Current Exhibits

July 15th, 2018

It’s probably a marketing mistake, but I don’t pay much attention to where my work is at any given time. I’m happiest when I can ship stuff off to an exhibit which travels the country for a few years, forms the basis of a book, then gets sold and never comes home.

Occasionally, though, it’s fun to look and see where stuff is and where it’s going. Many thanks to the exhibit organizers and others who handle the marketing, shipping, and coordination of these exhibits! They provide fascinating exhibits for viewers and make it possible for me to hide in my studio and focus on creating.

 

May 10 – August 20, 2018
Webster Presbyterian; Webster, TX (aka “The NASA church”)
HerStory: Mary Blair

June 29 – July 27, 2018
Floris UMC Art Gallery; Herndon, VA
HerStory: Maria Goeppert-Mayer

July 19-21, 2018
Original Sewing & Quilt Expo; Raleigh, NC
Threads of Resistance: Game Over, Gusher

August 9-12, 2018
Birmingham Festival of Quilts, Birmingham, England
Fly Me to The Moon: Leaving Home: Launch of the Apollo 8

August 17-25, 2018
Experience Fiber Art; Rochester, NY
Threads of Resistance: Game Over, Gusher

September 13-16, 2018
Pennsylvania National Quilt Extravaganza; Oaks, PA
Threads of Resistance: Game Over, Gusher

October 10 – December 13, 2018
Apollo 7 & 8 50th Anniversary Exhibit; NASA Johnson Space Center; Houston, TX
Fly Me to The Moon: Leaving Home: Launch of the Apollo 8

October 15 – November 4, 2018
Charlton Sewing Center; Charlton, MA
Threads of Resistance: Game Over, Gusher

November 6-11, 2018
International Quilt Festival, Houston
Judged show: Cranky Claus
OurStory: It Happened, Seeds of Hatred

December 7, 2018 – April 10, 2019
National Quilt Museum, Paducah, KY
HerStory: Mary Blair, Maria Goeppert-Mayer

It’s quiz time!

May 25th, 2018

It’s time for some fun! I’ve posted eighteen pictures below. I want you to go through them and assign each to one of the following categories:

  • Abstract
  • Animals
  • Digitally created
  • Fantasy/Whimsy
  • Naturescape
  • Painted
  • People, portraits, and figures
  • Pictorial (objects, still life, wildlife, cityscapes)

Is there a point to this exercise? Yes, there is. We’ll get to that in a moment. But first, let’s go through the images.

 

Image 1

 

Image 2

 

Image 3

 

Image 4

 

Image 5

 

Image 6

 

Image 7

 

Image 8

 

Image 9

 

Image 10

 

Image 11

 

Image 12

 

Image 13

 

Image 14

 

Image 15

 

Image 16

 

Image 17

 

Image 18

 

DING! DING! DING! Time’s up!

What did you decide? Did you put any of these in the people or portraits category? How about abstract or animals? Did you see any still lives or anything that struck you as whimsical?

Well, it doesn’t matter what you or I think, or what the style or subject matter of these images is because every one of them was digitally created or modified. (More on that in a minute.)

As far as the International Quilt Association’s rules are concerned, if any of these are printed on fabric and made into quilts (actually, three of them already have been), if they’re submitted to one of the IQA shows, they have to be submitted under the Surface Design category.

That’s right. No matter how little these individual images may have in common, they’re alllllll going to be slopped together in the same category because a computer was used to create them. The same thing goes if you’re submitting a quilt that is more than 50% painted; it gets put in a painted surface category regardless of its style or subject matter.

Why?

Why is the instrument or technique used to create a design more important than its style or subject matter?

Why are quilts with painted or digitally designed fabric being stuck in a ghetto where completely unrelated works will be competing against each other?

What is the goal? To focus on works which use more quilting supplies, thus making vendors happy? To return to the traditional roots of quilting and reduce the focus on art?

Regardless of the intention, I know one probable outcome: to reduce experimentation and fossilize the art form. Fewer available categories for one’s work implies that there are fewer available slots and less work will be accepted. A few people I spoke with said that because of this rule change, they aren’t going to submit work this year. They’re excellent artists, but they find the rule change discouraging and ominous, so we won’t be seeing their work. I only submitted one piece.

***

About the images:

I made every one of them on the computer. Notice how little they have in common other than that. Then imagine them turned into quilts (if the image is suitable for that) and hanging on a wall together in one category. Why do that?

 

Image 1 – Apples. A digital painting I made in Procreate for iPad, using someone else’s photo as a reference. Apologies to the person for not crediting them, whoever they are. The painting may be mine, but the composition is all theirs.

Image 2 – Clouds. Rendered in a 3D program.

Image 3 – Eye. A digital painting I made in Procreate.

Image 4 – Odalisque with Squeak Toy. A digital composite of 3D CGI and a photo of my dog.

Image 5 – Dude with Fish. A digital painting I made in Procreate. I vaguely remember that I’d had a glass of wine and wished I was Joan Miro.

Image 6 – Succulent. A photo heavily, heavily edited then modified with filters.

Image 7 – Fractal something-or-other. From Filterforge.

Image 8 – Why Knot? – A digital composite of typography, images, and a photo of my son.

Image 9 – Handsome shirtless guy. Rendered in a 3D program.

Image 10 – Landscape. From Filterforge.

Image 11 – Dame with white hair. I rendered the woman in a 3D program, then composited her against a background I made in Filterforge.

Image 12 – Map. More Filterforge work.

Image 13 – Abstract. Again, Filterforge.

Image 14 – Abstract “painting”. Filterforge.

Image 15 – Pears. A digital painting I made in Procreate, using someone else’s photo as a reference.

Image 16 – Rock texture. Filterforge.

Image 17 – Snail ride. A digital painting I made in Procreate, using one of my own photos (for a change) as a reference.

Image 18 – a 3D rendering.

Three things are certain.

May 17th, 2018

There’s an oft-cited quote, “Two things are certain in life: death and taxes”. Many have made half-serious additions to that list including dirty dishes, data breaches, and the likelihood of having a penis drawn on one’s face if one passes out at a frat party.

My own addition concerns losing touch with people and later on googling to find out how they’re doing. Most of the time there’s happy news and you get to cheer. You see that people have moved on with their lives, had great careers, popped out a kid or two, and have done good things. You aren’t a part of their lives anymore but you can be happy for them, even the people you once found annoying.

Unfortunately, there’s that third certainty. Eventually you learn that someone you respected and cared for has died. Yesterday I learned that Gene Holden, who I knew from SLAC, passed away last year.

Gene was a maintenance mechanic, existing in a shadowy world of lift pumps, low conductivity water, cooling towers, and the occasional flow switch calibration. I never understood the entirety of her job any more than I paid attention to the duties of the other support or maintenance staff, an attitude I now regret.

I was a noodle-headed twenty-something when we met. I plowed through my duties at SPEAR and later on Main Control with determination and a liberal sprinkling of profanity, if not grace or skill. I always knew I could count on her to help when I called and address issues with competence, bluntness, and acerbic wit. Sometimes I’d get lucky and she’d tell stories, some of which I shouldn’t recount in public. In retrospect, I wish I’d prompted her for more.

She’d been in the Army in the early to mid ‘70s, the first female mechanic to work on COBRA helicopters in the field. “They always made the mechanics take the first ride after a repair,” she once told me with a mildly evil cackle. The message was clear: if you messed up the repair, you’d be the one killed rather than your fellow soldiers.

According to a story I only dimly remember, the spelling of her name led to a mixup. The Vietnam war was still sputtering along and she was deployed to a combat area, an area women, at the time, weren’t supposed to be sent to. I doubt she let that fact bother her, though. She was a strong person, determined and at times salty, good traits to have in both the Army and at SLAC.

One graveyard shift, when I was manning SPEAR, a young man decided to jump off highway 280, which runs across the linac and the klystron gallery. Some said his leap was driven by mental illness; others suggested that he was high on PCP.

Regardless of the cause, he landed behind the radiation fence and went on a bizarre, addled romp through the research yard. No one knew his intentions. I was on duty by myself, so I locked up the building and stayed away from windows. Others did likewise, hunkering down until the police could come and escort the fellow away.

Then there was Gene. She wasn’t much of a hunkering sort, I guess. She and one of the other maintenance mechanics tracked the fellow down, cornering him a men’s restroom. According to some versions of the story, he crouched down cowering in a corner, afraid of her. For some reason that delights me. She wasn’t a mean person, but she also wasn’t a person to be messed with.

After I left SLAC, I touched base with her a couple of times. She changed professions, earning her master’s degree and taking on various writing and training duties, still at SLAC.

I never had the guts to ask about her health, although it was always in the back of my mind. She’d once matter-of-factly mentioned an issue that she thought might spell her end someday. I’ll probably never know if that was what caused her death, but I’ll always wonder.

In my mind, she’ll always be young and healthy, cornering drug-addled young men in restrooms and demanding to know what the hell they were thinking when they jumped off bridges. She was a good one.

There’s a writeup about her in an old issue of SLAC Today. It’s well worth a read.

Be grateful for the good problems/Art Nouveau Cyborg

May 2nd, 2018

This post is dedicated to my dishwasher, which has decided that it’s going to run continuously without actually washing or rinsing dishes. That’s what I call a “good” problem. It’s annoying but fixable. In the meantime, I have soap and a sponge and I can wash dishes by hand.

It’s so much better than having the furnace or the clothes washer break. I really don’t want to burn books or furniture to keep the house warm, and I don’t have a river handy so I can go beat my clothes clean on a rock.

Broken dishwasher. Good problem.

Also, as it happens, broken sewing machine = good problem. That chip I replaced has done wonders; my Bernina thinks it’s brand new now. I wish I’d made the repair sooner. However, that’s hindsight. When you have deadlines to meet, you tell yourself that it’s better to have a machine that sort of works part of the time than a machine that doesn’t work at all. It feels scary to jam a soldering iron up your machine’s delicate parts and risk breaking it even more.

Now, of course, I can slap myself on the back and chortle “Hey! It worked out fine!” But I didn’t know that at the time.

Today I sent this off to be printed on fabric. I’d been holding off on some projects because of the sewing machine issue, but now that seems to be resolved.

Its working title is Art Nouveau Cyborg, although Art Nouveau Android would be more accurate. I need a better title, something which highlights the fact that the only living thing, in some sense the only “real” thing in the picture, is the hummingbird.

This piece harks back to Art Nouveau, which is a style inspired by natural forms and structures, such as the curved lines of plants and flowers. (Paraphrasing/ripping off the Wikipedia entry on Art Nouveau.) However, my subject matter is quite the opposite of natural, an artificial creature against a background of circuitry. I thought the contrast would be interesting.

The composition is  a blatant ripoff of inspired by the works of Alphonse Mucha, particularly his use of ornate circular frames.

Image provided by Art Renewal Center Museum, image 4417, Public Domain

This piece, Dance, was a particularly helpful reference.

As the lines in green show, I traced right over key portions of Mucha’s composition in order to come up with the layout for my own. I used circuit lines as design embellishments rather than butterflies and flowers, but the arrangement of the background is substantially the same.

The foreground figure is a purchased model, Pix-Synx, whose geometry was created by Pixeluna. I posed and rendered her in a 3D program.

Here she is, rendered and ready to layer in with the rest of the elements of the design.

I fiddled around with several poses before arriving at one that seemed decent.

This pose reminded me of something I saw at the Louvre the week before last, only not as classy.

Mmm. No. I’m not trying to make android porn.

This just worked for me somehow. There was something a little awkward and innocent about it, and when I introduced a focal point, the hummingbird, the picture began to come together.

Ah, that hummingbird. I think I bought the geometry for this thing for about $1 on sale. It’s posable, and it’s one of my favorite models.

Since I’m working in 3D, I can change the texture on objects. I seriously considered making the hummingbird out of chrome or brushed metal. I really liked the way it looked and the way it popped against the background. Unfortunately, having a metal bird would change the message of the picture, which is about the hummingbird being the only natural thing there.

This is the texture I ended up using. Not my favorite, but it contrasted with the background nicely.

When I began drafting the picture, I had no idea what kind of background texture to use. This is one of my false starts, tread plate. I think I made this with Filter Forge. Have I mentioned before how much I love Filter Forge? Yeah. Only about a thousand times.

Here’s another Filter Forge-generated texture. For a brief instant in time, I thought about giving the picture a steampunk flavor.

How about a nice steampunk porthole? (Also created in Filter Forge) That would automatically create the circles one sees in a Mucha composition.

Filter Forge gears. Yeah, no. Interesting but too cluttered.

In the end I referred to photos of blue circuit boards. I sampled dark and light hues from a photo, made a cloud texture in Photoshop, then motion blurred it to create these streaks. That gave it a nice subtle texture.

All the circuit board ornamentation in the picture is made with Photoshop brushes, the Cyber Circuit Brushes by Orestes Graphics. I applied them in separate layers, tinkering with opacity to emphasize or deemphasize them. It’s a delicate balancing act. If the circuit designs have too much contrast, they’ll fight with the foreground for attention and the whole picture will look cluttered. However, if they lack contrast or they’re too dark, they’ll fade away during printing.

Now I wait and see what comes back from the printer. It’s always a surprise, and it always changes some more after I sew on it.

 

How I fixed my Bernina 440QE freezes

April 27th, 2018

I’m not a Bernina tech or a Bernina anything, but I’m going to put this out there in case someone else has a similar problem. Maybe it’ll help. Your mileage may vary.

I have an older but still nice machine, the Bernina 440QE. Last fall, it began freezing. When I sewed, sometimes the machine’s needle would quit moving and the display would go blank. I could reset the machine by turning the power off and on, but the problem would reoccur later.

I researched the problem online. “Take off the front inspection panel and see if the 5V LED goes off when this happens,” advised one site. “If it does, you’ve got yourself a problem. You’ll have to haul it in to a shop.”

I took off the panel. Yep. I was definitely losing 5V. That sounded like a power supply problem to me, but I was darned if I knew how to fix it. Clearly I needed to find a repair place. I started pawing around on Yelp, reading reviews of local Bernina-authorized repair places.

The reviews were discouraging. At one place, customers recounted a snotty attitude from the owner and mandatory $200 cleaning charges simply for walking through the door. Another store was prone to losing equipment and not returning phone calls or emails. At yet another, the owner had a poor reputation, with one customer saying he’d yelled and thrown things at them.

None of the places sounded worth my time or money. I wondered whether there was another repair option. In the meantime, I was able to limp along with my machine in its semi-broken state, simply powering it off and back on when it froze. It was annoying but I could work, just barely.

Unfortunately, the amount of time the machine would work grew shorter and shorter by the day. It was clear that some component inside was heating up and getting closer to permanently failing. One day the machine would simply quit working. I needed to have a strategy in place for when that happened, something other than crawling to one of the local dealers. I considered driving to a dealer elsewhere, if I could find one that was reputable, or even pulling out my credit card and ordering a new machine.

One day I stumbled across a couple of helpful posts on the Fixya site, here and here.

It seemed that I wasn’t the only person who’d experienced this particular problem! The likely culprit was a chip on the power supply board. Unfortunately, if I took my machine to a Bernina repair place – assuming I could find one which didn’t have the ethics of a used car dealer – they’d simply replace the entire L-print board. That would be costly. However, I could simply order a new chip myself, solder it in, and be on my way.

Before doing anything, I had a look at the chip’s datasheet, to see whether the component sounded like something which might affect voltages. I invite others to do the same.

It had been awhile since I’d done much soldering, so I pulled the covers off the machine. I figured I’d have a look at the board and the chip to see how easy they were to access. Who knew? Maybe I’d be lucky and the power supply board would be covered with ten years worth of dust. That’s the kind of thing that can cause heating and other issues, and is simple to fix.

YouTube yielded some nice videos on maintaining Berninas and removing their covers:

Maintenance

Cover removal

As I removed screws, I made rough sketches of the back and front of the machine and taped the screws in the appropriate locations. I’m sure other people have their own methods for tracking where screws go, but that’s one which has always worked for me.

There was some schmutz under the covers, mostly from the machine’s belt wearing down, but not as much as I’d anticipated. Let’s just say that after working at a particle accelerator for years, where equipment was sometimes exposed to challenging conditions, I’ve seen some nasty stuff. Good times.

The L-print board with the wayward chip lies beneath this plastic panel. To access it, I had to remove a couple of screws as well as the connector attached to the yellow wire harness. I used a pair of needle nose pliers to gently wiggle the connector free of the board which is hidden beneath the plastic cover. Yes, the yellow wires need to stay attached to the connector. Pulling them out probably WILL land one in a repair shop.

Board cover after carefully unplugging the connector. Such fun.

At last we get to see the L-print board. We can’t see it in this photo, but the chip the Fixya site claimed might be the problem is hiding behind that large capacitor.

There it is, the KA34063.

After unscrewing the board from its plastic mount and flipping it over, I was able to see the solder joints for the chip. They’re outlined in red.

At that point, I decided it was safe to order a few. And yes, I ordered several in case I wrecked a couple.

As the person on the Fixya site said, the KA34063 can be found on eBay. Other places carry them as well. I purchased mine from DigiKey. DigiKey offered USPS first class shipping which, while not as glamorous as FedEx or UPS, got the chips to me rapidly and cheaply.

Here I am at the dining room table, ready to take a soldering iron to the sewing machine I paid mumbledy-mumble thousands of dollars for about ten years ago. Sure. Why not. What could possibly go wrong?

Back of the board before removing the old chip. I like to take a photo so I can check things later like, oh, was that giant burned spot on the board before? Was that component always a melted heap of slag? You know. Little things like that.

After removing the chip and soldering in a new one. Eh. My soldering isn’t beautiful, but it’ll do.

After replacing the chip, I reassembled the machine just enough that I could turn the power on – notice that I don’t have the back cover screwed on. Then I stared at it for five minutes, debating about whether I was about to make a mistake if I flicked the switch.

Nope. Things were just fine. No dead panel, no fuses blowing, no electrical smell, no teensy poofs of smoke. Not that there should have been; I was careful.

I plugged in the BSR and did a little test to see whether its optical sensor saw fabric moving. Yep. That worked fine, too.

I let the machine sit, powered on, for an hour before turning it off and sealing it up. The freeze didn’t reoccur, so I sealed it up and sewed for an hour. At this point, a couple of days later, the repair still appears to be working. I’m cautiously optimistic.

Total cost of repair:

$2.60 for replacement chips (I ordered four, just in case I mangled a couple.)

$3.78 for shipping and tax

$16.92 at Fry’s for a desoldering pump, desoldering wick, a soldering iron stand, and some small diameter solder

Total: $23.30

This was the first time I’d used a desoldering pump, which I like to call a “solder sucker”. I wish I’d tried one years ago. They’re dirt cheap and incredibly convenient. All I had to do was heat the solder holding in my chip, trigger the pump, and the solder was gone. I only had to go over the connections once with the pump then do a little touchup with desoldering wick. The chip came out super easy after that; I wiggled it out with a pair of needle nose pliers from the other side of the board.

Hope this helps somebody. This may not be the cause of everyone’s 440QE display freezes, and not everybody is going to feel comfortable tearing into their machine, but at this point I’m well pleased. The machine is purring along, and now that I’ve looked under its covers, I feel like we’re good friends.

Parigi

April 26th, 2018

The title of this post is a tribute to my friend, the late Paris Mannion. She once told me that in Italian, her first name translated to Parigi. I called her that off and on until she died.

I visited Paris (the town) last week, so here are some photos and my usual random comments.

Notre Dame, looking across the Seine.

This was the third time I’d been, the first with my friend Paris/Parigi. As I walked through the cathedral, I was struck anew by her kindness. Years ago, we’d gone overseas to take photos for one of her books. Notre Dame had nothing whatsoever to do with the topic of her book, but she went out of her way to take me there and some other places she thought I should see.

This time I went with my family. My husband and I wanted to share Paris, at least a small section of it, with our son before he’s grown and having most of his adventures away from us. We need to do more of that. The clock is ticking away. The first year of a child’s life feels as though it lasts ten or twenty years, then the years abruptly speed up and begin zooming by.

 

Wood model of Notre Dame, inside Notre Dame. One wonders if there’s another microscopic model inside the model, making the whole thing self-similar. The fractal nature of Notre Dame, if you will.

 

There was a mass in progress when we visited. It sounded far more pleasant than the roaring and bloviating of the religious leaders of my youth. Perhaps the fact that it was said in French helped.

 

The famous rose glass window, or at least one of them.

 

Currency deposited in a collection box by the faithful. I thought it made an interesting shot. It must be costly to make repairs on a medieval pile of stone, a more-or-less constant process.

 

I adore gargoyles. I live in a very bland, suburban neighborhood. I  wonder if it would be improved by hanging gargoyles off some of the houses. They wouldn’t have to be the same style as the ones at Notre Dame. We could make effigies of Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, which would be appropriate for Silicon Valley.

 

The angels are looking on as though to say “Dude. That has to hurt.”

 

Now we’re in another cathedral, Sainte-Chapelle. It’s a short walk from Notre Dame, also on the Ile de la Cité, and well worth visiting for the sake of its stained glass.

 

“Here is a Bible with which to cover your shameful nakedness. Go forth and keep your privates covered.”

I could probably think of a title for this if I worked at it, but perhaps it’s best that I don’t. The balcony just outside Sainte-Chapelle was covered with relief sculpture depicting stories and parables.

 

The lesson I take away: if you have difficulty nursing, try substituting peasant-grade gruel for mother’s milk.

 

Basement or undercroft of the Conciergie.  That’s a lovely-sounding name for a place where people were tossed in dank cells before being hauled off to the guillotine. Marie Antoinette was there for a time before being taken before a tribunal and having her hair and then her head lopped off.

There were some fascinating informational displays about the Revolution. I confess that I wasn’t as horrified as I could have been at the notion of citizens rising up and ridding themselves of vain, bloated rulers who cared little about their welfare. Not that there’s anyone in the U.S. I want dead – just gone.

 

There was an art installation inside the Conciergie. It involved diverting water from the Seine and having it flow through a channel in the undercroft.

This sign amused me. Evidently the water is so questionable it’s worthy of a warning sign. Don’t touch it, don’t make coffee with it, and for heaven’s sakes, don’t float little paper boats in it.

 

Sacre-Couer. It sits atop a hill and can be reached via a countless number of steps or via a funicular. The last time my husband and I visited, we climbed the steps. I complained viciously the whole way. Guess what we did this time?

 

The Pigalle, with a McDonald’s sign nestled up against a sign with a topless woman. That tickled me.

 

The Sexodrome. I love that name. It has something of a Mad Max sound. I have no idea what goes on in there, but I imagine it involves people riding motorcycles while waving artificial phalluses.

 

Tilework on the sidewalk in front of the Moulin Rouge. I thought the little windmills were charming.

 

Butt crack of Venus de Milo, on view at the Louvre. Everyone was queued up in front of the statue, but I thought the back was equally interesting. It’s a view one doesn’t see every day.

 

“How big do you think the Mona Lisa will be?” I asked my son.

“Big!”

“Can you show me with your arms?”

“Well, no. But I think it’ll be at least as large as the other paintings.”

Yeah, it was a shock to him. It was a surprise to me the first time as well. Somehow we expect the Mona Lisa to be monumental in size, not a foot or two on a side. Who knows; if da Vinci had known the painting would be so wildly popular, perhaps he would have made it larger.

 

Evidently France didn’t get rid of all of its rats during the Revolution.

 

Fontaine de l’Observatoire. I’ve always liked these creatures, although I wonder what they eat. Definitely not hay. Perhaps seaweed?

 

Medici Fountain. Some of these photos make me sad. This is one of the fountains I visited and photographed with my friend before she died.

Paris/Parigi had a dream of retiring overseas, in one of the places she’d lived during her youth. She became ill and passed away before that could happen.

 

An architectural element on, I think, Rue Monge near the Arenes du Lutece. How cool would it be to look out the window of your apartment and see something like that?

 

Down in the catacombs, an incredible underground repository with the bones of more than six million people. We’d never been, but we thought the boy might like it. Glad we went. It’s good to try something a little different each trip, and it was fascinating and thought-provoking.

I’m very glad we bought tickets in advance, though. The line for walk-up tickets extended down the block!

 

Another tasteful arrangement of bones down in the catacombs. Who knew there were so many artful ways to display them?

I guess that’s a bit tacky of me. There were once people surrounding those bones. Some reverence is in order. Someday I’ll be reduced to bone or ashes or goo myself.

 

Another tasteful sign. It seems that people have to be warned to not eat burgers or hit the bottle when they’re in the catacombs.

 

On our final evening, we visited the Eiffel Tower. Going there is something of a tourist cliche, but we had to take our kid. Otherwise, he’d have conversations with his classmates like

“Did you go up the Eiffel Tower?”

“No. My parents wouldn’t take me.”

There are just certain places you have to go if you’ve never visited a town before.

That said, I was heartbroken by the anti-terrorism measures. The area around the tower used to be a big, green open space with people strolling and lazing. Now it’s fenced off, there are deep gulches, and one must go through a security inspection to enter. I suppose one of the goals is to make it hard to roll a truck full of explosives in and take down the tower.

 

Anti-terrorism measures were visible everywhere we went, as part of Operation Sentinel. From the moment we landed at Charles de Gaulle, we saw roving bands of soldiers carrying assault rifles and convoys of similarly armed police officers. It startled my son, who said it made him feel as though he was in a video game.

Oddly enough, it didn’t make me feel unsafe the way I do when people in the U.S. are enthusiastically exercising their right to carry guns and, presumably, form militias for the purpose of quelling slave rebellions. Perhaps that’s because when people in the U.S. openly carry guns, frequently their goal is to intimidate. By contrast, the police and the soldiers in France were trained and conducting anti-terrorism activities. We were merely fat American tourists, spreading around money and mangling the pronunciation of French words. We weren’t particularly interesting to them.

 

The Statue of Liberty, seen from the Eiffel Tower. Or, as my son put it, “the real Statue of Liberty”.

 

We arrived at the tower at dusk. As the sun went down, lights in the surrounding town began to sparkle. The bright object at the upper lefthand corner of the photo is the Arc de Triomphe.

 

All too soon, it was time to head home. There were intermittent rail and airline strikes around the time of our stay, but we made it out okay, flying out over Iceland (above) and the Atlantic while covertly ogling the extremely handsome male flight attendants. Some of them may have even been straight.

The flight home was like being on a flying restaurant, with champagne and liqueur and other goodies shoveled down our throats at frequent intervals.

I could live in Paris, at least for a short time. It was blissful getting away from some of the garbage here in the U.S., exercising and eating healthily while avoiding Facebook and reports of current political horrors.

We’ve only been home a week. I already want to escape again.

“Coffee Break”, part one

March 30th, 2018

This entry walks through the creation of this image, “Coffee Break”, which will be printed on fabric and transmogrified into an art quilt. As usual, click on images to enlarge if desired. (One of these days I’ll get around to fixing the site’s style sheets and layout. One of these days. Probably about the time I get my sewing machine repaired.)

 

As with much of my work these days, Coffee Break was created with a combination of 3D graphics and Photoshop. Here’s the layout in wireframe mode, showing the models in the scene.

 

Assets

If you work in 3D, you either have to make your own models or find them readymade. I did the latter in this case, using purchased models of a fairy, wings, hair, and the forest in which she’s relaxing.

The fairy model is the digital equivalent of a posable doll. I like to credit those who provide or create the assets I use. Alas, this model is merely credited as a “Daz Original”, so I have no idea who made it. It might have been created by a Bulgarian artist working in a shed, a corporate slave at Daz headquarters in Salt Lake City, or someone else entirely.

Regardless, I appreciate it. When I need to make a specific figure, I do, but otherwise the process is so time-consuming that it’s nice to be able to get figures “off the shelf”.

 

This fallen tree is part of a construction kit that includes trees, vines, and little chunks of terrain. The pieces can be arranged as one pleases to create a custom environment. It was created by Stonemason, aka Stefan Morrell, an artist whose models and scenes are much beloved. He’s an interesting person to read about in his own right:

 

Arranging the scene

I began by arranging the fallen jungle tree in a sunny field, then plunking my creepy bald fairy on top of it. The resulting image is mildly disturbing. It’s a good example of the adage “you have to start somewhere”.

One of the nice things about working in 3D is that we can rapidly try out different lighting, figure poses, models, and camera setups. We can keep the elements that have potential, such as the tree and the fairy, and change the things which aren’t working.

 

The second iteration of work. The fairy’s pose looks more natural; I’ve moved her left hand so that it’s draped across her thigh instead of stiffly hovering above the tree.

She now has hair and wings and her eyes no longer have a hideous staring quality. I’ve added some trees in the background, so we have a sense of place. The scene now feels more natural than having a fallen tree sitting out in the middle of a meadow.

However, we’re not done. The lighting is poor and the waterfall background behind the trees isn’t a good addition to the scene.

 

I’ve added a light source in the upper lefthand corner of the scene, beyond the edge of the picture so we can’t see it. The light gives the scene some contrast and dimension.

Her hair shows up better beneath the light, but the color is uninteresting.

A tree in the foreground gives the scene some depth. I’ve also turned on the depth of field setting for our virtual camera. Our fairy and the tree she’s sitting on are in focus. However, the trees in the foreground and background aren’t. This helps draw us into the scene.

The fairy now has a book, a fancy-looking volume bound in leather with gilt embellishment. This helps develop the story behind the picture a little. We aren’t just looking at a random bored fairy who’s sitting on a log; we’ve caught her in the midst of doing something.

The type of book tells us something about the fairy: she appreciates classics. Perhaps she’s even reading a volume of fairy tales. If she had a stack of magazines or a trashy-looking paperback with a studly bare-chested male elf on the cover, that would tell us something different about her.

 

The fairy’s hair is now red, which is a little more interesting than the blonde.

I’ve added a coffee cup, which adds to the story: we’ve interrupted a fairy who is taking a coffee break or simply trying to have a quiet moment or two to read. Perhaps she’s been trying to dig into her book for ages, but when she sits down for a break at home, her kid starts bellowing about the oh-so-stressful mission he just completed in Far Cry 5 for the ElfBox One. She feels like her head is about to split open and some not-very-dainty things are about to erupt from her delicate lips, so she’s flown off into the woods for some quiet time.

I debated with myself about what kind of cup to give her. The possibilities are limited only by what one can download or create. How about a coffee cup shaped like a cat’s head or a feminine china cup painted with roses? As with the book, each option tells us something about the fairy. However, I didn’t want the cup to become a distraction, so I opted for something simple and white.

As is often the case with this kind of work, once you fix a few problems and rough in the major parts of a scene, other issues become obvious. At this stage I noticed that her back wing was at an angle, which makes it hard to see. That got added to the list of things to fix for the next iteration.

 

Here’s the final scene in wireframe mode. As my husband puts it “No, it wasn’t faked in Photoshop. It really is a scene put together in 3D.”

 

The entire scene as viewed from the top. We can’t see the fairy, but she’s at about the middle of the picture, hiding beneath the trees.

 

Here’s the scene viewed from top with the trees turned off and some color turned on.

The essential components of the scene:

  • Camera circled in pink. This behaves much like a real-life camera, with settings including f-stop, focal length, and depth of field.
  • Fairy, book, and props circled in blue
  • Light source circled in yellow. 3D programs offer many options for lighting scenes, such spotlights and point lights (similar to a light bulb). I usually find them annoying to position and adjust, which is no doubt a character flaw on my part. Instead, I often plop a plane in the scene and make it glow as though it’s a light.

 

Our fairy scene with a very minor adjustment to back wings, so they’re more visible.

I rendered this at 6300 x 5400 pixels, 150 dpi. That’s large enough to fill a 42 x 36” piece of fabric. So I’m done now, right? I spent hours putting this scene together and I let it render for 20 hours. Surely it’s ready to send off to the printer?

Ha ha ha ha ha. No. In some ways, the fun has only begun.

 

Post production

Look for problems

Maybe other people don’t have trouble with their renders. I always do. Always. Always. Even when I inspect the scene over and over and over again before rendering, I find problems. Sometimes they’re bad enough that I make adjustments in the 3D program and do another render. Other times I address them in Photoshop.

Here’s a typical problem, stuff poking through other stuff. When I zoom in on the picture at 100% and inspect it, I see moss and a leaf poking through the book. That might not be noticeable when the entire image is the size of a postcard, but when it’s blown up large enough to go on a wall, it’s a problem.

Ideally, one would find that kind of thing before blowing a day on rendering. However, if not, one can sometimes fix it after the fact in a program such as Photoshop.

 

Brighten up the scene

The picture looked a little dim for my taste, so I brightened it up. To do that, I opened the picture in Photoshop, duplicated the layer, and set the blending mode of the duplicate to Color Dodge at an opacity of 50%.

One can try different blending modes and opacities. It’s a good experiment; sometimes there are happy or at least interesting surprises.

 

Add a background

Right now the background behind the trees is black. That’s okay, but I wanted just a little visual interest so the scene would feel more realistic. However, I didn’t want the background to be so cluttered that it would fight with the foreground for attention.

I began with a large version of this picture, which is somebody’s imagining of a jungle. (It’s part of the Heart of the Jungle background set.)

 

The jungle picture after a gaussian blur in Photoshop

 

I could get the jungle background in my picture by adding it to my 3D scene, starting a new render, and waiting another day for the computer to finish that set of calculations.

However, I’m lazy. It’s faster to mask out everything in the foreground of my picture and drop the background in with Photoshop. Using a mask such as the one above is a nice way to isolate elements and make edits after the fact. It’s often faster than rendering the scene again.

Daz users: see my entry “How to make masks in Daz Studio/Iray”.

 

Here’s the scene with the jungle background dropped in. It’s a subtle change but it adds a little life.

 

Adding steam from coffee

Our next task is to give the coffee some steam. Again, one can use props and do this directly in one’s 3D program, but I prefer to do it in post.

The steam is a graphic from Textures.com, a wonderful resource for those who do 3D or other sorts of graphic work. I’d post a photo of it, but I’m concerned about violating their terms of service. Here’s the link.

 

I’ve pasted the smoke/steam on a separate layer. Its blending mode is screen, which makes the black background of the smoke disappear without further effort.

 

Next I stretch it, rotate it, and erase the parts I don’t want in the picture. Voila. “Steam”. Only you and I know that it’s actually incense smoke which someone was kind enough to photograph and share.

 

Here’s the scene with steam added. It’s a small touch but it adds a little life.

 

Adding light rays

I want some light rays. They should come from the upper lefthand side of the screen, mimicking our light.

There are plenty of tutorials on making light rays in Photoshop. Here’s a good one.

 

I begin by making a new layer in my Photoshop document, setting my color palette to black and white, then rendering clouds (Filter -> Render -> Clouds). I then go to the menu bar and select Image -> Adjustment -> Threshold and hit “okay.” (All of this is in the tutorial I linked to above, btw.)

If I’m feeling wild, I’ll select a portion of the graphic with my marquee tool and resize it/expand it so it fits the screen. Different black-and-white patterns yield different results, so it’s good to experiment with them.

 

Finally, I take the layer with the black-and-white graphic and go to Filter -> Blur -> Radial Blur. I put the center of the blur near where the light source should appear, set the blur method to zoom, and fiddle around with the amount until I’m happy. There isn’t a preview mode on this blur, so sometimes one has to CMD-Z or CNTRL-Z, go back to the radial blur filter, and try a new blur amount.

This sort of looks like light rays. Sort of. But now I have a new problem – how to get the light rays in the picture without obscuring the items in the foreground.

 

Yep. It’s mask time again. This time I’ve made a mask which isolates the fairy, her props, and the foreground tree. I apply that as a layer mask on the light ray layer and set the layer blending mode to soft light. After I play around with the opacity, I end up with this:

 

Adjust brightness balance

It feels like the scene is most of the way there. However, the tree at left is bright and distracting.

I’ve muted the foreground tree out with a layer mask. But – oh, great – now the tree behind the fairy looks too bright. Shall I make another mask for that?

 

No. I’m sick of fiddling around with masks. It’s brute force time. I grabbed the burn tool and darkened the tree by hand.

 

Adjust eyes

Her eyes seem a little dark. She’s a fairy. Even if she’s having a rotten day and just wants to drink her coffee, she should have sparkly eyes.

 

Here are her eyes after using a dodge tool on the midtones. Now she looks depressed but with, you know, sparkly eyes.

 

Darkening of graphic during printing process

My goal is to print the coffee break scene on fabric. However, from sad experience, I know that when I send out images to print on fabric, they often come back dark. Here’s an example from a different project.

 

Check out that boot. That’s the boot in the file I sent to the printer, with subtle highlights and surface texture.

 

Here’s what I got back on fabric, an amorphous blob of black. Guess what? The fabric printer doesn’t do subtle highlights, at least not if they’re on the dark end of the color range.

 

Similarly, here we have a pile of rocks. They are distinct, individual rocks, happy in their grayness and individuality.

 

Aaaaand here’s what we have after printing on fabric. Another black blob. I can use thread to fix some of this, but it’s vexing.

No, it isn’t unusual for prints on paper to look different from the images one sees on screen. However, this is the most pronounced case of that I’ve ever seen. Perhaps its related to the fact that we’re printing on fabric, not glossy paper stock.

Regardless, anything at about RGB 70/70/70 or less will be black. Thus, the next step is to go through the scene with an eyedropper tool and the info box displayed. If I don’t want something to turn black, I need to adjust it so it’s brighter than 70/70/70.

 

Here’s a shrunk-down version of the file sent to the fabric printer. It’s 6300 x 5400 pixels, 150 dpi, which is large enough to print on a one yard length of “Cotton Poplin Ultra”.

 

Here’s the printed fabric. See any difference? I sure as heck do. As usual, the darkest tones in the design are even darker more after printing on fabric. In particular, the light rays I so carefully, lovingly put in are all but invisible. I’ll see if I can pep them up through my thread choices, but it’s annoying. I specifically corrected for that. However, I didn’t correct enough. Let the designer beware!

Next stop: quilting.

New year, new finish

January 14th, 2018

When my husband and I married, we combined the accumulated goods of two adult lives.

My goods included a set of metal, screw-together shelves that shimmied and bowed when books were stored in them. The metal shelf theme was complemented by a sheepskin rug I’d purchased at CostCo, under the mistaken impression that it would make a room with metal shelves romantic, and a hand truck whose tires eternally went flat and stank up one of my closets.

His household included a battered bedroom set with intricate carving and extremely shapely Queen Anne legs. The set was so effeminate that when I visited his apartment for the first time, I was startled. “What interesting furniture,” I said uneasily, then chastised myself for the bigoted stereotypes that were racing through my brain.

He paused in the act of urging me backward, so that I might recline and get a better view of the ceiling, and grunted “Mmm. Yeah. That stuff was left behind by Mrs. R—.”

This explanation did not reassure me. “Mrs. R—? Who’s that? Was she your girlfriend? A landlady?”

“No,” he said, then he spun a complex tale of the set being abandoned at his place by the mother of a part-time stripper and the paramour of a fellow who frequented a car restoration shop on a street nicknamed “Methanol Alley”. “So-and-so was dating her daughter. The set was better than cardboard dresser I had in Flint so I kept it,” he finally concluded.

I came away utterly bewildered. How had the bedroom set wound up in his home? Why did it matter that the woman’s daughter was a part-time stripper? Where on Earth did one find dressers made of cardboard?

Perhaps some mysteries are best left unexplained.

His bachelor dowry also included a worn set of end tables which, he proudly declared, had been in terrible shape when he purchased them. Their condition had not improved with age.

 

I didn’t own any end tables, so they were a welcome addition to the marital household. They were battered and hideous, but so what? They still did an admirable job of supporting lamps, plates filled with stale pizza crusts, and stacks of overdue library books. Besides, we soon faced more pressing issues than ones of appearance: a baby with deep-seated objections to sleeping and pets who liked to empty themselves on the couch.

As the baby grew older and transitioned into boyhood and tweenhood, the fact that the tables were battered even seemed like a positive. At least we didn’t have to worry about furniture getting banged up when feral packs of boys visited! Kids could spill things, put their feet up, or even stand on the furniture and do the Macarena. Nothing they did would make the place any worse. If their parents found the tables low class or didn’t let their children visit, so much the better.

Then, all at once, I grew weary of the worn surfaces. One day I approached my husband and asked how he’d feel about my refinishing them. It was a delicate matter. They were heirlooms, after all; one couldn’t get a patina like that on furniture overnight. No, those surfaces had history. They spoke of repeated assaults from ocean waves penetrating shipping containers, lonely cats sharpening their claws, and spilled beer soaking into piles of questionable magazines.

“Sure, make art tables out of them,” he said, barely looking up from his crossword puzzle. “I like that idea.”

Art tables. I had no idea how to make art tables, not that I’ve let lack of knowledge or common sense hold me back before.

“What kind of art tables? Shall we glue pictures to them? For example, we could all mash our faces against glass, take photos, and glue the photos down so it would look like we’re stuck in the tables.”

“Sure. Do that.”

“What if I cover the tables with pompoms and wiggly eyeballs?”

“Sounds good.”

“Would you be horrified if I painted them with stripes and polka dots?”

“Go for it. I trust your artistic judgement.”

At some point during the questioning, I realized that he really and truly wasn’t that worried about the matter. I also realized that I didn’t want to invest much energy or money in creations that might get wrecked. These were tables, after all, not artworks we’d hang on a wall. Whatever we did to them, they were still fated to hold books and glasses of iced tea.

That was how I found myself bellying up to a copy of Filter Forge, a program for creating Photoshop-compatible filters. With over 12,000 filters already available for use, I figured one of them would work just fine for designing fabric I could decoupage to the tops of the tables. That would give the tables a colorful, painterly look without too much effort on my part. It would also help disguise any imperfections in the surface that remained after sanding and filling.

Here are the steps I went through.

 

Step 1: Design and order fabric

One could simply purchase fabric from a store. However, I opted to design the fabric myself. I tackled that first, since there can be a lead time of a couple of weeks for fabric to be printed and delivered. While the fabric is being made, one can move on to other tasks.

I auditioned quite a few designs before settling on these:

 

(By the way, should you want to try these fabrics yourself, they’re available on my Spoonflower store.)

They were bright and modern, in keeping with our art-filled mid-century house. I did find them a bit garish at first – I believe the statement I made to my husband was “Good lord; these make my eyes bleed”. However, he encouraged me to give them a try. I’m glad he did. I’ve since come to love them. They now seem cheerful and lively rather than obnoxious. Perhaps that’s because the effect of a bright, large-scale print is moderated when used on accent pieces or a small area.

Notice that I created two designs, not one. I could have simply had two identical lengths of fabric printed, one for each table. However, I knew that if I did that and couldn’t get the fabric aligned exactly the same way on each table, it would drive me nuts. Maybe nobody else would know, but I sure would! With two similar but different panels, they don’t look “wrong” if the tables are juxtaposed.

While the fabric was being printed in Durham, North Carolina, I prepared the tables for painting and decoupage.

 

Step 2: Disassemble, Sand and Putty

Here’s one of the tables in its original state. The tops of both had quite a bit of wear and damage, so they required sanding.

If one has teenagers handy, they make a convenient source of labor. I later disassembled the tables to make it easier to sand all of the components.

At this point, a neighbor stopped by and mournfully said “Oh, but they’re wood. Can’t you just varnish them?”

Yes, if one has a surface that is actually wood, or is veneer in reasonably good condition, one can simply do a light sanding and apply varnish or another protective coat. I like the look of wood, so I would have preferred to do just that.

However, that was not our situation. These tables probably came from People’s Table Factory #5 in a Chinese town dedicated to making end tables. When the tables were new, they resembled wood, much like a bra stuffed with silicone inserts or socks may appear to contain breasts. (A bit of wisdom I learned as a child while watching a relative who had a poor body image prepare for dates.)

In reality, the aprons and tops are veneer-topped composite. The veneer was peeling and had chipped away badly. One could order sheets of veneer, painstakingly trim them to shape, and glue them in. I am not that dedicated and, as my husband stated, repairing the veneer would cost more than he paid for the tables to begin with. That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but it’s still on point.

I opted to apply filler, sand the tables, and prime, paint, and decoupage.

 

One of the table tops after sanding and applying filler. The surface is smooth now, if visually unattractive.

 

Step 3: Prime and Paint

Here’s one of the tables after disassembly. The legs have been primed in preparation for painting. I used Zinsser Bulls Eye 1-2-3 Primer, which was mentioned in this article on painting furniture.

At this point, the fabric had been printed and shipped to me. I took it to a craft store and chose several bottles of acrylic craft paint to match. One could also have paint custom-mixed at a paint store or lumberyard. I opted for craft paint because it’s dirt cheap, available in a wide range of colors, and I don’t have to beg a store employee to mix it for me.

Acrylic paint is nice because it can be cleaned up with water. I keep a bucket filled with sand outside my back door, so I can empty rinse water into it rather than down my drain.

The table legs, after painting green stripes down the edges. I quickly abandoned that idea in favor of painting the legs a solid blue. I simply couldn’t get the edges of the stripes crisp enough for my taste.

One of the table tops after being primed. The pencil outline is in preparation for painting a green border around the edge of the table.

I wanted a painted border around my fabric, rather than running the fabric all the way to the edges of the table tops. However, since the tint of the paint is visible through the fabric, it was important to have a white background in the center so the fabric would be as bright as possible.

Painter’s tape applied along the pencil marks. The tape kept the edge of the border nice and crisp while protecting the white background in the center.

Sorry; I neglected to take a photo just after I’d painted the border. Pretend that white section around the edge is green and you’ll know what it looks like, though.

I painted the legs, drawer front, and other sides of the table top as well. I also purchased and painted plain wood knobs for the drawers, so that they’d match.

 

Step 4: Prepare fabric for decoupage

I’d never decoupaged furniture before, so I consulted this article. It recommended using Mod Podge, a traditional decoupage medium that’s available at most craft stores.

 

The fabric is a little easier to work with if it’s impregnated with Mod Podge before applying it to one’s surface. (A tip I learned here.) The Mod Podge prevents fraying and makes the fabric easier to handle and position.

To prepare the fabric, start by taping a protective layer of waxed paper to your work surface. Lay down the fabric and apply Mod Podge to one side. After the fabric dries, flip it and apply Mod Podge to reverse side. Allow the Mod Podge to dry thoroughly before moving or cutting the fabric.

I found that I had a few crinkles in my cloth after this process. However, I was able to press them out by sandwiching the fabric between lengths of parchment paper or beneath a teflon sheet and using an iron at low temperature.

Next, I cut the fabric so that it would cover the unpainted rectangle on my table tops, with a little bit extra to overlap the painted border by about 1/8”. A rotary cutter and a long quilter’s ruler are invaluable for this, although an X-Acto knife and a T-square could also be pressed into service. I can’t imagine making those kinds of long, straight cuts accurately with scissors, not when they’re going to get juxtaposed with the straight edges of the furniture. Any little wobble in the cut will show up. However, perhaps others are better with scissors than I am.

 

Step 5: Adhere fabric to tabletop.

Ah, those four words make it sound so simple. So pleasurable, even. “Adhere fabric to tabletop.” It sounds as though you’ll smear goo all over your tabletop, waft the fabric over it, and everything is just going to go perfectly. I do believe I invented some new words when I worked on the first tabletop. Here’s what I learned:

  • Alignment marks are your friends. In particular, the pencil line I drew when marking the border of the table was invaluable for lining up the fabric.
  • Work in sections. Apply Mod Podge to one section of the table at a time. Smearing Mod Podge along the width of the table and maybe 1/3 of the way down the length worked well for me. Get the fabric aligned and stuck down in just that section, then apply Mod Podge to another section. Be sure that all sections of the table that are beneath the fabric receive Mod Podge so that the entire piece of fabric will adhere.
  • Use a brayer to press the fabric down evenly without distorting it. If you can’t lay your hands on a brayer, try a rolling pin.
  • There may be air bubbles. Small ones can be removed by piercing the fabric with a pin, then rolling the heck out of it.

Here’s a brayer. It has a handle attached to a hard rubber roller. I bought mine for a graphic design class about a thousand years ago. Sometimes art or craft stores carry them. Again, if you can’t find one or don’t want to spend the money, a rolling pin should work.

 

This is one of the table tops after the green border was painted around the edge and the fabric was Mod Podged down.

You can see that the edge of the green painted border shows through beneath the fabric a bit. It’s just a small edge, maybe 1/8” wide, and it isn’t really noticeable when using the tables. However, it demonstrates how the color of the paint that’s behind the fabric affects how bright the fabric is.

 

Step 6: Apply clear coat

Clear coat is important both as a protective finish for the paint and because the Mod Podge is not waterproof.

The legs, drawer front, and aprons received coat after coat after coat of Minwax Polycrylic, per recommendations in this article. I smoothed the surfaces gently with an ultra fine finishing pad after each coat had dried, until I achieved a perfectly smooth, glossy finish.

Unfortunately, that approach didn’t work so well on the tabletops. I was working on them outside a spray booth. After each coat, I found something embedded in the finish: hairs, hapless insects, an entire Triumph Bonneville motorcycle. It seemed that the tabletops were doing their best to break my heart.

One night, after yet another gentle sanding to remove foreign objects, I got mad, grabbed a can of Rust-Oleum Satin Clear Enamel, and began spraying. The surface felt rough and disgusting after it dried. It was also even and fairly attractive, so I sprayed on a couple more coats.

Good enough.

 

Step 7: Screw furniture back together.

Here a finished table, sans drawer, and an unmodified table are juxtaposed. Perhaps the picture symbolizes the journey from beginning to end.

A finished table with drawer installed and optional hound dog accent. I’ve found that most furniture looks better with the addition of a dog or two.

I was initially skeptical about this project, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how well the tables have worked out. They function as pieces of pop art. As a bonus, we like seeing the tables so much that we now keep the surfaces bare.

Given how horrible they were to begin with, though, we could have done almost anything to them and they would have looked better!

How to make masks in Daz Studio/Iray

December 13th, 2017

This is a quick note for people who use Daz Studio, in case they’re looking for a simple, lazy method for creating masks in Iray.

This question came up for me when I was watching Val Cameron’s Fantasy Art Master videos. He does quite a bit of work in post, rather than hassling over getting everything just the way he wants it in the 3D package. To do that, he frequently uses a mask to isolate whatever element he’s interested in.

However, in the videos I saw, he was using 3Delight rather than Iray. That raised the question of how to make masks in Iray. Perhaps it’s common knowledge; it turned out to be fairly simple, once I messed around with it. However, when I Googled around, I didn’t find the information I needed, so I thought I’d pass it on.

Here are the steps we’re going to go through:

  • Delete or hide the objects we don’t want in the mask
  • Delete or turn off sources of light
  • Change background color so that it contrasts with our scene elements (may not be necessary, but it’s handy)

Here’s our starting scene. Our character, Aspen, is casually hanging out by a giant sphere, wondering why she’s been plagued by premature hair loss.

We want to isolate the character and the sphere from the background. This is a simple scene so there aren’t many extra elements. However, I do need to turn off the floor.

Here we are with the floor turned off.

We now want to remove or turn off all light sources. I confess that I find this much less straightforward in Daz than in other packages I’ve used, such as Blender. Illumination can come not only from obvious lights in the scene, but from light-emitting planes, sky domes, camera head lamps, and the environment.

Note that if you want to emphasize some aspect of the scene in post, you can light it as desired and proceed with making your mask.

I’m still in perspective mode, so I’m going to create a camera, select it, then turn off its headlamp.

By the way – click on the images if you need to see them larger. I need to go revise the style sheet to make that obvious and, um, I’ll get around to that sometime. Yeah. I’ll revamp the site any day now. Probably over Christmas break, when I’m revising my latest novel, creating new artwork, and replacing the ugly-arsed light over the kitchen sink.

The environment is another possible source of illumination in this scene. To address that, I’m going to turn the environment intensity down to zero.

Looks like I was successful in turning off all sources of illumination. Unfortunately, I can’t see a silhouette of my scene. That may not be important as far as the render – the scene should render out against a transparent background regardless. However, it’s nice to be able to double check our setup.

To address that, I’m going to change the background color of my viewport from black to white.

Now I can see my figures silhouetted against a white background.

When I render this out, my scene is silhouetted against a transparent background. I save it as a png in order to retain transparency. To make a classic black/white mask, I can pop in an appropriate background color in Photoshop.

Here’s a more complex scene, first with a transparent background then with a white background. I had to turn off quite a few light sources to isolate the desired elements. However, it was still a fairly straightforward process.

Hope this helps someone. Happy rendering!

Where is the story?

September 19th, 2017

Succulent, 38 x 32″

Here’s my latest, Succulent. It’ll be at PIQF next month. I managed to finish it just before the submission deadline, battling my sewing machine the whole way. (And have I taken my machine in for repair yet? No, I haven’t. However, I’m still whining about the fact that it’s broken despite the fact I’m now past deadline and could do something about it. It’s a good thing I’ve never claimed to be wholly logical.)

It was interesting. By interesting, I mean that I really hate doing work at the last minute and I’ll do almost anything to avoid ending up in that situation. However, I had a firm commitment for another piece that HAD to be done by a certain date – for a top-secret exhibit, natch – so this one had to be postponed for awhile.

Most of my recent work has been 3D-based. Succulent is a little different, although it’s still based on the output of a computer.

Back in 2009, I saw a plant about the size of my hand and absentmindedly took a photo of it. I think I was at Balboa Park in San Diego at the time; the place is covered with plants.

That photo had a nice abstract quality that has fascinated me over the years. I finally sat down with it and ran it through some custom Photoshop filters to increase saturation and simulate a watercolor effect. I had the resulting image printed onto fabric at Spoonflower, then did the usual batting and stitching and muttering that transforms such things into art quilts.

This piece used thirty-three colors of thread. I have no idea how that compares to my usual work; it isn’t something I normally focus on. My philosophy is that you use however much thread and however many colors you need to, and it usually isn’t worth dwelling on. I always use a lot of thread, but I don’t deserve a freaking medal for using up an entire manufacturing plant’s worth of polyester. When people look at a piece, it either speaks to them or it doesn’t.

However, occasionally – very occasionally – it is interesting. In this case, it’s a reminder of the complexity that can dwell beneath apparent simplicity. When I look at  the quilt, I’m surprised at the fact that the design was able to bear up under so many different hues. Perhaps it’s because the shapes are so simple and bold.

Now I’m dwelling in the land of “what’s next”? My usual work mode is telling stories, either visually or with words. Succulent was a bit of a departure from that. It’s a pretty piece, with its play of light and color, but there isn’t much of a story there other than “look closer and pay attention to the world around you”.

I don’t know which story I want to tell next. This happens after every project, and I hate it every time. It doesn’t help that I can hear that Chuck Close quote in my ears, “Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.”

In the meantime, I’ve been taking an online course on fantasy artwork and making things like this:

A winged naked guy is hanging out on a cloud bank. He’s naked because … let me think about this … there’s no laundromat nearby. He tried hauling a washer up there, but it kept falling through the clouds, plus there was no real water supply to plumb it up to. Try not to dwell on the other sanitary implications of that situation.

When he wants to go on a date, he flies down to Target and buys a nine-pack of tighty whities. Not that he needs to, because there’s nothing up front to hide. No geometry, if you get my drift. Which, I guess, really makes dating pointless … having 2.4 flying kids and a flying dog isn’t in this guy’s future unless he adopts. Never mind. Forget I mentioned it.

How many times have you seen images similar to this, with a naked dude or a scantily clad woman hanging out by a cloud bank? Yep. A lot. That’s why I won’t be taking this image any further and making a quilt out of it. That is, unless I get desperate and can’t think of anything better or more original. Then I’ll make up a nonsense story about how the idea came to me in a dream.

This image wasn’t too hard to put together, but the filthy little non-secret about 3D/CGI is that if you work in that medium, you’re going to be fiddling around. Always. Always. Always. I have never had a project that didn’t have at least some minor issue. I’ll want a different texture on one of the models, or the lighting isn’t quite right, or something will outright go to pot and I’ll have to figure it out. I’m a perverse creature and I enjoy that process, but I know some folks don’t.

 

Here, for example, we have one of the early surface designs for Game Over. I thought my little plastic polar bear should have a little plastic scarf. However, it looked awful. Delete.

 

In this snippet of a scene, a bare-chested hottie was groping away at a willing female. Later I discovered that the hottie was so enthusiastic his fingers were jammed right through the woman’s belly. I wish I’d inspected the scene more closely before poking the render button.

 

I was trying to come up with a new hottie. (I don’t remember whether this one is a stock character or something I modified.)

That thing on his head was supposed to be hair. Unfortunately, the hair texture didn’t get applied to it, so it looks more like a shower cap. Perhaps that’s why he appears so unhappy.

 

I thought that creating a realistic velvet texture for one of my scenes would be AWESOME. Too bad it looked like a green porcupine. There was another one that looked like mottled decay. Wish I’d saved a picture of it. On second thought, perhaps it’s best that I didn’t.

 

An early version of the surface design for Gusher. Gosh, wouldn’t it be swell if oil really spewed out of that oil well? It should be straightforward to simulate with particle effects, right?

Whoopsy. That took a few iterations to fix.

 

Lately I’ve been toying with idea of a series inspired by the paintings of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema. You know the ones … the paintings where he has chicks hanging out on uncomfortable marble furniture by the water, waiting for dudes to come home on fancy-looking boats.

That should be straightforward to whip up, right?

Oh dear. Her legs are poking straight through her dress. Gee whiz, I can’t fix that in the software I was using. That means I’ll have to take the woman and her dress into a different piece of software.

Or … hold on! Change of plan! Instead of her wearing a Hellenistic dress, what if she has on a vaguely apocalyptic outfit? Think “Mad Max Visits the Mediterranean”. And, um, she’ll be waving a gun around. She hasn’t had her coffee yet and she’s annoyed about the guys on that ship in the background cruising around in her bay. When they clamber up to her marble gazebo, she’ll shoot them all.

Or not.

None of this is working for me. Guess I’ll go make some more naked guys with wings. Maybe that’ll be my new series. Naked Guys with Wings. It’ll be a gender swapped version of Victoria’s Secret angels.