A Story That I Enjoy Telling

I’m presently watching a documentary about the development of the Chariot in Egypt. The question that keeps coming to mind is the size of the space shuttles solid rocket boosters. Now how can they be related? This story is from a British show called Connections that ran in the 80’s hosted by James Burke.

Roman roads covered most of Europe. They were built to transport soldiers, pack wagons and Chariots quickly from one place to another. The chariots were based on the Egyptian chariot and to make things simple they used similar axel and wheel sizes on all the wagons. There were quite a few roman roads and as time went on and Roman influence waned, others began to use them. The ruts worn into the roads were the distance between chariot wheels. This distance wasn’t arbitrary; it was the distance needed for two men to stand in the Chariot and was likely very close to the distance used by the Egyptians. The Egyptians may not have originally developed the Chariot but they used it extensively, and apparently improved it.

Getting back to Europe. It was easier to build wagons with wheels the same distance apart as the ruts that had been worn in the Roman roads; the same distance apart as the Chariot wheels. These ruts were persistent because many of the Roman roads were covered with fitted stones. If the axels were a different length the wheels didn’t last long so this axel length became the de facto standard. So when the decision was being made about railway gauge size why not use the de facto axel standard. Other gauges have been used for various reasons.

Fast forward to North America in the 1800’s. Trains were the best method of transportation across long distances. They were being used extensively in Europe. The emerging country at the time decided to build a rail system so they imported the workforce from Europe. They were used to building coaches that fit on the European system and they were designed to fit on the European rail gauge and that was based on the axel length that they had always used. You guessed it; the same size as a Chariot axel.

Now fast forward to the 1960’s and the design of the space shuttle. The Shuttle itself and the main tank are huge but the rocket boosters on the side are much smaller. I remember them being unsure as to how many they might need but they were solid rocket boosters and were going to be manufactured elsewhere and transported to the launch site. I remember this transport as being problematic but it came down to rail and the booster had to fit through tunnels and such. Those ‘tunnels and such’ were all made to a size based on what trains would fit through.

So the size of the Shuttle’s booster rockets were indirectly based on what would fit through the tunnels, which were based on the size of the trains, which were based on the track gauge, which was based on European axel standards, based on Roman roads, based on Chariot axels, based on Chariots designed about 3 to 5 thousand years ago. The Romans got the chariot idea from Egypt.

I’ve read various opinions about this both for and against, but it is just so compelling, reasonable and such a great story that I love telling it.

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Art Schools

I didn’t attend an art school but I certainly had a lot of instruction from several artists where I attended classes. Robert Wood is an early inspiration of mine because I met him in Yellowstone Park when I was very young. He gave me an American Silver Dollar that I still have today. Apparently my mother and father talked to him. Maybe he was complaining about me. I don’t remember him but I may have asked some important questions. I think he gave me the dollar just to get rid of me. I’m sure I was fairly annoying. I took classes in New Westminster or Coquitlam in a studio that was likely set up by Robert E. Wood and taught by his son (maybe). I had the impression that he was a relative of Robert Wood but I was young and might be completely wrong. For several years I took classes with Violet Mulhame in Vancouver.

Now that you have my CV we can talk about art schools. We have a well-known art school in Vancouver. Emily Carr University of Art and Design. I’ve never been particularly impressed with the graphic design faculty at this school. I’ve worked with, and interviewed, many students for graphic design positions that attended Emily Carr. In general I found them to be woefully lacking in basic knowledge of how printing presses operate. Arguably this is largely antiquated knowledge today but at the time it was important. Conversely I was hugely impressed by the industrial design faculty at Emily Carr. I believe there was also a separate creative art program and there were several classes at the school that I wanted to take but was never able to make the requirements work or fit the classes into my schedule.

For those of you considering art school, I think it is a good idea. An art school will introduce you to new ideas and give you an idea of whether or not you have a chance as an artist. Graphic Design (I’m a graphic designer or graphic artist) is a highly technical profession; having artistic skills is a nice add-on. As an artist it pays to be exposed to as many techniques and mediums as possible. Any skill you learn with one medium can be migrated to another. That’s certainly true with oils and acrylics and equally with ink and print. But if you can’t swing art school then don’t let that stop you. It’s more important that you enjoy the art that you do. I enjoy painting. I don’t necessarily like the result but I enjoy doing it. I get a lot from YouTube videos. Consider graphic design. It pays the bills.

Outright Speculation

How did an artistic talent surface in our ancestors? It must have resulted from some reason. I don’t see the ability to draw as having any survival benefit, unless it helps communication. Drawings on cave walls could have helped communicate details of a hunt and improve future hunts. That’s a benefit but I think it started earlier than that.

Why does a painting start to look real? In previous posts I’ve speculated about this as a convergence of the painting with our internal visualisation of what our present reality looks like. This isn’t my idea, it comes from researchers working on human visual capability. So our ancestors searched the surrounding bush for something that looked like a lion or other predator. Sometimes they saw it and sometimes they didn’t. Visual acuity doesn’t seem to matter much here because it’s an interpretation of shadows and shapes. If they saw danger they could run and maybe have a better chance of survival and passing on their creative genes. This talent is also useful in the hunt.

When I was hunting I constantly scanned the surrounding bush. Sometimes something caught my interest. If I sat down and waited sometimes whatever it was materialised into a Dear, Grouse or Moose. I have a similar feeling about parts of a painting. Sometimes it just doesn’t look right so I keep adding paint until it does.

Abstract works wouldn’t seem to fall into the same category because there is usually little or no intention of the work looking like reality. I’ve talked to a few abstract artists and they have all talked about an area on the painting not looking right. If there is no intention of it representing reality then what could be ‘not right’ about it? Nevertheless I believe that the same mechanism is in play. Now maybe their internal vision is skewed or perhaps their interpreter is bent but I think it’s the same general process. Perhaps in their own mind, either conscious or subconscious, the abstract image is based on their vision of reality. I think this because listening to an abstract artist describe their creative process sounds exactly like the process that I go through. I can’t be sure because I haven’t heard of anyone determining a way to measure it, but it sounds similar.

So, if this idea has any validity, some-when an artistic ancestor managed to spot a hungry lion and outrun it. Then his or her offspring started painting cave walls. This morphed into hunters managing to kill more game and feed their children. Then more cave painting. Eventually this culminated in an ‘artist’ selling paintings. Now considering the ‘starving artist’ concept I’m rethinking the whole thing.

Cultivate Creativity?

Unfortunately I don’t know how to do this so I can’t enlighten anyone. I’ve been told that creativity is just something you have, or don’t. I don’t believe this. Everyone is creative in some fashion, although if you are arguing that some people are more creative more of the time then I might agree. Some people think outside the box most, or at least more of the time. I’ve known some of these people and capricious would be a charitable description. Unbalanced would be less charitable.

There is no doubt that thinking outside the box is very useful at times. Businesses love this catch phrase. The trick is to be able to turn it off and on, and use it successfully. If I’m stuck, and this happens often, I usually turn to Google and see what other artists have done. What I see is usually nothing that I might do but it can inspire a different thought process that brings me out of my funk.

I don’t have to look at anything even remotely similar to what I’ve been doing. Just looking at a completely different visualisation can set me on a new train of thought. I don’t think of myself as creative; I think of myself as a problem solver. Solutions can be myriad and most of them can work so I just keep painting. I often get a little bored with this process. My solution has always been to just keep painting. If I only manage 10 minutes a day that’s fine. I’m still painting.

Mixing Paint

I have always had trouble mixing colours; more so now that I’ve switched to acrylics and so many of the pigments are new. Everyone knows the standard blue plus yellow equals green. It’s the more difficult, Burnt Umber plus Mars Black plus Naphthol Crimson plus Hansa Yellow, equals a great colour for tree bark, which makes life difficult. Some of these new colours may even be unfamiliar to some artists; they certainly were to me.

Some of the traditional pigments are poisonous, or at least bad in larger quantities. I wouldn’t ingest any of the newer ones either but most are not actively poisonous and many of them use better pigments than the old standards. Cadmium is a good example.


Cadmium isn’t overtly poisonous but it can certainly poison you if too much is absorbed or ingested; so I no longer use Cadmium Yellow or Red. The newer pigments seem as good or better and they don’t have the health concerns. At least not that we know of.

I have used; Prussian Blue, Chrome Yellow; Cobalt Yellow; Naples Yellow; Strontium Yellow and Vermillion. I still use Burnt and Raw Umber. Most of these were used in oils but many exist in acrylics. The benefit is that Acrylics use more of the newer less toxic pigments. I’ve also read that the acrylic medium is more stable over longer periods so there should be less chance of toxins escaping.

It’s difficult to completely stay away from poisons when painting. I watch children carefully if they get near my paint supplies. I assume adults are not going to crack open a tube and take a lick. I’m always a little concerned over components that can be absorbed through the skin; like Lead. Lead white is still available but Titanium White is better and much less hazardous. Curiously I don’t think Lead can actually be easily absorbed but the chemicals containing the lead can. Cadmium is similar. Beware those of you who like to paint with your fingers.

For a more complete list of poisonous compounds used in paints go to: http://captainpackrat.com/furry/toxicity.htm
There is no guarantee that all of the modern pigments are completely safe either, so pay attention.

Getting back to the original subject; I mix until it looks right. A problem I had years ago was trying to use too many colours. Now I try to limit my colour mixing to two. As soon as I try to use more colours it turns out brown or grey. Of course occasionally that is exactly what I am looking for. Sticking to two colours isn’t always possible and it often leads to more/different paints. I tend to use Ultramarine blue but sometimes Cobalt blue is the perfect sky colour; Cobalt is bad so Phthalo Blue is a good substitute. Hansa Yellow is very transparent so I often add it just to warm the colour. Quinacridone Crimson is absolutely beautiful. Purple has always been a muddy looking colour to me so Dioxazine Purple is a welcome addition; I’ve used it on grapes. These paints are often quite transparent so I use Titanium White underneath; wait until it dries then paint on top.

I mix colours in pairs until I get what I want. It may need to be a little greyer or darker so I used to mix in Pains Grey; Mars Black is a good substitute although a little warmer. If the colour is lighter then I use Glazing Medium. This is where underpainting white is useful. If the colour I’m trying to paint isn’t very pure then adding white is fine. However if it’s a pure colour then white under colour plus glazing usually works.


There are new pigments in the works. I’ll wait a while to see how they turn out but I’ll definitely try them when they are available.


I always thought that art and design was about contrast. At least I was told on many occasions in art class to increase contrast. In graphic design I was told on several occasions to reduce contrast. This has a good reason; the hero of any graphic design composition is the product, so it needs to stand out. One way to do that is to increase contrast in the product and reduce it everywhere else.

When I was walking through the Metropolitan Museum in New York (I’ve only been to New York once) I noticed that the art often consisted of fine blending of colours and tones. Generally low contrast. The light and dark areas are still there but there is usually a subtle blend between them. At first I discounted this as a characteristic of age (the painting not mine); but there are far too many blends to be an age related issue. I look at my own work and I see a lot of blending. This blending is subconscious in nature, I don’t really know where it came from. It’s not something I remember being specifically taught.

I’m going to do more conscious blending in the future. I believe that reality has much more subtle shade variations than we imagine, so more blending is required to achieve the reality-illusion. High contrast makes things pop but it’s not really a characteristic of reality. I’m going to be more judicious in my use of contrast. High contrast certainly happens but it’s not as common as many people think and there is usually a blend in-between. In photography the difference between the brightest part of an image and the darkest on film is about five stops. Three stops on a print. A stop is an order of two, so an increase of one stop is double the light. So 5 f/stops is two to the fifth power or about 64 times brighter. In addition to stops there is also exposure time. So the math is interesting but the final numbers are that the difference between light and dark areas that a camera is generally capable of exposing for are about 16,000 times. This assumes that a long timed exposure is not used.

I could have said that the difference in brightness between full daylight and starlight is in the tens of millions but I think the camera reference is more easily understood.

Humans can see in starlight (at least we can see stars) and full daylight but it’s enough to know that this is far more, by orders of magnitude, than we can show with paint on canvas. We can trick the eye and brain into thinking a painting shows more than it actually does. This may have a lot to do with the reality illusion. When we are looking at a natural scene our eyes need to adjust between the dark and light areas. With a painting our eyes don’t need to adjust. We can see detail in the highlights and in the dark areas at the same time. This may be why some paintings just pop off the canvas and look real to me. Even though I don’t know exactly why this happens I like it and strive for it in my own work.



I’m not the best person to talk about pricing because I don’t paint to eat. I have sold very few paintings. They are taking up space in my attic. My daughter on the other hand sells a great deal, many of them prints and smaller originals. I have many opinions about art pricing but none of them mean much if I’m not actually selling my work.

So having said that here is my take on pricing. First decide who your market is and determine the price they generally buy at. This is easier said than done but with the Internet start looking at paintings and how they are priced. I think the only real criteria you should be looking at is size. Some people seem to value oils higher than acrylics but I don’t agree at all, the medium shouldn’t matter. Size apparently matters, so larger paintings command more money. I know that it takes me just as long to paint some small images as it does to paint larger ones but if that were actually the issue my paintings would be a fortune because it takes me so long to finish them.

My daughter sells much more than I do but she is a little conflicted about what she can charge. Her partner first thought that she charged too much but now that he sees how much work she puts in to them he thinks she charges too little. I think that the amount of time it takes her to produce them has no bearing on the price. The artwork is worth what the market will pay. I know it’s hard for an artist to accept that. Auctions or Galleries are a better place to start because they consider the art a commodity.