I sure think it would be fun to be a graphic designer.  The only problem is…I’m not sure my creativity can keep up!  Today we interview Cindy Schnell, Vice President of Graphica, to find out how math plays a role in her job.

Can you explain what you do for a living?

I manage a creative firm that specializes in strategy and branding.

When do you use basic math in your job?

I use basic math when estimating projects and providing quotes.

Do you use any technology (like calculators or computers) to help with this math? Why, or why not?

I use a calculator to ensure accuracy.

How do you think math helps you do your job better?

Providing an estimate for a project is sometimes the first contact you may have with a new client. It is critical to provide accurate pricing. You do not get a second chance to say, “Oh wait, I didn’t add that right, or I forgot to include the following charges.” Our professionalism and accuracy is imperative to our brand.

How comfortable with math do you feel?

On my own, without a calculator to validate my final numbers, I am not as confident.

Does this math feel different to you?

No, my needs in day-to-day business are basic and are very familiar to me.

What kind of math did you take in high school?


Did you like it/feel like you were good at it?

No. I also took it in college, and it was one of my most difficult subjects. I also have a mild disability with dyslexia and numbers so numbers have always been a slight challenge.

Did you have to learn new skills in order to do the math you use in your job? Or was it something that you could pick up using the skills you learned in school?

No, I did not have to learn any new skills to do the math at my job.

Curious to know more? If so, let me know, and I will pass them along to her.

You probably enjoy a good motion picture from time to time.  When watching, you probably do not think about how much math was used to design it.  Today, you will hear from Andy Nick who has been a Design Director  for ten years.  He makes a motion picture come to life.

Can you explain what you do for a living? 

I work for a full-service design firm and lead a team of video specialists. We are a small team, so we all do a lot of different jobs. I direct live action video shoots and handle post production and visual effects for short films, motion graphic projects and all sorts of other multimedia.

When do you use basic math in your job?

When I use Adobe After Effects (a motion graphics and visual effects program) to design and animate graphics using the old-skool cartesian coordinate system. I put design elements at a specific place using X and Y coordinates, and when I work in “3D”, I use Z space, too. Animation is just changing numbers around from their location on a graph to transparency, rotation on all 3 axes and scale. Sometimes, I write very simple mathematical code that calculates where something should be based on simple variables. It’s not calculus, but it does get a little tricky. It’s all very cool though.

Do you use any technology (like calculators or computers) to help with this math?

In my line of work, the computer does all of the number crunching. I just push and pull things around. Sometimes, I have to look carefully at the numbers to make sure that two graphics line up perfectly to each other. Other times I need an animation to look smooth, so I look at the graph that tells me how the numbers change over time. I see the results of math much more often than I worry about the actual number crunching going on.

How do you think math helps you do your job better?

Understanding the basics of plotting points on a graph is just the beginning of understanding 3D graphics, but it’s a foundation that you totally have to have. It’s especially cool for me to use these tools because when a video looks really spectacular, people don’t tend to think that you came at it from a mathematical point of view. Things just end up looking “right”.

How comfortable with math do you feel? 

When you’re working with graphics, all the math is “under the hood” which means that no one will ever see any numbers. When you come out with something that looks good, people don’t understand or care how long it took you to make two things line up perfectly, look realistic and move in proportion to each other in 3D space. All of the hard work that I do with numbers is gone, and people just say “that looks real”.

What kind of math did you take in high school?

Yep, I was decent at math. I was bad at memorizing formulas, but I really understood principles well, and I was especially awesome at using a graphing calculator. (Do students still use those?) If I remember right, I made it to Algebra 2 before graduating high school. I wish I had taken a trig class. I think that’s some really cool stuff, and hardcore programmers can make some crazy things happen on screen if they know some of that stuff.

Did you have to learn new skills in order to do the math you use in your job?

I never learned more math after graduating. I only learned how to apply simple math in a way that made sense to me. I move graphics around for a living. Having an understanding of what makes motion look real is definitely due to an understanding of basic math.

Anything else you want to mention?

If you’re interested in seeing some of the motion graphics I develop, check out our latest showreel at https://vimeo.com/60230695 (password: realreel)

Check out Andy’s motion graphics he developed.  This time you will be thinking more about how math is involved in what you are watching on the screen.  If you have any questions for Andy, I can send them his way.  Feel free to check out more of his work at nickad.com.

Music adds such a level on enjoyment and creativity to life.  As the Choir Director at Mad River Middle School, Tiffany Hesselbart sees this firsthand.  In this field, it is essential for Tiffany and her students to understand basic math.  Although math skills cannot give you a better singing voice, it may help those who already sound beautiful when they sing!

Can you explain what you do for a living? 

I teach seventh-grade choir. I have approximately 140 students split between 4 classes.

When do you use basic math in your job?

Math is very important in music so we use it every day. We talk about the number of beats in each measure. We talk about the values of different types of notes and rests. For example, I may ask the class what the value of a quarter note is, and when they say one beat, I ask them what happens to the note if it has a dot on it.  They have to know that a dot equals half of the value of the no, and that it would then equal one and one half beats. In addition, we talk about how two eighth notes equal one quarter note, two quarter notes equal one half note, and two half notes equal one whole note.

Do you use any technology (like calculators or computers) to help with this math?

Our math is basic fractional math that does not require a calculator.

How do you think math helps you do your job better?

Math and music go hand in hand. I explain to students every day that they need to understand fractions in order to understand music. If I could not explain that to students, then they would not understand many aspects of music. So it not only helps me do my job better, it is absolutely essential.

How comfortable with math do you feel? 

I am comfortable with math that I use every day, but math is not my strong suit.

What kind of math did you take in high school?

I took algebra 1 and 2 in high school.  Also, I took geometry. I think that I was good at it them because I was in accelerated math. However, when I took math in college, I realized I was not as good at it as I had originally thought.

Did you have to learn new skills in order to do the math you use in your job?

No, the math I use daily is basic math that middle schoolers can understand so that I can meet my teaching and learning goals with them.

So, when Tiffany’s students utilize their basic math skills in choir, I bet it is music to her ears.  If you have questions for Tiffany, send them my way, and I will be happy to send them to her!

Photo Credit: Brandon Giesbrecht via Compfight cc

Today, you will meet Bonnee Byrne who is Freelance Artist and Owner of Signs by Bonnee.  She has been painting artwork and signs for the past twenty-six years.  Sound like fun, huh?  She even seems to enjoy the math aspect of the job!

Can you explain what you do for a living? 

I am a painter. This includes painting portraits in charcoal, pastels, and oil paint. I also do other professional artwork such as butcher paper commercial and all occasion banners, window painting, caricatures and illustrations.

When do you use basic math in your job?

The main time that I use math is when I am planning to make very long banners. I work on an easel that is 8 feet long and 4 feet high. Many times my banners have been 20 to 40 feet long. I have to calculate how much to paint on each 8-foot segment in order for the banner to come out right and the wording to be centered.

How do you think math helps you do your job better?

It would be impossible to do this job without basic math skills.

How comfortable with math do you feel? 

I am fairly comfortable with basic math all the time. I am not very familiar with advanced math.

What kind of math did you take in high school?

I chose to take Algebra and Geometry only- the minimum amount to graduate. I did not have to have any math in college since I was an art major. I did not like algebra at all and do not feel like I had a complete understanding of it. I did like geometry much better probably because I am an artist and learn things better in a visual format.

Did you have to learn new skills in order to do the math you use in your job?

No, I picked it up using the skills I learned in school.

Goes to show that even if math is not your favorite subject, when used to do something you love…it’s not so bad!.  If you want to hear more about Bonnee’s artwork, let me know I would be happy to connect you!

I’ve been dying to have a fashion designer in this spot for a very long time. So when designer Sole Salvo‘s message arrived in my inbox on Friday morning, I was thrilled! As an avid sewer — who doesn’t like using patterns — I am fascinated with the process of fashion design. I know there is a lot of math involved. Some of it has to be a gut instinct — how will this angle work on a human body? And some of it is very calculated — what do I need to add in order to get a 5/8″ seam allowance?

Sole has been working as a designer for nine years, currently working for a large clothing company in New York. Here’s how she uses math in her job.

Can you explain what you do for a living? 

I design women’s clothing. I sketch new styles then give the specs (measurements of the garment, like length, waist measurement, neck drop etc) to the tech designer or pattern maker to make a sample. I pick out fabrics, colors and trims, like buttons and thread, to complete the look of each garment. Once my seasonal collection is complete, I review it with my merchant team who decided what to buy for the store.

When do you use basic math in your job?

Math is important for design. We have to measure our sample garments to know where we need to add or subtract fabric to make the garment fit well. Additionally a strong understanding of geometry is important for understanding how the flat pattern shape will make up into a 3D garment as well as what part of the flat pattern to change to fix the fit.

Do you use any technology (like calculators or computers) to help with this math?

I usually don’t use technology for this myself because the calculations I have to do are usually simple, like adding 1/4″ here and 1/8″ there, but my cross functional partners on the tech team do use a computer program to digitally manipulate the flat garment pattern. I use Illustrator to draw my flat sketches — these are the detailed sketches that the factory pairs with the measurement specs to make up the sample. These drawings have to be very accurate and clear so the factory can see each detail of stitching and seaming, as well as the overall proportion and look of the garment.

How do you think math helps you do your job better?

Without math it would be impossible to keep sizes consistent, and it would be impossible to draft a garment pattern. In addition it would be impossible to create trim pages — the list of trims required to make a garment. We use numbers on those as well to tell the factory how many buttons to use on each shirt. The factory must multiply the number of buttons by the number of shirts they are making to order enough buttons. It becomes very important when ordering because if you make a little mistake on a style that has 100,000 pieces on order, all of a sudden you could wind up with 100,000 too many buttons!

How comfortable with math do you feel?

I feel very comfortable with math in what I do. I deal with whole numbers and simple fractions for the most part.  I also have a strong sense of geometry. I can visualize what a pattern piece would look like if it is draped on the body, and this helps me design and also helps me make comments in my fittings.

What kind of math did you take in high school?

I took algebra, geometry and calculus.  Algebra was manageable, geometry I could do with my eyes closed. I can essentially reander 3D models in my head, so anything that involves shapes and how to manipulate them comes naturally to me. Calculus was more of a challenge. When it came to doing more complicated problems, I struggled. I did ok in the end, but I had to really study in calculus.

Did you have to learn new skills in order to do the math you use in your job?

Knowing how to add fractions comes in handy every day.  Also area is important. If you are working on a garment, sometimes the size might be right, but the fabric is just distributed in the wrong place. To fix it, you might have to keep your total area the same, but just shift it around to make it lay flat or to drape just the right way.

Thanks so much, Sole! If you have questions for her, ask them in the comments section. 

While we’re on the subject of museums, I thought I’d introduce you to Cecilia Meisner, who is the Director of Grants and Government Relations at the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA). In short, she’s a fundraiser, specializing in writing grants (rather than asking folks like you and me for donations). These grants may come from foundations or government agencies or corporate funding divisions. 

And with a newly renovated contemporary art wing, the BMA can use all of the funds it can get. Naturally, Cecilia uses quite a bit of math in her job. Here’s how.

Can you explain what you do for a living?  I oversee fundraising from foundation, corporate, and government sources to support The Baltimore Museum of Art.  A lot of my work is writing (grant proposals, reports, letters of inquiry or acknowledgement), but I also do a lot of work with creating grant budgets, tracking grant-funded expenses, and reporting back to the funders.

When do you use basic math in your job?  It can be as simple as applying a percentage to a salary to show the value of staff benefits in a grant proposals, and as complicated as tracking hours worked on a project for dozens of employees over the course of two years.

Do you use any technology to help with this math?  I NEVER do math in my head: I always use an old-fashioned adding machine with a paper tape for quick calculations, and I loooove spreadsheet programs for creating budgets and tracking expenses.  The first one I ever used was Lotus 1-2-3 but now I use Excel.  I have been working in this job long enough that I used to use huge binders full of ledger paper to track expenses with pen on paper – hence the need to run a paper tape on everything: they didn’t add up automatically, unlike computerized spreadsheets!

How do you think math helps you do your job better?  Funders don’t want to give money unless they feel secure that it is enough to get the job done, and that the recipient will manage the money carefully.  And since we are audited every year by an outside auditing firm, it is a lot easier to make sure everything is done right the first time, rather than having to go back and make a lot of end-of-year journal entries in the organization’s books.

How comfortable with math do you feel?  I am very comfortable with the math I use in my work: basic functions plus percentages (which a surprising number of people do wrong, I find as I review draft grant budgets).  That being said, I am utterly incapable of helping my 10th grader with his Algebra II/Pre-Calc, Trig, Probability & Statistics, or Physics homework.

What kind of math did you take in high school?  I didn’t take any math after 9th grade “pre-Geometry.”  I was very intimidated by math, and I took enough science courses (Chemistry, Physics, Geology) to fulfill my high school’s joint math/science requirement. Because I got a high enough grade on the ACT test math portion, I was able to exempt out of Freshman Mathematics in college. I didn’t need any additional math as a requirement for my major. I escaped math in high school and college, but it caught up with me in the work world, and it turns out that it isn’t so bad after all! I wish I had Math for Grownups when I was in high school and college – I might not have been so intimidated!

Did you have to learn new skills in order to do the math you use in your job? I was totally set with the basic addition-mulitplication-subtraction-division-percentages skills, but I did need to learn how to use spreadsheet and double-entry accounting, and how to use the specific spreadsheet software programs.

Do you have questions about grant writing and administration? If so, ask in the comments section, and I’ll let Cecilia know!

I had the pleasure of speaking with Samantha Volz who has the pleasure of working from her very own home every day. That is one of the benefits of being a freelance designer. In addition to graphic design, this artist also does photography. It seems she is creatively blessed with talent.  I was curious about how she uses math in her work. Let’s take a look at what she had to say:

Can you explain what you do for a living?

I’ve been working as a freelance designer since 2001.  I design marketing/advertising material for companies. In addition, I also design websites and other support files for social media applications. I am a photographer, painter, and artist as well.

When do you use basic math in your job?

I have to use specifications to set up design files. Set up bleed, trim and safe zones so that when the file gets to the printer, it is set up correctly and prints correctly. For instance, if I have a print sheet that is 8.5 by 11 inches for a trifold brochure, I need to divide the paper by three and adjust 1/8th of the 3 panel. Depending on how the trifold folds, I will need to adjust the panels 1/16th of an inch if a panel folds in. Then, on the layout in the software I have to consider set up for a printing press or digital printing if my graphics bleed to the edge I have to add at least 1/8th to 1/4th of an inch of graphics that extends past the actual final layout for being trimmed down to allow for machine error. So my final file that is handed over to the print vendor is 8.5 x11 with bleed 1/8th bleed on all sides. Total graphic coverage is 8.75 x 11.25 trimmed down to 8.5 x 11 and scored for folds indicated on the set up with 3 panels roughly 3.66 ” wide, again depends on the fold design chosen for that tri-fold brochure how it will read, flow and open up to reveal the information being provided.

Do you use any technology (like calculators or computers) to help with this math? Why or why not?

Yes, I use a calculator a lot.

How do you think math helps you do your job better?

I could not do my job without it. It is how everything flows from the client to me, the designer, and then to the printer until it is produced as an end product.

How comfortable with math do you feel? Does this math feel different to you?

I am comfortable with normal addition, subtraction, division, multiplication, and fractions. Nothing too complicated.

What kind of math did you take in high school? Did you like it/feel like you were good at it?

I took honors math classes.

Did you have to learn new skills in order to do the math you use in your job? Or was it something that you could pick up using the skills you learned in school?

Yes, what I use now I learned in high school.

Who knew that the creative type still need to know their basic calculations and fractions?  Seems like everywhere you go, even in your home, math is sure to follow. I hope you enjoyed learning a little more about Samantha. Let me know if you have any further questions for her. 

Photo Credit: 55Laney69 via Compfight cc

Aaaaand we’re back with weekly editions of Math at Work Monday! This month, we’ll have lots of great interviews with folks who are in the kinds of jobs that kids say they want. This way, parents can tell their kids with confidence: “Yes, you will need math.”

First up is Ethan Ham, who is a game designer and professor. Games he’s worked on include Sanctum and The Sims Online. In fact, he’s such an expert, he’s written the book on game design: The Building Blocks of Game Design (Routledge, May 2013). As you might imagine, game design is chock full of math — the kind of math that most folks don’t do regularly. Take a look.

Can you explain what you do for a living? 

A game designer is the person who plans out the rules for a game, whether it is a board game or a computer game. A game programmer is the person who takes the game design and implements it on a computer. I did both of these jobs professionally for about 6 years. While I still work on the occasional game project, these days I spend most of my time teaching game design (at the City College of New York, CUNY) and writing about it.

When do you use basic math in your job?  

The main math I use as a game designer include probability and algorithms.

Any game that involves chance (such as the chance that a sword swing in World of Warcraft will hit) requires probability. It’s an odd branch of math and something that our intuition is often wrong about. When I teach game design, I always introduce probability by asking my students what are the odds that rolling two six-sided dice will result in at least one die coming up as a “6.” In the past 8 years I have never had a student guess the correct answer (11/36).

(Editor’s Note: Ethan developed this dice simulator to help game designers quickly deal with probabilities. It’s very cool!)

An algorithm is a like recipe for making a calculation. A lot of computer game design involves coming up with game mechanics in the form of algorithms.

As a programmer, I largely use algebra, geometry and trigonometry. I don’t use calculus much, but would probably use it more often if I did games that involve modeling physics. Recently I used logarithms in some computer code that shifts the pitch of a sound.

Beyond math, logic and problem-solving skills are incredibly important to game programming.

Do you use any technology to help with this math?  

Aside from the obvious need of computers to program the games, I often find myself searching the web to refresh my memory of how to calculate, for example, how to find the change in position based on an object’s vector.

How do you think math helps you do your job better?

It’s critical—I couldn’t do my job without it.

How comfortable with math do you feel?  

I’m comfortable figuring things out that I don’t initially understand (a characteristic of most programmers). So even though I don’t always have the math I need in my head, I can track it down.

What kind of math did you take in high school?  

Geometry, trigonometry, one semester of Advanced Placement calculus. I was reasonably good at it, but not the best in my class (except for probability).

Did you have to learn new skills in order to do the math you use in your job? Or was it something that you could pick up using the skills you learned in school?

Most of the math I learned in school, but I often need to re-learn it in order to put it to use.

Do you (or your kids) have questions for Ethan? Ask them in the comments section, and I’ll be sure to let him know to come back and respond. But first, print out this quirky — and challenging — connect-the-dots picture that Ethan created. After reading the instructions on page 2, see if you (or your kid) can figure it out!

Photography is one of those art forms that looks easy but is really challenging — at least challenging to get it done right!  Writer and photojournalist, Sally Wiener Grotta describes how math helps her compose the best photograph, including perfect lighting. 

Can you explain what you do for a living?

Essentially, I am a visual and verbal storyteller. This has developed into a multi-pronged career.

As a photojournalist, I have traveled all over the globe, visiting all 7 continents (including Antarctica several times) and many islands (such as Papua New Guinea and Madagascar) on assignment for major magazines and other publications. My current and ongoing fine art project is American Hands (www.facebook.com/AmericanHands) for which I am creating narrative portraits of individuals who are keeping the old trades alive, such as a blacksmith, glassblower, bookbinder, spinner, weaver, etc.  I travel around the county, mounting American Hands exhibits and giving presentations about the people I photograph.

In addition, I give lectures and teach master classes on photography and imaging. I recently launched a YouTube channel in which fellow photographer David Saffir and I discuss the essential elements that define a photograph and pull us into it, using the narrative power of shadow and light.

As a non-fiction writer, I have written literally thousands of articles, columns, features and reviews for major magazines, newspapers and websites, as well as seven non-fiction books. In non-fiction, I am primarily known for my expertise in testing, analyzing and explaining technology related to photography, imaging, printing and epublishing.

My first novel “Jo Joe” will be published this spring as both an eBook and printed book by Pixel Hall Press, followed later this year with other stories and books.

When do you use basic math in your job?

Math is integral to my work in many ways. An intuitive understanding of geometry is essential for good photographic composition. In addition, I use math to control exposure (the amount of light used to define a photograph) and to decide how to set up auxiliary lighting.

A prime example of math in photography and imaging is the histogram tool. The histogram is a graph that provides information analyzing the exposure of a photograph. When a photographer or digital artist looks at a histogram, it helps us understand the “dynamic range” of the picture. In other words, what percentage of the photograph is made up of highlights, shadows and midtones. If the graph displays that there is too much image data in, say, the highlights, and I know that the image is of a scene that isn’t that bright, I can then decide to change my exposure so the photo better represents the scene.

But basic math goes much deeper into my everyday career concerns. For instance, my American Hands project is a non-profit venture supported by grants and sponsors. When I apply for a grant, I must present an accurate, logical and meaningful balanced budget. Therefore, I have to calculate my costs over time and balance that against potential income. (If the budget isn’t balanced with income=costs, the grant application will be rejected.)

Another example of everyday math has to do with laying out books and journals for publication, such as my American Hands Journal. At the very basic, a typical book is printed in “signatures” of a specific number of pages each, such as 4-pages each. So a book must be laid out so that its total pages are a multiple of 4 (or whatever the signature number is). Then, there are spatial concerns, such as keeping type and photographs within specific printable margins, that requires more intuitive understanding of geometry.

Do you use any technology to help with this math?

I do believe that it is important to understand math and be able to do it without calculators or computers. However, when I use it for accounting, grants applications and such, I must be sure that I haven’t introduced an error, through a mistake in arithmetic or simply a typo. So, I may use a calculator. More often, I will use Microsoft Excel on my computer to create a spreadsheet that does automatic calculations for me when I input figures. However, I am the one who creates the rules for those calculations. So, using a spreadsheet doesn’t preclude the need to understand the underlying math.

How do you think math helps you do your job better?

Math isn’t only necessary in my career as an artist and writer, but it is also a skill that sharpens your mind the more you use it. That kind of precision thinking is a great complement to the creative side of my business, balancing it. What’s more, a sharpened mind is one that is more open and creative.

How comfortable with math do you feel?

I was lucky to have some wonderful teachers – starting with my mother before I ever went to school. She created basic arithmetic puzzles to keep me busy, and I learned to think of numbers as a game, starting when I was about 4 years old. So, I have long been comfortable with numbers and their relationships to each other. Math and art are not opposites. In fact, in the Renaissance, the great mathematicians were artists and vice versa. And, today, the great math innovators have highly creative minds.

What kind of math did you take in high school?

I studied geometry, algebra and calculus in high school.  I enjoyed it, again, mostly because I had good teachers. It continued to be a game to me to understand how numbers fit and changed each other.

Did you have to learn new skills in order to do the math you use in your job?

The new skills I developed since leaving school has to do with defining intelligent, useful calculation rules in an Excel spreadsheet. But it was all based on math I already understood, so it was relatively easy… once I understood how the spreadsheet works.

Do you have questions for Sally?  Ask them in the comments section!

Samantha Hand, plein air painting

Sam doesn’t remember this, but when she and I were in middle school, I used to ride home with her on the bus after school, when we’d watch Godzilla on television and eat her mother’s homemade potato bread.  At that time, she said she wanted to be a veterinarian (like her dad).  Instead she earned a BA in art and then her MFA. Since 2010, she’s discovered her talent in oil painting.  

Samantha Hand has some mad skills when it comes to oils and canvas. And even I was surprised by the math that she uses.  Unlike most of the other folks I’ve interviewed for Math at Work Monday features, Sam really counts on being able to visualize the math she needs.  Read on…

Can you explain what you do for a living?  For the last two years, I have completely immersed myself in oil painting and have tackled landscape, plein air, still life and portraiture. Currently I am painting compositions that intrigue me in hopes of selling them, while accepting commissions on a variety of subjects. Recent projects include still life and figurative painting.

When do you use basic math in your job?  I use the most math at the beginning stages of a painting. When I am sketching thumbnail ideas, I use the rule of thirds to compose a more interesting picture. I use a variety of angles to draw the eye toward the focus of the picture and to lead the eye around the composition. I also use angles in drawing perspective when I am attempting to create depth in a two-dimensional space. (For example, the angle of a building is wider in the foreground and will go toward a vanishing point as the building retreats into the distance)

If the composition is complex, as in a triple portraitI am currently working on, I use a grid to enlarge smaller reference images to the larger size of the canvas. This helps to keep the proportions of the sketch on the canvas accurate. Proportions are also important in balancing the values and subject matter in a composition. I check to see if the proportion of dark values is greater or lesser than the proportion of light values to add interest.  I may balance the visual weight of the subject with a greater space of sky to create visual tension or to draw the eye toward the subject.

Mr. Allison’s Hat

When I am sketching the figure I am constantly checking my proportions by comparing the size of body parts. For example, in most faces the space between the eyes is the width of one of the eyes in the face. Also, in general, people are approximately 6 and a half heads tall. I use a paint brush or pencil to measure and compare. I also use this measuring and comparing in all other subject compositions to check my spacing and proportions.

Once I begin painting, I use ratios in the mixing of colors. If I am looking for a purple I may mix an equal amount of red and blue. But if I want a warmer purple with a reddish tint I’ll use less blue in the mixture. Throwing in the amount of yellow equal to the red will turn it toward a brown. Equal measures of red, blue, yellow becomes a neutral gray. There are infinite numbers of colors to be mixed which is one of the most exciting things about painting.

Do you use any technology to help with this math?  I do not use a calculator or computer because the math I use is simple and not very exact. It is more about the feeling of balance or rightness. If something doesn’t feel right with the composition I begin to check using more exact measurements and angles.

How do you think math helps you do your job better? Math is the building block of my compositions. I use angles and proportions to try and create intriguing compositions with believable subject matter.

No. 5 tiara

How comfortable with math do you feel?  I am very comfortable with the math I use in my artwork but less so with the everyday math of a household. Somehow I feel as if I can visual the math I use in compositions and it makes sense to me. When I apply it to household tasks I have to really focus on the task at hand.

What kind of math did you take in high school?  I only vaguely remember my classes in high school but did take math analysis, geometry and the other algebra courses offered. I really enjoyed my math classes and felt confident in my ability, though less so with geometry. I continued with a calculus course in the first year of college and enjoyed that also. Unfortunately, I think I’ve only retained very simple math skills.

Did you have to learn new skills in order to do the math you use in your job?  I haven’t had to learn any new skills yet but I have learned to use the math I know in tangible situations.

Did you have any idea about the math that goes into planning a painting? If you have a question for Samantha, ask it in the comments section.

This month, Math for Grownups has gone arty, taking a close look at how math shows up in the visual arts.  Last week, glass blowing took center stage.

Elizabeth Perkins with “The Miller’s Lie/I Love America”

I’ve known Elizabeth Perkins since she was about 16 years old, I think.  In fact, I’ve always called her Beth.  

I was Beth’s geometry teacher way back when.  And I was so excited to find out that she’s now a very successful glass artist.  After graduating from Atlanta College of Art in 1997 with a degree in sculpture, she embarked upon an amazing journey as an artist and teacher.  She earned her MFA from Virginia Commonwealth University in 2004. 

Like me, Beth grew up in a rural, southern town and has a very strong connection to her family, so I’m really moved by her work, which incorporates glass, found objects and heirlooms.  But you know what I’m going to say next: The fact that Beth uses math in her art is both surprising and expected.  Read on to learn more.

Can you explain what you do for a living?  I work as a production glass blower for a company called Glassybaby and in addition serve as a contractual glass blowing and artist assistant to other professional artist here in Seattle.  I also continue to make my own sculpture primarily in glass and am able to teach workshops in my specific area of expertise at Pratt Fine Arts Center.

“Glass Lace Mural” (100% cast glass: pate de verre)

When do you use basic math in your job?  I use math all the time in my job.  One of the primary areas  is in creating and writing annealing programs.  This is the process where glass is cooled slowly so that it can cool evenly from the outside to the inside.  This differs depending on a glass’ annealing temperature, the thickness of the glass, size, and the thickness of the mold material (if you are casting glass).  The annealing programs are structured on the Fibonacci sequence, an integer sequence.

Do you use any technology to help with this math?  I usually do the math by hand, because I really have the need to visualize everything that I do.  The math result (which is usually in diminishing time increments per hour) is then called the annealing program for your glass project, which for me as an artist changes with most every piece — because I rarely repeat any image.  The annealing program is then put in to a controller.  The controller works on a relay to turn on and turn off the electricity in the heating elements inside an annealer or kiln.  Some controllers are set up to combine the time per hour cumulatively and some are not.  So I sometimes adjust the type of program based on the controller I am using.  All of my mold materials, as well as glass, are measured when creating castings, so that the ratios are correct. This insures that the “investment” (mold body) is as strong as it can be, to hold up to temperatures up to 1600 degrees.  Measuring the glass is also important so that the mold is completely filled but not overfilled. (If a mold overflows, that can ruin the kiln.)

How do you think math helps you do your job better?  Without math, I would be very wasteful with time and resources.  Math helps to create little science experiments in my daily artistic practice, as well as a strong control for testing firings and materials to get the best outcome in my work.  When I am working on a project, I keep detailed notes of all of my recipes for investment bodies and glass and the temperature that each glass moves.  Because all glasses and all colors of glass have a different material composition and they move at different rates and temperatures.  The firing and annealing schedules also are included variables in these experiments.  These are all the things I deal with on a daily bases that have everything and nothing to do with the image I am trying to convey in glass.  Every sculpture includes created and solved math problems.

How comfortable with math do you feel?  I have always, well, just not been very strong in math.  I use it everyday though.  I am one of those people that feels comfortable with patterns and shapes.  So perhaps I am more comfortable managing things like the Fibonacci sequence as well as geometry in my art practice problems.  I find now that my measuring has come so routine that I can feel the investment body when it is wet and know if the ratios are right and kind of fudge it with smaller sculptures.  With larger sculptures I can’t take those shortcuts.   I often use the old woodworker’s rule of measuring twice and cutting once.  I always check and re-check my math.

“Invisible Threshold” (kiln cast glass, heirloom, wood)

What kind of math did you take in high school?  I took the required math but no advanced math courses.  I liked geometry, but I never felt like I was ever good at math or liked it.  But I think for this reason I have a deep satisfaction when I am able to figure out these strange solutions to artistic problems.  I once became obsessed with figuring out the physics involved in the weight differential of glass on the end of a glass pipe.  (Glass pipes have a standard length but the material amount varies depending on what you are making, and it is constantly changing form while you are making it.)

Did you have to learn new skills in order to do the math you use in your job? Yes. I had to build on very basic math skill sets, only because I was unable to comprehend much of math.  I do think because math is necessary for what i do I am even more motivated and eager to find solutions.

I am a skilled, talented, and a creative artist, I feel very good about that and very proud.  I feel very honored that the math teachers I had in high school somehow managed to create “a current between the wires.” But I guess even a pickle can carry current. I use lots of math on a daily basis, and without their lessons I would not be able to make my work at all. While math is not my lover, it’s certainly a confidant. It’s always got my back.

And without Beth, I may not have felt like a great teacher.  Have questions for Beth?  Feel free to ask them in the comments section. 

All month, we’ll be talking about art and talking to artists.  So stay tuned — and fall in love with the math of art.

Photo courtesy of iaindc

Last night, my family and I had a real treat. In the midst of an impossibly busy week, we took time out to sit in a darkened theatre and be transported to another land and another time.  As the lights dimmed and the orchestra swelled, we were suddenly in 1905 Russia, with Tevye, his wife Golde and their five daughters.  The man sitting next to me hummed along with every song, and I mouthed the words.  Like much of the rest of the audience, I found myself grinning at Tevys’s dancing–and crying when he declared his daughter, Chava, dead to him.


This morning, the tunes from Fiddler on the Roof are still running through my head.  For me, there’s not much more inspiring and beautiful than a staged musical.

One my family’s resolutions this year is to see more theatre.  And we’ve made good on that promise already.  In January, we saw Arsenic and Old Lace and a community college production of Greater Tuna. I’m not sure what’s next.

Like many folks, I believe art (of all kinds) provides the gorgeous background to a sometimes drab world.  Art makes me think, while invoking emotions that can be otherwise hard to access.  I’ve found myself moved by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Martha Graham, Edgar Degas, Mary OliverAmy Ray and Oscar Wilde. Art has become a centerpiece of my daily life.

But if you grew up thinking that art and mathematics were mutually exclusive entities, I hope you’ve been disabused of that notion.  If not, stay tuned.

Here at Math for Grownups, February is all about art.  I’ll introduce you to some amazing artists — like Elizabeth Perkins, one of my former math students, who is now a highly conceptual glass artist.  These creative souls will help make the connections between art and math.

And we’ll delve into some of the more esoteric aspects of mathematics that form the underpinnings of natural beauty, classic art and modern music–like symmetry, the golden ratioand Fibonacci’s Sequence.

If art provides the beauty of the world, math describes it.  From poetry to glass sculptures to song, math is at the heart of all artistic endeavors.  I hope you’ll join me this month as we uncover the beauty of the world around us–with math.

What is your favorite artistic form?  Music, paintings, theatre, writing? Share your thoughts about math and art in the comments section below. And if you’ve always had a question about the connections between art and math, ask.  I’d love to explore the answer in a post this month.Save