Today we can appreciate Japanese woodblock prints from sizableonlinearchives whenever we like, and even download them for ourselves. Before the internet, how many chances would we have had even to encounter such works of art in the course of life? Very few of us, certainly, would ever have beheld a Japanese printmaker at work, but here in the age of streaming video, we all can. In the Smithsonian video above, printmaker Keiji Shinohara demonstrates a suite of traditional techniques (and more specialized ones in a follow-up below) for creating ukiyo-e, the “pictures of the floating world” whose style originally developed to capture Japanese life and landscapes of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries.
“So uh,” asks one commenter below this video of Shinohara at work, “anyone else come from unintentional ASMR?” That abbreviation, which stands for “autonomous sensory meridian response,” labels a genre of Youtube video that exploded in popularity in recent years.
Attempts have been made to define the underlying phenomenon scientifically, but suffice it to say that ASMR involves a set of distinctively pleasurable sounds that happens to coincide with those made by the tools of printmakers and other highly analog craftsmen. When ASMR enthusiasts discovered Youtube art conservator Julian Baumgartner, previously featured here on Open Culture, he created special sonically enhanced versions of his videos just for them.
In the case of Shinohara, the Best Unintentional ASMR channel has done it for him. Itsversion of his videos greatly emphasize the sounds of brushes rubbed against paper, inks spread onto wood, and droplets of water falling into the rinsing bowl. Of course, the original king of unintentional ASMR in art is universally acknowledged to be Bob Ross, host of The Joy of Painting, whose soft-spoken industriousness seems now to inhabit the person of David Bull, an English-Canadian ukiyo-e printmaker living in Tokyo. In a sense, Bull is the Western counterpart to the Osaka-born Shinohara, who after a decade’s apprenticeship in Kyoto crossed the Pacific Ocean in the other direction to make his home in the United States. But however traditional their art, they both belong, now to the floating world of the internet. You can listen to non-ASMR versions of the videos above here and here.
An online design museum made by and for designers? The concept seems obvious, but has taken decades in internet years for the reality to fully emerge in the Letterform Archive. Now that it has, we can see why. Good design may look simple, but no one should be fooled into thinking it’s easy. “After years of development and months of feedback,” write the creators of the Letterform Archive online design museum, “we’re opening up the Online Archive to everyone. This project is a labor of love from everyone on our staff, and many generous volunteers, and we hope it provides a source of beautiful distraction and inspiration to all who love letters.”
That’s letters as in fonts, not epistles, and there are thousands of them in the archive. But there are also thousands of photographs, lithographs, silkscreens, etc. representing the height of modern simplicity. This and other unifying threads run through the collection of the Letterform Archive, which offers “unprecedented access… with nearly 1,500 objects and 9,000 hi-fi images.”
You’ll find in the Archive the sleek elegance of 1960s Olivetti catalogs, the iconic militancy of Emory Douglas’ designs for The Black Panther newspaper, and the eerily stark militancy of the “SILENCE=DEATH” t-shirt from the 1980s AIDS crisis.
The site was built around the ideal of “radical accessibility,” with the aim of capturing “a sense of what it’s like to visit the Archive” (which lives permanently in San Francisco). But the focus is not on the casual onlooker — Letterform Archive online caters specifically to graphic designers, which makes its interface even simpler, more elegant, and easier to use for everyone, coincidentally (or not).
From the radical typography of Dada to the radical 60s zine scene to the sleek designs (and Neins) found in a 1987 Apple Logo Standards pamphlet, the museum has something for everyone interested in recent graphic design history and typology. But it’s not all sleek simplicity. There are also rare artifacts of elaborately intricate design, like the Persian Yusef and Zulaikha manuscript, below, dating from between 1880 and 1910. You’ll find dozens more such treasures in the Letterform Archive here.
The jury remains out as to the number of angels that can dance on a pin, but self-taught artist Flor Carvajal is amassing some data regarding the number of itty bitty sculptures that can be installed on the tips of matchsticks, pencil points, and — thanks to a rude encounter with a local reporter — in the eye of a needle.
According to Tucson’s Mini Time Machine Museum of Miniatures, where her work is on display through June, The Vanguardia Liberal was considering running an interview in conjunction with an exhibit of her Christmas-themed miniatures. When she wouldn’t go on record as to whether any of the itty-bitty nativity scenes she’d been crafting for over a decade could be described as the world’s smallest, the reporter hung up on her.
Rather than stew, she immediately started experimenting, switching from Styrofoam to synthetic resin in the pursuit of increasingly miniscule manger scenes.
By sunrise, she’d managed to place the Holy Family atop a lentil, a grain of rice, the head of a nail, and the head of a pin.
These days, most of her micro-miniature sculptures require between 2 and 14 days of work, though she has been laboring on a model of Apollo 11 for over a year, using only a magnifying glass and a needle, which doubles as brush and carving tool.
In a virtual artist’s chat last month, she emphasizesthata calm mind, steady hands, and breath control are important things to bring to her workbench.
Open windows can lead to natural disaster. The odds of recovering a work-in-progress that’s been knocked to the floor are close to nil, when said piece is rendered in 1/4” scale or smaller.
There’s ahead of its time, then there’s Traité des couleurs servant à la peinture à l’eau — or, in its original Dutch title, Klaer Lightende Spiegel der Verfkonst, a 900-page book of paint colors made before any such things were common tools of the artist’s, scientist’s, and industrial designer’s trade. Author and artist A. Boogert created one, and only one, copy of his extraordinary manual on color mixing in 1692. Appearing on the threshold of modern color theory, and featuring over 700 pages of color swatches, the book draws on Aristotle’s system of color rather than the new understanding of the color spectrum, fully elaborated by Newton in his Opticks over a decade later.
But if A. Boogert had much influence on the theory or practical application of color in his day, there doesn’t seem to be much evidence for it. Of course most of the Dutch masters had died when the book was completed, and it seems unlikely that those still working in 1692 would have been familiar with its single copy.
Instead, the book was meant to educate watercolorists, hence its French title, which refers to “water-based paint.” (A literal translation of the Dutch runs something like “clearly lighting mirror of the painting art.”) Medieval historian Erik Kwakkel found the book in a French database, “and it turns out to be quite special,” he writes, “because it provides an unusual peek into the workshop of 17th-century painters and illustrators.
In over 700 pages of handwritten Dutch, the author, who identifies himself as A. Boogert, describes how to make watercolour paints. He explains how to mix the colours and how to change their tone by adding ‘one, two or three portions of water.’… In the 17th Century, an age known as the Golden Age of Dutch Painting, this manual would have hit the right spot.”
The book is currently housed at Bibliothèque Méjanes in Aix-en-Provence, where you’ll find full-page, zoomable, hi-resolution scans. “Beyond being informational, the images from the book are stunning and addictive flip through,” notes Refinery29. “They resemble page after page of Pantone color chips, except without the household name.” One wonders if “A. Boogert” would have become a household name had his book been printed and distributed. But his color system was already passing away in the Newtonian age of color spectrums and wheels, until paint chips finally came back in style. Visit the color manual online here.
I always think tattoos should communicate. If you see tattoos that don’t communicate, they’re worthless. —Henk Schiffmacher, tattoo artist
Tattooing is an ancient art whose grip on the American mainstream, and that of other Western cultures, is a comparatively recent development.
Long before he took up—or went under—a tattoo needle, legendary tattoo artist and self-described “very odd duck type of guy,” Henk Schiffmacher was a fledgling photographer and accidental collector of tattoo lore.
Inspired by the immersive approaches of Diane Arbus and journalist Hunter S. Thompson, Schiffmacher, aka Hanky Panky, attended tattoo conventions, seeking out any subculture where inked skin might reveal itself in the early 70s.
As he shared with fellow tattooer Eric Perfect in a characteristically rollicking, profane interview, his instincts became honed to the point where he “could smell” a tattoo concealed beneath clothing:
The kind of tattoos you used to see in those days, you do not see anymore, that stuff made in jail, in the German jails, like, you’d like see a guy who’d tattooed himself as far as his right hand could reach and the whole right (side) would be empty…I always loved that stuff which was never meant to be art which is straight from the heart.
When tattoo artists would write to him, requesting prints of his photos, he would save the letters, telling Hero’s Eric Goodfellow:
I would get stuff from all over the world. The whole envelope would be decorated, and the letter as well. I have letters from the Leu Family and they’re complete pieces of art, they’re hand painted with all kinds of illustrations. Also people from jail would write letters, and they would take time to write in between the lines in a different colour. So very, very unique letters.
Schiffmacher (now the author of the new Taschen book, TATTOO. 1730s-1970s) realized that tattoos must be documented and preserved by someone with an open mind and vested interest, before they accompanied their recipients to the grave. Many families were ashamed of their loved ones’ interest in skin art, and apt to destroy any evidence of it.
On the other end of the spectrum is a portion of a 19th-century whaler’s arm, permanently emblazoned with Jesus and sweetheart, preserved in formaldehyde-filled jar. Schiffmacher acquired that, too, along with vintage tools, business cards, pages and pages of flash art, and some truly hair raising DIY ink recipes for those jailhouse stick and pokes. (He discusses the whaler’s tattoos in a 2014 TED Talk, below).
His collection also expanded to his own skin, his first canvas as a tattoo artist and proof of his dedication to a community that sees its share of tourists.
Schiffmacher’s command of global tattoo significance and history informs his preference for communicative tattoos, as opposed to obscure ice breakers requiring explanation.
When he first started conceiving of himself as an illustrated man, he imagined the delight any potential grandchildren would take in this graphic representation of his life’s adventures—“like Pippi Longstocking’s father.”
If you go to Paris, many will advise you, you must go to the Louvre; but then, if you go to Paris, as nearly as many will advise you, you must not go to the Louvre. Both recommendations, of course, had a great deal more relevance before the global coronavirus pandemic — at this point in which art- and travel-lovers would gladly endure the infamously tiring crowdedness and size of France’s most famous museum. But now they, and everyone else around the world, can view the Louve’s artworks online, and not just the ones currently on display: through the new portal collections.louvre.fr, they can now view access every single one of the museum’s artworks online.
This includes, according to the about page of the collections’ site, not just the “more than 480,000 works of art that are part of the national collections,” but the “so-called ‘MNR’ works (Musées Nationaux Récupération, or National Museums Recovery), recovered after WWII,” and “works on long-term loan from other French or foreign institutions such as the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, the Petit Palais, the Fonds National d’Art Contemporain, the British Museum and the archaeological museum of Heraklion.”
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As an exercise draw a composition of fear or sadness, or great sorrow, quite simply, do not bother about details now, but in a few lines tell your story. Then show it to any one of your friends, or family, or fellow students, and ask them if they can tell you what it is you meant to portray. You will soon get to know how to make it tell its tale.
In a humorous letter to her eventual champion, photographer Alfred Stieglitz, Colman-Smith (1878 – 1951) described her 80 tarot paintings as “a big job for very little cash,” though she betrayed a touch of genuine excitement that they would be “printed in color by lithography… probably very badly.”
Although Waite had some specific visual ideas with regard to the “astrological significance” of various cards, Colman-Smith enjoyed a lot of creative leeway, particularly when it came to the Minor Arcana or pip cards.
These 56 numbered cards are divided into suits—wands, cups, swords and pentacles. Prior to Colman-Smith’s contribution, the only example of a fully illustrated Minor Arcana was to be found in the earliest surviving deck, the Sola Busca which dates to the early 1490s. A few of her Minor Arcana cards, notably 3 of Swords and 10 of Wands, make overt reference to that deck, which she likely encountered on a research expedition to the British Museum.
Mostly the images were of Colman-Smith’s own invention, informed by her sound-color synesthesia and the classical music she listened to while working. Her early experience in a touring theater company helped her to convey meaning through costume and physical attitude.
Here are Pacific Northwest witch and tarot practitioner Moe Bowstern‘s thoughts on Smith’s Three of Pentacles:
Pentacles are the suit of Earth, representative of structure and foundation. Colman-Smith’s theater-influenced designs here identify the occupations of three figures standing in an apse of what appears to be a cathedral: a carpenter with tools in hand; an architect showing plans to the group; a tonsured monk, clearly the steward of the building project.
The overall impression is one of building something together that is much bigger than any individual and which may outlast any individual life. The collaboration is rooted in the hands-on material work of foundation building, requiring many viewpoints.
A special Pixie Smith touch is the physical elevation of the carpenter, who would have been placed on the lowest rung of medieval society hierarchies. Smith has him on a bench, showing the importance of getting hands on with the project.
For years, Colman-Smith’s cards were referred to as the Rider-Waite Tarot Deck. This gave a nod to publisher William Rider & Son, while neglecting to credit the artist responsible for the distinctive gouache illustrations. It continues to be sold under that banner, but lately, tarot enthusiasts have taken to personally amending the name to the Rider Waite Smith (RWS) or Waite Smith (WS) deck out of respect for its previously unheralded co-creator.
It’s sad, but not a total shocker, to learn that this interesting, multi-talented woman died in poverty in 1951. Her paintings and drawings were auctioned off, with the proceeds going toward her debts. Her death certificate listed her occupation not as artist but as “Spinster of Independent Means.” Lacking funds for a headstone, she was buried in an unmarked grave.
The modern artist has what can seem like an unlimited range of materials from which to choose, a variety completely unknown to great Renaissance masters like Leonardo da Vinci. Few, if any, can say, however, that they have anything like the raw talent, ingenuity, and discipline that drove Leonardo to draw incessantly, constantly honing his techniques and exploiting every use of the tools and techniques available to him.
What were those tools and techniques? Conservator Alan Donnithorne demonstrates Leonardo’s materials in the video above, with examples from the holdings of the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle. Leonardo “drew incessantly,” the Royal Collection Trust writes, “to devise his artistic projects, to explore the natural world, and to record the workings of his imagination.” He used metalpoint, a method of drawing on coated paper with a metal stylus; pen and ink, with pens made from a goose wing feather; and, after the 1490s, red and black chalks.
Leonardo produced thousands of drawings during his lifetime“many of them of extreme beauty and complexity,” says Donnithorne, “and it’s incredible to think that he produced them using these very simple ingredients.”
The Royal Collection owns around 550 of these drawings, “together as a group since the artist’s death in 1519,” when he bequeathed them to his student, Francesco Melzi. These works “provide unparalleled insight,” the Collection writes, “into the workings of Leonardo’s mind and reflect the full range of his interests, including painting, sculpture, architecture, anatomy, engineering, cartography, geology, and botany.”
The restlessness of Leonardo’s mind and hand also reflect the need to move quickly from project to project as he pursued some commissions and abandoned others. “Across all these themes,” however, Christopher Baker, director of European and Scottish Art and Portraiture at the National Galleries of Scotland, sees “a ravishing range of techniques and materials…. The precision required by metalpoint proved especially appropriate for some of his most incisive human or animal observations, while iron gall ink and red and black chalks allowed an exploratory freedom fitting for compositional trials, fictive works or capturing movement.”
The artist’s “prodigious skills” are evident among his many shifts in style and subject and we see even in utilitarian illustrations how “he overturned so many conventions and sometimes mixed his media to wonderful effect.” Leonardo’s choice of media was hardly expansive compared to the dizzyingly colorful aisles that greet the budding artist at art supply stores today. But what he could do with a stylus, goose-quill pen, and chalk has never been equalled. Learn more about how he used his materials in Donnithorne’s book, Leonardo da Vinci: A Closer Look, published on the 500th anniversary celebrations of Leonardo’s death.
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