Here’s a foray into abstraction that I made a little while ago and just recently put up for sale. Inspired by the flame effect of these frames, I created a couple of illustrations in ink and colored pencil based on a painting I did in college. The painting was about the death of Baldur, a Norse myth, and like many Norse myths Loki is in it causing some trouble. I represented Loki’s shapeshifting nature and destructive actions as a kind of cubism on fire.
It had been a while since I’d made the painting, and I found these illustrations had a notably different style even though I had the same approach in mind. I haven’t done much abstract work and I’m finding it to vary quite a bit when I do. While the painting felt rough and smokey, these feel streamlined and slightly Joan Miro-ish.
I also realized I go back and revisit the same themes periodically. These Lokis are based on an earlier painting, and the colored pencil box I have has a painting I made from the story of Ye Xian which I also painted on a scroll in the Chinese folktale series.
These frames reminded me of the soot around a fireplace so I created these three illustrations of shadow puppets. I mostly picked these animals because I thought the hand shapes were interesting. Now that I see them together, I realized they’re all animals in the American wilderness. I imagine them as part of a tale told at a remote cabin in the woods.
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.
Zoëtropes are the third of seven technologies I’ve explored in Prior Art: analog media manipulation and vintage virtual reality.
“As a storytelling device first and foremost, I was always drawn to how animation can capture energy, possibility and emotion all at once…and in the most fantastical way. To paraphrase Steven Spielberg, ‘…with animation, fantasy is your friend’.”
Marcela Cordon // Instagram: @cordon3
Though progressions of drawings to indicate movement have been around for a millennium, the technologies to animate them developed rapidly in the late 19th century leading up to the advent of film. One of the first was the phenakistoscope (or stroboscope disc, or phantasmascope) in 1833. This arranged drawings radially on a disc, though its inventor Simon Stampfer imagined they could also be on a cylinder or loop of paper/canvas. Later inventions improved on this with similarly colorful names: the dædaleum, the zoëtrope, the praxinoscope, and the zoopraxiscope.
Zoëtropes have been built small enough to be held in one’s hand, and large enough to hold hundreds of people within them. Typically a zoëtrope can be viewed by multiple people at once since the slits surround all sides of the cylinder. More recently, artists have created 3D zoëtrope animations (using sculptures instead of drawings) and subway zoëtropes (using the motion of passing trains).
William Horner, inventor of the dædaleum, described his invention “as imitating the practice which the celebrated artist of antiquity [Dædalus] was fabled to have invented, of creating figures of men and animals endued with motion.” It’s unclear whether the name (which also translates as “cunning one”) or the content (one popular animation had a devil in it) led to its nickname: the “Wheel of the Devil”.
A Milton Bradley employee, William E. Lincoln, improved upon the invention by shifting the viewing slits up so that new strips of animations could be easily swapped out. In a savvy marketing turn, he also called his invention the “zoëtrope” which translates to “Wheel of Life” – a much more family-friendly name.
Before film could capture motion, no one could prove for certain how particular motions occurred. Eadweard Muybridge, a photographer, was commissioned in 1872 by Leland Stanford to photograph horses to help settle a $25,000 bet as to whether a racehorse’s hooves all leave the ground at once when running.
After years of technological and personal setbacks, Muybridge succeeded in rigging a series of specially-designed equipment with tripwires to rapidly capture a series of images documenting one full gallop. Two of those sixteen images definitively revealed that all four hooves were off the ground. Muybridge spent the rest of his life improving on this technique for creating motion studies.
Typesetting is the first of seven technologies I’ve explored in Prior Art: analog media manipulation and vintage virtual reality.
“No matter how intellectual a pursuit it becomes, Design is most rewarding when you’re simply making it: setting the type, framing the shot, writing the code.”
Emilio Passi // epassi.co
The earliest words were written by hand: stamped in clay, etched with charcoal, drawn with ink. As scrolls developed into books, stories were collected through the painstaking and time consuming process of transcription. But this was a luxury, and only the wealthy could afford it.
Typesetting enables these stories to be composed by arranging pieces of type: physical stamps of letters and symbols that make up written language. This not only enables faster and cheaper reproduction of text, but also a consistent appearance. Instead of bearing the mark of the scribe, these printed materials now bear the distinctive look of a font (the design of those letters themselves). Print shops keep large wooden shelves with hundreds (or thousands) of pieces of type for a range of fonts and sizes.
Letterpress machines create the means of adding ink to a set of letters and transferring it to a piece of paper. The letter stamps are arranged into a tight block to preserve the format. This block is called a “lock up” because it is tightened by hand with a key to keep the pieces from moving around. Ink is spread onto one of the forward cylinders, and a piece of paper is aligned with the rst cylinder to begin. With a turn of a crank, the cylinders roll out to spread ink on the lock up, and roll the paper across it to create an inked impression.
The first system of movable type was invented in the 11th century by Bi Sheng in China. He shaped clay into pieces representing hundreds of Chinese glyphs which he baked into a ceramic material. This material, a fine porcelain, was sturdy enough for the rigors of printing.
There are a few ideas about why this origin of type is less well known. As a commoner, Bi Sheng’s history was not recorded. We only know of his invention through a book printed at the time. The sheer number of glyphs for the Chinese language also made the process of creating a font onerous. Centuries later, when Johannes Gutenberg introduced mechanical movable type to the Western world, he had a much smaller glyph set to reproduce – a boon for mass production.
Johannes Gutenberg combined a number of innovations for movable type, oil-based ink, and adjustable molds to enable mass production of printed material. Since the printed result would contain a reverse image of what was laid out, a skilled typesetter would need to be able to read the text backwards (or use a mirror) to lay it out properly.
Gutenberg saw great potential in this mass production for the creation of Bibles, and is best known for his high-quality Gutenberg Bible. He spoke of these advancements here: “Let us break the seal which seals up holy things and give wings to Truth in order that she may win every soul that comes into the world by her word no longer written at great expense by hands easily palsied, but multiplied like the wind by an untiring machine.”
Here’s another piece in the same style as my Edith O’Gorman and the Language of Flowers illustration from last year. Like that one, she came from browsing the Library of Congress archives for interesting people. Again, in the spirit slightly odd vintage photo captions, she was described as “famous lawyer and bicycle rider.”
Belva Lockwood caught my eye because of her serious demeanor and more masculine clothing. She was one the first female lawyers to practice in the US, and the first to appear before the Supreme Court, overcoming “many social and personal restrictions relating to her gender.” She also was the first woman to appear as an official candidate (on printed ballots) as President of the United States, in 1884 and again in 1888 for the National Equal Rights Party. Had this photo been taken a little later, I’m guessing that would have been a more noteworthy description than “bicycle rider”.
For this interpretation using the language of flowers, I’ve adorned her background from bottom to top with the following:
This chunky wooden frame reminded me of the aesthetic of Bruegel’s earthy illustrations or Goya’s creatures. I felt a gargoyle would suit it, so I found this fellow for a start. I wanted to give it more of a body so after I drew the head I opted to draw its paws, clawed, to echo the fangs.
Once I started filling in more of the body, I thought it really needed something else to balance the picture. A bird! I found a reference photo with just the right expression: mostly clueless, but slightly wary. It was also a nice light touch against the darkness of the gargoyle.
I’ll leave it up to you as to which one is waiting and which one is watching.
I’ve been browsing the Library of Congress archives for interesting things to draw. This 19th century photo by Matthew Brady stood out to me because it was a woman (not too many in the set) with an interesting expression and an even more interesting description: “Edith O’Gorman. Escaped nun from Canada?”
She has a bit of infamy around her story. After serving in a nunnery in Canada, she published a book in 1913 called “The Trials and Persecutions of Miss Edith O’Gorman” detailing stories of terrible treatment. It looks like she spent the rest of her life traveling as a lecturer (adding to an anti-Catholic sentiment stirred up by the press at the time) and avoiding death threats. She appears to have changed her name a couple of times and embellished her Irish heritage a bit along the way. In my cursory research there’s quite the mix of true accounts vs sensationalism, but she clearly riled up people and made herself a prominent figure.
Rather than celebrate or demonize her, I opted to use a period-appropriate technique of representing what I imagine motivated her. The language of flowers was popular in the late 19th century/Victorian era as a discreet way to express feelings. I took a loose interpretation of this with the following:
I’ll definitely do more portraits in this style as I find interesting people in that era.