My weblog ELECTRON BLUE, which concentrated on science and mathematics, ran from 2004-2008. It is no longer being updated. My current blog, which is more art-related, is here.

Tue, 31 Jul, 2007

Late July

July 31 is Saint Ignatius' feast day, and I have always been inspired by the life of Ignatius Loyola and Jesuit spirituality. I wanted to get this entry in just under the deadline so that I can authentically wish my Jesuit friends a happy Founder's Day. I sometimes think that had I been born male, I would have been a Jesuit, but then, perhaps not, as they work too hard for my bohemian style life. Anyway, Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam, J-men!

This is the high season of summer, when the woods are chattering with insects at night and singing with crickets by day. It is a season I wish could last almost all year. I say that every year and hope that one day, when I am still healthy enough to appreciate it, I will move to a place somewhere in the continental USA that has a summery climate almost all year long. I don't know whether it would be Florida, Texas, or perhaps even California. I just hope I have the good fortune to be able to make that move.

"Late July" is also a brand of crackers and cookies which is based on Cape Cod in Massachusetts, and is a relative of the "Cape Cod Potato Chips" which are so delicious and crunchy. Not only are the crackers organic and trans-fat-free, but they have the best package design, in my opinion, of any dry product on the market today. Check out the wonderful neo-Victorian cracker package designs showing the idealized Cape Cod scene with the boy, the dog, the family on the beach, the old sailboat, and the windmill in the diistance. When I first saw this package, I bought it just for the design. I wish I could do signs as good as this.

I am still trying to work through trigonometry problems. These don't even have the virtue of being placed in a scenario such as navigation, surveying, aviation, or warfare. They are dry abstractions rotating around the unit circle. And the solutions aren't even decimal numbers; they are left as unevaluated square roots in various combinations. I hated trigonometry in 2004, and I don't like it any better in 2007. But I must poke my way through this, and even some stony trig identity problems, in order to earn my next chapter in calculus.

Posted at 10:06 pm | link

Sat, 28 Jul, 2007

Harry Potter and the Waste of a Summer Week

If you're wondering why there haven't been any profound thoughts or mathematical erudition coming from the Electron Blog for the last week, it's because I have been caught up in reading the seventh and mercifully the last book in J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter" series. I am not a huge Harry Potter fan but I do like the fantasy world that was made up for the books, and I wanted to know how the story came out. So I have had my nose in the book for days, any time I was not working or sleeping, just like millions of other readers all over the world.

Even though there is still about 200 pages too much wordbulk in this book, it rolls along quickly, with a seemingly endless series of perils for the hero and his friends. They get into one deadly situation after another, and always escape through some sort of magic which sounds as if Rowling is making it up as she goes along. The magical system gets more and more elaborate, like a computer program overloaded with extra features and bug-patches. Meanwhile, there is a proliferation of magical objects which the characters have to find and either destroy or save: stones, jewelry, wands, goblets, swords, and whatever else pops up with power. I lost track of these around page 400. You need a scorecard. I'm sure that someone in the fan world has already made up a Harry Potter concordance, let alone a cheat sheet.

If I were off on a summer vacation, I would not have escaped this book, because I would have it with me as vacation reading on the proverbial beach or porch. It certainly has plenty of slam-bang action in it, a perfect piece of escape fiction. And even better, there's a clear sense of good versus evil in the book, and an earnest lack of cynicism and irony. The best parts of the story are the moral compromises made by good people in order to be most effective against evil.

I have no desire to make illustrations from any Harry Potter book, and no one has asked me to do so. As with almost every fantasy writer in English, the author gives an excessive number of her magical people red hair, which for decades has been the standard marker for "special status" and "giftedness." It's enough to send me back to the hairdresser for another dye job, in hopes that I will get magic powers if my hair is red enough. But fortunately the main female character, who has plenty of magic, has good old brown hair. Rowling's female characters, no matter what color their hair is, are some of the best I've read in fantasy fiction. They aren't all sexy babes, and not only that, some of the most fascinating of Rowling's women are middle-aged or even older. When was the last time you saw a really cool older woman in a fantasy TV show or comic book? As an aficionado of world-building, I missed a couple of very important elements in the Harry Potter world. There seems to be no religion whatsoever in the "Wizarding World," even though the magical school observes Christmas and Easter. I suspect this was a deliberate decision on Rowling's part so that it could be enjoyed by people of all faiths or no faith. She just leaves it out. She also doesn't say much about politics and royalty, other than the politics of the "Ministry of Magic." Is the "Ministry of Magic" the entire government of the Wizarding World, or do they have another government to deal with non-magical issues? Is there a royal family and a Queen in magical Britain? Again, the author probably left this alone rather than lose readers by mentioning controversial stuff.

I won't be taking a long summer vacation this year, due to work obligations. I might dash off for a weekend sometime in August, I'll see how things go. But at least I am through with Harry Potter 7 and can get back to stuff that is more important, such as the sine and cosine of an angle in the unit circle that has as its terminal point (-2 sqrt21, 4).

Posted at 2:47 am | link

Mon, 23 Jul, 2007

Fair Weather Clouds

I finally got to draw something outdoors. I wasn't in the pastoral country but downtown, continuing my architectural studies of the interesting buildings which will soon be lost to "development." I sat on the tailgate of my car in a parking lot, shaded from the sun by the raised hatch of the rear cargo bay. This is one of the reasons why I got the Honda Element, because of this configuration. My dwelling doesn't have a back porch, but my car does, so I can have a mini-porch wherever I go. I hope I can do more drawings before the yellowjackets, the scourge of late summer, appear. August and September bring these menacing insects which seem to find you wherever you are. If I still want to draw outdoors during yellowjacket season, I have to close the hatch and draw from inside the car. I have heard that many artists, even ones as renowned as Edward Hopper, also drew while sitting in a parked car.

This drawing is of "Mail Box Extra," a postal and packaging store which is right in the center of downtown Falls Church. It is actually a colorful building, with bright accents of turquoise, and I'll probably go back and do another portrait of it in color. But here I choose to show my black and white sketch, done on site, complete with fair-weather clouds.

On another artistic front, I have finally figured out how to do what I want to do with Photoshop layers, thanks to some help from an online correspondent who is a graphic designer. Now I can proceed with colorizing black and white drawings. I still think Photoshop is not the most artistically inspiring program.

Posted at 2:12 am | link

Sat, 21 Jul, 2007

Photoshop Phrustration

Photoshop CS2 is really beginning to p*ss me off. No matter how exactly I attempt to follow the instructions, I don't get the result that they promise. Or it works differently from how it is supposed to, because presumably I didn't choose the proper setting or put things in the right order. Not only that, the version of Photoshop which is used in the tutorial CD is not the one I have, so some of the controls are different.

I have tried to work with the "layers" process, which the tutorials pass over very quickly. I will try to work it out again with the help of the massive CS2 "Bible." But I can't seem to get the layers in order so that one will lie transparently across another, or will be superimposed without conflicting with the previous layer. Some of the commands which I find in CS2 are not there, or not used, in the instructions.

I created a simple scribble for me to try out Photoshop coloring techniques on. My intention with all this is to add color to my black and white drawings, just as current comic book artists do. I found that I could color this drawing using a much simpler process that didn't involve either "layers" or "channels." It came out fine using a single layer and the area selection devices that are already available in the program. So why do the big guy pro's use so many layers and complexities? There must be a reason, but I don't get it. Fortunately, I'm not going to be doing this professionally, at least not in the comic book world. I'd really like to sit down with someone who knew it well and figure out what I am not doing right.

I am not sure that Photoshop is the best medium for a digital artist. It is excellent for photographic manipulations, which is what it was originally designed for. The big fat manual shows you how to do all sorts of photo trickery and glitzy graphics which are irrelevant for what I need. Yet I have seen "awesum" artwork created entirely on Photoshop by commercial artists in the film and videogame industry. Are they using all those layers to do this? How and why?

There is another digital art program, "Painter," which is up to version 10 now. It was created specifically for artists, and it simulates artistic media rather than photography. I have version 9, which I can upgrade to 10. In the past I have used it with much success for both graphics and artistic work. Right now I'm not using it because I want to learn to use Photoshop which is what the graphics pro's all use. But since I have so much trouble with CS2, I'll be re-loading Painter onto my machine, so I can work with what I know best and with what gets the best results.

Trigonometric Translations

What with all this distraction, I haven't had much time to do the math. As you may have noted from my last few postings, I am concentrating much more on art. I have just finished the penciling on an important piece that I should have done years ago, but am just now getting to. You'll see it when it's done. But the math book is still in my studio. I have been doing some of the elementary trigonometry problems provided, such as translating degrees to radians or vice versa. I need to have the same facility with radian-numbers, with their fractions or multiples of Pi, that I do with the more familiar degree system. And now I have to express the sines, cosines, and tangents in that number system too, complete with its irrational square roots; the book is not interested in calculator-generated long decimal numbers. I am not sure just how much of this trigonometry I'll need to continue with calculus, but I better do some of it to recover my trig knowledge. It would take me quite a lot of reviewing to do vector calculations again, but that doesn't seem to be what they're asking for. Problems are always available.

Posted at 3:13 am | link

Thu, 19 Jul, 2007

Plein Air Head

As summer progresses I always feel mildly ashamed that I do not pick up my art tools and dash out to some beautiful country place to portray attractive pastoral scenes. In another, slower-paced area, perhaps I could do that. But I live in the big city, and it's just not that easy to get out to Pastoralia to sketch. It's at least an hour's drive before you get to real countryside. The ideal for artists since the Impressionists has been to get out into the "plein air," and engage the real world directly. It's an ideal that is probably more praised than done. The last time I actually tried to draw outdoors (this April, in Pennsylvania) large bees kept flying at me, and the bright sun over-illuminated my drawing.

But I am lucky in that I am gifted with what I call my "inner video camera." That is, I can remember a lot about a scene just from looking at it intently. This is especially true with colors, where I can match things from memory. I don't rely completely on memory, of course, since I have plenty of cameras to record what I want to depict. During the era when "plein air" was so romantically recommended, plenty of artists even in the nineteenth century were using photographs as references. These weren't just lower-level daubers; famous luminaries such as Cezanne, Degas, and Van Gogh all used photos in their work.

My landscape art, then, is a compromise between what I actually observe and what I refer to in my photographs. But I can also reproduce things from memory without using photographs, as long as I don't try to copy exact details. I am fascinated by trees and clouds, both their colors and their shapes. I am constantly looking above and around the city buildings and streets to observe how the trees and sky appear at all times of day and night. There is a certain shade of purple-grey in the clouds which I find enchanting; it's not just the artist's pigment "Payne's Grey" (a blue-grey color often used to depict clouds) but a changing variation on the theme of vapor and shadow. Summer haze gives a creamy warmth to the white of sunlit clouds. And foliage offers endless shades of green. I especially love the greyed-out greens of a hot summer day, or the blackish green of leaves in twilight. These are colors which a camera won't always be able to reproduce literally. They are in my mind, recorded with my inner camera. Or perhaps, though I am not outdoors, they are in my "plein air head."

Here are two studies, done from memory, acrylic on paper. Each is about 8.5" x 11".

Posted at 2:08 am | link

Sun, 15 Jul, 2007

Summer Sketch

I finally got some time out on the deck, talking with a friend and listening to birds in the evening. A couple of hours of "real" summer, among the plants and the crickets, with wispy clouds drifting overhead. I'd like some more of this, please. I made two small drawings. This one I colorized in Photoshop, a program I am now learning to use.

A Signmaker does Trigonometry

Meanwhile, I have returned to my most effective method of learning those trigonometric identities. Since I am constantly writing orderly signs for work, I will also do this for math. In the past I calligraphed pages of algebraic patterns and polynomial types, and I have not forgotten too much of it. The same can go for trigonometry, and then I will have my hand-written document as a piece of informative signage. Trigonometric identities join chardonnay wine and mousse with truffles in the same lettering hand.

Posted at 1:24 am | link

Thu, 12 Jul, 2007

A Wealth of Creative Options

There are so many tools and gadgets for creativity in my dwelling that I don't know where to go first. Should I sit at my table and do drawings and paintings with "conventional" media like ink and watercolor? Or should I turn on SoyMac and the keyboard, and continue exploring the sounds I can get from GarageBand? Or should I turn on Macarios and work with PhotoShop and Adobe Illustrator? Or maybe I should choose the word processor and do a blog entry? Well, I guess you've figured out which one I chose just now.

Before this, I was working with my Photoshop Tutorial CD, "Step by Step Instruction to Beginning Coloring in Adobe Photoshop." This CD, created by commercial artist Brian Haberlin, shows me how to take a black and white drawing and add color digitally, just the way every comic book is now produced. So far it seems to be a rather painstaking process, in which you have to hand-trace every shape you want to color. But I know there are technological solutions to these problems. In fact, I have done just such coloring before, in a much easier process, using Painter 9 rather than Photoshop. But right now it is important for me to learn Photoshop.

It is amazing what artists can do with Photoshop. I have finally found Websites and galleries of artists who do digital painting. These are mostly in the commercial field, doing "concept sketches" for films, games, or other entertainments, as well as character, machine, and scenery designs. Some of these artists make work that just blows me away. I spent five months doing my "City of Amber" in acrylic, but look what artist Mike Hernandez has done in Photoshop, whether with a fairy-tale mill or a wild city in the vast ruins and mist. Like almost all the other artists of this type, he lives in California. If you scroll down through his art blog you will see what he does, in his own location, with the same kind of industrial sketching that I love to do.

A while back if I looked at this stuff I'd be depressed and want to throw out my paints but now, all I want to do is sit here at my tablet and computer and do my own versions of this. There are other artists who are just as fantastic. Perhaps the one who most impresses me is Thom Tenery who is trained as an architect as well as an artist. His architectural fantasies make me (figuratively) drool. He also lives in California where he works for the film and videogame industry. Another thing that impresses me about these artists is their dedication to sketching outdoors, known in proper Frenchy art parlance as "plein air" painting. With a twenty-first century twist, they don't take oil paints and a portable easel out to the countryside, they take their laptop and electronic drawing tablet. Amazing, at least until your battery runs out.

There isn't any "plein air" in Tysons Corner, Virginia, and it's disappearing fast in Falls Church, which if you remember was the theme of my show in June. I used to do sketches not in lovely country places but in malls and parking lots and cafe's. Due to time constraints (day job) I have gotten away from this practice, but maybe it's time to get back to doing it. I still do sketches but they are in markers and from memory, which doesn't count as "plein air," since it is really done indoors. Once I get those Photoshop coloring skills, I can take black and white sketches I do of poetic Dumpsters and digging machinery and mall halls and color them in.

As for the more fantasy-oriented work that these artists do so well, I feel some conflict about it. I spent the first twenty years of my professional life doing fantasy art (mostly) but now I feel guilty if I do it. From a "fine arts" or even more lofty "contemporary art" standard, these commercial artists, no matter how dazzling their technique is, are still working for the entertainment industry creating monsters, fantasy worlds, babes, superheroes, and other elements which can only be called kitsch. Presumably "true" artists would not waste their precious talent doing these trivial and unoriginal diversions. They would be engaging with the images and the meaningfulness of the "real" world. Or something like that.

It is interesting to me that so much glorious work is indeed done purely for commercial entertainment. This is of course where the money is, and an artist's gotta make a living. Many centuries ago, it was the Christian Church which sponsored the lavish output of artists. Their work included many of the same fantasy elements which the modern commercial artists use: angelic and demonic beings, fabulous architecture, epic battles, divine epiphanies, apocalyptic explosions. But since they were from the Bible or the lives of the saints, it was OK. Later on, in a more secular age, an artist could still have his fantasy fun with Classical mythology. It is only in our non-mythological age that such figurative fantastic art has been demoted to contemptible childishness. I am so tempted to turn Photoshop back on right now. There are more Imaginal cities waiting to be built.

Posted at 3:20 am | link

Sun, 08 Jul, 2007

First Sound

When a new telescope is finally put into use, the astronomers rather ceremoniously talk about "first light," which refers to the first official observations made with that telescope. The same is true with my new keyboard, except it is "first sound." I set it up and initialized its drivers on SoyMac the laptop, connected it, and played it for the first time. The keyboard does not make noise on its own, but it controls what's made by Mac's sound-making software, "Garage Band." Though this is just a non-professional hobbyist program, it still has loads of fun sounds to play with, as well as a realistic imitation of piano and organ. It also has a collection of familiar synthesizer sounds, which I have heard through decades of popular music as well as in many of the ambient pieces I listen to.

I have wanted one of these for years and years, ever since I heard a street musician playing a similar keyboard back in Cambridge, Mass. Even twenty years ago there was plenty of electronic music technology to play with. Now it is all digital rather than the analog that the street musician was playing, but that only makes it more accessible and convenient.

I have a manual for GarageBand and I will be learning how to use it in the same methodical way I learned Adobe Illustrator. I don't think I'll have too many problems with it. I should be able to make pre-fab electronic music quite soon. The educational requirements for such sounds are far less elaborate than the requirements for classical music. There are some musicians who cannot allow anything less than fully formed, structurally complex, and philosophically serious music into their universe. I'm not a musician, so that doesn't apply to me.

In the past, I attempted to learn to play the piano, during my childhood and later as a college student. I failed miserably and never had any fun playing. All the music I played was written by classical composers and was mostly too hard for me to play, so I would spend hours and hours attempting obsessively to run through a single Bach passage without a mistake. And I never did get through it. I worked and worked on Bach inventions or preludes and it was as tedious a task as trigonometric identities. (Which I am still memorizing, more on that in a later posting.)

This keyboard, which dropped into my lap as a free gift, excuses me from having to play Bach inventions if I don't want to. In all my years as a piano student, I never improvised at all. My piano teachers didn't even conceive of it, let alone encourage me to do it. Music, like the canon of the Bible, is fixed. If new music must be made, it must be written by those who are highly trained and committed to it. An amateur cannot create good music, any more than an amateur can do serious non-crackpot theoretical physics. So I didn't improvise. But on this keyboard, in the privacy of my home with no one having to listen to me, I can do what I want: pick out chords that sound interesting, follow tunes that I remember from pop or folk songs, or even run through twelve-tone rows or atonal "free jazz." Garage Band gives me a variety of tones and textures to play with. It allows me to do something I have very rarely gotten to do: creative fun.

As a professional artist, art is my job. My visual art work time is always serious and committed. Otherwise I don't get my projects done. Nowadays I rarely draw just for the sake of drawing. And I have gotten almost completely away from the fantasy and science fiction art that used to be so much fun for me to do. I sometimes wonder about that, but now that I am a gallery artist, I cannot be seen to do tasteless unoriginal kitsch like monsters and barbarians and spaceships. Right? It's got to have, you know, redeeming social value. But with my keyboard and music box, no one cares, and professionalism will never rear its ugly head. I have been granted a happy moment of creative irresponsibility.

Posted at 3:34 am | link

Thu, 05 Jul, 2007

Metaphysical Generosity

When I think the world has gone to hell, every so often I get some evidence that goodness stilll exists. In fact, I think that these occasions of unexpected and unsolicited generosity in people are one of my main points of proof that God exists. The "argument from design" doesn't get you very far these days, and the arguments from medieval philosophy about entities and causality are faded pressed leaves in between the pages of dusty old books. And you cannot say to intellectual and educated readers that God exists because the Bible or the Koran says he does.

Evolutionary psychology and anthropology give us a picture of an inexorable and rather grim human existence, in which actions and choices are judged to be ultimately successful only when you and your tribe's genetic heritage survives and reproduces. Even science, art, and music have been explained as male display behavior, intended to impress females so as to increase the (male only) artist or scientist's chances of reproduction. Generosity or empathy or altruism exist, for the evolutionary psychologist, because they are features which benefit the genetic relatives of the individual. So you help your kin or your tribe survive, because they carry some of your genetic material. The evolutionary psychologists claim that they now have a biological basis for most of human morality.

But what happens when totally unrelated people are good to each other? What about friendship and good deeds among people who don't share any genetic material except for being members of the same human species? What about childless people who do good things for other folks who have no kinship to them? I am speaking from personal experience here. Electron readers may remember that in March of 2006, a trio of my friends totally surprised me by giving me a fresh new Macintosh laptop, which I named "SoyMac," now an essential part of my art studio. They didn't have to spent all that money on a computer, and I'm not related to them. But they did.

Just last week I experienced this metaphysical generosity again. Two other friends, not the same ones who gave me the Macintosh, have given me a MIDI keyboard. It is a Roland "Edirol" PCR-800, a tool for electronic music. The couple who gave me this are members of my online electronic music community and whom I often converse with in the virtual chatroom. But I have never met these people in person. They have heard me talking about lacking equipment for soundmaking, and they knew exactly what I needed from what I had said. Since one of this couple is an electronic (ambient) musician, I assumed that they had an extra keyboard gathering dust in the studio and had decided to give it to me. But when I received it in the mail and opened up the heavy packaging, I found that this was a brand new keyboard in its original box! I wasn't quite sure what to say, except, of course, thank you.

In the social economy I grew up in, all good deeds are "tit-for-tat." Each positive deed must be answered by another equally positive response. If someone gives you something, you have to give them equal value back. You keep elaborate accounts in your head of what you owe and what is owed to you. But gifts like the computer and the keyboard, from non-relatives who don't feel obliged by kinship, confound me. How can I pay them back? I asked the computer people this very question. How could I pay them back for their generosity? "Do good work," they replied. To continue the economic theme, their investment of money in a fancy piece of equipment for me would be rewarded by my production of worthwhile, culturally creative works.

The same thing will be true for the keyboard, then. It doesn't make any sounds by itself. It plugs into the computer and controls sounds made by software. Macintoshes come loaded with a music synthesis program called "GarageBand." This is for consumers and hobbyists rather than professionals, but it is a perfect place for me to start, or rather, start again. I was an electronic musician almost forty years ago. If I decide to do more, there are plenty of fine software synthesizers out there in the Networld, some of them even free of charge. The keyboard will connect to the Macintosh laptop, and every time I work with this system, I will celebrate the divine generosity of five amazingly good people.

Posted at 2:53 am | link

Mon, 02 Jul, 2007

Art Show Is Over

It seems like I just put it up, but my art show is now over. The month of June went by so quickly! But I think my art got a good run during that time. Not only did my mother come down from Massachusetts to see it, the art was appreciated by many local and out-of-town visitors to the gallery. And best of all, I sold four pieces. Even taking into account the framing expenses and the gallery's commission, this enables me to "break even" with earnings and expenses. In the fine art world, breaking even is success. Somewhere out there may be some one who actually makes a good living at fine arts, but there are probably no more of those people than those who make a living writing fiction. Fortunately I do not write fiction, at least of the novelistic type.

I went to the gallery on a hot, quiet Friday afternoon. The gallery was empty of people except for one person working in the framing area. He works at the store, teaches art, and is also an exhibiting artist and much involved with the Falls Church arts organization. I took my paintings down, stacked them up, and took my documentation cards off the art wall. Then I loaded the framed pieces back into my car and drove home. A couple of generous friends helped me bring the artworks back into my home which is where they are now, stacked vertically against bookcases.

I don't intend to keep most of them. I hope that the proprietors or workers in the businesses that I depicted will want to buy the pictures, for instance the two coffee sisters or the manager of the Exterminator Moderne place. But I will now have to represent myself directly with these pieces. I asked the gallery owner whether, if I sold these outside the gallery, I would still have to pay him a commission. He said of course not, they are now my property and I should not pay him anything if it is out of the gallery.

Another person will now show art at Art and Frame of Falls Church, and I will work on my own projects for the rest of the summer. I am not sad to take down the show, actually I'm a bit relieved, because I don't have to keep checking in on the art to see whether it has sold. I'm just looking forward to having time to do work that does not have to conform to a specific theme or taste other than my own.

Posted at 2:18 am | link

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