The Language of Art

This morning I talked with an Art Director about a piece of art she had done. She needed a little bit of advice in a few areas about photoshop usage (hence the conversation), and I was doing my best to help. The problem was our conversation was over the phone, which is a medium almost completely unsuited for talking about art.

You see I work as an artist (really an artisan) in a field full of artists. We, collectively, put together some pretty cool stuff at times, and it’s hecka fun. That is until we start talking about art. Then its rather boring.

Us artists types are visual people. We put things together so you can see them.  Think a picture and a thousand words. But when we talk about our art, it is done so in a very abstract way, and the conversation would be entirely meaningless if you could not see what we are talking about. If a part of an image needs to get brighter (as in closer to white) we might say, “make it hotter”, “brighter”, “whiter”, “open it up”, or even “more sunny”. All of these terms I have heard before, and they all roughly mean the same thing. Alas, when the topic gets more complex, then words tend to get confusing. That’s when we extend into metaphor. Make it like her face, or like that clock, or (referring to another poster) like Pearl Harbor.

Now if we were engineers, then we would have a very exact language, and could be extremely specific about what we want.  But artists don’t work like that. We’re not used to working with words, and if you listen to our conversations it shows. One of these days I’m going to record a conversation about a piece of art we’re working on, because out of that narrow context, the conversation has got to be somewhere between banal and silly.

So this morning, when I was talking to my friend, I had to really be careful about what I said. I could not see what she was seeing, and I could not show her what I meant visually, so we had to constantly double check our meaning by asking if we understood each other. She would say something, then I would repeat it, and then she would repeat it again. This happened over and over, but was necessary to ensure that our differing experiences about the art remained in sync. No doubt a linguist would have a term for this kind of verbal “fact checking”, which is retrospect is not all that different from the way a computer makes sure it has got all the pieces of a file correct, when you send something over a network.

I’m rather sensitive to this kind of communication because I do it a lot. I am constantly exposed to new Art Directors (new to working with me, that is, not necessarily new to the business)  and every time I work with one, I have to make sure what they say means the same thing as what I say. If we were engineers, for instance, then the language itself would be specific enough that it would not require much in the way of repetition. Some people use words in such a way as there really cannot be a second meaning to their sentences. Alas, with visual people, such specificity is tossed aside in exchange for speed. All one has to do it point to the artwork, and save those thousand words for something else, like what to order for lunch.

But such language usage goes beyond just the specific lingo of a given design shop, or Art Director.  Artists, I have noticed, tend to not use word play, or make jokes with puns, like others professionals I have worked with. Perhaps this is because they have set aside verbal acuity, in favor of visual acuity. If this is so, then they have made a good choice because most of the people I’ve had the pleasure of working with are damn good. With art, that is.

Funny Quote

“If television is a babysitter, then the internet is a drunk librarian that won’t shut up.” – unknown
About as accurate a statement as I’ve ever read.


Yesterday was the first day in a long time when I actually intentionally put on long pants. Mind you, I do wear long pants for work, but when I’m home, especially on the weekends, I always head to the shorts drawer. Well yesterday the weather was cool enough that I not only put on jeans, but I wore them all day long.

It’s official. Fall is creeping into Southern California.

The funny part is it had been so long that I actually stared at the contents of my pants drawer for at least a minute, trying to remember which pair was my favorite, and which one I should use for working out in the yard.  I actually have pants which I do not remember owning. How did that happen?

Needless to say, it’s been a while since I visited the pants drawer.  Does that make me neglectful?

A Smashing Good Read

I was at the library the other day, looking for some new materiel, and quite by accident I ran across a new(ish) novel by Steven Pressfield called Killing Rommel Steven Pressfield is the author of Gates of Fire, which is such a rip roaring fine piece of work that I simply hand to any male I meet who is looking for something new to read. It almost never fails, such is the power of that story, and the great writing chops of the author.

The main problem I’ve had with Gates of Fire is the antiquity of the story. The movie 300 did much to get the average American interested in all things Greek, and specifically in the battle of Thermopylae, but before it came out, trying to sell someone on the idea that a battle 2500 years ago would deeply move them today was a bit of a struggle.

Another issue with Gates of Fire is the historical accuracy of the novel. Fighting with human powered edged weapons is a bloodbath. There is simply no escaping this. Pressfield, to his credit, does an excellent job of describing this to an audience who has only a modern (and largely Hollywood) view into the violence of war. The kid gloves definitely come off in that novel, and it can be really distressing to those who do not like to be knee deep in gore.

So when I picked up Killing Rommel, I discovered I found the next “perfect” book to hand to any man. The story revolves around the LRDG or Long Range Desert Group in the North Africa campaign in WWII. This was the British Army’s answer to the German Afrika Korps, and the precursor to today’s special forces.

The level of detail is astounding, and completely draws the reader in. Pressfield does an excellent job of describing the day-to-day life of the soldier on both sides, including their equipment, tactics they used in battle, what its like to be in a retreating army, and an advancing army (amazingly similar), and how to drive over sand dunes without getting stuck.

From the very first page, to the entire end, the book reads exactly like a memoir of a solider who was in the thick of things. One also gets a sense of the rather haphazard way in which a war can appear as one if prosecuting it. There is very little, if any, heroic posing. This book was certainly not meant to be made into a movie to showcase the latest Hollywood star. No one single handedly holds off the German army with a machine gun. Instead you get boredom, breakdowns, being shot at by your own guys, and the occasional terror of getting mixed up with the enemy.

I should also note that this book is far less bloody than Gates of Fire. There is only one battle scene in which crosses from battle to gore, but it is blessedly short, and holds a moral significance to the protagonist, something you don’t truly get (or at least I didn’t) until you read the afterward. Other scenes show the protagonist actually evading bloodshed by quick thinking and decisive action.

For those with a more religious perspective, the characters are not religious, but the protagonist does face a rather interesting moral dilemma, one in which I think many Christians will likely be able to identify with. The solution to this dilemma is both inspiring and satisfying, but does not fully play out until, as I mentioned before, one reads the afterward.

The amazon page lists a few reviews, but I thought this one was the most appropriate for a closing.

I am particularly fond of historical novels because I consider them a painless way to learn history.

Amen to that brother. Killing Rommel is an excellent way to learn about one small part of WWII. It reads as if written by your favorite uncle, and is as exciting to read about the mundane as it is to read about the heat of battle.

I liked it so much that as soon as I returned the book to the library, I went out and purchased a paperback version for myself. Right now it’s sitting at my father-in-laws bedside, where it will no doubt keep him with a silly grin on his face for many a night as he recovers from surgery.

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