Week 1 of 52

Week 1 of the ArtStart programme has been busy and a tad traumatic. I was in Melbourne for most of it, where I checked out the NGV. There’s some interesting work there – I spent some time enjoying Rothko’s Untitled (Red) from 1956. One of the highlights of the trip was getting to finally spend a bit of time interacting with Ron Robertson-Swann’s Vault. Ron was head of sculpture at The National Art School during my studies, and to finally encounter this work, whose history of controversy is, frankly, startling, was a great way to begin.

The trauma side of things is the discomfort that goes with all change in a comfortable work environment. Due to the photography and digital comics stuff I’m planning to do this year, I needed to upgrade my work mac to Mac OS 10.8 Mountain Lion. After 4 years of a stable 10.6 Snow Leopard system, the changes have been disconcerting. Some things are a definite step back, the Mail and Calendar apps especially. Some are a step forward, such as the Mission Control system for replacing Expose & Spaces, especially with a trackpad to drive everything with gestures.

The bad I can live with, the good I’m really enjoying, so a net positive.

My camera setup is coming together, a pair of Elinchrom RX4 monoblocs with soft boxes, a Nikon D800 with 60mm Macro lens, and mains power adapters. The gear’s insured, and I’ve got training booked for both photography, and SketchUp 3d / Architectural modelling.

Week 2 of 52

Week 2 has seen highs and lows, but ended reasonably well. Things started with my ordering the final piece of furniture for my studio fit out – one that I’ve been procrastinating on for a while. What I needed was a work bench that could fit under a set of shelves, and over my filing cabinet & mobile air conditioner. I had originally planned on a stainless steel skin, but quotes were up around $400. With a switch to melamine, the cost dropped to $85, and since it’s still water sealed, I can work on it with wet media, like clay. As a worst case scenario I can afford to replace 4 or 5 before I get to the price of stainless.

With that table in, and a larger one that had been in its place removed, my studio is now MUCH larger in terms of the largest continuous rectangle.

On the software and systems front, the week saw a long battle with my main production machine, in which I ended up removing iTunes 11 and replacing it with 10.7, as well as completely disengaging from Apple’s iCloud service. All in an effort to get my iPhone to start syncing automatically when plugged in – a behaviour it had lost somewhere in the upgrade. There’s a whole rant stewing away on this topic, but for the life of me I can’t understand why two devices that can have a physical cable plugged between them, should require a connection to a server on the other side of the world to exchange data with each other. So, now I have everything removed from iCloud, everything is local to my system, or synced through my own servers, except Reminders, which are stupidly tied to Calendar syncing.

The up side of the digital front, has been Aperture, from Apple. It’s the photo management software the new camera will be using, and it’s a pretty nifty piece of kit. I’ve also been checking out iBooks Author, and trying to figure out how to translate my existing graphic novels to iPad format. This is proving a lot harder than I thought, since iBooks Author seems almost specifically designed to prevent the creation of graphical storybooks. Every tool for the presentation of images, for example, prevents them from being zoomed larger than full screen. The HTML widget, similarly limits zooming that is fully achievable in the actual browser. My last option is to see if I can use an external javascript library to take over zooming, and see if that will get around the iBooks Author limits. The last option is perhaps a lateral move and reprocess my InDesign pages as pdfs or graphics, and go with standard ePub files.

One major bright point of the week has been the actual use of the new camera. On Wednesday, I did my first shoot. This was done with some improvised lights, as the Elinchroms aren’t up and running yet. The shoot was of a 1/10 scale miniature set a prop making student had built. This is the first step towards my ArtStart goal of having a photographic practice & service that I can offer to other artists.

All these have had done to them, is the filesize reduced from 7.5k to 1k pixels wide, and a single sharpen filter in photoshop, followed by a save to web in jpeg format. Aside from that, they’re more or less untouched. Lighting was with a standard home spotlight, a fluorescent articulated desk lamp, and a mini Maglite for spot highlighting. Colour was with folded sheets of cellophane, held over the lights to give different levels of colour & darkness. All in a all, a successful week.

Week 3 of 52

Week 3 has been one of late nights, and difficult code. Harking back to my web design days, I was eventually awake until 7am as I tried to work out a way to make Apple’s iBooks Author present my graphic novels in a way I wanted – full screen, and able to zoom images larger than full screen in order to see detail.

It may sound bizarre, but there’s no facility within the authoring program to do this natively, rather one has to mess around with HTML widgets to get it to work. Even then, having found a javascript system which gave me the pan and zoom I wanted, it still didn’t quite work. The solution was pretty neat, if I do say so myself. If I don’t go with this for the immediate term of getting The Metaning published, it will be a solid foundation for a collected edition of Surfing The Deathline, as it will let me provide the ability for the reader switch the view to the original sketches, or different revisions of the script.

At the end of the week, I’m now exploring the “fixed layout” option for Epub2 format. It may give me the specific implementation I’m after, but it’s also possibly an ugly one.

I had my first class of the artstart programme, Camera Craft 2 at the Australian Centre for Photography. I’m not sure how to feel about it to be honest. It’s a required class for the Lighting class I’ve booked through them, but there’s no actual camera instruction involved, indeed, we don’t even need our cameras for the class. I think I’m going to have to be a bit more insistent with them about getting a complete course breakdown for lighting, because if it turns out to be predominantly theory, rather than a practical instruction in the setting up & use of studio lights, and if we’re not using our own cameras for it, then I suspect I’ll have more value in using the money for in-studio consulting.

Week 4 of 52

A lot of sculpture focus this week. I created the mockups for a new sculpture, or rather a remaking and reworking of an old sculpture, which I’ve entered into the Woollahra small sculpture competition. The eventual idea is that it’ll be made with perspex rod, and I’m currently investigating options for lighting it internally.

The photography side of this week involved an exercise as a part of the Camera Craft 2 class. The project was to just move a single light and experiment with setting different types of shadow – revealing and hiding detail etc.

These samples from the shoot exercise were my first attempt at working within a RAW workflow. RAW is a bit of a revelation – the ability to arbitrarily set the white balance in post-production allows a bit of a rethink of the whole chain of shooting.

One thing I will say, I’m absolutely in LOVE with this camera (Nikon D800). It’s a colossal tank of a piece of kit, but once it’s locked down on a tripod, it’s such a joy to use. I’ve got an order in for a cable remote release. Nikon’s official one is something like $50, but you can get one on eBay for $2.99, which all the reviews I’ve read seem to rate pretty highly.

On the comics front, nothing much has been happening as the Apple developer portal has been down for a week after a security issue. Unfortunately I’m just at that stage where I need questions answered, so without access to that resource, my options are limited. My thinking at the moment is that I can probably figure out how to do ePub versions of everything, and make those the plain standard just for reading edition. Then also make iBooks enhanced versions that allow the reader to flip the art back to sketch versions etc. The upside is that I definitely know how to make the iBooks versions – I can do it all in HTML, if I ditch the skeuomorphic rage turn effect, and go with a simple crossfade. I’m coming around to the idea that a slab of glass doesn’t need the page turning visual metaphor, which appeals to the capital “M” Modernist in me.

Week 5 of 52

Feels like time is flying, and here we have yet another week of what feels like administration. While the Apple DevForums were still offline for most of the week, I spent days seemingly on research. What I discovered was that in order to sell books on the iBookstore I need to have an ITIN from the IRS in America. The IRS’ website says that these can be obtained through a worldwide network of accountancy firms, but when I contacted one, I got a call back to tell me the programme had been cancelled. Further research with the Australian US Consulate website revealed that I can obtain one of these directly, but I need to have a copy of my passport (which I have to mail to them along with the photocopy) verified by them in order to meet the necessary identification requirements.

This of course means I have to have a current passport. Mine expired a couple of years ago, so a big new expense just popped up. I’m applying with the ArtStart administrators to modify my funding agreement in order to shift some funding away from a couple of things that aren’t so necessary in order to cover this.

The DevForums finally came back online halfway through the week, so I was able to ask some questions I had, and I’ve been working on my second exercise for my photography course. The primary lesson for this week was white balance, so I ended up doing 3 sets of images – shooting the same subject and going through all the white balance options on the camera under 3 different light settings. It was a good way to get a handle on what colour light from various sources is, and how cameras attempt to compensate for it.

The week has ended with finally locating a good, plain english, no assumed prior knowledge guide to constructing EPUB ebooks. It’s astoundingly difficult to find this sort of information – everyone seems to either assume too much, or parrot some specs, or be trying to get you to buy their book on the subject. So, I’m now starting to get a handle on how I can most easily translate my comics to the EPUB format, and once that’s done, I can get The Metaning out as a saleable product.


Week 6 of 52

It’s been a long hard week of cramming new information into my brain. Monday to Wednesday was spent at a training course in SketchUp – an architectural drawing / modelling package. I’ve been using SU for quite a few years, but never really clicked with it the way I’d wanted to. One of the things I learned during this course is that some of the idiosyncrasies which had acted as a kind of barrier to understanding the logic of the app’s interface and experience weren’t just me being clueless, but are actual issues that need to be worked around.

Anyway, the other thing I learned is what a demoralisingly large amount of time I’ve wasted in the past, doing things that can be automated with a more disciplined workflow. What’s actually been an interesting cognitive leap is realising that a lot of how you use the program is to think of it like web design, and CSS – you set up chains of dependencies between objects, that allow you to make edits to a single one, and alter many aspects of the model at once.

The three days of the course were in North Sydney, and held during normal business hours. I’ll be honest, I haven’t experienced Sydney public transport in rush hour times for a number of years, but jebus, it’s a freaking nightmare. Granted, I was able to make my trip reasonably quickly, but the crowds…

Anyway, once that was done with, and I had my nice certificates, I was able to tackle this week’s photography exercise.

This was an attempt to experiment with geometry, shooting through a venetian blind at the riot of shapes outside. The weather was windy, and I was hoping to capture motion blur on the palms of my balcony, while also getting maximum depth of field. To do this, I was using 15-30 second exposures and f32 aperture, which required setting the ISO to about 50 and -5 stops of exposure compensation. That was still too bright, so I held a sunglasses lens over the camera, which seemed to work.

The last one (and its colour corrected version) really got something interesting happening. The blind ends up looking like a backing paper, and the gaps like strips of image, with drop shadows falling on the backdrop. Something I need to try is exposing for the sky to get the blinds really dark, and lighting the balcony outside so the dark bands are clearly visible all the way down. Perhaps a night shoot is called for.

I ended the week with a visit to the Australian Maritime Museum, where there’s an Ansel Adams exhibition on at the moment.

Week 7 of 52

Oh my, trauma does seem to be overly represented in this diary so far. Then again, it’s been said that trauma is the overarching theme for the current (post-post-Modern?) era, so perhaps it’s apt.

The week started nicely – Monday I put in my passport application so I can get my ITIN for the iBooks store, and Tuesday I went to do some photography around Mosman Bay, a place I frequented in my youth as a local go-to fishing spot. While I got some interesting photos, the trauma came when I came home and discovered the reality of detachable lens cameras and sensor dust. Long story short, I spent Wednesday at Nikon taking advantage of their first free sensor clean service. While they made the situation better, it’s still not perfect. What I’m resigned to is that anything shot over about f/16 is going to have a number of little black dots I’ll have to fix in post. For a 162 shot panorama, that’s a fair bit of work.

It’s an issue for shooting panoramas when I want something going off into the distance to be sharp all the way into the foreground, but I can work around it. Demoralising in a way to find a problem with a 3 grand bit of kit, but survivable. Aperture has compensated for the dust problem pretty well, in that you can retouch all the spots, and then make that adjustment a preset you can apply to any image. It takes a bit of processing time, but produces a pretty successful result.

Here’s some images from the photo shoot. I tried two sets of adjustments, one amps up the colour…

… and the other is my “Fish Noir” setting.

These images marked the end of my Camera Craft 2 course at ACP. Next week, Lighting Intensive begins.

Week 8 of 52

This week saw the start of my Lighting Intensive course. It’s a really interesting and practical programme. Here’s a selection of shots with hot lights and an example of light painting.

In other news, I had a meeting with an organisation about the possibility of offering a recycled materials sculpture course I developed. I also took a trip out to the University of Western Sydney Campbelltown campus to get some location photos for a possible entry for their 2014 show. The quickrelease plate for my Velbon tripod finally arrived, as well.

One of the major tasks this week was getting the hardcover coffee table book for my 2010 photography exhibition organised. As a minor administrative task, I set up a todo list from my 1 year accomplishments section the ArtStart application. It’s good to keep it in mind, and start checking stuff off.

Week 9 of 52

Week 9 saw my second lighting class, during which we worked with studio flashes. This is the really interesting meat of why I’m studying lighting, as it directly relates to the Elinchrom monoblocs I bought.

These are a selection of the setups, experimenting with different attachments for modelling the light.

The downside of this is I’ve realised I need to buy an incident / flash meter. Something I wish I’d known about earlier. There’s a good one available for $180 or so, or $300+ if you buy what’s probably not grey market stock.

The other major development was that my passport finally arrived. So next week, I’ll send it to the American embassy to get a copy verified which can go to the IRS, and get the ball rolling for setting up my iBooks merchant accounts.

Not directly related to ArtStart, but Sculpture By The Sea has changed its crowdfunding rules, so that crowdfunding projects are able to mention SbtS on their pages. The other major bit of news is that it looks like I’m going to be able to buy all the plumbing parts for my SbtS entry direct from China, for substantially less than local retail – under $2k rather than over $9k. This is good, because frankly, the large hardware chains which sell this stuff retail haven’t been too forthcoming in replying to requests for sponsorship.

Week 10 of 52

A week of small triumphs so far. The lighting class went outdoors, to learn about using flash in ambient light.

The first 4 are from an experiment in creating a dark, overcast look on a bright sunny day if there’s a bit of cloud. You take an ambient light meter reading, then meter for the flash & shoot the model. Then you crank up the shutter speed, underexposing the background. Since the model is effectively painted by the flash, the shutter speed really only effects the exposure of the background.

Another thing we tried was rear curtain synchronised flash. So you set an exposure for say 3 seconds, and when someone moves through the frame they leave a movement trail. The rear curtain sync causes the flash to go off at the end of the exposure, rather than the beginning, painting a frozen moment of the moving subject at the end of a movement trail. The final image is the use of flash at the start of a long exposure, combined with light painting using a torch for the rest of the time.

The other news of the week was that I discovered I didn’t need the ITIN IRS form I’d read was necessary in order to get onto the iBooks store. Instead, there’s a method for getting something called an EIS, which can be done over the phone. It takes about 2 weeks to be enabled, vs 6 weeks for an ITIN form. A shame to have blown $280 on a redundant passport, but I guess I can travel in the next decade.