Unifying the Darks: How an Art Director Makes an Image Pop

 Cornelius Dämmrich - Mercury

Today, I’m picking on a talented German artist who works in 3DS Max.

His rendering’s crisp CG details draw me in, but then send my eyes to flit back and forth across the image in want of a strong focal point to stick to. Poor tonal organization=no focal point=weak visual punch. I respect the self restraint the artist displays with a limited palette, but he needs to organize, unify, and simplify these tonal shapes.

In a highly-complex image such as this, only focal points should have such severe light/dark contrast.

Violating this rule yields a too-busy image. That in mind, I spent 15 minutes retouching the image in Photoshop. (I’ll confess it’s rude of me to do this to a stranger’s work, but wait until you see the difference.) Notice how now the tones look correctly and coherently grouped, thereby uncluttering the image.


Continue reading “Unifying the Darks: How an Art Director Makes an Image Pop”


Earning the Right to Critique


On two occasions, I sat in on discussions where brand positioning gurus dissected John Carter‘s box office failure. In both venues (one was a lengthy LinkedIn discussion while the other was a live panel in Manhattan), participants agreed that the movie’s poorly chosen name generally caused its failure. Yet, nobody had the bravery to suggest another name. Not a single branding consultant in either discussion!

Every movie needs a name.

Every brand needs an identity and a voice. Every team needs a uniform. You might not like what’s in place, but for us to Continue reading “Earning the Right to Critique”

Earning the Right to Critique

Could I Interest You in a Less Modern Brand?

I’m suspicious of brands that choose Minimalist design.

Minimalism is one of many tools a brand designer can use to connect a product with upscale city life in consumers’ minds. However, too many strategists think it’s the only tool. They default to minimalist design when they shouldn’t; they needlessly crowd into that niche when it doesn’t serve their brands. By so doing, they miss a chance to stand out.

Some creative directors embrace modern design because they love the style. On packaging, websites or showroom interiors, the style is clean, pure, loud, and luxurious when a talented craftsman holds the reins.

Baron & Baron - Michael Kors Bags
Michael Kors bags by Baron & Baron

Other creative directors and chief brand officers perceive an obligation to create minimalist visual identities. These are the execs frightened of being left behind in the race to be most contemporary; Continue reading “Could I Interest You in a Less Modern Brand?”

Could I Interest You in a Less Modern Brand?

Color and Cinema: On Picasso, Ridley Scott, John Carter, and Charlie’s Chocolate Factory

As Picasso painted in his studio in rural France, a thief approached. The thief did not know that Picasso was home, so when he smashed through the windowpane, Picasso startled him.  The thief lunged forward, grabbed two small paintings, and sprinted into the woods.  Picasso had lost the thief, but not before getting a good look at him.  So Picasso went to the police to describe the thief.  “But you’re an artist,” the police chief said.  “Why don’t you show us what the thief looked like by drawing him?”  Picasso drew the thief and handed it to the police officer, who made an arrest the next day.  With the help of Picasso’s sketch, the police arrested a washing machine and the Eiffel Tower.

That was just a bit of fun.  Say what you want about Picasso, but he was brilliantly inventive not only with his visual translations of the world, but also with his use of color.  Picasso studied Paul “Color Sage” Cezanne for years, and I give Paul the lion’s share of credit for refining Picasso’s color sense.

Picasso – Saltimbanques

Outstanding color relationships fuel this picture.  Paul C would be proud.

By the way, if you actually try to apply these colors to your own painting, you’ll find it’s quite the challenge.  You have to get the ratios right, and that’s trickier than getting the swatches right.  You also have to worry  about which colors go next to each other.  Do you notice that the red figure is missing a leg.  That’s no mistake.  Picture first, meaning second.

If you like Picasso’s colors in Saltimbanques, then you’ll love Ridley Scott’s colors in Gladiator (2000).  Here are two frames from the movie:

You can see how Ridley Scott carefully engineers each color in a scene.  Had he directed the movie John Carter (2012), audiences would have enjoyed color palettes that were more effective, more pleasing, and more inspiring.  I assure you he would have never allowed the aliens with tusks to wear green skin.

John Carter fatigued the viewers with this kind of drab color, which is drab because the art department had to desaturate the color of the frame to play down the clashing green and tan.  Why not just change the green?  Or add yellow flags and black costumes to spice up the scene.

Ugly, ineffective color schemes also afflicted Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and not for lack of effort from the art department.  I could show you dozens of examples, and here is one.  The factory interior has an ugly candy-green grass that just didn’t work visually against the milk-chocolate brown.  Candy red mushrooms improve the situation, but the colors still should have been better:

For the green to work in this particular frame, it needs to occupy more than 75% of the scene or it needs to drop to under 5%.  If you can’t fill the frame with green, consider these alternate grass colors that harmonize with chocolate brown.

(Also, the lighting looks silly.  Might I suggest making the red mushrooms into lanterns that are the sole light sources in this room.)

How do you justify the choice of white grass over green grass to a supervising studio exec that doesn’t “get it?”  I see so many amazing, beautifully designed elements in the Chocolate Factory interior.  The problem was organizational–artists felt they had to provide wordy justifications for their color choices. Meanwhile, Ridley Scott would have let them get away with “The grass is red because . . . it looks good on the screen.”  Done!

I’ll leave you with one last showcase of color mastery.  Once again, this comes from our hero, Ridley Scott, who turns what could have been sword-and-sandals drabness into a visual treat using dazzling, remarkable, competent color.

Color and Cinema: On Picasso, Ridley Scott, John Carter, and Charlie’s Chocolate Factory

Torben Giehler’s digital mountains; the new Modernism

Torben Giehler needs to have a sit down with Neal Stephenson. His paintings belong in the Metaverse.

These canvases are large (~120″ across). Imagine how they’d jolt you if you were to stand in the presence of the real paintings.  I respect how Giehler organizes warm light passages and cool shadow passages, and how he builds a focal point by reducing the size of the squares at center. Designers take note!

Torben Giehler – K2, 2002
Torben Giehler – 2002 – Mont Blanc
Torben Giehler – 2002 – Matterhorn
Torben Giehler – 2002 – Lhotse
His studio

Giehler breaks from the Modernist tradition.  Can you see why?  For one thing, his paintings always convey three-dimensional depth.  Also, his colors and patterns are more nuanced, less bombastic than the colors and patterns you would find in the early Modern period.  No color on his palette is straight from the tube.  Not even white.  Giehler grasps that his target market loves their their tertiary colors.  (Along the same lines, take note that Damien Hirst’s most beloved works are not his over-the-top sculptures, but rather his dot paintings, with their subtly modulated colors.  The dot paintings don’t shock their way into headlines, but boy do they sell.)

Giehler painted this mountain series in 2002.  The work he’s doing a decade later is yet more nuanced.  He could have become more ambitious and experimental with age, but that’s not what the elite market wants. Theatrical art appeals to the working class, and Geihler is moving the other way. I applaud him for capturing a balance of grandeur and subtlety in the mountain paintings, but I think he would admit (as evidenced by the direction his works have since taken) that he teetered too far towards overstated theatricality in 2002. His mountain landscapes may have been more successful (and amassed more critical praise and attention) had the squares of color been built up in oil paints, layer over translucent layer, to a subtle, vibrating effect. I’m not talking about beauty. I’m talking about an effect appealing to those who desire everything to be excessively nuanced, and who equate a convoluted, indirect process of art-making with sophistication and refinement.

Less is not more, then, but the stylistic changes between Giehler’s 2002 paintings and his 2011 paintings illuminate the direction that upper class tastes have taken during the last decade.  If they were painting today, Kandinsky and deKooning would be catering to the tastes of only the proletariat.  Collectors would remind them that bombastic, overstated abstract art is kitsch too.

Torben Giehler – 2011 – 24 hour
Torben Giehler – 2011 – Marian
Torben Giehler’s digital mountains; the new Modernism

Dozier Bell: artifacts from an age of understatement

Dozier Bell – Confluence, 2010
Dozier Bell – Rim, 2005

These hit me like a rocket!  They’re fantastic!  They convey a patron’s status, they create a state-altering experience for any viewers standing before them, and they’re at home in 2011 America.  That third point is something that’s eluded me, because I’ve been in a slump, making works that would fit 1890s southwest as well as 2011 suburban PA.  Timeless art is not my goal.  It should not be my goal.  The best art is out of place anywhere but here, any time but now.  That is not to prescribe that a work be a snapshot or illustration of current events or even current movements or styles.  It need not relate to current politics or current cultural trends.  Art can do any of these things or none of these things, but again, the best art is out of place anywhere but here, any time but now.

Cot – The Storm, 1887

This is something curators look for: works that are indicative of the time and of the place surrounding their creation.  Cot’s The Storm looks kitschy from our 21st-century viewpoint, but when it was painted in 1887, sappy, crassly sentimental paintings were in vogue.  In a way, The Storm may reflect the sensibilities of the times just as Baroque and Renaissance art reflects sensibilities of their times.  Its link to 1887 is limited, though, since its subject matter in no way relates to 1887.  Timeless subject matter sets it back.  Compare Cot’s painting to the Ash Can School of Art (George Bellows) or to the regionalist painters of the American Midwest (Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton) or to the Italian Futurists or to the Precisionists (Charles Sheeler and Charles Demuth), all of whom made art that was generally about or inspired by or pertaining to the world immediately surrounding them.  Bellows was not a great technical painter nor a great colorist, but his works were iconic artifacts of the environment in which they were created.  Such is not the case for Cot’s The Storm.

What are the sensibilities of our times?  How does Dozier Bell reflect these 21st-century sensibilities?  These are good questions, and my answers are still coalescing.  My first impression is that the scale, the spare composition, muted colors, and the polished style connect Bell’s work to 2011 America.  The subject matter is also contemporary.  Her works are not timeless, and therein lies their value.

Dozier Bell: artifacts from an age of understatement

Alexis Rockman on Realism

Alexis Rockman - Mangrove

Call it his Chinese restaurant conversion.  Nearly two decades ago, as a 21-year-old art student in New York City, Alexis Rockman sat at a formica table, green tea in hand, staring at the eels in the restaurant’s fish tank. It was nearly midnight. He’d just completed a painting, one of those colorful, emotionally wrought abstracts popular in art circles. But instead of being filled with joy, he was depressed, a feeling he knew a thing or two about. A few years earlier, he’d suffered a nervous breakdown. “It was like being on an island gradually engulfed by water,” he recalls, as if mental collapse might result from global warming.

Then, in the eerie orange light of the restaurant, Rockman found an inner resolve. I hate abstract paintings, he finally admitted to himself. Why don’t I have the courage to paint animals?

Kudos to Rockman for framing his choice of subject matter in this way.  Think of how another artist might have framed the same decision to illustrate fantastic animals.  They’d say, Animals were always around me–they were so colorful and varied and they drew my interest more than any abstract art.  But Rockman does not claim personal preference–he instead claims to have taken a righteous, courageous path.  By extension, abstractionists lack the gumption to work realistically, or perhaps they lack the gumption to step off the abstract bandwagon and to follow their hearts.

I’m not saying I believe this.  I’m not sure Rockman himself genuinely believes this, but he has masterfully framed his chosen direction as an artist.

This reminds me of Rothko, who, when asked how long it took to complete one of his paintings, replied I’ve been working on this painting my whole life.  And of course he had not been literally been working on any painting his whole life, but the underlying message to the critical challenge was,  My work has immeasurable value because no one but me could have brought this artwork into existence.

Wired Article on Alexis Rockman
Artist’s Website

Alexis Rockman on Realism