A Funny Thing…….

“A funny thing happened to me on the way to the Forum“…..used to be the lead-in for a popular British comedy show set in Ancient Rome. Well, clearing my desk and email just before I dashed off for the ASAA Forum this summer in California I shot off to the editor of Aerial Views the short draft article in my computer for possible publication in the August issue. On my return, I soon learned that my draft had been banned from publication in that journal of the Canadian Aviation Artists' Association.

What’s this….censorship? In this day and age? Within the cozy confines of this little Canadian aviation art newsletter? Yet there it was. Like some supposedly extinct Coelacanth just landed on your sunny fishing boat.

It was precipitate and summary dismissal, out of the blue. No prior discussion, no editorial expressions of concern, or suggestions/requests for changes one would normally expect .The Fatwa against the little article was declared purely on the basis of ad hoc "consultations" by the editor with unidentified betters within the association. The charge was a) my argument against the use of the ellipse as a ready surrogate for circular objects seen in perspective had to be mathematically fallacious and b) the overall tone of my draft “verged on the ad hominem“. I naturally protested this bizarre judgement, but my attempts at reason were simply stonewalled. The transparent hollowness of these pretexts will be clear once seen in context.

The draft in question, titled Ellipses Revisited and posted below, needs to be read in the context of a preceding piece I wrote for the Nov 2005 issue of AV titled Controversies and Caveats, in which I took a gently critical look at some of the prevailing schemes and devices on offer for our art. One of those was the practice of using of ellipses as substitutes for perspective projections of circular objects like spinning propellers, as first put forward by Charles Thompson in an article in Nov 2000. Charles in turn wrote a rebuttal in AV May 2006, which I felt was quite disingenuous. My draft article was intended as an answer to the latter.

One thing I have observed over the years is that painters, compared to allied disciplines like photography, tend to be surprisingly complacent and negligent at the conceptual level. Even in an area as supposedly "objective" as painting flying machines. This has a lot to do with prevailing attitudes within Art, but it has the effect of allowing into our freewheeling debates many half-baked notions and DIY schemes which are ever in danger of becoming received wisdom; of particular concern are those which pretend to profundity with a display of technical complexity which at the same time discourages close examination by soft arty minds. If we are not careful we artists shall find ourselves worshipping at the shrines of worthless knowledge( if we are not already).....the surprise is that the converted victims often appear to resist being disabused of their illusions! Such is Art, you may say...all make-believe and feel-good, the triumph of hope and hype over substance, the new opiate for the masses. But when something as unexpected as crude censorship raises its head in our midst, we may suspect there's something more at stake.

Thank you for your interest in this intriguing case. There's no rocket science here, and I think the issue should be fairly self-evident to any rational mind. A storm in a teacup, to be sure, when viewed as just another quibble about painting propellers on obsolete aircraft. But I think this case may also say something about the arrogation of the aura of authority, and power, within some art organizations, especially as they reach a certain size of membership.There may be method in the madness, beneath the madness of the methods. It may serve to alert us to other areas and instances of potential chicanery in our midst.

So what do you think of it all? I welcome your reasoned thoughts and comments, and will try my best to respond to them at ronaldtkw@aol.com. I hesitate at this point to burden this website with further material surrounding this case and subject, but will make these available as and when necessary. I have, however, provided the following links:

                                                      Controversies and Caveats
                                                      A Geometer's Input

Ronald Wong GAvA ASAA CAAA

1 November 2006


.                                                           Ellipses Revisited

An English teacher used to relate to his Hong Kong schoolkids how during the war, his Hurricane unit was sometimes scrambled to shoot down Mustangs. When the early Mustangs....with their squared-off features... first appeared over Britain they were often mistaken for Messerschmitts. Now, who would suggest that artists depicting Mustangs should first draw Messerschmitts? Then fudge that Messerschmitt drawing a little here, a little there, to make of it a good Mustang? Why not just draw that Mustang? Further, who would proceed to assert that Mustangs really ARE Messerschmitts?

A circle in perspective is exactly that. Why believe it as anything else? Whether it happens sometimes to resemble some class of generic shape is a moot question. That an arbitrary fudge is repeatedly necessary to overcome the misfit of the presumed ellipse exposes the methodology as essentially fake. It lacks internal logic and ignores first principles. It rests solely on an assertion that the diverse perspectives of circular shapes must always conform with a preconceived shape.... and prescribes a procedure which makes no mathematical or perspective sense. Assertions are proof of nothing. They tell us nothing....except about the asserters. In this case the assertion is clearly false.

What of the separate plea that the ellipse method, such as it is, may in practice be sufficient for our artistic purposes? After all, it can be argued that a Flat Earth is a perfectly good working hypothesis for 99% of mundane human life, whatever its theoretical and factual shortcomings. Yet it is here that the method quickly falls down, on its own terms. Has anyone actually tried to apply the method? I expect that those who do will right away find themselves up a blind alley. Which of an endless range of possible sizes and shapes of ellipse do you pluck out of the air? Having dismissed longitudinal/ lateral/vertical construction lines, how do you sensibly marry a random perspectiveless shape to the tight perspective of the overall image? It cannot be done. The thing is a non-starter. The only way out is to move right back into good old linear perspective, and start crisscrossing those construction lines from the aircraft body, with one eye on orthographic plans. And you soon have that square with the datapoints for propeller perspectives which are naturally aligned with the rest of the aircraft image. Why detour into imaginary ellipses at all? That illustration with the roundel demonstrates perfectly how a mistaken approach can vastly complicate an otherwise straight-forward task.

So what's going on? Those stylized illustrations of the Corsair* and the "Beachcomber" provide the clue to the glaring gaps in the methodology. At least some of the difficulties can presumably be evaded if , rather than trying to fit ellipses to the plane/car, you instead fitted the plane/car to the available loops in that plastic guide. Preselect an angle and scale....45 degrees or whatever else those templates allow....tailor your airplane/car perspective to these, apply those major and minor axes, fiddle that centre on the ellipse and Hey Presto! If this is indeed how it's supposed to work then the "method" is surely too crude and restrictive for our aviation art, and deserves to remain the province for half-hidden wheel-shapes on standardized automobile illustrations.

The precise depiction of ghostly spinning props is surely a side issue for most aviation artists, myself included. When all is said and done, most of us will go back to doing whatever we're inclined to do on our own canvasses. Alarmed? I hardly think so. But such cases should alert us to the wishful thinking and red herrings which can emerge in our free-wheeling art debates, and how important it is to keep our heads. To my mind, this ellipse idea is most remarkable for its simple irrelevance. The attempt to elevate an unsophisticated drawing-room fix to the level of mathematical science succeeds only in revealing its lack of it. The whole thing comes from nowhere, and leads us nowhere. It is a mark of our credulity( and also, I suspect, our essential indifference) that few if any have questioned its flamboyant and muddled claims. It is surely overdue for a decent burial.

So, as Oxford Prof Richard Dawkins recently observed in the debate on Evolution, "By all means keep your minds open, but be careful your brains don't fall out! "
Caveat lector....."Let the Reader Beware"!

Ronald Wong

PS: May I yet again encourage you to view the full display of the Guild's 2006 exhibition, as well as those of preceding years, on the Guild's website at www.gava.org.uk.

* The assertion that "At this angle we see the maximum difference that occurs between the centre of the circle and the centre of the ellipse. This difference progressively decreases to zero on either side of this 45 viewing angle. It does not increase....." is again misleading: (a) Simply changing the viewing angle does not change the amount of perspective on the object .Altering the distance between viewer and object does. Increasing the foreshortening by moving closer increases the disparity between the perspective and ellipse centers. (b) It may be worth noting that if the circle is affixed to the spinner axis by the ellipse centre, then rotating the angle to a full frontal view maximizes the gap between the 2 centres, showing the circle to be off-centre. So what aircraft photos show are not really ellipses.(c) Note also that in a context where a 3-point perspective is clearly in order, the method relates to not a single vanishing point. Nor does it relate to the rest of the aircraft image. How can it be used to give any perspective shape? It is bogus.