Monday, January 26, 2015

Bosque-Larios I

My most recent artistic endeavor:

Bosque-Larios I, 5" x 7", watercolor on hot-pressed paper.

In 1675, the first expedition from Mexico into the part of Texas in which I live was organized at the request of the local Indians, a Gueiquesale group, who wished to convert and enter under the protection of the Spanish crown. The Bosque-Larios Expedition, named for its leaders, Fernando del Bosque and Fray Juan Larios, crossed the Rio Grande and traveled north toward the Edwards Plateau. A high mass – reputedly the first high mass in Texas – was celebrated on a portable altar not far from where I live, and attended by more than a thousand Indians.

There, according to the expedition's travel log, a curious story was related to the explorers by a Gueiquesale leader. The Cabesas, a group of Indians with whom the Gueiquesales had dealings, had some time previously come into the possession of two Spanish children, a boy and a girl. The boy they had shot full of arrows – he died praying over his crucifix – while the girl was made a servant of, until, long after, she too fell victim to her captors' arrows. Her dead body was left where it fell. Two years later, the Indians happened upon it again, and found it as fresh as though she had just died, with no sign of decay or molestation by wild beasts. They moved the body to a cave. The account ends by noting that the girl had long hair.

[Cf. The Native Americans of the Texas Edwards Plateau, 1582-1799, Maria F. Wade, University of Texas Press, pp. 39-40.]

Did this actually happen? Materialists might doubt the Indians' story, or posit natural causes. For what it's worth, there is a precedent of saints' bodies remaining incorrupt. The romantic in me would like to think of these two as nameless martyrs in the wilderness. Many a medieval cult was established on slimmer evidence. Being a circuit-riding professor who teaches night classes, it is my lot to drive long, lonely desert roads after dark, and the story often comes to mind, especially when I'm in the vicinity of where the mass took place. I imagine the girl's body still reposing undiscovered somewhere in the hills to the north, where limestone caves abound. Whether the episode is more likely to have happened around here or over in Coahuila is more than I can say.

The plants in the picture (agave, prickly pear, red yucca) are such as are found locally; the figure is inspired by depictions of St. Sebastian and St. Cecilia, whose tombs I visited several years ago. The upper part of the picture employs a lot of chrome green and Naples yellow, the lower more sap green and raw sienna, with plenty of cadmium red and burnt umber throughout. As usual, no black was used, but there is a bit of black in Payne's gray, which I frequently employ.

The execution was inspired by William Blake and his disciple Samuel Palmer. I recently read G. E. Bentley's biography of Blake, which is quite excellent, but found the author strangely dismissive of the "conservative," naïve Palmer, to whom we owe many important impressions of Blake's last days. Palmer's early visionary works are far ahead of his time and among the most glorious in British art. Before his youthful exuberance was curbed by his father-in-law, the painter John Linnell, he seemed obsessed with trying to portray nighted pastoral scenes under the glow of the crescent moon. I'm always trying to get something of the magic of these works into my own pictures.

I once spent time poring over a facsimile of Palmer's famous early sketchbook. Unfortunately, after the artist's death, his son burned the other sketchbooks from that period because of their "unmanly" qualities, which, given the historical context, I take as a reference to homosexual undertones. It is a shame. Indeed, it is a great crime against art. And a great sadness that such genius should have been sandwiched between two such uncongenial minds.

Sometimes, as I continue to paint and sell art, and to write stories and publish them here and there, I wonder what will have become of all of my faltering efforts in a hundred years?

Thursday, January 22, 2015

"Day of the Dragonfly" at BCS

I'm pleased to announce that my story "Day of the Dragonfly" has been published in Issue 165 of Beneath Ceaseless Skies. It's a pulp-style quest story with a few twists, a touch of myth, and a touch of noir. Materially speaking, a lot of it comes from my experience on a land surveying crew in urban South Texas.

Read and enjoy! Information about my development of a novel concerning the same character can be found in numerous posts, including here and here.
And if you're visiting my humble blog from BCS, welcome! Take some time to peruse the site and look over the various interesting/random/irrelevant things I've posted. No other blog will give you such a unique blend of reflections on fantasy, style, art, logic, autism, and feral chickens.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

On Chickens

During a heavy thundershower last April, my wife was washing dishes, looking out the kitchen window, when she saw a big white bird flutter down from the sky. I came home from work that evening to find a white rooster with a ruby-red comb rushing up to me, an eager expression on his face. Reflecting that my grandmother once took in a similarly storm-brought chicken, I poured a little birdseed on the front walk, which was eagerly pecked up.

Now, we have always had feral chickens in our neighborhood. It was once home to a vice president, and also a state governor, and local lore has it that our feral flock is descended from the fowl of one of these VIPs, though opinion is divided as to where the praise/blame is due. The chickens are singularly beautiful: the cock has feathers of rich red, brown, gold, and dark green, with long, metallic green tail feathers. They spend most of their time in the easement behind our property. Sometimes they nest in the brushy area behind our shed, and they like to sit in trees, which reminds me of this song:

Believe the credentialed rooster, not your lying eyes.

Anyway, our white rooster is very obviously not one of the flock. He is, I believe, a leghorn rooster (as in Foghorn Leghorn). He's much larger than the neighborhood fowl. But despite his size and strength, he lacks street smarts. You see, after generations of fending for themselves and dodging cars, the feral chickens can pretty well take care of themselves. Survival of the fittest. But our rooster, no. I guess he was someone's FFA project. On his own he's pretty pathetic.

In his first days with us, I just gave him birdseed in the front yard, considering him a temporary boarder. He took to standing on our stoop, with his beak to the glass of our storm door, awaiting his next feeding. Fellow townsfolk would drive by and see him there, and everywhere we went we'd get all kinds of remarks. "Is that your chicken? What's that chicken doing on your porch? Is that your chicken?"  It got to be kind of embarrassing. So, birdseed being expensive, we started buying sacks of chicken feed at the Tractor Supply, and feeding him in the privacy of our backyard.

We were, from that day forward, His People. When we go outside, he rushes up to us, whether he's hungry or not, and follows us around the yard, making gentle little clucks and moans, and scratching at the dirt in a negligent way. He's actually pretty smart (for a chicken) and, ever since the first time I mowed the grass/weeds/dirt in his presence, runs up when I get the mower out, anticipating a feast of bugs. His lusty crow awakens us (and, presumably, the rest of the neighborhood) every day before dawn.

We named him Pappagallo, which basically means "Daddy Rooster," after the idealistic-and-well-spoken-but-somewhat-ineffectual compound leader in The Road Warrior. This is pronounced as in Italian, though everyone around here corrects the ele to an elle, which I subtly correct back. (Sometimes we call him Chanticleer, which also seems appropriate.)

As I said, though, he's got moxie, but lacks street smarts. He used to go roving around the neighborhood at night, until he got into several tangles with dogs, which run as freely in my town as dingoes in the Outback. He would return in the morning, quite crestfallen, bloodied, with feathers missing. One time he was gone for a week or two, and we thought he must have died. But he came back, though missing all his tail feathers, and apparently unable to crow. For months he remained silent. Was his throat injured? Or was it his pride? I suspect a combination of the two. For everyone knows the pride of the cock. But eventually he did start crowing again.

Now, he's quite a fine-looking fellow, and it's no surprise that several of the little beauties attached to the feral flock fell for his strut and glory. There's one red-brown hen in particular (Chickie, I call her) that he allows to share his feed. She's warmed up to me considerably, and lets me approach her now, which I take as a compliment. But once the other hens started gorging themselves at my expense, the feral rooster (The Lord Humungus, the Warrior of the Wasteland, the Ayatollah of Rock and Rollah) decided to take over, and claim the rights to the food for himself.

I don't know if there was any physical altercation, but Pappagallo began behaving most obsequiously toward this usurper. He'd give me this kind of pathetic, helpless look as The Humungus began pecking up his breakfast, and I'd have to chase the feral flock out of the yard, energetically flapping the wings of my jacket (which is black leather, naturally). This has been going on for weeks now, and it's been most vexing. There's no galline Max Rockatansky to help us, and, though an excellent human (I hope), I make a poor chicken. I'd sometimes give Pappagallo these little pep talks, but he'd just reply with an enigmatic, sad, knowing look, and rrrrrr in his throat.

Well, all of that changed yesterday. I was sweeping the back porch when I noticed that Pappagallo was in the easement, crowing as though to wake the dead. I went back there, thinking he was just trying to get my attention so I'd let him through the gate. He does that sometimes. Actually, he's always getting himself stuck in peculiar places, much to my wife's annoyance. Anyway, there's a little free-standing metal roof, partly on our property, mostly on the easement, which used to be on four legs, but now dangles on one, with the opposite corner on the ground.* The chickens like to sit under it when it's raining. So when I got back there, I saw that The Humungus lay beneath it, an apparently lifeless heap. As soon as I lured Pappagallo away with some food, I went and looked again, and The Humungus lifted his head and gave me a miserable glance, but didn't get up. He was thoroughly thrashed, possibly dying.

I do hope he's not dead. I never wanted that to happen! I just wanted him to go back to living on cockroaches and crickets in the cemetery, and leave our feed to our rooster. At any rate, if he is alive, I suspect that things will be a bit different around here. And can I be blamed if I admit that I'm proud of Pappagallo? I knew he had it in him.

* The remaining post is actually a hackberry tree growing through the welded pipes, so the thing is impossible to move without cutting the metal or chopping the tree down. This guy on our block who once owned our house used to always bug my wife about it, asking if he could come cut it out for his junk collection. She'd tell him that it was on the easement, so he'd have to contact the owners of that property. This happened I don't know how many times. It started to get to her. Finally I told her I'd take care of it. Next time I saw him, I said, hell yeah, come and haul it off, any time you like. Never heard another word about it.

When I went through the back gate yesterday – something I suppose I'd never done – I realized that there's a big yellow "We Shoot All Trespassers" sign hanging on the outside. I'd never known it was there. No wonder utilities people ask before they come on our property!

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Terra Incognita

Here is a map of the northeastern arc of Enoch, the world-city, the coast-long downtown that surrounds the sea on three sides like a giant omega, together with various adjacent lands.

It's a crude black-and-white scan of my ink drawing on paper, and probably needs to be rescanned and touched up. But you get the gist of it. The lettering is in an Art Nouveau font. I'm inordinately pleased with the mountains, which go beyond the cut-and-paste angle-things you see on many fantasy maps. The basic style is influenced by Tolkien's maps in The Hobbit.

Strangely enough, I've been drawing fantasy maps for longer than I've been reading fantasy. Here is the story of my first fantasy map.

It all began in the third grade. My teacher was kind of weird. For instance, she believed she had once seen a flying saucer, when she was a little girl: it had descended over her backyard one night, and she'd thought to it, if you can hear my thoughts, give me some sign, whereupon it had started flashing and flown away. I believed the story, and after that would "think" to all the mysterious lights I saw moving in the sky; once, a light I thought to kind of blinked, or so I imagined, and when I mentioned it to my teacher a few weeks later, she was upset that I hadn't told her sooner. She acted as though I had neglected to give her a crucial piece of information. "Why didn't you tell me sooner?" were her words. We also had to talk to her houseplants when we watered them, to encourage them to grow, and other New Agey stuff like that.

Well, anyway, sometimes this teacher would turn the lights out, sit cross-legged on her desk, and rub a crystal bowl with a crystal rod, producing a hypnotic hum. We would put our heads on our desks and imagine whatever she narrated. Generally it would begin like this: "You come to a gate. It has your name on it. You open it and go inside. There you find a giant egg. The egg is your house."

Not long after this I was introduced to Edith Hamilton's Mythology by my father, and I had been pretty skilled with a map and compass for some time, so I began creating fantasy contour maps of the egg-house-country peopled by creatures of Greek mythology. As a matter of fact, I got in trouble in math class when the girl who sat in front of me to told the teacher that I was drawing and not paying attention.

So when I discovered Tolkien at age fourteen or thereabouts I was immediately drawn to the maps. What sets them apart from a lot of other fantasy maps is, I think, the fact that they were constructed as part of the drama. They're not "overworld" maps someone drew and set a story in. Tolkien was continually modifying the geography so as to accommodate his desired plot. They're almost alive. Of course the geography is quite unrealistic, as he himself admitted: long, straight mountain ranges running north-south or east-west, at right angles to each other. But they're really a literary construction, and the power of the story makes such artificiality a nonissue.

I was also really into fantasy role-playing video games at the time, especially Final Fantasy II and III (IV and VI in Japan), those have doubtless influenced me as well.

In college I dealt with a bout of depression by creating a future history of Martian civilization, drawing numerous maps based on a fold-out map of the planet's surface I'd gotten in a National Geographic. None of those have survived, unfortunately. I also began, but never finished, a large watercolor map of the world of Norse mythology. That I still have somewhere.

So, me and fantasy maps, we go way back.

This map may ultimately be accompanied by another with a smaller inch-to-mile ratio, so that the entire Tethys Sea is visible. This is for a sword-and-planet story, so the design takes place on a planetary scale, though much of the surface is terra incognita to the inhabitants. A really good map makes the reader want to know what lies beyond the boundaries, and I hope mine has that effect.

All of this brings up a stylistic issue. Do you make your map bear some of the weight of your story, so that the reader has to consult it if they want to follow the action, or do you write your story in such a way that the reader must consult the map only if they can't keep the geography in their head? I go with the second, regarding the first as sloppy writing. Then again, I can't remember ever having read The Lord of the Rings without looking at the map.

Now on to the next thing.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Metapost: 2014

Another year has passed and I'm still here. Time for some reminiscence and reflection.

Let's see, let's see. Last January I decided to keep a list of all the books I read in 2014. Here they are, in reverse chronological order:
Some stats seem in order. I count 54 entries, which comes out to approximately one book per week, not a bad rate. I read parts of other things, mostly stuff from the Great Books collection, as well as books on art practice, theory, and history, and a number of essays from E. F. Schumacher's Small is Beautiful. I have a deplorably short attention span, and my list leaves off numerous things I began but then set aside. At the beginning of the year I also had a "Books I'm Reading Now" list, but its length became too embarrassing to keep up, and I eventually deleted it. Eight of these items were read to my kids, in addition to a bunch of fairy tales from Andrew Lang's collection of many colors, and two were read to my wife. Several I listened to as audiobooks while painting late at night.

My focus this year was obviously on vintage fantasy and science fiction, as I've been incorporating various elements of these into my writing. The most recent work I read was Null-A Continuum by John C. Wright (2009),which completes the Null-A saga begun by A. E. van Vogt in the forties; aside from this, the most recent novel was Gene Wolfe's Exodus from the Long Sun (1996). The oldest work of fiction I read was The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald (1872), and that to my children; the second oldest was She by H. Rider Haggard (1887). Gene Wolfe wins the coveted award of Author with Most Books Read by Me in 2014, with Philip K. Dick coming in second.

Remarkably, there is only one item of "literature" on my list: Milton's Paradise Lost, which I'd already read many times. Three items were devoted to the craft of writing, two to mathematics, two to politics, two to art, one to the contemplative life, and one to ants. The rest were novels and novellas.
I note that only four items on my list were written by women. Should I be concerned? A lot of people out there would say, most emphatically, yes, you should be. Hm. In my defense, I'll point out that it's actually rather unusual for me, considering that I count Jane Austen, Willa Cather, and Flannery O'Connor as three of my favorite authors. I was reading mostly vintage pulp so there wasn't much to choose from. Only one of my fantasy reads was by a woman (Leigh Brackett), but I sought it out deliberately; I did read a few of C. L. Moore's Jirel stories that aren't written down here, as they seemed too short to be worth recording, and I started something by Ursula K. LeGuin. In addition, the single most substantial book on my list is by a woman: The Way of Perfection by St. Teresa of Jesus, who happens to be a Doctor of the Church. It was assigned reading for my formation as a Carmelite Secular, and I studied it slowly and reflectively over several months.*

I saw several movies in the theater, including The Lego Movie (awesome), Godzilla (pretty good in some ways, quite stupid in others), Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (not bad), Guardians of the Galaxy (awesome, despite being a Marvel property, which I tend to avoid), and Nightcrawler (meh). I also began a project of watching and blogging about seventies sci-fi, e.g.:
For some reason these posts get lots of hits.

Other notable events in my 2014 life:
  • I had my first public art exhibition at a real live gallery that charged a commission on sales, and sold about ten pieces, mostly to locals. I also completed five paintings in oil and watercolor, including a groovy book cover, and wrote a multi-part post musing about art.
  • I saw two stories published, a third accepted for publication, and a previously published story anthologized.
  • I had my solution to a Star Trek logic puzzle featured at a major mainstream venue.
  • I made my first promises as a Carmelite Secular, but continue to be conflicted about belonging to the Order.
  • I adopted a stray leghorn rooster that literally fell from the sky during a thunderstorm and began following me around like a lost kitten. He's lived in my yard for about eight months now. His name is Pappagallo, after the idealistic leader in The Road Warrior. He's very smart and likes me to go out and talk to him, but despite his enormous size he's too afraid to stand up to the feral rooster that comes in our yard (that would be The Lord Humungus, I guess), and I'm always having to defend his food and his new feral hen-girlfriend (Chickie).
  • The house next door, built originally for the former Governor's mother, was bought by a branch of the local gentry, who proceeded to chop down all the trees along our property. They're expanding the house in a major construction project, their model being Gormenghast Castle, with the goal of hosting arena football tournaments in their bedroom. So I've gathered, at any rate. I've been told they're spending one and a half million dollars.
  • I applied for tenure, was elected president of our faculty senate, represented the university at the system office in Capital City (the Windy Apple itself), where I had some excellent Indian food beside a natural artesian well in a downtown basement, and other boring things like that.
While this about describes my general state of mind in 2014.

My goal this year is to try to get my novel in a publishable form, cover, map and all. (I've finished my map, and will get around to posting a raw scan and blathering about it in a day or two.) I've also been invited to show my art at a public gallery in a border town about an hour away, with a stipend for travel and lodging, and I'm working on producing a few new things for that. Right now I'm reading The Return of Tarzan, a Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser novel, The Princess and Curdie (to my kids), and G. E. Bentley's biography of William Blake. And then there's the baby coming next month, and the new graduate program I'm working on developing.

So, all in all, 2015 seems off to a good start.

* I will also mention that my wife read practically nothing BUT novels by female authors, e.g., George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, Willa Cather, in 2014. The Mill on the Floss, ugh. But at any rate, we balance each other out.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Behold Now Behemoth

Our hero, trapped as a slayer in the pits of Hela, strangles a behemoth with the chain of his own captivity:

Inspired by Blake's illustrations to the Book of Job, the estemmenosuchus (an omnivorous therapsid of the Middle Permian), and a creepy porcelain Japanese dog-thing my Granny used to have in her living room. I've never tried cross-hatching with pen and ink before, and enjoyed this attempt; perhaps sometime soon I'll combine it with watercolor, as Maurice Sendak did to such good effect.
Behold now behemoth, which I made with thee; he eateth grass as an ox. 
Lo now, his strength is in his loins, and his force is in the navel of his belly. 
He moveth his tail like a cedar: the sinews of his stones are wrapped together. 
His bones are as strong pieces of brass; his bones are like bars of iron. 
He is the chief of the ways of God: he that made him can make his sword to approach unto him. 
Surely the mountains bring him forth food, where all the beasts of the field play. 
He lieth under the shady trees, in the covert of the reed, and fens. 
The shady trees cover him with their shadow; the willows of the brook compass him about. 
Behold, he drinketh up a river, and hasteth not: he trusteth that he can draw up Jordan into his mouth. 
He taketh it with his eyes: his nose pierceth through snares.
– Job 40:15-24 

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Enter the Dragonfly

This is a self-congratulatory post about making art. Art is a bit like sausage and laws, so read on only if you have the stomach for it!

A while back I mentioned that I was working on a painting inspired by the book covers of the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series, which ran in the seventies and made a lot of hard-to-find pre-mass-market fantasies available in the form of cheap trade paperbacks. Many of the editions featured wrap-around images executed in inks or watercolors, often crude, garish, or badly drawn, but rather pretty for all that. The best part was the spine, and a shelf full of them (as I have on my bookcase) presents a pleasing potpourri of color and form.

Anyway, I've been meditating on self-publishing my novel, Dragonfly, for the simple reason that I'm particular about presentation, and feel that I'd do a better job of presenting it than some graphic designer who hasn't read it and doesn't know where I'm coming from. (Okay, that's not the only reason.) So I figured, why not make a Ballantine-style cover while you're meditating?

Well, it took me a few months, but here it is:

Dragonfly, 12" x 9", watercolor on hot-pressed paper.
I'm excessively pleased with it, as I am with all my work. It's most similar in color and composition to the cover of New Worlds for Old, a short-story collection edited by the inimitable Lin Carter (with art by David Johnston), but has some things inspired by Xiccarph, The Night Land, and others. The plants in the foreground are drawn from plates in Ernst Haeckel's Kunstformen der Natur, which influenced and was influenced by Art Nouveau motifs. The lady owes to the posters of Alphonse Mucha, the great Art Nouveau designer. All in all, it's meant to have an Art Nouveau vibe.

One thing I learned in designing the thing is that wrap-around book cover paintings are not very easy to design. The trick is to make something that will look good as a front cover, a back cover, and a spine, but also as a whole unit. This means that you have to have a main focal point in the front cover area, together with a secondary focal point in the back cover area that can serve as a main focal point when the cover is closed. Another issue is that you have to lay out the composition with the print material in mind, meaning that it will look off-balance as you paint it. Paintings make for bad illustrations, while illustrations can sometimes serve as passable paintings, though the incompleteness leaves a certain void.

So here is a very rough draft of the front cover:

A professional would never post a rough draft, I suppose, but I'm not a professional, so what the hell. As you can see, I plan to use fonts inspired by Art Nouveau.

Here's a close-up of the lady's head and torso, which I'm rather pleased with:

Her name, incidentally, is Seila, but to find out who she is, you'll have to read the book. The treatment of the red hair was inspired partly by Trina Schart Hyman's illustrations to Saint George and the Dragon, a Caldecott-winner that I've read to my son and daughter many times.

Here's a draft of the back cover:

Some of the mosses in the lower right-hand corner will, alas, be covered with a bar code if this actually goes to print. Curses upon the exigencies of modern life! The mosses were designed with this in mind, but I lavished more care upon them than I'd intended, and now I regret their disappearance. Oh well.

Our eponymous hero, who appears to be missing one wing, recalls Paul Klee's Winged Hero. He (or his twin in a very close parallel universe) is the subject of my upcoming story "Day of the Dragonfly" in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. I really like dragonflies ("winged bullets," as Edwin Way Teale calls them in Grassroot Jungles), and live in an area known for its unique oding opportunities, hence my odonatopterous warrior.

And hey: did you know that oding is a thing? It is! "Oding" is dragonfly-watching (order Odonata: dragonflies & damselflies). Illustrated dragonfly checklists are sold at my local supermarket, right next to the bird checklists, but all oding and bird-watching transpire at the sewage treatment plant, which doubles as a nature preserve. We take what we can get around here. Actually, I've seen some rare and beautiful birds, such as green jays, there. Beauty flowering in man's refuse: that's what I like to write about, and where the dragonfly comes in.

Anyway, last but not least, here is the spine, which, if I do say so myself, is quite a work of art, and would grace the bookshelf of the most discerning collector:

The lettering will be more prominent in the final version. A phony logo, etc., are in the works, so these layouts are barer than they will be. Because nothing screams "amateur" like not having small-print crap all over your cover.

Here's the draft cover, opened flat:

Finally, Amazon gives you a square-shaped container for the thumbnail that comes up in searches, so you maximize your space by having a square-shaped image rather than a book-shaped image. Here's my proposed square-shaped image (also planned for in the composition):

I still have to experiment a bit with the placing of the text. It strikes me that this would also make a cool old-school heavy metal album cover.

How did I produce this amazing work of art? Well, I'll tell you. (♪ He's going to tell! He's going to tell! ♪ He's going to tell! He's going to tell! ♪) First I mapped out the basic format on a big sheet of sketch paper (purchased at Wal-Mart, mind you, because, where I live, if Wal-Mart doesn't have it, then you don't need it), beginning with the lady and her hair. Then I worked up the various sections around her in separate sketches and transferred them to the larger sheet, using a lightbox. Some designers have a fancy manufactured lightbox, but my lightbox is my bedroom window, which gets a lot of fierce Texas sun now that the %&$#! neighbors have cut down all the trees that border our properties. I taped the sheets to the window, one behind another, and traced. I could see the construction workers watching me as I did this, wondering what I was up to. The owners themselves continue to be as elusive as Mr. Snuffleupagus, and I'm beginning to doubt their existence.

But I digress. Once the sketch was complete, I traced it using a big sheet of tracing paper, then flipped it over and traced it the other way, because, you know, it would be backwards otherwise. (This is where I always detect imbalances in the composition, so I had to do some fixing at this point.) Then I taped the tracing paper to my watercolor paper (I use a pad of Arches hot-pressed) and rubbed it down with my fingernail. After lightly strengthening the lines with a mechanical pencil I proceeded to ink them, something I don't generally do in my art-for-art's-sake pictures.

My painting technique is top secret but involves some use of Chinese white in areas calling for delicate work. The other colors I used include cadmium red, Naples yellow, gold ochre, raw sienna, burnt umber, chrome green (a mellow and buttery, difficult but truly excellent pigment), sap green, cobalt blue, and Payne's gray. These are all pure pigments except for the last. Normally I try to avoid mixtures, because each pigment has its own special properties, but Payne's gray was just too useful for what I was doing. I take pride in knowing my pigments: whether they come from the earth, from organic matter, or from synthetic materials; what their covering power is; whether they tend to stain; and so on. I like how Daniel Thompson describes the medieval artists:
In medieval painting methods…the separate pigments tend to be exhibited with emphasis, almost like jewels in a complicated setting. Fine colors were so hard to come by in the Middle Ages that the painter would not willingly degrade them by indiscriminate mixing. The palette was treated almost like a collection of precious stones, to be grouped in the painting with as much regard for their intrinsic beauty as possible… The medieval painter was as aware of the special qualities of his particular colors as a musician of the special qualities of instruments and voices. [Daniel Thompson, The Practice of Tempera Painting]
I never use black, which dulls colors, though Payne's gray admittedly has some black in it. It tends to "dirty" mixtures if you're not careful.

My figures are drawn from a collection of rights-free nude photos for artists. Obviously I don't use live models. (Where would I find them? What would I pay them? Where would I draw them?) I did practice on nude models quite a lot in college, and I have to say that nothing drains even the most attractive human body of sexual interest like drawing it. We had one female model, who was quite shapely, and two male models, known to us students as "the cave man" and "the fat man," if that tells you anything. The latter suffered from noisy flatulence. But the pleasure in drawing each was the same. Once you get into it, you might as well be drawing an old shoe or a flower.

As I painted, I listened to The Sword of the Lictor, two volumes of Clark Ashton Smith's short stories, The Last Unicorn, and whole lot of rock from the late sixties through the early nineties. I guess I paint pretty slowly. I mostly use a tiny (size 000) Winsor & Newton sable brush for detail work, and a bigger (size 0) synthetic spotter for covering larger areas with color, so finishing something that's around 9" by 12" (100+ square inches) takes awhile. I also only paint for a few minutes each day, generally late at night.

So there. Next I plan to make a couple maps, some pen-and-ink illustrations, and various other interior embellishments. Stay tuned for further developments.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

An Illuminated Silmarillion

Calligraphy page of The Silmarillion Here is the beautiful work of Benjamin Harff, who has created an illuminated copy of the Silmarillion for an exit exam at an arts academy. The initials, calligraphic pages, and illuminations were produced by hand, while the text appears to have been done digitally somehow. What is clear is that this was a work of love.

I have always wanted to try my hand at a major calligraphy project. I've studied the basic techniques, acquired the supplies, practiced writing with uncial script, examined famous examples like the Book of Kells, etc. Obviously I am only a tyro. But it would be a dream come true to produce a work like this young man has, though he several times expresses regret that lack of time prevented him from doing things as he would have had them. The title page alone he says took seventy to eighty hours, and we all know that some of the great medieval works took many years and were contributed to by several hands.

So, I laud his success in his alpha version (his term for it), and wish him the time to create a beta version. I for one would pay money for a reasonably priced facsimile of an illuminated Silmarillion, and I hope the Tolkien Estate is paying attention.

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Last Unicorn

I just finished The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle. It was first published by Viking in 1968, though I know it through its Ballantine edition, shown in the picture to the right. Would that fantasy might again be so fanciful and free as it was in those days, before it was defined and delineated!

The Last Unicorn is a curious and beautiful work, full of whimsy and self-reference, but not limited to them. Normally I detest such things, but their presence in this book is simple, humorous, and woven into the cloth of the story. The story itself has the childish convolution and arbitrariness of the fairy tale, but also its economy and power. It's really like no other fantasy I've read, which might be said of many entries in the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series. Its general tone is perhaps a bit like T. H. White's Once and Future King, but it has more power and heart and beauty, to my mind at least.

In this particular "reading" I actually listened to the audiobook, narrated by the author in a 2005 recording. I'd been hesitant to try it, for the reviews I'd read of Mr. Beagle's performance were mixed, but I really can't understand what the naysayers don't like. It's delightfully read, with some first-rate comic voices and an excellent Gypsy. Mr. Beagle has a pleasant reading voice, and he makes his characters talk the way one feels they must when reading the book in print.

Now I'll have to watch the Rankin/Bass animated film version, whose screenplay was also written by Mr. Beagle.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Logical Self-Congratulation

Hey! My solution to the "extremely difficult" Star Trek puzzle I posted last week is reprinted today at io9 with my permission (scroll way down).

I worked the puzzle out while watching my students take a final exam. I was interested in it mainly because I teach a course on discrete math, covering things like formal logic, relations, and graph theory, and I'm always looking for interesting new problems. But as a mathemagician, I'm more interested in how to create puzzles like this than in how to solve them. I wonder how Professor Finkel did it? Perhaps he added one statement at a time until his program gave him a single solution. From a logical point of view, it was much simpler than it need have been, given that only one statement connected the two "parts" of the puzzle.

Robbie Gonzalez, the column's author, says this about the puzzle:
I'm going to come right out and say it: This puzzle is, in fact, "extremely difficult." It is not so much one puzzle as it is several logic puzzles. Some of those puzzles are nested, such that certain conclusions cannot be made until one has accurately arrived at some other conclusion or conclusions. This kind of puzzle can get very complicated very quickly, and solving it typically involves the use of a spreadsheet or some kind of table to keep track of all the relationships in play. 
It's also the kind of puzzle that begs for a programmatic approach. And, in fact, that's exactly how Finkel [the professor who created the puzzle] solves it himself. "This admission may come as a surprise," he writes me by email, "but I have no idea how to attack this puzzle with pen and paper!"
Well, now he and the rest of the Internet know. And maybe, because of that knowledge, the world is just a tiny bit less dark, a tiny bit less confusing. Maybe someone, somewhere, will go to sleep easier tonight, knowing which Enterprise NCC-1701-D crew member outranks which at Fizzbin. Just maybe. And that makes it all worthwhile.