Saturday, 12 May 2018

"Veer" Savarkar As Benedict Arnold - How Indian History Should View A Revolutionary-Turned-Collaborator

During the American War of Independence, a man by the name of Benedict Arnold fought on the side of the fledgeling United States. Arnold won some key battles against British forces, and was injured in the foot at the Battle of Quebec. He was promoted to the rank of Major-General in recognition of his many contributions.

Later on, however, as a result of perceived slights at the hands of his superiors, Arnold turned traitor and attempted to hand over his command of West Point to the British. He failed in that attempt, but escaped to British lines and fought against his former compatriots thereafter.

How does the US remember Benedict Arnold today? How does an often comically over-patriotic nation handle the memory of a man who was both patriot and traitor?

There is no statue erected in honour of Benedict Arnold. Arnold is remembered in the US today by the Boot Memorial.

The Boot Memorial in Saratoga National Park, New York

The Boot Memorial honours the injury that Arnold suffered in the cause of American Independence, but does not mention him by name because he turned traitor later.

In India today, the legacy of a man called Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, is being fiercely debated.

VD Savarkar fought for Indian Independence against the British. Unlike Gandhi and the Indian National Congress, he did not choose the path of non-violent, passive resistance and non-cooperation. He believed in violent revolution, so when he was captured by the British in connection with a suspected conspiracy, he received a severe sentence. He was sentenced to 50 years in prison in the infamously harsh Andaman islands in the Indian Ocean.

While in the Andamans, Savarkar wrote numerous mercy petitions to the British, and was finally released after serving just 10 years of his 50 year sentence.

After his return to the Indian mainland as a free man, Savarkar was as good as his word and never again worked against the British. What he did do was work against the Indian National Congress, which suited the British very well indeed.

Gandhi and the Congress aimed to secure Hindu-Muslim unity, and to work towards Indian independence from the British as a undivided political entity. Savarkar, on the other hand, worked to unify the "Hindu nation" against the Muslims, and eventually became the President of the right-wing Hindu Mahasabha. In this, he effectively took the same side as Jinnah, who also believed in the "Two-Nation Theory" that Hindus and Muslims were separate "nations" and could not share a single state. The actions of Jinnah and Savarkar thus deepened the divide between Hindus and Muslims. Indeed, Jinnah's Muslim League and Savarkar's Hindu Mahasabha became unlikely coalition partners in many provincial governments when the Congress resigned from those governments to protest certain actions of the British.

Savarkar's writings acquired a distinctly fascist tone, and he became more interested in the "independence of the Hindu nation" from Muslims and Christians than with the independence of India from British rule. He turned from being a revolutionary into a collaborator. His being a collaborator is clear from  the fact that he got into no more trouble with the British authorities. The trouble he was giving to the Congress played right into the hands of the British.

How must India remember Savarkar today? The Hindu right-wing insists on calling him "Veer" (brave) Savarkar, but there is little that smacks of bravery in the grovelling letters he wrote to the British during his incarceration in the Andamans. India certainly needs to acknowledge his early contributions to the freedom struggle which earned him his prison sentence, but this acknowledgement must be tempered by the knowledge of his subsequent betrayal of that freedom struggle and his actions that favoured the British.

India needs to erect a monument in honour of Savarkar's early contributions, but this monument should not acknowledge him by name on account of his later actions as a collaborator. Only word of mouth should associate him with the monument, just like Benedict Arnold is only unofficially associated with the Boot Memorial.

Monday, 8 January 2018

The Quest For A New Australian Flag (And My Part In It)

I've written before about the symbolism of my painting "Terra Australis Magnus" and its roots in my design of a new Australian flag. This post is about the various players involved in that quest.

There has long been a movement among Australians to remove the Union Jack from the Australian flag. It's widely seen as an anachronism for a country that is independent of Britain.

Having another country's flag in the canton of one's own is unacceptable to many Australians

Have a quick look at the current Australian flag. It has the Union Jack in its "canton", or top-left corner. Directly under the Union Jack is the seven-pointed Commonwealth Star. Six of those points represent the six states of the country. The seventh represents not just the two territories but also all future states and territories. On the right is the Southern Cross (Crucis Australis), a constellation prominently visible in the Southern hemisphere.

I became aware of the movement to replace the Union Jack in the Australian flag sometime after I migrated to Australia, and I immediately and wholeheartedly agreed with it. After all, I had just migrated from another former British colony, and India had lost no time in changing its flag after attaining independence. In fact, all the former colonies of Britain now had their own flags, with the two most prominent exceptions being Australia and New Zealand.

At least India got special treatment as the "jewel in the crown" of the Empire, but there's nothing like having one's own flag

I joined the Facebook group "Change the Aussie Flag", and have seen many alternative designs here, and also contributed some of my own.

The Eureka Flag

There has long been a contender for the position of Australia's national flag. It's called the Eureka Flag, and it looks like this.

The Eureka Flag has had a chequered history

The flag had its roots as part of a miners' revolt, and has been associated with protests ever since. (Supporters of former prime minister Gough Whitlam wore it to protest his dismissal by the Governor-General.)

The Eureka Flag doesn't enjoy wide popularity, but there are some who are fanatically loyal to it. Regardless of its emotive appeal (positive or negative), I find that its aesthetics leave me cold. Blue-and-white is a weak colour combination (sorry, Greece and Israel), and there isn't any contrast between the white stars and their white background, just a thin blue line as a separator.

Southern Horizon

One of the first alternative designs I came across was the one called "Southern Horizon", designed by Brett Moxey.

Southern Horizon won an opinion poll of about 8000 respondents in early 2016, but this was not an official contest for a new national flag, and I believe the race has only lately begun to hot up

What the Southern Horizon design has done is propose a minimalistic set of changes to the current flag, so as not to upset those who are attached to it. It removes the Union Jack from the canton, then moves the Commonwealth Star upwards to take its place. To address the large empty space left behind at the bottom, it introduces the official Australian colours of "green and gold", following vexillological principles of interposing a metal (gold) between two colours (blue and green). By making the green and gold stripes wavy rather than straight, the design also solves the problem of filling different amounts of empty space beneath the Commonwealth Star and the Southern Cross.

Southern Horizon takes the safe route of proposing a compromise design that balances the conflicting requirements of continuity and change.

Golden Wattle

When I first saw Southern Horizon and understood its design imperatives, I felt that a compromise design would only last as long as no alternative, good design emerged, and I believe I was proved right. Of late, a new flag design called the Golden Wattle has gained in popularity, and many former supporters of Southern Horizon have switched loyalties.

The Golden Wattle - Simplicity and elegance pack a powerful punch

The golden wattle is Australia's national flower, and its colours of "green and gold" are Australia's national colours. What could be more natural than to put these colours in the shape of the flower on the national flag? And when the negative space enclosed by the petals also forms the Commonwealth Star, that can only be described as a stroke of genius. The Golden Wattle looks like a winner, and if another opinion poll were to be conducted today, I have no doubt that it would beat the compromise design of the Southern Horizon.

Remember the right-pointing arrow cleverly hidden in the negative space carved out by the letters of the FedEx logo? The Golden Wattle pulls off a similar neat trick

The Fixation with Green and Gold

Golden Wattle managed to pull it off, but many other designs that were fixated on the idea of using "green and gold" were not imaginative enough to produce anything appealing.

This design was virtually predictable given the constraints of retaining the Commonwealth Star and the Southern Cross, and using a green-and-gold colour scheme

Kyron Bracey's design loosens the constraint against using a third colour

Somehow, none of the green-and-gold designs ever appealed to me, except for Golden Wattle. (As we will see later, Golden Wattle "cheated", so to speak, on using the official colours, in the interests of a more appealing look.) Sad to say, the official hex codes (#FFCD00 and #00843D) are not a great colour combination, and the designer who believes they must use these two colours has dealt themselves a bad hand right from the get-go.

The Cool Ones

Many of the designs I saw on the "Change the Aussie Flag" group site were only passable, although some were quite striking.

I'm not sure whose design this was, but I thought it was interesting

Brendan Jones and his Reconciliation Flag

Brendan Lloyd revisits the mandatory green-and-gold with a boomerang theme

I'm not sure who designed this, but Daphne Visbal reported that it was seen on Reddit

The quest for simplicity and elegance

While many of the designs proposed were interesting, they were also a bit complex. I hadn't seen too many designs that were as simple and elegant as Golden Wattle. But there were a few.

For example, these designs by Brian Nedic were immediately appealing to me.

Brian Nedic's stars were unlike anything I had seen until then

The "Change the Aussie Flag" membership is a tough crowd, and Nedic got his share of negative comments, suggesting that his designs looked more like the logo of a white goods company like Electrolux than a national flag.

Nevertheless, these stars made a powerful impression on me. I was star-struck, you could say.

After seeing this new, concave style of star (formed out of the negative space of four circular quadrants), I could not go back and use the traditional five- or seven-pointed star in my designs ever again. They just looked so dated.

The new style also seemed to shine like real stars.

Note the "plus" shape of bright lights in real life

Then I saw another set of designs that appealed to me, and I had no idea what dangers lurked there.

Joseph O'Donoghue's design

Mic Rogan's design

I don't remember which of these came first. Perhaps O'Donoghue refined Rogan's hand drawing. At any rate, the use of an Aboriginal motif seemed to be a no-brainer for an Australian flag. How could we ignore the First Peoples when designing a new Australian flag? It seemed the best way to honour them and their legacy to Australia.

Timeless Red Earth

With these two inputs, I created a design that I called Timeless Red Earth. I had been struck by the cover of the Lonely Planet guide to Australia that I bought in India before migrating here in 1998, and I had to use this shade of red.

Until I saw this cover, I had always associated Australia with the Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge, never with red sand dunes

A traditional Aboriginal-themed sun and a stylised, futuristic Southern Cross, antisymmetrically balanced against a background of red earth - what could go wrong?

Unfortunately, a lot could go wrong, as it turned out. My well-intentioned attempt to honour the First Peoples of Australia was attacked by some as a form of "cultural appropriation". While I reject that very concept as an example of ultra-leftist manufactured outrage, this is not a hill I choose to die on, so I decided to move on and use a less controversial motif instead. (One can learn from this example how a marginalised community ends up being even more marginalised because their self-styled defenders on the extreme left ensure that no one else is allowed to champion their cause in anything but an "approved" way.)

Someone suggested the Golden Wattle as an alternative motif, and I looked into the flower itself for inspiration.

The Golden Wattle is not a conventional flower but a compound one called an "inflorescence", made up of many smaller flowers called "florets"

I had to design something that looked like an inflorescence, without making it as complex as the real thing.

Great Southern Land / Terra Australis Magnus

After repeatedly submitting modified designs in response to feedback, I finally arrived at a design that combined a seven-sided Golden Wattle (very different from the one used on the Golden Wattle flag) and a stylised Southern Cross inspired by Brian Nedic. I had a choice of colours, and rather than pick one set, I submitted a number of them to the group for feedback.

These are some of the possible variants of Terra Australis Magnus (Great Southern Land). Click to expand

The Schoolkid Test

One of the criticisms that are sometimes levelled at sophisticated flag designs is that they are hard for children to draw. The right thing for me to do would have been to get a schoolkid to try drawing this design. But since there were no school-going kids within call (my son is now in University), I had to be the schoolkid. I took out my stopwatch and measured how long it would take to outline and then to colour one of the variants to Terra Australis Magnus. I chose the one with a red-and-blue background for this experiment.

A little over a minute to draw the flag in outline

A little under two minutes to colour it in

Giving myself a factor-of-three handicap, I suppose a real kid could do it in about 10 minutes.

A Note on Competition

While there may or may not be a monetary prize associated with winning the design contest for a new Australian flag, the prestige is enormous, and I have approached this challenge with relish. I have some strengths, I believe. I am both right-brained and left-brained. I can see what has visual appeal, and I can hack an SVG file, using coordinate geometry to shape, size and colour its elements.

With all respect, I don't believe Southern Horizon is competition anymore. The new front-runner is Golden Wattle. I looked to see who had designed it, and came up with the name Jeremy Matthews.

I also searched the Change the Aussie Flag site for all the elegant designs I could find. I found a very cool one involving a leaping kangaroo. Normally, flag designs involving roos are godawful, as this sample set shows.

Some seem like ripoffs of the Qantas logo, while others are just plain awful

This particular one stood out for its elegance.

A design put together by Ian McLennan, but he said he was just modifying someone else's design

After some more searching, I found the original.

Ian had contributed something important by moving the roo off-centre, but the original design was cooler in its choice of colours. Who created it?

I found that the creator of the Roo design was none other than Jeremy Matthews, the creator of Golden Wattle. The man clearly had flair.

I had seen a few more flag designs that had struck me as being extremely elegant, and I looked at them again.

The current and proposed flags of New South Wales

The current and proposed flags of Western Australia

The current and proposed flags of Queensland

All these proposed flags used the state colours, and featured the flora or fauna of the state. And on top of it all, they were elegant and sophisticated. Who designed these flags?

One name turned up. Jeremy Matthews. Yup, the Jeremy Matthews.

I was heavily intrigued, and did a Google search on Jeremy Matthews.

I confess my heart sank when I read his biography. The guy was a graphic designer.

No wonder his designs were streets ahead of everyone else's! This is what he did for a living. What hope did we amateurs have against him in this flag contest?

Yet, I took heart from a line in "Marketing Warfare" by Al Ries and Jack Trout, "When going up against the market leader, don't attack a weakness that is a weakness; attack the weakness inherent in their strength."

What are the strengths of a professional graphic designer, whose inherent weaknesses can then be exploited?

I could see a few straightaway.

One, a graphic designer lives in the world of corporate brands. They understand brands, and they understand how to communicate a brand's value proposition with one simple logo image. The flip side of the coin is that they are trained to see the presence of more than one image as potentially confusing to a prospect. It's mental clutter. And that was indeed what Matthews had done with Golden Wattle. He used just one symbol to communicate a number of values. However, a national flag may need to communicate many more. One symbol, however clever, simply cannot carry them all.

Two, a professional graphic designer is careful to protect their intellectual property. Sure enough, Matthews had copyrighted his design, all rights reserved. No commercial exploitation of his work was permitted. IP protection is a two-edged sword. The creator maintains control of their IP, but then no one else has any incentive to popularise it. IP restrictions on Golden Wattle had the potential to dampen its viral spread.

Three, the cleverness of the Golden Wattle design in incorporating the Commonwealth Star results in a botanical inaccuracy. The actual golden wattle's "flower" is technically a compound structure called an inflorescence, but the Golden Wattle flag design makes it appear more like a conventional star-shaped flower belonging to the asteraceae family, such as a daisy. There's an opportunity here for an alternative design that is equally elegant but looks more authentic.

The Golden Wattle flag resembles a daisy rather than a real golden wattle!

Four, there was also a weakness inherent in the very use of the official Australian colours of green and gold. Truth be told, the official shades of yellow (#FFCD00) and green (#00843D) as specified in the standard do not result in great-looking designs, as any graphic designer would surely know. Sure enough, the shades of yellow and green on the Golden Wattle flag are not these but some other shades chosen for their superior aesthetic appeal.

I can sympathise with Jeremy Matthews for the dilemma he must have faced, and I can understand his eventual choice

Golden Wattle is hence not fully authentic in terms of colour, and another design that uses the right colours in a better combination might therefore stand a competitive chance.

I believe the Terra Australis Magnus design is probably competitive for these reasons.

First, it uses more than one symbol that is of importance to Australians - the Golden Wattle and the Southern Cross. There is also a choice of meaningful background colours, such as those of red earth and blue gum.

Golden Wattle, Southern Cross, Red Earth, Blue Gum - This flag carries a lot more imagery than a single icon can. After all, a national flag is not a corporate logo where one has to stay "on message" with one value proposition, so a background of graphic design may not necessarily be an advantage

Second, I come from the world of Open Source software, having been a Linux user since 1996. It was the most natural thing for me to seek to evolve my design through community feedback (the bazaar model) rather than lock myself in my studio like a solitary creative genius (the cathedral model). Similarly, I had no desire to keep my design proprietary. What evolves through community input belongs to the community, and so I made my SVG source files available under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike licence. There is no restriction even on commercial activity. If someone wants to sell T-shirts with my flag design on it, more power to them. I'm hoping the sense of community ownership will fuel the design's continuous improvement and garner more support as time goes on. This is, after all, a community-contributed design, and more than one person can point to some element of it or another and say, "I contributed that!"

Third, the representation of the golden wattle is truer to nature (the "inflorescence") (although it has been likened by some to a mediaeval torture instrument,  a football, a magic mushroom, and car valves).

The compound structure using florets is more representative of reality, without being too complex

Fourth and finally, in the variants where a green-and-gold theme is used, I took care to stick to the official colours. With the offsetting effect of other colours, these shades don't look quite as bad as they do on their own. To the dyed-in-the-wool green-and-gold loyalists, this should put Terra Australis Magnus above Golden Wattle.

The navy blue area offsets the less-than-appealing look of the official colours

The Kangaroo Revisited

Although in general I'm not a fan of animals on flags, it's undeniable that the presence of a kangaroo will cause a flag to be instantly recognisable around the world as the Australian flag. It's just that most designs involving roos have been terrible.

But then Ian McLellan began to produce a few interesting ones that didn't look bad at all.

Not many like the coat-of-arms style, because it still seems a bit redolent of a monarchy, but this didn't look too bad

This was beginning to look like a possible flag...

This last design inspired me to create the following tricolour:

Something for everyone

I had read a few days earlier on the site that vertical tricolours symbolised a revolt against a European monarchy. That's appropriate in the Australian context, since the quest to remove the Union Jack from the flag is a revolt of sorts against the British monarchy.

The roo-on-ochre theme makes the flag instantly recognisable as the flag of Australia.

The golden wattle, rendered in green-and-gold, should satisfy those who believe the Australian flag must carry the "national colours". I'm a bit meh on this, but whatever.

I personally like the heraldic colours of red, white and blue, and I'm fond of the Southern Cross (especially in Brian Nedic's futuristic style), so that makes up the third stripe.

Saturday, 6 January 2018

All 13 Star Trek Films Ranked From Worst To Best

I'm deliberately using the exact same title used by for this blog post because I want people to find both these write-ups together.

Nerdist has explained why they've ranked these movies the way they have. I'll explain my ranking in a minute.

At a glance, here's how my ranking differs from theirs.

The red lines indicate movies that I have a worse opinion of than Nerdist does; the green lines indicate the opposite. (Click to expand)

Pop over to their site to read their analysis first, because I'm only going to comment on the differences between our ratings.

13. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989)

There really isn't too much of an argument here. Nerdist seems to think this is the second-worst movie. I think it's the worst. Not much point splitting hairs, when we essentially agree that it was terrible. I will never watch this movie again.

12. Star Trek III: The Search For Spock (1984)

Nerdist seems to think this was not so bad (07). I found it amateurish in the extreme. Spock's return was virtually guaranteed right from the end of The Wrath Of Khan, the whole adventure of stealing the Enterprise was implausible (the Federation must have very poor control systems), the Klingons' perfidy and the death of Kirk's son were a needless tragedy, replacing the actor playing the iconic Lt Saavik was a jolting experience, and the whole movie had the feel of a patch job that was necessary in order to bring Spock back. I don't think I can ever watch this movie again.

11. Star Trek: Nemesis (2002)

This had a couple of interesting ideas that made me go "Hmm!". One was that Shinzon was Picard's clone. The other was the side-story of the tension between two Romulan races, and the surprisingly empathetic Remans. There was some voyeuristic and disturbing erotic tension between Shinzon and Deanna Troi. Shinzon ship Scimitar had a bit of cool to it. Next to Vengeance of Into Darkness, it's probably the coolest villain ship.

Shinzon's ship "Scimitar", very different from the standard-issue Romulan warbird

Apart from these, the movie was quite boring. I don't think I will watch this movie again.

10. Star Trek: Generations (1994)

Bringing Kirk and Picard together in one movie was an interesting idea. The Nexus is a cosmically scary concept, like the crack in the Universe that Doctor Who fans may be familiar with. But the rest of the movie was weird and dreamlike. Did they really let Troi pilot the Enterprise? No wonder it crashed. I may watch this movie sometime in the distant future, but I'm not sure.

09. Star Trek: Insurrection (1998)

Nerdist called this the worst Star Trek film! They owe it to us to explain this extreme rating, but their criticisms just sound like nitpicking. Sure, this wasn't a great movie, but calling it the worst is a stretch.

This movie had an interesting plot twist, in that two warring races were genetically identical, so it was really just a generational conflict, albeit a deadly one. This movie also tackles similar Prime Directive issues as the TNG episode Who Watches The Watchers. Some sequences are cliched, but it's watchable - once. I could watch this again, if I'm showing it to someone who hasn't seen it before, but I probably can't sit through it again alone.

08. Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)

Here, I'm probably being biased in hindsight, since I quite liked this movie when I saw it in the 80s. It's only after seeing it again many years later that I've started to think of it as cheesy. It now seems slow and boring, and many scenes are cringe-worthy. The only "aha" moment was when it was revealed that "Veejur" was actually the fictional "Voyager 6", which I still think was a neat plot twist. Oh, and it had Persis Khambatta. Half a point for that.

I may see this movie again, but I think I will fast-forward many scenes.

07. Star Trek Beyond (2016)

With this, we're getting started on the better movies. The reboot is generally quite good overall, and I've liked all three of them so far. I think the reason I'm ranking this the lowest of the three is that the second was so good this was bound to fall below that standard.

I'll definitely watch this again at some point, but not right away.

06. Star Trek (2009)

The first movie of the rebooted series started with a bang and established itself with class. In moviemaking terms, it was a generation ahead of all the movies that came before it as well as the various TV series. The casting was extremely good. Kirk, Spock, McCoy - all three were very ably played by the replacements to the old trio of Shatner, Nimoy and Kelley. I liked the touch of bringing back Captain Pike from The Original Series (The Cage, The Menagerie). Probably the only weak part of the movie was the Villain Nero. Some villains are larger than life. Some fail to impress. Nero fell into the latter category.

I will definitely watch this again, perhaps in a binge-watching session of all the reboot movies.

05. Star Trek: First Contact (1996)

The Borg theme in The Next Generation never failed to thrill (Perhaps the best sample was the double-episode The Best Of Both Worlds). Such a deliciously different class of villain!

First Contact was another thrilling time-travel adventure, full of action, suspense, heroism, inspiring speechmaking by Picard, and a nice saving of the day by Data. The high-suspense battle for the deflector shield by Picard, Worf and a "red shirt", with the Borg becoming increasingly aware of their activity, and a zero-G leap by Picard, is a scene for the ages.

The battle of the deflector shield has to be one of the most chilling and thrilling sequences in Star Trek

This is definitely one for my home theatre's rerun schedule.

04. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)

This movie could have made it to the bottom of my list instead of the top because of one reason. Its humour could very easily have crossed the line into a lack of seriousness, making the movie a spoof of itself. But thankfully, it managed to be both serious and light at the same time, making it an excellent entertainer even for non-Trekkies.

This is in fact one of my most often played movies at home, especially when I'm introducing newbies to the Trek genre.

03. Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

Khan with some neat twists. Benedict Cumberbatch. The re-introduction of Carol Marcus from The Wrath of Khan. Heck, the reintroduction of Khan from The Wrath of Khan (I swear, the hairs on my neck stood up when he said, "My name is Khan!"). The Kirk-Spock death scene in reverse. Brilliantly done. I have no idea why Nerdist would consider this a bad movie!

Oh, and Vengeance is the ultimate in cool for a villain's ship.

The Dreadnought-class Vengeance compared to the Enterprise - "Twice the size, three times the speed"

This is one of my all-round favourite movies, and I can watch it again and again.

02. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)

I was at my politically aware best during the last days of the Cold War, Chernobyl, and the fall of the Soviet Union. Plus I love allegorical stories. The Undiscovered Country, a movie full of allusions to both Shakespeare and the Cold War, was a work of genius.

This movie was also a classic because of its cynical lesson - that not everyone is happy with the end of a long-running conflict. Some people can be so threatened by peace that they will even team up with their counterparts on the other side to sabotage the chance for peace. This was also the first time I realised that Vulcans could be villains too.

Not only do I watch this movie repeatedly, I inflict it on guests, with frequent pauses to explain the political parallels with the former Soviet Union.

01. Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan (1982)

I don't think any trekkie will disagree on the choice of this as the best Star Trek movie of all. It was close to perfect. I'd give it a less than perfect score for only one reason.

I'm Indian, and I know that "Khan Noonien Singh" is a nonsense name for a supposed Indian prince. Is the man supposed to be Muslim (Khan) or Hindu/Sikh (Singh)? And what kind of name is "Noonien"? The writers of Star Trek seem to have a thing for this name, since Data's creator is supposed to be a "Dr Noonien Soong". So now Noonien is an East Asian name as well? Aargh!

I have watched The Wrath Of Khan so many times already that I think I'll give it a rest for a while.

Anyway, that's the list.

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

The Making Of "Terra Australis Magnus" - The Why And The How

I explained the symbolism of my painting "Terra Australis Magnus" (Great Southern Land) in another post. Here, I'm going to explain how the idea came about, and how I went about creating it.

I'm a member of a Facebook group called "Change the Aussie Flag", which is a group of people trying to come up with alternative designs to replace the current Australian flag. A lot of Australians feel strongly about the need to remove the British Union Jack from their national flag. (In fact, the original name of the group was "*JACK OFF*get the UNION JACK off Our Flag.")

I contributed the following design that I called "Timeless Red Earth". I created it using SVG (Scalable Vector Graphics), which I find to be a very pleasurable tool to use. It's amazing what wonderfully appealing visual designs can be created using just a text editor and some math-based graphical elements.

"Timeless Red Earth" - my proposal for a new Australian flag

Compare this to the current flag (below). I replaced the Union Jack with an Aboriginal motif because I felt any Australian flag should acknowledge the original inhabitants of the land. (See my pre-emptive note on "cultural appropriation" here.) I didn't think the Federation Star under the Union Jack was necessary. I retained the Southern Cross constellation on the right but changed the style of the stars to make it appear a bit more modern (I thought the conventional look was dated).

I also changed the aspect ratio (length/width) from the current 2:1 to the Golden Ratio  (approximately 1.618).

Overall, I thought this design was less cluttered than the current one, and also provided the right degree of antisymmetric tension and balance.

The current Australian flag

I was inspired to use a brownish red background because I was strongly impressed by the cover of a Lonely Planet book on Australia that I had bought in India before I migrated in 1998.

Red sand dunes - This wouldn't have been my impression of Australia before I moved to the country. I had a more conventionally stereotyped view involving the Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge.

Since I hadn't associated Australia with red earth before, this cover struck me as pretty unusual. Then I saw this red earth for myself when I visited Uluru and Alice Springs (the "Red Centre") in 2007, and it made a strong impression.

One of the oft-heard sentiments on the "Change the Aussie Flag" group was to use authentically Australian themes and motifs, so a background corresponding to the colour of Australia's red earth seemed more appropriate than the European/American blue. It was, quite literally, of this earth.

In November, I got into painting when I was inspired by a friend's wall art. I blogged about it too. That was a pleasant experience, and I thought I should do more painting.

I guess I'm not a conventional artist, though. I do a fair bit of cartooning, and although I had done some oil painting in my youth (ages 17-20), those were all of fighter planes and tanks. "Real" art bores me. I'm drawn to off-beat themes and prefer designs with some mathematical or geometric basis. That was when I remembered my flag design, and decided to render it on canvas. Since it was going to be a painting and not a flag design, it didn't have to restrict itself to simple lines and shapes.

One aspect that troubled me about Timeless Red Earth was that stars should rightly have a blue or black background. I wasn't entirely happy about drawing stars against a background of red earth.

SVG made it very easy to see what it would be like to have half the canvas in blue.

Slightly better in some ways, but dark colours like red and blue should never touch

It's a vexillological principle that there has to be a light colour or a "metal" (silver/white or gold/yellow) between two dark colours (e.g., red and blue). Something like this.

It still looks too much like a flag. A painting can afford to be more elaborate.

That's when I thought I could use an S-curve rather than a straight line.

The figure would still be radially symmetrical, and yet the design would be a little more elaborate.

What light colour could I use between red and blue? Obviously something with white and yellow in it. It would have to follow the path of the S-curve.

The Aurora Australis (the Southern Lights) immediately occurred to me.

The Aurora Australis - I would like to see this for myself some day

With this, my design was conceptually complete. I "just" had to transfer it from my head on to canvas.

Now to buy some canvas. I'm sold on the idea of the Golden Ratio, and I prefer to use that as the aspect ratio for most of my work. I went down to the local art shop to look for a suitable canvas.

These were the sizes they had.

They had arranged the canvas sizes in increasing order of area (and price), which made sense. But it made my job of calculating their aspect ratios difficult.

I took a photo of this chart, then went back home to put them into a spreadsheet and calculate their aspect ratios. This is what I found.

Only one of the standard canvas sizes came anywhere close to the Golden Ratio of 1.618. This was a fairly large canvas of length 48" and width 30".

[When I went back to the art shop armed with this information and asked for the 48-by-30 canvas, the lady in charge told me they didn't have it. I was about to turn away disappointed when she added, "They don't even make that size!" I at once told her that it was listed on her price chart, and she demanded that I show her. When I pointed it out, she exclaimed, "Oh, you mean 30-by-48!"]

Before I committed to painting on such a large and expensive canvas, I thought I should test out specific elements on smaller canvases. That way, I could learn from my mistakes and do better on the main canvas. I bought two 14" x 14" canvases for the Aboriginal Sun and Southern Cross, and a rectangular one of 18" x 14" for the Aurora Australis, as sacrificial trials.

And that turned out to be a very good decision, because I did make a few mistakes.

I first printed out a greyscale version of the Southern Cross on A3 paper...

Fun fact: Since the stars are created out of the "negative space" between four quadrants of a circle of radius 'r', the area of each such star is (4 - π) r2, since it's the area of a square (4r2, which is (2r)2) minus the area of a circle (πr2).

... and a greyscale version of the Aboriginal Sun on A2 paper. I got these done at Officeworks, since A2 is not a supported size in regular printers.

Then I made some stencils from them, using plastic sheets and a "cutting compass" (a pair of compasses with a blade instead of a pencil). (A big thank-you to the kind lady at Officeworks who gave me some leftover laminating sheets that I could use.)

Measure twice...

...and cut once.

I had to create two sets of stencils for the Aboriginal Sun.

The first set was for the large rings. The outer and inner rings had to be traced out using two separate pieces of plastic. I had to "MacGyver" a handle for the inner one to hold it in place and lift it conveniently.

The second set was for the circles. This is the stencil after it had been used, as one can tell.

Sure enough, I made mistakes. This is how the Southern Cross turned out.

It's not obvious here, but I had to do a lot of manual repair work after using the stencil.

The Aboriginal Sun turned out to be quite messy, mainly because I didn't know how to use a stencil.

It may not look bad overall, but I was hoping for more precisely drawn circles. And the background looks more like wood than like sand dunes.

Finally, the Aurora Australis ended up looking like a straight line.

If the width of the canvas isn't large compared to the width of the Aurora, the S-curve begins to look like a straight line. The red sand dunes are still not great, but I'm learning.

When creating the Aurora Australis, I also had the idea to use grey strokes on the upper side of the Aurora to symbolise gum (eucalyptus) trees, since these are also an Australian icon.

I learnt a lot from these mistakes, just as I had hoped.

Specifically, the stencils weren't giving me the sharp outlines I was hoping for. I didn't realise why at the time. I thought I needed stencils that would stick to the canvas enough to prevent paint from seeping under them. The only material I could think of that would stick to canvas, yet peel off easily, was Blu Tack. So I MacGyvered my own stencil using Blu Tack, by first building up a thicker star shape, then moulding the Blu Tack in strips around this.

From left to right: a star cut out using the cutting compass; a thick star shape built by sticking 6 such stars together with super-glue; Blu Tack moulded around this more solid star, forming a stencil that would stick to the canvas.

Armed with confidence from these learnings, I then began work on the big canvas. I used a "drop sheet" from Bunnings hardware store to protect my floorboards from stray paint.

The S-curve was drawn freehand, which accounts for its less-than-mathematical precision. I didn't mind because the Aurora was going to be jagged and irregular anyway.

While the pure black background of the Southern Cross in my trial canvas didn't look bad, I still wanted a bit of blue, so I added it in. However, much of this got obscured by the Aurora.

The background is now complete!

Using my Blu Tack stencil, I got better results than during my trial.

The stars now have sharper edges than before.

The Aurora now retains its S shape, and the trial also taught me some techniques to improve its appearance.

Major learning: create the Aurora using two passes. In the first pass, use green along the middle line of the Aurora and spread it uniformly to both sides (up and down). In the second pass, use yellow and white on the bottom edge of the Aurora and spread it upwards.

For the circles of the Aboriginal Sun, I gave up on using a stencil and thought I would need sponge brushes of a circular cross-section. I had seen these at the art shop, so I went back there to ask about them. It was a good thing I did, because the owner told me I was using the stencils all wrong. I should not have used regular brushes with stencils. There are special stiff-bristled brushes called "stencil brushes". They're supposed to be used dry, with a minimum of paint, and applied in repeated vertical jabs onto the stencil rather than in horizontal strokes on the canvas. She also advised me to place a thick towel or other cloth under the canvas to hold the sheet in place so it didn't move (sag) under all that jabbing. So I bought a couple of stencil brushes, and these worked out magnificently for the circles, with just a little bit of manual repair necessary afterwards.

The Aboriginal Sun was the most pleasing of all, compared to its counterpart during the trial.

The use of stencil brushes made the outlines of the circles much sharper. It was almost like the entire image had been printed on top of the background.

And that's the final picture!

To give you an idea of the actual size of the canvas...

You can see my earlier painting "Locutus" in the background. Check out the story here.

To close the circle, I created a new flag design based on this painting.

The Aurora Australis is now a green-and-gold sash through the middle of the flag

I would now like to thank...

My warm colours, ...

... my cool colours, ...

... and the indispensable black and white, ...

... my brushes (the two at the top with stiff bristles are the stencil brushes), ...

... and other instruments. I have previously mentioned the cutting compass, stencil sheets and Blu Tack.

And that is the story (the why and the how) behind the creation of Terra Australis Magnus. Thanks for reading!