Sunday, May 18, 2008

Embrace the Chaos

I believe that there's a fine line between stress and excitement. That fine line is our attitude. Life can be chaotic, with an amazing assortment of hurdles, some small, some big, thrown at us daily. We must build our internal energy up so that we are able to face these challenges with a smile. Define your purpose. Live for the mission. Focus. I use the analogy that the challenges we face are like a huge wave which threaten to drown us if we simply continue dog paddling in place. We must grab the surfboard of faith, confidence, determination, and joy and ride that wave. We can't tell exactly how far we'll ride, or where we'll be when the ride is over. All we can do is enjoy the rush as it happens.

Friday, May 16, 2008

The Mission

I've been tossing this around for a long time and I think I finally found a concise way of expressing what I hold dear about my path.

The Mission

  • To appreciate beauty
  • To create images which express beauty
  • To help others to appreciate beauty

I am a servant of Beauty, Peace, and Love.

My goals are achieved when my heart is warmed with the beauty of a landscape, a flower, or a smile; when I express beauty through the creation of paintings and photographs; and by helping others through teaching and sharing my work. When I create, I have fulfilled a primary reason for my existence. When others are generous enough to offer payment for my creations, this is a blessing which allows me to continue on my creative path. I am humbled by their support.

New paintings underway

I'm just posting to say I'm currently working on four new paintings. Two are landscapes with tulips in the foreground (22 x 28") and two are smaller works (16 x 20") which are details of flowers, one of tulips, the others of daffodils. This will be the first time that I've done close up paintings of flowers. I'm hopeful that they will be well received.

Sunday, May 11, 2008


This weekend, I thought of some of my childhood memories and one got my pen moving. It was about the hill at the end of Muskopf Road in Fairfield (named after my great-grandfather's farmhouse at the end of the road). While a youth, I spent many hours wandering up and down and all over the hill and the small forest which was on it and around it. I think it was these walks which laid the foundation for my fascination with landscape which found itself expressed through my paintings. I thought I'd post the piece here. The format is loosely based on George Ella Lyon's poem "Where I'm From".

I'm from the twinkling blue sky
peaking through green leaves
I'm from the damp, rich musk of the
forest floor after a rain
with the mud sucking at my boots
with a loud "glug" and "smack"
I'm from the sound of birds singing and squirrels
crashing like elephants through dry leaves
I'm from the steep hill, the fallen log
covered with moss over a cool stream
I'm from the sense of panic knowing
I'm in trouble again, not home in time
Late for dinner, not back before dark,
muddy again
I'm from the sad realization of more lawnmowers
fences, driveways, and dogs barking
Of knowing that my vast wilderness
became a tiny hill between neighborhoods

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Garden Safari

When I began taking photos which would stand alone as creative works themselves, not merely as records of events or other artwork, I found myself drawn to the tiny world of close-up and macro photography. My techniques changed as my equipment changed, from my Nikon 800, to the Nikon 5700, to the Canon dslrs, but the intent was always the same. To paraphrase Georgia O'Keeffe, "when you pick up a flower and really look at it, it becomes your world." I like that idea, that when you stare at something, it fills your vision and your consciousness in a very strange way. I can't really say that I don't see what's to the left or right, but I certainly don't notice. This "filling the world" with flowers and the busy insects that visit them is like taking a safari to a new and wonderful land, where the only passport we need is to step out our front doors.

I'm going to be putting up a new web page soon called "Garden Safari" on my web site at On it, I'll be posting my newest close up and macro shots as I progress through the summer. For now, I'll post some older shots and talk about how they were created. You can see more of my older close-up photos at

Bee on Grape Hyacinth. Shot with a 70-200 f/2.8 IS lens with a 500D closeup lens on it. The 500D is a great addition to the gear bag, since it will turn a long lens into a close focusing lens in seconds.

I used the same configuration to shoot this carpenter bee in flight.

A green bottle fly on stonecrop with the 70-200 and 500D.

This hoverfly was shot using a Nikon 5700 with the TC attached and a Canon 500D closeup lens in front of it (with lots of step-up rings).

One thing you might notice is that the smaller sensor on the 5700 often gave a wider DOF to the image.

The wolf spider was shot with the 5700, TC, 500D set up.

I'll take time to discuss more techniques if anyone is interested. Please feel free to leave comments. I'll answer them as soon as I can.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Thinking about Learning

I put up the previous post to give a bit of background for this one. Fisher and Frey talk about learning as a transition from Teachers doing all the work to the eventual Student doing all the work. They argue that the hierarchy moves from Focus Lessons to Guided Instruction to Collaborative Learning and finally to Independent Learning where students have received modeled, guided, and collaborative learning experiences related to concepts needed to complete independent tasks. Independent tasks extend beyond practice to application and extension of new knowledge.

Stephen Covey, author of 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, puts forth the argument that personal development moves from a state of Dependence to a state of Independence and finally to a state of Interdependence. Covey is stating that people who are secure in themselves can synergistically blend their talents and ideas with those of others to create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

I think it's interesting to wonder which is the most important, collaboration or independence. "Both" would be the easy answer. I think the real answer is something like this:

1. Focus Lessons: We need someone to get us started.

2. Guided Instruction: We need help getting started.

3. Collaboration: We need to work together to create something new and wonderful.

4. Independence: We are ready to independently experiment and hone our craft


5. Collaboration: When we hit a roadblock as an independent learner, we must share our ideas with others in order that this blending creates something new which overcomes the barrier.


6. Independence: We set out on our new path (until the next roadblock, then we go to collaboration again).

Thinking about my own learning in the past few years, most of it has been either collaborative or independent, and rarely has it been exclusively either one. In fact, I'd say that the times when I was most independent were probably the times when I repeated myself the most, thus creating my own roadblock. The times when I was most collaborative, I think I lost a bit of the self worth and pride that comes from independent achievement.

Both are necessary. Neither is superior.

Art Education: A look at learning

I recently took a course on improvement achievement and we discussed the types of lessons put forward by Fisher and Frey, how the hierarchy of lessons goes from teacher focused to independent learner focused. I'm going to post the short paper I wrote regarding that here and will discuss learning as an artist in a subsequent post.

Improving Student Achievement in the Art Classroom

M. Todd Muskopf
May 3, 2008

Improving Student Achievement in the Art Classroom

This paper will discuss classroom procedures and concepts, which will allow teachers to inspire students to become eager participants in their own learning about Art. I will lay out some general guidelines, based on the work of Fisher and Frey and apply them to an example lesson. In this lesson, my 8th grade students create life-size mixed-media sculptures made from plaster casts taken from their bodies and added with various other media to depict a student-chosen subject. In this one lesson, we actually go through the first three phases of teaching, Focus Lessons, Guided Instruction, and Collaborative Learning. The last phase, Independent Learning, is encouraged in my classes, but by definition is worked on during after-school sessions or at home.

Task 1: Inspire (Focus)

Morale is the spirit by which Huns submit their services to the tribe. It is not uncontrolled celebration and romping around the campfire (Roberts, 1987, p. 36)

In Theory: When beginning a lesson, it is vital to build interest and enthusiasm for the lesson to make sure the students are paying attention. This could result from a description of what they are going to do, showing them an example of what has been done before, and challenge them to exceed what has gone before. Establish the purpose and context of the task in the art historical and the cultural contexts. Discuss the media to be used and the methods for using it, and how this project is unique to their grade level and that it is their privilege to be given this task. Explain the benefits and difficulties of the activity. Keep challenging them and building excitement. Go through a sample project out loud, modeling the step-by-step thought process of how one past student’s project was begun and brought to fruition. Encourage metacognitive awareness, teaching the students to think through their problems by examining the core issues. Above all, keep challenging the students and building their excitement.

In Practice: I begin this lesson with a warning that I only trust the 8th graders to do this project because it is costly and is potentially dangerous if done incorrectly (not really dangerous, but I play that up to get them excited). I describe the representative sculptures from the Greeks through the Renaissance and into the modern sculptures of George Segal, showing them photos to set an art historical context.

I then show the students a short section of a video on making plaster gauze masks demonstrating the technique. When the video is done, I then continue the lecture reiterating the proper technique and actually begin wrapping my left hand with plaster while I’m speaking. This models the appropriate behavior while at the same time piquing their interest. I begin describing how the plaster portions are mounted on cardboard and paper mache and can be combined with real clothing or items. I describe the sculptures of swimmers and soccer players and superheroes that have been made in the past. I break them into pairs or trios to work together, and that for each of them to obtain the plaster casts of themselves for their project, they will be dependent on the labor of their colleagues to actually do the wrapping. I challenge them that they must be incredibly disciplined and make every minute count, because they will have roughly 25 minutes to come in, apply the release agent, and complete wrapping the body part, since it then takes about 10 minutes to dry and 10 minutes to clean up. They are encouraged to voluntarily stay after school on Mondays and Tuesdays for my “open studio” sessions in order to do larger and more complex sculptures than could be completed in our normal class (one 45 minute class period meeting once a week). By the time my talk is over, I have finished the plaster cast of my hand and take it off and show it to them as the period ends. Their homework is to design what they will create and bring their drawing to class with them next week. We begin with the end in mind.

Task 2: Getting Started (Guided Instruction)

Chieftains must inspect their Huns frequently in order to see that what is accomplished meets with what is expected (Roberts, 1987, p. 63)

In Theory: With guided instruction, it is important to see small groups of students working together with a common purpose. These groups can be changed from project to project to effectively forestall conflicts or jealousies among students. The teacher is an active participant in the activity, and there is continual dialogue between the teacher and groups of students as ideas and techniques are defined and learned. The teacher uses open-ended questioning to facilitate student identification of core problems and help the groups to work together in solving them.

In Practice: Students are broken into groups of two or three. One student will be the model to be wrapped and the others will do the wrapping. I will go from group to group, demonstrating proper techniques, asking questions to help the students problem-solve, being a timekeeper, and, above all, being a cheerleader. This is a complex, challenging project and the student’s self-motivation is critical to the project’s success.

Task 3: Synergy (Collaborative Thinking)

Leaders must encourage creativity, freedom of action and innovation among their subordinates, so long as these efforts are consistent with the goals of the tribe or nation. (Roberts, 1987, p. 62)

In Theory: Collaborative thinking occurs when the teacher has effectively removed himself from an active role and the student groups take charge of their own learning. The stage has been set, the action is in motion, and the teacher is now in the role of a consultant, observer, timekeeper, and, of course, cheerleader. The hard work of learning and problem solving at this point is done by the students with minimal teacher input. The students are working together in a synergistic manner, each contributing to the success of their partners as well as their own success.

There are times when neither the teacher nor the student knows for sure what’s going to happen. In the beginning, there’s a safe environment that enables people to be really open and to learn and to listen to each other’s ideas. Then comes brainstorming, where the spirit of evaluation is subordinated to the spirit of creativity, imagining, and intellectual networking. Then an absolutely unusual phenomenon begins to take place. The entire class is transformed with the excitement of a new thrust, a new idea, a new direction that’s hard to define, yet it’s almost palpable to the people involved. (Covey, 2004, p. 265)

In Practice: When the groups are experienced enough that they need little guidance, I step back and let them work things out for themselves. My job at that time is to maintain the materials, make sure the proper schedule is followed, etc. Questions from the students are fewer and it generally comes down to letting them bring their dreams into reality.

Task 4: Independent Learning

Wise chieftains grant both authority and responsibility to those they have delegated assignments. (Roberts, 1987, p. 74)

In Theory: Students who have been taught the procedures for doing tasks need to complete these independently. Independence fosters experimentation and allows for personal bias to direct learning. The teacher is available to conference concerning the independent work as well as evaluate it when applicable.

In Practice: My students are assigned a few drawing assignments per quarter which are to be done out of class. The students are given a topic, but the topic is very broad, so as to foster variation and independent thought. They are given a rubric which specifies that they will be graded on showing details (depict representational subject matter effectively), shading (the gradual shift from light to dark to show 3-dimensional form), composition (effectively arranging the items in the picture), creativity, and effort. The students are also encouraged to do and turn in unassigned drawings which will be discussed and will count as extra credit. Furthermore, I stay after school on Mondays and Tuesdays and students are free to stay and work independent projects.

Studying Fisher and Frey’s concept of teacher responsibility and student responsibility shifting has been of benefit to me to identify and clarify some of the things that I’ve already been doing in the classroom. In lower grades (K-2), my classes tend to focus on Focused Lesson and Guided Instruction, in middle grades (3-6), I tend to use Focused Lesson, Guided Instruction and Collaborative Learning, and in the upper grades (7-8), I use all four types of Focused Lesson, Guided instruction, Collaborative Learning, and Independent Learning. I hope in the future to apply more of the Collaborative and Independent models with younger students in the future.


Covey, S. (2004) The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Free Press, (Original work published 1989.

Fisher, D. and Frey, N. (2008) Better Learning Through Structured Teaching, A Framework for the Gradual Release of Responsibility. ASCD,

Fisher, D. (2006) Creating Literacy-Rich Schools for Adolescents, Available Online at

Roberts, W. (1987) Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun, Warner Books.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Photographing Artwork

I often see people looking for tips for shooting photos of artwork. Here are a few ideas.

Have the painting placed vertically on a wall (not leaning against something or inclined on an easel). Check it with a bubble level. I've painted the wall I shoot against a dark matte color so it doesn't reflect into the lens.

Make sure camera is placed on a sturdy tripod and use a shoe-mounted bubble level to make sure the camera is also level.

My favorite lens for shooting artwork is my 85mm f/1.8. It's very sharp and doesn't distort the edges of the work. I shoot at f/8, ISO 100.

Use hot lights at 45 degree angles to the artwork. You can see if you are getting specular highlights off the artwork. Flag off light if necessary. Make sure the light covers the artwork evenly.

Use a cable release and mirror lock-up to minimize camera shake.

Use a gray card and something to use as a white and black point to the side of the artwork to make sure your exposure is correct. Shoot RAW and adjust color and exposure in post-processing.

Adjust shutter speed for available light.


Thursday, May 1, 2008

New Products

Today I posted two new offerings for my portrait clients, acrylic statuettes and buttons. I'm thinking these will be picked up mostly for the family and children sessions, but who knows? Perhaps couples will dig these as well. The couple of clients I've shown them to so far have both ordered, so I have high hopes for them.


If you haven't downloaded iTunes, you really should, even if you don't have an iPod. I listen to mine on my PDA with the Realplayer. Maybe you can listen to them on your phone or whatever. I've been listening to a bunch of podcasts lately and they've really been helpful.

Here's a list of my favorites:
Creative Lube
Chase Jarvis

Check them out on iTunes. You'll be happier. If you have a favorite I haven't listed, please list them in the comments. I love finding new cool podcasts.


I tried to take some recent advice and try my hand at shooting birds in flight. I thought it was an interesting idea, so I went outside for a half hour or so and tried to find birds around my yard. It might've been the windy conditions or my cat in the window, but no birds came to visit. I did notice a few bees, so I tried to get a bee in flight instead of a bird in flight. I'll see if I can come up with a few good bird pics as the summer comes along. I can see it takes a lot of patience and dedication to get good bird shots.

Gearheads Begone!

I had a student of mine ask me yesterday what lenses I used with my camera. I replied "a 50mm f/1.4, an 85mm f/1.8, a 17-40L f/4, and a 70-200mm f/2.8L IS. His eyes got big and he just said "whoa". He hasn't gotten his first advanced camera yet, and is still in the dream phase. I think he was impressed that I had more than one lens per body, rather than the actual lenses themselves. I also don't think he knew much about the actual lenses, whether they were good or not, whether they were expensive or not, he just knew enough to know that I was not listing an 18-55 kit lens.

I find lots of folks out there who, even after having had SLRs or DSLRs, are still in this "gearhead" phase of checking out what everyone else has. They think "if only I had THAT combination, then I'd be able to take the photos I want! This goes for bodies, lenses, tripods, software, etc. In fact, the first question I get if someone walks up to me when I'm out somewhere shooting is "what kind of camera is that?". I can see the checklist forming in their mind: My Stuff/His Stuff--who's is better?--who will win? [FYI: I'm being a little extreme here with my writing to exxagerate the point. I've just been waylayed a number of times and have missed shots while trying to be nice to people who would like nothing better than to chat about gear] In order to prevent this, I've actually taken gaffer tape and taped over the markings on my camera bodies and lenses. It's really funny to walk through a crowded event and see lots of people craning their head to try to figure out which brand/body/lens combos I'm using. The big white lens on the 70-200 gives that one away, but the others are tougher to figure out. When they ask me what cameras I'm using, I just say "Canon". That's enough for most of them, and I suspect that they automatically assume I have the latest and greatest model. Silly.

My advice on gear:

DSLR BODIES: At low ISO ratings (100, 200, even 400), you're not going to notice much difference between models in the same brand--unless it's Nikon, because their older cameras didn't do so well at 400 and above, whereas the new ones are nice). Buy what you can afford and buy the next one only when your present one will not give you what you need. Even the earliest dslrs would make great 8 x 10 prints. If that's all you're shooting, don't worry about getting the latest and greatest. In the past few years, we went through some new product offerings where it was the same camera as the previous model, but with a bigger LCD. Big whoop. The newest rounds are adding Live View (nice, but unless you're shooting tethered how much are you really going to use it?) and sensor cleaning (shake, shake, shake, but really, how hard is it to clean a sensor? Come on, it's a gimmick). As they pack more pixels into the same size sensor, the real challenge for manufacturers is to keep the image quality and noise reduction EQUAL to previous models, not better than previous models. That being said, a 10 MP image of equal quality is better than an 8 MP image if you're going to be printing it huge--say 20 x 30 or more. If you're printing 8 x 10's or 11 x 17's, you're not going to see much difference. Will you be able to strut a bit more if your camera is the newest?--sure. Will it make you a better photographer?--probably not.

LENSES: Here is where I will tell you that spending the extra money is definitely worth it. Get good glass. You may not need the best stuff, but stay away from the cheapest. When buying lenses, you should first decide what you intend to shoot. If it's going to be a lot of available light stuff, then a lens with a wide aperture (f/1.4-f/2.8) is going to be great, because you'll have more control and get a higher shutter speed with these lenses. Beware though, that some of these lenses (like the Canon 50mm 1.4) are really soft until you stop down to f/2.0 or better. Just because you can shoot at f/1.4 doesn't mean you should. If you're going to be shooting outside, or using flash all the time, you can spend less money and get an f/4 lens and it'll work out fine for you. You'll probably start out with a kit lens (18-55 or so). After that, decide what you want--wider field of view, more telephoto, etc. and let your needs guide your purchases. Don't buy things to build a collection.

TRIPODS: I can't believe what people spend on tripods. Carbon Fiber is all the rage right now, since it's so light and high-tech. Personally, I can't understand why people would spend hundreds of dollars more to save a pound of weight when they're tromping through the woods. If you want to save a pound of weight, eat less pie the week before you go. :) NOTE: I got a message from a person who loves their CF tripod. I'm sure they're very nice. I suppose I'm just too frugal.

Some considerations for tripods would be--LEGS: do you need the independent legs, or would you rather get the legs that connect to each other? I have Benbo Trekker aluminum legs and I love them. I've used them for 5 years in all types of terrain ranging from the ocean, to rocks in rivers, to steps, etc. and the legs always find a good foothold. Reasonably priced and stable.

SIZE: Not all tripods will fit in your luggage, and you'd better plan for the tripod to be in your packed luggage when flying. I bought a cheap set of legs from Amvona (on Ebay) because they're small when packed up, yet extend to a comfortable working height. It's not the greatest, but for something I'm mainly going to use submerged in salt water, that's fine with me.

WEIGHT: For tripods, weight=stability. An ultralight tripod is going to blow over (with your camera attached) in a high wind or if it gets bumped. Getting a tripod with a hook at the bottom of the center post to attach weight to it works, but you have to remember to use it every time.

HEADS: I've got a lot of different tripod heads, each with different purposes. My favorite is a Manfrotto 322RC pistol grip ball head, which I use either on a monopod or on a tripod. It's fast and solid. In the studio, I usually use a tilt/pan head, because it's easier to make fine adjustments.

STRAPS: I recommend the OP/Tech camera straps with the quick release buckles. They're great when you're using multiple cameras all day long. Those woven straps that come with cameras are awful after a few hours.

VEST: I've got a Domke vest and love it. Nuff said.

BAGS: I have a few different Lowepro backpacks and a Tamrac 5405 shoulder bag. I use the backpacks to carry large amounts of gear, but when it actually comes time to shoot, I pull out what I want, put it in my vest, and leave the backpack in the room or in the van. Walking around with a big backpack full of all the stuff you "might" need is not a good thing. The Tamrac 5405 is a nice little bag for carrying one cam with a shorter lens along with my phone, PDA, dig voice recorder, and other small gadgets. I carry this around wherever I go. It does get heavy after a few hours and cause some shoulder pain, so I bought the Domke mail carrier pad and that helps a lot.

CF CARDS: I like the Sandisk Ultra IIs. They work. I've had problems with Lexar and Kingston, so I don't even consider them. To keep my CF cards, I use a Think Tank Pixel Pocket Rocket (dumb name--nice product). It holds 10 cards and folds up nicely with a lanyard which I clip to my vest loop for added security.

BATTERIES: SterlingTek is a great little company. I've been using their batteries for 5 years. The couple of times there were problems, they replaced the batteries without hesitation.