Category Archives: Art

A Higher Game – Colored Pencil Drawing

About two years ago, I was a guest on what was then called the Atheist Pastor Podcast. The host had invited me to share my story about how I lost my faith after serving as an evangelical missionary to China; but in addition to that, we talked about another issue that is now much closer to my heart: tribalism.

It had become increasingly clear to me that the greatest threat to America’s future (and humanity’s) was our own tribalism. In the face of enormous problems that threaten all of us, we have been unable to make progress because we’re too caught up in petty intertribal conflicts. All we can think about is “owning” the other side.

In the interview, I presented the following metaphor: Humanity is in a chess game against the devil, and as the devil gradually strengthens his position and prepares to checkmate us, we’re gathered around nine squares in the back of the board, playing a stupid, petty game of tic-tac-toe. What we need to do is play a higher game.

For several months, I fantasized about drawing or painting the metaphor. I worried that I wouldn’t be able to do it justice, but eventually I decided to give it a shot — and I went all-out. After five months, I had a drawing that I’m tremendously proud of. Below are some photos documenting the process.

I began by taking dozens of pictures of myself sitting at a chessboard in different positions in order to build the composition of the piece. Using those photos as reference, I produced the following underdrawing:

I decided to start coloring the characters in the foreground first, using blue on the left and red on the right to match the traditional political spectrum. I was nervous about coloring their flesh, so I began with their clothes. Here’s the blue guy:

I was especially pleased with the buttons on his jacket and the wrinkles and creases in his pants. Then I colored the red guy’s clothes:

I wasn’t very happy with the red guy’s pants, but I really liked his tie and the buttons on his jacket. After that, it was time to color some flesh. I started with the blue guy’s hand, figuring that if I messed it up, it wouldn’t be too big a deal. But I ended up being really pleased with it:

I then finished the hands and faces of both guys in the foreground. Their faces ended up looking a little more wooden than I would have liked, but they weren’t bad. I wasn’t pleased with the blue guy’s hair, so I decided to wait a bit before doing the other guy’s hair:

I decided to tackle the chess pieces next. Getting the chrome look was a worrisome challenge, but using various shades of gray, I achieved a very nice effect. And I really liked taking pictures of the pawns with my hand in front of them as if I were holding them between my fingers!

The rest of the pieces turned out well — especially the black knight, I thought. And then it was time for the board itself. The board I was using as a model had beautiful wood grain, and I wanted to capture it as closely as possible. I started with the light squares:

When I finished the board, I was feeling great. I was especially proud of the perspective, the highlights, and the reflections. It really felt to me like it was coming out of the page:

Now for the devil. I’d been putting him off because up to this point, I’d been able to rely on my photos for models. But although I had a photo of myself (and a colleague) posing as the devil, I didn’t want the devil to look just like a regular person. I thought for a long time and settled on a look inspired by the character Te Kā in the movie Moana, with charred, cracked flesh haloed by flames:

I still wasn’t sure how I should color the devil’s face, so I punted again and began working on the background. I wanted this chess game to have a cosmic feel to it, so I used space scenes. On the left, I drew the famous “pillars of creation” (a nebula about 7,000 light-years away from Earth), and on the right, a spiral galaxy:

Finally, I colored the devil’s face. It didn’t turn out as well as I would have liked, but it didn’t ruin the drawing:

That was five months of work. The title is A Higher Game — because that’s what it’s saying we need to play. I really wish it could be in an exhibit somewhere, because I believe the concept is truly important, and (if I do say so myself) it’s some damn good colored pencil work.

If you want to buy a high-resolution poster of it, you can do so here at my store on Spreadshirt.

A Colored Version of the Flammarion Engraving

Flammarion Engraving Colored by Olen Rambow

UPDATE: You can now get a poster of this at

I couldn’t remember what it was called or where I’d seen it; but over the last couple of years, the image had been coming to mind again and again, and I realized that I’d begun to think of it as one of the most profound pieces in the history of art — one that perfectly captures what it means to be a scholar, an inquirer, or anyone who feels compelled to break through boundaries. It wasn’t until this fall (of 2017), as I was teaching a lesson on imaginary numbers, that I finally resolved to track it down and get a poster of it for my classroom.

Some trial and error on Google eventually led me to it. It’s called the Flammarion Engraving, after the French astronomer Camille Flammarion, in whose 1888 book it first appeared (L’atmosphère: météorologie populaire). Interestingly, no one is sure where the image originally came from — whether Flammarion commissioned it for his book, engraved it himself, or found it in some now-lost repository. This mystery only added to my delight.

When I searched for a poster of a colored version, I found one available for $430 — which was obviously out of the question. And so I decided to create my own. The original black-and-white image is in the public domain (available through Wikimedia), so I downloaded a high-resolution copy, had it printed on a 2-foot-by-3-foot piece of paper, and began to think about how I would color it in. Water color? Colored pencil? Bolivian yak’s blood mixed with cuttlefish pigment?

Here was what I would be working with:

I ended up going with colored pencil, since yak’s blood has an unpleasant odor — and since the art teacher at my school was willing to let me borrow a set of Prismacolors. I began by picking out the colors I’d use for the sky. I wanted a sunset that faded from yellow to orange to red to lavender to deep purple. After an afternoon of coloring, I ended up with this:

On the second day, I colored in the sun, the moon, the tree in the foreground, and the robed figure:

Then I spent a day coloring in the mysterious heavenly realm beyond the celestial sphere. I picked what I thought of as vibrant, other-worldly colors:

Then it was time for the distant part of the landscape:

And the foreground:

And then the water: (I also went over the sky and the robe a second time here.)

And finally, I filled in the border and then went back to make some of the other colors a little more vibrant (especially in the heavenly realm):

The last step was to take a high-resolution photo of it and touch it up digitally. (There’s one coloring error that I fixed. Can you find it?) I also decided to make the region outside of the border black instead of white, in order to detract less from the brightness in the interior of the piece. And I thought the text would look good in gold. Speaking of which, the text (which was Flammarion’s original caption for the piece) says, “A missionary of the Middle Ages tells that he had found the point where the sky and the Earth touch…”

Altogether, the project took me about three weeks. The image at the top of this post is the final version. (Click on it for a semi-high resolution version.) I’m really proud of how it turned out! Feel free to share it — but please give me credit for the coloring.