What Ten Years Can Do: Patterns of Artistic Success

I am 36 years old. I believe this makes me just old enough to be in a position where I am presently bearing witness to the recently achieved, artistic success of a handful of friends. I believe I am witnessing what I am witnessing among these select colleagues because it takes roughly ten years to really make it, and so those colleagues of mine who are 1) roughly my age and 2) got started in their mid 20s are now just ripening.

It has been inspiring — to observe these creatives, to watch their stories play out over the years. It’s also revealed some patterns. When I look at their trajectories, from their very first days in their field to their very first, real validations of success, here is what I see: an ordinary, unassuming start; a rather uneventful first five years; a tipping point, followed by a snowball effect wherein impactful things start happening with greater and greater frequency; and then, right around the ten-year mark, something really positive happens that marks the arrival of that person’s artistic success.  

My friend Susan McKinney’s ceramics career follows this pattern; I was lucky enough to have had a front row seat to most of it. Her first ten years are chronicled briefly below. It’s her hope and mine that this at-a-glance peek at her first decade in ceramics will inspire you to launch your own artistic career—and to stick to it for the seemingly very necessary span of at least ten years.

An At-a-Glance Look at One Ceramicist’s First Decade

Years 1-2: Ceramics Classes at a Community Studio

An Oklahoma native, Susan McKinney gets her first job out of industrial design school and moves to San Diego. She loves the beaches but, as the months pass by, she starts feeling unhappy at work. She doesn’t like designing cell phones. She doesn’t like sitting at a computer all day. So she signs up for a ceramics class at a local community studio. “Ceramics has this long history of having therapeutic qualities,” Susan says. “That’s why so many people do it as a hobby. I had no idea it would be an influential part of my life, like it is now. I just did it because I got good feelings from it.” And so she continues at the community studio, for roughly one day a week, on and off, making little pots on a kick wheel, for the next two years.

Susan’s early ceramic work
Years 3-5: Weekend Pottery Classes in San Francisco

In 2010, Susan gets a new job at an industrial design firm in San Francisco. “You know how it is when you move,” she says. “It’s stressful. I knew I needed to sign up for a pottery class. I knew it was a way that I could be grounded—a way for me to keep my shit together even if it was just for a few hours at a time. So I just kind of continued. It was never all that serious. It was just a way to relax on the weekends. I’d go for months without doing it. But I always knew I should keep doing it.” 

Year 6: The Hand Building Discovery

In 2013, Susan starts rolling out clay, just like cookie dough, on her dining room table. She cuts patterns and pieces out of it. She starts twisting and braiding the pieces together, curling them, blending them together by hand. No longer does she need a classroom and access to a wheel. With hand building, she can work from home when she has time, then fire the pieces at the studio later. “On week nights, after work, I’d get a burrito on the way home, eat half of it, then get to making stuff,” she says. The flexibility helps Susan work on ceramics more often and more deeply. “I felt free when I was doing it,” she says. “Once I started hand building, I dove in a lot deeper. I got more and more into it.” 

Hand building ceramics at the dinner table
Year 7: Elaborating on a Technique

Susan keeps hand building at home, then firing her work at the studio. The pieces are small—mostly jewelry—but she’s always trying new things. One day, she starts weaving the clay. “I was already using twisting and braiding techniques to make jewelry,” Susan says. “I really just took those basic ideas and expanded them—doing things with clay that are usually done with fabric.” Around this time, Susan sees an old, beautiful basket at her grandmother’s house. She decides she wants to weave a basket out of clay. 

Experimenting with weaving clay ribbons
Year 8: A Breaking Point

When it comes to ceramics, Susan has ideas and techniques that excite her. But she has no time. Her day job in San Francisco is stressful. She works long hours. “I reached a breaking point,” she says. “I wanted time. I wanted time to focus on the thing that makes me happy.” What if she took a few months off of work? She saves money and starts applying for residencies. She is accepted to two: one in Greece and one in Denmark. She takes a 3-month sabbatical from work and packs her bags.

Year 9: The Sabbatical

In both Greece and Denmark, Susan’s accommodations are in quiet, rural communities. She has access to materials and a kiln. And, she has time. For three months, she works on nothing but ceramics. Increasingly, her work becomes more three dimensional. “In Greece, I made a basket every day,” she says. “In Denmark, I saw these beautiful flowers, and I started weaving petals together.” Abroad, Susan realizes two important things: the first is that, with dedicated time and facilities to make things, her work is progressing quickly. The second? That she is very happy. She writes a letter to her boyfriend: “If I’m this happy doing this, then I would be stupid not to keep doing it when I get home, right?” 

Select finished baskets from Susan’s time abroad
Year 10: Making Time, Making Space, Making It Big

Back in the States, Susan returns to work. For six months, she works while hunting down contract work. When she has enough, she quits her day job. With more control over her schedule, she’s able to split her time between paying work and her ceramics pieces, which are becoming increasingly complex and difficult to transport. “You can only do this at your dinner table for so long,” she says. Susan becomes a member at a new studio where she can both work and fire; her work continues to evolve. A short time later, a friend shares Susan’s work with her connections at a high-end home goods manufacturer and retailer. The result? The retailer commissions Susan to work on a housewares series.

“It sounds so cheesy,” Susan says, “but it feels like my dream has come true. It took time—I think that’s where people get frustrated, when things don’t happen right away—but you just keep making little, deliberate choices. And you have to keep making them. And then everything will come.” •

One of Susan’s 2018 pieces

Lean more about Susan’s work here. 

 

Behind the Scenes with Lucasfilm’s Star Wars Illustrator

We interviewed Lucasfilm illustrator Brian Rood about his workflow and how he blends traditional and digital mediums. 

 

You recently illustrated the special edition Star Wars cover for Time Magazine. What was that like?

I’ve been freelancing for Lucasfilm and the Star Wars franchise for the past 15 years. Over the past four years I’ve been extremely busy creating artwork for the Star Wars storybook projects and working on multiple jobs directly for Lucasfilm Licensing.

The storybook project is composed of roughly 80 or more illustrations per film. It’s one of the most comprehensive retellings of all the main films to date. The books can be found everywhere in dozens of formats, ranging from 300-page hardcovers to the classic read-along books for young readers.

When Time Magazine approached me about doing their Special Edition Star Wars 40th Anniversary cover, I was thrilled. They came to me with the concept of portraying the original 1977 Luke Skywalker from A New Hope alongside Rey from the upcoming film, The Last Jedi. We also knew that everybody’s favorite bad guy would be a big part of this illustration, and I also wanted to bridge the generations with the Droids from the original and new trilogies.

It was a big honor to create a new piece of Star Wars art for a publication as iconic as Time Magazine. I’m so thankful that I’ve been able to devote a large portion of my career to creating artwork for one of my all time favorite film franchises.

What’s a typical studio day like for you?

I spend the first hour or two every morning with coffee and Astropad. I like to do some illustrating at my kitchen table or outside on a nice day before I buckle down in the studio.

I typically spend 12+ hours a day between the digital studio and the traditional paint studio. I love Astropad because instead of being tethered to my studio, I can sit on my couch with my iPad Pro and paint in Photoshop. The fact that Astropad let’s me harness the power of my main iMac studio computer is an amazing way to be able to break away from the office and still be productive. It’s great to watch some TV with the family while simultaneously getting a bit of work done.

Last night, my kids were decorating the Christmas tree, but I still had a bunch of work to get done. So I brought out the iPad Pro and I was sitting on the couch, having family time while working on a deadline.

How do you blend traditional and digital mediums in your work? 

My studio literally has two sides to it: I’ve got the big messy side where I throw paint, and then I have the side that stays clean with my iMac, my iPad Pro, Cintiq graphics tablet, and a 44” Giclee printer.

I spent 15 years painting traditionally before I ever dove into the digital realm. Working digitally allows me to get my work done much faster, but I really like to keep elements of traditional painting in all of my pieces.

I love working digitally, but I still like to finalize my artwork with traditional mediums. So I’ve been printing off my work using museum grade Giclee papers and archival inks, then finishing it with traditional mediums, such as airbrush, acrylics, watercolor, or colored pencils. I’m able to incorporate my traditional art in every piece I create digitally.

For example, I did about 50% of the Time Magazine cover in Photoshop with the use of Astropad. But at a certain point it’s time to put down the digital tools and pick up the brushes. I printed it out on my large format studio printer and then finished it up with acrylic details, watercolor washes, texturing mediums and colored pencils. Then I scanned it back in, and color-corrected utilizing my iMac, Astropad and Photoshop. Once I had a high-resolution, color-corrected image, it was ready to send into Time Magazine.

I’ve really enjoyed the challenge of integrating traditional painting with modern technology. It has unleashed unlimited creative freedom for me. You never stop learning as an artist, and the right set of tools makes any job easier and more enjoyable. Apps like Astropad accessing the power of your main computer merged with the intuitiveness of the iPad Pro and Apple Pencil is a perfect marriage. A lightweight, comfortable and powerful graphics tablet. •

Brian Rood uses an iMac, iPad Pro, and Astropad. You can find Brian Rood on Facebook and Instagram.

 

This is not how Steve Jobs imagined the “bicycle for our minds”

Passive consumption is ruining technology — but there’s still hope for redemption

A bicycle for our minds. That’s how Steve Jobs described the potential of the computer back in 1991. He envisioned a powerful tool that could stretch our minds and bring limitless opportunity to everyday people.

Fast forward to 2018 where the number of smartphone users worldwide is estimated to exceed 2.5 billion. So what does this widespread technology use look like? We have teenagers scrolling through Instagram with their eyes glazed over, and couples on dates paying more attention to their screens than the person sitting across from them. Phones and computers were supposed to be a bicycle for the mind… but this looks less like a bicycle and more like a hamster wheel going nowhere.

This isn’t just another cautionary post about our smartphone addictions. Instead, this is about recognizing where the leaders in tech went wrong, and challenging ourselves as independent makers and creators to fix it.

The App Store is an ecosystem for passive consumption

For the best visualization of the problem, look at the iOS App Store. Our shrinking attention spans and growing appetites for content have created an ecosystem that favors passive-use apps. The top charts for iPad apps mostly feature casual gaming, social media, and entertainment apps. There is infinite content available, and infinite ways to consume it.

The more that we eat up this content, the greater incentive there is to create and invest in apps that build on the ecosystem. “Truth is, we like investing in things that are addicting,” tweeted Ross Gerber, Apple shareholder and CEO of Gerber Kawasaki Wealth. It makes sense — feed our addiction and we’ll keep buying your products.

Tech leaders are the problem, not the solution

But there’s increasing evidence that this passive technology use is harmful. A psychological study found that middle schoolers who are heavy users of social media have a 27% higher risk of depression. And addiction to mobile gaming is now considered an impulse control disorder (in the same category as gambling addictions) because of the effects on the brain’s dopamine levels.

Earlier this year, a highly publicized open letter to Apple urged the company to “set an example about the obligations of technology companies to their youngest consumers.” It essentially asked Apple to take a closer look at the dangers of its own technology — a hollow request for a company whose revenue is driven by our constant passive consumption.

Even Facebook finally admitted that passively scrolling through your feed can have negative mental health effects. And Facebook’s solution? Spend more time engaging with friends online — “especially sharing messages, posts and comments.” In other words, interact more with the platform.

Mark Zuckerberg also promised to alter the newsfeed algorithm so that users will “see less public content like posts from businesses, brands and media.” But how will the impact be measured? It’s an unfortunate truth, but it would be foolish to rely on tech leaders like Apple and Facebook when their business models rely on our addiction.

Digital mindfulness starts with the underdogs

Our phones, tablets, and laptops have immense creative potential that is just waiting to be unlocked. This is our opportunity to be more than just hamsters on the wheel, and actually start to create. We — the independent makers and creators — are the real change agents for restoring technology to the powerful tool that Steve Jobs envisioned.

Just a few decades ago, owning powerful design and computing technology wasn’t feasible for the average person due to the exorbitant expense. But today, high-quality technology is much more accessible. Aspiring filmmakers can shoot and edit videos on their phones. Artists can paint in watercolor using a stylus. Entrepreneurs can build their business plan right on their iPads.

The greatest movements start with the underdogs, and that’s why we’re starting Bicycle for the Mind — a publication about choosing creation over consumption. We’ll be exploring topics around digital mindfulness (setting discipline around our technology use) and engaged creation (seeking out better tools and workflows for creating).

If you’re passionate about using technology to work more productively, creatively, and deeply, please join our movement. Let’s bring back the bicycle for the mind. 

 

While Apple is taking away buttons, we found a way to add one.

Post update: RIP Camera Button

Apple has never been afraid to take design risks. Earlier this year, Apple made headlines when it revealed a new iPhone design that left out the iconic Home button. Now, I’m all for simplification. But for the design community, every further simplification of Apple hardware keeps us on our toes. It means searching for creative solutions to work around Apple’s constant quest for minimalism.

So when we ran out of buttons to hide our software’s UI behind, it really forced us to use our imagination. Instead of squeezing UI in where it didn’t fit, we built a new button to conceal it: it’s called the Camera Button.

We’re debuting the Camera Button in our latest product — Luna Display. But the Camera Button has been a long time coming, and we want to share how we got here.

A mission to simplify tangled UI

Our problem started three years ago when we were working on our first product, Astropad. With Astropad mirroring your Mac screen on your iPad, you end up getting a unique UI overlap. First, there’s Mac UI showing up on your iPad, coming from whatever Mac program you’re using, such as Photoshop or Sketch. On top of that, there’s the native iPad UI. So if we wanted to add our own Astropad UI, where would it go? We didn’t want to create a crazy matrix of conflicting UI, so we looked for a way to minimize it.

Our first solution for this tangled UI was the Astropad “ring.” It’s a little movable ring that always appears on your iPad screen when you’re working in Astropad. Tap on it once brings up a sidebar with shortcuts and settings. Tap on it again and it disappears. But could we minimize our UI real estate even more? As handy as this little ring was, it still gets in the way.

The black and red ring pulls up a workspace sidebar in Astropad

Looking for room in a crowded space

We set out to find an alternative to the Astropad ring. The obvious first option was to make a new gesture, but we realized pretty quickly that there was limited room for this. Every edge of the iPad is already occupied with an existing gesture: swipe up for your dock, left to search, and down for notifications. We really needed something novel to work with.

Our Astro HQ cofounder Giovanni Donelli said that the idea to turn the camera into a button came like lightning, “I had been staring at a white bezel iPad for so long, and I kept wishing there was another home button we could use. My eyes kept falling on the camera, and I really wanted to touch it!” Giovanni built an initial prototype of the Camera Button within an hour.

Managing variables and maximizing efficiency

Turning the camera into a reliably functioning button didn’t come without challenges. In total, we spent four months of continuous engineering efforts to get past these hurdles:

Variable Lighting

The Camera Button works by detecting the amount of light coming in through the camera. Covering up the camera with your finger blocks all light, triggering a response from the iPad. The tricky part was getting it to work in all lighting conditions, across all iPad cameras.

To test how the camera behaves in different lighting conditions, we built a makeshift light box. By manipulating the lighting, we were able to engineer the camera button to work predictably despite the brightness of the room. We even tested variances in finger pressure — how hard or lightly you tap the camera. The finger contraption in the below photo has an adjustment screw that controls how far the finger was depressed on the iPad camera.

Testing the Camera Button in varying ambient light

Energy Efficiency

In order for the Camera Button to work, the camera needs to be constantly processing while using the app. So we made it a design goal from the beginning to ensure that it doesn’t affect battery life. This meant writing very efficient code based on algorithms that prioritized energy efficiency. After the code was written, we optimized it meticulously to eliminate any bottlenecks. Today, the Camera Button requires less than 1% CPU to run.

User Privacy

Maintaining user privacy is critical, and that meant finding ways to anonymize data coming in from the camera. The solution: blur the camera images to the point of not being able to see any data coming in, so the only thing the camera registers is the amount of light coming in. Additionally, data coming in through the camera never leaves the iPad and is never sent to a server.

Even though using the Camera Button is an optional setting in Luna, we understand that some users may not be comfortable with this feature. That’s why we also programmed the iPad volume buttons to have the same functionality as the Camera Button.

Camera images are blurred to anonymize data

A sleek new iPad interaction

In total, we spent about six months building and testing the Camera Button. The result: a sleek and functional new interaction for your iPad that doesn’t interrupt your workflow. The Camera Button is making its first debut in Luna Display — new hardware that turns the iPad into a second display for Mac. Tap the camera to bring out a simple interface to adjust screen brightness, display arrangement, and more.

Adjust the brightness or set display arrangement in Luna’s hidden sidebar

In the end, designers and developers need to be constantly innovating to stay alive. But of course, that’s easier said than done. It took us a long time to see the opportunities for innovation around us; we had the Camera Button right under our nose (quite literally) for months before we saw its potential. When you’re searching for innovation, just remember that sometimes the most surprising solutions are hidden in the most mundane places — so it’s worth taking a second look at the ordinary.


Luna Display is the only hardware solution that turns your iPad into a second display for Mac. Pre-order it now!

Capturing Luxury: Photographing Audi, Porsche & Bugatti

Artist Showcase: Daniel Wollstein

Daniel Wollstein is a co-founder of RightLight Media, a creative agency based in Munich that specializes in photography and post-production. We sat down with Daniel to discuss what it’s like to photograph some of the most luxurious brands in the world.

Which brands does your agency primarily work with?

RightLight primarily works with Volkswagen brands — mostly Audi, Porsche, and Bugatti. We follow many car models that comes out, photographing every part of the process as the car comes to life.

We start with documenting the designers as they work on the original concepts for the car. These cycles can take three to five years, and it ends with the dynamic presentations of the cars when the journalists get to drive them for the first time.

Our photographs are mainly used for press reasons: material for the manufacturers’ press kits magazines, bloggers, and websites.

This would be a lot of people’s dream job. How did you end up photographing luxury cars?

It’s a crazy Cinderella story. Years ago I was classically trained in photography at a portrait studio in Munich. Eventually I wanted to explore different fields, so I went freelance. First I worked for the Munich philharmonic, photographing all of the musicians.

At one point, I moved to a different city, thinking that I’d be able to take all of my clients with me. But that didn’t happen, as it never does. So I ended up working as a bartender to support myself.

One day a girl came up to me and said “your colleague said you’re a photographer, would you like to shoot a car in Miami?” I was skeptical at first, but that’s what I’ve been doing ever since. I ended up being the manager of that company, and then in 2014 I founded RightLight Media.

What makes photographing cars so unique?

Cars are great media to work with because they’re very beautiful objects. And there are always many elements involved to make a photoshoot happen.

First of all you need space. That’s always an issue because cars are big, massive things that you need to put somewhere. The manufacturers always provide us with great locations because they want their cars photographed in the best places.

Everything happens on a big scale, and it’s always high-end. Also, because we’re working with the newest models, there’s a lot of secrecy. Often we have security people at the photoshoots.

Are there any challenges to working with cars?

The manufacturers are usually very particular about having the car shot in a certain visual look. And so we thrive to bring their wanted look into parallel with the rules of photography to create the best result possible.

Some manufacturers can be very specific. For example, natural reflections are often unwanted, and so it is our task to reduce these, and still keep the scene as authentic as possible. With cars, being the big reflecting objects that they are, this can be quite challenging at times. Hereby, we sometimes go so far into detail that it can only be noticed on a very sublime level.

How much creative freedom do you have?

We’re mostly involved in the concept phase of a photoshoot. We usually give a lot of input regarding location and how to shoot the car.

We’ve been working with these brands now for close to ten years. The experience we have developed together with the brands in that time is a great asset. We are happy to support them with our expertise and will gladly do so in the future.

How do you use Astropad in your workflow?

I use Astropad daily for retouching on my iPad Pro. I travel a lot, about 180 days per year, so most of my editing work is on-the-road. Because I’m so mobile, I need to be able to access every file from my laptop.

Before Astropad I was using a Wacom tablet. While a Wacom Cintiq tablet can be used as a computer by itself, the downfall is that you essentially end up working from two different computers (your Cintiq and your laptop/ desktop). The two-computer solution just doesn’t work for me.

With the Astropad solution, I have all my files with me all the time (on my laptop). I do everything from that one laptop.

Why should every artist get an iPad Pro?

I sat with a group of Audi designers at my last photoshoot in Shanghai, and they were blown away by Astropad. All they do is work on Cinitqs, so as soon as they leave their design studio in Munich, they leave all of their programs and files.

Being able to work on a portable display is a solution that so many people need. It should be a no-brainer to buy an iPad Pro and Astropad. The benefit of buying an iPad is that in addition to a graphics tablet, you also have an iPad! I used to think I never needed an iPad, but now I use it more than I use my laptop. There’s so much you can do with it.