Magicians and Mastery

I’m sitting here slowly re-reading Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, whose primary virtues still seem to perhaps be that it is an exceedingly lengthy telling of a tale about magicians making bad deals with the fairies. It’s early in the book – I’m barely in the second hundred pages of this awkward thousand-page paperback tome – and I’m thinking about the contrasts Clarke is making between the Raven King, the near-legendary Great English Wizard of the Past, and the awkward, bookish Mr. Norrell.

Norrell has thus far been portrayed as a man who has pretty much spent his entire life far away from the world, collecting books of magic spells. As the book opens we see him starting to step out into the real world and perform spells. The Raven King, on the other hand, would do things like hop on a horse and lead an army into battle, slinging spells left and right.

And something about this is resonating in the back of my head.

This morning, I flipped through the usual set of Internet distractions on the tablet. One of them tends to be the Adobe Illustrator subreddit, where people post lots of “how do I do X” questions, and I answer some of them. Sometimes I’ll be specific and make little numbered lists of “open this palette, use this menu item” kinds of instructions, sometimes I’ll just say “I’d use x, y, and z” and maybe link to the online help pages of these features if the querent is lucky.

And sometimes I’ll do an epic reply wherein I say “there are many ways to achieve what you want, here’s short but explicit instructions for four of them, and some very brief notes on why I prefer methods 3 or 4 over 1 or 2 in my work”.

When I started doing this, it was an interesting way to push my Illustrator skills: how can I achieve this effect someone wants? And moreover, can I achieve it in a way that makes it super-easy to pick up and use in a future drawing? But I feel like I’ve seen the same questions over and over again, and perhaps I should go back over all these comments I’ve made and write them up as blog posts and/or text expansion macros. I’ve already got some of the latter for “pen tool basics” and “pencil tool basics”.

Or maybe I should stop wasting so much time hanging around that subreddit answering the same questions, and get more drawing done. That’d be nice.

There is a thought I am groping towards here about mastery of a craft, as demonstrated by the way Norrell frequently has to refer to books, while the Raven King just Does Stuff. (Which may be an example that’s invalidated over the course of the remaining nine hundred pages of this brick of paper with text infuriatingly close to the spine, ugh who the hell at Tor thought this was okay, why didn’t they split it into three 350p volumes for the paperback, but I digress.) And it’s something about the process by which people go from being Norrell with his library to the Raven King, who can just cast spells like crazy. After, of course, a long period holed up with a teacher, or a library, learning and practicing them. Eventually you have the library in you; eventually you know all twenty ways to achieve an effect because you’ve tried them all on similar problems, and you can sit around for a moment, think about how the strengths and weaknesses of each method will work with the problem at hand, then do the thing quickly and efficiently. I suppose this is what can be summed up as going from “journeyman” to “master”, which always feels like an uncomfortable thing to implicitly apply to myself.

There is also probably something here connected with my post from last week about visiting Pilchuck Glass Studio with my girlfriend, who is a relative beginner in one of the Nine Arts Of Glass. That probably boils down to “girl you should get out of the studio and figure out how to actually be sociable with people who are doing this small press comics thing if you wanna take it any further”, which, ugh, oh god, I’d have to be social at cons to do that and sitting there at a table selling my stuff all day drains all my social energy and then some, but again, I digress.

Maybe I just need to move back to LA and try working my various connections to find studio gigs, where I can hang out with other artists and work without having to organize a time and place for that. I dunno. I’m terrible at sitting in one place and working for more than an hour or two as a general rule.

Hell if I know. I’m stoned, it’s sunny out, and I’m stuck in the apartment waiting for a delivery of books I’m gonna take to VanCaf later this month. If all goes well it’ll be the first con I’m selling the Rita omnibus at.

If you were looking for a point to this blog entry, I’m afraid you’re not gonna find it here.


Today I looked in the mirror and saw two hairs growing out of my right ear. One was in the middle of the earlobe. One was right on the top of the antitragus (that little cartilaginous flap just above the earlobe, I had to google up ear anatomy for that one).

I have ear hair. It is official. I am old.


Well. That was an interesting day.

My friend Kerri took me along on a tour of the Pilchuck Glass School, a sprawling campus up in the woods north of Seattle dedicated to the Nine Glass Arts. I did not know until today that there are nine different branches of glass art, and I still couldn’t tell you what they are – the docent didn’t ever explicitly list them off. It was gorgeous; there were amazing views from its perch high in the mountains, and lots of quirky buildings built from local lumber.

Glassworking isn’t my thing, so I didn’t recognize any of the tools and techniques on display (well, okay, I saw a lot of familiar stuff in the print shop – apparently Printing With Glass is one of the Nine Glass Arts, and, um, the part of my brain that is a total freak for cool spot inks and whatnot immediately started thinking about cool things I could do with that), or any of the names being casually dropped aside from Chihuly (because you cannot live in Seattle and not vaguely know who he is), but what I did recognize is the general shape of a bunch of artists coming together to share resources and techniques, and maybe even trying to set their egos aside – the docent had a story about how she got help learning to use a lathe on glass from a guy who she later realized is one of the lead designers at Waterford Crystal, for instance.

And I also recognized the complicated dance between money and art; the place was set up about forty years ago by Dale Chihuly and some of his glassmaking buddies, on land donated by the owners of the Pilchuck Tree Farm, who also sunk a lot of money into supporting it over the years as it grew from “some guys doing occasional glassblowing sessions in the woods” to “a super-prestigious School of Glass Art that regularly hosts some of the top glass artists for teaching and residencies”.

Really though it made me want to find more excuses to get the hell away from the city and just sit somewhere peaceful and draw. Maybe alone, maybe around other artists. Where is the lovely tree-lined retreat for digital artists. Well I do have a couple friends who are kicking around the idea of acquiring some space up in the woods, building a few tiny houses and keeping some chickens and goats, and letting friends stay there for a while once they have more tiny houses than they need for their own shelter…

It’s like, a group of artists needs a few fundamental things: space to work and to keep their less-portable tools, other artists to help spread out the cost of that space and their tools, a library of both reference works for their own craft and works from outside it (because everyone should be looking to both the work that inspired them to take up this particular craft, and to work from far outside it, unless they’re happy just cranking out functional-but-uninspiring work), and other artists with a wide variety of skills – newbies need mentors, old hands need people to pass all their One Weird Tips on to, and all of those artists need folks who can look at their sketches and finished works and offer useful critique. And somewhere to eat, somewhere to excrete, and somewhere to sleep if the group workspace is way the hell away from civilization like this one is. I didn’t recognize the vast majority of the tools and processes but I sure as hell felt at home with the general shape of the place as a Bunch Of Artists.

Here’s some photos stolen from Kerri’s Facebook post about it:

Part of a team that was finishing up a piece in the Hot Studio as the tour ended.

The Hot Studio is a big open hexagonal place with room for 3 or 4 teams of 4-6 people to work on pieces. Glassblowing is not a solo practice. Other glass things can be, I think, but blowing needs about a dozen hands and at least one person in a heat-resistant suit.

We never went in this building so I couldn’t tell you what it is. It’s pretty centrally located so I presume it’s pretty important.

The building partially obscured by trees is the Hot Studio. It’s pretty central to the campus. It’s got a few furnaces in it that, if I understand correctly, are pretty much on 24/7 and cost about $900/day to keep running – they’re enough of a giant expensive hassle to start up that this is more efficient. Especially if you’re running them in a school with people potentially wandering in to use them at 4AM when they can’t sleep and want to work on that piece burning a hole in their mind’s eye, I guess.

Hearing the docent describe what goes into glassblowing gave me new respect for the art, to be honest. You’re really close to scary temperatures on a constant basis. It’s pretty metal.

A sketch I did of the Hot Studio while Kerri was chatting about Glass Things with the school staff. Partially from memory, because we decided to go in and watch the glassblowing happening in it.

(Yes, the “Hot Studio” does indeed imply a “Cold Studio”, where they do stuff that doesn’t involve fire – it’s full of water-cooled devices for grinding, carving, and smoothing glass. When we passed through it was also full of a dude in an absolutely fabulous sparkly purple rubber apron, which it transpired was designed by someone associated with the school, for some of the specific needs of grinding glass. There is also a “Flat Studio” where people mostly do small things involving much smaller amounts of fire than the furnaces in the Hot Studio; why it’s the Flat Studio, I’m not sure, in part because apparently nobody is quite sure. Tradition, you know? Kerri didn’t photograph these other places, and I left my phone in my purse for pretty much the entire tour.)

A half-assed sketch of the glassblowing session we caught the end of. The dude in the dark glasses was mostly handing the Scary Hot Stuff, and was in a bulky silver Really Hot Stuff Handling costume; when the piece was done, he put on what I can only describe as “industrial-strength oven mitts” and carried the finished piece to an annealing oven at the side of the Hot Studio, where it’ll be slowly cooking for… a while, I get the impression a fairly thin-walled piece like this would be in for most of a day, while a big solid sculpture might take weeks. And yes, the woman holding the pole the glass piece is attached to was doing it in nothing more than a tank top, casually staying mere feet away from this open flame. Glassblowers, again, are pretty hardcore.

Something I doodled while we were having lunch afterwards. Trying to capture some features of the very specific piece of industrial furniture being used to support the blown piece as it was being shaped that I didn’t get in the doodle from life; it’s a very idiosyncratic assemblage of metal and wood that I’m pretty sure has a damn fine reason for having one side be a large black metal parallelogram with its base about a foot further away from the other side than its top is. That mess on the left is a vague impression of the furnace, with protective shields that keep most of the heat from spreading out in every direction around it. And all of these things are way out of proportion with each other because I am totally spoilt by Illustrator’s ability to easily resize stuff if I fuck up proportions.

Afterwards I told Kerri that I am basically going to hassle her every now and then for the rest of the year about her obvious desire to apply to take a class or two next summer. Because I am an artistic enabler, damnit. GIT THAT PORTFOLIO IN SHAPE GIRL. She apologized for excitedly burbling about what she saw at the place and I was like, dude, I know how I felt the first few times I was in a Real Animation Studio, carry on, I’d be worried if you weren’t excited.

(Me? I found it interesting, and I wouldn’t turn down a collaborative project or something (or an opportunity to just hang out there for a week with my tablet, drawing the same kind of stuff I normally do) – but I don’t think I have a burning desire to learn a Physical Craft to go along with my drawing skills right now. I am however currently juggling a long-buried desire to make hideous noises with an electric guitar against the growing urge to get my ass back in the pole dance studio and get back in the kind of physical shape you need to do that… I’m pretty sure I can’t really do both at once.)



Docent: “This is one of the biggest annealing ovens outside of industrial shops.”
Me: “Damn, you could dispose of a LOT of bodies at once in that.”

A Brief Review Of Nier: Automata

On the plus side while roaming Nier: Automata’s drab, sepia deserts, I figured out that my perfect AAA game would basically be “a huge, slightly-ruined castle in the middle of the desert with monsters roaming about it and bright blue skies and beautiful intense sunsets and maybe some jet skates or a grappling hook or something, and a nice character generator” and I hope someone out there is working on it because I would play the fuck out of that and now I think I wanna boot up Kingdoms of Amalur on the 360 and fuck around in its beautiful desert zones again as a poor substitute.


So the other day I was at the art store looking for a stretched canvas large enough to be hung in front of the part of the closet my projector’s beam covers, which would thus become my Magic Painting (as one does), when I ended up having something happen that made me realize I’ve gone up a notch in Notability.

A woman who works at the store came by and noticed me staring contemplatively at the rolled canvas and frames, trying to calculate how much I’d need and why it comes in different weights and… when she asked if she could help me, I made the rare choice of saying “yes, you can,” because honestly I know I know fuck-all about the ins and outs of most real media after being a CYBER ARTIST for the past sixteen years.

I told her what I was trying to do, she told me I’d probably want the cheapest weight because I wouldn’t be asking it to hold sixty layers of paint or anything, helped figure out the proper size, told me what equipment I’d need to put it together (a staple gun and not much else apparently), and then realized that they don’t even sell pre-made stretcher bars in the length of the longer side of my screen, at which her advice was “maybe just get some 2x4s for the frame”. Which is starting to sound like Serious Work or something.

I thanked her for the advice. Then she asked if I sold stuff at the comics cons. Turned out I’d sold her a copy of Rita 1 at last ECCC, and she loved it. I gave her the proper Twitter accounts to follow. (And hi, if you did follow it and hit the link to this post. I forgot your name already because I am terrible at that, even when I’m not observing 4/20 for the entire week following it…)

I am now at the level of notability where complete strangers recognize me around town every once in a while. And, holy shit. That is kind of the level of fame I aspired to as a young artist groping their way towards the animation industry, way back in the late nineties.

I guess the next level is ‘published nationally in a modest edition, out of print twenty years later, but a cherished book of a select set of people that informed something of who they are’. I guess that’s my new Realistic Career Goal. (Unrealistic Dream Goal is currently ‘Parallax is to Millenials’ kids as Star Wars was to GenX and beyond’. Which I just realized might require producing a Parallax pre/sequel of similar scale a generation later, am I gonna be alive that long, I dunno, we’ll see.)

getting stoned and listening to some dance music

Today I found myself in the shower listening to the second half of Wonky (2012). Wonky is Orbital’s previous Last Album (it was their second, and they’re going on tour again soon). The second half – or actually, the second half of the Deluxe Edition, which is what I have – is basically an hour-long Greatest Hits Of Orbital Megamix, as performed live in Australia a couple years before. I kept on having to remind myself that the shower is not a good place to have an impromptu Orbital Dance Party as a way to get a little exercise.

The first half? An hour of new Orbital. And really, it’s more Orbital, straight from the Orbital generator that lives inside the heads of the Hartnoll brothers. Start with a loop, play it a few times, vary it a little, then repeat that whole set a few times while bringing in a new loop on top of it. Fade out old loops over time, until you start seeding new loops and the composition comes to a start. Every once in a while there are words, but not many – mostly the Hartnolls just want to get a groove on, and keep it going for a while.

So the question then becomes: what is the quality of their new set of loops on hand in 2012, versus the classic set of loops that have been pleasing ears since as far back as their 1991 debut album?

But that question begs its own question: does it even matter if any of the new crop of loops is any good, when you have the Hartnolls picking up their classic loops and bringing to them all the things they’ve learnt over twenty years of making pleasing loops, putting them together in pleasing ways, and watching the crowd as they put these loops together live?

And that brings up another question: they’ve released their first single from the new album. And they’re going on tour again. If I go see them, am I volunteering to be some tiny part of the process of making the next album? I mean I’ll probably buy it, especially if they repeat Wonky’s formula of “an hour of new loops, and an hour of Greatest Orbital Hits Dance Party Megamix”. Maybe more focused on their middle albums; I’m dreaming of a 20min hybrid of P.E.T.R.O.L., Wonky, and Beezlebeat, myself. (But it looks like they’re not visiting the US on this tour, and honestly I can’t blame them right now.)

At any rate: I’ve been listening to the first half of Wonky while writing this, and, to use the current vernacular:


Also, “Beezledub”, the next preantepenultimate new track on Wonky, is a pretty good set of bangin’ dance loops. And there are some good deep drone focus loops on this too. So hey, if you’re not already stocked up on Orbital loops, I don’t think it’d be a bad place to start with Orbital. It says “here is where we are at the end of about two decades of music, and here’s where we began”, in a way rather suited to their endlessly-looping compositional structures. Especially given that the last new track is called “Where Is It Going?” and stops extremely abruptly.

it’s never a dull moment here in the university district

9:55 AM. I’m getting dressed. I drift to the front door of my apartment and step outside, to see how well my clothes will fare in this morning’s weather.

As I open the door, I hear a young male voice across the street. “Sprint to the Pantry!” he hollers, his voice choked with laughter. And then I see a guy run straight into the fence of the house across the street, breaking right through its brown wooden slats and falling onto the lawn. The half-dozen guys with him all run off to the south, abandoning him. Presumably they’re going down the street to the nearby convenience store named Plaid Pantry.

Fence-breaker guy slowly gets up, and starts rooting around trying to pick up the pieces instead of running to catch up with his friends. I can only assume he broke the fence of the place he lives in.

We Love Your Art!

So a while back I got mail from this company that puts on art/fashion/music/whatever shows. They wanted my art in their show!

I replied noting that I work digitally, currently have pretty much nothing printed, and am not interested in putting in the time and effort to remedy this; if they could deal with making that happen we might have something to talk about. Oh, and what kind of price range is moving at their events, and about what percentage of stuff is moving?

The first was a dealbreaker for them, and they never answered the second question.

This past week a new person at the company with a pretty amazing name contacted me. They're putting together their next show! They want my work!

I asked the same questions. I wonder if I'll get an answer to the second one this time.

(Googling the company suggests no; apparently their deal is that showing requires you to sell about $200 worth of tickets, and there's really not much sales happening to an audience that is mostly the friends and family of the amateur artists/musicians/clothiers/etc exhibiting. Sounds like a great deal, sign me right up! Always do your research on deals that sound too good to be true, kids.)