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Saturday, December 18, 2010

Spinal Stenosis

My biggest challenge is the set of issues occurring in my back.  I have had two surgeries (four level cervical fusion and a lumbar laminectomy/discectomy,) as well as dozens of epidural injections, trigger point injections, radio frequency thermo-coagulation and other similar procedures.  I've got an erector set's worth of titanium in the neck.  This all results from degenerative discs and a lot of spinal stenosis.  Other goodies like bone spurs and facet issues round out the fun.

Besides the surgeries, I take a lot of pain meds and do physical therapy.  I've done a lot of acupuncture as well.  I don't really want to detail the ways that all this impacts my life, just take it for granted that this is my biggest thing to paint about.

So I wanted to make a big canvas.  I considered some very large canvases I had stretched for video screens, but they weren't really taught enough to make me happy.  I considered large wood panels, but with the necessary cradling, they would get really heavy.  I also wanted to use the size and structure of the framing to say something about the my personal spinal framing issues.

For the composition, I knew I wanted the back, the spine and the cervical and lumbar vertebrae to figure prominently.  I love anatomy art, and easily found great imagery, primarily from Gray's Anatomy.

I worked these images on the computer to arrive at a first pass composition:

 Now I had to pick the surface to paint on.  I realized that I had a lot of blank, prepped 16"x20" canvases.  I'd already noticed that when you hang a rectangular panel by one corner, the plumb line that results is not the same as the diagonal between corners.  It is for a square, but for a rectangle, it isn't.  I wondered if that would hold true if I used an arrangement of joined panels.  Eventually, I constructed a model in cardstock to test this idea:
 This got me excited!  The combination of the 16"x20" panels would be both large and non-standard.  It wouldn't be just another rectangle.  Also, the visual dissonance set up between the plumb line and the diagonal line would be a great underlying comment on the issues I face with my spine.

I worked the computer composition onto the new layout:
 Joining the panels was pretty easy.  I used deck plates and simply screwed all panels to their neighbors.  This results in a very strong and light structure at a fraction of the cost of a comparable sized single canvas!

 I began sketching the image:
 I wanted something with a lot of texture.  I'd recently become interested in Modeling Paste, an acrylic binder with marble dust.  This can be added to thicken paint.  But I wanted to underpaint the canvas with a texture layer.  I used the modeling paste two ways, as finger paint for the muscle striations, and then using a cake decorating set for the actual vertebral outlines.  This resulted in a wonderful surface to start putting color on!

The resulting picture is 75"x50"

 Here's a picture of it hanging at Art Outside Austin in 2010 for a sense of scale:
Cheers,
--Tim

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Lactose Intolerance

Around the time I turned 30 (some 18 years ago) I started having a lot of gastro-intestinal problems.  I felt sick and in pain all the time.  Doctors tested me for intestinal parasites, colon cancer, and a host of other undesirable ailments.  I had upper and lower GI tests, colonoscopy and lots of blood work.  Nothing clicked.  Then finally, my GP suggested I stop eating dairy for a few days.  My symptoms ceased almost overnight.

I'd grown up watching my father eat a bowl of ice cream every night before bed.  I had made a solemn vow to my self as a child that I too would enjoy this supreme indulgence.  My first real job was at a Baskin-Robbins.  I LOVE ice cream.  I SCREAM for ice cream (we all do.)

And so, for years I ate it nearly nightly.  Finding out that it was the primary culprit in my gut distress was a major blow.  But little did I realize that it would be the easiest of the lactose problems that I could solve.

Milk is sweet because it's loaded with sugar.  Lactose to be precise.  Lactose is actually a disaccharide, meaning that it's a sugar built out of two, less complicated sugars, galactose and glucose.  Those simpler sugars can be absorbed through the walls of the small intestine.  But lactose is too big and is passed into the colon where it becomes fuel for the vast numbers of bacteria that live there.  Essentially they ferment the sugar, creating hydrogen, methane and carbon dioxide.  All this gas in the colon results in a wide range of potential symptoms like cramps and flatulence. 

Anybody who gets lactose in their colon has these symptoms.  But most people have an enzyme in their small intestine called lactase which cracks the lactose into its constituent sugars.  Babies have a lot of lactase so they can digest breast milk easily.  Most people have a big reduction in lactase production by age 4.  Various populations around the world tend to have more or less lactase in adulthood (i.e. lactose intolerance tends to track strongly to genetic heritage.)  Recent research suggests that the ability to digest milk into adulthood is a relatively recent mutation, possibly as recent as 7500 years ago.

It's the norm in nature for adult mammals not to be able to digest lactose.  It makes evolutionary sense since having adults compete with infants for a protein source like breast milk would have negative outcomes.

Nevertheless, American culture and diet is dominated by lactose tolerant northern European dairy lovers.  If it tastes good, it will taste better if cooked with butter and covered with cheese.  Trying to avoid dairy is a nightmare.  (Most, many, a hell of a lot of) restaurants use butter for everything, they even grease the grills with it. I love BBQ, but many of the best sauces use milk powder as a secret ingredient.

It's true that you can buy LACTAID® Products and thank god for that.  These types of products try to replace the missing lactase in your system so you can digest dairy without feeling like you're going to die.  But for me, they fail about 1 time of out every 4.  This makes every chocolate chip cookie a big decision.  One cookie that slips past will hit me in 40 minutes, crashing my entire GI track and making me rush for the bathroom.  I have to be very very diligent when traveling or when I have meetings scheduled.  When the lactose hits, I need to be within 30 yards of a bathroom.

My life has really changed as a result of lactose intolerance.  I have lactose induced diarrhea a minimum of 5 times a week no matter how carefully I try to use Lactaid or dodge dairy.  It's in everything.  It dominates a lot of my thinking where food is involved.

Lactose intolerance was a must-paint in my series of personal frustrations.  I tried to think of how to represent it without being disgusting.  I started looking at the molecule itself:
 and noticed that the two sugars provided rings that were joined in a way that reminded me of handcuffs.  This image struck me hard!  I'm shackled by lactose every day.  So I bought a molecular modeling kit and whipped up the dreaded beast, fitting it to my hands like handcuffs:

  
I took this picture and combined it with the formula C12H22O11 (lactose,) and worked it on the computer to get the palette I liked:
 I freehand sketched this onto tracing paper and worked it until I liked it.  I rearranged a couple of the atoms to work better:
I painted the canvas (16"x20") with Mars black mixed with a little glaze medium and transferred the tracing to it using graphite paper.
 
I painted in the formula and the atoms first:
  
Then I started working on the arms and hands.  I wanted to work in a severely reduced  palette and restricted myself to Mars Black, Cadmium Red Medium Hue and Titanium White.  I did mix these with a lot of glaze medium to get varying levels of gloss, especially to get the black carbon atoms to stand out against the black background:
 This picture shows the left arm after I added the shading (so you can compare with the image above):
 
The hardest part turned out to be painting the connections between the atoms.  In the end I was able to get a better 3D effect by painting curved lines with a little pin-striping shade lines to emphasize the curvature:
 fs
Acrylic on 16"x20" canvas, here's the Flickr page.
Cheers,
--Tim

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Pill Study

The series I'm working on is about the things that frustrate me.  It has been pointed out to me that for the last couple of years I've been having 'happiness' issues (as in, 'lack of'.)  I've started painting after a long hiatus to try and at least try and creatively articulate my problems.

I used to paint in the 1980s fairly extensively and showed at minor galleries, restaurants, etc.  My dreams of Art School had been shattered in the mid 80's when the warehouse I was living in was broken into and my portfolio of work (including photos and negatives of work,) was ripped up and urinated on by vandal/thieves.  Everyone's a critic.  I was also just breaking into the Austin music scene (having moved here from Tallahassee where I'd been happily playing in bands for years,) and they stole my bass and amp.  Nevertheless, I'd forged on up until 1988 when I had 8 canvases (that I really loved) hanging in a bistro near campus that closed in the dark of night with the owners disappearing with all the furnishings, including my canvases.  At that point I decided to take a good hard look at my painting.   I came to the conclusion that I frankly didn't know how to draw.  I was using a lot of media tricks to hide a basic weakness in figurative drawing (I'm a decent draftsman.)  About this time I entered the tech industry and re-focused all my creative energies on sculptural robotics.

Decades pass.  I age.  My occasional back problems become constant back problems.  My constant back problems start needing surgery.  I end up in the second decade of the new century with a neck full of titanium and a ten year relationship with my pain management doctor.  Essentially this means vicodin punctuated with steroid epidurals and the occasional surgery.  I'm functional, but I don't like needing the meds.

Last year I decided that I needed to really make an effort to develop some outlets that I could do as my functionality waned.  I'd been doing Akido, Daito-Ryu Aikijujitsu, Cha-Yon-Ryu and other martial arts to keep focused, but my last fusion surgery but an end to that.  I picked up Andrew Loomis's Figure Drawing for All It's Wroth  and Jack Hamm's Drawing the Head and Figure and committed to at least 45 minutes of pencil drawing every day.  I decided to disallow color and paint for at least 6 months.

I made it 4 months until I started painting.  The previous post was my first canvas, this is my second.  In my set of frustrations, meds figure fairly highly.  I tried a bunch of different ideas in pencil and watercolor before deciding that it's all about the moment of popping the pill.   There's a degree of relief as soon as you know you've put it in your mouth.  Completely psychological, but that's the interesting part!

I started by taking an arm's length picture of a fresh pill in my mouth.  I took a dozen or so, this is the one I liked best:


I like to compose and play with palettes on the computer (hey, I'm a software architect for a living, I'm good on computers.)  I worked out the part of the image I liked and gridded it to get a handle on the relationships.
I amped up the saturation on the colors and played with the contrast.  From this I did a freehand sketch onto the canvas:
and worked it until it had the layout and detail I wanted:
I then started laying in the shadows and blacks.  I'm an acrylic painter and wanted to try working in glazes for this picture.
Next I had to get the tongue working right.  I used a combination of glazes and pointilist dots to get a 'dithered' feel:
I used a gold metallic acrylic to paint the many many gold teeth I have.  (I love my gold crowns.)  After this, I painted a base skin tone across the rest of the canvas and then added different shades of red glaze to do the lips and cheek skin.  The mustache and beard were quick lines of black, brown, white and grey since my actual facial hair seems to come in every shade of hair known.

I ended up with this, a 16"x20" acrylic on canvas portrayal of me and my meds:
The Flickr page for this painting.

Cheers,
--Tim

Monday, May 3, 2010

Self Portrait with Head Wound

I've been bald (male pattern) to some degree since high school.  Perhaps because of the joyful abuse my youthful peers showered on me, I got over it pretty quick and it's never been an issue for me.  If I could take a pill and grow a full head of hair, I wouldn't do it.  In fact, if I could take a pill that would erase the last of my hair and leave me cue-ball bald I'd do it.  Over the years a lot of women responded to my baldness the same way some guys respond to large breasts, i.e., as a clear gender signal.  Obviously not all women like bald men, but a surprising number do.

I've also been fair skinned all my life.  This resulted in numerous sun burns growing up in Florida.  In the '60s and '70s we just didn't use sun block, or if we did, it was a bright white zinc paste that was used on the nose.  In any event, I pre-populated my scalp with lots of sites that want to turn into skin cancer.  Nothing has gotten out of hand, but I use Carac cream frequently.  This stuff is like leprosy in a tube.  It's the same stuff used in chemo-therapy, but in convenient cream form!  It kills cells that divide.  Since cancer cells divide more frequently, it statistically kills them first.  But after a while, you start to look like a red tattered mess.

Sometimes the spots get too aggressive and cutting them out is the only option.  I've had the equivalent of half a face lift since the left side of my scalp seems to be the main site (so is my left arm, which makes me think that I'm paying the price for years of 'trucker tans'.)  More recently I had Moh's Surgery for some of this pre-cancer on my forehead. While the (outpatient) surgery was underway, I asked if I could take a quick snapshot. The Dermatologist was surprised, but didn't mind as I held the camera at arm's length and took this shot.

With this picture in hand, I decided to drop it down to grayscale and limit the number of levels.I liked the contrasts and started working up a freehand sketch of the image at the right scale for the canvas (16"x20")
The idea for the piece was that the hole in my head was providing a way to see what was inside, but in a more metaphorical than anatomical sense. I started gathering bits and pieces of items to form a collage of my mental landscape. I wanted this to stand out from the painted image, so I prepared a traced copy of my sketch and built the collage into the area outside the face.
Once I ModgePodged this into a solid unit, I cut it out and (using yet more of the wonderful ModgePodge,) adhered it onto the canvas. I had already done a graphite transfer from a tracing of the sketch onto the canvas, so the pieces fit together nicely.
Next I began painting in the image. I used acrylics and I wanted to stick to a very limited white/grey/black palette for everything on the face except the wound. I tried a number of techniques, relying on mostly drybrush to get the effect I wanted. I started by laying in the grey foundation.

Then added the blacks.
Then the whites,

and after tweaking it for a while, added in the wound colors.


Flickr page for this image.

Cheers,
--Tim