Archive for 2013

The Thief

Monday, March 18th, 2013

Ryan-dog is not happy.

He’s a patient guy. However, lately I’ve been poking at his mouth and nose, minutely inspecting them, and there’s only so much of that one can take. He isn’t a snappish or grouchy fellow, but the baleful look is there, the very clear “Why must you do this to me?” message. Such is the life of an unwilling artist’s model.

This saga began about a year ago, when I observed the hound looking quite enviously at my son’s hot dog. While my son was distracted, he began sneaking up. Could he perhaps nibble the other end without anyone noticing? After all, it wasn’t as though it was being used. What a crime it would be to let an entire chunk of hot dog go to waste!

That, I thought, was a story worth telling.

This is the initial sketch for the picture, tentatively titled The Thief (or perhaps The Weiner Thief).

It is rough. I try to do a bunch of initial sketches quickly, and it’s fine if they’re untidy. Usually I set a timer for 20-30 minutes and try to knock out fifty sketches as quickly as possible. I’m after pose, gesture, composition. I’m thinking about what may go on in the picture, what I want to accomplish. What is the story? Where’s the emotion? Are the dog and the boy companionably sharing the hot dog and a few germs, or is there a bit of covert theft going on? How will that best be conveyed?

Here I’m beginning to think about how the pose may fit into a space. I’m thinking about the aspect ratio of the picture (the relationship of width and height) and maybe arranging the action and visual elements along golden sections. It’s still very rough. I’ll knock out a bunch of these in short order, trying different viewpoints (what if we see the scene from up high rather than eye level?) and crops (what if we just see the heads and the hot dog?).

I jot down notes as I do this, such as “Where is the sun?” That’s kind of important: we want the action well lit, with neither of the models blinded or with their faces in shadow.

In my mind, the scene is beginning to come into sharper focus. A boy and his dog are on a cookout, perhaps, with some greenery in the background. In the margins I’ve scrawled notes for supporting details: Band Aid on foot, turned up cuffs, bare dirty feet, slingshot in back pocket, worn jeans, pebbly dirt surrounded by bushes.

Starting to think about the anatomy of a weiner-basset. I do a few sketches like this, refining the dog’s pose, then I’m ready for the next step: reference photos.

Drawing from life is wonderful. One can make some incredibly energetic, gestural drawings when working very quickly from a live model. It can also be challenging, at least from the standpoint of gleaning details, when one is working with kids or animals. Thus, I took my kid and the dog outside – I have to pay my kid a modeling fee to get him to do this – and tried to set up something approximating the scene I had in mind. Reference photos.

This photo is a good start. It has some good material. The boy and the dog are making good eye contact and the dog has a nice stretched-out pose.

The photo also has some flaws. The boy’s hand is covering his face, and he’s kind of hunched over. The dog’s interest level is good, but the scene would be stronger if his mouth was open, about to bite. We can’t see the dog’s feet or the end of his tail, but those details can be cleared up later.

This is usually the way it goes. That’s why I say “reference photos” plural. It takes some work to realize the vision in one’s head.

Note that there isn’t a log for the boy. Despite the astonishing collection of flotsam in the yard, I don’t have a log, so I substituted a stool of about the right height. The log will have to get drawn in later.

And … the dog stole the hot dog, so that’s the end of that modeling session. He’d happily pose all day, chugging down hot dogs about as quickly as he could grab them. However, that would be kind of bad for his health.

I shot some more photos of my son holding the empty bun after this, trying to deal with the issue of his hunching over with his hand covering his face.

Another day, another modeling session. I really wanted a reference shot of the hound with his mouth open. However, extreme cunning would be required to get the photo without the entire hot dog disappearing. I only knew one person brave and wily enough for this job: my husband. He and the dog danced back and forth for quite some time, with that tantalizing hot dog just out of reach.

With that, I had about enough reference material to come up with a composite sketch, which I finalized in Adobe Illustrator. Sections of this image got printed out onto about 35 sheets of paper, which I then taped together to form a scale cartoon for transfer onto fabric. I could simply order a large print from the local Kinko’s, but picking it up would require combing my hair and leaving the house.

Some of the details on the printout are pretty vague. After the large print is made, I refine them with pencil and then a Sharpie.

Here’s the heart of the action, the boy and the dog making eye contact over the hot dog and the dog about to make a grab at it. The line of action flows all the way down the dog’s back, forming a diagonal in the picture.

Here’s a section of the underpainting in progress, after the cartoon has been traced onto white cotton. I’m working in ink this time, although I’m beginning to wish I’d gone for soy sizing and watercolor. The soy sizing really helps combat the bleeding which can occur with diluted pigment.

C’est la vie. The journey begins.

What I did during my winter naycation.

Saturday, February 23rd, 2013

I completed this a week or so ago. I’ve been referring to it as my “floor quilt” despite the very minimal amount of sewing involved. It was interesting, a nice change of pace, working in a purely abstract manner with strips of fabric.

I have several other works in progress, but am having trouble getting my head in the game as far as submitting to shows this year. It’s cyclical. Sometimes I’m really enthused; sometimes I’m not. It probably doesn’t help that there were a number of stressful and disappointing issues with the last show. Time to move on.

That’s been the theme of this week, actually, moving on from disappointment. I had grand plans for the week, which was to be a vacation. Jetting down to Legoland … boiling in a jacuzzi … taking in the San Diego zoo and museums at Balboa Park. I desperately wanted a break. Time with my husband, time to enjoy my kid while he wore himself out, time to refresh my creative drive.

Then my kid fell ill, with a fever of 104 and a range of glorious GI symptoms. Plans were dashed literally at the last moment, when everyone except the faithful family hound toppled over like a set of disgusting, mucus-emitting dominos.

We’ve been gradually pasting ourselves together since then and sampling the local fleshpots: Woohoo! The Hiller Aviation Museum! NASA Ames! The Computer History Museum! Nerd out!

Lordy, yes. I’d MUCH rather shepherd a bored child through a museum which stinks of exhaust and is half ripped apart than take in the exhibits at the Mingei. What was I thinking? We could have saved a ton in cancellation fees if I’d just said “Sweetie, let’s stay home, order pizza, and go to nerd museums” to begin with.

On the other hand, that’s life and it isn’t half bad. These really are first world problems. It can be disappointing, actually, to visit a place with high expectations and have them dashed. Conversely, there have been some lovely surprises this week at places where I expected crushing boredom.

Here’s a darling little model of the Space Shuttle, for instance. I’m not sure what the point of it was, but it was a nice model. It was hanging inside a Space Shuttle mockup, so there was a certain self-similar, fractal quality about the whole experience.

An Adult Frog Box. Very handy for storing one’s Adult Frogs.

This twee slide rule clip was found over at the Computer History Museum. Its signage informs us that it was “a popular retirement gift for engineers in the mid-1900s”.

A slide rule not unlike the one I had when I was a little girl. I got in trouble for cheating with it when I was in the third or fourth grade. I kept using it to avoid learning my multiplication tables.

There was another slide rule experience around the same time, which I suppose I’ll just spit out. My mother had kidnapped me, hauled me away to another state for a couple of months. It was one of those hideous custody/visitation situations which today would result in the child’s face being plastered on the side of a milk carton and the kidnapping parent having a stay in jail. “You’re never going to see your father again,” mom doing desperate things with a strange man, and so forth. At some point we landed at her sister’s house. My aunt’s husband, seeing that I was desperately missing my father and was in bad emotional shape, gave me a slide rule like the one my father had given me. It was kind of him and actually very comforting. I hope he’s had a good life.

More from the Computer History Museum. Here’s a nice philosophical link between old-school computer punch cards and the punch cards used for a 19th century Jacquard loom. According to Wikipedia, “The loom was controlled by a “chain of cards”, a number of punched cards, laced together into a continuous sequence. Multiple rows of holes were punched on each card and each row of punched holes corresponded to one row of the design.”

That’s really amazing, the fact that we were using punch cards to store data and automate production as far back as 200 years ago.

A length of Jacquard fabric, circa 19th century. According to the signage,
“A complex pattern woven by the loom needed tens of thousands of individually punched cards. But once made and debugged – like a software program – the cards could be used many times to create identical fabric.”

This is a reproduction of an Incan (1400 AD to 1532) quipu, a “knotted textile record-keeping device”. It’s been theorized that most information on quipus is numeric, with information being conveyed by the type and position of knots. I’m absurdly touched that we humans used fiber for an early information system.

There was a room full of computer-related buttons like this one, many sporting double entendre. The boy found them fascinating and had many questions.

Museums – very educational.

Thanks, but I think I’ll just keep my distance.

“If she can only cook as well as Honeywell can compute.”

A vintage “cooking computer” marketed by a bunch of sexist dinosaurs.

A “Pixar Image Computer,” circa 1986. A holy grail, running at a now blazingly slow 11.8 MHz. “The computer originally cost $135,000 and required an expensive workstation to operate it.”

In my dreams, in an alternate reality, I hared off to Pixar and spent my days and nights making incredibly cool 3D graphics instead of shoving electrons down a two mile long tube. (particle physics) Unfortunately, there was the small matter of my not having the skill set at the time and kind of having my head up my rump. By the time I was up to speed artistically and programming-wise, it felt like it was too late. I ended up saving my money, escaping physics, and making still images for ads and magazines rather than being part of a team doing something bigger and more wonderful.

That’s life.

The Babbage Difference Engine No. 2, a mechanical device designed to tabulate polynomials. Charles Babbage designed the machine in the mid-1800s but, alas, one wasn’t built for another 150 years. This is the second one ever built, and it works a treat. Set it up appropriately and crank away, and it will compute numbers out the wazoo. Too bad Babbage didn’t live to see it.

Who knows how Babbage felt, having devoted so much time and energy to a project and not getting to see it come to fruition. Did he perhaps feel he’d failed, or was he off and running to the next project?

It strikes me that that’s the way things go much of the time. We humans like to concoct stories, narratives, about events and our lives. Everything laid out perfectly, as though we’d intended it to happen a certain way. “Yes, I was born a poor child, fed only pureed squash in my baby bottle. By sheer force of will, I clawed my way out of poverty to become the wealthy, successful entrepreneur you see today.”

Left out are the bumps and accidents which occurred along the way, which can have as much to do with the end result as any intent. Gordon Ramsay intending to be a footballer, then smashing the whey out of his knee and deciding “What the heck, I’ll go to catering college instead”. Simple Minds initially refusing to record “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” then acquiescing under pressure from their label. Then: “Oh hell, that thing became a hit? That’s what we’re going to be remembered for, not the other songs we worked on so hard and were so proud of?”

Yep. Sorry, fellows. Sometimes you don’t get to choose the narrative. Sometimes you don’t get to choose how you’re remembered or in what area you’re successful. You just have to go with it.

And, in Babbage’s case, “Guess what, buddy? That project you didn’t quite get to finish turned out to be a success, and you’re remembered with great respect.”

Oil! Because REAL computers require lubrication.

Another view of the difference engine. I like this thing, in case you hadn’t noticed. I might like it even better if it was coal or steam-powered and operated by a team of Oompa-Loompas.

A real, honest-to-goshness Google Street View car. There are evidently Street View cars, trikes, push carts. I admire Google’s vision in this regard.

Barbera Stephenson sounds like a class act. First female engineer at DEC, running smack dab into people’s preconceived notions. It sounds as though she found a good technique for dealing with the situation and getting on with the job.

From the signage:

Officer Mac, 21st Century Robotics, US 1985

Officer Mac was an ambassador for the police. Operated by remote control, the mobile robot visited schools and showed videos about public safety. It was also used as a non-threatening aide to help counsel abused children.”

My mind is a trifle boggled at the notion of this behemoth counseling abused children. “Hey, we have a possible abuse victim. Can you fire up Mac? Whaddaya mean his battery isn’t charged? Whaddaya mean you can’t get him out of the trunk of the squad car?”

I suspect the police department’s current technique, which I believe involves stuffed animals, may be more effective and less cumbersome.

Holy cow. The Utah Teapot. If you were doing anything in CGI during the 80s or 90s, or if you saw people’s demo reels or low budget 3D animation, you saw renderings of this teapot EVERYWHERE. This is the real deal, the teapot from which the data was generated.

Per the signage,

“Martin Newell at the University of Utah used a teapot as a reference model in 1975 to create a dataset of mathematical coordinates. From that he generated a 3D wire frame defining the teapot’s shape, adding a surface ‘skin’.

For 20 years, programmers used Newell’s teapot as a starting point, exploring techniques of light, shade, and color to add depth and realism.”

I found and downloaded the data for this teapot. From now on, I’m going to put it on everything I make as a tribute to the early days of CGI. Everything. Portrait of my kid? He’s getting a Utah Teapot in the nostril. Embroidered dishrag? It’s getting it too.

The original Pong prototype! There’s a great story about this machine. Al Alcorn installed this thing in Andy Capp’s bar in Sunnyvale back in the early seventies. Shortly thereafter, he received a message: “The machine is broken.” Alcorn duly headed down to see what the issue was. “Pong’s problem? Popularity. Its milk carton coin-catcher was jammed with quarters.”

That heralded the beginning of the video gaming revolution and boys plotzing on couches, fiddling with game controllers. That in turn has led to parents like me hauling the young ingrates off to places like museums to get them away from video games.

There’s irony in there somewhere.

The Juggler

Thursday, January 24th, 2013

I’ve learned that Flooded won an award (2nd Place: Art Human Image) at this year’s Road to California. The award was sponsored by The Quilt House and is much appreciated. I try to be self-motivating and self-directed, but I’m grateful for pats on the back. That’s particularly the case since I know the businesses who sponsor these awards are having to cut in to their profit margins to do so.


It’s always illuminating to look at a winners’ showcase or photos from a show. Illuminating in terms of getting a sense of what the show is about and who its target audience is. When I look at this show’s gallery, I see mostly “happy” work. There’s lots of traditional, highly symmetrical work as well as renderings of the likes of children, animals and landscapes. In keeping with the “happy” theme, the colors are mostly bright and saturated.

That’s fine; as my husband frequently tells me, “not everything is curing cancer.” Sometimes we want to be immersed in happy things for awhile, not pondering over the offerings of a war correspondent. However, something tells me that the works in my current series won’t be garnering any awards there next year!

The Juggler

Here we go. A stylized naked atomic-age woman juggling the likes of babies, knives and yowling cats.

This is The Juggler, my newest work. It’s the second in a circus-themed series focussed on the eternal struggle to balance one’s personal and professional lives. Alas, sometimes even six arms aren’t enough to keep everything aloft and avoid catastrophe!

One may notice that the styles of Flooded and The Juggler are fairly different. That’s partly because they were made at different points in time and are each part of a different series. However, it’s also the case that I do work in different styles. I’m gradually becoming okay with that. While I almost always want to tell a story, sometimes I want to do a portrait and other times I want to do something more designerly. Maybe that will change with time, but it’s where I am right now.

I did try to force myself into one or the other mode for awhile, partly because I felt I should be “settled” and partly because of external pressure to do so. Recently, though, I was studying the design and development of a bunch of Pixar movies. It dawned on me that Pixar’s visual style is all over the map; they aren’t forcing themselves to work in a particular mode. What they ARE trying to do, however, is tell compelling stories. They cultivate brilliant staff and spend a great deal of time living with, developing, and researching the best way to tell a particular story.

Now, I am not Pixar and I don’t have the means to turn out a two hour animated extravaganza. However, I also want to tell compelling stories and I’m not above learning from them. Perhaps I’m attracted to their methodology because I trained as a designer and developed a very process-oriented approach to my work. Regardless, here’s my takeaway: strive to do high quality work that you believe in and find meaningful. Research it, live with it, spend the time to make it right. If a “style” emerges in there somewhere, that’s fine. Otherwise, don’t worry about creating a style for the sake of having one. Just focus on the work.

Here’s another new thing:

I’ll call it, oh, (408) 329-1856. That’s one of T-Mobile’s secret collections numbers. If they call you from this number, it will not show up as being T-Mobile.

Yes, there’s a story behind it. A couple of stories. The first story is that I’m an admirer of Jonathan Coulton. A few years ago, he did an experiment he called “Thing a Week” in which he recorded a new song each week and released it for free on his website. That period of concentrated work provided enough material for several albums, and resulted in several of my favorite songs. There really is something to be said for cranking work out and seeing what happens.

Well, I thought, why not do my own Thing A Week project? Yes, I know that we in the fiber arts have a similar tradition of creating weekly “Journal Quilts” or “Journal Doilies” or “Journal Whatever.” I specifically didn’t want to use that label because there’s a heritage which comes with it and I didn’t want to weigh myself down with that baggage. Besides, I really like Jonathan Coulton. In my dreams, I make something 1/10 as cool as Chiron Beta Prime. (Maybe I should make a Coulton effigy and leave it slices of pizza or something.)

My own Thing a Week project lasted about one week before crumbling under the demands of my private life, home repairs, and artwork which simply can’t be completed in one week. That’s the one Thing A Week, up there. The blood-sucking mosquito made of phone numbers. An anti-stress piece, made in reaction to T-Mobile phoning me over and over and over and over. It helped, actually. As I manipulated the little phone numbers around spline curves, I thought about how much I’d grown to dislike the company and the various practical means I had of stopping the phone calls.

Now, I generally like people, even though getting to know real flesh-and-blood people is a mysterious, uncomfortable process for me. However, for various historical reasons, I don’t enjoy talking on the phone. I avoid it, in fact. I have a cell phone, but it’s mostly for emergency purposes. Only three or four people have the number, and if it isn’t one of them calling, I don’t answer the phone.

Imagine my discomfort, then, when I started receiving repeated collections calls from T-Mobile. First they wanted to know if I was thus-and-such person, a person who evidently owes them $250. No, I wasn’t. But they kept calling. And calling. The cell phone would ring several times a day. Have I mentioned that I basically hate talking on the phone, and that the sound of the phone makes me jump out of my skin? It was like a small kind of torture.

Worse yet, they wouldn’t stop the damned calls. If I stayed on the line to talk to T-Mobile’s customer service, they’d deny making the calls. At one point, they implied that there was fraudulent activity involved, that someone was spoofing the number. (This, despite the fact that they’d called ME and I’d merely answered the phone.) On another occasion they rather rudely hung up when asked to involve someone further up the management chain.

I began to fantasize about going through life this way, with T-Mobile’s computer dialing my phone several times a day. It was miserable. Intolerable. What was I going to have to do to make it stop? Jettison the phone number I’d had for years, hold an exorcism for my cell phone and hammer in a SIM from AT&T? It was very clear that T-Mobile’s customer service organization wasn’t going to make the calls stop. They didn’t even believe there was a problem.

I finally did three things:

1. I downloaded a “silent” ring tone to my phone and associated it with T-Mobile’s numbers.
2. I filed a complaint with California’s Public Utilities commission.
3. I made the schlock artwork above to offload my stress.

The silent ring tone brought instant relief. T-Mobile continued calling, but I couldn’t hear the phone ring. The schlock artwork was also therapeutic.

What really made the difference, though, was California’s Public Utilities Commission. A week ago I received a letter from them with the following verbiage:

“T-Mobile has confirmed your mobile number ending in —- was listed as a contact number on another T-Mobile customer’s account; however, on January 3, 2013, T-Mobile removed the contact number from (blah blah blah, the other account). Therefore, you should not receive any further collection calls from T-Mobile in attempts to collect on a debt that is not listed under your name.”

The letter was signed by a Mr. Rayo, to whom I would like to give an appreciative “shout out.” Thank you, thank you, thank you Mr. Rayo and PUC. Thank you for saving my sanity. Thank you for getting the attention of someone a little further up in the customer service organization and making the blasted phone calls stop. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I am so glad to pay taxes, so glad to have some percentage of them go to the PUC.

Thank you. Bless you all.