Carving a butterfly

Sometimes it’s quite fun to do something totally random on the spur of the moment.

For instance, this afternoon I made myself a new paper knife.

This came about because I’d been pruning the buddleja bushes in my garden, a task I’ve been meaning to do for several weeks.  Today has been a lovely sunny day and I didn’t have to go out or do anything much else, so it seemed like a very good opportunity.  Following advice I found on several websites after a quick Google search, I went for fairly heavy pruning.  This resulted in quite a lot of material cut off, including several fairly chunky bits.

It occurred to me that the bigger offcut pieces might work quite well for whittling, a hobby that I’ve been meaning to try for quite a while (I did a little bit when I was growing up, but nothing serious).

One piece in particular, with a beautifully curved and slightly gnarled end, struck me as having potential to make quite a nice paper knife, and it just so happened that I was in need of a new one of those for my office since someone seems to have walked off with my old one several months ago.

Since the weather was so fine and it seemed a shame to waste it by going back inside the house straight away, I decided to strike while the iron was hot and so I grabbed my penknife and set to work out in the garden.

Actually, the first step (which I did in the garage) was to cut the piece of wood down to roughly the desired length using a saw.  I then decided that for the blade section it would be much quicker to saw away quite a lot of the excess material rather than trying to carve it all the way.  I suspect this may contravene some people’s strict definition of whittling but I don’t really care.

I didn’t make a note of the time I started or finished but I think it probably took a bit less than an hour of whittling to get the knife more-or-less how I wanted it.  I then finished it off with a little bit of gentle sanding (which again may be against some people’s whittling rules but, since I wasn’t taking part in a competition or intending to sell my work as a hand-whittled product, seemed to be a good way of getting a nice smooth finish that will make the paper knife much more practical and pleasant to use).

Here’s what the finished result looks like:

Butterfly Knife #1

(You can click on the photo to see it bigger in my Flickr photostream, where you will also find several more pictures of the knife.)

I must confess that I’ve not actually tried opening any letters with this, since I’d already opened today’s post by the time I made it.  However, it fits quite comfortably in my hand and I don’t see any reason why it shouldn’t work perfectly well.  All told, I’m very pleased with how it’s turned out, especially for a first attempt.

The next challenge is to figure out what to make from the other buddleja offcuts that I saved.

By the way, in case you’re wondering about the title of this post (which, as seems to be fairly common for my titles, is perhaps slightly off-the-wall) I decided that since my new paper knife is made out of buddleja wood and buddleja is commonly referred to as the butterfly bush (on account of it being very popular with lepidoptera) I would call this my butterfly knife (although it’s nothing like the type of knife usually referred to by that name – for which see the article on Wikipedia if you’re interested).

Here, by way of conclusion, is a picture of a peacock butterfly on one of my buddleja bushes last summer:


Way more than 50…

I’ve never read the book 50 Shades of Grey, nor seen the recent film version, and have no particular intention of doing so.   Still, it seemed a good excuse to get a pop-culture reference into the title of this post, which is actually about photography.

For a long time I’ve had a particular fondness for black & white photography.  Partly this is, no doubt, a matter of nostalgia as I used to be a member of my university photographic society and made quite extensive use of their darkroom (which was equipped for b&w work only) for a year or so (almost 15 years ago, at the tail-end of my pre-digital days).

Largely, though, it’s because I love the look of well-executed monochrome images and the moods they can evoke.  Granted, a well-executed colour photo can also be a joy to behold and there are many subjects that require colour to work well, but often I find that the colour can be a distraction and that the monochrome image reveals details that you would otherwise miss.

Here’s a not particularly great example from my own photo collection.  The original image was shot in colour (about 6 years ago).  This is how I tend to work most of the time in digital photography, since it’s possible to remove the colour later but not to add it back in:


It’s a nice enough picture but not especially gripping or memorable (and even the “in-focus” bits are slightly out-of-focus, which becomes more obvious at larger sizes).   Admittedly the same is true of the desaturated version below,  but I think the removal of the colour in this case makes for a slightly stronger image, as the shapes and (in this case especially) the tones are more apparent:

Moth (B&W)

Had the moth been a bit more colourful or the foliage a bit more varied, there might have been just as much lost as gained in the shift from colour to b&w.  As it is, I think much is gained and little lost here.

Sometimes it’s much harder to decide between colour or monochrome versions of an image.  Here’s a photo I took on a trip to Catalonia last August:

Campanario de Reus

And here it is in b&w (and slightly cropped):

Campanario de Reus #2

In this case I love the blue of the sky and the subtle colours in the stonework that are apparent in the colour version, but I also love the effect when the colour is removed and the tones are allowed to come to the fore.  Of these two images I definitely prefer the second one, but that’s more due to the (IMHO) stronger composition with the square crop than to the presence or absence of colour.

I recently came across a lovely discussion of the benefits of monochrome photography, which is largely what inspired this mini-essay of mine.  Unfortunately, I didn’t make a careful note of where I found it but I think it was on one of the Weekly Imogen videos on YouTube, which are created by a London-based photographer called Mark and his regular model, Imogen, who also post regularly on Flickr under the name of unexpectedtales. Here’s a picture of Imogen (by Mark), which also doubles as a link to their Flickr photostream, which in turn contains a link to the YouTube series (not, unfortunately, to the video I was after):

See Imogen's top 10 favourite shots on Flickr

(Incidentally, this particular image is one of the top 10 favourite pictures of herself that Imogen selected for the linked video and is also one of my favourites of her; many of their photos are in colour but I think that a lot of the strength of this particular image comes from the fact that it isn’t.)

Anyway, to paraphrase Mark or whoever else was making the statement about monochrome photography, he said something along the lines of: “The joy of black and white photography is precisely that it isn’t just black and white but thousands of shades of grey in between… the monochrome image invites the viewer to engage with it in a way that colour images don’t, requiring your imagination to fill in the missing colours.” I’m fairly sure he also made the point about colours sometimes being a distraction that I mentioned earlier, which is a view I’ve held for a long time. Monochrome photography (perhaps paradoxically, given that it’s been around for much longer than colour photography, which tends to lack this particular advantage – or at least doesn’t have it so intrinsically built in) offers us a new way of seeing the familiar.

A tale of two barbers

If I were asked to name my favourite opera, I’d have a hard time picking one. However, there are some that would definitely make the shortlist, including Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia (the Barber of Seville).

Apparently I’m not alone in assessing this to be a fine opera as it is one of the most popularly performed operas in the world (Operabase lists it at #8 in its list of the top 50 operas, by number of performances worldwide between the 2009/10 and the 2013/14 season).

As it happens, this was one of the first operas I explored when I started to get interested in the genre about a year ago, and was the first one for which I watched or listened to several different performances.

I also did a certain amount of background reading about Il Barbiere and, amongst other things, discovered that Rossini was not the first person to set this story, based on the play Le Barbier de Séville by Pierre Beaumarchais, as an opera.  The play appeared in 1775, as the first part of a trilogy, the second being Le Mariage de Figaro (the Marriage of Figaro) which was very quickly set as an opera – Le nozze di Figaro – by Mozart (also one of the world’s, and my own, favourite operas) and the third being La Mère coupable (The Guilty Mother), which as far as I know has been turned into at least a couple of operas but none of them particularly successful.

Rossini’s version of Il Barbiere (which came out in 1816, about 40 years after the original play) caused quite a stir because there was already an opera of the same name, and based on the same play though using a different libretto, by Giovanni Paisiello. This had appeared in 1782 (i.e. within 7 years of the play) and was still immensely popular by the time Rossini got there.  Although Paisiello is now a somewhat obscure composer he was, by all accounts, quite a pop star in his own time and it was considered rather impertinent of Rossini to try encroaching on his territory (Paisiello died a few months after Rossini’s opera appeared; I couldn’t find any reference to his own reaction to Rossini’s work but his fans apparently rioted).  In fact, to start with, Rossini’s version struggled to gain a foothold while Paisiello’s remained tremendously popular.  Gradually, though, the popularity of Rossini’s opera increased while that of Paisiello’s waned.

Naturally enough, on hearing about Paisiello’s Barbiere, I was keen to hear it for myself.  I recently managed to track down a very reasonably priced audio recording of it and I enjoyed listening to it.  While it doesn’t ascend to the heights of operatic genius that Rossini achieves several times in his version, it is more than competently put together (at least from a musical perspective – I didn’t pay too much attention to the libretto so I can’t judge it dramatically) and pleasant to listen to.  I’d certainly be keen to see it performed (either live or on DVD) if I get a chance, though I probably wouldn’t want to make space for another audio recording (or more than one video one) in my library.

There is a certain ironic justice in Paisiello’s Barbiere having been eclipsed by Rossini’s later version because he himself had previously attempted (I’m not sure how deliberately, or with how much success) to do much the same to Giovanni Battista Pergolesi with La Serva Padrona.  This was a short comic opera that Pergolesi had written (c. 1733) as a pair of intermezzos to break up the acts of his long opera seria, Il prigionier superbo, and had become vastly popular (while Il prigionier fairly quickly faded into relative obscurity); it is seen by many as “the quintessential piece that bridges the gap from the Baroque to the Classical period” (to quote Wikipedia – it’s not clear whether that’s just within the scope of opera or of music more generally).  Paisiello wrote a version, using (I think) the same libretto as Pergolesi but a much more modern musical style, in about 1781 (i.e. shortly before his Barbiere).  I’ve listened to both Pergolesi’s and Paisiello’s versions of La Serva Padrona and enjoyed them both; stylistically there is a much greater gap between them than between Paisiello and Rossini (though even there the two are noticeably different – Paisiello’s Barbiere is perhaps unsurprisingly more reminiscent of his near-contemporary Mozart than of Rossini) so they are quite hard to compare.