Actions Per Minute

3 minutes read —

I remember listening to some documentary about an AI developed for some strategy game called Starcraft. The developers had to put an arbitrary constraint on the AI ; they limited its APMs. APM is an acronym that stands for Actions Per Minute. They figured, even though a program could perform clicks at a very high speed, it wouldn’t make for a fair game against human competitors. You would think a strategy game is all about the quality of the decisions, not just the sheer quantity of them. And you would be right, probably. The AI, which was called AlphaStar, ended up beating the best starcraft competitors while playing with a handicap limiting its speed to well below that of the aforementioned human players. Therefore, you could say, good judgment makes for effortless wins, and thus, this parameter should be optimized for. It is all about finding the greatest moves, it would seem, rather than hastily putting things together in a half-assed manner. In this paradigm, it would make sense to slow down and evaluate and reevaluate every decision until one makes the perfect one ; minimizing the risks and maximizing the potential for rewards. This all makes perfect sense, except that when we confront this theory to real-life, it starts to crumble and fall apart. The best starcraft players also happen to have the highest APM scores by far. This is a strong predictor of their performance. They execute a lot of actions, really quickly, and the fastest players at this level usually end up getting the win. Although better and more efficient decisions do exist, as proven by machine learning, they are not available to our limited human brain powers, or at least not without a trade-off in speed so great that we end up losing by inaction. Our best bet for winning is limited to making the best actions we can think off as fast as we can, which is very different from making the best actions period. Doing so would require way more CPU than is humanly possible. JK Rolling said it another way : “it is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all — in which case, you fail by default”. I guess what I’m writing about right now is the dangers of analysis paralysis and how that can prevent us from doing much at all. There is a limit to how careful our planning as to be before we can and should act on it. Decisions that carry no danger of being fatal should be made quickly. We can’t anticipate all possible effects, therefore sometimes we have to go with our guts and let the feedback come from real-life. It is about adaptability and knowing that whatever comes, we will be able to react with the same speed we used to make the decision in the first place. You know all about it, right ? Consistent and decisive action, even if imperfect, leads to better outcomes than waiting for the perfect solutions to emerge. So let’s keep moving forward !

Why are all-fourths and all-thirds guitar tunings used by some jazz players ?

2 minutes read —
(Answer originally posted on Quora)

P4 (All-fourths) and M3 (All major thirds) tuning both have the huge advantage of being regular tunings. To this list we could add P5 tuning (All-fifths), and I also know about a tritone tuning as well.

Standard tuning = Inconsistent tuning

The standard tuning of the guitar (EADGBE) is based on fourths, however, there is an inconsistency between the G and B string ; they are a major third apart. This inconsistency makes it harder to visualize intervals on the neck as they are not consistent across string sets.

Using a regular tuning means that all fingerings for scales, chords, arpeggios, or whatever else, is movable both along AND across strings. A same fingering will always produce the same intervals.

This is immensely helpful when trying to improvise or compose music. The connection between mind and fingers happens way faster on a regular tuning than it does on standard tuning. Intuition develops faster. The brain just knows how to grab the sound it is hearing without giving it a second though since the interval map becomes so predictable.

Less rote learning, faster learning

A chord shape on standard tuning has to be relearned 3 times. A simple triad in root position has a first fingering when it starts on strings E or A, then an other when it starts on the D string and yet an other when it starts on the G string. On a regular tuning, a same chord shape would do the job anywhere on the neck.

As a consequence, the rate of learning is way faster on a regular tuning than it is on standard tuning.

As an improvisation tool

Jazz players completely benefit from the advantages offered by regular tunings as they are mainly concerned about improvising and developing that mind-fingers connection as fast as possible.

They also suffer few of the drawbacks. The loss of repertoire (songs designed with the standard tuning in mind) is the main one, but since playing jazz standards do not call for exact replicas but is instead open to interpretation, they simply do not care that much.

Various regular tunings

P4 tuning is the closest regular tuning to standard tuning, which makes the transition easy. My guess is that it is the most used regular tuning.

M3 tuning makes position shifting almost completely avoidable since there is only 4 frets (one by fingers) before we need to string shift. It is sometimes played on 7-strings guitars to compensate for the loss of range.

On the other end, P5 tuning requires big stretches on the fingers. It is the same tuning as violin and viola players. It also extends the range of the guitar significantly.

How to understand atmospheric perspective ?

6 minutes read —

There are multiple ways to depict depth in a painting. I am guessing the first to pop to mind would be linear perspective. The former occurs at the drawing stage and concerns itself with the representation of volumes on a 2D surface. It relies on trigonometry rules and it is all about shapes and scale. Today however I would rather talk about atmospheric perspective which does not come into play until later in the process ; when it’s time to bring values and color onto our drawings. Turns out — colors are a powerful tool in helping the artist to sell depth in a painting. Let me explain how that is the case.

Air isn’t made of nothing

When observing a scene, we might think the distance between us — the observer — and the object we are looking at is nothing but empty. We would be wrong. The gap is filled with air, and this is a crucial point to make. That is because air itself is filled with water particles and dust. Although they are sparse, those particles impact the light passing through them just as any other object would. There is no void, unless we try and paint a moon scene.
On that line of thinking ; have you ever wondered why the sky appears blue considering how sunlight is white ? Answer : the shorter wavelengths of the light are more easily scattered by the particles in the air than than the longer ones. Those shorter wavelengths correspond to blue hues. Thus the sky appears blue to our eyes. And for those of you that would object that sometimes the sky appears orange or even reddish ; in that scenario the angle at which sunlight enters the atmosphere is so low that most of the blue wavelengths of light are scattered even before reaching the lower atmosphere.
Back to topic. It follows that one way to think about our riddle is that there is some sky between us and the object we are observing. And the more distant the object, the more sky there is between us and the object. The closer the object, the less sky there is between us and the object.

Picture overlay sheets between you and the subject

In order to visualize it even better, let us try to picture giant overlay sheets that would be equally spaced apart and fill the distance between us and the object. Those sheets are semi-transparent and take the sky color. The bigger the distance there is between us and the object, the more sheets we can fit in the gap. The shorter the distance ; the less sheets can fit it.

What would happen in that scenario is that an object placed absurdly far away would appear almost indistinguishable from the sky color regardless of its local colors. Indeed, there would be this many sheets between the observer and the object. So much so that its colors would get progressively lost until all that would be left is the cumulative color of all the sheets. Although a single sheet is almost invisible, a stack of those can get pretty close to a 100% opacity at times.

Here are some rules of atmospheric perspective

The emergent rules that follow from that is that the further away an object is the more its colors and values are going to be compressed towards the sky color.
This means the value range gets both shifted and reduced. Shifted because the sky color is usually lighter than the object and thus the object gets lighter with distance. But also reduced, because compression occurs ; there is less of a contrast between the highest and darkest values of the object. Contrast can get very very low for distant object. An hypothetical object infinitely distant would simply appear flat and take the sky value.
It is the same for color : the range gets shifted toward the sky color —which is often some light blue— and also gets compressed so that there isn’t as much color variation as foreground objects. Remember colors travel from point A to point B through greys. In this example, you would thus get de-saturated red before you would final cross and come-out the other side blue. An infinitely distant object would ultimately take the sky color.

To depict a coherent atmospheric perspective, the most important part would be to keep that hierarchy ordered. There is no way a very distant object is going to have a wider value and color range than a close object. It is entirely possible to undermine a good linear perspective job through colors alone. We might have correct scaling, but if the colors tell us that an object is very close, then we will just understand it as being very small rather than being far away. Evidently, this comment rings true in reverse as well ; a close object lacking saturation and flat will feel just as wrong and misplaced. Thus I trust you will grant atmospheric perspective the attention it deserves.

There is one more parameter to navigate ; how much atmospheric perspective should there be in a given painting ? Well, if the coloration of the air is due largely to its water molecules, it ensues that the drier the air, the less of an effect atmospheric perspective will have. On the contrary, on days where the air is very wet, the effect is going to be much more pronounced. As a corollary to that ; we can use atmospheric perspective to tell a lot about the overall weather and dampness of a scene. However, it should be noted that atmospheric perspective is most often cranked up in art and movies even in arid places where no water can be found miles around. That is because atmospheric perspective can sell depth and it is often a primary concern.

Arid place : little to no atmospheric perspective
A wet place for contrast : background elements are entirely compressed to the point where they appear entirely flat

More than one applicationA

Finally, please note that this logic can also be used for things like dust or vapor, or anything that would add matter in the air. Of course in those cases the effect would possibly be localized rather than affect the scene globally, but it is very useful to think of the phenomenon as if there were overlay sheets and to thus shift and compress values and colors towards those of the sheet. The more dust/vapor/or else between observer and object, the more shifting and the more compression. Simple as that.

Why is traditional music notation problematic ?

7 minutes read —

I am a guitar player. Guitar players are notorious for lagging behind when it comes to reading music notation. I am no exception to that rule. In fact I have put in very little effort in trying to learn it. Why ? Well, because learning traditional music notation is stupidly inefficient, that is why. In fact it has been said by many and will be said again for as long as it remains so. I will quote Schoenberg for a second :

“The need for a new notation, or a radical improvement of the old, is greater than it seems, and the number of ingenious minds that have tackled the problem is greater than one might think.”

I will make it clear how traditional music notation makes reading music way more difficult than it needs to be and then will strongly encourage you to take a look at an alternative called chromatic notation.

Absolute vs relative

The heart of the matter is that Traditional Music Notation is capable of representing note pitches absolutely, yes, but does so in a way that obscure the relative relationships between them. Trouble is ; we only ear notes relatively (unless you are one of those folks with perfect pitch). Let me explain.

Absolute thinking is about identifying notes by their note names alone, regardless of any context. You would hear sentences such as “a C chord contains the notes C, E and G”. With such instructions, we are indeed capable to produce a C chord given we have mapped already where the C, E and G notes are located on our instrument.

But the better way to think and understand music is relativistic in nature. Instead of a map, a more useful analogy would be that of a ruler measuring distances between notes. Our C chord from the previous example would then be described as a root note followed by a major 3rd and a perfect 5th ; R · 3 · 5. Those numbers are what we call intervals.

Now, most of us are not able to identify the absolute pitch of the notes we ear. We have absolutely no way to know whether the notes played where C, E and G or else. However we are able to recognize the sound of a major chord whenever we hear it, despite having no clue what notes where played. That is because we are able to perceive the interval relationship between the notes of the chord. We hear that there is a major 3rd, we hear that there is a perfect 5th. That is relative pitch.

Having established that, common sense dictates that we should adopt a musical notation capable of accurately representing the relative relationship between notes as to match our perception of music. But History would have it otherwise as we will see.

TN obscures intervals

Let’s first examine how a major scale would be represented on a traditional score.

As a quick refresher ; a major scale is a series that could be described as ‘w-w-h-w-w-w-h’ where ‘w’ stands for whole step and ‘h’ for half steps. In other words, a major scale is an irregular pattern of alternating whole and half steps. So, why is its representation on the score so evenly spaced and regular ?

Let’s continue with our second example.

This is the whole-tone scale. A whole-tone scale is as its name might suggest a succession of only whole steps all the way up. That scale, which is perfectly regular and symmetrical is represented on the score with a bunch of accidentals and irregular spacing.

I imagine you are starting to see where I am going with this. Traditional notation quite simply does not care for accurate display of interval relationships. It is not possible at first sight to decipher whether the following intervals are major or minor 3rds. That should be uncovered only after we’ve taken into account the current clef sign, key signature, and accidentals. And evidently, that drama goes on for all intervals.

TN obliges us to calculate the individual notes names before we can even have a shot at deducing their interval relationship. Relative reading is subjugated to absolute reading.

Let’s recall, most people don’t have absolute pitch, right ? We hear and understand music with a relative ear, right ? Yet we notate it in a way that does not worry the least bit about representing intervals reliably ? Right. Well, that certainly does not make any sense to me whatsoever.

Chromatic notation ; one note, one spot

There is an array of reasons why music notation evolved the way it did. But for today, let’s not waste space and move on straight to the solution with my remaining two hundred words or so. That solution is called “chromatic notation”. Here you have a notation system that exists for the sole purpose of offering us an accurate representation of the intervals.

In chromatic notation, each note has its own line or space on the staff. Half-steps are always either one note on a line and the second on the neighboring space or vice versa. Whole-steps are always two notes on two neighboring lines or spaces. And this continues like this for all intervals ; the vertical distance between notes consistently represents intervals. There is no ambiguity. Key signatures and accidentals are thus not required.

Below is a representation of the chromatic scale ; a succession of half-steps.

As a further step, we can use black and white note heads to help identify intervals and pitches.

That fix comes from the idea that the most striking feature of any given note is its color, and that that property has been poorly used in TN (it merely distinguishes half-notes from quarter notes). Maybe, just maybe, it could be better employed to help indicate a note’s pitch. In that case a new symbol would be needed for half notes :

What we get in exchange for those tweaks is a dramatic speed-up of the interval recognition feature.

Oh and did I mention, octaves are consistent and can be stacked like legos. We’ll just indicate with a number the octave we’re working with in replacement for old clef symbols and we’re good to go. C4 (aka middle C) would be located on the line in between the two staves in the following example (the C major scale spread on two octaves).

Mass adoption nowhere in sight

As you can see, it doesn’t take much to turn TN into a more user-friendly system ; there’s no longer any need for gargantuan memorization in order to get started reading, intervals are now easy to read, and down the road its conducive to better understanding of music.
For those of you curious enough ; different variations upon the idea of a Chromatic Staff exist and have been documented on the website Unfortunately there are many obstacles before chromatic notation is generalized. One of those is that all past music has been written in TN, which means you cannot pass on TN if you want access to those. An other one is the lack of software to output chromatic notation. The example in this article were produced with Lilypond which is far from straightforward to use.
I do believe however that chromatic notation is objectively better than its traditional counterpart and will keep advocating for it !

How to design user interfaces for desktop vs mobile ?

6 minutes read —

As you might know, I’ve been working on a redesign of my websites lately. One of the things I wanted to make sure I do properly in this iteration is to ensure proper display on both desktop and mobile. You would ear often that should design your website for mobile first, and I would disagree. A website should be designed for where it is going to best serve its purpose. For portfolio website, there is no doubt we would rather have them displayed on desktop than on those tiny mobile screens. However we must also acknowledge that we have little control over where and when our pages will be displayed and in these days and age 55% of page views come from mobile phones.
So, what are some nice things to consider on desktop, and how do these differ from what you would do on mobile ?

Accommodating phone users

Screen orientation

The first thing to consider would be the overall layout and here on PC we are generally dealing with a 1920 * 1080 screen resolution, with internet windows being displayed most of the time at that resolution or at least large enough and almost always oriented horizontally. I like it this way, I think this is a format very well suited to present art and I wouldn’t like it messed-up in any ways.
But there comes mobiles phones and they come in all sizes, are used vertically most often, and they are tiny. But I have good news. We do not have to sacrifice our entire design to fit a portrait display where it has no business being displayed. All we have to do is prompt the user to reorient their phones before we display the website.

On the developer side, this drastically reduces the number of weird layout de-figuration we have to take into account, and in doing so it ensures a good viewing experience for the visitor. This is a win-win situation. It might also make it clear that the website is intended for the big screen first, and might prompt some to go sit at a desk before viewing (inshallah).

Screen size

But for those that stay on their phones ; mobile screens can go quite small. This means we should make sure than none of the main features are sized too small. A thumb must easily be able to “click” our interactive elements.

For instance I have this tiny navigation menu on the top left corner.

This would be very cumbersome to access on mobile. Fortunately I have also set-up this huge full page version of the same menu first thing after the splash-screen. The user can always scroll back to it to switch between the different rubrics instead of using the left corner menu. It is also an opportunity to design a nice looking page and ease-in gently into the core content so nothing is lost !

Thumb position

We also need to consider the length and location of thumbs relative to the screens. On desktop we have a tendency to put all our menus on the top but it is not optimal for phone users. Indeed, thumbs are not that long and are located on the bottom right corner of the phone (for a right handed person). This means important navigation items should rather be placed in the bottom.

There is no :hover on mobile !

One last thing we might not have thought about. There is no :hover on mobile since there is no mouse. You are either clicking or dragging or you are in fact not interacting at all with the website. This can mean a lot of information might be lost in translation when switching to mobile. Indeed :hover effects tend to add a lot of life to a website. On this page for example, we light-up reveal the images by hovering them on desktop, but here on mobile, without any change we would go straight to the next page when clicking on them without a change to get a clear view of any of them.

The solution I implemented was to turn my click action into a double click action and to apply my hover effects after a simple click.

Optimizing for keyboard navigation

There is one feature I put a lot of care for the desktop version of my website and that is key navigation. It felt very important to me that this website should be browsable with the arrow keys alone. Keys generally feel easier than the mouse because they require no precision at all ; the hand is comfortably resting on the arrows and isn’t moving much at all during the entire process. The idea is to just lay back and watch some works. The layout I chose reinforces that idea by essentially stacking a pile of sheets vertically and having them feature horizontal galleries. Those two axis : vertical and horizontal match perfectly the arrows our keyboards come equipped with. This is very much intended this way.

One thing that had to be done was to let the visitor know that he or she could use the keyboard, and I tried not to be too oblivious about that. On my pre-screen, in place of a “Get in” message or some other flavor of a welcoming prompt, I used an enter-key shaped “Enter” message to hint at the fact that the key could also be used in addition to click-based browsing.

I also dropped an other down-key shaped icon on the splash screen, to hint at the fact that yes, we could scroll down to see the works, but also that we could do so using the down arrow key. With this hint and the previous one, my hope was that by this point the user’s hand would be anchored to those arrows and he could take it from there.

It’s like a mini tutorial and now we are ready to play by ourselves. The next screen features no hint at all but of course the arrows can be used to select among the various rubrics. After that it’s all supposed to feel intuitive. Easy and fun. The mouse always remains available of course.

One difficulty is to be able to switch back and forth between key and mouse navigation. On the developer side, this means keeping track of our location in the tree structure at all times and updating the relevant variables so that when we go back to key navigation after some mousing, we are moving from where we are rather than where we were before we did the mousing. It is all very worthwhile I believe, key navigation is fast and fluid. I love it very much.

So after those few considerations, if I could say it all in one sentence :

Phone users are missing out.

How to build consistency ?

2 minutes read —

It is already quite late at night while I’m writing these lines. I have been busy working on some JavaScript stuff all day. So much so in fact that I almost missed on my commitment. I was trying to write everyday lately and today I failed to spent the time that would have been necessary to output anything satisfying. So what should we do when such things happen ?

Picture ; you are trying to build a routine. None of it is automated yet. The whole process is still very much effortful. This is a very crucial point in time. The expression that comes to mind is “make-or-break”. Missing a day when you are already functioning as a well oiled machine is a minor inconvenience at most ; you will get back into the groove as if nothing happened by the next day. You won’t even have to think about it : your normal will return. But the beginning stage of a new habit hits different. Every single victory counts. Because with each defeat, we are losing territory that we fought hard to acquire. Each day is only moving the needle by this much and we know this. It takes many to get some, and very little to lose most of the progress. Missing a day in this case is order of magnitudes more significant than barely missing a day. It also means that it will be a lot harder to push again the next day. I bet you could sense in real-time that the habit is fading out of consciousness and will soon be entirely forgotten if only you were paying attention. How many of those started projects have you buried somewhere deep within your memory already ? You know the story.

So it matters that you do it today. Even though you have lost that battle already. It matters that you show up for that fight even though nothing good will come out of it. Forget about that nice written and well thought out blog-post you would have liked to write. Forget about the thousand words mark. Forget about all of it. You have lost. You are not fighting for today anymore. You are fighting so that tomorrow’s fight will be easier.

So please, do some. There is no need for much. The goal is consistency. Write a single word if that’s all you can manage. Just try not to skip that damn day.

But if you do, please do not dwell on it either ; this is highly counterproductive ! We are only human afterall.

Bonne chance et bon courage !

What are the advantages of playing the electric guitar finger-style ?

6 minutes read —

As a guitar player, I’ve stopped relying on a pick entirely at this point. The transition went gradual. It all started with some innocent laziness preventing me from reaching for a pick at times—you know how they are, they always find a way to get lost—and then it morphed into a real passion for the technique. The current opinion I am holding is that picks are almost completely unnecessary and that we are losing more than we are gaining from that deal. I’ll try and convey why it is my belief in the following paragraphs.

Fingers have a wider tonal and dynamic range

The first reason is probably the most obvious one and it is tone. Picks are loud and they are very capable of bringing out the clarity in every notes. But they do so at an expense and that would be dynamic and tonal range. You can’t access those almost silent levels that easily with a pick, nor can you invoke those noticeably muted colors at will the way you would using your fingers’ flesh. At contrary, the finger-style guitarist is much more able to infringe on pick territory when attacking his strings with some might. He would have no trouble getting very abrasive snappy sounds out of the guitar when they are the most needed. So essentially, it seems to me that fingers win on versatility here, which is something I very much care about since the widest possible palette of sounds is desired to express any musical thoughts as spontaneously as possible. Plus, if you listen to guitarist Scott Henderson, he would argue that fingers just sound plain better, period, and he is much more of a tone geek than I am. The reasons : getting a fat guitar tones is about pushing the mid-range frequency and cutting on all the peripheral crap as to not busy the mix. Fingers compared to pick are more in line with this set of instructions at medium picking strength.
However, to get some of that extra slapiness back if you really want it, I might suggest cutting some low-end (I have wired a tone-knob for that on my guitar) and/or putting in fresh strings. Regardless, you will enjoy fine grain control over your tone through your fingers alone and that’s a solid plus.

More fingers means less work for each finger

The next reasons, is that we have multiple fingers on our right hand whereas the pick guitarist essential surrenders two of his just to operate that one pick. Granted, the pick is generally more agile as you can use your powerful wrist muscles to operate it. But what the fingers lack in strength, they make up for in numbers. You have at the very least 3 to 4 very capable fingers on that right hand, and they can share the work, each taking care of a separate string. Individually, they end-up having almost no effort to do to keep-up. In the long run, this is a major cheat. Coordination takes practice, yes, but once it’s there, the mechanics allow for a way easier time with any string-skipping lines, or arpeggios, or of course double stops and chords. And you might think that might be the case but the pick still wins when doing runs on single strings or adjacent strings, to which I’d say those sorts of speed are hard to achieve even with a pick, and then again if you watch Matteo Mancuso you will quickly realize finger-style alternate picking can and has been achieved. There is variety in the ways to do that ; playing lines alternating 2 fingers, 3, or even 4 I’ve seen. One thing I must add is that working those things up finger-style feels way more rewarding because of the direct contact with the strings ; there’s no barrier between us and the instrument.

But for balance, the truth is that many pick guitarists use hybrid picking to some degree which means they have an auxiliary RH finger helping with all of those things. You will also find very dexterous guitar players (or at least there is Andre Nieri who can do that) that occasionally hold their pick with their pinky in order to free their first four fingers and are essentially able to switch between pick and finger-style playing mid track. So essentially we are presented with a spectrum. How much pick do you want ? How much finger style do you want ? On the speed department they have different set of strengths. One is more horizontal, doing very good when sliding along strings, the other covers the vertical and has no trouble accessing all strings at all times. Any downside can be overcome either way.

Fingers can be just as fast and are more versatile

And in this next paragraph, I’ll mention a couple of ways why strict alternate picking speed isn’t such a major hurdle to overcome when playing finger-style. For one, no one is forcing us to strictly alternate pick anything. Although we might prefer to do so at times, legato playing reduces the absolute need for picking to a great degree with hammer-on, pull-offs and slides. In fact I personally believe legato lines often sound richer than their strictly alternated counterparts because they feature much more variety in their dynamics between all the notes in any given line. With experience this can be used to accentuate or subdue just the right notes when it is the most appropriate. So as long as legato playing is an option, we can side-step most RH speed trouble.
And two, tapping. Remember that we are freeing right hand fingers from having to deal with a pick ? Well, this is excellent news for our tapping prowess. Especially since the index is probably our strongest and most precise finger. And tapping can be used for such a variety of purposes it is unbelievable. This is especially true if you have a dampener on your head stock. You can use it to claim back all of the speed advantage pickers might have on you. But you can also use it to produce counterpoint, you can use it to reach very distant high notes in an instant, you can use it to assist in producing complex chords, you can use it as a pivot to reposition your left hand while the right hand is fretting a note and thus achieve more complex lines, you can use it to ring harmonics. And yes, you can bend and slide tapped notes so they are just as expressive as all the other notes. You might want to check Ichika Nito to get a glimpse of how far this can be taken.

Fingers are just funnier

So in the end what are we losing by playing finger-style, really ? I do not think speed is a valid argument anymore. And oh boy are we gaining. Greater tonal and dynamic range, better control of the whole string set, a wider range of guitar techniques available thanks to our freed right hand fingers such as the all-mighty tapping technique, or even pinched harmonics, which I forgot to mention also happen to be greatly facilitated when playing finger-style. But beyond all that, and take it from me : it is just plain funnier to play this way. You build more of a connection between you and the instrument. It feels that much more like an extension of yourself. So give it a try if you can. It probably gets more time to get the technique going than it does with a pick but I’m inclined to believe we can get way further this way.

Why not draw yourself ?

5 minutes read —

You might have noticed I’ve done a fair amount of personal paintings wherein I have represented myself as a character. I’m afraid this trend is likely to continue. You might be left wondering if my ego is in check and whether or not I’ve turned into a narcissist. I guess this is a legit concern. But believe it or not, I have some reasoning to back it up. Maybe, after I’m done exposing my logic, you might want to give it a shot yourself.

It all rolls back to a video done by youtuber Struthless in January 2020. It was titled “the drawing advice that changed my life.” Turns out that video left quite an impression on my slightly younger and more impressionable mind as well. Funny how this works huh ; the ball gets passed along from artist to artist with no end in sight. Who knows how far in the past those things trace back. This giant, collective, relay race running across generations is something to reckon with isn’t it ? But I digress. What Struthless was talking about —if I was to paraphrase while at the same time stripping all the story telling and life out of it— was that there is far more power in cumulative actions than we realize. What is often wrong with us and the reason we are not seeing the progress we are after is simply that our brains are too damned scattered, to put it bluntly. We sit on mountains of unfinished projects and unrelated ideas that do not build-up to anything. So the question becomes, what if we were to draw the same thing again and again over a very long period of time ? What would happen then ?

Well, I know a gal who have been drawing the same original character for well over a decade. Maybe even two at this stage. For me, such a feat is absolutely mind boggling. What it did for her was two folds. First, it made her come back to drawing again and again to the point where she has now made a career out of it ; and all her progress over the years is reflected in the way her original design evolved and got refined to the beauty it now is. That mysterious story of her that she has always wanted to tell and that she grew in her mind gave her a sense of direction to pour her efforts into. She’s fueled herself all the motivation she needed through this story and has grown along with it.

But then I thought, well, why haven’t I been able to sustain a story and characters for this long myself ? I have had a bunch of those over time, but they never led to anywhere. They wouldn’t stick. I would forget about them altogether. They soon enough became inert ideas in my mind, quickly replaced by new more shiny ideas. Yet I wanted those cumulative benefits I keep talking about. So an idea started to grow in my mind. What is the one character I have no choice but to not get bored with ? The one character that I am going to have to live with no matter what happens next ? That character I can’t get rid off. That character that would stick to me as closely as my own shadow.
Well it’s me, isn’t it ?

I get it, it sounds dumb enough right off the bat, but then comes Eminem. The guy wrote and recorded rap albums for over 3 decades already. All of his songs are autobiographical in nature. There’s a whole lore behind his name at this point, its a complete mythology. And, what’s more, I like it. A lot in fact ; I find the whole thing quite fascinating. Why ? Well it feels real. It feels personal. No wonder he was able to stick with it for so long. There is weight to every word. And why wouldn’t there be ? When you are working with a raw material that you know in such an intimate way and that is made of truth to such an extent, isn’t it less likely that you will end up producing an uni-dimensional rendition of a character ? In fact, I remember an exercise proposed by artist Steven Zapata for interior design ; which was to draw your own room from memory. Because it is your own room you will value every little detail that’s in it and that understanding is crucial to later draw believable and life-like interiors. We need that realness as fuel (especially if like me you are a bit lacking in imagination).

But then you ask, wouldn’t it have turned out just as good had Eminem chosen to depict a fictional character instead ? Well, maybe, but then I believe that what he would have done behind the scene in this case would still be to pull out from his personal experience. In fact you would find this is a common trait among artists. I remember while I was studying in Paris, teacher and other students would often comment to each other how much of a likeness there is between their characters and themselves. It is like we couldn’t help it. We couldn’t help putting pieces of ourselves in our creations. When it was not the character, it was the story that accompanied him that hit uncannily close to home. And so, in a way, drawing oneself is just about removing an extra layer and being honest about the whole thing.

About Eminem, you know what I didn’t give a damn about ? Whether Eminem is or isn’t narcissistic or self-centered or else. I do not know the guy personally, so to me, as a viewer, it is as much a character as any other character. Fictional or not make very little difference in the way I receive it. In fact, if anything the realness and authenticity that came with it make it all feel relatable, which means there was a sense of connection there. And that sense of connection being there means the net effect of this whole operation is quite the opposite from an isolating action. That’s the thing, sharing one’s own experience, passions, obsessions and else, if done right isn’t such a special thing. We are all way more similar than we are dissimilar and thus even when talking about oneself, we end up talking about everyone else. The real subject, at the end of the day, is the human experience.

Okay, well, I’m derailing. The question was about drawing oneself and the reasons to do so. Well, I’m telling you ; there is a net positive cumulative effect of sticking to a subject over a long period of time. Plus, the one subject that you have no choice but to stick with for the rest of your life is yourself. Plus representing yourself is ultimately representing about everyone else, the same way we use any other character as proxy for the general idea of the human spirit.

So why not give it a try and see where it leads after-all !

How to design a blog ?

5 minutes read —

As I was working on a redesign for my blog, I thought to myself ; “why not write about it”. I believe there a lot of crossovers in the ways I approach painting and web design. After all, much of it comes down to composition.

I regard all arts as essentially forms of communication, only fancier and more vivid than others. As artists, we want to transfer experiences from one consciousness to the next, essentially. The questions we need to ask in order to begin to attempt such a feat would be “what do we want our blog to feel like” and “how can we express that visually ?”. A hundred questions are going to follow down from there. For instance, what kind of typography are we going to use ? Will we using serif fonts, or sans serif fonts ? Or maybe script fonts ? Why ?
I was first an illustrator, and illustration is normally associated with writings and books. Stories are what ties it all together. And so serif fonts appeal to me because they are the ones used in books. They feel classy, they evoke craft and hard-earned skills, there is much history behind them. Although those things are ultimately subjective, the important part is giving it a thought ; it is about deciding what feels right.

I would add that exactly like you would when drawing or painting ; looking for references is an excellent way to kick-start that line of questioning. When we don’t know what we want yet, it is more often than not a good idea to start exploring what exists already. From there, what did you see that felt memorable to you ? What in it made you tick that you could exploit for yourself ?
In the case of this blog, I remember the simplicity of Seth Godin’s blog which is also a left leaning layout. I remember the Dofus devblog which featured a really immersive background. Even my .art site was greatly influenced from the Dofus splashscreen, but also the landing page of the french artist Dedouze, and the horizontal galleries of an other french artist called Corto rudant. Much of that was about giving more space to the images.

On that thought, the next thing I would like to advise is to go simple. This is especially true for us artists. We produce images, and hopefully beautiful ones. We want the viewer eye to rush straight to those images. As usual it is about contrast. The flatter and quieter the layout, the more volumetric and detailed your images will feel. The darker the layout, the more luminous and colorful your images will feel. Sure, I like those old decorated frames but we need to admit that they can sometimes be quite distracting. Rest assured, simple turns into elegant when done well. The caveat would be that such designs rest entirely on a solid execution.

Simple designs also force you to focus on the essential functions of your blog. Remove all that is unnecessary. Louis Sullivan said it best at the beginning of the 20th century : “form follows function”. What does this design needs to do ? In this case, it needs to allow for a peaceful reading of the articles I wrote, a search function, some sort of sorting mechanisms to be able to find what any visitor would specifically be looking for, and last but not least, a subscribe function for those interested in future writings. Everything else should be de-emphasized or cut-off altogether. This will leave very little to play with.

In order to make it work, you will have to turn-on your inner OCD. Everything that can be aligned needs to be aligned. Every measurement that can be reused multiple times needs to be reused, and in ways that make the most sense. Use sound ratios every chance you get. Thirds and fifths and halves and quarters are the kind we like. Stay away from complex fractions. In design we talk about “pixel perfect” layouts. Think of it this way ; they are either pixel perfect, or they aren’t. It’s really that simple. If you have heard about the term “uncanny valley” when talking about portraits that are almost lifelike but fall short, you understand that you cannot have elements “almost” aligned in a layout ; that just doesn’t cut it. Sentences such as “this div should be about 50 pixels or so” are simply not good enough. What dimensions exactly should this div be relative to the other elements surrounding it ? Furthermore, relative measurements are a even more of a necessity when dealing with erratic devices. Layouts are to be built responsive nowadays. A website must look good on any display, and these days we have no shortage of varying screen resolutions.

I must say this practice is really no more than a composition exercise. In painting and photography we are used to this sort of things. There, they manifest as “the rule of thirds” for example, in which we use imaginary guidelines that divide our images in thirds as well as their intersection points to place our strongest compositional elements. Of course, nothing is stopping us for experimenting with different ratios such as fifths, or seventh. In fact I particularly like those prime numbers along with the classic half.
You might have noticed this blog features a strong cut in fifths when displayed full-screen. I particularly enjoy how you can build sub-frames that have different ratios within. For example the ensemble encompassing the content area and the left column is cut in thirds, whereas the ensemble encompassing the content area and the background image is cut in halves, which feels very book-like. Fifths to me just feel incredibly satisfying. As I said, you need to turn-on your inner OCD, now is not the time to enjoy messy.

Anyways, I will not ramble any longer. Those were nothing but some of my thoughts on how to design a website. As with all art practices there is a large part left to subjectivity in those matters. I do hope however that what makes me tick might also happen to make you tick somewhat and that you will enjoy the new blog design as much as I enjoyed working on it !

How to develop speed ?

4 minutes read —

As artists we usually have heads full of ideas and we are eager to get them out. It feels there is never enough time in the world. Surely getting a little faster would alleviate some of that angst. Plus, good work that is done fast usually has that decisiveness that comes with it that makes it feel this much more alive. Some of us seem to effortlessly output masterpieces after masterpieces in a fraction of the time it would take us to produce work that wouldn’t even be a tenth as good. How do they do it ?

A road paved with many sketches

Allegedly, Craig Mullins got good at his craft by outputting hundreds or even thousands of quick paintings. No more than half an hour on each. They would feature one or a couple of main goals that he would try to achieve such as lighting or composition, or anatomy. When something was not good enough for his liking, he would start again from scratch rather than trying to edit and better his first try. In that way, he acts in line with John Singer Sargent’s philosophy. The man would always complete his portraits in one process ; never attempting to repaint anything for he held that the construction of a head prepared the place for all its features and if one was wrongly placed, it meant the under-structure was wrong and the whole piece had to be repainted from scratch. “If only one had oneself under perfect control, one could always paint a thing, finally in one sitting.”

As digital painters, that practice can feel alien to us. We were given a magical ctrl+Z shortcut and the ability to repaint the same surface over and over again with no limitation what so ever. We are free to add details without restraint. But speed comes from simplification. As far as learning is concerned, it is better to draw a same subject 20 times for 2 minutes each rather than spend 40 minutes detailing the same image. Abraham Lincoln famously said that if he was given six hours to chop down a tree, he would spend the first four hours sharpening the axe. That time should be spent trying to gain understanding. Details without understanding have a tendency to weaken statements. On the other hand, understanding is what unlocks effortless mastery.

A process of turning understanding into intuition

Please note that this is not about fast execution per say. The hand is not moving any faster when painting fast. In fact it is often moving quite a bit slower. The artist has to ensure it is going to be an accurate add before he puts down the paintbrush on the canvas. He has to channel all of his understanding of perspective, volumes, values, light and colors all at once so that each stroke is as accurate as can be. Analyze before you paint.
Because it is impossible to consciously think about all the grammar rules that go into a painting all at once, most of it those have to come from intuition. That is why it is so hard to train, and that is why it takes so many repetitions to achieve speed. Aim at gaining some understanding with each painting and repeat that process again and again.

In order to implement that sort of attitude, it is going to be downright necessary to stop thinking of each and every piece as precious in and of itself. This is the reason most artists remain so attached to their sketchbooks even in the midst of the digital age. They are a place where they can practice with a full understanding that none of the pages are for the viewer eyes. The goal is to fill the sketchbook and move on to the next one, gathering more and more understanding with each sketch ; not to draw any single amazing picture. A trick is to value the corpus first and foremost.
If you have ever flipped through a sketchbook, you understand that the collection is more than the sum of its parts, there is something special about the way the drawings fill the pages and the way the pages fill the book. Mandala artists understand better than anyone that it is about the practice, not the end results.

The principles are rather similar in music. Improvisation is sometimes described as similar to composition, only faster. Although we can compose music by painstakingly editing a score note by note without any kind of understanding, this is not going to be a good use of our time. Manipulating scales, chords, modes, tones, rhythm and else and doing contained experiments again and again will lead to much better results. With each iteration we get a chance to sit and wonder what went wrong and how to do it better next time ; sharpening our understanding and developing a strong internal logic that would guide us through the vast array of future musical riddles we are about to encounter. By doing the reps, we are also encoding recurring vocabulary in our subconscious where they can be conjured effortlessly. We are building intuition. And soon enough, we will be playing harmonically aware and technically demanding fast runs over difficult chord changes without even blinking twice over it. From understanding, it will turn into instinct.

Freedom is hard-earned

So in a nutshell, to develop speed, we need to focus on volume of work first and prevent ourselves from turning any attempt into sacred cow, we need to do so with intention and ask questions ; we are there to build understanding. There’s no point mindlessly scribbling for hours. Avoid the hypnotic state, be present and aware with each stroke.
Speed ultimately is also called improvisation. It is synonym with freedom and freedom is notoriously hard-earned.