Sunday, September 22, 2019

Pigment Palaver: Five Types of Black

There's a bit of received wisdom in the painting world that boils down to: “Don't use black paint.” The idea behind it is that black is essentially the lazy painter's shortcut. Instead of using a black pigment, so the advice goes, a painter should mix something very close to black from a mix of a few colors, since if you're painting from life very little of what we see is actually pure black, but rather just a very dark shade of a color (say, for instance, a dark shadow; mostly it's a very dark shade of whatever color the shadow is projected on).

Of course, I encountered this particular piece of received wisdom specifically in the form of advice saying to ignore it. While there's certainly value in trying to mix up your own blacks, you should also feel free to use the full range of pigments available. (I think it may also have originally applied to oil painting, with the point of the advice being that what might not have worked for oils may very well work for acrylics.) And, while artists may not encounter black much in the typical daytime landscape or still life, one place we do regularly encounter it is in the night sky. And since my very first painting was of a nighttime landscape, I picked up some black to paint the background.

In doing so, I discovered that the store sold not one, not two, but three different types of black. I picked one called Mars black essentially at random, on the basis that Mars was associated with iron, and iron oxide caused the colors of both Mars and Maunakea, but my interest was piqued. (Incidentally, Mars black is so-called precisely because of that association with iron, as its color comes from synthetic iron oxide particles.)

Perhaps half a year later, around January of this year, I came across a Kickstarter for what was being billed as the “mattest, blackest paint available to artist.” (Matte is just the opposite of glossy; a glossy black would still reflect a lot of light at certain angles, while a matte black would look much flatter and black from the same angle.) There's a bit of a backstory for this Kickstarter, going back to the invention of Vantablack in around 2014, a specially-grown film of carbon nanotubes that creates a black color that absorbs up to 99.96% of visible light incident on it. (For comparison, a typical black paint may only absorb ~95–97% of visible light.)

This was pretty cool, but then the company who created Vantablack licensed its use in art to a single person. This got some artists pretty upset, considering all the cool possibilities for something that black. One of them, a U.K. artist by the name of Stuart Semple, who'd been making his own pigments and art supplies for years as a side business, decided to make his own black paint that would be available for all artists. (I've mentioned his company, Culture Hustle, before, because that's where I got my glow-in-the-dark “Lit” paint.)

Anyway, Semple came up with a really nice, flat, matte, black paint called simply “Black,” then a few months later came up with an improved version called “Black 2.0.” These sold pretty well apparently, so he went back to the drawing board to come up with an even matter, flatter, blacker version (called, imaginatively enough, “Black 3.0”). This is where the Kickstarter comes in, as it was intended to fund an initial production run. I got interested enough to back it, and ended up with two bottles of Black 3.0 and a bottle of Black 2.0 as a bonus. (Interestingly, from what I can tell this Kickstarter is currently sitting at the ninth-highest funded campaign in the “Art” category.)

Oh, and somewhere along the line I picked up the two remaining black paints from the art store (ivory black and carbon black), so if you're keeping count I now have five different varieties of black paint. Last week I finally got around to comparing them with each other, by painting each of five 4×4 inch canvas panels a different black. Below are two pictures taken from different angles, showing all five pigments with the associated bottle or tube of paint.

From left to right: carbon black, ivory black, Mars black, Black 2.0, and Black 3.0.


Now, the pictures unfortunately don't really do justice to these different paints, but there are some subtle and not-so-subtle difference between them in person. For instance, carbon black, on the far left, is actually pretty glossy and shiny, certainly more so than any of the rest. (Carbon black is made of amorphous carbon—originally soot though it's manufactured now—and is probably one of the earliest pigments humans ever used.) On the far right, Black 3.0 is indeed the darkest, flattest, blackest (and newest!) of the blacks, and the rest fall in slightly different places between the two extremes. (Another interesting difference between them is how they feel: they tend to get rougher from left to right, to the point where I physically dislike the feel past about Mars black in the middle.)

Incidentally, if you're wondering what color black I used for the background of my various space pictures so far, I'm not sure. That's because I used Matisse Black Gesso to prepare the background, which doesn't say what the black pigment (or pigments) used was. I think it might be either Mars black or ivory black based on the general level of glossiness and look, but I haven't directly compared it to my fancy new paint swathes yet.

Anyway, welcome to the exciting wide world of black acrylic paint. I have an idea for that Black 3.0 which I'm excited to get to started on soon (hopefully I finish up my current large project this week so I can get to work on it), and I'll see what uses I can put the rest to in the future. Maybe some painting of black lava rock from Hawaii? We'll see! A hui hou!

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Painting Nudibranchs: Blue Glaucus

I took this past week off to rest and recuperate after the one-two combo of preparing for my Mid-Candidature Review and coming down with the flu in the middle of doing so, and I finally got around to painting again (which I hadn't done for about three weeks due to all that). I also started a new painting yesterday for the first time in a few months now, and then painted for four straight hours today to finish it as I just couldn't put it down once I'd started. I took a few pictures along the way, so you can see how it progressed.

When I first started painting last year, I only had plans for doing primarily inanimate targets: landscapes, astronomical vistas, things of that sort. I didn't feel very qualified to try painting something animal and alive. After painting a few small animals in various paintings which came out quite charmingly, however, about two months ago I began to want to try my hand at a larger animal painting. During this time I accidentally inspired myself as to my choice of target for my first foray into this new artistic territory when I was showing pictures to a friend of my favorite neustonic aeolid nudibranch: the blue glaucus, Glaucus atlanticus (also sometimes known as a sea swallow, or blue dragon). If you don't know what some of those words in the previous sentence mean, I'll explain as I go through the painting process.


I wanted a nice, sandy-looking background for this painting, so I started by making what looks like a piece of modern art. I decided to mix directly on the canvas, so I put some colors (skin tone base, titanium white, primary yellow, and Australian ghost gum [off-white]), gel containing natural sand, and some glazing medium to lower the overall viscosity of the mixture. I then mixed all this together with my painting knife, then smoothed it out (and covered the sides of the canvas) with a brush. I might talk about this in another post, but the joy of tactile manipulation of gels and mediums around the canvas is one of the big draws of painting for me.

Getting back to the painting subject, the blue glaucus is a nudibranch, or as they're more popularly known, a sea slug. Nudibranch means “naked gill,” as these slugs have external gills on their bodies. They're often brilliantly colored, and can be extraordinarily beautiful.

Nudibranchs come in two main divisions, the dorids, which look more-or-less like land slugs with a single feathery plume of gills on their back, and the aeolids, which have lots of soft horn-shaped cerata on their backs or sides. These cerata function as gills, but also as defense systems, as many aeolids feeds on cnidarians like jellyfish and sea anemones. The sea slug eats the stinging cells (or cnidocytes) from their cnidarian  prey without setting them off, and transfers them to specially-prepared pouches (called cnidosacs) in the tips of its cerata where it can use them to defend itself from predators. (This process of stealing cnidocytes is called, logically enough, “kleptocnidy,” a word which I can only guess the correct pronunciation of as I couldn't find it in a dictionary.)


Here's the finished sandy background, and here's where I tried something new: instead of free-hand painting, I sketched a blue glaucus out beforehand so I could correct the reference and get it right before putting paint down. The blue glaucus is unusual for a nudibranch, in that, unlike nearly all of its brethren, which live sensible benthic lives on the ocean floor, it spends its life floating on the surface of the ocean eating jellyfish. The correct term for this behavior, I learned today, is “neustonic” (and not pelagic as I previously thought, which properly means free-swimming creatures).


Here's a shot partway through the panting process, where I'd filled in all the lighter silver and silvery-blue parts. Interestingly, the blue glaucus floats upside-down on its back, so what we see from the top is actually is stomach (and foot, since it's a slug, though it doesn't really use it like other slugs do). It displays reverse countershading coloration, whereby it looks darker on top to be harder to see from above against the ocean, and lighter on the bottom to be harder to see from below. (In fact, its back is a nearly solid silver color.) From this position, floating on its back in the ocean, it lives off of jellyfish-like creatures (among them the Portuguese man o' war, the by-the-wind sailor, and the blue button) and even similarly-neustonic violet sea snails.

“Carefree Blue Dragon (Glaucus atlanticus)”, 30×40 cm, acrylic on canvas.
Anyway, here's the finished painting! Here you can see the blue glaucus in all its glory. While most aeolid nudibranchs have their cerata on their backs, the blue glaucus instead has them in bunches along its sides.

I'm pretty happy with how it turned out, but I'll probably touch this painting up a bit. I wanted to give the impression of viewing a blue glaucus floating in shallow water above a sandy bed, so I may add some minor features to the background (pebbles, small shells, maybe a shadow from the slug, etc.). Also, I think I made the cerata on the first pair of ‘wings’ a bit too short. Based on the pictures I looked at it seems like the span of that first pair of cerata is about as wide as the slug is long, but that seemed too extreme while I was sketching it so I shortened it a little. It looked fine in the drawing stage, but I'm now thinking I might need to go back and extend them out a bit longer. Luckily that shouldn't be too difficult (other than trying to match the colors I used before).

Other than that minor quibble, I'm quite happy with the coloration and general proportions (though looking at it now, the tail might be slightly too long as well). I spent a lot of time looking at pictures and drawing some sketches to try to get an idea of how the proportions worked (such as how the tips of the cerata in a ‘wing’ tend to extend out to the edges of an imaginary ellipse) and I think it shows through in the painting. Oh, I forgot to mention that these things are actually pretty small, only about an inch or two in length, so this is several times larger than life size!

It's definitely been fun to try painting something living, and I'll probably try it again in the future once I get some more inspiration. It also feels good to get back to painting after a forced absence from it. A hui hou!

Saturday, August 31, 2019

A Second Exhibition: Earth, Moon, and Mars Paintings

I've been incredibly busy this past month getting ready for my Mid-Candidature Review, which I passed on Thursday. (This wasn't helped by me coming down with a moderate case of the flu last week.) All of which meant that I didn't really mention here the exhibition I had some paintings in as part of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landings, which was partly because I never even got to visit the gallery and see everything in person. (And yes, this means I'm now a twice-exhibited artist! Maybe I should add that to my résumé…)

Thankfully, my friend James at Swinburne visited and took some pictures for me, so you all get to see them after all. (All these pictures are courtesy of him; you can check out his website here.)

“Main Sequence”
The first one is one you've seen before, my series of stars on the main sequence. Here, though, they're arranged similarly to how they would be located on a Hertzprung-Russel diagram, from which the main sequence was first identified. This is how I'd always envisioned hanging them if I got the chance, so it was pretty cool to see.

“Tenuous Transport.” Individual panels 40×40 cm, or 40x80 cm. Acrylic, embroidery on canvas.
Now, this is an interesting one. It's a four-panel work (or tetraptych), of which I've posted the Moon painting before. The rest are new, however, and they're not all mine! This piece is a collaboration with another Swinburne student, Grace, who embroidered the outline of the Eagle (the Apollo 11 lander) on the second panel from the right. I had originally envisioned this piece as a single new panel, but while discussing it with everyone at one of our art workshops the topic of making it a multi-part collaborative effort came up, and since I already had the Moon painting it was a simple matter to paint a matching Earth painting to go with it. (Plus a few stars on a blank panel.) Grace meanwhile stitched the outline of the Eagle onto another canvas. The stitching and outline gave it a very fragile feeling, which led us to give the piece the name “Tenuous Transport” in recognition of the sheer fragility of the craft which carried the first humans to the Moon, and just how dangerous the journey was. (You definitely can't see it at this scale, but Grace also subtly highlighted some of the edges in the Moon in thread, making it an interesting mixed-media collaborative piece.)

Since it's probably not obvious at this size, the Earth painting is mostly looking at the Pacific Ocean; you can see Australia at the lower left, and the western coasts of North and South America on the right, but it's mostly water and clouds. Also now that I have it back I may go and touch up the shape of the terminator on the Earth a bit, as it doesn't quite match the Moon and it's been bugging me for a while.

“Vallis Marineris Afternoon Overlook.” 8×10 inches, acrylic on canvas.
And finally, here's a little piece I did unrelated to the Moon; instead, it's a view out over the colossal canyon Vallis Marineris on Mars. At least, that's what I intended, it never quite came together with the right perspective in my eyes, but at least the pink sky is really attractive. Much of the red color in this painting comes from iron oxide pigment, which is interesting because A) it's one of the first pigments people ever used for painting, as seen in cave paintings, and B) it's the reason for Mars' red color in the first place: iron oxide is rust. While I wouldn't call this one of my better works, it was still pretty fun to play around with some new colors I haven't really used before.

Anyway, those are some of the paintings I spent most of May, June, and the first half of July working on. Now that I've passed my Mid-Candidature Review I'm taking the next week off, which will hopefully allow me to get a lot of work done on the ones I've been working on since. A hui hou!

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Changing Food Preferences: Celery

I've been home sick the past few days (with what I thought was a bad cold, and in retrospect may have been a comparatively mild flu; I'm almost over it now, however), and, among the other illness-addled thoughts in my brain over that span, I got to thinking about how my views on celery have changed over time.

Well, somewhat: I never liked raw celery as a kid, and I still don't. It has never seemed at all appealing to me, even with something on it. What I've discovered in the past few months, however, is that I really like celery stewed, or fried, or cooked in any way—in fact, I absolutely love it, to the point where I've been buying more and more celery lately and using it in more and more dishes. It's hard to say if I've always felt like this and just didn't know it (it's possible I just didn't recognize cooked celery in dishes as a kid), or if it's an actual change from growing up.

Whatever the case, I've started making more meals at home and bringing lunch in over the past two months, as I think I've finally gotten a bit sick of eating out so often during the week. This, of course, has led to lots of opportunities to experiment with celery, so I'm pretty happy with it. Who knows what other foods remain out there that I might like now? Exciting possibilities! A hui hou!

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

A Frozen Wave, in Paint

I don't remember if I've mentioned it here before, but several months ago I decided to try an experiment with paint. After being inspired by the three-dimensional texture available with acrylic, I decided to experiment with taking it to the next level and creating an actual sculpture out of paint. I had ocean waves on the brain, so I thought I'd try to make one out of successive applications of thick, heavy-body gloss gel (mixed with a tiny smidgen of phthalo turquoise to provide some translucent color). Due to the thickness of the paint I had to wait several days between successive applications of paint (so it took quite a while to build up), but as of a few weeks ago I think I'm satisfied with it.

Unfortunately, I seem to have created a shape that just doesn't make for a good photo from any angle. It's roughly the shape of a cresting ocean wave, but I couldn't seem to find an angle that actually showed it off well while taking pictures. So instead you get three photos from different angles to hopefully give you some idea of how it looks.

Here it is from the front…

…and here it is from the back…

…here it is from the side…



…and here is…a preview of my upcoming painting! (And a fairly small part of it, too!) I'm quite fond of how this turtle came out, so I wanted to show it off a little early. I think the rest of the painting is nearly done; just some last few details and fixes I've been wanting to do for a while. I might add a shark, as well, but we'll see how I feel about it when the time comes. Hopefully I'll be able to show it off before too much longer. A hui hou!

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Pigment Palaver: Prussian Blue

Boy, July has just flown by, hasn't it? I realize it's been pretty quiet on the blog front this month, mostly because I've been busy finally getting some results from my research after almost a year spent tracking down and compensating for various systematic errors, and I'm usually left too tired to feel much like writing. I've also been in a bit of a rush up to a fortnight ago getting some artworks done for an Apollo 11 50th-anniversary exhibition. (A topic for another time!)

Two weeks ago, however, we finally got all the paintings and other artwork finished, packed up, and off to the gallery, so I've been getting inspired and feeling like painting again. I've gone back and worked some more on a painting I started back in December, and due to painting the ocean in five different shades of blue today I wanted to talk about one specific color I used: Prussian blue.

Prussian Blue



This dark, intense blue, also sometimes known as Berlin blue, Paris blue, or Parisian blue, takes it most-widely known name from the state of Prussia, whose capital was Berlin. (For those familiar with European history from the 16th century onward the military exploits of Prussia are practically legendary, but I don't know how familiar it is to the average person nowadays.) It was invented in about 1706 by a paintmaker by the name of Diesbach (possible first names of “Johann Jacob”) and seems to have received its name sometime in the next few years, as it was being marketed as Prussian blue or Berlin blue by 1709.

Prussian blue has the chemical formula FeIII4[FeII(CN)6]3, and despite having a lot of cyanide groups (the CN groups) is completely non-toxic, and in fact is used an antidote to poisoning by certain heavy metals such as thallium. (It's even on the World Health Organization's List of Essential Medicines as a result.) Blueprints take their name from this pigment, and it's interesting as the first of the modern synthetic pigments. Although some synthetic pigments were used in antiquity, such as Egyptian blue, the knowledge of how to make them had been lost to time. European painters who wanted blue were stuck with either a variety of pigments that weren't particularly light-fast over time, or ultramarine blue made from ground-up lapis-lazuli, which was literally more expensive than gold. It's thus hard to overstate just how revolutionary Prussian blue—a light-fast, strong, and affordable pigment—really was at the time.

Of course, being light-fast and cheap are nice, but artists care about the color, and Prussian blue really delivers on that front. It was one of the first few colors of paint I picked up, so in my very first painting (below) pretty much all the blue (in the ice and snow) comes from Prussian blue. It works really well, even mixed with copious amounts of titanium white (as it's actually a very dark blue when pure), and really shows it versatility. In the painting I mentioned in the opening paragraph I'm using it in a completely opposite role, as the deep dark blue of the deep ocean, showing just what a wide range it can play and why it's so useful to an artist.



Prussian blue was the first of the modern synthetic pigments, and its discovery sparked a whole new era for painters, who are blessed nowadays with a range of synthetically-created pigments with colors, intensities, light-fastnesses, and cheap prices that the Old Masters could scarcely have dreamed of. And while plenty of the synthetic pigments created in the years since have faded away into obscurity, Prussian blue is still going strong. I've got a painting in mind to do in which Prussian blue will probably play a large part, as it's almost the perfect shade of blue to match one of my favorite animals—but that'll come in due time; I haven't even started it yet! All in all, if you're looking for a versatile blue pigment with an impressive pedigree and even lifesaving properties, you could do far worse than Prussian blue. A hui hou!

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Paintings and Pie

Friday was Tau Day (where \(\tau=2\pi\)), so for Journal Club that morning I and another guy at Swinburne brought in two (homemade) pies. I can't, to my knowledge, remember baking a pie before, but it turned out to be really easy: I settled on a blueberry pie (which I haven't had in ages), and with a pre-made frozen pie crust the rest of the pie-making was surprisingly simple. It came out tasting amazing, so I'll probably experiment with more pie-making in the future. I've noticed that fruit pies seem to be somewhat rare in Australia compared to the U.S.; they're not unknown, as I came across pre-made frozen apple pie while looking for pie crusts, but they're definitely not a common thing.

Delicious blueberry pie.

On the topic of painting, I recently finished a small landscape painting I started back in February and didn't get back around to working on for a few months. It's going to be…either a highly belated or an extremely early (depending on how you look at it) Christmas gift for my housemate's parents who had me over for Christmas last year.

Dandenong Nighttime Vista, canvas, 10”×8”.
I had some silver paint leftover from another project, and as I'd been planning to do a sort of moonlight-on-the-forest-leaves effect I tried using silver for it. (I also used it for the stars, where I think it works quite well.) I'm not 100% convinced it works—I probably shouldn't have spread it horizontally so much in the background as that makes it look more like moonlight on water—but it does make for an interesting and perhaps unconventional approach. I am pretty happy about the trees in the foreground, as I spent quite a while painting all the vertical lines making them up.

Finally, you may remember my Easter painting from back in April. Although my original intent was to try a looser, more impressionistic style for it—as seen in the sky, the first part I did—it morphed into my more usual meticulous, detailed style along the way. I was never quite happy about the sky, therefore, so although I had intended it to be finished by Easter, I ended up going back and reworking it. It fact, I reworked the sky twice before being satisfied with it, and ended up detailing some of the mid- and foreground more as well. It's still recognizably the same painting, but I'm a lot happier with it in its current state now:

Easter Morning.
I've also been working on some space-related paintings for an exhibit I'll be participating in in honor of the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 next month, but things are all in the final stages of coming together for that, so I'll get some pictures of the works I and others have contributed for that soon. I'm looking forward to seeing it all hung and ready for exhibition! A hui hou!

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Painting Phosphorescent Penguins

Two weeks ago I finished a painting for a fellow student's birthday, and as it was the first time I've made use of phosphorescent paint and it came out pretty well I've been meaning to show it off. The intended recipient really likes penguins, so I decided to paint a frigid Antarctic scene with some penguins in the foreground and the Aurora Australis in the night sky.

Mouse over to see how it looks in the dark! (Antarctic Night, acrylic on canvas, 8”×10”)
I'm quite happy with how the penguins came out, even as small as they are. I was surprised, actually, at how easy it turned out to be to paint them, and I'm now thinking about doing a larger animal painting (and I may even have an idea of what…).

I'm also pretty happy with how the glow-in-the-dark effects came out, though I don't feel the aurorae look particularly great. To be fair, I've never seen an aurora myself, and it was my first attempt at painting them—I was afraid they'd be too faint, so I really laid on both the colored and phosphorescent paint.

Speaking of which, I realize that I've never mentioned my phosphorescent paint here on the blog before. It's called “Lit,” and is from a specialist paint maker in the U.K. that I discovered back in January. It's billed as “the most powerful light emitting pigment on the planet,” and I can certainly believe it. In fact, it's so bright that more than one person has asked me if it's radioactive! (It's not; it's just the product of a careful search for “the most powerful light-emitting pigments and rare earth activators.”)

Here's the glowing dark version again in case you're reading this on something that can't do a mouse-over.
The mix of pigments is such that it both glows brightly immediately, but also easily continues glowing at moderate brightness for an entire night. And unlike the typical glow-in-the-dark materials that's we've all seen, this particular paint is so bright that you can start to see the effect at just slightly dim lighting conditions rather than it needing to be completely dark. (And when it is completely dark, the brilliance is remarkable.)

Interestingly, you can't get this as premixed paint, only as a pigment that must be mixed with a little water and some acrylic base to make paint; even in a sealed container the pigment will react with the acrylic and harden. I've got some ideas for how to use this phosphorescent paint in the future, but it'll probably be a while till any of them materialize. (If you have any ideas for things I could paint, do let me know!). Yet again, I find the possibilities of modern paint to be pretty incredible. A hui hou!

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Lamb, Chopped (Minced, Really)

Last week I went to an interesting fund raiser at church: a company called “Tastepoint” runs taste-testing sessions where they'll pay the organizer for getting enough people to participate. During the sessions everyone gets a number (seven in this case) of different cuts of meat of differing qualities and prepared differently as well. You rate them based on several factors such as flavor, juiciness, and tenderness. I have no idea whom this research (into…consumer preferences, I guess?) benefits, or how, but it's apparently a pretty established thing.

Anyway, for that session they were serving lamb (they also do beef), something I didn't grow up eating much—or at all, really—as an American. Pretty much my only exposure to it comes from eating shwarma in Israel (or kebabs, as they're known elsewhere). I've actually had goat meat more often—it makes pretty good sloppy joes. I rather liked some of the cuts of lamb that I had, so while I was grocery shopping yesterday I decided to try cooking with it for the first time. I did some quick searching for recipes and decided on making some shepherd's pie with lamb mince.

After assembling the ingredients, I started making it for lunch after church this morning, but failed to realize just how much work was involved, so I ended up having it for supper instead. (It basically requires making lamb stew and mashed potatoes separately, then combining them and cooking them further on top of that.) It came out pretty well, though I think I didn't boil enough liquid off while making the lamb-and-vegetables mix, so I had to leave it in the oven a bit longer. I also added some shredded cheese on top which went very, very, brown and crispy from the extra cooking, but all in all I think it came out all right. The sort of “lamb stew” intermediate product was interesting (and smelled delicious) on its own, so I've got some ideas for using lamb in the future. We'll see where it goes, I suppose. A hui hou!

Saturday, May 18, 2019

A Birthday, Collaboration, and the Open Source Process

Yesterday I turned thirty, and this past month I got my first and second “real” pull requests accepted, into the Astroquery module of Astropy.

If you don't understand what I just said, I'm going to need to do some explaining. Let's start with the concept of “open source” mentioned in the title: open source, as used in computing, refers to computer programs where the source code for the program is available somehow for inspection. An open-source program is one where anyone can come along and look at the underlying code, and usually (though it depends on the license) take it, modify it, and use it themselves. Typically it also involves an idea of open collaboration, where anyone can suggest improvements to the code for the benefit of all users.

A “pull request” is one such way to suggest an improvement, using the popular version control software Git (originally written by Linus Torvalds, also the creator of the original Linux kernel). The website GitHub.com hosts vast numbers of Git repositories (the name for a collection of all the source code for a project) and makes it easy to coordinate collaboration from many people around the world. A pull request is a request to the maintainer of a repository to merge (or “pull in”) some changes from another source.

Around a month and a half go ago I started using the Astroquery module of the Astropy project (which is a collection of Python code for use in astronomy). The Astroquery module allows you to query various astronomical databases that don't have official APIs; I use it for searching for information about atomic transitions from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Atomic Spectra Database (ASD). Anyway, I discovered that there was some information being returned that wasn't being parsed into the returned results, so I made a one-line addition to my local copy of the code (after a little experimentation) which made it work. I figured it might be of interest to other people, so I made a pull request to the maintainers of the package, and after going through the review process it got accepted!

This was more of a feature addition than anything, but a week or so later I discovered an actual bug in the handling of certain Unicode characters present in the database. (The dagger character [†] was being written as an HTML multi-character code which broke the fixed-width formatting that was being performed on the query results.) This required a little more detective work to figure out, and some back-and-forth with the package maintainers on what a good fix would look like, but I found a simple, effective fix and submitted a pull request for that as well. This time the process was slightly more involved, as I wrote an automated test to cover the situation and a change log entry for the issue I'd raised regarding the bug, but after another week or so this one got accepted as well.

I've long admired the idea of open source, of people around the world giving of their time and creativity to improve software freely available to everyone, and it's a great feeling to finally be part of it myself. A person's contributions to open source projects can look good on a résumé as well (it shows you can code and work as part of a team), so it has practical benefits as well. I don't know what form future contributions might take, but I'd definitely like to continue contributing in the future as my knowledge and skill allow. A hui hou!