Friday, June 30, 2023

The Aging Paradox


The "Aging Paradox" suggests that the older we get, the happier we feel. 

A study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology found that older people report feeling more satisfied, less depressed, less anxious, and less stressed than younger respondents. Individuals might buffer their losses and buoy their spirits as they age, including staying involved in meaningful activities and maintaining a positive outlook.

According to the LA Times, "people in their 20s were the most stressed out and depressed, while those in their 90s were the most content. There were no dips in well-being in midlife, and no tapering off of well-being at the end of life. Instead scientists found a clear, linear relationship between age and mental health."

That seemed true of this guy, who I sketched in a coffee shop in New York. He needed a magnifying glass to read his papers, but the whole time he was gently smiling.

Thursday, June 29, 2023

Dinotopia Ride Pods

Here's a sketch from 1993, drawn in markers, for "Dinotopia Adventure Parks," a pipe-dream concept for temporary installations in small museums, malls, or theaters.

In the lower left is the orientation pod, where visitors purchase travel permits for the ride pods.

In the four ride pods, visitors lie prone in the saddle and steer the creature using voice signals. The pods shift and tilt on a hydraulic motion base.

Riders can travel alone or in groups in the same virtual space. Wind and mist are provided by concealed jets. Full size animated skybaxes hang from the ceiling above.

At center is a robotic Bix, who interacts with visitors waiting for their turn in the ride pods.

The robotic Stegosaurus orients to voices and responds to requests. The rider platform can be installed as a high saddle on a sauropod. The wraparound screen lowers into position.

Why didn't this get built? Well, the engineering for such a concept is prohibitively expensive and prone to failures. But such a concept is probably more fun to dream about than the idea of people on a couch with VR headsets strapped to their faces.

Wednesday, June 28, 2023

Can We Think Alien Thoughts?

On Twitter, data scientist and neurotechnologist Sterling Crispin asked an interesting question: "Can we use large language models to reach currently unthinkable thoughts?...I don't just mean new ideas, but an idea that's so alien it's currently outside the boundary of what we can think?"

To clarify, he outlined the range of thoughts that are possible:

1: The thoughts you've had

2: The thoughts you could have in the future

3: The thoughts all people have ever had

4: The thoughts all people could ever have

5: And the thoughts that are unthinkable

Imagine two dog walkers meet at a café. The humans start debating macroeconomic theory or whether the color palette of modern movies matches the zeitgeist? Suppose one dog says to the other: "Do you think they're talking about something we can't even imagine?" Well, yes.

Next, at the dog park, the dogs patiently sniff the base of a tree. The humans say: "I wonder if they have an olfactory conception of the world and of each other that we can't comprehend?" Yes! There are alien modes of thought defined by our umwelt and our cognitive history.

Some avenues may be opened up by extrapolating from large language models trained on a corpus of human-generated data. But the most interesting frontier will open as we use LLMs to unravel whale song or to ask elephants about their conception of forgiveness and mercy. The low-hanging fruit will be close to us on the phylogenetic tree, namely primates.

Tuesday, June 27, 2023

Milk Wagon

When I was a kid growing up in California in the 1960s, the horse-drawn milk wagons were gone, but there were still milk trucks.

The delivery from the local dairy would arrive early in the morning. Our dogs always barked at the milkman in his white uniform. (Happy hated anyone in a uniform.)

The milkman carried four half gallon glass bottles in a wire carrier. He switched out the empty bottles that we left for him.

The full-fat milk wasn't homogenized, so the cream floated to the top. All you had to do was lift up the waxed paper lid and scoop it out with a spoon.

Monday, June 26, 2023

The Hunt Effect

The Hunt effect is a phenomenon in which object colors at low light levels are perceived less saturated compared to those observed at higher light levels.

As this illustration demonstrates, a color's saturation appears to increase as the luminance increases. This effect can influence how we perceive color intensity on monitors with variable brightness levels.
The Hunt Effect (Wikipedia)


Sunday, June 25, 2023

Warm and Cool Light

The down-facing spotlights fill the kitchen with a warm, yellowy light. By comparison, the light entering through the greenhouse window is bluish or cool.

Artisanal Lettuce, plein-air casein, 5 x 8 inches

The warm and cool add up to white light on the countertops.

I try to capture this big truth quickly and hang onto it while I sort through the details.

Saturday, June 24, 2023

What Is It?

This welded sculpture, called "What is It?" is by a blacksmith named Lincoln in Campbell, Missouri.

Mr. Lincoln collected iron knick-knacks for over 35 years, welded them together, painted them black, and placed the sculpture prominently on his front lawn.

Among the objects are a clothesline wheel, horse bit, chain, bas relief of Abe Lincoln, cowbell, clothes iron, sickle, pulley, awl, hammer, pliers, horseshoes, railroad spikes, and hat hooks.

Wednesday, June 21, 2023

Ponzo Illusion

The Ponzo Illusion demonstrates the principle that our minds estimate the size of an object based on surrounding background cues.

The illusion was first described by Italian psychologist Mario Ponzo in 1913. In its simplest form, the illustration shows two lines of equal length are placed at an angle between two diagonal lines.

The line placed on the top appears to be longer than the one on the bottom. This is because the brain interprets the diagonal lines as converging in perspective, and therefore the upper line must be longer. But of course the segments are really exactly the same size.

The illusion is more compelling when the background cues are more realistic. In this case, all three cars are exactly the same size.

More examples

Wikipedia on Ponzo Illusion

Tuesday, June 20, 2023

Quick Tips for Achieving Accuracy

Here's a practical tip for achieving accuracy: 

Before starting your drawing or painting, spend a few minutes making sure that your measurements and proportions are right. Measure the slopes, check the alignments, look for big geometric shapes, and use a cropping frame if you need to. 

These strategies do not take long, and they can help keep your drawing or painting on track. With practice, you will be able to apply these techniques quickly and unconsciously, allowing you to achieve accuracy with ease

Monday, June 19, 2023

How a map led to the Dinotopia concept

The breakthrough idea for developing Dinotopia was creating this relief map, which is painted in oil.
As an illustrator for National Geographic, this sort of map came naturally to me. I made the island big enough to encompass a variety of landforms, such as deserts, jungles, and mountains. I tried various names: “Panmundia,” “Belterra,” and “Saurotopia,” until I thought of “Dinotopia,” a portmanteau of “dinosaur” and “utopia.”

What should the ground rules be for this society of humans and dinosaurs? I wanted to include only creatures that are known from the fossil record. I excluded modern animals living in our own world and I also left out any imaginary beings. Thus there might be tyrannosaurs and trilobites, but no dogs, horses, or mermaids.

I tried to portray the dinosaurs according to current scientific understanding, which at that time didn’t include feathers. Without greatly changing their appearance, I wanted to endow dinosaurs with not just sentience, but sapience, and to give them personalities and give them a limited ability to communicate—a few of them with human languages, and others with whale-like musical languages that people have to learn.

All four Dinotopia books are still in print, and you can get them signed here.

Sunday, June 18, 2023

Dutch Painter Jan Veth

Jan Pieter Veth (1864 - 1925) was a Dutch artist who painted carefully observed realism with a muted palette.

Levi de Hartog by Jan Veth

This portrait of a Jewish jurist is lit by a soft, frontal light source.

Arnold Aletrino - Jan Veth , 1885. Dutch,1864-1925 Oil on canvas, 40 x 50 cm

Veth studied painting at the Amsterdam Rijksacademie, which set him up to paint notable Dutch people, such as Arnold Aletrino, a physician, anthropologist, and writer.

Veth was also a university lecturer and an art critic. He wrote for the magazine De Kroniek and was a professor of art history at the University of Amsterdam.

Veth wasn't afraid of tackling a technically challenging subject, such as this set of building facades behind the branches of a tree.

Saturday, June 17, 2023


Rabbits produce "cecotropes," or night feces that they poop out and then eat so that they can digest it a second time around. Rabbits have a fast-moving digestive system, and by redigesting waste, they're able to absorb nutrients their bodies missed the first time.

Friday, June 16, 2023

Into the Golden Realm

Usually colors get cooler as they recede. When you reverse that principle (as sometimes happens in nature), it looks weird and magical.

Into the Golden Realm, from Dinotopia: Journey to Chandara. 

More about reverse atmospheric perspective in Color and Light.

Thursday, June 15, 2023

Pellew on Originality

In his 1970 book "Painting in Watercolor," John Pellew addresses the question of what the beginning watercolorist should look for when they go to nature to try their hand at landscapes. 

"Let me tell what not to look for. He should not look for a subject that reminds him of the subjects painted by his favorite artist. There are a lot of people out today looking for ready-made Wyeths. To them, I can only say that the best Wyeths are painted by Wyeth."

Pellew advises artists to rid their minds of preconceived notions of what a landscape subject should be. Walk around the subject until you find something that interests you, and then figure out how to translate that interest into a composition. "Keep your eyes open for things under your nose," he says. "You could be passing up a real gem."


Quotes from Painting in Watercolor by John Pellew

Wednesday, June 14, 2023

Painting a Deli Beneath a Golden Sky

I use watercolor and gouache to paint this deli mart. The golden light of the sky turns the small forms an ochre color. The lightest value accents are the reflections in the front windows.

Watch this painting come to life on YouTube.

Tuesday, June 13, 2023

Honeybees Can Distinguish a Monet from a Picasso

Honeybees are good visual learners, and for some time it's been known that they can distinguish colors, shapes, and patterns. They can also recognize landscape scenes, flowers, and even human faces.

What are the limits of these abilities? Scientists constructed an experiment to test whether honeybees could recognize individual human artistic styles, such as the Impressionist paintings by Monet vs. Cubist or semi-abstract paintings by Picasso.


The findings show that they can learn to recognize and distinguish one style from another. They can generalize complex visual features even in images they've never seen before.

Given the relatively small size of the bees' brains, which weigh less than a milligram and contain just 960,000 neurons, the scientists argue that this appears to arise from a basic ability to "extract and categorize the visual characteristics of complex images" and is not a "higher cognitive function that is unique to humans."

Monday, June 12, 2023

Rim Lighting

The rim lighting attracted me in this quick diner sketch.

Saturday, June 10, 2023

Mama Bear and Her Three Cubs

I'm sitting at the breakfast table, looking up a lot from my computer, because Mama Bear has been visiting our backyard with her cubs. They're cute, but destructive, raiding and destroying our bird feeders.

It reminds me of the painting "Morning in a Pine Forest" by Ivan Shishkin and Konstantin Savitsky.  

According to Wikipedia, the bears in the painting were painted by Savitsky. However, the art collector Pavel Tretyakov effaced Savitsky's signature, stating that "from idea until performance, everything discloses the painting manner and creative method peculiar just to Shishkin", so the painting is now sometimes credited solely to Shishkin.

Thursday, June 8, 2023

Entrance to the World Beneath

Arthur Denison pilots his submersible toward the sunken entrance to the World Beneath. At right a flock of ammonoids drifts toward shipwrecks of galleons. The animals on the left are eurypterids, also known as sea scorpions, an extinct form that sometimes grew larger than a man.

Painting is in oil, about 12 x 18 inches, from Dinotopia: The World Beneath

Wednesday, June 7, 2023

Stop Motion, Behind the Scenes

Behind the scenes and animation tests with Mrs. Basher.

Pierre asks: "I like the stand used to keep the models upright while doing the walking animation. Could you explain a bit about how you got Mrs. Basher to scowl? I'm assuming there was some way to manipulate the face and that it wasn't done digitally?" Thanks. All the stop-motion is shot outdoors in-camera, animated straight-ahead on a timer with no Dragon Frame. During the jump-and-tumble sequence, motion blurs are captured with stills shot in burst mode with 1/10sec exposures, compiled in Time-Lapse-Assembler. VO is in post. The first scowl on the little stop motion puppet is just a head swap for another sculpt held in with neodymium magnets. The expression in the last shot is from a latex-and-wood, live-action rod puppet that's twice the size of the others with glass beads for eyes.

Monday, June 5, 2023

Barge Graveyard

The wild bank of the channel is called Sleightsburgh Spit. This was once a busy passage for barges carrying bricks, coal, and bluestone over the D&H canal to Philadelphia. 

But the railroads killed the maritime traffic, leaving the carcasses of the wooden canal boats to rot in the shallows of the Hudson River near Port Ewen. At low tide you can see plenty of old timbers and iron spikes in the barge graveyard.

Sunday, June 4, 2023

Digital Bioacoustics

Animals are able to communicate in the realm of sound with much more complexity and nuance than scientists had suspected.

Using new digital tools, researchers have begun to decipher auditory communications from many non-human life forms, such as elephants, birds, bees, bats, and even plants. A few examples:

• Strawberry rootlets will grow toward the sound of running water, even where there is no moisture gradient.

• There are distinctive patterns in elephant vocalizations that correspond whether the elephant is in the presence of a friendly or unfriendly human, an adult human or a child, or a male or female.

• Owl hoots contain markers identifying both the speaker and the listener.

• A researcher using a voice-recognition program for bats vocalizations found that adults lower the pitch of their squeaks when they're communicating with babies, the opposite of us humans. Our baby talk is typically higher in pitch.

Male peacock displaying colorful feathers, Image via 123RF

• Most of us have assumed that male peacock displays were sending primarily visual signals, but in fact there's also strong acoustic messaging in the infrasound range, to which females are strongly attuned. What precise information is contained in the feather-shaking display is just beginning to be deciphered.

This work raises profound philosophical and ethical issues, arising from the fact that machine systems can generate sounds that animals clearly understand and respond to, even though we can't recognize those nuances with our own ears. Should we use machine-generated animal sounds to send specific messages to animals, such as warnings, greetings, or invitations?


Google blog: "Separating Birdsong in the Wild for Classification"
Book: "The Sounds of Life: How Digital Technology Is Bringing Us Closer to the Worlds of Animals and Plants" by Karen Bakker

Saturday, June 3, 2023

Francis Coates-Jones

Francis Coates-Jones (1857-1932) and his brother Hugh Bolton Jones (1848–1927) were born in Baltimore, but later studied in France under William-Adolphe Bouguereau and Jules Joseph Lefebvre.

Francis Coates-Jones, Spring Day, Oil on canvas

He set up his studio in the famous but now demolished Sherwood Studio Building on in New York City.

Friday, June 2, 2023

Albert Collins, Artist and Actor

 Albert Collins (1883-1956) was an Australian painter who worked in watercolor.

He taught at Redlands School in Cremorne, where his design course was popular.

He was also a radio actor, known for playing the character of "Joe" of the Children's Session in the long-running serial "The Wide-awake Bunyip," which later was called the "Muddle-Headed Wombat."

Thursday, June 1, 2023

Why Rembrandt Declared Bankruptcy

Despite charging high prices for his portraits, Rembrandt van Rijn was forced to declare bankruptcy in 1656.
Rembrandt van Rijn, Self Portrait, 1658

Part of the problem was that he often failed to receive payment, which contributed to his financial troubles.

But he lost his fortune primarily by spending too much on rare and costly things, including musical instruments, weapons, paintings (including his own), prints, animal specimens, shells, corals, and plaster busts.