Archive for 2014

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.

Gestures of kindness

Sunday, December 21st, 2014



There’s the card I’m sending out this year; click if you wish to see a larger version. I confess that I used the design as a prototype for a quilt I may make. Of course, it was totally horrid and torturous having to buy (and later consume) candy for “research” purposes. And yes, that’s my weiner-basset up there driving the sleigh pulled by squirrels.

Jezebel has a “best/worst Christmas gift ever” article. It’s funny in a wincing “Oh lord; that could have been me cluelessly giving someone that shell-filled Mason jar atop a candlestick” way. Yes, it’s true. I see myself on the “inflicting” side of the gift-giving process. My husband very politely refuses to believe that I’ve ever been an awful gift-giver – or at least, he pretends to believe that, bless him. But it’s true. Here’s a partial list of the bad gifts I’ve given over the years, at least the ones I can remember. Heaven only knows what else I’ve done that’s lost to the winds of time. Prepare to wince.

To my brother:

  • The same book on motorcycles (or was it guitars?), two years in a row. Never mind how I managed that – it takes a special type of genius. To his credit, he was gracious about it and just sort of didn’t mention it to me. It’s probably good that I saw the twin books on his shelf, though, or he might have received the same book a third year.
  • A hand-painted T-shirt featuring him as one of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which might not have been so bad if the tail I rendered hadn’t resembled a penis. I understand that this was a source of great merriment and humiliation when he wore it to school.

To my sister:

  • A cosmetics organizer she’d asked for, only I sent it in January or February.
  • The first quilt I ever made, which was admittedly of poor quality. On a later visit, I found it out in the mud and feces-caked front yard with the dogs. That’s how good it was.

To my stepmother:

  • Everything I ever gave her, as detailed in a manifesto of gifts she wished to not receive from me. In her defense, the list included cookware. Yes, I have been guilty of giving a mother-figure cookware, because that’s what all women naturally want, to be classified in terms of domestic tasks that they don’t even enjoy.


A lace snowflake. If you get on my Christmas list and you aren’t careful, you may receive one.

To various relatives:

  • A variety of awful T-shirts and sweatshirts which I made, including a black sweatshirt festooned with sparkly fall leaves. The latter might not have been so bad for someone in her forties, but was a bad call for my teenaged niece-by-marriage. Plus it was a couple of sizes too small. Bless the girl for restraining herself to a small glare. I hope that wherever she is now, she receives major karma points for graciousness in the face of disappointment.
  • Homemade fruitcake. “It made the entire package reek of alcohol,” my stepmother complained.
  • Christmas ornaments which I had painted. “You father hates Santa Claus,” my stepmother informed me after the fact. Also: “They were so heavy that they fell off the tree.” I’m sure they broke as well, perhaps even by accident.
  • Lace snowflake ornaments made on my embroidery machine. Only one person expressed enthusiasm over these snowflakes. I assume the rest were objects of puzzlement.


Hand-painted ornaments, of the type I used to make and give out. Some folks like receiving these – and by “some folks”, I mean no one that I know.

To my husband:

  • Silk boxer shorts and a T-shirt featuring a Krispy Kreme doughnut rendered as a delivery boy. My husband isn’t a lounging sort of fellow, nor does he have a particular fondness for Krispy Kreme doughnuts. I’ve since liberated the T-shirt from his drawer and wear it for workouts. Probably I should do the same with the boxer shorts.

To my son:

  • Various books on topics he could care less about, such as whittling wood and making shadow puppets.

To my mother:

  • Books which I self-righteously thought she should read, knick-knacks she had no need or room for, and a down-filled throw. The latter might not have been so bad if she wasn’t allergic to feathers.

To my step-great-great aunt, who was failing with dementia:

  • A malachite worry stone. “She dropped it and it broke,” my stepmother sniffed when I asked if the gift had been enjoyed. (These days my default gift to people who are dying or who have dementia is an album of photos. I figure if nothing else, they can look at the colorful photos and wonder who the people are.)

For these sins, I apologize. There was a decade or so there where I was batting a thousand with the homemade and otherwise “thoughtful” gifts. Hopefully I’ve upped my game a bit since then, though. My gift-giving list is mostly pared down to my husband and son, plus the one person who made the mistake of enthusing over the lace snowflakes. (Unless she says otherwise, she will receive a relentless barrage of lace snowflakes in her Christmas card for the next twenty years.) These days I stick to lists which people have given me, maybe send a treat hamper off to my in-laws and a donation to the food bank, and that’s it. If one can’t be clever and thoughtful, being non-clever and thoughtful is the next best thing. Give people joy if you can, play with the family dog, and bake cookies.


Awesome Cthulu ornament from my brother-in-law

Have I also received odd gifts or had occasions used as emotional weapons? Sure. Mostly, though, I’ve been treated with great kindness. There’s the brother-in-law who sent me the molecular gastronomy kit and the Cthulu ornament, both of which I dearly love. There’s the father-in-law who painstakingly picked out quilting fabric to ship me, and the mother-in-law who would faithfully send me the latest Maeve Binchy novel, back when Binchy was alive. One sister-in-law bakes and ships Christmas cookies each year, and the other sister-in-law sends some munchie she knows we’ll enjoy. They’re all good people, which I guess isn’t surprising considering that they’re related to my husband.

There are also my stepmother’s relatives. For all that she and I have a poisoned relationship, her relatives were some of the warmest people I’ve ever known. Her sister, a lovely young woman, would take me horseback riding. Her brother, who wasn’t financially affluent, would nevertheless give me an exquisite bottle of perfume for Christmas. Her parents did whatever they could to make a ragged nine-year-old child feel welcome, including picking out a special Star Trek Spock doll or making one of those grotesque/wonderful birthday cakes which features a Barbie doll impaled in a half-sphere of frosted cake-skirt.


Crafting books, a gift from my step-grandmother many years ago

Even though she’s now deceased, I frequently have reason to offer thanks to my step-grandmother. Because of her, I was supplied with books and supplies for knitting, jewelry-making, and denim decorating, and worlds opened. It’s because of her that I’ve had the guts to pursue my own creative vision. I can’t count the number of times she provided me with a thoughtful kit of some type or other, replete with sewing supplies or nail polish or little girl jewelry. I still jab my needles in a tomato/strawberry pincushion which appeared under the tree one year and, although it perhaps isn’t as dignified, our dog eats from the remains of a gigantic Estee Lauder makeup palette/tray. I wish I had better expressed my gratitude to both her and my step-grandfather before they passed away.


A beloved pincushion, a reminder of kindness

Maybe that’s the way it goes sometimes, though. If we’re lucky, we get the consciousness and decency to properly thank people while they’re still around. Otherwise, maybe kindness is a pay-it-forward sort of thing, and many of us end up giving thanks for past kindnesses by taking a turn at giving ourselves. In my case, though, it appears that I should confine myself more to the toy and canned food drive end of things and take a pass on the handcrafted shirts and mason jar candlesticks!

Happy holidays – and I do mean that in an all-inclusive way, including holidays which aren’t part of my tradition but which matter to others – to all.

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.


PIQF, briefly

Sunday, November 9th, 2014

My artwork The Thief was at IQF Houston. Did you see it? Yeah, neither did I. Didn’t go to Houston. Too bad; looks like there were a ton of great exhibits. It’s just a big darned deal getting out of here and traveling, what with having a kid and all. (Not that I resent having a kid; we were happy to have him and they don’t stay kids for long.)

I did get to PIQF a couple of weeks back. It’s only 6.1 miles from my house, so I’d pretty much have to look for reasons NOT to go. The show seemed more enjoyable to me this year, perhaps because I was surveying each piece for lessons learned rather than whether I “liked” it. For example: persevere, work with the materials one has at hand, experiment with motifs, use an existing technique in a different medium.



I was particularly touched by Jackie Houston’s The Journey. Based on an illustration by Tom Feelings, it depicts a “black man with chains and the body of a ship that’s carrying his people (The Human Cargo) across the Atlantic Ocean to the New World.” She’s also rendered masks in the water, which “represent the millions of lost souls that were discarded into the ocean”.

I’d love to see this work travel, so that others might learn about this hideous part of American history and reflect on its ramifications. For example, when I attended school in Armpit, TX way back when, the business of people being chained down the whole way and being tossed overboard if they were dead or ill wasn’t covered. Stuff was glossed over. It was all “They came across via ships and they were slaves, but now they’re free. Things are great now, right?” Mmmm. No. Maybe not so much.



There was Gloria Loughman’s work, Fern Pool. She and her work are a treat. I heard someone remark that some of the leaves resemble marijuana. Yes, it’s true: both marijuana leaves and the fronds in the quilt are green.



Marilyn Belford’s Perseus Saving Andromeda. Per her artist’s statement, she uses “commercial fabric, fusible web and thread sketching … No inks or paints applied”. I’ve long enjoyed this series, and it’s always a treat to see a new addition. One can see others in the series on her website; I do hope there’ll be a traveling exhibition of all of them at some point.



Marilyn Badger’s Exuberance. Traditional designs aren’t my thing, but the quality of Badger’s workmanship is remarkable. One can’t fail to be touched by the story behind the quilt, too; she did its hand stitching while taking care of her husband during his final illness. He must have found comfort in this ritual: “He critiqued every addition and fondly gave it a big thumbs up and declared it his favorite. Before he passed away, he named it.” After grieving for six months, she forced herself to resume work, and completed the quilt after an additional six months.

I could do an entire post on just the work I saw at PIQF. It would take hours of photo cropping and editing, though, so perhaps I won’t.

Work on Odalesque is progressing. I had the “yips” about getting started on the stitching, so I had to start a couple of warm up projects first. It’s similar to blank page syndrome, I guess, an anxiety which interferes with getting started. Noodling away at something less exalted seems to make it go away. I’ll have to post the warm up projects another day, or it’ll take me another week to get this blog entry out.


The screen has taken some thought. Now, I know some folks might say “just stipple over it” or “echo stitch” or some such, but that isn’t my way. Look at different people’s work and you’ll see different stitching philosophies. Maria Elkins, for example, may use a naturalistic contour approach on skin, but reference traditional decorative quilting motifs elsewhere in the same image. Others – Susan Shie comes to mind – seem to find the stitching of secondary interest, mostly a way to hold layers together and showcase a surface design, so they’ll stick to stippling or do a loose wave over the surface of the quilt. There’s a range of styles in between.

Mine is more of a naturalistic philosophy. I could care less about replicating a traditional motif such as a feather in my own work unless there’s a reason to do so in the context of the image. I’m primarily interested in using the stitching to make the image more convincing or compelling. I have yet to see a stippled texture on any real life object, unless maybe it’s the crenellations on brains, so stippling isn’t my go-to method. (Braaaainnnssss.)

In the case of this screen in Odalesque, I’m guessing that in real life, its frame would be made of laquered wood. It wouldn’t have much discernible texture at all. Therefore, I’ll see if I can stitch a subtle “noise”. First, though, I have to get through stitching the rice paper in the screen’s white background, which I’ve decided should be graced with roughly parallel but somewhat irregular lines. Yeah. That’s been fun. After one false start, ripping out a whole bunch of stitches, and starting over, I’m about four hours and thirty square inches in. Only mumblety mumble hours more to go on the rice paper. Then, you know, everything else. Do I have a plan for stitching things like the vase and the dog’s fur? Um. No. Not yet.


I finally opened up my wallet and bought a set of magnifying lenses for my machine. Oh my. I had no idea. I wish I’d bought them years ago. They’re seriously great. No more hunching over the machine. Less eye strain. They’ve helped my stitching become more accurate and confident, and I’ve become more relaxed as a result.

The down side? The price. $60 for a set of three from Bernina. Still totally worth it, but since I’m a skinflint who loathes debt, that means $60 of something else had to go. No new jeans to replace the ones which sprung crotch holes, and this morning I reached for a block of homemade soap rather than adding soap to the shopping list. (Have I written about making soap because I couldn’t bear to throw out the bacon grease I’d saved up? Ah, well. That’s an adventure for another time. Yes, as a matter of fact, my strange ways did used to make me a laughing stock with my family.)

Another caveat: when I’m trying to judge whether my stitching is parallel to something an inch or so out, side-to-side distortion makes that difficult. However, I’m trying something else to resolve that:



That’s right. Modeler’s tape. It’s designed to be used on plastic car and airplane models, to go on painted surfaces and peel right off. My husband had a roll of it in a drawer, which he kindly donated to the cause of not hearing me whine, not that he’d be rude enough to put it like that.

Oh my. This is another thing I wish I’d tried years ago. No more blasted chalk or “disappearing ink” marks which I maybe can’t get out later! I’m not going to say which of my portraits have this problem, but yeah, there are at least a couple where residual orange chalk marks can be discerned here and there, and that was AFTER being rinsed over and over again. Now, I’m sure there could be a down side if one got a bad batch of tape or left it on one’s fabric long enough for the adhesive to come off, but so far I’m ecstatic. If I can find tape which will let me lay down curved lines, I’ll be even happier.

Alas, there’s about to be another break in the action due to jury duty. Now, I don’t resent jury duty particularly; I regard it as part of the price one pays for living in a civilized society, just as one pays taxes. It’s certainly the case that if I was in a situation which required a jury, I’d want a group of people to come in with good attitudes and listen to evidence.

At the same time, I dread it. Potentially day after day of having to interact with other people, which is unbelievably draining. Being instructed to believe whatever evidence is presented, rather than puzzling away at information myself. Given my career in Physics and naturally high degree of skepticism, this is like telling a labrador to not jump in water. And oh, lord. Some of the matters are pretty darned serious. As in, a victim badly harmed or sending a person to prison. The time before last, I was briefly seated on a jury for a case in which someone had been killed.

Finally, I have this creature called a child. I guess the assumption in American society is that one doesn’t need to hang out and take care of a child, that there’s daycare or grandparents eager to leap in and babysit or something. Yeah, not so much. I actually do things like pick my kid up after school and harangue him about homework, and I don’t leave him locked up in the house by himself for hours on end. However, in the eyes of the judicial system, that isn’t an acceptable reason to miss jury duty. If anything, I guess I need to be grateful that I wasn’t summoned during the summer while he was on vacation, as happened once. That was a nightmare.

Alright. Crossing fingers. Hoping to get through this period gracefully and without neglecting my kid. Artwork? Yeah, unfortunately that’ll have to be tabled until after jury duty.

Development of Odalisque, Part II

Sunday, October 12th, 2014

More on the creation of Odalisque. This may be a yawnfest for people who aren’t interested in 3D imagery or detailed how-tos. Um, here’s a  puppy video for those folks. (I haven’t watched the puppy video all the way through. Please let me know in the comments if there’s something awful in it.)



As previously noted, the backdrop in this photo simply wouldn’t do. It was far from the lush surroundings one would expect for a nude lounging figure. It was clear that I’d have to create a set or backdrop and composite the hound in. The only question was how. One could build a full-sized set, work with models and maquettes, or create an environment with the assistance of a computer.

There’s a long history of this sort of thing, although I believe most people work out the props and backdrop before posing the model! For example, in Norman Rockwell: Behind the Camera, Ron Schick shows us how Rockwell used a wide assortment of props to bring scenes to life. In Imaginative Realism, James Gurney talks about creating models and maquettes to help mentally visualize scenes. Thus, I’m not doing anything new; I’m just doing it with a computer.

The first order of business was the 3D model for the sofa upon which Ryan-hound reclines. I was torn about whether to create the model myself or use an pre-made one. Laziness won out: I wasn’t even sure the whole thing was going to work, so it made sense to not expend much time on an initial test.

These days there are models for everything under the sun, including some wonderful sofas and chaises. For example, the Turbosquid site offers this very elegant number for only $36, which is quite reasonable given the amount of work required to create such a detailed model.





However, I settled on this one, by artist Andresspa. Its clean lines appealed to me.


After downloading the model, I tried importing it into Photoshop CS6 Extended, just to try out that program’s features. The results were amusing:




Pieces of chaise got scattered hither and thither! Not exactly an auspicious start for the project.

This actually isn’t an uncommon problem when importing models. I could have tweaked the pieces into place, but I didn’t want to waste time messing around. Instead I turned to my current 3D tool, Blender, to see if it would be more cooperative.

Much better! Only, I really wanted the chaise to be flipped so its arm was on the other side. Fortunately, Blender can handle such issues without batting an eyelash.





The next order of business was tinting the chaise green, to contrast with Ryan’s fur, and trying to simulate a velvet texture. For the velvet I turned to Blender’s built-in particle simulation system, and in no time at all had created this:





Monstrous furry spikes sticking out of my chaise, ready to jab any hapless computer-simulated people who sat on it. Well. That went smoothly, didn’t it?

After some more tinkering, I managed to simulate a sort of rotten algae texture, then the appearance of cheap Astroturf. Not at all what I had in mind, but isn’t it wonderful what one can do these days? If I need to simulate a surface covered with rotten sludge, I’ll know just how to do it.

Finally it dawned on me that I was fretting over minutiae. A plain matte green surface was fine. The goal wasn’t to create photorealism so much as a credible digital painting. After all, stitching would add another level of detail, and I didn’t want the stitching to have to compete with the level of detail in the base image. Onward.




The next order of business was to adjust the geometry of the chaise’s cushion, so that it looked a little rumpled, then begin adding props. I acquired the props from the Archive3D site, where people share a good many models. The scene was beginning to take shape.

In case other Blender users are curious about the node setup for the checkerboard marble floor setup, here it is. Your mileage may vary, of course.



(Click on graphic to embiggen.)


A few things were still missing from the scene, such as a rug and a throw. The rug is simply a solidified plane with a Persian rug bitmap. I didn’t spend any time on displacement maps or other niceties, since the image was destined to be further altered with stitchery.

As for the throw, that thing chewed me up and spit me out for awhile. It seemed that a good place to start would be following a cloth simulation tutorial. There’s a nice clear one, the Cloth Napkin tutorial, at the Little Web Hut site.

Basically it boils down to creating a plane, subdividing it, giving it cloth properties, and running a simulation in which one drops the plane/cloth over whatever needs to be covered with fabric. I’ve left out some details here and there, but that’s the gist of it.

Suspend cloth:




Drop cloth:



Stop the simulation when the cloth looks decent:



Easy-peasy, right? Only instead of behaving nicely and draping itself on the chaise, my cloth was demon-possessed. I’d watch it fall and slither all the way off the chaise, then I’d change a few parameters and watch it slither off again … over and over and over again. No. No. I don’t want the lace throw on the floor! Then I changed a parameter and the darned thing started BOUNCING off the chaise. It would hit the chaise and recoil into the air as though made of rubber. Boing! Boing! I wish I’d saved some of those animations, because they were hysterical. Not so funny at the time, but amusing in retrospect.

I forget how I finally solved the problem. I was about at the point of wanting to crawl into the computer and drive nails through the throw to keep it on the chaise, though.

In case any Blender users are curious about how I created the lace texture, here is my node setup. This would be a good time to thank Volker Stark, whose tutorial on alpha maps and transparency put me on the right track and saved me from incipient madness. (Alas, I can no longer find the tutorial in order to link to it.)



(Click on graphic to embiggen.)


Here’s a section taken from the texture map file, which more or less looks like a photo of lace:




Here’s a section taken from the transparency map file. This was saved as a separate file, rather than including an alpha map in the lace texture file above. Although there may be a way to create transparency with an included alpha map, I never did get it to work.

Note that black occurs where one wants transparency to occur, and white occurs where one wants the object to be solid.



As a final note on the lace throw, it’s a tribute to my grandmother, who was a great tatter. I photographed a section of lace from one of her actual throws and tiled it in Photoshop, thereby letting her hard work live on in the virtual world.

After clearing up a couple of other issues, such as matching the lighting and camera angle in my Blender scene to the lighting and camera angle in my photo, I hit the render button and walked away for the night. When I came back, there was a huge hard drive-clogging version of this:



Perfect or photorealistic? No. But plenty good enough to make a backdrop for my dog, then to be printed out on fabric and sewn on.

After some tomfoolery in Photoshop, I had Ryan extracted from the squalid sheet-covered couch and placed in posher surroundings:



Now that the fabric has been printed from this image composite, it’s just a matter of ordering some more spools of thread, brewing up some coffee, and plunking myself down at the sewing machine. We shall see where this experiment leads. So far it’s been interesting.


Development of Odalisque, Part I

Saturday, October 11th, 2014



Here’s a preview of fabric I had printed for the work in progress. It’s clipped to the doors of my storage cabinet, with random chunks of batting and Stewie from Family Guy lurking above. It’s a very elegant workspace.

I haven’t decided what to call it … Odalisque, Odalisque with Squeak Toy, Dogalisque. Maybe the title will become clearer as I sew and get my hands dirty.

More than a year ago, I had the idea of making a portrait of my dog in the style of classic Odalisque paintings. You probably know the ones – there’s a naked dame casually lounging around on a swanky couch with loads of velvet drapes. Here’s an example by Ingres (which Wikipedia Commons assures me is in the public domain).


To my mind, the great flaw with all of these paintings is that they’re of women rather than dogs.

I stalked my dog for weeks, taking photos whenever he lounged.


Hmm. No.


Dear lord. No.


Huh. Getting there.

You get the idea. Lots of shots taken, most of them awful. Many shots later …


Not bad. Now, the judge who had the nasty comment about Suspicion a few years ago, the one who had maybe never gone to a zoo to see what sleeping flamingos actually look like, probably wouldn’t like this pose. It is admittedly an usual pose. It’s voluptuous, though, what with Ryan coyly covering his “manhood” (doghood?) and making eye contact with us. Yeah. That’s the money shot. That’s the core of the Odalisque.

The only problem was, the background and surroundings were lousy. I keep a sheet thrown over the couch for sanitary reasons, because the dog likes to lick his rump (yuck) and the boy scatters dry Cheerios everywhere. The sheet makes for fast cleanup: yank it off, throw it in the washer, and filth is history. However, it’s also ugly. Not exactly classical Odalisque surroundings. What to do?

The obvious answer was to use Photoshop to composite the hound on to a different background, maybe something with a velvet chaise or a lush Empire couch. However, I don’t happen to have any of those things on hand – ours is, as previously noted, more of a “sheet thrown over the couch” sort of household.

I explored using stock photography. That led nowhere, partly because of cost and partly because the lighting wouldn’t match. Nothing screams “fake” quite like inconsistency in shadows and highlights.

No, I was just going to have to go a build a set somehow, then composite the dog in. But how?

Then the answer came to me. This is how, through the power of computery goodness:


(Click to embiggen.)

Thanks to the power of computers, we need not be restricted to what we can draw or photograph ourselves. Thank goodness for that.

More another day …

Why Knot? (The final quiltening)

Tuesday, October 7th, 2014

Here’s my latest, Why Knot? (Full title: Why Knot? Life of Brian #8)



(Click to embiggen)

Those with sharp eyesight may notice that the knot names aren’t precisely standard.

Not sure what else to say … the story behind developing it is in another blog post. Insert sound of streamers, balloons whizzing around, general celebration.

The boy wants me to write that the portrait is “About a kid who finds himself unable to make a knot, and finds that he is in a liiiiittle trouble. (And by little, I mean BIG.)” I think he should write all of the descriptions for my work.

This piece was actually fairly fun to make; I’m enjoying experimenting with some new digital and other techniques.

Until next time, stay safe and don’t take any wooden nickels.

Think a kind thought for Sabrina.

Sunday, October 5th, 2014

I feel for Sabrina Allen, the young lady from Texas who was kidnapped by her mother twelve years ago. I hope life will smooth out for her. I hope that both she and her father will find inner peace.

These cases rattle me a bit. I always feel a surge of sorrow for the kid. I also empathize with the parent searching for the lost child, now that I have my own child and can relate to that fear.

My own experience lasted maybe a couple of months. Not so bad compared to what Sabrina Allen and many others go through. Even a mild case leaves scars, though. Imagine what she is going through. The confusion. The pain. The anger.

In my case there were two incidents, the first occurring when my mother left my father when I was seven or eight. An outsider might conclude that leaving was long overdue, coming on the heels of years of psychosis, brutal anger, and violence. There must have been many good, loving moments in my early childhood, but I mostly don’t remember them. What I do remember is huddling under the covers in my bedroom, listening to shouts and bangs and the thud of fist against flesh, and praying fervently for God to make it stop. He didn’t. Coming home from school and finding my mother’s self-aborted fetus in the refrigerator. Her trying to jump out of a moving car while I pressed on her door lock for all I was worth. Marital strife which would conclude with her walking down to the graveyard, lying down with the dead, and my father wearily trying to get her to come home. Police called to a hotel room. Fights and fights and fights. Coming home from school to find her gone, taken away to the state hospital for a ninety day involuntary commitment.

That last incident must have awakened a certain degree of cunning. My mother was not stupid; she was “merely” profoundly mentally ill. She had – has – the type of illness which makes people deeply suspicious of those who tell them that they’re ill, and she was determined to never be institutionalized again. I suppose she must have been careful the day we dropped my father off at the university where he was taking classes. Certainly I suspected nothing. Smiles, kiss goodbye, I’ll pick you up later. That kind of thing. He blithely went off to class. We began the long drive to the next state.

“We’re going to see grandma and grandpa,” she told me. I was just barely bright enough to see that this didn’t jibe with our picking Dad up after school. Shouldn’t he be coming with us? “Oh, he’ll be up later,” my mother lied. Or perhaps it wasn’t a lie; perhaps she knew that he would indeed be up later, just not with her cooperation. This effectively stranded my father at a university in a rural area not exactly teeming with transportation options.

We drove and drove to one of her parents’ houses, which was approximately in the middle of nowhere on a mountain in Oklahoma. Godforsaken. No plumbing, no electricity, foul outhouse by the side of a barn, that kind of thing. It was the sort of place one expects to see naked children chasing chickens in the dirt. Seeing one snake devour another out by the outhouse qualified as riveting entertainment.

I was playing in the dirt when my father pulled up in a rental car a few days later. I was over the moon, but I didn’t get to hug him or really say hello. My grandfather promptly came out with a rifle, pointed it at him, and told him to get off the property. I hated him for that. I was afraid he was going to kill my father. It was terrifying.

I didn’t see my father again until after his visitation rights had been worked out. I have no idea how long that took, whether it was weeks or months. (This is the type of thing I think of when NSA surveillance of citizens comes up. There are some holes in my personal history that I would appreciate having cleared up.)

After that, although my entire world had been ripped apart, there was at least a routine. My mother’s parents had another house, a tiny frame affair in a suburb of Dallas. I was enrolled in school there and got to see my father every other weekend. On Saturday mornings I’d have my overnight bag packed early and be wiggling impatiently by the door, waiting for his car to pull up. It was a routine. Not a smooth life, what with my mother’s work and dating travails – there was always someone out to kill her, it seemed, or she’d grow paranoid about something else and I’d have to calm her down – but it was at least predictable. School, new friends, seeing my father a couple of times a month. Then my mother decided to shake it up.

I don’t know what brought it on. Maybe nothing at all, given the peculiar machinations of her mind. Or perhaps she was weary of the constraints of the custody agreement and my obvious eagerness to be with my father, or she’d had a blowup with her parents over her dating life.

It was a Friday morning during the spring, perhaps before Easter or spring break. I was excited about the weekend coming up; my father was picking me up the next day. When my mother shook me awake, though, instead of telling me to get ready for school, she told me to hurry up and get in the car. There was no time to get dressed; I was bundled away in the old hand-me-down dress I wore as a nightgown. I don’t think I was even wearing underwear, embarrassing as that memory is.

I protested. Wasn’t I supposed to go to school? Wasn’t Dad going to pick me up the next day? “You’re never going to see your father again,” she responded harshly. It was like a punch to the gut. I was bereft. I cried and whined to the point that if she hadn’t already been insane, she would have been driven there. She didn’t give a damn.

We drove and drove and drove. We went west through El Paso, then into New Mexico and Arizona. As we drove, I reflected that at least I could send my father a postcard. After the Oklahoma incident, he’d tucked some self-addressed, stamped postcards in a pocket in my overnight bag. “If she ever takes you off again,” he’d instructed me, “just put one of these in a mailbox so that I’ll know you’re alright.”

However, in the haste to get on the road – or perhaps because of one of my mother’s machinations – my overnight bag hadn’t made it into the car. I had ample opportunity to torture myself with that fact during the drive and during the coming weeks. If only, if only, if only I hadn’t messed up. If only I’d managed to grab the bag or the postcards. But I hadn’t, and I’d messed up good, and I was never going to get to see my father again. My mother was bitterly happy about the latter.

I don’t think she had a plan beyond getting in the car and driving. I think she very rapidly ran out of money. There was a man or men. In one town we stayed with a stranger for several days. I dwelled on his couch in front of the TV. My mother would disappear into the man’s bedroom at night, telling me “Don’t tell him I’m wearing my nightgown. He thinks these are my normal clothes.” A desperate lie told by a mother whoring herself out and wanting to hide that fact from her young daughter.

Then came the inevitable dawn awakening, the dramatic rush to the car. “We’ve got to get out of here! He said I need to be in a mental hospital,” she hissed, “He’s going to have me committed!” I’ve since concluded that this might have been a very tidy way for the man to get us, a couple of moochers, to move on. It worked.

So much of that time is a blur. Was there one new school or two or three? There is no one to ask. I remember fingernail inspections, square dancing, and a handkerchief requirement at one school. I also remember vomiting, not wanting to eat, and begging for my father.

Eventually we landed at her sister’s trailer house in Arizona. There was an uncle by marriage, a kind man who had dark hair like my father. He saw me admiring his slide rule, which was like the slide rule my father had given me, a device I used for cheating during multiplication tests. I felt incredibly homesick. My uncle gave me the slide rule. It was a sympathetic gesture during an especially low point in my life, and I hope that he’s been repaid in kind.

I don’t know how it all came to an end. I dimly remember mutterings about a phone call from my mother’s parents and there being a warrant. I can still see my mother glaring at me in brittle anger, biting out “The child wants to see its father.”

I did get to see my father again, thankfully, and was living with him and his new wife by the summer after the fourth grade. It wasn’t a formal arrangement at first, just my going to visit for the summer and never quite going back to my mother. Eventually she granted him custody. There was certainly an element of convenience for her, but I also think that, despite being mentally ill, she was trying to do the right thing. She did love me. In the rational part of her brain, she knew I wanted to be with my father, knew that he could give me access to opportunities that she couldn’t. Or perhaps, as my stepmother liked to put it, she was simply “irresponsible and didn’t want to have to take care of me.” Either way, it cost her dearly.

There wasn’t a happy ending, despite everyone pretending that there was. I wonder if there ever is. My mother frequently expressed fears that they would “turn (me) against (her)”. Although paranoid and inclined to say such things anyhow, she was not incorrect. I did adore my father and it was clear that my best option for a stable life was living with him and my stepmother. The devil’s bargain, which was unvoiced but rapidly became clear, was that to gain their approval, I would have to hide any sign that I loved my mother or wanted to see her. I did this. I turned my back on my mother. It hurt and I felt traitorous, but I did it. I fully bought into the tacit and damaging “your mother is dirt and your stepmother is your new mother” game.

My father did his level best to minimize my contact with her. I think he was partly motivated by a very real knowledge of her capacity to wreak havoc, but he was also extremely angry and, I believe, vengeful. She did not know our address or phone number, and could contact me only via a mailbox in another town. When I received mail from her, they would read it or have nasty comments like “What crazy thing is she up to now?” From time to time my father would get an evil smile and say things like “I’m not saying that you never have to see her again after you turn 18, but if you choose not to, there’s nothing anyone can do about it.”

On one occasion, when I hadn’t seen her for months, a visitation was arranged. The drop off point was a motel. She was perhaps five minutes late. My father chose to interpret that as her not having shown up, and gleefully sped off. In the rearview mirror I could see her pulling up. It hurt. I had wanted to see her, but felt I had to pretend that I didn’t. I was torn.

When I did see her, there would be an interrogation afterwards, mostly from my stepmother. There were nasty derisive comments about what we’d done. I wasn’t smart enough to avoid or deflect them. “When you’ve been to see your mother, I can smell her on you,” my stepmother once said, her nose wrinkling, “I can smell her personal odor on you.” Suddenly something which should have been nice, going to see my mother, became dirty and shameful.

Life goes on. At some point years down the road, I suppose one gains compassion for everyone involved: the profoundly mentally ill young woman who wasn’t capable of managing her own thoughts, much less marriage or being a mother; the man who tried to live up to his responsibilities as a parent but didn’t throttle back his rage and bitterness; the woman who married into a dysfunctional situation, was thrust into far too much responsibility, and came to hate her stepdaughter.

One gains compassion, but one also loses trust. One learns that the people one should be able to depend on most in the world can’t be trusted to put aside their anger and do the right thing for a child. Or perhaps they will do the right thing, but only to a point. “Honor thy father and thy mother – at least, until it becomes inconvenient for the custodial parent.” As the years go by and one silently observes the unchanging behavior of the main players, sees their treatment trickle down to one’s own child, the distrust solidifies into a wall. Perhaps one is damaged in other ways as well. The kind of anger which leads to kidnappings and using one’s child as a pawn is corrosive for everyone involved.

Think a kind thought for Sabrina Allen. Whatever the specifics of her own story, that which she thought was true has become a lie. Her life has been turned upside down.

Her father, for his part, has had one form of agony and uncertainty removed, and is now embarking on the difficult journey of trying to build a relationship with a daughter who regards him as a stranger.

May they both find peace.

A story.

Friday, September 12th, 2014

I keep many stories inside. Maybe I should start letting them out. Maybe I’d be less neurotic, less odd. I spent so many years around my family, certainly, trying to just say nothing and keep the peace. In the end, it did no good. Maybe if I’d been more open and less conflict-averse, things would have gone differently.

This is a story about a phone conversation I had with my stepmother, years ago. One of the last conversations I ever had with her, actually.

I asked after one of the family dogs, a dog from my childhood, how was she doing and so forth. In retrospect, it was an ignorant, silly question. Dogs have limited lifespans, and if she’d still been alive, it would have been a matter for the Guinness Book of World Records.

My stepmother laughed, a rather nasty laugh. “Oh, she’s been dead for ages. She had tick fever.  J___ (my father) shot her.” (“Tick fever” was their blanket label for what I’d call neglect, a culmination of bad diet, being confined to a yard caked in feces, extreme heat and cold, and the bare minimum of veterinary care.)

I started to weep. My stepmother continued, relentlessly. “It was really hot outside and the ground was too hard to dig a hole, so I put her in a garbage bag. Oh, are you crying? Ha ha, I didn’t mean to upset you, ha ha.”

There were more hideous details. I don’t remember how the call ended. I was sick imagining what had happened. It was all too easy to imagine, the poor dog getting old and sick, so sick that one day the humans had actually noticed. Then perhaps there’d been an argument with my father getting upset and emotional and my stepmother sarcastically poking at him. Then my father had gotten enraged, stomped away and grabbed his gun, and had blown a hole in my poor old dog’s head. I could imagine her surprise and her agony as she died.

Or not. Maybe that wasn’t what had happened at all. Maybe it was all very gentle and compassionate, with people having a mature discussion in which they decided to blow a gentle and compassionate hole in the dog’s head. However, if it had gone the way of drama and yelling, it would be unsurprising. That was most often the way things went in that household. One thing was certain: whatever had happened, it wasn’t what the dog deserved. She deserved tenderness and a last trip to the vet where she could float away without pain.

It angered me. Perhaps, fifty or sixty years ago, there were fewer choices about veterinary care, fewer options for keeping one’s dogs healthy and giving them a pain free death when the time came. Perhaps at that point, when your faithful old friend reached his or her end, the kindest thing you could do was to administer a bullet to the head. Perhaps that was simply the way things were when my father was a boy.

However, that is no longer the case. Around most moderately-sized towns, there are emergency veterinary clinics open around the clock. There are people available to help do what is necessary and to do it in a kind manner. If one has a pet, it behooves one to learn that information and keep it handy in case it’s needed. I’ve made that drive a few times myself. It’s horrible, but so much better than the alternatives.

Was it a matter of money, which seemed to be eternally in short supply in that household, despite their owning several airplanes, buying new cars, and having a plentiful supply of alcohol? Then why have pets or children at all, if one can’t provide for them? Why not put aside a little money each month for the inevitable? Why not ask me for the money, if it was so short? I would have gladly paid to have her euthanized.

Finally, what kind of person gets pleasure from delivering terrible news like that, from dragging out and embellishing the details? What kind of person laughs while she tells her stepdaughter about shooting her old dog and the body becoming stiff and stuffing her in a garbage bag?

I don’t understand any of it, any more than I can understand their other behavior over the years. I finally cut myself free and life is much better, but now and then I still hear echoes.

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.