Orange County Book Fair — Featured Illustrator!

Oh my goodness! I’m going to be a Featured Illustrator at the Orange County Book Festival on September 29th. This means I take the stage for 20 minutes and do a live demo teaching kids and parents how to draw Pumpkinheads characters!

I got the call today from Kite Readers, our eBook publisher for Carmin Cares and Ella’s Toys. This looks like it’s going to be a lot of fun. Last year’s illustrator lineup was pretty stellar, so I have some big shoes to fill!

Fragments of Creativity

Life moves faster than the scrapbook.

I am in the slow process of consolidating offline photos and posts from different eras of my life. In the meantime, here’s a link to my old website, which is no longer being updated but still contains some good content. In particular, the Roadtrip USA travelogue has helped other friends plan their cross-country drives, and the Art and Fear section has generated surprisingly heartfelt responses from strangers.

Art and Whining

I leave Karl Gnass’s figure drawing class with mixed feelings. On the one hand, my skills have improved a lot.


On the other hand, there’s a vibe in the room that I’m really coming to dislike.

There isn’t any one person I dislike at all (quite to the contrary, I’ve learned a lot from everyone), but the overall chemistry of the room is at times stifling. Too much negative energy and bitterness. Last week, the model’s offhand comment about Americans being more interested than the Brits in William and Kate’s wedding turned into a landslide of rants about everything that’s wrong with American culture, how professional sports are the bread and circuses of the masses, how athletes are overpaid, and how we’re all being manipulated by those in political power. Karl was part of this rant session too.

I really hate it when artists get on a whiny high horse like this. I’m not against political rants per se, but I worked in DC for seven years and I have a lot of respect for people who take action when they’re unhappy about a local, specific issue than people who sit on their butts and complain about the political landscape in general. I hate to say this, but put up or shut up.

Second, what is with that snobbery towards pop culture? Why the hatred of professional sports? Or rather, if you’re not into sports, fine, but why such pride in hating sports? America is a land of contradictions. We elected both Obama and Bush. We turned both Harry Potter and Twilight into bestsellers. I don’t pretend to like everything about mainstream America. But I have an even lower tolerance for artists who sit around and complain about everything.

If you hate your audience so much, and think they’re such unenlightened meatheads, why bother producing creative work at all? I have nothing but respect for people who go to work each day, raise their kids, take them to Little League games, take them to the library, teach them to think, and raise them to be contributing citizens. These are the people who keep the economy going. These are the people I’d like to entertain as an artist. These are my friends, many of whom are still fans of their hometown teams and snuck at least a casual glance at Kate’s wedding dress.

Ms. Fixit

This is a bit wordy for a comic, but it’s pretty much a verbatim recap of a conversation I had with a friend who really could fix everything from a broken piece of software to a broken purse strap.


If you ask me, one of the reasons there aren’t as many women in engineering as there should be is fear of breaking stuff.

Art Quotes of the Week

Karl Gnass quoting Thelonious Monk – “All we’re doing is looking for the right mistake.”

Luis Alfaro speaking at the Jazz Bakery Speakeasy – “The one thing art asks of you is that you change.”

Dr. Richard Selzer: “Just as a writer surrenders to language, permitting the words to lead his hands across the page, so will stone, brick, wood, glass and marble suggest to the architect the manner in which to use them.”

The Space Between

Animation lesson from Greg: “The interesting part of any shot, even a crazy fast action shot, is in the pauses. It’s in the moments in between the actions, the anticipation and reaction, that we get the feeling that the character is thinking and therefore alive.”

To me, that principle is summed up perfectly in this poem by Kenneth Patchen, titled The Moment:

before the girl picking field daisies
becomes the girl picking field daisies
there is a moment of some complexity

And my friend Slim adds, “It’s so interesting how this theme occurs and reoccurs in all art forms. The music is the space between the notes, and not the notes themselves. Typography is the space between the letters, and not the letters themselves.”

For that matter, I could quote the Tracy Chapman song:

There is fiction in the space between
The lines on your page of memories

Light Side, Dark Side

I’ve spent most of my professional life as a software engineer, and software engineering has definitely changed my personality. Much of it has informed my other pursuits in amazingly positive ways, but some of it has the potential to be a trap.

Helpful Geek Traits:

  • The ability to divide and conquer seemingly monolithic projects.
  • Agile cycle of sensible iterations and constant refactoring.
  • Being detail-oriented and schedule-oriented.
  • Being self-troubleshooting and able to write my own tools.
  • Empathy (yes, empathy) – being able to approach a domain on its own terms rather than trying to impose my own framework in some Procrustian fit.
  • Understanding the value of simplicity – “When you figure out what you want to say, you don’t have to put a lot of marks on the page.” This is as true in class design as it is in life drawing.
  • Recognizing that the coupled traits of persistence and honesty are far more important than any God-given talent.

Unhelpful Geek Traits:

  • Panic mode of constant firefighting. Aggressively looking for things to go wrong. Paranoia.
  • Excessive nitpicking over edge cases and other things that are important in programming but irrelevent in real life, like a missing semicolon. It’s like fixating on a speck of dirt in the grout between kitchen tiles.
  • Being lord of my own little domain and fearing to venture outside my comfort zone. I never, ever thought this would apply to me, but now that I have finally aquired depth as a developer, it’s surprisingly difficult to tackle new disciplines at which I have zero experience – surprisingly difficult to risk falling flat on my face.

Both helpful and unhelpful:

  • Geek stubbornness – chasing after a bug till you squash it, damn it. This is usually a good trait, but it’s sometimes gotten me locked in cubbyholes and fixated on the wrong thing. There are times when it’s important to abandon a side battle in order to focus on the war.
  • Unrealistic assessment of difficulty and risk. I don’t think I pursue difficulty for its own sake, or create complexity for the sake of creating complexity, but I do almost always tackle bigger projects bigger than I’m capable of at the time. This is because ANY programming project looks intimidating and impossible until you jump in. So I’ve become immune to fear, in a certain sense, and that’s not always a good thing.

Music as Hypnosis

There’s a well-known page of The Animator’s Survival Kit where a young animator asks an older animator what kind of music he likes to listen to while animating, and older guy responds (this is such a great series of drawings), “Of all the s-s-s-tupid god-god-god-damned questions I-I-I-I’ve ever heard! I-I-I-I-A-A-A-F-F-F-Stupid question! Iy-Iy-Iy-Iy-I’m not smart enough to think of more than one thing at a time!”

Ah… yeah. I’m not that smart either, which is why I should really know better than to write code or draw or animate or do anything, really, with a browser window open. Physically unplugging my Ethernet cable is sometimes the best thing I can do for myself. No one is as good at multitasking as they think they are.

That said… I need my music in order to do pretty much anything creative – write code or draw or animate. I do turn it off when I really need to concentrate, but I find it next to impossible to get started without it.

First off, it alleviates the fear factor of staring at a blank page. I don’t think anyone ever really gets over this. We just get better at dealing with it. Courage isn’t the absence of fear – the absence of fear is a pathology. Courage is the ability to persevere in the face of fear.

Second… I think I need music in order to tap into my own personal wellspring of intuition – that subsurface layer of thought I depend on so heavily in everything I do, from code to math to language to art. The frustrating thing is, I can’t query that layer on cue. When I try, I usually draw blanks. That’s why it took so long to come up with the list of computer science metaphors that’s since started to evolve into a computer science etymology. I really couldn’t directly query the mental database – I had to wait for the words to bubble up of their own accord, in my own daily stream of consciousness. Unlike the main characters in High Fidelity, I am simply incapable of thinking in top ten lists. Off the top of my head, I have no idea what my favorite books, movies, or music are. But give me an an opportunity to quote one of them in a conversation, and the house-elf in the back of my head will happily supply the source before I’m even aware that I need it.

So what does music have to do with it? I think music immerses me deep within that subsurface layer of intuition. Instead of hovering above it, as day-to-day life forces me to do, I’m floating within it. It takes the house-elf out of the equation. Much as I love, trust, and rely on that house-elf, he is at times an intrusive middleman.