Archive for the ‘Photography’ Category

Tools of the trade

Monday, October 12th, 2015

In my last post, I shared the joy of hacking and slashing away at bits of foam core board to make dividers for my otherwise ghastly, disorganized drawers. In this post I’d like to share some of my other work area aids.

Many tools are specific to whatever art form one pursues: easels, paint brushes, kilns. Others, though, are more general purpose, applicable to a wide range of media. Those are some of the tools I find most interesting.


Here are the drawers, by the way. Decent storage is a thing of joy.



A screwdriver. I’m not going to share the story behind this right now, except that it involves blood, my stumbling out to the garage to look for a screwdriver while holding a sewing machine, and then a nurse shrieking when I phoned for advice and described my injury.

If you use a machine upon which you can get impaled or caught, keep whatever kind of tool you need to free yourself right beside the machine. Also, a telephone. Those are good. If you can’t get free with a screwdriver, you can at least call 9-1-1 and tell the dispatcher that no, you aren’t dying so there isn’t a huge hurry, but if they could come by and give you a hand when they have a minute, that would be much appreciated. And, um, until then you’ll just hang out with your machine. You’ll be one with your machine, so to speak.

And no, I don’t use power tools such as saws unless I’m stone cold sober and feel alert. Ironically enough, I think it’s easier to injure oneself on sewing machines and the like because one tends to work with one’s fingers in closer proximity to the needle.



Why does this boring-looking piece of ABS plastic have wood yardsticks glued to either end? Of what possible use could it be?



When one cinches up the shoe laces which are threaded through the corners, the sheet of plastic makes a seamless backdrop for photographing small objects. (Pretend that the Buddha head in the example is actually lit well.) The ABS can be wiped clean before use and stows away in a very small amount of space. This is my invention, although I’m sure similar things are commercially available.

This backdrop is handy for getting product shots for magazine articles, one’s website, Etsy, and so forth.



Wireless headphones. So wonderful. Having music or a podcast playing in one’s work area is good, but I can’t hear the music if I’m running a machine or the dogs are fighting right beside me.



Ear plugs. Good for levels of noise the headphones can’t disguise. Leaf blowers or chain saws, for example, or the people who used to hold impromptu church services in their house next door and would “speak in tongues”. (That, or they were practicing howling like coyotes with the accompaniment of organ music.)



Oiling pen. Don’t know how I lived without this; it applies a microscopic dot of machine oil just exactly where I need it. And boy, I use it frequently – every four or five times I swap out the bobbin, I’m in there brushing out the bobbin area and giving it a light lube.

It makes the bottles of oil one buys at the fabric store seem as delicate as a sledge hammer. Pens like this are dirt cheap, all of $3 or so at Allstitch.



Clamps. Cheap and handy. Attach lengths of fabric or paper to work surfaces, hold things together for gluing, pinch annoying people. Harbor Freight carries a set of six for a minimal price. They can also be purchased at Sears and hardware stores.



Inspiration board for project ideas or things I find appealing. Stuff goes up, furnishes my mind for awhile, then gets swapped out.



Reference materials. Each new project gets a new batch.



I can also step into the other room for more, or if I need a hound dog. Never can tell when I’ll need a dog.



Guess what’s in here. Give up yet?

With this stuff, I can suspend and light my finished artwork, or set up a backdrop for portraiture work or staging a scene. The whole thing was dirt cheap, maybe $250 – 300 total, stows away in a small space, and has saved me a world of inconvenience.



Yards and yards of green felt. I have similar lengths of white and grey. These come in handy when I want to photograph my work or a person on a solid background, which I’ll then remove (“knock out”) on the computer. The squeeze clamps (see above) let me attach the felt to my background support stand with minimal fuss.


What kinds of aids do you like to use in your work area?


Meet Jake

Thursday, May 7th, 2015


This is Jake, the newest addition to our household. He was a neighbor’s dog.


Things Jake likes #1: hitting us up for food, particularly if meat is involved.

I’m not sure how we ended up with him, other than he and our existing dog, Ryan, may have had a conspiracy. Jakey stayed with us on an emergency basis several months ago and Ryan took a shine to him. They played like little furry madmen. When the neighbor retrieved him after a week, we figured that was that and said our goodbyes.


Things Jake likes #2: napping.

Jake and Ryan weren’t okay with this. Jake would shove his face under the neighbor’s fence gate and howl when we went outside, or escape and come scratch on our door. When that wasn’t going on, Ryan would insistently try to lead us over to Jake’s house. The dogs wore both us and the neighbor down. In the weeks and months that followed, the two of them had many play dates together and would sulk when they were apart. “Jake’s hiding under the bed,” the neighbor would report, “do you mind if he comes over?” Ryan would look at us like puppy murderers when we took Jake home after a play session.


Things Jake likes #3: play-fighting with Ryan.

It was pretty clear that, at least in his mind, Ryan had adopted Jake. One day the neighbor walked Jake over and formalized it. The neighbor needed to move and wasn’t going to be able to have a dog for awhile.


Time for more napping.

Jake and Ryan are now spending their days together doing happy dog things like passing gas, napping, hunting for rats, digging, and going for walks. They’re buddies. We weren’t planning on getting another dog, particularly one whose yaps are weapons of eardrum destruction, but sometimes one needs to accept love when it comes. Not all good things in life are planned.


Getting cuddles from a human


Aaaand … more play fighting


Time for another nap


More fighting, this time by my work table while I was foolishly attempting to work.


Tidy dirt pile? Who needs that?



 Treat time, which is always a big hit with dogs.


Fight time.


Nap time. Do you see a pattern here? Naps, fights and walks with snacks in between.


End-of-week “doggie soup”, made from the remains of a CostCo roast chicken and whatever veggies are okay for dogs


Nap time.


Beg for food time.


Fight time.


Napping with his bear.

We hope he’ll be happy here. We’ll try our best to give him a good home.




Saturday, April 25th, 2015

Whee! It’s vacation photo time! Who doesn’t enjoy looking at the photos of random strangers and acquaintances?


My family and I went to Maui a couple of weeks back, sort of a short notice adventure. All of us were incredibly stressed out, so we put the bird and the dogs in boarding, threw some toothbrushes and swimsuits in backpacks, and headed for the airport.


These photos are in no particular order. Maybe that’ll spice things up. This one is of the western coast of Maui, shot from the top of Haleakala, more than 10,000 feet up. Note that we’re looking DOWN at clouds.


Looking into the crater at Haleakala. (Haleakala is a shield volcano.) One can hike the crater, four miles each way. We didn’t, though. The altitude and the cold were a bit much. “I sure am glad we walk three or four miles a day,” I told my husband in a congratulatory fashion as we huffed and puffed to the top of one peak. Just then, a younger couple came piling past us with no trouble, each carrying a child.


Jumping around a bit … Charles Lindbergh’s grave in Kipahulu, on the Hana coast.


The graveyard at Kipahulu. It seemed rude to photograph Lindbergh’s grave without acknowledging the others.


Driving on the south side of the island, edging around the base of Haleakala.


View of the coast from Kahanu Garden.


Suddenly we’re back on top of Haleakala, staring down into the crater. I’m sure others have said the same thing, but I’ll say it as well: it was otherworldly.


A bottlenose dolphin leaping gleefully into the air. At least, I assume it was jumping out of glee. Maybe it had a personal itch.


“Jesus Coming Soon”, signage on top of (presumably) a church in Lahaina. Very tasteful and subtle.


Just down the road from “Jesus Coming Soon” is the Jodo Mission, which purportedly has the “largest Buddha outside Japan.” Dunno; I haven’t gone around and weighed or measured all of them.



Seen on the Hana coast. There were a mind boggling number of waterfalls. It was almost literally the case that each time one would go around a jog in the road, there’d be an insanely gorgeous waterfall beside one’s car.


Whee! We’re back in Kahanu Garden, staring at a hut. Not sure what this one was meant for. My son used it as a place to shelter while picking grass from between his toes.


“Hoana – This grindstone was probably used to sharpen and polish adze blades.” Still in Kahanu Garden.


A fine view of the hills, a hale holding an outrigger canoe, and Pi’ilanihale Heiau, an ancient temple.


Back at  the Jodo Mission.


Lily pond at our hotel. The place was truly hellish, with five pools and a couple of water slides.


While we were in Lahaina, a cruise ship docked. I nicknamed it “Princess Cruises: Scourge of the Sea.” Its passengers weren’t intentionally rude, I don’t think, but they were mindbogglingly oblivious. They gathered all over the place with their little blue cruise ship shopping bags, blocking sidewalks and restroom entrances, and seemed impervious to phrases like “excuse me”. On the positive side, many of them made me feel downright svelte.


The Thrifty/Dollar rent-a-chickens. Actually, the chickens weren’t for rent; they just liked to hang out around the rental car place. They turned out to be handy. When we went to turn our car back in, I told my husband “Just look for the place with the chickens.” Immediately thereafter, we heard a hearty “Bacawwww!”


“Best banana bread?” Maybe. Or maybe they mean “Best Banana Bread” as a sort of brand name, not a claim. I didn’t care for it. It had the texture of a dishwashing sponge and an odd flavor. Perhaps local tastes are different. Me, I like to saute the bananas in butter and brown sugar before adding them to batter.


We saw many humpback whales, including a calf, his mother, and her suitors. Heard them as well. Marvelous. The last time I’d heard humpback whale song was on an LP my folks used to play while they’d pound alcohol. I much prefer the whales in person and without drunk people around.


Gatecrasher at one of our picnics. No biggie. There are crumbs and fruit enough for everyone.


Waterfall on the Hana coast.


Yet another waterfall on the Hana coast. Truly a hellish place.


View of some coast or other from the air.


Lily pond at the hotel.


We visited a whaling museum – or, as I liked to call it, “The Killing Museum”. I didn’t take too many photos. Turns out, after you’ve seen and heard whales in person, seeing the tools for killing and dismembering them is rather upsetting.


“Anger!” Clearly a modified sign, but I like the concept of angry coconut trees. My husband privately sneered when the park guide told us “more people are killed here by falling coconuts than by sharks”. “We had coconut trees all over the place when I was a kid. Nobody ever got hit by a coconut!” I didn’t argue with him, although I did quietly wonder whether the umbrellas we’d been issued would deflect an angry coconut.



Leaves and more leaves.


A gecko at the hotel.

One afternoon as we were splashing in a pool, the trade winds came in and caused the palm trees to thrash around violently. Moments later, I saw something small moving in the water. My policy is to try to remove insects and creatures from water if they’re alive, so I scooped the thing up on my arm, then climbed out and approached the pool attendant. “Um. What kind of critter is this?” I gestured at the thing clinging to my arm. “That’s a gecko.” “Oh. Where do they belong?” “In the bushes.”

I bent over sideways and tried in vain to get the creature to climb on to a convenient bit of shrubbery. It refused, and in fact snuck across my back where I couldn’t reach it. “Do you need help getting it off?” the attendant asked, “It seems to like you.” “Well, I guess I was better than the alternative of drowning.” “It was sweet of you to save it,” he replied, in a tone of voice which implied just the opposite, a tone which implied that he frequently sees geckos and they’ve gotten on his nerves, maybe started haunting his dreams even, and it would be nice if all the damned things drowned in a swimming pool. Nevertheless, he pried the gecko off my back and put it in the bushes.

“That was good luck,” my husband informed me later, “saving a gecko is good luck.”  He isn’t normally a superstitious person, but geckos are evidently a different matter. He lived in Oahu as a child; some local beliefs must have seeped in.

Later, while I was sitting outside by a lily pond, another gecko came tooling along the sidewalk and paused to study me. “Watch out,” I told the gecko, “People are coming. They may step on you.” The gecko moved away from the center of the sidewalk, then skittered toward me. “You have a nice face,” I informed it, then took the photo above. The gecko bounced up and down a couple of times, then ran into the bushes.

When I told my husband about this second incident, he exclaimed “Two geckos! Or maybe it was the gecko you saved from the pool! You’re going to have all kinds of good luck!”

I think I already got a good dose of luck when I married him.



Out and about

Tuesday, March 31st, 2015

I walk three or four miles a day. When you walk three or four miles a day, sometimes you see stuff.


Dog butts. I see a lot of those. Only one of the dogs in this photo is ours, the rust-colored weiner-basset. The other two are a neighbor’s, although the terrier in the upper right is doing a good imitation of moving in with us.



A cat taking its ease. Turns out that cats who are taking their ease really don’t like to have their photos taken. After shooting me a dirty look, it ran off.



Somebody played dress up with their flamingo. I admire their style. I have weeds in my yard, too. Maybe I should get a flamingo and dress it up?



Shockingly nude manikins at Weird Stuff Warehouse. I guess the featureless expanses of lumpy plastic offended someone’s sense of decorum.



A pumpkin vine hanging over the top of a six foot tall fence. That’s a pumpkin with aspirations!

Alright. Blah blah blah, I’m in this exhibit and another exhibit, have stuff in a book which just came out, and am working on some projects. Can’t write much about that stuff, though, because the video/display on my computer keeps going amok. It’s a known issue with this type of computer. Hopefully Apple will address the problem without my having to open my wallet. In the meantime, it’s about time for things to go haywire again, so sayonara.


Wednesday, March 11th, 2015


I took these shots a few weeks ago at Filoli, an estate about thirty miles south of San Francisco.



Festina Lente.  I think that means “make haste slowly”, or maybe it means “your navel lint is festering”. If I’d bothered to study Latin in college, or if I’d gone to a high school whose primary goal wasn’t preparing people to work at the local trash can or potato chip factories, perhaps I’d know. In any event, it sounds pithy and profound, like the sort of thing which should be cast into a garden plaque.



This poor fellow seems unhappy. I guess hanging out on the base of an urn for years on end will have that effect.



So, yeah. Filoli. Lovely estate. Tons of gardens and flowers, great place to stroll and take photos and maybe see some deer. I think some TV shows and movies have filmed there, although who keeps up with that stuff? If you’re in the area, it’s well worth a visit.

I’m actually in the mood to visit someplace else, someplace which isn’t in California or even the continental U.S. I’d like to hop on a plane and head to Paris or maybe Rome. They’re nice at this time of the year. But that isn’t in the cards right now, so over the winter break I grabbed a couple of cameras, handed one to my son, and drug him up the peninsula to walk among the posies.



Whee! Concrete gryphons! That’s how you know you’re at a classy joint, when they have gryphons rather than garden gnomes.



This entranceway is lovely when the wisteria is blooming. Right now it isn’t blooming.



Rather sweet door knocker. I think it’s brass. The lighting wasn’t wonderful, alas.



This is neat, some birdhouse gourds attached to willow or vine arches in the middle of a field of daffodils.



Yep. Horrible place to have to visit. Fresh air, flowers, misty hills.



For some reason this reminds me of The Village in the old TV series The Prisoner.






That reminds me: I need to see about getting more pore-cleaning strips.







There’s the boy, my partner in photography. Bless him for hanging out with me that day. (Although I’d still prefer for all of us to be jetting off to Paris.) I know he’d rather be hanging out with friends or playing video games, but now and then he takes pity on me and accompanies me on a minor adventure.

Christmas in the Park

Wednesday, December 24th, 2014


Aren’t those awesome tree ornaments? We saw these at Christmas in the Park in San Jose. You take a couple of squashed aluminum cans, add some felt tip pen and a couple of googly eyes. Badda bing badda boom, you’ve got yourself a yelling/singing ornament.

Going to Christmas in the Park has become something of a tradition for us, a good excuse to get out of the house when we’ve been stuffed in together for a few days and are at the point of biting each others’ heads off. We admire the trees, get a wristband for the boy so he can enjoy rides liberated from Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch, maybe share some nachos or a funnel cake, and head over to the Fairmont to check out their gingerbread display.

There are usually tons of trees on display, trees decorated by organizations such as businesses, schools and Scouts. The ornaments are mostly made of materials which can stand up to weather and aren’t something miscreants would want to steal, thus the crushed can ornaments above. Some of the choices may also come down to what you can lay your hands on when dealing with a bunch of people: you need stuff, you need a lot of it, and it needs to be inexpensive. Thus, there are a lot of recycled goods in use, ornaments cobbled together from the likes of light bulbs, compact discs, and candy box liners.

There’s a lot of heart on those trees. There’s a lot of love which comes out when people get together to make ornaments or memorialize an idea or a deceased loved one with a tree. Many of the ornaments are frankly awful, and that’s part of their charm. Here, in no particular order, are some of my favorites. I hope that you’ll enjoy them just as much as I did.



Miniature hot air balloons made from light bulbs. It’ll be interesting to see how people deal with the squiggly fluorescent bulbs as the incandescents are phased out.



Jack Skellington’s head atop a tree. Fun.




More lightbulbs.


I think there’s a tree under there somewhere!


It’s fun to see all the different organizations which come out to decorate trees. This one featured photos of prominent humanists. Buckminster Fuller appeared several times.


A “can’t mess up” ornament suitable for young kids or drunk adults.


Snowman made from bottle caps. Neat idea.


Penguin rendered out of a water bottle. I could wax philosophical about this, about how we humans are wrecking the planet with our need for crap such as these water bottles, and it’s resulting in the eradication of species. But what the heck; since it’s Christmas Eve, I won’t. Have some eggnog and pass me some roasted penguin breast, would you?


Bwahahaha! This snowman-tree is flipping us the bird! I suspect that the tree may have had a little “help” after the fact; I doubt the hand position is part of Girl Scout Canon.


In addition to tons of decorated trees, Christmas in the Park features animatronic displays. Many are old and – if you’ll forgive the pun – a tad ratty, as with this rodent whose ear has long since disappeared. I like that. The displays have character. Not every darned thing should be or needs to be “perfect”.


A tree dedicated to Martin Luther King. I wonder why there’s a police car ornament on it?


This made me laugh out loud.


There’s a sight I don’t see every day. Sweet Christmas dreams, kiddos.


That’s just plain fun.


Alright. Whatever chocolate-sucking pig left this mess here, you should be ashamed. Yeah, maybe you knocked your drink over and you can’t clean up the liquid, but you can jolly well pick up the cup and the spoon. We don’t want to see your mess, okay?


This snowman inexplicably and somewhat creepily would inflate and deflate.


This is neat. Gather random crap, coat it with glue and glitter, and you’ve got yourself a color-coordinated theme going! Well done, Glitterati Craft Club. I hereby give you a 21 Epoxy Salute.




There was a tree full of these. Some resembled Jesuses, some skeletons, and then there was this Elizabethan (?) fellow drifting along in his ship. “It’s Shakespeare!” exclaimed my son.


Gingerbread display at the Fairmont. One year they had a gigantic walk-through house, which children greatly enjoyed strolling through and destroying/snacking on the gingerbread. I notice they haven’t done the walk-through thing since then. Can’t say I blame them.


A phrenology head! How cool is that? It was atop the tree of some psychology organization, I think. Could have a whole theme of old school quackery going.


Also from the psychology tree. Not sure what it is, but it’s neat. A neuron, maybe?


Another neuron. Dang, those are festive.




Also on the atheist tree, an imaginary creature, the winged unicorn. Someone has a sense of humor.


From one of the animatronic displays. I timed this so it would look like the craftsman was picking his nose. I’m mature that way.


The TiVo display. I do love TiVo’s product, and the sight of the sad pile of collapsed TiVo guys at the base made me laugh my guts out.


Hideous bearded foundling left outside a tree-orphanage? What it needs is a can of Coors.


A shower head tree topper, courtesy of one of the local utility companies. Clever.

Okay. That’s it for now. Come back a year from now and I’ll no doubt have more photos posted.

SuperSpray sort-of-review

Monday, December 1st, 2014

I have a problem.

I’m working on a new computer-assisted image, which I’ll apply to fabric and then texture with stitch. This image will have a background which will include thousands of little objects.

Coming up with the best way to create that background has perplexed me. Shall I create and render a 3D file in Blender with the thousands of little objects? No. Too tedious. I’m not Pixar. Say, how about using Photoshop to create some custom brushes which are just pictures of my objects? I’d just whoosh the brushes around, spray images of my objects all over the place, and be done.

Yes, that sure would be swell. It would be great if Photoshop CS6, which made a sizable dent in my wallet, would let me make full color brushes or had a tool like the image hose Corel Painter has offered for years and years. However, it doesn’t.

I can make greyscale brushes in Photoshop. Why don’t I try that and see if it’ll work well enough?

Here’s an original graphic of a blue ball. It’s a rendering of a 3D model I imported into Blender. (Sometimes that’s a handy way to generate graphics, so that one doesn’t have to worry about searching for a stock image or taking one’s own photo.)




Here’s a greyscale brush made from that graphic:




Here’s the pallid-looking graphic that results when my greyscale brush is used with blue “paint”:




Wow. Sad. I could probably mess around and improve the dynamic range some, but why should I when I’m simply looking to duplicate my original blue ball graphic? Plus, what if I wish to reproduce a ball that’s multicolored rather than just blue? Although I love Photoshop’s brush feature much of the time, it isn’t meeting my needs this time.

Now, I could duplicate the original blue ball image thousands of times within Photoshop and drive myself nuts. However, since I have plenty of other ways to drive myself nuts, I think I’ll pass. Gosh, it sure is a shame that Photoshop won’t let me take a full color image and use it like a paintbrush.

Well, I’m certainly not the first person to run into this problem. I did some poking around and found that the folks at Design Beagle made a plugin, SuperSpray, which sort of addresses this problem. I’m going to give my opinions on the plugin, in case anyone else is considering it.

How it works

SuperSpray isn’t a true image hose. Despite its name, one isn’t really precisely placing graphics as one would with a paint brush. Instead, one paints an area of one’s canvas black to designate an area where one would like .png graphics to applied, and the plugin randomly arranges the graphics in that area. There are some pretty examples on Design Beagle’s website.


  • Cheap. It’s only $20, and maybe even less if Design Beagle is running a sale.
  • Available. It may not do exactly what I want it to, but it does make my life a little easier. It’s also better than any Photoshop plugin I’ve ever written, which is to say none.
  • Includes nice basic options such as random rotation, scattering, random image size, and density (object count) control.
  • Allows one to select multiple object (.png) samples at one time. I.E. one can load in .pngs of a bunny rabbit, a pizza, and Alfred E. Neuman’s head, and have SuperSpray distribute them and render out a graphic in one pass.
  • Saves out resulting images as transparent pngs.


  • It isn’t a true image hose. One doesn’t have precise control over exactly where each image element goes.
  • One is constrained to a maximum object (.png) sample of 500 x 500.
  • It doesn’t directly modify one’s image, but instead uses the black areas as a guide for placing sample objects, then saves out a different file rather than, say, a new layer. (Again, this is better than the nonexistent filter I’ve written.)
  • Requires that one save custom images to a subfolder deep in the bowels of the Photoshop directory. Not a big deal, but kind of annoying.

Let’s take it for a spin, shall we? Let’s start with a crude black and white mountain shape:



We’ll pull up SuperSpray’s filter window:




Closeup of the SuperSpray window. Hopefully you can see the .png library along the top righthand side, followed by the options for size range, rotation, Darken Lower, and image count.




I’ve toggled off the included leaf image and have installed some of my own rather ugly transparent .pngs of yellow, blue, and red balls. Note that we can see variation in size and rotation, as well as darkening in some of the elements:




Rotation toggled off. Now the balls all have the same orientation:




Size variation and Darken Lower toggled off. We’ll try rendering out a sample graphic with these settings:




Here are the balls applied to the black mountain shape from my original image. One can see that with some experimentation – maybe create more attractive sample .pngs of balls, and render out several graphics to put in layers – one could get a satisfactory result. With the assistance of SuperSpray, I was able to apply 500 ugly balls to my mountain shape in a matter of seconds.




Do I have as much control as I’d like, as I’d have if Photoshop included a tool similar to the image hose? No. But this is a good workaround, and it was available when I needed it. For somebody else’s project, it might be exactly the right tool. Short of downloading and messing around with GIMP’s “image pipes” or shelling out more money for Painter, I’m set. Thank you, SuperSpray.


Why Knot?

Wednesday, September 3rd, 2014

I’m done. I’m done, done, done with the portrait which has been kicking my rump since May. Thank goodness: one more hour with it and I would have gone stark raving mad. Funny how one’s own creation can have that effect. Now I get to photograph it, show it to everyone, write a postmortem, and celebrate, right?

Well … sort of. I finished it just in time for a show deadline, that well-known exhibit in Ohio which showcases “contemporary innovative quilts” and routinely breaks 90% of applicants’ hearts. There’s just one thing about that show: they like their work super fresh. As in, not seen by much of anybody before it’s in their show. Oh, you can post photos on your own website, but if the images show up elsewhere, you’re disqualified. We all know how that goes, especially the celebrities who just had nude selfies stolen from their iCloud data: once it’s out there, it’s out of your control. Images can spread like malaria, with other users either willfully or innocently ignoring one’s copyright. I personally have had my photos spread around over the years, and there wasn’t so much as a titillating depiction of a nipple in the lot. During one particularly low point, I found my work being used as page backgrounds on MySpace; the images admittedly looked pretty amazing when juxtaposed with photos of drunk young women making duck face.

I don’t know about you, but I’d prefer to be deep-sixed from a show because my work doesn’t fit in, not because of silliness like my images getting reposted. Even though the risk may be minimal, it’s still non-zero. So. Compromise time. I’ll go ahead and write the postmortem, but illustrate it with pictures drawn by my son. (I’ve paid him $1/illustration. That seems fair; it’s about what high end publishers and stock photo agencies pay these days.) Then, come early October when notices go out, I’ll either celebrate and keep the portrait under wraps, or post the portrait and move on.

So here it isn’t, my newest work, Why Knot?


Simulacrum of Why Knot?

Why Knot? was inspired by watching my son practice knot tying, an exercise designed to torment the uninitiated. Knot tying is a Cub Scout rite of passage, along with using outhouses and hacking blocks of Ivory soap into crude golems of Polar bears. The Scouts have an unlimited supply of these activities, which are intended to somehow frustrate young men into becoming responsible citizens and members of society.

In Why Knot?, the metaphorical nightmare of becoming hopelessly engulfed in one’s own knots is made real. A docile length of rope should submit to being transformed into a half hitch or a sheepshank. Instead, the child’s hands are enveloped by a hideous tangled mass which threatens to swallow him up like a rope leviathan. His predicament is reflected in his expression of dismay.


Photography session

Although most of my work begins with a series of sketches, that wasn’t the case here. I knew I wanted a straightforward composition which honed in on the action. I needed a head-on medium shot, from the waist up, with one source light. Once I collected props and a white backdrop, I called in my son for a modeling session.

The boy is a good sport about modeling, even when one takes into account his innate greed and the fact that I pay him. He has a “rubber face”, able to assume any expression I could want.

After getting my camera set up, I came out from behind it and shot with a remote shutter control. This allowed the boy to relax a bit rather than concentrating on the camera. To encourage sincere facial expressions, I engaged him in unhappy topics such as “After this, I need you to pick up the dog feces that’s in the back yard.” and “How are those nine times tables coming?” The remote also made it easier to adjust his arm position as we worked, so that the mass of rope was neither blocking his face nor drooping out of the photo.

I took a lot of shots. My philosophy is that it’s better to have too many than too few. Sometimes one strikes gold with a single shot, and sometimes it’s necessary to composite multiple shots.



Retouching and compositing

After the photography session, I headed to the computer to review the photos and begin the compositing process. Thanks to the use of a white backdrop, knocking out the background was trivial. Further edits would require thought.

One of my goals with this piece was to try combining stitch with photo-printed fabric, a technique which is faddishly popular right now. However, I was concerned about avoiding the appearance of simply sewing on a photo, which so many pieces of this type have. Although I can absolutely see that working if, say, one is making an editorial statement – imagine playfully sewing devil’s horns over a photo of your least favorite politician – it isn’t the effect I strive for in my own work. I prefer to have the stitch and image layers unobtrusively meld into a harmonious whole.

I concluded that that there are two or three key factors at play. One is background/composition. Most people don’t have the luxury of staging photos exactly as they’d wish. They may be working with a single shot of a fleeting moment or a significant photo of a deceased loved one, an image which may have sentimental value for them. They can’t control the fact that there’s a hot pink Airstream trailer or a pair of belching smokestacks in the background, nor do they have the wherewithal to digitally blur or edit them out. Unfortunately, these are the types of distracting details which shout “photo”.

Another factor is the level of detail. Although some painters and other artists are photorealists, it’s unusual to see detail down to the level of individual blemishes or nostril hairs in textile art. Such information sends a signal to our brains that the base image is a photo. Also, when we have that level of fine detail in our base image, we often don’t know how to complement it with stitch. This can result in our obscuring the area with thread, leaving the area unstitched out of a sense of intimidation, or using a stitch which fights with the base image for attention.

A third issue I’ve seen is poor color or dynamic range, in which the source images are muddy or washed out and no correction has been done. Although that may not signal that the base image is a photo, it can drain much of the life from a composition.

With these factors in mind, I adjusted the dynamic range of my image, then edited it to have a more painterly appearance. Using Photoshop, I carefully brushed and smoothed out areas of unnecessary detail while retaining crispness around the eyes, mouth, and base of the nose.


The infamous “Pretzle” knot

The final step in image preparation was selecting a background. I wanted the boy in the foreground to be juxtaposed against a knot-tying guide, one of those instruction cards which depicts a dizzying array of unlikely-looking knots for every occasion. The canonical knot guide is, of course, the Boy Scouts’. However, I didn’t want to violate their copyright by simply reproducing theirs. Instead, I searched for knot illustrations through stock agencies and actually paid money for a piece of stock art. Guess what? When I compared it to the Scouts’ after the fact, the illustration was exactly the same!

However, the names on the knot guide seemed a little tame. Who wants to tie a Double Overhand when you can whip up a Squid’s Beak or Lord Baden’s Scowl? With the assistance of my spouse and a glass or two of wine, I came up with my own list of suitable knot names, which I composited into the image.

Before I forget, I should acknowledge the similarity between my composition and Norman Rockwell’s Tattoo Artist, which depicts a figure against background full of tattoo designs.

I didn’t have his painting in mind when I began my portrait, but once I remembered it, I did inspect it for ideas. I didn’t end up modifying my design as a result, but it was nice to have Rockwell’s company along the way.


Flatulent dog

In the illustration above, we see a dog passing gas. This has nothing to do with the topic at hand, getting the composite image for Why Knot? printed on fabric. After reading reviews and considering my options, I outsourced the printing to Spoonflower. Although there are a number of businesses which will do a good job, I was pleased with Spoonflower’s online help and their ordering mechanism, which meant that I wouldn’t have to interact with another human being.

Printing and shipping took approximately forever, which is unsurprising given the popularity of Spoonflower’s service and the fact that I paid the bare minimum for shipping and production. Want it faster? Pay more. When the fabric did arrive, I was quite pleased with the general quality of the print, which was a crisp reproduction of the file I’d submitted. Now all I had to do was sew.

Although the stitching was in some sense the least complex part of the project, it took weeks. I guess that makes sense given that the stitching is in some sense the heart of making a quilt-based portrait, the reason we’re using fiber rather than some other medium. Stitch gives us an opportunity to enhance the base image and add texture.

I spent many, many hours listening to NPR and TED talks while I stitched, learning about the hideous spread of Ebola and wondering why I’m a slacker compared to those people on TED. TED speakers are out piecing together solar arrays from sticks and used aluminum foil, asking why the universe exists, and making fungus-embedded suits to decompose their bodies after death. I’m just sewing away while my weiner-basset passes gas beneath my work table. (Maybe I could do something with that, harness the dog’s flatulence as an alternative energy source. I can see myself on the TED stage, showing slides of a group of dogs with gas-collecting funnels duct taped to their rumps.)

After stitching, I made adjustments with ink and paint, enhancing shadows and highlights. Did the boy’s hair look bristly enough, reminiscent of a hedgehog? Check. Did he look appalled enough? Check. Did the rope have a convincing texture? Check. Had I beaten the portrait into submission, so that it laid flat? Mostly.

Although it can be hard to know when a piece is truly finished, sometimes we reach a state of exhaustion, can’t see straight, and conclude that it’s “done enough”. After five months, I’d reached that state. It was time to send the portrait off into the world to seek its fortune.

What I did on my summer naycation

Monday, August 18th, 2014

Show stuff: The Thief will be at IQF Houston this fall, and Flooded is making an appearance at the AQS show in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I hope there’ll soon be more show news, provided that I get my rump in gear.

Ten weeks ago, this was the scene in the morning:



This was the scene that afternoon, the last day of school:



I had all sorts of plans for the summer. I was going to be super productive and crank out a bunch of artwork. The boy and I were going to build a hovercraft, a go-kart, and a bird feeder. This is what actually got done, a “water blob” made from a water-filled sheet of plastic whose ends were fused together. It began leaking by the next morning. “Oh, let’s drain it and drape it over the bench,” I told the boy, “I’ll get out the iron and fix it later.”

It’s still on the bench.



Other than worksheets, acting and ice skating camps, and drilling the boy on math, we didn’t get too much done. We did get out a bit, though, and visited the Pez Museum in Burlingame. $4 total for a personal tour by the proprietor, who’s a super nice guy. Such a deal!



We went to the amusement park. Dear lord, did we go to the amusement park.



This milestone occurred. I suspect that deodorant and other significant events will soon be in the offing.



We celebrated Father’s Day by tying a ribbon around a box of spark plugs that happened to be laying on the dining room table. I figured it was the least I could do. Note the Mobius Strip bow on the bottom center package.



We tromped all over Lick Observatory, way up on Mount Hamilton. I may very well have set a new world record for becoming car sick on both the journey up and back, despite the fact that I was driving and was therefore theoretically in control of what occurred.



We visited the Carmel Mission Basilica, a gorgeous remnant of California’s colonial mission system.




Since Carmel is right by the ocean, we sent the boy in for a dip, which coincidentally washed off a few days worth of dirt.



I took many awful, blurry photos of cars at the Blackhawk Automotive Museum in Danville.



Here’s a sight one doesn’t see every day – these were, I think, in a shopping center in Danville. Group crapping, anyone? (To the tune of Dueling Banjos.)



We took in the water temple in Sunol, which I’d driven past for years but had never seen up close.



At some point I looked at my studio, realized that it needed cleaning, then thought better of it. It’s still a disaster. I’m trying to care.



We made our annual pilgrimage to the Adventure Playground in Berkeley, one of only a couple of adventure playgrounds left in the U.S..



A new motorcycle was acquired. (There goes the neighborhood.)


I chaperoned three days worth of Cub Scout camp, which felt like an eternity but was quite a bit less than many other parents did. I also demonstrated my capacity for bellowing, which horrified the other adults.



This summer I read an article which indicated that many people are depressed by Facebook, due to the relentlessly positive and unrealistic depictions of others’ lives. I vowed that I would offset this by showcasing some of the worst and messiest aspects of my life, so that people could feel good in comparison. My vow lasted for a couple of photos, then I forgot about it.

The dining room table still pretty much looks like this, only now it’s covered with books, Lego, and Hexbugs.



The boy and I visited the Bay Area Discovery Museum in Sausalito. He’s mostly aged out of it, but it was fun.





We walked across the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s incredibly noisy.



We took in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle exhibit at the Cartoon Art Museum in the city.




Later we visited Yerba Buena Gardens, which has this ridiculously short maze (How are you supposed to lose your child?), then tried making an animation at the Children’s Creativity Museum.



There were Cub Scout events, bowling and this water fight. It’s nice to see that the boy hasn’t lost his penchant for sticking strange objects on his head.



We headed down to Big Sur.



One of the murals in the restroom at Nepenthe.



A brief hike at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park led us to this nice waterfall overlook.



Down near San Simeon, we ran across a large group of elephant seals. From the highway, they look like giant flaccid sacks of laundry.



Hearst Castle.





A giant mucous plug of rock, which some now-dead volcano once rather rudely sneezed out.



My husband scored an awesome hotel for us, which I relished. There were gardens, deer, woodpeckers, and jays.




After the Big Sur trip, we visited a horribly overcrowded Lego show, where we nevertheless managed to do a little shopping:



I decided that since the boy is beginning to hide out in his room more, it should be arranged to look more like a lounge. This weekend we scurried around and found pillows, and I spent a day sewing covers. (I didn’t choose the color scheme!)



This was the scene this morning, as the boy headed back to school. I imagine that if anyone asks what he did this summer, he’ll say “Oh, not much.”



It’s time for me to get back to work.



On projects, 3D, and stitched photos

Saturday, January 25th, 2014

I keep hoping for bad weather. Bad weather would give me an excuse to huddle inside during the daylight hours, finish some art projects, maybe engage my kid in board games or Lego modeling. Alas, while the rest of North America is getting the foo walloped out of it, the weather here is consistently pleasant: clear skies, temperatures in the sixties or seventies during the daytime. That’s about to be a problem, since the record lack of rainfall here and dearth of snow in the Sierras will lead to a nasty drought. Water rationing is ahead, methinks, along with my shambling out to the garden with buckets of water salvaged from luxurious two minute showers.


I’m getting some stitching done nevertheless, although the work on the skin is tedious. I break up work/stretching cycles by listening to NPR or TED talks. Thus, the section outlined in green occurred during NPR Fresh Air’s “Klansville, U.S.A.” (37 minutes), and the section outlined in blue occurred during Luke Syson’s TED talk (13 minutes). And here I go focussing on the “how” (number of stitches, number of spools of thread used, techniques) rather than the “why” (drive behind the artwork). Perhaps the how is simply easier to talk about than the why.

While working, it occurred me that I’d really like to see a book which focussed on fiber art series, each artist showing 5-6 works in a particular series and talking about the “why”. Not a guide to working in series, not a how-to or exercise book, but rather a gallery in which people talked about their series. If someone could bribe Martha Sielman to create this book, I’d buy a copy. She’s done a wonderful job on the Art Quilt Portfolio series, as well as the Masters: Art Quilts books.

I stumbled across this the other day while cleaning my desk. Do you know what it is?


It’s an early 3D print, a functioning roller bearing. As in, it was printed out in this form with contained bearings. It was made by, I think, infusing layers of cornstarch with CA (Cyanoacrylate). Z Corporation was handing them out at SIGGRAPH, circa ’95 or ’99. (Yes, it is true. I don’t clean my desk very often.)

I remember watching their print head splutter back and forth across a bed of white powder, and realizing the possibilities. Yes, this particular roller bearing might be made of cornstarch and might not be particularly strong or operate smoothly. However, the potential was there. The potential for individuals to prototype or fabricate whatever was in their dreams.

Now, some fifteen or twenty years later, 3d printers are becoming mainstream. My local library has one. HP is muttering about making one. For a few hundred dollars, you can make one. Artists and tinkerers use them to create sculptures or Lego components. There’s talk about sending 3D printers on space missions so as to print spare parts or, for all I know, food. People have models of their fetuses printed to commemorate their pregnancies. There’s ongoing research in printing replacement organs for people, organs based on the person’s own cells. Imagine that, being able to print a new liver or kidney which wouldn’t be rejected, instead of waiting for a donation with all that that implies.


Under the category of TMI, or more than you ever wanted to know about me, here’s a 3D print commissioned by my dentist. I had some work-related stress which led to grinding and cracking my molars. That in turn led to dental visits and crowns. Even if one has a marvelous dentist, which I do (drop me an email if you’re in Silicon Valley and you want a referral), getting a crown isn’t fun. My dentist would do what he could to make it less ghastly, including plopping headphones on me so I could listen to music as he worked. However, there would still be a mouth full of nasty dental alginate while a mold was made, as well as drool. Lots and lots of drool.

Not anymore.

The last time I needed a crown, Dr. Smith got out a scanning wand. In a matter of minutes, my mouth had been scanned and a 3D computer model was made of my teeth. He sent the model off to a lab where a 3D print was made of the relevant area, then a mold to fabricate a crown. Fast, accurate, less annoying. No slobbery alginate! He even let me keep the 3D print. Any time I feel the urge to grind my teeth, I can do it with the 3D print instead of the teeth in my mouth.

That is the power of 3D printing, the power of 3D imaging period. I think that, increasingly, 3D visualization will be a good skill for people to have.


My Pinewood Derby car

It doesn’t all have to be about printing Klein bottles or fabricating parts for astronauts on their way to Mars. Here’s a Pinewood Derby car I made, which was based on a 3D model. It’s hard to get much more mundane than that!


The boy’s car

The Pinewood Derby is a race held for Cub Scouts. The boys carve cars from chunks of wood, then send these monstrosities careening madly down a track whilst hooting at each other. My son knew he wanted his car to be a coffin on wheels, but what should I make for the other car, the one to be entered in the family race?


Enter the 3D program. I made a virtual block of wood, the same size as the block issued in Pinewood Derby kits, then began messing with it. I didn’t know what I was trying to make, but I had a general idea of narrowing the body behind the front tires and tapering the front and the back. As I altered the block digitally, it dawned on me that it looked a bit like an ant! Well, why not?


After just a bit more work refining the top and side cross sections, I arrived at some drawings that I could paste on the side of the wood block, then cut out on the band saw.


Here’s the final product, which I’ve dubbed the Mandiblur. (“Mandible” from the fact it’s an ant + “blur”, a touch of optimistic hubris.) It really is quite handy to be able to visualize things before you build them.

Here’s some other work I’ve been doing, although it’s not original. These are from some (free!) video tutorials offered by Little Web Hut, the artistic equivalent of slavishly duplicating a quilt from somebody else’s pattern. I encourage anyone who has the least bit of interest in learning Blender to go check these tutorials out. The speaker has a clear, well-organized style.


Rendered view


Wireframe for comparison, to drive home the fact that this is an object and image we’ve created on the computer.



Rendered view


Wireframe for comparison

The one with the peppers amuses me. I’m not sure what the backstory is, why we’re hurling virtual peppers into a tank of virtual water, but it made for an interesting simulation. Maybe they’re dirty peppers, peppers we picked or purchased, and we happened to have an aquarium full of water standing by for just such an occasion. Yes, I think about such things. (Evidently it runs in the family, too. Last night my son asked my husband about a cartoon character, “Why is he able to shoot laser beams out of his eyes?” My husband looked at him incredulously. “Let’s get this straight. We have a cartoon character who’s a giant bearded package of french fries, and you’re asking me whether it makes sense that he can shoot laser beams out of his eyes?”)

I made these in Blender 3D, a 3D modeling and animation package which is free for the download. Some denigrate the software but, you know, it’s free and has tons of features. I’m sure its competitors such as Maya are very nice, but Maya costs a few thousand dollars. I can stay busy for quite awhile with the features in Blender.

Where I may be headed … I’ve always loved working in 3D. It’s utterly enchanting to be able to bring the worlds, the ideas in one’s head, to life. I may want to experiment with printing some renders on fabric and augmenting them with stitch. It’s a natural progression from my modus operandi of painting on fabric and stitching over the paintings. Really, though, it depends on the style of the render and whether stitching adds anything.

One obvious corollary is people printing photos on fabric and stitching over them. Alas, I’ve seen very few examples of quilted photos on fabric that I’ve cared for. There is some wonderful work out there which was informed by photography. Mardal and Hougs’ stitched fiber paintings come to mind, as do Jayne Gaskins’ and Carol Shinn’s densely stitched, photorealistic images.

Alas, many examples of stitched photography suffer from muddy hues, poor dynamic range, badly composed photos, poor image editing, and the stitch remaining a separate, jarring visual layer from the imagery. The latter is perhaps the greatest “sin” in my mind, rendering the whole exercise moot. The stitch contributes nothing. It’s as though a four-year-old shoved an 8×10 through a sewing machine: there is no unified whole.

That might not be an issue in the case of, say, making an editorial statement. For example, if one stitched horns over the forehead of a reviled politician, that would constitute a statement even if the stitch layer remained jarringly separate. By and large, though, that isn’t what’s happening.

Thus, we shall see if my experiment in printing renders on fabric then augmenting them with stitch pans out. I may very well end up with some expensive, laboriously created liners for the dog’s bed!