reality is weirder than you think

Tag: art

Needlepoint is meditation AND instant gratification

I’ve gotten back into needlepoint lately. Counted cross-stitch, to be precise.

It’s great on multiple levels.


Even using a pre-planned design, working on a needlepoint project involves creating something that has never existed in the universe before. There is something primally satisfying about the act of creation.

This time around, I’m developing the design myself. I have an idea, and I’m planning out sections as I go. I picked the colors that I wanted (shades of coral and moss green, my favorites, with a tiny glimmer of yellow). Some of the specific patterns and fonts I’m stealing from other sources, but the overall plan is mine. I’m greatly enjoying the anticipation of seeing the execution of a design I’ve conceived.


Needlepoint projects are a mini-lesson in logistics. Do I start from the right or from the left? Do I do one stitch at a time, or go through the row one way and then back the other way? Letters first, or decorations? So many questions to answer.

I’m not a needlepoint expert, so I can’t give you answers to those questions.

But I can tell you that working on a project like this is a tiny way to stretch your brain in the arena of planning and execution. You know where you want the project to end up, and then you have to make all of the medium- and ground-level decisions to get to that end point.

Most needlepoint projects can’t be done in one sitting, so it’s also an object-lesson on working on a project bit by bit until it’s finished.

You can take this knowledge and extrapolate it to other areas of life.

Instant Gratification

While it sounds like the complete opposite of the long-term benefits, the thing that I like the most about needlepoint is the instant gratification. Every stitch that you finish is there, stitched into the fabric, for you to admire. That stitch, and all the stitches surrounding it, have changed the texture of the fabric forever. You can feel the difference if you run your finger across the stitches.

And that happens every single time you work on the project.

With other types of long-term projects, you don’t always get the satisfaction of a job well done until the very end. Cooking can be like that, and definitely event planning is like that. But with needlepoint, there are pretty things to look at (even if it’s just the colors!) at every step on the way.


I like the idea of meditation, but I’m not huge on the traditional practice of it. Experience has shown me that it’s valuable to stop thinking (in words) for a period of time, but I feel that it’s more important to shift the mode of thinking than it is to stop thinking altogether.

When I take a ballet class, I can’t focus on anything else. When I play music or focus on a drawing, my thinking shifts into those ways of thinking and all my verbal worries evaporate.

Same thing with needlepoint.

When you’re focused on creation, you’re not focused on yourself or what’s wrong with the world. Better for all involved.

In Conclusion

Consider trying out needlepoint. It’s fun, satisfying, and therapeutic.

Craftsmanship Squared


A beautifully produced video of a beautifully produced garment.

A reminder that this is what we can get to if we put in the work.

That beauty is transcendent, and we have the power to make it.

The capacity for beauty lies within us.

Sweep away the chaff and allow it to shine.


*Complete sentences are for days that are not Saturday.

A metric: the Creative Achievement Questionnaire

I’ve been listening to Jordan B Peterson lectures on YouTube again. (Always super motivating and super depressing at the same time. Reality has a way of doing that to you.)

One of the hardest things to learn about creativity (and anything, really), is that potential means nothing. What matters is what you produce; your body of work.

For those of us just starting out on our creative journeys, it’s important to define what success means and cobble together some metrics to judge whether or not we’re heading in the right direction.

JBP and Shelly Carson created the Creative Achievement Questionnaire to test creative production (not merely creative potential!), and it turns out that it could make a perfect objective measure for achievement in creative pursuits.

My score is 11, which places me at the top end of the Novice Creative category. Mostly of those achievements happened in during my teenage years; I neglected to cultivate my creative talents in university and afterward. There are a couple of scores I could fudge to push myself into the Maker category, but that’s edging into “lying to myself” territory.

Now, as far as using this as a metric: looking over the scoring system shows that each creative domain is scored in a logarithmic scale of difficulty. It will take an immense amount of work to bump up my total score even 1 point, let alone a whole category. However, 1 more point will push me over into Maker–which I could make happen by next year.

If I really double down, I could push myself into the Creative category. I’ll have to formulate some concrete systems and goals to make that happen.

But! We now have a measure for creative output. Let us watch The Gap again and put it to good use.

Read on for the full questionnaire with my scores.

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I’d rather be…

I don’t smoke, but I’d rather be doing this than what I’m doing today.

Love this drawing by Ginger Haze.

Normally I hate Lord of the Rings alternative universe reimaginings, but this one seems both faithful to the book and imaginative (rather than full of gratuitous fanservice).

Anyway, today is the day I get paid to pretend to be an extrovert for 24-hours straight.

I’m going to pretend that I’m Galadriel instead.

4 artists, 1 tree

[Trigger warning: Disney]

Back in the days when Disney wasn’t (as) evil, they produced this video about artists working production of Sleeping Beauty. It covers just as much about the nature of art as it does about the nature of teamwork on such a big project.

There are so many things to say about this piece.

Often there’s this perception that as an artist you must always have your own voice and always strike out on your own trail. Obviously this is a propaganda piece from Disney (it’s as much of an job advertisement than anything — yo, young guys who might be interested in art, it’s okay you can keep your identity and we want you to be the best artist you can possibly be but also Disney is a really great place to work join the army), but it’s important to think about artists working on such a huge project as a hand-animated movie. Every artists, from the character designers to the background artists, has to subsume his own personal style and quirks to the greater whole. The animation style has to be reproducible by all of the artists, not just one guy, so nobody gets a monopoly on design.

At the same time, there’s the sense of camaraderie, of people pulling together to work on something that’s bigger than each of them. I’m reminded of artisans working on cathedrals, or the reasons people give when they join the army. Walt Disney’s narration takes a similar view: “This entire operation puts one in mind of a symphony orchestra, where men who are good enough to be soloists in their own right are thinking only of the effect they are producing on the whole.”

While the movie is a visually stunning and cohesive end product, there’s the vast differences between each man’s individual styles. Some of the end products are very 50s looking, but that’s okay. You have the architectural/structure guy, the 3D/form guy, the personality guy, and the detail guy. You can see their strengths in the individual art they produce, and can see how those strengths would be of benefit when they all combined as a group.

Marc Davis

Character Animator (refining the ideal character in motion)
Tree as explosion of force – reorganized into its most decorative aspect


Eyvind Earle

Production Designer
Tree as a microcosm of the richness and variety of nature
“Portrait of a trunk”


Josh Meador

Supervising Effects Animator (magic fairy dust)
Tree as a living thing, full of personality


Walt Peregoy

Background Artist
Tree as engineering, structure

Personally, I find it fitting that they’re working on Sleeping Beauty, which I find to be the most beautiful of all animated Disney movies. The backgrounds (especially the animated backgrounds!) are one of my very favorite things, and the “dueling fairy dust” scene is one that I can distinctly remember watching as a child. Since there are no coincidences, of the four artworks produced in the making of this film, I favored the study of the tree trunk painted by the background scenery artist.

On a technical note, I appreciate how the script was written to both give the reader a sense of conversation, but also to explicate and narrate each artist’s focus and process. The end result does sound hokey (because it’s neither natural conversation nor a polished voiceover) but despite that it kept me engaged. Kind of a peek behind the curtain of how everyone worked together as a team, with complementary thought patterns in addition to art styles.

This is the best kind of “behind the scenes” production. It gives insight into the process of making the movie, highlights some of the people who do the work, and allows Disney to explain some of their philosophy of art. Plus, it’s interesting to watch.

The gap between head and hand

It’s relatively easy to recognize good art (or writing or music or whatever).

Some people have terrible taste, but most of us do alright.

It’s also relatively easy to conceptualize the act of drawing in our heads.

Or even watch it on a YouTube video — Draw with me! — when someone else’s rendering looks so easy.

So you go to take the leap and try it for yourself. You grab a sketchpad, and a pencil, and say “Self, today we’re going to draw X.”

(Congratulations for taking that leap, btw.)

Despite what your brain knows to be true, despite all the time you’ve spent looking at reality and at artful depictions of it, what comes out on the other end of your pencil is trash.

Your eyeball neurons don’t know how to connect with your finger neurons. Your fingers don’t know how to hold the pencil. You try to see what is in front of you, but you cannot recreate it.

There is a gap.

When you are a child, it’s easier to see past it. Maybe you don’t even know that it exists, because you haven’t yet had the chance to take in great works of art. So you practice, and you improve, but you never cringe at yourself.

As an adult, you know full well what you’re producing is garbage.

Maybe you want to stop, in shame, thinking that you should be better — even though there’s no way you could be better, having never drawn X before.

There’s now a conceptual gap, not just a behavioral one: you versus what you think you should be. Nevermind that your conception of yourself is unrealistic.

The hardest part is knowing that it is impossible to jump or bridge or maneuver around the gap. The only way across is through — through all the garbage and the shame and the unknown.

I started drawing again this past week, after a very long time of not drawing. I did a practice sketch this evening.

Guess what? It was garbage.

Nobody wants to look at garbage, especially myself.

But it’s the first step into the gap. Someday, with effort and persistence, I’ll get to the other side.

Maybe then my drawings will be worth looking at.

In the meantime, I’m going to watch THE GAP on repeat.

Modern Renaissance

Every once in a while, you come across regular images that evoke an artistic spirit. These aren’t images where the photographer was trying to create “ART,” but simple photos that are nonetheless striking and aesthetically coherent.

One such photo was posted by the Portland Police’s East Precinct a few days ago. Officers were deployed to a Domino’s Pizza to stop drunk customers from fighting with the pizza people (who in their right mind would mess with the pizza people?), and someone snapped a pic.

The Domino’s, lonely in the night but lit from within like its trying to withstand the darkness, reminds me of an Edward Hopper painting. The saturated colors, the well-lit windows, the strategically placed figures and barely-lit cars in the parking lot, all evoke that lonely, desolate mood–that 2:00 am mood.

Sometimes I think of art as being completely fabricated by the artist, but this goes to show that good art–the kind of art that resonates–reflects reality. And the 2:00 am desolation is common across time periods.

Good composition is also common across time periods, and Antifa graciously arranged themselves into the golden ratio for this photo. David Burge remarked on Twitter about this “Renaissance painting of stupid,” and indeed, it is.

Don’t believe it?

Indeed, all the horrific things that Antifa throws, swings, drop-kicks, hurls, and spits wold not be out of place in a Bosch painting of hell. Modern hell, but instead of cracked out Medieval fever dreams, we have cracked out Postmodern feral rioters.

So thank you, Twitizens, for showing us that art can occur in the strangest of places, even among people who are actively destroying beautiful pieces of craftsmanship across the country. Say what you will about the Confederate statues, but most of them are beautifully rendered.

Perhaps someday we will have a grandiose statue or three commemorating the Battle(s) of Berkeley and the rout of Antifa.

From the archives: Illuminated Letters

Yesterday’s post of advice from the point of view of an illustrator got me thinking about what it would be like to be a freelance illustrator. It’s easy to romanticize that kind of life (the ~bohemian artist~ ideal) when you’re not stuck in the hustle and grind of the day-to-day.

It’s also easy to overlook the fact that it takes YEARS to get good at what you do. The smart ones of us start early. The dumb ones of us take 9 years into an office career to realize that administration is slowly killing our souls. (Ahem.)

One of the things that brought me great joy during a dark winter a few years ago was inking postcard-sized illuminated letters. I would work on these in my little studio apartment after dinner, sketching and erasing and painting with india ink.

The final product was more polished in my memory (that’s the problem with doing things in the real world–they never quite live up to your own expectations) but I’m still fairly happy with them. I realize in retrospect that there’s merit in using art supplies the way they were designed to be used. For instance, I used ink like watercolor. It probably would have worked better if I had used actual watercolor.

Overall I still like the idea. I’d love to explore what might happen if we ask the question “What if Edward Gorey did illuminated letters?” The combination of gothic style with Medieval symbolism could be really fun.

I’ve been plotting to break out my art supplies again, to get some ink under my fingernails. I dragged my work table out from storage and set it up in my bedroom, so I have dedicated space for projects. Tomorrow I’ll be stopping by an art supply store for better pencils and some inking pens and possibly a tiny kit of watercolors.

Art supply stores are dangerously full of possibilities. We’ll see what awaits on the other side.

Art on the right

I’d love for there to be more explicitly conservative or right-leaning artists.

(Saying this without skin in the game, I know.)

But the gloves are now off.

If an entity declares itself for the right, the left-leaning support structure disappears.

This has been made clear by all the people getting kicked off PayPal, CloudFlare, domain registrars, etc.

Galleries are run by leftists.

Art directors are leftists.

The press is made up of leftists.

So to ask an artist to declare a side is asking them for the entire conventional source of promotion and income to dry up.

Is the right capable of supporting artists like this?

It’s one thing to establish the infrastructure, as Pax Dickinson has been discussing.

Infrastructure allows people the chance to sell their wares.

But will people buy?

That is a question.

On Fillers

Dearest Reader!

This week I have been thinking about the concept of “filler.”

You know, the stuff that we stick between the gaps of real things. Like snacks. Or grout. It exists, and has to exist, to tide you over between meals, or to prevent getting your pinky toe stuck in the gap between the tiles on your bathroom floor, but nobody has ever gone into a beautifully-tiled bathroom and said, “My God that is some fantastic grout!”

(Now, interior designers are doing some cool things with grout these days so it is possible that someone has actually said this. Interesting grout, coupled with tile set in an interesting way, could in fact exist. Inside of a larger context, grout is useful and even perhaps beautiful. But on its own, grout is nothing.)

Or take meat products, since I am writing to you as perhaps the only carnivore that you know. Delicious sausages and hamburgers require no extra ingredients: meat, fat, perhaps a little salt or other flavorings, that’s it. Cook those babies up and you have quite a satisfying meal. Or if you want to get REALLY fancy, smoke ’em. I am now tempted to drift away into fantasias of smoked sausages….

No fillers are needed to make a good meat product. Some fillers might be added to say, a sausage, to create extra delicious flavors. Chicken-apple sausage is a popular variety, in which the (cheap) apples stretch the (expensive) chicken farther, but also provide a refreshing counterpoint in both taste and texture.

However, some purveyors of meat use fillers to use less meat while charging the same price-per-pound. These fillers are usually starch-based, and add nothing but cost-savings to the burger. No added flavor or texture for the end consumer to enjoy other than extra starchy things to digest. These people are why you can’t trust any pre-made beef patties and have to read the ingredients every single time. Thanks, fillers!

The idea of fillers also exists in art and music, in the form of white space, or rests. Good use of white space in a graphic design, or negative space in a painting or sculpture, can add oodles of visual interest and breathing room to the piece. In fact, I would argue that negative space is essential to good visual presentation. (Bear in mind that you can’t have negative space without first having an object for that negative space to react around.)

In music, the space between the notes is often just as important as the notes themselves. There’s a vast difference between the short, clipped notes of a march, and the long drawn-out notes in something like a tone poem. A complex rhythm is the interplay between positive and negative, in they way that the filler interacts with the drumbeats. Any specialness in the silence is a byproduct of how that silence interacts with the musical notes.

If you try to treat the silence between the notes as Its Own Thing, you end up with such ridiculousness as John Cage’s 4’33”.

The point: fillers are not necessarily bad, and can be useful or even helpful as a part of a bigger picture. On their own, fillers are neutral. The problem comes when you try to substitute the filler for the real thing.

A day full of snacks is a day at the end of which you’ll (read: I will) be unsatisfied and cranky.

A bathroom full of grout is…well, unfinished.

A hamburger full of fillers is still a hamburger, I guess, but not one that I would want to eat.

A painting full of white space is…not a painting.

And let’s be real, a “musical composition” of silence is not a musical composition at all.

That leads me, dear reader, to the topic on which my mind lingers…mental filler.

I spend more time than I should on Twitter.

It’s is fun! It’s full of novel content that makes me (mildly) amused and makes me (shallowly) think. There’s always something new!

But social media is primarily a connector–grout, if you will. Some people are doing good work of providing premium content on social media (this tweetstorm by AJA Cortes is a good example), but for the most part, all the content on social channels is dependent upon the primary media that tweets link to. Or references, in the case of many of the parody or esoteric accounts.

Twitter is very good for connecting things, for discovering, for bridging from one content creator to another, but as a “meal” in itself? It’s ultimately unfulfilling.

It can be very easy to fall into the trap of wanting mental snack food all the time. It’s easy, it’s amusing, and it’s very readily available. (And often wrapped in brightly colored, single serving containers!)

But I have to remind myself that single-serving snacks, be they mental or food, won’t build a good body. Whether it’s a body of work or body of thought doesn’t matter.

One can’t build a solid, delicious hamburger out of starchy filler.

And if I (or you) don’t want to end up blown away like a pile of dried up starch on a tile counter made of actual tiles by people who Did The Work, can’t focus on the filler. We have to focus on the substantial things. Meals. Tiles. Meat. Good art and music. Solid thought: books.

We must relegate filler to its proper place–to fill in the gaps.

It can be a beautiful, delicious, or amusing way to fill in those gaps, but it must exist within the proper context of Real, Solid Work.

So do the work, dearest, and enjoy the fleeting space of filler in its own due time.

(If you thought I was giving you advice, my dear reader, you might be wrong. I am mostly giving myself a lecture here. This is a common failing on my part.)

With all my love,

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