I’ve been continuing doing studies in Procreate, and have been saving process videos more and more – it’s really neat to see how paintings change over the course of me working on them.
I try and break out the gouache regularly for photo studies; it keeps my hand painterly and reminds me to think about values and simplifying the planes and shapes and also it is always a real challenge! I got some new gouache paints this past year, a Himi/Miya jelly gouache set suitable for painting a big pile of studies with, and it’s been a great excuse to paint more. Here’s some photo documentation of my recent work:
I’m a huge fan of the strangeness of satellite imagery of earth, and how it intersects with how we draw maps for navigational or other uses. I also love watching pigment flow around on a surface, and I’ve been thinking about how liquid dynamics of watercolour can mimic liquid dynamics of water tables, geologically. Which is to say, I’ve been painting watercolour maps. Click in to see them in closer detail:
I’ve been using Procreate and a selection of MaxPacks chalk and gouache brushes to do some looser, more painterly digital studies from photo ref. Here’s a selection of recent ones:
A few fun studies from musician promo shots and personal photos, done in watercolour and pen:
I am immensely, hugely, unbelievably grateful for getting to spend so much of the past decade making art! And between comics, games, personal artwork and client illustrations, it’s a big pile of work, and honestly, I don’t want to try and put it in any kind of hierarchy, because what the heck do I know?
However, I thought it might be fun to do a retrospective of one of my favourite themes from the past decade – people exploring forests.
So here, friends, is a huge (2k+ px wide) collage of all the images I could easily dig up that hit that particular note – starting in ~2010 and including work done this year. Click it to go to the full-res version if you want to see these images in more detail!
I’ve included drawings and paintings, comics and character sketches, digital and traditional, and also I’ve included a few plein air studies of forests and forest paths, since that’s been a part of my practice as well!
You’ll notice some themes, some trends in colour, a fondness for bears, and a few recurring themes. You’ll also notice that I redrew a few particular images over and over again! I had forgotten how many times I’d drawn that little adventurer between the wall and the tree, but there’s even more colour comps I didn’t include here. Guess it just spoke to me!
If I were to blame one thing for my love of forests, it’s fairy tales. Reading Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen collections from a young age definitely created a kind of mythic forest in my mind – a possibility space where anything could happen, where magic is guaranteed. And being lucky enough to live in Southern Ontario, where we have some magnificent forests and a bazillion provincial parks designed to help connect us to them, I have a lot of inspiration around me as well.
The work on this collage trends from oldest in the top left to newest in the bottom right, but it’s not a rigid organization – partially because I don’t really remember when some pieces were drawn, and partially because pieces like the comics, the repaints, the iterations, might have been worked on and improved significantly in sessions multiple years apart. Dating artwork is hard, it turns out! You might also notice that the quality level is not, say, a linear progression. My ability to polish an image, to render something well, to bring something to finish, is as much a factor of where my focus is at in the moment as it is my general skill level. So while I am 100% certain that I’ve improved at figure drawing, composition, storytelling, staging, shape design, I also think I’m much less likely to TRY and polish the heck out of an image these days! So that definitely changes the read.
I don’t intend to stop drawing forests and forest explorers any time soon – it’s clearly a rewarding theme, and also, I just heckin’ love trees, folks! Gonna enjoy me some trees!
My question for you is, what are the themes in your work that keep showing up? Do you have a few years – or even a decade – of a theme that you can collect and reflect on? Share some artwork in the comments!
Alrighty folks, time for me to tell you about 13 albums I hecking love! The past decade has seen my ability to access music change, and change, and change again as we navigated a sort of death of peer-to-peer file sharing, the birth of bandcamp, the enormous wealth of music uploaded semi-legally to Youtube, the rebirth of the music video (did it die? did I just lose touch for a while?) and then a crowded market of streaming platforms. For me, this means that I spent the first third of the decade listening to my mp3 collection which I was adding to less and less; then I abandoned that and had collections of youtube playlists and bookmark folders full of bandcamp pages; then finally I uploaded my abandoned mp3s to Google Music (was it the right choice? maybe not? am I trapped now? yes.) and slowly rediscovered a whole lot of older music all over again thanks to that.
So, it’s been chaotic. Are these my top 13 albums of the decade? I don’t even really think I can say for sure – Google music doesn’t seem to let me search by year, and doesn’t track my listens on my phone or ipad, so it’s a highly useless tool for determining this metric. Instead, I just went through my library and playlists and tried to pull out the albums that I had the most emotional connection to – or was forced to admit that I did put on loop regularly still! I’m sure as soon as I publish this I’ll think of 13 more, but oh well. These ones are all fun and I’m excited to talk about them!
This list is alphabetical by band because there’s no way in hell I can tell whether the symphonic power metal album or the fusion black metal album is empirically “better” than the other. Just, listen to what sounds good to you!
Blood Ceremony are a local band that my friends have told me about for years, but it took this album coming out for me to really understand what I was missing. This shit is fun! It’s a great album for a chill hang with your witches; a great soundtrack for a roadtrip through the woods; it’s got the flute solos you didn’t know you were missing in your life, and the spoooooOooooky overdubbed vocals you’ve always dreamed of. Is it satanic? Occult? Sinister? Yes, but in a sort of 70s flavoured reassessment of Victorian hobbies kind of way.
The guitar is mean, the drums are partying, the flute got really high, and the vocals are taking it all as seriously as they can given how the night went. I don’t know how to describe music, friends, but I do know I love this album and I often throw it on for hangs.
Fuck yeah a Clutch album! Of the three they put out this decade, this one’s the album I spin as a whole most often. Earth Rocker has some great songs, and I’m warming up to some songs on Book of Bad Decisions, but Psychic Warfare is where I go for 40 straight minutes (these are not long songs, friends) of rock and roll and snarky lyrics. Do you like arena blues rock? Then, well, you will probably find something to like on here.
This album sounds like it was recorded in a big, echoey room, right ahead of playing it all live. The energy on it is great, the production is great, the riffs are great, the puns remain also great! It’s probably one of Clutch’s safer albums, if we lined them up, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a rollicking good time. Even if you get a little bored in the middle, the final three songs – “Behold the Colossus”, “Decapitation Blues” and “Son of Virginia” – are fantastic examples of the darkly funny and slightly spooky writing that is probably my favourite part of any Clutch album.
Some music is like a friend high fiving you, some music is like a beautiful location you visit, and some music is like a drug trip. This album is like a drug trip with an enthusiastic friend into the prettiest, happiest, most overwhelming vision of outer space you can imagine. It’s huge, it’s a big big noise, it’s overwhelming, it’s amazing, it feels slightly melancholy while also being an exploration of euphoria, there is something silly and sincere and awkwardly honest about it, and when you hit play you get swept away, seamlessly being carried from song to song like being carried through the strangest montage sequence you can imagine.
I think it’s all about love and the human condition? There’s a lot of camp in it, from the swinging drums and stomping basslines to the wild vocal acrobatics that add an operatic melodrama to the whole thing. It’s huge, heavy metal, but with a pop sincerity and a beautiful dedication to letting the positive feelings be as big, overwhelming, even scary, as the negative ones. I think I cry whenever I see him play Kingdom live, and I challenge you to keep it together in the same circumstances!
Ahahaha, did you think this was gonna be all metal? Whoops! Sorry! I also love pop music! That said, there aren’t many pop punk (pop rock? what the hell is this band playing anymore?) albums that I spin in their entirety over and over and over. I think what I like about this particular album is how consistently big, fast, and fun the songs are.
Also, much like metal, approximately once a song I catch some lyric and think to myself “oh, hey, that seems kinda fucked up?” – which I think is maybe FOB’s signature. That said, the lyrics on this album are playful and melodramatic, the production is immersive, and there’s lovely little hints of scifi and fantasy amongst all the more mundane metaphors. I love how much boy band flavour peeks through the weirdness and the big, echoing drums. It’s been out what, five years? This album definitely still slaps.
Speaking of albums that don’t wanna commit to one genre, can we talk about HOW MUCH I listened to this album? I know Ghost is a new band with each album, but for my money this is the one to hold on to! This album’s deluxe version has a disc 2 with one original song and 5 80s music covers, and this just makes me love it more. But I don’t… really… know how to explain it? This album uses the parts of a metal band – bass, drums, guitars, keyboards, nasal vocals – to play throwback pop music, to reference 90s radio friendly industrial bands, to get witchy, to get religious (but.. for satan? I think it’s still satan they’re into on this album?) and to produce some of the catchiest goddamn songs about your immortal soul and what you should do with it that I have ever heard.
Musically I think this album makes a huge range of references and callbacks and shout outs, but I think it’s still something you can enjoy without getting any of them. It’s beautiful, and sinister, and skillfully built out of the cheesiest cheese that ever cheesed, and I still enjoy it regularly.
I already knew I liked Gojira, and if they’d stayed extremely heavy I’m sure I would have still gone to see them live and put a lot of time into whatever they released, but instead, folks, they cleaned up the vocals and got into atmospheric, nuanced, subtle, layered textures of (still heavy metal) music, and they put out an album with all these geological metaphors in the lyrics, and.. look it’s just wonderful. It’s full of all your favourite atonal Gojira chords and melodies, but now the dynamic range is so much broader!
This album is uncanny, it’s strange, its angry, it’s scared, it’s powerful, it’s unsettling in such a delicious way. The technical skill on display in this band is intimidating, and on this album they reign it in and point it at all sorts of unnameable feelings. This is music as landscape, music as spatial experience, music as movement and travel and journey, and it’s weird and I love it.
Hey remember Katatonia? This band was probably one of the first metal bands I got hooked on in highschool. We joked about how emo they were, but they did what they did really, really well, and I can still really enjoy their back catalogue when I’m in the mood for that exact combination of sadness, betrayal and rage that they specialize in.
This album feels a little bit like they grew up along with me – this album is much less loud than their older stuff, committing more to being prog rock than worrying about being metal, and the feeling of the music is a lot subtler. Instead of rage, we have a kind of cold anger; instead of betrayal, there’s a bitter acceptance; instead of sadness, there’s existential despair. Don’t spin this on your happy afternoons, but when the daily commute has consumed your soul and left you a husk, Katatonia promise you you’re not alone. This album hasn’t given up at all – it’s a rock album, it’s got distorted riffs and great drums and gorgeous vocal harmonies and time signature changes. But their chosen metaphorical theme? Glaciers. And if thinking about glaciers doesn’t make you feel a little worried about the future, then you and I are very different.
This folk rock album is by far the most depressing, creepy, bleak, scary, horrific, and sentimental thing on this list, and it’s one of those albums I gotta be careful of when I put it on. A selection of murder ballads and ghostly folk songs, several of which are from the villains and victims’ perspectives, this album can fuck. me. right. up. Emotionally, I mean. The twangy guitars and vocal harmonies got my attention, the lyrics rewarded it, and then I had to go hug my dog for a while.
There’s dead cowboys who aren’t ready to die, there’s people who shouldn’t have gone into the woods that night, there’s men unable to leave the earth without taking their beloved with them… it’s a whole panoply of feelings from ghost stories, without really very many details about the stories themselves. And it’s catchy! These songs aren’t slow, drawn out doomy dirges – they’re playful, with walking basslines and the twangy vocals feel like they’re winking at me. This album has been fuel for writing projects since I found it, and I don’t think it’s gonna let up any time soon.
In the other direction, here’s an album I got into because of the music videos – tongue-in-cheek, queer-coded, narrative music videos that I was mostly delighted with. It’s fun, danceable, textural pop music, with a heavy dose of nostalgic production and samples. It’s got swagger, it’s slightly sexy, it’s got a sense of humour, it’s stylish, and it’s almost completely not depressing! And perhaps, after this list, you can see why I was looking for that attribute in particular in an album or two.
I don’t listen to all that much of this genre of music, so I don’t have a lot of vocabulary for describing it, but it makes me feel like I can dance, and I think we all know I can’t, so it must be magic, right?
Speaking of music that doesn’t trigger an existential panic attack, have you heard of Symphonic Power Metal? Well, friends, welcome. Rhapsody of Fire have been playing it for a long time – about 25 years – and in that time they’ve barely changed a thing, just gotten access to better production and live orchestral recordings. Like most bands that old, there’s been some lineup changes, and this album has been written by a band that, if my math is correct, has almost no long term members left in it. Sometimes that bodes poorly, right? Well, not this time. This album is the best they’ve put out in YEARS. I can’t stop listening to it! It’s huge, it’s fast, it’s obscenely melodramatic, it’s full of catchy as fuck riffs, there’s awesome vocal melodies, the songs feel huge, and the lyrics are unparseably cheesy – just like I like it.
My theory is that everyone in the band is a huge fan of the band, and have thus distilled it to its essence. (On that note, though, if you made whisky out of a Rhapsody album, I think it would be rainbow coloured and frighteningly high proof, and there would be a sword on the bottle.) Like… every? Rhapsody album, this one is a concept album, the first of what they are calling a new saga, which, if I understand it correctly, is a concept discography of concept albums. Which means they are starting to tell a story here that they intend to keep telling for several more albums. Yes, they’ve done this before. No, I can’t make heads nor tails of the plot summaries of the previous sagas. No, it doesn’t matter. If you like your music fast, full of magic and sword fights and enormous melodrama, you might just like this perfect album. Also, if you’re making an enemies-to-lovers FMV for your fav anime, they probably wrote Warrior Heart just for you!
Another concept album for y’all, which might be a theme you’re noticing here? I apologize for nothing. This album fucking rips. It’s fuzzy as fuck; it’s about outer space – and also wizards? – it’s got Dan McPharlin on the cover art; it’s unbelievably catchy; it sounds like it was recorded decades ago and preserved perfectly in a scifi vault.
The cymbals never stop and I don’t want them to. There’s multiple instrumental tracks and they are maybe the best tracks on the album? But not because the vocals suck. The vocals do exactly what I want them to do, which is tell me about a fucking chronomancer. About warp riders. About OUTER SPACE. And they consistently rhyme! It’s so, so headbangable. Somehow you can hear every layer of the music, even when it feels overwhelming. It’s heavy and fun and a little overwhelmingly big but it’s here to party, folks. In space.
Presenting an entire album of pure, distilled, unrestrained, focused, costumed band member personas, fantasy metal. Does this sound like a band that wanted to be Rhapsody? I mean, maybe. But then they got those sparkly wind chimes to put on every song, and now this album feels like the musical equivalent of what would happen if Lisa Frank made a D&D bestiary. Rhapsody are pretentious, wonderfully, and I love them, but this shit? This is what happens when you get so sincere about unicorns you go super-saiyan. It’s powdered sugar covered speed metal.
It’s technically incredibly solid – the songs are catchy as fuck, the lyrics are a panoply of fantasy words put together, there’s a through-line plot that I don’t really worry about, and there’s a music video for Flight of the Sapphire Dragon that looks like a late 90s art filmmaker followed around a boffer LARP group as they played through a full day in character. I fucking love it, and if this sounds tempting to you, you might too!
Oh, friends. Put the dragons away, come home from outer space, and let’s talk about this album. If you caught the reference in the title, you might have some idea of what this is about, but the track listing should help you put your finger on the intersection of black metal satanic rage and black american lived experience rage. Of everything on this list, I think this album is the most deserving of your time. There is nothing out there like this; there is no one else in metal doing this at this scale yet. I cannot wait till we have a whole subgenre of metal that puts the musical and cultural origins of blues music back into black metal, doom metal, thrash metal, death metal, fucking all of it. Rage is a big feeling, a big emotion, that heavy metal loves to explore and elevate, and I think this album is an incredible example of why that can be timely and meaningful and have something insistent and significant to say.
This is also probably the single most accessible black metal album I have ever heard – it’s beautifully produced, it’s so many more genres than black metal, it’s catchy, it feels lyrically effortless – almost inevitable – and it is utterly immersive. There’s creepy and beautiful vocal harmonies; there’s screeching tremolo guitars; there’s sternum-shaking drums; there’s beautifully artsy instrumental interludes. The lyrics feel like prophecy and memorial and a highly individual need for and promise of retribution. Metal often leaves me feeling like I can’t really understand everything that’s happening on an album, and as a white person I’m very sure that’s the case here, so please let me know in the comments if I’ve fundamentally misunderstood something.
So, yeah, eh? It’s been a good decade for music, even if, like me, you’re kind of hopelessly out of touch with much of the biggest genres of music right now. If this new world of streaming and bandcamp and soundcloud musicians means I get to buy more Zeal & Ardor albums, then it’s absolutely a good thing.
Please give these bands your money so they can keep making music – you know how to do that. And if you have a fav album from the past 10 years, hop in the comments and tell me about it!
Last Wednesday I played Night Forest with the excellent folks at Dames Making Games, here in Toronto, and we had a wonderful time with it! I thought I’d do a quick post about our experience and things I learned from the experience! If you attended, please feel free to add your thoughts in the comments, I always want to hear them.
First up: playing with candles is wonderful, but they work only under very controlled conditions. In our case, despite everything else being in outer favor, the faint breeze kept blowing them out. Folks spent maybe half the time trying to relight theirs. That said, having a tactile object that requires some care-taking honestly probably helped everyone get past their awkward first instincts and gave hands something to do while cards were mulled over. It was also a great common ground for everyone.
We played in a public park in downtown Toronto, so it was not a private space and we weren’t alone – but all the one-to-one conversations still had an aura of intimacy over them that created some immersion, despite the noise and distractions.
Now for my hacks and edits:
Firstly, I feel very strongly that safety and consent are core to community gaming, and we started our session by getting everyone to submit their hard lines – content they did not want in the game at all. We also gave every player an x-card.
What I call hard lines are from Lines and Veils, though you’ll find similar tools under other names in Microscope and other games. I use the anonymous index card submission method now, and compile a list myself from the players’ cards, so there’s no individual pressure.
Night Forest has a group-reading of the instructions built in, and these also highlight and prioritize player comfort, which is part of why I chose this game for community play.
But back to my hacks: the other thing I came prepared to add, after some reflection and based on what I know of this community, was the loosest setting framework, encouraging folks to extend their storytelling into the far future. This gave folks the option of obvious fiction.
Then as a group we identified an additional thing needed for playing in the small public park – clear body language signals to differentiate between contemplating a new card and being ready to share stories. We also very quickly talked about storytelling: structure and length. This game is immensely hackable – but part of its magic is the huge open spaces the base game leaves for players to explore. I didn’t want to close that off at all if I could avoid it.
Sidenote: Evan Torner was talking about elliptical play the other day on Twitter, and I think it’s a concept that might tie into the huge spaces Night Forest leaves in the larger narrative. Something to mull over if you play it!
So we played with guttering candles and cellphone flashlights and skateboarders around us and folks: it was still so magical!
There was a point when I turned around after telling a story and found 5 ghosts silently listening behind me and it was SPOOKY.
All in all, I highly recommend playing. The cards are beautiful and the art in them is so evocative and surprising; the structure creates a powerful sense of intimacy even in public places; the compartmentalization of the shared experience builds but also prevents consensus. Two spooky thumbs up!
I adored Annihilation’s visual approach (among so much of it, gosh I just adored it overall really!) but as we walked out of the theatre, Matt and I realized we’d seen a similar visual theme at work elsewhere: at the MAC (Musée d’Art Contemporain in Montreal) when we caught a career-spanning solo show of David Altmejd’s work. I’m going to share here with you some images from both, because I think the interplay is really neat!
For the record, the images below are going to flirt with body horror in a big way.
First off, let’s look at some key scenes of Annihilation (click to see the source file larger):
Now, let’s admire some of David Altmejd’s work:
Let’s take a good look at some of his figurative stuff:
And for one final comparison, let me share with you the close-up concepts of the horrifying bear’s head in Annihilation:
And a few final pieces of Altmejd’s that really heck me up:
I’m not crying theft here – I’m just always delighted to find themes, and for anyone who loved the visuals of Annihilation, the art world does actually hold interesting and relevant art for you!
Thanks for your time! Comments are open!
I’ve had the privilege of teaching art in a variety of environments – from still life oil painting at the college level, to combining art with science and history in a museum setting, to guiding highschool students through creating a comics anthology. Through these very different settings, I’ve found a list of constants that, when I keep them in mind, help me deliver the most enjoyable and effective art education for my students.
One of my core beliefs is that art is, at the heart of it all, something a student must teach themself, and that a classroom, workshop, or camp that wants to teach art is actually responsible for creating an environment and offering projects that facilitate that self-driven learning.
With that on the table, here is the pantheon of truths that, if I can hold on to all of them, help me create that learning environment:
This grove was inspired by a trip through the Irish countryside in 2004, where I took approximately 700 film photographs of the wilderness, the architecture, the verdant forests and the magical quality of the light. Using mixed media, I wanted to add something a little more visibly magical to one of those memorable environments.
So in addition to running tabletop games twice a day for the kids’ summer camp I ran at the Aga Khan Museum, we supplemented gameplay with a few different things: firstly, we spent time every day in the museum’s collection and travelling exhibits; we read aloud stories from the Shahnameh; and we did hands on creative exercises that fed into both learning about the museum collection and enhancing the gaming experience.
For our Dungeon World in the Shahnameh summer camp at the Aga Khan Museum, one of the challenges in the prep was writing adventures for up to four groups of players that kept them all wrapped up in Rostam’s Seven Trials, without tripping over Rostam or changing his story, and didn’t have them competing with each other or deciding some groups or GMs were doing things “wrong”.
I initially considered writing a single adventure and sending each group down the path on their own, as if each was playing their own playthrough of a videogame, but that’s ignoring some of the best things about tabletop games – collaboration and spontaneity. In the end, after a great brainstorming session with Daniel Kwan (who runs a huge collaborative multi-group epic campaign for kids at the Royal Ontario Museum) I came upon a shared map solution.
For the Aga Khan’s Dungeons and Dragons camp they wanted to go above and beyond a basic DnD game and take the kids into a very specific world – the world of the Shahnameh.
The Shahnameh is the longest epic poem (by a single author) known, written by the poet Ferdowsi about 1000 years ago. It tells the story of the mythic, legendary and historical past of the Persian Empire, from the creation of the world forward to the arrival of Islam in Persia in the 7th century, and introduces us to kings, demons, triumphant and tragic heroes throughout time. There is more than enough in the Shahnameh to create an incredible world for kids to game in, but what we were lacking, unfortunately, was time.
Because this was a pilot program, we had to focus in and be efficient in creating a world for a week’s worth of play, without spending time on things we weren’t going to get to. In the end, I had about two full days to prep things, so I really had to prioritize, and thankfully the museum staff had some great suggestions.
Gaming with kids was new to me – I’ve gamed with a lot of adults, and with folks who are new to gaming as well as experienced old hats, but kids was different, and not necessarily in a bad way! Firstly, I’d say that over half the kids were immediately ready to take the game seriously and get invested in the story, despite never having played something like this before. And by the end of the week’s 9 gaming sessions, I don’t think there was a single camper who didn’t care about their character, their quest and their teammates. Here’s an exploration of the challenges we faced as we ran the game and some of the greatest successes, as well:
TLDR: It was great! Highly recommended. Learn more about Dungeon World here!
The first thing I asked the kids was whether they were familiar with Dungeons and Dragons, and not a single one of them raised their hand. After digging around pop cultural references with them, the closest thing they could think of was the game Dungeons, Dungeons and More Dungeons, from Gravity Falls. I figured that was a fine starting point.
When I was choosing what system to use with the kids, I had a few things to weigh – first of all, what kind of game play would be fun for kids both 9 and 12 years old (or 8 or 13, as sometimes we have kids right on the cusp sneak in); secondly, what would be a reasonable game to expect three new GMs to learn in a few weeks, especially when their own gaming experience was varied; thirdly, what game was flexible enough to be edited and adjusted and warped to fit the setting I was creating based on the Shahnameh. Finally, we had a fixed budget for the program, and I couldn’t expect them to order a whole suite of $40 players’ guides, dungeon masters’ guides, bestiaries or such. We needed something lightweight, compact and flexible, and Dungeon World turned out to be just the trick!
In July I spent a week running a Dungeon World campaign as part of summer camp for 16 kids, aged 9-12, at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto. It was my first longer campaign that I’ve designed, and the three assistants I had (who were amazing, thank you all!) had never run any tabletop RPGs before whatsoever. I’d been recommended by the excellent Daniel Kwan, who runs Pathfinder and DnD 3.5 for kids 11-14 at the Royal Ontario Museum, which you may have heard me raving about on Twitter in the past. It’s a really cool program, and it’s thanks to him that I got the chance to run this one at the Aga Khan Museum!