Sunday, November 28, 2010

Design Philosophy

It's been a busy couple of weeks. This post isn't very long but it is one I think very important. It's about design. I may have talked about this before, but it bears re-iterating.  How does one go about designing? How does one pick the best design for the idea/ stone/ etc?  Well, here's how I go about it. This technique goes back to my undergraduate days. My metals professor, Thelma Coles (she's had the most profound influence on how I go about making art than anyone else), required us to keep a sketchbook of our designs, which was graded at the end of every semester. Thelma required that I do at least 10 alternative sketches of every single design/ concept I came up with. I don't know if she required this of every one else but I really think she tailored her requirements to best serve her students.  At the time I thought this was an impossible task. I couldn't possibly come up with 10 designs per idea, but being a dutiful student, I started trying. And to my astonishment, I came to really like it. I had to sit and really think and focus and then really explore every concept and record that exploration.  I will tell you now design #1 was rarely the design that proved the best.  So I challenge all you artists out there if you aren't doing it already, make at least 5-10 variations on any design you do for a month at least and see where it leads.  I still use this approach for 99% of every thing I make and it has served me better than I could have possibly imagined.  So here's an example of what I'm talking about:

So here's the piece in progress- main soldering done (stone is just sitting in place- not set) and the general sanding/ shaping is done but that's it. You can see how white the metal is- that's the unpolished fine silver surface coming up.

This was the first page

Second page
As you can see, the designs are pretty similar but there are subtle differences and this is really where one can make or break a piece.  The devil is in the details, as they say :-)  After looking over the designs and construction considerations, I picked the upper right design, which of course was one of the last. I've opted to use some kum-boo on the textured background to play off the yellow in the stone and that's not on the piece yet. I still have to solder my maker's mark plaque and the findings on the back and then the soldering will be done. Once the piece is sufficiently sanded and then depletion gilded, I'll do the kumboo (stay tuned for that how-to post soon) then tumble the piece to burnish the surface and work harden the metal again (another post waiting in the wings).

Occasionally I just wing it and don't start out with a design at all, I just pick a stone and play around with scrap and shapes that look interesting and work intuitively.  I've been doing this metals thing for over 20 years now so I've had a lot of practice being 'intuitive', keep in mind. I know my material and I know my style. But it takes me 3 times longer to create a piece that way than it would if I'd just sat down for 20 minutes and worked all that stuff out on paper. Undoing something in metal is waaaayyy harder than scrubbing the last paint layer off your canvas, so whenever you can plan out your construction strategy, let's just say it makes for a lot less stress in the studio and way less scrapped metal.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Goings on

Ingrid and I took a workshop at MAC with Michael Healey a couple of weeks ago on how to photograph your 3d artwork. It was really helpful and I not only learned a great deal about optimal setup and equipment, I also found some new features on my camera that I hadn't known about- go figure.  Since I actually do product photography as part of my job at the Heard, my main goal in taking this class was to learn about what equipment I need to request for the budget next year as well as optimal setup and how I can achieve better quality images in camera so I don't have to do quite as much Photoshop work to get the pics ready to upload to the online shop. So here's Michael's basic setup:

Michael's set up
He sets up a good solid wood board on horses then has a bar across the back with a photo paper roll (he uses a light gray) which then gets pulled down in a nice arc and taped to the front of the board. He usually uses one light which is just over and in front of the set up. The trick to getting a dark fall off going up the image is to put a shade structure up over the set up so light hits the piece but not the background as it goes vertical. Very clever. He also has the background a good distance away from the piece so depth of field is just on the work which allows the background to just fade into non-detailed darkness, which is also very clever.

An example of how Michael's photography looks with this set up

My set up at work involves a gifted piece of black photo paper (I need to get with my boss and see about ordering some rolls- they aren't that pricey) and two lights with umbrellas. I turn the lights completely up facing the ceiling and that causes the light to bounce back off the ceiling and the umbrellas to diffuse the photo area. It reverses my light to dark though so the floor of the set up is dark and the vertical wall gets lighter.  I'm sure I can rig something up to mimic Michael's set up but it may have to wait until after high season because I'm way too busy having to get product online right now to take time out to mess with the set up.

my set up
Looks a bit on the minimal side, doesn't it? Amazingly it gets the job done 9 times out of 10.  One thing I also learned in Michael's workshop is that he can spend quite a bit of time problem solving the set up to get the very best quality shot he can. And he does and it looks amazing. On any given day I may need to put anywhere from 10-40 pieces on the web and that's on top of processing orders, taking phone calls and emails that are all over the place topic-wise and preparing the content to go online as well.  I have to have a setup that is sort of a one size fits all, which is not optimal, but I'm amazed that I'm doing as well as I am considering all its shortcomings.  Here's an example shot:

This was shot in my light tent, which I don't like but it's not bad, eh? I'll have to take a pic of what my light tent looks like but here's what Michael uses for a light tent:

Michael's home made light tent- pvc and a vellum-like heat resistant photo film used in theatre
The only reason I don't like my light tent is because they designed it with velcro as well as zippers and the velcro is constantly shedding little white fluff all over my black paper! Apart from that, it's okay. Here's a typical example of a product shot not in a light tent. You can see how the background gets lighter and the "floor" is dark.

Another issue with my set up is that I don't have time to measure for optimal depth of field so I just have to crank up the depth of field as high as possible to accommodate the different sized pieces and different focal lengths I need to get the shot. I can't back away from my setup by more than 4 or 5 feet, so the background is almost always in focus. That makes for additional grain in the image no matter what the ISO but for me right now it's unavoidable. Here's the other side of my office/ studio:

Michael's class was really great and also allowed me to see that I was doing some things as well as I could so I've stopped beating myself up a bit on the struggle to get good shots. Even with all of his expertise and the right equipment, he still struggles with getting the best shots possible.  And for you jeweler's out there, he says that's the hardest stuff he ever has to shoot! I think he's planning on teaching it in the spring (it's a weekend workshop) and I highly recommend it if you need better shots of your work for shows or galleries and you need to take them yourself.  If you can afford not to have to take them yourself, I recommend you hire  Michael because he's really good :-)

About equipment: the product shots you see here that I took were shot with an old Nikon d40 with a Nikkor ~17-55mm lens. My lights are tungsten lights. The camera ISO is set to 200 and to Aperture mode. I have the white balance set to incandescent +2, which means tungsten on this camera. I adjust the exposure rather than the shutter speed to bracket because that's faster. I do not have an external light meter. Every image is brought into Photoshop CS4. The most common adjustments outside of cropping and sizing for the web are levels and selective color (using layers). I also do a lot of background fuzz cleanup with the patch tool.  BTW, sizing for the web means reducing the dpi to 72, which is the highest resolution for the web.  You do not want an image that is 300 dpi ever to go up onto the web. It just hogs memory and causes the whole system to bog down. I also bring the image width and height down and compress all jpegs for web viewing. The quality is usually between 60-80%.

My personal camera is a Nikon D300 and my main lens is a Tamron 17-55mm, which I love. All the other photos as well as just about any photo you see here or on my design website was shot with the D300.  My next big purchase for photography is going to be a tripod over a flash. I learned another thing in Michael's class, keeping the ISO down makes for better photos but that also frequently makes for longer exposures. I need a tripod for a lot of the work I really like to do.  As of my research right now, I'm leaning towards an RRS ball head with quick release plate and I'm pretty sure I'll get that but the legs I really want are from Gtizo and they are quite pricey so I may go with an Induro set for about half the cost. I think they'll work out just fine.  That little gift to self will have to wait until after the holidays though :-)  Sigh, something to dream about....

Saturday, November 13, 2010

I just can't resist

I stood in line this afternoon to meet Red Green at an Ace Hardware all the way across town in Litchfield Park.  The 20 seconds of actually meeting him was totally worth the hour in line :-)

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Whole lotta goings on, no pics yet

Well, it's been an eventful week. The same weekend as the All Souls Show I took a photography workshop from Michael Healey at the Mesa Arts Center on photographing 3d artwork, which was really great.  My main goal was to glean information to make my photography at the Heard go faster and better and I think I accomplished that objective. Unfortunately, I discovered that a different setup would help tremendously but there's no money in the budget to get one until next October.  I also discovered that I'm doing a lot of things right, too, so that was nice to know.

Last weekend, after having all the other October weekends booked, I promised Mike that I'd clear the schedule for him so I did.  Polly really could have used some more help at the Day of the Dead event Sat/Sun at MAC and I felt really bad about saying no but I'd already promised Mike I wouldn't work yet another weekend.  However, Lynette took over creating the project for demo/ hands-on and they all (Holly and Jonathan) worked their keisters off to make it happen and by all accounts it was a great success.  So Saturday I don't actually remember what went on during the day but we did go to Whole Foods and get fixin's for dinner and Mike grilled a duck, which was incredibly delicious along with eggplant from the garden and we also had polenta and salad. Sunday we had a lovely lazy morning and then went for a hike at South Mountain in the late afternoon. We got home just in time to hand out candy to the trick-or-treaters and spent the rest of the evening doing piddly stuff to get ready for the week.

And now back to work...  Friday night was First Friday and the Phoenix Center Metals Show so I had to see that then I went out with a good friend to catch up on life for a couple of hours, which was wonderful.  This Saturday was the Heard's Weaver's Market where Navajo weavers come from all over the region to sell their rugs directly. I worked the morning as the shop photographer, talking to the weavers, taking photos of them with their work and taking photos of the event in general, then I had to boogie back to Tempe to see the last few minutes of a Saturday art show that my step son was in (his mom is at ASU doing a teaching certificate and she and I guess other art ed students taught  these several weeks long Saturday morning kids art classes and this was the final day/ show for what the kids had done), pick him up and then go run errands. Today, Mike and I have to start hashing out the design of the kitchen for the new house (I've put a time limit on that because we tend to end up in a heated argument... anyone else ever done renovation know what I'm talking about? :-) ) then I'm headed to the studio for hopefully about 6 hours to get some much needed/ desired work in!  Woohoo!!!  I've got several pieces in process and one older piece I want to redesign.  I had thought I might go down to Tucson for the All Souls Procession tonight but I just don't have the energy.  I've got to plan ahead for that kind of thing....

And this morning I finally wrote back to the Midwest Metalsmiths about possibly doing a weekend workshop for them next year. They asked about painting enamel but I also suggested the hammer stone setting class.  Thank you Andrew!!!  I hope we can work something out.  I so love to teach and it would be fun to go somewhere new.  I'll keep you posted!  Next week I expect to have some photos of my adventures as well as pics of what I'm working on in the studio.  I'll try to remember to repeat this then but if anyone ever has process questions about a piece I show, please feel free to ask it. In addition, if there's anything technical you'd like me to address, please let me know and I can get photos together to talk about it.  Have a great week and make some art!