De Formae

Latin: With Regards to the Subject of Beauty

How many beautiful things just evaporate into the wind?

One day on my way home from work, I descended the elevator onto the train platform, listening to music. I forget which song I was listening to, but whatever it was, it definitively clashed with the noise of the station. It was not ordinary station noise—footsteps, chatter, rustling of paper maps and bags. As soon as I placed the sound, I quickly removed my headphones and stuffed them into my bag.

There was a man playing a beautiful, haunting, nostalgic melody on an electric keyboard. He had a sign up next to him, a whiteboard on a stand. “I hope everyone is having a wonderful day!” it said. “Just trying to get my music out. Hopefully my music will be heard. Feel free to let me know what you think!” This was followed by his Venmo information and, below the sign, a red cloth bag. Until my train came I stood and leaned against a pillar, listening to the music. It was the most amazing music I’ve ever heard, and I wanted to record it, but after I had the thought to do so, I hardly had two minutes before my train came and I had to leave for home. I never did let him know what I thought, but I did drop a twenty dollar bill into the cloth bag.

My fiancé is an artist, but not like me. She didn’t “draw”, she did literally everything else. Anything on the border of that word was fair game—typography, topology, graphic design, architectural sketches, blueprints, you name it—but never proper art. At least, not anymore.

For a long while I had the nicest handwriting of anyone I knew (don’t be envious, it’s a thoroughly useless skill to be good at, in fact it winds you up addressing a lot of envelopes), but then I met her and that changed. Whenever she would come to visit, and for a while even after she was living with me, she would leave me little notes. “Good morning, love. Have a nice day today.” “So you know, I’m headed out to buy some groceries, I’ll be back in an hour or so.” “Hey, darling, would you mind putting a can of soda in the freezer for me so it’s nice and cold when I get home?” I used to keep all his notes. Then there got to be too many and I stopped. When we moved, I left them at my parents’ place.

My youngest sister is a writer—among other things—and I used to have frequent conversations with her when I had yet to realize that amateur fiction is something I am neither good at nor particularly enjoy. She has a way of beautifully crafting circular metaphors, where a person does a thing and the thing is blue, and then through the course of the story it shifts colors to gold and then to red but then finally, and usually this comes after the character dies, it shifts back to blue, and it’s wonderful and reflective and sad and I am not doing it justice with this poor artist’s description.

I used to want to write down her eloquent phrasings and plots, but then at one point, I was driving her to an event of some description, and she said something particularly eloquent, something about golden braids. I wanted to write it down but I couldn’t pull over to do so as we were pressed for time, and I asked if she could write it down for me and she said, no. I asked why and she said, maybe it’s better to let some words just become air.

There is so much beauty in this world and much of it is unobserved, or, perhaps worse, unnoticed. I wonder who else who heard that man at the station is still haunted by his music. I wonder who else saw my fiancé’s doodlings and notes and the way he organized our bedroom and thought of Sen no Rikyū’s ideals of simplistic natural beauty. I wonder who else read my sister’s metaphors and plots and was moved by their eloquence. It’s entirely possible that I’ll never know.

But why is it even my first impulse, when I see something beautiful, to capture it? Why is it humanity’s first impulse—for this I presume is the reason people put pretty birds in cages? We desire to possess what is beautiful. My justification involves a desire to experience the beauty more than once and my memory’s inadequacy at satisfying this desire, but it’s just that, isn’t it? A justification. If you have a seemingly different thought process but it still winds you up with the same result, chances are you wrote the bottom line before the arguments above it.

I’ve tried to deliberately give up this impulse to capture beauty, because I’ve noticed the capturing detracts from the observation. If you’ve already seen something a million times but are trying to preserve the memory for a later date when you’re liable to have forgotten many of the details, this is a good time for capturing. But if this is perhaps your only chance to see the beauty, just see it. “I want to look at it” clashes violently with “I want a picture” and leads to a poorer overall experience of the beautiful thing, and it seems to me that a faulty memory fully utilized is still better than that same memory half-assed plus a blurry photograph. If you don’t see it again you have one good memory; if you do, you can take the photo next time.

I think the man at the station knew that. Besides the message, he only had his Venmo information on the sign: nowhere people could find his music to listen to more, no Soundcloud or Youtube username. Perhaps my fiancé knew it too, though it’s possible she’s just dismissive of her talents: in a society built on self-deprecation and humility, and among humans for whom words shape reality, it’s not surprising that many people are chronically undervalued. I know my sister knew it. Recently, I learned. And now, you know too. I hope it is of use to you.

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.

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.

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.

So You Want to Draw

Learning to draw seems to be one of those items that a ton of people never check off their bucket lists. I’ve met a lot of people who say they’d love to learn to draw, but very few who’ve actually done it. It’s not like they tried and failed, they just didn’t try.

What is it about art that makes this the case? There are a lot of people who’ve never tried to program, because they think it’s too hard, or because they subconsciously think of technology as magic, or something, but these people aren’t wandering around telling me they would love to learn to code. On the other hand, there are a lot of people who say they’d love to go to Europe, but they usually have a definite plan to achieve that goal.

But art is this weird middle-ground; why is that? Maybe, it’s because nobody knows where to start. I’ve written already about how nobody really knows how art works, and I think that’s a lot of the reason for this problem. Still, I haven’t given an explanation of how exactly to get started. So that’s what I’ll be doing today.

The physical components to learning to draw are infinitely easier than the mental ones. In terms of physical actions, all drawing involves is picking up a pencil and a piece of paper and putting one against the other. Mentally, it’s not that easy.

The first mental hurdle you have to get over is to stop worrying about how exactly you’ll bridge the gap between stick figures and portraits. The actual answer is incremental improvement based on iterative comparisons between your art and reality, but you’re never going to get around to doing that if you worry about it.

Think about how you go about getting stronger. You go to the gym. You lift whatever weight you can handle and do as many reps as you can. You go home. You come back to the gym. You lift whatever weight you can handle and do as many reps as you can. You go home. You do this every single day for years. Art works the same way.

That’s really all there is to it. Incremental improvement by putting in a small amount of effort every single day. Here, look at the difference in my art over five years.

The next mental hurdle is getting over the assumption that your art needs to be perfect. When a kid starts drawing, they don’t have that problem; they just don’t think about it. When I started drawing, I wasn’t trying to impress anybody, I just wanted to get better for my own personal benefit. But as adults, we’re a lot more self-conscious than that.

A great trick to help you get over that self-consciousness is to think, “well, that didn’t work.” When (not if, when) you mess up a drawing, or you do something with it that you didn’t like, don’t beat yourself up. Here’s a very recent example. Two weeks ago, I did a watercolor painting of the scene from my back porch. There were supposed to be some hills with trees on them and a house. And oh my god, was it awful. I put way too much paint on my brush, and as a result, the colors were blotchy and the textures and depth vanished entirely. It looked like a shitty backdrop for a childrens’ school play.

But I didn’t beat myself up. Actually, when I came home from class that day (I did this painting for an art class which I’m using as a humanities elective for my degree), I grabbed my terrible painting and I systematically went and found every member of my household so I could show it to them. “Want to see my awful painting?” I asked. Everybody said yes, and everybody laughed at it. I laughed too. It was funny. My brother told me the house I had painted looked like a boat. I laughed harder at that. And the next week, I went back to class, I painted the same scene using oil paints instead of watercolors, and it looked much better.


If you can do these two things—draw every day and don’t worry about messing up—I guarantee you will become a good artist. Still, I’ve got a little bit more info for you today. Here are some Art Tips™ that I’ve learned over the years from fellow artists.

#1: Draw what you see, not what you think you see. This one comes from my dad, one of my art role models growing up. He has this astonishing ability to say things that seem completely useless, but are actually incredibly crucial. This phrase is one of those.

Basically, it means “don’t let your brain, which knows how an object is shaped in three dimensional space, mess with your eyes, which are seeing things in only two dimensions at the moment, since seeing things as they are in two dimensions is crucial to drawing on a two-dimensional piece of paper.” You know that the door is a rectangle, whether it’s open or shut, but don’t let that mess with the fact that when it’s open and facing you, it looks like a trapezoid.

To help you actually implement this advice, try to take your pencil and hold it up in front of reality. Trace the outlines of the thing you want to draw and note the movement of your pencil. It may turn out that the thing you thought was flat is actually not, the thing you thought was long is actually short, etc.

#2: Draw, trace, draw again. I don’t know a single artist who can draw everything with no effort. Every artist has things they’re good at and things they suck at. To help you out with things you suck at, try this.

First, find a photograph of the thing you suck at drawing. Look at the photo, then try to draw the thing. When you’re done with that drawing, put it aside. Next, print out the photo and trace it, in as much detail as you want. When you’re done, put it aside. Finally, do the first step again. Now compare the three drawings. The third one is probably way better than the first.

The act of tracing from reality let you figure out where everything is in relation to everything else and gave you a better understanding of the two-dimensional shape of the thing.

The only thing I’d like to note here is that you shouldn’t use this as a crutch if you’re a beginning artist: there are way more things in the real world around you that you can draw than there are photographs on the internet, and if you really want to practice drawing you should learn to draw from life.

#3: Utilize tutorials. One of the best ways to get advice from artists who you can’t talk to personally is to read and watch tutorials. It helps you to incorporate other artists’ drawing styles into your own. The only problem with art tutorials is that some of them suck, and this can really screw up beginner artists.

Here’s an example of a good tutorial (source: Tumblr). Look at how this tutorial is structured. “Backgrounds generally work like this. Here’s some advice about drawing characters with and without backgrounds. Here are some tips about coloring. Here are some examples from my personal portfolio.” Overall, this artist leaves a ton of the actual art up to you, and simply communicates something they think is important and relevant.

Here’s an example of, if not a strictly bad tutorial, a very mediocre one. Do you see the difference? Instead of providing a loose structure and some advice, this tutorial marches you in lock-step through a pre-defined set of steps. The absolute best thing that can happen with a tutorial like this is the artist comes out of it knowing how to draw one single character in one pose with one expression, with no clue how to generalize that knowledge to anything else. But even that doesn’t happen very often: frequently, a beginning artist gets stuck on one or more of these predefined steps (for example, the eyes or hair, both of which are complicated), and comes out with a mediocre drawing that they don’t like, and with no real knowledge gained.

When you begin drawing, try to avoid lock-step tutorials in favor of loose advice-giving tutorials. You’ll learn more, and you’ll be less frustrated.

#4: Don’t worry about developing an art style. You will develop an art style. It is not optional.

This is because each person views the world (not philosophically, but with your actual eyes) differently: we notice different things, perceive colors differently, etc. And since you view the world differently from everyone else, your art will be different from everyone else’s. Nobody else could create your art because nobody else sees the world exactly like you.

I’ve noticed that a lot of beginner artists look at the styles of artists they admire and they worry about how they’re going to develop their own art style. This partially goes back to “don’t worry about how to get there, just put in the reps every day”, but they also don’t realize that they have an art style by virtue of having eyes and a brain.

If you really want to work hard at developing an art style you like, though, try this. Occasionally, imitate the styles of artists you admire. Because you have no choice but to draw in your style, by imitating their style, you’ll be incorporating both styles together.

Alright, that’s it for today! A lot of these tips are things I wish I had known when I started drawing, so I hope they were helpful to you.

You Can Draw (really!)

As you may know from this blog, and as you certainly know if you follow me on Tumblr or DeviantArt, I’m an artist. Whenever I draw in a public place, which I do a lot, there is always someone who comes up to me and says some version of, “wow, you drew that?! I can’t even draw straight lines, I could never do that.” And this irks me just a little bit, even as I say thank you. Not because they assumed that just because I can draw, I can draw straight lines (I can’t). Because they can “do that”. Because art isn’t magic, it’s a skill.

Why do I say people think art is magic? If I asked someone, they probably wouldn’t say they do. People know that art is a skill, or at least a talent or a gift or a blessing or something. But the fact remains that when people see the process of art being done, or see a finished piece, they don’t think of the process at all. People think “ooh pretty” long before, and mostly in lieu of, thinking “how did they do that?” So you get responses like the one I mentioned. So for practical purposes, people do think of art as magic, at least subconsciously.

It can be very easy to think of art as magic. After all, there really isn’t a way for good information-transfer between two human brains other than oil and carbon on dry tree pulp. But the fact remains that art is not in fact magic, and there is in fact some process by which artists learn how to do art. So why do people act like it is?

I posit that it works like this. Humans really like being right, and when we’re wrong, we kind of freak out. This freak-out can be anything from a giggle to a scream, depending on the person and circumstance. Consider, for example, how people react to optical illusions.

The thing that humans are wrong about in terms of art is whether or not it’s real. “Is that a painting, or is there a person looking at me through a hole in the wall?” thinks your caveman brain, which wants the art to be real.

“Obviously it’s not a real person, because real people blink and move and stuff,” says your modern brain, which cares a lot more about truth and logic than your caveman brain.

But your caveman brain, which also thinks that anything with two dots and another shape below the dots counts as a face, is undeterred, and so, subconsciously, you freak out a little.

So then, the first step in understanding how art works is to convince your caveman brain that it’s not magic. The second step is to learn the real process behind art.

How art is done is actually very, very simple. There are two steps. Step one, pick up a pencil and try to draw. Step two, notice the ways in which your drawing does not look like the thing you were trying to draw, and then return to step one. Repeat ad nauseum until you do good art.

“But if that’s all there is to art,” you may want to ask, “where does all this stuff about color theory and vanishing points and other art words come from?” The answer to this is pretty straightforward: artists need names for certain ways of representing the world on paper. Color theory is just a guideline for making colors work together, and you unknowingly use it every day when you pick an outfit. Vanishing points are just a guideline for how to draw distance, since distance is a 3D thing and all we’ve got is 2D paper. This is how it goes for all the art things: they’re simple techniques to get art to look like reality.

Once an artist is very good, there are a few more steps to the drawing process. Think of an idea, map out how to put it on paper, think of colors, decide how to use them, then draw. But don’t be fooled: it’s not actually any harder. The real difference is that here, the analysis happens before the drawing, not after.

So basically: art is actually a very easy thing, made to seem hard because your caveman brain wants to think of art as reality. With this knowledge in tow, you should know one last thing: you can learn to draw too.

There is literally nothing special about me that makes me a better artist. There wasn’t a heck of a lot special about Michelangelo that made him a better artist. It was, in both cases, some small amount of talent and a ton of hard work (Michelangelo’s hard work was exponentially greater than mine), spread over many many years. The simple cycle of self-improvement does its thing and out comes a good artist with good art.

A lot of people don’t learn to draw because art seems complicated or hard, but you already know it’s not. All those years of improvement may seem daunting, but they’re not: do one drawing at a time, whenever you want, and you’ll improve. That’s all there is to it.

To wrap it up, if you want to learn to draw, you can draw. Don’t wait for the art fairy to sprinkle you in pixie dust; it won’t happen. You don’t need magic, or even talent. You need a pencil and an eraser. Just go ahead and start! It is really that easy.