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.”

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 Magic of Mushrooms

Normally, grocery shopping is not a highlight of my week. Occasionally, however, I stumble upon a bargain that makes it altogether more pleasurable. Today I found some button mushrooms going for about a third of their usual price, as they were approaching there sell-by date (but still looked in pretty good condition). Needless to say, these came home with me and were cooked up for my tea with garlic, olive oil, butter and a bit of salt and pepper. Very tasty and a great way to show I can write short blog posts if I put my mind to it. 🙂

On the fundamental interconnectedness of all blog posts

Okay, so the title is probably exaggerating slightly (and yes, in case you were wondering, it is somewhat inspired by Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency), but I noticed just after I posted yesterday that it was my second consecutive post to feature the word “sweet” in the title.

Not only was the last post connected by its title to the post before it, but it was connected thematically (albeit loosely) to the post before that because they were both more or less about cheese (mascarpone – one of the major ingredients of my newly discovered pasta sauce – being a type of Italian cream cheese).

I’m sure if I didn’t have better things to do with my time I could probably discover a connection between tomatoes and Welsh grannies or Navajo rugs too!

Short and sweet

My latest category on this blog is apparently going to be a particularly short-lived one.

I set up a knitting & crochet category a few weeks ago as a result of my renewed interest in these (and related) crafts, which was a mainstay of my previous blogs but had waned by the time I started this one.

My interest in them is still going strong (at least for now – past experience suggests it will probably continue to be somewhat up and down) and I’ve decided to set up a separate knitting blog in order to be able to post as much (or as little) as I like about knitting and other fibre crafts without drowning my main blog.  I’m also intending to repost all the knitting-related articles I can still find from my previous blogs, so that I have them all in one handy place (this was prompted by the recent realisation that one of the old blogs no longer seems to be online – fortunately I have an offline backup of the text).

As a result, this blog will probably feature few, if any knitting posts.  I’m planning to keep the category open, though, just in case.  If there’s anything particularly notable – like my cunning new Firefly hat – I may put a note up here to direct you to the other blog.

The new blog is called Ar y Gweill (Welsh for “On the needles”, though the blog itself will be written, at least mostly, in English).  Unlike this one, posts won’t be automatically published to my Facebook wall.  If you want to follow my knitting posts, that blog (like this one) has an RSS feed available – or you can follow it directly on WordPress or just bookmark the site in your browser.

One of the reasons for keeping my knitting blog separate is so that I can link my knitting posts to my Ravelry profile.  Ravelry is a pretty big online fibre arts community, of which I’ve been a member for quite a few years.  It’s free to join and well worth checking out if you’re at all interested in knitting, crochet or similar crafts.  To see anything there (apart from a login screen) you’ll need an account.  On my knitting blog, I’m making the assumption that anyone sufficiently interested to want to see the details of my Ravelry profile or project pages etc. will either have an account already or be willing to get one.  If you are a member of Ravelry, feel free to give me a shout on there.

On the problem of muscle memory

Muscle memory is generally a useful phenomenon, as it enables you to do things such as touch typing or playing a musical instrument with little or no conscious thought as to what your fingers (or other appendages, though at the moment I’m specifically thinking of digital muscle memories) are doing.

I’m not sure how much it’s actually the muscles themselves that get used to how they should be moving and how much it’s the brain subconsciously serving up the information as it’s required.  I suspect it’s probably largely the latter, but “muscle memory” is still a convenient name.

However it works, and whatever you call it, I maintain that most of the time it is very handy.  However, there are times when it can prove to be more of a hindrance.

Largely because I do quite a lot of typing in foreign languages that use diacritics (i.e. accent symbols), I regularly find myself having to reach for these characters.  In the old days, I used to have to remember or look up the ASCII codes for the characters I wanted (fortunately, back then it was mostly acute and sometimes grave or circumflex accents on vowels, and perhaps the occasional cedilla, for typing in French).

Both my home and office PCs have somewhat more sophisticated methods set up for accessing special characters.  Unfortunately they are slightly different, which is where the muscle memory can get in the way.

At home I use Linux most of the time, and I have a Compose key (currently the right “Windows” key, which isn’t used for anything else by default on Linux) set up on my keyboard.  Pressing this key followed by a pair of other keys produces a character determined by the keys pressed (a so-called “compose key sequence”); e.g. “compose”  + ‘a’ + ‘`’ (that’s a backtick, which hangs out just to the left of the number 1 on a UK keyboard, in case you were wondering) produces ‘à’. Many of the compose key sequences, such as this one, are fairly intuitive and easy to remember (or, you can just make an educated guess and if it doesn’t produce the expected result, delete it and try it again or look it up).  This is a very straightforward way of making a lot of special characters available on a standard keyboard, and is my favourite solution to the problem.

At work, I use a Windows machine.  On it I have installed a handy little utility called To Bach, which is actually designed to facilitate typing in Welsh but allows typing of the accents found in Welsh (mostly circumflex accents (â) – called to bach (“little roof”) in Welsh, hence the name of the software – and, less often, acute (á) and grave (à) accents on all the vowels – that’s a, e, i, o, u, y and w in Welsh – as well as a diaeresis (ä), which as far as can remember only occurs on the letter i in Welsh but can actually be typed on any vowel with To Bach) as well as certain other special characters such as ç and ñ that don’t actually appear at all in Welsh. It is set up by default to use the right Alt key as the main trigger key. For circumflex accents (the most common by far in Welsh), you just hold down that key (and Shift if you want a capital letter) and type the vowel you want. For the others, you hold down the trigger key and then hit another key (e.g. ‘\’ to get a grave accent) before letting go of both and hitting the vowel key for which you want the accent.

Both methods are very straightforward but because they are different I often find myself reaching for the wrong key combination (e.g. “right Win” + ‘a’ + ‘`’ instead of “right Alt” + ‘\’ + ‘a’ if I want an ‘à’ at work).

The obvious solution, which I may get round to at least partially implementing at some time, would be to reconfigure my Linux compose key settings to match To Bach (as I don’t think it’s possible to edit the configuration of the latter). Alternatively, there are Compose key utilities available for Windows, which would also give me easy access to characters that aren’t currently available via To Bach (e.g. if I want an ‘å’ on Windows – not that I often do – I currently have to either fire up the handy (but not quite so handy as To Bach/Compose) Character Map utility or remember the Alt+134 combination, while on Linux I just have to hit “compose” + ‘o’ + ‘a’) so I could just install one of those and drop To Bach, although having used it for quite a few years I’d be sad to stop using it now.

All things being equal(ised)

For a long time my favourite media player has been Clementine. This is a powerful, well-featured and easy to use player that also has the benefit of being available across several different platforms, so I can use essentially the same player on both my Linux box at home and my Windows PC at work.

Amongst other features Clementine, like all good media players, has a set of equalisation controls.  One of my minor niggles with the program is that access to this is buried in the Tools menu and there doesn’t seem to be any way of configuring a button on the interface or a keyboard shortcut to bring the equaliser panel up.

(Of course, since Clementine is an open-source project I could in theory hack the source code but that would involve quite a steep learning curve and way too much work, so I think I’ll just stick with using the menu.  I may see if there’s a channel for getting feedback to the dev team, in case it’s a feature they’d like to consider for future releases).

Slight fiddliness of access notwithstanding, the equaliser is pretty straightforward to use.  In the version I have on my home computer (Clementine v1.0.1 for Linux) it is a 10 band graphic equaliser with sliders marked for frequencies between 60Hz and 16kHz (both of those probably pushing the limits of my PC speakers, not to mention my own hearing) as well as a pre-amp fader.  There is also a facility for saving,  loading and deleting presets, with a fair selection of pre-installed presets, mostly named for different musical genres (such as Classical, Rock or Ska) though there are a few others named for other things (Large Hall, Full Bass etc.).  While the sliders don’t have any marked scale on them, there is a nice feature whereby you feel a definite notch as you slide through the centre point (i.e. between cutting and boosting the given frequency).  It seems to be done by momentarily pausing the fader button when you drag it through that point but it gives an impressively tactile sensation for an on-screen slider.

Most of the time I tend to leave the equaliser alone but it is sometimes quite handy to be able to tweak it.  I had a clear demonstration of this yesterday.

Earlier in the week I’d been listening to an AC/DC CD (or at least its digital representation in my media library) and had actually got round to resetting the eq to the Rock preset, which has a classic smiley face slider configuration (i.e. bottom and top end pushed up and middle pushed down a bit), though skewed slightly to the left.  This gives a nice bit of sizzle to the sound which generally works well for rock music (hence the preset is quite aptly named).

Yesterday, though, I came to play a vintage opera recording that I’d only just picked up and never previously heard (Renata Tebaldi singing  Catalani’s La Wally, c. 1950, in case you’re interested).  The sound was disappointingly thin and crackly and I thought this was a problem with the recording (it was, after all, a cheap CD of a 64 year old recording).  Then I remembered about the EQ and, on checking, discovered that it was still set to Rock.  I changed it to Classical (flat up to 3kHz and then slightly attenuated for higher frequencies) and it was immediately transformed to a much richer, fuller sound without the annoying hiss.

Apart from being able to access the EQ panel more easily, I’d like to have a facility whereby you could save your EQ preferences for each track or album in your library, rather than having to reset the equaliser manually each time.  This would be especially useful when listening, as I often do, to a mixed playlist of music from different genres.

It is obviously good to be able to adjust the equalisation of your music files in order to be able to get the best possible sound for the combination of the recording, the musical genre, your playback equipment and your own personal tastes.  Perhaps less obviously, it’s also good sometimes to be able to to vary the EQ in order to bring out different aspects of the music.  Not only could this be a way to help you listen to a familiar piece with fresh ears but it can be very handy when you are trying to transcribe a piece of music as, with a judicious choice of EQ settings, you can emphasise the particular section of the sonic spectrum that you are trying to make out and reduce the amount of clutter from everything else that might be going on at the same time.  I’ve been trying to transcribe several pieces of music in the past few days and have just been discovering how useful the EQ controls (as well as other technological marvels such as the ability to slow a piece down without lowering the pitch) can be to aid in this task.