Behind “The Platform”

Check out the original post + discussion here.

At my booth in Denver this weekend, I received some questions regarding this breakthrough personal piece. Last May I forgot to share that I was interviewed about it by “Lovelossdevotions” – a community volunteer at DeviantArt. So I decided to repeat the interview here with some minor additions. It delves into the process of trying to depict the mind’s eye. I have had other thoughts and better ways to talk about this since then, but this interview is a start!

In the description that accompanies “The Platform,” you talk of the very personal factors that went into the concept, ones that also reflect your own unique form of perception. Can you discuss more of what this entails and how it informed your creative approach?

This is a difficult one, and I’m still trying to figure out a systematic way to communicate it! But I will give it a shot.

First off, this actual artwork was more of a style test. The primary goal was to communicate the look, feel, and overall idea of this “world” rather than anything really specific. I felt like I had the idea of this place for many years, so it felt good to get out.

Regarding my own perception, I’m referring to involuntary mind’s eye association which happens in response to sensory stimulus (vision/audio) as well as abstract thinking. The umbrella term for these things is called “synesthesia.” The most common one is “grapheme-color” (associations between letters/numbers and color). Others include “chromesthesia” (sound-color), and “temporal-spatial synesthesia” (imagining time “seen” spatially around the individual). It can go way beyond color, though. Graphemes and tones can have shapes and “characteristics” as well. And on top of that, the stimulus can be more abstract than sensory, such as having certain “visual” abstractions going on in the mind’s eye as a direct result of thought. “Ideasthesia” is the term for these associations to abstract images rather than specific sensory stimulus.

I have all of the above to some degree.

When I think of a problem (or anything really), its different inputs/variables have “shapes” as well as characteristics like color and hardness/texture Some are cloud-like, swarm-like, liquid-like, others are more crystalline and solid. When these shapes overlap, they perform “operations.” Some can cancel each other out at the overlapping shape, some leave the overlapping shape. Sometimes solving a problem is like slowly eating into a shape, eroding it until it can’t be eroded any longer (reductionist). Sometimes it’s like casting out multiple branches of possibility and following them to their ends, then looping them back to their origin points to iterate again (expansionist). That part gives the impression of being in a forest full of “looping trees.”

There’s a dance between reduction and expansion overall, eliminating possibilities while simultaneously casting out new ones.

There are different “viewing modes,” as well. They can be 2D or 3D, or in between. One common mode is 2D shapes iterating in space, leaving a trail of previous frames. So as they animate, each frame builds above the last, leaving a 3D shape as a result. I love thinking of time as a 3rd dimension! It’s a shape that represents past progression of thought. Others are just 3D and don’t leave a “time trail” and instead just move in real time. There’s kind of a seamless switching between modes that I haven’t figured out… Maybe someday.

I can try explaining the shapes better. Imagine an axis with an origin point. At many different angles from the origin are different “variables.” At any given moment, the value a variable has is reflected in how close it is to the origin. So if all “variables” were balanced, it would be a circle (2D) or sphere (3D), but that is rarely the case. It is usually lumpy, lopsided in some way, spiky or blobby depending on how many variables there are and how they are interpolated between themselves. Shapes can also fit together with others to form compounds, maintaining their own topologies or merging them. I can then “look” at the shape and get a sense of what’s going on in a concept. It is hard to get really specific though, it’s more like an impression that can act as a guiding light without exact instructions. For example, if I’m solving a math problem, I still have to work through the steps rather than just being able to “see” the answer. (Benoit Mandelbrot COULD do that, though, so it is certainly possible. I’m jealous!)

Things are not always so vivid for me. Sometimes I just get the sensation of interacting/mixing colors and characteristics, and the shapes are too vague to recreate as art. It depends on my mental state and what I’m thinking about.

Finally, the line between “object” and “place” is often blurred. Visuals of an entire place are often more like a forest, sometimes they surround me, or I surround them. But having a horizon line is common. I tend to see levels of abstraction as taking place above this “ground” with the random noise that (I think) seeds consciousness in part.

So back to the art. I was thinking: what if there was an artificial world that used the same “rule system” my brain uses to process inputs? What fascinates me is the idea of a completely visual form of communication BETWEEN individuals, say, through augmented reality. That’s part of the science fiction world I’m working on, actually. I have chunks of it figured out, but am still trying to figure out how to tie it all together.

Imagine a post-singularity world with different kinds of “visual operating systems.” People can literally peer at calculations happening visually in these kinds of “worlds.” I was inspired and fascinated in high school by the idea of virtual life, cellular automata, etc… so I want to explore these things in a visual way in the context of science fiction. This piece was an attempt to break the ice in that regard.

“The Platform” instantly challenges the viewer to look closely and view it from all angles. Take us inside your work process and tell how you were able to successfully transform your ideas into such complex imagery.

To make “The Platform”, I actually started with animation. I animated “seed shapes” created in Photoshop and then broke the animation into frames and vectorized them, then brought them into 3D and arranged them so that time was essentially the third dimension. I proceeded to manipulate them a lot in 3DS Max using various warp and symmetry modifiers, as well as boolean operations (buggy and not recommended, but very good for mimicking what happens to shapes in my thought process). I then brought in some of the shapes/domes I’d modeled previously for other projects, and modeled supporting shapes from scratch. I then made a bunch of different render passes in Mental Ray, such as:

— ObjectID passes to mask shapes
— A wireframe render to preserve linework if needed.
— a zdepth render to add atmosphere via masking.
— a custom shader render that determines color based on angle relative to camera space and world space.


(1) Brainstorming sketches.

(2) Top view wireframe screenshot of the scene. Over 20,000,000 polygons! (Although some were unnecessary.)

(3) Side view wireframe

(4) Large block mask render

(5) Shape mask render

(6) Wireframe render – I didn’t end up using this one except for tiny details, but thought it looked cool.

(7) Z-depth render, used to add atmosphere through masking.

(8) World-space RGB render. Pretty proud of this one – this shader uses angle to camera to determine pixel RGB value, and this can be isolated via channels in Photoshop to add secondary light sources and select planes.

Did you encounter any creative challenges when working on the piece? If so, how did you tackle them? Is there anything you would do differently now if you could?

One challenge was that I was constantly tempted to try to add extra “meaning” to it, but the meaning then messed with the aesthetic in my head. Because this still doesn’t look exactly like things do in my head. (I was trying to remove all the fuzziness and soft edges for this version.) The colors are also not very accurate to what I see, I made it bright and artificial to try to sell the idea that this is a synthetic space. It was harder to work with colors like that, but more fun in its own way.

Another challenge was trying to add a lot of detail but bumping against the limits of my machine’s processing power. I’m also on the hunt for software that can easily do boolean operations with very complex shapes, because those are the most accurate way to describe how the visuals work. I’m going to try it with Zbrush next time around I think.

What’s one piece of advice that you would share with other artists hoping to reach this standard of work in the future?

Technical advice: Have a lot of patience, but also be really willing to experiment and play with techniques. Learn to love the import/export functions! You can combine specialized software in cool ways with that approach. Also if you want to make work with this level of detail in 3D, get a good graphics card/processor and a LOT of RAM.

Overall advice: Don’t worry about being representational in your personal work. Abstract art has a bad name among many contributors to the entertainment/illustration fields. We can get into the mindset that what “the industry” wants (representational narratives) is the only valid approach, and things that don’t tell an immediate story are a lesser form of visual communication. But when you give yourself permission to explore your inner world, what you find can still be used towards commercial artwork! It can inform your style and personal voice.

What does this DD feature represent or mean to you at this stage of your artistic development? What can your watchers look forward to next?

I’ve kept rather quiet about this stuff in the past. I was uncertain about where I was going and what I was trying to say, didn’t want to look foolish for it. Like many artists, I often attempt to psychologically distance my own identity from my work to the point that I’m “shielded” by criticism/indifference others might feel towards it. Seeing a positive response to something more personal was a validation of sorts. Since I’m gunning for being completely independent as a creator, selling work and products directly to people requires finding an audience who understands and appreciates what I’m attempting to say. This DD feels like a step towards that goal.
Bonus question: Can you cite a memorable reaction to this piece in the comments at DA?

A memorable reaction was from hannibus42 :
“Dangit, you have the best neurological condition ever!….. lucky!
This impacted me, because I don’t tend to think about the way I think as a “gift” the way he did. It’s just something that… is. It’s hard to imagine thinking another way.

Excerpt from my response to him:

“I do wonder though whether it hinders certain modes of thinking that are entirely in the abstract though, by consuming mental bandwidth. I also have really low memory capacity for my visualizations, it’s kind of ‘in one eye and out the other’ so to speak, so recording things as they actually happen is a challenge.”
I was trying to say that it wasn’t some secret tool for making art. It’s more of a side effect to thinking/creating than a driving force. I decided it might be a good idea to present the flaws in this kind of thinking, as it’s not my intention to generate envy. In his second reply, he mentioned an idea I frequently think about: having exact control over what associates to what. It’s a cool notion!

 Here’s a link to the original interview.


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Posted: December 6, 2016


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