After the Dawn…

Warning: Contains track list spoilers.

On Saturday 27th September 2014, thanks to the generosity of a good friend, and the kindness of a complete stranger, I got to fulfil a lifetime dream: I saw Kate Bush perform live on stage at the Eventim Apollo. It was, in the most literal sense of the word, wonderful. More than wonderful; her performance exceeded even my most optimistic expectations. I watched a diminutive, middle-aged woman gather up the hearts and minds of a packed theatre of people and lift them up, vibrating and trembling in harmony with her vocals, and hold them there through song after song. Her voice was astonishing. She has lost none of her range or power; her voice was crystal clear and faultless for almost two and a half hours. In a time when we are accustomed to hearing gushing, fulsome, but thoroughly undeserved praise heaped onto singers in reality shows, it was sobering to listen to a true master of their craft, delivering an outstanding performance with effortless skill.

I’m not generally given to tremulous outpourings of emotion, but throughout the whole show I was an emotional wreck, on the verge of tears from the moment she rang out the first note, like a church bell summoning the faithful to worship. And worship we did: even the random shout of “I love you, Kate” from someone at the back of the theatre was received with cheers and warm applause from an audience utterly in agreement with the sentiment. I sat transfixed by the woman who’s music was the soundtrack to my awkward teenage years, swept away by the emotion that rolled off the stage from her in palpable waves. Her voice was simply amazing. The music and the musicians were amazing. The backing singers were, predictably, amazing. The stage and lighting design lifted the show even further.

If I’m brutally honest however, I did feel that the theatrical element of the show was an unnecessary distraction. It was clever and interesting but, for me at least, it got in the way of what I wanted most: to hear her sing. To hear that huge voice issuing from the tiny, barefoot woman who filled the stage with her presence. My highlight was Kate on her own, seated at a piano, lifting me away with a simple song, performed beautifully. That, and the tumultuous final performance: Cloudbusting, one of my favourites, with the whole audience on their feet, singing, cheering and, around me at least, crying with joy.

A magical, once-in-a-lifetime experience that I never expected to have, and I can’t possibly thank those who made it happen enough. I wish I managed to get hold of another ticket, so that I could have shared the experience with my lovely wife. But then again, Elaine would have just laughed at my complete and utter fan-boy meltdown and called me a giant wuss. Which I most unapologetically am. The only problem I have now is dealing with the fact that every night will now be a night when I’m not watching Kate Bush perform live on stage.

Kate Bush

About 28 years ago, a good friend of mine suggested that I have try at silk-screen printing some t-shirts. So I found a photograph of my favourite artist, Kate Bush, that I really liked, sketched out a stylised and simplified version, then painstakingly cut out wax paper shapes with a surgical scalpel to create a negative version, positioned that carefully onto a t-shirt, and printed my design. I then hand-painted Kate’s signature onto the t-shirt with a small brush. It was such a fiddly and time-consuming process that I only ever made one copy.

Now that Kate Bush’s upcoming Before the Dawn live performances at the Eventim Apollo are almost upon us, I wanted to revisit that design, and update it using digital media. The finished image is now available on my Redbubble store:

Kate Bush

Kate Bush.

I managed to dig out not only the original very old, very out of shape t-shirt, but also the issue of the Kate Bush Club official fan club magazine that contained the photograph that I used as reference for the image. There is no photographer credit on the photograph, or anywhere in the magazine as far as I can tell, but I think it was taken by Kate’s brother John Carder Bush (if anyone can confirm this, or provide the name of the actual photographer, please get in touch or leave a comment). Here is a side-by-side comparison of the original photograph, the printed t-shirt image, and the new digital version:

Kate Bush

Kate Bush.

I don’t have access to a scanner at the moment, so my apologies for the poor quality photographs-of-photographs.

Exploring with Internet Explorer 7

After launching my new site design at the beginning of September, I’ve had almost no free time to deal with any problems. Today I’ve finally managed to resolve some outstanding issues with Internet Explorer 7. The first was a problem with the jQuery slideDown() function that prevented the slide viewer from displaying properly unless the visitor clicked the banner twice. The second was using the JavaScript function, which is not supported in IE7. This was easily fixed by replacing it with the function, which returns exactly the same value, but has built in support for older browsers.

However, if you are still using Internet Explorer 7, it really is time to upgrade to something better. IE7 is more than 6 years old now, and has fallen badly behind in terms of security and standards support.

What do you think of the new place?

If this isn’t your first visit to my site, you may have noticed that things have changed pretty radically. Last night (4 September 2012) I finally launched my brand new site, after working away for a couple of months in my spare time. With the exception of the content of this blog, everything is new; I haven’t carried any content over from my old site.

My primary goal when I set out the design for this update was to make it as simple as possible, and focus the design on the presentation of my best artwork. Everything else has been removed; I’ve cut the page count down from thirteen to just a single page (again with the exception of this blog). Not only does this make it much easier to maintain and update the content, it also focusses visitor attention exactly where I want it: on my artwork.

Although it’s been a lot of work, and there has been a not inconsiderable amount of swearing, developing this new site has been a very rewarding process. I’ve learned a great deal about modern web design techniques, and I’ve tried to roll as much of the new web technologies as I can into the design. This is partly to future-proof the site and keep it viable for as long as possible, but also because I’m a big nerd who enjoys tinkering with this kind of thing.

I’ve tried to make sure that the site works well on the newest generation of mobile and touch devices; it’s retina-ready, so those of you with one of Apple’s super hi-res devices should be treated to my artwork in glorious detail. I’ve used a good deal of AJAX (made a good deal easier by using the excellent JQuery Javascript Library to make sure that there are no unnecessary page loads; my artwork loads “on demand”, so none of the large images get loaded until you click one of the big banners and open up a slideshow; I’ve adopted web font technology, so if you have a browser that supports it, you should see nice, well designed fonts everywhere. I’ve also switched to HTML5, and tried to adopt as many design best practices as I can.

So, was it worth all the effort? Please let me know what you think. You can leave a comment, or tweet me your feedback.

PNG format fun

While I was writing my previous post on ImageOptim (a free Mac application for reducing PNG file size), I came across a fascinating article about the PNG format, written by Kornel Lesinski, the author of ImageOptim.

His article outlines the tools needed to create 8-bit PNG files that have a full alpha channel, resulting in huge file size savings if you are willing to sacrifice a small amount of quality be palletising the image. This format is supported natively by Adobe Fireworks, but for those of us stuck using Photoshop, Kornel has even created a free Mac OS application, ImageAlpha, which can convert 24-bit PNG files to this format.

I’ve just performed a quick test on a transparent PNG file, and the combination of ImageAlpha and ImageOptim reduced the file size from 11108 bytes to 2775 bytes, a saving of a whopping 75%. This obviously isn’t an exhaustive test, but it’s a very promising start, and I’m looking forward to letting these tools loose on the images for my new website.

Saving space

One of the goals I have for my new website design is to try and keep it as bandwidth efficient as possible. This is, I think, essential given the rise in the use of hand-held devices. Despite their speed and capacity, I think it’s important to try and deliver content to them as quickly as possible, which means (among other things) optimising file size wherever possible. This is a particular problem for an artist, since the primary goal of my website is to deliver large, high quality images, to present my artwork in the best manner possible.

One of the most useful tools I’ve discovered recently is ImageOptim, an open source Mac application that uses several widely available image libraries to remove unnecessary data from common image formats like PNG, JPG and GIF. It’s very simple to use (just drag images into the application window, and leave it to grind away), and the results can be quite amazing. For small PNG files exported using Photoshop’s “Save for Web” tool, I’ve seen file size reductions of up to 95%. Whilst the savings for individual files might be quite small, the cumulative saving across an entire page of images is significant, and well worth the additional step in my workflow.

Tool kit

For the last few weeks, I’ve been hard at work on a new design for my website. I created the current “Comic Bubbles” design in way back in 2005, which makes it practically a fossil in Internet Years. I decided to throw away everything in the current design, and start from scratch; a new design (obviously), and most significantly an entirely new site structure, reducing the number of pages that I will need to maintain from around twelve in the current design, to just two.

At the start of the design process I also made the decision to eschew my usual write-everything-myself approach, and rely more on ready-made solutions. This has speeded up the development of my new design considerably, and has resulted in a lot less shouting, head scratching and angry flicking through my Javascript reference book.

The most important decision I made was to adopt the widely used JQuery Javascript Library, a fantastic set of tools that really eases the pain of creating complex, dynamic, cross-browser content. I found the initial foray into JQuery to be a bit daunting, but once I started to understand the basic paradigm, it has made locating and manipulating elements within the DOM far less painful than I’ve found it in the past, and has kept it’s promise of “Write Less, Do More”. I’m only a hobby programmer, with no formal training, so Javascript has always been a bit of a headache for me. Using JQuery has taken a great deal of stress out of the job, and made me attempt things that I would have previously considered too complex or time-consuming.

The second significant decision was to switch to HTML5, and adopt the HTML5 Boilerplate as the starting point for my pages. The Boilerplate contains a set of page templates created using web design best practices, which maximise browser compatibility, and encourage the use of good semantic design. The template is also designed to try and maximise loading and rendering speed, and has proved to be a very useful repository of ideas that have improved my own design practices and approach to page authoring. It has also helped me to make my new design mobile-friendly; without the Boilerplate as a starting point, I suspect it would have taken me considerably longer to get my new design running smoothly of iOS and Android mobile devices.

If you are starting work on a new website design project, I strongly recommend JQuery and the HTML5 Boilerplate to help get a solid design of the ground quickly, and relatively painlessly.

Warm-up Sketches

After being either too ill or too busy to do any sketching for a while, I thought I’d have a try at doing some warm-up sketches before delving back into character designs for my next FutureQuake Press strip. I’m still trying to get the hang of sketching using only my Intuos tablet, but I’m not going to improve unless I put the time and effort into practicing. First two attempts below:





We Are All Connected

Now available on my RedBubble store, the first of my planned series of “serious” science designs, featuring one of my favourite quotes from Neil deGrasse Tyson, the popular American astrophysicist and science communicator:

“We are all connected. To each other, biologically; to the earth, chemically; to the rest of the universe atomically.”

We Are All Connected

We Are All Connected.

Also available as a poster.