Friday, September 9, 2011

Art from Elements

"This world is but a canvas to our imagination." -Henry David Thoreau

     I have purposefully avoided bringing up the subject of Lego, for fear that it would dominate every following post. Nonetheless, I couldn't hold out forever, and I present here my somewhat lengthy series of thoughts on the little plastic bricks that have become the center of the toy industry, and a growing art form among teens and adults.
     As kids, I am certain that we all built with Lego at some point in our existence. Lego has a strange appeal that unlocks some unused niche of our creativity. There's a certain quality of Lego that everyone is influenced by, but rarely acknowledged. Lego comes with the assumption of literal endless possibilities. Everyone knows subconsciously that the Lego elements can be used to create, with controlled degrees of realism, anything and everything imaginable. Lego is special that way. It's like being given a bunch of atoms to make molecules. There are never-ending combinations and uses. 
     Though there are many facets to the Lego hobby, like collecting, display, resale, digital design, and others, this little blog post will focus only on the actual creative building and photography. It's far from comprehensive, but it was sure fun to write!
     Though the Lego system makes it possible to accurately create the entire world's contents, keeping your imagination and your ambition realistic when it comes to the quantitative side of Lego can be tricky. (Legos aren't as cheap as atoms in my analogy.) I asked a Legoing friend of mine to describe Lego in one word. Not missing a beat, he replied, "materialistic." Without keeping ambition in check, "never having enough Legos" can truly become the sole (and unnecessary) factor in building discouragement. I have heard it many times. Builders, particularly of a younger age, often have the grandest ideas for large scale dioramas, space ships, or city layouts; only to be crushed, ten minutes into building, when they realize that their number of bricks is only enough to make the diorama's baseplate, the spaceship's bathroom, or the city layout's phone booth. Knowing the physical limit of your brick collection can greatly relieve this roadblock. Settling for smaller builds that still contain significant artistic value can sometimes be just as gratifying as building a large-scale space ship.
     Other times, the imagination and the brick quantity are both copious, but the skill in technique is lacking. Just like any other fine art, there are nuances and unspoken rules when it comes to the artistic side of Lego. By now I know that you're either rolling your eyes or signing me off as an obsessed lunatic that takes this way too seriously, and yes. I am an obsessed lunatic, but when the vast majority of an art form is populated by rainbow-colored nuclear missiles shaped more like square beehives, a certain degree of seriousness is required. Not everything built out of Lego can be considered "art." To most, it is a children's toy and nothing else. To the other small percentage, Lego is an untapped resource of artistic inspiration.
     There are dozens if not hundreds of Lego fan communities on the web that fuel and encourage the hobby. Much like the model train community or the photographic community, the Lego subculture has it's own official magazines, conferences, and vocabulary. This vocabulary, in particular, was one of the first things I got hit by in the Lego community. The easiest ones were "MOC" and "minifigure." MOC stands for, "my own creation," and the minifigure is Lego's human figurine developed in 1979, and featured in most of the official sets since. Other terms were not so easy to figure out. "Greebling" is a wonderful term to describe a detailing technique where an otherwise flat surface is broken up into a complex or mechanical surface to increase visual interest, or increase the sense of scale. The term was actually developed by ILM in the production of Star Wars, where it was referred to as "guts on the outside." One of my favorites, "Grűschteling," is a German word that describes the sound created when dumping, sifting, or sweeping across large quantities of Lego. I love German. "Cheese wedges," "dots," "jumper plates," "Earlings," and "maccers," are all terms for specific Lego elements, and "blearsk," "bley," and "bloun" are all terms for specific Lego colors. Then come the acronyms. These ones were the most startling to me, but they are techniques that have come in handy time and time again. "SNOT" is an acronym standing for "studs not on top." It simply refers to sideways and upside-down building. "SNARL" stands for "studs not at right angles, and "SNIR" stands for "studs not in a row." SNIR building generally refers to building with fractional offsets, opposing faces, twisting, or specific depth changes represented mathematically by the formula, . It's way beyond me, but through the law of repeated elements, a pattern can be formed which represents roughly a 27 degree angle. And no, I'm not making this up. This particular technique is called SNIR 27, and was developed by a person named Erik Amzallag. "TFOLs" and "AFOLs" are "teen" and "adult fans of Lego" respectively. And finally, "TLC," among the building community, stands for "The Lego Company."
     Every builder has their own niche and style. Some builders have a knack for mosaics, while others may specialize in landscapes or macroscale. I have a friend who has a particular style where no studs (the Lego brick bumps) ever show. Other builders can be recognized by their talent in odd angles, while still others are renown for clever usage of the Lego elements. There are other builders whose "trademark" is building with excessive (yet contextualized) detail on large-scale creations. Masters of the art of Lego always have signature styles that set them apart from other builders. I don't think that I have a fully developed style, but others may disagree. Much of the style recognition depends on photography. Great photography can make or break the creation's reception in online communities or among friends. Photography and its relation to the creation itself is like the relationship between form and content in literature. When writing a narrative, the presentation of the subject, and usage of correct structure is half the battle. In other words, a completely genius creation could flop critically at the expense of poor photography. 
     Because my own personal brick collection doesn't support very large-scale creations, I primarily build what in the Lego community are called "vignettes." Vignettes are small slices out of time and space. Vignettes are generally no larger than the 16 stud by 16 stud baseplate threshold, and are normally designed to take advantage of a small space to tell a story much like a photograph. Like photographs, I tend to compose my vignettes based on a sort of three-dimensional "rule of thirds," and consider how to represent shadow and depth in the blocky sculpture medium that is Lego.
     For me, one of the greatest joys of the hobby is photographing the finished creations. It's that finishing touch that puts an added amount of quality on the creation if done well. To follow up on my previous post, "Black and White," I just purchased one of the expensive cameras I was drooling over in Best Buy. I now have Canon Rebel T3 DSLR that will hopefully be producing some cool Lego pictures in the future!
     Lego has fresh, yet nostalgic connotations to most anyone with any connection to the building toy. It's concept dates back to 1918, so it's brand has been grounded in quality for over 90 years. It's been copied and faked countless times, but it has always pulled to the front. It's mathematical consistency, so engrained in the art form itself, has made it one of my favorite pastimes and hobbies.

     To end, here are a few of my own builds, and I'd like to thank Didier Enjary for his helpful technique guide that assisted with descriptions of building techniques in the blog post.

"Einstein's Study"

"Streets of Jaffa"
"League of Explorers"


"Star Wars Relativity" 
M.C. Escher meets Lego Star Wars.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent as usual, Paul. Got a new blog! Changed from my old one! Really good post. You explained it all really well!