public space

The world is our studio

This spring my University of Washington drama grads and I went on a whopping five field trips around town. Seattle abounds in outrageously draw-able scenery, even more so if you explore past the typical tourist sites and find those gems that are hidden in plain sight. Since this is a life drawing class, we are always accompanied by one of our fantastic models, who enjoy showing up in outfits apropos of the location. Drawing the model on location puts the life back into life drawing. Advanced students need the additional challenge of spatial relationships, scale, and changing lighting, but beginners respond well to the change of scene, too.

conventioncenterA day intended to be spent in Freeway Park was too chilly and rainy to hang around outside, so we moved indoors to the nearby Washington State Convention Center. It’s a public facility with lots of tables and chairs, very convenient for drawing, looking (to me at least) as if it were intended for that purpose. Suspended above the freeway on the third floor, surrounded by skyscrapers, the model seemed to be in an abstract environment that isn’t immediately discernible in the drawings. It’s a little disconcerting how outdoor space bumps up visually against indoor space, with unexpected vertiginous elevation changes. Kind of like an avant-garde stage set.

amanda3amanda2conventionamandaconcreteThe concrete forms (which abound in the park next door) have a sort of soviet-union feel to them, something the workers might spend their allotted leisure time picnicking on. Present-day capitalist workers enjoy a smoke beneath us.

watercolors&smokersThe weather was more cooperative a few weeks later for our trip to Seattle Center. Home of the iconic Space Needle, it also has lots of interesting courtyards tucked away on its mid-century futuristic grounds. The International Fountain is a favorite hangout of locals, but we got there in the morning before it was overrun by children (or even water).

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A much smaller fountain and wading pool is hidden around the corner, surrounded by Flintstonesque walls and dotted with big flat rocks. As with the other fountain, one should get there before the kids for ideal (and dry) drawing conditions.

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A few weeks later, we were back to shivering again, downtown at the Harbor Steps, another great public space and exercise in three-point perspective. When we got too cold, we ducked into the Seattle Art Museum for warmth, where we drew, and even painted, unmolested in the lobby.

peteartmuseumBut wait! What’s that bright yellow thing outside the window? The sun! Time to go back outside . . . to a top-secret location on the scenic and underused roof of a nearby office building, where it is also apparently acceptable to draw and paint.

rooftoppanoThe following week it was unambiguously sunny for our final class, which was spent at the Center for Wooden Boats in South Lake Union Park. The setting is almost like a mini-landscape lesson, with the horizon line conveniently delineated along the other side of Lake Union, nearby large ships looming red in the foreground, and distant trees receding into handy bluish atmospheric perspective. Flat lawns, water reflections, even a shady side of the building for when it gets too hot. Amanda looked so authoritative in her nautical garb, some tourists asked for information while she modeled.

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Painting scenery

My University of Washington Drama students and I went on a little drawing excursion this month to a train station that isn’t really a train station, with stone walls that aren’t really stone. No passengers have embarked upon their adventures from Seattle’s Union Station since 1971 when the last train stopped here. This 1911 beauty had stood vacant and unloved for thirty years until a local developer restored it to its former glory. But you still can’t get on a train; you have to walk across the street to King Street Station to do that. I brought along a suitcase anyway, for our model to use as a prop.

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On previous drawing visits, I had struggled a bit with the color of the stone walls in the Great Hall. They were kind of creamy, kind of yellowy, not quite sandstone; and several different variations of this non-color in a random pattern of big blocks. As it turns out, I might have just consulted Sherwin-Williams for the color numbers.

On this day, a tall scissor lift was set up in the corner, with a couple of men doing some kind of work on the walls. I assumed they were masons making repairs to the stone.

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When I got closer, I saw that they were actually just painting.

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Well then. I touched the lower part of the wall and finally figured out that the large blocks stone were actually textured plaster. The “grout” lines between the blocks had been carefully taped off, rendered smooth, and painted yet another shade of off-white.

I’ve done some faux painting in my time and this looked like the job from hell: a boring palette, a labor-intensive-yet-subtle finish that barely registers to the casual observer, a confusing rotation of annoyingly similar colors, ceilings and arches guaranteed to permanently disable one’s neck, and, of course, the absurd sisyphean nature of the task.

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The irony that I had taken a bunch of scenic and costume designers to draw a giant room full of scenery was lost on no one.

measuringOur next drawing destination of the day was a little-known historical site neither ironic nor fake. Yes, I’m talking about the Birthplace of United Parcel Service. The 1967 plaque on the sidewalk outside is delightfully cold-warry and totally unironic:

In August 1907, in a 6 by 17 foot office under the original sidewalk here, a few messenger boys began the business which their many thousand successors extended throughout the vast regions of our country covered by United Parcel Service today. Exemplifying the opportunities open to private citizens under the Constitution of the United States of America, this plaque was placed in January 1967, with the cooperation and appreciation of the Seattle Historical Society.

Take that, Commies, with your inferior state-run parcel services. As if you could order any stuff in the first place.

Inside the imposing gate is a lovely and very loud courtyard enclosure, a private park open to the workers during workdays, filled with blooming plants, waterfalls, and, on this day, a horde of children who, like us, were out on a field trip.

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Model Travis swarmed by feral children at the birthplace of UPS.

Model Travis swarmed by feral children at the birthplace of UPS.

Screen Time

The screen stare/phone fondle: a posture so perfectly emblematic of our cultural moment. When these distracted creatures are not running you down on a city sidewalk, they make excellent drawing subjects. There are ample opportunities for drawing people in this classic pose. Personally, my preferred setting is the bus.

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Invariably, subjects are so enraptured by their devices they remain stationary for long periods and almost never notice that they’re being drawn. Sometimes they hug their phone so close, I feel like I’m intruding on an intimate moment.

 

 

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It’s a good opportunity to draw moving hands quickly, and usually that’s the only thing moving.

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Here are some students in the business school cafeteria at the University of Washington.

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The gentleman below appears to have sprouted an unusually large thumb. Should this make him more effective at navigating, say, dating sites, the trait might have a selective advantage and we could see many more of these in future generations.

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Shhhhhhhh!

My UW Drama grads and I made our annual pilgrimage to the spectacular Seattle Central Public Library in November, accompanied by the ubiquitous and always-stylish model Amanda, dressed to match the architecture in a pattern of multicolored trapezoids that referenced the steel grid covering the building.

We met up at nine and had an hour to kill before the library opened its doors, so we engaged in a bit of guerilla urban sketching in a large office building across the street. Usually this sort of thing goes well for me, attracting generally positive attention and curiosity. This time it got me in trouble with the building manager.  Talking fast yet amiably, I managed to successfully convince her that we were harmless, and by the end of the conversation she was dragging chairs out of the cafe for us to sit on. The epic Henry Moore sculpture in front of the building had apparently given me a falsely arty impression of the building; like many corporate glass and steel towers, it boasts an impressive, artfully furnished, and utterly underused lobby. Heck, we were doing them a favor, “activating the space” as they say in urban planning parlance.

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At the library, by contrast, we were warmly greeted by event services manager Cara Cronholm, who has been welcoming my classes there for the last several years. We began in the fourth-floor shiny red organically undulating hallway, where the utter strangeness of the space forced everyone to actually look at their surroundings rather than fill in from whatever is in their head. You can’t  make this stuff up.

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For the second pose in this area, Amanda stood down a narrow side hallway from us, backlit by the capricious Seattle winter light projecting through the harlequin grid of the library’s exterior. Everyone had to sort out and filter the cacophony of colored light, reflections, and reflections of reflections to interpret the scene for themselves, resulting in a great variety of compositional and material choices.

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We were joined by my pal Jeff Scott, a painter and scenic artist who will be teaching these same students theatrical set painting this winter. Claiming to be rusty at drawing, he nevertheless came up with this forced-perspective stunner:

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Onward to the tenth floor to visit the Reading Room , although I don’t know how anyone can get any reading done surrounded by that visual feast of geometric pattern, light, and encompassing views of the city all around you.

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While there’s plenty to be said for the time-honored practice of academic study of the human form in a controlled studio setting, humans exist in historical times and physical places. Judging from the work done by even the least-experienced drawers among us, inspiration for theatre, painting, and any other visual art can be had in abundance just by getting out in the world and drawing them there.

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A truck stop for fishermen

The University of Washington Drama drawing class wrapped up with a field trip to Fishermen’s Terminal, a moorage for both working and pleasure boats, with restaurants and services for fishermen and -women. We we accompanied by our intrepid and always-dapper model Amanda. Context brings so much life to life drawing, but is inexplicably left out of most figure classes. There is, for one, the light to contend with, changing the color, bouncing around, casting shadows, and reflecting off of water in this particular situation.

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Here is everyone’s first go at tackling the complicated scenery, with its plethora of vertical masts and fenceposts.

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The scale of the boats in relation to the figure also presented interesting composition problems. Less expected was the element of text: Boats have names, and those names are writ large. Artists sometimes freeze up when confronted with text. They go into what used to be called left-brain mode and forget how to draw. Words have a way of obliterating the rest of the drawing. Something about “Ricky K “, however, was so juicy and tempting that most of the students (and I) wanted to tackle it. Those who included it really succeeded in keeping it in its place as a visual element. The drawings hold together, in spite of being so texty.

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My polka-dotted skirt appears twice in in this peripatetic panoramic photo of the last pose of the year.

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Make that second-last pose, since Amanda’s and my coordinated outfits also begged to be documented.

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Kulture in Kirkland

Apparently the good dive bars still left in Seattle are in the suburbs. For our final session of “Life Drawing in the Real World”, we took a little excursion into the eponymous real world to draw the locals. I found the Central Club in downtown Kirkland, Washington through a quick search of Google maps: The interior camera shot told me it was the place, which was confirmed when I walked in and was immediately greeted warmly by the bartender and the three regulars sitting at the end of the bar. Everyone was so friendly, I thought for a moment I was back in Cleveland and not in the reputedly chilly Pacific Northwest (which reputation is greatly exaggerated, by the way).  Since the bar was nearly empty and my students would soon outnumber the other patrons, I figured it was best to tell these nice people what we were up to. People’s reactions over the course of the evening ranged from enthusiasm, to utter indifference (which is what you want), to the single hostile inebriated patron who soon forgot the point she was trying to make about the questionable legality of our activity.

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People lined up at a bar actually make a nice composition, and tend to stay put. Before the bar started filling up, they were our only choice of human subject, along with their busy liquor-bottle-and-lottery-poster-dotted backdrop. This gentleman’s hand moved so quickly across the gambling touch-screen that it was mostly drawn from a composite memory of hands in my head, but visual memory is generally what you rely on when you draw moving people.

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It was also some of the students’ first experience drawing in public. Some people, mostly women, absolutely hate it. They are either self-conscious about the drawings themselves, or fear that staring at people will draw unwanted attention back on themselves. Hallie Bateman, writing in the Awl, created an illustrated guide to drawing people in the subway that is both hilarious and useful, offering tips on making yourself invisible. Paul Hogarth suggests starting out by drawing through a window (presumably from the inside out or you’d look like a perv) or positioning yourself next to a mirror to sneakily draw people’s reflections. (Creative Ink Drawing, Watson-Guptill 1968)

We were all very open about our intentions, and we had the safety of numbers, but I did have to fend off a pool player or two (who, by the way, make for great gesture drawings) who were a little too enthusiastic about being drawn by a table of women, perhaps misinterpreting the nature of our interest.

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A lovely ink-wash and pen sketch by a student, an experienced drawer and new convert to locational drawing.

 

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Student drawing in pen.

Student drawing in pen.

One of the tipsy pool players, watching us scribble to catch up with their (self-consciously) showy arabesques did make the offhand remark that we “needed a camera.”  Which is, first of all, funny, because this was a drawing class, and secondly, indicative of a common misperception that a camera is somehow a better, faster version of the human eye and brain and hand. Besides the entire social and human implications of looking, thinking, talking, and drinking with people whom you are representing, BESIDES all that, a camera is actually incredibly inefficient in many visual situations, a darkly lit bar among them. Here is my first attempt at documenting the scene mechanically:

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The camera on my phone “thinks” that the neon guitar is the most important thing in the frame, does all kinds of wacky things with the lights, and you can barely make out the hand and sketchbook in the foreground which I was trying to capture.

I did manage to get one decent photo after I turned off the flash, but the sketches, even those of beginners, actually documented a lot more information than the camera, as well as being a darn sight more interesting.

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Let’s go to business school!

They do get all the good architecture. Last Friday my UW Drama drawing class went on a little field trip across the street to Paccar Hall, home of the Foster School of Business. There’s an abundance of glass and steel, and a sweeping overlook of the bustling cafeteria. Our model posed on the sleek staircase, and down below in the atrium while we drew her from above, peering over the edge through the glass wall.

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For some of the students, it was the first time drawing a model in such a busy, perspective-heavy environment. Here’s one successful sketch, done on gray paper in black and white pen by the lady in the purple sweater.

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An unsuspecting business student (or some other kind of student who just likes hanging out there) inadvertently  modeled for us as well, adding some context and a nice visual counterpoint.

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In the film “Drawing on Life“, one of the sketching architects they interviewed estimated that a stranger in a public place will “pose” for you for about three minutes before moving. This reading woman posed a little longer. In my experience, if the person is stuck waiting, in an airport, say, they will eventually go back to the same position so you can finish your drawing. This one is unfinished only because I had to go and help other people with their drawings.

In sepia ink wash and ballpoint pen:

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The angles and long depth of field posed challenges, but also provided some guides for placing the figure, and for measuring and proportion. Someone asked me where to start, the figure or the ground. The real answer is “both,” but that wouldn’t have been very helpful. As a practical solution, I told him to start with an obvious straight line that intersected the figure, horizontal or vertical first, then move on to the oblique lines that you have to visually measure.

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Shifting your focus back and forth between figure and ground does not come naturally. We’re hard-wired to focus on a single item in our overcrowded visual environments. Those of us who stopped to gaze at the intricate patterns made by the grasses of the savannah were eaten by lions before they could reproduce. Which means we are basically descended from philistines, which should surprise no one.

These students, focusing diligently on the shapes and shadows before them, are in very little danger of being eaten by wild animals,  but I suppose someone could steal that coffee that’s just sitting there.

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Life Drawing for the Real World

Traditionally, one usually learns to draw other humans by paying one of them to take off their clothes and stand very still for you while a teacher points out anatomical features and holds forth on proportion, measurement, and other essential skills. It’s basically effective, except that after years of these life classes I’ve noticed that people tend to get really good at drawing a very still naked person on a featureless platform in a featureless room.

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“Nude man seated” by Thomas Eakins – Scanned from “Thomas Eakins:Artist of Philadelphia” by Darrel Sewell. ISBN 0876330472. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

However, the real life applications of this skill don’t just materialize of their own accord. Real people in the real world move around, even (or especially) if they know you’re drawing them. They tend to wear clothes. And they usually move about in places other than model stands, like parks, train stations, shopping malls, and houses.

As well as greenhouses, where they sometimes play the guitar…

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Drawing THOSE people can be really interesting, as well as quite difficult: it’s a skill you can only get by drawing real people, clothes and activities and surroundings and all. In my life classes, I make students draw clothing early on in the process, and, even more sadistically, I make them draw the model from memory after he or she leaves the room. Field trips are the most fun. The more captivating the setting, the more likely one is to include it in the drawing, and the better one becomes at knowing and rendering how a figure is connected to the space around it.

These are some student drawings from a field trip, with model, to the Seattle Central Library…

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This one is mine from that session.

This one is mine from that session.

The real-real world part comes in when the “figure”is a stranger going about their business. When I draw on the bus, those hundreds of life classes are in the back of my brain, feeding the beast, but the only way to learn to draw the people on the bus is by actually drawing the people on the bus.

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Six views of Richard Serra’s Wake

We wrapped up Drawing on Location yesterday at the Olympic Sculpture Park. Drawing a piece of art, whether it’s an old Dutch master in a stuffy museum or a giant abstract rusted metal situation in a sunny waterfront park, sometimes feels like the only way to experience it fully. In the latter case, you also have to deal with its entire environment, including those pesky trees. In looking at four different artists’ sketches of the same work, you can get a glimpse of their widely different interpretations of it.

Staci’s Wake manages to be both perky and ominous:

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Lorri’s evokes some pastel futuristic utopia where people picnic on the grass in front of their wavy soviet apartment blocks:

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Skye’s feel a little anthropomorphic sidling up to the trees in their urban canyon:

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Kathy’s are possibly my favorite, marching in a line, their scale & relationship to the environment completely ambiguous:

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And mine, I’ll leave to the viewer to decide…

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Here is the whole class huddling against the wind amongst a smattering of local icons:

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Skyscrapers, boats, and a freeway overpass

For today’s final Drawing on Location class, we’ll be heading to the Olympic Sculpture Park and hoping for the best, weather-wise. Here is a little recap of this intrepid group’s adventures so far.

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For our first class we met at South Lake Union Park, next to MOHAI and the fabulous Center for Wooden Boats. (The latter deserves an excursion all its own.) Besides the obvious really cool historic ships to draw, there are also across-the-lake views of Gasworks Park, surrounding tall buildings and construction sites, a landscapy lawn with crisscrossing paths and a gaggle of our feathered Canadian friends.

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We spent most of the time making small thumbnail sketches of the ships, working fast & loose to get a handle on the incredibly busy confusion of ropes, gangways, masts, and signage. This is Breanna’s take on the signage, after a discussion of how hard it is to “draw” words in a picture. The temptation is always to write them habitually and insouciantly, rather than taking the time to look at their shapes and how they might fit into a composition. Somehow you have to disregard their meaning, after a lifetime of looking at them only for their meaning.

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The next excursion was to a corner of the Eastlake neighborhood, also hugging Lake Union. It involved fence hopping, a scramble through blackberry brambles, a rope swing, and some of us setting up shop on a unreliably secured tiny floating dock. The focus this time was more on rendering the water itself, and handling subjects at short middle, and long distances in the same sketch. The temptation (and there always is one) is to treat them all with the same amount of detail, a temptation successfully overcome in the drawing above, with some nagging on my part.

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This successful rendering of water’s motion was possibly aided by the fact that we were experiencing it as we drew. Every time a medium-sized boat went by in the harbor, it rocked our dubious little platform.

The name in the lower left corner is not a signature — it’s a note to look up Paul Hogarth, a twentieth-century British illustrator who traveled widely and published thousands of memorable on-location sketches. He was an expert at leaving things out, and I mean that with the utmost reverence. It’s probably the hardest part of drawing on location; the trick is to leave out what doesn’t serve the drawing, not the stuff you’re just too lazy to draw. Hogarth composed with the white space, where you know there is water or cobblestones or some other busy substance, but he doesn’t need to fill up a square with stuff for its own sake.

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Continuing to avoid tourist traps, we moved down the street to this tiny, noisy park under the I-5 bridge. Industrial subjects have always attracted me, possibly a byproduct of my Rustbelt upbringing. When you actually go to draw them, though, it’s always kind of daunting just how complicated yet repetitive they are. You kind of have to push past the monotony, embrace it even, and get to a place where it’s not boring anymore. It also helps to focus on a single aspect: the angles, the negative shapes, the colors or reflections. It also helps not to start the project at 4:00 after you’ve been drawing for two hours in the sun. This student managed to pull it off by dealing with the larger shapes and working small:

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Our third location was a public, free, hidden-in-plain-sight rooftop deck with a sweeping views of downtown and  piers below us, close-ups of surrounding taller buildings, and peeks at other faraway landmarks through the slots between the skyscrapers.

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I managed to pull off a couple of quick studies here, with the promise to myself to return later this summer without a class.

I was taken with the reflections in the old Washington Mutual tower. Actually, I’m usually taken with reflections. They’re a really swell abstract subject, and also useful to me in the paintings I’m working on right now.

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And the aforementioned transcendence of monotony that is drawing gazillions of windows:

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