Thursday, November 30, 2006

Put Up or Shut Up

I think its kind of presumptuous for you to assume you know what Kinkade sees and experiences. Maybe in a certain place he saw exactly the rainbow he painted! Unless you followed him around his whole life I don't think you can know.

Anonymous Reply to Previous Post

That’s a fair enough objection, I think. At the risk of getting too textbooky, I’ll explain myself and then add a few thoughts about exactly how obligated to truth I believe an artist can or should be. It’s not my job to tell anyone what art to like or not like (hi, Nurse Sis!). But I can defend my rationale.

First, a little rainbow physics. Your standard rainbow appears when sunlight behind you hits raindrops in front of you. Each individual spherical raindrop becomes a prism that refracts white sunlight into its component colors and reflects it back to your eye. It’s important to remember that a rainbow isn’t a “real thing out there,” but an optical phenomenon that the observer is a part of. Everybody sees a slightly different one.

(This suggests an interesting analog to the old koan, “If a tree falls in a forest and there’s no one there to hear it, does it make a sound?” I never understood why that was considered a profound puzzle: the answer is obviously Yes. However, if sunlight hits a raindrop and there’s no one there to see it, does it make a rainbow? Maybe not.)

A rainbow’s arc is always a portion of a circle, and the angle sunlight makes going in and out of each raindrop is always the same: 42 degrees. This has some interesting corollaries: the angle described by the center of the rainbow’s arc, the observer, and the rainbow is likewise always 42 degrees.

Furthermore, all rainbows are the same size—you just see more or less of them depending on how high the sun is in the sky. When the sun’s low, you see more of the circle; when it’s high, you see less. That’s what impressed me about the rainbow my wife photographed: with the sun about as low as it could be, the rainbow was about as big as it could get.

The Crime of Kinkade

I tried to find the objectionable Thomas Kinkade painting online but couldn’t. I only saw it once a few years ago, but as I best recall (and I apologize if I recall incorrectly) the critical elements looked like this:

You can make rainbows many different ways, but the one indispensable element is light. A bright light source has to be either directly behind the observer opposite the rainbow, or at the exact center of the rainbow behind it (for example, you can sometimes see a night rainbow circling the Moon formed by ice crystals in the sky).

Where’s the light source in this painting? The sun isn’t directly behind the observer nor directly behind the rainbow. It’s off to one side. There’s no enormous spotlight shining onto or out of the waterfall. The only way this rainbow works is if it’s on a planet with two suns, like Luke Skywalker’s home of Tatooine, and one of those suns is shining behind us. But even then, the rainbow is so far up the mountain that the second sun behind us would have to be impossibly below the horizon. If Kinkade added a Jawa or Sand Creature to this painting I’d be more satisfied, because this rainbow couldn't happen on Earth.

There’s a more subtle problem with the rainbow as well. As mentioned, the angle between a rainbow’s center, an observer, and the rainbow’s arc is always 42 degrees. That means that an entire rainbow, side to side, takes up 84 degrees of the observer’s world view. Think of it like this: if you slowly turned in a 360-degree circle and saw rainbow after rainbow lined up side by side along the horizon like McDonald's Golden Arches, there’d be just over four of them before you circled back to where you started.

The problem with Kinkade’s rainbow, then, is not just that it’s in the wrong place but that it's far too small. You could have fit several rainbows side by side in the painting I remember without going all the way around. Kinkade was clearly thinking of a rainbow as a physical “real thing out there” that should follow the rules of perspective and look smaller when it’s farther away. But that’s not how rainbows work.

Is There in Truth No Beauty?

So what?

A lot of artists draw and paint a lot of things that aren’t necessarily technically accurate. Have I never heard of artistic license? Never made a mistake myself? Am I trying to suck the fun out of everything?

That kind of depends on what you think art is about. I’m not a soulless drudge. I’d never criticize a child for drawing the sun beside a rainbow or getting the colors mixed up. And abstract artists can do whatever they want. Still....

When I was in college, a friend who wanted to sell his racing bicycle asked me to do a drawing of it that he could post with a flyer (this was in the Dark Ages, kids, when we couldn’t just upload a digital photo and print it in full color. Although we did have photocopiers, which saved me the trouble of chiseling the bike’s image in marble).

So with my friend’s bike as a model I drew it as best I could. When I proudly unveiled my creation to him, he scoffed, “That looks like my grandmother’s Schwinn!” Then he took me by the hand and patiently explained to me all the features that made a racing bike different from grandma’s Schwinn. I was struck by how wrong I’d gotten it. The proportions, the angles of the posts, the wheels... Even though it was sitting right in front of me, I hadn’t drawn his bike at all. I had drawn a completely different bike that existed in my head.

I think a fundamental responsibility of artists is to view the world as accurately and convey it as honestly as they can. To really see what they’re looking at and then communicate it. That's very hard to do! A big part of that responsibility is knowing what you don’t know and being willing to find out. I didn’t know anything about racing bikes but didn’t know I didn’t know. I learned.

If I set out to draw a horse, I’d surround myself with horse references. If I tried to draw a World War II tank, I’d google up as many tank pictures as I could find. I’d probably still botch the job: there are things about horses only a horse person knows and I’m sure there’s a tank guy out there who’d get mad because I put a 1944 model in a story set in 1943. And doctors and nurses laugh at medical shows (you ought to hear Nurse Sis gripe about “E.R.”), cops laugh at cop shows, lawyers laugh at law shows, and cartoonists laugh at cartooning shows (“Caroline in the City” anyone?). You could get paranoid and paralyzed pretty quickly, afraid to move a muscle. Nobody knows everything! What’re you supposed to do?

Cartoonist Mort Walker wrote about how when he started “Beetle Bailey” he took great pains to be sure the rifles, tanks, and other equipment were drawn accurately. He soon realized that didn’t work. In his comic strip world, his generalized abstractions of rifles and tanks worked better than truer representations. The symbols were more effective than the objects they symbolized. That’s probably true for a lot of cartooning and non-representational art but a problem for an artist like Kinkade, who is clearly portraying places that, though idealized, are meant to look like they could exist.

Another story: One of my favorite panels in Mom’s Cancer is the one of my mother strapped down in Frankenstein’s lab.

The metaphor conveys her perspective of the terrifying experience, but my original intent was to draw a realistic picture of her lying on the actual machine used to treat her. I scoured the Internet looking for a picture of the machine, all through the hospital’s and manufacturer’s websites, and couldn’t find one. That wasn’t a detail I wanted to risk getting wrong so I evaded it as creatively as I could. It worked great, better than my original idea, but it was essentially a cheat to cover my ignorance of stereotactic radiosurgery (sorry, I must have missed that day of class). There are a lot of ways to solve the problem.

I make mistakes and take shortcuts (I'm painfully aware of mine, no need to point them out), everyone does. All I’m looking for is a good-faith effort. An artist who makes his living as a “painter of horses” should know horses. A “painter of tanks” should know tanks. And a “painter of light”....


shrinking indigo said...

Just like your book, that was beautifully written.


ronnie said...

Truly fascinating post.

As for the "tree in the forest" conundrum, can a sound be said to have been created if an eardrum didn't vibrate? Does the existence of sound waves alone (just like the existence of the raindrops reflecting the sun) constitute a "sound", or must an eardrum vibrate (or, in my case, a hair cell be stimulated by artificial means) in order for a "sound" to have been said to exist?

At least, I think that's what the conundrum is.

I wanted to mention in passing that that particular panel is one of my very favourite from Mom's Cancer, if "an image which startlingly perfectly sums up a terrifying experience the reader can relate to on a profound, gut-wrenching level" can be said to equal "favourite".

L said...

Oh man, my head hurts with that physics lesson...obviously I took too much time actually trying to comprehend what you were talking about.

Makes sense though really, when you think about it, a master of a certain trade should be a master or what he(or she) does, and if he specializes in light, he should be able to draw lighting effects as well and as acurately as humanly possible...

But who knows, maybe that was his modern art phase...or maybe he really likes drawing rainbows!

PS: R and I finished our NaNoWriMo...! Yay!

Arnold Wagner said...

Agreed on Kinkade.

Unfortunately I could draw you a very good sketch of the machine you were looking for, but I'm also sure if you'd taken a digital camera to the local hospital they'd have been cooperative.

Namowal said...

Good point on the rainbow physics violation!
My pet peeve in art, doctored photos or movies is when they screw with the moon. Like when it's upside down or in some imposible position (a slim crescent high in the sky with no sun nearby, for example). Or if stars are visible through the dark part of the moon.

Brian Fies said...

Thanks, Amanda. I appreciate it!

Ronnie, regarding the tree in the forest, I'm afraid I'm too much of a meat-and-potatoes science guy to find it an interesting question. Sound is pressure waves moving through air (or water, whatever). If I believe there is wind howling across the crest of Mt. Everest or the plains of the Sahara even when no one is there to experience it, I have to believe the falling tree makes a sound.

I've had this discussion with people who try to parse the difference between "sound" and "noise," arguing that sound is indeed waves moving through air but noise is how that sound is perceived by an observer (or vice versa). The tree can make sound without making noise. Maybe that's what you're getting at? I concede that point but think niggling over subtle word definitions misses the spirit and intent of the riddle (which wasn't originally posed in English anyway). Does something exist if it's not observed? Yes, including 99.99% of the universe.

But I think a rainbow is a fundamentally different thing. It's almost, but not quite, an optical illusion. Yes, light shines into raindrops and gets refracted and reflected whether anybody's looking or not, but the phenomenon of the rainbow depends on an observer standing at that 42-degree spot. If I'm standing to the side of a rainstorm in the distance, I can think, "boy, I'll bet those people over there are seeing some great rainbows," but I can't see one myself. No observers, no rainbows... maybe.

If 1000 people are in the forest and all hear a single bark-splintering crack, they can compare notes and trace that sound back to the fallen tree that made it. But if 1000 people are standing in a field looking at a rainbow, each is really looking at his or her own individual rainbow and there's no causal event to trace. There's no there there. If 1000 people see 1000 different rainbows, 100 people see 100 different rainbows, and 1 person sees 1 rainbow, then what would zero persons see?

If you tied me down and waterboarded me, I'd admit I think there probably are rainbows shining unobserved in the Amazon just as there are unheard sounds whistling across the summit of Everest. But I think there's a much better case for the unwitnessed non-existence of a rainbow than a tree crash.

Thanks for your compliment on that panel. I share your unease, and in fact took myself aback writing that it was "one of my favorites," too. But I think I can have compassion for Mom and mourn her while still thinking I sometimes did an adequate job communicating her experience. If someone looks at that panel and understands Mom's terror, then I did a good job and that makes me happy.

If I can live with it, so can you!

Arnold, I regret your experiences that gave you so much time to study such machines. In my case, this particular machine was located at "Impressive Hospital" far from home. I could've made do with similar local equipment, but I came up with my Frankenstein solution pretty fast and liked it better anyway.

Namowal, thanks for giving me something else to gripe about. I share your peeve, and am always on the lookout for stars inside crescent moons, crescents pointing the wrong direction, full moons beside sunsets, etc. Ever notice how seldom artists depict a gibbous moon? It's always full or crescent. That's one reason I drew a gibbous moon on Page 76 of Mom's Cancer, just to be an iconoclast.