Research

Earlier this week I woke up and felt like what I needed to be working on was a picture of Stella sitting in a library, reading. This may be a sign that I need to do some research before doing the next few pages of her grimoire; I’m feeling the kind of resistance to working on them that usually means “something needs to be nailed down more before I get into drawing”.


There’s a lot of stuff going on in these bookcases. Firstly, the books are just simple straight lines drawn in various colors with an assortment of art brushes I made:

They’re all drawn flat, then warped into goofy cartoon perspective with a distortion mesh. Which is the weird shape highlighted in red in the above screenshot.

You may also notice that a lot of the sets of books are just a couple of lines in the outline view above; that’s done with a blend between two lines. And a little randomness is added by putting the Transform effect on each of those two lines, with a small vertical transformation, and the Random box checked:

And finally, I use Astute’s Block Shadow effect (in the Stylism plugin) to give some depth to the books by extruding them:

Each shelf has different angles to create a vague sense of perspective. It’s kind of sloppy, but all the lighting effects hide that. If I wanted them to be clearer I’d spend some time thinking about a way to get the edge of a page block in there between the covers. Good enough for now, though. And it took a ton less time to give the books depth with the Block Shadow plugin than it would’ve taken to do it manually.

The whole thing took about five hours, spread out over three days. I shudder to imagine how long it would have taken if I’d had to individually draw every book by hand. I think it was like an hour and a half of work from “I have empty shelves placed where I want them in the composition” to “I have shelves full of books and a few knick-knacks”, thanks to thoughtful use of art brushes and the block shadow effect.


The AI2021 source file is available over on Patreon, if you wanna poke around. It may be weird if you don’t have the Astute plugins. And if you want this on a shirt or a laptop cover or a mug or something, you can get that over on Redbubble.

a hurrication

This week, my husband went off to visit their parents in Ohio. I figured I was gonna have a little bachelorette time. Maybe I’d get Psychonauts 2 and play it.

But Hurricane Ida had other plans. A couple days later I was frantically getting all the boxes of stuff off the floor and packing bags of the absolute bare minimum of stuff I could take out, and leaving lots of food for the cats who live under the house. And then Saturday I was hooking up with some friends and putting those bags in their car, and spending four hours to drive two hours to Hattiesburg, MS because of highways clogged with other New Orleanians fleeing. The traffic would have been worse if we’d hugged the coast like most of them, even worse if we’d gone west. And then Sunday we were pressing on to Birmingham, AL, where we ended up glued to the internet as the storm passed over the city.

The predictions kept on wavering between a Category 3, 4, and 5. It hit the land, and the city, as a 4, on the sixteenth anniversary of Katrina devastating the place. We were all there for Katrina so we were all kind of feeling a lot of PTSD rising up.

And… our worst fears weren’t realized. The levees held. The whole city lost power, but the Sewage & Water Board’s generators kept running – they had barely enough of them up to keep the pumps going, got one more up the same morning that Ida was coming, and ended up with one shutting down once the worst of the storm had passed. Those people are fucking heros and they really need to be paid a lot better. So far there has been all of one hour officially reported, though more are probably coming.

This morning, we saw this absolute wonderful unit on CNN. And I had to draw him.

Twice, because the first time was from memory while waiting for lunch, and I knew I could do better. I could probably do even better if I tried a couple more times, I was being lazy in some ways the second time too.

At present I dunno when I’ll get back. The mayor’s asking evacuees to please stay out. The power’s probably gonna be off for at least a week. I do want to get back soon and see what the state of my home is, and also start feeding the poor kitties under the house. We have a possible sighting of one of them from some acquaintances  who dropped off some food, and they probably would have mentioned it if the house was obviously missing a chunk of roof, but I can’t know for sure until I’ve been inside. If the place is screwed then we have at least one spare bedroom we can stay in for a while. I’m gonna go to the REI here in Birmingham before we leave and buy like a dozen solar chargers for myself and whoever I know who wants them, FEMA’s promised to pick up the bill for evac expenses and help with rebuilding too.

All the friends I’ve been in contact with through the storm are okay too. The friend with an incredible library of early American newspaper comics in his house still has it. The city’s sustained damage but nothing like Katrina.

And unlike Katrina, Biden declared a goddamn state of emergency before the storm even hit. Have I mentioned how much I hate Dubya for his bungling of that? Because he sure did fuck that shit up and he can rot in hell for that.

Anyway. I turned on the computer thinking I was gonna work on this drawing:

…and decided to make an update on my status for Patreon because my last one from before leaving was pretty damn bleak, and I figured I’d say something here as well.

Gibson’s “Agency”: some thoughts

Last week, when my Mac’s battery went to shit for the third time in the four years I’ve had it (there’s a design flaw where this model eats batteries, it’s pretty annoying), I had an enforced vacation. I spent it reading.

One of the books I read was William Gibson’s latest, “Agency”. Whose title turned out to be profoundly ironic, as that is exactly what the main character, Verity, lacks. The first decision Verity makes in this book – to take a job with a company trying to commercialize a military AI – is pretty much the last one she makes; once she starts testing this AI, it spawns a vast web of sub-programs that go off hunting information and doing stuff for her. The front end of the AI doesn’t even know what her agents are doing; she just suddenly knows that, hey, this deal is about to happen if she tells Verity to go sit in a specific place in a coffee shop and trade a bag full of an absurd amount of cash to a guy with a mysterious case. Possibly the AI doesn’t have much agency in this story either.

Soon, the AI is telling Verity to start running because the company who she’s working for are… vaguely bad or something? I don’t recall much about consequences, just that Verity’s lack of agency becomes even more profound as she’s handed off from one person working for an agent of the AI to another. And then she gets connected with a set of people working for bored rich assholes in an alternate future, whose hobby is spawning and manipulating what they call “stubs”: timelines branching off from their past. It turns out that these rich alternate-future assholes have determined that there is a very high chance this stub is about to erupt in nuclear war, and that Verity’s AI is the best chance to stop this. The rich future assholes have super-powerful computers that make it easy for them to analyze the stubs they create and manipulate them; maybe they’re the only ones who have any agency at all in this book.

And then the AI is “destroyed” (with a lot of hints that it’ll come back) and it becomes even more of a sequence of disconnected events, without any characters Gibson’s spent time persuading you to care about. Every now and then someone mentions the looming nuclear war. There’s some action scenes. Verity continues to be a passive viewpoint character; the last part of the book (I would call it a “climax” but that implies it was exciting) sees her dressed up as a mannequin who’s lifted up a tall building by drones hauling a hammock, as part of what appears to be An Art Installation. She’s repeatedly reminded to not move at all lest this blow her cover. And really this sums up her role for the entire book – just do what everyone tells you to, as part of their intricate plans, which are only vaguely hinted at.

And of course in the last few chapters the AI reassembles herself from data carried by her agents, and I guess nuclear war is averted, and also I guess the company that wants the AI back is defeated, but honestly after about four hundred pages of a sprawling cast of vaguely-sketched characters all excitedly not really doing anything about any of those things I really was just glad to be finished with the book.

Arguably this is an eminently realistic depiction of being in the hands of a hypercompetent networked AI – sort of a longer version of Sterling’s short story Maneki Neko – but it’s the exact opposite of exciting, in a way that reminds of of Niven’s complaint that there was a point in his future history of “Known Space” where it was just impossible to write an interesting story, because all of humanity had the genes for the psychic power of “Very Very Lucky”. There are some interesting moments and images throughout the book but none of them ever really felt like anything to worry about, because the AI returning felt absolutely inevitable.

It’s not like most of Gibson’s books really come to a satisfying conclusion. But at least usually his characters have things they want, that they get to make decisions about how to acquire. Verity spends this whole book just having things happen to her and around her and I just kinda quit caring after a while, and that’s probably a valuable thing to remember about story construction.

The Archangel Dragons Of The Directions: Preface

In early 2021, I accepted a magical art commission.

There is a ritual that many modern magicians perform known as the Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram, wherein they define a space that is both of this reality and outside of it. A space where Magic is easier to perform. Perhaps a space where the magician’s imperfections are carved away, little by little, every time they enter it.

A major part of this ritual involves visualizing four angels: RAPHAEL before you, GABRIEL behind you, MICHAEL on your right hand, and AURIEL on your left. The client wanted help doing this, and felt that they would find it easier if they were given the shape of dragons.

I was given a page of the text of the version of the rite they were working from. (There are a lot of different versions floating around; the original was cobbled together from diverse sources in the late 1800s by members of the Order of the Golden Dawn (no relation to the modern Greek neo-Nazi party), and ever since their secrets were made public, the variants have bloomed – both small tweaks within the same religious framework, and big tweaks like swapping out Arch-Angels with Hebrew names for members of pretty much any pantheon you might prefer.) This particular one was from the Open Source Order of the Golden Dawn.

Beyond that, the only direction I was given was “flat colors rather than full shading” and “needs to fit on a letter-size page”. This could have been enough to start with. But I wanted more. So I broke out my copy of Skinner’s Complete Magician’s Reference Tables, dug through Israel Regardie’s The Middle Pillar, flipped through Damien Echols’ High Magick, pondered a few versions found online, and a half dozen other books. And I started taking notes, writing down ideas, and making sketches. In a little sketchbook with dragons embossed on its leather cover that my in-laws had given me this past Christmas – it felt like a book for a Project, and this was obviously the right one.

I pretty quickly settled on the idea of building each Archangel Dragon upon the skeleton of their sigil. I worked them out myself with the Golden Dawn’s Rose Cross sigil method. It took me a little longer to read the OSOGD’s version of the rite and pick up the repeated mention of colors “flashing” on the angel’s robes; this word is used in other places in Golden Dawn instruction to refer to very intensely-contrasting color pairings that tend to clash and vibrate in your eyes.

I set up an Illustrator file. With all those sigils. And a couple more, because the variant of the LBRP/LIRP I like the most adds in an additional angel above and below you. I hadn’t decided if I was going to do them yet but I figured I’d leave the option open.

I started doing the Ritual of the Pentagram regularly. The Lesser Invoking Ritual of the Pentagram in the morning, the Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram in the evening, as directed by my copy of the Golden Dawn material, rather than doing the LBRP twice daily as almost everyone tends to tell you to do it now. Some of those ideas on how to approach this project were sitting there in my mind as I woke up, ready to be written down in the dream journal I’ve kept by my bed for a few years now. If I’m going to make images designed to be used as magical tools, I feel it is part of my job to do my best to make them potent. And part of that involves inviting the subject into my life, maybe to pose for my third eye, or maybe to just spend a little time sitting behind me while I work and casually dropping ideas into my head.

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The Archangel Dragons Of The Directions: Uriel

I have been commissioned to do a set of illustrations of the dragonsonas of the angels one calls upon during the Lesser Ritual of the Pentagram, if one is a neophyte in a magical system derived from the Golden Dawn documents. This is the fourth one. There may be more eventually but this is it for now.

Uriel (or Oriel, or Auriel; nobody can agree on which vowels to add into the consonants-only Ancient Hebrew name) is the patron of magicians, the Overseer of Tartarus, and is helpful in matters of divination, finances, and obtaining the treasures of the world.

They carry a shield, to remind you that this direction is associated with the suit of Pentacles.

Prints, posters, shirts, phone cases, etc, on Redbubble.

The Archangel Dragons Of The Directions: Michael

I have been commissioned to do a set of illustrations of the dragonsonas of the angels one calls upon during the Lesser Ritual of the Pentagram, if one is a neophyte in a magical system derived from the Golden Dawn documents. This is the third one. There will be at least one more.

Michael is chief among angels. He rules the Fire signs of the Zodiac, and is the angel of the orange sphere of Hod on the Tree of Life. He is helpful in matters of remaining chill during crisis, protection, success in business, and expressing your ideas well. He has very strong Cool Dad Energy.

He carries a sword, despite this direction being associated with the suit of Wands. Perhaps this is a clue.

I haven’t been able to see any other names on his nametag.

Unlike the other archangels, Michael gave me the distinct impression that his reaction to this project was that he already has a fursona, and that it is a lion, and if I am going to make him into some kind of dragon then it should be a seriously leonine dragon.

Prints, clothes, journals, and other whatnottery are available on Redbubble.

MA-X: Inner Library

So a while back in early March I was cycling lazily through the park thinking about Magical Stuff when this lady popped into my head and said “Congratulations! You have found the Inner Library!” and requested an access code. None of my first guesses worked. Perhaps I will get it eventually.

I drew this pretty soon afterwards, then let it sit for a while because I knew there should be some kind of sigil above her head, and that my attempt at drawing what had popped into my mind was not right:

Last night I finally got my head into the right place to investigate this, and scribbled down a quick version of the one you see in the main image; today I put it into Illustrator and am posting this. Time Sink says this image took about two hours of actual work in AI, if you are curious; I’ve gotten really good at making it do this sort of visual vibration quickly!

I don’t know why this wants to be numbered as Major Arcana X (Fortune). It just did, so I went with it. There’s certainly some visual correspondence with the image I did for the Silicon Dawn, and some of the other Majgickqghal Correspondences link up to that card, too:

(that’s a screengrab of stuff hovering off the side of the canvas in a “notes” layer)

Want this on a print, a t-shirt, a magnet, a journal, etc? Go over by my Redbubble shop.

a fragment

On and off this past week or two, I’ve been working my way through “The Road To Amber”, the last volume of NESFA Press’ collections of all of Roger Zelazny’s short stories. It’s a mix of standalone stuff, several fragments he wrote to tie up some loose ends of Amber and figure out where he’d go with a third series, and some nonfiction essays of his, and some stuff about his life.

There was a bit in there about his writing practice: every work day, he would require himself to sit down and write at least three sentences, and he would require himself to do this four times a day. If all he got out of a particular day was twelve discombobulated sentences, that was okay. And something in me said, huh, that sounds like an interesting exercise. So instead of closing the book and going to sleep, I got up and went to the computer, opened Illustrator, and doodled something using the same vibes as that Piranesi-inspired image I did a couple months ago. And then I made a new artboard, and thought I was going to do another take on that image, but instead I found myself making a big text box and just… typing. No editing, no rephrasing, whatever comes out of my fingers is what I have to work with, typos and all. Well, maybe a couple of typo fixes. But not many.

man what the fuck. That sure was a transmission from Death’s Radio right there. I’m going to bed. I gotta get up tomorrow morning and try to take a cat to the vet to have her persistently scabby nose looked at. Maybe I’ll look at this again tomorrow and it’ll suck. Midnight free-writing is allowed to suck.

there is nothing but work work work

A few days ago, Patreon’s social media folks posted this in the Discord chat as a “Thursday Thought Starter”

And I kind of went off on this. Because I am a person who has spent a lot of time, effort, and money on organizing my life such that my creative work is a major part of it – but holy shit there are so many other things that make me happy:

Cuddling my SO. Reading a good book, whether it’s an old favorite or something new to me. Going out to see some live music (really a thing I gotta start doing more again now that the pandemic’s over). Dancing. Riding my bike aimlessly around the city and the park. Sitting outside a cafe nursing a drink and watching tourists. Answering questions on the Illustrator subreddit and having people say “holy shit that not only solved my problem but showed me new ways to work much faster, thank you”. Eating a good meal. Getting cross-faded and having some Adult Fun, solo or with a friend. All of these are things that contribute to “creating” being maybe about a quarter of a realistic graph of “things that make me happy”.


Today a friend posted a lengthy rant about how her buying into the idea that studying hard, then working hard, would be the key to a happy and successful life left her her frazzled from overwork and almost completely lacking in any kind of friend circles: constantly turning down social invitations in college because she had to Study Hard Tonight eventually resulted in the invitations stopping, and it hasn’t gotten any better in the ensuing years after ending up at various toxic workplaces that loved to take advantage of her immense guilt around never feeling like she’s working hard enough. She’s making enough money to live comfortably in one of the most expensive cities in the US but on the rare occasions she has any time to herself she has no idea what to do any more because so much of her energy’s gone into work, work, work.


Whatever the hell you are doing, however much you love it, there is a whole bunch of other things that you need. If you can find a way to get some of these things along with your work, great – now that the pandemic’s over I need to start scheduling time to hang out with art friends working on various projects together, for instance – but always remember to make room in your life for things that are Not Work.

If you are working for someone else, be wary of their attempts to get you to spend more of your time working for them for less money. And be wary of demonization of things like unions, too.

This goes for me, too: I am a freelance artist who derives a large part of my current income from drawing whatever the fuck I feel like drawing and keeping a tip jar out – but that tip jar is on Patreon, a website run by a corporation based in one of the most expensive cities in the US, with multiple millions worth of venture capital dollars pushing them to find ways to increase the revenue stream from supporters to creators that they take 5-12% off of. The graph I opened this post with is one of many bits of messaging they send people like me, some more subtle, some less, all focused on what worked to get their biggest earners to the point where their life is completely consumed by cranking out content a lot of people are willing to pay for.

I think this is the point where this little rant trails off. I will close with a link to one of the other things that sparked these thoughts today: an article from 2008 on the origins of modern consumer society about a hundred years ago, and the efforts by various coalitions of manufacturers to sell work as the center of life. https://orionmagazine.org/article/the-gospel-of-consumption/

Hello, Illustrator 25. Hello.

Or Illustrator 2021 if you want the marketing name. Or 25.3.1 if you want to be precise – 25.3.0 came out a few weeks in ten countries, none of which were the US; a couple weeks later, 25.3.1 fixed all the killer bugs that early adopters in those ten countries found and screamed about. Experience has taught me to avoid releases of AI (or any major software, to be honest, but especially AI) that end in .0, so I wouldn’t have been one of those anyway even if it had been available globally.New splash screen. Don’t love it. Don’t hate it. Will probably replace it soon. I’d been seeing the splash screen credit for “Jade Purple Brown” next to the betas and thought that was just a placeholder fake name but evidently that is the name/alias of an actual person who has their own domain and everything. It’s a decent piece of flat art, which sure does beat that one year the splash screen was a creepy drowned-looking face. (Also I have noticed that the anti-aliasing between the purple and red/yellow shapes is completely fucked up and that is gonna drive me crazy until I change this image, so I guess replacing it just went up my priority list…)

seriously I can’t unsee this

Anyway. In terms of features this one is both really small and really huge – the detailed feature summary lists all of three things. I think that might be a record. But two of these things are actually huge changes that probably ended up with touching every single part of the program: they finally added the ability to rotate the canvas view like I’ve been asking for since I first found the old feature request form in like 2007, and they updated it to work on the new Apple CPUs.

My last version was 24.2.3 so there’s also all the changes from 25.0 (a new Recolor Artwork that probably doesn’t play well with global color swatches so I’ll never use it, cloud document upgrades I won’t use, and some minor type handling changes that sound vaguely nice to have), 25.1 (simplified repeat/mirror stuff that I might use, if I can actually apply it as an effect instead of it being a new kind of weird object that I have to use Isolation Mode to dig into – I hate how Isolation Mode dims everything else so I generally avoid it), and 25.2 (more cloud document stuff, minor type handling changes extended to Japanese glyphs, a very annoying “system compatibility report” that tells me to update my perfectly-functioning Wacom drivers every launch, and “stability and performance fixes” which are always a good bullet point for a feature list in my book)

seriously this is annoying, at least it doesn’t actually disable the driver like it implies it has done. I am reluctant to update my Wacom drivers because I am using old tablets and there’s always that risk of them deciding to end support for stuff that still works perfectly fine…

(edit: yep. new driver is 6.4.43, last driver that supported the Intuos 4 in my laptop bag is 6.3.41-2, so even if I upgrade I will keep getting this every time I restart my computer or restart AI after it crashes. Yes, Illustrator starts when I boot up my computer; I know I’m gonna be using it on a pretty much daily basis.)


Anyway. Rotate view works.

Fuck I could have used this so much when I was working on this spread. Maybe I’ll go back in and add a little more love to it now that I can easily rotate the canvas.

The default hotkey for canvas rotation is of course already assigned to something else. I’ve assigned it to J, one of the few hotkeys left – but I’ve also read the section of the manual about it and discovered that shift-space will summon it from any tool. Which is a little awkward as shift is also used to constrain its angle, so there is a little dance I may end up doing a lot: shift-space to summon rotation, let up shift for a second, which thankfully does not shift into canvas panning, then hit shift again to constrain the angle. For something like the spread above, I may also consider making a few reference shapes somewhere and using the new “rotate to object” menu item. Which maybe merits a hotkey. Dunno. We’ll see how it shakes out.

Initial tests are that everything looks good, I know Astute worked really hard to have all their plugins ready for rotate view/M1 compatibility before the initial AI25.3.0 launch so there’s not much fear on that front – their suite is pretty essential for my current workflow. Time will tell if there are any serious bugs lurking in this upgrade.

 


More on the tablet situation:

Huh. I don’t think the current medium Intuos Pro is gonna fit in my laptop bag, either.

Well. I’ll worry about it when I finally have to lose the current drivers because I bought a new machine that they won’t work on. And make sure I budget $2-600 more for one or two new tablets – I wouldn’t be surprised if the Intuos 5 on my desk stops working in a year or two.

I am really not happy about the way modern Wacom styli no longer seem to be compatible with the spring nib, I love those things and loathe all the varieties of solid nibs that you have to constantly gouge into the surface of the tablet with. Solid nibs, IMHO, are a subtle but definite contributor to hand strain. Blaaagh. I wonder how insane it would be to try and turn a modern solid nib into a spring one. Probably very.