17. Healing Art

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Games From The Garage: Croquet

Some time on my hands

My studio closed some months after 9/11 and what I couldn’t sell or wanted to keep was put in storage. The studio in which I could produce high quality images was no longer a part of my present or something I could build on for the future. It became something I would look back on and tell stories about going forward.

I felt a need for the kind of solace art often provides and decided to create a new image.

I thought about the croquet set I had as a boy. It was kept in our garage. In fact, all the magical things of my youth seemed to live in our garage. We never had a car, so the garage was used for storage.

“Where’s the this or where’s the that,” I would say. And the answer my mother or father usually gave was, “It’s probably in the garage.”

My croquet set was one of the things I saved from the garage after we sold the house. I kept it in the storage loft of my photography studio and now it was in my apartment sitting on the desk next to the computer. I always wanted to photograph it, but never got around to making that happen. I had learned how to use my 3D tools, though, and as I looked at the box and its contents I decided to create a 3D version of the the photograph I always envisioned. I would build my  croquet set and put it on a sweep of black plexiglass in a virtual environment.

I was inspired. I took calipers and measured all the parts. The sizes were written down and then I laid out everything the way I wanted it to look in the final scene. It was a rough layout. The final one was in my head. This would require total immersion, much like a deep sea dive when you leave your boat and dry land behind.

There must have been mice in the garage, because something had nibbled away at the box. Parts of it were warped too because the air had been damp. With temperature fluctuations as the seasons changed, the dovetails of the box were out of alignment too. There was dirt on everything and the croquet gates had developed a patina. Those elements gave the game pieces character.

I began building my models using Form Z software. The shapes were pretty basic: a box, spheres, the gates and mallets. Not so tough. The challenge was to make everything look real and believable.  In 3D everything is perfect. So it was up to me to offset the dovetails. It was up to me to add the wood grain and look of dirt over the “paint” of the balls, mallets and box. I loved the process. It was the closest I had been to my croquet set in many years.

I then brought all the modeled objects into my Electric Image software, because I knew the scene would render most beautifully in that program. One of the big challenges was to create the look of a plexiglass surface for the pieces to sit on. The plexiglass had to have just the right amount of reflection to appear realistic.

It worked. The final image came out just the way I wanted it to and there was great satisfaction in being able to honor this old friend with a portrait, if you will, which captured its essence. I felt unburdened too, because I had wanted to do this project for a long time and I finally got it done. I think it is one of my more successful 3D illustrations.

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16. 9/11 and Change

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                                            September 2001

The Setting

In the years prior to  2001 my studio took up the whole side of a floor –  the side that had the only access to a fire escape. One day my landlord was pressured to create public access to the fire escape, so he had to cut my space in half. One side would remain my studio shooting area and the other had my office and darkroom. As I became more involved with 3D illustration I rented out my shooting area and then eventually gave it up, because I stopped using it. I kept the darkroom/office side. My darkroom tenants covered the rent for the darkroom/office area and their presence also provided me with some company.

In 2001 I was doing freelance Photoshop and 3D work. The 3D was usually done for POP, or Point of Purchase, companies where I would build 3D models and sets to show what a newly designed POP unit would look like before it went into production.

9/11

On the morning of September  11, 2001 I was on a bus to such a freelance job in New Jersey. I had worked at the company for several days and when the bus dropped me off all the employeees were out on the front lawn. When I asked what was going on, they pointed to the smoke coming from the World Trade Center off in the distance. The office was in chaos. People didn’t know whether to work, watch the TV news in the manager’s office or leave.  There was no way for me to get back to Manhattan that night so several of us stayed in a hotel room one of the company’s Boston salesmen already had reserved. Joe Soucy and I still speak every year on 9/11.

After 9/11 all my magazine clients retrenched. They brought their artwork needs in house and so, effectively, business stopped for me. My darkroom tenants did something similar. They seemed to vanish overnight. Looking for advice, I called my accountant and asked him what he thought I should do. His answer was: “Close the studio”.

So that is what I did. I sold everything I could – all the darkroom equipment I studiously  bought over many years. I had stored family things in my studio loft and all of it had to come home. I had had my studio for 19 years and now that phase was over. I had no idea what would be next.

Like so many other people, I was in shock. I sat home with boxes everywhere, all taken back from the studio. I sold darkroom enlarger lenses, my motorized Besseler and many other things as best I could.

Then I took my first full time job in 19 years building POP, or Point of Purchase, models in 3D and after six months the company had problems so they let me go. I wasn’t used to having  a full time job, much less loosing one so soon.

15. 2001

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                           Absolute Hangover

Absolut

There was a period when Absolut had a wonderful ad campaign. Every month or two they produced a new ad that was cleverly done. They were shot by good photographers, but I was never one of them! Nevertheless, the ads kept coming. After a while I got tired of seeing them, because they all looked so similar. I decided to create a visual commentary on the ads; a variation on the theme so to speak.

I took a photograph of one of their bottles and “lifted” the label to make an image map, which I put on a 3D rendition of the bottle I had built. Then I created a scene around it. I imported the cat from Poser software and dented the carefully modeled garbage cans using yet another software program. And so it went. I added details wherever I could.

A Brooklyn Museum Invitation

Then one day I got a call from either a staff person or from curator Marilyn Kushner herself inviting me to have a print in an upcoming show the Brooklyn Museum was having. Barbara Millstein must have told Ms. Kushner about my monthly emails. The show was called “Digital: Printmaking Now” and the opening was to be in August of 2001. If it happened today I would submit one of my other images, but at the time they didn’t exist.  “Absolute Hangover” was one I thought would be cool.

Print Drama

I knew someone at Epson and asked him if the company would be willing to make a print for the show and he said yes. My 3D scene took a couple of days to render at the file size that would be needed to make a print. I then sent the final image file to Epson and they shipped my print directly to the museum. I thought I was done. Then a woman from The Brooklyn Museum called.

“Mr. Neumann we’re having a problem with your print. The ink is turning to powder and falling off the paper.” Imagine how you would feel. I felt worse.

Marilyn Kushner, the curator, called to say the deadline was fast approaching and they needed my print as soon as possible. She had worked with Nash Editions, in California, and suggested I call Mac Holbert to order a print from them. Mac was familiar with the Epson problem and so we used a rag paper, which he shipped directly to me.

A Transformation Begins

When the print arrived I opened the package and marveled at the beauty of the matte 100% rag paper print. It felt like a new dimension. After so many years of making black and white prints on “gelatin silver” paper in my darkroom, I now encountered a look I liked much better. It had nothing to do with a darkroom, however. I was looking at a Giclee, or ink jet, print and the texture of the paper, along with the matte surface was gorgeous. I had a sense that I was finished with darkroom printing. That change came sooner than I expected.

“Digital: Printmaking Now” opened in August of 2001, with almost no reviews. I guess reviewers were on vacation, and yet the show was terrific. My father should only have known that his son had work in an exhibit with Albrecht Dürer and other wonderful artists.

The Lone Artist

I took a subway from Manhattan to The Brooklyn Museum for the opening. The event began with all the artists in a room with patrons, museum members and, as I remember it, lots of kids who asked me to sign their show catalogs. Then I went to look at the exhibit and find my print. I had invited friends and my cadre of 3D buddies. I found them and expected to leave with them to celebrate. Instead, there was some confusion and my friends left without me. I had to take the subway home by myself, which was an anticlimactic conclusion to a special evening.

It was August of 2001. 9/11 was soon to follow.

 

 

 

 

 

14. Image Ideas

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                                 Federal Reserve 

A Challenging Project

It was one thing to make a scene for myself and another to be given an assignment by an art director. One day I got a call from The Federal Reserve Bank of New York. I don’t know how they found me, or if I found them, but they asked me to do their annual report cover and gave me a theme. It was something like “the past emerging into the present”, or “the present emerging into the future” – and I thought I had a decent idea. I envisioned a wire frame train going though an arch and coming out looking like a real train. The more I worked on the rough however, the more I realized how hard it would be to create a final. In fact, I soon felt it would be impossible. Thankfully it was rejected. I was relieved, but I drew a blank on what else to try. Minor panic set in. I tried everything. I scrambled. You might say I went a little nuts. I figured I was going to loose the assignment and the only recourse was to go into what I sometimes call: “Jerk Mode”.

Let me explain. I’ve done this with music where in the middle of trying to flesh out a melody I allow myself to get really, really silly. Its a safe place, in that anyone within earshot knows to run the other way. Being a jerk gives you some freedom and it can take you to new territory.  Its the realm in which some of the best ideas happily run free. You just have to catch one by the tail, by its furry foot or any way you can.

That’s what I wound up doing. I threw my figurative paint against a wall and came up with the image above. Zeros and ones represent the language of computers going off toward the horizon. The half Earth/half wire frame brought back my original idea of the train in a much simpler way. The Federal Reserve people loved it and it became their annual report cover. It was rendered in Bryce, the landscape program I mentioned in my last entry.

Curios From the Closet: Science

When I was a kid there were two closets in my bedroom: one for family clothes and a smaller one with my stuff: my clothes, model airplanes and a small battery driven wooden motor boat I loved. The closet had my microscope, telescope, rock collection and chemistry set too. Given that every month I had to come up with an new image to email my clients, I decided to reminisce a bit and revisit the companions of my youth that lived in the closet.

I still had my microscope, so I took it out, measured it and left it next to my computer. It was like a model posing for a painting class. It took me two weeks to build the microscope in 3D. I also had the small rock collection my father brought home from one of his business trip out west. That was on my desk too.  I loved my telescope so much, I probably could have built it in my sleep, but I kept it out as a reference anyway. The rest, save for the arrow heads on cards, I made up. The birds were scanned pictures from Brehm’s Tierleben (Animal Life), a German science book my father had. It was first published in the 1860’s.

“Curios From The Closet: Science” was one of my most complex 3D sets. Apart from all the models and “texture maps” used in it, the lighting was critical. I wanted to give the scene a dated sort of feel, like the science room in my elementary school which was, as I remember it, musty and cluttered. The room was jammed with all sorts of science related things: a stuffed seagull (among other taxidermied creatures), and book shelves filled with shells, rocks and various botanical specimens.  It was like as a wonderful old museum. That was the atmosphere which inspired: Curios From the Closet: Science.

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                Curios From The Closet: Science

12. Total Immersion: Illustration & Music

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                                                       Birdcage

More to Learn

I was using an Apple computer and the world of 3D was mostly divided by software that could be used on the Macintosh platform or the PC platform. Mac people often used Electric Image as a renderer with a 3D “modeler” called Form•Z. The two programs worked well together. In 3D you had to build shapes. If you wanted a microscope, or a birdcage, you had to build it. For that you needed a software with the tools that would allow you to make these things. Once those shapes were built you would add colors, textures and even labels to the surfaces of the model. I needed a better modeler, or model maker, software, so I got Form•Z. It wasn’t cheap and the learning curve was vertical. I made a deal with myself: I would carry the modeling manual wherever I went until I finished reading it (there were several manuals that came with the software. It was like having a whole new library). I read it on subways and buses and, of course, sitting down in places where you’re supposed to read. I think it took me a year to finish the modeling manual and I probably only understood half of what they were trying to explain. It was very technical stuff.

Eine Kliene Nachtmusic, or A Little Night Music

I spent every day at my studio marketing, making images and working to improve my 3D skills. Staring at a monitor for so many hours was new for me and the days were long. I would get home late, make dinner and try to unwind. Reading wouldn’t do it because my eyes were so tired. Instead, I took out my steel string guitar, sat on a comfortable chair with my feet on the guitar case and played. I had composed a number of songs in the past, but this style was different. I was flat picking and improvising with my eyes closed. Eventually musical themes began to emerge and I would repeat them until I could find phrases which worked well together. In time whole pieces formed. My technique needed to improve for me to play them, but every night I progressed a little more. I wondered how my cat was taking all this and whenever I looked for her she was usually on the rug to my left, lying on her back with her feet up in the air. She seemed happy.

I did this almost every night and after about three years I had put together thirteen pieces. I even gave a solo concert at a gallery. I just stood up in front of about 30 friends and acquaintances and played for an hour straight. I barely spoke and there was no intermission. I planned to do it differently next time, but the next time hasn’t happened yet.  Then one day the composing stopped. I had dinner with an art director I used to work with and told him I couldn’t understand why my music had suddenly stalled.  His answer was interesting:

”You were probably mourning the loss of your mother and now the mourning period is over.” Given that I called the first piece: “Song for my Mother”, I believe he was right.

Birdcage

I started a marketing campaign to stay in touch with clients and friends. Every month I emailed them a new image. It usually took a few weeks for me to complete one because I always wanted to come up with something more interesting and more complex than the previous illustration. The irony is that the goal was to attract art directors at magazines, but the scenes I was creating were anything but commercial. They were whimsical and more like children’s book illustrations. Amazingly, I still got jobs.

“Birdcage” (above) was an idea that wouldn’t go away. The concept was this: a model builder decides to make a birdcage he hopes will interest a Cardinal to occupy. It has a comfy chair, a rug, a TV, a potted tree and a tree painting. The model builder even has Cardinal Bird Food. What more could a bird want? (answer: freedom!) The Bird, while hardly an accurate model of one, is interested. That was the concept. It even gave me the opportunity to shamelessly add one of my Barn photographs to the wall. I never had a Cardinal come to my apartment window until I made this scene. Cardinals have visited me several times since. Who knows what that’s about?

I wrote about Raytracing software before and Birdcage was rendered using one. With so many objects, patterns, labels and colors the scene took forever to render before I could see what I was doing. I would let the computer render all night, find things that needed to be corrected the next day and then have my computer render it all night again. This took a few weeks to complete.

Let’s See A Real Assignment

Ok. The one below was my first cover for “Electronic Musician Magazine”. The theme was: “Burning Your Own CD’s”. Remember, this was the 1990’s. Burning your own CD’s was kind of a big deal then. The models were made in Form•Z and then brought into Electric Image to be rendered. I think the glow was done in Photoshop. Not sure about the flames, but they were probably done in Photoshop too.

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                  Burning Your Own CD’s

 

11. Patience Needed: 3D Software

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                                       Film

Deadline Drama

I got an assignment to do an illustration (not the one above) for a financial magazine. The theme had to do with a drug company and its failed products. I built bottles with the names of the drugs on them and, flying pills in the air, had them falling down a set of stairs. The bottles were translucent, which was going to add to the rendering time of a final image. A few lights in the scene would also make things take longer. The illustration had to be 4″ x 5″ at 300 dpi, which was not very big by most standards, but I still figured I would give Alias Sketch software all the time it needed to finish the render. My magazine deadline was around 2 o’clock in the afternoon the next day. With everything ready to go, I hit the Render button at around 5:00 pm and went home to let it render all night.

In the morning I decided to go for a run and got to the studio at around noon. To my horror I saw that the render was only 49% done and realized I was in trouble. I would never make my deadline. Alias Sketch was what the world of 3D called Raytracing software. It was designed to make glass and metal look accurate, but it took a lot longer to render a scene. See the raytraced Spark plug below.

Tech Support to the Rescue 

I had heard about a software program called Electric Image, which was a phong renderer (see above), not a ray tracer. It had a beautiful, lush look. Each rendering engine offers a different result, just as different films do/did. Electric Image had the reputation of being very, very fast. It was used to render the space scenes in the early Star Wars movies and I had just bought it. In fact, it was still in its box when I arrived at my studio the morning of my pill bottle disaster. How would I make this work?

I called Electric Image tech support and asked for their help. I had never used their software, so they guided me over the phone and told me how to export my Alias Sketch pill bottle models into their software. Then they explained how to add lights and move the camera position to capture the angle I wanted. When I hit the “Render” button my scene was done in 15 minutes. I made my deadline and from then on Electric Image became my primary renderer.

The Image Above: “Do Whatever You Want to Do.”

That is what the editors of a camera magazine told me when I asked if they wanted me to include any products in my cover illustration. Na. Nope. Nothing. Just do what you want. So I made my image. It was the one above, but it only had the wavy film and I submitted it.

“Hey, wait. Oh my gosh. You forgot all the other items.” The editors gushed.

“What other items? You told me to do whatever I wanted,” I said.

“Oh, no. We need Polaroid film, an Ektachrome film canister and an A-200 film canister also.”

“You’re kidding, right?”. I didn’t say that, but wanted to.

It took some time to build the models, but with Electric Image there was no overnight render. It took just a few minutes and the colors were gorgeous. They printed beautifully.

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                                              Spark Plug