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The Tilde Art Project You Have to See to Believe

Did you know that you can exchange money for goods and services? I did, but for some reason it still never occurred to me that I might be able to pay an artist to paint something just for me.

That is, until my former co-worker Mischa McLachlan told me he was commissioning a piece from noted artist Chet Zar, whose dark, surreal paintings you may recognize.

"What?" I asked Mischa, "You mean you can just pay an artist money and they will do a custom painting for you?"

"I mean, you can always ask," he said.

You can imagine my jealousy when I later went over to Mischa's apartment and saw these gorgeous paintings hanging on the wall.

(You may notice a resemblance.)

I had no immediate need for a painting, but the seed had been planted.

Fast-forward a few years, to a couple months before Tilde's one year anniversary. I had been wanting to get a gift for my other co-founders, but, as a bootstrapped startup, the traditional gift of a gold Rolex was slightly out of the budget.

While sitting at home and enjoying a glass of wine by myself ("Never spend more than $6 on a bottle of wine"—best advice my mom ever gave me), I decided to check what was new on Hacker News.

Amid the seventeen new minimal JavaScript frameworks launched that day, something caught my eye: Old School Color Cycling with HTML5.

The static screenshot doesn't do this justice. Click the link!

I love artwork like this, and I loved that this clever, old-school hack for adding animation to games had been ported to the web for a new generation to enjoy.

Inhibitions lowered by the wine, I decided to fire off an email to the artist, Mark Ferrari, and ask him if he'd be up for something a little… different.

Mark was gracious enough to reply the next day, but I was disappointed to find out that he had retired from the art world and was focusing his efforts on writing novels.

Not to be deterred, we discovered that I'd soon be traveling through Seattle, where he lived, and we agreed to meet and at least discuss the project.

Turns out, we hit it off. I told him about how we started Tilde to fight back against the tide of insane venture capital money flowing through San Francisco, about open source, and how we wanted to control our own destinies, free of investor interference.

Mark regaled me with stories of the early videogame world, and how the golden era of fun and experimentation was driven out by the influx of big money.

Somehow, Mark agreed to come out of "retirement" to make my plan a reality: a company portrait, set in a lush fantasy universe.

Mark needed reference photos of everyone, but I wasn't sure how to get them without ruining the surprise. A couple weeks later, I had everyone come into the office on a weekend, but I didn't let on what was about to happen.

I wish you could see the look of skepticism on the faces of everyone when they walked into a room filled with armor, robes, swords, bows and the other accoutrements of life in the fantasy realm.

"If you're trying to trick us into LARPing with you, I'm leaving," someone threatened.

Mark (who I referred to as "Mr. X" so no one could Google him and find out his occupation) dressed, positioned, and photographed everyone, then bid us adieu.

Several weeks later, the final product arrived in my inbox. It was gorgeous, and everyone was completely surprised. We had a physical print made from the digital copy that now hangs proudly in the event space in our office.

I won't keep you waiting any longer. Here's the final product:

click for hi-res

My favorite thing about the piece is the story it tells, which was all Mark's idea. The monster, in the background, represents the voracious appetite of venture capital, leaving so many destroyed companies and burnt-out founders in its wake.

In the foreground is the intrepid band of explorers, going out into the dark on their own. Importantly, you can't see the forest; it's as unknown to you as it is to the protagonists. It's up to your imagination what dangers lurk.

Mark did an amazing job with the details, as well. If you have the time, take a second to appreciate the fine detail, which was all drawn by hand in Photoshop.

I particularly love the binary glow of the insects, and the circuit board of Carl's staff.

Before I got started with this crazy plan, the world of art seemed totally foreign to me. I don't have any skills to speak of, and I thought it was something I would never be a part of.

Now I know that there are tons of talented artists out there, and they rely on commissions to help put food on the table.

If you're looking for a truly unique gift, or a way to spruce up your home or offices, just try emailing the artist next time you see something you love. Odds are, they'll be happy to help you bring your idea to life.

And if you happen to like this drawing, well, I'm sure Mark would be happy to help you create something of your own.

Please help me pay for more cool paintings like this by signing up for a free, 30-day trial of Skylight.