A Pinball Artist – there has to be a twist

Ryan Williams in front of a High Speed Pinball Machine
Visiting the Pinball Museum in Alameda California.

There are many things that I miss from my childhood: Wiffle ball in the front yard, watching Ducktales after school, playing Nintendo on a Friday night with my Brother while eating Little Caesar’s pizza, and going to the arcade for a few rounds of pinball. In the midst of all of these modern electronic diversions, cell phones, game consoles, the internet, I hope you can remember the timeless joy of pinball. It’s that slanted table with the silver ball bouncing off a bunch of bumpers and lights. The experience is a cacophony of sights and sounds like the click of the flippers, the vibration of the ball plunger, the flashing lights of the scoreboard, the sheen of the painted table top, and the beautiful artwork of the sparkling back glass designed to attract more players. Seriously, have you ever looked at some of these machine’s artwork? Some of these paintings are hidden gems of artistic creativity.

A pinball machine is a unique hybrid of technology and artistry. From the first machines of the early 20th century to the few machines that are still being built today, the back glass painting has always been the first and most attractive feature of the machine. The painting is basically a message to the player from the machine as to say, “Check me out! I’m exciting and unpredictable!” The most exciting part of course is the actual game play. However, I want to pay tribute to some of the most creative paintings featured on an assortment of machines.

Jokerz! Pinball Back Glass Painting

Some great glass artwork inspires players and in some cases takes them away from the arcade, bar, or bowling alley the machine sits in and teleports them to the story of the game. For me, this suspension of disbelief happens whenever I play “Jokerz!” The game is set to baroque music and features stunning visuals of a King and Queen playing cards while a gang of little jesters looks on. The music and the artwork is what makes “Jokerz!” such an exciting table. There is some subtle humor in the artwork itself. For example, notice the little jesters helping the King and Queen cheat? Also, notice how the two drinks being served are of different amounts? Perhaps the King is trying to get the Queen drunk? Yeah…nice. The painting is rendered in brilliant colors and tells a fun story making “Jokerz!” my all-time favorite machine for the music and artwork alone.

One of the most popular machines of all time is “Twilight Zone.” The back glass presents a wonderful synopsis of the old television series. Standing in the doorway to another dimension is your host Rod Serling. In the room sitting along side him are some of the iconic symbols of the most popular episodes. For me, the Talking Tina doll seated in the bottom left is the most unsettling – in a fun way. The painting sets a mood of mystery, danger, and the unknown. In short, this painting is creepy and fun!

Twlight Zone Back Glass Painting

The last pinball machine I’ll highlight is “Black Knight 2000.” I simply love the fusion of a futuristic civilization and a medieval kingdom. The Black Knight is the villain and the player must take him down. He’s quick and unpredictable (symbolized by the lighting bolt in his hands) and he will taunt you until you beat him. Red is a color of love and passion, but also of power. Having so much red in the composition suggests a feeling of aggression and conflict. You the player have a single mission: take down the evil Black Knight. If you ever see this machine then give it a shot. The action is fast, the music is pounding, and the artwork sums up the exciting experience.

Black Knight 2000 back glass painting

As a programmer by day and artist by night, I think I have figured out why the pinball machine captivates me so. It’s a junction point for science and art. There is also something special about viewing the paintings of a pinball machine. Think of the differences between viewing pinball art versus a painting in a gallery. I love viewing art in galleries, but the experience is static. The painting just sits there. In a pinball machine however, the lights behind the glass and the sounds from the speakers bring the artwork to life. The experience is more dynamic and engrossing. Much like a good book can get the reader lost in the story, a good pinball machine can capture a player for a session of thrills and heart-pounding action. You’re getting all of this fun just because a glass painting pulled you in for a closer look?

Ah the power of art.

So many pinball machines...so little time.

Steve Jobs: The Artist

Steve Jobs -  the artist.
Artists are everywhere, but not all artists live by the easel.

Three and half years ago Apple lost their co-founder and visionary Steve Jobs. Jobs was much more than a CEO. He was a shrewd business leader, a master salesman, a brilliant designer, and yes, an artist. Notice that the word inventor was not on this list. The truth of the matter is Steve Jobs, the co-founder of the most valuable company in the world (as of this post), a technology company with a cult-like following of users, was seldom ever responsible for inventing anything himself. In fact, as a programmer he stunk. As an engineer, he was lost. Open up the machine and show him the circuit board and he would never see the bits and bytes like engineers would. He would see something else. He would see the possibilities.

That brings me to the Artist in Steve Jobs. If you’re in your late thirties or older then you probably remember those early days of the personal computer. The boxes were always a dull beige-colored box with no personality. Then in 1984 the Macintosh computer arrived and everything changed. The technology inside that computer can be credited to the brilliant and devoted engineers at Apple who poured their soul into the machine they created. The engineers had to work around the demands of Jobs as the case was restricting of a more general design. While credit for the efficient technology belongs to these engineers, the design of the case itself belongs to Jobs. Jobs came up with the idea to streamline the case and integrate the monitor with the disk drive. He also liked the idea of round corners for the case. In short, Jobs love of minimalism came out in his design of the Macintosh. Years later, the iMac would go even further to shirk the old dull boxy-look of the home computer. His machines, through his artistic hands, had a personality of their own. Industrial design is indeed an art, but the public usually doesn’t see it as such because most times the money surrounding the development and the sale, plus the primary function of the product, tend to cover the artistry of what is being sold. With Apple products however, make no mistake, under Jobs the devices he churned out were works of art.

As stated earlier, Jobs loved minimalism. This love really showed in later products. Think back to the first iPod. There was a button conspicuously missing from the device: the power button. Jobs thought the inclusion of a button would disrupt the smooth styling of the case. A button would wreck the symmetrical look and feel of the iPod. Jobs and his engineers came up with the idea of simply letting the iPod go into a sleep mode when not in use. The function was, as was the case in most of Jobs products, the subordinate to the design. The result was another visual masterpiece of craftsmanship. While Jobs was no expert on circuit boards or memory chips, his hand was still involved in the board layouts. He wanted the internal screws made of a certain material, to have a certain shape, to conform with the layout of the circuitry to produce a sublime yet powerful visual design. Here is evidence to the idea of Jobs being an artist, (and he saw himself as one): inside the first shipment of Macintosh computers, a metal plate was attached to the internals of the machine which featured copies of the signatures of the Macintosh team and Jobs himself. He once said to his team, “true artists sign their works of art.”Steve Jobs' Minimalism resulted in brilliant products.

I just finished reading Jobs’ biography written by Walter Isaacson. It was a revealing look into what he liked and disliked about product design. He frequently talked about Apple living at the intersection of technology and the humanities. That thought resonates with me because my day job is writing software. At night I indulge my creative impulses with drawing and painting. Somewhere these two disciplines intersect and it’s there that I define myself. I didn’t agree with a lot of Jobs personality, the raging tantrums, the selfish motivations, but I found myself relating to his love of art and technology. Artists are everywhere. Art is everywhere. Steve Jobs was an artist of the highest degree and his art changed our perceptions of what was, and is, possible. Thank you for the inspiration Steve. Although I will always be a Windows man myself. Steve-Jobs