Thursday, September 30, 2010

Exciting Discovery on My Favorite Trees

Had a fun geometry class today and took some photos of my students' projects. Expected them to be the subject of my last post for September. However, a friend who's familiar with my photos of bugs e-mailed me about a "swarm" of some beautiful, strange bugs on her oak trees. She asked if I'd come out and take a look. So, I drove up on her hill overlooking Thompson Valley, east of Quincy, and found her home in a great grove of California Black Oak. Sure enough, on the lower branches there were several clusters of these bugs along the twigs, but not on the leaves. Each cluster seemed to be overseen by a mama with the rest being nymphs in several earlier stages of development. Their aggregations reminded me of the way aphids are often herded together along plant stems by certain species of ants. I immediately recognized the body type as kin to the leafhoppers, although previously I had only seen plain green or brown ones. The adults of this critter had either orange spots or red stripes and their wings covered their abdomens. The immature ones had black and white stripes and their wings did not cover their abdomens.
They were very small, so I decided to empty out my container of colored pencils and use it to bring home a bunch of these interesting insects. According to my John Muir Laws field guide, these were Oak Treehoppers, Platycotis vittata. When I got home I took most of the above photos before doing a little internet research. When I found out that these bugs were drinking the sap of the oak on its way from the leaves down to the roots and that they seldom cause the trees any harm, I released my herd onto the oak trees by my driveway. I hope they establish a local colony as they are quite attractive. The bottom two photos were taken on my way home from work at a turnout I call my "cat-o-nine-tails place." The galls on the willow branch fit with the fall colors theme, although they're hardly noticeable at 55 mph. Close by there were still a few Common Monkeyflower blooming, but most had gone to seed as in the bottom photo above. The shape of the seed pods intrigued me and brought me back to thinking about geometry and art.
Tomorrow and this weekend I'll post photos of the geometry/art projects we're doing. That is, unless some other great nature discovery intrudes.

Free-hand influenced by Geometry

These two, copied out of my nature journal, are fairly simple drawings with an obvious geometric basis. Both have what biologists call bilateral symmetry and geometry folks might call mirror symmetry. The way some art teachers express the goal of starting with geometry and ending with free-hand is to be able to "see" the image on the paper before you draw it. I would guess excellent sculptors would possess the 3-D equivalent of this skill. On that note, there's a story - maybe true and maybe not - when an admirer asked Michelangelo how he managed to carve such a magnificent figure as David, he replied, "Simple. You just carve away all the parts of the stone that are not David."

Highly Geometric Tune-up

The bottom figures are constructed by tracing various parts in a plastic template called a Geometer (c). It's a great device for students who don't initially have much free-hand drawing ability. By following instructions, they can get a grasp of visualizing 3-D objects, then graduate to drawing them free-hand, like in the top illustration. Then, we can graduate eventually to drawing from nature because we see the underlying geometry. Examples in the next post.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Ellipses, the Frisbee of Art

There's a new drawing instruction column in the New York Times every Friday. The second one in the series is about ellipses which the writer calls the frisbee of art. neat idea. Ellipses, of course, are just sideways circles, but they are difficult for many people to draw. I think if you draw hundreds of them quickly without the goal of turning them into anything in particular, like cups, cans, etc., they become easy. Calling them frisbees is a kind of playful approach. Here are a bunch of sketches from my journals which contain ellipses. Click on each one for a closer view and a caption.


Self explanatory, I think. Just practice. Next: the Frisbee of Art.

Let the Meandering Begin

Here's the first of my diversions into geometry. This practice will eventually lead to trying to draw the bugs, flowers, leaves, etc., that I love to photograph. First, I need to work on some basic drawing skills. Plus, it provides some enjoyable connections to art for my geometry students. The top two drawings consist only of straight lines but give the illusion of curves. Fun. The bottom two are made only with a compass - interlocking circles - and samples of my Caran D'Arche watercolor pencils. I'm going to go over these with a wet brush and see what sort of change happens. Next post will be geometry-inspired natural objects.

Winging It.

The double entendre in today's title photo is a preview of what I may be up to in the next few weeks. As I said in an earlier post, I plan to do more drawing and working on gathering lots of random journal entries as well as posts from this blog over the past year and a half to see if there is a book hiding in there somewhere. What was initially proposed as a book of natural history essays is starting to take on a broader goal. Natural history for sure, but also politics, philosophy and links between all of these realms and art. I am currently teaching a geometry class and the links between geometry and art are strong yet seldom exploited in conventional geometry classes. My students are beginning to learn the standard techniques of geometric constructions but applying these skills to more aesthetically pleasing results than "proofs." We are building cardboard models of the Platonic solids, for instance, and learning some modular origami. They'll be learning the properties of many plane and solid figures indirectly by making art. Meanwhile, I'm trying to resurrect my rendering skills so I can make a wise decision about whether to illustrate my book with photos (expensive) or original line art (Am I good enough?). So, my blog might resemble my weekly conversations with friends in the Quincy Writers Group, namely "all over the map." Feedback on my chaotic adventures is always welcome. Meanwhile, as usual, click on any photo for a closer view and a caption. The title photo, while captioned "winging it," is actually a Dobson Fly. The rest should be self-explanatory.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Favorites from my bug file

Still hanging onto memories of spring and summer photo trips, wondering what I'll photograph after the fall colors fall. I'm considering switching to drawing for a while, and delving into some environmental issues. We'll see. Meanwhile, I hope you enjoy some of my favorite bugs.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Commercializing Leaves

I'm enjoying the gradual but speeding changes in the foliage around Quincy. Lots of maples, mostly non-native, have a branch or two turning red or orange, then a few more, then, in a couple of weeks, the whole tree. A few species in certain locations turn totally red while the same species in another part of town may not have begun to change color. This is one of the features of Quincy that always reminds me of my native New England. It was quite a thrill to see this resemblance acknowledged in yesterday's San Francisco Chronicle. The travel section had a report by someone who visited Quincy and lamented that on a weekend, most retail businesses were closed. I have mixed emotions on the matter. Having watched over our Main Street Artists gallery on a few Sundays and noticed a distinct lack of foot or automobile traffic, I longed for some collective entrepreneurial energy that would increase the odds of me and my fellow artists selling some of our work. If Quincy were a tourist destination town, like many of those along Highway 49 in the Gold County, there would be bookstores, antique shops, galleries, restaur- ants, etc., etc., open on Sunday, as well as some parking hassles and maybe increased prices and the resulting greater income opportunities. On the other hand, one of the things I enjoy most about Quincy is that very quietness. Is there a happy medium?

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Down with Algebra?

The Texas School Board is trying to remove Islamic influence from the state's textbooks. When textbook publishers cave to the wishes of Texas, it affects all the other major textbook markets - like California. So, kids, there is hope - maybe they'll eliminate algebra! How fitting that we're also at the beginning of Banned Books Week. Want some good reading? Check the list of often-banned books at your local library or bookstore. It includes my two favorite dictionaries!

Friday, September 24, 2010

Wolf Creek Excursion, Part 2

This second batch of photos from today's Wolf Creek Cleanup includes two images that framed the day. We started off at Papa's Donuts in Quincy for some quick calories and were thrilled to see the town's two most beautiful oaks have started to turn red. Only a few leaves on each of the two trees have streaks of red, orange and yellow, while most leaves are still green. Over the next couple of weeks, there will be more and more red until the two trees look like they are on fire and are quite obvious to passing motorists. The other end of the day was punctuated by the students' discovery of a beautiful caterpillar on the sidewalk in front of the school. During the cleanup walk itself, we saw a Black Widow Spider in the rim of an abandoned wheel and tire, and some Sweetgum trees in the park that were diseased in such a way that the leaves were actually quite "psychedelic." Yikes, I haven't uttered that word in over 20 years!
By the way, today's San Francisco Chronicle carried an article about viewing fall colors which recommended Plumas County as the best place in the country, excepting perhaps New England, for viewing fall colors. Check out more of my photos and those of other "leaf peepers" on the fall colors blog at

Wolf Creek Excursion, Part 1

I accompanied a fellow teacher, a parent, and five Plumas Charter School students on a Wolf Creek cleanup outing on the south side of Greenville today. While I got some photos of the kids picking up trash and discovering discarded items too big for our bags (junked cars and tires, for instance), I couldn't help but snap shots of wildflowers and colorful leaves along the way. Took me an hour to separate the two categories, but it was worth it. The kids did a great job and were rewarded by cookies and drinks courtesy of Evergreen market. Here i'm posting only the nature photos. Five here and five more in the next post. Click on any photo for a close-up and caption.