Moments that Never Happened
The first time I painted on canvas, I worked my little painting for weeks. It wasn’t a great piece—first ones rarely ever are—but I was proud of the project. Upon deciding the painting was complete, my teacher suggested I add a light layer of varnish to protect the painting.
When I did, the image seemed to come to life. The varnish added vibrancy to the colors, and made the painting shiny and complete. Even then, I recognized that this layer acted mostly as a cheap trick—but I was no less enamored with how much this treatment amplified my work.
At art school, I became obsessed with surface. I tossed sawdust into paint and explored encaustic techniques. I found the tactile nature of media more compelling than even the subject matter. After witnessing the output of one painter—who used large amounts of stand oil to produce works that looked like liquid glass—I “borrowed” the treatment and attempted to make images that might captivate viewers in the same way.
At some point, I’m not sure when, I grew tired of these gimmicks. So, I started to treat the materials for what they were, and became more conscious of other aspects of my paintings. I considered form, composition, pattern, content, color, and the entire toolkit of visual communication that was available to me.
Some paintings were bad, and others were promising. In either case, they were more real. And this characteristic became important to me, regardless of what project I was working on. In fact, this desire for relevance shapes my approach to design today. I don’t want to apply easy-to-produce gimmicks; I want to create suitable, functional, and well-crafted work.
This is a long build-up to what might seem a small point. (But more broad reaching, I think.) I wonder if varnish and gimmicks have overtaken substance. I mean this both on large and small scale. Consider the popular image filters in applications like Instagram. Everyone knows how fake these treatments are; nevertheless, we seem unable to resist the way these layers make otherwise ordinary moments seem more special and exotic.
Perhaps there’s little immediate concern in this. An image with some filters applied is simply that. But is it? We view others’ treated images not fully recognizing that they’re the result of software. Instead, we subconsciously wonder why our own lives aren’t quite as interesting. Like much of what we show of ourselves on social media, each of us has become the producer of an ongoing sort of Greatest Hits compilation. To create these ongoing collections, we hand select the nuggets of life-matter we believe most interesting, and subsequently apply treatments to make these moments seem more notable.
This amplification of specific moments changes how we perceive the human experience. Three key states fight for our attention: what actually occurs; how we perceive these events; and, a fictional layer we’ve individually curated. When we compare our own recollection of these activities with the fictional versions, actuality tends to pale in comparison.
This leads us into a precarious situation. Our new-found collective ability to “edit” life experience results in an unhealthy duality. We have our real—and often delightful—lives, but we increasingly see them as lesser, in light of the imaginary layer we broadcast.
Curiously, the consequence of this behavior is quite similar to that of advertising. No one is as skinny, happy, beautiful, or perfect as ads might lead us to believe. But, although we grew cynical of advertising’s illusion, we find difficulty in applying this same scrutiny to our own actions. We can imagine “bad guys” in ad agencies machinating broad-scale compliance. The idea that we’re now responsible for this same illusion, is not as easy to swallow.
And that’s what’s so insidious about our current varnishing of life. These acts are so innocuous seeming—and occur in such small doses—that we hardly consider their long term impacts. This makes their danger no lesser. It’s in choosing varnish for substance that we start to exchange our actual experiences for a more colorful and compelling simulacrum. Eventually, this leaves us in frantic pursuit of an impossible illusion—with the price being real life.