Into Legoland and out of the Dark Ages

(originally written a few weeks ago)

The dark ages ended only a few days ago for me. After a visit to Legoland, CA last week – and a fun time playing with lego’s ... er, I mean a fun time watching my son and nephews play with lego’s – I caught the bug. A few hours online and I discovered the vibrant community and explosion of creativity in all things lego. Guess I should have thought it’d be there, but it came as a pleasant surprise, really. Now - days later - after pouring over flickr, blogs and other image hosting sites, I can’t wait to receive and break open all my Bricklink buys. Pleeese come soon!!

So after looking around, what do I want to build??? A few things come to mind, the first of which I'll speak of in this post and begin working on (as soon as the pieces come in). The others will come on a later post. They remain very unusual though. Themes that I don't think have been done before or certainly don't fall into traditional categories.

For technique, I'm thinking that the first project should be all black with some transparent pieces when applicable. No color. No grays. Just black. Also, I'll be creating objects that have a high degree of realism.

Why Just Black?

For me, the monochromatic approach produces works not unlike carved or cast statues that you might see in a museum or a bronze architectural piece in a souvenier shop. As for the color, I love black as a color. It is a neutral much like grays, tans and white. However, unlike the other neutrals, black just looks more finished and purposefully applied. Additionally, black has a sophisticated appeal. To me it's slick and rich.

Given there are so few neutral / non primary colors available in legos, I often find that people's works (particularly the architectural models and vignette/diorama) seem a little cartoony. At times, this is absolutely called for of course. More often than not though, it feels a bit unreal for this reason. This, despite the fact, that the designer might be shooting for high realism.

In terms of sticking to a single color, I love the idea of using neutral monochromatic color schemes. In so doing, the eye focuses on form and is not distracted by color. Looking at monochromatic works is not as approachable as a full color work. You can't necessarily take a piece in immediately all at once. Instead, it takes time to decipher the object without color. This is particularly true with darker objects as the shadows do not show as well and you tend to work only with highlights from light to define objects. The monochromatic approach then is an invitation to participate in the discovery of form. This act of actively observing and discovering is of much interest to me. You tend to bend forward or zoom in to explore and identify. Conversely, when too much is revealed or obvious at once, I tend to move on to the next piece quickly. When I have invested a little time examining, I have a connection to the piece more so than if it comes to me in one quick blast.

It is that tension when at first you are not exactly sure what something is and then it 'clicks', the lightbulb goes off and you see it. I've 'figured it out'. Micro works tend to behave in this manner, where the viewer is invited to decipher the (hopefully) clever reduction of form and purity. Such moments are special and remembered.

The challenge will be to achieve a high degree of texture and description with the removal of the color and tone. Form becomes everything in this case.

First Theme: Abandoned Buildings

As for a subject, my first thought was to do skyscrapers. The simple ones seem relatively easy to build with all their straight lines. I might try to build some skyscrapers, but so much has been done of this already that it is less of interest of me to do another one. I get bored quickly and if something is too common, I get bored.

Abandoned buildings though is new though... I think. I’ve seen the occasional shack and destroyed/demolished house. But the idea of showing a ruined home in a neutral manner devoid of a story or any message at all is very fascinating to me and something I've yet to run across in the world of legos.

Disintegrating, rusting, heading toward ruins. I love this. The notion of something valuable but abandoned and experiencing decay has long appealed to me. There is a beauty in a thing in which natural forms have overwritten the order inherent in man made objects, such as buildings. The contrast of order and disorder excites. It also engages the mind to fill in the blank from what once was to what is visible now. For instance, compare a building with a porch and the same building with the porch somehow removed or fallen down. The impression of the porch though is still persistent (like porch pillar supports still in place or the unfinished bits on the main house that were once covered by the porch beams). From these clues, you know the porch went there and was shaped basically as such. Enough evidence is there to suggest and yet, no porch. You're mind fills in the blank as you view the house. I'd argue this is much more interesting than seeing the porch intact.

A straightforward image of an abandoned home is void of any intention or meaning. There is no story being told here. But there are many that can be imagined. Was the family driven out of the property? Did they lack money? Did someone die? War? There are no answers here - only pure form. It is this ambiguous approach to narration that I enjoy. While it is certainly great fun looking at lego works of monsters, soldiers or such destroying a building, such examples are a clear presentation of cause and effect - which gets a bit old, frankly. Perhaps that is why I was a bit drawn to the piece below. This, for the simple reason that we know a battle happened here, but it was not shown. The battle does not need to be depicted. Such a presentation of an event would have been limiting. The after effects of the battle is more interesting then the battle that would have been portrayed with those cartoony characters. The story is ours to make up and interpret. In the same way also, while viewing an abandoned building, we see the effect with the cause being open to personal reflection. This forces us to interact with the piece and imagine what could have been. Again, such reflection and study engages me. I don't move on to the next table of lego works but stick with the object for a while.

I'm afraid I couldn't find the link to this picture which I had earlier downloaded, so I can't credit the author yet. However, as mentioned above, I enjoyed imagining what had happened here, rather than a depiction of minifigures in battle.


The presentation is to be as neutral as possible. A black object on a smooth black stand with a simple gray/black background photographed straight on. No tricks. Nothing to get in the way of the object. The object in portrait as crisp as possible.

I very much dislike the look of the 'tip in'. This is what I refer to as the photoshopped or photographed images of lego works that have been dropped into another scene. The lego space ship orbiting a photo of a planet. A lego house set in the grass in the backyard. The figurine set in a real world pumpkin. As if to fool the viewer or give a heightened sense of realism. Indeed such implementation has the exact opposite effect! It shows, very vividly, how unreal the object really looks to its real world counterpart. This is one thing that kills me at legoland. Putting the buildings on gravel and working in weeds as bushes 'fakes up' perfectly beautiful work. These are legos after all. When I look at a lego world, I want to be fully transported into it - not be reminded that it is unreal.

A beautifully lit model set with a seamless background of a color or tone appropriate to show off the product is all a model needs in a photo.


Given the house is a relatively small form, compared to apartments, skyscrapers and such, it seems appropriate to build it at a large scale to capture the details as best as possible. Such details will be necessary to help tell the story of abandonment and create that awe that we all have when looking at highly detailed lego objects. Additionally, without the help of color to explain the form, details in form become very important here.

- mike


Katie said...

Snap! What a way to come out of your Dark Ages! I essentially came out of mine last spring, but it's been kind of slow building up the bricks, as I've been put on a budget (sigh!). Anyway, I'm really impressed by your blog and your abandoned house. I particularly appreciated the entry about "Is it art?"


Mike Doyle said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mike Doyle said...

Whoa Katie, I love your work! Very unique. Been watching all your pattern creations ever since I started, you were one of the first designers I spotted. You have been one of the only designers whose flickr stream I bookmarked. Thanks for the complement.

Jason said...

I think you would like this artist.

She made replicas of houses destroyed by Katrina...

...out of human hair from an abandoned hair salon in New Orleans!

peter hoh said...

That's a heck of a house. Looks like some of the houses that Sweet Juniper features from time to time.

Mike Doyle said...

Jason, I was unaware of that artist. Thanks for the link! I like it very much.

Peter, again thanks for that link and again was not aware of that. I'm always on the lookout for such houses. We went to Philly this summer and I had a nice time driving by many neighborhoods. Back at home, flickr is great. It's always good to know of more sites featuring abandoned homes!

Katie said...

Well, dang, I guess it can be a mutual love affair then (to be a bit melodramatic about it), because I'm looking at your abandoned house all over again today, and it's truly amazing. :-) Anyway, thanks! And I'm truly honored by your compliments. :-)

Pat A. said...

I love the works - less writing, more pictures.