Visiting Madagascar

Thomas and I just got back from our belated honeymoon trip, which we spent in Madagascar (with a few days in Instanbul to break up the travel).

I must say, I didn’t really know what to expect. Thomas had done the majority of the planning and fixing ahead of time since it was his idea—a childhood obsession with lemurs made this a dream destination for him his whole life. I expected to see lemurs and baobab trees and other beautiful nature, and in that regard it did not disappoint. But I didn’t realize that the majority of our days would be spent making 8- to 10-hour schleps in a 4x4 on poorly maintained roads to slowly make our way to our destinations. It certainly allowed for a lot of time to watch the scenery change as we passed from highlands to rolling hills, from golden savannahs to rainforests, and beyond. It allowed for a lot of reading—I started and finished the Broken Earth series in the matter of a few days. And I spent a lot of time thinking. We passed through countless villages lacking basic infrastructural things we take for granted in the western world such as electricity, waste management, maintained roads, clean water, access to technology—it’s impossible not to feel very “other” from people whose reality and life experience is completely separate from my own in so many ways.

That said, it was a great trip. Here are some highlights:

1. Tsingy de Bemaraha

This park took 2 days to travel to, and 2 days to come back from, along mostly dirt roads with various water crossings. It’s in a very remote area. But you can see it’s appeal—craggy erosive limestone formations as far as the eye can see. Our trek took us through the rainforest canyons (which felt very Legends of the Hidden Temple), into caves with stunning stalactites, and then up and around the tops of the Tsingys, where carefully constructed routes complete with cables and platforms gave us safe passage.

This, as far as the eye can see.

This, as far as the eye can see.

Thomas on an actually-quite-safe-feeling suspension bridge on top of the tsingys.

Thomas on an actually-quite-safe-feeling suspension bridge on top of the tsingys.

2. Avenue des Baobabs

The majority of species of baobab trees in the world grow only in Madagascar. This stretch of road off the western coast of the country is arguably one of the best places to see them and experience their grandeur.

These baobab trees are insanely tall and strange

These baobab trees are insanely tall and strange

With a Jenna for scale

With a Jenna for scale

3. Ring-tail lemurs

We saw many different types of lemurs—brown lemurs, jumping rat lemurs, sifakas, greater bamboo lemurs, golden bamboo lemurs, mouse lemurs—but the most charismatic of them all is definitely the ring-tail. They are like if you combined a cat, a raccoon and a monkey all into one bouncy, cuddly, curious creature. Watching them effortlessly hop and climb around the forests provided endless entertainment.


4. Tsaranoro Valley

The Yosemite of Madagascar. A little known climber’s heaven, this valley off the side of the larger Andrigitra Park features huge granite massifs comparable to our beloved California park. It sees only ~2,000 visitors per year. A french climber runs a hotel nearby to cater to the climbing crowd.

Happy plates

I made some plates that I rather like. I’m enjoying exploring different masking techniques—the face is done by painting with wax resist—the glaze doesn’t stick (or sticks less) to the wax, and the other one is straight up masking tape.

I love the effect of the wax resist, but it is finicky to use—I have to go over the whole thing after the glaze dries to clean up the glaze that filmed over the wax—which means I have to essentially do the painting part twice.

The first time I used wax resist on a mug I erroneously assumed that the glaze on top of the wax would bead off, which definitely didn’t work. And when you think about it, of course it doesn’t work, because the wax would melt off and vaporizes long before the glaze activates. I just didn’t think about it hard enoug—so after I ruined that piece, I learned my lesson.

I have some new face plates in the kiln where I trailed the wax resist from a bottle rather than painting with a brush, which I thought would be faster. It turns out that while it is faster to apply, the thick trails of resist take forever to dry, and the flow from the bottle is quite hard to control so I had a lot more thick-and-thin dribbly lines than I would have wanted. We’ll see how those ones turn out.

To imitate is to learn

I have been an admirer of the work of Eyvind Earle since since seeing an exhibit of his work at the Walt Disney Museum in the Presidio a few years back. Earle spent a few years as a stylist and scenery designer for Disney, most notably as the lead stylist for Sleeping Beauty. Earle had an ability to understand and manipulate shape and color in mesmerizing ways, turning rote landscapes into visual wonderlands. Being up close and personal with his massive paintings and serigraphs at the exhibit allowed me to dive deep into his landscapes and appreciate the painstaking detail that he would layer into a piece.

I’ve has it on my project backlog to imitate some of his works in order to better understand his process and style, with the hopes of gleaning some new illustration inspiration from deconstructing his work. But the one time I sat down to do it, I was pretty instantly dissuaded at the amount of time, energy and painting supplies I would need to stock up on to achieve something halfway decent.

So for my first real Procreate challenge, I decided to copy a favorite Eyvind Earle painting. While all of his work is amazing, I have a particular love for his trees—he has a way of transforming simple shapes into highly expressive forms, and creating texture and depth using a mixture of geometry and organic form.

It also was an excellent way to explore some of the features of procreate after watching a few tutorials—I used a number of different masking and clipping techniques, and experimented with both kit brushes and adding some downloaded ones.


My recreation


One of the delightful features of Procreate is the effortless timelapse export— I have always found mesmerizing to watch other artists’ speed drawings, and now I can very easily create my own.

New toy

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been debating whether to purchase a Cintiq-style drawing tablet, or an iPad Pro. I’ve used an entry-level Wacom tablet in the past, but I have found that it is more or less useless for real illustration needs. And I feel my ability to create illustrations has been a shortcoming in some of my work recently. So it was time for an upgrade.

The benefit of a Cintiq is that it plugs in directly to my existing workflows and apps as a seamless extension to my Adobe work, and obviously is designed for a professional experience with all the bells, whistles and features I don’t even know I want yet. The drawback is that it is not a portable, standalone unit. The utility of an iPad goes far beyond just drawing, and although it’s not quite on par with the professional qualities of a Cintiq, it has a cult following of modern illustrators and digital artists. So I went to the Apple store to check it out. I found that the latest model of iPad Pro & Apple Pencil, coupled with increasingly powerful apps, is beyond suitable for my needs. I was so excited I bought one on the spot.

My biggest concern was finding workflows to get between the iPad and my computer, since that is where the majority of the heavy lifting happens. To my delight, I found that with 2 quick taps, I can push illustrations from Adobe Draw (the vector drawing iPad companion app to Illustrator) directly into Illustrator on my desktop, using Adobe CC magic. I also have access to my cloud libraries that I’ve created for various clients, so have things like color palettes and logos close at hand.

I also have read up on a few apps, such as Astropad and Duet, that can essentially turn your iPad into a second screen to use it as a Cintiq. I haven’t played with these yet, but am looking forward to seeing if they live up to the hype.

I whipped up this quick inaugural sketch last night in Procreate. it’s not a particularly awesome drawing and I used only the lightest amount of knowledge that I have right now about this new tool, but it was downright delightful to play with. I’m stoked to see where this new tool takes me!

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The maker’s itch

These are my teapots. I am very proud of them. 🍵

I took a pottery class in December and have found myself completely intoxicated by clay. The past few months I have spent hours upon hours in the studio—experimenting, playing, and most of all, learning.

This tea set is for my dad, a big tea nerd 🤓 who loves Japanese style kyusu teapots. It was my first complex construction challenge that I’ve seen through and am pleased with the results. I made two of them in case I messed something up along the way—many of my pieces don’t quite turn out the way I would like, and if I’ve learned anything so far it is that nothing is precious. By making two I could both play with variations on form, and have a backup in case I broke one.

Here’s to growth and continued learning, and to scratching that maker’s itch!

Going to Disneyland

This past weekend, I went to Disneyland with some dear friends. It was my first time ever, at 32 years old.

“Going to Disney” is something that escaped me in my childhood. I grew up with a pretty counter-culture ethos—my parents rejected the consumerism of experiences like Disney, and preferred to take us on trips to go camping or to the beach, to enjoy natural wonders rather than the artificial. Now that I’m older, I realize that part of that may have been growing up without a lot of excess money—the ability to take a family of five to Florida or California was just never a reality on my parents’ income. Regardless of the reason though, I picked up the ethos they engrained in me and prided myself on refusing manufactured fun in favor of real, authentic experiences.

So when it was proposed that we go to Disney, I had a moment of pause. It had become this symbol of all the things wrong in the world, but does it deserve that reputation? In moving to California, I find that I have changed, and the ways I have (or make) fun have changed. I have spend the last few years creating fun for others—building experiences to spark joy and delight, using the vehicles of Burning Man and other art projects to share them with the world. Is Disney really that different?

If you are able to turn a blind eye to to the principles of self-reliance and commodification (you can’t throw a pair of mickey ears and not pass at least 20 articles of branded merch on the way), and maybe also forgot the NO SPECTATORS part, the mechanics around how they create fun are very similar. Immediacy is high and interaction is to be had everywhere you turn. And the perfection to which they have honed and polished their brand of fun is admirable, even downright inspiring. I spent the day marveling at the construction of sets, props and animatronic characters, appreciating that every visual detail of every attraction has been considered. Beyond the stunning level of visual craft, the have dialed the human experience of the place to be absolutely perfect: the place is spotless, employees are kind and smiling, the constant soundtrack is one of playfulness and adventure. They have even made the unavoidable experience of waiting in lines to be bearable, with disorienting snaking that makes you feel close to the front even when you’re 45 minutes out, and entertains you with constantly changing scenery as you slowly creep along. I spent my day in awe of the thoughtfulness and craft of every single aspect of Disneyland.

I think what I’m saying is that, I get it. I get it, and I’m sorry that I had such a misconception of a truly magical place. It is a modern marvel of entertainment, experience and crowd management. I do however recognize that I was able to fully enjoy it from a place of financial stability—one day set me back at least $300 between admission ($179 for a one-day park hopper pass), food and beverage, and a shiny new set of Minnie Ears. I can’t imagine the cost of bringing a family for a multi-day visit that would include travel, room and board. That said, I hope that I am able to bring my someday-children to this magical place to experience the joy I found this weekend.

Book Review: Identity Designed

I was excited to receive my pre-ordered copy of Identity Designed: The Definitive Guide to Visual Branding, by David Airey. I’m a big fan of his books, which tend to be an excellent combination of design theory and a thorough look at process and practice.

In this tome, he get the scoop from sixteen different design studios around the world and digs into a project from each of them—uncovering awesome insights along the way about how they work: not just their strategy and approaches to the actual design work, which is inspiring and exciting for a design nerd like me to read about—but also to business details such as pricing, setting terms, and gathering consensus.

It’s invaluable to gain this kind of no-nonsense insight from top firms, all wrapped up in a beautifully designed book of case studies intended exactly for the audience of me.

Jennabook reviewComment
Old friends, new ventures

One of the more delightful parts of going freelance has been the outpouring of support from old friends and colleagues from various points of my life. Over the past few weeks, I have had at least twenty video chats or coffee dates with folks from every step of my decade-long career, spanning from the East Coast to West and even over to the UK. It’s not just enriching from a business development standpoint, but it’s lovely to catch up with awesome people I had lost touch with, yet always enjoyed being around and working with.

It’s also driven home the power of “networking.” I have always disliked that term, and as a more typically introverted person, I dreaded the act of meeting or connecting with folks with a goal in mind (ie to sell myself, or mine for work). But I didn’t previously realize that networking can happen in a completely authentic and mutually beneficial way. It’s an excuse to reconnect, share what we’ve been up to and see how we can help each other out. One potential outcome is that I may get to work with someone I truly appreciate and have an established rapport with. But even if the result is just a genuine, friendly catch-up, what’s not to love about that?

"Madame, it took me my entire life."

I love this anecdote to explain value-based pricing. It holds up well over time:

Legend has it that Pablo Picasso was sketching in the park when a bold woman approached him.

"It's you—Picasso, the great artist! Oh, you must sketch my portrait! I insist."

So Picasso agreed to sketch her. After studying her for a moment, he used a single pencil stroke to create her portrait. He handed the women his work of art.

"It's perfect!" she gushed. "You managed to capture my essence with one stroke, in one moment. Thank you! How much do I owe you?"

"Five thousand dollars," the artist replied.

"B-b-but, what?" the woman sputtered. "How could you want so much money for this picture? It only took you a second to draw it!"

To which Picasso responded, "Madame, it took me my entire life."

- LogoDesignLove by David Airey