self-portrait.

The Original, A Short History

As for this original self-portrait that I created circa 1992, I ended up giving this to my very best and dearest friend Nils Passion, then an exchange student from Germany. I never quite understood why he wanted it, at least on artistic terms it was not worth much mention. As if any of my art today warrants such mention is another such matter. But I digress and me being who I am, only on reflection I realize it must have been on a more human level of connection with me that gripped Nils to want such a piece; a realization that would never have come to me way back then. But again, I digress.

At some point, Nils or his parents saw fit to frame this work in one far too valuable for such a piece, but nevertheless they did and here we are today. My artwork in a gilded frame, a reminder to me that our friendship was valued far more than the art itself. That in itself is maybe worthy of its own post.

While recently looking at that rather baroque frame and my decidedly abaroque (sic) picture sitting in it, I thought it might make a good example of “progress as an artist” as it were. By doing a then and now comparison, I could capture my evolution as an artist over the last three decades. Albeit, to be fair that while it’s three decades on the clock, it’s really less than six years as an artist. To wit, I had largely been on hiatus to art, at least anything illustrative or painterly for more than two of those three decades. But that is a story for another time.

To Be An Artist or Not to Be An Artist

The short of it is that it was not till the time of my first visit to Norwescon back in 2016 did I entertain seriously getting back into visual arts. To be clear, in the years prior to this I had gotten quite serious into digital photography, and even dabbled with processing my own black and white medium-format photographs. This was while at Amazon when I met Tracy Boyd, part-time UX designer, full-time fine artist. I was loath to call myself an artist, but it was Tracy who insisted on the appellation, seeing in me something I could not see in myself at the time. For the curious, I saw photography as my way to come to terms with color. I hated using color in my teens. Color was magic, it was mystical. It was not meant to be used lightly, and as such I stuck to largely black and white artwork far into my early twenties as evidenced by my own self-portrait from this period. But again, I digress.

Prior to attending Norwescon for the first time in 2016, my partner Marit had recently went to a writers’ retreat where she meet, amongst other luminaries, Mark Ferrari. When she showed me Mark’s work, I arrogantly said (or minimally cowardly thought) I was as good as him. Hubris is something I have a few lifetime supplies of just laying around for times like this.

To be clear, I was not and I am still not anywhere close to Mark’s narrative abilities, visual or otherwise. But for whatever reason, seeing Mark’s work reminded me of my own work from my high school years. While too long to fit the full telling within this post, I had a conflicted relationship with the arts that culminated in me “leaving the arts” in my early twenties. Suffice it to say then that when I saw Mark’s own work it awoke in something I had forgotten I had ever possessed: a passion to be a visual story-teller. I yearned to be like Mark. I ached to be an artist. I needed to do art. Not photography; not that it is not art; but, I wanted to do art like I used to create for the first two decades of my life: with my hands, telling stories that only I could envision in my head.

Discovering I’m Not All That

So I got myself an iPad Pro, Procreate.app, and Apple pencil and immediately discovered I sucked. Not like sucked bad from my times from high school, but like sucked bad as if “I had never drawn a line before in my life but still delusional that I was amazing-balls bad”. That kinda bad. In short, bad bad. Insert a line about Dunning-Kruger here.

I was more than naïve about art and my abilities, I was whole cloth ignorant. Even wantonly ignorant. I had forgotten about composition. I had forgotten about values or shapes. I had never learned color theory. I had never seriously studied anatomy, if you can count Marvel Comics guide to drawing figures as anatomy study. In a word, I had forgotten everything and worse, had not really spent the years learning the fundamentals during the first two decades of life; pre-requisites to what it takes to create art or be an artist. I had no real foundation to draw upon, even though in my mind I was a Michelangelo just waiting to put brush to fresco to paint masterpieces. It was humbling in the mightiest of ways, and no amount of hubris (and I had and still have a lot) could anneal me against this truth.

To another person this might be common-sensical. I had spent more time “not riding the bicycle” as I ever had done riding it. It would be natural that I’d not be as good as I had been, but that was not a truth I was comfortable with at that time. In my head, I was a gifted and talented artist. Granted, maybe I was at the time of measurement; as a teenager I was moderately talented, but talent is but a mere accelerant. Talent in and of itself does not make you an artist, and especially not a master. Skill does, though.

Skill is something to be acquired, to be learned through the hard knocks of life unlike talent that is doled at in varying degrees at birth. Skill comes from thousands and thousands of hours of practical study. At the end of it all, talent provides but a thimbleful in comparison to the ocean that skill provides.

Thankfully for myself, I had matured a bit in three decades, and more than any amount hubris I’m maniacally accountable to myself. If I say I am an artist then I ought to get to the work of becoming an artist. And so, starting in 2016, I got started on trying to prove to myself that I was truly an artist – not just some memory of one – by setting out to acquire the skill necessary.

Some six years later and I’m still learning the fundamentals. I do not practice nearly as much as I would like. If I had as much discipline to art as I do to exercise, I’d be light-years further than where I am today. But still, I’m making progress. I have even done some professional work on the side that I’m moderately proud of.

As a consequence, as much for myself, I wanted to try my hand at something I had done in the past. I was curious how I might re-interpret something, both as an artist and as a person, with thirty more years of lived experience to draw upon (bad pun) along with the most recent six years dedicated to improving my craft.

Today’s Self Portrait, A Short Reflection

As I noted above, when I was in teens I saw all artwork as lines. So when I re-created this piece, I wanted to keep that philosophy intact. However, given I was not using linework, I instead tried to use values and color to tie elements together. In this regards, clouds morph into eagle and dragon, my face melts into muscle that flows down to a digital waterfall, and so forth. I’m quite pleased to be keep with the spirit of the self-portrait, even if this new approach is fundamentally different.

I think it’s pretty clear to even a casual observer that the original piece was not just naïve in technique; it was also thematically naïve, too. While I did not want to drastically to change the composition, I did want to reinterpret parts of it to be have a fuller vision of the original theme of the internal aspects of myself flowing out of me as expressed by the aforementioned connection that all things are lines.

On top of just making the piece more complete, I also wanted to incorporate elements that are more emblematic of who I am as I approach my fifth decade. In this aspect, the biggest addition is the dragon in the lower left. If you’ve spent any time on this site then I know I quite love dragons. I otherwise kept most of the other elements in the original, albeit with a few twists.

In regards to the muscle reveal on the right side of my face, it should be noted that this is not inspired by 進撃の巨人 (Attack of Titans), but instead my sister. It’s maybe a reasonable conclusion to make given my long connection to Japan, but it’s one of my older sisters who first introduced me to the concept. She had done pieces during her college years depicting people pulling their skin off like you would removing a shirt or parts, revealing the muscles underneath. I am not sure if she was inspired herself by another artist, but regardless, as an impressionable teen I was literally blown away by this, promptly trying to emulate this in my own pieces from that time.

Overall, I’m quite pleased with the results of this re-interpretation. I think it shows a clear evolution in visual story-telling. From the perspective of technique it’s clear that I’ve improved my rendering, along with overall improvement to anatomical correctness with own portrait. I definitely do not suffer from a fear of applying color like I did as a teenager where, as I wrote above, I saw color then as something mystical in nature, aberrant even. I think this self-portrait is a vast improvement, and one that I’m proud of (for now). I will be curious to come back to this in another decade to see what else I might bring to the narrative.

Attack of the Artistic AI Bots!

Earlier this month it was reported that an AI bot by the name of Midjourney took first place in art competition held in Colorado, quickly creating a storm of comments spanning the spectrum from welcoming our new benevolent overlord artists to the downfall of society (or at least art) as we know it.

No matter your take, the world of Art just heard clearly the clarion call of a revolution as great, and likely as disruptive, as the advent of photography. It was only two centuries ago that the photography was introduced to the world, and it would not be till the 1940s before it was seen as an artform. A similar journey awaited movies, and now video games.

The groundwork for this revolution has been quietly happening underfoot in some of the least likely, read: geekiest, of places such as at Google’s AI labs amongst others. While OpenAI’s DALL-E has been out and available for awhile, we now have any number of publicly available AI bots that have been created with toolsets that make them significantly more accessible to the average person.

More so, they are being commercialized as we speak. Midjourney, which made public its beta on July 12, 2022 – a scant two months ago – is in talks to raise capital at a $1billion valuation. While Midjourney has made the headlines, competitors are not very far behind with Stable Diffusion from CompVis along with a handful or more of AI generating image tools gaining traction.

Rise of the machines

But I’m not really focused on talking about the latest AI bot tools as this is changing, if not by the hour, then by the day presently as new training models, updated and improve toolchains, et cetera are developed and released. Regardless of whether you are a “glass half full” or “half empty” person, the last few weeks have been quite a white-knuckle ride.

In a lot of ways, these recent advances mirror the same ones I saw back when Adobe Photoshop and other digital photo tools become available for the Mac and then PC. Albeit the pace of innovation in 2022 is orders of magnitude faster than it was in the mid and late 1990s. Nevertheless, it’s the same conversation. It was said then that “real artists don’t use Photoshop”. Nowadays you cannot find amongst popular artists who do not include some amount of digitization into their toolchain. And I suspect will live through a period of “real artists don’t use Midjourney” nonsense.

Goofy faces in style of Pixar

If music videos killed the radio star, then there are people who say digital art killed the fine artist. But the reality is that none of this true. Yes, there are people who will always prefer the value of a physical object, as evidenced by art galleries the world over. My point is not that more traditional artforms are being replaced by digital, but that digital is maturing to be on par and peer to these other forms of art. The sale of Beeple’s work for $69 million at Christie’s is proof that there any people in the world putting “their money where their mouth is” when it comes to this thesis.

For myself, as an artist, worse than the doomsayers are those who have the opinion – both within and without the art world – that digital art, and now by extension art created with AI, are not real artists or real art; that somehow the use of more advanced tools diminishes the essence of the art produced. But if that is the case, then the whole of history since our ancestors put art on cave walls is so reduced.

The simple reality is artists throughout the ages have leveraged whatever tools were available to them to improve their craft. Just look no further than the camera obscura and camera lucida. There is mounting evidence shows that many masters of the time extensively used these tools. I would further argue that the use of these tools improved their work, minimally at least for those who did representational, perspective pieces.

Camera Lucida used by the great masters of the 18th and 19th century

I wrote on this before about art as artifact versus art as process, but too often we do not separate art as a consumptive experience from the creative experience. Which is to say, when we talk about “what is art?” there is rarely an explicitly shared common understanding of what qualifies as art. Worse, we often conflate the qualities of art, or aesthetics, with the art itself. We are all our own Justice Potter Stewarts when it comes to the definition of art: “I know it when I see it“. Which is really just an admission that art is subjective. Has been. Is now. And forever will be.

Just yesterday, I was chatting with Mark Ferrari, my good friend and artist/author extraordinaire, about this post’s topic. And while I may butcher what he said more elegantly to me then, I subscribe to his notion that:

“the essence of art is to take the internal and make it external so that others may experience it as the artist experiences it in their mind.”

Mark Ferrari (paraphrased)

That’s it. Everything is mere window-dressing, or more specifically technical aspects of the craft to make art.

Whether you use traditional processes and mediums such as oils, gouaches, watercolors or use, as I do, digital matters very little to whether something is art or not. These tools do not add to or detract from the value of the thing created. What really matters, and who is ultimately an arbitrator of the goodness of the art, is primarily the artist and secondarily the viewers of the art. Primarily the artist as only they know if what they created is true to the imagined internal concept they had. Secondarily the viewers as they can only affirm or deny whether the art they experience conforms to the expressed ideas of the artist. Note, you can invert the priority of primary and secondary, but then this is difference by degrees but not of type.

The faces of our new overlords?

Based on this definition of art – which I believe is the only honest definition of art one can make – then the advent of AI bots to generate (or assist) with the creation of art in no way influences whether something is art or not. Or whether someone is an artist or not. To be clear: art itself is devoid of relationship to the means of its creation. The only question then is if the tools enhance or impede the artists ability to meet their own intent.

I do not foresee a world where art loses its meaning with the advent of these tools; quite the contrary, we will see art continue to evolve as these tools, and yet to be imaged one, evolve. Just as it did with the advent of oils. And camera obscura and lucida. And photography. And Photoshop. And now AI-generated art.

The question is not even when this revolution will occur, it’s already happening. We see professional artists learning how to incorporate Midjourney and other AI generative tools into their workflows from game asset creation to creating a graphic novel in a day to proof of concept web design.

The bigger question is to where will these tool take us? For myself, I think these tools will continue to help bridge that gap between what we as artists imagine and what we dare to create. And that is an exciting thing indeed.

I, for one, welcome our new benevolent artlords.

Note: all images in this post are all generated by the author using Midjourney.

Product Over Process & What is Art

I thought I would take a moment to share my thoughts that have been percolating for awhile now. In particular, I wanted to address something I’ve heard or otherwise read online around the lines of “what is art?” or “is that legitimate art?” or even “does this constitute cheating in art?” I thought I would minimally attempt to answer these questions head-on, if for no other reason to state what I think is art; note the emphasis is on my opinion. You may disagree, of course; but, hopefully you find this discourse useful.

Continue reading “Product Over Process & What is Art”

Art Fundamentals no 2: Values vs Color

This post is much more one of a pragmatic conversation on whether to “glaze colors over values” or “directly paint with colors”. Before I get further, let it be known that I don’t think you can take the strong form of this argument, in that it is perfectly fine to side on either side of the debate and be right — for yourself. That all said, it is nonetheless a perennial debate found online at various sites and critique circles, and upon reflection I found the underlying arguments worth investigating in so much as they elucidate the nature of light and color, and inform the artist of various dimensions that must be solved to successfully create realistic renders.

Continue reading “Art Fundamentals no 2: Values vs Color”

Art Fundamentals No 1: Color Theory

I fully admit I have no formal training in art. I certainly appreciate that this is not some declaration of any innate talent; but, more that it is an acknowledgement that I have a great deficit in knowledge that impairs my ability to improve my skills.  Ask any artist and you are likely to get a variety of responses to “the fundamentals” albeit they tend to center around shape, form, values, anatomy, and color theory.  And its this latter one, color theory, that I want to spend a bit of time sharing what I’ve learned thus far, along with provide a bunch of resources (mostly online) that I think are worthy of further exploration.

Continue reading “Art Fundamentals No 1: Color Theory”