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Bob Ross, Pigmented Lullabies, And Wordpress Sucks

There are three parts to this story.  One is about Bob Ross and insomnia.  The other is about traveling and painting.  The third is about how WordPress sucks, or really how WordPress.com does.

Bob Ross and Insomnia

I actually purchased the entire collection of Bob Ross DVDs off eBay a while back.  I think that’s like 30 DVDs or 30 seasons.  I got them because I like watching him paint and following along with a palette knife for fun.  Just a fun Saturday night in the Show household watching Bob and painting.

I (and many other people) have noticed that Bob Ross has a soothing effect on you which makes you fall asleep.  That soothing voice.  That soft scraping and brushing sound.  His laugh every time he bangs the solvent off his brush then gives himself lymphoma by wiping it on his pants.  Just something about watching him puts you to sleep.

But, then I realized this phenomena happens with *every* painting video I watch.  I swear I cannot watch a painting video without passing out.  I have quite a few, as I like to follow along and see if I can replicate their paintings as a way of studying.  They’re just relaxing and enjoyable, but if I’m not trying to follow along then BAM pass out.  Drooling, out, coma, worse than eating a bag of Doritos and 2 tukeys gone.

This gave me an idea….

Plein Air Painting

I travel quite a lot for work or personal activities and one thing I like to do is drag along some kind of painting equipment and do a painting outside.  The fancy French phrase for painting outside is “En Plein Air” and since I’m an American I butcher that into “plain air y’all.”

I love painting outside.  It’s simultaneously relaxing and frustrating to go outside to paint.  It’s relaxing because you’re outside, you get a bit of exercise walking a long distance with your gear and back, you have the sunshine, people come talk to you, and honestly who cares if your painting sucks.

Oh, that’s why it’s frustrating.  It’s damn hard to make anything decent outside as just about everything is stacked against you.  That sunshine?  Better bring sunscreen.  That plain air? Better hope it doesn’t rain.  Those people you talk to? They will talk your ear off for hours.  Eventually I just gave up trying to make something decent and now I just use it to practice and maybe get some ideas for a real painting at home.

But, this added to my idea….

PeerTube Is Awesome

Youtube is the way most people host a video show, but youtube is dangerous if you want to give away free content or to do something in the edge of acceptable.  It’s too easy for an army of idiots to demonitize your content which gives all the money to Youtube and you’re screwed.  In my case, I was reluctant to use youtube because of the constant harassment, their demonitization and censorship policies, and a host of other things they just do plain wrong.  Sure, it’s the cheapest way and you could make some money, but it’s too risky all my hard work would get erased.

Not to mention that if you put 2 in chords of music (which can’t be copyrighted) giant corporations will snag your content and make money off it.  I actually think it is entirely unethical for Youtube to allow companies that are being critiqued by a critic to earn money on the critic’s work.  People who review movies and video games should be allowed to review them as a right of free speech and not have the money go to the company being critiqued.  I’m sure Roger Ebert would be livid if he was told that Sony would get his paycheck for the month because he talked about 2 Sony movies. But that’s Youtube.

Then along came PeerTube which allows you to host your videos but share the load using Webtorrent.  PeerTube gives you a very minimalist Youtube experience and is moderately easy to install.  As usual their instructions aren’t super good but I’m able to setup a PeerTube instance now with Docker in about 10 minutes.

My only complaint about PeerTube is that it is definitely aimed at a Youtube crowd, so doing it as a vlog or similar journal wouldn’t work too well.  I have however had success at embedding videos right into a WordPress like I did with this post for my refactoring course I teach online. Really simple to embed videos and also get the webtorrent functionality, so I’m happy with it.  I can use PeerTube for videos and embed them into a blog….except….

WordPress Sucks

This blog you’re reading now is hosted on WordPress.com and you cannot embed a damn thing here.  They want to push you toward their shitty and expensive video service so they block any attempts to embed custom HTML.  I’m sure they have some dipshit lame reason with something like security, but it’s really all about making me pay for their video service.

But, I’m also kind of tired of WordPress in general.  I started using it to just test out what it’s like to try to use it and, while it works, it isn’t nearly as polished and capable as people claim.  It’s also expensive to run either from them or from yourself  where it requires a decent amount of hardware just to basically serve static files.  The inability to embed PeerTube on wordpress.com while being able to do it on a wordpress I host is the last straw.

Going forward, I plan on doing videos instead of writing, and I’m hosting them myself with PeerTube and possibly VuePress.  I have to say that usually people who make blog generators totally screw it up.  I tried Hugo and it was a total nightmare brainfuck of figuring out where things went in some bizarro world where the template controlled how my documents were laid out and deviating from your typical blog format was nearly impossible.

But so far VuePress ends up being pretty easy to use, works mostly as expected, is easy to extend and alter, and produces a cheap easy to run featureful static website that’s modern.  I also feel that VuePress is a gateway drug to using Vue.  I think if the Vue project showed how to take a VuePress site and then use that to make a working product they’d have some great docs and a great way to get people to use Vue itself.

Oh yeah, that idea….

Pigmented Lullabies

I realized that I travel to a lot of really great places.  Hawaii, Miami, San Francisco, Chicago, Seattle, Portland, Washington DC, and even more before I started painting.  In that time I had this idea to chronicle or record what I was doing.  I wasn’t making great paintings outside, but it was a lot of fun and I figured other people might enjoy it.

I also remembered that watching someone else paint is very soothing and relaxing, causing even the worst insomniacs to fall asleep quickly.  I should know since I am very happily an insomniac.  I love waking up at 3am and just getting up to go work.  But sometimes I want to sleep so I put on a painting video and I’m out in no time.

It took me a very long time to figure out all the particulars of recording video and editing it in Davinci Resolve (which could be an entire course on its own), but I’ve now been able to produce 5 videos (a total of about 7 hours of content) and host them myself at ZedShaw.art.  You can see me getting better at editing the videos and if you watch my most recent one in San Francisco at Ocean Beach you’ll see the majority of the features I want in the video.

This is so much fun and so easy that I’m going to be converting this blog into mostly video content.  I’ll have an announcement about that in the near future, but honestly I’d rather spend my time writing for books than blogging, and making videos is now easier for me than writing a blog post.

Better Than A Rubber Ducky

My final idea about my painting videos is that it might help you figure out bugs.  Let’s say you can’t solve a bug in your code.  One trick is to talk to a rubber ducky and explain the problem.  Another is to find a way to relax.  I like to paint.  Or go for a walk.  Then I usually get the answer.

If you’re stuck on a bug, then I’m curious if watching me paint will help you out.  The videos are fairly quiet, usually with random street noise or a soothing ocean wave sound, and maybe a little talking.  I imagine you could just turn it on and leave it running while you code, and when you get stuck or need a break just watch it to chill out.

Let me know if that works.

The Billionaires vs. BrandonM

Recently Dropbox became one of the latest companies to be worth billions of dollars without turning a profit, and Drew Houston became a billionaire.  I worked for Drew for a bit, and decided he was not the leader for me.  If you’d like to see why, take a look at this:

What’s the post he’s referring to?  Why it’s an 11 year old post that dared to question what Dropbox did by one BrandonM:

This comment, as BrandoM says, was from a 22 year old undergrad student who is now a 33 year old man and most likely a regular old working stiff.  BrandonM is not a billionaire while Drew most definitely is one.  BrandonM has absolutely zero power in this situation, and Drew has an infinite amount more by comparison.  Additionally, what BrandonM said does not deserve this level of retribution. He did not insult Drew, did not say anything actually bad about Dropbox, was even polite after Drew did this.

Think about that for a second.  A man who just became a billionaire (due to his large connections through MIT and his Fraternity) took time out of his day to hunt down a comment by a regular nobody 11 years later and throw his success back in that guy’s face, and this man can do nothing about it because he can’t delete his comment.

Now, let’s add a little bit more to this problem:

  1. Did you know YC startups have special privileges on Hacker News?  Nobody knows what they are, but rumor has it they can delete stories they don’t like, delete comments, and have the ability to get their stories to the front.  Again, this is based on statements from a few YC alums in passing, so I can’t confirm this, but you can already see how the JOB postings seem to have preferential treatment, so why not other things?
  2. There is no way for BrandonM to delete this.  For an entire decade he has been haunted by 3 paragraphs he wrote when he was 22.
  3. The moderators of HN frequently delete things they don’t like, but leave up quite a few abusive and slanderous posts.  HN has the right to delete something, but not BrandonM, the author.
  4. Nearly every YC founder backs the idea that everyone should be open to criticism and the “free market”, but this exchange shows the message is more:  “We can criticize you, but you better not criticize us.”
  5. This could possibly amount to an effective slander case by BrandonM against YC or Drew Houston given that, 11 years later, he claims he is still being quoted about it and cannot delete it even though his views have changed.
  6. The inability to delete your own profile or messages could amount to a violation of several EU laws regarding right to be forgotten and definitely violates the newer privacy laws in Europe.  It might also violate several US privacy laws as well, and I think this should be a slander case given the magnitude of the impact on BrandonM and the fact that he can’t delete his remarks.
  7. If you or I had done something similar to what Drew did here we most likely would be chastised by the moderator(s) or even banned.

What BrandonM wrote is not even abusive.  It’s just his viewpoint on what Dropbox does, and definitely not deserving of this kind of spiteful petty retribution 11 years later.  This kind of behavior is common from Silicon Valley companies.  They’re big fans of the whole “waiting for your body on the river Ganges” thing, and if you ever once doubted them they’ll hunt you down after their success just to shit on you.  Never mind that the only reason most of these companies succeed is because they go to the same “cuddle puddle” parties as VCs do and went to the same school with the same frat.  Nope, they totally made it on the glory of their shitty code and that’s why your technical comments deserve retribution.

That isn’t even the most abusive thing on HN that is still up.  There’s this gem from 9 years ago:

This cortesi fellow decided to call me a cock because…….I said I prefer to GPL my software because too many people abuse open source developers.  Nowhere in my writing did I mention cortesi, and I don’t even know him.  But here he is calling me a cock for no other reason than I feel my work should have value.  Did this get deleted?  Nope.  Moderators still have it up.  I bet if cortesi could he might remove it.  People change in 9 years.

Just not YCombinator.

No Delete Is Abusive

Everyone who runs YCombinator tries to pretend like they are decent liberal libertarian minded human beings.  They start charities, donate money, attempt basic income experiments, and a host of things that I and many other people would label “progressive” or nearly communist.

Yet, their behavior in actually running their company is not even close to the fake progressive values they project.  They have abysmal funding rates for minorities, women, people of color, coders over 40, and hell, anyone who didn’t go to Stanford or an Ivy League school even.  Their startups are constantly embroiled in the biggest sexual harassment abuse scandals we’ve ever seen.  They frequently allow people on their forums to slander and abuse others, with only the thinnest veneer of moderation.

I believe the most important sign that YC is an abusive company is the fact that–contrary to several laws–they refuse to allow people to delete comments even a decade later.  The entire combative nature of HN commenters means that people are going to make mistakes and those mistakes will haunt them, so preventing deletion is abusive.

It also contradicts the progressive values that they claim to have.  Wanting to fund an experiment in basic income means you believe that people make mistakes.  They take a wrong turn and need a reset to get back on their feet.  Their lives change in some way, but that life got derailed and can’t recover without help.  Not letting BrandonM delete his comment means they actually don’t believe this.  They don’t really believe that people make mistakes—oops sorry, founders make mistakes all the time and get away with it.  They just don’t believe me and you are allowed to make mistakes

The people running YCombinator have now demonstrated that they are not progressive or even good people.  Here’s Sam Altman–another incredibly rich man–again humiliating BrandonM years later:

Screen Shot 2018-03-25 at 5.02.18 PM

This is a wealthy man, running a very wealthy company, supporting a billionaire in his quest to humiliate a common working guy for a comment that worker made 11 years ago.  Sam has no idea how this will impact Brandon’s life.  He has no idea if this will hurt BrandonM, drive him to suicide, get him fired, yet he does it anyway.

Progressive or liberal people do not take advantage of their wealth and power to humiliate someone less powerful than they are over something this petty.

Defending BrandonM

I actually agree with the sentiment that most of the people who comment on HN are clueless losers who just love trading slander through throwaway2342343 accounts.  But, I also can’t stand it when someone with power abuses their power to shit on someone who’s just speaking their mind.  I don’t think BrandonM’s comments fit into the “I could do that in a weekend” bullshit comments you hear.  I think what he wrote was fairly valid…in 2007 for a Linux user.

In 2007 what BrandonM wrote is actually valid given the environment.  It was a total long shot that Dropbox would go anywhere, and hell it took a whole 11 fucking years for them to IPO.  Box did it in 2014 and competes rather well compared to Dropbox.  But let’s break down his comments from a 2007 perspective:

  1. Silicon Valley had been ravaged by the Dot Bomb era and Drew couldn’t even get funding in his home town.  It’s totally normal to be skeptical that he couldn’t pull this off.
  2. “For a Linux user….” right there he’s looking at this from a point of view that frankly doesn’t matter.  There’s a few Linux users in the world compared to everyone else, but when people criticize his comments they think he’s talking about Windows users.
  3. “curlftpfs”, “svn”, “cvs”, at the time, that was all we had that worked.  On linux this might work pretty well.  A simple rsync would work better, and that’s mostly how Dropbox works.  So, he wasn’t really wrong here either.  In 2007, what he wrote is a viable–although crap–option.
  4. “It doesn’t replace a USB drive…” this is a simple misunderstanding of how Dropbox works…which means Drew screwed up the marketing.  That’s not BrandonM’s fault or makes him stupid.  It’s Drew’s fault for not demonstrating that the files are kept locally so you don’t need a USB.  And, if you’re smart and you travel, you do keep your important stuff on an SD card or USB drive.
  5. “It does not seem very ‘viral’…”  At the time “viral” meant “I saw this video on YouTube and it got 1 million views.  It’s a Desktop app so how in the hell are you going to toss it to your friend and virus that shit up?  That’s why they had to create the web interface, so again, he was right.  The Desktop app is not viral at all.
  6. “or income-generating”….  If you define “income” as revenue then Dropbox brings in some decent revenue.  If you define “income” as profit, then he’s right, Dropbox does not make a profit.
  7. “is it reasonable to make money off of this?”  And here we have it, he means “income” as “profit”.  Making money means you keep the money.  If I have to spend 4 billion dollars to make 3 billion then I am not making money off of it.  I’m losing money on it.  So again, BrandonM was right.

In my mind what BrandonM wrote was actually true, but it was short sighted and didn’t take into account the value of going to MIT and being in the same frats as other guys who know really wealthy guys.  Next time you see someone shit all over this guy, remember that 11 years ago, he was right and it could have gone totally differently with just one wrong move.

Photographing Art

WARNING: THIS ESSAY IS AN EXPLORATION. DON’T GET ON YOUR HN AND LOBSTERS TALKING ABOUT HOW I KNOW NOTHING ABOUT PHOTOGRAPHY BECAUSE YOU WOULD BE RIGHT AND THAT’S WHY I’M WRITING THIS.

Photographing art turns out to be very difficult.   You would think that you could just point a camera on your phone at a piece of art and it would come out correct. In fact if you’re at a museum it might actually work because the museum controls the light that is on every painting. In my house though I do not have high quality museum lights. What I have are crappy, yellow, florescent, warm, and plain terrible lighting. So when I take a photo of my paintings it usually comes out looking kind of like I took the photo under a streetlamp.

The problem is that the quality of light impacts the way the painting looks, but you can’t just get better lights and suddenly improve the quality of your painting photos. Cameras actually do quite a lot to try to “correct”  photos when you take them.   A camera will attempt to adjust the level of yellow versus blue in your photo, change the amount of light versus dark, and several other things that generally help when photographing things outside, but don’t help when photographing a piece of art.

This problem actually drove me insane for quite a while, so I decided to try to figure out what’s going on and fix it. I found that you can actually fix a lot of the problems with lights and color, but that you can’t actually fix it to a point where the artist who did the painting will agree that it’s correct. Even if I’ve solved the majority of my problems with art photography, other painters will have slightly different perceptions that will make it different for them. I’ll take a photo that has perfectly calibrated color, light/dark balance, and just about everything looks great to me but to them it’s still wrong.  Human perception is weird like that.

So as you read this keep in mind that this is just what I found makes the paintings look better for me when I photograph them. Also keep in mind that I am super lazy and I actually don’t do most of this stuff every single time I take a photo of my paintings. Many times I just whip out my best camera point and shoot and go,  “yeah that’s good enough.”

However, pretty soon I’m going to be taking more serious photos of my artwork for posting to a new project.  That means I have to become more formal about how I photograph my artwork, in this blog post is my attempt to write this down and collect information.

Research

There is almost no easily found literature on the subject of photographing art, so I had to learn most of it myself.  You can find books and courses on photographing just about anything want.  There are books on photographing landscapes, houses, portraits, nudes, rocks, cars, and almost everything except for artwork.  The only resources that I could find on photographing paintings are from painters. The problem with this is the majority of painters are not professional photographers, so their advice tends to just be what works for them for a few times or keeps working for them.

What’s worse is the majority of photographers simply use Photoshop to correct all of the problems that they run into. Rather than try to take a photo correctly the first time, a photographer will simply take a whole bunch of photos and then fix them all up in Photoshop from memory.   For most things this works because a photographer isn’t really trying to record reality, but to create a pleasing artistic image so they have a lot of freedom to alter photos to be “better”.  When photographing artwork (or any forensic photography), your ideas of artistic integrity do not belong.  You’re trying to record as exactly as possible what is photographed.

This means the majority of the advice on how to fix a photo in Photoshop is useless. When you photograph a painting you have to control the lights, how it bounces off the painting, and get the color correct in the original photo while you are looking at the painting. To do that you have to actually calibrate the camera to the light source and use a camera and lens that solves some of the problems.

The Issues to Overcome

The following are the main problems I had when taking photos of my paintings. These aren’t all of the issues but they’re the ones that seem to be the hardest to solve with just Photoshop.

Light Color

Light color is best demonstrated by these two photos:

Compared to this one:

The first photo was taken without any correction to the color of the light (and bad focus on the top). The second photo was taken after correcting the camera’s color settings to more accurately reflect what I saw as more accurate.  The reason the first one isn’t right is that the camera was set to Auto White Balance mode, and I guess it thought the photo was too yellow so it removed the yellow (especially in the whites).  Problem is, I painted that sky as much more yellow, so it was wrong.  Now, maybe the first one is more appealing, but it’s not accurate.

I’ll explain later how I do this, but the general idea is you can calibrate your camera so that it knows that the light is set to a certain color temperature and then it will compensate so that the actual picture taken is correct.

Another thing that causes this is the temperature of the lights.  If you get a light that has a low temperature, say 3500 K, then that means it has more yellow in it and possibly red and less blue and the color. If you get a light that has a higher temperature, say 5500 K, then that means it has a lot less yellow in the light and much more blue. In most houses people pick lights that have a warm temperature in the 3000 to 3500 K range. But when you observe a painting you want to use the most neutral light, or maybe a much cooler light closer to the 5000 K range. If you use a light that has two cool of a temperature then the painting may look very harsh and not as colorful.

Chances are I did this painting under a yellow light, saw the painting as yellow, and then tried to “fix” the camera’s AWB correction.  Now we get into the weird world of human perception because I bet if I moved the painting over to a cooler light I’d want to take a new photo.  If I showed the painting to another human with slightly different genetics in their eyes they would see the painting just a little different and want to adjust it too.  The end result is you can never really get a photo of a painting perfectly accurate so that everyone looking at it in every kind of light will say it’s “correct”.  You just have to get close.

That means you can’t actually find a light that will perfectly render your painting. I have tried nearly every kind of light at every temperature in every possible way, and there just doesn’t exist the light that will make your painting look good with your camera set at its default or for every person. The reason is your camera’s default is to use something called auto white balance. Auto white balance will take any photo you take and try to balance all of the light temperature in the photo so that it is more even. Normally this works great when you’re taking photos in sunlight or outside or even interior light. But when you have to photograph a painting, you need to control the exact setting for the cameras color temperature or else it will shift the painting in strange ways to compensate for any light you use.

That means you need to calibrate your camera and tell it what the temperature of the light is. I’ll explain how I do this later after I talk about all the things that I tried first.

Reflections and Specular Highlights

When you photograph a piece of artwork that is glossy you have a problem with reflections in any area that is black, and specular highlights in any ridges of the gloss. Reflection happens because when you have a glossy pure black surface it actually acts as a mirror. In fact this is called a black mirror.  Specular highlights happen because, when you use oil paint, there are actual ridges and surface textures that hit the light at the right angle relative to the camera that cause a pure white light bright spot.

When you study painting you’ll see all these diagrams about where the highlights are on spheres and many of the diagrams are wrong because they just make it seem like the only factor is the position of the light relative to the shiny object. The actual cause of specular highlights and their position is based on the location your eye relative to the location of the light and the location of the object. If an object is shiny, and you move around, you’ll see the specular highlight move. There are a lot of ways to reduce the reflection on a glossy painting surface, but probably the best is to just use a zoom lens and get really far away, then move the lights so the highlights disappear.

Light and Dark Exposure

Cameras work very similar to your eye. When they look into a dark area they adapt so that they can take an accurate picture of the dark area. But to do this they need to change various mechanisms in the camera so that way they can receive more light from the dark area. What that does is it receives too much light from the light areas of the painting and causes a blown out light area. Your eye also does this, but you don’t really notice it as much. The inverse is also true. When the camera focuses on a very light part of the painting it has to change mechanisms internally to reduce the amount of light it’s receiving, which then makes all of the dark areas very dark.

This isn’t something that’s specific to cameras, as your eyes also do the exact same thing. It’s more a symptom of using a lens system with an aperture to focus light. The only solution is to simply take multiple photos exposed at different levels so that you can capture the information in the light and dark areas equally.  With exposures at different levels you can then merge them in photoshop to create an image with information in the light and dark parts of the painting.

General Image Quality

Something I am very terrible at is taking photos without a tripod. In general you’ll have image quality issues related to camera shake. If you are in a room that is dimly lit, then your camera will have to increase the ISO rating in order to get an image that is visible. The problem is that this higher ISO results in pixelation. So the only solution is to either get a better light, or increase the exposure time for the camera. If you combined this problem with the previous problem, then you end up needing a tripod to keep the camera stable. If you want to have very low ISO images, and use dimmer lights so you don’t get insane highlights and reflections, and you need to take a range of exposures so that you can capture lights and darks, then you have to use a tripod.

You’ll see in the next problem though that I typically just take a random photo pretty quick and throw it up because most of the services where I post my photos mangle the crap out of them anyway. I’m going to be retaking many of these photos in the near future, so I’ll be able to demonstrate my full set up.

Instagram

To put it bluntly, Instagram is a terrible place to post photos of art. In addition to their strange censorship of anything with a nipple, they also stomp on your paintings in very strange ways.  Many times they try to “improve” your photos by altering the colors for no reason. For the majority of Instagram’s life you couldn’t even use something that wasn’t square.

Even now that you can use different aspect ratios, it still has problems. Instagram’s default cropping will still crop images that are vertical formats of very common painting aspect ratios.  It’s almost as if they simply went and tested two images from a 35mm camera and then forgot about 2000 years of painting history or all medium format cameras and beyond. Ironically, Instagram is based on medium format cameras which also have the same cropping issue when you use the wider formats vertically.

Instagram isn’t the only problematic service. If you post a photo of a painting with a heavy weave in the canvas, then Twitter will compress it such that people can see the weave. Even if the original image barely shows that weave, something about Twitter’s compression algorithm exposes the weave in the image.

There really is no solution to this, other than to take photos and then modify them before you post on Instagram.

Matte vs. Gloss

One final thing to note is that a lot of these problems don’t exist in any matte medium.  These are paintings that are done in watercolor, gouache, or pastel.   These paintings don’t have problems with reflections and specular highlights. They also seem to photograph better in different light temperatures. And they don’t have as many problems with dark and light exposure as many times they tend to be lighter mediums. You still have problems with color, but that is a constant problem with all photos of art.

Things That Don’t Work

Let’s go through some things that simply don’t work now that we know the general problems you face when photographing a glossy painting. I gathered most of this advice from random blogs, books, and other artists. I imagine there’s someone out there who is a forensic photographer and knows how to solve all these problems using these techniques, but I couldn’t get a single good-looking photo of my paintings to save my life doing these.

Image Quality

The first advice on image quality was to just use the noise reduction features of light room. You were told to take a painting, photo it, pop it in the light room, and then just play with the clarity and dehazing sliders. This doesn’t work because it’s kind of a garbage in garbage out situation. If you have a low quality image to start with that has a lot of noise, then most of the things you do to try and fix it simply make it worse. I’m sure there’s someone who is a Photoshop whiz that can solve these problems in Photoshop, but if you just take a better photo start with you don’t have to do as much.

Another suggestion in the opposite direction was to use very strong cool lights. The problem I had with these very strong cool lights was that they caused reflections and they made paintings look really weird and blue. I ended up having to load them in Photoshop or light room and still modify them a lot. Again if I just take a better photo to begin with I don’t have to do as much to fix it.

Other ideas I had were to use filters to control the lights, to bounce light off different surfaces, and to use different kinds of flashes. None of these things really work to fix the painting. The only thing that worked was use a good quality zoom lens, get really far back, and use a tripod.

Color Correction

Most painters solve the color correction problem by taking a photo and then again fixing it in Photoshop. They have the advantage that they have the painting right in front of them so they can keep twiddling the photo until it matches what they think the painting looks like. The problem with this is that if they are fixing the photo on their computer and looking at the painting under the same crappy light, then they’re just going to correct the photo to match the crappy light.

The worst suggestion I had was to take photos of the paintings outside in bright sunlight but under a shadow of the building. There’s even a hilarious photo of the painter with the painting propped up on her feet against the wall and the camera on her knees. I imagine the reason that this might work where she lives is that when you are in the shadow of the building the majority of your light tends to be very cool as it comes from the sky rather than the sun. But, she probably didn’t get a very good ISO setting on the image because there isn’t enough light.  She also wasn’t using a tripod.

The next suggestion was to use a device called a spider checker, or a color reference card. The color reference card is a block of color squares that are set to standard calibration. You put this next your photo in the exact same light, take your photo, and then, when loaded into Lightroom or Photoshop, you can run a tool that fixes the color according to the reference chart. This tool looks at your photo and each of the squares, then compares it to what it knows those squares should be inside its software. This would have worked pretty well, except to the majority of the software that does color correction is total garbage. I believe they write all the software in Adobe Flash, and it crashes on every third photo I would take.

Another solution that I tried is to use a color correction cube. This is a little cube with a light side a dark side and a gray side. You put this next year painting and take a photo like normal, and then you simply go in light room or Photoshop and click on the light side of the cube, the gray side of the cube, and the dark part of the cube setting each of the different light point, black point, and neutral gray settings of light room. This works okay, and is a lot cheaper than the color correction grid, but I found an even better solution later on that I now use.

Specular Highlights

Since I’m fairly lazy when I take my photos of paintings you can usually see specular highlights in them. But when I’m serious about it I try to remove the specular highlights. As I mentioned before it doesn’t matter what light you use, because any light will reflect off of the painting if it’s glossy enough.

The first solution proposed to me was to simply use a non-glossy varnish. But this actually makes the dark parts of your painting look dull and gray. The other problem is that I am impatient and I want to take my photo right now because I’m excited I just finished this painting. How else am I going to get 20 likes on Instagram?!

The next solution was to bounce the light off of a soft surface like an umbrella and then on to the painting. The problem with bouncing the light is again it seemed like it didn’t matter what I used I still got some kind of reflection or highlight. Also because the light is bounced off of a soft surface it is not as strong. So I either needed five or six lights, or crazy strong lights, both of which then just created more sources for reflections.

The other solution that I still use for the very difficult highlights, is to simply find them in Photoshop and remove them. As long as there’s only a few here and there I don’t mind this. You just use the healing tool to have each one removed and try to keep the spot as small as possible so you don’t alter the actual look of the painting. However, this becomes impossible when there is a lot of highlights or it’s a reflection. I also feel like this should just be a feature of light room. These highlights are almost always absolutely pure white, and I should just be able to go in and pick a color range and say remove all the dots like this and it will do it.

Light and Dark Balance

I tried quite a few random things to solve this problem, but most of them involve using some form of HDR. This is where you take a whole bunch of photos of different exposures. Some on the light range, middle range, and dark range, of the scene. Then that you merge them either manually or with software. Doing this you can probably produce the most balanced and accurate representation of the scene since you get full information for both the light and dark parts of the painting. I found this to be a big problem because it tended to make the light parts too dark and the dark parts too light. This technique works great for landscape photos and other photos of real life things, but doesn’t work so well for paintings.

Another suggestion was to simply not paint paintings that were too light or too dark. I mostly try to do this, but this means that all of your paintings end up right in the middle range and there’s no drama to them. The second you try to add some higher contrast elements you then have to fix this problem in your photos.

Things That Do Work

Now that I’ve cover the things that do not work, let’s go through the things I use now which actually do work. Keep in mind that I’m not a professional photographer. These recommendations are all from studying and experimenting with how to take better photos of paintings. A lot of this advice is fairly straightforward if you’re a photographer.

Image Quality

If you want to improve image quality then you have to use a tripod. You can get pretty good stability with some of the image stabilization systems  in cameras today, but nothing beats a good solid tripod.  With a tripod you can also take multiple exposures of your painting to select the best one or merge them together.

The next thing you want to do is force the ISO setting in your camera to 100 or less. Every camera today is able to force the ISO to a specific setting even if you’re using an automated mode. When you force the ISO to a specific setting the camera will adjust how long the exposure is and that’s why you need the tripod. If you have a very dimly lit room, then to get 100 ISO the camera needs to have perfect stability and a very long exposure time.

Finally you need to reduce all camera shake during these longer exposures.  The best way to do that is to either use a delay of 2 seconds or 10 seconds before the camera takes the photo. Or, use a camera remote to actually take the picture.

With these three things you then have a photo that is very in focus, has no camera shake, and a very low ISO so that there is no noise.

Another thing I have toyed with is shooting with RAW  format. Nearly every professional photographer says you have to shoot raw in order to be able to have a good image that you can work with, but I find that processing a raw file is so difficult, and that cameras do such a good job of their JPEG rendering, that I really don’t need to use RAW. Another way to put this is, I’m sure if I was better with Photoshop and Lightroom that I could take a raw image and make it way better than the JPEG coming out of the camera but in general every time I’ve tried to process RAW myself I don’t do any better than what the camera does.

I believe this is because cameras have become much better at knowing exactly how their lenses and their sensors work. In the past I think maybe cameras were terrible at compensating for lens defects and sensor bias, so everyone thought they had to shoot RAW. Now I think this is less of a problem, and the only time I really need the RAW as if I plan on doing some very very high quality printing. In that case I need the RAW mostly so I have no image artifacts from the JPEG compression and can compensate for the printer’s inks. Otherwise the JPEG is more than enough quality for the majority of my posting online and my own reference.

What I would rather do instead of using raw format is have my camera take many exposures in JPEG with RAW backup. Then when I get home I can look at the different exposures in light room and choose the best one, merge it with other ones, and then if I have a problem with a JPEG I can go into one of the RAW files and produce a better one.

In general I say you probably don’t need to process in RAW, but having RAW backup is great just in case the JPEG looks like garbage.

Color Correction

Of all the things I’ve tried for correcting the light color, Expodisk is the best. It works on the premise that you can point your camera at a gray surface, go into your white balance setting, and calibrate the white balance so that this gray surface comes out completely neutral gray. As long as the surface is actually a neutral gray and not reflecting some other color from the area this will work.

What the Expo disc does is go on your lens like a filter so that it filters out 50% of the light coming in making the image completely gray. It doesn’t necessarily change the color of the light, it just changes the amount so that it’s at a 50% level and an average of everything coming in. Once you do this then you can calibrate your camera either by pointing it at the image you want to take at the light itself, and it will correct based on the actual light that the camera sees. This is so genius I’m not sure why camera makers don’t just include this in their cameras by default. I’m pretty sure they could have the sensors they use simply flipped to a 50% gray mode and then they would have a built-in light temperature meter.

If your camera doesn’t support setting the white balance compensation manually, then you can use the Expo disc to simply take a photo that is all gray and then compensate within Lightroom. All you do is take the photo, then take all your normal photos, then in Lightroom you tell it that the gray photo is your neutral gray. Once you’ve done that you tell it to apply that to all your photos and they’re fixed like magic.

I did a lot of tests between Expodisk and the color checker grids and found that with the Expo disc it got very very close to the color checker grids. In fact close enough that I couldn’t really tell the difference between the two so I just stopped using the color checker grid. Also the Expo disc is way more reliable than a gray card because it is guaranteed to be a complete flat neutral view of the light not influenced by anything from the environment. Sometimes with a gray card there will be something reflecting on the card, say a T-shirt or the grass or a yellow building, and then that influences the color and makes it not the real color of the light around you.

In addition to this the Expo disc is only $44. Color correction cards will run you $250 or more sometimes. This is a small price for something that saves hours and hours of time correcting photos in post.

Specular Highlights

My solution for most of the highlight and reflection problems is to use a zoom lens that gets me far enough back so that the reflections don’t really reach the camera lens. This has to be combined with moving either the painting or the light around so that way the angle of light causes any reflections to not match up with the angle of the lens. By getting far enough away I’m able to make that process a lot easier.

I also will still use an umbrella that’s soft to bounce the light onto the painting. You get worse specular highlights when use a very strong light pointed directly at the painting. When you use a light bounced off of the soft umbrella you get more diffused highlights.

Another thing I have used but still need to figure out exactly how it works is a circular polarizer. This is a filter that goes on your camera lens, and has a front part that you can turn. The filter is a lot like a pair of sunglasses and what happens is when you turn the polarizer the light that gets reflected off of the painting will get bent or turned away in certain spots. It basically blocks polarized light, or something. Actually I have no idea how this thing works but that is what I read somewhere. This will reduce a lot of reflections and highlights, but it drops the amount of light down and also can mess with the colors. What you have to do is set the polarizer to block the highlights and then you put the Expodisc in front of it to correct the temperature, and then you still have to load it into Lightroom in order to tweak the colors a bit.

You have to do this extra color correction because the polarizer will emphasize greens or blues or other colors depending on how you turn it. While you’re trying to use the polarizer to remove reflections you may have to position it such that it emphasizes the greens. That isn’t any particular condition of the light temperature, so you end up having to go into light room anyways and change the amount of green to compensate for the polarizer.

Light and Dark Balance

The first thing I’ll do if I want to take a photo of the painting with very dark darks and very light lights is to take multiple exposures and merge them. This is fairly complicated and most software that does this ends up doing a terrible job when you’re doing it to a painting. Most of the software that does HDR is designed for people who do landscape photography where you want everything to be in the middle range of the color spectrum. When you’re taking a photo of a painting that is high contrast, you typically aren’t trying to put everything into the middle range but rather trying to represent the high and low of the painting.

Some cameras do a very good job of in-camera HDR. My Sony camera will actually do a decent job of taking three exposures and merging them together. It seems to work well because it doesn’t do anything crazy with the three exposures and the merging. When I use HDR software it seems to want to go for the most insane dramatic merging possible.

What I use the most is Dynamic Range Optimization or DRO. DRO combined with good light from far away will typically be able to render the lights and darks fairly well and balance the amount of exposure within the whole painting. I think the reason that DRO works better is that it’s not trying to be very dramatic about the amount of information it’s trying to save in both the lights and darks. Typically what I’ll do is I’ll take a photo with high DRO and then with none, then compare the two in light room and see which one to go with.

My Current Process

My current process is fairly simple:

  1. Put the painting in the stable support that doesn’t show up in the image.
  2. Put the camera on a tripod far enough away that I don’t see highlights.
  3. Adjust the position of the light remove any other highlights.
  4. Use the Expo disc to measure the temperature of the light.
  5. Set my camera to do exposure brackets.
  6. Then using a delay timer take several shots adjusting the exposure and position of the camera until I’m happy

However, I will say that my real process most of the time because I’m lazy is this:

  1. Get done with the painting.
  2. Take out my best camera.
  3. Forget to use the Expodisc to check the light.
  4. Take the best photo I can without a tripod.
  5. Then load it on my phone, fix it with basic Apple tools, and toss it up on Instagram and Twitter.

In the future I’m going to probably stick to my earlier process and improve the quality of my photos but honestly I am pretty lazy.

 

What If It Worked?

I talk about people sending me suicide threats in this essay.
If you are contemplating suicide, then please call the 
National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-8255. There is no shame
in asking for help, so make the call.

I receive about 1-3 angry emails a month regarding my positions on various things.  The latest round of “Fuck You Zed” emails was regarding my stance on Python 3 being a complete waste of human energy.  That’s understandable as many people who have absolutely no lives at all tend to attach their narcissistic egos to fake things in order to add some desperate level of meaning to their pathetic totally useless lives.

People are so attached to their programming languages that they even hate newbies who just don’t ask the right questions in IRC.

fuckyounoob.jpg

We’ve all, as a community, decided that beginners are on the list of people we all can hate.  I mean, if this is how someone treats a dude who just wants to get the end of a file, can you imagine how they feel about me?

I’m sure this <feline> asshole is just sooooooo tired of beginners coming and asking stupid questions, but then you wonder why the fuck they’re on IRC in the first place if it’s such a total waste of time?  Actually, I know why.  They can hide behind the internet, safe from a solid punch in the face, and treat people like crap to make themselves feel better about basically being total losers.  Seriously, if the vast majority of your authority in life comes from ASCII text caps lock screaming at people just trying to learn something then you have got to be one of the biggest losers out there.

But, let’s say you’ve spent your evening treating innocent people like shit with your ASCII BLAST importance and your insecure narcism just really isn’t healed.  You are still resentful of the fact that you’ve memorized every page of the ANSI C standard and nobody recognizes that as the pure genius it actually is. You were in the SPECIAL KIDS class God Motherfucking Dammit!  You were destined for greatness!  You worked, like, sort of hard too so it should be you that’s famous!

Nope, you are stuck as a PHP programmer, toiling away for peanuts making billionaires wealthy when really it should be you, Mr. Gifted Fear Failure Esquire, getting the book deals and not that asshole Zed A. Shaw.  Who fuck is that guy anyway?  He constantly makes mistakes while he’s putting out all his books, and code, and content, and paintings, and building guitars, and playing guitars, and you know what, fuck that guy.  You know what you’re going to do!

Death Threats

I get a few death threats too.  My most recent one was this:

go_fucking_kill_yourself.jpg

If they give a valid email address I usually rip them a new one.  You see, violence is a bad thing, but self-defense is not.  Sure, you may hurt someone, you may even kill them, but if they were trying to kill you or hurt you, then you’ve actually prevented an evil thing by stomping them into the ground.  And there’s one thing I’ve learned over decades of dealing with violent people:

Violent people do not respond to kind words and reason.  They only respond to being hurt.  After you’re done kicking their ass, sure, they might be amenable to reevaluating their life. Chances are though they are sociopaths and that means they are not going to change.  Same goes for narcissists.  Psychology still can’t figure out how to cure either afflictions, and in the world of violence, narcissism and sociopathy go hand in hand. Can’t cure them or stop them with words, so your only option is harm.

You are perfectly allowed to use violence to defend yourself or someone you love.  Sheeeeeiit, martial arts were invented by Buddhist monks for this damn reason.  I think if Buddhist monks can have this attitude then you can my friend.  In fact, I think allowing violence when you can stop it is just as bad as doing it yourself.

But I received this threat and couldn’t reply to the loser who sent it because he wasn’t man enough to enter an email address.  I just posted it on Twitter and then moved on with my life. At least, until I realized something.

People Die From This

If you ever read news about online bullying you’ll see the obvious tragedy of suicide and abuse.  What you’ll also see is a complete lack of remorse from the perpetrators.  They’ll usually choose someone who is an outcast in their society.  A nerd, a poor kid, or someone with some disability that gives the abuser a reason–blessed by society–to hate the victim.

Once the larger group decides that this person is a valid target the sociopaths take their cue and feel justified in their abuse.  At first it’s maybe name calling, then it escalates to humiliation, destruction of their livelihood, life, and then escalating further until they’ve driven the poor outcast to the edge at which point, they give the push.  That one little tug, aimed at a human being weak from continuous abuse, and designed to make them end their life.

And when the killer gets caught, almost universally one of the first things they claim is they didn’t do it because it was a suicide. It wasn’t their fault, they didn’t actually kill them, and it becomes clear the abuser, the killer, is not remorseful.  It was not a game.  It was not an accident.  It was a calculated act following a calculated chain of abuse designed to destroy another human being for no real reason.  They’ll claim the victim wasn’t even human. The victim did some incredibly terrible thing, that turns out to be something minor.  The abuser will do anything to avoid admitting that they killed someone.  Society said they could kill them.  Why aren’t they getting a trophy?

You see this with child abusers, spouse abusers, bullies, rapists, and many sociopathic killers.  You’ll ask them why and they’ll tell you the victim deserved it.  Why?  They ate a yogurt.  They wore a short dress that day.  Their skin was different.  They voted for the wrong politician.  They like the wrong genitals.  It’s always something that is incredibly trivial in the grand scheme of things, but it doesn’t matter what the victim did.  All the victim actually did was exist and happen to give their murderer or abuser an excuse to exercise his or her desire to satisfy their narcissistic need to hurt someone that day.

Query

I started wanting to know why someone would send this?  I mean, did they think it’d work?  They would send a one line sentence with poor grammar and I’d jump off my building?  I’d blast myself in the face with a shotgun?  I’d drink some drano? Slit my wrists in the tub?  Did they think it through?  What if I was having a particularly bad day and all that was needed was this tiny push? This message that I’m worthless and unloved.  That I’m a nobody who deserves to die because…

I don’t agree with the direction of Python 3.  Or maybe, I wrote a thing about abusive people in Ruby ten years ago.  Yes, TEN years ago.  Or maybe I hate Haskell?  Like I said, once a community decides I deserve it, the reason doesn’t matter.  Any reason is good enough to justify the abuser’s actions.

Whatever their reason, I don’t need the answer.  I know it all too well.  I know this person is a pathetic fucking loser.  I know they wrote that hoping I would die, hoping to kill me, but needed an excuse, and my disagreement with this totally inert concept called Python/Ruby/Haskell is all they needed.  Their community has crafted the right amount of propaganda and cohesion to allow any decision about my “asshole” status be the abuser’s cue that I’m fair game.  They can threaten to kill me, force me to suicide, and it’s alright.  I deserve it right?  I mean I hate Python 3.  That’s important.

It Won’t Work

If people think that I’m easily intimidated or threatened they’re sadly mistaken.  I’ve defended myself from abuse most people could never have survived, and some little worm pumping chars into a web form is an ant by comparison.

Now, I try my best to be good to people, but I have a very strong sense of self-defense and vengeance.  I try to be careful with it, but I have no problem destroying someone who tries to hurt me.  Like I said, you have a right to defend yourself and people you love.  I’m also definitely not some little weak snowflake nerd, and I definitely am not going to kill myself because some pathetic weakling took 10 minutes to write a sentence demanding I do so.  Fuck you.

More importantly though–and this I hope really pisses this asshole off–my life is fucking awesome and I’m in the best mood and position I’ve ever been in romantically, financially, socially, and in every way that mister Help Form Killer can’t possibly compare.  While this guy was wasting time filling out this shit I was probably doing something awesome.  Shit, I was probably doing 10 awesome things that day.

The Reward

Sending this across state lines is a felony, and I want this person in jail.  I want them publicly humiliated and dragged out in court to justify why they tried to kill me.  You laugh, and say they didn’t try to kill me, but that’s how we should take these demands of suicide.  It is only done because it might actually work one time, and when it does, this person will go back to eating Cheetos and jerking off to CGI lolicon.  They won’t care.  In fact, I bet they’d be happy and brag about it.  They were justified because I hate Python 3, and for that, they deserve to be in jail.

With that in mind, I am now offering a $1000 reward for any information that leads to the arrest of this person.  It’s not much, but I’m going to bet that this loser’s friends could use a grand and don’t like him at all.  If you have information, then feel free to send it to me.  If you want to stay secure I have my My GPG Key for you to use.  You can email me at help@learncodethehardway.org any time to send me your information or post a comment on this blog.

Fuck you loser.  I hope I catch your ass.

 

You Don’t Need Talent To Enjoy It

I bought some really nice flowers yesterday and made sure they were not blooming yet.  It didn’t matter because the damn things start blooming about 2 seconds after I put them in water and that means they will be dead by tomorrow.  I had to crank out a quick painting of them today, but I also had to work on my books.  I setup an easel in the living room and I would use the painting as a reward for getting exercises done.


That’s the only photo I saved from the painting. It came out terrible. The only thing that worked about this setup was that it made me want to get exercises done.  I’m definitely going to use that hack in the near future.  Other than that, this painting was a total absolute turd of paint.  I could not get the values right, the color, nothing.  Flowers and portraits are my most difficult subjects for sure, which is why I practice them the most.  It’s the subtlety that gets me and requires my concentration, and I have too much of a heavy hand and a love of sloppy thick paint to pull that off without effort.

I wouldn’t say I have any particular talent at painting.  I’m definitely not a genius and I put in a lot of work to be even moderately alright at it.  I know a ton of tricks and I’m fascinated by the technology used by European painters from the 1500-1800s, but that’s not talent.  That’s just being able to read some books and do what they say.  If you sat me down in front of a person, and said I’d get $200 if I can do a decent likeness of the person in 4 hours I’d just laugh at you.  Maybe I’d pull it off 1 time out of 10.

I’m also not necessarily a “visual person”.   I do these weird experiments where I practice painting an object from memory, which you would think makes me a genius with some kind of photographic memory.  Nope.  I read a book on how to learn to paint from memory and did what it said, then adapted it based on research from other books and articles on memorization.  Everyone could learn how to do it if they put in the time and believed they could.

I love to paint.  I just love everything about it.  The feel of the thick paint going on.  The way I can use color to trick the eye into seeing something that’s not there. The random times when it clicks and I groove right into a damn good painting without any effort. Painting outside and talking to people.  Everything about it is enjoyable and I could give a fuck if I have any talent or not.  I’m enjoying myself and I get to give them to friends.   Sometimes I sell them. Lots of times I just toss them.

It’s all about the moment and the challenge.  The feeling of that meditation that paint gives me.  My oh my do I love self-portraits for this.  Self-portraits and landscape painting quite literally saved my life at a time when everything was sad and dark.  Doing paintings of my face helped me reconnect with who I am. Painting outside got me out of bed.

So many people think you need talent to enjoy something, but I’ll tell you having zero talent is liberating.  You can stop worrying about the end result and just enjoy the process and experience.  Just go for it.  It really doesn’t matter if what you create is any good.  All that matters is if you learn something for the next time.

 

 

Painting From Memory Experiment

When most people learn to draw it follows one of a few different styles:

  1. Sight-sized where you place the paper (picture plane) next to the subject, then stand far away such that you can view the subject and paper as if they’re next to each other.  You then basically plot out copying points from the subject to the paper, and since they’re at the same orientation and layout, you can see your mistakes easily.  This method does a good job of making an accurate drawing, but is tedious and requires a lot of space.  It does work very well for landscape painting though, since the scene is always so far away in a landscape you don’t really have to walk back to do sight-sized.
  2. Relative measurement or “measuring” where you pick a part of your subject to be the “unit of measure”, then use that unit to measure the location and size of other objects in the scene.  If you were doing a room, you might pick the width of a door as your “one” (aka unit of measure).  Then you’d use that “one” to find out how wide or tall other objects in the room were, and where they were located.  This method works well and also lets you hold your paper or painting next to you or in your hands.  You can also just use a pencil and some paper and that’s it.  With sight-sized you need an easel and some other things since you have to walk away from it over and over again.  The down side is this method isn’t as accurate as the others.
  3. Relative angle or “block-in”  This is where you use the relationship of angles to other angles in big chunky blocks to locate and size objects in the scene.  Rather than picking the width of a door to find the width of a wall, you’d make a big loose line, then use that line to locate another angle, then that angle to find the edge of a wall, and eventually you’ve got the general location of the big shapes because you’ve lined up their angles to each other.  This creates an integrated drawing, but it has problems when you want to paint because you have to do a lot of erasing and refining.  You can’t just draw the 4 things in the scene.  You draw 4 big shapes, then “carve” into those shapes, and then erase, and then carve more, then find inside shapes, and carve those, etc.
  4. Shapes or “painterly” This is where, rather than find the outlines of objects in a scene, you just paint their shapes.  It works more with paint than with pencil, but you start with painting about 3-6 big shapes, then you refine those shapes down with more shapes inside.  It’s called “painterly” because it produces an image that doesn’t look obviously drawn, and more direct.  Down side is it’s pretty difficult to get right in the beginning, and definitely hard to get super realistic with this style.

I actually use all three of these depending on what I’m trying to paint or draw.  I find sight-sized is awesome for landscape painting when you need to be accurate.  I find I mix measuring and block-in styles when I paint.  I’ll use angles and measurement to locate edges and objects, then shapes.  Many times I also just like to use a painterly approach, but I’ll still lay down some guide lines to figure out where things are in a scene.  One trick to make a painting look “painterly” but still do drawing is to draw the scene, but then use giant shapes that wipe out the lines, then paint into those shapes.  When I use a palette knife I’m almost exclusively using the painterly style, and actually I enjoy that style the most.

Memory Drawing

While investigating these different methods I stumbled on a French guy named Père Lecoq from the 1848 who taught people to paint and draw from memory.  He did this as an experiment with children going to the French Academic painting system to see if having them memorize the elements of drawing and painting would make them as accurate as other methods of teaching.  At the end of the experiment, several students were evaluated and determined that they did in fact draw as well as other students.

Lecoq eventually got fired or quit from the Academy and went on to simply teach on his own, but he did write a small book on how he taught.  I read it, and it was a little confusing, so I found this other book by Darren R. Rousar called Memory Drawing: Perceptual Training and Recall. In Darren’s book, he goes through the history of memory drawing, and then has a bunch of exercises that attempt to teach it.  I read  his book, and did about 20% of the exercises and loved how it felt.  It was so weird and different from other ways of drawing.

It seems impossible, but you can actually stare at a scene or a photo, and after about 2-3 minutes of staring at it, do a fairly close approximation of it.  There’s really no way to describe what is happening, but, when I do it I’m not really ticking off a list of points and measurements.  I’m staring at what I want to memorize, and periodically closing my eyes, or drawing in the air over it with my pinky, and then staring with “loose” eyes over the whole scene, and then…I can remember what is where and draw it.  I really can’t explain it.

And, you’d think I’d be way off on my first try, but not really.  I’m fairly close on most of the basic shapes I’ll show you here.  More complex things obviously will be less accurate, but in general I’d say I’m not any more or less accurate in my first to fourth basic blockins than with any of the other methods I listed above.  Eventually I’ll obviously be more accurate with those methods over the long run, but I’m actually not so sure about that.

You see, the process of drawing is actually one of refinement from a gross mistake.  You start off with a guess that’s unrefined and messy or bulky.  Then you correct that and refine it, and repeat this refinement until you have the level of accuracy you want. After years of studying what I found is that accuracy is more a product of time spent refining than any sort of immediate magical accuracy.  99.9% of all artists who paint or draw very accurately either copy photos, start of with fairly messy guesses that become accurate, or don’t actually draw as accurately as you think they do.

Gross Refinement

This got me thinking:  What if I could adjust the Lecoq/Rouser memory drawing style to instead use this gradual refinement process.  In Rouser’s and Lecoq’s book the flaw I saw is that they expected me to be able to memory an entire human head with fine gradations of tone and draw it in a few attempts.  However, that’s completely unrealistic and not how most artists work.

This week I decided to try an experiment where I used my memory to draw some simple geometric foam shapes in different orientations.  I was going to try each of the above processes to see what worked, and also try a few different mediums (charcoal, pastel, oil paint).  My goal was to see, could I use my memory only to get a basic drawing, but use the block-in and refinement process that seems to work best.

When you see these though, keep in mind that I’ve been practicing and training in drawing and painting for a while.  Don’t think that I’m saying someone with zero art experience could plunk down these shapes and bang out these paintings from memory.  There is something strange going on that I can’t quite explain, but rather than explain it I’m just going to try to figure out how to do it by doing it a whole lot.

The process I used is basically this:

  1. Stare at the scene or the photo for 2 minutes.
  2. Cover the scene or photo and then, looking only at the painting, put down the big shapes I remember.
  3. Remove the cover and then check how accurate I am.  Anything that I get wrong, either I’ll erase/wipe it for the next round, or if it’s tiny and a small fix will help, just do that small correction.
  4. Now cover the drawing or painting and repeat #1, but memorizing a smaller part for refinement, or some area I got very wrong.

The idea is I’m attempting to utilize “memory chunking” where, rather than magically memorize an entire photo, I’m memorizing big chunks of the scene.  Then, once I have those drawn I dive into the shapes to memorize smaller aspects of it.

The Results

My first experiment was with an actual object in a dark box I use for cast studies (it’s actually just a black bookshelf).  I did this one in charcoal and white chalk, and used more of a relative measure style of drawing it.  I memorized some of the basic measurements of the big shapes using the width of the right side of the block, and also memorized the general shape of the whole scene.  This took me about 6 rounds to get to here.  One problem though is using a actual object rather than a photo makes it difficult to check my accuracy.  I mean, sure, that looks like a rectangle block, but it’s difficult to really see if I was dead accurate with it.

My next attempt I switched to using a monochrome photo printed out, and using pastels. The photo makes it much easier to tell if I’m being accurate or not, and the pastels makes it much quicker to lay down the shapes I’m attempting to hold in my head.  Pastels also have the advantage that I have to grab actual values of black vs. white.  With charcoal I’m using the paper is a white, and then different amounts of charcoal to get different values.  Pastel I grab a white, or a gray, or an almost black, and when I put it down, that’s the actual thing I see.  This makes it much easier to paint what’s in my memory since it’s more direct.

I did this in about another 7 rounds, and I used the block-in style of drawing then painting it.  First I remembered relatively what the angles of the scene were, drew them from memory, then I memorized what values (white vs. black) when where.  This worked pretty well and the pastels definitely are better than charcoal.

Next I used oil paint, and still from photos, plus stayed with he block-in style of drawing. The oil paint was definitely quicker, and I think I did this in maybe 4 rounds?  Next time I’ll track how many rounds and how many corrections I made.  With the oil paint it was very important to pre-mix the colors so I could work with them like I did the pastels.  I think having to mix would take up too much time and wash out any memory of the scene I had.  The oil paint definitely went faster, but I could see that for the purpose of checking accuracy it might not be as good as pastels.  I will say that I did this very fast before going out to eat, so I’m surprised it was as close as it is.

My final test was again with oil paint, but using the painterly method.  This shape is challenging because of the ellipses involved, but the painterly approach worked in general.  I first memorized the big shape of the dark background and the ellipse.  That basically leaves the front of the cylinder so no need to memorize that.  I then painted that in really sloppy to get a general idea of where it all goes and the shape.  Surprisingly I was pretty close, and on the next round had the cylinder close enough to refine it and render it better on each round.  I’d say it’s not quite as accurate as the oil painting above, so I’m leaning toward using the block-in method to get a general idea of the drawing, then painterly to block it in and refine it.

Surprises

I’d say the most surprising thing is that it works at all and that I was fairly accurate on the first and second round.  In the case of the pastel painting my drawing was pretty close on the first round.  These are simple geometric shapes, but keep in mind I’m copying them from a strange angle with perspective and comparing it to a photo.  If most things are based on these basic geometric shapes then I’m thinking I could keep practicing this and eventually get to combining them in more complex ways.

The other thing that is surprising is how easy it was compared to constantly looking and measuring.  There was some measuring and comparing when I made little adjustments, but overall I just stared at the photo, covered it, and got pretty close.  With regular drawing it’s a constant battle of bouncing back and forth to get the drawing right and I might get a more accurate results eventually, but I’m also doing hundreds of “rounds” in that case.

The ellipse in the last painting is a good example of this difference.  Normally doing an ellipse is difficult, but in this I kind of just whipped that out with a couple brush strokes, then on the next round altered its value some or refined it a bit.  It’s obviously not perfect, but pretty good for just a couple of attempts at it.  I think with normal drawing I’d work on that for quite a while.

The final surprise so far is how it felt.  Doing it this way felt…meditative.  I had to stop and slow down and stare at this photo or object until it melted away and turned into a group of shapes.  I had to focus my attention, but also not really focus at all and just let it come into my mind’s eye.  It was nearly the same sensation as meditation, and then when I went to paint it was like releasing a breath.  As if what I memorized had to come out now.  When I paint or draw other ways it’s more like I’m pulling and working a large rope to pull the drawing onto the canvas.

I’ll continue this experiment with more complex topics and see how this goes.  I’m going to narrow down on the block-in/painterly method, but I’ll still bounce between pastels and oil until I’m more confident which one is easier to work with doing this.

Vignettes Of Terrible Art Teachers 2

She’s standing in front a TV playing a creepy video of a gender neutral hair model with a dinosaur bone in front of it wrapped in birthday present wrapping paper.  “What do you think of this piece?”  Art is always a piece.  Artists are never “popular”, they’re always “important”.  Every piece by anyone moderately popular is important and must be taken seriously.  This piece is by a student, so I’m not sure what the rules are here.  Will I still be required to prostrate myself at the altar of artistic expression, or can I say what everyone is thinking?

I go for the latter, “It seems like the artist is just doing things at random and is making fun of video installation art.”  Immediately the teacher gets visibly upset.  I’m being cynical. I have no idea what I’m talking about.  All the other true believers attack my statement.  I have no right to be so cynical.  I don’t know why this artist made this so I could be criticizing someone who was raped and this is their expression of their past experiences.  I just stand there and take it, since I’m outnumbered 1 cynic to 12 true believers.

The teacher is looking at our paintings in a critique class and praising everyone.  She’ll ask them why they painted this road, or that building, or their face, and the experienced students know the game.  They effuse wildly about their personal connection to the subject.  How deeply the construction cranes in the Dogpatch move them to tears and impact their life in deep meaningful ways.  Before that this student was into a ceramic bird that changed her life forever.  Another had pasted some flowers onto a photo of herself, but the real meaning was her ever changing views on feminism.  Another talked for 20 minutes about how this trip to Muir woods changed her life in profound spiritual ways so her paintings of roads are an expression of her deeply moving experience.

The teacher comes to my paintings and asks me why I painted them.  I say, “I wanted to practice noses.”  She scowls at me and says, “It seems like you aren’t personally attached to your subject.”  I confusedly pause then ask, “I’m not personally attached to my face?” She completely misses the absurdity in this question and fires back, “Yes, it seems you’re just painting it because it is there, not because you truly love it.”  I look around all the other true believers are staring at me with a mixture of sadness and incredulity, except one.  She’s rolling her eyes with a look of, “Sorry dude, she’s an idiot.”

I’m in a class billed as a figure class that will make me more expressive and find my “true” artist inside.  I actually don’t care finding my true artistic expression.  I just want to get more figure classes in, and this sounded like a lot of fun.  The class would teach us to apply different techniques in a situation where a nude model would pose while different color lights are cast on them with music playing to set a mood.  The teacher was also really nice and a very good painter so I figured I’d learn something.

During the class I’m just sucking ass and can’t figure out why.  I’m trying to paint the figures but the music is distracting, the lights make no sense, and the teacher is constantly waffling between “be loose, don’t think” and “why isn’t that drawn correctly?” I try as hard as I can to satisfy both goals of not being accurate and also being accurate but it’s impossible.  On the final day I realize that, given the models are all white skinned, then the crazy color lights mean there is zero flesh tones.  Aha! Why the hell didn’t the teacher just tell me this?  “Because you have to discover that for yourself.”  Well then why am I paying you money?

About half way through the course I ask why we’re doing the lights and the sound.  She says so we can’t think about what we’re doing.  So I ask then why are we expected to be accurate in these conditions?  She says if you’re really an artist it’ll be accurate.  I ask if she does this with her paintings and she says, “Oh no, not at all.”

 

Vignettes of Terrible Art Teachers

I sit down in the class and start setting up my gear.  Brushes, paint, palette, all pulled out from my bag.  I forgot to bring brushes on the trip from San Francisco to New York so I ran to a Blick the day before and bought the cheapest ones I could use for the class.  Some simple synthetic brushes that would work.  The teacher walks over, picks a brush up, and goes, “Oooooooh look at your fancy brushes.”  I have literally met the man for an hour and he’s already insulting my gear.  I laugh and say they’re just cheap ones from Blick and he scrutinizes them, eyes scrunched up, like I’m lying, before putting them down.

He instructs us to make a grisaille of our still life setup, copying from a photo we found online.  I copy it, matching the values and he observes me do this the entire time.  I used alkyd paints so they would be dry the next day.  The next day he comes in and he gives everyone a long lecture on how we have to make our underpainting a lot lighter or else his method won’t work.  I look around the room.  I’m the only one with a dark grisaille.  Why didn’t he tell me that before the paint dried?

The second day I talk to a student from the school that’s hosting us and show her my funky Bob Ross paintings as a joke.  She immediately points to the middle of the painting and say, “What?! You can’t do that!”  I say something like they’re just a joke but I can kind of do whatever I want.  “I’m going to tell your teacher.  He needs to talk to you about this.”  She storms away angry.  I’m dumbfounded anyone would have this reaction at an art school, but shrug it off thinking, “Nah she’s not going to do anything.”

The next day she takes the teacher to lunch.  The day after that, he takes me to lunch.  He spends the entire lunch trying to convince me to not attend this school or study their methods because of my Bob Ross paintings.  He said I wouldn’t fit in at that school, and that my views on art are different from everyone else’s.  I just flat out told him, “You’re right.  This place is a damn cult.  There’s no way I’d study here if people react this way to a joke Bob Ross painting.”

It took him an hour to gradually crush my aspirations to be an artist, and it almost worked.  Thankfully, I have a high dose of “Fuck You” in my blood to counteract people like that.  I shrugged it off a week later and went back to studying anyway.  But, I can’t imagine how someone else would have taken it.  That kind of interaction would have derailed many students permanently.

Copying & Repetition

You ever hear parents complain about their kids TV habits?  “Oh my god! If I hear Blues Clues one more time! Timmy plays that damn video over and over and over.”  What Timmy is doing is learning.  Timmy probably also mimics his parents and siblings actions, copies their speech patterns, observes their habits, and repeats them over and over.

Copying other people and repetitive training is the foundation of education, but in today’s education this has been thrown out in favor of “conceptual learning”.  The idea of conceptual learning is if you expose someone to the concept of a subject then they’ll have a higher more refined understanding of the topic than simple copying and repetition (what they call “rote learning”).  The reality is conceptual models of education simply find students lucky enough to naturally know the topic, and then leave the rest to fail and flounder.

In the united states, there is even a slight racist tinge to the attitude of conceptual vs. rote education.  I’ve heard many people say that “Asians really can only copy others because they use rote education in school.”  If you’ve spent any time studying Asian art and culture you know this isn’t true at all, and is a very racist attitude.  Whether it’s the Ruby Programming language, or BABYMETAL, or Old Boy, it’s entirely wrong to think that Asians are unoriginal little robots because they learned by rote.

There’s also a strange fear associated with rote learning that says if you learn rote you’ll somehow be less “creative”.  The problem with this is that nearly every creative thing you do requires rote practice.  The idea that I’m going to learn the major scale on a guitar by just learning the concept of a major scale is laughable.  Nobody who teaches music thinks that.  I learned guitar from repetition and copying other guitarists.

Painting might be the next discipline someone who believes in “concepts” puts forward as an example of avoiding rote learning.  Again, there’s a very long history or repetitively copying the works of other artists. There’s even a term for it: “Master Copy”.  Every great artist and almost all art schools have copying other artists as a way to learn to paint or draw.

If doing rote copying turned painters or musicians into unoriginal robots then all of them would be that way.  Painters and musicians are frequently put forward as the pinnacle of creativity, so clearly rote copying doesn’t impact your originality.  In fact, the dividing line between amateur and professional is how much they practice, and practice is repetition. Artists do small studies in a formal way. Musicians play scales their whole life, again repetitively copying.

How about writing?  Again, you learn to write by first copying the alphabet, then small stories, then trying to write on your own, and reading and trying to emulate your favorite authors.  Copying and repetition is all there.  Memorizing a poem is copying and repetition.  Reading and pulling out quotes and phrase structures is also copying and repetition.  Every author who is any good copies other authors and repeatedly writes almost obsessively.

Martial Arts, Dance, Singing, even Mathematics is full of copying and repetition.  Denying the role of these two practices in education denies what is a foundational aspect of human learning.  This is even the foundation of non-human learning, so why is it that people in the computer science field think there is no role for copying and repetition?

Rote in Computer Science Education

Copying and repetition is necessary in education because it builds instinctual basic skills someone needs to understand the more abstract conceptual parts of a discipline.  Nobody thinks you can memorize all of Jazz, but they definitely know that if you can’t instinctively play a scale then you’re probably not going to be able to play Jazz.  Nobody thinks you can memorize all of art, but if you drawing or color isn’t instinctual then you are going to struggle.

I believe Computer Science education could benefit greatly from copying and repetition at the beginner level and possibly later.  Copying is how a vast majority of programmers learned to code, but many CS educators deny this fact.  If you’re imagining yourself at 12 trying to learn to code, then I’m betting you had either a book or website with code that you copied and made work.  This should just be how we start people in programming, and not the current method of conceptual “weed out” classes.

Repetition is a mostly un-researched aspect of CS education that I’d like to explore more.  I believe that repetition happens naturally if you have copying as a base part of the educational experience.  However, I feel that drilling and repeating aspects of a language that need to be instinctual would improve retention.  For example, if students had to memorize all the lexemes and syntax structures of a language while they’re copying small working programs.

I think the main reason why this is ignored or vilified in CS is the same reason that most programmers simply can’t teach:  They are so far removed from their beginner experience that they forget that they actually learned to code via rote learning.  We see it all the time when a programmer attempts to teach non-developer and immediately tries to get them to use Vim and write C code.

The experienced programmer has completely forgotten the nights they spent repeatedly copying other people’s code and writing and rewriting buggy code to make it work.  To them this isn’t “rote” because they were so deep in it that they can’t see all the implied rote work actually being done.  They were also 10, so their brains were very bad at meta-cognition and can’t really say why they thought anything, so how can their recollection of their self-education possibly be accurate?

Hopefully Computer Science will adopt the educational style I’ve found in Music for beginner, and painters for intermediate developers.   I believe an early training that involves a mixture of rote (scales, chords, ear training) followed by copying and modifying (learn a song and try to improvise) will benefit beginners.  For intermediate programmers I think the Painting style of education would work well:  copy master works and create your own studies of simple subjects.

Adopting these two models would make CS accessible to more people, and make it easier for beginners to transition to intermediate and then advanced skills.