Sunday, July 31, 2011

How Much Stuff Does It Take to Be Happy?

Recently, my young friend Lori wrote about paring down her possessions so she can move to the east coast and attend a writing program. In her post, she lists five benefits of owning less, including
  • saving money,
  • gaining appreciation of the stuff you decide to keep,
  • traveling and relocating more easily,
  • making other people happy by giving them your castoff things, and
  • reducing the urge to buy more stuff and thereby overspend.
To Lori's list, I'd add this bullet:
  • feeling great about "treading more lightly on the earth," counteracting the trend seen in this terrific, and terrifying, video:

Anyway, the subject of stuff is one I've been thinking about for years. It started with a study I read in Utne Reader about 15 or so years ago. It reported that the happiest people on earth were living in a tiny town in India, where a person with a stool to sit on was considered rich. In spite of the dearth of physical possessions, the people in this village managed to educate their children from a communal library, maintain good health, and have strong social bonds. 

This shocked me. I haven't been able to find it on the web to share it with you, and it may not still be valid, but the point is, it got me thinking. Up until then, like many people around me, I'd measured success in monetary terms. For example, one of my goals was to earn enough money to buy a pair of gold hoop earrings. When I finally had enough extra money for them, I judged I'd really "made it."

BUT -- what was next? What would really make me and the kids happier? (We were already happy, I should add.) More stuff to follow the earrings?? Accumulating possessions seems to be the goal of many of us in this country. I kept thinking about this. And buying more stuff.

I found it difficult, if not impossible, to go against the flow, to take a different direction than the larger society, regardless of any intentions otherwise. As time went on, though, I began feeling weighed down. Possessions were supposed bring happiness, but the pleasure was short-lived, and then I had to worry about housing, cleaning around, and moving an ever-increasing amount of stuff.

When the kids left home for college about a decade ago, I started paring down, hoping to lighten this burden. About halfway through that process, Bill and I met, married, and merged households, so I got to weed out even more stuff. Then the kids needed us to store "just a few boxes" for them. During that time, I felt like I'd acquired some very bad "garage karma" because no sooner did I get it cleaned out, than it would magically fill up again, with no help from me.

Now, a few years later, I'm in the final stages of what turned into a gigantic effort. Last year, Bill and I moved into the city to be closer to his work and cultural activities. Because homes here cost nearly twice as much per square foot as the suburban home we'd left, and we wanted to tread more lightly on the earth, we bought a small house, small enough, in fact, to be considered a "cottage." However, in spite of my efforts up to now, we still had way too much stuff to fit in it. Now, after another whole year of weeding out, and with some things still to give away, we can finally walk around the house  without tripping over too many things.

We fit everything into our cottage, almost.
While it's been a big adjustment to live in such as small space, by today's American standards anyway, I'm pleased to report being much, much happier here than when living in a far larger house with lots and lots more stuff.

In sum, if I had it to do all over again, this would be my theme, as gorgeously performed by Ella Fitzgerald:

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Friday, July 29, 2011

Photographing Paintings

UPDATE August 11: I just got my "First Studio" lighting kit from B&H Photo and am getting it set up. I'll write a post about what happens. (I'm never quite sure what will happen when I start tangling with things that attach to the power grid.)

The faint of heart need go no farther. Here's a treatise by Robert Ward from a DPChallenge forum on the how to set up your equipment to photograph paintings. It's too long to tack onto the Digitizing Paintings post (which I've added more info to tonight as well), so I'm giving it a post of it's own.

Here goes:
We used to record exhibitions for major museums in California, in San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. This was back in the 70's. The work was done with large-format cameras on 4x5 film.

The key question here is, "How many of these do you have to do?" In other words, is it worth your while to engineer a setup for repeatable results?

As others have noted in earlier posts, the most important thing is to have the sensor plane (back of the camera, roughly) parallel to the image plane. I'd add to that; the axis of the lens, projected forward, should point to the geometrical center of the painting being reproduced. By doiung these things, you remove distortion from the equation; no "keystoning" in either the vertical or horizontal direction.

The easiest way to accomplish this is to hang the art on a vertical wall and square your tripod up so that the center column is a true vertical. Ideally you'd draw a vertical line on the wall and extend that at right angles on the floor to our past where the tripod will be standing. Then you'd attach a plumb bob to your center column and be sure that the tripod was "directly in front of" the line on the wall. With a dSLR a small horizontal shift will be required if the lens is not aligned with the tripod screw, which they typically are not. If the lens were offset by 3/4 of an inch to the left, then you'd want to plumb to a point 3/4 of an inch to the right of the line on the floor.

Then you'd set the camera up at eye level and measure the height of the optical axis of the lens above the floor. You'd measure up along the line on the wall and mark that height ohnt he wall, and use a level to draw a true horizontal on the wall passing through that point and extending far enough on each side to be wider than the largest painting you will photograph. You'd use a high-quality zoom lens (this would be easiest, for photographing art of wildly varying sizes) and set up so the tripod were at a position to cover the largest painting you're gonna shoot at the wider end of the zoom. For smaller painings, you'd zoom in.

If you need to shoot vertical and horizontal paintings both, it's best to do them as two separate groups, because rotating the tripod head to portrait orientation will move the offset of the lens sufficiently to one side to require repositioning the tripod, plumbing it to a different offset from the line.

Anyway, using this setup you can position paintings on the wall so they are centered on the intersection that defines the projected optical center of the lens, and you never need to adjust the tripod settings, just the zoom. It's also desirable to have a "quick change" system for hanging paintings on the wall. An acceptable approach is to use a true "artist's easel" (the kind with two parallel vertical bars and adjustable "tray" to hold the painting and clamp to snug it in place) as long as the easel can be set up to a true vertical. A better approach would be to replicate the easel directly on the wall, but that's a lot of work.

When photographing exhibitions in museums, we had a system for measuring the degree-off-vertical a painting was hanging at (some leaned out from the wall a tad) and transfering that angular deviation to the fore/aft tilt on the tripod, but this gets complicated.

Your next issue is lighting. It's generally better to shoot art with floodlights than with strobes, because you can more easily see the results you're getting. Your standard setup would be to draw on the floor two lines coming out at 45-degree andles from where the tripod-axis line intersects the wall. You'd position 4 floodlights, one high and one low on each axis, measuring the same distance out from the wall along each axis. You'd then use an incident light meter to measure the light falling at the center and on each corner of the largest painting you had to shoot, and angle your lights so the measured illumination was even across the entire surface of the painting. If it's even on the largest painting, it will be even on any smaller painting subsequently hung in that space.

You now have a geometrically consistent setup and a constant light level across the entire working space. All you have to do is move art on and off the wall, shooting each piece as you go. Use a cable release, and ideally mirror lockup as well. You should also photograph a "color target" (available at camera stores and online) under your controlled setup. You will process the color target image to eliminate any color cast and add slight exposure corrections needed, and then set up an action you can use to batch process all the other images to correct color balance and exposure.

That, in a nutshell, is a bare-bones "professional" approach to copying largish art that's too big to fit within the confines of a copy stand.

Thank you, Robert!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Overcoming Fear of Paint

Someone once said that to stretch your limits, it's a good practice to do one thing each day that makes you a bit afraid. That's why I take Kathy Collins' watercolor classes.

Small Roses. 4" X 5" Arches cold pressed paper.
In Kathy's classes, we use paint straight from the tube with a dab of water here and there. If you're a watercolor painter, you may understand how doing this could strike fear in a person's heart. My first watercolor teacher gave me the more typical instruction, which involved putting my paint in the little spots for it on the palette and letting it get good and dry before trying to paint. The result, in case you don't already know, is pallid. You must work and work on that hard little gob of paint to get any color from it. This type of teaching may be why you see so many weak-looking paintings. If you look at some of mine, you'll certainly see the effect.

I subsequently took classes from Tom Hoffman, who got me painting much more boldly, but Kathy Collins has turned that up another full notch, at least, with her "straight from the tube" approach.
Kathy's Tuesday morning summer classes started today, and we did flowers. Taking a deep, stabilizing breath to calm my inner quaking, I used a damp 1-1/2 inch flat brush to paint around the top side of the flowers with prussian blue, alizerin crimson, and yellow ocher straight from the tube. Then I added a small amount of water to the paint around the rest of the flowers. A clean, damp brush softened a few edges.

Roses in Blue. 11" X 15" Arches cold pressed paper.
Plants on Acid. Or Fireworks. Can't decide. 11" X 15" Arches cold pressed paper. I got carried away and painted the petals I'd intended to leave white, so I painted on top of that part with really thick alizerin crimson to create some of them. Oh well.
Rose in a Glass. 4" X 5" Arches cold pressed paper. There were a few minutes left to paint, so I did this small one and the one at the beginning of this post.
Kathy, of course, is much more adept at this method, and her paintings are really fabulous. But, as they say, practice makes perfect, so I'll be doing a lot more of these in the future.

1/31/12 Update: I just read this interview with Piet Lap (well worth the read, by the way), and I am apparently not alone. Here's an excerpt: Q: Could you accent something most important to master the watercolor? 
A: You can't master it, watercolouring. You will always start 'tabula rasa',with a frightening empty sheet of paper.

Friday, July 8, 2011

A Painter of Crows

I seem to have happened upon a kindred spirit, Kathleen A. Johnson, Two Crows Studio. She's done a number of crow paintings. I'm absolutely inspired!

Seven Crows at Night by Kathleen A Johnson

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Bhutan's Gross National Happiness

I just learned about this on Create and Share, and then found this video and more background in a Wikipedia article. Here's the deal: the US along with many other countries, measure the success of their policies by using "Gross Domestic Product" as an indicator.  Since 1972 the goal of Bhutan's government has been to support and improve the people's happiness, using "Gross National Happiness" as an indicator. If you could choose, which one would you prefer that your government use?

BTW, I just read this article, which reports that Bhutan has attained the position of #8 in the world in terms of its people's happiness, whereas the US ranks #23.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Painting in the Manner of Thomas Schaller

Thomas Schaller is a wonderful watercolor artist I follow on Facebook. I've always admired the way he can paint his main subject emerging from a misty background, and have wondered how he achieves that effect. A couple of weeks ago Thomas posted a series of photos to depict his painting process, so I decided to create my own painting by using his method, to see whether I could get a similar misty result.

Here's the Facebook album with Thomas Schaller's painting process.

From reading about his process, I learned that Thomas puts down a second wash right over his first wash before it's dry. My watercolor teachers have always said that, although you can put thicker paint over a wash that's still wet or damp, you should never put down a second wash until the first is completely dry. I've always obediently let my first layer dry before putting on another wash, but ignoring this rule is, as I discovered from this experiment, Thomas' secret for getting that misty background. Here's one caveat, though, based on my prior experience: be sure to entirely cover the first wash with the second one if you wish to avoid "blooms" at the edges of the second wash. I also learned that you have to paint really fast to actually get the second wash on before the first becomes too dry to produce the desired misty effect.

Here's my first attempt to paint in the manner of Thomas Schaller. Notice all that lovely mist in the background! (Be sure to read Thomas' comment below this picture.)

Dewey Lakes from Naches Loop Trail

I put a link to this post on Thomas Schaller's Facebook page, and he's already responded with this clarification about his process:
thomas w. schaller - watercolor artist wrote: "Thanks so much Megan. Just looked at your blog post - very nice! I appreciate it greatly. The only clarification is that in this painting, my first wash was still wet, but only at the lower portion - because of the steep angle, the top part was fairly dry so that i could keep the edges of the buildings pretty clean - then they melted into the wetter lower portion. I know you'd figure it out, but as you can imagine - nothing but a real disaster if you go into a completely wet wash too soon -))"
Thank you, Thomas!!! It was a lucky thing, then, that I was too slow to put my second wash into a completely wet first wash.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Leo, the Occasionally Good Dog, Can't Seem to Stay Out of Trouble

Leo is rudely interrupted while reading the menu.

  1. Leo, The Occasionally Good Dog  - Leo isn't always bad. Plus, he really, really wants to be good. 
  2. One Time When Leo Was Good  - Liz and Jenn disagree. They don't think Leo really wants to be good at all. So in this story, I document how good he actually is.
  3. Biker Bob Goes for a Walk  - A simple walk isn't all that easy.
  4. Seals are Smarter Than Leo  - A pair of seals has a laugh at Leo's expense. 
  5. Ways to say "Leo," Part 1: Reading the Menu  -  Animated cartoon.
  6. Another Way to Say Leo  - Another animated cartoon.

Crow Science

Crows teach each other who's who.
As you know, I'm very interested in crows as pets, especially Bertram, Corvina, and their babies. Scientific researchers, too, have become very interested in crows, mainly because of their extremely high intelligence and the similarity of their social behavior to that of humans. My friend Biker Bob just pointed out this article about crows, which in turn reminded me of the following PBS video, A Murder of Crows, which details research at the University of Washington about how crows remember people's faces and teach their fellow crows about who is dangerous.

Watch the full episode. See more Nature.

If you're still doubting about the human-like qualities of crows, watch this video about a crow who fed and cared for an abandoned kitten: