I just finished hanging a dozen pieces of art at Bel Bacio coffee shop in San Jose’s Little Italy. There’s an entrance wall and a front room with three walls (and a window), so I chose a mix of paintings, illustration, and prints for each of the four walls. I matched nearby colors wherever possible and grouped them together in four themes:
This is the last of 6 calendars I’ve re-painted with Chinese folktales in time for the Lunar New Year 2017. While it’s the Year of the Rooster, I’ve heard that the Chinese calendar alternates masculine and feminine years so it is more accurately the Year of the Hen. A fire hen, at that!
This calendar’s story is about how the rooster got his crown. In the early days of the earth, there were nine suns which scorched the plants and cause people to live in caves. A famous archer, Yi, shoots down eight of the suns using a pond’s reflection. The ninth sun goes into hiding, casting the land into darkness. The rooster is the only one who can coax it to come back out, and for that, he is granted his crown (comb).
Like the sheep calendar, this one has oversize flowers too. There’s also a little lazy duplication in the green plants by the chicks where the same art is copied and resized slightly. I also ended up painting out extraneous plants along the top and side edges to balance out the composition better.
This calendar re-paint is about a story of a farmer who loses a sheep because a wolf snuck through a broken part of a fence. His neighbors tell him he should fix the fence, but he is too focused on the loss of the sheep. The next night, the wolf returns and he loses more sheep. It is a cautionary tale about not dwelling on the past.
This calendar features an odd visual quirk I noticed on some of them – the sense of proportion gets really odd with the foliage. The flowers in the midground are massive. I imagine the calendar designs are just combining pieces of illustrations. On the Rooster calendar, it’s pretty clear these are different illustrations combined together.
I opted to paint similar flowers at a more accurate scale by the resting sheep. That area originally had italicized text in a similar color scheme that read “Good Luck!”
In each of the calendars I’ve chosen one element to outline, and here I opted to keep the fence relatively flat and cartoon-like. I added more subtle detail in the grass by using brown to indicate the (now treadworn) path through the broken fence.
This calendar re-paint reflects a Chinese folktale about a little monkey who came down from the mountain. It took a little while to find a folktale about monkeys that was not about the Monkey King, a story too big to illustrate here and usually depicting the Monkey King with a more human-like body (plus clothing).
The monkey, coming down from the mountain, is excited to find peaches and gathers them. Further down, he finds corn and abandons the peaches for that. Continuing on, the corn is left behind in favor of a watermelon. Then a rabbit rushes by, and he drops the watermelon to pursue it. After a chase, the rabbit is lost and the monkey ends up with nothing.
The illustration on this calendar is the most abstract one of the calendars I found in how it uses blotches of colors for the monkeys, rocks, and leaves. The monkeys were originally so blotchy that I filled in all of their white areas with yellow ochre so they’d stand out from the rock and sky. Still: did you notice there are three? I didn’t at first.
On a few of these repaints I’ve ended up painting out additional foliage from the edges because it was too distracting. I left the sky pretty simple since the rock and plants have a lot of texture.
For the new year I’ve finished a small set of art I started originally back in 2009. Each of these started off as a giveaway calendar from a Chinese restaurant. I’ve been collecting these and “repainting” them by painting over everything except the main image. I attempted to match both the colors and the painting style of the printed art as best I could to preserve the original look as much as possible.
Based on the animal (or fish) on each one, I chose a related Chinese folktale or mythology to illustrate. I also chose one element to outline to make it stand out. I watched a lot of cartoons growing up and always found the juxtaposition of a painted background with a flat, outlined animation cel set a particular tone about what merited attention.
Here they are in the window display at Kaleid Gallery, from left to right:
The Dragon God
Dragons are symbols of power, strength, and good luck, and have particular control over water.
The Monkey’s Loss
The monkeys abandoned peaches for corn, and then watermelons, and then lost it all in pursuit of a rabbit.
The Farmer’s Fence
The farmer, mourning the loss of a sheep after the fence broke, fails to mend it and later loses more.
The Rabbit In the Moon
The rabbit is a companion of the moon goddess Chang’e, and uses a mortar and pestle to pound the elixir of life.
Ye Xian (the “Chinese Cinderella”)
Ye Xian, a peasant girl, befriends a magical carp who helps her win the hand of the prince.
The Rooster’s Crown
After a skilled archer shot the eight suns, the ninth hid away until the rooster could coax it out.
I’ve been meaning to do more with watercolor pencils to get a better grasp of how to work with them. I recently used them for the Creepy Ancestors series, and decided to give them another try for this ocean illustration.
Water is very challenging! Some art locks onto the heart of the subject right away, but this stayed pretty elusive. There are sharp contrasts and defined edges, but they’re fleeting. The spray can be settled like a light wash or frothing along the tops of waves. I broke out my masking fluid to preserve the white parts, but it just didn’t give the depth I wanted so I resorted to a few spots of white acrylic at the end. I used three shades of blue, a green, and a touch of Payne’s Gray (watercolor from tubes, not the pencils) too.
I noticed that the watercolor pencils are a little finicky about how to set the color. If I draw with them first and then add water, it lifts up the pigments and dilutes it pretty thoroughly. If I draw on top of wet paper, sometimes it seems to make no mark and other times it drops a strong piece of color. I found the most consistent results in dipping the pencil itself into water and then drawing/painting with that, using extra water to dilute or soften as needed. Sometimes I’d let it all dry and then use the watercolor pencils more like colored pencils so I could get some hard lines. They’re great for traveling – much more convenient than watercolor tubes – so they will definitely get more use.
This new painting is based off a photo I took at the Jack Rose, tucked away off Highway 9 between Los Gatos and Saratoga. The bar is illuminated by yellow lights and creates a very cool effect on the concrete floor, especially with the line of bar stools.
I tried a couple of new things on this one. First: instead of sketching this one by eye, I tried out carbon paper. Much faster! Since these are just guidelines for getting the alignment correct, I’ll probably do more of this in the future. The carbon paper also doesn’t smudge as much as pencil does.
I also tried out a new paint color which created an interesting effect here. After I layered on the basic tones with the yellow ochre, burnt sienna, and burnt umber, I added on a few spots of nickel azo yellow. I thought it would pop out the lighter yellow colors, but instead it added an interesting oxidized-copper looking green to it. It really makes the reddish bits in the burnt sienna pop out. I used it to create more detail in the bar stools since they were slipping away into the shadows.
Ever since painting The Raven I’ve been paying more attention to the contrasts in the dark tones. Here, I used ultramarine only in the areas around the figures to make those a sharper contrast. This contrast helps the rest of the barstools fade away.
Mixing is the last of seven technologies I’ve explored in Prior Art: analog media manipulation and vintage virtual reality.
Steve Johnson // SoundCloud: @ByDisgn
“Two turntables and a microphone” are the classic setup for a live DJ. During songs, the DJ will gauge the mood of the crowd and queue up potential next songs. Albums provide a richness in sound quality but also unique ways to blend songs together through scratching and beat matching.
In addition to commercially-available albums, DJs may use white label albums: limited runs of songs often used for house music and hip hop. Sometimes these albums are made to test crowd response for tracks that aren’t yet released to buy or missing the proper clearance for samples.
In the early days of hip hop and freestyle improvisation, most performances only occurred live (instead of in a studio). Between performances, mixtapes (or party tapes) provided a way to spread their music through clubs and parties. DJs and club proprietors often record their own to sell to promote their work.
The greater availability of cassettes and high-quality home recording equipment put music recording within reach for consumers who could create their own mixes from the radio, other tapes, or albums. Private mixtapes are forms of personal expression, created to capture a particular time or mood and intended for a specific audience.
Handwriting the song list on the paper insert for the cassette was often just as important as picking the songs themselves.
The unifying thread of a good mixtape can be almost anything.
It can be familiar to many with popular songs or to a few with indie selections. It can be obscure to challenge the listener or local for surprising references.
It can have a steady flow or choose to change it. It might ramp up, it might ramp down, or it might fluctuate.
It can set a mood: red up, victorious, irty, cheery, introspective, calm.
It can fit a particular spot: the energy of a dance or the chill of a club, the excitement of a race or the reflection of a dive bar, the relaxation of a beach or the quiet of a bookstore.
Whatever it is, it captures a time, place, and mood for the person listening to it.
Reel-to-Reel is the sixth of seven technologies I’ve explored in Prior Art: analog media manipulation and vintage virtual reality.
“Software has eaten music production. It’s gotten much cheaper, more dematerialized, and extremely powerful. And it’s become sterile, automated, and over-produced. My work tries to make digital music seem analog, to blur the 1s and 0s with waves and voltages, noise and decay. When I see these Old School reel-to-reel tapes I hear the room noise hissing like electric snakes on a Summer lawn, the rich magnetic warmth of tape head transduction, and the slight aperiodic wobble of the motors resolutely unknowable in the face of unyielding digital perfection.”
Chris Arkenberg // @chris23 // harryselassie.bandcamp.com
Early audio used cylinders or disks to capture recording, until the middle of the 20th century when advances in tape recording provided a higher fidelity than ever before. Recordings were primarily made onto tape until the advent of digital recording. Tape recording allowed performers, who previously could only perform live, to record and edit their shows. It also enabled producers to create multi-track recordings where individual performers could record their parts and the producer could have greater control over how they combined into the final recording.
Recording studios used reel-to-reel tapes to capture individual performances and layer sounds. It also enabled editors to include sound effects like laugh tracks. In addition to the dedicated recording studios, radio stations would often have their own sound recording and mixing equipment as well. This was used for recording interviews and live performances at the station. It was also a way to create advertisements or underwriting spots that were pre-recorded and could be played between songs
Advances in tape technology were a closely-guarded secret during World War II. German engineers had accidentally discovered a much higher-fidelity form of recording than previously thought possible, and this was used to allow Hitler to broadcast supposedly “live” speeches from other cities. At the end of the war, U.S. Army Signal Corps member Jack Mullin came across two Magnetophon machines at a radio station in Frankfurt that he brought back home and reverse-engineered to develop the machines for commercial use.
One early adopter was Bing Crosby, who was a popular radio star who had grown weary of a live recording schedule. He saw the potential in pre-recording shows and promptly invested in the technology, becoming the first American performer to use it. Further development led to stereo and multitrack audio recorders. One of the first musicians to use those was Les Paul who also invented the electric guitar. These two inventions set the stage for the explosion of rock and roll music.
Editing a reel-to-reel recording is a manual process of cutting and combining tape. Some machines included tape splicers directly on them, but editing could also be done simply with a steady hand, a sharp blade, and tape.
The angle of the cut affects the nature of the transition. A “hard cut” is a strict transition from one tape to another where the tape is cut at a 90-degree angle. For a softer transition, editors use a “soft cut” of 45 degrees or a “super soft cut” of 30 degrees.
Transfers are the fifth of seven technologies I’ve explored in Prior Art: analog media manipulation and vintage virtual reality.
“My art/graphic design education began when Macs were quaint little upright boxes, and most layout work required Exacto knives and hot wax. Ah, those were the days. This work is faster and easier now, but part of me misses the meditative physicality of this work.”
Deb Aoki // debaoki.com
Just as typesetting made book creation more efficient by eliminating the need to write each one by hand, graphic designers and illustrators have also sought technologies to make their results more predictable and efficient. Transfers provided these shortcuts for fonts, clip art, and patterns.
One type of transfer is the “dry transfer” of rub-on (rubdown) screens: decals applied with pressure. These are used by placing them upside down on the paper and applying pressure by carefully burnishing the letter (or art) the artist wishes to use.
Another type is screentones: printed sticker-like sheets that artists cut pieces from and stick directly onto their art. Companies like Zip-A-Tone, Chart-Pak, and Letraset created halftone hatches, dots, and lines to provide texture for black and white art.
Comic artists have relied on screentones as a way to add depth and texture to black and white illustration. Screentones can range from simple dot and line patterns to action-evoking speed lines to elaborate backgrounds of stars, foliage, or cityscapes. Precisely trimming screentones and aligning their patterns is a skill unto itself.
In Japan, comics (manga) have a large and diverse reader base that includes comics created for a range of ages. A group of female artists in the 1970s created manga aimed at women that explored complex emotional themes in a variety of genres. Though not an official group, they were dubbed the “Year 24 Group” since many of them were born in 1949 (Showa Year 24 in the Japanese calendar).
Traditionally, comics are drawn on Bristol board with blue pencils since the blue marks will not be seen when it is scanned for reproduction. Screentones are a quick way to add texture and depth for something even as simple as a gray gradient.
In 1976, Dean Morris (then 16) created a hand-drawn font and submitted xeroxed copies to the Letraset company in the hope they might be interested in it.
“Letraset must have wanted it real fast (fifties nostalgia and disco were WHITE HOT then, remember), because they did the finished art themselves at 5” high (they can’t have known my age, maybe they had no confidence in my technical talent).”
Many of these pre-digital fonts were converted to digital, so Dean Morris’s Quicksilver lives on to evoke the disco era.