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Bright dense city on dark blues.

In today’s exploration of my mind at work, we’ll be looking at this unfinished sketch from about a year ago, an exercise that got out of hand. This was initially started as an illustration for August in the happify calendar, at a point when I was toying with full-color printing or a digital-only product.

I’m a big fan of urbanization on many levels: conceptual, visual, ethical/environmental, and nostalgic. Part of what I love about cities is the catalytic effect, how they provide spaces and means for growth and invention and novelty and cross-fertilization. Regardless of the potential negative in this fertile space, at my core, I’m an optimist. I get choked up when our humanity trumps our individuality, when we create systems that codify and highlight our best selves: the to-the-side dance of vehicles and people clearing way for emergency responders, the wave of cell phone cameras coming out to capture particularly beautiful or notable scenes, the unspoken complex steps taken in unison by strangers to clear a space on a bus for a stroller or wheelchair.

I have a surface understanding of the complex and not always pleasant economic factors that influence the development of some amazing organic urban spaces, but in working on this sketch, I was all about the positive and beautiful. There is enough fear-mongering (in my mind) about the costs of living in close proximity to others. There is less, at least in the U.S., that gives the same mythical powers to the uniquely positive aspects of shared spaces.

I don’t think this ended up doing what I intended to, and It’s totally unfinished. My preferred medium for my illustrations, beyond occasional rough hand-sketches, is Adobe Illustrator–I’m all about the vectors. Unfortunately, many of my more intricate projects run up against the processing capabilities of my machine, leaving me with a long lag time between cursor-action and computer-response. And as any UX person can tell you, a 30-120 second lag is far more than enough time for a person to get distracted by Teh Internetz.

As far as I can figure out, this is less about old computers and more about my specific usage. I generally “build” my images–when I designed the cargo bike for May in the 2015 happify calendar, it was after careful study of the parts and pieces , connections and fittings and function, of dozens of different bikes. By the time I finished, it felt like the main barrier to my actually building a bike was access to materials and some basic welding skills. I often have to remind myself during the design process that I’m working on a 2D project, not a 3D blueprint–with the use of grouping, layers, and zoom in CS5, I will occasionally realize that I’m cleaning up parts of the illustration that are actually entirely covered by something else. And the worst part? I sometimes still do it. I’m not sure if this is a sign of being thorough or insane (::cough::it’s the second::cough::).

Riveted metal door in shades of grey near pink and magenta awning.

In this piece, there is definitely evidence of the Too Much Attention To Detail And No Sense Of Time Syndrome  (TMAD-NST, NOS, coming to the DSM-XVII, probably). Also Project Creep Disorder, where I lost sight of the goal (design a calendar page) because the process was so enjoyable. The bit above is working at 6400%, pre-clean-up.

Additionally, you’ll note that there are some broader issues with the piece, beyond its unfinished nature. The illustrative style is jarring, switching between abstracted illustration and a more quasi-realistic tone. Despite some detailed portions of the illustration and initial experimentations with steam/smoke opacities, it reads as flat and static, rather than pulsing or organic (even in the resting rhythms of a city mostly asleep).

What you don’t see in this snapshot is what happened next. In an attempt to create a bit more depth, I added a moonscape. Eventually that portion was pulled out and, with the addition of a torn screen and dragonfly, became the grayscale July in the 2015 happify calendar.

Unused sketch for 2015 happify calendar

This city-sketch has been abandoned, but probably not permanently. I can see a number of factors pushing me to play with it again–a more powerful computer that can handle my rock-and-roll vector lifestyle, a project that calls for some bits and pieces of a city I’ve already built, a more cohesive vision for the illustrative tone and direction I want to take it in. We’ll see.

For those who are interested in learning more about amazing urban spaces and development, with a particular focus on the human ingenuity that was inspiring me as I worked on this sketch, I’d recommend:
Favelas–Brazilian slums
Tower of David–unfinished skyscraper inhabited as a functioning village (with electricity) by squatters
Kowloon Walled City–in Hong Kong, the “densest place on earth,” and largely outside formal structures
Cinque Terre–eye candy.

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