Reflective Evaluation

Pursuing graphic design as a possible career change had not occurred to me before last year. This has also been the first time I have kept a blog.

I felt my practical work needed to have a hand-drawn element, without relying too much on Photoshop or InDesign, and I was intrigued by the idea of producing a contemporary book in the ‘Illuminated’ style, as this had been my initial direction of research.  My tutor agreed that this could be a suitable project, however I had not drawn anything in some years.

My research used the keyword ‘illuminated’. This led to a varied range of approaches, my first being an introduction to the extraordinary world of illuminated manuscripts and the rich heritage they represent. I have always been interested in history so this seemed a rich vein for research. However most of the academic sources could be long winded and dry, not great source material for an in depth critical analysis. I then looked around for something different and found Edit Toth’s article on Bauhaus mainstay Laszlo Moholy-Nagy’s ‘Light Prop’. I had recently seen this sculpture in person while on a trip to Berlin and was intrigued. I found my first critical analysis of a text in 15 years more than a small challenge.

The stringent thinking process of both making sense of a text and reinterpreting it myself proved to be a very rewarding process, and I gained a greater insight into the cultural and social impact of the Bauhaus than ever before. I was also intrigued more by the idea of the ‘Light Prop’ and found my research taking me into the subject of lumia, or light artworks.

The illuminated manuscript idea was one that I stuck to for my practical work however, with a number of historical references coming through in the work. Artists I mention, such as Frances MacDonald, in particular were influenced by two of the subjects I mention in my blog, both illuminated manuscripts and Japanese ukiyo-e art.

As a photography student moving into graphic design work I have noticed a great deal of crossover aspects in the too disciplines. The use of lighting in particular struck me as an intriguing angle to explore in the blog, understanding how human beings make sense of designs and images in general through an innate understanding of how light can provide form. I outline in the blog how both photographic and video explorations of these shifting attributes of light can also inspire fresh ideas in design. This thought process comes full circle to the ‘Light Prop’ and the generation of abstract moving images.

Overall this has been a very interesting journey. However I feel I have fallen short in respect of the overall conclusions of my work. I do think these will be ongoing subjects for research into art in the future and these are subjects I am passionate about. I am not sure that I have accumulated enough research however to fulfill the brief for this module.


Designing Light

Part of my ongoing research into light artworks in design, with the key word ‘illumination’, is exploring the many ways light can be manipulated into forms of moving and shifting sculpture. The design of  light can parallel musical expression and create new ways of seeing that can evoke a powerful emotional response in an audience.

Turrell The Way Of Colour 2

James Turrell : The Way Of Colour 2

Filmmakers such as Stan Brakhage and installation artists like James Turrell show how light can be shaped and manipulated with diverse materials to thought-provoking effect.

This is something I would like to explore in the future. The random patterns created by manipulating light can create surprising and unusual images with different materials and surfaces. This can inspire fresh ideas, thought processes and visual opportunities for design work.

I have included some of my own examples from my Youtube channel:

Lovely Ugly : The legacy of concrete in Brutalist architecture

Some of my earliest memories as a child are of the concrete-dominated streets of the Sottish new town of Cumbernauld. Memories of going to see Star Wars at the age of 3-4 in what seemed to me to be a subterranean concrete dungeon, has left a lasting impression on my imagination. As did visits to see my Grandmother in her top floor flat in the Nitshill high rise, with its graffiti, dingy lifts, dark halls and decrepit shops. At the time it felt like a damp and ugly labyrinth.


Cumbernauld Town Centre

These vivid memories have also played a part in my choice of subject matter when it came to producing images. Glasgow was not short of concrete underpasses and high rise building. The grey drab weather-soaked surfaces were both ugly and strangely beautiful in a certain light, both at night and during the day.

This was a while before I learned of the post-war legacy of brutalist architecture as a world movement for rehousing the masses, heavily influenced by Utopian modernist design ideas (again borrowing heavily from the Bauhaus).

It was a form of architecture that Glasgow embraced with open arms, and has been as controversial here as elsewhere. Since then the city has been doing its best to forget the post war period, with the demolition of prominent city landmarks like the Red Road and Whitevale flats.

There has been recently a change of heart however with the coming renovation of the crumbling masterpiece St. Peter’s seminary in Cardross, on the outskirts of Glasgow.

St. Peters Seminary, Cardross

St. Peter’s Seminary, Cardross

Recently I photographed some interiors of the Whitevale flats, and the small cramped rooms and stairwells felt more like a vertical prison than a residential building. This combined with recent visits back to Cumbernauld reminded me how lucky I was to have escaped at an early age.

Still, the surfaces and shapes of concrete architecture still evoke a strong emotional response in me. Buildings like the National Theatre in London, the Ballardian atmospherics of underpasses and the creativity of designers like Le Corbusier still hold a fascination for me. They still feel like the landscapes of nostalgic science-fiction.

These are often lonely spaces, blank surfaces and alienating environments, yet many of these buildings have endured and have generated a global appreciation for their inventive approach to design.

Such ultra-modernist forms are endlessly fascinating to me, and no doubt I can still trace this back to early childhood memories. Memories that will no doubt help shape any design work I am involved with from now on.

Ukiyo-e and the influence of Japan.

One of the many influences that I had mentioned in my application for this MA was of the art of Japanese printmaking artists such as Katsushika Hokusai and Andō Hiroshige – of the ukiyo-e style of Japanese woodblock printmaking.

These Japanese artists had a strong influence on western art in general, and more specifically in what became the Anglo-Japanese style of the 19th century, after Japan began to open up to the rest of the world.

Japanese traditional art’s sense of minimalism in depictions of nature and village life, and the  subtle use of light and colour would go on to influence more modern movements in the late 19th Century and into the 20th Century like Art Nouveau.

Seeing these works in books and museums also had a subconscious influence on my own photography – which I’ve mentioned on this blog before – it also influences the style of graphic design I want to produce – a style echoing an atmospheric approach to  depictions of the natural world and of daily life in the city.

The defined lines and vivid shades of colour of these styles of printmaking also appealed to me, as they reminded me of favourite comic book artists like Hergé. Later on I also became aware of the Japanese influence on artists based in Europe and America such as James Whistler whose minimal nocturne paintings have also been a favourite of my own for some time.

Whistler - Nocturne in Blue and Gold Old Battersea Bridge

Whistler – Nocturne in Blue and Gold Old Battersea Bridge

The use of light in Whistlers paintings especially appeals to me, with its subtle tones and shades, and this is echoed in the sensitivity to the subtleties of the landscape and simplicity of form shown in early 19th Century Japanese art.

There were many artists of this time who were influenced by these prints including Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, Charles Rennie MacIntosh and Frances and Margaret MacDonald (who I have mentioned earlier in this blog).

This wabi-sabi style approach to minimalism and simplicity of form can be seen in many Japanese practitioners in contemporary art disciplines. Designers like Ikko Tanaka and Yusaku Kamekura, and photographers Yamamoto Masao and Shomei Tomatsu are continuing to develop and reflect an aesthetic style going back hundreds of years.

Having had a long fascination with Japan and its history, these are styles of design and image making I find highly appealing and I hope to incorporate all these disciplined and evocative influences into my own visual design projects in the near future.

New sketches for the Martian Chronicles Illuminated Book.

I have been working on sketches for a new panel for my ‘Illuminated’ project, based around scenes from the book ‘The Martian Chronicles’.

Here the scene taken from the book depicts ancient Martian sand-ships appearing to a human colonist. The ships proceed to chase the Earth man across the alien planet’s desert landscape.

The ship shown here  is seen from the front. The design was inspired by a combination of visual references. A treble clef, a sea shell and the curving hull of a Viking long-ship all combine to provide a feel of grace, mystery and hopefully also a sense of the ship’s alien origin.

I hope to develop this design into a book cover or an image for my design portfolio.


Photography and Light in Graphic Design

Since I first started taking photographs I have been fascinated by light. This may be what led to my choice of ‘illumination’ as a subject for my recent MA projects. I also feel that an understanding of light and shade is as integral a part of graphic design as it is in photography.

At first I took photographs on my mobile phone, beginning on a stay with my parents in France in 2007 then more in Glasgow when I moved back to Scotland shortly after.

I became fascinated with composition, light, shadow and contrast, capturing moments and places that otherwise might go unnoticed.

I had found a great deal of inspiration in photographers like Bill Brandt and Brassai, above.

Street photography provided a ready-made canvas on which to work and Glasgow provided a visually stimulating urban backdrop. Capturing interesting images of light and texture and form became something of an obsession for me.

Messing about on Photoshop with digital processes, the images I generated often took on a very graphic feel, with highly abstracted compositions of light and shade. I liked high contrast, especially in black and white images. I had always loved strong directional light sources, shadows and silhouettes.

This was especially true of photographs I had taken at night, images of brutalist architecture and modernist examples of life in the big city.

These graphic properties have been toned down in my more recent photographic projects, however it led to a renewed interest in graphic art, architecture, drawing and digital art. I had always had a niggling feeling that I should have studied graphic design at an earlier age too, especially as there seemed to be more job opportunities in this field than in photography or video.

So I started an introduction to graphic design course last year. I enjoyed it so much that I considered furthering my studies with a possible HND. This led to applying for an MA.

The graphic design briefs I worked on during this course also gave me the opportunity to incorporate my photography into my project work.

Some of the images I had taken with the camera were abstract enough to have a painted or hand drawn feel to them. I also think an appreciation of light helped in thinking through the design process.


Angles, perspective, light and shadow all have impact on our understanding of an image its intended message, in creating dramatic, harsh or soothing pictures. You only have to look at any contemporary advertisement to see these principles at work.

So the appreciation and awareness of the different properties of light, the immediate subtle attributes of texture, form, angle and composition can be greatly enhanced I feel by taking photographs. It has helped me gain an understanding of form, texture and shades that I hope will enhance and improve my future graphic design projects.  This can only improve an understanding of what can work as designed image, and how pictures can shape emotional and intellectual reactions in an audience.

Nostalgia, Hunters in the Snow and Ways of Seeing

40 seems to be an age where it is perhaps more comfortable to look back on the past than think about the future. Early visual influences can shape your thought processes, creativity and visual tastes in ways that are not instantly recognisable in the present, until can you look back and see them with a sense of perspective.

Certain images and memories have stuck in my imagination over the past few decades and evoke nostalgia for lost times, memories, moments, thoughts and people. Here I would like to examine some of the works of art and art criticism that have made a powerful impression on me in the past, and to which I still periodically return for inspiration.


Hunters In The Snow Pieter Bruegel

Pieter Bruegel’s ‘The Hunters in The Snow’ hung on a wall in my parent’s front room for a number of years. The picture has left a long and lingering impression on me. The deep framing of the multi-layered landscape, the beautiful textures of the whites of the snow and the browns and blacks of clothing and the glimpses of the small towns in the distance were deeply evocative for me.

Especially I was interested by the tiny people far off in the distance, playing sports on the ice and doing chores, all playing out their own personal stories. It was an example of how the still image can speak to people years after it was produced.

I may have taken it for granted at the time, though ever since it has stayed imprinted in my imagination and has been instantly recognizable to me ever since, evoking a powerful, if melancholy, feeling of lost moments frozen in time.

My second example of a nostalgic impression from media is John Berger’s 1972 series ‘Ways of Seeing’. This is a four part series about the different political and social attitudes we have towards painting in the modern mechanized age, a time when photography is all powerful. I first saw this series as a VHS recording and it has haunted me ever since.

Berger’s large shock of wavy hair, his intense gaze, his slight speech impediment and that very seventies shirt at the time seemed slightly creepy to me. My dad had recorded the series on Vhs when video recording was still a novelty. He had been using it as a teaching aid I expect (apparently the resulting text from the series is still used widely for teaching visual media in colleges and universities today).

I still associate ‘Ways of Seeing’ with the static and visual noise of worn VHS tapes. All very eighties, even though the original series had been produced before I was born.

However, Berger’s highly skeptical inquiry into the forced mysticism and absurd commercial excesses of the art world The series was made as a further exploration of the themes explored in Walter Benjamin’s essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’.

Interestingly, this essay was from a collection of Benjamin’s works called ‘Illuminations’ which was my keyword for my critical analysis and practical module. Marxist ideas form the bedrock for Berger’s critical analysis, as painting was as he put it, primarily for the rich and for the glorification of private property.

To quote the book:

‘Publicity is, in essence, nostalgic. It has to sell the past to the future. It cannot itself supply the standards of its own claims. And so all its references to quality are bound to be retrospective and traditional. It would lack both confidence and credibility if it used a strictly contemporary language.’

He also explores how women are depicted in oil painting, and how their depiction in today’s mass media, with their naked bodies treated as private property and commodity, has not changed very much at all. It is still an enduring and very relevant point.

‘Ways Of Seeing’ has been Berger’s most notable legacy in art criticism, although he is known as a poet and artist in his own right. I have since watched the series a number of times, and it stands up to repeat viewing for anyone interested in art, culture and critical thinking.

The whole series is available on Youtube, although I wonder if I would even be aware of ‘Ways Of Seeing’ if it was not for those old VHS tapes.

Among my very earliest memories as a child are of the Scottish new town Cumbernauld, on the outskirts of Glasgow. We lived there for a short time when I was around 4.  It was a world of concrete and tarmac, in stark contrast to my upbringing in rural Perthshire. It is a place I still dream of (or have nightmares about) and it probably had a direct influence on my love for concrete, harsh textures and hard surfaces in photography, as well as a strong interest in brutalist architecture.

The harsh severe patterns and lines of the new town seem to me to be perfectly encapsulated in my next example of nostalgic art.

Eduardo Paolozzi’s sculpture on the doors of the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow. Paolozzi’s machine modernism in collage and sculpture left a lasting impression on in the shape of the huge monolithic silver doors that formed the entrance to a museum I remember visiting a good deal as a child.


Doors at Huntarian Gallery Eduardo Paolozzi

Walks around Glasgow University and Kelvingrove park often led to a visit here, and every now and then I go back to see those amazing doors. They do not look quite so huge now, though they still hold an odd emotional pull for me even after all those years. They seemed to be the doors to a very mysterious and valuable domain of memory.

I learned later that Paolozzi had a close relationship with one of my favourite authors, JG Ballard. The impersonal alienation of a town like Cumbernauld, with its tainted weathered surfaces and utopian architecture transformed into a dystopian landscape of barbed wire and empty shops would have been a perfect backdrop to any story of Ballard’s. Paolozzi found a visual language for this with his angular abstract collage and sculpture, capturing the lost dreams of a cynical age at the end of modernism.

The influence of the town and of Paolozzi’s art perhaps explains why concrete, tarmac and hard shadows have been such an inspiration on my own photographic images.

My last nostalgic reference is also an historical treasure trove from the end of the seventies and start of the eighties. I cannot quite remember where I first saw it. No doubt it was also included in my dad’s recorded VHS tapes (he was an art and media studies teacher).

Generally I have very little tolerance for art and cultural critics. However Robert Hughes is an exception. He really knew what he was talking about, and, like Berger he made no attempt to hide his strong and erudite opinions on the increasing commercialism and homogenization of artworks.

Hughes’ ‘The Shock of the New’ series is a peerless historical evaluation of the late 19th to mid-20th Century modernist art movements, arguing that our shared common culture now is modernism. Exploring Dadaism, Surrealism, Futurism and Fauvism in the inspired way Hughes does, it is hard to find an argument to deny this. Hughes is endlessly quotable and engaging as he leads us on a tour through the vaults of modern art.

The Shock of the New make for compulsive viewing and like Berger’s series makes ongoing relevant points about art and the art world. It was in this series that first became aware of the subject matter of my critical analysis, László Moholy-Nagy’s ‘Light Space Modulator’.

Hughes quotes Mohology-Nagy : ‘Constructivism is pure substance, it is the socialism of vision’.

It is this kind of strident idealism that Hughes argues has been lost. As such his history touches on the political factors of art and its increasing commercialisation, something he would go on to explore in more detail in ‘The New Shock of the New’.

Like Berger he describes the prices of the artworks he examines as ‘absurd’.  The often subversive message of a given artwork is crushed under the weight of its price tag. He finishes this episode with a chilling and damning appraisal of current commercial and political (or a-political) artistic trends.

All these influences have had a profound and ongoing influence on me in ways that I cannot properly measure. I expect I will go back to them again and again to relive the emotionally and creatively invigorating mysteries of nostalgia.

Practice 1: Art and Design (Distance Learning)


Illuminated #1

The Martian Chronicles: Illuminated Practical Project

Prelim Sketch #3

I chose ‘Illuminated’ as my keyword for my research and practical artwork modules for the MA. This was taken straight from my original statement during my application, and formed the basis of my research practice as outlined the previous blog post.

After some reading and research on the subject I understood the term ‘Illuminated’ to mean the embellishing of books with strong colour and inks, especially with gold and silver leaf.

I decided to ‘illuminate’ a contemporary book. In this case a fiction book, one of my favorites as a child, ‘The Martian Chronicles’ by Ray Bradbury.

This book has already been widely illustrated, however I was looking to capture a different aesthetic, influenced by the hand-worked aspects of illuminated artwork without ignoring the substantial art movements that have been a factor since the printing press arrived.


The Martian Chronicles: Ian Miller

My direct influences in a contemporary sense included graphic novel illustrator Ian Miller (for his extremely detailed, anarchic and archaic take on science fiction, see above), and also Frances MacDonald,


Frances MacDonald : A Pond 1894

a Scottish artist profoundly influenced by the tradition of illuminated manuscript, especially the Celtic examples such as the Book Of Kells.


I looked at numerous examples of illuminated manuscript, Byzantine, Irish and Scots Celtic illuminated texts, as well as more recent artists that were influenced by this long standing and historically fascinating artistic tradition.There are numerous classifications for these texts. Late Antique, Insular, Carolingian, Romanesque, Gothic, and Renaissance manuscripts.

Book Of Kells

The Book Of Kells

I have been looking at a number of online resources for illuminated manuscripts and examples in this tradition.

I much preferred the Celtic tradition of illumination, which fused a number of different influences into on tradition.

Although the images themselves can seem somehow rough, askew and over complicated they also have a particular beauty in their detail and human touch which I enjoyed.

I even got a book about how to make illuminations and a letter stamp set to experiment with, as well as light board, as much of the images I have worked on so far have been reworked on tracing paper.

Illuminated #1

I settled on this basic design Prelim Sketch #4(see left) which shows one of the more moving passages in the book, in which an alien Martian confronts a human astronaut that has colonised his world. They soon realise that to each other they are ghosts. The Martian sees a vibrant, alive culture and beautiful cities. The human sees only ruins and emptiness, an ancient civilization long dead.



The pencil drawings below initially showed both the Martian and the human, however as it has developed only the Martian dominates, fused with his strangely organic city, a ghost merging into the structure itself. After finishing the basic design I now  looked at ways to illuminate it. I decided on gold and silver ink after thinking about LEDs and back-lighting.  I also did some outlines in pen, however I am not sure if I can make this work for a whole illustration.

illuminated Sketch #3

These drawings and designs are still very much a work in progress so please watch this space. Any comments are welcome.

László Moholy-Nagy, Lumia and the Light-Space Modulator



Light-Space Modulator, László Moholy-Nagy

The first written assignment for this MA in Graphic Design was a critical analysis, and the submission of an annotated bibliography of research and reading examples.

The deadline for the critical analysis was drawing near and I had yet to find anything to critique. It was also a good while since I had written any kind of essay. I had decided on a key word for my initial studies, ‘Illuminated’, which was taken from my initial statement when I applied.

But ‘Illuminated’ means so much, with so many different connotations and meanings. I started by looking at illuminated manuscripts – I had seen some fine examples of pre-printing press illuminated manuscripts earlier in the year at the Hungarian Gallery in Glasgow. I was interested in the history and cultural significance of these methods of producing books.


Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery @RCJPhotog

However, most of the literature I was finding on the subject was archaic, dry, academic and not particularly controversial or of interest from an analytical point of view. Also, books on the subject were hard to find locally and extortionate on Amazon. I could not find much I could say at this point on that subject. So, I moved on to something of equal interest.

A number of subjects sprang up as I searched through the university’s library of articles and notes.

Edit Toth had written an essay on one of the early twentieth century’s most intriguing sculptures – Bauhaus tutor and artist László Moholy-Nagy’s  ‘Light Prop for an Electric Stage’. I had seen the sculpture in person earlier this year when visiting the Bauhaus Archiv in Berlin (or at least a close replica of the original).  It made an immediate visual impression.

Bauhaus Archiv

Bauhaus Archiv, Berlin @RCJPhotog

What grabbed me about the essay was both the subject matter and Toth’s arguments, not all of which I agreed with. The academic way of phrasing arguments in the essay made critiquing it accurately difficult for me, especially as I was so out of practice. I had not had to write an academic essay since I graduated from Napier in 2000. However I still managed to submit on time, and was moderately please with the results.

I became aware of a whole different world of light art, including lumia, and light manipulations as a source of new forms and structures in creative design. It made for an interesting week, learning more about the sculpture, its creator and chatting about the Bauhaus over dinner, as well as writing and re-writing this assignment.

You can read my final submitted assignment here and, by all means, offer constructive criticism or some thoughts of your own.

Now I just have to await the results.

Paper Project : Introduction to MA Graphic Design

PAPER PROJECT : First project for MA Graphic Design

Paper #2 Paper#1I recently started a distance learning MA in Graphic Design with the University of Hertfordshire. This was our first project, an informal experiment in the use of paper as a creative material

I wanted to keep my ideas for this simple, pristine and elegant. I was also inspired by the vertical uprights of the Cranhill Water Tower in Glasgow which I recently photographed.

My images for the project could have been strange alien monoliths or ivory towers in twilight. I have a strong interest in ancient history, and there is also a hint of ancient architecture, temple structures from Greece or Egypt.

The quality of light also evoked a ghostly, mysterious quality which appealed to me, the shadows and highlights offering shades and textures otherwise hidden in the material. The towers were simple rolls of paper.

Originally I had wanted to include pin-points of light in the paper, like little windows or rays of light connecting with each other. This proved impractical however. It was hard not to damage the paper as I wanted to avoid crinkles or folds that would show up in photography, and finding the right light intensity also proved difficult.

If I could have made this work I would also have introduced small amounts of steam or smoke to create an atmosphere where the beams could be easily seen. A project for the future maybe.