Learning to Get over Myself Learning to Draw

Thirty years ago I went to Interior Architecture school. It hurts thinking of that. Thirty fucking years ago. I was a great hard-line draftsman but never took the time to learn freehand. Even now, I bet I could sit down at a drafting table, grab a t-square and triangle, and bang out a respectable floor plan.

I miss drawing. I miss designing. I love writing and making music, but I miss creating visual art. Part of the reason I got the iPad Pro and the Pencil was to eliminate excuses. The iPad is always with me, therefore I always have the tools to draw. I’ve drawn some, but not enough. I’ve been having a problem getting motivated to do more than quick warm up sketches.

I was listening to a podcast with Stan Prokopenko as the guest. Stan runs a great website, proko.com where he shows off some amazing beginner lessons. On the podcast, he mentions that to get good at art, you need to spend 40-50 hours a week working on your art. Drawing the same thing over and over. Sketch a gesture. Rip it up. Sketch another one. Learning the fundamentals of guitar was easy. Learn the basic open chords and you can pretty much play most of the three-chord rock songs out there. Hours of entertainment. AC/DC made an entire career out of this. Learning to draw, however is harder. Every time I grab the Pencil and open up Procreate, I think: this thing I am about to create is going to suck. That’s not false modesty. Look at any Master’s output the first time he or she picked up a pencil and it will be laughably bad. It’s hard not to wonder if this is all just a waste of time. Will I ever get good at it? What’s my definition of good enough? Finding motivation is hard when you see an established artist do a quick sketch that is better than anything I could think of drawing.

My experience with architecture school tells me its probably not a waste of time. Even though freehand wasn’t a strength, I could still get the idea of what I wanted do in a sketch. A year ago when I made an effort to learn to draw I was pleased with my progress over a short time.

There is a hard and lengthy fought battle over tracing in art. A lot of people think it’s horrible, and a cheat. Before I continue, let me say that laying down tracing paper over someone else’s drawing, tracing it, and passing it off as your own is theft. However, let me tell you a story about how I created perspectives in school.

In the early 90s, CAD programs were in their infancy. There was a great one for my Mac called MacPerspective or something like that. I started using it when I was having a hard time getting the perspective for an atrium correct. I put in a rough version of the floor plan, walkways, and skylight into the program. I then picked a camera angle I liked, printed it out, stuck it on the drafting table and put my vellum over it. I then did all the little detail work and finished the drawing. I didn’t think I cheated. I just needed to get the damn drawing done. I could screw around for a day or two getting the perspective and vanishing lines done, or I use a tool to get the grunt part done. Norman Rockwell would project photographs onto his canvas and trace over to get the rough sketch done.

Where I’m going with this getting my mind around parts of the process. Some drawings I do I might sketch out from nothing. Others I might put a photograph on a background layers and sketch out from there. Jack Skellington is a basic enough character that it would be fun to use his head as an exercise in circles and shading. A picture of a friend with a sword, though, might end up in a background layer where rough out the anatomy to become an orc warrior.

iPad Life: Ease of Recovering from a Total Failure

There is no good time for a tech failure, but this one had a taste of self-infected. When I started working on my homework for my graduate class recently I noticed two things: my 256g iCloud Drive was almost full; and so was my 128g iPad. The iCloud Drive I knew about. I had dumped up 40g of videos to it and thought I would have more space free than I did. The iPad was worrisome. I’ve looked like even though I had Optimize Photos turned on, my iPad was still storing full images locally. When I signed out of iCloud and signed back in it told me I needed another 50g of iCloud storage. It wanted to re-upload all the images I guess.

So, I ended up just reformatting the iPad via the settings menu. I chose to restore from a recent iCloud backup and about an hour and half later the restore was complete. All my passwords were there. My apps were in the right locations. If it wasn’t for having to re-download my books in iBooks and the Kindle app as well as a few missing text messages, you wouldn’t have known it was a fresh install.

I’ve been thinking of reinstalling macOS on my MacBook Pro. The reasons are a topic for another day, but the time it takes to get everything back up and running is the main reason I haven’t. There are a lot of large apps on there plus the data from my cloud storage. It is the type of thing that will take a weekend to recover from.

iOS, though, is about two hours total.

My First Computer

My parents always did a great job at Christmas. There are two Christmas gifts that have stood the test of memories 30-40 years later.

The first was an aircraft carrier about 3 feet long that had a wire-guided plane you could land on it. It worked similar to this. My dad decided that the short wire that came with it was inadequate, so he grabbed his fishing line and rigged up a 30-foot guide line that ran the entire length of the house. That upped the fun and difficulty. I was probably 9 or 10 at the best, but even now I can picture the whole thing: the plane mounted on the table in the front room; 30 feet of fishing line going through the family room and landing in the doorway to kitchen. I’d hit the button that would launch the plane, pilot it with something that looked like a control mechanism from a Cessna, and attempt to grab the guide wire on the carrier. We probably pissed my Mom and the dog off equally. Too bad we didn’t have a cat or that would have really upped the challenge. Update: this is it.

The second was a Commodore 64. I have no idea about the thought process behind why they got me this. The computer revolution was just starting. I was in high school and had taken a couple of computer classes. I think my parents may have realized that computers were going to be a thing, heard about the Commodore 64 and bought it. There was a lot of angst on their end. The gift did not show up until Christmas Eve. I had just left the house to go to my friend Dave’s house and never saw the UPS truck show up.

Back then, it didn’t even have a floppy drive. It had cassette player you would load the program with. The day after Christmas we went to some small computer shop and I got a few games to play. One of them was called Gato which was a great submarine simulator. It was a lot of ASCI code showing the ships I was shooting at, but looking back that was some serious programming chops in the early days of computing. He also realized that I liked D&D-style games and bought me Zork. Zork was one of the first interactive fiction games by a great company called Infocom. While EverQuest and World of WarCraft probably hold the top places for hours played in a game, Zork comes close. This was before the internet where you could just Google your way out of a problem. A lot of my analytical skills and thought processes came from playing that game. I remember having an entire notebook with maps I had made and notes on what I tried to do to solve various puzzles. I still have the games loaded on Frotz on the iPad.

I also learned some basic programming. You could get Byte magazine which would have programs printed in it that you would then type by hand into the computer. Two years of typing classes in school didn’t do shit for my typing. Typing in thousands of lines of computer code, however, did wonders for learning that skill.

The Commodore gave way to an Apple IIe, which later ceded the way to a Macintosh in 1985. That Christmas, though, changed my life.

Sacred Places of Work

I wanted to move game playing out of my home office and transform the area into a space where I would just focus on work stuff. Paint my miniatures, write, draw, work on my trains, or learn to program. Have something to show for my time. So, I bought a PS4, put it in the family room, and moved the Alienware off my desk. All that remained was the iPad, MacBook Pro, and a sacred place of work.

My home office is amazing. We had it painted recently, there isn’t much in the way of decorations. I look out at 57 acres of woods, and several times a week see the local wildlife in the back yard. I have two work surfaces: a large desk that is the 3rd generation in my family; and an IKEA dining table that I use for painting my miniatures and working on my trains. On the desk is my MacBook Pro, the 27” monitor hooked up to my Alienware Alpha, and the related chargers and cables.

The first paragraph was written earlier this year. The second one a week or so ago. An astute reader will notice in the first paragraph the Alienware was off the desk, and in the second paragraph it came back. The problem with bad habits left unchecked they come back like weeds. The painting happened in early June. The Alienware was put away when I got the PS4 in December 2016. By September, it had crept back on my desk like a pile of kudzu. I’m looking at the 27”monitor right now and thinking: that right there is a big bucket of fail. The foundation of bad habits is lies and false promises you make to yourself. I just put that there to have the game on. I want a big screen to watch the drawing tutorials on. It’s out of the way and you hardly notice it.

I used to follow the Minimalists a lot (my full feelings on them is a future article), but one of their mantras is if you lead a distraction-free lifestyle free of things like video games, the TV, the internet, and cell phones you will miraculously find yourself an amazingly productive person.

Bullshit. Hard work may pay off tomorrow, but procrastination pays off today. If I feel like writing and drawing, I will. If I don’t, I won’t. The beauty of personal side projects is there are no deadlines. The curse of side projects is there are no deadlines.

Instead of Minimalism, I instead try and follow simplifying and the essentials. Minimalism feels like paring down too far. A minimalist may have only one Lightning charger, but I have five: one at my desk, one by my bed, one in my car, one at my desk, and in my bag is a set of MacBook and Lightning chargers. It’s not minimal, but it is simpler. Everywhere I need a charger there is one. Because it really sucks when you run out of juice someplace and realize you left the charger the last place you were at.

Likewise, my iPhone, iPad, and MacBook are essential. The Alienware and the 27” monitor are not and will be removed. The rest of the desk will be clean, simple, and essential.

I Write Because I Have To, and the Realities of Writing on the Web

On a good day, this blog gets tens of visitors. Whenever I check the WordPress stats — which I assume to be slightly accurate — I ask myself: is this even worth it? Ben Brooks doesn’t look at analytics anymore. I’m sure he gets feedback on how well a post is received from Twitter or emails. My posts go into an internet black hole. Maybe twice a year I will get some feedback or a retweet or something.

I write these posts because I have to. The idea comes into my head and I will have trouble sleeping until the post is published. I don’t agonize over it. A lot of these posts sit in draft form until I’ve got the idea in a good enough shape to publish. In Ulysses I have a folder labeled Abandoned. The posts that I am never happy with go there. I rarely look at them. It could just be something that typing up felt good enough, or the circumstances that lead to me writing the post changed, or I just gave up. Usually posting is the end goal; sometimes just writing it is enough.

Like most writers, I dreamed of going independent. Daring Fireball was a great inspiration, and it’s hard not to look at Gruber’ success and think: that could have been me. It takes talent and luck to make it. Gruber has both. No sour grapes there1.

The last time I was paid for my writing was back in 2014. I wrote some for-pay articles in 2015, but Gigaom closed down with a balance due that was never paid. In 2011, the company I worked for laid off its entire Tech Ops team. Over the next two years, the only employment I could obtain was short-to-medium term contract work. What little freelance work I was able to do made a difference. Stephen King said in On Writing something along the lines of: If you received a check for your writing, and you used that money to pay a bill, you are a professional writer. I paid plenty of bills with freelance checks.

The measure I used to determine if I could become a full-time independent worker was if I earned enough each month to pay the mortgage for six months in a row2. I never made the mortgage one month, forget six months. The closest I came was around 2009. At the time, I was writing about video games, and if you added up the hours I spent playing the games and writing the copy, my hourly rate was under what I’d make working minimum wage. Writing for tech sites was a better time to income ratio. My tech articles only took 3-4 hours to write. Maybe a little longer if I needed to review a product. It still worked in my favor compared to an MMO review.

After Gigaom shut down I didn’t look too hard for another freelance gig. Macworld had laid off a lot of staff so there was a glut of Apple-based writers available. One outfit contacted me asked what I made per-article for Gigaom. They never replied when I told them.

So, I started a site (thecasualtechie) to sort of try my hand at getting my own site going. The internet advertising model is pretty much non-existent. I didn’t feel comfortable trying to line up sponsors to pay to advertise on a site that no one reads. If I were trying it today, I would probably start a site whose focus is solely on iPad productivity. I still might. The mantra has always been: write good content and people will come. Few people want to pay for content online. Internet advertising doesn’t pay much, and I’d want to control the ads that appear on my site anyway. Affiliate link commission keeps declining.

I liked having a side hustle. The income from my writing paid for my tech toys, which lead to articles about how I used them. One of the themes I had for 2017 is trying to work on some sort of a model that paid. I liked writing an article and getting paid for it. But, it was a 1 to 1 relationship. Write an article; get a check. I never wrote one article and got two checks. I’m out of the freelance game anyway. In addition to the rates being low, almost every site I worked for actually getting paid was a hassle. Invoices would be tied up, lost, not paid. Promises would be made; these promises were then broken.

As I look ahead to writing, my goal is some sort of passive model. Self-publishing is the likely solution, but It also has long odds. I’m not sure how I’d feel about pouring thousands of hours into a book no one bought. Fiction stories don’t kick at me to be born the way these posts do, but a few ideas are stirring. Maybe there is a story in there trying to get out and I am ignoring it.

This is a post with no answers. It’s not a cry for help. I’m not looking for advice on how to (air quotes) Build a Brand. I just had to share about writing on the web in 2017.

  1. As an aside, I miss the old Gruber. He used to write more original pieces. Now, he just posts a lot of links with some inline commentary.
  2. Granted, just making the mortgage wasn’t a survivable wage. It was a data point that if I could make that amount on a part-time basis, I could probably earn enough to live doing it full-time.

iPad Life: Managing the Creative Process and Focusing on What Matters

I’ve had a running category tag on this site for a while labeled iPad-only. I’ve been inspired my Ben Brook’s iPad Productivity Reports, and Matt Gemmell’s series on going iPad Only. For a while, I’ve wanted to write a little more about how I use my iPad, so I’m starting this irregular series I’ve dubbed iPad Life.

Unlike Matt and Ben, I am not 100% iPad-only. Outside of the day job, even in my personal life I can’t go iPad-only. I run into enough challenges like de-DRMing my Calibre library, downloading some files off the internet, Photoshop filters, and 3D modeling tools to go iPad-only. It’s bothered me, in a way. A big step was getting my head around the idea that by using my MacBook for things I need a Mac for wasn’t betraying the cause of an iPad-only lifestyle; it was just using the proper tool for the job. This is just life and efficiency. Especially on a school project, sometimes it was just easier to open up the MacBook and do the task than fuck around with bending iOS to my will. I’m looking at you, WebEx app.

When I settle down to do any sort of creative endeavor, the iPad is the first device I reach for. It’s the best way for me to write and draw. I consider the 12.9” iPad Pro to be the canonical iPad, and I think an Apple Smart Keyboard are required accessories if you want to use the device for productivity. I also consider Ulysses, Procreate, Linea, Affinity Photo, OneNote, and Graphic to be my essential apps. Those apps let me focus on what matters: creating. It is a rare day I intentionally leave the house without my iPad. There is a cafe near my house I love to go work at. The coffee and food is great. There is a little alcove off to the side where I can have a little bit of privacy.

One of the things I love about the iPad is how it lets me manage my creative process. There is a great TED Talk by Adam Savage where he goes into creative obsessions. In it he mentions he has a folder on his Mac where he is constantly dumping images and creative things that inspire him. I have something similar on my iCloud Drive. What I love about the new split-screen features on iOS 11 is it is now very easy to just grab an image I like off the internet and drag it into a folder. I have folders for art I like, reference images, miniature painting references, and stuff that like that. Grab, drag, and drop. Articles I find of interest go into Instapaper and Evernote.1 When I need to reference something, I can split screen it to the drawing app, or full screen it if it’s a reference image for a miniature or a train detail I am working on.

This is the iPad’s superpower. It removes a lot of the friction to my creative endeavors and lets me focus on what matters.

  1. The reason for Evernote is archival. I enjoy Instapaper’s reading experience to Evernote, but I’ve noticed Instapaper has to redownload the web site if I reinstall. If the article is lost to history, so is my Instapaper archive.

Playing “Paper and Pencil” Dungeons and Dragons on an iPad.

This is probably one of the more geeky posts I will write. I’m going to go over how I play pencil and paper D&D on my iPad Pro. This post will focus on playing as a regular person; not a Game Master. That may become a separate post.

Twice a year I go to a local gaming convention, TotalCon. For a while I played D&D exclusively. Then for a few years I did board games only. Last year I did a mix of the two. I like running and playing the board games my regular gaming group doesn’t like to play, but I’ve missed playing D&D. Last year I played D&D twice and had a good time. This past weekend they held a one-day gaming event and I got a day of D&D in.

I’ve used my iPad to manage my characters as best I can for a while. D&D 4E was an almost impossible to manage system. The paperwork required for skills, magical effects, and the other minutiae pretty much required access to Wizard’s online character portal. Fortunately, it was pretty easy to get characters in and out of the website. There was an app I had on my iPad that let me handle the day-to-playing of the character. I could track damage, what skills I used, and had a one-button reset of the skills. It worked great.

D&D 5E went back to a more basic play style that did not require as much care and feeding. Wizards also put their online portal into abeyance1. That was fine, since there is a lot less shit to manage these days.

There is also a log sheet we are required to keep. It tracks the module we have played, how many points and gold we were awarded, and any items we received. It is rare any one looks at the sheets, but every now and then someone shows up with an over-geared character and some review will need to happen. What is nice is, only officially-published modules are legal for you to move your character around from place to place. So, it is easy to verify if a module gave out a certain item. For this, I just used a Numbers spreadsheet. Each character had a tab andI would update it.

Most people at the cons use some sort of paper-based character sheet. I don’t like this because I am pretty much anti-paper, and I’m always afraid I will forget (or lose) something I need to bring to play. By storing all the information in the cloud, it is fairly safe and I always have access to it.

The last two times I played, I just used a form-fillable PDF to track the character. This worked out pretty well, It looked good, and it was easy to find stuff. What I noticed both times I used this was my battery life took a big hit. I can’t tell if the app I stored them in wasn’t good at memory management, the app is constantly trying to sync to the server and therefore draining battery, or that’s the nature of pegging the iPad hard. In February and this weekend, each 4-hour session of DND would leave me with around 40% battery. I couldn’t make it through an-all day event. Fortunately, I have a decent battery pack and I can fast-charge my iPad. If it just happened this weekend, I could write it off as some sort of iOS beta weirdness, but in February I was running a release version of the OS.

So, when I got home from the con this week, I decided to roll everything into a Numbers sheet. I found a decent Excel sheet online that I made a few modifications to, and reworked some of the cell functions that may not work properly on the iPad. I also copied the log sheet into its own tab on the document now. So, everything I need for that character is in one place. I am hoping the low graphic footprint of the Numbers sheet also helps battery life.

What is also nice is it is pretty easy to find PDFs of the sourcebook on the internet2. The guy running one of my games was very impressed with how fast I could look up something. He had a suitcase full of stuff. I just had my iPad.

  1. A new version is in beta, but I’m not thrilled with the pricing. That said, it is a great way to quickly handle some of the math behind your character and speed up the leveling process.
  2. Yes, these are PDFs that have “fallen off a truck.”