Monday, October 29, 2012

Telling the Middle

I've read a bunch of Instructables, and been following avidly the blogs of several builders and wizards -- particularly Shawn Thorssen (who just just got a Make Magazine cover) and Harrison Krix.  And I've noticed again how so many explanations of "how did I make this" talk mostly about the final stages.

For much of the prop-making stuff I've been following, the bulk of the blog entry will be about the mold-making, casting, and painting.  There's good structural reasons for this.  Those are stages where large things are happening that are easy to record.  Those are technical things that lend themselves well to explanation ("Mix equal parts by weight and tap gently to allow the bubbles to rise").  And, also, mold-making in particular is the most un-recoverable stage; if you make a mistake in sculpting you can usually sand and fill, but if you mess up the mold...  Oh, and these are also places -- particularly painting -- where there are long stretches of free time as you wait for paint to dry or molds to outgas.  And you have leisure (and a clean work-table) to take lots of pictures.

I'm being a bit unfair.  Thor does explain in several places how he arrives at the shapes he makes.  And Volpin goes into incredible detail on almost every stage of the build.

But there are still blank areas.  And that is, largely, because talking about the "art" part is so incredibly difficult.  You can talk about what your inspirations were going in.  And you can talk about the technical details when you started to bend metal (or whatever).  But how you got from B to P is that place where, I believe quite strongly, most people who do not do art see nothing but an un-crossable chasm.

It's an old joke, but Ben Edlund tells it well;

Plenty of people have written about this and much better than I can.  The only insight I can claim is that the process isn't as cleanly divided as it might look to the outsider.  It isn't really (as the recent meme goes);

Step One:  Gather materials.
Step Two:  ???
Step Three:  Profit!

Instead it is a continuous iterative, exploratory process that shades smoothly from "I have no idea how to even start this project" to "Now I just have to glue this last piece on and it's done."

At no stage are you entirely free from problem-solving, or having to make artistic choices.

And the flip side is; at no stage are you truly faced with the proverbial blank sheet of paper.

This is important.  This is extremely important.

No matter what the project is, no matter what stage of development or build it is in, there is always a way to move forward.  You may find you are moving in the wrong direction.  You may even progress a long way down this wrong path.  But even if you have to go all the way back to square one, you will still benefit; because now you know one thing that doesn't work.

And if you committed to the first attempt, and you made any progress at all, you've learned about the process, the tools; learned a thousand things that will make the next attempt easier.

A big part, for me, in getting through projects is the ability I have to judge how much I need to know, how much I need to plan, before pushing forward.  I firmly believe you can always get somewhere useful in the end.  The question is how much time, and how much wasted material, you can afford for that particular project.  The tighter the project constraints (time, budget, client requirements, safety issues), the more you need to attempt to project your understanding forward of the place where you are actually building. 

This is not another way of saying "how much to plan."  Deal with the fact that planning is an ongoing process; that late in a project you will have access to knowledge that you simply could not have had before you started.  Instead of thinking of the plan of a project as some sort of total blueprint, which is more or less detailed/accurate depending on "how well you planned," think of it instead as what you see in the headlights while driving at night.  Think of it as the projection from where the project currently is to some point in the project's future. 

But back to that blank sheet of paper.  When you need to progress, do anything that will create movement.  Think of it as operating an evolutionary algorithm.  Put a random line on the piece of paper.  Now you have something concrete that you can say "no, this isn't right."  And after enough random lines, you may hit one that makes you think "Well, maybe if it was slanted a little more..."

Or steal.  Find out how someone else solved the problem, and adapt their ideas.  Enough time and enough reworking and it will become uniquely yours.  Or borrow from nature, who doesn't care so much about copyright.  Or intentionally apply a random process and see if any of the results are something you like.

I talk about the "blank sheet of paper" because it actually isn't.  Manufactured paper, under real lighting, isn't a perfect surface.  There are subtle shades in it.  Very faint shapes already in it.  Look for those shapes and build on them.

In composing, the equivalent is to doodle on the keyboard until you randomly happen on a pleasing sequence of notes.  (And it isn't completely random; it is constrained by the shape of your hand, the instincts for sequential moves and the trained musician's understanding of keys and chord structures.  The same can be said for almost any "doodle" process, whether in sculpture or in writing code.)

This is true at all parts of a project.  At no point it is completely, 100% "art," some sort of divine inspiration being poured directly on to the paper.  There is always a technical element.  There are always constraints.

Which means there is almost always boiler plate.

You don't have to re-invent the core principles of Western Music every time you are just trying to work up a bit of scene change music.  You have a melody?  There are tried and simple routines to assign a chord structure to it.  Want to write a quartet?  There are well-developed rules for voice leading.  You don't have to use them.  But if you have no better idea, you don't have to stare at a blank stave until your eyes bleed; just fill in a typical First Species and move on.

You can always go back.  You can always try something different.  Don't hold out for the one perfect idea.  Don't hold out for the one truly original idea.  Don't hold out for the idea that lights up the room.  Just put something in as a placeholder, and keep moving.

I believe it is an illusion (there is always an artistic component to anything any of us do), but you could go through an entire art project making nothing but what appear to be mechanistic choices -- from Rules of Composition to Principles of Color Theory. 

And, yes, it might end up looking like rote work.  Uncreative, and uninteresting.  There is that risk.  On the gripping hand, however, if you are doing art for a living, you can't always sit on a mountain watching sunsets waiting for *INSPIRATION* to strike.  You still have to make rent.  The show is still opening Friday.  The client still wants his prop by Halloween.

I say again, the idea of some heavenly inspiration is a lie that separates the artist from the non-artist.  The non-artist prevents themselves from doing art because they have been taught to expect inspiration.  The working artist is under no such illusion; they are aware that inspiration looks a lot less like the Hollywood depiction, and a whole lot more like, "Well, we could just coil them up.  I'm not in love with that, and it would be harder to paint, but...well, actually, I can see some other advantages already.  I just gotta run this past Phil but I think we might have a workable idea here..."

Well, that took a turn for the theoretical.

What I wanted to say, is that in the props blogging, and in the electronics blogging, there seems to be a large blank somewhere between "I set out to build a..." and "Next we solder the resistors."

And I'm going to try, the next time I write up a project, to explain some of those steps I always feel (when I read other people's blogs) are getting glossed over.

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