27 April 2017

Plein Air Painting With Bill Robinson

via Muddy Colors http://ift.tt/2p2DnN1

by Cory Godbey

Plein air painting is one of those things I've been interested in but truthfully never really tried. 

The reality is, for me, painting is enough of a challenge without the whole natural world getting involved. I'm envious of those artists who can set up shop seemingly anywhere and pull together a painting!

Bill Robinson and I go way back (we first met in 2009 when I was curating a Maurice Sendak tribute art blog called Terrible Yellow Eyes). He has a decorated career in children's books and animation and currently works as a visual development artist at Sony.

I thought I'd invite Bill over to share a little of his experience and expertise with plein air painting.


How and when did you get started plein air painting?

A little over a year ago I moved to Los Angeles and was working at my first job in feature animation with some very talented painters. When I started nosing around and asking them how they got so good, they mentioned that they go plein air painting as often as possible. I had seen plein air and even done a couple of workshops years ago, but the practice never really cemented for me. Lucky for me, we formed a little group of people who would go painting every day at lunch, setting up on the streets of Santa Monica near our office. Being able to see the gear, subjects, handling of paint...and doing it every day finally got me over the feeling of, “I have no idea what I’m doing” and made the whole process much more enjoyable.

What makes a good location for plein air painting? Do you decide where to go and then choose a spot or is there something in a particular landscape or place that you set out to find first?

I find myself more attracted to nature than architecture or cityscapes, which for me comes down to where I like to paint and what I like to spend hours staring at. I would usually rather be out on a sunny trail or near a stream than in a busy industrial area, though there is plenty of beauty to be found in factories, train yards, etc. and I think it’s a good idea to mix it up every now and then. When I head to to my general location, the first thing I look for is the lighting. If there’s a really beautiful shadow pattern or the light catches my eye and holds it, I will stop and consider that place for a painting. Subject matter itself doesn’t matter all that much, I’ve found that a tree or a rock or a flower or a mountain can all be painted in beautiful ways. When I’ve been to an area enough times I start to keep a mental log of spots I want to paint, which makes it easy the next time I’m there.

What sort of materials do you take with you on locations?

I’ve found that everyone has a different plein air setup, but the main thing for me is finding stuff that is lightweight and very portable. Here’s a look at my current setup:


  1. Paper Towels, Spray Bottle, Artists Tape - These seems like add-ons, but they are essential! Paper towels especially, for getting the right consistency when mixing gouache. Too much water on your brush and you’ll be struggling. Spray bottle is good for keeping your palette wet.

  2. Brushes - I mostly use 2-3 brushes on a painting. Mainly a 1” flat and then maybe a ¼” flat for details. Once in awhile I use a round for smaller details. I love my cylindrical brush carrier, which keeps them from getting bent bristles in my backpack.

  3. Palette - I use a Sta-Wet palette for and it changed my life. I used to hate working with gouache because it dries out so quickly, especially in heat or direct sunlight. The Sta-Wet palette has a wet sponge and a special palette paper that keep your paints full of moisture, even days later. I also use a small spray bottle of water to refresh the paint if necessary.

  4. Paper/Pencils/Eraser - I work on a variety of surfaces, but mostly either cold press watercolor paper or hot press illustration board. I have started to prefer illustration board, mostly because you don’t have to worry about buckling or warping. I’ve always got a pencil and kneaded eraser in my kit for laying in quick sketches. The boards in the photo are from Cottonwood Arts.

  5. Water - I use an old pill bottle with a screw on cap to hold my water. It’s tiny, lightweight, and watertight.

  6. Masonite board - If you are using a small painting surface, it’s good to have a board to tape it down to.

  7. Pochade Box - I bit the bullet and bought a fancy STRADA easel. It’s lightweight, strong, super portable, and easy to use. No complaints. There are definitely cheaper options (including many homemade ones) for people just getting started.

  8. Tripod - I’m using a cheap old tripod I had lying around the house, but it would probably be a good idea to use something a little more sturdy. Just be careful of how heavy it might make your pack.

  9. Travel Toiletry Hanger/Paint - I had this old toiletry carrier and found that it is perfect for holding my supplies. It has a hanger hook up top, which I can hang on to my easel for easy access. I use gouache for my plein air paintings, mostly because it’s waterbased, opaque, and dries quickly. Also, the tubes are very small and easy to transport! I am fond of Holbein and Winsor & Newton, though there are other good brands out there.

  10. Backpack  - This Kelty Redwing bag is huge, with tons of zippers and pockets for all your supplies. It’s a serious backpacking kit, so you trade off a little more weight to use it. Sometimes I switch this out for a lightweight gym knapsack if I don’t need all the gear.

Current setup in action:

Walk us through your process.

Step 1: Once I’ve selected a subject/area to paint, I take a few minutes to think about composition. This will depend on the format of my painting surface (sometimes it’s square, or wide, or tall, etc) but I tend to work rather small. This particular painting is about 5" x 7”. Once I’ve got a composition in mind (considering the rule of thirds, focal point, etc) I will do a very quick sketch. This is going to get covered by paint in a moment, so I keep it rough. I just want the key things like the telephone pole, the house, and the wall at the bottom in their basic positions.

Step 2: Basic Block-In. I do this as quickly as possible, mostly working wet-in-wet. Don’t expect this phase to look good - if it does, you’re probably getting bogged down in detail. Sometimes I will work on white, other time I will ground my canvas with burnt sienna or something similar. In this case I kept it white for the sky. The thing about gouache (and watercolor) is that you will never get a paint as white as the original paper...so be careful with preserving it when you need to!

Step 3: Tightening Up - Here I’ve got my colors blocked in and am paying more attention to local color. I want the greens to have the right temperature and the browns and yellows to feel like they are in either light or shadow. It still looks very rough.

Step 4: Values: Now I’m starting to pay more attention to value. I lay in some of the darkest darks and try to get more key details locked down. I pay more attention to color variation, like adding in some purples to the dirt trail and some blues to the sides of the house.

Step 5: Finished! Here I’ve added the fine details, the lines on the bricks, the fence posts, the telephone wires, small leaves and flowers. It’s amazing how much these little details bring a painting to life, but they would not work if the rest of the foundation had not been laid down.

I'm curious, do you find that people want to see what you're up to or do they give you space?

I have gotten pretty mixed reactions, depending on where I am set up. Most people are very friendly and just excited to see what you’re working on. I’ve painted in big cities, where people have made jokes about how they wish they could spend their day painting instead of working. (Reconsider your life choices!) I’ve painted at Disneyland, where kids get super excited to see an artist doing something. Mostly I paint out on nature trails where I get to meet dogs and chat with their owners!

Thanks so much for sharing your expertise with us, Bill! Where can people find you online?

My pleasure! I share my plein air paintings and a lot of my process shots on my Instagram:

I’m also on Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook.

Also, I understand that you have a show coming up as well, where can people find that?

Yes! I am very excited to announce that I will be having my first solo show of my pleinair artwork at the Light Grey Art Lab in Minneapolis. It opens April 21 and goes through May 20. The artwork will also be available online after the show opens. 

Check out http://ift.tt/1m7FPeY for more info as it becomes available!

New Job!

via Blog - Alyssa Menold http://ift.tt/2prsBTs

I'm psyched to announce that I've joined the team at Wyrd Miniatures as an in-house artist :D! 

My boss's door XD

My boss's door XD

Yooo, Hot Topic is having a flash sale so you could get my...

via Jenny Parks Illustration http://ift.tt/2qktp9G

Yooo, Hot Topic is having a flash sale so you could get my Doctor Mew shirt for cheap! Today only! Five hours left!


Tools of the Trade and a Quick Tour

via Muddy Colors http://ift.tt/2pi1b2J

-By Paul Bonner

I'll have to base these writings on a couple of assumptions.

The first is that it's not very likely that in the near future -or ever - I am going to be conducting brisk and informative tours of my at-home studio.

The second assumption, and a possibly even more far fetched one, is that there are actually people out there who would willingly partake in such a bold enterprise.

So, throwing caution to the wind, and going along with the second assumption - I will try and give a little tour of the tools of my trade, the place where they gather and the part they play in my actually getting anything done.

This little jaunt is only available because not much else is. I am embarked on a couple of creative voyages that forbid me to show anything, and to speak of which, would spell some awful kind of doom. At least for me.

So, cup of tea in hand, I make my way down to the cellar where my world sits waiting. Trying to be a little bit chronological, it is my brain that kicks off the process. The same for most of us I suspect. Those flashes of inspiration and tantalising flashes of what might be. So - paper, before they fade. Assuming that I have filled pages of layout pad with scribbles, and progressed on to things that could be called sketches, and then managed to nail the sketches down as something that I would love to paint - it is over to my light table.

It is an ancient, metal monster that bares the brunt of my struggles to make sense of all the scribbles, squiggles and occasional sketches. Once the hard part of defining and drawing the characters is done, I enjoy physically juggling and jigsawing them into place. Suddenly I can see the relationship they have with each other and have a clear mental image of how they will relate to the background. Being the Creator, in my own world, I can toy with my subjects and play with their sizes. The pretty ordinary copy machine that I have is about as hi-tech as I get in my quest for beauty. When dealing with a gaggle of goblins, being quickly able to up and down their individual sizes a few percent to gently push the composition along is invaluable. Not so hi-tech are books. Pride and joy for many of us. And so necessary, for both sparking ideas and checking that a horses' back leg actually looks like you thought it did.

Risky, though, spending too long looking. Too many ideas, and you can visually short circuit, getting lost in a tar-pit of seductive images.Too much relaxed flicking of pages and it,s suddenly lunchtime (no bad thing). It,s best to do short raids. Know what you want. Get in there. And get out again.

The final jigsaw of characters is then drawn up onto my water colour paper using the light table again - and then it is left alone to dream of whatever it is that light tables dream of, until it,s services are required again.

Stretching the paper requires water from the tap next door - not the neighbours - the room next door. They have big cellars in Denmark. I know there are a lot of assumptions being thrown out here, but I feel relatively safe in assuming that you all know what a tap looks like, so no photo.

However - here is a photo of that little area where, I suspect, like many of us, we spend most of our time - in spite of persistent requests to pay attention to things that need dealing with in the other world outside these walls.

Again, like I suspect many of us, my walls and shelves are covered, some might say cluttered, with all sorts of visual stimulus and emotional supplements, to help oil the wheels, and occasionally push the creative juggernaut I,m trying to steer. It,s all stuff I love.Some things go back years, without having lost any of their appeal - visually or emotionally.

This huge Conan poster, I pleaded with the staff at Londons Forbidden Planet to give me. They had it folded up under the counter, and were happy to get rid of it - for free! More than 30 years ago. It,s seen a lot of things, in a lots of different places over the years, hanging on different walls!

The Siberian tiger is a more recent arrival. Helps remind me that a big part of my own artistic quest is simply trying to make something beautiful. His beauty helps put on hold depressing thoughts about all the crap going on in the world. The sheer aesthetic perfection of a full grown Siberian tiger very quickly puts mankind's stupid and arrogant fumblings on a back-burner - even though, sadly it is those consistent fumblings that threaten such beauty and conspires to make it even more poignant. Don,t get me started……..

 Unless you are one of theses digital folks, it's the same stuff  going on in my play area as there is in yours. Pots of brushes. Tubes of paint. And from that tap next door - water.

The paints just live communally in an old box - the warmer colours at one end - the colder ones at the other, though the front lines can get a bit muddled sometimes.

The brushes, of which I have far too many (because you never know - do you?), are sorted vaguely in sizes. They are on constant rotation, as it is quite a job targeting one that will behave and do exactly what I want it to do. At the moment I am stuck in a kind of vicious, hogs-hair no-mans land. The brushes, that through time and use, have evolved into the perfect partner, have recently reached a collective point where they have simply given up. Instead of a willing and eager tool, a rather alarming number of them have seemingly reached a point where they thought it would be better to turn into something that even a dwarf wouldn't use to clean his chimney. So, my entire A-Team of front rank brushes, have opted for career changes, and my all too new recruits are simply not up to the task.

Even the ones on the left had a perfect leaf shape once  - many paintings ago. But they are still more useful than the ones on the right!

So - a lot of time is spent picking upon brush after the other, trying to find one that can be bent to it's masters will. Brush-rage. You heard it here first. Not a nice state of mind when you were enjoying yourself and things were coasting along.

I make light of this, but it is a problem. New brushes, in spite of their seductive bodies and fine heads of hair - are rarely up to the job, and I,m not ruthless enough in retiring the old guard, convinced their loyalty will help me though just on more painting. Interestingly enough, the new recruits have forced me to work a lot more broadly in the early stages, getting stuff done quicker, and blocking in larger ares with more confidence. I will, however, be glad when they pass basic training and begin to justify their places in my paint pots.

Perched behind me, we can see some anatomic sculptures. Another invaluable aid to quickly checking that the nuts and bolts are understood in that consistently challenging subject of the human body. The skulls are a camel (I found it in the desert and brought all the way in a suitcase from Dubai when my parents lived there. Bet I couldn't do that these days!),and a female elk - or moose, to our American chums.

Music, of course, being another essential to the creative process - and of course, simply as something to be enjoyed in it,s own right. I won't bore you with what I have - but of course - it is an eclectic collection of breathtakingly good taste. Enough said.

The more observant amongst you (and I think I can safely assume that observance is a trait that all of us arty types are somewhat known for), may have spotted the big plastic container under the table. The last 25 litres of 75 litres of cider that is almost ready to bottle. Not strictly anything to do with my daily creative routine. Just needed the radiators warmth back in November when it was fermenting. Having said that, though, it,s very comforting hearing the gentle release of bubbles as the natural sugars turn to alcohol.

I find myself digressing.

"Recreational"creativity. Making things for orks to run around in. My excuse is father/son stuff……….

Not much more to see really. Got some drawers full of half baked ideas, finished works and things I should have thrown out years ago.

A big mirror is invaluable for quick poses. Folds in clothing. Taking quick photos for reference, especially hands - that,s why they all look the same in my paintings, and checking my hair. The goblin is optional.

Plants - you have to have plants. Of course you do - and not just for giving you fresh oxygen - though that,s a good reason, especially if you are a brave soul who dabbles in oil paints.

Lastly, moving down to floor level we come to my exercise machine. He's called Baldur, and is the latest, top of the range "get the artist off his bum and out of the door" model. And Baldur is the only one who can watch me paint, talk to myself, sing, play air guitar, and occasionally curse - with out getting bored (as far as I can tell). I guess we all lead very sedentary lives' perched on our gluteus maximus all day, so anything that causes us to move is a good thing - and a Baldur is about as good as it gets.

So, I reckon that,s it really. Just a quick little tour. Nothing earth-shattering. No secret techniques - I,ll try and rustle some up for next time. Hope you enjoyed the little tour. If you did, feel free to leave something in the tip-jar on the way out.


via Muddy Colors http://ift.tt/2pi1ojS

--Greg Manchess

This is a quick portrait study of one of the characters from my novel, Above The Timberline.

I suppose this old bear, Grim, has been with me for most of my painting life. It showed up in art school when I found that painting the yellow-white fur of polar bears offered me great insight into painting with white pigment. In different types of light and in different temperatures, white can become the most fascinating of colors.

So perhaps the discovery of the subtle use of white became characterized in something animated that lived in all forms of light. An anthropomorphized color. This time, in a polar bear.

The bears of my story, though, do not talk and certainly do not wear armor. They are dangerous and wild, and yet, a little more than one would expect.

Painting this little portrait was an exercise in capturing character with quick pigment.

Otakar Lebeda

via Lines and Colors :: a blog about drawing, painting, illustration, comics, concept art and other visual arts http://ift.tt/2pzn0uZ

Otakar Lebeda, landscape, still life and figurative paintings
Otakar Lebeda was a 19th century Czech painter whose tragically short life and career have been compared to that of Vincent van Gogh.

Lebeda began painting at an early age, and had the opportunity to study at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague with noted landscape painter Julius Mařák.

He started out in a similar realist style, comparable to the French Realists of the time, and was introduced to the outdoor landscape styles of the Barbizon School while later studying in Paris.

In his later work Lebeda introduced more figures into his compositions and his style became more painterly and even expressionistic.

Lebeda is not sell known here in the U.S. and online sources for his work are limited, but the images available show a painter of considerable interest and worth following up on as resources hopefully expand in the future.


The Orrery at The Interval: An Invitation to Long-Term Thinking

via The Long Now Blog http://ift.tt/2pf5s6e

As visitors to Fort Mason amble past The Interval, the Long Now Foundation’s cafe-bar-museum-venue space, some are drawn, as if by gravitational pull, to an unusual eight foot-tall stainless steel technological curiosity they glimpse through the glass doors. Metal gears sit stacked one on top of the other to form a tower, with geneva wheels jutting out like staircase steps. Halfway up, the structure blooms into a globe of crisscrossing rings of metal, with seven orbs of differing color and size strung along them.

It is the Long Now Orrery, a twenty-first century interpretation of an ancient device that tracks the relative position of the six planets visible to the naked eye (Mercury through Saturn) as they make their way around the sun.

Orreries came in vogue in Europe during the Age of Enlightenment, where they were deployed as aids to teach a largely non-scientific public about the new heliocentric universe being revealed by the Scientific Revolution. After centuries of believing the Earth was the static, privileged center of the universe, orreries helped the European imagination re-calibrate to a bigger here and a longer now.

The Orrery at the Interval has much the same role. It is both a mechanism and an icon. As a mechanism, it functions as the first working prototype of an orrery that will help the 10,000 Year Clock tell time through the millennia. The one in the clock will be four times as large. As an icon, the Orrery draws people into the orbit of long-term thinking and opens up a space for conversations about our place in the universe.

Here’s how it works.


I. The Center of the Universe (01543)

The Ptolemaic understanding of the universe, with the Earth stationary at the center. By Cellarius, Harmonia Macrocosmical, (01660).

It is clear, then, that the earth must be at center and immovable.


It was something of an open secret in seventeenth century European astronomy circles: the Earth revolved around the sun.

The notion was not without historical precedent. In 01514, when Nicolaus Copernicus began privately circulating his theory on planetary motion, he cited the Greek astronomer Aristarchus of Samos, who proposed a heliocentric model of the universe in the third century BCE.

An armillary sphere in a painting by Florentine Italian artist Sandro Botticelli, (c. 01480). Via Wikipedia.

But in the context of early modern Europe, the implications were profound, and appeared to contradict both common sense and the Bible. Since the time of Ptolemy (ca. 150 AD), the West conceived of the cosmos in anthropocentric and geocentric terms. This cosmographic understanding was reflected in calendars, maps and the armillary sphere, an ornate physical model of the cosmos consisting of a spherical framework of rings that mapped celestial longitude and latitude from the Earth’s perspective.

A drawing by Nicolaus Copernicus of the heliocentric model of the Solar System with the Earth revolving around the Sun. From his On The Revolutions of The Heavenly Spheres (01543).


Now, in the model put forth by Copernicus, the Earth was reduced to a mere point in a sun-centered universe, no more special than its celestial neighbors. Anticipating the upheavals his ideas would bring about, Copernicus delayed publishing On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres until 01543, the year after his death and the year most historians point to as the start of the Scientific Revolution.

Galileo’s discovery of the four moons of Jupiter using the newly invented telescope in January 01610 proved that the solar system contained celestial bodies that did not orbit Earth. And Newton’s theories of universal gravity and gravitational attraction, first proposed in 01687, explained why planets orbit along elliptical trajectories—something first inferred by the German astronomer Johannes Kepler in 01609.

But it would take more than observation and theory for Europeans at large to shake the notion that the Earth was not the center of the universe.

It would take the orrery.


II. Round the Gilded Sun (01704)

An orrery of John Rowley. Detail of an engraving from The Universal Magazine (01749).


O! pray! move on, Sir, said she, this is amazingly fine: I fancy myself travelling along with that little Earth in its course round the gilded Sun, as I know I am in reality with that on which I stand, round the real one.

—JOHN HARRIS, Astronomical Dialogues, (01725)

Astronomers and scientists began constructing orreries to get celestial bearings in this new Copernican universe. The orrery built on the armillary sphere, but with a Copernican twist: viewers would not only be able to see this new universe in miniature; they’d be able to track the movements of its planets over time.

The deeper, theological implications of heliocentrism were baked into the design. As Denis Cosgrove, in his cartographic genealogy of the Earth in the Western imagination (02001), writes:

The Creator’s disengagement from an active presence was implicit in the new cosmology, and had profound implications for global images and meanings. Unlike the armillary, the orrery’s meaning lies in motion: inert matter is driven by forces that once set in motion continue to operate independently as the variously sized spheres revolve at divergent speeds.

George Graham’s orrery and its mechanism, constructed sometime between 01704-01709. Via Museum of the History of Science, Oxford.

The credit for inventing the first modern orrery is disputed. The device would not answer to the name until famed inventor John Rowley presented one to Charles Boyle, the Fourth Earl of Orrery, in 01713. Rowley — and, more rarely, Orrery himself — is sometimes credited as the orrery’s inventor, but Rowley based his model’s design on a proto-orrery created in 01704 by English clockmakers George Graham and Thomas Tompion. Graham and Tompion’s model was simple, displaying only the Earth and its orbiting moon as it made its way across the sun.

 Stukeley’s drawing of Hales’ orrery. It bears the inscription: ‘This was a drawing I made at CCCC from a machine invented and executed by Mr. Stephen Hales, about 1705.’ Via Geared to the Stars (01978).

Then there’s the matter of William Stukeley, a physician and friend of Isaac Newton who, as Henry C. King (01978) puts it, “had the unfortunate habit of adding retrospective notes and passages to his early diaries.” Stukeley believed that it was Stephen Hales, a classmate from his days at Cambridge, and not Rowley, who was the orrery’s true inventor. In a 12 December 01752 diary entry, he writes:

about the year whilst I resided in Bennet Coll. [Chorpus Christi] where Dr. Hale [sic] was then fellow, at his request I made a drawing, which I had still by me, of a planetarium made by Dr. Hale. It was a machine to shew the motion of the earth moon & planets, in the nre [nature] of what they have since made in London, by the name of Orrerys. Dr. Hales proposed to me that we shd make another, upon an improv’d design, but my father dying, whilst I was undergraduate, wh making my stay at college somewhat uncertain, the design was dropped.

An animation of the 21 plates of Edward Quin’s 01830 atlas, which mapped the “Known World” from 2348 BCE to 01828. Via Slate.

These competing claims for provenance in the early eighteenth century occurred against the backdrop of a rapidly changing world. Philosophers and scientists vaunted reason and empirical observation as the sources of authority, contradicting the church. Seafarers and traders navigated across unmapped waters, bringing back with them astronomical knowledge that fueled global competition among European states. This competition, in turn, drove many clockmakers to produce devices of ever greater precision, not just for navigators for the lay public as well. “Knowledge of the terrestrial globe, its place in the solar system, and its geographical patterns,” writes Cosgrove, became “a prerequisite for educated men and women.”

“The Compleat Orrery described by Mr. S. Dunn” (01780). Via Geared to the Stars (01978).

As Henry C. King writes in his history of orreries, planetaria, and astronomical clocks (01978):

Some of the best work went into machines made for kings, princes, and wealthy patrons, but towards the end of the eighteenth century in England public interest in Newtonian natural philosophy encouraged instrument-makers to consider a wider market for their products. Like Blaeu and Moxon of an earlier age, they found it worthwhile to make machines that sacrificed ornamentation, but not necessarily craftsmanship, for scientific excellence and educational merit. The study of astronomy no longer became the prerogative of a chosen few but was laid open to the understanding of any literate person, regardless of social and educational background.

Orreries grew more popular and advanced as the Enlightenment swept Europe over the eighteenth century. They came to be seen as more than just a visual instruction in the new science; they were desirable possessions and icons of the scientific method. Most importantly, they succeeded in reorienting a largely non-scientific public to a perspective that could see the implications of Copernicanism as obvious, instead of radical.

A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery (01766), by Joseph Wright. Via Wikipedia.

Joseph Wright of Derby’s A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery (01766) underscores the Enlightenment Age shift from traditional religious models towards ones based on reason and empirical observation. A domestic group of eight gathers round an orrery, its sun represented by a candle so illuminating that a man sitting to its right must shield his eyes. A scholar leans over the orrery, explaining its mechanics and underlying Newtonian principles. Breaking from artistic tradition, the faces of the two boys sitting at the orrery’s edge express the kind awe and wonder normally reserved for religious events and icons.

As art historian Abram Fox puts it:

According to the French academies of art, the highest genre of painting was history painting, which depicted Biblical or classical subjects to demonstrate a moral lesson. This high regard for history painting was adopted by the British. Wright took this noble, aggrandizing method of portraying events and applied it to a composition showing a contemporary subject in A Philosopher Lecturing at the Orrery.

Rather than a moral of leadership or heroism, this painting’s “moral” is the pursuit of scientific knowledge. With its collection of non-idealized men, women, boys, and girls informally arranged in a small physical space around a central organizing point, Wright’s painting mimics the compositional structure of a conversation piece (an informal group portrait), but with the dramatic lighting and scale expected from a major religious scene.

In effect, A Philosopher Lecturing at the Orrery does depict a moment of religious epiphany. The figures listening to the philosopher’s lecture in Wright’s painting are experiencing conversion…to science.

The Orrery in Aughra’s observatory in The Dark Crystal (01982).

Orreries eventually fell out of favor as the modern world developed and the Copernican perspective became the default way of understanding the world. Mechanical orreries are still being built, but they are more works of art than instruction aid. Today, few outside horology and cosmography would be familiar with the term “orrery,” though orreries have occasionally made pop culture cameos, notably in climactic, high stakes scenes in The Dark Crystal (01982) and Tomb Raider (02001).

A fragment of the Antikythera mechanism. The scales on Fragment C divide the year by days and signs of the zodiac. Via Smithsonian.

But orreries still have lessons to teach. The discovery of the Antikythera mechanism, a proto-orrery and analogue computer dating back to 200 BCE that displayed the diurnal motions of the Sun, Moon and the five known planets, has challenged our assumptions about antiquarian astronomy and technology. Found in a 01901 shipwreck off the Greek coast by sponge divers, the Antikythera mechanism mystified scholars until 02006, when advances in x-ray technology revealed a hidden differential gear — thought to be an eighteenth century invention.

Despite their obscurity, orreries remain a useful tool to educate students about foundational ideas in astronomy. Human orreries have launched at a number of universities, where students play the role of the “planets,” and use their positions as modeled by the orrery to predict what they’ll see in the sky that night. Increased computing power has led to the advent of digital orreries for students to easily track planetary motion.

Photo by Bassam Khabieh / Reuters, March 2, 02017

In March 02017, war photographer Bassam Khabieh visited a school damaged by airstrikes in the rebel-held city of Douma in Syria. After six years of civil war, the country’s education system has been decimated. Teachers in ISIS territory risk their lives if they teach lessons that do not cohere to ISIS ideology.

In one of Khabieh’s photographs, a damaged orrery stands amidst the dusty rubble, the plastic sphere of Earth dislodged from its mount.


III. A Prototype for the Queen (01999)

The First Prototype of the 10,000 Year Clock on display at the Science Museum in London


At Long Now Foundation we’ve always resisted the idea of turning the institution into a religion — even though religions may have the best track record for long-term endurance. But the comparison to monks devoting their lives to maintain a remote and long-lived clock is hard to avoid, especially if you show up at a momentous clock event in a hooded robe.


As the seconds ticked towards a new millennium, Long Now co-founder Stewart Brand stood contemplatively before the first prototype of the Clock of the Long Now in a hooded robe, waiting.

On the left is Brand during his 01966 Whole Earth campaign. On the right, Brand stands before the first Clock prototype on New Year’s Eve, 01999.

Thirty four years earlier, Brand mounted a successful campaign to have NASA release the first photographs of the whole earth from space. Now, on the eve of the millennium, Brand, Danny Hillis, Brian Eno and the Long Now Foundation were attempting to build something that would do for thinking about time what the photographs of the Earth did for thinking about the environment.

“Such icons reframe the way people think,” Brand wrote in 01999.

Cosgrove writes that like the the Copernican orrery, the image of a vital planet floating in the cosmic void helped catalyze a revolution in the global imagination, prefiguring the modern environmental movement and rise of globalization:

The Copernican revolution was secured through the circulation of cosmographic images that challenged ways of imagining and experiencing not only planetary arrangement and movement but the entire arrangement in which human existence was created and performed.

Twentieth-century photographic images of the earth have stimulated equally profound changes in perceptions of society, self, and the world. Both sets of images demarcate key moments in the evolution of the ‘globalized’ earth.

Earthrise, seen for the first time by human eyes, 24 December 01968. Via NASA.

The first step to making an iconic clock is making a clock that works. The clock prototype was completed in a frenzied rush only hours before midnight, after three years of research and design. Brand, Hillis and some dozen others gathered in the offices of the Internet Archive in San Francisco’s Presidio district to see if it would tick.

“It was a very strange scene,” Kevin Kelly recalled.

“Because of hysteria about Y2K, the Presidio was blockaded with a police checkpoint. No one else was around the usually busy park. It was a like a secret society meeting. Stewart had just returned from a vacation in Morocco a day before so he was wearing a djellaba. He looked like a monk overseeing the clock’s big moment.”

A hush swept the room as the final seconds counted down. 3…2…1. Clicking gears whirred into place. And then: GONG! A chime rang in the new century. And: GONG! Another chime signaled the start of a new millennium.

Like clockwork.

In the months that followed, Long Now presented the prototype at TED before installing it at the Science Museum in London. It was the culminating piece of the museum’s “Making of the Modern World” exhibit, which was opened by the Queen of England. The prototype remains there today on permanent loan.

“We realized it was kind of sad to have built the Prototype but not have one of our own,” Long Now Executive Director Alexander Rose recalled. “Don’t get me wrong: it’s in a fantastic museum in a fantastic location, but it would’ve been nice to have a prototype for ourselves.”

A wood-engraved frontispiece illustrating &#8220a small portion of Mr Babbage&#8217s Difference Engine,&#8221 (01872). Via Hordern House.

Enter Nathan Myhrvold, then-CTO of Microsoft. He was using a unique funding model to finance the Science Museum’s efforts to construct the difference engine that Charles Babbage designed in 01849 but, because of the limits of machine technology at the time, was not able to build. Myhrvold and the Science Museum agreed that if he were to fund the construction of two iterations of Babbage’s machine, he’d get to keep one.

The Babbage Difference Engine, built by the Science Museum of London in 02002, 153 years after it was first designed. Via Computer History.

Myhrvold reached out and made the same deal with Long Now, financing its efforts towards building a second Clock prototype. At the time, Rose and Danny Hillis had only a notional idea as to what that prototype would be.

Hillis decided that, rather than build a full clock, he’d design a part of the clock that would be the planetary display. Like the first prototype, such a device would require tackling unprecedented design problems raised by keeping track of, and lasting through, deep time. Unlike the first prototype, Long Now would get to keep a copy this time.


IV. A Robust and Durable Computer (02005)

“I love that thing,” says Francis Pedraza, an Interval regular, when I ask him about the Orrery over his afternoon tea. He’s never heard the term “orrery,” which he jots down in his notebook as soon as I mention it. But he has a good guess as to what it does.

“Check it out,” Pedraza says, raising his left wrist to show me his Apple Watch. Its face displays a digital orrery of the solar system. A simple twist of the crown by Pedraza sends the planets scurrying forward or backward in time across their celestial trajectories, displaying effortlessly what took Early Modern European scientists painstaking precision to engineer.

“It’s great,” Pedraza says. “People see that I’m wearing a watch, and they ask me the time. And I say: ‘It’s half past Mars!’”

If Pedraza were so inclined, he could twist the crown to 10,000 years into the future (it would likely take a few hours). But with planned obsolescence baked in, Pedraza’s watch would be lucky to last another two years. The Long Now Orrery, on the other hand, must be a precise and durable computer for 10,000 years.

A fragment of a Roman nundinae for the month of April (Aprilis), showing its nundinal letters on the left side. Via Wikipedia.

On its face, an orrery may seem an unlikely technology to depend on for the long term. But it makes sense when one considers how the way we’ve measured time has changed throughout history. It’s likely that our current use of hours, minutes, weeks and months may be as obscure and forgotten as the nundina, the akhet, or the gesh several millennia from now.

The day, the year, and the movements of the other planets in our solar system, on the other hand, aren’t subject to the whims of those in power or passing cultural trends. The 10,000 Year Clock keeps track of these robust units of time. The Clock’s main dial keeps track of the Sun, Moon and stars while The Orrery models our solar system.

Danny Hillis, Long Now Co-Founder and designer of the Clock and Orrery. Via Discover Magazine.

“If you came up to the clock thousands of years from now,” said Danny Hillis, “You could still read the time, even if you did not have the same time system we have now.”

The prototype is designed to update each planet’s position twice a day, providing something of a kinetic sculpture of the Long Now as a time scale: Mercury completes one revolution in about 88 days; the Earth takes exactly one solar year; Saturn makes it around the Sun in just under thirty years.

Each of the Orrery’s planets is ground from a stone that resembles the celestial body it represents. The Sun is made of yellow calcite; Mercury of meteorite; Venus of lemon yellow Mexican calcite; Earth of Chilean lapis; Mars of red Namibian Jasper; Jupiter of banded sandstone; and Saturn, of banded Utah onyx.

It took over a year of searching for Alexander Rose to find the perfect stones. “You get the right idea of what stone you want, but then you have to get the right one,” he recalled. “They can come in all shapes and patterns, and by the time it gets ground down to the right size you don’t know if it’s going to look like the planet. With the Earth, we knew wanted Chilean lapis, which has those cloudy inclusions not seen in regular blue lapis, but then it was a question of finding one that had the right cloud patterns and continents.”

The Orrery was conceptualized by Danny Hillis, with project management and additional design by Alexander Rose. The lead engineer was Paolo Salvagione, and the lead machinist and fabricator was Christopher Rand. Other machinists included Erio Brown, Brian Roe, Mark Ribaud, Reason Bradley, General Precision, Oakland Machine Works, Jim Johnson, Brian Ford, Ebin Stromquist. The base was fabricated by Seattle Solstice.

Most traditional clocks perform their mathematics in the orientation of gears around an axis. A gear measured this way can be in an infinite number and continuous number of states (an analog representation).

The problem with building a 10,000 year clock using gears is that the gears can slowly wear down and slip, allowing inaccuracy to build up within the system over long periods of time. Even the best made clocks in the world will experience this after a few hundred years. To address this, Danny Hillis invented the Serial Bit Adder. The Serial Bit Adder is a simple mechanical binary computer that converts continuous motion from the gear (analog energy), into a digital output.

The crucial mathematical logic for the bit adders is represented in the positions of the pins, which can only ever be in one of two states (digital), even if they become significantly worn. The bit adders calculate how much to move the planets in the display based on the known input of two rotations per day by the Orrery’s central shaft. As that shaft rotates it also turns the 6 bit adder disks: one for each planet.

A bit adder consists of a rotating disk and two sets of 27 mechanical pins. Each individual pin can be in one of two states, and each set of pins taken altogether represents a 27 bit number. One set of pins is immovable — these are set based on the calculation that particular bit adder must perform; they are, in other words, the program. The other set of pins can move between the two possible states; they represent an accumulator.

The Orrery&#8217s base, featuring the serial bit adder.

As the bit adder’s disk rotates, a portion of the disk reads the program from the unmoving bits and is moved by them. Its movements cause the other set of bits to be flipped as necessary. Each time the adder rotates, it adds the number encoded in the static pins into the number encoded by the moveable ones. That number is a fraction between zero and one. As the outer pins accumulate the value represented by the inner pins, their value grows towards one. When they surpass a value of one, the adder produces an output that adjusts its corresponding planet by way of engaging a 6-sided Geneva wheel. In this way, a precise ratio can be calculated based on the two daily rotations of the central shaft and applied to the planets in the display.

Author Neal Stephenson, who based his book Anathem (02008) partly on the 10,000 Year Clock, at the unveiling of the Orrery.

The Orrery was completed in 02005, and displayed at Long Now’s Fort Mason headquarters back when the space was a museum. In the lead up to designing and building the Interval, Alexander Rose knew the Orrery would be crucial component from an experience design perspective.

“It was obviously this shiny metal object,” said Rose. “By centering it by the front doors, it becomes the focal point when you walk in.”

“We had two goals with the walk-in experience: to suck you in from outside with the Orrery, and to force you to look up. That’s what the big wall of books for the Manual for Civilization is about.”

“Studies in psychology have shown that when you look up, you’re primed for an awe experience,” Rose says. “The Orrery was meant as the eye candy visible from outside to get you inside. The books behind it are what change your perspective and inspire you to move around the space.”


V. Human Orreries (02017–10,000)

Back at The Interval, Pedraza brings up what, for some, is an uncomfortable truth: despite our post-Copernican knowledge that the Earth revolves around the Sun, many of us still maneuver through the world with the assumption that we are the center of the universe.

The author David Foster Wallace addressed this tendency towards self-centeredness in a commencement address to the graduates of Kenyon College in 02005:

Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence.

We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness because it’s so socially repulsive. But it’s pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth.

Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor.

“If we consider that thing for a second,” Pedraza says, pointing to the Orrery and starting to scribble in his pad. “It’s this expanded long-term view of where we fit into the universe. It’s not where most people are hanging out.”

“If we imagine instead an orrery with a human as the globe at the center,” he continues, “the orbits of their concerns are very immediate in a time sense. Very short-term instant gratification. Very ‘this week’ and ‘what now?’ focused.”

Sketch by illustrator Dan Bransfield.

He shows me a drawing of a human orrery orbited by different spheres of obligations, roles, and time considerations.

“You guys are trying to get them from thinking like this,” he says, pointing to his drawing, “to that,” pointing to the Orrery. “That’s a hell of a challenge.”

Perhaps Pedraza is right. But that does not make the effort any less necessary. And the Orrery at the Interval — mechanism, icon, “shiny metal object” — is an essential component of that effort. It draws passers-by to the threshold of long-term thinking, inviting them to expand the orrery of their concerns to include not just the spheres of their immediate orbit, but the Earth as well; and not just for the present interval, but the next ten thousand years, too.