Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Case of the Missing Emails

Today, a great mystery was solved, and I am no longer plagued by something that has bothered me for months. The issue was this: for the past eight months, I have had great difficulty receiving emails from certain people. There's been no real pattern as far as the senders went, and there was no consistency in the incidents, either. Some messages would arrive. Some just never made it. It seemed like a roll of the dice. The only thing that was consistent was that emails containing attachments were less likely to arrive in my inbox, but that's all I had to go on.

If the sender was fortunate and I knew to expect any of these emails, I'd have the sender resubmit again and again to no avail. So I'd give them another email address to try. If the sender was less than fortunate, and I wasn't anticipating their email... well, let's just say that I can't even begin to tabulate how many emails never made it through.

The only things I was certain of was that I hadn't changed any of my email settings. As such, I spent an awful lot of time with my email host's support desk trying to solve the issue only to be repeatedly disappointed. Today, it reached kind of an apex when I came to realize that I'd missed about a half dozen emails or so.

So back to the help desk I went. Between messages back and forth with the support staff, Amy and I had a chance to chat for a bit about the issue, but we couldn't come up with any reason for the issue off the top of our heads. So, she went back to work and I went back to trying to shake the tree of internet knowledge in order to find a solution. Minutes later, she suddenly forwarded me an email.

Now, back when my website was first created, I was technologically useless. I had no more chance of creating my own website than raising the dead. This is the reason that Amy was my first webmaster. She built the original site and helped me navigate the bayous of html coding and internet jargon. Sure it was all primordial compared to today, but it was pretty daunting to a guy whose computing experience was limited to writing English papers on his old Tandy computer in high school, and begrudgingly doing college work in Photoshop 3 and QuarkXPress in between marathon runs of playing Diablo on his Mac. Amy made sure that I had a site that worked and she lorded over it rather thoroughly. As the years went by, however, I slowly took over those responsibilities so as to not pester her with updates. To my chagrin, as I learned the ropes, the ropes continued to change. Still, I managed pretty well.

Until, I guess, a couple years ago when a more advanced spam filtration system was introduced by my host. I didn't pay it much mind at first, and I set it to a rather mild level of filtration to see if i could curb a sudden influx of spam I was getting from Brazil. It took a while, but after about three months, all of the Brazilian spam began to disappear and I finally reached a pretty happy medium. Problem was that the filter kept evolving. It continued to sift when it needed to stop. No longer content just to block the Brazilian spam, it started to take out monthly newsletters and special offers from companies I'm a customer of. Over the last six months, I started losing emails from friends. About three months ago, emails from clients started to disappear. It's been pretty frustrating.

Of course I know all this in retrospect. From my point of view, due to about a year of getting what I wanted and not getting what I didn't, the spam filter could hardly have been the issue. Still, one fact about the spam filter escaped me: it apparently kept and quarantined emails. Looking at it today, the filter was set to notify me when any messages were held in quarantine, so clearly I should have known about it from the getgo, right? Wrong. Truth is, I never got any notifications. Nothing. Nada. Zip. No indication whatsoever ever reached me to let me know that there were emails being held hostage by my spam filter. Without any notifications, I remained blissfully ignorant of my ability to actually dig through such messages. And of course it was in quarantine where I'd have found my missing correspondence.

Thing is, there was no lack of communication on my host's part. In fact, I was being notified the entire time. Turns out that Amy's name as webmaster had never been removed. She was getting those messages constantly and assuming they were for her own website and email address which are hosted by the same company. Given that she was in the habit of ignoring her own, she naturally ignored mine as well. For some reason, our conversation this afternoon piqued her curiosity and she took a moment to look more closely at those emails and discovered that for the most part, they were quarantine notifications for my email, not hers. That is what she forwarded to me. The most recent notification finally arrived where it belonged.

If I'd have known about any one thing in the chain of ignorance, I could have saved myself a great deal of frustration. All I needed to have known was that the quarantine existed, or that Amy was getting emails about my email address, or possibly even that she was still listed as the webmaster. Alas, no. I managed only an epic fail instead.

After the shear embarrassment subsided, I carefully went through all my settings and made the tough decision to sack Amy as webmaster (something she thought had happened a while ago). These notifications will now come to me, and I should be able to finally keep on top of my correspondence once again.

So, problem solved, right? Sort of.

Sadly, after finally digging through the quarantine and recovering the missing emails from the last couple days, I reached the end. A few days is as far back as the quarantine seems to go. Everything older than that is gone for good, and I'll continue to wonder what I've missed in the meantime. A job? A sale? An offer from a Nigerian Prince?

I guess the point of all this is two fold. First, despite my repeated assertion that the technology was letting me down, it was that it was more my own idiocy and a lack of communication between me and my old webmaster that really nailed me. The technology was doing what it was supposed to (if a little overzealously).  Second, if you're someone who's written me over the last eight months or so and are pondering my rudeness at not having emailed you back, I apologize. I honestly had no idea I was ignoring you, because as far as I knew I never got your message in the first place. I promise to try harder from now on, and will keep my fingers crossed that yet another new layer of email protection is not introduced in the near future.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Of Bob Ross and Bill Alexander

I'm sure you've seen this video by now, but if not, go ahead and check it out.

What can I say about Bob Ross? Some people hate him, some love him, others love him ironically. I, myself, have mixed feelings about the guy, but most of those feelings are positive. Bob Ross will always remind me of being a kid, sitting in front of the television with my father and the dog. If during our weekend channel surfing we spotted "The Joy of Painting," we'd invariably get sucked in and before we knew it a half hour had gone by.

Though much of my interest in watching Bob Ross' show had to do with the fact that I wanted to pursue the arts, it was just as much to do with the fact that it was easily the most relaxing television program there was at the time. Bob's soothing voice spewed nothing but encouragement and positivity. In fact, it could be said that his show was just as much about motivational speaking as it was about painting, and for me it provided a bit of hope that I could one day live the dream

Bob Ross' mentor, William Alexander, also had a painting show called "The Magic of Oil Painting." Alexander was a German ex-pat who had a gruffer presence and was basically the Emperor Palpatine to Ross' Darth Vader. He hunched before his canvas like some disgruntled bear and he created an atmosphere of enthusiastic tension. While both men spoke of "happy trees" living in their paintings, Alexander would occasionally bust out a "mighty tree" which he would announce with giddy exclamations as it was birthed into his world, and extoll the god-like power one wielded as a painter.

While the premise of both shows was to teach and demonstrate, they were just as much commercial vehicles for both men to sell their art supplies. Still, I remember being pretty transfixed, and while I retained some of what they demonstrated, the truth is that I learned little about the painter I would one day hope to be.

Ross and Alexander were wet on wet guys, which is to say that they just kept piling paint onto the canvas without letting any of it dry until the painting was done. Each had a half hour show (Ross' done without any edits), and there was no point in the show where they pulled the fully realized piece from the oven as was so often done in many of the comparable cooking shows. Their work really did come into existence right before the viewer's eyes.

The ease at which they demonstrated their formula belied the years of experience (and what I assume were hundreds of failed works) behind it all. To the few who actually attempted to paint along with the show, I'm sure this was a source of constant frustration, though I'm almost positive that there's at least one painting hanging framed on a wall somewhere done while devotedly following each step in front of the television (let's just hope they remembered to sign their own name rather than that of the host).

Sadly, as many of you know, both of these men have long since passed. But their teachings, respective schools, and happy little trees live on. And in retrospect, there are several things that amaze me. The first thing is that there was a time when there were entire television series about art. I don't think such a thing would fly nowadays. Not enough tension or violence. The subject of the paintings might have both, but the drama's in the doing not the finished product, and there's only so much manufactured conflict that can be crammed into a painting (oh no, I dropped my brush AGAIN). The second thing that amazes me is that these guys demonstrated both their hits and their misses. The quality of their output could vary wildly and both have episodes that resulted in sub-par work (that is assuming you believe they had below par work to begin with). Whether or not the vast majority of their audience appreciated this fact is unknown to me, but I'm sure at least a few recognized it (probably the person with their own framed piece on the wall, at least). Lastly, I'm amazed that both men were ostensibly doing landscapes, but were really doing fantasy work.

That's right. They were doing fantasy work. A very mild form, but fantasy nonetheless. Sure, there were far fewer dragons and goblins than people are used to seeing in such work, but make no mistake, they were fantasy painters. Why? The landscapes in their work simply didn't exist. Sure William Alexander would take his show outdoors from time to time, but he wasn't painting what he saw before him, he was painting what was in his head. Bob Ross did his work in a closed studio with a black backdrop. These guys weren't painting the world they lived in, they were building a new world from whole cloth a half hour at a time. It was an idealized world, a dream world, and for them and many of their viewers, a utopia. What's that if not a fantasy?

What they were doing wasn't a whole lot different from those occasions when I've been asked to do a fantasy landscape. I just tended to take it a step further. Mine had more metal bits or defied gravity more than theirs might, and I let my paint dry more than they did before reworking an area. But if you look at the landscape portions of a lot of fantasy paintings, you'll see scenery that's not unlike what you see in virtually every Bob Ross and Bill Alexander painting ever made.

All that being said, however, I can't say I'm a fan of either of their work. It just doesn't do it for me. I get the appeal, but I'm not their audience.

What I am a fan of is what they set out to do. They engaged people with art, and tried to make it a part of their audiences' life — even if only in some small way. They preached painting as a source of joy and peace, and I was listening. Sure I never really liked any of the specifics that they were working at, but I liked a lot of the big ideas. While they whiled away building their dream worlds, they inadvertently helped me build my own: a world where I got to paint all day. Whether they knew it or not, they were selling their craft to a little boy in Pennsylvania who sat rapt on a couch with his Dad and a miniature schnauzer called Danny.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Two Years In and Diggin Out

I started this blog two years ago today. One-hundred eighty-five posts later, I'm still working at it. A lot of the things I'd hoped to do on here just haven't gotten done. Some probably never will, others I still hope to get to. As it turns out, a blog can eat a lot of time and has the potential to be a pretty big distraction. Were I a writer, I suppose it might more naturally fit into my daily schedule. But I'm not a writer, so there's always a mental gearshift and a period of time spent questioning whether or not I can even afford the bite the blog takes out of my daily routine. And while the posts come a lot easier nowadays than they used to, they still don't exactly roll off my fingertips. Still, I'd like to be doing more.

Unfortunately, my schedule in the foreseeable future will likely make that difficult. Yesterday, I began work on five 24"x18" paintings. They're for Magic, and they're going to take a while. I'm not sure when they'll be done, but it really won't matter to the blog as they won't be released for a full year or so.

Simultaneous to that little project, I'm trying to rework parts of a cover painting I did a month or so ago. It's already been handed in, and despite being pretty satisfied with the parts that will appear on the actual book cover itself, I felt the painting overall could use a bit of extra attention. When that piece is done, I'll post it up here in both states with the usual explanation and self-deprecation.

In addition to the painting inhibiting lots of posts, it would seem that I won't have a whole lot of work to show in the very near future. At least I don't believe I will. (Though I've been surprised by a random Magic release before). So with little work to show, I'm just going to have to put together some more wordy stuff — you know, the kind of thing where I stand on my matchbox or climb atop my rather short pony. Maybe throw in a semi-autobiographical story or two. Try to entertain you all without pictures. See how that goes. Hopefully I can get these paintings done before we all grow tired of that and abandon the blog altogether.

If nothing else, I can provide you with news we all can look forward to: I'm going to be taking some time off. Time off from my normal illustrations schedule, that is. I'll still be painting, but I'm going to be doing some work for myself. I'm hoping to string together a few pieces and see where they take me. I've already started one. It's 30"x40" and has been sitting in it's sadly unfinished state for a couple months now. I'd intended to do the piece earlier this year, but then the aforementioned cover reared its head and I honestly couldn't turn it down. So my personal work got postponed.

This fall, however, I am committing to at least a month where I'm working for myself. I'm going to try and put together a bunch of stuff for IlluxCon so as to have a completely new wall with no repeats from last year. Happily, just completing the 30"x40" piece will ensure this by itself, but I'm not going to stop there. Bottom line is that it should be an interesting ride, and I'm intent on bringing everyone who's interested along with me.

Not sure yet whether the coverage of the personal work will be quite as exhaustive as that of the Valentine cover, but at least it'll be more than just a sketch and finish. In the meantime, to thank you all for sticking with the blog, I'll leave you with this small glimpse of the unfinished canvas as it now appears (taunting me daily with its lack of completion).