Category Archives: artists and books

The impermanence of color: the treachery of entropy

Color seems like an easy, marvelous thing when you get that 64 color box of Crayolas as a kid. 64 sticks of pure color. But, of course, color is complicated. It can be impermanent, difficult to obtain, and toxic. To understand the life and chemistry of colors is to peek under the hood. It’s not what catches your eye, but it’s the heart of the drama.

Many paintings are known to be fading; it’s the newer paintings that draw the most concern. To some extent, the older paintings had probably already faded, but the older paintings also used old tried-and-true methods. The works of Jan van Eyck (1390-1441) are considered to be about as colorful today as when they were painted. Van Gogh’s daisies are fading. Renoir’s red has been digitally re-envisioned to show its pre-faded look.

The 1800s were a boom time of chemistry and industrialization, and the art world participated in this expansion too. 12 elements, including sodium and potassium, were discovered between 1800 and 1810. As Chemistry exploded, and new colors exploded. Mauve, the first synthetic dye, was produced in 1856 from coal tar. Renaissance painters (or their apprentices) prepared their own dyes and pigments (think of those scenes from “The Girl with the Pearl Earring” where Scarlett Johansson is grinding various things); 19th century painters bought paint from chemists. Like the disintegrating trade paperbacks of the early 1900s, when industrialization took over an old process, it was faster and cheaper, but took a while to match other characteristics. Books from the early 1800s are often far more intact than the wood-pulp books that followed them.

Artists like Van Gogh knew the strengths and limitations of their new tools. Van Gogh wrote to his brother, noting that the Impressionist paints “fade like flowers,” so he used the brightest colors he could, doing what he could to counteract impermanence. Even now, not all paints are equally durable; here’s a table for watercolors including such measures.

Today, scientists are studying the precise chemistry that causes fading using X-rays. So far, nothing can be done to stop or reverse the fading; they can only be kept away from light. At least we have the tools to imagine their former glory.

Further reading: Victoria Finlay’s Color is a great read on the chemistry of color without diving too deep technically. I reviewed it on this blog a couple of years ago. This article about the history of oil colors is also really fascinating. And finally, if you’re a chemistry buff, the scientific article about Van Gogh’s fading yellow is open source, and available to the public here.



Painting with dark: books of night-themed art to inspire the high ISO photographer

Photography means “painting with light.” But how much light? Today, cameras are more light sensitive than ever, with ISOs up to 400,000 or even 4,000,000. Some have described cameras that can take video by the light of a candle as “painting with dark.” After discussing these advancements at a photo event yesterday, I found myself thinking about how that affects an image. If light is the exception rather than the rule, what kind of images could I create?

So I visited my bookshelf! And I found two art books themed around darkness and nighttime. In a future post, I’ll have to see how these inspiring books guided me. After all, it’s a great time of year to find guidance in darkness.

The Night Life of Trees by Bhajju Shyam, Durga Bai, and Ram Singh Urveti

This book is from Tara Books, a company that does beautiful and imaginative books. I also recommend Waterlife by Rambharos Jha, which I wrote about in a previous post. Both Night Life and Waterlife are silk-screen print books, which gives the colors and ink a life that other printing methods don’t match. Both books also smell amazing. (This sounds weird, but they just do. I don’t know whether it’s the ink, the paper, or both.)

The Night Life of Trees is full of illustrations depicting just that—trees at night and what goes on in them. The images are screen prints on black paper, allowing the book to “paint with darkness” in a way that other books just can’t. Check out the beautiful images below.


The House in the Night
by Susan Marie Swanson

A children’s book with awesome art. Sometimes kids books have the best art because they keep it simple. This book is literally about light at night. I don’t think that needs too much explanation. Just check out the art, which incidentally mimics the woodcut style that I discussed last week.


M.C. Escher: revisiting a familiar name

M.C. Escher and Salvador Dalí are two of the greatest reality-bending artists. So, fittingly, the Salvador Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida recently hosted a special Escher exhibit. I’ve visited the Dalí collection many times, but I’d never seen Escher in person.

I had many Escher calendars as a kid. When I took crystallography, we studied the symmetries in Escher’s tessellations. I’ve always been interested in design and mathematics, and Escher is the purest intersection of the two. I was ecstatic to see the exhibit.

Before the exhibit, I was most familiar with Escher’s lithographs. Without too much elaboration, lithography is a high-fidelity technique which allows the artist to produce an image that is not directed by the mechanics of printing (I’m sure the method does direct some artistic choices, but as a non-expert, that’s my rough take on it).

The exhibit contained many of Escher’s woodcuts, which were new to me. Woodcuts are make by carving a plate of wood, coating the plate with ink, and pressing the plate to a page. The page will be white where the wood has been cut away and the page will be colored where the wood remained. Woodcuts have a distinctive style–they cannot render colors in between white and ink color. Multiple colors can be achieved with additional pressings, but the technique is inherently color-limited.Additionally, the resolution of the print is limited to the fidelity of the wood. These two aspects give woodcuts a distinctive artistic feeling. If you can’t tell, I’m currently a little in love with woodcuts.

Escher died in 1972, but thanks to Disney, his works remain out of the Creative Commons. However, I am allowed to use low-resolution works for discussion purposes. You’ll have to buy books if you want anything with much detail, though. Below are a few of my favorite Escher images that are available through Wikipedia, as I have linked them under the image.

Some of Escher’s early works were illustrations. There was a beautiful cathedral, half underwater. There were evil-looking creatures in forests. It was such a romantic side to an artist most think of as a master of geometry. Below is an example of one of his illustrations. Even though it’s of a conventional subject, the Tower of Babel, the perspective is beautiful. I love the lines; this work just wouldn’t be whole using a method besides woodcut.

Below was Escher’s first impossible reality. And look, it’s a woodcut! Hooray!


Still Life and Street: Escher’s first impossible reality

Below is one of Escher’s more famous images. It is a lithograph printing. See how various tones of gray are possible with this technique, as well as high-fidelity. It lends this images a very different tone than the one above. The lizard design is called a tessellation. Tessellations are plane-filling patterns. They occur in nature and area subject of mathematical study. Escher was inspired by the tiling work at the Alhambra in Spain, another example of tessellation.

Below is another Escher woodcut, done with several plates to achieve multiple colors. Even when Escher wasn’t exploring impossible realities of geometry puzzles, he chose interesting perspectives.

Pittsburgh’s transcendent Cathedral of Learning

There is a gothic skyscraper on the University of Pittsburgh campus called the Cathedral of Learning. It’s a beautiful building that does indeed resemble a vertically stretched cathedral. But inside are 29 nationality rooms that are even more astounding. Each one is themed around a different nationality (or culture, in the case of some like the African Heritage Classroom or the Israel Heritage Classroom). The oldest were dedicated in 1938, and the newest was dedicated in 2012. Each room is a highly detailed presentation of the culture of its country, down to the light switch panels, lights, and chair backs. Most are designed by architects of the country and decorated by artists of the country. And they’re all incredibly beautiful.

I visited the cathedral about a year ago now, but I’m still enthralled by it. I wrote about it then too. But recently I was editing my pictures from my visit, which gave me an excuse to post about it again. Check out the photos below, or the hundred full-res images I posted as creative commons works on Flickr.

The Ukrainian Classroom, dedicated in 1990.

The Ukrainian Classroom, dedicated in 1990.

The Turkish Classroom, dedicated in 2012.

The Turkish Classroom, dedicated in 2012.

The Israel Heritage Classroom, dedicated in 1987.

The Israel Heritage Classroom, dedicated in 1987.

The Greek Classroom, dedicated in 1941.

The Greek Classroom, dedicated in 1941.

The Chinese Classroom, dedicated in 1939.

The Chinese Classroom, dedicated in 1939.

The Swedish Classroom, dedicated in 1938.

The Swedish Classroom, dedicated in 1938.

The Lithuanian Classroom, dedicated in 1940.

The Lithuanian Classroom, dedicated in 1940.

A detail from the Irish Classroom, dedicated in 1957.

A detail from the Irish Classroom, dedicated in 1957.

A detail from the Polish classroom, dedicated in 1940.

The tempura painted ceiling in the Polish classroom, dedicated in 1940. 

The Hungarian Classroom, dedicated in 1939.

The Hungarian Classroom door, dedicated in 1939.

The Czechoslovak Classroom, dedicated in 1939.

The Czechoslovak Classroom, dedicated in 1939.

A detail from the Yugoslav Classroom, dedicated in 1939.

The ceiling in the Yugoslav Classroom, dedicated in 1939.

Book Review: Player of Games (Iain M. Banks 1988)

In this review, I avoid spoilers, but since nothing really happens in this book for about 100 pages, that means some of the things I mention do happen a good percentage into the book.

Rating: 2.5/5 stars

Iain M. Banks Culture series is renowned for its great far future space operas and artificial intelligences. I like space operas and I like artificial intelligences, so I picked Player of Games as one of Iain Banks well-rated books on amazon.

I almost didn’t make it through this book. The main character, Gurgeh, is a professional game player who lives in a wonderful castle on a wonderful world with other people who like games and parties. They live in the Culture, the future civilization of humans (and presumably others) that is mostly controlled by artificial intelligences.

We don’t start the book with the Culture, we start it with Gurgeh. Gurgeh (whose name kept reminding me of Gurgi from The Black Cauldron) is famous across the Culture for the fact he can play basically any game and almost always win. The entire first 75 pages are consumed by Gurgeh’s ennui and partying. I hated these 75 pages.

Then the book picks up. We get to see more of the Culture, and eventually a different civilization called the Azad. The Azad are a barbaric people whose society rotates around a game called Azad. The Culture sends Gurgeh to go play Azad against the Azad.

This isn’t a book for character development or sparkling prose, it’s a book with neat ideas. Azad is neat, the Culture is neat, and the interactions between the two lifestyles was neat. The drones are interesting. I liked the Azad planet Echronedal, which is always on fire.

I really enjoyed the last 200 pages of the book; it was full of fun and interesting things. I want to read more Culture books in the future. But I don’t want to read this one again and I would recommend it only with the caveats above. I didn’t find the posturing and sparring in games that I didn’t know and didn’t mean anything to the protagonist either. But obviously a lot of people loved this book and probably enjoyed the early game play.

The people who recommended Banks to me compared him to Vernor Vinge, whom I love. I can see why people would compare the two, but Player of Games didn’t stack against my favorite Vinge books. We’ll see what I think about future Culture books.

Book Review: Ancillary Justice (Ann Leckie 2013)

Note: in this review, I spoil nothing beyond the first few chapters or back cover blurb.

Rating: 4/5 stars

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie grabbed me quickly, with tight writing and careful and intriguing word choice. The winner of both the 2014 Hugo and the 2014 Nebula Awards, the most prestigious in sci-fi, it clearly had this effect on others. Only on page 3, we get the wonderful phrase “She was probably male”. The novel reminded me a lot of C. J. Cherryh’s Cyteen, with high space opera and sophisticated scheming. The protagonist, Breq, is a semi-human fragment of an artificial intelligence. I found Breq interesting in expression and nature, and she was easy to root for.

You will notice gender in this book. Breq is from the Radch Empire, where gender is not determinable from appearance nor is it important to try, and thus everyone, male or female, is referred to as “she”. Surprisingly, this totally achieved gender anonymity for me. In Ursula LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, all pronouns are male, which left me picturing every character as male even though some of them are physically ungendered. Perhaps because female doesn’t seem like the default pronoun, using “she” didn’t feel the same. We know that Breq is a female human and her companion Seivarden is a male human, but we don’t know the gender of most of the characters.

Unlike Left Hand, Ancillary Justice doesn’t dwell on gender. The Radch convention is what the characters use, unless they are speaking in another language, and that is that. We never find out why the Radch in particular ignore gender in a way that must have been a determined effort at that level. Have their sexual proclivities evolved with their language too? I wondered. In a way, not knowing answers to questions that had inspired such curiosity in me bothered me. But in a way, it was in keeping with the Radch Culture– gender wasn’t important there and it wasn’t important in the book, and it was my hang-up only that kept it there. Why did anyone’s gender matter to the story?

I suppose it’s strange to devote such a chunk of my review to something that the book doesn’t dwell on. But still, in the contexts of our language, it was a major choice on the part of Leckie. It makes my brain itch in such a delightful way.

The novel has several other nifty science fiction ideas. Breq’s current sentience versus her life as an AI is wonderful. Leckie uses music to characterize Breq in a way I really enjoyed. The Radch Empire is also pretty interesting, though it sounds obnoxious. They run around and brutally conquer and are filled with narcissistic oligarchs like Seivarden. The empire is run by several thousand clones of the same person, Anaander, who for some reason I kept on picturing as Edna Mode from The Incredibles, but that weird detail is almost certainly on me as a reader.

I ended up giving the book a 4/5, though I still debate myself over the rating. A book that I read in a day and a half because I was so enthralled, a book that still has me thinking a week later should be a 5/5. But I felt like the book didn’t quite come together for me at the end, like it was all sweetness and no substance. I didn’t ever feel uncomfortable or uncertain as to the outcome. That said, I would read it again, and recommend it to others. Read it yourself and see what you think.

Art and Math: Poemotion (Takahiro Kurashima)

Poemotion and Poemotion 2 books of astonishingly beautiful patterns. They are beautiful because they are so simple and yet I struggle to describe them here. The book comes with a lined overlay, and when the images of the book combine with the overlay, they dance and amaze.

These dancing patterns arise from something called a Moiré pattern, a creature of math and physics. These kinds of patterns naturally arise when two patterns are overlaid.

Moire pattern (wikipedia)


You’ve probably seen Moiré patterns when people wear busy patterns on tv:

We usually associate Moiré patterns with annoying visual artifacts, but science has found several ways to exploit them. Moiré patterns can be used to measure strain in materials. They can also be exploited to take microscope images at high magnification. The little lines on US dollars are designed to create Moiré lines when scanned, as a mechanism for defeating counterfeiters.

Kurashima’s Poemotion (just in black) and Poemotion 2 (in color), contain dozens of Moiré patterns. Every time I look at them, I feel such simple joy. The patterns are so deeply familiar and yet I had never consciously noticed them before. These books made me look at the world differently.

DSC00928 DSC00933 DSC00935

Book Review: Color (Victoria Finlay 2002)

Rating: 3.5/5

Color by Victoria Finlay is about the history of various pigments and dyes. We learn about where and when colors arose and their influence on culture. This parts of the book devoted to color were totally and utterly fascinating, almost rapturous.

So why 3.5 stars? This book had two faces– one about the colors (which I loved), and another about the author’s travels to find these colors (which I didn’t love). I enjoyed this book, and would recommend it to others. But I have little interest in reading more work by Finlay. The history of color is in itself compelling, at times in spite of Finlay.

The details of Finlay’s travels really don’t inform the main interest, the colors; they seem more to congratulate her for traveling so well. The travel descriptions are not brief, and are at times she romanticizes them to a nauseating degree. In Taliban Afghanistan, she remarks that burkas (the type where even the eyes are covered by lace) seem to increase flirting. Well, isn’t that just quaint and lovely, then? A large portion of the chapter about blacks involves Finlay “imagining” what a woman from a Greek myth might have done with various black pigments. It was useless and nonsensical, solely there to add artsiness without substance. In the chapter on orange, she travels to the city where Stradivarius and others made fine violins, and asks the natives how they managed to be such a center for fine instruments. “I don’t know,” replied the clerk at the tourist desk, people in the street, and I asked myself why they ought to know, and why their uncertainty was worthy of including in the book.

These bits I mention so annoy me because the subject is excellent, and otherwise the writing is good. I learned a whole new appreciation for my paintbox and the paintings at the art museum. Much of the book highlights the difficulty in obtaining permanent and good color. In the search for attractive, permanent colors, people traveled the world, poisoned themselves, invented absurd multistep processes, spied, and died in mines. All of this for color, something that is only there in the frequency of light reflected by these paints, something whose value is really a function of our eyes and brains rather than nature.

Lead white was the main white paint for many years. As you might imagine, it was toxin. But more, it can turn black in the presence of certain chemicals. Cochineal red, used in make-up and cherry coke, is made of crushed bugs. Before this red, brazilwood was a common source of red, the namesake of Brazil. Brazilwood is still considered the best wood for the bows of string instruments, though now it is terribly rare.

Gamboge yellow comes from one specific tree in Cambodia, though it takes a whole year to collect the sap. Brilliant arsenic-based Scheele’s green may have killed Napoleon, leaching from his wallpaper in the humid air of St. Helena. Most of the lapis lazuli, and ultramarine paint, in the world comes from one little valley in Afghanistan.

It takes 17 steps to dye something Turkey Red, and no small amount of espionage went into learning this process. Before this book, I had no appreciation for the difficulties and sophisticated chemistry of dyeing something. Many pharmaceutical companies such as Pfizer started first as dye works. Black was a very hard color to make; in order for the puritans to have their modest black clothes, pirates had to transport trees from halfway around the world.

There were two aspects to this book, a beautiful wonderful one that inspired my curiosity, and a self-indulgent, tedious one that made me roll my eyes. I would have liked there to be more chemistry, but I understand that this doesn’t enhance the joy for most people, and I don’t state this lack as a negative. I learned a lot from this book and learned to see colors in a new light, and in all likelihood, you would too.


March Reading Review

Below is a list of my favorite science fiction short fiction in the last month (you can find my review for last month here). I like to read them and give myself a little time to think about them. If you still remember and like a story weeks later, it was a good story.

Happy reading on this snowy Monday!

February Reading Review

Every day, new, wonderful works of fiction are published, more than most could ever read. Lately, I’ve tried to read a couple of science fiction or fantasy stories each day. It’s a good way to learn about the magazines, and the state of the genre today. It’s also a way to read some great fiction. In this post, and in the ones like it in following months, I’ll list some of my favorites.

Short fiction:

Longer stuff:

  • Beyond the Glass Slipper: Ten Neglected Fairy Tales to Fall in Love with by Kate Wolford (2012): In this book, Kate Wolford, editor of the fairy tale magazine Enchanted Conversation and teacher of fairy tales at Indiana Southbend, presents ten unusual fairy tales. All are historical, but told less commonly. She offers commentary and discussion about each. I bought this on a whim rather than a purpose, but I absolutely loved it. Her discussions pointed out things I hadn’t considered about fairy tales, and gave me a whole new angle on them. I found it both fascinating and very inspiring.
  • Wonderbook by Jeff VanderMeer (2013): I am still working my way through this book, but thus far I am very pleased with it. This is a guide to writing that actually inspires while you read; I find myself jotting down notes about things to try or aspects of old things to revisit. Often, I find myself feeling somewhat self-conscious and discouraged, no matter how kind the tone of a writing book, so I really found it noteworthy. It is packed with quirky or even absurd illustrations, and lots of visually based diagrams. It is also not only by VanderMeer, who has taught at Clarion workshop, but features essays by writers both super famous (Ursula Le Guin and Neil Gaiman, for two) and unfamiliar to me. I have read 3.5 chapters of 7, so I will have to report as to my final reaction, but so far, so good.