Monday, June 29, 2009

The Linuxville save the Linux desktop user campaign

OK, ok, enough of my black digital artist manifesto talk, but I do try to engage folks in the deeper thought life from time to time. The Internet has a way homogenising certain words to where you can not find what YOU are thinking of. Search engines are like shepherds and users like free range chickens or cats (I know a little about cat herding).

Here in Linuxville there is still the anguish cry for Linux learning materials that are less all inclusive. I think the zeal to teach Linux is overshadowed by an overbearing desire to explain it all (in detail), wither a user wants it, needs it or not. What am I talking about? In the Microsoft Windows world a regular desktop user is not subjected to the full knowledge of system administration and server maintenance. In the Linux world, the mere mention of the idea of Linux evokes expectations and conversations of servers, networks, and system administration. Interest in Linux infers you are savvy enough to comprehend the complexities and the inner workings and of course there is no other way to learn Linux.

In the MS Windows world you can get a whole book that illustrates life on the MS Windows desktop. In Linuxville a chapter or two is dedicated to the desktop user. Proof, you want proof? You can find MS Windows desktop specialist as a profession. They are experts in user support. In Linuxville the System Admin does it all, there is no Linux desktop specialist. It is a catch 22 situation, which comes first the Linux desktop users that need support or the simple focused training to allow a sizable user pool to exist. There is no separation of user and admin in the Linux explanation. In Linuxville you are promptly told you have to "administer" your own Linux PC. How is this different than administering your own MS PC?

I will bring up cars again. I don't need to be a mechanic to own and drive a car. Besides driver training and a few maintenance things the only other thing is to be able to say the car sounds funny, rides funny or the lights keep flashing. The sense and feel of the user's experience is required by mechanics to properly fix the problem, both the physical car and the drivers perception (feels funny, something's wrong) are addressed. So, in reality you don't need the knowledge or the understanding of a Linux system admin in order to use a Linux desktop. We should sort out what is useful for users, say it, illustrate it and save the deeper explanations for another book. Actually we have those deeper kinds of books already, in abundance.

We say there are enough MS Windows books out there and Linux is just like Windows. You and I know that skills are transferable but the average Joe/Josette does not think like that. You have to explain things in the context in which they exist. If you insist that Linux is just like MS Windows, you instantly start the comparison mill. If it is not "just like MS Windows" you already lost a potential Linux user. Just show folks how it works, let them conclude "hey, it's just like MS Windows!!", but don't you say it.

So, the Linux desktop consists of GUIs and Applications supported by tweaks and tricks and seasoned with annoyances and gotchas. If there is a GUI way to do it, stop there. The extended, alternate and workarounds are all in the Linux Bibles of various titles. The parts of Linux on the server have all been explained too much, we need to focus on the user side. The problem is that there aren't many desktop Linux book writers. Mostly Linux is on the web. You could say Linux is greener and paperless compared to MS and Apple (you never thought of that!). And that's another line of thought. But extensive books on various types of Linux applications might be appreciated, like business apps, graphics apps, etc. Not because they are popular but because users have free access, acquisition, unlimited user rights and the manuals are online rather than printed in a book. The printed published page is still more respected and regarded than works readily available online, ask any library patron.

Perhaps paper books are not your thing and you have the tools and the info to teach us, I myself am very fond of instructional tutorials and ebooks. Collected tutorials on a CD is an exceptional way to teach/learn Linux applications. Short videos cut to the chase and free you from lengthy explanations. Make a thin book with some by whom info and references, then put the CD in the pocket. As much as I like YouTube, if you treat this similar to regular publishing there is more a sense of on the shelf permanence. Great and useful things that exist only on the net can and do disappear.

Ebooks in the .PDF format are wonderful. If you haven't seen the Fullcircle Ubuntu magazine, you have no idea what I am raving about. Nice size, full colour and full of user experiences, it is an eye opening publication.

Now, who wants to carry around a bunch of CDs especially with the rash of netbooks out there? The jump drive is overly handy. You can download this info to the jump drive and view it on whatever PC device you use. Your entire collection of reading/reference material can be put on a handy jump drive. Think utility belt like Batman's or a Scouts merit badge sash or a bullet bandoleer only with jump drives.

If you have a really good product there is no reason you can't charge a little for the info. I know we in the Linux realm have gotten use to free files for everyone, but we either bilk folks with a outrageously high price or endlessly beg for donations. I prefer a token price and asking for support. In all, printing on paper, though not the green thing, is more apt to make money for the writer/publisher. I think effort deserves compensation if I get convenience and help.

Here in Linuxville we need to rely less on the virtual idea. It has devolved into a kind of lazy assumption of "it's posted, it's out there, you have the liberty to get it or not". We should package and present or package and deploy in ways that are practical and convenient for others. Web pages are good for user chatter, back and forth, for intros and brief encounters, but less good for presenting a body of work. Ebooks are more like real publishing. Maybe not as impressive as having a wall full of printed books, but just as effective and you can use the wall space to display my art work.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Yeah but do we design, Yeah we design

Have you ever had an unsolvable problem or a nagging complaint about a situation in the world? I guess when I was a young man trying to find role models among African-American men that pertained to my artist interest, there were few if any. It really hasn't changed. One name stood out, Sam Gilliam. He is an abstract artist. I still don't know or appreciate his vast body of work, but just to know a black guy has the guts to be who he is, is enough. Like John Coltrane, his work is an acquired taste I check out from time to time to calibrate myself.

Against this abstract expression is a menagerie of black artist who play to the supposedly popular demand. Mostly pictures of p-e-o-p-l-e in African subjects, religious subjects, jazz musicians, etc, all with the stereo-typical air of this is what we are about. I wondered in the face of our unique art history, is there an African-American style that we could put into architecture, art, home furnishing and decor. We put our influence into music and dance but not into home decor other than old stuff. There is so much appreciation of our slave past in our practical living, that it keeps us slaves. There are exceptions, but if you look over the mainstream offerings, the influences are not there. I want to tell all black artist to look forward more, look back less, I think we need to look at ourselves less, need to explore outside. We could keep our tether to our history, I don't think it is going away. Maybe the world is ready to see what we see when we are not explaining ourselves.

Let me illustrate further. You want to decorate your home with some African-American themes. You buy pictures of black people in various poses and guises and a starving artist canned abstract or two. If you go more African, you buy African subject matter, carvings, masks etc. Your home resembles the museum of collected African stuff. You are surrounded with reminders of oldness, but you force yourself to think revolution, overcoming adversity and embracing the black aesthetic. Oh, Africans are really colourful, so you layer fabric prints into a nauseating display and try to convince us saying poly-rhythms, syncopated patterns and complex cross-cultural influences. You know, ugly is ugly, no matter where it is from.

This is why style is carefully crafted over time, not haphazardly thrown together (fad or trend). Black artist need to spend the time to access the symbols, patterns, colours and influences and use the normal tools of art; line, colour, proportion, composition. With me, I looked at lots of African things, allowed the images to settle into the back of my mind. I wrestle with those images until something must come out, I see something new heavily influenced by the images I've been taking in. Now I add my art into the mix of other artist and a style emerges. In the past there have been design movements where cultural interest produced a style. However the artist were gathered, college, international consortium, world's fair collaboration, the thrust produced a outcome celebrated in the market place. It was not just material culture that produced the various styles of home furnishings we have today. We black folk still don't admit we even have a material culture. Much of what we display is about the person, clothes, make-up and bling. We rap, sing, dance and shoot hoops, but do we design?? Ah!! Do we design??

Yeah, we design, but there's not enough of it in one place to make an impression beyond fashion, fad and trend. Time will tell and I am endeavouring to put in my two cents.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

approaching art

So you want to be an artist? The page is blank, what do you draw? Do you draw what you see around you or what passes in front of your fantasy world view? With me it's I won't know till I see it. I tend to stay true to my drafting background, designing pieces and fitting them together. I imagine the work on a wall in your home, something you can live with. I don't imagine what you would like to see, I don't know that. Many artist become trained pros who can do your bidding, I am not one of them. Drawing anything and everything is not my voice.

Art can shape an environment and nurture your thoughts. I noticed as teens we outfit our bedrooms with huge flashy embraces of what ever impresses us. The problem is that if this is our world, it is so limited. Makes life hard if we define ourselves by the momentary and have to move on, grow up, or change our scene. In my area, rock 'n' roll is dominate and it's symbol, the Fender guitar is iconic, the metaphor is replayed and acted out over and over, but have you ever seen and heard the Chapman Stick? It makes the guitar seem like a tin box with rubber-bands. The Chapman Stick is not a symbol of rebellion like the guitar, it is art, refined and cultured. It is like the classical acoustic guitar only way way advanced.

The computer as an artist tool is the same as the Chapman Stick. It can mimic many of the same styles and looks as traditional media's but is way advanced. It can be approached simply or with mind numbing complexity, depends on the artist. We like to show all what the computer can do, but we don't think much of simplicity. We boot it up, the lights blink out across the city, the earth shakes a little, the screen blazes layer upon layer of animation, explosions, laser flashes. The animator's daughter visits on bring the kid to work day, she sits in your chair as you fire up the behemoth digital manipulator. She takes the mouse or pen in hand and draws a flower on the screen, simple but exquisite. Who is the digital artist now?

I put a program called Tux Paint on my two computers (one Ubuntu Linux, one XP). My 8 year old grand-kids dabbled for 3 hours straight. I learned a lot just watching them figure it out, explore and create. When school art programs get cut it is a big mistake. Art is a thought process, very useful and needed in today's world. It is a thought process you can't adequately learn from regurgitating facts, history and formulas. Art teaches you to take what is in you, around you and what you have access to, combine them in traditional and unique ways. Art teaches you to visualise, plan, gather resources, utilise tools and talents, execute, perform and produce an output, a final product or a result. Art is applied science. Like anything else in life you have to teach kids to think in different ways. If you cut out one way of thinking, you lose the fruits of those kinds of skills on the graduating end. A doctor who can not creatively apply his skills and knowledge is safer sticking on band-aids than fixing hearts.

So, you don't want to teach art with a future profession as a focus, but the art process as a method, a way of thinking is essential. Let me repeat, don't teach art as a skill set, but as a thought process. This is more valuable than learning to draw. If kids have the art gene, they will pursue drawing. The important thing is that kind of thinking. Being able to apply the factual training to different situations and different people is the key, this is creative thinking.

This is also why I appreciate Linux. Linux is not all packaged and thought out for you. It requires some forethought, some thinking things through and a realisation that Microsoft is not all there is. With Microsoft there are legal limits, with Linux there are no limits that hinder you from designing and inventing on many levels. Linux is not free in the sense it does require commitment of time to learn it, feel it. Though MS acquired skills are transferable, Linux has quirks that are unique to itself. It is not hard to know multiple computer platforms, much simpler than learning multiple languages. This is why it's hard to separate art from science, they are the application of each other.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

voice of the artist

Have you found your voice yet?
It is so nerve wracking, I see web art all day long, comics, fantasy art, game art, 3D movie art and movie special effects, animation, then technical art, CAD, electrical schematics, enough, enough, enough!!!

Findings ones own voice takes a lot of consideration and an assessment of your entire repertoire of skills and likes. If you've been down the road a while it is no easy task, but at least you can narrow down avenues by experience. Being an electrical drafts-person for years I've built up some technical bones. Some drawing, painting, sculpture and architecture exposure gave me some traditional muscles. Computer skills is in there too. Shake well!!

Oh, sweet spots of life, they come, at least in my experience. I was in high school, in my doodle times I used to draw houses, architectural renderings they were called. Just my luck I wondered into a lunch time open study hall. I heard a group of students harmonising on some Motown tunes around a table. When the singing stopped they talked about their latest exploits. A couple of them were into fantasy football with those vibrating football games. A couple were into drawing and designing comic book heroes and cars. One guy was into psychology and creative writing. I joined, though I couldn't sing, as the house guy. It was embarrassing awkward for a reclusive teenager like me and liberating because I was accepted as a fellow creative explorer with obvious talent. I have had many experiences like this to prove to myself, I was going in a good direction. I just needed to propel myself beyond myself. Take it from me, life concerns you, includes you, but is not about you.

There are a few tracks, train for your target activity come hell or high water or find your unique voice, express yourself. Of course you can just fall into it. I never had the dream of being a professional artist via an employee of some company. I saw the roving artist, semi-retired or at least appearing to be, free from constraints of deadlines, bosses and paperwork early in my life. Freelancing like a free range chicken and producing that highly valued output, unique and special. I am not striving for Carnegie Hall or a museum so I don't need to practice as if my life depended on it. But lacking the business side of art I had to get a regular job to keep on keeping on. Now I have to figure out all that business stuff so that I can continue to develop my craft and support my family too.

I am not an embracer of complexity, chaos, disorder, ultra realism, technical prowess or mathematical genius, yet they all have their place in art. I heard an African artist being interviewed years ago, it struck me when he said, "I just want to make beautiful things." This word has shaped my idea of art and my creative motives.

Africa, Africa, the roots of my ancestry, so I am told, the stories are so faint, someone did write them down, but they were not rehearsed in my youthful ears while growing up. Today they seem like myths and legends. Tribes are no longer the mainstay of Africa, families scattered by (slavery in the past) job seeking, education and travel today, has given way to very mixed cosmo-cities. Urbanisation and mixing with other peoples and cultures across the globe is all I have ever known. I joke, we were tribal, now we are urbal. There, I've coined a word, "URBAL". We are urbal and so my art is urbal. In America we sorely need to drop the hyphens. How long, how many generations will it take for us to be natives? We strain so hard to maintain our hyphens yet we effortlessly mix and blend our DNA. We get so origin proud, but two generations down the road our kids have the liberty from race constraints and social restraints. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy, America is a melting pot, a stone soup. We old guys always say race, the next generation always says people/persons.

If you settle on Mars, over time you will become a Martian, yet in America you become hyphenated!?!

If your family has been here a while, you could say your family came from wherever, but you are de-hyphenated since you were born here and raised here in America. Will America collapse if our hyphens are taken away? I think the hyphens keep us from being Americans. We are afraid of being just Americans. We still haven't given up our tethers to other countries (King George is still laughing at us from the grave). We are still over proud and ruled by our ancestry, we are still trying to have our DNA stream be the dominate one, the winner. Our religions, cultures and politics all reflect this, in spite of the blending liberty we have. America is not free yet! We all need to let go, be Americans, then America will grow.

These are some of the thoughts that have shaped my artistic efforts. A maddening flurry of influences, an ocean of ideas, a history of what's gone before and being drowned out by the outspoken loudness of today's trends, the artist learns to filter, to quiet it down, to hear his own voice. For me it began when I disagreed with and was made uncomfortable by the things common in my generation. I discovered both choice and control over what I let into my world.
I drew a line on a page of my own accord. I signed my name under it. "I made that line", I boasted. Folks still ask, "how did you do that?"

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

the making of a digital artist

Man, you are some artist, not doing much art and you call yourself an artist. Some folks are so tuned they can art on anything, anywhere. Me, things have got to be right. I can grab moments when inspired but mostly things have got to be right. Oh when will they ever be right!

Right is not when everything is in order, right is when I got a goal and I'm on my way to getting there. When I see something and start moving toward it, things are right. The old saying "one thing leads to another" is true. Of course the outcomes are not always as I planned but sometimes better. I dare to take the risk, to wander and wonder, to explore the possibilities, in the spirit of seeing what happens. So, in this creative realm I look over what I have to work with and think, I need to improve some things to not cramp my style.

Two ways to improve things. One is the digital pen pad (new sable brush, brand of paint, graphics software) just ain't working out. It's me, I haven't spent the time to learn, get the feel, make it mine. Second is buy new then return to number one, anyway. The difference between an amateur and a pro is that the newbie spends 95% of the time learning the tools. A pro knows what to expect from the tools and has established workflows for the kinds of operations he wants to do. Say it with me, "tutorials help me develop repeatable results" and become the basis for new directions and discoveries.

Hybrids are a way of life for me, as much as I like to be a Linux graphics purist, many commercial and professional avenues are only channeled via the Microsoft PC platform. Good thing there is virtual machines, emulators and compatibility layers. I've been using Wine which allows some MS Windows platform software to run on Linux without installing the OS (XP or Vista). I have Photoshop 5.0 Light Edition, Artweaver 0.5 and Paintshop Pro all running with some degree of success.

Then I have GIMP, Inkscape, Blender, and other Linux natives. Now being expert on all is impossible for me. You might be the graphics guru though!

As I am an artist dabbler I am pressing into the 95% of spending time to learn my tools. No matter the software a bit drawn line is the same, a vector is the same, a fill is the same. They may use different icons or even allow you to tweak parameters, but they are common tools, thus the user experience is shared. All you need is to remember where each program has put the tools so you can find them. Camel hair or sable or acrylic, each brush has its feel, the same with software, find what works for you and spend some time with it. As a computer artist you have to do the art stuff and computer stuff together.

Not much help at the library!! I just went through all the available books on computer graphics here at my local library. Photoshop books galore, some Paintshop Pro, all about manipulating photos. Very, very brief and little about drawing. With digital cams, cell-phone cams and the phrase "post pics on the web", seems no need to draw anything. Drawing, as it seems, is reduced to an art, but ain't that the point!! Drawing an art!! Now there's a concept!! I am sure you can do sooooooooo much with photos, but do they really supersede drawing and make drawing a primitive and passe art-form? Nah! As far as art goes, photos might require a good eye, drawing requires a good eye and a good hand too. As I am older I am tired of today's realism standard. Please don't explicitly explain it in exquisite pictorial detail, just tell the story well and let me imagine according to all that's in me. Ah, that's art.

When you work with paints, brushes, canvas, you are in so much control over what is put on canvas and what you see is what you get. In digital art what you see on the monitor is not always what you get on the print, if you print out at all. Web art has addressed the problem with web-safe color. They sort of guarantee pictures will appear the same on any monitor and any web browser, sort of. The difference between monitor and printer is handled another way.

I was determined to push aside the color chemistry of computing but alas, even I must succumb to the realities. For the most part RGB (red-green-blue) color makes up what drives monitors, scanners and at least desktop printers. It is satisfying for most stuff but for artwork you want something more precise so CMYK (cyan-magenta-yellow-black) is the way to go. Why? Because and especially if you use a print service, they require CMYK. This is a bit rough on us Linux graphics folk as our beloved GIMP has CMYK as an add-on plug-in, I don't think I've heard much boasting success. There are other apps that have CMYK like Scribus, Inkscape and Xara Xtreme, perhaps others and the ability to convert is there with varing degrees of success. The thing is to establish a track record of workflows that work with Linux graphics applications. You see printing artwork is not just push-button document printing.

So, now you got skills, tools and know-how and output to manage. An artist does a lot the computer can only help with and to do it in Linux is not impossible, just a learning process.
The irony is that even if you can manage all the inputs and outputs, if the final image is poor art, it is just poor art. You are the artist but don't forget your audience. Oh and the disclaimer, "95% of the art process that created this image was done in Linux!!"