Research Can Make the Difference Between a Good Design and a Great Design

Here are some ways going the extra mile can help you deliver a better product:

Character. Drawing animals from life instead of memory can add individual character. You would not draw a blank human form, because it doesn’t have enough with which to engage the audience. In animals, a few key details are all it takes: one stunning green eye instead of blue; a spiky tail instead of smooth; or add a scar. Each simple detail can bring personality and life to your illustration.

Fresh color palettes. Many artists favor certain colors that they use for a while like clockwork. I myself, lean toward cool blues and greens rather than sharp reds and blacks. But, as usual, when we experiment by going outside our comfort zones, the results can be surprising and usually well worth the risk. If you are in a rut, looking at some original source material can inspire some new color combinations.

Technical prowess. You may be wondering how useful a technical document is to a surface designer. In point of fact, trade documents can be a golden treasure-trove of style and detail. Not only is advertising keen on the latest and greatest thing, but it captures an exact moment in time better than anything else. You can bet that a model in the background of a bathroom spec document will not wear one item that is not exactly on trend, the same way that a car illustration from 1940 will use only the exact draftsman style of that specific time of year. A specific fat line with a triple arrow can be identified down to a 3-month period. As an illustrator, finding something that unique can be gold.

Trade Secrets. That’s right, even graphic designers reveal trade secrets. Graphic design has been around a long time–well before computers–and when an artist gets good enough, they do what everyone else does. They make some extra money by documenting what they know, leaving behind a body of literature well worth exploring. Read their manuals, but also read memoirs or biographies of your favorite artists. Charles Schulz famously promoted that everything he learned was through the Federal School of Applied Cartooning correspondence courses in cartooning that he took while in high school. Looking back on those vintage books is a treasure trove of trade secrets, not to mention in one of these books I found several original drawings by some talented pupil. You are sure to find something of interest documented.

In this work, I was looking at bathroom tiling from the 1930’s.  The variation in tile forms, sizes and draftsmanship of the ads, as well as the colors, inspired this fun hand drawing, which I worked up in Adobe.

The Sinclair Parallax – Documenting Cultural Shifts in Production Lines

Audrey048_colored
Interpretation of Robotics and Modern Assembly Lines

In the 1920’s, the author Sinclair Lewis made famous the seedy underbelly of society, which, at that time revolved around a cultural shift from making-by-hand to automated-making.  His work was both biting and prophetic; but, mainly, it was popular, and, therefore, influential.  For several years previously, another Sinclair–the author Upton Sinclair–had also been documenting this societal shift.  He carefully detailed the machinery that was changing lives and the resulting materialism and capitalism that was emerging.  In the irony of life, Sinclair (Lewis) was full of humor and biting repartee while Sinclair (Upton) was dry and verbose.

I have always put the Sinclairs together in my mind as complimentary, not just because of their name, but because when combined, they create the perfect style of satire and cutting edge reporting that can effectively document something as large as a cultural shift.  As I reflect today on the great changes going on, once again by modifying the way things are produced–in the fields of robotics and AI (Artificial Intelligence)–I see the Sinclair parallax emerging again.  We are being steered in yet a new direction and it is daily full of excitement, corruption, major cultural shifts, and impact.

In our field, that of surface design, we are on the front lines of this shift.  For the first time, we are able to print small batches of top-notch custom work in a range of materials for prices that allow the consumer to participate.  No longer do we need to print minimum orders of 1000 yards in order for it to be a financially viable product.  Nor, either, do we need to slave over those 1000 yards in labor-intensive, hand silk-screening processes.  The variety of digital formats, mediums, and end products grows daily.  3D printing with wood polymers!  Mixing media in the same work becomes effortless for the first time.

The Sinclair parallax–that combination of satire and investigative reporting–springs to my mind again, and I wonder who is capturing us for posterity?  And, as an artist, I capture my question not in an essay format, but in creating a piece of work that reminds me of the Rube Goldberg-esque idea of factories and assembly lines and even robotic arms.

 

 

Once upon a time…

knots

Maybe it’s the summer season — with all its beach themed decorations — or maybe it’s been a long love affair for me, but I have been having a lot of fun playing with nautical knots lately.  I started with a few knot tying exercises, courtesy of an L.L. Bean tent at a summer festival, then admiring the knot-work on a sailboat cruise in Boston’s bay, and finally by raiding old stashes of rope at antique stores along Charles street.  I like the old ropes, with wide twists and sea stained colouring.  There is something fascinatingly tactile and faintly aromatic about these bits of history, aside from the many dimensions all the twists bring out on paper.

They certainly lend a lot of scope when I sit down to draw!  But most of my designs tend toward the nautical look.  I guess that makes sense because there is nothing more nautical than a knot — after all, it’s also their unit of measure for speed!  But I’m trying to think of non-traditional uses for these patterns, so if you have any ideas, please let me know…

 

 

Photo-Realism in Art

borage3When I was a student, I used to spend hours drawing from photographs in magazines.  This is a time honored practice taught in art classes with the one drawback that while you are learning skills, you aren’t creating something new, but rather copying someone else’s composition.  Is it art?  Do you have the right to sell it?  Does it belong in an exhibition of your work?  Is it representative of your style?  These are all the questions an artist asks oneself as we painstakingly work a piece of photo-realism.  If I take the photo myself, suddenly I’m an artist, but if I work with someone else’s photo, not so much.

This all passed through my mind as I was looking at the latest graphic tees coming out of the fashion world–the kind that reproduce photographs, sometimes celebrities, sometimes flowers, in over-sized prints.  They are not usually photos the designer took.  Are these art, resalable, and adding to the ouvre of the designer?  Apparently so.  I may rethink my photo-realism phase!  Also, if I pay a licensing fee, does that make it art?  Hmmmm…  food for thought.

1939 – the end of Deco?

connected ovals green multiThe three American shows that minted deco American-style were far behind the European tide.  It took almost a whole decade for the US to start showing deco exhibitions, following the now infamous 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris.

Beginning in 1933, with Chicago’s Century of Progress Exposition, the US frenzy for deco in the home grew ten-fold.  The huge success of ‘Century of Progress’ inspired investors to plan the next two shows, both commencing six years later—in 1939.  That pivotal year 1939, the year of iconic movies such as Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Women, etc, was a style hey-day, despite the outbreak of World War II in Europe.  In that same year, both San Francisco and New York blasted the world with the combined work of the art deco greats.

All the best, established artists were there–from Bel Geddes on—but, I think, the most interesting thing about the expositions is that alongside sponsored, successful artists there were artists from all walks of life—the down-and-outers working in the WPA, the independents, and the average pottery studio mills.  The Golden Gate Exposition lasted 7 months, while the World’s Fair in New York went into 1940.  It’s ironic that the US should mount such stylized exhibits at the end of the deco period, for the 40’s began the era of thrift and DIY that became the standby of WWII.  Materials used so prominently in art deco work to emphasize man taming their forms became too valuable for ornament and decoration.  Solid forms became transient ones, with cloth becoming one of the most useful design elements in the modern American lifestyle.

 

Decorating small spaces with garden know-how

Untitled-2On a garden tour in Cambridge, I learned to appreciate the use of gardening to fill-in and texturize small spaces.

One garden consisted of an allee — the kind of silver birch tree walkway found in Europe, usually leading away from a house and out to some spectacular view in nature.  In Cambridge, it was a small alley between several houses.  From the outside you didn’t recognize it as a planned planting, but from the narrow walkway inside, you had the pleasure of something quiet and hidden away from the busy, urban streets outside.  A pleasant, tranquil and private retreat that took only vertical space and a certain amount of time to grow in.

Most of the gardens used the side paths–narrow slits that abutted driveways, sidewalks, or other houses–as mere extensions of the garden palate.  No hardy, clumping plants that can be ignored while the gardener focuses on the larger, prime backyard areas.  Instead, these are carefully cultivated plots — roses here with a section of double-flowering campanillas there, or perhaps a sculpture garden, or even raised beds.  All of which made me think about the importance of texture, height and utilizing small spaces in interior design.

Decorating a small space is so often done by maintaining a light, airy, 1-D space — one shall have white walls with similarly-textured white curtains and a white sofa, with one or two colors for accent, and a little wood showing to humanize it.  Instead, thinking of the Cambridge gardens, maybe we should have multiple shades of white climbing the walls in birch leaf patterns with raised white velvet leaves?  A sofa of dappled sun with flower-shaped cushions and crinkled, deep green throws?  Furniture of various metals with plants and ceramics coursing through…  the ideas are endless and I tipped my hat to the gardeners that innovated to make the most of their limited, urban space just as so many home-makers wish to do.

I designed this motif thinking about vertical green spaces, with the idea of the pattern being quite large– perhaps 3 feet in width– to give the perception of looking out of lace curtains.

Bubbles in the Sun…

bubblesAs I was sitting there in the sunlight blowing bubbles high up into the air on a recent 90 degree summer day, I couldn’t help but admire the way the light bounced around with so many colors and refractions.  As an artist, of course I had to try to capture that.  Rainbows within rainbows, glaring white light, radiant arcs–all the things that make bubbles so unspeakably gorgeous, so gorgeous, in fact, that they can quiet even children!–are actually quite hard to capture on a flat surface.  Try it at home!

The line

Audrey026The line, the line, the line!  It swirls and twirls forming shapes without thought, without worry or care.  Pencil to paper, colored markers on acetate, black ink on textured surfaces—it doesn’t matter.  The only thing that does matter is the pleasure of developing your creation.

As I get back to drawing—after a little break during a busy personal time in life—I reflect as I often do on the distinct thrill I get in drawing a line—A Really Good Line!  A firm drawing implement in hand, I like to warm up with a few quick lines of varying thickness, playing on texture and smoothness, maybe with some shading for the fun of it.  This is usually followed by a succession of mimicking lines that eventually curl into a furry animal or a tree or perhaps a Van Gogh sky.  I now consider myself, “warmed up,” and examine some item or other that I’ve found to be particularly inspiring.  Usually, it’s a clever thing that didn’t intend to be a pattern but so easily becomes one, or sometimes it is an object that has something novel about it – perhaps an owl with a different way of drawing the beak, or a new vein pattern on a leaf.  Anything can be inspiring – an advertisement, a snip of someone else’s fabric, an old book, the brickwork in a courtyard, or maybe looking at bark on a tree after the rain, when it turns multiple colors, like a Monet painting.  I think the key is to always be looking for something that strikes the eye, make a mental note of it, and then sit down and, after a bit of reflection – because it’s always better after a bit of reflection – begin to play with the pattern.

Designer cocktails…

the double vDesigner cocktails…  for my last birthday, the bartender at a fancy restaurant created a drink for me based on brandied cherries (a personal favorite of mine).  It was very good, not too sweet, and I got to name it.  But it is MUCH HARDER to name a drink than you think!  After some un-original thoughts about birthdays, favorite colors, what was in the drink, etc. I picked something silly.  Ever since then I have pondered what makes a good drink name…

It also made me ponder what I’d put on a bottle of higer-end alcohol, if asked to design a label.  This design, I call The Double V, is one of those results.  I’m debating about the silver color — what do you think?

 

Zen drawings

working I think it’s helpful, especially in the middle of a massive winter storm, to doodle repetitive lines.  I do this first with pencil, then take something and work it out into a more grandiose design later, usually with a ruler.

But at first, draw the things you know.  Soon a pattern will emerge and, if you play with it for a bit, it can be worked it into a unique variation on this theme.  After a little while, time stops passing and it is easy to finds yourself in a happy zen sort of state where the artist becomes one with their pencil.  Time may be passing most pleasantly, but you are actually working!  I am usually pretty pleased with the results…