A strong photograph. A grid. Attention to detail. Going back to the basics after attempting some illustrative approaches. The result above.
I really wanted to bring over some style or influence from my personal work, creating strong black and white illustration of Daniel Hsu performing. I’d found a dynamic photo, shot from above, grand piano, etc. Dropped it into a layout. Dead. Flat. Useless. Maybe if I added a bit more texture. I’d recently read a comic that used a dramatic digitally painted illustration style. Perhaps Mr. Hsu’s headshot rendered in a similar fashion standing behind the dramatic performance illustration. In my mind it was beautiful. In execution. A big heaping helping of Nope. Nope nope nope, not a chance. On my iPad the illustration looked decent, not half bad for my first attempt at such a style. Again, in a layout, oh my, the horror.
A strong photograph. A grid. Attention to detail. The things I do well.
And though my meandering down the path of illustration might seem to have been for naught, it served a good lesson to me. In the end it pushed me back to an appreciation of what I do well. Sometimes it’s easy to look at other styles, the way other designers work, and feel lacking. To feel stale. Pushing oneself to attempt something completely different can help you realize that perhaps there are designers who work in another style that might see my work and think, “Damn, how can I do something super simple. Grids just kill me.” Meanwhile, they’re doing killer kinetic illustrations that I might drool over.
In the end, I like this poster better than a lot of other work I’ve done. It hit a certain point during the design when I said to myself, “Damn. That’s nice. So clean, and elegant.” And I hope, representative of Mr. Hsu’s performance next week. Also, after seeing the poster in the wild a few times, it certainly holds its own on cluttered walls. Far better than my attempts at illustration would have.
Ninety percent of my work, more or less, is done on a computer. But there are those bits that still have to be done by hand, compared and checked in the real world. Two of the projects I’ve been working on have led me away from the computer this week. Here’s a little peek into some of what I do.
We have a very nice print exhibition coming up in March. Through an amusing (to me as a designer) sequence we established the color palette would include Pantone’s color of the year: ultraviolet. I tend to avoid trends, but in this case we needed a color that would complement the aged paper color of the prints and work well with the wall color, which matched Warm Grey 5 rather nicely. Ultimately it will be a bit more of a split compliment, and I needed to confirm that there would be enough contrast for some of the graphics, particularly cut vinyl text. It’s a tricky color, the warm gray wall. Since it will be difficult to come any way close to matching the purple as printed on panels and cut vinyl, I’m hoping there will be enough contrast with white text. The details that one has to sweat out.
On the other hand, these little bits of cut out paper are a nightmare of my creation. Each year the Museum Ball presents a tricky situation. Creating an invitation that can set the tone for one of the prime charity fundraisers of the year, even though it’s often sold out before the invitations land in mailboxes. It can be difficult to put one’s best effort into something that can really feel like a formality if other fundraising efforts are successful. Last year was very formal, but this year the ball chairs wanted to go in a modern / contemporary direction. It’s been fun. And I decided on a reveal using a die cut. And have now made more mockups than I would have liked. Not rotating the design correctly for alignment, or just straight up needing to confirm that everything did in fact line up one last time before sending to the printer.
I like to think I have good spatial relation skills. But this just broke my brain a couple of times. I’m going to blame the fact that it was one of a half-dozen things I’m juggling, so I was a little fried by the time I was working out the die and alignment. Brain fry and all though, the files are off to the printer and their prepress has not called anything out as being improperly aligned. Knock on wood and other such tokens of luck, I’ll see a hard proof next week and perhaps my brain ache will have been worth it for a smooth print and production workflow.
Instagram post of the latest plywood painting I finished. It’s 24 x 24 inches, acrylic on plywood. I snapped the original image as I walked past the entrance to a parking garage in Chicago.
I’m fascinated by the entrances to parking decks and garages for a couple of reasons. One, I find them to be architecturally fascinating spaces. The lines and geometry are often great from a compositional standpoint. Creating black and white art that strips these spaces down to core composition is a means of highlighting what I perceive to be the inherent beauty of these spaces that are often considered a functional blight on city centers.
Secondarily, I find these places to be interesting liminal spaces. They are intended to be navigated in a car, but humans have to move through them, though they are in many ways hostile. It’s this necessary but indeterminate space. I think this is similar to my fascination with airports. These are not the destination, merely some third space one has to navigate to get to where you intend to go. As such, they tend to be overlooked, perhaps why I’ve begun paying attention to them.
Below is the process from original photograph to finished painting.
The images as cropped and adjusted for Instagram. My working method with all of the pieces I’ve made from this series have started as photos I’ve posted to Instagram. It serves as the starting point, test bed, etc. for images that I want to work with.
This has become a predominantly digital process. Quick photo with my iPhone, processing via Instagram, then sketching out the composition in Procreate on my iPad Pro.
Process video of my work in Procreate. This highlights the decisions points and compositional decisions I made while resolving the sketch. The biggest choices were the elimination of the gate arm, and deciding to paint in the ceiling. Though the composition is heavily guided by the typically harsh shadows of these environments, I’m clearly not working to slavishly recreate every aspect of the image. Much of this process is about reduction.
The prepared board. I’ve bought standard 1/2 inch thick, precut, 24 x 24 inch plywood boards. They are then prepped with a coat or two of black gesso, and then a coat of white acrylic. I use a dark undercoat because I want the white in the image to have a sense of depth.
The analog portion of the process really begins. After resolving the composition in Procreate, I print it out, roughly 4 inches square, then use an art projector to transfer it to the board. The board has been completely covered in masking tape.
Back acrylic applied. Unlike my previous work on canvas where I used a brush to fill in the white areas as a contrast to stenciled black acrylic, I’ve been using foam brushes for both the white and black layers with these pieces for a more uniform appearance.
The last touch, adding in the red. This has been a new direction for me, highlighting small pops of color in these pieces. The working title of the series has been “Warning Signs,” as all of these spaces are adorned with markings of some type warning the pedestrian, or driver, of what they are or are not allowed to do. Or in the case of this space, guiding the driver through these curved ramps. All the same, they act as a warning indicator. Bringing these bright spots back into the composition is a way to highlight the quasi hostile but still functional nature of these spaces.
A detailed post documenting this project might eventually happen. Leave it at this for now: designing maps is a tricky wicket. Everyone reads maps differently. People have varied spatial reasoning abilities. There is little consensus on priorities, which is actually a little surprising if you think about it. Needless to say I’m a little on pins and needles waiting to get a week’s worth of feedback from visitors and coworkers. I have a near allergic reaction to “design by committee,” though iterative beta testing isn’t quite the same, it’s a little unnerving.
And, to make it trickier, we’re renaming the floors of the Museum. Instead of “1, 2, and 3,” we’re hoping “Ground, 1, and 2” will make more sense to the visitors. Of course it means some janky testing while we wait for new elevator buttons to come in.
Design process. I’m sure I could find a “hand cut” or “cut paper” font that is close to Akzidenz Grotesk. But, I use Akzidenz Grotesk daily for the Museum’s branded materials and I wanted to keep a crafty, hand-made aesthetic on brand, I printed out the alphabet and hand cut it. It was fun to craft hands-on analog design materials. Granted, I made the alphabet and then laid out the copy in Photoshop rather than cutting out the entire design… but I’m a one person shop, so I gotta make concessions somewhere.
Another spring, another severe weather warning in Alabama. First the Museum delayed opening. Then we were sent home early. Fortunately, the severity of the weather never met expectations. Working from the couch at home, I made do, as one does, with a little IPA to go along with working on website mock-ups.
Prepping new method and format. Undercoat of black gesso on 24 x 24 inch board.
I’ve been creating 5 x 7 block prints, then projecting to 36 x 48 canvases for years now. It’s the working method for all of my Sloss and Birmingham Mandala projects. It’s a big and labor intensive process. So, time for a change.
This is for a new series of images. They all began as Instagram photos, more or less all showing spaces that aren’t intended for people, but through which people sometimes find themselves navigating. Parking lots. Parking structures. Interstate underpasses. Rather than creating a block print, I’ve refined and redrawn each image in Procreate on my iPad. This started as a way to play around and experiment with the iPad Pro and Apple Pencil, but has become a more refined process. And now, rather than produce a block print, I’m printing out the image, then will project it on the prepared wood. From that point, the process will still be similar to previous canvases. Masking tape. X-Acto. Etc.
More process photos to come I imagine.
The Museum will open the largest contemporary exhibition curated from the permanent collection. The exhibition highlights many of the collecting themes the Museum has followed the last twenty or so years. A focus on under-represented viewpoints. A highlight of the “other.”
Third Space frames issues of the Global South within the framework or prism of the American South. It is impossible to look at art in Birmingham, Alabama, without the baggage of the location. What does it mean to examine the perspectives of artists grappling with exile, representation, identity, and more in this place. How have these issues been confronted in Birmingham, or the American South. A place that has more in common with struggling regions around the world than it does with cities or regions in the United States.
But more, in the context of current events. Current attitudes. What can this art teach us about ourselves and those around us? In a sense, all art is political. And the art in this exhibition isn’t necessarily easy to look at, or easy to digest. Some is beautiful. Some is ugly. But all of it has a story to tell. A story that is worth listening to, or worth digging into and trying to understand.
I won’t lie. This exhibition has tested many of us at the Museum. The scale, the production timelines. The interpersonal things that develop within a staff committed to what they are doing, but not always seeing eye to eye. But in the end, I feel this is a very important exhibition, regardless of the stress it has caused me personally.
We all need a little more empathy. A little more understanding. An expansion of our perceptions. And if this exhibition can guide viewers to that, I think it will be worth the struggle we’ve put into it.
I hope you will consider coming to it. The opening event will likely be big, and full of people, and hopefully fun. I’m curious to see the reaction of people to a potentially heavy exhibition in the context of a party… I hope it piques people’s’ curiosity and encourages repeated visits. Walking through the gallery a few times during the installation process, I’ve certainly noticed new things each time.
I teased the above illustration on Instagram a while back. I’d been working on a digital illustration for an upcoming Museum event, Art After 5. We’ve been rethinking our programming and decided to end our after hours event on the first Thursday of each month, moving the event to the first Friday of each month, and retooling the programming. With that shift was a name change to Art After 5 and the necessary new art and ad materials.
The Museum often struggles to produce good, professional images of our events. We document events, but they are rarely marketing level images, so a photographic approach was not going to work. Not to mention the wide variety of events that we expect to program at Art After 5. An illustrative approach made logical sense.
For the 2015 Art on the Rocks season I played around with simple line art illustrations to complement the AOTR logo overlays and transparencies that are central to the identity. I made these directly in Photoshop on top of images from previous events. I enjoyed the process and final result, but felt like I could push it a little further to illustrate what to expect at Art After 5. To begin, I combed through photos from earlier Museum events that featured our expected programming.
Good representations of Museum events, but not quite ready for primetime images. After narrowing down to the four images above, I transferred the images into Graphic, an iPad app. There I drew simple line art on top of the images.
I didn’t want a lot of detail, thinking back to mid-century album art. Simple line art with colors and shapes. Something lively, a suggestion of activity, but the anonymity within the illustrations to allow for the viewer to imagine themselves in the moment. I’d also been thinking about hombre color schemes. I tinkered with a light blue to purple arrangement, but had issues getting contrast right for all of the pieces of the illustration, eventually settling on a complementary blue palette, alternating light and dark colors to create depth.
The finished vector art felt a little too crisp and flat, even with the alternating color. I added in textures, slightly different for each layer of the image. That created the right level of depth and added a bit more of a finishing touch to the art. Then it was a matter of laying in the text for the event highlights. Art. Music. Making. Mixing. And then Museum branding. Finished poster, ready to go to press and promote the next Museum event.
The Museum is relaunching a studio program offering art classes to children through adults. The previous incarnation slipped over the course of a few years with declining interest and institutional support. In an attempt to jumpstart a reinvigorated program, a new look was needed to go along with the new name, Studio School.
In an early presentation of the Museum’s new logo, BIG Communications highlighted ways the logo could be manipulated over time, becoming a more dynamic system.
While implementing the new identity in the last couple of years, I haven’t had much opportunity to play with this idea. For the satellite program shift I was able to use a progression from the Museum logo to an abstract S. The Museum wanted to highlight that it was behind the program, but retain some distance.
Other than the shift project, I’ve spent most of the time just trying to get materials up to speed with the new logo and a consistent application. Simply trying to get the new mark in the publics’ mind. This year’s Art Camp offered a great opportunity though. The theme was “Art and Design Thinking,” and they needed a t-shirt design. Though the Museum counts some design objects in the collection, it’s far from a focus, and there isn’t a lot that lends itself to promoting design as a fun activity for first graders. Thus, an exploration of the under-used idea from BIG. I took the logo and began manipulating it into the necessary letterforms. The key being that each letter had to have the same number of “sides” as the logo.
When thinking about the Studio School, which ultimately will be the umbrella program over Art Camp, the new manager really liked the Art Camp design. In many ways it made logical sense to carry over some aspect of that design to the Studio School. So I began refining the concept a bit, making it more legible and less an abstraction and “maze” than the camp illustration (with the camp illustration I really wanted a design that invited curious investigation and a bit of effort to read).
From that point I refined the letterforms a bit more, again working on legibility, before arriving at a final solution, in both horizontal and vertical lock-ups.
Of course the logo alone isn’t going to cut it when it comes to posters and advertisements. We needed something with a bit more punch. As lovely as it might be to use happy photos of kids and adults making art, we simply don’t have the resources. And any photography we have is from actual classes or programs, often taken for documentation, not marketing. So what to do? Create some art, obviously.
I’m typically not a fan of using the logo as window approach, hence incorporating it a bit more into an abstraction of color and ink or paint strokes. I created a solid window version of the logo and began to layer in paint strokes and ink layers, manipulating the transparency settings and layers to create a dynamic composition. One that doesn’t quite work as a real painting, or at least be a bit tricky to create. But ultimately, the idea was to convey the energy and fun of creating art. More the feeling of art class than anything else. And also, of course, to create something that would stand out on a wall full of posters. As seen below, the final layouts of posters and postcards, showing the integration with the Museum branding.
For each application I adjusted the background layers of the illustration to create variety and make sure enough color was showing through the “window” to make the Studio School text legible. Though it is largely illustration, everything still conforms to the grid I’ve been using for Museum posters and designs lately. Even when using somewhat chaotic design, a strong underlying grid always brings things together.
This was a lot of fun to play with and design, and who knows, maybe it will last beyond the Fall 2016 session. A winter / spring approach could use new colors, new textures, but the same idea. Or perhaps I can evolve the system to use art actually created in the classes.
P.S. as soon as I finished I had to laugh at myself, cause I feel like I made an accidental homage to David Carson. But, it’s been 20 plus years, so I guess it’s ok to crib from that 90s aesthetic a little. Of course, outside of the logo text, everything is pretty straight forward. I didn’t go intentionally ugly or anti-design with the typography a la Mr. Carson’s habit.