I’m now on Tumblr

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2017_HCO-wtrmrkI’ve got a new blog on Tumblr where I’ll post more incomplete or run-of-the-mill sketches rather than the more complete ones that you might find here. I intend to keep hundredconnector full of more “quality” work versus the tumblblog, which honestly is more of an accountability experiment than anything else.

So visit hundred drafts for informal scribblings!

Artists and Designers

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I used to say that “I’m not an artist, I’m a designer.” At the time, it was a serious distinction: when popular fine artistry became more concerned with personal expression, social commentary, and testing ethical limits, rather than technical ability, I immediately sought to distance myself from the term. For me, it was important that my work satisfied on the aesthetic level and spoke its own message, rather than having to rely on a sales pitch.

Oscar Wilde wrote in The Picture of Dorian Gray that art is “useless.” While this angered me when I first heard it 10th grade, I have since learned what he meant, and Wilde indirectly struck on why artists differ from designers. The artist creates work in the hopes of creating a mood, or perhaps to communicate some inner thought. Art needn’t be “good” in the academic sense to be of value to anyone. This is central to the practice of art therapy, where the experience of creation is just as important as (if not more important than) the finished project. While art only requires one person to appreciate it (or at least the process of its creation,) design runs in the opposite direction.

Self-expression is not the primary goal of design. Design is conveying an action or idea effectively, without drawing attention to itself as a distraction. Dieter Rams summed it up when he said that “Good design is as little design as possible.” Where art’s existence can be justified by just one person’s opinion, design’s purpose hinges on the idea that it is accessible to as many people as possible. Where art can be created to enjoyed for its own sake, design is meant to serve another’s message before its own inherent beauty is recognized. Where one can sit down with a cup of coffee and enjoy a piece of art, design is making sure that you are sitting comfortably, that your cup is perfectly weighted and warm, and that your coffee was no hassle to brew.

For the most part, artists and designers don’t get the chance to explain their work, and on many levels, they shouldn’t have to. Art can be appreciated for what it is, while design must achieve a specific goal to be of any worth. While the artist struggles with making his own voice heard, the designer struggles to make someone else’s voice heard.

Different as those goals may be, I’ve since come to appreciate both art and design more. There are some things that designers do that don’t make any sense: “because it looked better” is often a completely valid design decision. That’s where design relies on art. Artists deal with existing concepts and social tropes all the time; that’s where art relies on design. It’s certainly important to recognize the difference, but it’s equally important to recognize the similarities.

When Out-of-Practice Makes Perfect

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One of the keys to achieving fitness results relatively quickly is the valuable rest day. Daily training for weeks on end works for some people, but even that lifestyle can be helped by even a single day off. (Not that I’m a personal trainer or fitness guru, but it happens to be true.) No matter what regimen you follow, almost all of them emphasize the importance of resting your wearied muscles so that they can heal and grow new muscle tissue to help you perform even better than before. In some ways, the mind is very similar, especially when learning new skills.

I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.—Bruce Lee

About the only solid truth of learning any skill is that the more time you spend practicing, the quicker you will learn that skill and (generally) the better you will be at performing it. Of course there are many other factors involved but let’s just roll with that advice: daily practice, even minutes a day, adds up to big change more quickly. So yes, practicing the scales on the piano will make you better at it. It’s better to draw every day if you want to improve quickly. It’s better to practice that single punch 10,000 times, to paraphrase Bruce Lee. It’s infintely useful, yet, in my opinion, has a potentially devastating effect.

Practicing with an overly conscious “beginner’s mind” can leave you convinced that, even with hundreds of hours of training, you still need to practice in the same way every day. Some people swear by this method; I personally can’t recommend it anymore. Sometimes, after enough practice, what I really need is some time off. Not a few hours; sometimes I need a couple of weeks.

It seems that this break, which to some is unusually long, allows me to literally forget about the tedium of drawing a certain way. When I draw purposefully, I usually create a stick figure and then flesh it out until the piece is complete. Drawing this way sometimes uses too much brain power:

“Oh, are the proportions right?”
“Is the ribcage drawn in the right place?”
“That nose is a little too generic.”

So let’s say that I take a break from drawing for a few days. I’ll come back to a blank sheet, and stop myself from starting with a stick figure. I’ll remind myself that after having the visual arts play such a big role in my life for the past 20 years, there are some things I just don’t need to practice. Just draw a face, I’ll tell myself, you know well enough where things go at this point. Then, I’ll do it…

2016-0514_inksketch

… and far more often than not I’ll knock out something fairly accurate with just a few lines. It almost feels like I don’t need to practice ever again. (That idea is also not recommended!) But where does that power come from?

Perhaps the mind is more like a muscle after all; allowing it to rest lets it make new connections within itself. Studies suggest that expecting too much of yourself can lead to catastrophic performance failure, otherwise known as choking. I get this whenever I attempt to draw on smooth ink paper rather than the rougher stuff I use for sketching. It’s a careful balancing act between thinking too hard and trusting your ability, and while daily practice helps you find that balance more quickly, I think it’s worth taking a few days off to de-stress and re-center myself.

A Man vs. The Machine

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There’s a fat little book on my bookcase that I bought a long time ago, in a galaxy… okay, it was this galaxy. That book is called A Guide to the Star Wars Universe, and for many years I was happy to have bought the “Second, Expanded Edition!” because it included all the material ever released in Star Wars fiction up until that point.

Yes, I was (am?) a huge Star Wars fan, and part of the magic of that Guide was that it cataloged everything into two neat categories: “Stuff from the films” and “Stuff from the Expanded Universe,” which we fans had creatively marked as the “EU.” George Lucas even went on record (take that as you will) acknowledging that he saw the Star Wars franchise as basically these two universes. In George Lucas’ universe, the films tell you all there is you need to know. In the Expanded Universe, the films are just the starting point for what has been decades’ worth of contributing material, all of which has more or less stayed intact. New authors would reuse characters created outside the films. Characters that debuted in video games found their way into novels and comic books, and prose-original characters worked their way into games and TV shows. It was a sort of cross-pollination that was commendable because unlike franchises like Star Trek and Doctor Who, there weren’t multiple timelines and universes; there was one EU and for the most part it managed to work.

So with The Force Awakens coming out, it reminded me of of what happened not long after Disney bought Lucasfilm.

Let my bias be known: I do not have a high opinion of The Walt Disney Company. I do think it weird that Walt Disney had his corporation explore options in urban development. I do think it underhanded to buy a TV network and have that network’s shows start using “I’m going to Disney World!” as a plot device. Let’s not get into the copyright issues, either.

I do have this to say: the Disney Company is extremely good at crafting their products to resonate with people. So I don’t think it was necessarily a bad decision for the next Star Wars film to be entirely fresh; it puts every viewer on the same level. People won’t have their movie experience spoiled by someone who says “I hope they put General Whatshisname in the next film.” It’s a great relief and great fun to experience something new together.

That said, the cynic in me can’t help but curse What Disney Did to the Star Wars Expanded Universe. Basically, they nullified it.

On April 25, 2014, StarWars.com released a statement notifying the public that the EU was no longer canon. Everything that was created by those thousands of people over those 40 years doesn’t count. All the collaboration, all the cross-checking, all the work going into keeping a universe pretty much intact, didn’t count. Everything, no matter how good or terrible it was, didn’t count. And to a guy with a Disney bias like mine, it meant that “no stories counted unless Disney said so.” The initial press release attempted to soften the blow by pointing out that all legends differ in the details, and that the Expanded Universe wasn’t going away completely. The content would still be available under a “Legends” banner, and characters and ideas fleshed out in the original EU might be used again in the future films.

To be fair, this kind of thing has happened before. The stories between Star Wars and the release of The Empire Strikes Back (major ones being Splinter of the Mind’s Eye and The Star Wars Holiday Special) were “corrected” by the release of other films, and the prequel trilogy changed facts established by authors in other media.The major difference is that the EU tried to make these facts work together. I’m not saying that the EU was perfect; far from it, actually. It was full of overpowered characters and irreconcilable contradictions. It was a mess, but it was our mess.

In a way having a story group make sure that the timeline stays intact is probably the best thing for the EU. I just wish that the stories hadn’t been invalidated to do so. Disney’s willingness to appropriate the ideas of the EU in order to make a quick buck does nothing to quell my resentment towards the company, but I have to be honest: my resentment does nothing to quell my desire to see the new films.I just think it’s important to  remember the 35 years of collaborative fiction that got those new films on the screen.

Random Pattern Generator

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For a project at work I had to generate some random binary strings. (Yes, that’s the fun of graphic design: you never know what you’ll get to research.) At first, I was just typing what I thought were random strings of 0s and 1s. I happen to know that humans seem to be bad at generating random patterns, but even with that knowledge I thought I could… you know… beat fate? So I started hammering out 0s and 1s. After a few minutes of this, I got tired and instead turned to a random binary generator and popped the computer-generated numbers in the remaining lines. The funny thing was (and maybe it was because I created it) I could tell where the random strings started and where I left off. Can you tell? Look below. You may need to blur your vision to be able to see it.

Random Pattern 1

Can you tell? Look below for the answer.

Random Pattern 2

And in case you think I’m just making this up, check out the Gaussian-blurred version.

Random Pattern 3

And if you still think I’m full of it, maybe I’m just seeing things?

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