The Tools of Our Artistic Endeavors


For the artist, our tools are the ones of creation – rather than mechanized devices of repair and maintenance. They can additionally be anything from our companions, to our outright ‘bitch’, as some level of emotional attachment is often in attendance. And yes, I’m speaking to you, Lucille …

But when one’s emotion is similar to that more commonly associated with the cheers offered to a favorite sports team – Martin vs. Taylor, Canon vs. Nikon, Yamaha vs. Steinway – you’re not an artist. You’re a gadget freak who would be equally comfortable with the aforementioned mechanical devices … perhaps even more so.

Music, painting, photography – whatever – has become your competitive sport, much like auto racing, rather than a vehicle of artistic expression. And you additionally believe that the more you spent on your ‘brush’, the more elevated you are as an artist, securing store-bought superiority over the envious pauper working with simple tools. But, in truth, the only ones who envy you … are your own kind. And none of you … are artists.

I do have something of a liberating license to say this as one who does possess some very nice and expensive ‘tools’. But I will readily – and often – refer to brushes far more modest. They not only are every bit as valid, but often offer some level of operational superiority, never realized or known to the gadget freak.

Perhaps of greater significance is that I further get a special kick out of utensils or apparatus more humble. After all, dropping $2,500 – or more on, say, a guitar virtually demands an expectation that all – or most – will be well. But it’s the highly proficient and musical $300 acoustic that can somehow still delight me, all the more. It offers astonishment – rather than mere, presumptive expectancy. And, if chosen well, the price tag is soon forgotten as it simply becomes … yet another brush, laying down another color across the canvas.

The same can be said, naturally, of all brushes – from grand pianos, to the very microphones used to record them. The principle difference between a well selected $300 microphone and a $2,000 Neumann can be just about … 10%, in many practical instances (as mathematically odd, as that may seem). As with many things – from cameras to, indeed, automobiles – it is the refinements, often subtle, that are the most expensive to engineer, to execute and – yes – to purchase. That last ‘10%’ becomes the most costly percentage of all …

I choose to concentrate, within these pages, on more modest tools while – yes – also covering some of the pricier offerings. My emphasis is in the recognition that many of you harbor all of the passion, but perhaps have a little less as it relates to disposable funds.

And besides, there has already been much attention paid to superlatives. Most everything about, say, Martin guitars has likely, by now, been written. If I conjure some new ‘take’ or previously undiscussed consideration, I’ll cover it. But in the interim, I appraise guitars more affordable to everyone – often concentrating on offerings from Yamaha simply because I’ve long been familiar with their instruments, back to childhood. Those who prefer your Seagulls or Epiphones – whatever – shouldn’t feel slighted. If you do, you’re among the equipment-obsessed ‘gadget freaks’ of whom I spoke of earlier – even if your “gadget” is made of wood.

Similarly, while I’ll seldom discuss the most expensive and exotic of digital camera equipment (that many really can’t afford), I will sometimes invite the consideration of older film cameras – yes, still. This, as an invitation to hone techniques (even the digital ones), to perhaps see just a little differently, or as new journey for those who were essentially born unto a digital age, never experiencing the special qualities of film – or the often remarkable cameras used to expose the media. Older tools often have their distinct charms and further provide the artist with entirely new experiences – and relationships – with one’s own chosen medium.

For others, I know, I’ll be simply prompting teary-eyed feelings of nostalgia … and that’s perfectly fine.

But as of this day – in this time – the media artist, in particular, has so many magnificent options that were almost entirely unimaginable in a previous time, not so long ago … even if some things were lost in the balance. To think … having a custom color lab on your desktop – and one that doesn’t further require concise communication with someone at even the best of real-world labs.

And for those of you just old enough to have wielded tape reels in a 4-Track bedroom studio, now having home computer access to a virtually unlimited number of digital tracks of potential ‘release quality’ is beyond what many of us had ever imagined. This further supplemented with piano-style keyboard samplers that coax remarkably true and actual orchestral timbres (if not always inflections), rather than the thin and anemic electronic buzzes of the old ‘string synthesizers’.

For those of you born after, say, 1990 … I can’t begin to express just how ‘wow’ all of this is ….. despite the mass proliferation of notably shittier music. This, in part, as a result of the newer, ‘wow’ technology. For the best of tools will always fuck the world over when placed … in the wrong hands. It just lets them do more damage, with greater proficiency.

But here, too, while I generally use the software, ‘Logic’ to record digitally on Mac computers, I think the included, value-added offering of Apple’s ‘Garage Band’ is a remarkably wonderful platform for many musicians. While there are those who bemoan what’s missing in the software, relative to the professionally oriented ‘Logic’, Garage Band is indeed more capable than most … well, garage bands. In fact, back in the most innovative, Beatle-era days of Abbey Road studios, engineer Geoff Emerick would have been absolutely drop-jawed over the capabilities of ‘Garage Band’. Though producer, George Martin, has long contended that they produced better music without it – and there’s a mound of evidence to suggest that he’s right. But I’m sure that Sir Martin would readily concede that the realization of the remarkable ‘Love’ CD couldn’t have been executed without the high level of versatility offered within digital platforms.

Still, if all you have is an old Pioneer stereo cassette deck from the 1970s, use it. And even if you’re capturing images with a disposable film camera secured from a local drug store, the fully realizable art its capable of producing – yes – can be every bit as valid. Don’t ever wait for the ‘ultimate tool’ – whatever you conjure that to be – for by the time you may be in the position to acquire it, it’s already been replaced by something new – now, more than ever. Let that be a good thing … Perceived obsolescence can be your friend. It often times allows you to capture your dream at a far lower cost – sometimes within the year.

While the ‘Right Brain’ area of this site often discusses the tools of artistic creation, do not obsess on such objects. And be mindful of an implication: I often cover older and more basic tools. Transpose this consideration when selecting the most current and purportedly ‘advanced’ of brushes. With this, take a moment to consider what may – at times – be lost in the balance. In this regard, my examinations of, say, film cameras may just be an implied discussion of what digital has since given us – as well as taken away … And perhaps this is what you should ‘take away’ from the discourse.

But always remember that your most pertinent and sophisticated of creative tools would be … your own mind – some would argue, the heart. And both of these are the most updateable, versatile, and expansive of tools you own.

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