Saturday, November 30, 2019

Thanksgiving Stars

Well, Thanksgiving came and went this week without me doing much to celebrate (mostly because it's been a pretty busy week, and next week I'll be attending a mini-conference at Monash University here in Melbourne). I do, however, have some things to be thankful for! I've recently finished two pieces of art, have another nearing completion, and, most exciting of all, some of my art is now in the stairwell of the building I work in at Swinburne!

In order, then: I finished a Christmas present for Christian, another student from Germany who started this year. He's working on another aspect of the larger project my PhD is a part of. My project involves measuring the value of the fine-structure constant, using solar twins, or stars similar to our Sun. His project involves finding more solar twins, at greater distances in the Milky Way, to be used as targets for my work. Anyway, because of that, I decided to paint him a little solar twin of his own. And for fun, I named it “Sonne Doppelgänger” (solar twin in German).

“Sonne Doppelgänger”, 20×20 cm, acrylic with glass beads on canvas.
I'm quite happy with this one, although I managed to get my shadow in the only good picture I have of the finished work. I think my practice with painting stars is paying off—I actually like this sun-like star even better than the one I did for my Main Sequence series of paintings. I used the glass beads on it again, and managed to capture the effect slightly in this photo, but it looks so much better in person. One of the nice things about being a painter is being able to create things that bring me pure joy when I see them. And another nice thing is being able to give them away as personalized presents!

Speaking of presents, I finished another piece intended as a gift for the new director of our department, who'll be starting officially in March but will be here in Melbourne next week, and attending the Christmas party the week after that. As she works on galaxy formation and globular clusters, I figured I'd do a nice painting of a galaxy, but didn't really have a good idea of exactly what until a few weeks ago. Then, I had an amazing idea: paint a picture of a galaxy, then paint several globular clusters on little wooden disks which could be positioned on the canvas with magnets. Repositionable globular clusters! I loved the idea so much I went out and bought a canvas and started painting it the same day. I've been working on the various pieces involved, ordering magnets, and so on, and last night it finally all came together. Behold:

“Galaxy in Motion,” 40×30 cm(?) acrylic on canvas, with acrylic and glass beads on wooden disks and magnets.
I glued magnets to the back of each of the wooden disks (I actually used clear acrylics paint as the glue), and made a matching red wooden cube for each one with an attached magnet to stick on the back to hold the globular clusters in place.

Two globular clusters and associated magnetic handles.
I'm really, really pleased with how this idea came out, and I'd love to more things involving magnets and painting in the future—just need to think of some cool ideas now!

Finally, perhaps the coolest thing to happen this week is that we got permission to hang some of our artwork up in the stairwell in the building I work it at uni. (Funnily enough, it was originally the art building for the university, as shown in the letter designation it still keeps, ‘AR.’) Last week we blocked out where about half the works we had in mind would go, and Tuesday I came in to find someone in the process of hanging them up. This initial batch of 17 pieces only includes my star series from me, but I've got another piece that's nearly finished and Tenuous Transport ready to go up when we get everything together for the second wave.

Anyway, you've seen my star series before, but I just couldn't help taking another picture of them, finally hung the way I'd always envisioned, in a manner reminiscent of the main sequence on the Hertzprung-Russell diagram they were inspired by:


So those are some of the things I'm especially thankful for this Thanksgiving, among others. Hauʻoli Lā Hoʻomaikaʻi, (happy Thanksgiving) everyone! A hui hou!

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Hawaiian Names in Astronomy, or, Fun with Regular Expressions!

I'm currently working on a post for Astrobites about the pronunciation of Hawaiian names due to the fact that there are a few Hawaiian names already used in astronomy and will likely be more in the future, so I figured it would be good for astronomers to be able to pronounce them correctly. I already knew of a few Hawaiian names used in astronomy, but it got me wondering if there were any I didn't know about. For reference, the ones I knew about beforehand were:
  1. Haumea, a likely dwarf planet on the outskirts of the Solar System (and its two moons Hiʻiaka and Nāmaka),
  2. Laniakea, the name of the galaxy supercluster to which our own Milky Way belongs,
  3. and ʻOumuamua, the first known interstellar interloper.
I wondered, while writing, if there were additional Hawaiian names among the named minor bodies in the Solar System (besides Haumea), so I decided to search for them using the power of Python and regular expressions.

Regular expressions, in computing terms, are a sort of meta-language used for matching specific patterns in text. There's no official standard for them, but there are a few informal standard “dialects” which many different languages (including Python) adhere to. At their simplest, a regular expression can be a literal search—for instance, in the sentence:
“The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog,”
I could make a regular expression to match the single, literal word “fox.” You'll be familiar with this if you've ever tried to search for something in a text file. However, the power of regular expressions comes from their ability to search for more abstract combinations of letters (or numerals, or punctuation). For instance, I could also make a more complicated regular expression that matches “any group of three letters, surrounded by whitespace or punctuation, where the middle letter is a vowel and the outer letters are consonants,” which would match fox and dog, but not the.

The specific syntax is fairly complicated, so I won't go into it here. Instead, I'll walk through the conceptual process of how I used regular expressions to find Hawaiian names in the IAU list of named minor Solar System bodies.
  1. I first visited this IAU webpage, which has a conveniently-alphabetized list of all 21,922 named minor bodies, saved the list to a text file, and read its contents using Python.
  2. I then took advantage of the fact that Hawaiian orthography is quite regular (no pun intended). All words in Hawaiian are made of one or more syllables, which are composed of exactly one vowel or diphthong (two vowels), and which may optionally have exactly one consonant at the start. We can be smart about it by only looking for consonants which actually appear in Hawaiian (h, k, l, m, n, p, w, ʻ), and we can also exclude any words which have the same vowel repeated twice in a row, since those don't show up in Hawaiian words. (They do show up in Hawaiian words when the ʻokina isn't written, but I figured any Hawaiian names in the list would be recent enough that the person naming them would have taken care to use the correct letters, so I decided not to worry about potentially missing some this way.)
  3. This returned 288 matches, and is also where I ran out of clever tricks. Unfortunately, there are a lot of names in the list which could be Hawaiian names, but aren't (as far as I know) For instance, the first result, by numerical order on the list, is asteroid 32 Pomona. This could be a perfectly fine Hawaiian name, but it's not; it's the name of a Roman goddess of fruit trees (at least, I know it was named for the Roman goddess, I can't actually say that Pomona doesn't occur as a name in Hawaiian somewhere). At this point I sifted through the remaining names in the list and checked each one on the IAU website, which, conveniently enough, includes an explanation of where most of the names come from or who they're named for.
Anyway, to make a long story short, I found 15 names of definite Hawaiian origin, in addition to Haumea. (I discarded one, 197708 Kalipona, which didn't have an explanation and which I wasn't sure about.) Here they are, in numerical order:
  • 2202 Pele: named after the Hawaiian goddess of volcanoes. Name given in 1972, which is the earliest I could definitively find.
  • 7613 ʻAkikiki: a critically-endangered honeycreeper native to Kauaʻi.
  • 14764 Kīlauea: named for Kīlauea volcano on Hawaiʻi island. (I notice that although the names I found correctly use the ʻokina, they don't seem to use the kahakō that indicate long vowels, so I'll add them as appropriate when I'm aware of them.)
  • 88297 Huikilolani: the name of the Hawaiian Astronomical Society, “Hui Kilolani,” which translates to “club of sky watchers.”
  • 123290 Mānoa: a valley and residential district on Oʻahu. (Where the University of Hawaii at Manoa is located, I presume.)
  • 136108 Haumea, which we've already seen, but it serves as a good consistency check!
  • 171183 Haleakalā: the largest and tallest volcano on Maui, where a number of observatories reside.
  • 284891 Kona: named for the region on the west side of Hawaiʻi.
  • 342431 Hilo: my favorite place to live!
  • 115801 Punahou: a school in Honolulu.
  • 361267 ʻIʻiwi: a species of brilliant scarlet honeycreeper found in Hawaii.
  • 374710 ʻŌʻō: an extinct genus of Hawaiian birds.
  • 378002 ʻAkialoa: an extinct genus of Hawaiian honeycreepers. (Noticing a pattern yet?)
  • 388282 ʻAkepa: a type of crossbill bird endemic to the Hawaiian islands, though likely extinct on all but Hawaiʻi. (ʻAkepa means “agile” in Hawaiian.)
  • 469219 Kamoʻoalewa: an unusual asteroid which is currently the most stable quasi-satellite of Earth; it orbits the Sun with nearly the same orbit, and never gets too far away. One of two asteroids named by the new A Hui He Inoa program, an initiative for helping get more Hawaiian names into astronomy.
  • 514107 Kaʻepaokaʻāwela: an unusual asteroid which orbits in a 1:1 resonance with Jupiter, but in a retrograde orbit. The other asteroid named by A Hui He Inoa.
So there we have it, a list of all the Hawaiian names I can find currently used in astronomy. If you know of any more, I'd be interested to hear of them—it's possible I could've missed some. It's certainly a lot more than I knew of before I started! A hui hou!

Sunday, October 27, 2019

A Slug and a Shell

In news which will be of no surprise to those following my painting progress, I've gone back and reworked a painting of mine due to dissatisfaction with how it turned out. The painting in question is my blue glaucus painting, which I already reworked to add a shadow. Turns out I was never satisfied with the way the shadow looked, as it came out very gray and solid, so I decided to try redoing it with a thin black glaze today. I used some ivory black, which is the only black I have listed as anything less than “opaque” (it's “semi-opaque”). I think it worked out fairly well, you can judge for yourself below:

The old version…

…and the newly-blackened shadow.
This way the shadow looks a lot more distinct from the slug casting it, which is also quite silvery-gray. It'd probably have been good to make the shadow more out-of-focus from the start, but at this point I think I'm happy with it.

And what's the shell mentioned in the title, you may be asking? In computer terms, a shell is (to massively simplify, since I'm not even sure I understand it completely) essentially a program that you can use to send commands to the computer by typing them into a terminal window. These commands are pretty low-level, and are immensely powerful, to the point where you can easily save yourself hundreds or thousands of actions if you know what you're doing.

Shells are comparatively ancient in computer history terms, so there are a few common ones and several less commons variants floating around out there. The generally most common one is called Bash, which came out the year I was born in 1989 and stands for Bourne Again SHell (as it was written to be a free software replacement for the then-popular Bourne shell, which came out a decade earlier). This is by far the most common one encountered, as it comes as the default shell in most Linux distributions and macOS, and it's the one I've got the most experience with.

A few days ago I came across another shell called “xonsh” (pronounced “konsh” in a play on “conch shell;” perhaps the ‘x’ is meant to represent a Greek χ?). It had the intriguing premise of being written in Python, the language I've been using at work for quite a few years now, and being able to execute Python code directly in the shell while still retaining access to familiar Bash routines. In Bash you need to open the Python interpreter directly before being able to type and evaluate Python code, and you lose access to Bash's lower-level functions like being able to change directories or list their contents while doing so (technically Bash simply calls little executable programs for that, but you can't do so directly in the Python interpreter). Xonsh offers an alluring alternative where Python code and lower-level functions can be called and mixed freely, so I installed it on my desktop at home this weekend and intend to give it a try. I actually do run into situations in my PhD where I'd love to be able to execute some Python code at the terminal while using Bash, so it'll be interesting to see if this goes anywhere.

The caveat of any non-Bash shell, of course, is adoption; any other shell is not as popular, and therefore won't have as many resources about it online or people familiar with it to ask. I doubt I'll be ditching Bash anytime soon, but maybe I'll be surprised and find I can really replace it entirely. We'll see! A hui hou!

Sunday, October 20, 2019

A Portrait of Maunakea in Paint

This past week I've finally finished another painting. And one I've been working on for quite a while! In fact, I started work on it all the way back to November 27 of last year, according to a photo I found:


It's not a great picture but it does show just how long this painting's been in production. Here's a better one of the canvas (which is also pretty ‘long’):


Here you can start to see what's going on. After my first painting of Mauna Loa and Maunakea, I had an idea for a rather different perspective of Maunakea: instead of a landscape, a portrait perspective, and one in a more extreme aspect ratio than normal. The idea was to have a vertical slice as if looking from the ocean's surface just off the Kohala coast, to the northeast.

This first attempt at painting the summit took up too much of the surface (although I think I did a pretty good job with the puʻu at the top), so I redid it:


Interestingly, the top third of this painting will survive from this point all the way to end  barely changed. (In fact, I never touched the sky again after initially painting it.) It'll go through some changes, but I ended up undoing most of them again so it still looks remarkably similar to this shot. You can see that I've vaguely sketched out some chalk lines lower down—I was attempting to sketch out a guide for painting, but it didn't work out too well this time around. I really had only a very rough idea what I wanted it to look like when I started.


I did a fair bit of work on the painting in December, which is when the past three photos come from; I added the ocean at the bottom, and some rocky sea cliffs in the middle. A lot of people found the ocean confusing at this stage, and I can't blame them: I wanted a perspective as if from the very surface of the ocean, being able to see above and below the surface simultaneously. It definitely didn't come through very well at this rough blocking-in stage, though. I also took a pretty long break from this painting after this; my family visited in January, and then I got distracted by my star series from February through April. In fact the next photo I have of it comes from May:


I must've done some work in the meantime, since I in this picture I've detailed the surface of the ocean with waves and spray, but also done some work on the forested slopes of Maunakea and reworked the cliffs. It's not very obvious (even in person), but I tried a new texture gel called “blended fibers” in the forest. It doesn't change it much visually, but it feels (tactually) almost like some sort of fabric or textile. I don't think it did much for the painting, but it was an interesting experiment. For the cliffs I used some course pumice gel with ground-up pumice in it, which came out much better; the cliffs have real rocky texture, which is both visible and tactile.

June was again busy getting things ready for the exhibition, so the next three photos come from the end of July:


Here there's a noticeable change—I decided somewhere along the way that I wanted to add some clouds, such as often shroud the shoulders of Maunakea when viewed from below on the windward sides of the island. I also, in a fortuitous moment, though I'd add a sea turtle (a creature with cultural significance in Hawaii) in the ocean. Which I'd also redone in the meantime with a gradient of five colors instead of three, starting with Prussian blue on the bottom, phthalo blue, phthalo turquoise, cobalt turquoise, and finally aqua green light at top (though it's also partially covered by some yellow representing light filtering through the water).

In this picture I'd just created a base for the turtle using flexible modeling paste, an amalgamation of ground-up marble dust in acrylic base, which hardens into a tough, marble-like substance which can be sanded, chiseled, or painted.


I also had an idea to add some snow on the summit; not a full snowfall, but what you see when it's been melting for some time and there are only isolated pockets left. I started with a very subtle expression of it with just a few small patches, but since I'd squeezed out more white paint which I didn't want to waste I ended up adding some more. This really didn't work out so well, but I fixed it later on.


Here I've tried to tweak the snow a bit by filling it in more, I've painted the turtle (which came out really well), and I've finally done something with the ravine in the center. The Kohala coast is full of ravines of various sizes due to all the erosion from all the rainfall, and I wanted to show one snaking its way up the mountain, but it never worked overly-well from this head-on perspective. At least it doesn't stick out as much after this.


Here's the close-up of that turtle which I posted back in August. I've gotten a lot of feedback that people really like what it adds to the picture, so I'm glad I added it!


In this picture, although it's not at all obvious, I've redone the ocean surface a bit. I was finally starting to catch on to things that weren't working in the picture, which I'd always felt suffered from a feeling of flatness. The summit is supposed to be dozens of miles further away than the foreground turtle, yet because of the way I'd applied details throughout the painting there was little sense of what was close and what was far away. I started with the ocean, by muting the details in the spray the further it receded from the viewer, so that the foreground spray remained large and detailed, but it got smaller and less detailed as it receded into the distance.

I also did something similar with the forested slopes of Maunakea, which had always felt quite flat and homogeneous, by adding some detail and lightening up the lower parts to make them seem more alive and close by.


I also painted over the clouds which had been bothering me for a while—they'd always seemed much too heavy, thick, and un-cloud-like. Interestingly, I didn't paint over them very thickly or uniformly, and ended up liking the result, which looked like some lighter patches of forest. They helped break up the monotony of the central third of the painting, which was what I was going for. You can also see my attempts at a white glaze over the summit and upper forest areas; I was trying to make it seem distant, but the glaze just didn't want to cooperate for me and pooled and left brush marks all over the place, so I painted over it later.

Apparently I forgot to take more pictures through September, because I went back and painted some new clouds after this. I also painted over the summit to remove the glaze, and most of the snow while I was at it; I realized that the snow had too much detail for something which was ostensibly in the background of the painting, so I removed all but a few small patches. Finally, I painted over the top of the forested area to remove the glaze from it, and while doing so decided to try out some green pigment I'd ordered from Culture Hustle a few months ago and hadn't gotten around to trying yet. This made a very pleasant light green, and since I'd mixed up a bunch, I started painting it around on the forest. Eventually I realized that it was exactly what I'd needed (some asymmetry and breaking up of the monotone color), and with that I realized that the painting was done. And here's the finished result!

“Portrait of Maunakea,” acrylic on canvas, 16×40 inches.
I call it “Portrait of Maunakea,” since as mentioned I wanted to go with a vertical slice portrait rather than a horizontal landscape. You can't really see it in this photo, but I added some air bubbles coming from the turtle, which I made of individual tiny glass beads. I also used some in the spray in the foreground to make it light and airy.

All in all, I'm quite happy with how it came out, though it was a long process during which I wasn't always sure I'd be able to bring it up to what I was expecting. By surface area I don't think it's the largest painting I've done, but it's still fairly large and striking. (Especially with the more-extreme-than-usual aspect ratio.)
Edit 10/28/19: Turns out this is the second largest painting I've done, by surface area: my first Mauna Loa/Maunakea picture was 80×80 cm, or 992 square inches. My largest star was 60×60 cm, or 558 square inches. This one is 16×40 inches, or 640 square inches, making it the second largest. The aspect ratio definitely makes it harder to estimate mentally!

I think I learned a lot about composition and detail doing this painting. The original composition was, quite frankly, terrible, full of horizontal lines breaking the painting in nearly even thirds, with detail all over in such a way as to obscure what the foreground and background were supposed to be. It's still not perfect, but it's definitely a lot better now. Hopefully I can put this knowledge to use in future paintings.

And what's next on the horizon? Well, I've finally started serious work on another large astronomical painting which I originally painted a black canvas for back in February. I'm thinking of doing a binary black hole, and I've been filming my progress along the way in hopes that I can make a time-lapse video when I'm done. No idea how (or if) that'll work out, or when, but we'll see! I also started some smaller projects to work on on the side. A hui hou!

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. (Edit: having done so, I think it looks closest to ivory black, though it's not a perfect match; this might be because gesso isn't just paint but also includes things to make it provide a good painting background, so even with the same pigment it might come out looking slightly different.)

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!

Edit (29/09/2019): Well, in my usual fashion of picking up paintings again after I originally thought them finished, I've gone back and made some changes to this one. It turns out I made the first pair of cerata too short, so I lengthened them up a bit, though I liked the first version better aesthetically. (The lengths looked fine when I was sketching, but comparing the finished painting to photos I realized they definitely needed to be longer.) I also added a floating shadow, to give the illusion of looking down at a sea slug floating in a shallow pool. If I'd been thinking I'd have sketched in the shadow in the design phase and painted it first, but… Anyway, I think I'm happy with this version.



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!