Uncategorized, Uncertainty, urban sketching, living in truth, Watercolor Painting, acrylic painting

Marching for Science

Illustration: “Marching for Science on Constitution Avenue in Washington, D.C.” (2017), acrylic on 12″ x 16″ canvas by Black Elephant Blog author

On a rain-slicked Saturday afternoon this past weekend–on Earth Day and March for Science Day–tens of thousands of people walked patiently and enthusiastically down Constitution Avenue holding up signs affirming the importance of science and facts. It was a scene that would have been impossible to imagine (especially:  to imagine even as necessary) only a year or so ago. The spirit of the people seemed high, despite the constant drizzle and occasionally stronger rain. It was a sea of umbrellas; and the biggest challenge for me was to keep my umbrella out of other people’s way.  All around us, scientists, teachers, doctors, and children made their way towards the U.S. Capitol on an otherwise mild Spring day.

The colors and atmosphere of this historic event seemed to call for an effort in the new acrylic paints I’ve just started trying out.  Using several photos of groups of people passing in front of the National Archives afterwards, I found that trying to capture the reflections on the wet pavement was a fun challenge.  In some ways, the scene seemed easier to capture in acrylic than in the more familiar (for me) watercolor.  I’ll now have another medium to choose from in the future.

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Innovation, Risk, Surprise, Uncategorized, Watercolor Painting

A Brown Pink Bottle in a Window

While taking a break from work this week (as well as from the always overwhelming news especially with the tragic reports this week from the already unimaginably devastated Syria), I came across four colored bottles perched side-by-side at the back of a shelf in a store.  As they were priced to sell, I bought them with the thought that they’d be great for watercolor projects. Painting glass objects is something I see watercolor artists do all the time–at least online– and many of them exhibit a great deal of talent in their work.  This seemed like a good exercise for me at this point. So I propped them up on my angled drafting table, where they picked up the daylight, and considered what would be involved.

Colored bottles in a window photo

Illustration: Photo of colored bottles in a window

Today I decided that I’d use the new-on-the-market L’Aquarelle Canson Heritage 140 lb. hot press paper.  I’d noticed in the past month that it takes watercolor very well without being too absorbent so I hoped to achieve a more transparent look with the bottle project.  As with any paper, it takes some testing to figure out how much paint to apply for different results.

First, though, I did a draft on a smaller piece of Canson cold press watercolor paper in a sketchbook I’ve come to like for carrying around outdoors; the paper quality is great and the spiral notebook opens flat and is light.   As I did this, I considered how to match the colors of the actual bottles.Canson watercolor sketchbook

The amber-yellow glass bottle in my small collection suddenly reminded me of the largish tube I have of the so-called “brown pink” watercolor paint by Sennelier.  I know that this paint, despite its storied history as a favorite of the likes of John Singer Sargent, is controversial due to its suspected or proven problems with lightfastness. I have not tested it but I did want to use it for this watercolor as I suspected that the “brown pink” shade would come close to matching the yellow-green tint of the glass bottle, and I was right.

As you can see, I do have a lot of the brown pink paint (which says right on the tube “N.R.”, meaning “not rated” (for lightfastness) and, fortunately, I discovered that I like its effects on paper very much.

Brown pink paint

Brown pink watercolor paint

Today’s experts on watercolor paints would probably advise against using it at all, but certainly for art you are not selling–and art you are doing in the privacy of your own home!–it must be ok.  (The reason experts advise against using such “fugitive” paints is that they have a reputation for not holding their color under prolonged exposure to light.   Introducing paintings into the art market using fugitive paints tends to compromise the ability of other watercolor artists, who don’t use fugitive paints, to get the best prices for their art work, according to these arguments.)

Following some sketching to get a bit more confident drawing the bottles, I turned to the larger sheet of watercolor paper, taped to a strong board.  I used a bit of masking fluid to hold some small spaces white on the bottles, and also used some drafting tape to cover up the surface of the drafting table depicted in the drawing.

Toward the end of the day, my painting looked like this (photo below).  The project held my attention as I am not accustomed to trying to achieve the transparency of glass in watercolor.  The bottles also have some decorative effects which I tried partially to capture.  I will keep the bottles handy to practice more transparent watercolor painting–perhaps even fugitively, with my one or two of my favorite fugitive watercolors.

Bottles in a Window

Illustration: Watercolor, gouache, and pen and ink, “Brown Pink Bottle Et.Al.”,  by Black Elephant Blog author on 9.1″x12.2″ L’Aquarelle Canson Heritage hot press paper (April 2017)

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living in truth, Uncategorized, urban sketching

Wandering through older sketches to make sense of the present

Blog post writing has taken a bit of a backseat lately.  Preparation for classes could be one excuse, but it wouldn’t be true. I guess it’s because I’ve been doing more thinking than drawing in this age of discontinuity.  The recent blast of winter in this area complete with snow and ice this year sadly has been too much for the many blossoms and flowers that proliferated here during an unseasonably warm February. Even the geese on a nearby lake are a bit confused by the eccentric weather.

This sort of disorientation (yes, that exhibited by the geese–as in “where are we?”) has been mirrored by the befuddlement of many people around the world at the jarring reports of current political events, especially domestically–more on that below.  Just as the early blossoms thought that the Spring in February was real, we humans are confused as to the political climate we are living through….

Looking back to look forward sometimes is useful, as paging through older sketchbooks can remind one.  While looking ahead to a forthcoming exhibition of my watercolors and sketches, I came across a few of my sketches from the past:

dupont circle

Illustration: Watercolor sketch, “Dupont Circle,” by Black Elephant Blog author (2016)

Lately, with the sun briefly peering out again, there are more inspiring palettes to explore in the near future…

vangogh

Illustration: Watercolor sketch by Black Elephant Blog author (2016)

On the geopolitical level of human affairs, the emerging palette is more complicated–even “complex”– a crucial distinction not yet as appreciated as it could be, though “complexity”–as in complex systems–is something we spend a lot of time on in the university graduate class I teach.  Making sense of complex problems is a necessary starting point to resolving them–and is too often a (very intellectually-demanding and time-consuming) step skipped over, as we have recently seen an example of in the healthcare arena.

Similarly understanding this moment in our collective human history requires us to draw from the experience “palettes” of a wide variety of people in order to understand our true options going forward.  I would include in this “experience palette” respected contemporary professors of history, such as Dr. Timothy Snyder–whom I had the privilege of hearing speak in person at a local bookstore recently.  People doing fresh thinking about economics also have an essential role

Rodin The Thinker

Illustraton: Watercolor, “”The Thinker’ at the Entrance to Rodin Museum, Philadelphia, PA” (2017) by Black Elephant Blog author

to play in the efforts to apply different palettes to our common future.  And a look back to the founders and founding documents of this American nation would also be essential, as I just did a week ago by wandering through the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia again.

It’s true, at least for me, that once you become accustomed to painting–and more vitally, living and making choices– in ‘plein air,’ it’s harder to settle for bleak cold days–whether due to the weather or the political climate.

We can call up sketches of the past to help us make sense of the present.   Are the things which divide us still more important than taking stock in a clear-eyed way of what actually has happened and what pathways forward lie ahead?  These processes are sometimes known as “scenario practice,” “forward reasoning,” and simply “foresight”–also processes we focus on in class. There is no end to the usefulness of learning we can gain from those who have studied the past, I’ve concluded.   As Professor Timothy Snyder tells us in his work linking the history of Eastern Europe to our present, the choice is (still) ours to make.

 

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Innovation, Risk, Uncertainty, urban sketching

Learning from the Masters cont’d- “S” for Sargent and Signac

signac-2

Illustration: Watercolor, pencil and charcoal copy (approximately 9 x 12 on the new Canson Heritage Aquarelle hot press paper) by Black Elephant Blog author of Paul Signac’s watercolor (circa 1926?) of the town of Bourg-Saint-Andeol

In times of uncertainty, there’s no question that a hobby can be helpful! So amid the swirl of information which responsible citizens must keep on top of somehow (greatly taxing the “left brain”), it’s important to make time for that hobby.

It can be relaxing–I imagine sort of like those “zen-tangles”–to take on the task of trying to copy a painting by a master. The beauty of this approach is that you don’t need the perfect day weather-wise–you can try this almost anywhere.

simplon-pass

Illustration: Watercolor copy (on a quarter sheet of Arches cold press) by Black Elephant Blog author after John Singer Sargent’s “Simplon Pass” (1911, oil on canvas) at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

To serve as my model will either be a photo I’ve taken of the original, as in the case of John Singer Sargent’s (1856-1925) “Simplon Pass” painting in oil, or simply a painting selected from an art book, as in the case of the Paul Signac watercolors I’ve found in a beautiful book, Paul Signac: A Collection of Watercolors and Drawings (Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers in association with the Arkansas Arts Center, 2000).

Signac (1863-1935), like Sargent his contemporary, is best known for his oil paintings, but I came across a couple of watercolors of his during a recent visit to the Barnes Collection in Philadelphia.Signac’s style, known as neo-impressionism, intrigued me as did his compositions, mostly of port scenes with lots of ships and masts. It seems he was an inveterate ‘urban

signac-still-life

Illustration: Watercolor with charcoal copy (approximately 9×12 Canson Heritage Aquarelle hot press) by Black Elephant Blog author of Paul Signac’s “Still Life” (c. 1924 or 1918)

sketcher’ as so many of these watercolors clearly were done ‘live’, as it were, at the site.

One learns almost by osmosis about composition, color, and light effects when trying to copy the masters.  It is an elaborate and structured form of doodling as you don’t have to do as much planning but you can still relax and have fun.  There is more pressure when you are doing your own work, from start to finish.  Copying from anyone else, even the masters, is still just copying…–and  not something I want to do as a matter of anything other than as a learning exercise.  As all good teachers will tell you, it’s important to do your own original work, which means using your own photos, if you are using photos, or take the step to obtain permission from the owner of the photo you’d like

signac-book-cover

Illustration: Photo of book cover

to use.  But in the case of learning from the Masters, there’s nothing like copying to try to re-trace their thought processes and choices (really strategic decision-making!) in composing their works of art. In the end result, usually:   The destination  remains elusive for all but the rarest of artists but the journey’s worth taking, familiarizing me a bit more with individual works of art by the masters.

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Innovation, Uncategorized, Uncertainty

Goodbye to a Tumultuous Year

boating-and-fishing

Illustration: Watercolor by Black Elephant Blog author (December 2016)

As 2016 winds down, it’s fitting in the quiet week before a New Year to consider the meaning of Black Elephants, Black Swans and the other metaphorical creatures of surprise, such as the boiling frog,  who opened up this blog two years ago this month.  There’s been a lot more attention given to them since then in other venues.  It’s surprising but true.  It’s equally surprising but true that the journey of many artists has, it seems to me, much to offer the rapidly changing world in which we find ourselves today–if we were to want to face up to these creatures of surprise.  This is because artists often try to see beyond the surface impressions to get at the truth of things–that’s what gives art its special meaning to many of us.

One could even say that we live in Black Elephant times if, by that, what we mean is what Thomas Friedman referred to in his op-ed of two years ago, called “Stampeding Black Elephants.”  In that article, he defined the metaphor “Black Elephant” as follows:

 “a cross between “a black swan” (an unlikely, unexpected event with enormous ramifications) and the “elephant in the room” (a problem that is visible to everyone, yet no one still wants to address it) even though we know that one day it will have vast, black-swan-like consequences.”

As I understand it, the phrase (which Friedman picked up from an environmentalist he’d recently met) “Black Elephants” refers to the concept of the uncomfortable, unthinkably unpalatable “elephant in the room” that we would rather not discuss or acknowledge, and therefore–too often–fail to address in time.  (This is also known as the “boiling frog syndrome,” or the “ostrich with its head in the sand,” or the “deer in the headlights” syndrome, etc.)

boiling frog image

Image: Watercolor, gouache, and ink by Black Elephant Blog author (2014)

This concept covers the increasingly (but extraordinarily dangerous) popular tendency to avoid what the accumulated history of knowledge and scientific progress tells us to be true. And so, perhaps it is another “Black Elephant” to observe that these “elephants” may be multiplying right now (paradoxically and quite sadly as their real-life versions dwindle in number due to poaching and encroachment on their natural habitat.)  Facing up to these “elephants” is something that calls for well-honed critical and creative thinking skills–whereby people of all backgrounds including, of course, artists–join forces in shedding new light and creating new possibilities for dealing with the challenges of today in a fact-based way.  This is in fact how mankind has conquered so many diseases that previously killed so many in childhood.  Understanding how innovative breakthroughs occur,and accelerating our society’s capacities for innovation in so many sectors, ares right now key to survival on a collective level.

Fortunately there is more awareness of these challenges, as well as our own inherently human desire to ignore them–aided by the fact of more frequent “black elephant” and “black swan” events in the last two years alone.  It turns out this awareness extends well into the suites of CEOS around the world.  I refer in particular to a recent paper, Thinking the Unthinkable: A New Imperative for Leadership in a Digital Age, which I’ll turn to soon.  Last month I had an opportunity to hear the authors brief an audience on their research findings, and found their conclusions compelling enough to include in a revised syllabus for the coming semester of classes.  Interestingly, they too distinguish in their report between “Black Swans” and “Black Elephants”; the creatures of surprise are everywhere!

Black Elephants 1

Illustration: Watercolor, gouache, ink, pencil, gesso, and coffee grounds by Black Elephant Blog author (2014)

But for now with another spring-like day of temperatures in the 60s Fahrenheit, it’s time to be out enjoying the warm December weather, and re-charging our own personal energy reserves for what promises to be a challenging 2017!   Best wishes to all for a joyous New Year!

 

 

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Uncategorized, urban sketching

Great Falls & Textures in Watercolor

On the first official day of winter, it’s time to bring the outdoors painting indoors, and experiment with some of the methods for ‘textures in watercolor.”  The scene here is one of the view a few days ago from a platform overlooking Great Falls from the Maryland side of the Potomac River.   This is part of the U.S. National Park system, which is the celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.  There are ecological wonders in this area found few places elsewhere in the world, and just a short drive from the nation’s capital.

great-falls

Illustration:  “Great Falls in Winter”, (approx 14″ x 10″)  with watercolor and gouache by Black Elephant Blog author

In real-life, this was a misty scene of blue-grey and Indian red with wildlife, including blue herons, nearby.  With some masking fluid to keep the paper dry for the areas of waterfalls, and some thin strips of drafting tape to preserve the impression of tree trunks in the distance I tried to recapture the scene.  A bit of watercolor seeped under the drafting tape pieces, in the end, but the impression oddly may be more realistic.  In the actual scene there were grays, greens, blues, ochres, rusty red, and white, as well as browns, proving that even “a gray day” has lots of color!

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Surprise, Uncategorized, urban sketching

Polar Vortex watercolor

Winter’s definitely here in this region, in more ways than one. Temperatures are now in the teens Fahrenheit, with strong gusts of freezing wind and the occasional brittle limb snapping off the trees…so  it’s definitely not suitable for ‘plein air’ painting. But these wintry scenes, before any snow or ice falls, hold a spell of their own, and are intriguing to try to capture in paint, once you get back inside.

So it was time, after a brisk walk in the cold,  to experiment with some of the techniques I recently learned in a two-day workshop on creating “texture in watercolor.” Who knew we could paint with all manner of tools, and not just brushes? Out came the bits of sponges, the rock salt, the drafting tape (to help mask up spaces on your surface so that you don’t paint over them), the masking fluid (also for covering up spaces), dried leaves, and other treasures for creating different effects, whether for trees or mountain ranges, clouds or water, or something more exotic.

Illustration:  'Cold Snap", 10" x11" watercolor, pen-and-ink, and acrylic fine gold on Crescent multi-media board by Black Elephant Author

Illustration: ‘Cold Snap”, 10″ x11″ watercolor, gouache, pen-and-ink, a tiny bit of pastel pencil, and acrylic fine gold on Crescent multi-media board by Black Elephant Author

To add to all the experimentation in this painting, I used a scrap of Crescent illustration board as my surface for the first time. It’s actually an off-white cream and I wanted to see what how it would handle watercolor and other media. The board itself curved a bit in the process but can be flattened out.  It was otherwise easy to work with.  I may give this scene another go on it, in fact.  I will return to the issue of texture in watercolor in the not-too-distant future as it’s plainly something best done inside.

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