Captain, My Captain

When I first started fingerpainting, I would slap out a picture in an hour or two. As I got better at it, I would pay more and more attention to the detail and it took longer and longer and became less and less fun.

I was able to whack this one out in a couple of hours. It was a lot of fun.

PS I didn’t finish the left breast because my battery ran out on my iPhone. Sorry Aaron.

Lonely in the Automat

I’ve always thought of automats as lonely, melancholy places. I entered my first automat when I was 14 and visiting the first of many, many navy bases.

Naval establishments in those days were almost defined by their automats and automats were the place to be for a certain kind of junior rating. There were the living quarters, the dining hall, the bar if you were old enough and the automat if you were not. I was not.

There were two occasions to visit the automat and it presented a quite different aspect for each occasion.

Killing time after lunch, waiting for class to begin, you encountered the brash, flashing automat. At lunch time, the automat was a buzzing hive of sailors drinking crap coffee from the crap coffee machine, playing video games and sitting round crap little tables munching crap snacks from the crap little dispenser things tempting you with their little A-H and 1-9 buttons that made their inner robot spring to life and threaten to dispense the pack of tutti-fruities to keep you awake through the afternoon’s boredom but, ultimately, disappointing you with physics-defying feats of cruelty, snatching your tutti-fruities back into a greedy maw or dangling the little snack mere inches above the dispenser tray with all the other unreachable tokens of misfortune.

It was in such an automat that I first completed Dragon’s Lair to great applause (the fantasy adventure where you become a valiant knight on your quest to rescue the fair princess from the clutches of an eeeevil dragon…. can you tell how many times I played it?) and where I first found all the Easter eggs in Track ‘n’ Field. It was where Alf Menzies and I made it to the end of Super Mario Bros (though I never did defeat the final Bowser or, as we called him, the big green thing) and where we daily emptied the trivia machine, Blockbusters, of all its pound coins. But that was the happy automat. The other automat is the one that looms, forbidding, in my memory.

Melancholy automat was a dark, empty hall of flickering lights; the only place open at 2:30AM when the bus back to base after a weekend in civvy street dispensed its young, tired cargo.

I remember several variations of that journey back from the exciting world of stolen kisses, distant family and fading friends still plodding their way through their school years while I served Queen and country: Portsmouth to Hellensburgh; Bexleyheath to Fareham. The worst of all was the journey from Sidcup to Torpoint and HMS Fisgard.

It started on Platform 2 at Sidcup Station (where the Rolling Stones began) and the 12¾ miles to Charing Cross. Then came the long, rumbling Circle Line trip to Paddington in time for the 4 hour train ride down to Plymouth. At Plymouth Station, it was short cab ride to Devonport and, most romantic in my misty memories, the long chug-a-lug of the Torpoint Ferry as it dragged itself along its heavy chains across the dark, forbidding Hamoaze.

By the time you got to the Cornwall side of the river you were well into the wee hours of the morning and, if you were lucky, could share a cab ride to the base and that was the moment when it hit you that you were in the Navy for real and for the foreseeable future. Then the short walk up the hill and the flash of the ID card to the bloke unlucky enough to be on gate duty at that time of the morning – those were my rituals until, finally, the automat.

The automat was the only place to get food at that hour and it was a place entirely transformed from the bustling, mechanical bazaar of the daytime. At night, there was just you and the whir of the carousel dispensing your stale pastie: desperately needed sustenance after so many hours of travel.

The main lights were always off and you were condemned to peer at your pastie in the ancient microwave oven – the same oven used by Admiral Nelson himself -  lit intermittently by the brazen flashing of the video games. Those sounds are still fresh and familiar – from the ding-a-ling-a-ling! of the fruit machine to the Beep-beep-Boooooop! of Pole Position – until, eventually, the bright Ding! of the microwave would announce that it was time to wolf down my oggie before the sun came up and summoned me to my classes just a few, short hours later.

I didn’t think I’d ever finish this drawing. I thought my muse was gone. It happened before. I have a half-finished charcoal drawing of my wife that I started in 2001. I don’t know how many times I’ve picked up that drawing and stared at it, wondering how I would ever draw anything ever again.

I picked Hopper’s Automat precisely because it looked easy. I expected I’d be able to lose myself in the memories of automats past as my finger rubbed the image of Hopper’s lonely flapper girl onto the screen of my iPad but just the act of opening Art Studio was a challenge. The splash screen to me was Oglaf’s Muse or, more likely, her successor. Under her withering gaze, all confidence faded.

My previous painting had become a slog. My earliest finger-paintings took a mere hour or two each – no wonder The Impressionists were so prolific! – but copying the old masters was hard work and a drain on my enthusiasm. Hopper was easier but each time I fired up Art Studio the memory of Sassoferrato bade me close it down just as quickly. But it’s done now and the long, forgotten memories of automats past can go to back to the dark place where they so lately rested.




Virgin at Prayer

I wonder if people seeing new paintings at the dawn of each new period experienced them the way we experience an exciting new technology?

When the renaissance painters rediscovered perspective did their fans experience it the way we experience 3D movies? Was the incredible depth of emotion in Baroque anything like technicolor was for us? Or THX?

When I ran into Sassoferrato’s Virgin at Prayer at the National Gallery in London it was like running into a time machine and I didn’t know if I was going forward or backwards. I knew immediately that, as soon I got back to my own time period, I would have to finger-paint it on my iPad.

It took me a couple of months longer than I expected and I my missed my self-imposed deadline to be done in time to send it as a Christmas gift – but I got there in the end.

Epilogue: I finished the painting about 3 months ago but, sadly, haven’t painted anything since. I have a half-finished Edward Hopper rip-off in the works but my muse has left me stranded and who knows when she’ll be back. Time for a new hobby?

iPads make iMusic

Like I wasn’t gonna get the new GarageBand for iPad??

It’s pretty good but VERY frustrating. There are tons of bugs and it’s a  little too slow to keep up with any kind of complex strumming. I lost my whole guitar track once and, by the end of the session, the sequencer view thingie was about a bar and a half out of step with the sound. You can see from the screenshot that the bars don’t really line up with anything.

I wanted to fix up some stuff but I decided I should quit while I was ahead. Here’s my first attempt at making music.

Ride A White Swan (iPad version performed by The Ragged Clown)

I can’t figure out how to create a fade. Anyone?

I’ve been practicing Ride a White Swan on guitar and meaning to record it for a while. It’s a simple song but the chord change is pretty tricky. It’s easier to play when you just have to tap the iPad but it doesn’t sound as good as the real thing. I’ll need to record it on GarageBand proper for comparison.

Liner Notes

For the drums and bass, I used the auto-play thingie. TIP: if you use any drum set except the rock kit, it’ll mess you up and you’ll never be able to keep time with it. Keep it simple. Same with the bass. I started with a fancy bass riff but it sounded silly and overwhelmed everything else.

There are three guitar tracks. For the riff, I used the auto-chord selector and then just picked out notes from the chords. For the rhythm guitar, I just banged on the chord name like a chimpanzee. I tried picking out an arpeggio on individual strings but my poor iPad was too slow to keep up.

I played the lead part on the single note setting. This is really well done. You can do slides and hammer-ons and hammer-offs and really nice bends. I couldn’t figure out how to get further up the neck so if your solo has any high notes, I guess you are screwed. Birthday’s coming up so maybe I’ll get the plug-your-guitar-into-your-ipad connector but there is plenty of fun to be had with the so-called smart guitar.

I recorded the vocals with the dreamy effect. Sounds just like Marc Bolan, don’t you think? That’s probably my bronchitis.

I added the keyboards because it seemed a shame not to.

Why not?

It used to be hard to find well-thought-out justifications for atheism. Most people I knew were atheists but didn’t like to talk about it much (probably because they didn’t know that most people they knew were atheists too). The only famous atheists were either the shouty, angry kind or weirdos. You had to go all the way back to Bertrand Russell’s Why I am not a Christian essay from 1926 to find something witty and well-argued. You can go read that if like – it is pretty good – but, let’s face it, Bertrand Russell was a bit of a weirdo.

Atheism got a big boost when the so-called Four Horsemen mounted their steeds and wrote the four books – God is Not Great, The God Delusion, The End of Faith and Breaking the Spell – that defined The New Atheism. It’s hard to recommend any of those books to someone who is not already pretty secure in their disbelief though and, of the four, only Richard Dawkins is neither shouty nor weird. They are all polemics of one kind or another.

A polemic is a variety of argument or controversy made against one opinion, doctrine, or person. […] The word is derived from the Greek polemikos, meaning “warlike, hostile”.

The most interesting writings about atheism are personal stories – like Russell’s – that answer the question, “Why Don’t you believe in God?” Here are three of my favourite stories.

Ricky Gervais has a masterpiece in the genre in the Wall Street Journal today. Ricky has his eight-year-old self figuring out the answer.

But anyway, there I was happily drawing my hero when my big brother Bob asked,”Why do you believe in God?” Just a simple question. But my mum panicked. “Bob,” she said in a tone that I knew meant, “Shut up.” Why was that a bad thing to ask? If there was a God and my faith was strong it didn’t matter what people said.

Oh, hang on. There is no God. He knows it, and she knows it deep down. It was as simple as that. I started thinking about it and asking more questions, and within an hour, I was an atheist.

Wow. No God. If mum had lied to me about God, had she also lied to me about Santa? Yes, of course, but who cares? The gifts kept coming. And so did the gifts of my new found atheism. The gifts of truth, science, nature. The real beauty of this world. I learned of evolution – a theory so simple that only England’s greatest genius could have come up with it. Evolution of plants, animals and us – with imagination, free will, love, humor. I no longer needed a reason for my existence, just a reason to live. And imagination, free will, love, humor, fun, music, sports, beer and pizza are all good enough reasons for living.

Julia Sweeney turned her story into a monologue – Letting Go of God – that she performs on stage. Here’s the first act, performed at Ted.

You can watch a full performance of Letting Go of God on YouTube but be forewarned: in between the laughter, there will be tears. Keep a box of tissues handy.

The last story that I like to recommend is Bart Ehrman’s essay that forms the introduction of his book Misquoting Jesus.

When I was in seminary, I was taking a class devoted to the interpretation of the Gospel of Mark. At that time, I would have called myself a strong evangelical Christian. I thought the Bible had no mistakes. The first time I realized it did was Mark, Chapter Two. The disciples are walking through a grain field with Jesus, and the pharisees object to them eating grain because it’s the Sabbath. Jesus asks them if they haven’t read the passage in scripture when David went into the temple of God and ate show bread that wasn’t supposed to eaten. He says it happened when Abiathar was the high priest.

For the term paper, I decided to write on this passage; it contains a famous historical problem. The Book of Samuel says that Abiathar was not the high priest at that time; it was his father, Ahimelech. I wrote a 35-page paper explaining why this can’t be a mistake. It was based on the interpretation of the Greek words. The grammar is tricky in the passage. My professor was a very devout Christian, who I respected very much. He gave me an A on the paper but at the end he wrote “Maybe Mark just made a mistake.”

Even though it was a tiny little detail, it exploded the whole thing for me. Once I realized there could be a mistake in the Bible, I started finding them all over the place. The first thing it did was made me realize the Bible is not an inerrant revelation from God. It’s a human book with errors. I stopped being evangelical and became a liberal Christian. I eventually became an agnostic. There’s no way I would have leaped from fundamentalist to agnostic. It required a lot of transition. And the first thing to go was the inerrancy of the Bible.

Professor Ehrman is a little more scholarly than Ricky Gervais and his book is not a light read by any means. It’s a good read though, and examines the history of some famous bible passages – like the story of the woman accused of adultery – and when they were added to the bible.

No Limits?

When I was a teenager, I thought there was nothing that I couldn’t do if I worked hard enough at it.

Except art and music. All my attempts at drawing ended in tears and my attempts at playing the recorder made people cry. Miss Sindy, my art teacher at Chis and Sid, always seemed to lose my work. I never did figure out why.

As I got older, I discovered that I had plenty of limits and, one by one, I found that most of the things I was good at, I would never be great at.

About 20 years ago, though, I bought an electric piano. I don’t remember why I bought it but I remember that I used to practice and practice for hours on end. I got to the point where I could play, like, 20 pieces all the way through without a mistake. My downfall was Clair de Lune. I had always loved Debussy and that piece in particular and it became a matter of pride that I was going to own it. Sadly, it owned me. I could play it through nicely until those fast arpeggios at the end. I spent months and months trying to get it but eventually gave up.

About 10 years later, I had my piano shipped out to the states. I was never really able to get the hang of it again and it sits in the corner now, daring me to try again. To this day, I hear those first three notes in a movie, or in a store, and I shake my fist and curse Debussy.

I was reluctant to try guitar for the same reason. I hate starting things and giving up but I eventually got a guitar to keep Dylan company when he was having lessons. It quickly became obvious that I was never going to be good at guitar no matter how hard I practiced. But a guitar is pretty forgiving and, unlike a piano, you can get a pretty good tune out of one even if you are not very good. So I keep strumming and having fun without ever really feeling that I am getting any better.

Drawing grabbed me about 10 years ago.

I started with sketching in MS Paint with a mouse. Then decided I needed a better drawing program, then a graphics tablet. I had a lot of fun. Drawing on a computer is forgiving too. If you make a mistake, you just hit undo and try again.

One day, I had a fancy that I might try drawing on paper. I had drawn an eagle that didn’t suck when I was 14. Maybe I could draw another one of those.

I went to Barnes and Noble and came back with armfuls of books: How To Draw What You See, Lifelike Drawing, Drawing a Likeness, Drawing the Female Nude. I read all the books that night. Next day, I went to Aaron Brothers and bought a sketchpad, a box of pencils and an eraser, rushed home and opened the first book and started drawing. The first couple of portraits were crap but by the third or fourth I was thinking – Hey! This isn’t so hard! Let me try a nude!

For about a year, I drew like a maniac and then one day I just stopped.

I was halfway through a portrait of my wife. I had a five year old child and a newborn and I could never seemed to find a couple of hours of quiet to sit down and sketch. All the books went back on the shelf and all the pencils went in the closet and that was the end of my drawing career. I never did finish that picture.

I had put a few of my portraits up on the wall and, every now and again, I’d stop and look at them and wonder who I was when I drew them. It was a different person who no longer existed. I picked up a pencil every couple of years to try again, but I could never make any sense of it. But then I got an iPad.

With my iPad, I was able to recapture that sense of freedom to make mistakes. You make a mistake? Just paint over it!

I even managed to turn my sins into a virtue. If you paint over your mistakes – over and over – you get a nice layered effect. Hey! I had discovered a style!

I’m still enjoying sketching on my iPad – with Art Studio – but I feel like I’ve hit something of a natural limit. I can copy pretty well now – I’ve learned to draw what I see – but I can only draw exactly what I see. As soon as I try to deviate just a little from the script that the subject has written for me, everything goes to crap. I have no control at all. Cliche, but: It’s like my drawing is in control and I’m just a vehicle.

I have a couple of pictures in my head that I’d like to draw but I know that there is no chance that I can attempt them at my current skill level and I’ll need lessons to get past where I am now. Meanwhile, it gives me enormous pleasure that I can paint a beautiful little girl and have the result turn out beautiful too.

In a Cemetery

In one of the universe’s subtle attempts to mess with me, my grandmother died yesterday on the same day that I finished this painting – Girl Seated in a Cemetery by Delacroix. In another week or so, I’ll be standing in cemetery myself with lots of other sad people, remembering the fantastic lady who was my grandmother.

Nan was less than two years away from her century. She was born before the First World War; before electricity, motor cars and aeroplanes were commonplace; before computers and television. She was born in a time when the sun never set on the British Empire and the world was much bigger than it is now.

Nan and Grandad lived two doors away from me when I was very small and they often took care of me. My mum went back to work when I was only 3 and I used to come home for lunch at my grandmother’s house. She’d make me egg sandwiches with the white removed (Yuck! Nasty stuff!) and then make meringues with the whites. And they say that the kids of today are spoiled!

Sometimes, they would take me up to London on the bus. We couldn’t take the train because Grandad got sick (something to do with the war) and even on the bus, we could only travel for about 20 minutes before we’d have to get off and wait for the next one. Getting up to London – 12 miles away – was an all day affair.

But it was worth it.

The only time I attended the Changing of the Guard was with Nan and Grandad; the first time I fed the sparrows in St James’s Park; first time across the Thames on the Woolwich Ferry. So many firsts!

A very happy memory puts us in the Science Museum. Nan suffered her way through all the planes and machines and cheesy demonstrations of static electricity but when we got to the Way We Used to Live section, she suddenly came to life! It turned out that that section was modelled after Nan’s childhood and she had owned the very same brand of washing tub, mangle, jars of jam, soap and pretty much everything else that was essential to a working class house in the first part of the 20th century.

Grandad died about 30 years ago and, without the need to change buses every 20 minutes, Nan started to travel. The first time I left the country (a day trip to Boulogne on the ferry) was Nan’s first too but she soon made up for lost time. Of course, my favourite was her first trip to the New World. When she was 86, Nan came to visit me in California.

I have no idea how she made it, but what a joy it was to meet her at San Francisco airport and drive her – with the top down in the convertible! – to our house in Los Gatos. By day, she was taunted by a mischievous two-year old (“Mum! Nan wants some lemonade!” How many times did he get away with that before we found out that the soda was for him?) who taught her how to use a computer for the first time. Actually, “mis-taught” would be more accurate as he delighted in her frustrated laughter each time he put 8 pickles in the jar even though The Count only wanted 7.

But by night… By night she would tell us stories.

Children tend to lose touch with their grandparents just when they have the most to learn from what they have to say (or maybe that’s just me?) but we made up for lost time that week.

We heard all about the Coronation and The Blitz and about Doodlebugs (they were aimed at London, but plenty fell short). We heard about the Battle of Britain – she watched it overhead – and about how she sent her four young daughters off to four different cities in the north of England to escape the air raids and about her quest to go round them back up and bring them back when it was clear they were no safer with strangers than they were at home.

Nan brought up those four daughters on her own after their father was killed in a road accident. I learned one of life’s great lessons when she calmly explained how quickly the policeman arrived to give her the bad news. Nan: “There’s no point in worrying. If there’s bad news, you’ll know it soon enough.”

My sister made a family tree a few years back. She managed to trace our family back to the 17th century on several different branches. In 400 years, no one ever moved more than a couple of miles from where I grew up in Footscray. Now, in a generation, we are spread to the four corners of the map.

Nan’s part of the tree was particularly bushy with four daughters each with multiple children and then grandchildren and now great-grandchildren of their own. But today there’s a piece of the tree missing and the world – or, at least, my little corner of it – is a little bit sadder for the loss.

Monet’s Field of Poppies

I have a routine now. I google for an image on my iPhone and prop it on my knee while I sketch it on my iPad.

I think that’s enough copying for now though. Time to come up with my own idea. A portrait, maybe.

Funny thing about Monet prints…the images that turn up in the google vary so much in colour and tone that you have to decide up front which version of a Monet painting you are going to paint.

In hindsight, I like the muted one at top-right best but the yellow in the clouds makes me think the bottom-right is closest to the original.

Makes me want to go track down the original to see what colour it is. Anyone seen it?

Same deal with the Sunrise. Check it out.