offset \ˈȯf-ˌset\ noun

a force or influence that makes an opposing force ineffective or less effective

Thread the Needle

I cannot get my mind to turn off. There is always something, like a plethora of problems that I need to solve. Not the world ones. I get to think about my own. Be it from what to eat the next day, over trivial things regarding programming issues at work, to the more difficult, existential ones. What I am trying to say is that there is always something. Always.

My hiatus of not drawing and painting has been too long and it has to stop. There is always something to throw the proverbial spanner in the machine and right now I need to find the time to address it. Expressing myself visually can provide that much needed meditative state where I can just do things with a small amount of problem solving. Music can help there. Align my thoughts and fill the void of silence.

Then a week goes by and it goes untouched

Then two, then three, then a month

So let's do something about it. First stop, get some coffee. Second one, play some music. Third one, get my sketchbook and label it "...bad drawings". Check. That should be a psychological trick to let go of the perfection that is the enemy of productivity, or so they say. Feels weird to hold a pencil and write letters again instead of typing. So to continue writing this.

I don't plan to focus that much on the traditional aspect so the sketchbook will most likely be a doodling aid. I plan to focus more on digital. After all, I have the conditions, aside from proper desk space, but I can make do.

My hardware and software stack consists of Wacom Cintiq, Corel Painter and Krita for now.

One of the other bits of software I'd like to mention is Lazy Nezumi Pro. It can help a lot with its ruler and smoothing systems.

I listened to Vilppu interview ages ago. He mentioned that he rarely measures and does things by eyeballing. The crux of the matter, as I see it, is that you analyze when you're doing something. It's usually inseparable. We're our own worst critic. We'll recognize what's wrong and all we need to do is fix it. So iterate on the process.

Don't just copy things, but think them through. Analyze why something is the way it is and if you need to understand something, then get a reference. References are not a cop-out. They are the key to good research. We cannot know everything, but our visual library will improve in our heads, and if you keep things on your drive, then there, too. One of the applications that is good for displaying references is PureRef. I am using it to arrange references when doing art and I store some images on the external drive.

But before getting to the whole photography reference, try to draw from life. Especially when you can go around and see the subject. It is actually easier to study it.

Another advice would be to treat every artwork as a study. It ties in with that "bad drawings" thing above. It doesn't have to be made really carefully with expensive materials. Especially digitally today. So just do things, a 15 minute session at least. Then continue doing it every day.

Art is never finished. Only abandoned. We draw and paint until we feel it's good enough. We shouldn't stop until that moment. The internet is filled with "it took me three hours". Yeah, right. Don't lock yourself in that mode of thinking. Art takes time.

Artists differentiate between something that is done and the process to get there. I frequently need to remind myself that doing artwork is solving problems. The resulting solution is a done artwork.

So to summarize and expand (and read the list all the way because it's not in some specific order):

  1. You don't have to show your sketchbook to anyone. The sketches will look bad, but they will get better. Canvas is not supposed to be blank. It's supposed to be filled out. Better start now. It's a lifetime process that never ends. Try to have fun with it.
  2. Research the subject you're about to work on. Gather references. Put them in one location and use PureRef software to present them on one screen. The other one you can use to do art. Remember that a lot of the problem solving is seeing and understanding things.
  3. Warm up with some simple exercises. It will help with being afraid to start.
  4. Do thumbnails all the time. You can even scale them up digitally to work over them if needed. Remember you can layer things and save and undo digitally.
  5. Treat your art as a study instead of aiming for a finished product. You will be more daring and push more. Art cannot be grokked. It has to be acquired through repetition.
  6. Don't fall victim to getting a "great" work in a small amount of time. Sure, you can try speedpainting, but don't beat yourself up if things don't end up the way you intended. Speed will come eventually. Work on one thing as long as you like. When you start feeling bad, go to the next one. Don't associate bad feelings with doing art.
  7. When starting a new image, double the target resolution. For instance, I start with a 3840x2400 resolution that I can scale down to 1920x1200 at the end. Scaling things down makes them look better. The magic happens when you move away from a painting in a gallery and see it from a distance. You can and should also zoom out when doing art to see if the composition holds. Also flip and return.
  8. Depending on the process, you can start with either a white background to get the lines, or, if painting, start with a 50% gray background (or in some hue as well) to see where the middle of the contrast spectrum is located. Remember that you can always adjust brightness and contrast in the end.
  9. I start with a worn-out marker to not think about the details.
  10. The gesture based sketch is there to draw forces. That should come first. Don't be afraid to be messy.
  11. After the gesture is laid down, then comes the form. Form follows force, or force influences (conditions) form. Do it on another layer if needed.
  12. At this point, I switch to the real 2H drafting pencil and start on another layer. Try to make as little lines as possible to convey a concept. Less is more. Beholder will fill in the details. Your job is to make it look believable.
  13. Think before you make a line. Try drawing above the paper or graphics tablet to see where to put the line first, then place it afterwards. Be confident about placing it. You can always adjust, undo, or help yourself with smoothing in your application or with Lazy Nezumi Pro.
  14. Don't use the eraser until the last possible time when you're ready to clean up things. That is, don't use it until very late in the art process.
  15. If you want to do inking, you can do it digitally. I tend to use the thick and thin pen to draw lines to establish which bit is important. There are some techniques like stippling and crosshatching for this, if you want, of course. Corel Painter has some great inking tools, too. Ink behaves really nice if you want to experiment with that category. Do pens and inks above the pencil layer.
  16. This is a good point to start thinking about the light source. Thick lines are away from light, thin lines are close to it. Establishing gravity can also help in doing line weight. Cel shading uses edge detection. That algorithm comes from the real world thinking. In essence, where you can see two facets join, you put a thin line on that edge. Where you can see only one facet, do a thick one on that edge. All black areas are where the hardest shadows are located.
  17. Once you clean up the lineart the way you want, you can lock that layer and put it above all with the multiply blending mode on it. If you want to do comic-book art style.
  18. A side note: this is where the process diverges. If painting, you probably want to get rid of the lineart as soon as possible. Masking of the portions of the lineart layer is a good way to go about it because it's not destructive. Pinching lines also works. By removing the lineart, you remove the lower part of the value spectrum from an image so it tends to look bad, so do it as soon as possible when painting. Lines are just where areas meet. There is no line in reality. You work as you go. Paint in an area and hide the lines where needed.
  19. If continuing with the pencil, after initial contours, you can try to do white pencil to try to establish where light is located. For this, you'll need to see what background your image has. A white background won't work here, but doing values might be better with that 50% gray.
  20. Don't think about the color just yet. I will explain that in more detail in another post. Do values in grayscale instead, but limit your palette so it's not too dark or too light. Three values is usually enough. You get everything in between by blending. Corel Painter has some nice blenders for that. You can always correct the value range in the post processing.
  21. Eraser is usually used with a technique of soft brush/hard eraser to block in values. You can also do the soft brush/hard eraser to establish some textures. Remember, hard and soft are focal points. Hard and dark is close, soft and light is far away.
  22. Alphonso Dunn mentioned in one of his videos that you can do texture over your values if that helps you think. Of course, you will start skipping steps in time to get a more unified feel in your art. That holds true for color as well.
  23. If doing texture, remember it follows form, as in, it wraps around the subject. Draw it like that, not flat. Shadows and lights do this, too.
  24. Always go from rough to refined. From big blocks to small details.
  25. If the value and texture are done with grayscale, you can glaze the color on top of it in a new layer with the colorize blending mode and a soft brush. The process can be a bit disjointed from the texture and brush strokes, but it can work.
  26. If you don't want to do textures and values just yet, after the initial sketch is done (with Corel Painter, but you can help yourself with Krita), you can do the flats or key colors. Flats are most often local color fills of various areas. Local color being the base color of the object. For example, an orange is orange. Krita plug-in G'Mic can help here a lot. I usually use the interactive mode.
  27. A multiply layer with the same color area can create simple shadows. Pick a local color area, a new multiply layer. Fill it with the same color. Screen and overlay blending modes are used for light.
  28. Paint with light. Copy an area on top, specify a blending mode, erase the excess. Remember to vary soft and hard brushes and erasers. Scratchboard tool also looks ok here because it can create texture on lower opacities.
  29. When doing color, remember that more illuminated objects also have a hue shift. So things become warmer, not just increase in saturation and value, but also a hue shift happens. HSV is a good model. Local bounced light also happens on objects.
  30. Think in 3D. Arrange things like that, in this order: shape, shadows and lights, textures, local color, specular lights. Of course, adjust where needed, but these are the rough strokes.

I will leave some more specific techniques for future posts as well as explaining the coloring process, once I feel confident about it.

This is where I will stop for the moment. I am finishing with an article about giving up from an illustrator Chris Oatley. I hope to have some results in a month or two and see where to go from there. Wish me luck.

Using French Press for Coffee Cold Brewing

Using a French press to cold brew coffee is pretty easy. We got ours in IKEA but I'm pretty sure any French press will do.

The ratio of water to coffee per mass we use is 7:1. One has to increase the amount of coffee to account for the lower caffeine content extracted by the cold brew process. Considering that the approximate mass of water is somewhat around 1KG per 1L, 7:1 ratio means around 140 g of coffee per 1 L of water.

The plunger in our model can only go a certain way down, and it's a small press so there was some adjustment required. Since we have a kitchen scale it wasn't too hard to measure. The results are in the recipe below. Enjoy.

Cold brew coffee in a french press

Cold Brew

Ingredients

  • 70 gram ground coffee.
  • 0.5 liter (chilled) water.

Instructions

Put the coffee in the French press and pour water over it. Stir with a spoon to make sure that the coffee is equally distributed in the water. Cover the French press and put it in the fridge for a minimum of 12 hours. After that period, remove from fridge and filter out the coffee with the plunger. The resulting liquid is cold-brewed coffee that you can dilute afterwards and optionally heat it. We have ours with soy or oat milk. The recipe is enough for a few cups to get you through the day, but you will probably adjust accordingly.

Life in the Times of COVID-19

Ever since the pandemic started, it has been recommended to stay indoors and not expose ourselves to the strain or to risk spreading it further. Luckily, we don't have older people to risk, no children, and we are in good health so we didn't have to fret too much about exposure or public services being restricted. It really wasn't difficult for us to get quarantined, being introverted and all. Living the dream, so they say.

After an abrupt cancellation of our vacation, we managed to fly our way back from Africa, with some difficulty. We took a taxi from the airport, went into self-isolation and resumed working from home. Even though at the time we weren't prohibited from going outside, we didn't want to take a chance and expose others. After all, we had spent several days in very crowded public spaces. We've had no symptoms and have been happily sequestered in our apartment ever since.

Soon nothing was working except the stores. We were counting on an occasional store delivery, but no slots were available for weeks ahead. However, we do have a store within a 15 minute walk, so it's not really a problem to get there and pick up a week's worth of groceries. We were reasonably well-stocked on essentials to not really feel the initial frenzy, when soap and toilet paper was sold out, and being vegan has proven an advantage as plant milks and other vegan goodies remained unaffected by shortages.

I turned off most of the automation in the apartment and set the speakers to announce each morning the number of cases reported in the country so we could keep up with the news.

That is really it. Parents keep contacting us to ask how things are going, but there's nothing to tell. We're at home, we're working, we're not going out. Our updates come down to reporting on our weekly visit to the store and the shows we are watching. We saw a robin on the tree outside our window one morning. Talk about news.


/media/images/robin.jpg

With no commuting, we have a bit more time to dedicate to our pastimes so we've been voraciously consuming the media, watching TV shows, browsing the web, playing video games, reading books, and also doing some programming (but I really need to do some drawing), as well as doing some exercising here and there. Nothing special.

Online communication has gained center stage, although it's not really much different from how we usually maintain our social ties. The news, however, seem fascinated with modes of digital communication. I guess the extroverts, barred from real life meetings, have flocked to the next best thing, video communication. People have been complaining about missing non-verbal cues.

Writing thought-out sentences and adhering to netiquette shouldn't be such an obstacle, but I guess some among the newer generations have never picked it up, quicker to start a video chat than think what to write.

We are monitoring the situation and are thinking about it. There's silver lining in the pandemic influencing the fall in emissions of greenhouse gases although it's not enough. At the same a lot of people are furious that the economy is falling and want to go back to the security of their wage slavery. I don't blame them. People have families to feed and loans to repay, but are not seeing the forest for the trees.

The pandemic has exposed that the economy is far from healthy, that the system is broken. You have to wonder what kind of economy we live in that falls apart if people start buying only the things they need. It's like it is primarily relying on the things that we don't need to keep going. Consuming and expanding, instead of conserving and, guess what, economizing. The juxtaposition of needs and wants in my opinion is wrong in the economic sense. We can't have infinite wants, especially on a finite planet, but our needs need to be met.

And it's not nearly over. Considering that the vaccines for the human diseases often take over a decade to develop, I don't see that the COVID-19 vaccine will come that soon, so expecting a miracle is not realistic. And it's not that testing has avoided controversy even when done seemingly rigorously, for example a bias towards males.

However, as a mental exercise, what happens if by any chance we do develop a vaccine soon enough, who's to say it will be tested properly? Shall we sacrifice our health to the system so we can keep the shabby economy going? Having a vaccine, how do the countries expect to mass vaccinate the population? Lack of testing will only give legitimacy to the anti-vaxxer crowd (and this time with a good reason). Will the governments make it voluntary and, if not enough people volunteer, will they enforce it? How?

We have to keep an eye on the freedoms people have, that are easily taken away because of the pandemics, and they are not easily given back.

And keep our first world problems in check: migrant centers will likely struggle to keep the virus at bay. How we treat of our fellow humans in the hardest times is something to worry about.

Stay indoors if possible, because the virus is latching onto the particles of air pollutants now. At the same time, air pollution is killing way more than COVID, but we're not doing anything about it. We're not even treating the climate change with the same urgency as COVID-19.

Thing is, you can survive without physical social contact. Avoid public transportation, wash your hands, the masks are not helping unless you are directly exposed. If you want to help, stay at home, and if you're doing grid computing with BOINC, Rosetta does research with COVID-19. Also consider doing folding@home for the COVID-19.

Don't fear the conspiracies, frequently they are comparing it with the flu of 1918 which was over a 100 years ago. Take that into consideration. The medicine was not as advanced back then. Our health systems are struggling with the capacity today because we have been neglecting them, but they are still much better than a 100 years ago.

So, be smart, stay at home, there are tons of things to keep you occupied. Who knows, maybe this crisis will pave the way for the UBI as well.

Home Automation

Continuing onto the previous post, after we got the apartment, I invested some time into home automation. At first I rolled out my own set of small scripts, but eventually figured out that there is a web project called Home Assistant that hosts most of my half-baked solutions with an already nice UI so I switched to that.

Sometimes it can be a pain if you're not a power user, but I don't have a problem with it. For example, there are still some things missing that can't be solved with their DSL, but one can always go down to the implementation in the configuration and change it there. It would also be great if things failed with a bang instead of letting them run anyway, but you live with it.

I bought some devices from IKEA to get the ball rolling. The whole system is called TRÅDFRI and underneath it all lies the Zigbee protocol.

I got some ambient lights, got some motion sensors to power the lights on so I don't need to look for the switch and it also helps when I go away so I don't have to worry about forgetting to turn the lights off.

I set up the smart socket switch for the dehumidifier to run when we're away so we avoid the noise. Ireland can be damp.

I also connected two public API endpoints to the system. Open data can be very useful. One API call checks the weather and the other checks the public transportation. I made it change the color of the hallway light-bulb depending on the weather forecast in the morning so I know if I should bring a waterproof jacket, and I have it recite the upcoming buses for work that are due on the nearby bus stop via speakers. Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 circumstances, those automations are turned off because we're not leaving the apartment. Nothing is working anyway and we're doing fine at home.

I also employed a Telegram connection so it notifies me on my smartphone (Fairphone 3 now) as well when needed.

There is also a smart thermostat in place so our heating is precisely controlled depending on if we're at home, but it doesn't activate that often since the apartment is south-oriented with a glass wall in the living room so it gets enough warmth during the day.

As a bonus, I've set up my phone to use the Automate app and solve some of the most common things there. Like when I plug in my headphones, Spotify activates so I don't need to turn it on manually.

There are small things that one can do to make their lives a bit easier with automation. If it doesn't exist natively, see if you can find a way around it.

Buying an Apartment in Dublin

Like I hinted in the Trello to Coggle post, and like I mentioned in the 2019 recap, let's start at the beginning.

In January we got a notice that we needed to move out and our notice period started. Nothing out of the ordinary there. We had been in the apartment for four years so the notice period was quite long and our landlord was patient, but we didn't want to leave things to chance. We were already thinking of looking for something to buy so the notice just kicked us into a higher gear. Not to be lazy, the first week we immediately went looking and saw three places. This proved to be enough to establish the current market situation. We didn't bid on any of the places then. In total, we saw close to forty places.

We established a Trello board to keep track of the apartments we had seen and kept notes in the cards there. Eventually I visualized the data with the Coggle mindmap so Mellow was born out of necessity. It helped keep our thoughts in order.

We were looking for a small place for a couple without kids, pets or a car. Preferably close to the city center so we could walk. Preferably new or well-kept. Preferably cheap and well-insulated. Looking back, it's impossible to get such a thing in Dublin. You always have to compromise on something and the closest you can get to what you want is to build a place. However, even then, it likely won’t be in the city center.

We looked mostly at one-bedrooms. Most of the places we saw on the market in Dublin were old builds, overpriced due to their central location. The layouts were often odd, with long entry hallways and walls joining at odd angles. Almost all of them had the central fireplace that was usually decorative and took up valuable space in already small rooms. The bathrooms usually had two taps: cold and hot water separately. Dublin buildings have issues with water pressure so electric water pumps in bathrooms were not unusual. Then there were the damp related issues.

It was a far cry from what we were expecting of our own place, but that's just the state of affairs in Dublin. The messed up thing is the disproportion between the quality and price. I couldn’t help myself but compare the places we saw with the offer in Croatia, where the same amount of money would’ve given us more space and higher quality. Then again, if we had stayed, we would have had less money at our disposal and would’ve had to compromise as well. Still, some of the things we saw cannot be unseen.

There are things to check out when looking at the place and the ads won't be forthcoming. Some agencies and sellers will go so far as not to disclose significant damage in the ad photos before you are actually right there viewing it. From the floors to the ceilings, you need to check everything. Water pressure, mold damage, windows, walls, electricity, sunken floors. It would be better to take someone with you, but we didn't have anyone. A second pair of eyes works wonders, though. Sleep it over as well, and if possible go see the place more than once, which is possible when there are more public viewings organized. When you're satisfied, you need to place a bid and then the whole bidding thing starts, which is an exercise in frustration.

Bid lower than the asking price and go from there because the price can and will go up. There are other people bidding as well and if you suspect they are made up by the agency you are entitled to ask for proof. However, if the seller won’t sell at your bidding price, there’s nothing you can do about it. They will sometimes put up an ad just to test the market or lower the initial price to create hype for the place, and then just pull out if the bids don’t meet their expectations. It's a cutthroat disingenuous market where the buyer is always more exposed than the seller.

We got close to buying one duplex, got it to be sale agreed, but the vendor simply pulled out after ghosting us for weeks. Looking back, it was a good thing they did. We were exhausted from the search, this was the first place we both actually liked, and we weren’t thinking straight. Losing it saved us years of being in debt because the place was more expensive than what we planned to give. It's just that you can either pay less and buy a dump or pay way more for a decent, but not perfect, apartment. We never got an explanation either. It’s likely they advertised it to get the place appraised so they could get a loan from the bank. Who knows what. You just have to be ready for that.

Almost six months later we got lucky to find a place that looked very cozy to us. It was In the same complex as the one that we previously lost, but smaller. The complex was interesting to us since it was relatively new. Turned out the owners of the apartment were geeks as well. Could’ve just left everything in place, books, games and cats, since it would have saved us the trouble of buying and moving things.

The long wait was finally over, but landed us 5 km further than the place we were renting. That was our compromise in the end. We were still not settled in though, as we mostly had naked walls to work with.

In the beginning we had a roof over our heads and that was the most important bit. We slept on the floor while waiting for our couch to come and started buying all the things you usually take for granted when you move into a rented apartment. From the small things like the cutlery organizer for the kitchen drawer to the major necessities like the fridge. To this day, we're still buying stuff like book-ends and we still haven’t decided on the posters for the empty frames. Mostly because we're lazy or indecisive. It is shaping up, however.

Buying stuff now takes an additional toll on our finances since we have to pay off the mortgage. We have to calculate what and when to buy since our savings are limited now. We could’ve taken a bigger loan to get equipped, but that would’ve meant even more to repay. We’ll manage, but things are easier for us because we don’t have kids, a car or pets. It’s a sad fact, but those things we might take for granted are a significant financial burden.

The crux of the matter is that the system makes it difficult to buy an apartment and have kids in the first place. Instead of being able to independently afford it, we rely on extended family as a band-aid to help financially or with child rearing. The ‘it takes a village’ approach may seem romantic, but it hides a harsh truth that raising a family at a normal living standard comes prepackaged with a big mortgage and wage slavery for life, and that might not even be enough. Who knows, maybe the future has in store for us alternative marriage arrangements where people would pool resources just to bring up children. It’s OK when you give up on some things because they are just not for you or you are ambivalent about them, like we are about children. It’s sad when you have to give up on them because you don’t have the resources.

But back to our apartment. We opted for the variable mortgage rate so we could divert all the extra money into repayment. Every three months an interest gets charged to our account so we have to expect that to happen and have enough money to cover it. Hopefully we won't see another recession hit us so the plan to pay it off earlier succeeds.

We didn’t have much trouble getting the mortgage. We took it out at the bank that held our accounts already so that expedited things. The bank will check your financial history for the last six months and it has to be stable. No overdue payments, no gambling addictions, no health issues, a trend of steady savings or rent payments. They will check your transactions for that period and the credit history in the country and abroad (if you have defaulted on a debt somewhere else). That part was easy: we had already closed all our accounts in Croatia, we were both employed, we had been paying rent and saving on top of that for four years, had no kids and our major expenses were the occasional trips.

Even though the mortgage wasn't a problem, the closing date was. Our notice was nearing the end. The vendors were buying a place themselves, but it wasn’t ready so they weren’t moving out. Our landlord had new tenants waiting for us to leave. It was all a huge chain of people waiting. In the end we had to move out so we transferred all of our stuff into storage and some sensitive electronics to our friends’ place. We can't thank them enough for all the trouble with our moving out and in. They drove us back and forth as many times as needed and were really there for us.

So with our stuff in the storage, we moved to temporary student accommodation waiting for the closing date to happen, which was the date we would get our keys from the agency. We had to extend our stay there twice, and then got our keys at the last second, but at least it was summer and not cold and wet. It was OK. It took us two months after we got in to get a bed installed and another week to get the mattress, but now we are just a desk away from having it all.

I mentioned already that I started doing some work that is becoming a series of hobbies now. Home automation, balcony gardening. I'll write more about that in the following posts. We're both keeping busy now. Figuring out how to approach the life-work balance. The commute, the lunch breaks... It's forming up. We'll get there.