March 2008 Archives


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My favorite landscape spot is a called "The Palisades," I go there occasionally to take photographs, it's especially beautiful in autumn, you can view the fall colors in the forests growing over stone cliffs next to the river. Here's a fall photo of The Palisades in my special antique photochemistry printing method.

I use an antique photo printing method, it's long been abandoned since it is very time-consuming, inaccurate and prone to failure. And this print was one of my failures. Each color of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black requires a layer of pigment emulsion, painted on the paper by hand. Each color is applied, printed, washed, and dried before the next color can be applied. Sometimes each color must be printed multiple times, I think this print has about 7 or 8 layers. This can take days.
And there's the problem, one error in one layer can ruin days of work. Sometimes the error can't be seen until all the layers are printed. This print had a problem with magenta, the magenta emulsion is the most difficult to get right, it's almost always the problem. This print had a faint overall magenta stain that I couldn't recover. It was quite a disappointment as I thought I got the color right except for that faint pinkish tint.
But today, I was going through my prints and it occurred to me, I should scan and color correct it in Photoshop and see how good the color was after removing the magenta. It won't fix the original print, but I could see how it might have worked without that one error.
This color-corrected scan works pretty well, if I do say so myself. The printing method isn't highly detailed, it has a scratchy, textured look that some people compare to an aquatint. Alas, most of that texture can't be seen in this scan, only in the original print.
I like to leave the margins of these prints exposed, people always tell me how they like seeing the brushwork at the edges of the print, it shows that the work is clearly handmade. But I like seeing the registration marks, I'm proud of them. It isn't easy to keep clear registration marks aligned through 7 or 8 layers.
Overall, the color worked well, except for the sky which was a little too pale. There's a reddish patch in the middle which represents a patch of red shrubs, you can't quite make out the shapes but that color is right. The green and yellow foliage in the trees have the right colors, and the grey stone wall is a proper neutral grey (it usually looks blue in the shadowed sunlight). I'm pleased with it, I didn't pick this scene because it was such a great photo (it isn't really) but because it would be a challenge to capture all these diverse color conditions in this inaccurate printing process. It was a good experiment, I was pleased with the results, even if it is far from perfect.
This sort of printing is known in the photo world as an "alternate process." This process is extremely rare, very few artists still use it for color printing. I took one of my best color prints to a local gallery, prints of this type would generally sell for a minimum of $1000 to $1500, they offered to sell them for $250 with a 55% gallery commission. Sheesh!
Update: I decided I should put up a copy of the original uncorrected print, so you can see how bad the magenta stain was. Click the thumbnail below to see an enlargement.

R.I.P. Gelsy Verna

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I was shocked and saddened to learn of the untimely death of Gelsy Verna. She was my favorite painting teacher, she taught me how to really paint. I was particularly shocked because I am working on some watercolors, I noticed how much they owed to what Gelsy taught me, I had a passing thought that I wanted to show them to her. Then the next day I heard she had passed away.
I still vividly remember when I first met Gelsy. I came back to art school to finish my long-abandoned BFA, and to my dismay, I found I had to take 4 semesters of oil painting, it would take 2 years. I'd already taken Painting 1, but that was the course that got me kicked out of art school 20 years earlier, so now I'm back with the freshmen starting from square one. I think this was Gelsy's first teaching position, and her first semester at the U of Iowa.
Gelsy gave us our first assignment, she set up a crazy still life with strange lighting and told us to paint anything we'd like, but only using two colors, yellow and black. I thought this was an exceptionally strange assignment, but I had some top quality artist's-grade oil pigments so I started mixing colors and painted away. But the oddest thing happened. All the other students were mixing yellow and black to get a range of greenish tones, but my pigments would not make a green. Gelsy was puzzled and tried to mix my paints to get the greens, but she couldn't do it either. This was the whole point of the assignment, to learn how to produce the greenish blacks. We both concluded that the black+yellow=green trick only worked with cheaper student grade pigments. I still have that painting, I couldn't bear to throw it out, no matter how bad it is.
Gelsy loved to give strange assignments that made us explore how painting worked. I remember once she had us do a small figure painting with special conditions: black and white pigments only, in a darkened studio with dim light on the model, to be painted in 5 minutes. Gelsy loved my painting, but I'm used to these quick assignments from drawing classes. This style of painting is just the opposite of what most painters do, traditionally you don't use black oil paint at all, you mix a black from colors. But Gelsy really taught me about the use of black pigments, I used to joke with her that she got more range from black than I got out of the rest of the spectrum. So it was probably not surprising that I became more interested in black and white painting, in my final semester in painting class I completely eliminated color and just painted in black and white tempera paint.
Gelsy also ran the Senior Seminar every painting major had to complete in their last semester in school. I think junior professors were drafted into this teaching assignment, the newest professors brought fresh, outside influences to the school. The class helped students prepare for their BFA Clearance, where a committee of professors signed off on your degree. We spent our last semester critiquing each others work (always a dodgy proposition with a bunch of painters with senioritis) and preparing for our presentations. We also spent a lot of time arguing over theories and artists, I've previously written about our misadventures in that class.
I was nervous facing the BFA Committee, I'd worked hard but it was still possible to be rejected and not get your degree. The committee was stacked against me with my harshest critics. One of the professors was instrumental in me being kicked out of art school back in the 1970s, I always hoped he did not remember me from back then. Even if he didn't remember me, he hated me anyway. Another professor was the painter I wanted to study with, but she didn't like me or my painting. Gelsy was on the committee, I hoped she would be my advocate since she knew and understood my work. I displayed highlights of my work, was questioned about my methods and my results. Oddly enough, my photo printmaking seemed to win over the painters and put my work into context. I left the room, the committee deliberated for a few minutes while viewing my work, then delivered the signed statement approving my BFA. Congratulations, you are now an artist, now go away. No you can't do your MFA here, we don't take our own BFA graduates into our MFA program. You have to go somewhere else to get different influences.
Gelsy had an MFA from the Art Institute of Chicago, she always tried to introduce us to the Chicago scene. I encouraged her to stay and teach at Iowa, mostly for the selfish reason that I wanted to take more of her classes. She did stay here for quite a few years, and I always wondered whether or not I did her a favor by talking her into it. A couple of years after I graduated, I was in Chicago and saw her work in a gallery, I wondered what she was up to. I figured she'd moved on, so I asked the gallery if they had her contact information. The receptionist said she couldn't give out that information but they could pass along a message, so I left my number. About 10 minutes later, my cell phone rang and there was Gelsy, asking me where I was. And I asked where she was, she said she was still in Iowa City, I could have looked her up in the local phone book. Oops, I should have kept in touch more.
I lost touch with Gelsy when she moved out of town, so it was a shock to hear the tragic news, the first I'd heard of her in a few years. The outpouring of grief from her students and friends, the people she affected, must be immense. Everyone loved Gelsy, she was a great teacher and painter, I was looking forward to seeing much more of her work over the years to come. But now she is gone, I feel a great loss, a great sadness. It is times like this when I wonder if there is a place for artists in this world. Gelsy tried to teach me how to find that place, but my mentor has left me alone and I despair that I will never find it.

Tech Support

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I do a lot of tech support for my friends, I've worked in tech support for years. I have noticed there tend to be two types of tech support calls. There are calls about serious problems that need tech intervention. But more often, the calls are from someone who hasn't done a single thing to research their problem. These calls can be frustrating, my friend calls and says "I'm in Photoshop and I can't get the thingummy in the whatchamajigger" (that's a direct quote) and it takes me an inordinate amount of time to figure out he's trying to find a path command in the layer palette. Sometimes I just look in the program's help file, once I figure out what the question is, the solution is easy if you just look in the help files. I don't mind so much that the solution is trivial, I just mind that it takes so long to figure out the question.
I've recently been thinking of my first tech management job, I was Service Manager at ComputerLand of Glendale back around 1981. I told the boss I didn't feel qualified, he said, "don't worry kid, after 3 months you'll have seen it all and know it all." And he was right, the daily grind of repairs and tech support seemed like old hat after a few months. But there were ongoing tech problems, I remember one problem that seemed to take way too much tech effort, or at least, way too much of my effort. When the first memory cards for the IBM PC came out, the technicians could not figure out how to set the DIP switches. All day long, the techs would interrupt me with questions about setting the switches, when they could easily have figured it out for themselves. It was easy, you just set the switches to the binary address of where you wanted the memory to start. But none of the techs knew binary math, so they were always baffled.
I decided to close the shop one morning for a class to teach the techs how memory addresses worked and how to do the binary math. We went through all the fundamentals and they seemed to get it. We went through the manuals and worked out how the cards functioned. I demonstrated the formula to calculate the addresses. I described as many ways to solve the problem as I could figure out, and gave them all the tech support phone numbers I called when I couldn't figure it out. Then I gave them a written exam. The exam was just one question, I didn't even want the solution, I just wanted them to describe at least 4 places to look for the answer, "How do I configure Memory XYZ at location ABCD?" My point was to teach them how to find their own resources to solve problems, before asking me. But I was astonished when the techs handed in their tests. Every single one of their lists started the same way:

1. Ask Charles.

I stumbled across some discussions on the internet and discovered I may be the only one who knows certain facts about a mystery. A little web searching indicates this message will be the only published facts about the mystery. So I suppose it is my duty to post the information. Don't ask me how I know this (ha).
Arne Lein was a famous cartomancer, his book "What's Your Card" is the definitive documentation of the Card System of Olney Richmond and the Order of the Magi. But since Arne's death in the 1980s, his book has gone out of print, used copies go for astonishing prices on the used book market. There seems to be a question about the rights to Arne's books since his death. I wasn't able to find out what happened, but it appears Arne's heirs don't want the book reprinted. Go figure.
The bigger mystery remains, Arne had a second book that was never published, "Planetary Aspects of the Cards." This was to be the ultimate detailed guide to the Card System for advanced students. Arne showed me the book and complained that his computer, an old TRS-80, was dying and he couldn't get the text moved to a new computer. I said I'd gladly help him convert it to a new computer, just to help it get published. But nothing ever came of my offer. I saw Arne a short time before his death, I asked about his book, he said he still had it sitting on the old disks.
I suspect that Arne went to his death with a couple of 8 inch floppy disks sitting on his shelf, his magnum opus unpublished. If the family or heirs of Arne Lein possess these disks, they should know that a lot of people would like to publish them.