2018 Yuletide Cards are On the Way

Winter Woodpecker: Ink & Watercolor

Winter Woodpecker: Ink & Watercolor

As of today, all our Yuletide cards are on the way to their recipients (or at least they will be when the USPS picks them up tomorrow!). My artwork for the card design is shown above. Naturally, the copyright notice does not appear on the card itself; it is included here only so that my artwork does not mysteriously become someone else’s design without my permission!

Mary and I discussed whether a Woodpecker was a “seasonal” bird, then we discovered that the USPS had already issued a set of stamps called “Winter Birds”, which included a woodpecker (albeit not a Downy Woodpecker)!

 

Yuletide Label Artwork for 2018

Seasonal Woodpeckers

Seasonal Woodpeckers

The image above is artwork that I just completed for the return labels on our 2018 Yuletide cards. As you can see, this year we’re going to have a “Downy Woodpecker” theme!

As with last year’s artwork (seen here), I used Corel Draw to create it. I should perhaps explain that, when it appears on the actual labels, the drawing is much reduced in size (less than one inch wide), so there’s no point in adding too much detail to it.

I had already created the main card artwork before I started working on this label graphic, to ensure that the card design would be sent to the printer as early as possible! I’ll post that artwork on my blog as soon as we send out the cards, which hopefully will be during this week.

I must admit that my own photographs of Downy Woodpeckers are not very good at all, because the birds have a frustrating habit of hiding around the back of the tree just when I’m ready to take the picture, as shown below.

A Shy Downy Woodpecker

A Shy Downy Woodpecker

Fortunately, I have several books describing California birds, and the internet is a rich source of reference photos, so it wasn’t too difficult to find images that are more helpful than mine!

[Update 12/9/18: After reducing the size of the artwork to fit the return labels, I noticed that the stylized tree in the center was unrecognizable. Therefore, I adapted the design to show a stylized cracker. I realize that many outside the UK may not be familiar with crackers, but it is more seasonal! Naturally, the artwork on the labels does not include the copyright notices.]

Seasonal Woodpeckers

Seasonal Woodpeckers

The Tower by the Bay

The Tower by the Bay, 1976

The Tower by the Bay, 1976

I completed the painting above during 1976, but not at school. I apologize for the poor quality; not only has the poster paint I used decayed over time, but the painting was also folded into four at some point!

The scene depicted is completely imaginary, and doesn’t attempt to represent any real place. I’m not sure why I chose to do this particular work at home; perhaps I just felt that my schoolteachers would demand to know what it was supposed to represent, and I wouldn’t be able to explain!

Today (October 25th) is International Artist Day, so I thought it appropriate to feature some of my artwork in this post, even if it’s not of “professional” standard on this occasion.

If my painting above represents anything, then I suppose that it was intended to show my “ideal location”, from my viewpoint as a teenager. Looking closely, the “tower block” in the image has a sign on the side saying “Europa”, so presumably it was supposed to be a hotel somewhere in Europe. At that age, I had no experience of independent living, so it probably seemed to me that the only alternative to living with my parents was to stay in a hotel!

The city on the horizon, with its illuminated seaside promenade, is of course loosely based on views of my home town of Scarborough (as shown below in my 1977 photo). However, at that time, there were no modern “tower blocks” such as the one in my painting near the sea in Scarborough (although there was such a building—Ebor House—in the nearby resort of Bridlington, which was in the news just recently for the wrong reasons).

Scarborough South Bay at Night, 1977

Scarborough South Bay at Night, 1977

I seem to have spent a lot of time detailing the interiors of the rooms in the hotel, which I could have avoided simply by painting the curtains closed!

Slightly more than ten years after I painted the image above, I unexpectedly found myself in a seaside location that reminded me of that imaginary scene, although it was not anywhere in Europe.

Realizing the Dream

The photo below, which I took during my first visit to California in October 1987, shows the Metro Tower in Foster City, as seen from one of the lagoon bridges. At that time, the Metro Tower, which had only just been completed, had the distinction of being the tallest building between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Foster City, California, in 1987

Foster City, California, in 1987

During the first evening that I arrived in California, I found myself very disoriented, because I thought that the tower and lagoon in front of it were facing westwards towards the Pacific Ocean. In fact, Foster City faces San Francisco Bay, and thus eastwards. I had to consult maps to figure out why the sea seemed to be on both sides!

I’m afraid that once again the picture quality is very poor, but I could not in fact go back and take the same photograph today, because other large buildings now surround the Metro Tower, as shown in the nearest-available Google Street View today.

As I mentioned in a previous post, after emigrating to California later in 1987, I did rent an apartment in Foster City, and lived there for about 18 months. It was a pleasant place to live, and the sheer modernity of the surroundings was a refreshing change from everywhere that I’d previously lived.

Not a Premonition

I realize that, in view of what happened to me later on, it’s possible to interpret my teenage painting as some kind of “premonition” regarding the place where I would find myself living as an adult (and someone did in fact suggest that).

However, in general I see no evidence that premonitions, in the sense of someone being able to know what will happen in the future, are possible (if only because the future of the universe is inherently not knowable). You may be able to make a very good guess as to what will happen in the future, based on the current circumstances, but it’s only ever a prediction. (This is, of course, exactly what weather forecasters do every day.)

In the case of my painting, I think the reality is just the opposite. Having unexpectedly found myself in California, Foster City particularly appealed to me because it was so reminiscent of the scene in my earlier painting. Thus, I took action to fulfill aspects of the fantasy that I’d had as a teenager, and made it real.

In fact, seeing it that way seems better than believing in some kind of premonition, because I was able to take action to change my life in the way that I wanted it to be, rather than accepting whatever situation I found myself born into.

The Tower by the Bay, 1976

The Tower by the Bay, 1976

Flying North Again

Tatra T87 at the Minneapolis Institute of Art

Tatra T87 at the Minneapolis Institute of Art

The photo above shows a preserved Tatra T87 automobile, which, in my opinion, must surely be the ultimate “Art Deco Car”. Designed in Czechoslovakia in 1936, this particular example was built in 1948. The swooping lines and graceful curves of the design are highlighted in this case by the gleaming silver paintwork.

I’d have expected to find a car such as this on display in a prestigious European motor museum, so I was quite astonished this week when I visited the Minneapolis Institute of Art, in the Midwest of the USA, and found it there.

The reason for my visit to Minneapolis was simply because that’s my wife’s hometown. We went there to visit her family, most of who still live in or around that city. We had a great visit with everyone, but I must confess that, as I get older, I increasingly prefer the comforts of my home, so I was glad to get back!

Far Away is Close at Hand in Models of Elsewhere

Many years ago, during the 1970s, there was a famous item of graffiti that appeared near the approach to Paddington railway station in London, which ran:

FAR AWAY IS CLOSE AT HAND IN IMAGES OF ELSEWHERE

The first inkling that I ever had that there existed a place called the “Midwest” was when I was about 7 years old. In 1967, the Trans-World Model Railway opened at the Corner Café in Scarborough. This was a gigantic OO/HO scale model railway, which included inter-connected sections depicting Britain, France, Germany, and, via an “Atlantic Bridge”, the USA and Canada.

One of the US sections was captioned “The Midwest”, but of course I had no real idea where it was, nor did I ever expect to visit such a place, and I certainly never imagined that I might one day marry someone from there!

Having been married to Mary for some 27 years now, I’ve traveled with her to Minnesota on many occasions. We try to visit different places during each visit.

The Inland Beaches

As you might guess, the Midwest is far from either the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans, so there’s no ocean frontage to be found there. Nonetheless, given that Minnesota is the “Land of 10,000 Lakes”, there are still beaches within the state. The photo below shows one: Thomas Beach, on Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis, with the skyscrapers of downtown visible in the distance.

Thomas Beach & Downtown Minneapolis

Thomas Beach & Downtown Minneapolis

As a girl, my wife lived in an apartment that’s behind the trees on the far side of the lake, and she used to swim at this beach.

A Cultural Center

I realize that the Midwest may not generally be thought of as a center of culture, but in fact (probably thanks to its industrial wealth) Minneapolis has more than its “fair share” of cultural attractions.

In the past, I’ve visited the Walker Art Center, and various local museums, but I’d never before been to the vast Minneapolis Institute of Art. Hanging above the lobby of the Institute is a large glass sculpture by Dale Chihuly, as shown below.

Dale Chihuly Exhibit, Minneapolis Institute of Art

Dale Chihuly Exhibit, Minneapolis Institute of Art

Inside the Institute, many substantial collections are on display, covering all time periods from the Stone Age to the present, and spanning all continents.

Amid the collection of Twentieth Century artwork, there’s one painting by Piet Mondrian, whose art and beliefs I discussed in an earlier post. The photo below shows a closeup of his initials at the bottom left of the painting, to prove that it’s really his, rather than some simulation that I cobbled together on my computer!

Mondrian's Initials

Mondrian’s Initials

There’s also a large collection of Impressionist works, three of which are shown below. The painting on the left, Notre Dame de Paris by Maximilien Luce, sold in 2011 for $4.2 million, a record amount for an Impressionist work.

Some Impressionist Works

Some Impressionist Works

It’s impossible to do justice to the scale of the Institute’s collections in this short article, and I would encourage you to visit this amazing museum yourself if you’re ever in the vicinity.

The Scandinavian Diaspora

Many of the early European settlers in what’s now Minnesota came from the Scandinavian countries; Denmark, Sweden and Norway. Apparently, circa 1900, about 25% of the population of Minneapolis consisted of Swedish emigrés. Thus, it’s perhaps not surprising that Minneapolis is home to the American Swedish Institute. We visited this Institute too, and took the tour of the Turnblad Mansion, which was built in 1908 by the proprietor of a Swedish-language newspaper. The mansion is shown in the photo below, seen from inside the modern extension built next to it.

The American Swedish Institute

The American Swedish Institute

The ASI also has an excellent restaurant, FIKA, but it’s an understandably popular lunch venue, so you may have to wait for a table!

Flying Home

We returned to San Francisco airport directly from Minneapolis. I took the emotive photo below from my seat, as our Boeing 737-800 was descending to land in San Francisco. Our flight left Minneapolis at about 6.30pm, so we were “chasing the sunset” back to California as shown in the photo.

Boeing 737-800 Landing at Sunset

Boeing 737-800 Landing at Sunset

The circumstances of my flight reminded me of the lyrics of Thomas Dolby’s song Flying North, which was popular in the early 1980s when I was first traveling to the US. Part of the lyrics are:

Metal bird dip wing of fire

Whose airlanes comb dark Earth

The poles are tethers we were born in

Now I’m back in the London night

On a bench in a launderette

I’m staring right into my face

And I’m drawn out like a plot

And I’m flying North again

Tonight

These days, I’m no longer flying home to London, of course. Instead, we just had a wonderful dose of Midwest culture, and now it’s great to be back home in California!

Tatra T87 at the Minneapolis Institute of Art

Tatra T87 at the Minneapolis Institute of Art

The Correct Scale for Artwork

Life Study, 2003

Life Study, 2003

The image above is a scan from a life drawing in pencil that I produced in 2003. This was one of several drawings that I recently had scanned professionally, because the original image size is simply too large (about 24” x 19”) for my equipment.

The issue of the “right size” at which to create artwork has concerned me several times over the years, and I generally haven’t received much guidance on the subject.

When I was growing up, there seemed to be a general attitude (even among my teachers) that the goal of producing artwork was to create a “pretty picture to hang on a wall”, so the “correct” size was simply that at which you wanted to be able to view the picture.

As I described in an earlier post, it was only when I arrived at Imperial College, and became the Publicity Officer of the H G Wells Society there, that I was faced with the requirement to produce artwork that was intended for reproduction. Thus, my original artwork didn’t automatically need to be the same size as the reproduced version.

Avoid Magnification

My initial drawings and paintings were created rather casually on a standard A4 pad, and it was only when I needed to reproduce those as posters that it dawned on me that the posters would be A3 size, i.e., double the size at which I’d created the artwork. In the case where I’d produced a black-and-white line drawing, as below, the result didn’t look too terrible, but some of the others looked quite bad when enlarged!

Comic Strip Artwork, 1981

Comic Strip Artwork, 1981

I learned a harsh lesson from that experience, and, since then, I’ve always endeavored to create my original artwork at a scale larger than 1:1, relative to the final displayed size.

Comic Strip Techniques

I did learn later that much artwork for magazine or newspaper reproduction, such as comic strips, is normally created at twice the size of the intended final reproduction. That was one of those “commercial techniques” that nobody bothered to teach me during my artistic training!

Vector Artwork & Infinite Scaling

In a post on my professional blog, The Two Types of Computer Graphics, I explained the fundamental difference between bitmap and vector representations in computer-based artwork. (Some seem to believe that such artwork is “computer-generated”, but that isn’t the case. Although the computer provides the hardware and software to record the image, it still requires a human artist to perform the actual drawing or painting.)

Whereas bitmap graphics are created on a matrix of pixels, and thus have fixed dimensions, vector artwork consists of shapes entirely described by mathematical functions, which have no predetermined dimensions. Thus, in principle at least, vector artwork can be rendered at any size with no loss of resolution. I featured an example of vector artwork in another recent post, and it’s shown again below. The forms consist entirely of geometric shapes, which the computer can render at any size, so there’s no loss of resolution (although lack of artist-provided detail becomes obvious as the image is magnified).

Egret Shock Wave, 2018

Egret Shock Wave, 2018

Size is Proportional to Time

Returning to the large life study shown at the top of this post, as I became more practiced at such drawings, I tended to make them larger, because that allowed me more control in areas where I wanted to include precise details (such as the face, as shown below in another similarly-sized drawing).

Life Study Detail, 2003

Life Study Detail, 2003

The price to be paid for choosing to produce larger drawings, of course, was that it took me far longer to shade the entire drawing satisfactorily! For that reason, I never actually produced many such drawings.

The advent of computer-based artwork, and the fact that we often now view artwork of all kinds on computer screens, requires artists to think more carefully about the “correct size” for their work; it’s no longer just a question of what will “look good” hanging on a wall!

Life Study, 2003

Life Study, 2003

London’s Post Office Tower: My First & Only Visit

Cover of my School Study, 1971

Cover of my School Study, 1971

At the age of eleven, I produced the illustration above for the cover of a “London Study” that we were required to write and illustrate at school. The study was created in connection with our school visit to the capital city, which had taken place in May 1971, just before I drew the cover.

As you may expect (given my interests), my cover drawing emphasized modes of transport. Additionally, I chose as the centerpiece a striking modern building to which we had paid a surprise visit during the trip, and which had substantially impressed me. Little did I know at that time that it would probably be my only opportunity ever to visit that iconic building.

The building in my drawing was the recently-built Post Office Tower (now known as the BT Tower). Even before that first visit to London, I was well aware of the existence of that structure, which was feted as a prime example of Britain’s dedication to the anticipated “White Heat of Technology”. In addition to its role as an elevated mount for microwave antennas, the Tower offered public viewing galleries providing spectacular views over Central London. There was also the famous revolving restaurant, leased to Butlin’s, the famous operator of down-market holiday camps.

The Tower and its restaurant began to feature prominently in the pop culture of the time. An early “starring” role was in the comedy movie Smashing Time, where, during a party in the revolving restaurant, the rotation mechanism supposedly goes out of control, resulting in a power blackout all over London.

In the more mundane reality of 1971, our school class arrived in London and settled into a rather seedy hotel in Russell Square. One evening, our teacher surprised us by announcing an addition to our itinerary. We would be visiting the public viewing galleries of the Post Office Tower, to watch the sun go down over London, and the lights come on! Needless to say, we were thrilled, even though we had no inkling that that would be our only-ever chance to do that.

There were actually several public viewing gallery floors, some of which featured glazing, while others were exposed to the elements, except for metal safety grilles. Fortunately, the weather during the evening that we visited was not exceptionally windy!

Concretopia

I’m currently reading the book Concretopia, by John Grindrod, which provides a fascinating history of Britain’s postwar architectural projects, both public and private.

Cover of Concretopia Book

One chapter of the book is dedicated to what was originally called the Museum Radio Tower (referring to the nearby British Museum). It provides detailed descriptions of the decisions that led to the construction of the tower, and reveals that at least one floor is still filled with the original 1960s-era communications technology.

Due to subsequent changes both in communications technology and British government policies regarding state involvement in such industries, much of the original function for which the Tower was built has now been rendered obsolete or moved elsewhere, leaving the building as something of a huge museum piece (ironically, in view of its original name).

The Once-and-Only Visit

In October 1971, a few months after my school class visit, a bomb exploded in the roof of the men’s toilets at the Top of the Tower Restaurant. Initially it was assumed that the IRA was responsible, but in fact the attack was accomplished by an anarchist group.

Fortunately, nobody was hurt in the incident, but it drew attention to the security vulnerabilities created by allowing public access to the Tower. The result was that the public viewing galleries were immediately closed down, never to be reopened, and Butlins’ Top of the Tower restaurant was informed that its lease would not be renewed after that expired in 1980.

Nonetheless, the Tower continued to appear in the media as an instantly recognizable icon. At around the same time, it was supposedly attacked by a particularly unlikely monster—Kitten Kong [link plays video]—in the British TV comedy series The Goodies.

My younger brother took the same school trip to London two years after me, but it was already too late; the Tower’s public viewing galleries were closed, so he never got to see the London twilight from that unique vantage point.

The Unexpected Technologist

On that first visit to London in 1971, I had no notion that I personally would ever be a participant in the kind of exciting technological innovation signified by the Tower. In my family’s view, such advances were just something that “people like us” observed and marveled at, from a remote state of consumer ignorance.

I never anticipated, therefore, that I would return to London as an adult only ten years later, to begin my Electronics degree studies at Imperial College, University of London. I had to visit the University’s administration buildings in Bloomsbury to obtain my ID and other information, and there was that familiar building again, still looming over the area. (The University Senate House is also famous for its architectural style, but I’ll discuss that in a future post!)

My 1982 photo below, taken during my undergraduate days, offers an ancient-and-modern architectural contrast, showing the top of the Tower from a point near the Church of Christ the King, Bloomsbury.

Post Office Tower & Bloomsbury, 1982

Post Office Tower & Bloomsbury, 1982

The Museum Tower

The photo below shows the Tower again, during a visit in 2010, now with its “BT” logo prominently on display. Externally, the tower looks little different from its appearance as built, and, given that it’s now a “listed building”, that is unlikely to change much in future.

BT Tower, 2010

BT Tower, 2010

For me, the Post Office Tower stands as a memorial to the optimistic aspirations of Britain’s forays into the “White Heat of Technology”. It seems that, unfortunately, the country’s “Natural Luddites” (which C P Snow claimed were dominant in the social and political elite) won the day after all.

Cover of my School Study, 1971

Cover of my School Study, 1971

The Egrets of Ninth Street

Egret Shock Wave, 2018

Egret Shock Wave, 2018

I just completed the drawing above, as an impressionistic depiction of Egrets in flight.

In the thirty-plus years that I’ve lived in California, I’ve become accustomed to seeing brilliant white egrets flying gracefully overhead, or else wading in pools and on moist ground. Before emigrating from England, I’d never seen any species of egret in the wild. Now, egrets are increasingly common in Britain, but when I was young, they were such rare visitors as to be included only in the “Rarest on Record” appendix of the Reader’s Digest Book of British Birds (which was our family’s major reference on the topic).

Shortly after my wife and I moved to Santa Rosa in 2005, we discovered a remarkable natural event that occurs annually in a built-up part of the city. Every year at around this time, significant numbers of wading birds start building nests in a few pine and eucalyptus trees in the center median of West Ninth Street, Santa Rosa. There are several species nesting in close proximity in this heronry: Great Egrets and Snowy Egrets, plus Black-crowned Night Herons. Although they don’t nest there, Green Herons and Great Blue Herons can also be seen in the vicinity. None of these species are rare in California, but it’s their proximity to human habitation in such large numbers that is unusual in this case.

My short video below shows both Great Egrets and Snowy Egrets in the treetops at West Ninth Street, then gives a brief general impression of the scene. The trees are surrounded by houses and apartments, and cars cruise by on either side of the street.

 

Volunteers from the Madrone Audubon Society have assumed responsibility for looking after the heronry. Every year they fence off a portion of the road and put down straw beneath the trees, to protect any baby birds that may fall from the nests.

As you can hear in the video, the birds are quite noisy, and can also create quite a smell on hot days, so I imagine that the local residents are less than enthusiastic about their presence!

Nonetheless, it’s an impressive and fascinating sight for visitors. The photo below is a closeup of a nesting Great Egret, which I took during our visit in 2007.

Great Egret in the Treetops

Great Egret in the Treetops

Egrets in the Park

As I mentioned above, I often see flocks of egrets flying in formation over our house, but they usually don’t land anywhere that’s visible to us. Occasionally, however, a flock decides to feed in the park in front of our house, as shown below in a through-the-window photo, taken one foggy morning in 2016.

Egrets Feeding in our Local Park

Egrets Feeding in our Local Park

Herons At Large

In a previous blog post, I featured a photo of a Black-crowned Night Heron that appeared unexpectedly by the swimming pool of the Z Hotel in Oakland while we were staying there.

My photo below shows a Great Blue Heron wading in the Napa River a few years ago, alongside a gull.

Great Blue Heron, Napa River

Great Blue Heron, Napa River

Technical Note

Incidentally, I’m already aware that the egrets in my drawing display features from several different species. I chose features for their artistic impact, rather than for technical accuracy.