Sunday, January 28, 2007

Von Haeckel's demons

Ernst Heinrich Philipp August Haeckel
was a German naturalist and illustrator who lived from 1834 until 1919. Although an accomplished biologist, physician, and philosopher, Haeckel is most famous today for his illustration. In addition to technical virtuosity, his works have a certain surreal drama. Take, for example, his illustration of bats. The faces of the bats convey strange demonic personalities that go beyond mere realism. The faces are laughing, sinister, and brutish - they have an strange nightmare quality.

Haeckels illustration of sea anemone's have a lurid dreamlike quality. They seem more like some alien landscape on a far away planet then lowly inhabitants of earthly seas.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

The migration of pens

At work I can never find a pen when I need one. The case at home is completely different – I have too many pens, but they never seem to work.

At first I thought this was just another manifestation of Murphy’s Law. It seemed like one of those little irritations in life that are unavoidable. After giving this matter some thought, I realized that these are two expressions of the same phenomena.

Here’s the mechanism: At work I use pens all the time. If I’ve got a pen in my hand and some other task presents itself, I put the pen in my pocket. Usually, I take it out again and use it. At the end of the day, I forget the pen is there, and it goes home in my pocket. Result: not enough pens at work.

Ah home, when I change into my bedclothes, I take everything out of my pockets and place it in a container. This container soon fills up with old receipts, buttons, change, and lots of pens. When the collection of pens reaches an unwieldy mass, I transfer them to a pen holder.

I don’t use pens all that often at home, and since I have an oversupply, they sit around unused. That’s why pens at home never seem to work – they are old and dried up. To make matters worse, instead of throwing out non-working pens, I set them down, thinking that I’ll resuscitate them later. Somehow that never happens. Result: lots of non-functional pens at home.

This may seem trivial, but American Business looses billions of dollars annually to pilfered office supplies. I suspect that if it wasn’t for cheap pen imports from china, this would be a significant drain on the American economy.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Falling out

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists recently moved the hands of the doomsday clock forward to 5 minutes til midnight. After years of relative peace-of-mind, the threat of nuclear attack once again is increasing.

Growing up during the 1960's and 1970's, I had a fatalistic attitude about nuclear attack. The Russians and Chinese had thousands of missiles targeted at the USA, and the chances of survival seemed low. We didn't take it very seriously.

Back in the 1940's and 1950's, when the threat was new, preparation for nuclear war was a top priority. The USA had just emerged from World War II, and a lot of people had first hand experience with aerial bombing. They had a straightforward attitude about civil defense - be prepared and follow procedures. (I.E. Duck and Cover). All over the country government, industry, and private citizens were building fallout shelters. They considered a nuclear attack not only possible, but likely. See film HERE.

Now, you can walk around most cities and see reminders of that bygone era on the walls of public buildings - the once ubiquitous fallout shelter sign. Although the shelters are probably long gone, the faded signs remain. These signs point the way to blocked up doorways and long forgotten cellars.

What's down there? I always imagine the shelter, with its cots and canned supplies, moldering untouched under fifty years of dust and cobwebs. The floor is stacked with wooden crates of saltines, gas masks, and gray-green cans labeled "water, potable".

Could you survive a nuclear strike from Iran or North Korea, or a dirty bomb from Al Queda? The chances are pretty good unless you happen to be near ground zero. For high probability targets such as New York and Washington DC, public fallout shelters may make sense once again. We've come a long way.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Unseasonably Warm

The MLK holiday has traditionally been a big weekend for skiing. This year was different. It was 75 degrees and partly cloudy on January 15th down on the coast of North Carolina. My son and I went canoing and camped on the beach. Don't fight it - enjoy global warming.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

The human camera

Over the holiday break I visited the ancient Mayan city of Tulum. The city was built sometime between the years 1200 and 1450 by the Mayan peoples of Quintana Roo, Mexico, and served as a fortress and place of worship.

We just had one day in Mexico, and had time for a hurried tour of the ancient city. The tour took six hours, but most of the time was spent on the ferry boat, queuing, and in the back of a tour bus. Our time at Tulum was limited to an hour and thirty minutes. To our chagrin, we discovered that the camera batteries were dead. Luckily, I had my drawing pad.

Taking a picture is too easy. If you’re an amateur like me, you point the camera, click, and move on without giving it too much thought. The camera is unerringly accurate, but somehow misses the essence of a place like Tulum. When you have to sit down and draw something, the experience is completely different. An artist experiences the scene from his own perceptions, and his own mental model of the scene before him.

The first thing I do is put an imaginary frame around the image I’m going to capture. I do this by sketching in a rough outline of the scene. This forces me to make the critical decisions about what to show and what to ignore. In twenty minutes, I only had time to pick a few details to draw.

My next step is to figure out the perspective and placement of objects, and draw in a few guidelines. This is where I had my first surprise. Normally, when you draw a western building or structure, filling in the perspective is pretty easy. Almost all western structures started out as architectural drawings, and adhere to the conventions of formal perspective. The lines are straight and intersect at precise angles - everything lines up.

When you start drawing Mayan structures, you realize the Mayans didn’t use architectural drawings. Things don’t quite line up. It’s not that they are imprecise – it’s that there is a completely different aesthetic at work. I suspect the Mayan builders built things from a human, rather than mathematical point-of-view. Walls curve outward, doorways lean inwards, and every interior space is unique.

The final part of the drawing is the easy part – fill in details. Any problems I had in the construction of the perspective will cause me grief at this part. If I didn’t get the proportions right, I’ll fudge the details to make it work. That’s okay though, because the eye tends to skip over this sort of minor discrepancy. Strangely enough, one of the hardest parts of finishing the drawing is the sky. There is no good way to draw a blue sky with white and grey clouds using a graphite pencil. I usually just leave the sky blank, or draw in a few fake cloudlike blobs.

A photograph is obviously better, right?

Well, not always. The overall effect of Mayan architecture is quite different from that of Western buildings. The temple at Tulum is striking from a human scale. Its massive solidness communicates a sense of awe and power more like nature than the works of man. To a Mayan villager, the very sight of this city must have been overwhelming – certain evidence that the priests atop the temple were more gods than men.

In a strange way, the drawing captures this experience better than the mechanical eye of the camera. By drawing the scene, I have to pick out which items are important, and which are to be ignored. The drawing captures the scene as seen by the brain, not the eye.

When I was researching this post, I went to Flickr, and searched for Tulum. My search brought back about 27,000 images. Many of these were of drunken college students at Mexican bars, but there were lots of photographs of the ruins. Some of the Flickr photographers are skilled artists, and have done a masterful job of photographic composition. Nevertheless, I couldn’t find a single image that exactly captured my experience of drawing the place. Even those few pictures taken from a similar point of view show a different reality. The camera image is less vertical, and somehow more orderly than reality. The frame of the photograph is sharp and unyielding. The blue of the sky is relentless.

That’s just not the way I remember it.
© 2008 Raoul Rubin