Behold My Radiance

This is your occasional reminder that I am still burning with the phoenix-like flame of self-reinvention that is commonly known as “being a transsexual”. My transition started around 2005 and is pretty much a done deal; I get female pronouns from total strangers. Estrogen’s been kind to me, and my mother was unfailingly supportive of this journey while she was still alive.

Illustrator, about 1h.


I drew this one really quickly, just picking up existing graphic styles for drawing dragon-me and slapping down rough shapes with no preliminary sketch. I should do this more often, though it does have the problem of requiring a bit more focus than scribbling away on a linear sketch – I have to think about colors at the same time as pose and anatomy. Though of course it’s super easy to just lay down really loose shapes then come back and get them to more vaguely resemble anatomy; the head was just a vague oval with three eyes for like 2/3 of the time I worked on this. Eventually I drew a rough dragon snoot on top of it, reshaped it to have some semblance of the planes around eyesockets and cheeks, and added some highlights.

The lines radiating out from the center were drawn as a bunch of parallel lines; I then used Astute’s Super Marquee tool on ‘random’ mode to select some of them and turn them into dashed lines, then made them all into an art brush and drew a couple of big circles with them.

This is a pretty simple way to quickly make some focus lines. Or generally create some kind of graphic device, there’s a lot of op tricks you can do this way too.

Also the background lines are actually just a solid Pride With Trans/PoC Module Flag drawing with gaps between a bunch of black lines generated by Astute’s Offset effect. I could have done something similar with line blends but this plugin makes it stupidly easy to do this sort of stuff, especially once you get the hang of its accompanying tool.

The black dragon probably pops more without them but I have just really been enjoying doing a lot of art that vibrates lately.

Cyan Magenta Yellow Butts

This is the best Illustrator bug ever and I hope they never fix it.

I was looking through old blog entries and found my post from when I discovered this back in 2014. It’s still there.

older

WordPress is 18 years old today. I’ve been using it for my site for a few months shy of nine of those years.

I have really not had to think about it very much at all. It auto-updates itself. Every once in a great while this breaks something but I can’t remember the last time that happened. It’s still using the custom styles I built over those ten years – one for the main body of the site, plus a few more for each of my comics. I suspect that I may keep on using this same setup for another decade or two, though I may change my mind if they stop updating the plugin that lets you keep on using the original editor instead of the new one that wants you to make a bunch of “blocks” and organize them and would probably require me to crack open big chunks of PHP I kludged up back in 2012 to make it properly work with those blocks.

Illustrator: sluggish previews, and solutions for that.

When you start doing complicated documents in Illustrator, full of live effects and crazy magic, things start to slow down. Not surprising, really: you’re asking it to do a lot of work every time you need the screen redrawn. It makes some attempts to cache as much as it can, but it can only do so much. Here are some things you can do to help it out.

Change the preview mode. In the past few years, Adobe added the capability for Illustrator to use your computer’s graphics card to draw the preview. And if your work is beneath a certain complexity threshold, it’s great – it runs faster than the old CPU renderer ever could, fast enough that they’ve added a switch for “realtime editing” where everything you drag around updates at full color instead of as an outline. But if you cross that threshold? The performance drops off a cliff. Hard. And suddenly you are staring at the spinning rainbow cursor for multiple minutes when you’ve changed something, or just tried to move the view around. The old CPU renderer can still start to slow down in extreme examples of these cases, but it won’t be anywhere near as bad – I’ve never gone beyond “a few seconds”, even in my heaviest drawings.

What mostly seems to invoke this is (1) a lot of layered transparency and (2) a lot of bitmap effects. But I’ve managed to make it happen in other circumstances, like a recent piece that had tons of complex, opaque pattern fills. You can do a quick check to see if this is why things are slowing down by doing view>view using CPU; if Illustrator suddenly starts performing better, then you’ve found it. Note that “view using CPU” only affects the current window on the current document; if you routinely work in ways that make the GPU renderer choke, then consider going to the Performance panel of the main prefs and turning it off permanently.

Maybe the GPU renderer works better if you have a cutting-edge graphics card in your desktop system that can get 600fps in the latest games. I’ll never know, I haven’t owned a computer I can’t stick in my bag since I lost my G4 to Hurricane Katrina.

(This is also often the solution to “I have weird render glitches in Illustrator”, by the way. The GPU renderer is a lot newer than the CPU one, and GPU compatibility is a constantly moving target. Each major release of Illustrator since this was added has had distinctive GPU rendering bugs that pop up on some computers; usually when they get fixed, new ones get introduced. Maybe eventually the Illustrator team will figure out how to find them all and make sure no new ones pop up despite graphics card manufacturers constantly changing things out from under them, but maybe someday Sisyphus will get that rock to the top of that mountain, too.)

Layer thoughtfully. Divide the paths that make up your drawing into layers with meaningful names. And then turn off parts of the drawing that are finished, or are not something you need to see for what you’re working on now. This is super easy to do with comics: I make each panel as a set of layers inside a layer with a clipping mask shaped like the panel border, and while paying attention to the overall composition of the page is important, there’s also a lot of parts of the process when I’m zoomed in on one panel, and can turn off the rest to gain a lot of speed. With single images, I might create a “foreground” and “background” layer and throw the appropriate layers in there. This helps in a lot of other ways, too – thoughtful layering makes it easy to lock parts of the drawing you’re not working on, for instance!

Rasterize finished layers. Target a heavy, finished layer by clicking on the circle to the right of its name.

Then apply effect>rasterize. Probably at at least 300dpi. Illustrator will turn this layer into a bitmap and use that for the preview renders instead of drawing it all from scratch. You probably want to lock the layer, too. When you are done with the whole drawing and want to do your final render, or need to edit something on this layer that turned out to not be finished after all, unlock it, target it, and use the Appearance palette to turn off the Rasterize effect. Warning: Do not do object>rasterize. If you do this then you will lose the original vector art and will have to copy it from an old backup of your file. You do have some kind of regular versioned backup system in place, right?

I call doing this “freezing” the layer, after a feature in an old vector program that did a lot of natural media emulation back around 2000 when even the fastest computer you could buy was probably less powerful than your phone is now. In Creature House’s “Expression”, you could lock a layer, and then if you clicked on the lock again it would change to a little snowflake to indicate that it was “frozen” – which meant that it was both locked, and that it was being rendered from a cached bitmap instead of the vector art. I think Expression did some additional work to make sure that any transparency in the frozen layer was handled properly with regards to stuff on layers below; Illustrator won’t do this, so a few things may look a bit odd.

This can be applied to layers that contain other layers, too, so you could rasterize entire finished panels, or otherwise stick chunks of finished art into one layer – say, if you’d decided the foreground was all done for now, just make a new layer called ‘fg’ and drag a bunch of layers in there. And if you are one of those masochists who works on a single layer and groups everything you can apply this to groups too.

A further refinement of this technique is to create a Graphic Style that’s just the rasterize effect, and apply this to layers you want to do this to. When you want to turn it off for everything, just select the Graphic Style, then visit the Appearance palette and turn off the rasterize effect, and do “redefine graphic style” in the Appearance palette’s menu. Then wait a few seconds as everything gets redrawn from the bitmaps.

Save without PDF compatibility. When you first save a file, you get some options. This is one of them and it’s always on. And I always turn it off. This is mostly just gonna effect your save times and your disc usage, but it can help a lot. Because when Illustrator saves a file with that on, it actually saves a PDF with all your effects expanded, and a copy of the AI file crammed inside it. Got blends, fill patterns, art brushes? Expanded into many more points and paths. Got bitmap effects? Turned into a bitmap. Which is saved in a manner that is in the running for inclusion in a list of Top Ten Inefficient Image Formats. If you are doing simple work then you’ll get files that are twice the size of an un-pdf-compatible AI file; complex work can easily end up 10x the size or more. And that will be reflected in how long it takes for Illustrator to save the file. It won’t affect the preview update speed like the rest of the suggestions in this post will, but it’ll still slow you down if you’re saving regularly. (Which you are, right? You’re not sitting there with a file saved for three days straight, hoping that the crash recovery will save your bacon if it crashes, right? Because it won’t always do that, even if you’ve gone to the prefs and turned off “turn off data recovery for complex documents”. Build that habit of hitting command-S when you take a break, when you finish a significant chunk of the document, or when Autosaviour pops up and reminds you that it’s been a while since your last save.)

As a bonus, sometimes files saved with PDF compatibility on will become corrupted in such a way that the AI file embedded inside is illegible. Illustrator will then load in the PDF. With everything expanded and unedited. And you will swear, and scream, and be very sad. Or at the very best you will sigh and go digging in your backups, and profusely thank Past You for making sure those were happening regularly without any effort on your part. Keep PDF compatibility off and this will never happen. You’ll need to generate a PDF when it’s time to interoperate with other programs; take care to keep those separate from the original AI files. Like in their own folder or something. And close the file immediately after saving the PDF version so you don’t accidentally decide to make a few changes that go into that instead of the AI version.

Cracked By BDE

Yesterday I had a drunken urge to draw my fursona in the c64 palette, which then progressed into seeing how far I could get into making Illustrator render my crisp vector shapes into the distinctive 2:1 aspect ratio of the c64’s “multicolor” mode. And then I added some semblance of a CRT’s phosphor pattern, and changed the pixel aspect ratio transformation to precisely match the 1:0.75/2:0.75 ratio that an NTSC C64 would generate. And finally I fooled around with a few different palettes and found one that felt like it matched my memories of my own c64 – there are a lot of different palettes claiming to reproduce the c64’s output. And now I think this piece is Definitely Done.

(There are multiple reasons for this variety in what people claim were “the c64’s colors” but there are two main ones: firstly, the initial version of the video chip only had three luminance values for every color that was not black or white. This meant that everything blended into a total mess on a B&W TV. Which was still a thing that people would plug their computers into back then. So there was a revision of the chip that spread it out more, with those fourteen different colors getting sorted across seven different luminance levels. And second, there was a potentiometer sitting on the c64’s circuit board that controlled the overall saturation of the output; during assembly and testing, the workers were supposed to look at a screen and carefully use a screwdriver to turn this tiny knob until colors started to appear, but once the c64 started selling like crazy they didn’t have time to do that and meet quotas so they just cranked it all the way up. Add a lot of variance with how your TV was adjusted, and there’s even more spread.)

anyway here is some music to go with the rest of this post and better simulate the experience of being a teenager in the late eighties with a Commodore 64 and a bunch of weird games you downloaded from a local BBS that reference UK pop culture you have never heard of

Here’s a few images of this process from “fifteen minute drawing in the c64 palette” to “a big pile of effects that more closely simulate the c64, albiet with a larger canvas than it could ever show”.

It began as just a bunch of shapes with a c64 palette and some pattern fills in the characteristic double-wide dither patterns…

…but why not stuff all the layers this was drawn on into a new layer and apply a rasterize effect to that layer?

Well, for one thing, the c64’s “high res” mode (320×200) could only have two colors in any particular 8×8 pixel cell; it was much more common to use the “multicolor high res” mode, which let you have 4 colors in any individual 8×8 cell, at the price of it turning into a 4×8 cell of double-wide pixels. I decided I wasn’t going to bother with this and went to bed but the next morning I woke up with an idea in my head for a way to do it: apply a Transform effect to scrunch it to 50% of its width, then the rasterization step, then another transformation to stretch it back out. It worked!

And after I’d done that I decided to simulate a CRT’s phosphor dot pattern, plus a little generalized blur. And after that I was all, okay, fuck it, I guess I have to also go deal with the fact that the c64’s pixels were not square – they were 1:0.75. A little more fiddling with the transform, rasterize, transform trick made Illustrator fix that for me.

But it’s all still vector. Which made it incredibly easy to make a few tweaks here and there. This would have been a giant pain in the ass to do with anything even vaguely resembling an authentic c64 drawing tool.

And here’s a closeup of the phosphor dot effect. It could be better but I would have to write my own CRT filter plugin for Illustrator and I really don’t wanna bother with that.

This is far from being a perfect simulation of how this would look as an actual c64’s output – the rabbit hole can go pretty deep if you want to really emulate every single quirk of the VIC-II chip – but it’s good enough that the part of me that wants it to be relatively true to the platform’s limitations and quirks is shutting up. Just assume it’s a giant FLI image scrolling back and forth on the screen with some high-res sprites layered over it for the head and the text and don’t worry too hard about actually counting pixels, okay? :)

AAAND FINALLY because I could do it in like two minutes: here is a version that would actually fit on a c64 screen.

seriously all I had to do was make a new artboard of the appropriate size, duplicate the layers, size them down, and slightly resize the text and signature. I could finesse this but I don’t think I want to – the part of me that wants to improve this workflow a bit more and make something worth submitting to the graphics competition of a demo party is being quietly suppressed.

good morning, peggy

well that was fun

The phone got cut off this morning because I was behind on payment. When I got out of bed to deal with this the internet was down. Great timing. So I had to get up and get dressed and fend off the cats and go to a cafe to get some Internet to deal with all this.

On my way out I passed a couple of cable trucks doing some work, I suspect that they were working on our outage – when I got to the cafe I was able to see that, yes, Cox says our net is down, and estimates it’ll be working again by noon.

And then there was a spurious LastPass account recovery email attempt in my inbox that I sure did not trigger, huzzah. Good thing I have a very long and unique password there.

Blaaaaaggghhhh I just wanna crawl into bed and go back to sleep but here I am at the cafe and I guess I’ll do some work.

A Perfectly Safe Tourist Map, Nothing More

Once upon a time, long long ago in the misty forgotten year of 1984, New Orleans hosted a World’s Fair. The fair’s mascot was a dapper pelican named Seymore D. Fair.

Walking through the French Quarter today, I had the idea of an egregiously fake map. One that was backwards and upside-down. One that would get tourists in massive trouble if they believed its cartoon mascot’s repeated insistence that it was perfectly safe and completely not lies. Or one that would at least send them off on wild goose chases to the ass end of the suburbs in search of the “Witchery & Voodoo District” that it claimed was out there.

I do not think I actually want to put the time in to make this happen but I was amused enough by the concept to spend a couple of hours drawing this instead of working on commissions like I was intending to do at the cafe.

Lamplighter

Three days ago, I got up and took a really big bong hit and read a review of Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi. Which made me decide to take out my copy of the inspiration for that book: a series of prints of vast, imaginary prisons drawn by an 18th-century Italian guy named Giovanni Battista Piranesi. I looked at his drawings, I considered the two versions of most of them – one from when he was in his twenties, one from fifteen years later, where he went back in and drew a bunch more stuff, resulting in darker, denser imagery.

And then I just kinda started drawing this with no real plan or intent in mind. I decided I wanted to try to finish it as much like M.C. Escher’s wood/lino-cut work as I could manage: ‘me pretending to be Escher pretending to Piranesi”, as I described this a few times when I shared in-progress versions here and there. I fooled around with the WidthScribe plugin, and learnt that it can be pretty unstable – I crashed a lot, and unfortunately couldn’t make a good isolated bug report to pass to its developers. But once I’d learnt to save aggressively when dealing with it, I was able to quickly do stuff like decide that the column on the right should be drawn in hatchmarks radiating out from the central lamp instead of along its length (as I had it drawn at first), which would have taken days to change versus like twenty minutes including the time spent dealing with crashes.

Prints available on Redbubble. Source file on Patreon, if you wanna see how I did this – I leaned heavily on a couple of Astute’s plugins, you’ll need Widthscribe and Stylism to see how those were used. There’s a lot of use of pattern fills and blends for the various radiance effects, too.

I worked on this kind of obsessively for three days straight, it’s about nine hours of work total. Today I decided it was finished, and went for a walk to look at things further away than my monitor for a whole. On the way out to the park I realized that it needed some cats as well as a few people wandering around.

So I added a few. And some birds. It makes the whole piece feel a lot livelier to have something besides humans in there. I could add some more stuff but really I think it’s done, and I would like to have my attention back for other projects now.

This is a detail of a figure over on the left who’s mostly hidden behind the lantern light.

And this is a glimpse into the magic of WidthScribe. I can draw a greyscale image, then draw a bunch of lines on top of it, and this plugin will turn them into set of finely-etched lines that vary in weight based on the tones below. It’s pretty neat. Prone to crashing when I start editing it, but pretty neat. I really wish there was a way for Illustrator’s crash report to say “hey this is probably a plugin crash, please pass this on to the address registered by the plugin developer”.

(This is also a glimpse into part of my process: I like to make a layer called “notes”, where I type notes of things I want to make sure not to forget when I take a break from a piece and come back later.)

Anyway. Here are some progress shots, from messy loose pencil tool sketches to final-except-for-colors-and cats.

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Also just for laughs, here is a screengrab of the whole thing in outline view…

..and here is a screengrab of the whole thing in outline view after I expand all the blends and effects.

Document Info says this file about 3k paths before I expand everything, but those 3k paths make Illustrator create about 8k. Which really leans into how I like to describe Illustrator as “my magical assistant” – I outline what I want it to do, and it does it. Mostly without complaint though it sure did start getting slow to refresh the screen near the end of this piece.

421

I spent all 4/20 fitfully dozing while my body made a shit-ton of antibodies after the second dose of the ‘ronavax. So you get a 420 drawing a day late.

I thought it would be funny to generate every color in this drawing by using various overlaid blending modes on one green swatch. If you want to see how I did it (“lots of Graphic Styles”, mostly), the Illustrator 2020 source file’s available on my Patreon.

Also I am incredibly delighted that I have maneuvered my life to a point where “drawing a couple of my fursonæ stonedly flirting with one of my SO’s fursonæ” is a thing that I get paid to do, holy shit, Patreon is such a great thing and I am so glad I have this many people willing to give me a few bucks a month to keep on drawing what I like drawing.

Quirks in the order of operations in Illustrator’s Appearance panel.

Last night I discovered a really strange little quirk in Illustrator’s Appearance panel. Effects applied to a stroke can behave differently depending on if they were applied to the stroke by creating it with the stroke selected in the Appearance panel, or by adding it to the overall path itself, then dragging it onto the stroke. I have, I think, been vaguely aware of this subtlety for a while but I finally sat down and did some experiments to nail it down.

Sometimes the roughen effect is applied to the underlying path before the stroke is drawn. Sometimes it’s applied to all of the paths you’d get if you expanded the stroke after the stroke is stretched along the underlying path, resulting in a much messier and erratic look. And you can’t tell just by looking at the Appearance panel; there is no visible difference between a path where the effect was directly added to the stroke (and thus applied before the stroke is drawn) and one where it was added to the base path, then dragged into the stroke (and thus applied after the stroke is drawn).

This persists across a save, too. There’s something Illustrator’s setting in there that it’s not exposing.

—-

I also tried fooling with Astute’s new “Architect” plugin, which is designed to create sketchy lines that look like an architectural rendering, but is also useful for just generally creating some extra chaos. I’ve been running up against this “sometimes it runs on the underlying path, sometimes it runs on the art stretched along the path” while playing with it. I think the set based on the art brush makes it really clear which ones are operating on the path before the stroke is applied, and which ones are operating after – I’d had an intuition that it happens at a slightly different place in the rendering order than most of AI’s native effects, and this confirms it.

There are very few native effects that create a lot of extra paths this way; one of the few that does behaves differently. Honestly I’m not sure what I expected out of the extrude/bevel effect but I feel surprised that having it at the very top of the Appearance stack makes the path completely vanish.

I should probably try it on the Scribble effect – one of the other few stock effects that can turn one path into multiple paths under the hood, instead of just altering a single existing path – but I feel like I’d need to make a slightly different test case and that’s enough for before breakfast.

Anyway. That’s your dive into deep Illustrator obscurities for today.