Brushing Up Again (Part Two)

As promised yesterday, here’s a bit more about my recent adventures with digital art on an iPad using the Procreate app.

I have mostly been practising by doing a handful of simple abstract paintings and more-or-less daily life drawings (fairly quick sketches from photo references). Indeed, one of my motivations to actually get on with trying to learn how to use my new digital art platform (having bought the hardware components, if not the software, several months ago) is the hope that my life drawing classes may be able to restart soon and the attendant realisation that my drawing skills have got some what rusty through neglect in the last year or so (I dropped out of the daily sketching habit around last April and have only done a handful of random sketches since then).

Having begun to get a handle on the basics of using Procreate, and beginning to feel some of my (albeit limited) artistic mojo returning and adapting well enough to the new medium, I decided to have a go at some more painting-styled work.

As my first subject, I selected an avocado plant that’s growing (in a pot) on my windowsill. Here’s what the painting looks like at the moment (it’s probably a work in progress, but I may decide just to quit while I’m ahead):

I started with a rough sketch to establish the basic composition. I then dialed back the opacity of that layer and set up several new ones to contain the painted background, the pot and the plant itself, each with a layer of their own. In each of these I used the “acrylic paint” brush at various different sizes.

My process was quite similar to how I’d approach a painting with actual acrylic paints, and the result is definitely quite a similar style too. It was definitely nice not to have to worry about mixing up sufficient quantities of paint or avoid contaminating one lot of paint with another, nor to have to wash my brushes afterwards or wait for one layer to dry before I could start on the next one. It’s also convenient to be able to go in and rework the background without having to worry about accidentally painting over any of the foreground details and it’s great to be able to try out different options without necessarily commiting to them.

For example, looking at the picture now, I wonder if a little bit of “inking” over the top to provide a bit more definition for some of the leaf edges and other structures might help the overall effect. In a traditional painting I’d have to make a decision and either leave it as it is (no pun intended) or commit to putting pen to paper (and I’m not actually sure how well it work to try drawing over acrylics, though I know it can work well with watercolours). With this digital painting, all I’d need to do (I’m not sure if I actually will) would be to add a new layer, do the drawing on there and if I don’t like it I can delete, or even just hide, it. And I’m not just limited to one experiment either – I could try a bunch of different things and then select the one(s), if any, that work best.

I don’t think I’ll be getting rid of my real paints and brushes just yet, but I suspect that I may well be doing the majority of my artwork (or at least the painting) with digital media from now on.

(And in case you’re wondering, I actually wrote this last night hot on the heels of the previous post – I didn’t get up bright and early to write and post it and I may in fact still be in bed!)

Brushing Up Again (Part One)

A few months ago, I decided to get myself an iPad. There were several reasons for this but one of the main ones was that I wanted a better platform for digital artwork than my cheap and cheerful Android tablet. I decided to push the boat out a reasonably long way and get myself a 4th generation iPad Air. If the experiences of other iPad users I know are a fair guide, Apple hardware seems to last a pretty long time and athough newer, more powerful models come out frequently the older ones continue to work and be well supported, so by getting a new one now I hopefully have a device that will keep going and be useful as more than an expensive paperweight for for a long time to come.

Some kind of stylus is pretty much required for any serious digital artwork on a tablet and the Apple Pencil is, by common consensus, agreed to be the best by far of the options available for the iPad. Unsurprising, as it’s made by Apple themselves. However, it has a correspondingly large price tag and my budget didn’t stretch to getting one of those at the same time as my iPad. Instead I got a relatively cheap stylus (about £15, as I recall, compared to over £100 for a 2nd generation Apple Pencil or around £80 for a 1st generation one that would still work but have some limitations). It’s not quite as fully featured and, probably most crucially for drawing, not pressure sensitive but certainly enough to get me started and learn the basics of the apps I’ll be using. At some point I may invest in an actual Apple Pencil.

Initially I installed Autodesk Sketchbook, a free app that is also available for Android (and, I think, a bunch of other platforms, not all tablet/phone based). I have used this on my Android phone and tablet and got on ok with it, though I never really got comfortable with the interface. My experiences with it on the Mac were slighlty better, due to a bit more screen real estate (certainly compared to my phone), a better stylus and much more responsive handling than my old tablet. Still, I didn’t find myself particularly loving it and wanting to do lots of drawing.

A few weeks ago I decided to take the plunge and buy myself a copy of Procreate, a very highly regarded (and iPad exclusive) drawing app that costs the princely sum of £8.99 or so (a one-off payment). Most reviews I read that compared it to Autodesk Sketchbook said that Procreate was a more powerful bit of software but harder to learn. Undaunted I purchased it anyway and was pleasantly surprised to find that, for me at least, the interface is much more intuitive and the overall drawing experience much more pleasant. This isn’t to knock Autodesk at all – that is also a very capable app (I don’t want to damn it with faint praise by adding “especially considering the price point”) and I’m sure if I devoted enough effort to it I could learn it well enough, but I think Procreate is the one for me.

There is plenty still to learn of course, and lots of scope for frustration along the way (even just with respect to itself, let alone my own artistic abilities or lack thereof). For instance, one evening I finished a sketch I was particularly happy with and then, noticing that it was showing up in my gallery in landscape format (when it was supposed to be a portrait format sketch), I tried to rotate it by changing the canvas size and inadvertently ended up cropping off the entire top half of the sketch. For some reason, this seemed to be a one-way process and it wouldn’t let me undo the change, which is usually possible with digital editing and is one of the major attractions of it compared to traditional media. I ended up just having to settle for half a sketch. Fortunately, soon after that I discovered how to rotate the images in the gallery without having to change the canvas size, so I should be able to avoid making that particular mistake again, though I’m sure there are plenty of others still to be made.

I was going to go on to talk a bit more about the actual creative process and put in a picture of the painting I’m currently working on, but this is getting quite long already so I’ll save that for another day.

P.S. I originally entitled this post simply Brushing Up, and then made it Brushing Up (Part One) when I realised it was going to be a two-parter (at least). After I published it I had a read back through my earlier art related blog posts and discovered that the very first one was also called Brushing Up. I have therefore reamed this one. Actually, the first line of that post is almost as applicable now (although it hasn’t been quite such a long gap this time): “After far too long a gap, I have recently begun to draw and paint again.”

Finally made it!

Tonight’s dinner was a partial success.

When I was putting together my latest grocery order, to arrive a couple of days ago, I decided to make a chile con carne as my main meal for the weekend (by which I mean that I would cook enough for several days, eat some both today and tomorrow and probably freeze the rest, not that I’d only have one proper meal over the weekend). Unlike the last several times this has been my plan, I actually remembered to add some chilli peppers to my order, so I’d count that as the first successful bit of the endeavour 🙂

When it came to making the meal, things looked promising. As well as the usual minced beef, chillis, onion and suchlike, I put in a bit of finely diced carrot and courgette, as I had some of each vegetable that were in need of using up. I also added a dash of vermouth, and I had high hopes for this being a good one.

Unfortunately I got slightly distracted doing other things while I left it to simmer and got back to the kitchen just in time to find it starting to burn as the liquid, which had seemed ample when I left it, had by now all boiled off or been absorbed. I was able to rescue it from being a complete inedible disaster (or worse, setting fire to my kitchen) but suffice it to say that this chile con carbon was not quite the sumptuous delight I had been anticipating. It will be interesting to see how it is tomorrow, as such dishes are often better on the second day when the flavours have had time to develop but in this case the flavours may be a little on the smoky side!

More successful was the side dish, as I’ve finally got round to having a go at making guacamole almost 30 years after first being shown how to make it.

Back then I was still at school, and it was a different, more innocent era in which teachers could invite their pupils over to their homes for things like extra-curricular computer programming lessons, which I very much doubt any sensible and well-intentioned teacher would dare to do these days (even ignoring the minor issue of a global pandemic). One of my teachers had lent me a computer and was teaching me how to program it, which entailed fairly frequent bike journeys (usually on Saturday afternoons) from my village to his in order to take some lessons. As well as getting a good foundation in programming (I was learning Pascal, not a language I’ve ever seriously used since then, but the basic principles of how to program a computer have largely stuck with me), I was introduced to some seriously good music (the highlight being the Penguin Café Orchestra, whose music I continue to enjoy to this day) and, on one occasion, was shown how to make guacamole. This was because my teacher, who had spent some time working in Mexico before joining our school, was preparing for a party that evening and was busy making some using an authentic Mexican recipe when I arrived.

Sadly I didn’t write down that recipe and don’t remember a huge amount from it, except that it involved mashing avocados with salt, pepper and a few other things in a bowl (with a fork, IIRC). Fast forward to this evening and I had an avocado that I’d bought pretty much on a whim in my grocery order the other day; rather than do my usual thing of cutting it in half and eating it out of the skin garnished with a bit of black pepper and perhaps some mayonnaise, I decided the time had come to try out making guacamole for myself. Fortunately there are plenty of recipes online, so I was able to get a general idea of how to do it (to supplement my memories from the last millenium) and then improvised from there. I was very pleased with how it turned out.

Basically, I finely chopped an onion and a chilli pepper (carefully saved from cooking my main dish) and stuck them in a pestle and mortar (well, technically just in the mortar) with the flesh of an avocado, a bit of salt and pepper and a couple of teaspoons of lime juice. I then mashed the whole lot down (with the pestle, of course) and enjoyed eating it with a bit of tortilla. It may be worth noting that I had previously used the pestle and mortar to grind up some cumin, salt and pepper for the chile and had only given it a brief wipe out in between, so there was almost certainly a little bit of cumin in the guacamole too.

The other components of the meal also worked pretty well (namely, a bottle of well-chilled Mexican lager – not generally the sort of beer I go for, but ideal in the right context – a lovely bit of brie and then a couple of Mr Kipling’s trifle bakewells, which happened to be on special offer this week, for dessert). So if you count each of the individual components more or less equally, I’d say the whole meal rated about 4.5 out of 5.

And hopefully it will be less than 30 years before I next get round to making guacamole!

Bottoms Up!

Last night I made an exciting discovery.

Well, not perhaps that exciting in the grand scheme of things but something that pleased me anyway and resolved a mystery that’s been bugging me for the last year.

I’ve been playing computer games on and off for quite a few years (all the way back to the early 1980s when my family got a ZX Spectrum for Christmas and my first go on it consisted of playing the racing game Checkered Flag (IIRC) until I crashed out at the first bend on the Silverstone race track.

In the past year or so I’ve been getting back into gaming on my trusty PC and almost a year ago I got myself a gamepad to provide a more convenient control method for some of the games I was playing. My shiny new controller was an X-Box one (also compatible with Windows PCs – I must admit that while I prefer Linux or MacOS for pretty much everything else, I do tend to use Windows for gaming as it generally works more or less out of the box and there are a lot more games available on the platform).

It’s a great little device and for many games is much better than trying to use a keyboard and mouse. Just one thing always bugged me. As well as a plethora of buttons and a couple of little joystick things on the top surface, there are 4 buttons on the back (relative to the way you naturally hold the controller, which is pleasantly ergonomic). These are labelled LT, LB, RT and RB. The L and R part was obvious enough as they are on the left and right sides respectively. The T and B part confused me, though, as I assumed they stood for Top and Bottom, yet the T ones were clearly below the B ones!

Last night I was looking up the controls for my latest favourite game, Red Dead Redemption 2, in order to figure out a couple of details I’d been missing despite playing it avidly for the last fortnight or so. I came across a handy list which referred to “Left Trigger”, “Right Bumper” etc. My first thought was that this seemed a much more sensible naming scheme than “Left Top”, “Right Bottom” and so on, as the letters corresponded to the physical reality of the controller…

… and then it occurred to me that these were the actual names of the buttons and I’d been thinking of them wrongly all this time. This is a good reminder of the basic principle that was instilled into me through my many (and now, admittedly, fairly distant) years of mathematical training: to always examine your assumptions. As a slightly clichéd but still true phrase puts it, to assume makes an ass of u and me!

The end of the road

I’ve lived in my current house for almost 10 years. It’s in the middle of a housing estate which, like many others, consists of a main road with several side roads branching off it. In my case the main road drops down a hill and I live on one of the side roads near the bottom. A little bit further down, another side road off to the right connects with another estate and then back out into the town, while the main road around which my estate is built heads off to the left.

Usually I get in and out of the estate either via this side road to the right or going down an alley that provides a convenient short cut out of the estate if you’re on foot or a bike (as I usually am), or sometimes I go up the hill to the top. I have no real occasion to follow the main road round to the left past the turn-off, although I did once drop round to visit someone on another side road a bit further down. I’d never actually gone all the way to the end of the road!

Last week I had a letter delivered to me by accident that was actually supposed to go to a house on a similarly named road in town. I was intending to write a note on the envelope and stick it back in the post box, but when I looked up the location of the other road (to satisfy my own curiosity) I discovered it was actually slightly closer to my house than the postbox is (going up the hill instead of down), so I decided it was better just to pop round and post it directly through the door.

Apart from a weekly bike ride to go shopping and check the post at my office, I’d not actually got round to leaving my house / garden since the lockdown started. I felt quite invigorated by this brief walk and decided that it’s probably a good idea to go for at least a short walk (allowed under the daily exercise provision) on any day when the weather’s not too awful and I’m not going out on my bike. I may get this year’s running season off to a start soon (though I realise I probably haven’t mentioned running yet on my blog as I only got into that after my final post of last year and I’ve been having a winter break since mid-October).

The first couple of days I stuck to a couple of my fairly well-trod routes, but on Saturday I decided the time had finally come to walk to the end of the road. It turns out that it’s slightly less than half a kilometre from my front door, and the road ends at a gate leading into a field. I think it’s a public right of way so I may go back soon and investigate further.

Another, more figurative, end of the road almost happened today as well.

A few days I ordered a couple of bits I needed for my computer from Amazon. I know they are one of the big, bad corporate giants but they are a very convenient one-stop shopping location for so many things, and generally give a pretty reliable service. I was pleasantly surprised when I had an email this morning to say that my parcel, which I was expecting on Wednesday, was now due for delivery this afternoon. I was pleased (though not surprised) when it turned up. I was less pleased when I found that the end of the box was open and only one of the two items I’d ordered was actually inside. The one which actually turned up, in case you’re wondering, was an external CD player for my new office laptop; the missing one was an external hard drive,intended for backup purposes.

My guess is that the box was probably not securely fastened during the packing process and the hard drive fell out somewhere in transit, though it’s possible that somebody may have helped it out, or even that it was never put in there in the first place. In any case, since my Amazon orders page quite clearly showed both items being included in the package, and the package having been delivered, and since I had received the package with a loose end and just about enough empty space in the box for the missing item (which wouldn’t be labelled with any delivery information), I figured it would be best to alert Amazon immediately rather than waiting to see if it would turn up separately.

Cue much frustration as I searched in vain for a means to flag up delivery problems other than a package which hadn’t arrived at all (basically – contact the courier and ask them about it) or to return items which had arrived but were somehow defective (I tried using that approach but it wanted to put me in touch with the manufacturer who in this instance can’t be held to blame!). I was just on the verge of giving up, and beginning to seriously consider cancelling my Amazon account by way of protest (and also concern that they didn’t seem to provide any mechanism to contact them in case of snafus such as this one), when I finally spotted a “Contact Us” link tucked away in submenu at the bottom of their Customer Service page (itself only accessible, as far as I could see, via a link hidden at the very bottom of the page footer).

This link led me to a chat setup which started with a chatbot to establish the nature of the help request before putting me through to a human assistant (who went by the name of Luv – not sure if that’s their real name). While I was deeply unimpressed by the difficulty of locating this avenue of help, I was very satisfied by the service I got from Luv. Within 5 minutes of hooking up to the chat, I had briefly explained the problem and accepted the offer of a replacement item to be sent to me as soon as possible (an offer that was made without quibble – I was offered a refund as an alternative, but since the item is something I need I figured a replacement would be the better option). It’s not due to arrive until early next week, but that’s fair enough in the circumstances (and if my recent orders which have actually arrived are anything to go by I may get it a bit sooner).

Anyway, that’s quite enough rambling for now. It is time for me to nip out into the early evening sunshine and take my daily walk.

A Welshman’s Shed is his Castle?

Over the past few months I’ve slowly been working my way through the Scottish Gaelic lessons on Duolingo. The one I did this morning contained two sentences that gave me a blast of nostalgia for my Welsh classes nearly 20 years ago.

The sentences in question were Is toil leam seadaichean gu mòr (“I really like sheds”) and Latha sgoinneil ann an seada beag (“A brilliant day in a small shed”). While perhaps not quite as intrinsically exciting as Òbh òbh, tha leòmhann anns an taigh agad a-rithhist (“Oh dear, there is a lion in your house again”; a phrase that cropped up in a lesson I did a couple of weeks ago) — although admittedly the brilliant day one leaves quite a bit of room for interpretation — these reminded me of my first Welsh tutor, Siân.

As well as having bright red hair and a very vivacious personality, not to mention a lovely Llanelli accent (slightly at odds with the North Wales variety of Welsh she was teaching us), Siân had a slightly wicked sense of humour. For instance, during group oral exercises she would take great delight in asking somebody (usually me) to translate phrases such as “her party” into Welsh, where it becomes ei pharti. Suffice it to say that the ‘ph’ in Welsh is the same sound that it generally is in English — think pheasant or pharmacy — and the word as a whole rhymes with the English version. (Incidentally, modern Welsh also uses ‘ff’ for the same sound as ‘ph’, albeit not interchangeably, but uses a single ‘f’ to represent the sound that we’d write in English with a ‘v’; this also crops up with an ‘f’ in the English word “of” and as I recall that sound / letter combo used to be much more common in Old English).

She also had a fixation for garden sheds and would regularly mention them in pretty much every lesson, usually with an observation along the lines that every married man needed one as his special domain, while the wife ruled the rest of the house. I don’t think I ever had the pleasure of meeting Siân’s husband.

Mind you, I too had a bit of a fixation in those Welsh lessons, as I’d mention ironing almost as often as Siân mentioned sheds. Not that I was ever a fan of ironing itself, but the Welsh word for it (smwddio, pronounced a bit like “smoothie” with an ‘o’ on the end) is so delightfully onomatopoeic that I couldn’t help but fall in love with it (the word, not the activity). As a result, any time we were assembling a list of words with which to practice whatever grammatical constructions we were working on at the time, you could pretty much guarantee that both sied (that’s how you write “shed” in Welsh; it’s pronounced the same as in English) and smwddio would appear — at least until I was banned from using the latter. I always thought that was a bit unfair, since Siân still got to talk about sheds regularly. Perk of being the teacher, I suppose.

Anyway, while I only had Siân as my Welsh tutor (or rather one of them, as we had her on Mondays, Jim on Tuesdays and Rhiannon on Thursdays) for one year, and then had two further years of Welsh lessons (with tutors Angela and Nia) before gaining my A-level and stopping my formal Welsh education, I have recently been working my way through the Duolingo Welsh course by way of revision of the basics (and extending my grasp of South Wales Welsh, to which the course is slightly biased). And today’s Gaelic lesson wasn’t the only one to provide noteworthy sentences. The Welsh one contained this little gem, which I’ve never before needed to utter and probably never will, although I think I can totally get behind the sentiment: Noson carioci? Basai’n well gyda fi fwyta malwod byw! (“Karaoke night? I’d rather eat live snails!”, though up here in the North we’d actually say Basai’n well gen i fwyta…, which means exactly the same thing).

Soldering on

I mentioned yesterday that I’d been listening to the radio and promised to say more about that.

Now, listening to the radio is perhaps not all that unusual, although it’s not something I do very often these days. What was notable, or at least a source of great satisfaction to me, was the fact that I was able to listen to this particular radio, which I’d managed to break several days earlier.

The radio in question is a fairly cheap little portable DAB radio that I picked up a couple of years ago in order to be able to listen to my favourite stations (mostly that’s Radio 3, Radio 4 and Radio Cymru, with occasional forays elsewhere) without all the extraneous noise that tends to happen with analogue radios, especially if (like me) you live in an area with not particularly good reception. In fact, I think they are due to be turning off analogue broadcasting sometime soon if they haven’t done so already (or maybe that was just TV – I’ve not had one of those for several years but I’m fairly sure they are digital-only by now).

I didn’t actually use this radio all that often but recently I’d started tuning in again a bit more frequently (mostly the other week when I was working in my shiny new home “office” – aka my sitting room but had my music collection on the PC in my bedroom and hadn’t yet succeeded in setting up my Raspberry Pi as a music server from which I can access my music anywhere in the house; that is now up and running pretty well, and I may even get round at some point to tweaking it so I can access it from outside the house – not that there’s a lot of point in that just now; anyway, I digress!).

All was good until a few days ago when I moved a trailing extension cable, completely forgetting that the radio was plugged into it and sitting precariously balanced on a shelf at just about the extent of its power cord’s range. The radio came crashing down on to the floor. I picked it up and put it back, admonishing myself to be more careful next time, and then proceeded to get on with playing music on my Pi (controlled via ssh from my laptop), which I had by this time managed to get working.

I didn’t discover the problem until a couple of days later when I decided that, since I no longer needed the radio to listen to music while I worked, I’d put it in the kitchen to enjoy music while I cooked or washed up. I then discovered that the radio was not working, or at least it started ok and then stopped with a message about low power despite clearly being plugged in and turned on at the wall. A brief inspection revealed that the power connector was wobbly (to use a technical term).

Undaunted, I dug out a screwdriver and took the back off the radio (after unplugging it from the mains, of course, and being very careful to avoid going near any capacitors inside. It turned out that the power connector (a micro-USB socket) is surface-mounted to a PCB and held on by four fairly flimsy solder connections, all of which had got disconnected as a result of the radio being yanked off the shelf by its power cable.

Still undaunted, I figured that it was worth a shot at resoldering the thing since the worst that would be likely to happen would be a non-functional radio, which I already had, and there was at least a chance I might manage to get it working again, which would obviously be better than consigning it to landfill and having to either buy a new one or do without. I’d say my soldering skills are fairly rudimentary (and quite out of practice) but just about up to a relatively simple task like this.

Actually the hardest, or at least the slowest, part of the task was probably digging my soldering iron and related equipment out of the garage, where I’d left them after my latest burst of enthusiasm for electronics waned a few months (or years?) ago. The soldering itself went pretty well and I soon had the connector more or less firmly attached to the PCB once again. After that it was a simple matter to put everything back together and find out whether it would actually work.

It did, and so far is still doing so (well, not right at the moment as I’ve got it switched off, but I’m confident it will work next time I switch it on unless I’ve managed to pull it off the kitchen windowsill and break it again by then). And now I’ve dug out my soldering iron, along with several boxes of components and a handful of books, I may just have another go at getting back into electronics.

(In unrelated news, today is the anniversary – 33rd, or thereabouts – of the violin grade 1 exam that remains the pinnacle of my qualifications, if not my actual achievements, in practical music-making. I can’t remember whether I’ve ever played my violin on the radio, though I have apparently played it on Romanian national television!)