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Light Pixie Studio – Sharyn Richardson » Preserve your memories | fine art portraits that tell a story | photographs and paintings by Sharyn Richardson | Light Pixie Studio | What do you want to remember? | worldwide

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Looking forward when you’ve lived more than one hundred years!

Happy birthday, Paul Johns at age 102

Happy birthday, Paul Johns at age 102

If you have good genes and reasonable health, your age is just a number.

Marjory Stoneman Douglas, centenarian plus eight

For the last twenty years of her remarkable life, I was special assistant and friend to Marjory Stoneman Douglas who wrote the book on the Florida Everglades, was its feisty Evangelist, earning kudos from presidents, queens and princes! I asked her at the occasion of her 100th birthday celebration, how old she’d think she was if she didn’t actually know and she answered, “Interesting question! Age thirty-five, I’d think.” Now at the time, she was both blind and deaf and couldn’t see the etching of old smiles lined across her face, so she chose the age at which she was most vigorously alive, pursuing goals, writing passionately. She was always a bit embarrassed by the fame and fuss advanced age delivered her though she used it to advance her cause. Born in 1890 she lived purposefully until the age of 108 years–just a number after all! It was my happy privilege to help her navigate the high expectations (her own and those of others) on declining energy through those last years of her life.

Paul Johns, centenarian plus two

We have another centenarian friend, Paul Johns of Iola, Wisconsin, in whom it’s easy to recognize several common traits with Marjory. He celebrates his 102nd birthday today! Paul looks and acts years younger, has a valid driver’s license–no restrictions and a current ham radio operator’s license good for another decade. With enough electronic gear for someone half his age, he stays in touch via email and Facebook. In his nineties he enrolled in technical school to learn how to repair computers. A few years later he designed and still builds arguably the best radio antenna for small, fabric-covered airplanes.

While others struggle with names and memory, our friend seemingly remembers everything. No problem meeting someone he hardly knows; even out of context he’ll call them by name. Engage him in conversation and you’ll learn interesting details from long ago and as recent as yesterday.

Paul Johns is a pilot’s pilot and an engineer’s engineer. An anecdote told by a friend reveals a small detail from a long and amazing life. As a nurse adjusted Paul’s blood pressure cuff, with humble tone he spoke a startling sentence that began, ” When I invented that . . . .”

Paul Johns first learned to fly in 1929 when he was fifteen years old followed by another 66 years of active piloting. In his mid-seventies he built an airplane that he flew into his eighties. Some years ago he was inducted into the Wisconsin Aviation Hall of Fame. Recently he was surprised and delighted by the renaming of Central County Airport near his hometown of Iola, Wisconsin, to be known as Paul Johns Field, an honor from the Central County Flyers and dozens of friends who join him on Fridays for the regionally well-known Lunch at Iola.

How to live to one hundred!

From these two I’ve learned that luck is another name for diligence and productivity. Both Marjory and Paul built purposeful lives that compelled them always onward and upward. Yes, they had luck on their side, but they also persevered through the challenges. Each of them collected a lifetime of unique experiences along with friends of all ages. Marjory never gave up and Paul still lives fully engaged, with a vigorous mind and plans for the future; there’s too much to do and a life to live. It reminds me that life is short no matter how long you live, that there is no do-over, that you’ll regret more what you didn’t do or try than what you tried and failed. Live!

Happy 102nd birthday, Paul! And thank you for these lessons.



A recent article by Jane Myhra in the Waupaca County Post highlighted select others of his lifetime achievements:

  • piloted the Boeing 314–the Flying Boat or Clipper–for Pan American Airways;
  • set up an instrument training program for Navy pilots in 1939;
  • recorded over 220 Pacific crossings during World War II for the Naval Transport Service, navigating the distance only by following the stars;
  • engineered, designed and built testing equipment to measure sound waves with laser light decades before most of us had even heard of lasers.

Playing in the cemetery

Playing in the neighborhood cemetery was a normal part of my childhood, a wooded place where my best friend Barbie and I played with our dollies among fabulous castles. Adults knew them as headstones and stately family crypts though to us they were exotic places for imaginary play. From time to time we were chased away by workers in the interests of decorum but most days we participated in the respectful quiet of the place. Summers were too-short seasons of playing with ball and jacks, jumping rope, hide-n-seek, swinging and sliding and teeter-totters, running through the sprinkler, outdoor activities that started early and ended only when called to supper.

My career in the theater ends early

At eight years old we weren’t yet insecure about our talents. Barbie and I wrote a play, costumed it from our attics, sold hand-stamped tickets to the neighbors—a dollar’s worth at a nickel a piece, a princely sum to us. On the appointed Saturday only one ticket holder arrived to sit in the grass at the foot of the cement slab that was our stage. Burr Tillstrom (1917-1985), creator of Kukla, Fran and Ollie, lived four houses away and was generous and genuine in his encouragement of future thespians. My character was an Indian princess who was struck suddenly stage-frighted and mute. Barbie was a pirate similarly afflicted. Were we inspired by having just seen the Disney moviePeter Pan? Perhaps, but specifics are lost to the years. Our parents required us to return all of the money we’d collected, embarrassed of course, but our biggest disappointment was that motherly Fran Allison didn’t come along with Mr. Tillstrom.

A childhood of freedom and choice

It was a different world for a child then, with freedom to explore, make independent decisions, live the consequences, and where anyone’s parent was a trusted caretaker. At the age of eight we knew about violence, even death, and that bad things occasionally happened, but it didn’t color our basic perception of a benevolent world full of good people. And we knew whose mother made the best cookies! Those of a certain age will remember.

As grownups we set our own fieldtrips! Thus last weekend at the Oakwood cemetery in Dixon Illinois memories of childhood adventures came flooding back. Hover for slideshow controls:

Finding family in Dixon Illinois

We’d been meaning to make the trip, a bucket list item, for years. Paul and I flew the Husky to Dixon Illinois, on a mission to locate the family plot of Aunt Allie and Uncle Albert Richardson and their daughter Alice where personal memories mixed with family history and associations to a larger world. Paul Albert was named for great Uncle Al who served in Puerto Rico during the Spanish American War and whose grave is marked with the honor. A graduate of the first electrical engineering class at the University of Michigan, he made his career at the Rock River hydroelectric plant on River Street, built in 1925 with five generators producing all the power the town of Dixon needed. Cousin Alice was a first year teacher when young Ronald Reagan was in her study hall class at the South Central School. The Reagan family home is four blocks south. Years later Alice was asked about her famous student and recalled only that he was a quiet boy.

Walgreen drugstores began in Dixon

Small Midwestern towns have historic charm, typically wide streets to match generous attitudes, neatly maintained centennial houses, clean cafes and friendly people. We came and went from the Dixon airport and were given a City of Dixon official vehicle to drive for the day. The airport was renamed in 1964 Charles R. Walgreen Field and dedicated by Merrill C. Meigs to honor the Dixon pharmacist/entrepreneur who was first to carry household goods alongside prescription drugs in his stores, to serve good, inexpensive food at lunch-counters, and invented the malted milkshake made with ice cream from their own factory. From the first tiny store in 1901 Dixon, Walgreens grew by 1927 to 110 successful stores across the Midwest and became the standard by which retail drugstores are still judged.

Repurposing iron trolley tracks into an airport hangar

Back at the airport the barrel-roofed Reinhard Schnell Memorial Hangar has its own unique history which you will recognize once you know the story. Near the Dixon airport in the roaring twenties there was a dance hall at the end of a trolley track that brought customers from town center. When the dance hall era ended the brick road was pulled up along with the iron tracks and, as we’d now say, the materials were repurposed. The exterior buttresses and interior roof trusses of the airport hangar are the actual trolley tracks and the walls are built from the street bricks! And as always seems to happen we talked with pilots from other places with missions of their own. This time it was a light sport Remos G-3/600 Mirage with instructor and student practicing crosswind landings. We wished each other good flying and CAVU (pilot shorthand for ceiling and visibility unlimited) as both airplanes prepared to depart.

The summer sky is a wondrous place. Respect its power and it can safely become your magic carpet.

What pilots (and others) do for summertime fun!


Cessna 140 from Iola

A summertime Fly In is a wonderful  thing

We’ve been to two of them in the past month. The Aircraft Owners and Pilot’s Association and the Experimental Aircraft Association are two of the largest advocacy groups working to keep general aviation healthy and vibrant, protecting your* freedom to fly. This year AOPA held five regional fly ins and we attended the one in Minneapolis at Blane-Anoka Airport. There were safety seminars, good food, lectures, updates on the rules, sales, free ice cream, friends both new and old, and lots and lots of airplanes on static display and in the air.

Forrest and Pamela Bird

One of only two Howard 500s still flying. Learn more about this airplane and its owners in a new post In Memorium here in the Light Pixie Studio blog.

AOPA Fly In at Blane-Anoka Airport (KONA) our EAA chapter Fly In at Mauston-New Lisbon Airport (82C)

Pilots tend to be welcoming, generous people and they love any excuse to fly. At Anoka we chatted with Julie Clark who started her amazing aviation career as a flight attendant, then progressed to Northwest Airlines A320 captain, and is now one of the world’s top airshow performers in her T-34 Mentor powered by a 285-hp, 24-karat gold plated, horizontally-opposed six cylinder engine. At our own EAA chapter fly-in at the Mauston-New Lisbon-Union Airport we met a German couple seeking the real America on a cross-country car tour. There was no common language except that of flight but it just worked! (Pilots are naturally pretty good at talking with their hands and waving their arms.) A Chicago-area couple stopped to fuel their home-built Marquardt MA-5 Charger bi-plane on Friday night and found themselves guests at our chapter party, borrowed the loaner car** to find a local hotel, and returned the next day for our fly-in. They planned a quick breakfast and departure but spent the entire day!


Helicopter rides in a 2006 Robinson R44 II

What’s the attraction?

Besides all the aviation talk, lots of non-pilots come too. What do these children and adults of all ages find so appealing? You don’t have to be a pilot to appreciate that airplanes are compellingly beautiful, strong enough to lift you into the sky, and as delicate as an eggshell. Some people come for the lovely handmade quilt and afghan, or the bent wood rockers and bookcase on raffle. A big country breakfast and the hearty brats or Italian beef lunch served up by the local Lions Club draws many. Prizes are given for the finest vintage cars and they come by the dozens. There’s a huge display of farm equipment–old-fashioned and high-tech. I saw a monster tank-transport truck that dwarfed everything around it. The field of community cows are new each year to support local businesses. There are helicopter and airplane rides. Don’t forget chocolate root beer floats–deliciously unusual! All the hangar doors are open and questions are encouraged. There are games for children. Live the Dream flight training based at Mauston-New Lisbon Airport (82C) is here to answer your questions. What more perfect way to spend a summer day could you have?


A sectional map can take you almost anywhere

Your freedom to fly

*There are 5,200 general aviation airports, heliports, seaplane bases, and other landing facilities in the United States, representing four of every five landings. Canada has 1,000 general aviation airports and Europe has 4,200. AOPA estimates that general aviation provides greater than one percent of the US GDP and accounts for 1.3 million jobs. It’s a privilege to be able to fly and a great pleasure. You never know what you might find at a fly in and you too might discover a passion for flight. Regardless, it’s your freedom to fly as much as it is your neighborhood pilot’s.

**Many general aviation airports have a free loaner car, keys available on request. We’ve found them to be reliable, older model cars in clean and safe condition. We’ve borrowed many of them all across America and only once did we have a problem: a weak battery that died while we were at dinner in western Nebraska. The restaurant owner sent a young employee to help us on our way; it took a lot to persuade him to accept a twenty dollar bill as thanks. The generally accepted practice is no charge for the car but to return it to the airport with a full tank, ready for the next person who needs it, a part of a simpler, more innocent world of trust and decency. 

Click for full screen versions:

Meijer Botanic Garden, rooted in a royal past

In the Far East, Asia Minor, Europe, and Meso-America the first botanic gardens emerged from royal pleasure gardens. In the modern sense of it, a idea for a botanic garden developed during the Classical era from the cultivation of medicinal herbs, later to include monastic gardens and orchards. During the Renaissance formal secular gardens attached to universities emphasized teaching and research conducted by professors and their students. In the past two centuries increased access to the rest of planet Earth has led to public gardens as collections of living souvenirs of exploration and travel. Visiting any one of them is your chance to enjoy a “royal afternoon” or learn firsthand the landscape of a far-away place.

From one of the newer public gardens, here is some of what can be seen at the Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Public gardens in the United States were developed along with the country

In the United States the first such gardens were founded near Philadelphia in the late 18th century. The farmer-statesmen who founded the nation including Washington, Jefferson, and Madison all supported the creation of a national garden which eventually came to be in the early 19th century (1820) in the middle of Washington DC.

The Huntington

The Huntington’s Cactus Garden

As individual and unique as their environment

When I first moved from Michigan to Florida I was astonished at the variety, even the oddity of so many of the native plants. Plants adapt to survival requirements so the difference between temperate Grand Rapids and subtropical Miami was significant. Stunningly weird plants grew side by side with the magnificent, the gigantic, and the nearly invisible. Plants that eat insects, some that mimic their pollinators, look dangerous to eat, with bark that peels like sunburn or flowers that smell like rotting flesh (there’s a Corpse flower at the very end of this post waiting to surprise you) or others whose smallest parts could poison an army–they and others turned my ideas of trees and flowers completely upside down.

Leaving Miami for a return to roots

Miami is a crossroad of the plant and animal worlds where luxuriant life meets the challenges of harshest survival. I grew beautiful flowers on my windowsill and had colorful crotons in the yard. At first I learned hundreds of plants by their common names. It’s better to spend that effort learning genus and species names as they’re unique to one plant type, a surer way to identify them, so I relearned them all by taxonomy. Some roll off the tongue like liquid silk and others still stumble their way out my mouth. When I returned to the Midwest, I chose to learn the plant names that way and it’s saved lots of trouble at the nursery.

A few of the finest American gardens

I’ve been thinking a lot about gardens after enjoying for the very first time with my high school classmates Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park (Grand Rapids, MI opened in 1995)–it won’t be my last visit as I didn’t see The American Horse with its amazing 500 year journey from daVinci to western Michigan and so much more to explore there. The opening slideshow above includes some of those memorable moments and vistas.

Though it was never my intention to collect gardens, it seems to have happened anyway. While it’s not a definitive or world list, in addition to the Meijer my favorites are Longwood Gardens west of Philadelphia (founded 1798) which provided many butterfly favorites here in Richwood Valley; Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum (Boston – 1872); both The New York (1891) and the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens (1910) for a cool escape from summer-hot Manhattan; Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden (Coral Gables, FL – 1938) where once I had a key to the side gate for student groups and regular meetings of Friends of the Everglades (I wrote about FTBG and its butterflies along with iconic Marjory Stoneman Douglas in a 2013 post–the first photo is still in my top ten; Huntington Botanical Gardens (east of Los Angeles in San Marino – 1906) known familiarly just as The Huntington for photo sessions and happy family afternoons. Farther afield is Mexico City’s Chapultepec Forest (Bosque), one the largest city parks in the world; nearer is Canada’s Royal Botanical Gardens in Burlington, Ontario, at the west end of Lake Huron. These are only a few of many great gardens in North America. Use the links to check them out.

Living museums of knowledge, art, and pleasure

Dedicated to the collection and display of specimen plants, botanical gardens are living museums that afford the chance to see rare or exceptionally beautiful plants cultivated for your knowledge and pleasure. These institutions contribute to scientific research and conservation but offer the general public other values too. By grouping plants by their historical-cultural, climate or species types, they are of great interest for backyard landscape design along with tourism and recreation.

The Huntington

The Huntington’s Asian Gardens

A fine botanical garden may be close enough for your visit. Spend a satisfying afternoon enjoying what’s offered and you will surely want to return as they change with the seasons and mature over time . . . and to satisfy curiosity, here’s the Corpse flower with its terrible smell.

Corpse Flower

Corpse Flower

A committed runner is proud of a good effort more than a place medal.

The Runner’s Path, my newest painting

It’s in our nature 

We test ourselves against all kinds of odds. It’s in our nature to measure ourselves against our peers, born into us, part of the DNA. It takes many forms from the competitiveness of a friendly game to the neighbor who prides himself on his perfect plot of grass or her very own lovely garden.

Ambition leads to achievement

Personal ambition in its many forms is the fuel for competition and achievement is its fruit. We prove our worth in these efforts whether we win the prize or not. To never seek any form of accomplishment reduces a person to less than their potential and suggests mediocrity is okay.

The Runner’s Path

The painting of this portrait occurred over the running months of fall and into a basketball spring. Here is a young man who ran cross-country on his small town high school team. He’s a fine runner and he enjoys it. Good for him. We see him here in his team singlet with running flats flung carelessly over his shoulder.

Every runner runs alone on “The Runner’s Path”

In the manner in which cross-county races are scored it’s about the team, but as a sport it’s focused primarily on individual effort. The group encourages but every runner runs alone facing the course and its challenges within the self. The pain and strain of it is shouldered like the shoes . . . all alone! In that sense it’s heroic and every finished race an achievement.

Enjoy what your hard work earned!

Congratulations, Avery, as you graduate from high school and build your future toward a well-lived life. Feel the pride! You’ve earned it.

If you run, you need a good foundation

And that starts with the shoes! There are healthy benefits for choosing wisely and costs for failing to know what’s important. So here’s a good place to begin.

American Robin

Robins need no introduction as it’s often a child’s first bird to learn. Their territory is large (6.2 million acres) but the population larger (320 million individuals). While protected under the more general Migratory Bird Act, it is not a species of conservation concern. Robins are gregarious and among the bird species that live comfortably among humans. So here in Richwood Valley we wake on summer mornings to their conversational songs and watch them racing across the lawns to feast on worms and other invertebrates. That running, bobbing to peer, then stooping to pull a worm from moist soil is a defining behavior, their jizz as birders say.

A bird in the bush

In early May a female robin began building her nest in the yew shrubs at the corner of the Springside garage. She revealed its presence flying headlong into the bushes as she gathered course grasses and mud and a final lining of tender fuzz; it was photographer’s luck that the nest was waist high with a lens-sized peephole. As soon as the young were hatched mama-robin was joined by papa to share in their feeding. We walked within inches of their nest for five weeks and signaled our presence by calling out, “Good morning, Mrs. Robin; good afternoon, Mr. Robin.” I’d like to think they got used to us though they flew from the nest if they saw our eyes with play acting to lure us away.

From an empty nest to eggs, hatchling to fledgling

Each day I poked my lens through the branches to take a shot, not wanting to disturb the family, grateful for whatever the camera captured. Notice where the nest was secreted, our car as a blind, the perfectly built nest ready for five orbs of Robin’s egg blue, newly hatched and naked, hatchlings growing day-by-day, and the nest full to the brim with spot-breasted juveniles on the last evening before they fledged.

Safe travels and a happy summer

We’ve seen other species or their offspring stake a claim on good nesting sites and hope that happens with these birds. A pair of American Robins will raise two to three broods in a summer but won’t typically reuse the same nest; that’s their call so we’ll wait to see what happens. Predator losses among first year robins is awful so we wish them safest travels and happy summer days and will imagine them among our neighborhood flocks.

Alpaca new neighbors

We have new neighbors with their own special welcoming committee! A hillside full of grazing alpacas is new to dairy land. Like cows they are sure-footed harvesters on hilly terrain, more upkeep but lower cost than John Deere. On sunny days they stand at attention below the barn, wary and watchful, gentle creatures. The barn roof says what their curious behavior shows. Two weeks ago I sat with them on their hill, camera in hand, and learned:

  • If you walk too fast they conclude you’re a threat and move away; makes it really hard to photograph anything but their backsides. If you walk too slowly they think you’re an easy mark prompting them to chase! Move like Goldilocks–not too fast, not too slow, but just right--and they settle into a peaceful calm!
  • They have soft, murmuring voices that gurgle and purr, conversing among themselves, giving group warnings, laughing pleasantly. Gentle is the word that comes to mind for their character.
  • Alpacas love and trust their pack. Their movements are fluidly synchronous, moving always  together. On the other hand getting them to look the same way at the same time can be a challenge. Having a friend to whistle or call, “Here girls, come here, look this way,” helps immensely.
  • After they were used to a stranger in their pasture it became possible to sit quietly among them while they paid me no never-mind! I watched them from inches away, my eye-level to their elbows, while they grazed and chatted.
  • This pack includes a peculiarly different fellow named Jack. He is their protector-defender against all threats. A best friend forever kind of guy, Jack is a donkey! Until I shared that sunny hillside with Jack and his pack of alpacas, my notion of donkeys was informed–or rather misinformed–by latent childhood memories of the Jackass-boys in Pinocchio. I thought donkeys were tragic-comic creatures, dull-witted and homely beasts. But I learned a thing or two and am smitten with Jack! At first, he stood a bit away and watched me with his girls until he judged me no threat. Then curiosity got the better of him. He nuzzled my shoulders, chewed my hair and camera strap, licked the lens and me. If I ignored him to frame a shot, he pushed his way in front to be sure he had his share of camera time. But as soon as his girls moved a bit away, he went back to work herding them back to my side, being responsible for his charges. What a good camera grip! (Grips form a department on a shoot to provide camera support especially where the camera is awkwardly placed. Well, that certainly describes Jack on this day. So hats off to him for service as my key grip.) Donkeys don’t have public relations managers though perhaps they should.
  • Alpacas love to take dustbaths. You’ll see them raising a cloud of dust–first one, then others join in until their “dust tub” is full, and finally even Jack gives his own sincere form of imitation flattery as he joins in their dusty fun.

Alpaca shearing day

Today was shearing day and I was there to record it. Someone has to go first and that can be quite a problem. These sweet, soft-spoken animals with beautiful wool can fight and kick with the best of them! The son-in-law of the family knows his work and is a gentle caretaker; before long the job was well underway. Hot days of summer are here and the girls will come to appreciate being cool alpacas, and looking even cooler with a new hairdo!

Ready, set, shoot!

Here’s my favorite shot! Shepherding the pack onto the shearing floor with all faces looking into the lens, dancing hooves, bouncing heads, flipping hair, family in full face-forward view, with camera settings and focus just right: it’s a good thing!

Whoa Nelly!


The little lady second on the left is due to deliver her cria* in two weeks and I hope to be there! (*Baby alpacas are called Crias, a female is called a Hembre, a male a Macho, and a twelve month old Alpaca graduates to be a Tui.)

  • Lucila Landeo Sanchez - Felicitaciones por el excelente cuidado con estos bellos y elegantes animales. Solo personas bien preparadas como un Biólogo peruano graduado en la Universidad de Wisconsin y su familia americana en Hillsboro pueden lograrlo. ExitosReplyCancel

    • Light Pixie - Gracias por tus buenos deseos. Son animales maravillosos y una familia muy fina que cuida de ellos! SharynReplyCancel

  • Diane Dahl - Ah, Sharyn what beautiful photos and words. Thanks for sharing their incredible tale and beautiful faces.ReplyCancel

Sam needs his Forever Home; donation portrait to the Dog Art for Old Friends benefit to be held October 16, 2015. at the Omni Nashville

Sam needs his Forever Home; donation portrait to the Dog Art for Old Friends benefit to be held October 16, 2015. at the Omni Nashville

Senior dog needs forever home

The shepherd painted here is Sam, worn out from life on the farm and enjoying a satisfying midday rest among the cornstalks. But he’ll rise to greet anyone who comes along with an enthusiastically wagging tail. Sam understands the value of the trade—he’ll give love and loyalty for a good retirement home and someone who appreciates him.

Old Friends Senior Dog Sanctuary

Old Friends Senior Dog Sanctuary is a Forever Foster home-based Sanctuary in beautiful Mount Juliet, Tennessee. An important part of their mission is to raise awareness of the joys and challenges of living with older dogs. Senior dogs, especially those with medical problems or disabilities, face a much greater chance of euthanasia at shelters than younger dogs because it’s difficult to find adopters for them due to their shorter additional life expectancy and unknown veterinary costs. Most of these wonderful senior dogs will be able to live happily with a good quality of life if given a chance. They make wonderful companions because they are mature, calm and loving.  

It can be more difficult for them to settle in, and once they do, it is difficult for them to move again. For this reason they strive to find them forever foster or adoptive homes where they can live out their retirement years as a loved family member. Currently OFSDS provides lifetime retirement homes for 47 senior dogs at the Sanctuary and many more in temporary and Forever Foster Homes. They are an all volunteer 501(c)(3), non-profit.  They say, “We do not concern ourselves with the quantity of time that they have left, rather the quality of the life that we can provide them for that time.” Learn more about their mission at the OFSDS home page and blog and then LIKE them at Facebook!

Dog Art for Old Friends Benefit auction

The Nashville community of arts and artists including many names you would recognize has become a key supporter of the Senior Dogs Sanctuary. This year Light Pixie Studio is pleased to contribute to such a worthy cause. The second annual Dog Art for Old Friends benefit auction will be held at the Omni Nashville on October 16th with 100% of proceeds to help Old Friends. Tickets are available online for the live event and silent auction previews and bidding underway from May 1 to October 16, 2015.

Vatican Swiss Guards

Vatican Swiss Guards are posted at the Sistine Chapel portico entrance.

A new Lightroom Creative Cloud workflow for me! Italian Holiday II 

Here is a second installment to my Italian Holiday. With so many rare vistas and people, it’s taken a long time to cull and sort the hundreds of photos, then prep them to show. This more than anything causes me to finally commit to shift my workflow toward Lightroom to capture efficiencies. I’ve been taking courses and learning from photographers like Matt Kloskowski, Jared Platt, and RC Conception who made the shift a long time ago. It’ll slow me down for a while then hopefully will result in better organization, much faster turn around and processing. Stay tuned. Here’s hoping, here goes . . .

Fashion forward with the Vatican Swiss Guard

The Vatican Swiss Guard is the second oldest military regiment in the world and arguably the best-dressed. During the Renaissance Switzerland was a poor country, so much so that Swiss youth found careers selling their devotion, strength and courage as mercenary soldiers all over Europe and into the Asian east. They fought for warlords and kings, popes and nobles, cities, states, and nations. Their reputation as fierce and loyal fighters grew over the centuries well into the modern era until the Swiss Cantons outlawed the practice of outsourcing their best and bravest young men. Today Switzerland is a wealthy nation that grew itself out of poverty through a larger world view brought home by returning Swiss Guards.

How the Swiss Guard came to Rome

In the 16th century Pope Julius II connived his way into the papacy and fought decades long Italian Wars to consolidate his power. In 1506 fearing for his personal safety, Julius requested 150 Swiss soldiers be sent to Rome to protect not only himself but his entourage and his residences. Today the only Swiss regiment in the world is the 100 member Vatican Swiss Guard under the authority of their newly appointed commander, Colonel Christoph Graf. They serve tourism’s purpose decoratif but they are so much more than that!

Decorative yes, but so much more

To serve as the Pope’s bodyguards in the Vatican Swiss Guard you must be a unmarried male, Roman Catholic, Swiss citizen with at least a technical-professional or high school diploma, having trained and completed service in the Swiss army, 5’8″ or taller, able to prove irreproachable, good character, and having sworn fealty to the Pope, willing to trade their own life for his. They’re trained in the use of the 6th century halberd and sword seen above. But underneath their strikingly beautiful uniforms they now train in unarmed as well as small arms combat. They carry Glock and Sig handguns under their fancy clothes and use Heckler and Koch submachine guns. The Papal Swiss Guard has indeed fought valiantly to save their popes including the attack on Pope John Paul II in May 1981 that led to modernization of their training and more recent attacks against Pope Benedict XVI.

 About those fancy clothes!

The uniform weighs 8 pounds and is constructed of more than 150 separate pieces! They’re individually constructed to order for each Swiss Guard member in Vatican City. It was once thought that Michelangelo designed the Swiss Guard uniforms and his young protege Raphael has also been credited. A 16th century fresco by Jacoppi Coppi of Pope Sxtus III shows the Guardsmen wearing a distinctly Renaissance precursor to the current style that was designed in 1914 in the heraldic colors–red, blue, yellow, and orange–of the ancient della Rovere and di Medici families. More images and historical details may be found at Wikipedia.

The King’s Sweater – A personal history, then and now
1940 and 2014 Then and Now

1940 and 2014 Then and Now

The King’s Sweater pattern was copied from an original mid-20th century child’s sweater. Its significance to a knitter is in the traditional Scandinavian design and colorway of true red with off-white. This particular sweater has historical significance as well having been worn by the current king of Norway, Harald V, on the early spring day in 1940 when on the ruse of a skiing holiday the entire family escaped capture in advance of the Nazi invasion of Norway. The little prince was then just three years old and the tale of the family’s escape is harrowing with twists and intrigues worthy of a novel. The child’s paternal grandfather was King Haakon VII and together with his son Crown Prince Olav (Harald’s own father and later King Olav V) spent the war years in London with the Norwegian government in exile. Prince Harald together with his mother Princess Martha and his older sisters, the Princesses Ragnhild and Astrid arrived later that summer in Washington D.C. and in early autumn they moved to a new home in Bethesda, Maryland, where they were to live for five years until the war’s end. There are photos of the little prince playing with President Franklin Roosevelt’s dog Fala on the White House lawn and in the background of FDR’s fourth inauguration. Today Harald is King of Norway and is said to speak English with a trace of an American accent.

A Personal History

We settled on a new version of this sweater as a gift for a very special child to honor his birthright traditions. Born a citizen of Norway and a citizen of the United States of America, it seemed fitting to remember a personal history that unites his two cultures. Still in the possession of the royal family, a Norwegian woman was given access to the sweater for the purpose of making a pattern. The yarn is from the same company, Rauma Strikkegarn, and in the same colorways as the original. The company has produced this true, clear red since 1927 although they’ve experimented with darker reds and bluer reds over the years. To make the buttons for the left shoulder opening, four ten øre coins were purchased from four different coin shops in order to have historically appropriate ones; these are circulated coins in good to excellent condition dated with the years of Harald’s birth and earliest childhood—1937 and 1938,  the year  the original sweater was made—1939, and the significant year of 1940 when the sweater was worn on the day of escape from Norway and also the year it was worn again for Harald’s passport photo taking him into exile at Pook’s Hill, Bethesda, Maryland, in the United States.

It’s an interesting story about the journey of a little prince who grew into a wise King and a story our little prince will learn more about as he grows. The best gift, of course, is to be loved by so many people on two sides of an ocean!

The King

The King’s Sweater is still in possession of the royal family of Norway and was displayed in 2007 at the 50th anniversary celebration of King and Queen’s coronation.

This Norwegian coin was minted and first circulated in 1937, the year the current King of Norway was born. Four of these coins form the base of the shoulder buttons. The other three dates are 1938 and 1939 when young prince Harald was a toddler and the sweater was knit. The fourth coin is 1940 when the sweater was worn into an American exile.

This Norwegian coin was minted and first circulated in 1937, the year the current King of Norway was born. Four of these coins are the base of the shoulder buttons. The other three are dated 1938 and 1939 when young prince Harald was a toddler and the sweater was knit for him. The fourth coin is 1940 when the sweater was worn into an American exile.


The design is cleverly made to fit easily over a young child

The design is cleverly made to fit easily over a young child’s head.

If you’d like to knit The King’s Sweater yourself, with or without your own personal history, you can find Laura Rickett’s pattern at Ravelry, along with others of her design.

Italian holiday in the Reiti Valley, central Italy at its best. This was early morning and the pink tint infused the sky and the day.

Italian holiday in the Reiti Valley, central Italy at its best. This was early morning and a pink tint infused the sky and the day.

 Italian holiday!

Here’s an early morning in the fertile Reiti Valley climbing a steep mountain toward Greccio and a complex of stone buildings clinging precariously to the vertical face of the mountain. This was the priory and church founded by Brother Francis in 1223 after locals asked him to stay and promised to build a home for him and his followers. He told them that close proximity interferes with a contemplative life but agreed to stay for a while in a spot no further from Greccio than a stone might be thrown. What a lovely day for an Italian holiday celebration!

Scene of the first Christmas creche in 1223

Clinging to the sideslope, it was in this place in 1223 that Francis of Assisi celebrated the first modern Christmas with a scene from the Bethlehem stable.

 First Christmas  crèche in the modern way

This place is best remembered for the first popular Christmas crèche, a tradition since spread throughout the world. As a consequence Greccio is full year’round with Christmas tradition and dozens of crèches in the tiny shop. And so it happened that once upon a time in the month of October, I celebrated an Italian holiday with traditional Italian food and customs here at Greccio followed by supper in Reiti a few miles away at Santa Maria de LaForesta.

The courtyard at LaForesta leads to the vineyards and gardens where once the friars grew their food. Today it

Italian Christmas holiday at Santa Maria de LaForesta, Reiti, Italy

Mondo X at the former Franciscan cloister

Christmas dinner was held at a former priory now the home of Mondo X, a self-help group of recovering alcoholics and drug addicts who established their own rule, not overtly religious but based on the Franciscan way, emphasizing beauty, hard work, and dialogue. Their record of success has led to several dozen locations throughout Italy. This one at Reiti earns money for their ministry and the upkeep of the former Santa Maria de La Foresta by serving as a lodge and restaurant. Thirty years ago The New York Times published another traveler’s visit to a hilltop monastery in Tuscany which suggests how little things have changed, perhaps only improved with success. The link is one to follow when you aren’t hungry as you surely will be after reading it.

Brother Sun, Sister Moon

This place in the hills has long been a resting spot for renewal and locals say it was here at this very cloister deep in the forests of 1225 that Francis wrote the Canticle in Praise of the Creatures with petitions to Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Brother Fire, Sister Water, acknowledged as the first work of literature in the Italian language (actually in the dialect of Umbria and translated into Italian). Based on their theory that substance abuse results from low self-esteem and a lack of productivity and personal responsibility, today’s Mondo X appears to be a solid concept for treatment well suited to the modern world. Here at LaForesta Mondo X members live off the land, maintain the stone structures, restore the vineyards, press the wine, care for their guests, and earn back their lives.

Italian holiday

It had rained earlier in the afternoon but within the hour the courtyard was filled (much to our delight) with abundant and colorful appetizers

Christmas Feast

We arrived to find appetizers and champagne in the cloister garden: tempura herbs (rosemary and thyme) with fried sausage-stuffed olives and chunks of a very good Parmesan. The Christmas feast began with polenta and fried pig rind in a white cheddar sauce. Very tender, moist, and well-seasoned turkey was served alongside shredded cabbage and other vegetables grown in the cloister gardens. Dessert was the traditional Italian panettone served on a spider web of dark chocolate and heavy English cream.

After dinner we strolled the beautiful gardens and vineyards; then off by myself I discovered someone had laid a heart of chestnuts to which I added the last, completing the design and thinking how much I wished Paul was here to share the beauty.

Italian holiday

I added the small chestnut at the bottom to someone else’s heart found serendipitously along the cloister wall.

This would have made a good Christmas post but figured to give you time to plan. If you extend your trip or your interests to Assisi check out the bakery window with luscious treats served fresh each morning with steaming expresso which I wrote about here two years ago! Ciao!

The largest paddlesports gathering in the world takes place each March–this year just as winter suddenly switched places with spring. For kayak, canoe, outdoor equipment and clothing enthusiasts, all those who’re interested in learning to select, purchase and use the gear, this is the weekend for 20,000 vendors and consumers to gather at the Alliant Center in Madison, Wisconsin! We’re not among them this year but reminded of the beautiful Wenonah canoe from Rutabaga Sports suspended from the garage ceiling. It’s our annual reminder that it’s time to dust off the cobwebs, wind the lines, and get ready!

Gig Harbor, Washington

So here’s a toast to spring and farewell to the last bits of snow disappearing today! The kayaks below were photographed by me several years ago just inside Gig Harbor from Puget Sound. Kayaks seem to be more popular than canoes these days but either is an intimate ride on the water. This lonely spit of land is a few hundred yards from the Gig Harbor lighthouse; that day a storm was brewing and the kayak owners were nowhere to be seen.


Galloping Gertie to Sturdy Gertie! Crossing Puget Sound at Tacoma Narrows

Our arrival that day was by flying Fire Horse, an Aviat Husky A1C-200, from the airport at Pullman in eastern Washington State. This is the double span Tacoma Narrows bridge which crosses the point where Puget Sound “narrows” to less than a mile in width. The need for an easier way to cross the sound was recognized one hundred years earlier. Finally, in June of 1940 a bridge called Galloping Gertie opened and from its first day everyone knew it had serious problems, an unstable design that allowed huge vertical oscillations in even small winds. Immediately engineers tried to dampen and correct the problem but not before the bridge collapsed on an early November day that same year.  The first span of the new bridge below opened ten years later and is appropriately known as Sturdy Gertie! The fascinating story of the area from the Puyallop people to the 21st century and the tale of the bridges is told by the Washington State DOT with these links (will open in a new window).


Sometimes a quiet ride on calm water needs only a small boat. These are working boats along Puget Sound near Point Defiance, rough and rugged.  A map to orient the bridge, the sound and the harbor to Tacoma and Seattle is here.


What DOES zone editing have to do with it?
Minus 21 Farenheit at the winter creek

This is creek water frozen solid while making a texture of large ice crystals. See the detail of shadows in the bank above and with a glint of snow diamonds here and there.
Canon 5Dm3: 100mm 2.8 L ISO:50, 1/60, IS USM with UV plus 8xND filter;
Panorama, then zone editing in CS6 with channel masking for luminosity layers, then curves first before other adjustments, final hi-pass sharpening

Snap-Crackle-Pop through the night

When you live in southwestern Wisconsin -21°F (that’s below) zero is February normal. We expect it; we plan for it. Life doesn’t stop because the temperature plunges. The house cracks like gunfire as it shrinks into midnight, snaps-crackles-pops all through the night, then explodes into morning with the sun. It wakes me for an early run, gets me thinking about images with plans to match what the eye sees to what the camera captures.

Ready, set, shoot!

When it’s bitter cold and you’re passionate about photography, being prepared means more than long underwear, triple layers, and chem-heat. The equipment demands preparation too for the brilliant-bright day. For instance, in a mostly white scene proper exposure benefits from a neutral density filter and knowing what camera settings are most likely to produce the shot. I’m wearing mittens so prepping the Canon means menu-ready with lens and filters in place and settings dialed in. Last week I set a task to learn even more about zone editing in order to get the most from white winter shots. When it’s this cold, I’m willing to sit and even lay in the snow, but adjusting a tripod doesn’t work so these shots are all handheld. My goal was to see details in the snow even when squinting into the brightness behind sunglasses. These accomplished what I wanted. To judge for yourself, click a photo to see the original in a new window.

Sitting in a snowbank at -21°

If you’re a photo nut like me, read in the bezel below each photo for the basics of what worked. For everyone else the pictures speak for themselves, an up-close look at what draws a photographer out of a warm house in the early morning of a frigid day, a string of many such days of this 2015 winter when the temperature never climbed above zero!

Cold Creek

Notice the frost flowers blooming 20 feet below where the spring flows out of warmer ground. A few feet further and there’s no open water.
Canon 5Dm3: 100mm 2.8 L ISO:50, 1/125, IS USM with 8xND filter;
Development from five AEB bracketed shots with Curves adjustments, then mostly hand masking and some clone stamping,

I’m actually laying in the creek for this and the next one. Five minutes later I rushed into the house for coffee and dry clothes. Did I mention that it’s MINUS 21° Farenheit (minus 30 Celsius)?

Click to see the original image in a new window.

Moving closer–and getting wetter as I lay in the creek. Focus on the snow flower bouquets on mossy stones.
Canon 5Dm3: 100mm 2.8 L ISO:50, 1/125, IS USM with 8xND filter;
Development with Lumenzia

Don’t be a little crazy like me . . . stay warm! But do give Lumenzia a try in your  own workflow!

This flight really happened and in just this way, but no camera was there to shoot it! Photoshop to the rescue . . .

Photoshop composite

Off-shore flight near Ft. Pierce, Florida

It took eight separate photos composited with lots of lighting and perspective adjustments along with added elements to create the scene after the fact.

Happy Birthday, Photoshop!

This month Photoshop, the most successful image tool in the world, is 25 years old! Creatives everywhere and in nearly every medium use Photoshop for some part of their workflow. Almost everything visual is touched directly or indirectly by Photoshop. It’s not only changed the way images are created but the way we see the world.

Top 10 reasons to love Photoshop and respect those who use it well
  1. Photoshop provides a safety net for when you miss the shot entirely (see above)
  2. Photoshop can improve the shot when what you took isn’t quite what you wanted
  3. Ten real butterflies can look like a thousand—ditto for flowers or bricks or anything else
  4. A single beauty dish and two Speedlights can emulate a much more extensive and expensive setup
  5. Composites can be made to look like they really happened that way (see above)
  6. Photoshop can bring the imaginary to life, as in “anything you can think of you can create”
  7. Your color palette is more or less infinite
  8. Nothing else can do what Photoshop does; there is no real, effective competitor
  9. If an image is a wreck it’s not Photoshop, it’s the user
  10. Photoshop frees the artist to focus on art like nothing else can and do it faster and less expensively.
Modern tools for darkroom tricks

Photoshop tools are analogous to what early photo masters used to develop their images. Ansel Adams anticipated the digital age, calling it electronic, and believed it would be the next major image-making enhancement. Like the dodge, burn, and sponge tools of 19th to 20th century darkrooms, Photoshop offers synonymous digital processes to deliver even greater control to the digital darkroom. The 90% of creative professionals who use Photoshop daily understand that no software replaces imagination and skill. Yet their work is often lumped together with pretenders who get into visual trouble using Photoshop like a hammer!

Photoshop mishaps

Missing part of left arm


Fingertips missing

A web search of “Photoshop disasters” will turn up many examples of missing body parts, ridiculously enhanced ones, and deeply disturbing body postures. Such mistakes are unfortunately common like Glamour’s November 2011 cover with Kristen Stewart missing part of her left arm to Vogue’s September 2011 Kate Moss wedding layout including this one of her daughter’s fingertips airbrushed away. Throwing the verb photoshop about—as in, “Did you photoshop that?”—without referencing the quality of the actual image is an insult to those who do it so well that you get the enhancement without shouting the tool.

Inventing new ways to work and how we see

If you don’t already know layers and adjustments, healing and warping tools, or filters with smart objects, you’ll be astonished by liquefying content, altering perspectives, relighting and refocusing, rethinking the shot after the fact. And the tech teams at Adobe are always working on wondrous ways to challenge the skill of image artists everywhere.

Anyone can take a photograph but it takes an artful eye to perfect it. If you don’t like the result, blame the artist. It’s time to stop using “photoshop” as a dirty word!

What do we love in another?

Is it their thoughtfulness, generous spirit, cheerfulness, that they are trustworthy, patient, and loving? Perhaps that they are capable and kind, self-aware and wise, confident and disciplined, maybe even that their ambitions are a complement to your own.


Dogs are People Too

Meet Raeven, sweet girl, who is all of these things and more to Steve and Lorna. She has been their day-to-day Valentine for more than 90 dog-years. And she still bounds into each day with enthusiasm and playfulness.

When every day is Valentine’s Day

Here we see her waiting on the back porch stairs as she always does, as she always has. Where every day is Valentine’s Day. Beside her mature self is the puppy of her own childhood. She smiles like that and sits like that, relaxed and happy and in love with her family.

Life’s Doggy Bag

Her wish for everyone is that they have someone special, someone who waits and listens for a recognized footstep, the sound of a familiar engine rounding the corner near home. Someone who’s idea of Valentine’s Day is to share life’s doggy bag with YOU!

Happy Valentine’s Day to you and everyone you love!


Merry Christmas from Light Pixie Studio!

This is how Mother Nature decorates our Christmas tree in the central meadow at Richwood Valley. How fortuitous that Mr. Cardinal stopped for a rest between flights to the creek from the forest to take a look around and brighten the winter with red. It’s a Merry Christmas kind of day.

As Light Pixie Studio has developed over these past ten years, the greatest and most unexpected pleasure has come from the stories heard and the clients met. So as not to spoil someone else’s Merry Christmas surprise, I chose not to send Christmas greetings to you until the actual day was past and the gift given. Three months ago I received a Polaroid spoiled with age, one that had been pinned up as a reminder of happy winter scenes and Christmases long ago. My client was a son acting as agent for himself and his siblings. They grew up with the winter scene below just outside their window and–with this as backdrop–merry Christmas memories evolved. Their mother is now a widow living in a smaller home not far away. That Polaroid was her memory link to happy times with husband and young children in the home someone else now owns. I restored the image and added the top of the central tree where the camera cropped it away. Then it was enlarged to life scale and printed on heavy archival cotton rag, framed for their mother’s new home for a renewed Christmas memory of those happy days.


Light Pixie’s creative fuel

Thank you for making another successful year at Light Pixie Studio. Your visits and comments at the website are valued greatly; they are fuel for my creativity. Your stories are inspiring and your commissions and other purchases always appreciated. Here’s wishing you and yours a wonderful season full of joy and peace! Take time to say thank you, make amends, give with a generous heart, and may you receive your own heart’s desire whatever good thing that may be! Merry Christmas

One of the largest water falls east of the Mississippi River

Upper Tahquamenon, has a thunderous roar and a startling color. Four miles downstream the Lower Falls are less dramatic yet produce beautiful, foamy swirls deposited decoratively into broad pools below a central island.

Nature’s golden hue and a backdrop to history

The river’s water is stained gold-brown from tannic acids leaching from cedar, spruce and hemlock swamps and used in tanning hide. The softening effect of the tannins combined with agitation from the falls produces the sudsy, natural foam. This is where Longfellow’s Hiawatha built his canoe, where Iroquois and Ojibwa fished the river, farmed the coastal prairie, trapped beavers, mink, otter, and bear. Two hundred years ago lumberjacks came to harvest tall timber and to float it downstream to mills on Lake Superior and from there to build a continent.

Tahquamenon, a wilderness apart

It was and still is a wilderness apart. The park area preserves old-growth maple and hemlock forest, and conifer lowland species, hosting songbirds, herons and ducks, woodpeckers, owls, hawks, eagles, and countless avian species.  In addition to white-tailed deer other large mammals are black bear, a free-ranging moose herd, and a controversy of cougar as evidenced on trail cameras and in fecal samples. Human inhabitants around the Tahquamenon River and Falls are relatively few: from the small village of McMillan near the spring fed source, small town Toonerville with its narrow gauge railroad, unincorporated Paradise with fewer than 500 souls to the east, three-times bigger Newberry to the west, and on to Lake Superior hugging the beaches and sand dunes at Whitefish Bay, all host sightseeing tourists, history buffs, hunters, fishers, campers, hikers, cross-country skiers, dogsledders, snowmobilers, and birdwatchers. Blueberries and cranberries grow here although the Centennial Cranberry Farm family operation near Whitefish Bay has recently closed after 140 years. Shipping lanes still ply rugged waters a few miles offshore of the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point and a series of sunken wrecks at the Whitefish Point Underwater Preserve.

Gordon Lightfoot’s The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

Off this shore on November 10, 1975 the great oreship Edmund Fitzgerald sunk in a Lake Superior gale with the loss of all hands. Canadian songwriter, Gordon Meredith Lightfoot, Jr.’s haunting lyric made this sad event apocryphal and memorable. He got one thing wrong: when the bell at the Maritime Sailors’ Cathedral in Detroit rang out it would have been thirty times, not twenty-nine, as by longstanding tradition it rang once for each crewman plus one more time for all those lost at sea. Years later after watching a documentary that proposed a rogue wave had broken the ship, Gordon Lightfoot did alter his lyrics to eliminate a reference to a hatchway failure and the suggestion of human error.  The Fitzgerald is the largest and most famous of the Great Lakes shipwrecks and, thanks to the great success of Lightfoot’s song, it has come to stand for the thousands of others. As Lightfoot wrote, “Lake Superior never gives up its dead,” and only one Fitzgerald crewman has ever been discovered. For more on the story and the history of the ship they called Big Fitz checkout the videos below the Lightbox Gallery of my recent Tahquamenon to Whitefish Point photos.

As you will  see the entire area is compelling and its year’round colors are beautiful, but autumn magnifies the amber hues for an especially showy impression at the same time that late autumn weather makes a dangerous sea route. The trip is memorable! Enjoy the sites! Learn the history!

(Click an image for Lightbox Gallery)
Crewman found

In 1994 a manned submarine expedition discovered the body of a single crewman lying on the lake bottom below the ship’s bow. In the months that followed, families of the lost crew worked with the Shipwreck Museum toward a permanent memorial at Whitefish Point. An expedition was mounted to recover the heart of the ship–its bell–as the centerpiece of the memorial and to replace it with a new bell engraved with the names of the twenty-nine seamen. The Canadian government has designated the site as a memorial gravesite and prohibits visiting. The You Tube videos that follow are fascinating on all fronts. The first tells of the discovery of the crewman and the second from the Discovery Channel bell-recovery expedition is the larger story of the ship and the mystery surrounding its loss told with great respect and honor for the dead.

An artist wants to hear that a client’s story is thought to be well told and that the work is appreciated for the art of it. The client must be satisfied and comfortable with the integration of the work in their home, that it looks well and visually fits the space. When I spend weeks or even months creating for someone, it’s important to me that their idea has been fulfilled. That’s why no one pays anything in advance so that the creative process remains pure and there’s no advance pressure to perform but only to create.

Painting with Pixels – the Whole Story

The client is a part of my artistic process, not only to tell the story as only they know it, but all the way through to the end in choosing a title. This is Thoughtful Explorer about a child playing charades while connecting dots, exploring, emerging, evolving, and revealing both his inner dialogue as well as the public revelation of it. This was my last winter’s work to imagine, as the grandmother did, a marvelous memory of an evening at the Capital (bat) Bridge in Austin, Texas, and the emergence of a complex, multi-dimensional boy into full participation and conversation with his family. There’s more of the story to tell but it is the child’s intimate story and the grandmother’s–not to be shared or told here. She tells me, “Your painting has climbed into my heart and captured it!”


Painting with Pixels is the same as traditional painting and at the same time quite different too

Over the years only a very few clients have asked how this work of painting with pixels is done; I think that’s because the finished product looks like traditional processes should look. And for those who haven’t seen it done or don’t know the technical/digital potential, it’s inconceivable that one can create as I do even though it is being done widely all over the world and is the future for many artists. This grandmother did ask and I answered her by building a wristwatch as they say. Here are several photos of what I had to begin, reference material for the boy, my initial sketch, where I paint, and the workshop where I stretch and frame to help you visualize too how the work is produced. Below that are the grandmother’s questions about the digital process along with my answers.

Desktop environmentOverview of my desk

Physical and material

Typically the background light is subdued so all my attention, what I’m thinking and seeing, is concentrated on the monitor. I do use a focused light to  illuminate just the desktop with tablet, brushes and other tools. The light is brighter here than usual for this photograph. I sit in a Henry Miller Aeron chair so tiredness is a result of an overactive mind rather than an aching back. Below the left corner of the monitor are two book-sized boxes that contain 3 terabytes of backup data. In addition l have about the same amount of duplicate data in the cloud and on a second internal hard-drive. I cannot afford to lose data that is ephemeral but able to produce tangible things, especially my paintings. Some of the smaller objects in the room are mementos of a good life, many of them are real treasures with significant stories, and they inspire and make me smile for the memories.

The interim “canvas”

The flat black rectangle angled to the screen is the Wacom tablet on which I work. I keep a jeweler’s loop  and my brushes along the edges. Look in the upper left corner of the screen to see a semi-transparent grey square overlapping one wing of the bat; now look on the surface of the tablet where I laid one of the brushes. Notice that the brush is oriented the same as the shape on the screen. I programmed that particular brush to have long flexible fibers with a flat, angled tip so that’s what shows in the grey square, plus the brush on screen moves in the same 3-dimensional plane as the one laying on the tablet’s surface. All of my digital brushes are fully articulated in space, in other words they orient in my hand just as I would turn and direct a sable brush and they likewise direct the way the paint is put down–how thick or thin the line, how translucent or opaque the color, etc. That grey square is a visual reference useful to double check my programming of the brush. Once I see how it works, I turn the visual reference off so it’s not distracting.


Of the three brushes that are standing upright in their holders, the one at far right is an airbrush and you can see how different it looks from the others. The shape is designed to fit the hand in the same way a traditional airbrush does; it helps those of us who learned to use an airbrush before the digital/wireless age. It would feel odd to hold an airbrush any other way although this one is very lightweight and doesn’t have the air and paint line hanging heavily off the back end. All of the brushes and the tablet are wireless which makes them easier to manipulate. One of the strangest things I had to get used to was the very light weight of all of these brushes but especially the airbrush. Now after so many years, it would be just as strange to work the way I used to do it.

Working details

I zoom into the image to work more closely on small areas like the eyes or the bat and then move out again to see the effect overall. Again, that’s not very different than any painter works except that I don’t have to walk across the room to zoom in and out. Notice how I’ve kept the school photo of the boy in front of me as I work. It’s not only an easy cross reference but a way for me to connect my work with a very real, little boy. That one photo was the only reference material I had for the boy but, combined with the grandmother’s description of the event and on-line photos of the bridge in downtown Austin, it was possible to recreate her memory one step at a time. Below is the preliminary sketch I prepared as the work began to evolve and to flesh out the concept for the client. Notice that I changed many things, from the stripes on his shirt to the basic orientation of the bridge while working from the sketch to the final painting.

Layout Sketch


Production workshop

Next below is the top of my carpenter’s bench. The tool in front of the portrait is a BeA air-driven stapler that helps me attach the canvas properly to the stretcher bars. It’s made in Germany and is one of my favorite tools. It just feels good in the hand. The ka-chunk of the trigger is precise and dependable.

Stretching canvas

Next shows the back of Thoughtful Explorer; the canvas is already stretched and stapled into place. I’ve just finishing installing corner keys which allow subtle adjustment of tension. Depending on temperature and humidity some environments allow a canvas to loosen a bit in time. That’s normal, but having an easy means to adjust for it is a good idea, so I always install what are called Best Keys. In this picture they are the diagonal silver brackets across each of the four corners. Without them it’s hard to keep the canvas taught over the years but with them a small open end wrench does the job in seconds. It matters to me that the back of the painting is neat ‘though it won’t be seen once hung on the wall. I sign all work with its title and my personal cypher/signature with date–canvases on the back and fine art papers on the front.

Back of canvas

How Painting with Pixels actually happens – questions asked and answered

1)  What do you have in your hand(s) as you create?

I hold an art pen that can be programmed for all the same things I used to “buy” in my brushes. One pen can be reprogrammed on the fly, but I’ve found that owning four of them lets me set up each one for various tasks I do over and over in a project. Three of the pens look pretty much alike—it’s on the software side that I tell the pen how to lay down their strokes. Even then I change opacity and size of the brush itself including the shape of the brush, as I work. To keep these three straight, I apply a temporary sticky label. The fourth brush is an airbrush, also programmable within the nature of what an airbrush does in laying down a spray of color, and it looks as different from the other three brushes as a real airbrush does from a regular paintbrush. These pens have changeable nibs that emulate the feel of the real thing. So by changing the nib I get the drag of watercolor on cotton rag or the smooth flow of light oil paint on tightly woven canvas, etc. These pens are designed by Wacom and purchased separately from the tablet on which I make my strokes. So one of my painting implements is in my right hand and I hold it just like I always held a conventional brush. For me that means four fingers on the top of brush, thumb underneath just above the painting surface and with my ring-finger applying variable pressure. Oh and the pens recognize the pressure gradient I’ve programmed to determine how thick or thin, how opaque or transparent the paint is applied.

2)  On what does your image appear as you are working?

First, I paint on the tablet and nothing appears there at all as the surface is a special space age material that permits the pens to emulate the feel of any real media I’ve chosen to use. The surface is a plain but silky black and it can be turned in any direction so the programmed buttons work for either the left or right hand. So in my case my left hand rests on or over the buttons as I work. The tablets come in a variety of sizes. As I always previously worked on large but not monstrous canvas, muscle coordination for me is more natural on a large tablet but not the extra-large version. Mine measures about 13” x 20” with a slightly smaller painting surface. In order to see what I’m doing, I do not look at the tablet at all but at a very large monitor designed for graphic designers. Surprising to me, it only took a few hours to get the eye hand coordination that would otherwise be used on a regular canvas surface. A monitor has one drawback in that my work appears more luminous than it will on paper or canvas because it’s lighted from within, if you will, unlike the reflected light off the surface of any paper or fabric media. I’ve been doing this for a long time and learned to compensate to get exactly what I want in the finished painting.

3)  What is the color substance on the canvas and how does it get there?

The color is pigment made from the same mineral or botanical substances that any quality watercolor or oil or other paint is made. When the image is a watercolor, the pigment is conveyed through the nozzles of a highly specialized art printer. When the painting requires a heavier color application like oil or oil pastels, another kind of art printer for giclée must be used. All of these printers and the individual pigmented colors they use are expensive to own and maintain, not to mention the learning curve to use them properly. After printing I apply a UV-light protective coating. All of my work is guaranteed for an heirloom quality lifetime.

One question the client didn’t ask

There’s a question that wasn’t asked but that may help bridge the gap to the fourth question. I had the artistic skills to do the artful work but adding the digital technical skills required many additional years of specialized training and practice. Even now after all these years not a week goes by that I don’t actively pursue some new learning. I’m very knowledgeable about what I do well beyond computer literacy but especially in how to make all the parts work together. That includes insuring that the monitor, the software, the printers and the various paper or canvas options all “see” the same thing I do and in the same color space. I can now make my tools create exactly what my mind imagines. The question that wasn’t asked is this:

What is the language you use to communicate throughout your workflow?

I use the language of Photoshop first and foremost. It does not and cannot tell me what to do or how to do it. It does not create anything; I do that one brush stroke at a time. But it is the computer language/program that “speaks” to all the pieces of technology as I work. So the first thing I do when beginning a painting is to create a .psd file which is the native Photoshop file protocol. I have to be able to access other file protocols too, like .tif for getting maximum information from a scan, .cr2 for communicating with Camera Raw, and for emailing to my clients I use .jpg because computers, iPads and cell phones can read that format where they typically cannot read the others. If we exchange image files the color spaces must be the same from one computer to the other or I must convert them so they both convey the same color information. It’s like hiring a translator. There will also be one or more .docx files for the research documents I build, as for instance when I began educating myself about the Capitol Bridge in Austin and the Mexican free-tailed bat. There are several other file extensions too but this is a good idea of the ones I use most.

Then I begin adding various files to a master folder that will hold videos, slide shows and other images sent by the client or scans of images emailed, and my various research documents. This painting has about 25 total files with 16 of them in the .psd Photoshop format. PSD doesn’t save files bigger than 2 GBs so in the beginning I broke the image into separate files of logical parts, like the background, the bat, and the child. The files get so big because I work at 300 ppi and keep all versions so there’s a retreat-back option.

For this painting there are files holding the boy’s hair as the color was changed to match what the client “knew” rather than what the photos showed, another file is for the raised eyebrow as I worked out his quizzical look, one for the change in his shirt, and another for the highlights and shadows created by the setting sun, etc. Eventually I discovered that Photoshop has another file format (.psb) that can handle much larger files, so I no longer have so many separate files and folders. Once the image is finished to my and my client’s satisfaction, I make a much smaller, flattened version from which to print. All of my work is done on a gamers’ computer and even then it sometimes gets bogged down a bit.

The client’s last question:

4)  Does your process have a name?

There are many artists who work similarly. In spite of the modern, technological nature of the process of painting with pixels, I don’t use the term “modern artist” because that evokes an aesthetic rather than a process. But like those who use traditional media, the image outcomes vary tremendously with style, artistic vision, color sense, client base, even work ethic and business model. The generic term for what we all do is “artist,” then more descriptively “digital artist.” I rarely use that second term because it misses the point that there is no program to imagine and create the work for me. And it confuses those who’ve never seen a painting evolve and could have no idea that it takes time and effort as it always did. The benefits are many, however. Our home with my studio doesn’t smell of solvents, expensive paints don’t dry out in the tube, I have unlimited color mixable at will, my fingers are clean, I don’t have to wait for the paint to dry to continue working or to change my mind, I can mix media on one project if a watercolor sky with an oil pastel subject better evokes the scene, a painting is replaceable if lost to fire or other damage or loss. I am essentially unlimited except by my imagination.

It was fun for me to think this through as one might try to convey an unknown and highly abstract concept to an intelligent inquiry. Here’s hoping it was interesting to you and succeeded in clarifying the process of digital art.

Email me through the website or at sharyn @ lightpixiestudio.com with comments or questions.


This is the last photographic installment from last summer’s travels across America and the final images from my old but reliable camera. After three years of considering the options, my L-lenses are mounted on a new Canon 5D Mark iii. It’s love at first shutter click! As an official farewell to my old EOS XTi, here’s a look at the Badlands of South Dakota from two perspectives.

Badlands, South Dakota

What’s GOOD about the Badlands!

First thing is to make a plan and then change it when that’s the smarter thing to do.

We left Afton on an early August morning with no certainty of where we might end the day. The forecast was thunderstorms and rain with low ceilings across western Wyoming and into the plains. We gave up our week long plan to land at Green River Intergalactic Spaceport (for the novelty and to be able to say we’d done it) but to make a beginning nonetheless. The first half of our VFR (visual flight rules) plan didn’t work out but we used all our resources, and made deviations to a fuel stop at Casper, Wyoming. You may recall that Casper is where four years ago in high and gusty winds we nearly rolled the airplane into a ball on its very first landing ever away from the Aviat factory in Afton. Today the winds were mild and the weather pushed us along in that direction. All went well.


Discover the unexpected!

We left Casper under instrument flight rules (IFR) and were able to resume the second half of our original plan which took us over the Badlands in good weather–clear air, visibility unlimited. We landed on a very nice grass runway at Philip, South Dakota in late afternoon and were met by a rancher/pilot who was driving past the airport when he saw our landing and wondered what kind of airplane it was. He helped us with keys to the airport loaner car, called someone to open a hangar for us ($15 for the night) and generally was a good friend to a pair of vagabonds new to the neighborhood. Before long the plane was refueled, installed safely in the hangar, and we were welcomed to a small, family run motel in the nearby town. The airport loaner car was in good condition so we decided to drive the 60 mile Badlands National Park loop road toward Wall, SD. 

The Badlands from two amazing perspectives

Without further ado, here are the Badlands first from the air as a bird or pilot sees it and then on the ground as others do. Other worldly I’d say–from either perspective. We ended the day with steak dinners in a local bar and fell into an early and sound sleep, full of anticipation for returning home tomorrow.

Like a living geography lesson, tablelands and ancient erosion carve a rugged topography

Like a living geography lesson, tablelands and ancient erosion carve a rugged topography

Aerial view of the Badlands, South Dakota

Wild and hidden from all but the most determined, note the road running diagonally through the scene.

Badlands, South Dakota

Cattle Rustlers, Cowboys, Homesteaders, Bandits and Lawmen. The transit was hard but the privacy was endless.

Badlands, South Dakota

Glorious South Dakota sunset over the Badlands

Badlands, South Dakota

Mountain Goat stare-down on the Loop Road in The Badlands National Park, South Dakota

  • Beth Grady - These beautiful pictures make me want to go to the Badlands! Hope to see you in Michigan next summer!ReplyCancel

    • Light Pixie - It’s a remarkable place–from the weirdly interesting (which includes almost everything in the tourist town of Wall, South Dakota, at the west end of the park) to the starkly beautiful! And yes, I plan to be there.ReplyCancel

  • Phyllis Law Googasian - What wonderful photos, Sharyn! Thank you for sharing them.

Chipping Sparrow

Chipping Sparrow’s Punk Hair Day

Punk Hair Day

Nature is moving headlong toward summer. Spring wildflowers are springing forth.  Trees are fully dressed in a million shades of green. Last week we saw a doe nursing her fawn in the open meadow below our windows.  While Mama Chipping Sparrow is out of the nest working for her baby’s breakfast, I happen by to see her insistent chick complaining that it’s time to eat! More formally this infant sparrow is called a host. But today at this early hour, there’s nothing formal about it. Pin feathers akimbo and having a punk hair kind of day, we both stop to study one another.

Babies are beautiful!

As a recent grandmother babies are of renewed interest. And they’re all fascinating no matter their species. So today let’s be reminded of this: baby birds typically leave the nest before they’re ready to fly and once they do they will not typically return to it. This bird is fully feathered except for the tufts of down on the head but continues to depend on parents to bring it food and protect it from predators. It has not yet flown. I watched for many minutes while this little Albert Einstein mimic moved about the branches in front of our porch. Moved is a euphemism where I might just as well have said stumbled, lurched, or jostled headlong.

Good deed for the day!

It’s a myth that avian parents will reject a chick that has human scent on it as they have a very poorly developed sense of smell. If you find a baby bird where it might be trampled underfoot or harmed by a dog or a cat, by all means move it to a bush or branch a few feet off the ground, preferably out of the hot sun. And then watch from a distance but mostly leave it alone. The parents did not likely abandon it and will almost certainly return. In this case Mama Chipping Sparrow appeared suddenly on the downspout with her hard trilling chip warning me away. And there was breakfast in her bill. They eat mostly seeds and some crawling insects but I couldn’t tell what was on the du jour menu.

Chipping Sparrows are kindly birds by habit

These small birds are nice to watch as they are kind to one another by habit. Parents make pair bonds and fathers feed the mothers while they incubate four eggs. Once the young hatch both parents make food runs to sustain their brood. A week and a half later the young leave the nest just as this one did and within three days after that they are capable of weak but sustained flight. The feeding routine will continue for three more weeks as the young grow bigger and stronger. Worn out from the work of it, most parents will be satisfied with having done their duty for this year. Remember they are competent parents and know what to do far better than you. Their decline is because of competition from the Brown-headed cowbird, a nest predator, and not because of a parenting failure.

Then there is this legalese:

You may think you’re doing a good deed by “rescuing” a baby bird but in most cases it will do better without you. As a matter of fact, migratory bird laws protect all native wild birds in the US and Canada from possession for any reason, except transportation to a licensed rehabilitator, and that only in the direst of situations. It is against the law no matter how kindly your intentions may be and common sense dictates that, nestling or fledgling, you leave it be.

To learn more about the Chipping Sparrow check out the Cornell Ornithology Lab.

  • Beth Grady - What a beautiful picture, Sharyn.! We are 106 degrees in Lodi today! The grapes will need lots of water. ReplyCancel

  • Sharyn Richardson - More of the goings on around here: We skipped spring altogether this year and went from brutal winter right into summer. No complaints!ReplyCancel

  • Paul - Very niceReplyCancel