Thursday, February 27, 2014

Blogging for Thor: All The Things I Used To Know

Hello, Spiders. I was gunna post this like an hour ago, but then I went looking for some good blogging music... and lost an hour on YouTube watching music videos from 5 years ago. As you do. Well, not you, because you're semi-sentient code that lives in the Cloud. Anyway, I'm on track now.

Not horrible anymore!
It's easy to forget that things change. I rail all the time at people who can't keep up with current trends in technology and society, but seriously, it's so easy not to notice things have changed. I don't mean that I still think women shouldn't vote or that minorities don't deserve rights... no, I mean that I've been telling students for years that the Brightness/Contrast adjustment in Photoshop is a terrible piece of shit and Photoshop fixed that back in CS3. I learned Photoshop on CS2 and apparently never checked to realize that Brightness/Contrast got fixed. It now works properly, providing a decent (if bland) adjustment to.. uh, Brightness and Contrast. You're still given more control with Levels and Curves, but if all you need is a slight tweak? Brightness/Contrast works. As of CS6 it's pretty damn effective, drawing on some of the new tech from Camera RAW. I was pleasantly surprised.
Circled tool is badass

Also, there's this really cool feature in the Black & White adjustment layer that I never realized was there. Ever since Adobe introduced the Black & White adjustment, I've loved it. It's so much easier than Channel Mixer for creating high-quality black and white digital prints. The results aren't as good as Channel Mixer, but you really get the best effect by combining both Channel Mixer and B&W. Anyway. The cool thing about B&W is that there's an option to click somewhere in your picture and have Photoshop directly select the color you clicked on. Then you drag left or right to increase or decrease the brightness of that specific color!! Crazy! It's of absolutely immense value when you're trying to fiddle with an image that has a lot of 'on the edge' colors. You know, they might be green or cyan, yellows or reds. They're not easily identifiable as any specific color on the list of options. You know, like those super-rare colors orange and brown. Who ever takes pictures with oranges and browns? Anyway, using this little finger-clicking-dragging button, it's very simple to manipulate even difficult to identify colors... just click and drag them to where you think they should be! The biggest failure of this feature? It's not well documented and has no name.

Oh, and one last thing: This Kickstarter. The guy's designed a series of notebooks that are ready-made to record absolutely every detail of each shot you take out in the field, or every print you make in a darkroom. Since I'm teaching a class all about taking notes and being consistent in your exposure, development and printing... this is the best thing ever for my students. If it was a product right now, I would have ordered them for every student that I've got, and be yelling at the other professors to make them mandatory for their students, too! It's so awesome. Spiders, help me out here and SEO the shit outta that Kickstarter? Thanks.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Blogging for Thor: Lovely Luxury

Ok, spiders, it's time to talk economics. I normally am not a big fan of thinking about money, since it reminds me how very little I make. This, however, is important to me. I'm an artist, and I quite like when people offer me money to do art. I'm also an art-lover and I quite like owning art. I'm also a poor person and I quite hate parting from my money. This puts me in a position where I have an especially informed opinion regarding art and the buying of it.

Today's blog post isn't inspired by my own art, it's inspired by Artisan Dice. These guys are a very small company (two master woodcrafters plus a handful of minions for shipping and sorting) in Texas. They began as a Kickstarter project that asked for $300 and raised a mind-boggling $91,000.

My set of Artisan Dice
As the photo shows and their name implies, they make dice. Specifically, gaming dice carved from exotic hardwoods. Yeah, that rainbow set of dice with all seven colors of the visible light spectrum? None of those dice are painted or dyed. Those are all natural colors, as is the white wood of the box.

So why am I talking about them? Because art is expensive.  That seems to confuse some people. I follow Artisan Dice pretty closely on Facebook and there's always folks lamenting that the high price point makes it impossible for that specific person to afford all the dice they want to buy. The set of 7 dice in that photograph up above set me back $150.00. It's a limited set, only 8 were made, and there was no way I could pass up a chance to get the color spectrum in natural woods made into gaming dice. So, I parted with a considerable bit of money to buy something gorgeous, made out of the highest quality materials by skilled craftsmen.

Art costs a lot of money. When you're buying a silkscreened t-shirt, you're going to pay more than you would for a plain shirt that comes from a plastic-bagged six pack. When you buy a numbered and signed print from your favorite artist, it costs more than a mass-produced poster. Buying hand-carved dice made from exotic hardwoods costs more than buying injection-molded plastic dice. A lot more, because you're not just buying the materials. You're buying the time of an expert crafter who runs, or is part of, a small business. Small businesses have high costs because of low production volume and they take longer to make a product because each product is made individually instead of mass produced in a factory somewhere. You're helping support an artist who makes beautiful, well-crafted objects. You're buying art because it makes you happy when you see it, feel it or use it.

There are thousands of reasons to buy art, and why hand-crafted art is more expensive than a functionally identical item mass produced for function alone. If all you care about is the use of an item, then buy the mass produced item. Buy your silverware from a store instead of a silversmith, buy your plates from a store instead of from a potter, buy your jewelry from a store instead of a jeweler, buy your wall decorations from a store instead of a photographer, illustrator, painter or drafter. No one will blame you, because that's only sensible.

What isn't sensible, and will make people mad at you, is when you look at an artist's work and then demand that it be the same price as mass produced items you buy in the store. Believe me, artists want to sell their work. They want to make it as affordable as possible so more people buy it. They can only make it so cheap, though. Artists have costs for materials, for tools, they probably have student loans, they have bills, and they need to eat. The ones running a business have all those expenses to cover, too. So the next time you feel like complaining that an artist's prices are too high, think to yourself how much you make at work per hour, and how long it would take you to make what they've made. How much would you want to be paid for that many hours of hard work?

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Shout Back: Abby

Hello Spiders! I don't have anything photographic to discuss today, but I do want to talk about two other things. The first is that someone took the time out of their day to let me know that they 1) read and 2) enjoy my blog. She went in a message via the Question widget (you can use it for comments as well as questions) and it brightened my day.

Your blog is AMAZING!! I seriously made a slew of strange happy noises when I found it :)  Keep up the awesome work! You're such a trove of knowledge, THANK YOU!


Thanks, Abby! I sort of figured there might be a small number of humans reading my blog, but unfortunately the spiders vastly out number you, my precious primate peeps. As a content creator, online or physically as a production artist, it means so much when people comment, ask questions or just in general take the time to acknowledge what you do. I don't think that ever goes away. Even wildly popular or famous content creators love to know that their work is appreciated. They might not be able to engage personally with each person that voices their appreciation (or other opinions), but they are aware of the activity surrounding them.

I write this blog for myself as much as for the horde of electronic spiders that crawl it, because it helps me keep organized if I have a consistent, recurring deadline in my life. It also helps me motivate myself to maintain a healthy level of artistic activity (so I have things to talk about), and to stay engaged in what happens around me. Projects like a compendium of information on different lumen printing papers, a book on anthotypes or full-fledged articles ready for publication on major websites are scary and take a lot of effort. On here, I can draft out and organize my ideas, float concepts and voice thoughts in a fairly low-stress way. That's very helpful to me as an artist and a person.

But! I also maintain this blog in the hope that there are, or will be, people that read it. I love teaching, and I hope that some of the material I post here will inspire someone to try something new, or revive an old interest. So, thank you again, Abby.

Actually, the second thing is going to be its own post. Just because I can do that.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Blogging for Freya: Snow Daze

It's been snowing a lot lately, which is distressing because I live in the South. It's all Obama's fault. If NASA had funding, we'd be controlling the weather with magical satellite lasers or something. THANKS OBAMA.

Anyway, I actually did try to get out and do some art things in the snow. Taking pictures of it? BWAHAHA. No. It's cold outside, are you crazy? No. I put out two lumen prints to see if the snow would affect them at all. It didn't, and the bland, grey light (plus diffusion from the snow that quickly layered on top of them) resulted in pale, low contrast images that barely showed up. So, overall, it wasn't productive. I haven't even scanned the lumens because they're incredibly underwhelming.

However! I did scan something else! I scanned the dead poinsettia I used to make the lumens and I really enjoy the results. I think I'll be spending some time with the dead poinsettia to make some scanograms. I like the curled, veiny leaves and the long, withered stems. They're just appealing.

Also, as a result of the snow, I have two make-up days for my latest DSLR class from the Light Factory. The first of these make-up days is scheduled for tomorrow and, hopefully, we will be heading out to the local botanical garden to photograph in their greenhouse conservatory. It should be a ton of fun... if they're open. I tried calling for hours today and they were closed. Hopefully they open tomorrow. The roads are fine!

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Blogging for Thor: Born-Again Badger

Good morning, spiders! This is the earliest Thursday blog ever! Well, I'm pretty sure, at least. Technically that's because I can't fall asleep on Wednesday night, even though I have to be awake in less than 6 hours to get ready for work... ugh.

Anyway, today's blog is gunna be short cause today is a busy day! I'm re-designing my main website! It's been a long time since my webhosting service, Squarespace, upgraded to a new engine with all kinds of new options. I never made the swap because no one was looking at my website, so why bother? Well screw that! I write this whole blog and only you, my precious internet spiders, read it! So now I'm upgrading to Squarespace 6 and redesigning my entire website to be up-to-date, elegant and informative. Most of my experiments and observations still get dumped here and on Flickr, but my business card says Blue Badger Studios, and so do all my online profiles. Oh, and my CV, if anyone ever actually reads that thing. I hope grad school reads it.

So, that's this week's task: new website!!

Also, I did some new cyanovellums that I'll scan today and add here when I have time, or maybe add in a whole new post. It depends how I feel. They're for an Art Swap party organized locally by the guys at Flaming Chicken Studio. A bunch of local photographers are getting together to display our prints, drink, have fun and trade art. I'm taking cyanovellums and some digital lumens. Should be awesome!

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Blogging for Spiders: Back in Blue

I haven't been feeling particularly artistic lately, my dear spiders. You've no doubt noticed that by the recent trend of blogs falling further and further behind on the weekly schedule and generally being a bit gloomy and lacking in new projects or progress on old projects. Winter isn't my most productive time, but that's hardly an excuse. I've just been in a rut and battling the fog-monster. Today I launched a massive attack on his nebulous ass. I got out into my lab and did some work.

Previously, I've talked about printing cyanotypes on parchment. It's pretty awesome, because the parchment imparts a remarkable amount of texture that rarely manages to detract from the subject matter. The organic nature of the material, and the fact that I print on scraps instead of properly processed, sized and cut sheets, means that each piece has a different texture, surface, thickness and quality. The scraps I get come from any of four types of parchment (deer, goat, sheep, calf), but I have no way to tell which I'm actually using.

Just to clarify, when I say 'parchment', I do not mean the stuff you buy at the grocery store to bake on. I do not mean the vellum you buy at office stores to put in wedding invitations. It's thin-cut and treated animal skin, the kind of material used in medieval documents and illuminated manuscripts. If you'd like to buy some of your own to play with, I get my supplies from a tannery in New York state: Pergamena.

Eventually I would love to order a full-size skin and do large format cyanotype contact prints, but at the moment that isn't feasible since I don't have a place to work large enough for that, or a way to handle washing, drying and pressing a skin that big. Cyanotypes printed on parchment must deal with the qualities of the material. Parchment, despite being used as paper, behaves very little like paper. It reacts differently to moisture, heat and tension.

So, how do you print cyanotypes on parchment successfully? Let me 'splain to you.

Coating the Parchment

Stretched and pinned parchment sheets

First off, your parchment needs to be stretched before it can be coated. That's because the parchment will curl and warp in response to moisture. It will then dry in that shape while you allow the chemistry to dry. You'll want to pin, tape or otherwise secure your parchment to a solid surface before coating. This will allow the parchment to keep its shape much better than just trying to coat and dry it loose. Personally, I use a small cork-board covered in paper towels (extra absorbent padding, plus easy to clean by replacing the towels) to handle smaller pieces of parchment. Larger sheets are taped down to pieces of particle board. You may be able to get away with pushing broad-based pushpins and instead of spearing through the parchment, just using the plastic to hold it in place. I try doing that, because I don't particularly like holes in my parchment, but it doesn't always work out. Especially later.

One sheet of parchment coated.
When coating your parchment, I recommend a small foam brush. You don't want to over-saturate the parchment. Depending on the type of parchment you're using, it can be anywhere from slick and hard (the chemistry will try to run right off and you really have to work it into the material) or it can be soft and suedey (the chemistry is sucked right in and absorbs very smoothly). The small foam brush lets you get into small corners, which is great if you're using small sheets of parchment. You'll have to decide for yourself if you want to cover the entire surface, or leave an un-coated border. I like leaving the border, but I've tried it both ways and been satisfied with the results. The border just lends your piece a nice, defined edge.

Drying the Parchment

Once you've coated your parchment, you have to let it dry. As with all cyanotype materials, do this out of light. A warm, dry, dark environment is best if you can manage it. I keep mine in a cabinet. Allow parchment to dry fully, until it retains absolutely no moisture. This may take between 1-2 days depending on your local humidity and temperature. The dry parchment will be stiffer and far less flexible than it was when you started. After being exposed to moisture, the parchment never really gets that soft, flexible feeling back. I've contacted different tanners and they all say they's just how it works. They recommend not wetting your parchment, but obviously that isn't an option for anyone wanting to do photography on it. There's some additional chemicals and steps the tanners themselves use when dyeing and tanning the hide that keeps it supple, but it's not exactly stuff you can do at home (or want to, as it stinks). Just deal with the stiffness of the final product.

Exposing the Parchment

Exposure is fairly standard. Close contact between your negative or object and the chemistry is key. Be forewarned that because of the texture, surface quality and stiffness of your parchment, no cyanotype will ever come out as detailed and clear as it will on paper. Ever. It's just a factor of how the parchment is. I don't even try negatives anymore, they were too indistinct and fuzzy for me. I only use parchment to do contact prints with plants and objects.

There is one note here to be made: your exposures will be longer than normal. There's something about the parchment that makes it resistant to exposure. Chemistry on parchment doesn't hold detail very well, so you need to really burn it in. It's extremely common to find that your latent image is much more detailed and vibrant than your developed print. Check the example below.

Left: Latent Image. Right: Developed Image.
As a result of this detail loss, even during extended exposure (this was 2 hours), I scan my latent images. We've already discussed how I feel about archival permanence. I see no reason to discard such a powerful image just because it isn't chemically stable.

Washing the Parchment

Washing (developing) parchment cyanotypes (I call them cyanovellums) is also perfectly simple; just dump them into water and stir them around. They take longer to wash than regular paper, especially if the parchment itself is thick or soft. The thin, hard, slick parchment washes pretty fast and doesn't respond nearly as much to moisture as other types. The problem with washing cyanovellums is that whole issue parchment has with moisture.

Drying the Parchment

You can't dry them quickly, and you have to stretch them or they'll curl up like mad. If you try to dry them with an iron, they'll shrivel up like a slug under salt.

What you end up doing is drying them in a book, or under weight. Pad both sides of the parchment with towels or something else absorbent, then press the whole thing under heavy weight. Large books do great for this, but they can occasionally transfer ink from their pages onto the parchment. Might be interesting, but more likely to be a distraction from your image. Experiment with that, but go into it expecting to experiment. If you don't want any ink transfer, just put something absorbent between your parchment and the paper.

If you'd rather stretch and dry the parchment, you can do that. You will have to pin through the parchment. There's no way to use the weight of the pushpin's plastic to hold the parchment in place as it dries, like you can try doing while coating. There's too much water in the parchment that has to get out and the curling is going to have some force behind it. Stretch the parchment tight and pin it in place securely. You may choose just to pin the corners, or pin regularly around the sides. Because I don't like having holes in my parchments, I tend to prefer the weighted press method of drying. Stretch-n-pin does offer a bit of a chance to 'cheat' and dry the parchment faster. You can use a hairdryer on low, held several inches from the surface of the parchment, to speed up the drying. Don't hurry too much, even a small parchment will take a good 20 minutes or so, but you can manage it.

Either way, pinning or pressing, if you don't cheat with heat then you can expect it to take 2-3 days to fully dry your parchments. If working during a hot, sunny day then you can leave your press or stretching board outside and let the sun help you dry. That speeds up the process considerably!

Finishing Up

Now, if you've done something wrong, or your parchment just isn't cooperating, you can always re-soak and re-dry the parchment. Just remember, it's never, not ever, going to be as supple and flexible after being washed as it was when you first started.

Each cyanovellum is unique. A combination of the hide's texture, size, coloration and surface along with the variations in the cyanotype process itself will create an absolutely individual piece. You can go further and tone your cyanovellums, but the toning processes may not work exactly the same on parchment as they do on paper. For example, most bleaching processes turn cyanovellums golden orange.

Since the tactile appearance of cyanovellums is so striking, I prefer to present mine in shadowboxes. I generally choose a box with a natural wood finish, then cover the back of the box with either a black or natural, unbleached cloth. I use small sheets of cardboard or foamboard to raise the cyanovellums off the background, 'floating' them against the background. Hot glue makes for a good seal and can be easily removed from the back of the parchment without causing damage.