Tuesday, September 4, 2012

the one you put on a pedestal

Jerónimos Monastery, 1501, Lisbon

When I set eyes on this crowded house, it made sense of all those empty pedestals at the Rosslyn Chapel and other ruins of worship in Scotland. Nothing left to the imagination here at Lisbon's Jeronimos Monastery! Someone is home in every niche. Rosslyn was built to show gratitude for Scotland's Sinclair family fortune. Similarly, Jeronimos went up as a gesture of thanks for Portugal's successful voyages to the New World. Unlike Rosslyn, no waves of reformation shattered Lisbon's idolatrous statues. Even the calamitous 1755 earthquake/fire/tsunami failed to unseat these stone occupants. To bookend an earlier post, I gratefully submit these sun-warmed, populous facades in Lisbon.

Monday, July 2, 2012

tripped up

A subtle spatial relationship we take for granted is the regularity of stairs. The brain and legs rely on a predictable pattern of treads and risers to take us to the next level. To blow that rhythm might imply foul play on the part of builder, user or owner! In overcrowded 17th c. Edinburgh, William Grey had that in mind when he built his new home on the fashionable Royal Mile. Grey had his carpenters build stairs with an abnormally high riser in each run. His precious family would know where the beat changed, but an intruder would stumble; the clatter would warn the occupants that danger was afoot -- or that their drunken friend had arrived. The building, steps unchanged, now belongs to the city and is home to the Writers' Museum. I wonder if children who grew up in that home often tripped on the nearby Playfair Steps because the rhythm was not like that of home.

Friday, June 22, 2012

with respect to gravity

Edinburgh sidewalk

The women (and some men) who negotiate this urban terrain in high heels get kudos for balance! Even in flats, I'm learning to walk more attentively than ever, avoiding puddles, slick cobbles, mud and crevasses. A great deal of my tourist experience is spent looking down. Each day I slip less and can pay more attention to the steady child of gravity, the horizon line.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

I will not be moved

The 15th c. Rosslyn Chapel has dozens of platforms created to support statuary, inside and out (see orange blobs), but no one's home! Some theorize that 17th c. parishioners of one sect, anticipating plunder by a reforming sect, spirited away the occupants of the niches and hid them --too well! Since the chapel was not completed before the death of the man who funded it, it's possible some niches were never occupied. An added insult to the building, Scots complain, was that Cromwell used the building as a stable.
What's interesting is the stones that were not removed: the carved support stones for the statuary and stone members of arches that support openings. They had been carved into figures of a secular or pagan nature, or events any flavor of plunderer might fear or respect. Being structurally riskier to knock down, that green man or the bagpipe-playing figure remain in place today. Because they were like motherhood and apple pie are to Americans, might masons have preserved deeper-seated subject matter according to the structural role a stone played? Did these icons' deeper cultural roots make them structurally safer?
Possibly a worst offense to the building took place in the 1950's. In a preservation attempt gone-wrong, a thin coat of cement was applied to the entire structure, inadvertently cloaking and suffocating the colorful, living rock within its own grey baggie. In what some say is perpetuating another false image,  Hollywood is providing funds to repair.

Friday, June 15, 2012

space cowboy

My visit to Rosslyn Chapel included a hike down the steep ravine beyond in search of the spot from which JMW Turner painted the Rosslyn castle ruins. From where did he see that awesome color-fields of atmosphere? I would sketch it, too. Wandering the ravine I found lots of mud (Scotland) but no dark crag, no crashing rapids. It turns out Turner embellished. Fabricated. For a nanosecond I felt cheated. The ruins exist, but the rest of the landscape is studied free-association. He made comprehensive preliminary sketches one can see @the Tate: a bounty of view angles, accuracy on building detail, but no time for foliage details in the field.  The rugged unruliness of nature was turned up to eleven later.
I suspect Turner bothers to include a representational tidbit to indicate the distance he's about to travel from reality. I like my Turner with very small bits of reality.

Monday, June 11, 2012

o drap'd figure where is thy top half?

Since the top of the figure IS missing, one can read the inscription that asks,
O death where is thy sting
O grave where is thy victory

Was the figure always incomplete, or is it Mother Nature's dark humor that's weathering the stones at Greyfriars Kirkyard? The nearby Flodden Wall, in contrast, stands strong after 500 years, and is testament to a more sobering event of a Gettysburg hue, although probably not the darkest.

iron age real estate

Double-wall masonry is sometimes thought of as cheap, because it uses fewer bricks for wall area, but it can be quite strong, since the walls are usually connected at intervals with a tie-stone that spans both walls. My first lesson in the durability of double-wall masonry was during additions to a building by idiosyncratic engineer-builder, Carr Jones. What? Masonry, in earthquake territory? Garden-variety double-wall construction is referred to as rat-trap masonry, a bond popular for its insulating properties and economy of materials. Jones' California walls used steel ties, and his early 20c. homes are real estate manna. Pictured above is one example of the QUEEN of double-wall masonry, unique to Scotland: the broch. They're dry masonry: no mortar. They take the idea of tie stones and insulating cavities to another level! Given the severity of Scotland's environment, one appreciates the need for insulation, but the cavities in broch walls are unusual enough to provoke speculation about additional functionality. To get an idea of the technical sophistication of these dry-stone, iron-age structures, check out this trailer for a recent broch-umentary.

Friday, June 8, 2012

round house

How many creatures make their nests in rectilinear form? Earth-form circles large or small don't seem so mysterious if we look at the nesting methods of our furry and feathered kin. Whether to enclose real or imagined occupants, dead or alive, arranging earth in circular form seems like standard M.O! How'd so many of us get to thinking right angles were top choice? Most early people's constructed homes appear to have been round. Before aerial photography, the sure clue to an ancient site was leftover stones, depressions and berms. Today, hi-res satellite imagery can suggest previously overlooked sites to ANY amateur. Here is a Edin's Hall, one of supposedly few similar structures in the southern Scottish borderlands. But really? Look for yourself on Google Earth. This amateur sees similar scars nearby.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

why didn't I think of this?

The dining table in this 19th c. Edinburgh flat is just big enough to roll out fabric for some trousers (or a kilt)or a dress. It has a couple shallow drawers and a sturdy brass yardstick, set flush with the table surface & bolted along one edge. Perhaps it formerly saw duty in a shop. In my home it would be as useful today as it was when the table was made.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

this bird has flown

First the predawn birdsong
Clacking of tiny feet on wood
A soft rap on the flatmate's door
The startled peal of parting tears
Cut short by stiff upper lipness.

The shuffling of thrice her volume
Swiftly down 3 runs of stairs, and
Up for one last, squeaky valise.
Then a pause, while the taxi idles:
Last gaze from the edge of this nest.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Framing techniques

 I'm outta here!
This scratchboard made for Marley Lynch's 3rd birthday is my first Sendak-inspired image that came to mind after hearing today's sad news. Goodbye to Maurice Sendak, who passed yesterday morning at 83. His phrases run through my mind every week: "Milk! Milk! Milk for the morning cake!"

In a clutch of radio interviews compiled by WHYY's Fresh Air to commemorate his passing, Sendak recalls being a sickly child in the years before vaccines and antibiotics. He spent much time in bed. To pass time during visits, his grandmother would close, then open the window shade for him, to great theatric effect. Mundane scenes of Brooklyn were enhanced by that prelude of anticipation. "The window became my movie camera, my television set." Can you imagine a better way to imprint a framing technique for illustration on a young fellow?

When Sendak chooses to employ depth cues, his volumetric worlds are rendered to the flat page so believably, giving great depth to landscape as in his "decorations" for Randall Jarrell's The Animal Family. Other views, like the party scene in Where the Wild Things Are, compress depth to a claustrophobic sliver. A master of narrative, whether a band header or full-page embellishments in dense pen and ink, Sendak enchants readers to lose themselves in each frame.  Children do this very easily, but Sendak's spell works on grownups, too. I suspect all the childhood window-watching gave him a lifelong ability to climb into the frame and report back to us.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

blowing Brunelleschi's cover

A student made an excellent observation Wednesday night. After trying to correct a freehand sketch of a scene using new-found perspective tools, she remarked that her initial sketch felt more like the space as she experienced it. The line quality in the first sketch was personal and idiosyncratic, recalling the sensitive lines she generated during blind contour exercises. The "cleaned up" drawing was more like an Etch-a-sketch image.

Anyone who has lost happiness based on a misunderstood email knows that a low-res, virtual, electronic form of communication is full of pitfalls. So much more is happening than what those few text characters convey. The same is true when describing on flat paper a design idea that's to be experienced in the 3D environment.

Linear perspective is only one means of translation, one that has been dominant for centuries. If you've done a perspective construction, you know it's nothing like sketching with a pad of paper on your lap. Much that we have assumed to be highly skilled perspective constructions may in fact have used another translation mode, one that may have seemed more technically accurate at the time. Here is David Hockney refuting the accuracy of single-camera perspective!  Here, a Japanese image provides a comprehensive spatial narrative by other means. If you want to look further, here is Hockney as Toto, pulling away the curtain that (he alleges) hid perspective's Wizard of Oz for 600 years. Consider the "rules" of perspective more as tools, or guidelines, for translating an optical experience that occurs in 3D, over time, onto a flat surface.

The means we use to come up with what "feels" faithful to a visual experience today may also carry a message about our relationship to technology at the time of translation.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Absolute Beginners of SU.

Here are very biased, idiosynchratic recommendations for how to begin with Google (now Trimble) SketchUp. Like other 3D modeling programs, Sketchup has become increasingly robust and adaptive. I hope it will always come in an unbloated basic format. As such, it is my slide rule for perspective drawing; it does the tedious math/geometry part. Once that's complete, I prefer to take it from there by hand, and when things change sufficiently, update the model and review again.

A plethora of tutorials exists online and it's easy to get sidetracked. I recommend tutorials by Aidan Chopra, Trimble's charismatic blogger and author of SU for Dummies. Any tutorials from SketchUp are helpful, esp if you take them in related groups, in small doses. There's a cluster of SU Basics called the toolbar series that takes you thru the commands, tool by tool. Pictured is the large tool set, the fat crayon of SketchUp.

1. Make the GUI style to your liking! At the boot-up window, I recommend the engineer's template over the others, or one that has the ground plane lightly toned so the horizon always shows. You can change SU's default color backgrounds and fat profile lines.
2. SU has a dialog box called Instructor, activated under the window menu. Several of my students got up and running with that alone.

3. Keystroke commands are worth printing out and learning from the git-go. Tool modifier keys are suggested by Instructor.

4.  Once you start modeling, the first thing is to figure out how to keep things from sticking to each other by using groups. command G

5. Keep it simple. Make simple shapes, group often, alter and arrange groups smoothly, size them; then create and save views. Beginners: avoid the black hole/time sink of snazzy Google Earth functionality, picture matching, or pouring on SU's factory-made texture/colors, and you'll learn fast. Components can come later. Better to make good shapes and learn how to organize and manipulate them deftly before having them jump hoops or wear gowns.

6. The instant you learn groups, you have the opportunity to acquire a great habit: name each group (entity info box) and watch where SU puts it in the Outliner box. Every extra second you invest in doing that will be repaid sevenfold later on, so start the habit NOW. The Outliner box is key to efficient modeling. SU has LAYERS*. Do all construction in Layer 0. See tutorials on this. Outliner is sitting there just waiting to show off its stuff.

7. Learn to use the inferencing function (no key to press, it's always there --  at times a little too eager to help

8. Sketchup is vector-based; just points, lines and planes. Look for the green end points. They count for more than they appear to.

9. Soon after you fall in love with SketchUp, consider buying the pro version. Its cost is a fraction of the competition's. The Pro version shakes hands with far more colleagues & includes nifty document-production functionality in Layout.

Everything I mentioned appears in the pic above except for the boot-up window and the green end points.

*layers' functionality is different, and useful, but less so for the beginner.