Back to Basics

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As a guilt-motivated ex-Catholic with a perfectionist streak, I’m constantly trying to be a better person than I am – religiously, ethically, personally, even at the level of my skills. And one of the best ways I’ve found to improve my skills is not simply to practice, or to push the bounds of your knowledge, but to step back and look again at the basics.

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For some areas of knowledge, this is obvious. We wouldn’t have gotten anywhere with number theory if we hadn’t been willing to go back, again and again, to the definitions of numbers. But it seems less obvious for skills, where our perception often is that first you are a novice, then you become skilled, then an expert, then a master.

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But that road can become a blind alley. Learning from a teacher can channel you into their style; self-taught artistry can create works of great power, but it can also leave you with deficiencies which no amount of further training can improve. Sometimes the only way to get better is to step back, reassess, start over.

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That’s why I like periodically coming back to beginning art instruction books. I find the older references somewhat more informative than the newer ones, perhaps because they’re more methodical, or perhaps because there was a greater concern for representational art – or simply because I’ve read a lot of newer references, making the old ones seem fresh.

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Now, I once heard an artist suggest that you should buy a pile of art instruction books, wrap them in a trash bag, and bury them in your back yard, get a big thick sketchbook and sketch people in coffeehouses until you filled the whole thing, and then, after a year or so, dig them up to start drawing. My wife, however, an accomplished artist, agrees and disagrees with this plan.

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She agrees with the latter two thirds – but not the start. She argues, there are so many things to learn about art that if you tried to start from just sketching, you might end up never making certain discoveries and instead get trapped in rookie mistakes. Your art might have emotional power, but you’d be handicapped if you were aiming for mastery of your tools or representational accuracy.

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I tend to agree. As a scientist, though, I try another approach – not just practice, but “scientific” analysis, at least the initial, data collection part of science: not just doing the practice, but carefully examining how it went, looking for successes and failures, and trying to generalize from them. I can’t double-blind A/B test myself, but I can be mindful about how I practice.

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I pray it’s helping! I have a lot of art I want to do.

-the Centaur

Pictured: Exercises from Andrew Loomis’ DRAWING THE HEAD AND HANDS, folk art from the U.S. Mint in New Orleans, art books in Dauphine Street Books also in New Orleans, and various drawings I’ve done over the years, from long ago (the highly detailed centaur and the copy of the Hemingway cover) to yesterday (the basic circles and analysis of problems with my line).

Resurrecting Fanu Fiku

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SO, I have this webcomic some of you may know about, f@nu fiku (that’s Fanu Fiku, stylized with an @ sign, because aren’t I oh so clever :-P). f@nu fiku is about Xiao Dreamweaver, a fifteen year old girl who can travel between all possible combinations of all possible realities … only she doesn’t know it yet. What you may or may not know is that this webcomic is cursed.

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Early on working on f@nu fiku, I broke my arm in a karate match, forcing me to use guest artists and rough notebook scans for several months. I blogged that extensively, but what I did NOT blog – because it was too disruptive – was the failure of the computer and theft of the notebooks on which I did f@nu fiku.

Back then, I produced f@nu fiku on this great Windows laptop, but eventually its cooling fan gave up the ghost, and I decided – purely as an experiment – to try out an old Macintosh laptop that I had gotten in a clearance sale, since I already used a Mac at work. Four days in to this new laptop, I attended an art show in San Francisco – and my car was broken into.

Many books were stolen. My personal laptop was stolen. One of my writing notebooks was stolen, including the one with the original outline of the Dakota Frost series. My f@nu fiku sketchbook – in which I created the pages – was stolen. None of this was ever returned, of course, but I retained all the data, I had all the scans, and in theory I could easily have resumed the comic.

Only one problem: the laptop was stolen before I realized I couldn’t produce f@nu fiku on the Mac.

I edited f@nu fiku in Corel Painter (a creditable replacement for Adobe Photoshop) and lettered it in Xara (a powerful, but much easier to use version of Adobe Illustrator). Corel Painter exists for the Mac … but Xara does not. At the time, I was completely inexperienced at Adobe Illustrator, and found working on the comic extremely difficult.

What’s worse, at the time the Mac’s support for Python wasn’t so hot. I wrote the f@nu fiku webcomic software myself, but found that it adapted poorly to the Macintosh, requiring a partial rewrite of the image processing layer. I eventually got the software running, but by this point FROST MOON was taking off, and without meaning to, I let f@nu fiku drop.

Fast forward more than half a decade. I’m more committed than ever to Dakota Frost, but I’m also more involved than ever with the comic community – with Blitz Comics on the 24 Hour Comic Day Survival Guide, and with our umbrella organization, Thinking Ink Press. At Comic-Con, I got energized, and decided that I should resurrect f@nu fiku, perhaps even in print form.

At first it seemed impossible. Many originals were gone. Some of the completed art was corrupted. And all of the art was way, way too low resolution to be printed. It was depressing. And in truth, this is the real state I’ve been for the past few years on f@nu fiku: too depressed about it to come back to it, regardless of how much time I had. And I started to give up hope.

But it is a half a decade later, and I’ve learned to never give up hope. This was a hard won lesson: when I left the PhD program, I despaired of ever using my degree. Well, it took ten years, but eventually I returned to that work … and now, I’m using those skills more than ever. Over time, I’ve learned that the more patient and perseverant I become, the more I am rewarded.

So, when I started to lose hope … I really had just forgotten how paranoid I am about backups, and soon found the original scans AND backup copies of the completed art. And I had just forgotten how perseverant I have become, and how much I have changed my thinking about solving problems just like this one. And soon, after a little thought, I found a way to get high resolution images.

As before, I had a spare laptop lying around – this time a Windows 8 machine, that I’d tried as a replacement for the Mac (and quickly discarded for that purpose, though it isn’t really bad). And IT will run Xara, and IT could load all my old f@nu fiku files. I don’t know whether I’ll try to save these as Illustrator files, now that I’m comfortable with it, but regardless, I now have a way.

I almost always find that if you think something’s impossible, you’re thinking about it the wrong way … and a solution awaits you nearby. I don’t have to solve the nearly impossible problem of getting Xara to run on the Mac (I have tried virtual machines, but they were virtually impossible to use) but just the far simpler problem of using Xara on a PC to dump high-res images.

Now, I have almost 60 issues of f@nu fiku backlogged … more than a year’s worth, almost ready to go. It will take me some time to get all of them beaten into shape, to rework the fanufiku.com site, to get set up on tapastic and get a posting schedule going. But it will be worth it: it will not only break this creative logjam, it will help me prepare for new comic projects, like Quarry.

So don’t give up hope. It’s just an excuse – just a way to give yourself license to wallow in self pity and to fall into inaction. Often enough, the files are saved on backup, the original scans are on disk, and there’s a laptop laying around somewhere, waiting for the software to be installed on it that will give you the power to resurrect something you thought long dead.

You just have to have a little faith, and work a little harder.

-the Centaur

Pictured: the Windows laptop, with Page 1 of f@nu fiku successfully loaded in Xara.

My Labors Are Not Ended

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But I am going to take a rest for a bit.

Above you see a shot of my cat Lenora resting in front of the “To Read Science Fiction” section of my Library, the enormous book collection I’ve been accumulating over the last quarter century. I have books older than that, of course, but they’re stored in my mother’s house in my hometown. It’s only over the last 25 years or so have I been accumulating my own personal library.

But why am I, if not resting, at least thinking about it? I finished organizing the books in my Library.

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I have an enormous amount of papers, bills, bric a brac and other memorabilia still to organize, file, trash or donate, but the Library itself is organized, at last. It’s even possible to use it.

How organized? Well…

Religion, politics, economics, the environment, women’s studies, Ayn Rand, read books, Lovecraft, centaur books, read urban fantasy, read science fiction, Atlanta, read comics, to-read comics, to-read science fiction magazines, comic reference books, drawing reference books, steampunk, urban fantasy, miscellaneous writing projects, Dakota Frost, books to donate, science fiction to-reads: Asimov, Clarke, Banks, Cherryh, miscellaneous, other fiction to-reads, non-fiction to-reads, general art books, genre art books, BDSM and fetish magazines and art books, fetish and sexuality theory and culture, military, war, law, space travel, astronomy, popular science, physics of time travel, Einstein, quantum mechanics, Feynman, more physics, mathematics, philosophy, martial arts, health, nutrition, home care, ancient computer manuals, more recent computer manuals, popular computer books, the practice of computer programming, programming language theory, ancient computer languages, Web languages, Perl, Java, C and C++, Lisp, APL, the Art of Computer Programming, popular cognitive science, Schankian cognitive science, animal cognition, animal biology, consciousness, dreaming, sleep, emotion, personality, cognitive science theory, brain theory, brain philosophy, evolution, human evolution, cognitive evolution, brain cognition, memory, “Readings in …” various AI and cogsci disciplines, oversized AI and science books, conference proceedings, technical reports, game AI, game development, robotics, imagery, vision, information retrieval, natural language processing, linguistics, popular AI, theory of AI, programming AI, AI textbooks, AI notes from recent projects, notes from college from undergraduate through my thesis, more Dakota Frost, GURPS, other roleplaying games, Magic the Gathering, Dungeons and Dragons, more Dakota Frost, recent projects, literary theory of Asimov and Clarke, literary theory of science fiction, science fiction shows and TV, writing science fiction, mythology, travel, writing science, writing reference, writers on writing, writing markets, poetry, improv, voice acting, film, writing film, history of literature, representative examples, oversized reference, history, anthropology, dictionaries, thesauri, topical dictionaries, language dictionaries, language learning, Japanese, culture of Japan, recent project papers, comic archives, older project papers, tubs containing things to file … and the single volume version of the Oxford English Dictionary, complete with magnifying glass.

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I deliberately left out the details of many categories and outright omitted a few others not stored in the library proper, like my cookbooks, my display shelves of Arkham House editions, Harry Potter and other hardbacks, my “favorite” nonfiction books, some spot reading materials, a stash of transhumanist science fiction, all the technical books I keep in the shelf next to me at work … and, of course, my wife and I’s enormous collection of audiobooks.

What’s really interesting about all that to me is there are far more categories out there in the world not in my Library than there are in my Library. Try it sometime – go into a bookstore or library, or peruse the list of categories in the Library of Congress or Dewey Decimal System Classifications. There’s far more things to think about than even I, a borderline hoarder with a generous income and enormous knowledge of bookstores, have been able to accumulate in a quarter century.

Makes you think, doesn’t it?

-the Centaur

“Stranded” back from the editor!

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“Stranded,” my young adult space pirates story set in the Library of Dresan universe, has been provisionally accepted by Bell Bridge Books and I’m responding to the edits now. It’s set in a distant future where humanity has spread through the galaxy in two groups – one, the Dresanians, citizens of the grand and sparkling intergalactic civilization known as the Dresan-Murran Alliance, a mammoth polyglot alien culture of which humanity is the tiniest part, and the other, the Frontiersmen, humans who fled the Allied takeover of Earth to found their own civilization at the edge of the deeps — but at least it’s human.

What happens when these two groups collide?

Serendipity snapped her fingers. The map of the Alliance collapsed into the tiny glowing sphere, which leapt from the tree and flew into her hand. Tianyu scampered up onto her shoulder and rubbed her cheek, and Serendipity rubbed him back as the farstaff chimed.

“Let’s go on an adventure,” Serendipity said—and in a twinkle of light, they disappeared.

An adventure she wants? An adventure she’ll get.

If the editor and I can beat the story into shape, it will come out later this year in an anthology called STRANDED, and later my space pirate sequence of stories will be collected into a novel called MAROONED. The alien child pictured above, Norylan, is actually from the sequel to “Stranded”, “Conflicted”, which will form part 2 of MAROONED. Got that? Good.

All coming Real Soon Now to a bookstore or ereader near you!

-the Centaur

Pictured: Norylan, a child (sort of) of the Andiathar, the dominant species of the Alliance, drawn by yours truly while working through story notes, photographed by my phone (you can even see the shadow of my hand in the original shot below), and colored (also by me) in Photoshop as an experiment for doing “quick” (ha) art for a blog post. There’s a lot I’d like to do to fix this piece of art, but then that would fail my intent of making this a quick experiment.

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We Interrupt This Broadcast … to Bring You Art

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A pause, however brief, from THE CLOCKWORK TIME MACHINE. My wife Sandi has worked the past week collecting over two years of new pictures documenting her work as a faux finisher and artist, and I’ve just updated our gallery software to support detailed thumbnails (as shown above). After a long night’s work, I’ve uploaded all this new hawtness to Sandi’s newly refreshed website, studiosandi.com. New, improved, with her California Contractor’s License number, 966222:

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Now serving all your faux finishing, decorative painting, muraling and fine art needs in the Bay Area.

Soon back to your regularly scheduled clockworks…

-the Centaur

“He likes to take pictures of his food.”

Those familiar with my Google+ stream will have noticed I take a lot of pictures of food, generally posted in my album Cuisininart (pictures of food – cuisine in art – cuisin-in-art – a riff on cuisinart – get it? No? Oh, you don’t WANT to get it. Oh well.).

This got started because I wanted to do restaurant reviews on this site. I love eating out; I’m a definite foodie, and I think a lot about what makes a good restaurant, from a dive bar to a five star. I’ve evendone a few reviews but I noticed I wasn’t writing reviews because I wasn’t taking pictures.

I prefer using pictures in blog posts based on the ideas of my good friend Jim Davies (and seconded by my wife Sandi Billingsley) who both think pictures make blog posts stronger. This is basic comics theory: words and pictures are stronger together.

So I started taking pictures. As usual, I found I was really good at collecting input, not so much at producing output. I was taking pictures all the time and not doing things with them because most of my free time is spent writing.

Around the time Google+ came out, I had a brainflash: why don’t I just post the pictures I’ve taken as a way of using them up. So I created the Cusininart album … which prompted me to take more and more pictures, even without reviews in mind.

I got so good at taking pictures of what I was eating it became a joke. My wife once explained it to a friend joining us for dinner: “He likes to take pictures of his food.” Which in turn prompted this post of me explaining this to you.

But I’m trying to turn this into more than just random photographs. Following the example of people like Jim Davies, Andy Fossett and Waldemar Horwat, I’m trying to make this a learning experience, to discover how to take good pictures of food.

What I’ve found so far isn’t scientific by any stretch of the imagination; consider this lessons learned from a few case studies.

  • Don’t use your camera’s flash. As many of you probably already know, camera flashes wash out the pictures. Don’t use it unless you absolutely have to; try increasing the exposure of your camera to instead.
  • Take lots of pictures. Take pictures of each dish, of the whole spread, from more than one angle. It’s not just that two or three shots of each one helps you avoid loss to a blurry jiggle; it gives you more choices for the article.
  • Take pictures from different angles and distances. Thirty to forty-five degrees seems to be a good angle, but you should experiment with closeups, overhead shots, distance shots. You’ll be surprised what looks best once you review the pictures later.
  • Most of the shots should be of food. For what I want to achieve in my albums, having most shots be of food works best. Restaurants are less interesting than their dishes, unless it’s a special restaurant. One out of five is OK.
  • Keep it candid. It actually helps to take pictures before you’ve eaten, and even to spend a moment posing some of the food. But don’t waste a lot of time on it: the immediacy of the dishes in their natural arrangement is often enough.

I’m sure I could refine that list more. Perhaps I will after I spend more time experimenting more systematically, maybe even throwing in findings from food I have cooked. But until then … that’s what I’ve learned from taking pictures of my food.

-the Centaur

The Photoshop Filters of Luxury

Following up my previous post on using offline blog clients, here’s an example of something harder to do with an offline client: uploading images with the originals as clickthrough.

I haven’t quite figured out how to do that in Ecto but perhaps it’s an easy thing. Regardless, what Ecto posted was an image resized to the size it would be displayed at, whereas sometimes what you want is a resized thumbnail where you can click through to the original, which is what the standard WordPress interface will do for you nicely:

These images are a comparison of two different filters in Photoshop on the same original.

Amazing what we can do with graphics filters today.
-the Centaur

-Anthony