Driving Barefoot

A personal and biased account of the year 2018, written at the end of that year. I have no grand reasons for failing to publish it here until now.

As an American, I legally became a person at the age of eighteen. As a person born in the year 2000, that happened this year. As a result, I figure, this is the first year that counts. It may only make sense to start at the beginning, but I find the middle, while also more nonsensical, to be more fun.

There is a thing that seems strange to me, although there’s no other way that things could be. A human life is so long, and in such detail, but the overwhelming majority of it, people don’t care about. I could fill twenty novels with my experiences so far, but nobody would read it. There are things we do that aren’t interesting to anyone but ourselves. We can’t make our lives growing up into interesting anecdotes unless something weird happened “one day”. But that doesn’t mean that our lives weren’t important to us. It means they aren’t important to anyone but us.

That’s why younger people roll their eyes and sigh when older people reminisce about where they grew up, where they went to school, where they blah blah blah. We haven’t had the occasion to experience the concept of having our daily lives change radically, yet. And we will understand, at some point, when that does happen. Then somebody else is going to be rolling their eyes at us.

But there’s another point. Even supposing I wanted to read about someone’s whole life, end-to-end, it would take my whole life, end-to-end, to do so. It’s not just because we don’t care, though of necessity we don’t: we are incapable of caring. In the most literal sense, I only have time to care about snippets of other peoples’ lives, because it’s the only way that I, too, get to live.

The only person who can care about a life is the person who lived it. It feels like a bit of a gyp, but there it is.

My grandmother broke both her hips this year. The first one in January, when she slipped and fell on ice while walking home from her neighbor’s house, where she was delivering a homemade cake for New Year’s. The second one in June, when in a less stereotypically grandmotherly way, she tripped on a sidewalk crack walking to her car. Both occasions took up several straight weeks of my life after they happened—staying with her overnight in hospitals, sitting through her combination of childlike weeping and emotionally manipulative complaining, staying with her every third day at the rehabilitation center, and all of that.

I wish I could tell you that I did it out of love, or something. And in some twisted way, I suppose I did – I did it out of love for my mother, so I could spare her the burden of having to deal with her mother. My mother is a kind, if occasionally frustrating, fully capable adult. My grandmother is an overgrown baby who needs to be cared for and coddled twenty-four-seven, or else, like a younger sibling who knows it will get you in trouble, she’ll throw a tantrum. Except, instead of getting my mother in trouble, my grandmother gets her into debt. It’s like if you took that troublesome younger sibling and gave them your credit card.

I think grandmothers are more valuable to children, anyways. I recall when I was a child and, in exchange for the simple busywork of trimming her hedges and crushing some bottles and cans to take to the recycling place, my siblings and I got to play badminton in her backyard (without the net, because what’s the fun in a game if you can lose?) and raid her pantry for delicious snacks. We didn’t know that anything was wrong with her spending habits back then; we hardly knew what spending habits were. It’s easy to enjoy going out to dinner every day if you don’t understand that it costs money.

And there’s a lot more a grandmother can offer a child, too. My grandmother had nearly no experience in the real world, having been cared for by her parents till college, then by her husband until he left her, then by her then-fourteen-year-old daughter who faked her age and went on to work for a living on top of putting herself through college. But that kind of thing doesn’t matter to children: you have something to offer a child if you have good food and/or fun games. On the other hand, in order to have something to offer an adult, you need to have some knowledge or experience that they find valuable.

After my grandmother moved into a nursing home, where there are no icy or uneven sidewalks, I was tasked with the job of cleaning out her house so that we could rent it out. I’d like to say I was all sentimental about this, but in fact it was just… weird. You get used to a specific set of circumstances that accompany a place, and whenever you go to that place, you expect those circumstances to happen. And when they don’t, it feels weird.

I drive into my grandmother’s driveway and the lights are on; I walk up to the back door and I shove it open, since it tends to stick. The room is bright and warm, and a covered pan smells of my grandmother’s patented delicious concoction of orange juice and baby carrots. My grandmother is sitting on the heavily padded couch, tapping away at her computer that sits on a plastic tray table. The TV is quietly playing a news channel.

I open the door, for real this time. The lights are off. The room is nearly as freezing as the winter air outside. The living room is bereft of furniture and everything is in disarray. I wander around the vacant house, trying to find the thermostat so I can turn the heat on. Most of the light switches don’t work, so I open a handful of blinds so I can see around. The light in the spare room works.

Laughter spills from the room. My two sisters are piled into a small loveseat, sitting slightly on top of each other. My brother is slowly walking backwards on the treadmill. My grandma is standing beside a closet, asking everyone if they’d like to take home some of the clothes that she doesn’t wear anymore. There is a coat that used to be my grandfather’s that looks like it might fit my brother, so he stops walking backwards and glides to the end of the treadmill, jumping off and walking over to try the coat on.

I blink. The only thing that remains of the scene is the inviting orange light from the overhead lamp. It looks out of place in a frigid room filled with boxes. I turn away and walk back down the hall, still looking for the thermostat. The bedroom not only has no working light switch, it looks like it never did. There is a large empty space where the bed used to sit. I turn away and walk into the bathroom, flipping the light switch on.

In the living room, one of my sisters is sitting at the piano, tinkling out a melody that she’s trying to make sound creepy. My other sister is sitting in the comfy recliner by the couch, the coveted seat that she monopolized the instant we all walked in the door, telling her that she’s playing the notes wrong. My brother is contentedly munching out of grandma’s candy bowl as he waits for the rest of us to get ready. He decided to dress up as a Viking this year, so his entire costume is a heavy Icelandic fur-trimmed robe. I, on the other hand, decided to be a cat, so I needed to head to the bathroom to do my eyeliner whiskers.

The bathroom cabinets are open and empty; I cleaned out all my grandmother’s fancy collector’s perfumes the previous week. The sink is bare, no green toothbrush or little mouthwash cups. There is no silver hair in the bathtub drain.

I found the thermostat as I walked back to the living room. “Replace battery”, it said. I took the batteries out to see what kind they were. Triple-A. I’d have to make sure I brought some when I came back next. I shoved my hands into the pockets of my overcoat and walked over to one of the only remaining pieces of furniture in the living room: one of those old writing desks that folds down and reveals little cubbies inside. Next to it is a matching breakfront, empty of the hundreds of VCR tapes it used to contain. Two weeks ago, I’d boxed those all up and donated them to Goodwill; the employees there informed me that they were going to stop taking them soon, since people rarely bought them.

I opened up the writing desk and brought over the piano bench so I’d have something to sit on while I sorted through the piles and piles of paperwork in the desk. I put on “Bright and Clear” by Sou, since it seemed like it had the right slightly melancholy feel to it. At some point, I took a break and hit a McDonald’s.

After I’d cleaned out the desk and sorted everything out and stuck everything in my car, I was too damn cold to do anything else. I decided to drive home. I’d left my car on while I was packing stuff into it, so it was warm, but my clothes were cold. I tossed off my gloves and opened my coat, turning up the fan. As I drove down the main drag in my grandmother’s old neighborhood, I realized my feet were still cold. I kicked off my boots.

The pedals weren’t cold or wet, they were dry and warm from all the warm air that the heater had been blowing on them. Unbeknownst to my previously-shod feet, the gas pedal was skinnier than the brake, and was rooted to the floor. My first and fifth toes wrapped a little bit around the sides of it. The brake pedal, on the other hand, was a bit higher up, and attached to the roof of the foot-compartment. It was wider and more deeply grooved, and it moved along the curve of a clock pendulum. With shoes on, I’d operated both pedals exactly the same way, but I came to realize that they were very different. It felt very strangely intimate.

Up until that moment, I’d hated that car. It wasn’t my first car, and I didn’t buy it. Legally, it wasn’t even in my name yet. It reeked of cigarette smoke from the two months that some of the roofers that work for my mom had used it, after my grandmother was in the nursing home and couldn’t drive anymore, but before my sister had wrecked my old car and left me car-less. It accelerated like an itchy trigger finger and braked the same way. Nearly every surface was caked in dirt and cigarette ashes and the ones that weren’t were full of pill bottles.

My old car had the most comfortable seats you’d ever sit in. It had the most perfect heat and air conditioning; the hottest setting was just hot enough to be toasty but not so hot that you felt you’d burn your face off, and the coolest setting made me feel like I was in an ice rink, not like I was about to get frostbite. The space right beside the emergency brake lever was a perfect place to put my wallet, since it was wide and flat enough. I kept it meticulously clean for the most part, and so had the guy I’d bought it from, and so the worst stain it had was from an energy drink that had spilled all over the cupholders when I’d had to brake 70 to 20 on a highway after some idiot had pulled out in front of me. All the windows except the front windshield were tinted drug-dealer-style, so that I could confidently do whatever the fuck I wanted in a parking lot and nobody would be able to see. The trunk had a ton of space: I fit a whole gigantic lawnmower in there once. On the whole, I knew that car up and down, front and back, and it knew me.

Then my sister, who I love more than life itself, wrecked it.

This was the sister who I’d called my soulmate more than once, who I drove to South Dakota and back with (that’s four days total of driving, seventeen hours each way) and somehow managed to never get bored with talking to, who I’d talked to about everything and nothing, who had read every single one of my shitty attempts at fiction writing and managed not to laugh except at the jokes, who I have never had a bad argument with, who frequently consoled me after I’ve had bad arguments with other people, who I would gladly follow to the ends of the earth.

This was my first car, the car that I’d bought with every penny of my life savings, that carried my sister and I to South Dakota and back, that carried us on so many other trips, that I drove back and forth to my sales job that I couldn’t have gotten without it, that had heard me reciting every sales pitch, mumbling in every foreign language, asking for every takeout order, conversing with every friend. That I drove to the ends of the earth, and back again.

I did what I had to do.

I consoled my sister. I told her not to beat herself up about it. I told her that the only thing she should take away from this is that she needs to become a safer driver. I didn’t shout and I didn’t scream and I didn’t cry. Not in that moment, anyways, though I certainly did those things afterwards, when she was out of earshot. I spoke in a calm, collected, grown-up voice.

I didn’t do this because I realized some grand moral truth about how people are more important than objects or whatever. Sometimes, objects are people, or at least, they are memories, which is as close to a person as you’re going to get. That car was two years of my life. I’m not getting them back.

No, I did it because I logically decided that the best course of action was going to be the one that made my sister into a better person, and that allowed her to move on from this in a positive way. For the duration of that car ride, for the duration of the next two weeks when I interacted with her, I decided that my grief wasn’t important. I decided that while those two years mattered to me, while I mattered to me, my sister mattered more.

Did I mention I love her more than life itself?

Until that day, as I drove back from working on my grandmother’s old house, I hated that new car. But as I merged onto the highway, felt myself accelerating as I eased the gas pedal down with my toes, I figured, maybe it’s okay. Maybe I don’t mind the uncomfortable seats and the bad smell and the heating that makes me feel like I’m standing in front of an oven.

The light snow that fell outside turned into a miniature blizzard, cutting my visibility in half. Seeing the sea of red light ahead of me, I braked, feeling the grooves of the pedal under the ball of my foot. I put on a piano cover of Toto’s Africa.

Maybe I don’t mind the outlet that doesn’t work and the cigarette ashes that get all over my tubes of lip balm when I put them in the compartments. The past version of me that had that car is gone. The hypothetical future version of me, the version I had always assumed I would become, where I continued to have that car, is gone. But maybe the current version of me, where I have this new car, isn’t so bad.

A Photo Timelapse: Month 3 at Upgrow, Inc.

I cannot believe it has been three whole months out of my six-month apprenticeship at Upgrow. It’s so cliche to say this, but I have honestly learned so much, grown so much, and become (it feels like) a totally different person.

Because, as the adage goes, a picture is worth a thousand words, I’m posting pictures of this ridiculous journey, in honor of this halfway point.

On top of living in an absolutely gorgeous city and taking pictures with my phone that could go on postcards, I have published nearly ten blog posts to clients’ blogs and edited hundreds of web pages to optimize their SEO. I’ve learned more about marketing within three months than years of college classes could teach me. And I live in the universal locus for technology, where everyone is smart in the very specific way that means they will be excellent connections for my career path.

I can only hope my life continues to be awesome going forward – for the next three months of my apprenticeship as well as in the more distant future.

The Last Enemy That Shall Be Destroyed Is Death

His wand rose into the starting position for the Patronus Charm.
Harry thought of the stars, the image that had almost held off the Dementor even without a Patronus. Only this time, Harry added the missing ingredient, he’d never truly seen it but he’d seen the pictures and the video. The Earth, blazing blue and white with reflected sunlight as it hung in space, amid the black void and the brilliant points of light. It belonged there, within that image, because it was what gave everything else its meaning. The Earth was what made the stars significant, made them more than uncontrolled fusion reactions, because it was Earth that would someday colonize the galaxy, and fulfill the promise of the night sky.

Would they still be plagued by Dementors, the children’s children’s
children, the distant descendants of humankind as they strode from star to star? No. Of course not. The Dementors were only little nuisances, paling into nothingness in the light of that promise; not unkillable, not invincible, not even close. You had to put up with little nuisances, if you were one of the lucky and unlucky few to be born on Earth; on Ancient Earth, as it would be remembered someday. That too was part of what it meant to be alive, if you were one of the tiny handful of sentient beings born into the beginning of all things, before intelligent life had come fully into its power. That the much vaster future depended on what you did here, now, in the earliest days of dawn, when there was still so much darkness to be fought, and temporary nuisances like Dementors.

On the wand, Harry’s fingers moved into their starting positions; he
was ready, now, to think the right sort of warm and happy thought. And Harry’s eyes stared directly at that which lay beneath the tattered cloak, looked straight at that which had been named Dementor. The void, the emptiness, the hole in the universe, the absence of color and space, the open drain through which warmth poured out of the world. The fear it exuded stole away all happy thoughts, its closeness drained your power and strength, its kiss would destroy everything that you were.

I know you now, Harry thought as his wand twitched once, twice, thrice and four times, as his fingers slid exactly the right distances, I comprehend your nature, you symbolize Death, through some law of magic you are a shadow that Death casts into the world.
And Death is not something I will ever embrace.
It is only a childish thing, that the human species has not yet outgrown.

– Eliezer Yudkowsky, “Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality“; Chapter 45, “Humanism, Part III”

I already talked about why HPMOR is my favorite book on the planet. (Which is why I tried very hard not to spoil anything terribly important with the above excerpt, while still having it convey the intended meaning. I would love it if you’d read it.) Now, here’s an oil painting inspired by it. The title of this post, and of the painting itself, are inspired by a thematically similar section later in the book.

I had a bit of trouble finding decent reference pictures for ‘earth from space’, funnily enough. It’s difficult to distinguish high-quality photographs from digital art. The references (yes, plural) I ended up settling on were taken from NASA and the ISS. Even so, maybe it doesn’t matter, since I ended up using a pretty impressionistic style anyway.

I’ve actually never drawn space or planets before. I would absolutely not trust myself to be non-detail-focused enough to do this in markers, hence the painting. (Also, since this is my warm happy thought as well as Harry’s, I want to hang this on my wall, and oil paintings are better for that.) It was an interesting experiment to try and loosen up enough to draw something from such a high level, especially when my brain was busy making me think thoughts like “okay just remember that if you move your brush in slightly the wrong way you’ve erased the entire state of Texas”. As you zoom out more and more, you have to suggest more and more stuff with subtle brush techniques, and when the things you’re suggesting are on the order of entire states or countries… it gets moderately stressful.

Still, I think it came out alright. I’m pretty happy with the color of the ocean, and the general texture of the clouds. The space was both the easiest and the most fun part, starting with a black gesso and painting over it with blues and purples. I may touch this up later, but it’s good for now.

As a final note: Unlike the rest of my paintings on this blog, this one is not for sale. I’m happy to make a copy if you’d like one (which includes making modified versions, ex., with the U.S.S. Enterprise in the foreground); for details on making commissions, visit my Commission Me page.

How To Bake Industrially

Got a big baking spree coming up? Be it a Christmas dinner, a local bake sale, or anything else, if you need to do a lot of baking in a short amount of time, this post will tell you how to do it. Even if you have a more moderate amount of baking to do, following these tips will make the entire process that much more effortless, so you can make perfect, delicious cookies every single time.

Here are my baking credentials. First, I worked in a restaurant for three years, and during that time, I baked more pies, cakes, and cookies than most people will probably ever bake in their lives. Furthermore, every year, my family bakes an absolutely absurd number of cookies for Christmas. I’m taking 12+ batches, each of which makes multiple dozen cookies. We give bags of assorted cookies to coaches, teachers, and instructors of all varieties, then have enough left over to feed our household of seven for over a week.

To start you off, here’s your minimally adequate amount of equipment for any industrial baking spree. You can always have more than this, but here’s what you need to get started.

  • Electric mixer
  • Two sets of beaters for it, optionally also a whisk but you can whisk almost anything except meringue by hand without much difficulty
  • Four cookie sheets: at any given time, there should be two in the oven and two out of the oven being prepped with more cookies
  • At least two of each measuring implement (cups, spoons, etc.)
  • Sifter
  • Large bowls, a few of which are microwaveable
  • Other miscellaneous kitchen necessities: plastic and rubber spatulas, wooden spoons, oven mitts, cookie sheets, etc etc.

For any large baking spree, preparation is of the utmost importance. You need to make sure you have enough of all the ingredients, preferably on only one grocery store run. In order to do this preparation efficiently, run through every recipe you’re making (being sure to double, triple, quadruple, etc. the recipe as you’re planning on making it), note down every ingredient in its correct amount, and create a comprehensive tally. Then, take that list and check it against what you have in your house. Making conservative estimates, subtract the amount you have from the amount you need, and note down the delta. Create a shopping list from all those deltas for the ingredients, then shop from that list.

Great! You’ve prepared your ingredients, now prepare yourself.

First, make sure you have the right attire. You’ll want a short-sleeved shirt, a decently sized apron, and close-toed shoes. Here’s why, in order. You don’t want batter on your sleeves and you don’t want sleeves in your batter. Flour always makes a gigantic mess and there’s nothing you can do about that, also, it’s more convenient to have a place to dust off your hands. You will absolutely spill something or other on the floor and you don’t want to have the impulse to wipe off your feet, thus dirtying your hands.

After you’re wearing the right stuff and you’ve washed your hands, consider putting on some kitchen gloves. If you’re making multiple hands-on recipes (that’s any recipe that requires you mould dough with your hands), it’s way easier to change pairs of gloves than to wash your hands thoroughly.

Finally, set out all the ingredients for your first recipe. Organize primarily by the order the ingredients are used in the recipe and by what tools are required to complete that portion of the recipe. For example, all the ingredients which need to be sifted together should sit together next to the sifter itself; all the ingredients which need to be directly mixed together using the electric mixer should sit next to the mixer and the outlet it plugs into, and all the ingredients for the icing should sit off to the side with the piping bags.

I’m not being so anal about all of this for no reason. You’re going to run out of both time and counter space really fast, so it’s important to be hyper-efficient with both while you still have the mental bandwidth.

We’re ready to start baking now! Here are a few tips for preparing your recipe, before it goes in the oven.

When I worked as a prep cook in a restaurant, I had a tiny room—about the size of a home kitchen—to prepare nearly every dish that went through the restaurant. This is what I had. A counter along two walls with a sink and a gigantic electric mixer, a shelf containing dishes and measuring implements, and two 1.5*2.5 foot tables. I got really good at space efficiency. The biggest thing I learned, in addition to what I said earlier about grouping ingredients together, was that no matter how many recipes you have going at the same time, whether it’s one or ten, organization matters. If you’re not using an ingredient, put it away. I don’t care if you’re getting it right back out in an hour for your next set of recipes. Put it away.

Make sure you follow the recipe exactly. If it says to put the eggs in one at a time and mix well after each addition, you had better do that. The recipe isn’t telling you to do it for no reason. Note that I’m not trying to say you can’t experiment yourself and change the recipe—actually, you should absolutely do that, because what works for everyone else might not work for you, and further, the person who made the recipe might have some kind of an agenda (the recipe for chocolate chip cookies that you find on bags of Nestle chocolate chips requires far more chocolate chips than you should justifiably put in, because that’s what they’re trying to sell you). I’m trying to say that your reason for changing the recipe should be something better than “eh, it can’t be that important”. I make the best chocolate chip cookies anyone I know has ever had and the only reason is because I follow the damn recipe.

To conserve measuring implements, measure out dry ingredients before wet ones. Measure baking soda before vanilla extract, flour before milk, etc. As a special rule, if you’re measuring molasses for your recipe (ex. if you’re making ginger snaps), swish a bit of vegetable oil around in the cup measure before you put the molasses in. It will make the molasses stick to the cup measure less.

Here’s my final prep tip: take a sizable swath of counter space and lay out some parchment paper. If you’re like most normal people, you have nowhere near enough counter space for even a few dozen cookies on cookie sheets. Further, you probably don’t have enough available cookie sheets for that. However, if you snug the cookies up next to each other once they’re cool enough to scoop off the cookie sheet, you can fit a ton more in the same amount of space, and you don’t use up your cookie sheets.

While the first batch of cookies are in the oven, prep the next two sheets. I promise, the bake time is long enough for you to be able to do this. I’ve made two sheets of cookies in less than six minutes before. See, nobody cares what the cookies look like so long as they’re tasty, so you can be fast. Your literal only constraint is to make sure all the cookies in the oven at any given time are roughly uniform in size.

When you take a batch out of the oven, cool them on the racks for only a few minutes, then scoop them off and stick em on that parchment paper you laid out earlier. They’ll cool the rest of the way there, and you’ll have the trays freed back up to put more cookies on.

The baking is always the hectic part, since the perpetual cycle of bake-cool-transfer-prepare takes up every available moment. If you’ve done the previous organizational and preparation steps correctly, though, you can minimize the hecticness.

That’s it! My comprehensive list of steps for industrial baking. May your endeavors be successful, and your cookies be sweet. Good luck!

r e l a x

At last, another art post. I was listening to some data analysis lectures to add data science to my repertoire, and since I need something to do with my hands when I listen to audio, I doodled this.

Since motivation unfortunately never comes pre-packaged with inspiration, I needed some of the latter. In my search, I came upon this excellent prompt site. If you so happen to be an advanced artist looking for inspiration, this may be for you. I selected an “elaborate” prompt; these seem to give you not only ideas about subject and/or situation, but also hints about color schemes and/or art style. I’ve never seen something so cool (or useful!) from an art prompt generator before. Anyways, the prompt I was given went something like this: “Reflect the emotion of rolling thunder in the distance. Use a Renaissance art style.”

Well, for the emotion, I’m honestly not sure how I went from “distant rolling thunder” to “rooftop swimming pool at dawn”, but heck, they convey the same emotion to me, anyway.

For the art style, though, I’ve never tried to do anything “Renaissance” before. My standard art style is vaguely Impressionistic but mostly anime, so I was wondering what the hallmarks and techniques of Renaissance painting were. After I figured that out, I’d figure out how on earth I was going to do that using markers.

It seems to me that the end result was vaguely Impressionistic, mostly anime, and with a hint of Renaissance. Some of the hallmarks of Renaissance paintings are strong dark/light contrast and several layers of glazes to create fuzzy outlines around things. I tried pretty hard to use a consistent color scheme but to use contrast as much as possible. The subject is mostly light-colored, with the exception of his hair and eyes, which are dark. A strip of light, washed-out yellow contrasts the warm greys of the surrounding pool deck. The opaque glass in the railing contrasts with the dark rails. Then, those rails contrast with the bottom of the sky (light), which itself contrasts with the top of the sky (dark). Even the water, which might otherwise be uniformly colored, contains shades from pure white to prussian blue. (Note: I used no black in this piece, just very dark greys, blues, and browns. This is in keeping with the style of most classical painting.) Lastly, for the fuzzy outlines, I simply didn’t bother to outline each form in pen (technique for cartooning called “inking”). I allowed the marker colors to bleed lightly into each other.

The end result was a kind of post-modern realism with a charming conflict of light source. Enjoy.

My Dad, Epic Pumpkin Carver

From the title you might think my dad does those kinds of crazy intricate designs in negative space using the relative thickness of the rind. He doesn’t do that. Instead, he gets pumpkins he thinks have “character” and gives them kooky faces.

Here are this year’s pumpkins: the normal one is my brother’s.

I helped scoop all the glop out of all of them, down to the rind. They look more like gourds than pumpkins on the inside, with lots of seeds so tightly clumped together that you have to cut them out with a knife. The white one even has eerily green flesh.

This is the fun part. Most people would probably put a squashed face on the side of the green pumpkin, right? Not my dad. He put the face on the top, using the stem as the nose. Here he is carving:

And here’s the finished product.

The back kept falling off, so I put some toothpicks through it so it’d stay in place. We can just put the candle through one of the eye holes tomorrow.

Now onto the white one! Weird pumpkins are always way harder to carve since their rinds are so much tougher, so we don’t have a ton of pumpkins. This white one in particular was really hard to carve. But we made it eventually:

And this is the way in which my dad is the best pumpkin carver I know. Not because he makes the fanciest designs, but because his pumpkins are all memorable and weird. Our Halloween is never gory or gauche; it’s simple and classy. We don’t put gravestones or severed heads in the yard. We have a figure in a silk gown peeking out through window curtains, we have a dragon skull on the front step, we have a candelabra on the piano and a real metal sword on the wall. There are no obnoxiously large fake spiders waiting to scare trick-or-treaters, only my dad in a long fancy cloak sitting by the door and reading Edgar Allen Poe’s collected works while haunting piano music plays in the background.

That’s his aesthetic, and the pumpkins are meant to fit that.

The Painter On His Way to Paint

For this piece, I copied this Van Gogh painting for the most part. However, I decided that I would add in Van Gogh himself, on his way to paint the piece.

To properly represent both Van Gogh’s painting and likeness, I wanted to do a copy not only in subject matter but in art style and technique. As such, I painted this in oils using a palette knife (like the one on the right in this pic). In total, I only used two tools for this: a palette knife, and the small paintbrush I used to sign it.

I worked back-to-front: I painted the sky first, followed by the distant landscape, then worked forward until I finished with Van Gogh himself. Since things in the back are overlapped by things in the front, I painted the things in the back first and painted the closer things over top of them.

Painting Van Gogh in there was hard, but not for the reasons you might think. I’m very solid at figure drawing, so drawing a human was pretty easy. The problem arose from trying to paint Van Gogh in his own style, when he wasn’t a central part of the piece. He did self-portraits (actually he did tons), but he painted himself as the center of those pieces. Here, I was trying to paint him small, as almost an afterthought.

As such, I tried to copy Van Gogh’s style of drawing figures, with not a lot of success. At first I did him in the style of his self-portraits, but it was too detailed and realistic. I was very happy with this first version artistically, but it didn’t fit so I scrubbed it out. I tried to get some vibrant highlights and shadows in the second version, but that still didn’t quite fit stylistically. Finally, I just blocked in some color and gave it an immensely simple white outline where the light was coming from. That seemed to do it, so that’s the finished version.

This painting is for sale! Get it now for $250 plus shipping. If you’re interested, contact me!

View From the Bicycle Café

Bicycle Café, North Park, PA

For my painting class, I had to go around town and do five “thumbnail sketches” of landscapes. Only one of those sketches would be used to do a landscape painting, which was the next assignment.

This came out of one of the sketches my professor rejected.

Why You Should Mix Your Own Black

Mix your own black what? Mix your own black paint.


You can buy black paint from a store. It will be just about the purest possible black, the exact color of “black as the pit”. But here’s why you shouldn’t do that.

First of all, what black you use is important. You’ll use it as a base for all your darkest colors. Since without dark tones, light ones don’t stand out, what color you use to mix those shadows is going to be one of the most important parts of your painting.

A lot of artists like to talk about the “soul” in a piece of art. That seems confusing, but here’s what it means. Each person sees the world differently, so what you choose to paint (in terms of both the subject you paint and what colors you use to paint it) depends on how you see the world. How exactly you choose to make your black depends on how you see the world, too. So, if you mix your own black, it will fit in better with the rest of your painting. They both have your “soul”.

One of the apparent downsides to mixing your own black is that it will never be consistent. But this is actually an upside in disguise. For example, for this painting, the black I made was tinted purple. However, the black on my palette above (which is for a different painting) is tinted brown. A purple-black suited the former painting more, where a brown-black suits the latter. If I’d used store-bought black, I wouldn’t have gotten to make the decisions which led to blacks suited to their respective paintings: they would all be banal and generic.

Could I have mixed one single color into store-bought black to attain a tint? Yes. But in that case, I as the artist would only have chosen one color; the paint company chose the rest of the colors to make the black for me. For me to have the most control over my own painting, I choose instead to mix my black.

So basically, you should mix your own black because then, it fits with your painting better. You made them both, and not only that, you made the black to suit the painting.

There’s one more reason to mix your own black: you get better greys. When you use store-bought black, your grey turns out as a very lifeless, generic, neutral grey. But the problem is that most greys are not generic neutral: they’re tinted with something. The tablecloth on my dining table is a light grey tinted with yellow. The paper of my Oxford Classical Dictionary is a light grey tinted with orange. The surface of my electric keyboard is a mid grey tinted with blue. If I were painting these things, I would want my greys to reflect all these differences, which is why I would mix my own. Store-bought black will not give you interesting greys.

Now that you know why you should mix black, let me briefly tell you how.

To mix black, just take your darkest colors and mix them in different proportions, depending on what you want your resulting black to look like. When I mixed my purple-black, I took ultramarine blue and crimson in equal parts, then mixed in a bit of dark green and burnt sienna. By contrast, when I mixed my brown-black (above), I replaced the crimson with burnt sienna and vice versa, and added proportionately a lot more of the dark green. Same colors (I only own nine total), but the different proportions produced a different result.

That’s all there is to it! Now, go forth and mix yourself some black.

11pm, First St.

A selection from a recent painting of mine. WordPress wouldn’t let me upload the full photo so I had to crop it 🙁

I met my fiancé at a convention in Baltimore, at one of the last events of the second day. After it was over, we couldn’t find anything else to go to or do, so we walked through the rooftop garden. Eventually we ended up sitting on a concrete bench at the edge of the sidewalk, looking into the cloudy sky. We sat together and talked until it started raining.

This is painted mostly from my memory and partially from the few photos I found of the Baltimore Convention Center rooftop garden (it’s a shame there aren’t more; it’s beautiful). Originally I tried to draw this with markers, but it wasn’t working the way I wanted, so I decided to pull out the oil paints and paint it instead.