A Vast Array of Props

[Image: Thomas Scholes, Sketch a Day series; view larger].

Rock, Paper, Shotgun has posted an interview with artist Thomas Scholes about “how concept art is made.”

Scholes refers to himself as “an environment specialist,” and he describes how he develops the architecture and landscapes for games such as Guild Wars 2, Halo 4, Gigantic, and many others.

[Image: Thomas Scholes, Sketch a Day series; view larger].

One of his many strategies is to develop what RPS calls “a vast array of props”: Scholes, we read, has “constructed huge asset sets from which he can plunder. A previous month-long project of his was to create a vast array of props, which he can now deposit in his images and rework to give a sense of clutter.”

These include architectural motifs—arches, walls, stone monoliths, ruins—that are often just reworked from previous backgrounds. For these, he will “repurpose bits of previous paintings, manipulating their shape to suggest a receding wall, ceiling or floor.”

[Image: Thomas Scholes, Sketch a Day series; view larger].

Scholes recently embarked on a “sketch a day” project that produced the images you see here. The sketches are left rough, or, as RPS suggest, they “resist the instinct to over-define, to steer them away from pedantic perfectionism.”

This often makes his images both impressionistic and painterly, emotive explorations of gothic terrains and environments.

[Image: Thomas Scholes, miscellaneous work; view larger].

Many of these images are frankly gorgeous, including vibrant forest landscapes that would not look out of place in an exhibition of 18th-century landscape painting—or even alongside examples from the Hudson River School or the work of Caspar David Friedrich.

[Image: Thomas Scholes, miscellaneous work; view larger].

These being games, of course, rather than the Rückenfigur of Friedrich, you’ve got cloaked figures peering into hostile and mysterious landscapes, looking not for aesthetic solace but for hidden strategic advantages, ready for combat.

[Images: Thomas Scholes, Oppidum; view larger].

In any case, check out the interview over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun or, even better, click around Scholes’s website for a lot more images like these.

[Image: Thomas Scholes, miscellaneous work; view larger].

[Previously on BLDGBLOG: Game/Space: An Interview with Daniel Dociu].

Offworld Glaciology

[Image: Photo by Gerco de Ruijter, via but does it float].

A short article by Sam Kean for the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia explores the world of “bizarro ice—ice that burns, ice that sinks instead of floating, ice literally out of this world.” For the most part, these are ices that have formed under extraordinary pressure, whether naturally or artificially applied, which “forc[es] H2O molecules into rhombuses, tetragons, and other alternative geometries.”

In some cases, the pressure is so great that the resulting ice “can stay solid at temperatures of thousands of degrees—a true freezer burn. If you could somehow plop chunks of these ices into a glass of liquid water, they’d vaporize it.” Incredibly, we read that, “at super-high pressures, some chemists predict that ice transforms into a metal.”

There is an ice “that’s structurally similar to diamonds,” Kean explains, that “probably exists in the upper atmosphere.” And there are exotic ices on other planets: “The dense, hot interiors of Neptune and Uranus probably contain chunks of nonhexagonal ices, as do exoplanets around distant stars, a potentially important consideration as we search for life beyond our solar system.”

[Image: The Sea of Ice by Caspar David Friedrich].

This latter remark brings to mind a book I downloaded in my recent PDF binge called The Science of Solar System Ices, edited by Murthy S. Gudipati and Julie Castillo-Rogez. It’s a mammoth book—more than 650 pages—that explores exotic ices found in comets, on exoplanets, on moons, and elsewhere in our solar system.

“The largest deposits of carbon dioxide ice,” we learn, “is on Mars. Sulfur dioxide ice is found in the Jupiter system. Nitrogen and methane ices are common beyond the Uranian system. Saturn’s moon Titan probably has the most complex active chemistry involving ices, with benzene and many tentative or inferred compounds,” including a long list of chemicals I can’t even pronounce let alone recognize or describe, forming ices with “unusual colors and spectral shapes.” There are even “organic” ices made of hydrocarbons.

[Image: The Monk by the Sea by Caspar David Friedrich].

How these ices produce landscapes is by far the most interesting aspect here, at least from the point of view of BLDGBLOG: how they glaciate, experience gravitational tides and weathering, melt from below due to volcanoes, reflect the alien skies shining down on them in distorted shapes and angled echoes, and even how they tectonically fracture into karst-like networks of sinkholes and caves.

Imagining snow storms of frozen methane on other planets while thinking about, for example, human artistic traditions of landscape representation, from the Hudson Valley School to Caspar David Friedrich—picturing massive and extraordinary widescreen scenes of glacial hills and valleys steaming in the outer darkness of the solar system and the paintings or photographs or even animated GIFs that might result—would extend the idea of the sublime to non-terrestrial landscapes and the sights they might someday reveal to human explorers.

[Image: Walking into a glacier: “Grindelwald Grotto, Bernese Oberland, Switzerland,” courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division].

Art historians would gaze in awe at offworld glaciers of carbon dioxide ice and howling massifs of frozen nitrogen, where volcanoes erupt not with liquid rock but with “ice slurries” and groundwater exploding onto the landscape with the force of a Kilauea.

Perhaps someday you’ll be able to get a degree in the field of exploratory xenoglaciology, the study of rare and incredible landforms made of frozen chemicals in space.

(“Wild Ice” story spotted via @nicolatwilley).

The Right Printhead

I was excited finally to pick up a copy of Icon’s February issue today; it is, in its entirety, an exploration of how fiction can be used to explore architectural ideas and the future of the built environment.

Contributors range from China Miéville, Bruce Sterling, and Cory Doctorow to Ned Beauman, Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg & Oron Catts, and Will Self, with microfiction contributions from Tim Maly of Quiet Babylon fame and Simon Sellars of Ballardian. I was also very happy to see that “Landscapes of Quarantine” participant Scott Geiger appears with a short review, and there is much else besides.

China Miéville’s story, “The Rope is the World,” takes place amidst “the space elevators, the skyhooks, the geostationary tethered-dock haulage columns” of a planet bound to its lower atmosphere by giant pieces of astral infrastructure. However, these elevators, in Miéville’s telling, are doomed to become fantastic aerial ruins, turning the Earth into “an irregularly spoked wheel” studded with abandoned elevator shafts, each “longer than Russia.” Derelict chain-cities hang flaccid in the skies. What might Caspar David Friedrich have painted in such a world?

Bruce Sterling, meanwhile, presents us with a world in which nothing seems to exist but broadband access—and that world is far from exhilarating. The story’s accompanying photograph shows us a Windows-powered laptop sitting alone on a plaster-flecked apartment floor, plugged into the wall of a room that otherwise has nothing in it; this solipsistic interior, void of anything like human presence or culture, reminded me of an old Peter Lamborn Wilson interview in which Wilson launches into an amazing rant against the rise of home internet use (even if I don’t agree with his conclusions):

Yes. You’re slumped in front of a screen, in the same physical situation as a TV watcher, you’ve just added a typewriter. And you’re “interactive.” What does that mean? It does not mean community. It’s catatonic schizophrenia. So blah blah blah; communicate communicate; data data data. It doesn’t mean anything more than catatonics babbling and drooling in a mental institution. Why can’t we stop?

In Sterling’s fictional world, these empty interiors freed of all personal possessions, with not even a place to sit, pulsate with instant access to Gmail; you can check your Twitter feed even if you can’t cook a decent meal.

But when the story’s protagonist obtains a mail-order 3D printer (“This sleek and sturdy overnight parcel contains everything one might need for do-it-yourself, open-source digital home fabrication,” Sterling writes), he or she gains an ability to produce objects—which then seems to be greeted with hipster disillusionment, rather than with ecstasy.

Indeed, the story ends on a low note; its final line: “I have to print my bed, so that I can lie in it.”

I have to admit to having already read that final sentence courtesy of Matt Jones’s Twitter feed a few weeks ago, and I had imagined, between then and now, a totally different story. I had pictured Sterling’s story, called “The Hypersurface of the Decade,” set in a world where personalized 3D printers create everything from our furniture to our food; today we might print our boarding passes at home before getting on an airplane, but tomorrow we will print our hamburgers, TVs, and even bedspreads.

Maybe we’ll print dogs and subway passes and prescription medications. Maybe we will even print our children.


[Image: MIT’s Fluid Interfaces Group’s Cornucopia 3D food-printer].

Maybe it’s just a question of having the right new infrastructure of pipes—no, not those pipes. Maybe we need to forget ink cartridges; we’ll just subscribe to personal flows of speciality ingredients, chemical mixtures that come to us through a radically retooled infrastructure of pipes embedded in the walls of our cities. As unsurprising to someone in 50 years as piped water is to residents of New York today, anyone will simply print a pill of Prozac when they really need it or even print themselves a birthday cake.

Forget killer apps; all you need is the right printhead. Plug it into a nozzle on the wall and voilà.

In any case, I had pictured a story set in some strange Dr. Seuss world of instantly-printed objects. Forget furniture and clothing and utensils. Forget the Apple Tablet; instead you’d carry portable printheads, emitting on-demand, dissolvable realities of the present moment. Trapped in a room, you’d simply print a hammer and attack the wall. Of course, in many ways that is exactly what Sterling has described in his story, but it takes till the last three or four paragraphs to get a glimpse of this malleable world.

But, speaking only for myself, I’d love to spend more time inside this strange fever-dream in which instantly realizable objects appear left and right. I would hold something not unlike a gateway in my hand—some fabulous new printhead—spraying forms into the world of human beings.

Pick up a copy of Icon’s Fiction Issue before it disappears.