An Artist’s Tools

One of my hobbies is drawing. I primarily use pencils and charcoal and have experimented with pastels (with mixed results). Eventually I will branch out into water colors and oils. It is a hobby that gives me a great deal of enjoyment particularly when the results seem to confirm that I actually have some talent.

 Mazey_1  Landscape1

I even like to just simply color and am delighted that a former guilty pleasure of mine has gone main-stream with a recent surge in coloring books for older people (not just kids).

All artists use tools of one sort or another to achieve certain effects with their artwork. Pencils, pens, paints, crayons, markers, brushes, palettes, erasers, blenders are likely the ones most familiar to people. Gridded sketchboards, wooden mannequins, erasing shields, sandpaper, rulers and compasses are all part of an artist’s toolkit along with oils, acrylics, watercolors, pastels, charcoal, graphite and whatever the artist prefers to use as a medium. Color wheels are used to help achieve proper mixing of colors. Innovative artists experiment with unusual media or tools in an attempt to develop new or intriguing works of art.

Artists of previous centuries endlessly experimented trying out different techniques. During the Renaissance, breakthroughs in perspective and how colors are affected by lighting led to an increased realism in paintings and sculptures. At the end of the nineteenth century, many artists began to break away from realism to produce abstract works of art.

Changes in styles of art are always controversial of course. Howls of outrage have frequently followed any departure from the convention of what to depict and how to depict it. Usually though this involves the art itself. The use of tools is rarely singled out for criticism.

An interesting exception to this came to my attention when reading a recent issue of Astronomy Magazine. Now one wouldn’t ordinarily expect to see anything about art and painting in a science periodical devoted to studies of the planets, stars and distant galaxies. But the writer, Jeff Hester, in his article entitled A False Dichotomy was expressing his puzzlement over an issue that had cropped up a number of years ago in the art world.

In 2001, an English artist, David Hockney, devised a theory in which he postulated that a number of Renaissance painters including the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer had used optical devices in order to achieve the photorealistic light and details in their paintings. However when he presented this theory to scholars at the New York University, the reaction to it was comparable to the reaction produced when someone noisily breaks wind in a crowded elevator. The idea that famous painters might have used lenses and mirrors derived from the scientific breakthroughs of the times rather than rely on pure unassisted talent was vigorously condemned rather than intelligently discussed or debated. Mr. Hester wrote that he was profoundly baffled by the attitude that the use of scientific devices in art somehow debased the paintings and that no artist worth his salt would ever stoop to using them. As he wrote:

“The notion of a gulf between science and art would have puzzled Leonardo da Vinci. He and others moved beyond received wisdom – and invented modern science – precisely by applying an artist’s creativity and careful eye to questions of how the world works.”

Mr. Hester himself has good reason to write in this vein. As an astrophysicist he was part of the team that helped restore the flawed Hubble Space telescope and along with Paul Scowen created the iconic Hubble photograph titled The Pillars Of Creation.


He speculates that many people today are put off by the perception of science as something tedious, dry, implacable and anything but artistic. One would think that the Hubble image would flatly contradict that.

Evidently not. The idea of optics being used in painting is still apparently controversial even today. Mr. Hester’s article describes a recent film called “Tim’s Vermeer” where a computer animator Tim Jenison became fascinated by the idea and tried to see if he could indeed create a painting using an optical device to duplicate the type of lighting and realism found in a Vermeer painting. The film was produced by the stage magicians Penn and Teller, chronicling his efforts to accomplish this.

While the film received widespread critical praise, it also attracted the same crowd that howled in protest when the theory was first suggested. Critics such as Jonathan Jones  mercilessly lambasted the film (though Mr. Jones grudgingly admitted it was possible Vermeer might have used optics). Reading the criticism leads me to think that the real issue is not how Vermeer did his painting but the perception that members of the hoi-polloi (in the forms of an obviously untalented inventor and that execrable pair of entertainers, Penn and Teller) would dare (DARE!) to poke their unwanted noses into the sublime august hallways treaded by art critics and historians and offer a demonstration of how Mr. Vermeer might have produced his painting. Mr. Jones seems to have missed that Tim wasn’t trying to create a work of art; he was just trying to duplicate the technique Vermeer might have used.

The use of tools, scientific or otherwise shouldn’t really be a controversy, for heaven’s sake. If it is, then am I in trouble if I use a mathematician’s compass to draw a circle? (Math and art? Eww-icky-poo!) Should I use a coffee can lid instead? If I use a ruler to draw a straight line, will the art police burst out of the woodwork to snatch it away and start smacking my hand? (Bad artist! Bad! Bad!)

Nobody knows for sure if Vermeer actually did use optics, and we probably never will. But if he did, it doesn’t mean he was a humbug, just that he spared no efforts in producing the best work of art that he possibly could. You certainly don’t need to be an art snob to appreciate the results.

Oh, yes, and remember the old adage: Those who can, do; those can’t, criticize.

Northern Pass Update

It didn’t take long for Eversource Energy to ‘revise’ their Northern Pass plan in response to the DOE environmental impact statement. Yesterday they announced plans to bury a 52 mile section passing through the White Mountains National Forest, along state roads from Bethlehem to Bridgewater in addition to an already proposed 8 mile buried section located in the far northern part of New Hampshire. They also scaled back (a little bit) on the wattage from 1200 KW to 1000 KW and will be using new cable technology that can be carried by shorter slimmer towers (about 5 to 10 feet shorter – so, er, I guess that means they will be 9 stories tall instead of 10? … big whoop) and more than 100 steel lattice towers would be changed to allegedly less visible monopoles.

The Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests quickly pointed out that if Eversource said they could bury 52 miles without increasing the cost of the project then there is no reason why they can’t bury the whole thing.

These changes proposed by Eversource are part of the ‘Forward NH Plan’ which combines a smaller Northern Pass Plan project with a series of economic development initiatives to make it more enticing to local towns along the path.

Maybe I’m just being paranoid but personally I am suspicious of ‘generous’ offers like this, as there is often the faint whiff of ‘bait and switch’ wafting about them.

More public hearings will be held this October in various towns along the route, so it will be interesting to see if others share my suspicions.
Stay tuned for further developments.

A submission for the ArchDruid

One of my links is to The ArchDruid Report, a blog run by a genuine
modern day archdruid who posts erudite commentaries on Peak Oil, climate change, political stagnation and other topics. Many blogs discussing these subjects often post hysterical, conspiracy laden screeds that offer nothing substantive about how to address the issues or if they do, the solutions are useless or worse.

Thankfully John Michael Greer’s blog is an antidote to these various unhelpful rants, and irregardless of whether you agree with him or not, it is always a great relief to read one of his weekly posts lucidly discussing whatever topic he chooses to address. As Peak Oil and its consequences draw many comments both for and against his position. John keeps a tight rein on the discussion, deleting any posts that are pointless, vituperative or out and out flaming obscene, contributing to a civility that is often hard to find on other blog commentaries.

Several years ago, noting the great interest in the collapse of modern civilization (which according to John is occurring in very slow but inexorable motion even as we type), he issued a challenge to his readers to come up with fictional stories set in the near and distant future that depict what things might eventually look like. He detailed the requirements to ensure that contributors didn’t head off into La-La land over their personal interpretations of the future but kept close to a plausible scenario.

The results produced several collections of these stories in the near and more distant future. As with any short story books, there were stories that were quite good and others on the banal side.

Last spring the Archdruid Greer issued yet another call for fiction stories about what the future might look like after peak oil.  He reprinted the story requirements this time with an extra twist.

“Stories should be between 2500 and 7500 words in length;

They should be entirely the work of their author or authors, and should not borrow characters or setting from someone else’s work;

They should be in English, with correct spelling, grammar and punctuation;

They should be stories—narratives with a plot and characters—and not simply a guided tour of some corner of the future as the author imagines it;

They should be set in our future, not in an alternate history or on some other planet; They should be works of realistic fiction or science fiction, not magical or supernatural fantasy—that is, the setting and story should follow the laws of nature as those are presently understood;

They should take place in settings subject to thermodynamic, ecological, and economic limits to growth; and as before,

They must not rely on “alien space bats”—that is, dei ex machina inserted to allow humanity to dodge the consequences of the limits to growth. (Aspiring authors might want to read the whole “Alien Space Bats” post for a more detailed explanation of what I mean here; reading the stories from one or both of the published After Oil volumes might also be a good plan.)

This time, though, I’m adding an additional rule:

Stories submitted for this contest must be set at least one thousand years in the future—that is, after March 25, 3015 in our calendar.

That’s partly a reflection of a common pattern in entries for the two previous contests, and partly something deeper. The common pattern? A great many authors submitted stories that were set during or immediately after the collapse of industrial civilization; there’s certainly room for those, enough so that the entire second volume is basically devoted to them, but tales of surviving decline and fall are only a small fraction of the galaxy of potential stories that would fit within the rules listed above.  I’d like to encourage entrants to consider telling something different, at least this time.

The deeper dimension? That’s a reflection of the blindness of the imagination discussed earlier in this post, the inability of so many people to think of a future that isn’t simply a prolongation of the present. Stories set in the immediate aftermath of our civilization don’t necessarily challenge that, and I think it’s high time to start talking about futures that are genuinely other—neither utopia nor oblivion, but different, radically different, from the linear extrapolations from the present that fill so many people’s imaginations these days, and have an embarrassingly large role even in science fiction. “

This started the aging rusty gears in my brain to begin grinding ponderously away as I thought about what things might actually look like after a millenium. While it sadly wouldn’t be Star Trek, it certainly wouldn’t be some dystopic version of Mad Max either. Just life going on, but with some excess baggage it didn’t have before.

So, yes, I started writing a story. I did my best to keep within the ArchDruid’s guidelines, though given my tendency to color outside the lines probably not 100 percent successfully. Irregardless of whether it gets accepted or not (though I would die of happiness if it did), it definitely exercised (or maybe strained) my brain cells while I tried to create a future world that was reasonably plausible based on current developments and their most likely outcomes(which never seem to be what the experts think) within the constraints of a presumably interesting story.

I read a good deal of history so hopefully that gives me some sense of how cultures tend to flourish or go under over the long term. I also had to keep in mind that many of the resources that cultures in the past routinely took advantage of will either not be there or be in short supply. In addition there will be the vast detritus of our culture which unfortunately we will be bequeathing them whether they want it or not. It wouldn’t have been difficult for this whole thing to eventually evolve into a short novel but as the word limit is 7500 and the deadline is the end of this month, I have naturally been forced to keep my
speculations within the limits of a short story.

Just click on the Story link to the left and with any luck you will enjoy what you read.

Northern Pass

One of the main topics occupying people’s attention here in northern New Hampshire is the Northern Pass Project. For those who haven’t heard of this, Northern Pass is a partnership between Eversource Energy and HydroQuebec whose goal is to run power lines from Canada down through New Hampshire, beginning in Pittsburg NH, which is near the top of the state and run through Northern Grafton county and the center of NH and ending up in Deerfield. The nature of this project has many people up in arms because this will consist of above ground lines on towers nearly 100 feet in height and in some instances taller. Major eyesore is one of the main complaints about this project as well as the usual concerns about environmental impact. Northern Pass proponents claim this project will add needed electricity for the regional power grid as well as create jobs and tax revenue for the state coffers.

I won’t bother to sum up all the protests about this thing, as a Google search will bring up all the arguments for and against it. The US Department of Energy recently released the draft environmental impact statement for this project. In the time honored manner of bureaucracies it is a 1000 page plus doorstop document exploring potential impact to tourism, alternate routes, and suggestions of having the lines buried rather than aboveground in exhaustive detail. Northern Pass is resistant to burying the lines as this would cost more and the underground line would only be able to carry 1000 kilowatts as opposed to 1200 kilowatts for the above ground lines.

While the negative visual impact is what you hear most about from opponents, there is a more unspoken feeling that this is just the wrong way to go for power generation. It has the flavor of projects that were done back in the mid-20th century, with its enormous scope and architectural ugliness. If this had been proposed back in the nineteen fifties when I was just a tot, it would probably have gone through with barely a hitch and only a murmur of protest.

Things are a lot different now. Those who are familiar with the concept of Peak Oil understand that as oil gets scarcer and delivery of it gets more problematic, the pressure for alternative energy sources increases. But the scale of Northern Pass reflects the outdated thinking that bigger is better without considering that it is also more expensive and harder to maintain. I can remember years ago in 1998, when a winter ice storm struck the northeast coast into Canada, downing about 1000 steel electrical pylons in Quebec and leaving millions of people without power. Repair costs went into the billions. Imagine if something like that happened now.


Another issue is security. We’ve been hearing about the possibility of cyber attacks on the power grid and terrorists targeting substations and other physical structures in a deliberate attempt to disrupt services. Then there are the usual witless vandals whose main goal is just to smash things at random without considering the consequences. Back in 2012, four young New Hampshire males (two of them juveniles) drove over to Vermont where there was a major electric transmission line running from Quebec to Massachusetts. They had themselves a little drinking party and thought it would be great fun to shoot out the insulators. The damage they did ran about 250,000 dollars just to replace what they destroyed, not including the cost of rerouting power while repairs were done.

With the risk of disaster both natural and man-made, building Northern Pass makes less and less sense. Reducing energy consumption is a far better approach that doesn’t require eyesore metal towers, just a willingness to downsize our dementedly extravagant lifestyle. Our quality of life will not suffer one iota and the quiet natural beauty that I love most about New Hampshire will remain intact.