10. Obscurity

How we work toward clarity. Art collab with Elle Griffin; layers of a digital painting; prehistoric animation; rhubarb in the dark.

Friends, hello—

The afternoon sun is thinning and shadows growing longer in a steady shift toward autumn. There’s something womblike about this time of year, with a focus on layers, fire, nourishment. I read more during the cooler months as well, and I’m starting strong with Paris is a Party, Paris is a Ghost, a new novel by fellow francophone David Hoon Kim of “When I lived in French” fame.

Everything about this book is exciting, including the endorsements on the back, which extol it as elegant and spooky, “like walking through a cemetery and reading the tombstones while the eyes of crows watch your back.” And from Alexander Chee: it’s “about the ways languages control us…I left haunted in ways I hadn’t thought possible.”

Even the end sheets are gorgeous. Though translucency could be an indication of lower quality paper, I found the delicate and textured leaves a pleasure to handle.

I’m trying to practice better mental hygiene, because, not at all obvious, but I’ve been feeling pretty ravaged with the recent media cycle. I’m starting by shifting news consumption to traditional sources, limiting social media before bed, and spending more time in my library which has been growing faster than I’ve been able to read.

In Jia Tolentino’s “Picturing the Humanity and Dread of the Infinite Scroll,” published last week, she observes that though our doom scrolling is partly “born out of a sincere form of care,” that “when we turn on our phones to absorb our daily onslaught of incoherence, we begin to slowly lose our sense of the world as something we participate in with our bodies…Little by little, we cede the world to abstraction, consumption, and misuse.”

This got me.

To be sure: I’m not a fan of the adage “don’t worry about what you can’t change.” I guess prefer the essence of something more like “don’t worry. Change.” I also reject the idea that the intangible is without value. Locked away in darkness, if I believed that someone was thinking of me, that might save me while nothing else could.

My addiction to the phone, this expectation that I could somehow make people feel less alone through “not looking away” (an exhortation I’ve often taken to heart), the anguish this all invariably leads to—make for strange contrast to what I know. That the device is not the reality.

What I’m looking at is not the person, the fire, the tragedy.

It is a screen.

I must not be one of the enlightened ones; it’s been hard to compute. I’m working on it.


“On the edge of the crepuscular…on the edge of twilight…that’s where things happen, in the half light, in the liminal state.”
—The Brothers Quay

Art collab

I’ve also been painting in parallel with writer Elle Griffin’s gothic novel debut.

The chapters are being released serially on The Novelleist, beginning with the intro, and the prologue. As I shared last time, I’ve been painting moody vignettes for sheer play, and as a break from my animated short Chamoe (this is where we last left off).

These vignettes coincided with Elle’s book launch and we thought it’d be fun to feature each other this month. You’ll see my work in an upcoming issue of hers, and today I’ll share some of the process behind it. 

By the way, I’m finally feeling a pull back to animating Chamoe and it feels good to want to again. I might make this sort of switch-backing a regular part of how I work, alternating between two projects to see if focusing on one might refresh and enliven the other. At the least, I like the idea of being able to put my eyes elsewhere when they get tired of one thing, so that I can return to it with more clarity.

All said, I’ve been pleased at how natural it’s felt for me to break routine, and how the process has been driving my vision forward as a whole.


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Layers of obscurity

A woman, lost love, and dark redemption come into focus in a dream-like, sensual atmosphere. (I know, so gothic.) When I started painting these vignettes, Elle hadn’t even published any of her novel yet—but I think the vibe of our stories align to an uncanny degree.

You can view the story so far, with sound, on Vimeo. It’s rough, but I’ve been filling the keys in as I go because I get inspiration from setting things to music. The style has been evolving with each painting so if I end up animating this I’ll need to normalize that. The song is Murmur by Fantompower.

Incidentally, while I think this style of painting is nice, and one that I’ll continue to study, I don’t think it’s a final destination for me. I’m ultimately drawn to more abstract forms (versus stuff anchored in realism), and I’m working on improving foundational skills like construction, proportion, anatomy, shading. This exercise has been a great outlet for that.

As I mentioned before, I’m starting to play with perspective drafting in conjunction with paintings like these, and I’ve inklings about how realism might buckle under layers, lines, portals, schisms.

For now it’s a bit obscure, but ideas are developing, I’m developing, and that’s exciting.

I began with a sketch, changed the angle of the hips, laid down base color. I then added mid tones, shadows, contours, and highlights:

After desaturation, I applied grain and reduced opacity while duplicating blurs for a sort of long-exposure effect:

It’s wonderful and fun that Elle is publishing her novel on Substack, one chapter at a time! We’re both working to realize our respective dreams, and it’s cool to root each other on in this way. I wish her the very best.

Beautiful things in the dark

A few weeks ago my friend Danny forwarded me a Twitter thread about primitive animation from the caveman days. There were these mysterious “spaghetti lines” obscuring paintings on cave walls. Later, it was accidentally discovered that, when coupled with firelight in darkness, they became the mechanism by which the paintings moved.

“The flickering movement of fire, the only source of light for the prehistoric cave painters, was integral to the art itself. The movement of fire, combined with the rough rock that provides a surface for the paintings, made the paintings themselves move.”

I mean, wow. The innovation and power of this made me feel incredibly inspired by us, which is something I can’t last remember experiencing.

I’ll leave you now with another beautiful thing, this time for the ears, from Atlas Obscura’s “Listen to the Sick Beats of Rhubarb Growing in the Dark:”

Until next time.