5 April 15
The Perils Of Color In The Digital Age
Last fall we bought a digital DSLR, and this has led me to dabble in a bit of astrophotography, even buying a good equatorial mount to facilitate this. Astrophotography is an interesting hobby. Practiced at its upper echelons (which I have no aspirations towards), it calls for extremes of technique, patience, and expensive gear. The aesthetic which many astrophotographers aim for is a quite colorful image showing many subtleties in the details of a nebula or other deep-sky object.
The use of color in this manner is in most ways an illusion, at least from the point of view of human visual perception. Cones, the anatomical structures in the retina that respond to color, are not sensitive to light at low levels, so looking through even a very large telescope at the nebula one will not discern the color brought out in the photograph. The color in the image may be useful in terms of scientific visualization, for instance illustrating different emission spectra, but it’s not what the eye can see.
Astrophotography is perhaps an extreme example, but I’m philosophically confounded by the question of representation of color in the digital age. Consider what might be the modal life of a digital photo shared with others. A snapshot taken with one’s smartphone, then posted to the web via Facebook or Instagram. The issue is of calibration. How does one ensure that the color intended by the photographer is what is seen by the recipient? Without both the creator’s and recipient’s monitors calibrated to a common standard, one cannot. These standards exist, but 99.99% of the time both parties are not so calibrated. Even enthusiastic photographers tend to spring for new lenses in lieu of color calibration equipment. One can adjust color curves in image software to one’s heart’s content, but without calibration both sides, one’s artistic intent in terms of color cannot be reliably shared.
And what if the intent is simply to record the colors one sees? The problem persists and is refracted twicefold. First, how faithfully do the levels of color recorded by the digital sensor represent the spectra of light being reflected by the object? Second, what are the colors being displayed by one’s monitor?
A solution I often adopt is to directly record the color in watercolor paint. With sufficient practice in color mixing, this can work reasonably well. Soil scientists have a more scientific answer to this problem — they go to the field armed with Munsell color swatch books to match and note the color of a soil unit. And the astrophotographer in me wishes there was a market for black-and-white consumer digital cameras: these problems go away, and cameras without RGB filters are more sensitive to light.
It’s also not clear where octarine fits in any color calibration system I know of.
[Image below is one of my attempts at astrophotography, being of the Orion Nebula.]
5 February 15
I’m finally able to announce that I’ve retired from the University of California in order to start my new graphic recording/facilitation business, Listen-ink. So excited, a little daunted. Many thanks to Rachel Rawlins for doing my website for me — quickly and efficiently!
I am looking forward to helping people find their way.
31 July 14
Chromophobia, Colonialism, and the Freeway
Often when I find myself in traffic I marvel at just how dull the colors be of the American automotive fleet. Dark grays, white, blues that are no brighter than midnight, and only the occasional red, but even that not straying to the glories of vermilion. The lack of imagination — where are the sports cars banded like king snakes, the station wagons two-toned in cerulean and stratus gray? — depresses me a bit.
Here is a historical gloss on the lack of color choices in the American car market, from an article Color,Chromophobia, and Colonialism: Some Historical Thoughts (via the estimable medievalpoc)
According to some art critics, sensory anthropologists, and historians, this mutual attraction and repulsion to color has centuries-old roots, bound up in a colonial past and fears of the unknown. Michael Taussig has recounted that from the seventeenth century, the British East India Company centered much of its trade on brightly colored, cheap, and dye-fast cotton textiles imported from India. Because of the Calico Acts of 1700 and 1720, which supported the interests of the wool and silk weaving guilds, these textiles could only be imported into England with the proviso that they were destined for export again, generally to the English colonies in the Caribbean or Africa. These vibrant textiles played a key part in the African trade, and especially in the African slave trade, where British traders would use the textiles to purchase slaves. According to Michael Taussig, these trades are significant not only because they linked chromophilic areas like India and Africa, but also because “color achieved greater conquests than European-instigated violence during the preceding four centuries of the slave trade. The first European slavers, the Portuguese in the fifteenth century, quickly learned that to get slaves they had to trade for slaves with African chiefs and kings, not kidnap them, and they conducted this trade with colored fabrics in lieu of violence.” Ironically, many of these slaves were then put to work in the colonies cultivating plants like indigo, that yielded dyes whose monetary values sometimes surpassed that of sugar.
11 May 14
Whole Earth Festival 2014
The hippies returned to UC Davis this weekend for the 45th year in a row, as it was the 2014 edition of the Whole Earth Festival, held on the main campus quad over Mother’s Day weekend rather to the annoyance of the university powers-that-be. It is my favorite event in the annual cycle of Davis community activities, and love its direct connection to the early flourishing of the culture of sustainability in the 1970s. Pica held down the fort at the booth of the Davis Spinner’s Guild, while the highlights for me included 1) local science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson having a panel discussion with his friend Michael Blumlein, another sci-fi author and a UCSF physician. They talked about the future in the face of climate change and resource limitations, economics, and epigenetics. Thomas Piketty was mentioned often. 2) learning about the Third Space Art Collective, an recently founded group that since August has occupied physical studio space in a third of a warehouse just the other side of the freeway and 3) doing lots of sketching, filling up a small sketchbook over two days. Despite the abundance of tie-dye color, I stuck with monochrome pen, sketching rapidly with a black Gelly Roll or a brown UniBall Signo pen. Here are several of my many sketches.
5 May 14
I’ve been getting frustrated with my system for tracking things I need to get done, both at work and at home as well as in my multiple alternate worlds (Davis Spinners’ Guild, Lambtown, FARM Davis, Meridian Jacobs, Yolo Audubon, Conflict Resolution training, Graphic Facilitation training, ham radio, etc.) in conjunction with a calendar. I’m now on a shared calendar at work, which means that I have to stick with an electronic calendar, but I’m a person who likes pens and writing things down on paper. I carry around a French Notor diary with a day-per-page, dutifully copying calendar events from Outlook^1^, but the Notor has no real room for notes; conversely, I have a lot of dated pages with next to nothing on them which is annoyingly wasteful.
I chanced upon a reference to the Bullet Journal the other day. I was intrigued. I can live with the duplication of a calendar – I’ve been doing that for a while already – but this seemed to amalgamate the best features of the Franklin Planner (index, prioritized task list) in a slim, flexible system, designed for people who prefer paper, without having to carry around a brick. (I also tried the Hipster PDA for a while as I tried to ditch the brick but got frustrated by the tiny size and multiple cards.)
I’m already sold on the Bullet Journal, I think. I bought a gridded Moleskine notebook on Saturday (not that Moleskine is my favorite, I’m a Clairefontaine girl with a lot of fountain pens, but I liked the size, flexible and washable cover, and pocket in the back). Calendar one side of a spread, tasks for that month on the right, subsequent days in the pages that follow, seven days to a page or three or only one – depends what’s going on. The best bit? I can include pages as and when I want to devoted only to books I want to read, or spinning projects current and planned, or classes I want to take, and always find those pages (and add to them) because they’re indexed. Tasks have a square checkbox, calendared events have a round one, notes are a black bullet. I’ll be able to sketch in this notebook too, which is really important to me.
Early days yet, but I’m hopeful this system will work. (Numenius independently bought almost the identical journal on Saturday, only his is hardbound. We’ll see how long we can go before we each end up with the wrong journal at work and I suddenly face a lot of tasks relating to analyzing geospatial data in R, which will give me nightmares. I have no doubt that a task called “Spin Tunis mohair batts” would trigger the same response in him, so we’ll have to work on keeping them separate…)
1. I know: I made it into my fifties without ever having to use a PC at work, but it finally caught up with me.
31 July 13
I have just returned from a conference in New York preceded by a one-day class in Graphic Recording. This is a field I’d never even heard of before March, but it turns out one of the eminences grises of the field, David Sibbett, went to school with a friend of mine, and runs the very successful Grove Institute in San Francisco, dedicated to Graphic Recording and Facilitation.
I’ve been taking the Conflict Resolution Certificate through University Extension since March also. Convergence? Yes. Convergence of intent, convergence of right and left brain. Changing careers to a move to the middle ground of graphics and words, where it actually makes sense instead of compartmentalizing as I suppose I’ve been doing. And doing it to help people find clarity, so that they can move forward, too.
Graphic recording is all about listening, listening to what people say. There may be just one person giving a plenary, or it may be many people in the room in conflict and in pain, all speaking together. The key is to listen and to record what’s happening. Since I’ve now seen this done quite a few times, I can say from experience, and not just from hearsay, that it’s potentially transformational. People see what they said on a huge white piece of paper, and feel heard. This means they have room left to listen to what other people have to say, instead of sitting on the one thing THEY have to say and making sure everyone else hears it.
My trial-by-fire, the morning after our class last Tuesday: I volunteered to record a presentation by the ebullient, fast-talking bi-coastal Michelle Boos-Stone. I gulped. I stuck five markers, uncapped, in my left hand, looking like Wolverine intent on ruining my new handknit cardigan. I made a huge title, giving me and everyone else a panic attack because I’d used up a huge amount of real estate on a 4’ x 8’ sheet of paper before the talk was even underway, but I stuck with it and basically pretty much captured everything substantive. I had help — my mentor Julia quietly and calmly passed me post-it notes with suggestions — and I think I managed to do it all without freaking out too badly.
Nuggets from the panel of experts who came into our classroom at the end of Tuesday:
“You still draw better than most people in the room.”
“Don’t show your ass the whole time, let people talk to you.”
“Keep a lot of white space available; prepare a template.”
“Commit to your line, use pen.”
“Don’t be afraid to record content on a post-it note.”
“If in doubt about your drawing, just label it ‘cat’.”
“Set your intention and go with it.”
“Diversify. Go small, go big, go digital.”
“Help the people in the room get over their own fears of drawing. It helps them too.”
“Open your possibilities to this work; it can change everything.”
I feel so lucky to have discovered this new and exciting way forward for me. I think it is the most interesting thing about living in the United States: it’s perfectly normal for people to reinvent themselves over the course of a work life, sometimes several times. Look out, world, I’m 53 and armed with Neuland markers.
23 April 13
More From The Sketchcrawl
I’m quite tardy in posting any sketches from the 39th Worldwide Sketchcrawl, held a week ago Saturday. For some reason I felt very much in the zone on this outing. Several technical details: first, I switched to a different sketchbook. The day beforehand, I looked in the campus bookstore for a 140 lb. watercolor Strathmore Visual Journal; they were out of these, and only had the 90 lb. version in the size I wanted. This slightly thinner paper turns out to behave quite well with a wash. Second, I was drawing solely with a Uni-ball brown Signo pen, which I had never worked with before, and found I really liked it. It’s a very lively fine rollerball pen which doesn’t bleed at all with a wash. Finally, I came up with a trick. It turns out discarded white socks make great rags on which to clean waterbrushes while changing paints, and one can then hang the sock out of one’s pocket for instant access.
At upper left is a sketch of the florist’s next to the cafe where we initially met. Next, at right, is the view south up Sanchez Street, drawn while Pica was sketching in Imagiknit. Finally at lower left, is a sketch of the Castro Theatre. A good day throughout.
13 April 13
Back From Juneau and Still Sketching
I had a great time in Juneau with family and got back a couple of days ago. I wasn’t sure I’d be up for any more running around but today was the 39th Worldwide Sketchcrawl and we decided to go to San Francisco on the train.
I switched from purple to brown-black and the Uni-ball Signo pen is almost waterproof, which makes a very different kind of drawing. Not quite as soft as the purple that bled into every wash I laid down, but not as harsh as black. I really like it. I spent some time sketching at Imagiknit.
Traveling down on the train with Pete Scully we talked about how we tend to draw things always facing the same way (in my case, I almost invariably sketch birds facing left; he always draws streets pointing right; Numenius always seems to draw cats facing right). It is a neurological thing and seems worth working on because you can discover new things, like when you draw with your non-dominant hand. At right is a sketch of Pete. It is not a good likeness, but in my defense he moved just as I was drawing his face. We also talked about how there’s a move afoot to get “Ding, Dong, the Witch is Dead” to number 1 in the British charts but everyone’s downloading different versions in a predictably British way.
At our sketchcrawl meetup in the Castro I heard a man with a blonde child on his shoulders singing “Ding, Dong, the Witch is Dead.” I couldn’t pass up the chance to stop him and say we’d just been talking about that on the train. Turns out he’s from Dorchester, and his parents were from Barnsley, which Thatcher pretty much demolished, so he sang with feeling and gusto.
We got home later than we’d planned, having just missed the Amtrak bus from the Ferry Terminal, but the bonus was… more sketching. It’s a fantastic city, it was a beautiful day, and we had an excellent time.
29 March 13
We had the day off today so I took the opportunity to play tourist in my own backyard, and headed to the Aerospace Museum of California, which is in the north Sacramento area next to the former McClellan Air Force Base airfield. I had never been there before. Their collection is strong in U.S. AIr Force planes but they have some other noteworthy planes as well. I sketched three of the planes and one pair of rocket engines. The plane at left is a MiG-17: according to the plaque how the Air Force acquired this particular plane is still classified. At lower right is the pair of rocket engines from the first stage of the Titan IV rocket. This rocket was used mainly to launch large military satellites into orbit but was also used to launch the Cassini space probe which is still orbiting Saturn collecting data.
16 March 13
While Pica was passing through 30-degree weather in Chicago, back in Davis it reached 79 degrees today, fine weather for a sketchcrawl at the east end of the Arboretum. The subject matter was plants plus a couple of egrets.