How to Destroy Priceless Works of Art is no 1

Totally blogging about this. 

My recent post over at Symbiartic, How to Destroy Priceless Works of Art is currently sitting at the number 1 most read post on the network. 

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Original artwork on The Flying Trilobite © to Glendon Mellow
under Creative Commons Licence.

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A painting's "aura": repost

This was originally posted in October 2008. With over 600 posts on The Flying Trilobite now, I've been re-posting a few from time to time. Incidentally, the artwork featured here is available for purchase in a variety of card and print formats.

Reprinting today because originals versus prints has been on my mind again lately. Make sure to check the original post for the insightful comments there. 
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Today, I'd like to touch on how the artist feels about their own work, and its "aura", and how that differs for the Fine Artist versus the Illustrator. And no, I haven't lost my skeptical, rational mind.

The idea of a painting's aura is one I remember being presented without judgment by the prof in university. The concept has stayed with me.It's the notion that original paintings have an "aura" that emanates off the paint & canvas surface. Almost as though the original painting has a soul, or a living presence you sense when looking at it. It adds to their specialness. You have not truly experienced the painting until you've seen it in person. Our teachers tried to impart that this is mainly a macho, modernist idea.

In Fine Art, the modernist period was something fairly specific. To sum it up all too briefly, modernism in 
painting was "paintings with the subject matter of paint". You weren't painting a still-life of an apple: you were painting red paint. As an example, think of something by Rothko, or Pollock. Giant humongous canvases, covered usually in a couple of dominating colours. There was a lot of baggage that went along with this type of work, including that they should not ideally be viewed as reproductions.
Post-modernism in the fine art world, was (again, gross oversimplification) about deconstructing those modernist ideals of pure paint and pure sculpture, and of overthrowing the unique. A post-modern piece of art could contain both a painting and sculpture adjacent asone piece. Take that, modernist!
To look at one example, modernist Charles Demuth created the painting Figure Five in Gold, (1928). Classic Modernism, interplay of colour over a familiar, somewhat random symbol (5) we all know. It's distinct, and certainly was in '28.

Post-modern painter Robert Indiana created this painting,The Figure Five, (1963) as a way of overthrowing the originality of Demuth's Five. He disrupted the original by Demuth's claim to importance by making it one of many instead of unique. I see it as kind of a fine art world version of "screw you".

So paintings may have an aura you can only feel in the presence of the actual artwork, not a reproduction? Not likely. This smacks of vague New Age-y feelings-as-fact. I wondered about this idea for a long time. An exhibit, entitled 7 Florentine Heads came to the Art Gallery of Ontario, and I remember there was to be a Da Vinci drawing included. When I saw it, I anticipated the moment. I frickin' love Da Vinci, and his interest in science as well as hissfumato technique. I looked at each drawing in turn. Looked at one, read the placard, and saw it was his. I got an involuntary shiver down my back. Was it the aura?

Even back then in my proto-skeptical days, I knew there wasn't. I only felt it's "specialness" after reading who it was by. Looking only at the drawing, I saw another example of excellent work by a Renaissance artist. Context mattered to the aura, it seemed.
Which brings me to addressing the photos of posters peppered throughout this post. Is one of the differences between an illustrator and a fine artist -at least, a modernist one- how they feel about a painting's uniqueness and supremacy of being the original? 

Recently, the artist (and good friend of mine) Christopher Zenga took his artwork online for the first time. And when discussing how the first couple of posts about his Zombears looked glowing off of the computer screen, Chris remarked to me, that he just sat back and stared at them; he was entranced by his own artwork reproduced in a different medium. 

Chris is right. I was elated for months looking at my paintings and drawings online, and knowing others might see something of value there. Do I have a fondness for the originals? Of course. Some are hanging in my living room. And yet there is an undeniable thrill to walk down the streets of Toronto and see a poster up with artwork I laboured over.
Starting with a discussion on the nature of art over at Laelaps, author of Renaissance Oaf Sean Craven has had a lot of excellent points about whether how to judge if a piece of artwork can be deemed "art".

I would put forth there is a difference between art created for the purpose of Illustration, and Fine Art, and a small part of that difference is in how the artist feels toward reproductions. The tingly feeling is enhanced when the image leaps forth to new media and many eyeballs.

The photos throughout this post were taken downtown at the University of Toronto campus, and are of my posterfor the October 2008 lecture by PZ Myers presented by the Centre for Inquiry Ontario

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Original artwork on The Flying Trilobite Copyright to Glendon Mellow
under Creative Commons Licence.

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The Aura of Oil - classic Flying Trilobite

(This post originally appeared here on The Flying Trilobite back in November 2008.)
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The aura of painting exists in the mind of the viewer, and in some cases the mind of the illustrator when seeing their own work reproduced. The idea of paintings having an aura or presence is something that has fascinated me since university, as discussed last week. Some excellent comments were made by artists Sean Craven and Chris Zenga, check it out.

Okay so from my non-scientific anecdotal samplings and personal experiences (oh the sins against science I commit! I will say ten ATP-->ADP reactions in penance), I doubt the existence of original paintings having a quasi-mystical aura or emitting a presence to the viewer. You can read a bit more about this "aura of authenticity" from an art historical perspective 
here, and from the side of new age-laced artsy language here (10th paragraph), and here.

It's head-shakingly amazing how fear for loss of the aura is dovetailed with a fear of technology. 

Is there anything special or unique then, about an original painting that does not lie entirely within the biases of the viewer? In case of oil paintings, I say yes. And looking at last week's comments, Chris Zenga guessed the point of this week's Artwork Monday while thinking about a D.N.A Candle Vanitas painting I gave to him and his wife for their marriage (at rightoriginal post here). 

I love oil painting. I enjoy the scent of the oil, and the buttery consistency flowing 
together under a horizontally-held fan brush. And most of all, I love the depth glazing can bring about in the final work.

Oil painting differs from other types of painting in many ways. Oils do not evaporate as they dry like watercolour or acrylic painting; instead they absorb oxygen from the air. This is called a siccative quality. The way I think about this, is like the oxygen molecules are pineapple chunks being added to Jell-o in a confined bowl. Adding more will increase the density and stop the Jell-o from jiggling. I don't know that this is a chemically-apt description, so please feel free to tell me there's not room for Jell-o in the comments if I am mangling the science of siccatives.

For this reason, it's important that oil paintings are painted in thin layers with an increasing amount of oil in successive layers. It allows the oxygen to permeate evenly over the course of six months to a year after painting, and helps prevent cracking. The rule is referred to as "fat over lean".

So oil paintings, particularly by Renaissance and Baroque masters, contained many thin, mostly transparent layers of paint, each tinted with a little pigment. And herein lies the aura of a painting viewed live versus online.

When light hits all these layers of oil, it permeates each oily membrane and begins to reflect back out. But some photons will bounce back into the oil layers off of the pigments, and back to the lower layers before pinging back out of the painting, and onward to the viewers eyes. This optical effect literally creates a glow. It's also the reason for the incredibly deep blacks often found in the backgrounds of portraits.

So the illusion of depth in an oil painting can be profoundly eye-catching, and similar to looking at objects in water, the oil-glazes draw our eyes and captivate our pattern-seeking centers, making the paint feel alive. No unscientific aura necessary, just wonderful chemistry interacting on our biology.

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Original artwork on The Flying Trilobite Copyright to Glendon Mellow under Creative Commons Licence.

Making of Tylosaurus Reef

When I was approached by Craig Dylke's fiancee Lady R to create a painting for his birthday, I was pretty excited. Craig is one of my fellow Art Evolved admins, and really the brains behind the whole operation.  He's a prolific blogger: he also creates educational stories with Traumador the Tyrannosaur, shares his work in progress on Weapon of Mass Imagination, and his other projects on Prehistoric Insanity.

I didn't know that one of Craig's favourite groups of prehistoric creatures are the mosasaurs: large prehistoric marine reptiles often mistaken as dinosaurs. Lady R filled me in on this, and I love painting undersea landscapes. Check out this cool short fiction story by Mike Everhart with an illustration by the inimitable Carl Buell for more mosasaur goodness.

So to get started, I looked at reconstructions of these ancient beasts, flipped through books of fossils and visited some specimens at the ROM. Dmitri Bogdanov's reconstructions on Wikipedia were helpful and evocative. I didn't do any direct skeletal sketches. Instead, I thought about their form and considered doing either Taniwhasaurus or Tylosaurus; Craig and his fiancee met while both were working in New Zealand, so Taniwhasaurus seemed a good fit.

In the initial sketch above, I tried to convey a bit of time passing: a visual storytelling tool I admire but seldom employ.  It's the idea of a moment before or after action takes place.  One of the best examples of this in art is Michaelangelo's David, a man who is at the cusp of his decision to act against the terror of Goliath, knowing his life will be forever changed after. Many people don't realize that David is actually quite angry in his face, and his body is held back at a moment of relaxation before action.

The face of David by Michaelangelo, 1504, marble. Image from Wikipedia, uploaded by Roropapa.

With the above sketch, I tried to convey a lazily floating mosasaur turning its head to regard the viewer: what happens next? I included a reef covered mound behind the animal.  I knew from the get-go I wanted to include a fossil or anachronistic trilobite on some stone in the background.  By making it a mound, it served as a way of changing the lights and darks from the surrounding water and giving a gentle inverted "V" pointing the eye toward the center of the composition. 

Not quite content, I started just sketching loose shapes, and thinking about Chinese dragons, especially the ones illustrated by western artist Wayne Anderson in The Enchanted World: Dragons book. Long sinewy shapes, snakelike bodies and unrealistic energetic curves. I can't stress how much that shape appealed to me. The bulkier Taniwhasaurus gave way to the sleeker Tylosaur

Once the sort of doubled-over shape appeared on the page with its parallel shadows and highlights, I thought I might have something. It reminded me of a hummingbird, even moreso after I drew a second set of fore-flippers, which made it look like it had wings beating really fast. 

I shared my initial sketches not only with Lady R, but also with artists I know and admire, Carl BuellChris Zenga and Eric Orchard.  Clearly, this hummingbird pose was the winner. 


Fuelled by coffee, I took a 12"x24" canvas I had primed with a black acrylic base and sketched the basics in white chalk pastel. It took a few tries to get the head and lower flippers where I wanted them. Then, I laid down some simple colour in oil, above.

You can see the 1st of three attempts at the light in the water, above. 

With a pose this unusual, I decided to play it safe with the rest of the composition. An easy landscape composition is one that has three levels of distance: a small entry point along the bottom for the viewer, like a hummock of grass in a landscape. The middle distance is typically where the action or focus is. The further distance (in my case, to the left) is blue-shifted even in open-air paintings and often shows distant hills or mountains.

A good example of the 3-distance composition is seen here, in Desolation, by American painter Thomas Cole of the Hudson River School:

Desolation, 1836, Oil on canvas, by Thomas Cole. Image from Wikipedia, uploaded by MarmadukePercy.   

The viewer stands near the lone column, the desolated ruins and bay are in the middle distance inviting us to explore, while the rocky outcrop on the right and distant shore complete the sense of space.

I cranked up some Die Antwoord, Chemical Brothers and Gorillaz and got started on the painting.  Coffee and fast music with big beats always help me keep pace with the brushstrokes. I mainly used the brushes above, especialyl my BFF, the one bent like a dental tool. I have two of those, and one I use for highlights, the other for detailed dark lines and cracks. That's the colour palette about halfway through.

Horizon Blue,
Ultramarine Blue,
Mauve Blue Shade,
Olive Green,
Naples Yellow,
Naples Yellow Red,
Quinacradone Orange,
Black Spinel,
Payne's Grey and,
Titanium White.

Above you can see the second attempt at the light in the water.

Part of the way through, I got worried it was too much.  Too skinny and snakelike. Too exaggerated. So I decided to email paleo-author Brian Switek of the blog Laelaps and book Written In Stone and bounce a couple of images off his brain to see what he thought.

Brian pointed out that the base of the tail was too thin, and the spine of the tail likely ran under the fleshy fin, not over as I have above. I happened to check Art Evolved that day and - LOL! Craig had posted a Phylopic doing exactly the correct shapes Brian was suggesting to me!  It was hilarious timing. I wondered if Craig somehow knew what I was up to.

Below, the third and final attempt at the light in the water. 

©  Glendon Mellow 2011 Tylosaurus Reef - the final version. 

Fixed the tail, above.  Thanks Brian and Craig! I don't typically worry about perfect scientifically-sound accuracy on a reconstructed painting like this.  I'm more concerned with issues of drama and well, weirdness, not to put too fine a point on it. This is an exotic creature that is invariably shown leaping out of the water to bite fish or pterodactyls. I wanted to convey quiet menace and a possible posture (or is it impossible?) that gave us another way to look at the animal. 

Does the eye successfully wander around the painting due to the final composition?  Let's have a look the contrast pushed way up:

3/4 of the painting is dark, with only patches of light to draw the eye down.
Is the painting successful in guiding the eye?
Am I relying on the colour information too much?

©  Glendon Mellow 2011 Tylosaurus Reef - detail.
In the end, the image has a few hidden surprises in it: the trilobite: a maori symbol significant to Lady R and Craig; and not visible in these photos, a simple snorkeling Traumador on the side of the thick panel. And if anyone else tries to copy the hummingbird pose for a mosasaur I'm coming after them.

This commission was a joy to do, and ended up being one of my most colourful paintings. Thanks to Carl Buell, Chris Zenga, Eric Orchard, Brian Switek and my wife Michelle for feedback during the process. Thanks Lady R!  Happy Birthday Craig! 

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Original artwork on The Flying Trilobite Copyright to Glendon Mellow

Examples of visual art inspiring science

Following my last post, "Visual art leading research - it's not happening", I thought it may be useful to compile a list of examples of visual art -painting, drawing, sculpture, photography, collage- that directly influenced the course of scientific research somehow.

I would love to hear of any more!

Triceratops butting heads.
Inspired by scientific illustrator Bill Parsons and others.
Research subsequently done by Andrew Farke to detemine whether or not triceratops could butt heads together as scientific illustrations commonly suggest. Andy suggested this example to me here.

Medieval Islamic Architecture decoration and Penrose Tilings.
Found in medieval Islamic architecture, and described by Peter J. Lu and Paul J. Steinhardt. They realized that these tiles pre-date the "Penrose Tilings" discovered by Roger Penrose in the 1970's by about 500 years.  This example isn't a direct-link of visual art leading research, however, since the significance of the geometry was only noted by Lu and Steinhardt after Penrose investigated the pattern. I think it shows how visual art can possibly lead to fruitful areas of research.

Painting with penicillin: Alexander Fleming.
Possibly inspired by the syphilis-stricken artists he cared for, Fleming began to paint with bacteria when he wasn't using watercolours.  The pattern that emerged, a dark sun, led to his discovery of antibiotics. Article by Rob Dunn, Smithsonian Magazine. Suggested to me by science-artist James King.

Are there more?

* Please note: the opposite phenomena, namely artists being influenced by science is much, much more common, even though our modern culture often suggests that art + science are separate cultural realms. I'm not specifically searching for those examples here.  For that, I maintain a Science-Artists Feed.

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Original artwork on The Flying Trilobite Copyright to Glendon Mellow

Listen this morning to Atheists Talk

This morning I'll be on Atheists Talk with science artist Lynn Fellman, hosted by Mike Haubrich.

We'll be discussing art and science, and I can't wait.

The show will be online at at 10am Eastern, 9 am Central time.

And you'll be able to hear the podcast, likely later today. If you're attending ScienceOnline11, it will touch on some of the issues at the Art + Science session.

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Original artwork on The Flying Trilobite Copyright to Glendon Mellow
under Creative Commons Licence.


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Medium overriding the message?

When presenting the final project of my undergrad here on The Flying Trilobite, (see the process here: one, two, three, four and five) some excellent points have been raised in the comments of the last post.

My Art Evolved peeps Craig and Peter have been discussing whether or not unconventional mediums (like a wooden cube with busted slate tiles painted and hanging from wire) end up muddying the message more than conventional, easier to read forms.

Here are a couple of more photos, different from the the last post in that they show off the individual paintings more:
Click to enlarge.

This picture was taken on a weird angle. Sorry.

It was an interesting experience for me to have some of my artwork turn off someone for being post-modern and medium-focused. Typically, I am a painter in love with creating representational, realistic paintings.

As Craig pointed out, the medium is the message. We see here not only a 3D series of paintings hanging in a cube, we see them through the lens of a camera and displayed on a computer screen. It's very removed from say, Darwin Took Steps, a much more 2D picture which translates better through scanning and being online.

How much can the presentation enhance or interfere? Would video of a 3D object present better online, panning, zooming and with soft techno music in the background? Would it be clearer to scan individual pieces and present them as head-on photos?

Is this presentation in the immortal words of Mo the bartender, "po-mo; postmodern; weird for the sake of weird" or is something more getting across?

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Original artwork on The Flying Trilobite Copyright to Glendon Mellow
Creative Commons Licence.

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Next time on The Flying Trilobite: my interpretive dance fossil project!

Geology in Art by Andrea Baucon

Paleontologist, geologist and artist, Andrea Baucon has a deep interest in trace fossils, the little marks made by the passing of extinct organisms. Fittingly, he has put together a book tracing geology's path through the arts.
Geology in Art: an unorthodox path from visual arts to music
is a large coffee-table of a book, covering the imagery and influence of that natural earth upon which we stand in music, paintings, fiction and even wine.

From the book's site:

"The contemporary art world is analyzed through interviews, in the belief that artists’ opinions and statements are valid source materials for the study of Geologic Art.
With its large format and more than 100 illustrations of art works, this is both a coffee-table book and an educational experience that informs, inspires and entertains Art and Geology enthusiasts alike."

Months ago, Andrea emailed me to ask if he could interview me and include some of my images in the book. I agreed, and I have seen the earlier incarnation as a more scholarly .pdf document. This blows it away. What a wonderfully rich book. I feel honoured to be in the same collection as Andy Goldsworthy and Ryan North's Dinosaur Comics and so many others.

You can preview the entire book on Blurb. My contribution includes an interview along with a photo of my tattoo, both configurations of Haldane's Precambrian Puzzle and in the fiction section, Life As a Trilobite.

(Thanks to my paleo-art peep Peter Bond for posting the news on Art Evolved!)

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Original artwork on The Flying Trilobite Copyright to Glendon Mellow
under Creative Commons Licence.
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Satan planted Ida *cough*

Hell is a fascinating mythological idea, in much the same way as Poseidon's kingdom is. There are no nymphs or demons, but they can inspire interesting stories. I was not raised with religion, mainly encouraged to read a lot, and so Hell has never made any sort of sense to me except as a manifestation of human fears.

I've read a fair few ideas about it, just as I have about many other afterlives from many other religions. I went through a strong pagan-ish phase for many years, and read as many mythologies as I could get my hands on. One of my favourite science fiction artists, Wayne Barlowe turned his sights on Hell a number of years ago, creating Barlowe's Inferno, and in so doing, took care to state his was a work of fiction.

Of all the hype surrounding Ida, the Darwineus masillae fossil unveiled this week, the um, backlash (like lashing a wet noodle) from Satan-believers strikes me as the most sad. Where is human reason?

From this article:

"... it is also an equally interesting coincidence that Ida was discovered within a ‘volcanic lake’ and was preserved by an ‘unknown force’ because such descriptors blatantly match the profile of Satan.

"Hell is the most volcanic lake in existence and Satan is well known for his interest in paleontology, as it begets the Lies of Evolution.

"The scientists in this survey do not know when to quit, as they have also claimed Ida was a vegan and refused to eat meat, going as far as to state she supported ‘green energy’ too as she lived in trees around the lake, instead of building a house and burning fires to cook her meals."

It's a head shaker. "Satan is well-known for his interest in paleontology". Hm. That's not in the Bible. It's not in Dante's Inferno. (I highly recommend the Robert Pinsky translation.) It reads like it is made-up, which it is of course. I'd love to see the support that states an early primate "supported" green energy.

Instead, check out these excellent drawings of a living Ida. Inspirational.

Enough un-reason. I'm going to get back to what I do. Art in awe of science.

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Original artwork on The Flying Trilobite Copyright to Glendon Mellow under Creative Commons Licence.
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