Our Yuletide Cards are On the Way

 

Sonoma Winter Birds

Sonoma Winter Birds

All our Yuletide cards are on the way to their recipients, as of Wednesday.

This year’s cover design is called Sonoma Winter Birds, and features a Cedar Waxwing and an American Robin. I took inspiration for the design from something that’s a common sight in our area at this time of year. Wherever there are trees with berries, we see mixed flocks of waxwings and robins descending to feast on the fruit.

The painting was produced with ink and watercolor. For the robin’s breast, I used Japanese-made vermilion sumi ink, which provides a strong festive highlight for the image (and happens to be just about the correct shade of orange-red!).

Robins for Christmas?

In a previous post, about a year ago, I discussed the popularity of Eurasian Robins in Britain, as a seasonal icon on Christmas cards and other holiday decorations. Apparently, that tradition is limited only to Britain, and doesn’t extend to other European countries.

When I was discussing the design of this year’s card with Mary, she pointed out that, in the more northerly parts of North America, some robins migrate south for Winter, and are thus less likely to be seen in the seasonal landscape. In those areas, some people even look out for the “first robin of Spring”, although the idea that there are no robins around in Winter seems to be a myth, according to this article.

Here, in more southerly climes, our resident robins not only stick around for Winter, but the numbers may actually increase, because of birds migrating from the north. Their behavior also changes, presumably because of variations in the food supply. During the warmer months, robins forage alone, or at least not in organized flocks. It’s only in Winter that they travel together with birds of their own species and other species.

QR Code Link

This year, for the first time, I included on the card a QR code that, when scanned, takes you to a landing page in this blog (https://davidohodgson.com/yuletide-letter-2017/). We’ve always included a printed copy of our letter with the cards we send, and sometimes people ask for a PDF version of that. Now, people can just navigate to the online letter, and print a version for themselves in PDF, or any other format, if they wish.

Of course, to scan the QR code, you need a scanner app for your smartphone (or similar device with a camera). There are many such apps available free, and I’m not recommending any particular one here. However, the app I use in my Android devices is the Kaspersky Labs scanner:

https://usa.kaspersky.com/qr-scanner

A nice feature of the Kaspersky app is that it warns you if a QR code is malicious, which is always a risk, because the web address to which the code points is not human-readable.

Our New Production Plan Succeeded

Following the card production problems that arose last year, Mary and I agreed on a new “division of labor” for the various tasks. I’m pleased to say that the new arrangements seem to have worked very well, with the unplanned result that we’ve been able to send out the cards earlier than ever before.

We also avoided the atmosphere of “last-minute panic” that has sometimes accompanied the task on previous occasions!

Yuletide “Backup” Artwork for 2017

 

Waxwings & Berries

Waxwings & Berries

The picture above is not the artwork for our 2017 Yuletide card, although our cards just arrived back from the printer yesterday, and I’ll be sharing the actual artwork for that as soon as we send out the cards (which I hope will be during this week).

When I began working on a painting for this year’s card, I was painfully aware that the possibilities for messing it up were rife. (In fact, that’s one major advantage of creating artwork digitally instead of via conventional methods; with digital artwork you can always hit Undo!) When working on a conventional painting, it only takes one slip of the brush, or perhaps one drop of spilled coffee, and the whole project is ruined.

Therefore, I decided to create a simpler piece of “backup artwork”, which I could use for the card if some disaster befell the main painting. Thus I created the vaguely “Charley Harper” style design shown above, using Corel Draw.

Fortunately, I didn’t mess up the main watercolor artwork, so I didn’t need to substitute this design. Nonetheless, I realized that I could easily adapt it for use as a decoration for our return address labels, so that’s what I did.

I mentioned on another page that I had decided to stop producing “Asian New Year” designs for the return address labels of our cards, because the time taken to do that detracted from the creation of the card itself. Thus, things worked out well for me this year!

Monochrome Film Photography

 

St. Mary's Church, Castlegate, York, in 1977I took the photo above, showing the church of St. Mary’s, Castlegate, York, during 1977. It was taken with Ilford FP4 film.

At that time, most of my photographs were taken with monochrome 35mm film, which I developed and printed myself. Most of them were taken for record purposes, without any serious attempt to produce high-quality or artistic results. Nonetheless, the photo above turned out to be one of the best, in terms of composition and tonal balance.

Thinking back now on those days, in this age of ubiquitous digital photography, the concerns and challenges of film photography seem like part of an alien world. Everything seemed more complex, and it was also quite an expensive pursuit. There was no instant feedback; you had to wait for a photograph to be developed before you could assess the quality, which led to much waste, increasing the effective cost of the photographs that ended up being usable.

The Accidental Photographer

During the 1960s my father became a keen amateur photographer. He owned several cameras, plus a complete suite of darkroom equipment, including two enlargers. He was a member of the Scarborough Camera Club, and regularly exhibited his work at their shows. He used a variety of film formats, from 35mm monochrome, through to much larger negative formats in color or monochrome. He developed and printed monochrome film images himself, and although he experimented with developing and printing color images, he found that too complex and expensive to be worthwhile.

By the mid-1970s, my father’s health had deteriorated to the point that he no longer took an active interest in photography, so I found myself “inheriting” all his equipment. At the same time, I was developing an interest in local history, and was soon to begin my Advanced-Level Art study of architecture, so I was able to make perfect use of his equipment. Nonetheless, I had to make tradeoffs regarding cost and quality.

Predicting Digital Photography

In 1983, during my final year as an undergraduate electronic engineering student at Imperial College, London, we were required to prepare a group report on a relevant topic. My group chose to write a report on possible future developments in telecommunications.

One of the future technologies that we predicted was the development of digital cameras. Our prediction wasn’t really too much of a stretch, because digital framestores already existed, and low-resolution framestores were already used in computer monitors.

It took some time for digital image technology to eclipse film, but for all practical purposes we have now reached that point. Perhaps surprisingly, given my professional contributions to digital video technology, even when digital cameras first became available, I continued to use 35mm film (albeit sometimes output to Kodak Photo CD format), on the grounds that digital images were not of comparable quality.

Eventually, however, the digital technology caught up, and the image quality now available even from some phone cameras now surpasses that possible with 35mm film. (Using 35mm film involved so many variables that the ideally-achievable quality was almost never achieved in reality.)

Return to Castlegate

Some 22 years later, in 1999, my wife and I stayed in the Stakis Hotel (now the Hilton) in York, which was constructed later on the site of the brick building in the left foreground of the 1977 photo above.

The present-day Google Streetview version of the same York location can be seen here.

“Such a Vision of the Street”

In his beautiful poem Preludes, written more than a century ago, T S Eliot masterfully evoked the dingy ambience of a rainy urban street.

I was also inspired by night-time photographs of urban settings by other photographers, and I realized that my monochrome film was fast enough to be used at night, if the camera was on a tripod.

One rainy evening, I took my father’s heavy wooden tripod with me to the Odeon roundabout in Scarborough, next to the railway station, and set it up to take some experimental shots. Not all of the photos came out well, but some were quite effective.

The photo below shows the entrance to the Odeon Cinema (now the Stephen Joseph Theatre), when passengers had just alighted from a United 101 service bus. The reflection of light from the wet road surface was particularly effective in this shot.

Scarborough Odeon at night, 1977

Scarborough Odeon at night, 1977

You can see that the Odeon was showing the movie The Pink Panther Strikes Again, which, on another night, I did actually go to see at that cinema.

In those photographs, I was trying to capture the atmosphere of that rainy evening, as eloquently described in Eliot’s poem:

The conscience of a blackened street

Impatient to assume the world.

Goodbye to All That

When I went away to university at the end of 1978, I couldn’t take my father’s processing equipment with me. I continued to take photographs for many more years using Kodachrome transparency film, but that transition marked the end of my brief “career” as a film photographer who processed his own images.

You Can Call Me Al(phonse)

H G Wells Society Lecture on Hypnosis, 1982

H G Wells Society Lecture on Hypnosis, 1982

The image above is somewhat adapted from an ink-and-brush poster that I designed for a 1982 lecture on Hypnosis, presented by Imperial College’s H G Wells Society.

Like many artists, I have drawn much inspiration from the work of others. Some have said that no art exists in a cultural vacuum; all art is in some way derived from that of previous works. For this poster, I was strongly inspired by a poster created by the great Czech Art Nouveau illustrator, Alphonse Mucha.

At that time, while trying to generate ideas for the design of the Hypnosis lecture poster, I’d just bought the book Alphonse Mucha: the Graphic Works (cover shown below) from the nearby Victoria & Albert Museum.

Mucha Graphic Works Book Cover

Mucha Graphic Works Book Cover

One work that was reproduced in the book, and which particularly appealed to me, was a poster produced by Mucha for a 1921 exhibition of his own work at the Brooklyn Museum in New York.

I borrowed ideas not only from Mucha, but also from other artists; in fact, the line technique that I used for the hair was inspired by the work of the British illustrator, Robin Jacques.

The Poster

Frankly, my poster design was a bit of a muddle (to put it mildly), because, although it was a striking design that achieved its purpose of attracting attendees to the lecture, I’d completely lost sight of the Art Nouveau style of Mucha’s composition.

For that reason, I decided that I didn’t want to reproduce the original poster here, so the illustration above is an adaptation of my original painting, with some of the most incongruous aspects covered over or redrawn!

My design is monochrome-only, for reasons that I explained in a recent post on my professional blog. The Student Union’s printing equipment was not capable of printing in full color, so, for speed and simplicity, all my poster designs were monochrome.

The Lecture

The lecture on hypnosis that my poster advertised was presented by Martin S Taylor, who soon thereafter went on to become the Editor of the Imperial College Student newspaper, Felix (which traces its ancestry back to the founding of the Science Schools Journal by H G Wells).

I recall Martin’s lecture (and accompanying demonstration) as being utterly fascinating, as indeed were most of the H G Wells Society’s presentations at that time.

Martin’s successor as Felix editor was Pallab Ghosh, whom I’ve already mentioned in a previous post.

Martin was an IC student at the time of the lecture, but apparently he went on to make something of a career of hypnosis, as described on his own web site: http://www.hypnotism.co.uk/

Living by the Sea

 

Ice Cream on Scarborough Beach, September 1963

Ice Cream on Scarborough Beach, September 1963

The photo above shows (from left to right) my mother, me and my brother enjoying ice cream cones on the beach in September 1963.

I generally don’t give much thought to the fact that I’ve spent most of my life living in coastal areas, in homes which, even if some did not have a direct view of the sea, were only a few miles from it.

This wasn’t entirely a deliberate policy on my part, and things just seem to have worked out that way. Nonetheless, I’m very glad that things did work out that way!

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, my parents and my grandparents all came from Leeds, and they used to look forward to annual vacations in Scarborough and other coastal Yorkshire towns. (They usually seemed to choose Yorkshire destinations, although my grandparents did occasionally venture further afield, to such exotic locations as Grange-over-Sands!)

In those days, the air in coastal towns was much cleaner than in inland industrial cities, so there was a clear health benefit to living by the sea. The photo below of Scarborough Harbour, which was also taken by my father in 1963, shows smoke rising from buildings, a nuisance that was much worse in inland locations. The image also includes various other nostalgic features, such as a fleet of fishing boats and a commercial cargo ship in the Harbour!

Scarborough Harbour, September 1963

Scarborough Harbour, September 1963

In 1972, while still living in Scarborough, I bought my first copy of Railway Magazine. Given that the magazine has been published continuously since 1897, there was nothing momentous about that event, except for the cover of that edition, which didn’t mean much to me at the time.

Railway Magazine, September 1972

Railway Magazine, September 1972

As shown, the cover featured the famous locomotive Flying Scotsman, which I recognized, but I was completely oblivious as to the location. I knew that the locomotive was touring the USA, but that was all. In fact, it shows Flying Scotsman at a far-away seaside location, near Fisherman’s Wharf, in San Francisco. How prophetic for me!

(The astonishing subsequent story of how Flying Scotsman’s owner went bankrupt during its US tour, leaving the locomotive impounded at Fort Mason, can be read about here.)

The sea often featured in my childhood paintings, as in the image below, which I produced at school, at the age of 14. It purports to show a British flying boat over New York, although at that time I’d never seen New York except in pictures. (The cheap paint used in the picture has decomposed over the years. Originally, there was a calm moon shining over the sea, but now it seems to be exploding!)

Flying Boat over New York, as imagined when I was 14

Flying Boat over New York, as imagined when I was 14

A Very Significant Sea Change

In November 1987, I arrived for my new job in San Mateo, California, and found myself once again in a seaside location, albeit on the opposite coast of a different continent. I was initially quite confused, because I hadn’t been aware of the existence of San Francisco Bay, so, living on the Peninsula, I wasn’t sure whether I was looking west at the Pacific Ocean, or east at the Bay!

Nonetheless, I soon figured out the local geography, and settled down to live the remainder of my life by the sea! The 1996 photo below shows a view over San Francisco Bay from the kitchen of our house in San Mateo.

San Francisco Bay from San Mateo, 1996

San Francisco Bay from San Mateo, 1996

Monochrome Illustration Techniques

Young H G Wells (Incomplete)

Young H G Wells (Incomplete)

The image above was intended as a portrait of the young H G Wells. I started work on it while I was an undergraduate student, but, unfortunately in retrospect, I never finished it.

Even though the drawing is incomplete, I’ve scanned and posted it now because it is one of the few surviving examples of my artwork that uses a monochrome stippling technique.

Over on my professional blog, I just published a new post—The Age of Monochrome Illustration—reflecting on the significant changes in commercial illustration practices that have taken place during the past quarter century or so. On looking back at the work that inspired me in those days, I was astonished to realize just how much things have changed since then. It was a “given” back then that most illustration work would be printed in monochrome, and it had been that way since the dawn of mass printing.

Looking through my own remaining artwork to find images for the post, I had no difficulty finding examples of artwork that used cross-hatching, but an example of the stippling technique was less readily available.

I can think of only one area of electronic publishing where monochrome artwork may still be preferred, and that is for eBooks that are to be read on eInk devices such as the Kindle Paperwhite. However, that’s not necessarily much of a restriction, because the same publications can, in general, be read on compatible readers with full-color screens. I’m not aware of any cases where eBook artwork was deliberately created in monochrome for that reason.

Kirkham Priory Postscript

My Pencil Drawing of Kirkham Priory, 1974-75

My Pencil Drawing of Kirkham Priory Gatehouse, 1974-75

The image above is a pencil drawing that I executed at school in 1974-75, when I was about fourteen. It shows the gatehouse of Kirkham Priory, which was the topic of my previous post.

The gatehouse of the Priory is probably the most famous and recognizable portion of the remains, and has been drawn, painted and photographed many times over the centuries. My own effort wasn’t entirely original, being heavily based on a lithograph produced by William Richardson in 1848.

As I mentioned in the previous post, Kirkham was and is a major tourist attraction, and the same portion of the ruins even featured in railway posters during the twentieth century.

Edit 7/23/17: I obtained the press photograph below via eBay some time ago. The print is dated October 24th, 1927.  It shows the remains of Kirkham Priory just before the Office of Works began excavations.

Kirkham Priory before Excavation, 1927

Kirkham Priory before Excavation, 1927 (Copyright the Times)

The caption on the back of the photo says:

A view of part of the ruins of Kirkham Abbey, in the valley of the Derwent, Yorkshire, which have recently been handed over to the Office of Works by Sir Edward Allen Brotherton. The Abbey was founded by Walter L’Espee [sic], the founder of another Yorkshire abbey, that of Rievaulx, in the North Riding. The work of preservation, which the Office of Works is carrying out, will probably take two years to complete.