Cope, But Don’t Acclimate

A brief preface for context: I wrote this on November 14th, 2016, in the immediate wake of the election of Donald Trump, and published it on my Facebook feed where friends and MetaFilter folks would have a good chance to see it.  Six weeks later, my feelings haven’t changed. But some of the things I forecasted — the abatement of rawness and immediacy, and the onset in its place of fatigue from accumulated stress and anger and sadness — are now understandably part of where many people are.  It’s part of where I am.  

And having this morning had a conversation about this piece and about the state of things right now and in the near future, I wanted to rehome this on my blog as part of my effort to use this space more often and more deliberately.  And to mark the time a bit, as we find ourselves in this post-election, pre-inauguration limbo.  I’d call it a lacuna but everything is still far too noisy for that; we’re in a busy and worrying wayfinding place between more concrete checkpoints.  But wherever and whenever we are, we need to keep taking care of each other.


It’s been an overwhelming few days, and there’s a lot more hard ones coming. I don’t post much on FB but I feel like I should try and put something coherent up here about where I am and where we all are in the aftermath of Trump’s election, for folks I know who may not follow me on other platforms.

First and foremost: this is not normal. This situation isn’t normal. It’s a dangerous error to convince yourself otherwise, to believe that all the grief and anger and worry that has been visible on the news and in social media is just the usual post-election blues and folks unhappy their team didn’t win.

Elections are always fractious, someone always loses, yes. It’s tempting to say that’s all that’s going on here.

But this election wasn’t normal *long* before election day, and had the electoral vote margins broken narrowly for Clinton instead of narrowly for Trump we’d be in far better shape in the short term but we’d still have a problem.

Even if Trump had lost, we’d have still had a deeply unqualified man running for high office by trumpeting racist and xenophobic policies, by lying about and dismissing a well-documented history of sexism and misogyny and sexual assault, by in turns tolerating and outright embracing brazen anti-semites and racists like Steve Bannon and David Duke, by locking arms with one of the most aggressively and maliciously anti-LGBTQ politicians in the country in his VP pick of Mike Pence.

It’s a problem that that was a major party candidacy. It’s a bigger problem that it was a competitive one, that everything in that previous paragraph and the mountains of additional nastiness and bigotry and outright anti-American rhetoric of the Trump campaign didn’t render it a toothless, hopeless fringe platform. Even if Clinton had gotten the win, that is a horrifying portrait of the state of things in the US.

But Trump won, and that means we have to deal with not just the question of how in the long term to move the country in a healthy direction, but with how to start to fight immediately against it moving in scarier, more harmful directions under the direction of this incoming administration and its regressive docket.

This isn’t a normal situation. It wasn’t normal before the election, and Trump crossing that finish line resets nothing, excuses nothing, justifies no renewed sense of generosity or restoration of the benefit of the doubt. He campaigned on awfulness; that he won is a tragedy, not a vindication or a justification of that awfulness. It’s still awful. Don’t let anyone tell you that it’s normal. Don’t try to tell yourself that.

But, and this is one of the hard parts: this is new right now, and the anger and the sadness and grief that so many people are feeling is still raw. But that will fade. You’ll get tired. Fatigue will set in. Life will need to go on. And so that rawness will fade away. It happens, it’s understandable. It’s even healthy and necessary to some degree. But don’t let that break down the sense that this is a problem, that this is not normal.

Take care of yourself and get back to work and keep your life moving along, but don’t let yourself believe that this is normal. Carry that with you, the understanding that we are living through an extraordinary situation and that it’s not okay, it’s not just something to get used to. Cope but don’t acclimate. Keep your chin up but keep your eyes open. And when you see other folks trying to normalize this, confront it. Push back. Don’t cede the point.

Be the voice that keeps insisting on the reality that this is not normal.

Be the voice that encourages others to speak up as well.

Be the voice that reassures every vulnerable person out there, every American facing this reality as something even starker and more personally dangerous to their person than it is for you, that you are here and you see it to and you refuse to let it go, that you refuse to let them suffer in silence and fear.

There is so much to say about this awful situation, and there are many other people who are saying it better than I can and have been saying it for longer. Read, listen, share. Try to do some good. Try to be there for others who need it. Try, and keep trying. Don’t let it become normal.

Lessons From a Crappy Sierpinski Carpet

This is a Sierpinski carpet.  Or more precisely this is a dodgy approximation of one using brush-tip marker on post-it note.  It’s got all kinds of problems, and those are interesting to me.  Let me dig in on this a little.

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(Disclaimer: I’ve been thinking a lot about, and making a lot of art out of, fractals in the last few months, and I’m working on a long writeup about some of that that will cover a fair amount of artistic and personal ground, but I’m gonna try and write here more often and part of that means remembering to do smaller things quickly and to share them regularly.  So if you’ve been following me on twitter or elsewhere and are thinking This, At Last, Is The Exegesis: nope.  Whether that’s relieving or foreboding probably varies from reader to reader, sorry not sorry as necessary.  More to come.)

Ceci n’est pas une tapis.

So.  This is a Sierpinski carpet, and it isn’t.

What’s a Sierpinski carpet? The short version: Continue reading “Lessons From a Crappy Sierpinski Carpet”

Closing Out the Year

2016’s been a shitshow. Not universally, and one of the things I struggle with lately is trying to find the balance of anger and sadness the last twelve months have produced with all the good things and good people that have filled the year up. The temptation to say that literally everything is terrible when in fact it’s just that there’s been a lot of terrible in the mix.

And so with a few hours left, I’m writing a little here and getting ready to head to a friend’s house with my wife to celebrate as well as we’re able, which should be well enough, the fact that the year has been a year and that the next one is starting up full of opportunity along with the foreboding. It’s been a shitshow, and it may well be another one, but it’s a year and another year and that’s the pattern of life as it happens.

I’ve done a lot of stuff this year, even as there’s been a lot of stuff I meant to do and didn’t get around to. The former I hope to organize a little here, as part of an effort to blog and document creative and personal stuff more deliberately; the latter, well, 2017 is coming up and that’s another chance to get to it.

I’ve got an overabundance of thoughts and feelings about the state of the US, and of the Internet; about MetaFilter, about my own music and art and creative drives; about the balance of self-care and caring for others; about a lot of things. And I’ve got a deficit of vim for putting it down on paper right now, and a party to get to. So. Next year.

XOXO 2016

It’s been four days, this year’s XOXO festival is over, and I’m fried, tired, wrung out, worn through. It’s knocked me over again; I’m exhausted and off-balance and struggling on a Monday morning to wade through sleep deprivation and emotional hyperextension to do the work that I actually do every normal day.

There’s an impossibility to getting out the far end of XOXO gracefully. The festival, with its density of good will and shared optimism and its surfeit of creative energy, with its intense press of good friends and good strangers into a shared space and common experience, isn’t set up for an easy exit or a casual goodbye. I have to fight it off, scrape my way back to not-XOXO. It’s always a rough morning after.

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Because the last day is suffused with that particular heaviness under the joy, the sinking, dragging, unshakeable weight of not being able to forget even during the best moments of a thing that you’re also at the end of it. That the better it is now the worse it is that “now” can’t last. It’s a weight I have to push hard against, with hugs and beer and manic chatter and goofie selfies and uncharacteristic dancing all piled up together in a haphazard attempt to stoke on an unflagging social momentum that’s fundamentally exhausting to me but is the only way I can keep the weight from catching up as the day ends.

But the weight is always there anyway; it’s in the shared tired looks during a sudden lull, in the quiet conversations about what happens next, in the tactical “if I don’t see you before you take off” goodbyes as the evening wears on. It’s there on the face of every other person making the same effort to push hard against it, in the electrical fry under every conversation that might be the last one you have with someone for a while, or ever if you both drop the ball. And there’s so many balls in the air, and so much gravity to go around.

It was a fantastic festival. It was fun and funny and heartbreaking and inspiring; it was a kind of thing that just a couple years ago I didn’t even know was my kind of thing, and now I can’t imagine thinking twice about it and only worry that it might never happen again. It was what it is every time, too much and not enough, and I’m incredibly lucky to have had a chance to be there, and to know so many wonderful people attending and running it.

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But it was. Not is. It’s the morning after now, and I’m tired in every way I’m able to be, and the weight is calling in its deferred debt with interest. And even knowing how much good I’m carrying out of these last few days — all the ideas I’m excited about working on, all the stark perspectives festival speakers laid out, all the friendships made and renewed — that weight is still there. And it’s gonna hang on me for a while, and hang heavy.

The Hardest Part Is Not Drinking It

Tackling another project:

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I wanted to do something with some serious specular highlighting, and some transparency, and distinct shapes that I’d have to not try and cheat my way around too much.

Beer! Beer will do. And while it will go flat, it won’t literally rot away over the course of several days left out, so I can keep coming back to this one. But it’s a bit weird in retrospect to have a beer just sitting there, not for drinking. And a really nice Nut Brown, too. Shame.

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I started with an underpainting with thinned out orange, same basic deal as the last couple, and it’s starting to feel a little more natural; I spent more time getting stuff outlined this time, partly because there was just more to do but also because I wanted to try harder to get the shapes and proportions close to correct.

That feels like it paid off reasonably well so far. But the new ideas in this — getting that subtle shading of brown light in the beer to come out, getting the play of direct and indirect shadows right, getting the relatively cool and warm and light and dark colors in the room — have all been a challenge.

The deceptive nature of relative hue and value and intensity is something I’m appreciating a lot more with this one where, unlike the self-portrait I did previously, there’s not really any anthropomorphic or emotional engagement to be distract from all the stuff that’s off the mark.

More work to do on the first pass, get the floor and walls and green piping on the cloth in place and some of the rim/highlight stuff for the glass, and beyond that the paint on the already painted bits is full of gaps because I keep mixing not nearly generous enough amounts of each color when I’m working.

This is on rougher canvas than I’ve been using, too, owing to me grabbing supplies at the store without really looking. It’s an interesting change and I might like it, but I was expecting to be a bit more fiddly with details on this one and the rough goes against that a bit it feels like.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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