Tuesday, July 31, 2012

My experience at the AMI Annual Conference

I was a plenary speaker at the Association of Medical Illustrator's Annual Conference in Toronto this past weekend.

Marc Dryer, the chair of the conference, had asked me to speak about six months ago. I was extremely honored, and I gladly accepted. I didn't think about it for a few months and then got an email from him asking me to give him the title and abstract of the talk. This was a week before I went on my semi-mandatory sabbatical. I reached into the depths of my burned-out and anxiety-riddled brain and came up a speech title and abstract, then quickly forgot about it.

When I got back from Arizona, I started preparing my talk. It wasn't until I got to Toronto and took a look at the program that I was reminded of the title of my talk: "The true potential of 3D." I felt the blood drain from my face. "True"? I pictured being introduced and being met by the stony silence of 500 members.

So I started my presentation by discussing how ridiculously pompous the title of my talk was. I got a few good laughs and was able to move on feeling that the audience was generally on my side.

I went on to show some old Scientific American graphics that have influenced me.

I spoke about the studio's evolution of illustration and information graphics. Then spoke about how these have led into my fine art. I included some slides of my early forays into 3D. Pretty awful stuff. Crowds always appreciate seeing where I came from, especially students.

The general feedback I got from people after the talk was that it was emotional and inspiring. Hearing the word "emotional" was surprising. But I was glad to hear it nonetheless.

I was going to end my talk with a quote of Einstein's. But I chickened out. I was a little gun-shy after the title experience. I wish I had read it in retrospect.
"The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed." 
Albert Einstein, "The World As I See It," originally published in FORUM AND CENTURY, 1931.
Given that most of my work is related to science, I take this quote to heart. The following video installation I am working on speaks to this:

Its base structure is of the circulatory system. Yet by viewing it in a different light there is a sense of mystery in the work.

Monday, July 23, 2012


It's rare when what I'm trying to achieve actually translates into what I make. The following pieces are an instance in which this happy thing has occurred. They have the depth and luminosity I am going for.

I'm working small; the following pieces are either 10" x 8" or 12" x 9":

I've been looking at these for a while. And when I am close to my work, some elements eventually become invisible to me. (This is why da Vinci recommended that painters view their work in a mirror so that they may see it as if it was painted by another artist.) So there are things I don't see that people pick up on immediately when they first look at my pieces. 

A couple of people have mentioned that these portraits look like aliens. They also remind them of Francis Bacon's work. Hmmm... that definitely does not bear much resemblance to what I am going for.

So, I like what I'm seeing. But of course things are open to interpretation.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

On science, da Vinci, Spider Man, and Duchamp

I've been looking at da Vinci's preparatory sketches for his crumbling masterpiece, The Last Supper. Here's a drawing of the apostle James:

I prefer looking at the preparatory sketches of artists as opposed to their realized works. I find that the sketches have a greater sense of urgency, energy, emotion, and are clearer conceptually. Something gets lost when many artists go to the final execution.

There are a handful of artists whose works are an exception to this. Da Vinci is one of them. When he painted, he brought his sketches to a vibrant, breathing reality. Science informed his concept of light, atmosphere, perspective, color, and form. Rather than coloring in the lines of his sketches he was able to reveal form through luminosity, layering, and a technique he developed called sfumato (a process in which multiple translucent layers of paint are applied on top of one another, creating an effect in which the edges of forms slightly blur into one another). His paintings peer into the subjects dimensionally through illumination, bringing a sense of subtlety and mystery that in my opinion has not been matched by any other painter.

A painting is a two-dimensional abstraction of what we see; it's a slice of a three-dimensional reality. Because we live in time and have binocular vision, we don't experience our world in two dimensions. Rather than create a surface illusion that mimics what the eye sees, he translated our three-dimensional world into a two-dimensional painting on panel.

I felt like seeing a popcorn flick last weekend. (This is related; stick with me.) So my wife (humoring me) and I went to see The Amazing Spider-Man. We arrived at the theater and realized it was being shown only in 3D. We looked at each other and simultaneously said, "Nah." The two-dimensional worlds of film and of painting is where the magic happens for me. In our corporeal world, three-dimensional viewing is the norm. And I don't go to a movie expecting a rehashing of what I usually see.

I'm curious about what da Vinci would be painting if he were alive today. This begs the question if he would be painting at all. Yet reading his writings on painting I believe he would be: 
The painter's mind is a copy of the divine mind, since it operates freely in creating the many kinds of animals, plants, fruits, landscapes, countrysides, ruins, and awe-inspiring places.
In other words, he was creating a universe on his panels. He stopped time (one of the main tasks of a visual artist working in a two-dimensional format). And with frescoes like The Last Supper, he was able to create a linear narrative within this quanta of time.

So da Vinci's art is informed by his study of the natural world, and this study is called science. And after all these years of doing illustrations for publications whose subjects are science related, such as Scientific American, Wired, IEEE Spectrum, and National Geographic, I don't have a deep understanding of what is going on in the field. I read a lot of books on science, but I have only an intuitive understanding of the subjects.

For instance, as I'm writing this, I am sitting on the train going home to New Jersey. The woman behind me is talking into her cellphone about people who are "getting on my nerves." This brings to mind a book I am currently reading, Human: The Science Behind What Makes Your Brain Unique, by Michael S. Gazzaniga. (He happens to have been a teacher of Joseph Le Doux, author of a wonderful book on emotion that I read twenty pages of last summer.) In Gazzaniga's book he discusses language from the perspective of evolution. One fascinating theory is that language developed in primates as an easier, more streamlined, form of grooming. Yes, grooming, as in picking bugs out of one another's hair and eating them. Grooming is a form of socialization. It keeps groups intact. As Homo sapiens evolved, more time was needed to hunt and gather food because of our more complex nutritional needs. In short, we had less time to groom. So this theory postulates that language developed as an adaptation for grooming socialization. One can hunt, gather food, and talk at the same time. Apparently, gossiping (talking about people who are getting on your nerves) is an important form of this communication; it helps people feel connected.

So what does this all have to do with my art?

Like I wrote, I believe that the beauty in da Vinci's art comes from the scientific truths that are inherent in his painting. This scientific truth is what I am attempting to get at in my own work. I love science. But how the hell do I bring to visual life what is being studied now, like quasars, quarks, and gluons? How does this translate into my main love, recreating the human figure?

About a year ago I made this:

It's a rendering of the internal anatomy of a woman. That bright spot at the bottom is her uterus, and the outline at the top is one of her lungs. A few people have told me that this piece reminds them of some of the imagery that the Hubble Telescope has captured. There is a universe within our bodies and our consciousnesses. I've read, I believe in Powers of Ten, that our size as flesh-and-blood human beings is the median between the size of the entire universe and the smallest subatomic particle. I can't say that this was on my mind as I worked on the piece above. But it sounds nice in retrospect, doesn't it?

Since getting back from my sabbatical, I've been more analytical and thoughtful (or self-conscious?) about my work. 

My studies of overlaying multiple layers from different perspectives deal with the concept of time. This is something that grew out of a time-themed competition I was preparing for but never submitted to. We are bound by time. As Mr. Einstein has informed us, time and space are intrinsically linked. This is something Marcel Duchamp was addressing, intentionally or not, with his Nude Descending a Staircase of 1912:

Bringing it back to my hero, Duchamp is also responsible for this "masterpiece":

(The Abstract Expressionist painter Barnett Newman wrote something wonderful about the piece above: "Those who put the mustache on Mona Lisa are not attacking it or art, but Leonardo da Vinci the man. What irritates them is that this man with half a dozen pictures has this great name in history, whereas, they, with their large oeuvre, aren't sure." I agree with Newman, yet I still adore Duchamp.)

So I've been thinking about time and its connection to our perception of our bodies. I've been thinking about binocular vision. Here are some of the pieces I have made over the past week that overlay imagery and deal with time:

The piece below is inspired from the upward pointing hand in da Vinci's intensely erotic Saint John the Baptist: 

These pieces are my attempts to distill time and our perception of dimensionality into one static picture. De Kooning said something interesting related to this idea of stasis: "There are no straight lines in painting." Looking at da Vinci, and thinking about Einstein's concept of curved space-time, I begin to glean what de Kooning was getting at.

Friday, July 13, 2012

On da Vinci and the Higgs-Boson

Da Vinci pisses me off.

I've been reading about him since I came back from Arizona. His paintings and drawings are bizarrely beautiful. His artwork is a treatise on his scientific studies of light, anatomy, and the connection between the expression of emotion and physiognomy. He fused his scientific understanding with his art. Truth came first and esthetic beauty took care of itself.

He lived in an age in which, for the most part, science could be grasped from a commonsensical perspective—that is, if one were capable, or brave enough, to look past the dogma of the church and some of the accepted beliefs that had been passed down from philosophers of antiquity. His observation with the unaided eye of the natural world informed his scientific observation. In other words, his scientific instruments were his eyes and his reason. He would take walks in the Tuscan countryside with his sketchbook studying birds and dreaming up ways to make manned flight possible.

I heard about the discovery of the Higgs-Boson particle the other day. I have illustrated this particle a number of times for Scientific American. I couldn't begin to tell you what it is. When I heard the news of the discovery I walked over to my colleague, Joe Lertola, and asked him if he knew what this particle was. Smiling and grimacing at the same time, he attempted to explain it to me.

Physicists have predicted the existence of the Higgs-Boson through mathematics. And the scientists at the Large Hadron Collider, which is buried three hundred feet below the Franco-Swiss border, are 99% sure that they have proof of the existence of it now. So I get the barest gist of it. But to truly understand it, I would need to be able to comprehend this:

The scientists who have (most likely) discovered the particle have used a multibillion-dollar machine to make the detection. They understand the equation above. 99.99% of us have to just trust these guys. This is pretty far from studying nature with the unaided eye to come to scientific insight.

I'm surrounded by things I don't understand. I rely on my iPhone, yet I barely understand how it works. How many of us truly understand how the body works? How do red blood cells know where to go to deposit oxygen? Relatedly, I don't understand why most of the art I see in Manhattan galleries is being shown. I need the artists' statements and explanations on the cards to intellectually get the art. It's an intellectual pursuit that doesn't leave room for emotional resonance or meaning. Like the Higgs-Boson, I just get the gist of it.

I wish it were possible to come to an understanding of how the world works by using just the unaided eye. There was a brief moment, during the Renaissance, when the world began to make sense from an artistic and scientific perspective. But that was a minuscule blip. And I am envious of the people who lived then. Obviously, I wasn't alive five hundred years ago, but I have a naive nostalgia for that time.

When I look at art I love, I come into an intuitive understanding of the world. Everything makes sense for a moment. That a bunch of oil paint smeared around a canvas can have such an affect on me emotionally helps me believe in the purpose of life.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

A new crouching Venus

I've been looking at Da Vinci since I returned from Arizona. What has most been drawing my interest are his sketches and cartoons. (I love that term; during the Renaissance, a "cartoon" was an actual-size sketch shown to the client for approval before the painting was begun.) Here's a preparatory sketch that I've been looking at. It's a study of the Virgin and Child with St. Anne:

This drawing is fierce and searching. Da Vinci explores the figures from multiple angles and positions, overlaying these multiple views on the same picture plane. He is hinting at what Picasso and Braque are to do five hundred years later. The result is something that looks like a mash-up between human figures and diagrams of water vortices.

This kinetic energy is something I aspire to in my work.

Just before I left on sabbatical I was experimenting with printing multiple layers on organza. I'd put them on top of one another and bind each layer with encaustic. When I got back from Arizona these pieces spoke to me more than the encaustic-covered prints on paper that I'd also been working on. The organza pieces live as a unified whole; they are process derived. The final piece, the actual artwork, is created when the separate elements are fused. Whereas the encaustic-covered paper prints are two separate elements that aren't completely integrated. In other words, the print can live on its own, and the coating is just a surface treatment. There's an element of them that reminds me of the textured Impressionism prints I see in dentists' offices.

Here's one of the organza pieces I've recently finished:

It's composed of four layers of organza bound by encaustic. Each layer is a slightly different view of a crouching woman. This is the first time I am showing a relatively small angle of images—about 45˚. All the other pieces I have been working on are composed of 360˚ renders of figures. So the piece above is asymmetrical, whereas the 360˚ views are more symmetrical. Incidentally, the pose is based on a Roman copy of a Greek sculpture of a crouching Venus:

Here are some of the 360˚ pieces that I've created. Except for the last piece, which has four layers taken in 90˚ increments, they all have between twelve and fifteen layers.

Egg custard, anyone? Perhaps some flan?

As you can see, I've been experimenting with mixing pigment with the encaustic. The yellow feels decorative to my eye. I want the color to be more felt than seen. There's a purity to the unpigmented encaustic that attracts me.

Monday, July 9, 2012

On reinvigoration

I'm back from a two month sabbatical in Arizona. I'm reinvigorated and refreshed. I gained insight into the work we do. I got clearer on what excites me artistically.

I've been struggling writing this post after having been away for so long; I've been trying to crystalize these understandings into words without success. It's something I feel more intuitively than verbally. So rather than writing a manifesto after being away for so long I'm going to get back into the grind and start posting almost everyday. In these posts I'll be exploring the new inspiration I feel for the work.

I was being interview by Alberto Cairo for the spanish newspaper El PaĆ­s the other day. He mentioned a quote by Eric Gill that came to his mind as I was speaking. Gill wrote, "If you look after goodness and truth, beauty will take care of itself." This is something I've always felt was true in the best work we do.

For instance, while I was away the story we did for National Geographic on the morphology of hands was published:



aye aye




We didn't make up anything in this art. It's all based on existing structures. In effect we were taking care of "goodness" and "truth" in these pieces. Our job was in getting out of the way so the nature of anatomy could tell its story. It amazes me that all of these structures are variations on the hand. Within diversity there is such similarity and variation.

In my next post I'll talk about the fine art I've been working on since I got back. What I'm getting clear on is that there isn't quite the division between our illustration/information graphics and fine art. For me, the two feed each other.