marshall arts

Moshe Yudkowsky: my first time

original: 9"x12", acrylic, 1999 (with 9 seconds to spare!)

Well, okay, this one's really not my first time. I have done other portraits before. I've even done a draft of this image before. And I've painted other portraits in acrylics, too.

The Balloon

During the photo shoot, we used two stand-ins for the planet Mars. One was a large round melon and the other was a large-grapefruit-sized water balloon.

Since I wanted to get a number of lighting effects (I freely admit I don't know what I'm doing with a camera and wanted to cover as many bases as possible while I had Moshe available.) we wound up carrying this lot around with us all day.

The reactions of people (including Moshe) we encountered were fascinating. Every single one (especially storekeepers and clerks) had their attention riveted by the water balloon the minute we'd walk into a store (Moshe needed postcards and such), and they all acted like I was carrying a live, venemous snake. I think they were afraid that the balloon would burst if they, like, thought at it too hard. I'd made it with a large balloon filled well below capacity and I'd been handling it all day, so I felt quite secure with it. Consequently, I was a little puzzled by this attitude.

When the time came to end Moshe's visit (well, actually, when he finally rebelled against doing any more poses—we still had a few blank frames and a half an hour of time left), we decided to ceremonially launch the water balloon. We were standing in a parking lot, so I gave it a hearty heave-ho and managed to lob it out ... oh, ten yards or so. Yeah, I throw like a girl, but for any self-respecting water-bomb, that should have been more than sufficient, especially since I'd managed a nice, high parabolic arc.

The thing bounced. Then rolled.

I didn't say anything, but I did allow myself a nice, dry, Church-Lady look. I went to retrieve it and it had taken damage to the extent of having a few pin-hole leaks peeing out nearly invisible threads of water. Moshe said, "Oh, come on!" disgustedly, as if he hadn't been acting all day like this thing was going to spontaneously combust and land him in some great liability suit or something. I let him take the next shot, and he did manage to make it burst.

But I thought that was a remarkably ignominious end for such a valiant stand-in. I'm sure SAG would never had stood for such callous treatment in one of its performers.

But this is the first time I started with an original concept and worked from original sources. (Well, except the idea that was originally Moshe's.) And this is really the first time I've turned out a painting the rendering quality with which I was actually satisfied. With this image I feel I've finally gratuated: I think I can now safely say I can drive a paint brush competently.

The whole thing started when I visited Chicago during the summer of '95 for a couple of science fiction conventions. Moshe's house was on the crash-space circuit I cruised and while I was staying there, he happened to mention this great idea for a business card he'd had.

I'd already learned of his affiliation with the Martian League of Assassins. (There are signs on the front door naming his house as the current headquarters for the Martian Government-in-Exile—in both English and Hebrew. This evidently confuses the heck out of visitors from Israel.) But his existing business card was pretty conservative.

original: 116x192 pixels,
Photoshop, 1995

He got lucky: when he described his idea to me, an image immediately and powerfully popped into my head. And he was equipped (with Mac, digital camera, and Photoshop), so we were able to run up a little draft image above.

But it didn't really satisfy me, not least because of the poor resolution. At my request, Moshe and mutual friend Jan made one yoeman attempt at fresh photography. But the results weren't quite right, and so I concluded that I needed to satisfy my Anal Retentive Virgo obsession with detail, and direct a shoot myself. But there was this small problem of geography, you see. So the project languished despite various gentle reminders for several years.

Finally, last summer, Moshe was able to make a day-long stopover in Boulder on one of his endless transcontinental perigrinations, and we took some time to shoot a new batch of photos with his Advantix camera.

Technical details: the photo that finally wound up making the final cut is actually black-and-white. (I'm now a believer: I have nearly identical poses in both b&w and color, and the difference in contrast is really clear.) My original intention was to modify it in Photoshop for the card image, but this involved doing a convincing colorization (which is really tough with skin-tones. See the February 2000 Scientific American article on " Digital Materials and Virtual Weathering" for an interesting related discussion.)

I have lately been in a mood to clear my decks of lingering projects and therefore wanted to be done with this thing and get it off my desk. Ironically, it seemed that the quickest and easiest way to do my final rendering would be to paint it by hand, since that's the color medium I have the most skill with. (Well, actually, ball-point pen is the color medium I'm best at, but it's way too slow.) So I ran up a low-rez b&w Photoshop comp from the chosen photo, and sat down at the painting table over the course of the next few weekends (with a few breaks for abdominal surgery and the like).

Given my general aversion to "talking" before I've done the "walking," I said nothing of this to Moshe while I was working on it, so it was with considerable pleasure that I quietly emailed a URL to him and asked him for his opinion. His reaction was most satisfactory. Especially when I had to tell him (a couple of times, to convince him) that the original was a painting. My one concession to technology was that I just kind of hacked in a smudgy "planet" to get the right sense of lighting and composition. Then, after I scanned the "finished" painting for the card and comped in the Mars image from (I hope) public domain NASA imagery provided by Moshe, I printed out the result in color. I then went back and copied the digital Mars onto the painting by hand. (How's that for retro?)

outside of double-wide, folded business card, Photoshop, 1999-2000

We are now in extensive negotiations regarding the layout of the card's interior. Fortunately, I've weaseled out of doing more than dishing out free advice upon request. :-)

—Friday, 4 February 2000

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Last modified: Mon Aug 7 10:33:55 MDT 2000