Life During Plague Times

I’m writing this on Day Three of my self-isolation in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Laura and the kids and I are hunkered down for at least the next couple of weeks.

It’s a Monday and my first official day of telework, though I’ve really been at it since Saturday. In fact, I didn’t have much of a weekend at all. VCU made the decision to extend Spring Break another week and switch to exclusively online instruction starting 3/24, which puts me in the hot seat as the university’s Zoom account administrator. We’d already set the wheels in motion to move to an enterprise plan — thank God — extending licenses to all faculty, staff and students, but it was all supposed to kick in this Wednesday. Missed it by *that* much. So I’m doing what I can to keep people happy until then. And there’s a lot of people at VCU.

Keeping so busy might be a blessing, though, because the new reality is only sinking in at random moments. And it’s weird. I don’t remember feeling this strange since 9/11 when all of life turned upside down, knowing the towers were gone, hearing no planes in the air, not being able to find an American flag in any store anywhere. Luckily we’re well stocked on toilet paper and soap and food, so I’m not having to fight off crowds in the stores. Or go anywhere else for that matter.

We’ve built a pretty insular society as it is, all of us in our little tech-driven bubbles watching and listening to whatever we’re into and ignoring everyone else, “Socializing” virtually through facebook and what not. But it’s different when you HAVE to do it, instead of choosing to.

Anyway, I’ll try to look at it as a gift: more time to spend with the kids, time to read or work on projects, maybe time for Scott to teach me guitar.

But not til after Wednesday, if I live that long.

Vampire (Likeness) Hunting

Looking for another project to test out my new set of pen nibs and brushes, I decided to attempt a caricature of an old favorite TV character; Dark Shadows’ resident vampire, Barnabas Collins. Rather appropriately, it ended up being a pain in the neck.

First, I had to find a reference photo of actor Jonathan Frid made up as Barnabas (just as an aside, it’s depressing how a Google image search for “Barnabas Collins” turns up so many pictures of Johnny Depp). Interestingly, Frid manages to look quite remarkably different from various angles and over the course of the series, which didn’t make my job any easier. I ended up deciding I liked the eyes in this headshot, which somehow for me capture Barnabas’ twin qualities of menace and suffering:

In hindsight, it probably wasn’t the best image as it’s kind of washed out and light on details (which is part of what makes it cool, too, ’cause it looks like it was taken in Barnabas’ original time period). Anyway, since what drew me in were the eyes, I chose to accentuate them in the caricature, and make them larger than life. Which is fine, only somehow over the course of the project, I kept adjusting everything else in relation to the eyes, obsessing over the nose, the mouth, etc, each in isolation, until I ended up with something that didn’t look at all like what I’d intended, because I failed to step back and look at how all the elements connected. Then when it came time to apply the inks, I was so focused on how to hold the nib pen that I didn’t focus my gaze on more than a couple millimeters of the image at a time. It didn’t help that I’d for some reason determined I was going to churn out the whole thing, start to finish, in a couple hours time. And here’s what that gets you:

Not so bad maybe for an image that says “generic vampire” — or “creepy dude” since there’s no fangs on display — but not what I’d hoped for. I was pretty happy with the “fog” effect a #6 “shader” brush got me (especially since it just kind of “happened” in the moment), and the cloak came out pretty well, but I was not pleased, overall. Laura snapped a photo of it almost as soon as I made the last stroke and pasted it to Facebook (ugh) asking friends, “What should go on the tombstone?” She got some interesting responses, but a more pertinent question for me was, “Who is it supposed to be?”

And so I learned my first two lessons: first, don’t rush a project, because that will never end well, and second, always take time to step back and look at the whole picture; don’t get lost in the details.

So almost immediately I started over. Usually I just move on from my artistic failures and shove them in a drawer (or the trash), but for whatever reason, this time I was determined to try a do-over. So I traced over the figure and started from scratch on the head, adding a couple more reference photos to the mix and watching a couple episodes of the show on Amazon Prime (always fun).

This time I was a lot happier with the results.

Or anyway, I was temporarily happy, until I came back the next day and decided I had drawn former CBS News anchor Dan Rather. I snapped the photo above and pulled it on my PC, and somehow just seeing the image in a different scale, on a screen instead of paper, brought all the problems into focus. I’ve often seen it suggested that you should hold your drawings up to a mirror to find the problems; now I know seeing it in a different scale can help, too.

So lesson #3: check your work in a mirror and view it a different scale before you commit to ink.

Anyway, I decided my revised Barnabas looked way too healthy for a 100-something-year-old vampire. His face was too full and well-fed. Also, there was too much forehead showing below those stylish bangs. So I went into Photoshop, lowered his forehead (which also meant widening the top of his head) and pulled the sides of his jaws closer together, accentuating the gaunt cheekbones. I also decided to give more of an angle to the nose. This got me a lot closer to where I wanted to be.

The difference is more obvious if you see the faces next to each other:

One thing I struggle with is drawing faces as they are, as opposed to the “idealized” or stylized generic faces I taught myself to draw as a kid, when I basically just cribbed from comic books. Whenever pencil hits paper, muscle memory takes hold of my wrist and people start looking like superheroes. In real life, people don’t always have perfectly symmetrical faces, straight noses, lantern jaws, eyes that line up, Ken doll hairlines, etc. It’s the little idiosyncrasies that define us and make one person distinct from another, and the art of capturing likenesses is to find those things and put them on the page. Ian Fleming once wrote that ” The difference between a good golf shot and a bad one is the same difference between a beautiful and a plain woman – a matter of millimetres.” The things that make us recognize a specific person out of millions are often tiny details.

So anyway, now I have an image that’s more or less what I was shooting for. The problem is it only exists as a Photoshop file, so if I ever want a paper copy, I’ve got to go through all that inking a third time. It ain’t likely.

The real kicker is that I’m not even sure you could call this a “caricature.” It’s a comic-book like drawing, but is it exaggerated? Whimsical? It’s a more-or-less “realistic” head on a dwarfish body. Neither fish nor foul.

Just to prove I can never leave anything alone, a couple days later I pulled out my Kindle Fire and used my stylus to try a more cartoonish approach, using the “Medibang Paint” app. I have to say I’m probably most satisfied with that version, since it doesn’t even try to be “realistic.” I like that it’s limited to a minimum of linework, though honestly, having spent so much time wrestling with Mr Frid’s features earlier probably made it a lot easier to reduce them to just a few angles and curves. The cool part is that there’s just enough there to suggest “Barnabas,” and the viewer can do the rest of the work.

Of course, your mileage may vary, and in a week’s time, I may dislike this one as much as the others.

Trial and Error

I generally try to avoid politics here, if only to honor the old adage, “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” It’s been a pretty sorry decade or so for American politics, and there’s honestly no relief in sight. Responding to every outrage and disgrace that hits the headlines is like complaining about every individual drop of rain that falls, and about as effective.

The last few weeks have seen a new low, however, as we endured an absolute train wreck of an impeachment trial that precisely no one believed would come out any differently than it did. Predictably, the president is claiming exoneration on all charges, even though acquital only came because his party controls the Senate. Even most of the senators from his own party won’t go so far as to say he was innocent, only that what he did wasn’t “bad enough,” because “abuse of power is not an impeachable offense.” (Translation: we value our jobs more than justice).

On the other side are the Dems, who managed to catch Trump dead to rights in a flagrant abuse of the powers of his office and still couldn’t gain much traction in the court of public opinion because they’d spent his entire presidency — starting indeed a few months before he even took office — calling for his impeachment by whatever means necessary. It might’ve been easier to adopt the role of the dedicated public servant, indignant at the shocking revelation of a president’s misdeeds, if they hadn’t been chanting “resist” since November of 2016.

So now in my lifetime I’ve seen two impeachments, two Senate trials and two acquitals. The upshot is that with two failures on the books, “impeachment” has gone from what it was intended to be on paper — a somber process to protect the nation from an unchecked despot, or crook — to what it now appears to be in practice: an exercise in political Kabuki the outcome of which depends, in the end, not on facts or ethics but on which party holds the most seats. If Democrats held the majority in the Senate, he’d have been “guilty,” but with the GOP in control he’s “not.” Everyone on “the jury” was also a complainant, or defendant. Impeachment, then, is devolved into a political cudgel, and going forward, any outcome — be it acquital or conviction — will never be seen as the impartial administration of justice, merely politics.

As a bonus, we’ve now tossed away one of the core tenets of the Constitution: that the Legislative, Executive and Judicial branches hold each other in check to avoid abuses by any one branch. This president, and all who follow, are pretty much free to do as they will, so long as their party holds a majority in the Senate.

As exhausting and unpleasant as it is watching the antics of the White House’s current occupant, what’s really depressing to me is what this era portends. Everything we’d come to historically regard as “presidential”: a sense of decorum and manners, a refusal to stoop to personal attacks against critics, at least the appearance of eschewing nepotism and cronyism, are all revealed as non-essential to the office. And now little things like using government funds and the power of office to further your own personal interests are fair game as well (as Alan Dershowitz would say, it’s okay as long as you’re convinced that whatever’s good for you is also good for the country). Having set the bar so low, why would we expect any future president to aim higher?

But whenever I get worked up about this stuff, I realize what I’m really mourning isn’t so much decency and propriety as it is the shattered illusion of shame. Deep down, I know that the vast majority of presidents were probably jerks and crooks who behind closed doors were as crude, petty, opportunistic and unpleasant as could be. What I’m mourning is the thin veneer of civility and class that was thrown over those clowns, the little acts of make-believe that made the office seem dignified and respectable. Maybe in a way I should be grateful to The Donald for shattering all those illusions so we could stop fooling ourselves.

Still, it’s hard to be too grateful, all things considered. Not so long ago, we thought presidents had to act presidential, and that impeachment was a powerful tool to save us from ruin. Now we know that “presidential” needn’t mean anything more than “what the current guy decides to do” and impeachment is a toothless tiger, intrinsically flawed in its basic concept and utterly without value to our system of government. Our old illusions may have been false, but they sure made it easier to sleep at night.

With a whole year of campaigning to look forward to, I’m probably going to crawl back into my hole and leave this the last political post for a while. If you can’t say anything nice…

Another Art Project Goes “Splat”

I got a set of nib pens for Christmas in hopes of finally figuring out how to do “proper” inking. Historically, I’ve used fine-tipped markers and tried to recreate the effects of nibs and brushstrokes through “fakery.”

Since the object was to concentrate on technique and self-instruction, I didn’t spend a lot of time coming up with an original pencil image to start from. Instead, I “swiped” an image of Jack Kirby’s Captain America and another of Sheldon Moldoff’s Batman. Trying to copy their styles was another sort-of test for me, though I’ve done something similar before with an image where Kirby’s Silver Surfer met Al Plastino’s Superman. I’ve always been struck by the huge gulf between Marvel comics art styles of the early to mid-60s (generally energetic and innovative) as compared to DC’s output from the same period (fairly bland and still stuck in the previous decade). I like the idea of these characters running into each other back when they were most different from each other. Sort of a “changing of the guard” thing.

Steve and Bruce throw down

Anyway the brush work went a lot more smoothly than I expected, but it took a lot of trial and error to figure out the nibs. I used Speedball’s “Cartooning Project Set” and leaned heavily on the “B6” nib for wider lines and the “100” nib for the finer stuff. I couldn’t work up the courage to try the wider ones.

About 3/4ths of the way through, I had a temporary bout of insanity and changed nibs over the board (!) which resulted in some splatter. I considered (a) using white-out to cover it or (b) tossing the whole thing in the wastebin, but then I decided it might be fun to add more splatter, on purpose. So I traced the figures to make an overlay mask, dipped a toothbrush in the ink and ran my finger over the bristles. I couldn’t figure out why the results were so uniform — lots of tiny dots of almost the exact same size, creating a “static” or “fog” effect — so I tried going over areas again to make some parts darker, but that didn’t help much. Eventually I realized what I needed was more variety in the size of the droplets, so I switched to smacking the toothbrush against a pencil. The end result is a lot “busier” than I wanted, but at least now I know better how to control splatter.

I finished it off with watercolors, which was fun as the ink was waterproof and didn’t run. With some practice, I think I could do some interesting projects with these methods.

Scott at 15 (!)

Yesterday was Scott’s birthday, incredibly placing him halfway through his teen years.

He picked out an acoustic guitar that looks and sounds terrific and better yet gives him one to play other than mine. Or so I thought: now he’s got mine to play downstairs and his upstairs. Altogether that makes an acoustic and two electrics (with two amps) in his arsenal, with my acoustic in reserve and somewhere around the house an old folk guitar (though an admittedly lame one). Plus Grandma gave him a mandolin and Granny and Grandaddy gave him a 17-key Kalimba Marimba (with an electric pickup so he can plug it into his amps!). Already in his collection were an electronic keyboard, a melodica and the Reuter family accordion on loan from a cousin. And our upright piano, where it all started.

In case you couldn’t tell, he’s kind of into music. Sometimes I confess I take it for granted that there’s always music in the house and I just tune it out, but I know the day will come when it’s quiet again and I’ll be wishing I still heard those snippets of Pink Floyd, Bowie, Metallica and Rage Against The Machine. If only I could talk him into playing more Beatles. I’ve made the mistake of expressing my distaste for certain tunes, like Wham’s “Last Christmas” (or pretty much Wham’s anything) and the Eagle’s “Hotel California,” which plays so often on Richmond radio that I feel like I’m stuck in a remake of “Groundhog Day.” So whenever Scott sees or hears me coming, he’s sure to stop whatever he’s playing to regale me with one of those songs I hate most. He thinks I don’t know he’s doing it on purpose.

Once in the car I mused aloud how it was interesting that certain chords made the human brain feel good and others were unsettling or jarring, and wondered why. Scott piped up and explained it had to do with frequency ratios and went into which ones worked best. I thought I was asking a rhetorical question. Another time we were raking leaves in the back yard and he stopped under a set of wind chimes. I figured he was just shirking, but then he said, “These are on the pentatonic scale, so whatever random order they strike in, it still sounds good. Otherwise it’d be awful half the time.” Musical mind on that one, for sure.

Scott’s a sweet kid who’s always eager to help out where he can, and it’s joy to have him around. In fact, we hit the jackpot three times in the “kid lottery,” and being a dad is still the coolest job I’ve ever had.

Happy birthday, Scott. Keep on rockin’ in the new year.