Self-portrait and color mixing

Following on the last post, I bought some more paints and an easel and have done two more paintings: a self-portrait, and a color mixing exercise trying to approximate the 16-color palette of the PICO 8 game programming environment.


The self-portrait came out reasonably well considering what a stab in the dark it is at this point; there’s a ton of stuff I can complain about either not knowing how to deal with at all or knowing that I didn’t do as well as in theory I might have, but for a beginner go I’m fairly happy with it and have something to build from for next time.

It’s based on a photo from a few years ago, and for lack of a better way to use it as a reference I just brought that photo up full screen on my workstation while painting a few feet away (and about ninety degrees clockwise, to try and make good use of the light from the window) in my home office.


iPhone photo of a computer screen comes off a lot worse with the blown-out highlights than actually looking at the computer in person, of course. But in any case comparing it to the painting makes it clear how much is off in terms of proportion and framing; my face in the painting is longer and a bit off axis compared to the actual photo, is the biggest issue in basic execution. Fine if it had been a deliberate choice, but it’s just What Happened. I have a feeling there’s gonna be a lot of What Happened as I keep working on this stuff.


I started with a freehand sketch underpainting in thinned-out yellow on the canvas, and my application of paint by the end isn’t quite complete enough to block out all the gaps of that, which makes me regret not thinking more about what color I would want showing through. Again, something that’d be nice to have be intentional instead of just What Happened.

I’ve stayed away from sketching with pencil on canvas so far, but that’s something I should try as well; because my hand isn’t super steady and I’m not used to using a brush like this, sketching with paint is really really loose, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing (I like the idea that I might manage to loosen up a little with oils compared to my usually really tightly-controlled approach to drawing) but it does mean that I’ve thrown out some of my existing strengths so far in a way that’s probably leaving me a little more uncertain and frustrated with my output than I need to be. So that may come into the mix soon.


Speaking of things that could have used a sketch: this is a hasty color-mixing experiment and so I don’t mind all that much that it’s a disproportionate mess for something so simple, but it’s still a bit embarrassing.

This is a rendering of the 16-color palette of the PICO 8 programming environment, something I’ve fallen hard in love with as of last summer (and about which I should really post in its own right); the colors in the system are fixed as if part of the limitations of a 1984-ish game system, which gives the system and its games a specific sort of constrained character that I really dig.

Trying to recreate monitor output colors in paint is kind of an iffy move in the first place given the different qualities of light involved, which is why it seemed like an interesting basis for an experiment. Aside from the horrid proportions, I’m mostly happy with what I managed to mix up; the basic color relations aren’t bad, I feel like I got the values and hues pretty good for the most part.


There are a couple of notable weak points: both the bright light blue on the bottom left and the brighter lighter green on the right come out muddy in the painting vs. the actual screen color; whether I could have gotten something closer to either mixing the colors I currently own, I don’t know, but if so it’d be through some trick other than what I know so far.

For the blue, I’ve got a tube of Phthalo Blue and a French Ultramarine, both of which are naturally much darker than the light blue, but bringing the value up with white predictably dulled out the intensity of whichever of those I ended up running with.

For the green, I likewise tried to bring up some Green Light with some white (and a touch of yellow to warm it up slightly) but only got part of the way there.

It was good to force myself to do a little bit of extra mixing, in any case; that feels like a pretty big new skillset and I don’t feel like I have much of a handle on it at all yet.

Stumbling into oil painting

All the Menger sponge stuff — the wall, the wee canvas — got me thinking about the idea of what some snobbish part of my brain thinks of as painting painting, as legit for realsies no fuckin’ around oil painting with oils like an oil painter.

There’s a giant discussion to be had (and which has already been had ad nauseam) about what art and Art are and what’s legitimate and who legitimizes it and so on that I don’t really want to even try to to start to unpack and examine here, so I’ll just acknowledge that, whatever historical and cultural and etc. baggage is involved, this is me painting a Menger sponge with latex house paint and thinking “maybe I should try doing something like this not using latex house paint” and going from there.

And so I’m stumbling in the direction of doing some oil painting. And I usually sort of toil away on art project stuff without sharing it or talking about it online until either I come up with something I’m excited to share or I let it die on the vine.


This time, I think it’s gonna take a while to get to the “something I’m excited to share” bit, so I’m gonna make an effort instead to document the process of trying to get to being not-lousy.

Stumble feels like the right word: the catalyzing purchase of a few tubes of oil colors was a total whim, and left me sitting at home with said tubes of color and none of the other stuff it turns out I ought to have to make use of ’em.

Things I have subsequently gone and bought myself to fill out the kit:

– a couple of bristle flat brushes and a couple smaller sable brushes
– a small glass palette that may turn out to be too small for my sloppy-ass color mixing
– a couple of palette knives, one that’s just right and one that’s ridiculously large in retrospect
– some odorless paint thinner, after I discovered to my relief and delight that “no you’re totally gonna be using turpentine” stopped being an ironclad rule with oil painting at some point
– some linseed oil that at some point I’ll experiment with but am too overwhelmed right now to try and add to the mix
– a few small canvases to start putting paint on

Things I have not yet bought that I’m realizing I really ought to:

– a few more colors to save me from amateur mixing hell
– a goddam easel so I have something sane to stick a canvas on

Books I have put holds on at the library:

– like a half-dozen titles, all over the place, I have no idea what I’m doing basically

Ask MetaFilter questions about oil painting that I have read:

– several, though there’s fewer than I would have guessed. And nobody agrees about anything though a lot of folks think the thing to do is just work with acrylics for a while instead, which honestly seems like it’d make a lot of sense if my aim were to just do more flat designery patterns like the Menger sponge stuff. But a lot of other folks are like FUCK THAT, GET OILS, DO OILS, OILS ARE RAD AND FUSSY AND RAD, so. Mixed messages out there in the Ask archives.

But the prevailing theme: just get painting. Just buy some whatever you’re gonna buy and get to painting. And so I have and so here we go:


Yikes, is my reaction. My wife was not so negative; I think we’re coming from really different perspectives on it and hers is a lot saner and healthier: she’s taking the “hey, it’s your first oil painting and look you did some nice shading bits” tack, where I’m on more of a “HOW AM I NOT THE SECRET SAVANT VERMEER OF OIL FRACTALS” kick where failure to somehow be inexplicably excellent on day one of an unfamiliar craft is somehow a surprise.

I mean, to be clear: it’s not a surprise, and hey I painted a thing and learned a bit about several basic things I didn’t know yet about oil painting, and that’s a good thing. I didn’t really expect anything more than this. You learn by sucking and then eventually sucking not so much.


But in retrospect making my first go with oils thematically connected to the previous project I’d done with more familiar tools and much more confidence was probably a silly move — the contrast in how sharp the recent Menger piece feels and what a weird amateurish mess this is just setting myself up for an artificially stark bummer.

So but yes: this is me painting a simple Menger sponge from memory, trying to blend my three primary colors just using a bit of black and white for darks and lights respectively, against an abstract blended nowhere background, using not enough paint like a miser, and not really thinking about where the hell the light is or the cube is, and all in all making it way, way too dark. The blue face basically just disappears into the background, and the shadow I decided to throw on for the hell of it (shadow against what? the magical void the cube is floating in?) is basically swallowed up as well.

It started as a simple cube, but I was unhappy enough with the look of it that I figured trying to add in some holes and playing with a little depth would add something, and there’s something to that but it’s still a turd-polishing sort of maneuver.

Coming back to it and essentially repainting the whole thing in a couple days feels like a good plan; I can take what I’ve learned from making that and other stuff since and try and make a more coherent go of my sponge rendering.

Speaking of other stuff:


This is this morning’s go at doing a still life, when I’d gotten as far as sketching with some thinned out paint an approximation of my bowl of fruit. I thought about doing something other than the literally most cliche subject possible, and then decided that (a) I didn’t really have anything else that seemed like a specifically great first subject and (b) hey it’s probably cliche for a reason. So Ikea bowl and a couple of dodgy apples it is.

And…it was a better choice than sponge-from-memory. The painting is all kinds of dodgy, shapes are wrong with a misshapen bowl and poorly represented angles and I’ve punted hard on background details and there’s not as much contrast as I’d like and and and. But it’s a more careful effort and I tried to start incorporating some of the color mixing theory and compositional process I read and watched tutorials on last night, and the difference between that and my first go is definitely there, at least.


And the use of the same mix of yellow, red, and blue in a context where I tried harder to figure out what to do with them and where to mix them together was a nice antidote to my feelings about the first cube painting. I’ve got a long, long way to go to actually feel comfortable there, but it was nice to feel like a couple of basic things were at least starting to seem approachable.

On my todo list:

1. Develop some fucking patience because it’s gonna be a couple days before I can come back and futz with either of these.

2. Try doing something different, on the bigger 10×14 canvas I bought. Maybe something monochrome, try and just worry about values. Maybe dare a fucked up self portrait.

3. Get an easel, jesus. The first cube painting I did flat on my desk, like I was drawing, because that’s a familiar way for me and my not-super-steady hand to work. For today’s fruit bowl I decided to get the canvas upright, but that means terrrrrible lighting on my desk, and anyway I have nothing easel like and so resorted to putting a couple nails in a post on the lee side of our garage/shed, and that at least let me get vertical but reacted poorly to any kind of serious pressure on the canvas or really any at all around the edges. The thing fell a couple times, wobbled several more. Heartbreak and frustration just waiting to happen. Get an easel.

4. Try doing some detail work. I’ve been so far embracing the idea of trying to use larger flat brushes just to force myself to get to work with forms and colors and not obsess over details, but I gotta try these wee ones out and see how small brush head in sable feels. And see if I can start to see how to balance that out against the big brushes in how I bring backgrounds and foregrounds together, etc.

5. Use more paint. Use some more goddam paint, you skinflint. I know it’s five bucks a tube, but the tubes aren’t that small and the canvases aren’t that big and I keep running myself out of a painfully, dodgily mixed color before I’m really done with it and that’s not helping anything.

6. Figure out a workspace in more detail. Find something to put my supplies on and in other than my desk or a spare 2×4 nailed to my garage. Figure out where I want stuff and how I want to get at it and so on.

Smalling it up


After finishing up the Menger sponge and Cantor set on my home office wall, I got an itch to try and do a small, portable version of the same basic sponge design, and so I got myself a little 6×6 canvas from the nearby art store and did just that.


It’s sort of liberating to do the same thing but with so much less at stake: smaller scale, less (total) detail, no danger that if something goes wrong I have to figure out what to do with an entire wall. Plus I’d had a chance to think about the process after inventing it on the fly for the wall painting.

And so I coated the canvas in my orange, drafted up a smaller, lower-degree sponge in pencil on it (this time using a trianglular metric drafting scale I borrowed from my wife, instead of a yardstick), and got to work.


The work went quickly, just an afternoon or so total instead of eating a busy weekend. No backaches or hand cramps this time.

I picked up a couple of new much finer brushes while I was at the art store, which helped a lot as well, especially since the smaller triangles in this version are far smaller than those on the wall version. Being able to make the corners really sharp makes more of a difference at this scale.


All in all, I’m pleased with how this came out as well (above is prior to cleanup to erase those pencil marks and touch up a few smears and drips), and I can see doing some other variations at this scale that might make for a nice collection of little paintings.

Worth nothing that, as an accident I recognized early and decided not to reverse course on, I rendered this small version with the black and white faces opposite of where they were on the wall. You can see that in the photos below, which show the relative scale of the small painting to the wall, and then give a rough glance at the zooming-out fractal similarity of the cube when comparing the two sponges at proportional distances.


Painting math on the wall

This is a little writeup of an art project I’ve done in the last week, and a couple neat details about the math ideas driving it.


I’ve been redoing my home office recently: I refinished the floor, and painted the walls. Both look yards better now, but while I was at it I decided to add some art to the walls.

I’m a fan of fractals, mathematical constructions that rely on relatively simple rulesets to generate structures that have various kinds of self-similarity at different scales, such that one can “zoom in” arbitrarily and continue to find recurring details. You’ve probably seen, for example, the visually striking Mandelbrot set. You also probably seen a Sierpinski triangle. They’re neat things, fractals, both in their mathy properties and in how they look when put down on paper.


I’m fond in particular of a family of closely-related fractals, the Cantor set, the Sierpinksi carpet, and the Menger sponge, which can be thought of as respectively the 1D, 2D, and 3D interpretations of the same fundamental idea: take something and cut out the middle third of it; and then take each of the bits left over and cut the middle third out of each of those; and then for each of those new bits, cut the middle third out; and so on.

Pictured above are sketches of each of those, which I drew up while brainstorming about wall designs. Ultimately I decided to start with a Menger sponge, because it’s the most eye-catching member of the family, and got pretty excited about the prospect.

But how to put it on the wall? There’s probably a lot of ways to go (not least of which would be rendering an image with an art program of some sort and printing up a big custom wall decal), but I did it the way I knew would work well enough for me, and that I could get started on immediately while I was hyped up about it.

So I grabbed a yardstick and a pencil and started drawing a large Menger sponge right on the wall.

Making the Menger sponge


Both to keep things simple and because I like the symmetry involved, I chose to do a perfect isometric view of the sponge; that means the whole structure ends up occupying a regular hexagon with each of the major visible faces of the cube occupying a diamond-shaped third of the design.

Because the theme of this kind of fractal is division by three, I settled on a size for my sponge that’d divide up nicely on a pretty basic yardstick: 27-inch sides, a power of 3. 27 works well because if I divide by three I’ve got 9-inch subsections; divide by three again and it’s 3-inch sub-sub-sections; again and it’s 1-inch sub-sub-sub-sections. And so the whole design is a hexagon with 27-inch sides, 54 inches wide at its broadest points; all the smallest details are equilateral triangles with 1-inch sides. Nice round numbers!

Armed with that scheme, I got to work drafting. I marked a center point on the wall, and measured 27 inches from there to the left to mark a left-side point and establish a base line between the two points. I then used my yardstick as a rudimentary compass, eyeballing a guess at a 60-degree angle up and left from my center point and marking a short line as an “arc” at the 27-inch mark. Then I did the same up and right from my left-side point, marking another arc at 27 inches out. Where those two arcs cross is a point that’s equidistant from both the lower points: the upper point of an equilateral triangle with three 27-inch sides.

I repeated that process five more times, generating six triangles, radiating out from the center point, adding up to a hexagon. Each of three pairs of adjacent triangles would make up the diamond-shaped faces of the design.

Then: subdivide. I marked out 9-inch intervals along each of the lines I’d established, and then used the yardstick as a straight-edge to draw a smaller 9-inch-side diamond in each of the three large diamonds. And then: mark out 3-inch intervals, and draw 8 3-inch diamonds surrounding each 8-inch diamond. And then 1-inch intervals, and 8 1-inch diamonds around each 3-incher.

That was all pretty straightforward; the only tricky bit to think through was working out the bits visible in the holes on any given face, the interior bits of the sponge. Fortunately, it’s all determinable, both mathematically and, in what works better for me in practice, through basic squint-and-hrmmmm spatial reasoning.

(And I’ve been a fan of Menger sponges for a long time, so I’ve spent a lot more time than the average person contemplating those details. I’ve done a couple of odd internet things with these ideas in the past. Back when Minecraft was still pretty new and I lost a couple of months of my life to it, I worked on among other things a Menger sponge floating above a mountain and, ultimately unfinished, a very, very large Sierpinski carpet. And earlier this year I made a silly little PICO-8 demo thing called Sierpinski Freakout that zooms recklessly in and out on a wildly blinking Sierpinski carpet.)

In the end I was able to render the whole thing from memory and a little contemplation, which was satisfying.

All in all, drafting it on the wall took about three hours. It went well, though there were a couple gotchas: the yardstick I was using is very slightly bowed, so my lines weren’t so much straight as they were nearly straight. I ended up having to fudge details occasionally later in the process as a result. And beyond that, the wall itself isn’t completely flat; this is an old house and flat planes and true perpendiculars are harder to come by than you might expect.


After that, it was time to paint, which I did with a couple of small paint brushes; the one above is what I started with and it worked well for doing large open-ish areas like the bulk of the main black sponge face, but once I was moving on to the smaller triangle details it was just too sloppy, and so I moved to a smaller, flat brush that was easier to build up a precise straight edge with.

The sponge is a three-color design, but part of my idea for this was to use the wall color itself — a nice orange I’d recently applied over the sort of blech terracotta that was there when we moved in to the house — as one of the colors. This has a few things going for it: the design has a sort of extruded-from-the-wall feeling; it makes for a neat exercise in negative space for the orange face of the sponge; and it requires 1/3 less painting that way. That last point turns out to have been a big winner.


And so I started with the black face, applying all the paint for both the main face itself and for all the interior details on the other two faces where black-facing portions of the structure would be visible. I was a little tempted to stop here, because the one-color version has a nice feeling to the way it strongly implies the structure without actually filling it out. And because I was coming to terms with how much work this was going to be: getting all that black on was probably 8 hours of fiddly and for the small details tediously repetitive painting work.

But, nah. Let’s do it.


I got the white face added and it was pretty goddam satisfying to see it all come together, that big chunk of hours later. But it was also clear on a close look that I was going to need to recoat the white and the black both: the initial coat, especially with the white over that vibrant orange, was too thin and while it was a little texturally interesting in places, it wasn’t consistent and wasn’t even attractively inconsistent. Above you can see some recoated white on the left, single coat on the right; the difference was even more striking in person.

So, another few hours, recoating white and black. Took far less time than the first coats since I didn’t need to worry about edges nearly as much.

And then touchups with both of those and with the base coat orange to fix little spills and flecks and the various smudge spots where while trying to wrap my brush hand awkwardly to get the correct flat angle on this or that triangle I managed to lean onto a scrap of wet paint and then stamp it down elsewhere.

There was a lot of that. I don’t have a terribly steady hand for painting, so propping my wrist or the side of my hand somewhere and doing the detail work with fingers and thumb was necessary for most of this. Figuring out the right order in which to do a series of triangles so that I could reliably plant my hand in the necessary multiplicity of positions for one triangle after another without sticking it in wet paint was a bit of a puzzle in its own right.

The painting happened in shifts over the course of this last weekend; I started Friday afternoon with the black, and finally finished the recoats and final touchup Sunday evening. All told with drafting and painting it was on the order of 20-24 hours of work. I caught up on a few podcasts and listened to a lot of music and spent a lot more time ignoring the internet than I’m usually able to.

But then, finally, it was done. For reals, for good, done. And it looks fantastic:


It’s big enough to be really striking from anywhere in the room, and at a few feet’s distance the lines and angles all look sharp despite my brushwork being a little sloppy even at my best. I’m pleased with how well the negative-space bit on the orange face works; originally I had thought I might need to add thin lines on the two open bits of the hexagon to clearly define the shape, but I think it works very, very well as is.

I also like how a little bit of deliberate changing of focus can disassemble it, becoming, instead of a 3D cube-like object, just a collection of colorful triangle and diamond patterns floating in space. Which of course it is, but the effect of a complicated cube-like object is so strong that the two ideas can compete more or less constantly for your attention.

The Cantor set


Following on that, I wanted to do a companion piece for the Sponge, and so I went back to my idea of a family of fractals and settled on doing a Cantor set on the same wall, on the far side of the closet door in the center.

This was simpler to lay out, and involved a great deal less painting, and so was doable in an afternoon and evening yesterday. I learned from the sponge and went and bought a new, very-straight-indeed metal yardstick from a new art supply store in the neighborhood, and started with the correct brush and an expectation that I’d be doing two coats.

I still ran into a couple challenges with this, though. A flat, straight yardstick doesn’t make a wall flat, so laying out lines still had a little bit of wiggle to it. And those not-quite-perpendiculars of a hundred year old house came into play as well; lining up the vertical axis of the set to track with the vertical of the adjacent closet door frame that itself leans a bit means the whole thing skews very slightly to the side. And those wee lines at the bottom line of the pattern required exactly the kind of delicate-touch freehand painting that I struggle with, and so are even sloppier on close inspection than the linework on the sponge.

My measurements were also a bit more fiddly this time; because I was subdividing more times for the Cantor set than for the Menger sponge, and I wanted to have the smallest measurement still be a nice round even fraction of an inch to simplify layout and avoid guesswork, I started from my smallest Cantor line at 0.125 inches (1/8 inch) and built up from there: the next larger rectangle was thus 0.375 inch (because that’s what got the middle cut out of it to yield a pair of 1/8 inch rectangles with a 1/8 inch gap), and then from there 1.125, 3.375, 10.125, and finally a single 30.375 inch rectangle. Not difficult numbers to measure out and mark — a yardstick is a yardstick — but a little trickier to (a) remember and (b) literally count off while holding a yardstick in place with one hand. And this nice new metal yardstick weighs a bit more than the warped one I used for the sponge.

But it looks nice, regardless, and fills the space well as a complement to the sponge; reusing the white and black combination makes for a nice visual consonance.


And I mentioned refinishing the floor: I converted it from a peeling collection of layers of paint (who paints a wood floor?!) to a dark-stained, glossy wood surface with lots of nice wood grain variation. And it’s shiny enough to get a good mirror reflection under the right conditions. Which means double your sponges!

Weird objects

I painted these fractals because I figured they’d look good on the wall, but there’s lots of fascinating things about them that don’t have anything to do with spiffing up your home office.

One big thing there: both the Cantor set and Menger sponge paintings are just partial snapshots of the actual fractal processes in question.

The sponge for example could have been subdivided further with another ring of eight .333-inch diamonds around each of my smallest 1-inch diamonds, and then eight .111-inch diamonds around each of those, and so on.

And I really mean “and so on”, in the most extreme sense; there’s no natural stop point to this process, if you’re not a human being trying to paint it on a wall. That’s that fractal self-similarity thing I was talking about; the sponge can in principle keep getting subdivided more and more, and you can keep “zooming in” to see more and more detail at increasingly small scales. Not just for a while: infinitely. You’d keep cutting out more and more tiny bits of it until, in the long run, it would have infinitesimal mass, being an infinitely fine lattice of missing pieces. An impossible sponge rather than a solid cube! And while it has no mass, it has, seemingly paradoxically, more and more surface area as you cut more and more bits out. Infinitely much, eventually.

The Cantor set is the same; you keep cutting a bit out of that rectangle (really just a one-dimensional line in the pure mathematical sense, but rectangles look a lot better on my wall), and then out of its sub-rectangles, and so on, and the amount of actual line/rectangle left in the long run approaches zero. First you’ve got 1 unit of line; then you cut out the middle bit and you’ve got 2/3 of your line, made of two 1/3 unit pieces. Then you cut the middle bit out of each of those 1/3 pieces and you have 4 pieces that are each 1/9. 1 becomes 2/3 becomes 4/9, and so on: for any given degree n of iteration into the Cantor set you have (2/3)n of your line left. (2/3)0 = 1; (2/3)1 = 2/3; (2/3)2 = 4/9; and so on. (2/3)infinity is a very small amount of line indeed: 0.

But in the meantime you’re cutting your line into 2n pieces: first 20 = 1 pieces, then 21 = 2 pieces, then 22 = 4, and so on. My wall painting gets as far as 25 = 32, but of course it keeps going. And as n gets large, this number gets very large; 2infinity is infinity. So you get, just as with the sponge, this strange idea of something that both grows and shrinks impossibly, with an infinite number of line segments which add up to exactly 0 length.

It’s neat shit.