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 It is no longer being updated.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.

Mon, 31 Dec, 2007

Gone South

I have finally escaped the urban ant-heap of Metro DC and am on my way south to Tennessee for two weeks' vacation. I am currently in Staunton (pronounced "Stanton"), Virginia, staying with friends in their palatial house. I am glad that some of my friends have done well for themselves, especially when they're so generous to me. I'll celebrate the New Year quietly with them tonight. Then I will leave 2007 behind.

There's plenty to do in 2008. I hope that I'll be able to show you new projects right here on this Pyracantha Website. There will be new art of all kinds, from tasteful architectural portraits to fantasy and science fiction and surrealism. And also, I am returning to my mathematics and physics. I found that I missed them, though the six month break was a necessary rest from it after six straight years of study. My vacation reading includes "Trigonometry for Dummies" and I have even brought with me a calculus lecture DVD.

I think the most important thing I did in 2007 was learn to use Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator as artistic media. I have been doing a large amount of web-gawking at digital illustration. In fact I am doing so much looking that I have not done any work myself. After all, they're so good, why should I try to do anything? In a world with myriads of competent digital artists, why should I bother to do my modest work in that same medium? I won't be illustrating for movies or games or book covers, at least that I can foresee. But as I look through all this commercial and personal work by the digital artists (see this site for plenty of examples) I see a kind of sameness to it all, in color choice, composition, and subject matter, which I am not bound by since I do not have to follow commercial assignments. So I hope to create something more individual than the excellently rendered but run-of-the-mill dragons and warriors and babes.

One of the great advantages of digital illustration and "painting" is that it takes up no space other than that of a hard drive. I won't have a stack of unsellable boards or canvases in my dwelling, nor do I have to take along a big studio full of paints if I want to illustrate outside my usual place. And if I don't like what I do, I can simply delete it. If I think that you will not want to see it, I can keep it hidden in the byte cave where only I will enjoy it.

I'll have internet connectivity for most of my Southern journey, which is planned to take me through Virginia to Chattanooga and Nashville, Tennessee, and then possibly to Asheville, North Carolina, a place I have never been. I hear there's lots of arty and fun stuff going on there. But for now, I wish all you Electron Readers a happy New Year 2008.

Posted at 7:48 pm | link

Wed, 26 Dec, 2007

Prophet Zarathushtra Icon Portrait

Today, December 26, is, in Zoroastrian lore, the day that the Prophet Zarathushtra died. Zarathushtra was the first person to preach a monotheistic religion, and he won over his first followers in what is now eastern Iran or western Afghanistan. His own words survive in a set of theological and moral hymns known as the Gathas. This text is the original scripture of the Zoroastrian religion. Some legends say Zarathushtra died by assassination, others that he passed away peacefully of natural causes. No one will ever know for sure, since it was so long ago, almost 3500 years. But today is a solemn holiday for Zoroastrians, and I am proud to honor the day by showing you my just-finished icon portrait of the founder of that faith.

Prophet Zarathushtra, acrylic on board. 15 inches x 9 inches.

In this painting I am attempting to portray Zarathushtra in a way that respects his ancient Persian heritage. Too many pictures of Zarathushtra have made him look too "Western" or too much like a Jewish or Christian figure. In others, where he wears a turban, he looks too Islamic. This icon-portrait is in the same format and style as my Seven Zoroastrian Immortals, in which I drew from a combination of modernist abstraction and ancient Persian art. Zarathushtra stands praying before the fire with his hands raised, just as he describes himself in the first stanza of the Gathas. (The portrait face is that of one of my Friendly Mathematicians.) The sacred fire here is not placed in the Parsi urn (as in the picture previous to this) but on a three-tiered stone platform which is more like what might have been used in the distant past. The three tiers, which can be seen in a different order in old Persian monuments, stand for the great threefold moral injunction of the Zoroastrian faith: Good Thoughts, Good Words, and Good Deeds.

Zoroastrianism, despite the small numbers of its remaining followers, has as many disagreeing divisions as Christianity. Some Zoroastrians will like this image and some will not. But I hope, as with my other paintings inspired by this faith, that I will in some way contribute to the awareness and survival of this ancient wisdom tradition.

Posted at 4:09 am | link

Sat, 22 Dec, 2007

Zoroastrian Fire in Photoshop

As many Electron readers know, I've been a student of the Zoroastrian religion for a long time. This is the first monotheistic religion, preached by the prophet Zarathushtra about 3500 years ago. Zarathushtra conceived of the One God as a purely abstract being, but chose a burning domesticated flame as the central symbol of God. As a source of light, warmth, and energy, the controlled flame connects divinity with civilization. To this day, Zoroastrians pray before a burning fire, either in fire temples or at home in front of a simple candle.

In the process of learning Photoshop I've had the opportunity to do experimental projects which connect with my main concerns. One of my ambitions with Zoroastrianism is to give this ancient religion a visual dimension. Historically, the Zoroastrian religion has not had much of a visual identity, other than royal architecture and monuments from the old Persian empires. It certainly doesn't have the kind of instant visual recognition that Christian icons or Islamic geometric ornament and calligraphy have. Our modern global culture is a visual culture, which recognizes logos and pictures much quicker than texts. Therefore I have been working to give a recognizable identity to Zoroastrianism. My set of seven Persian Angels, done between 1996 and 2000, was my first attempt at this. Now that I am working in digital media as well as traditional, I've tried out an image in Photoshop.

The black outlines were drawn by hand and then scanned in. I colored the drawing in Photoshop, using different textures. I had in mind the look of "Tiffany glass" windows, though I didn't follow an exact imitation of stained glass.

The urn on which the fire burns is called an afarghan, and is used mainly by Indian Parsis rather than Iranians. The fire rests on a metal dish that goes on top of the urn. According to tradition, the fuel is sandalwood, and priests drop fragrant incense on the fire every so often. This fire is lit and maintained only during ceremonies, but in fire temples it is kept going perpetually, and the fire urn there is huge, sometimes as tall as a man. It is said that there are some Zoroastrian fires which have burned continuously for two thousand years, even through all the hardships that the faith has suffered. Two thousand years may be a legend, but there are documented Zoroastrian fires in India that have been burning since at least the eighteenth century. I hope digital files can last that long.

Posted at 3:46 am | link

Fri, 21 Dec, 2007

Holiday Social Anxiety

The buzzword for this holiday season is "re-gifting." What does it mean? It means that somebody who is too lazy or cheap to buy a gift for someone instead takes something that has been given to them before and re-packages it as a fresh gift. This goes against etiquette somehow, not to mention American consumer customs which demand fresh gifts for everyone as a sign of your regard for them. I see hundreds of ads for diamonds, which seem to be valuable for their rarity despite the fact that there are thousands, perhaps even millions of them available in jewelry stores around the globe.

I am faced with giftgiving just like everyone else and I am up against rules of etiquette which are more complicated the older I get. Each gift must be appropriate to the person who receives it, whether it is edible, drinkable, or fuzzy. I wouldn't want to give wine to a person who has had problems with alcohol, nor would I want to give peanut candy to someone who would drop dead if he ate it. I have to measure how much this person means to me before I assign them a gift. If there is a discrepancy, then I will be embarrassed. Too expensive a gift, and I look like I'm kissing up to that person. But too trivial a gift, and they might think I didn't care enough about them.

Most of my friends and acquaintances live in dwellings that are packed with stuff and things, into which another object would just drop like a stone onto a rocky shore. Do I dare to buy them another thing, then? Or should I buy them an edible or drinkable goodie that I like, knowing that they would share it with me? Giftgiving has always had a factor of self-interest in it. Also, most of my recipients know where I work so they will be expecting some goodie from Trader Joe's, even though they shop there themselves and could buy anything they wanted. And they know that I get a discount at Trader Joe's, so I am sparing some expense by bringing consumables. Does that mean I am generous, or cheap, or an improbable combination of the two?

In this affluent little corner of the world, many of my recipients make much more money than I do, so there is an inequality that I can't escape. Their budget for gifts might be a lot more than mine. If I receive an expensive gift one year, then I might expect another costly one this year, which is just my pure greed. If my financial situation improves, does that mean I must buy more expensive gifts? What if I don't buy any gifts, but choose something from my private collection of Stuff to give to someone else's private collection of Stuff? That's re-gifting. Just let me make sure it isn't inscribed to me and is free of my monogram.

Then there are the holiday cards. I would like them all to arrive before Christmas, but they won't. I am re-conceiving them as New Year's cards, which had better be all right for those receiving them. I make my cards myself, which saves the money of buying pretty but smarmy Holiday Greetings cards with glitter angels or kittens under decorated trees. But that means I have to write my own greeting into the card. How about, "I hope your New Year doesn't suck!" or "Don't die this year, please!" That would be honest wishes but perhaps a bit, uh, uncouth. So I have to think of something nice to say in which the previous message is encoded. "Have a happy, healthy, and creative New Year!" In which you don't die, and keep your job at wherever and you don't get divorced. The Holiday Greeting Code is in effect.

And so who do I send these home-made missives to? I had a list once, but some of these people really did die over the last year, or they had a breakdown, or moved somewhere and didn't leave any forwarding address. Relatives and good friends must receive cards, otherwise they will think I don't love them. The embarrassing part is where you receive cards from someone you had crossed off your list because you just don't see them more than once a year. Then you have to send them a card and they will know, since your card comes later than they sent theirs, that you only sent it to them because you got one from them. Some cards simply go unanswered. They will think I don't care.

Here in the city the crowding and the milling is so intense in this last week before the holiday, that I just can't stand the idea of going out other than to go to work or to buy basic supplies. That includes Poland Spring mineral water, bagels, and toilet paper, and the occasional slab of meat or bag of frozen vegetables. I don't think Poland Spring water would be enough of a gift. There is one gift that I can probably get away with: for my non-addicted friends, WINE is always in good taste. Especially if I get to drink it.

Posted at 4:01 am | link

Wed, 19 Dec, 2007

The fourth Starbucks winter lady

After work on Tuesday, I trundled over to the last Starbucks on my list for winter illustration, and did their sign while the remains of my coffee got cold. This set of winter fashion ladies has been quite a job. Each one took over two hours to do. This one's outfit is inspired by Mongolian festive garb. The model for this idealized portrait is a Mongolian girl who works at one of the Starbucks I illustrated a week or so ago. The colors are not necessarily accurate for the dress, they are just what I wanted to do in this composition. Nevertheless, I have tried to give each Starbucks Winter Lady an ethnicity or at least an ethnic flavor.

As always, opaque acrylic markers on metal-coated wooden board, about two feet square. Artist's note for honesty's sake: the photograph wasn't very good so I have enhanced some details on the face with Photoshop.

This concludes my Starbucks illustration series for winter 2007. I am already thinking about the spring series, with faith that spring will come again and that I will be able to do the designs.

Next to be completed on my art list: the Prophet!

Posted at 3:21 am | link

Sun, 16 Dec, 2007

Artist Life, Ongoing

I didn't get to do the next in my set of Winter Starbucks Ladies because the board was already drawn upon. I found an exact copy of what was printed in the Starbucks manual, and the young thing at the register said that this was what would stay there. I asked to see the manager, with whom I have a friendly professional artist relationship, and just today, days later, the manager connected with me while I was sitting slurping my coffee. She had been waiting for me to come in and do the board! But the current pre-programmed graphic has to stay there until it goes out of date, which will be next Tuesday. So on Tuesday evening, if all goes well, I will do the last in my series of winter coffee ladies of fashion.

Meanwhile I am stuck with another picture which resists getting done. I started this earlier this year and then it got interrupted by a whole bunch of other things including my show in June. I didn't get back to it until just a few weeks ago. It is a tiny picture, just 15 inches tall by 9 inches wide, but it needs great care. Since it is a religious icon, everything has to be perfect. And since it is small, perfection is delivered with a 2-0 size brush, known technically as a "super weentsy" brush. I am painting with acrylic which as longtime Electron readers know is a difficult medium to work with. But I am finally getting through with it and I hope to show it to you by the end of the month.

This icon will satisfy all the requirements for "SERIOUS" art, therefore it is worth the time I've put into it. It lacks only a tragic or depressing mood to make it truly serious. However since it belongs to a major religious tradition, that makes up for it. I have often mused just where that line goes between contemptible kitschy pop art, and Serious Fine Art. In the case of fantasy and religious subjects, I believe that the style and treatment have a lot to do with it. If the subject is rendered realistically, as if it were a movie or a photograph, it falls into the pop barrel. What may have passed for highly realistic "fine art" in the nineteenth century, is now considered lower class and kitschy. But if your fantasy or religious subject is rendered in a stylized or abstract way, then the artist has a chance of pulling himself or herself up from the mire of popular art and placing the work in the upper-class world of fine art. Glowing Madonnas or vampire girls will never make it, though, no matter what. I hope that I've added just enough stylization so that my icon will escape the dreaded downward drag.

Posted at 8:24 pm | link

Sun, 09 Dec, 2007

Another Winter Lady of Starbucks

Fueled by lots of coffee, I did my third Starbucks design in three days. This one is at a very busy, large store and will be seen by lots of people. I was inspired by late 1800's fashions here. As always, acrylic markers on metal-coated board, about 24 inches wide.

There's one more to do in this series. I hope to get it done later this week.

Posted at 2:59 am | link

Sat, 08 Dec, 2007

Winter Ladies of Starbucks

I've been busy doing the decorated boards for my set of Starbuckses and here are the first two. There will be one or two more, depending on whether the managers let me do the work. Technically, according to Starbucks rules, only the employees of Starbucks are allowed to do the boards and they must follow exactly the examples provided in the Starbucks manual. But my drawings have proved so popular with the customers that my friendly managers have been looking the other way.

My theme for Winter 2007 includes a glamorous Lady in high fashion, offering coffee in an Art Nouveau setting. I don't usually include human images in my illustrations, so I decided to finally give it a try. My fashion designs here are inspired by Russian folk and dance costumes. I feel suitably "seasonal" adding snowflakes since my area has already had a snowfall.

Both signs are done in opaque acrylic markers on coated metal boards, about 24 inches wide.

Posted at 3:37 am | link

Tue, 04 Dec, 2007

Real Snow

I thought it wouldn't have the nerve to happen here, but instead of cotton fluff, real snow is predicted for later this week. You know those smarmy commercials you see with people happily shopping while snowflakes drift down prettily? If that ever really happens, what you see are soaked people protecting their purchases from water while sloshing through puddles of slush to get to their cars which are already covered with half-frozen icy rain. And then those happy American consumers get on the road and skid about on the ice film while going too fast in heavy traffic. Nothing makes a joyous Christmas season brighter and better than a 200-car pileup in thick fog on I-95!

I already consumed, mostly online. The rest of my gifts will come from (where else) Trader Joe's. Everyone I know has too much STUFF. The only acceptable present that won't add to the clutter is something you can eat or drink. I have been heroically resisting the chocolate truffles offered to me at work. The blustery winds have blown the colorful leaves off the trees and it is freezing out, so winter is really here. Time to hibernate, not work. But we are not natural creatures, so that isn't possible. More coffee, then, as those ominous white particles descend from the grey sky.

I have been learning "GarageBand," which is the simple music synthesizer program which came with my Macintosh. I can make plenty of noises on it, including electronic beeps, bloinks, and drones. I am not much interested in the pop music sounds which it is pre-programmed to make. But there's an option where you can "take apart" the sounds and re-make them to your noisy satisfaction. Once I build up a library of these, I can put them together and make some continuity. My friends in my online electronic music "community" are urging me to get moving and make some new compositions. They claim that ambient has "no rules," but of course that isn't true, because there is no creative field, no matter how avant-garde or experimental, which does not have a set of rules to obey. They just may be less obvious than the rules one learns in academic art and music classes.

Posted at 3:05 am | link

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