Trying Tim's Vermeer

July 6th, 2014

I'm a regular listener of Penn's Sunday School, an excellent podcast by Penn Jillette of Penn & Teller fame. For a while he's been talking about a documentary film they've created called Tim's Vermeer. I got to see it a few weeks back.

It's a film about inventor Tim Jenison, and his 5 year obsession to paint a perfect replica of Vermeer's painting, The Music Lesson. Tim invents a technique/device he created, and shows how Vermeer probably used something rather similar. It's a great film, I suggest you watch it for yourself. In one scene, Tim comments casually that anyone could use his technique...

So I thought I'd give it a go. Now, I'm no painter. I can't sketch. I can't make anything look lifelike with any kind of image creation tools! I've never even touched oil paint before.

I wasn't expecting very good results, but I nipped to the shops and bought a couple of cheap canvasses, a tube of black and white oil paint, a cheap pack of brushes and a cheap compact makeup mirror. I cut and bent some wire into a crude stand and blu-tack'd the mirror to it. I printed out a B&W photo of my father to use as the original, and selotaped it to an old cardboard cat food box. I wasn't trying very hard to make the perfect setup.

I spent an evening setting this up and painting my first attempt. It just looked like a mess. Utterly discouraging to work on, and at the end of the night I just had a smudgy mess of nothing that didn't even match the original in image proportion, let alone look like a person.

The next morning I happened to catch sight of the painting I'd made from across the room. At an extreme angle, suddenly my brain recognised the face of my father. It was hard to see, but it was definitely there. I realised that there's a part of the technique the film doesn't mention - you have to move the mirror. I'd been keeping it as still as possible, assuming that touching it would ruin the painting. That's not the case though. You have to raise/lower it to scan different parts of the source image. What I'd done was squash it dramatically in the Y axis, so it was only about one quarter the height of the original.

The next night I had another go, painting directly over the squished version. I blocked in the frame of the picture first, then filled in reference points like eyes, nose, mouth. Then over the next 5 hours or so applied Tim's technique slowly and carefully. I learned how to change the shade of paint at any one point by adding black/white and mixing it right there on the canvas, or by mixing it first and applying it. I learned how to do detail with a fine brush, manipulating the paint by pushing it around rather than painting anew.

The results astonished me. Now, this is not a patch on what Tim achieved in any of his paintings, but does the technique work? Can any talentless fool with patience do it? Yup!

There are flaws. I got tired and impatient at the shirt, so didn't really follow the technique there and just freehanded it behind the mirror. The head shape isn't quite right and the placement of each feature is a little shifted. I think I'm still introducing a bit of skew overall by not moving my mirror often enough, and not looking straight enough into the setup. The painting isn't central in the canvas, and it is mirrored left-to-right (something I didn't notice until I'd finished).

The technique isn't perfect, or easy. It's not hard to follow, but it is back-breaking leaning over the apparatus while controlling a brush, and it's hard on the eyes. I had to shut one eye most of the time, and it's still difficult. It takes a lot of time and patience overall too, and shows soul-destroyingly little progress until you're a long way into it. Controlling the parallax skew is the hardest part for me so far, although with better thought-out equipment I'm sure I could get round that bit. I have a suspicion a much smaller mirror and an easily adjustable stand might help, as I'd be happier to move it more often.

Troy (the film)

July 13th, 2007

Just seen it. Its kinda long. Here's the quickie if you can't be bothered yourself:

Troy-prince: Wow Helen, you're proper hot
Helen: You're way poncier than hubby. Lets go to Troy.
Greek hubby: Where's wifey got to now? Oh. Off to war we go then.

*short boat ride later*

Achilles: Warrrrgh!
20,000 Troy soldiers: Ow. Dead.

Achilles: Bored now. Keep going without me chaps.
Greeks: Ow, now we're getting our asses kicked.

Achilles: You killed my generic relative! I kill your princey brother.
Princy brother: Fighty fighty. Ow. Dead.
King: Um, bugger. Temporary truce while I mourn?

*days pass*

King: lol, they've all buggered off now.
King: Oooh look, a sod off huge wooden horse. I'm having that.

Achilles: A murderin' we shall go in Troy...
Troy citizens: OW OW OW. Dead.
Troy-prince: Take this!
Achilles: In the heel? You git! Dead.

The scientific method: Lost

June 8th, 2007

In a recent article I voiced my opinion that Charlie really didn't have to die in Lost. If you're too lazy to read that article, he basically got trapped in a submerged watertight room. The glass porthole of the room was blown out by a suicidal grenade-wielding Russian and the water rushed in. The room filled up rapidly and poor Charlie drowned.

I suggested that there was rather a lot of TV physics going on to artificially drown Charlie in a situation that shouldn't have been immediately fatal to him.

The scientific method can help us out here. Lets do science!

In the image the room is flooded to the roof with water. In other films I've seen characters survive in air pockets in capsized ships and so on.

I hypothesise that where you have a mix of air and water in a sealed space, the air makes its way to the highest point. I also hypothesise that water and air cannot occupy the same space.

In a sealed vessel such as the one Charlie was trapped in, an air pocket would form once the water level inside the room was higher than the porthole. This should work for vessels of any size, with portholes in any position.

Here's where it gets interesting (I know, finally). My experimental plan is to submerge an airtight vessel then remove the cap making a large porthole, just like Charlie's watery prison. Then when the water has stopped rushing about I'll re-cap the vessel and remove it from the water to see if there is any air trapped inside.

If my hypothesis is right I should see a fair amount of space within the vessel that is not filled with water. If it comes out full of water, the hypothesis is falsified and Charlie should have drowned after all.

Now, I don't have a life-sized vessel and a conveniently deep pool of water for this. I'm going to use an empty plastic drink bottle and a sink full of water.


Apparatus: Bottle, sink, water.

Vessel fully submerged, with cap in place. The bottle is airtight at this point and is completely full of air.

Cap has been removed and water is flooding in. Note the air bubbles rising from the opening showing escaping air as the water enters. Yes, I do know my drain plug is going rusty.

Everything has settled now. No more water is entering and no more bubbles of air are escaping. The water line around my hand shows that the bottle is still fully submerged. Note the waterline appears to be around the middle of the bottle. Ie, the vessel is only half full, even with no cap on.

The cap is now replaced with the bottle still underwater to lock the amount of water/air in the bottle. Upon removal, it is clear that there is not only an air pocket in the bottle, but that it is about 40% of the volume of the vessel. The water has entered until the porthole was fully covered. At this point no more air can escape and therefore no more water can get in.

So Charlie could have survived. In fact, he could have survived easily, even if he couldn't swim. He could have stood with his feet on the floor and still had his head above water. Could this be an example of when TV physics goes bad?

Thought exercise: Under what conditions might the room have flooded completely?

Lost: Dying like a Charlie

June 2nd, 2007

(warning: contains Lost season 3 spoilers)

What's the worst thing you can see out of the porthole of your vulnerable underwater station? That's right, a crazed Russian with a primed hand grenade and a mischievous grin. Especially if your mate shot him earlier with a harpoon and he's now kinda annoyed.

Uh oh. Better get out of there. Or if you're Charlie, seal yourself into the small room with the porthole. Not that sensible given that he had time to get out and shut the door as well, but he's clearly not very bright.

The grenade goes off outside with Charlie on the opposite side of the room. The water acts as a powerful transmission medium for the shockwave and the window is blown out. Somehow Charlie isn't killed by bits of flying toughened glass that are shot into the room, or by the compression wave from the grenade itself.

Lucky Charlie! You should be dead by now, rather than just a little damp around the ankles. Still, you're not, so lets look for another way out. There are a few options:

Charlie could grab one of the air tanks off the wall. Luckily there was a continuity error in his favour and the computer on the left of the room has turned into a couple of SCUBA tanks. Handy, but Charlie clearly isn't that observant and hasn't noticed them.

Maybe they're not air tanks, but deadly gas canisters or something. You never quite know on Lost's island. Thankfully Charlie is in a sealed watertight room (since his friend Desmond deeper inside the station isn't getting wet). This is good news! The water will only flood in until it has covered the porthole and no more air can escape. That should leave a pretty large air pocket at the top of the room that he can survive in for a while. Easily long enough for Desmond to get some of the SCUBA gear he found in the moonpool room and rescue him.

Unluckily either physics doesn't apply to Charlie's room, or he fails to notice the large air gap at the top. He's got important stuff on his mind like giving Desmond a message. He can be forgiven for pushing breathing down the priorities list.

Thankfully we know Charlie is a strong swimmer. He swam down into this station without any breathing apparatus, so presumably could swim back up easily enough. If only there were some kind of convenient man-sized hole to the outside he could squeeze through...

Too late, drowned. What a complete Charlie!

Tangent: Now we know there's a boat sat offshore and that it probably isn't to do with either Penny or the Others, could they be the ones who did the supplies drop in the Lockdown episode?

Surviving Lost

May 24th, 2007

(warning: contains Lost season 3 spoilers)

Advice for attractive young women: Don't join the cast of Lost. Your odds of survival aren't good. Even if you do survive, you won't get an easy life. Lets have a quick role-call, and this is by no means a complete list:

Shannon: Dead
Murdered by gunshot.

Cindy: Missing
Abducted, fate unknown

Susan: Dead
Died from a natural blood disorder

Libby: Dead
Murdered by gunshot in the hatch

Ana-Lucia: Dead
Murdered by gunshot to the stomach by Michael

Colleen: Dead
Murdered by gunshot on the sub, died in surgery

Nikki: Dead
Mistakenly buried alive whilst paralysed

Bea: Dead
Murdered by gunshot to the chest by Mikhail

Greta: Dead
Murdered by gunshot by the underwater moon-pool

Bonnie: Dead
Murdered by gunshot to the back

Naomi: Dead
Murdered by throwing knife in the back

Unnamed Other: Dead
Murdered by explosion whilst raiding the camp

Alex: Alive
Parted from her mother for most of her life

Sarah: Alive
Had major spinal surgery after a car crash

Nadia: Alive
Tortured by the Iraqi Republican Guard

Juliette: Alive
Trapped on the island and manipulated into murder

Kate: Alive
Seen in a future flashback, survives and escapes

Sun: Alive
Seen in a future flashback. Abducted on the island

Penny: Alive
Separated from her love presumably by her father

Claire: Alive
Abducted and held drugged whilst pregnant

I make that 11 dead, 8 alive and 1 missing. Not good odds!

American telly is back!

January 23rd, 2007

Hooray! After almost two months of silence from our American chums, my RSS reader burst into life with new episodes of Prison Break, Heroes and Studio 60. Just Lost missing from the mix, and that's comming soon I understand.

What do Americans do with themselves over Christmas?