Risk, Uncertainty

Sculpture Garden Night Skating Sketch

A very snowy  week is coming to an end, leaving wonderful winter scenes in its wake.

night skating on the mall

Illustration: Watercolor and pen-and-ink sketch,  “Night Skating in the National Gallery Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.”  by Black Elephant Blog author

With so much closed due to snow, there’s been time to experiment with night scenes in watercolor and to give “hot press” watercolor paper a whirl. It took a couple of tries to start to get the hang of the paper, with its smooth surface, but it’s fun.

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Innovation, Risk, Uncategorized, Uncertainty

Driving Innovation on the Fuel of Creativity

When Bill Gates says, as he did recently, that we must “drive innovation at an unnaturally high pace” to transition to a globally-applicable non-carbon source of energy in time (to save the planet), it raises the question (or ought to) of what’s involved in doing that?  If creativity is the “fuel” of innovation, how does one go about gaining and sustaining that fuel source?  Do we wait, in a comfortable sunny spot, for inspiration to hit us?

Zoo sketch 1

Illustration: Watercolor, gouache, graphite and bistre ink by Black Elephant Blog author

Sometimes we think of creativity as something that occurs to us when we are relaxed, doing something routine like driving through a toll booth or even–or most likely–when we are doing nothing at all…  Is that what we must accelerate?  Or are there more reliable means of spurring and sustaining innovation (and creativity) ?  There have been a number of books on this subject, including on the need for “entrepreneurial states,” but in fact there’s been little noticeable tie-in of this material to the renewable energy challenge Gates and others are highlighting.

With the onset of a new university semester (as soon as suitable paths to class are plowed through the snow) looking at some of these issues, and investigating what it means to be innovative, or creative, in the workplace, this blog soon will turn to the experience of Pixar Studios as related by its co-founder, Ed Catmull, in Creativity, Inc.:  Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration, (New York, Random House, 2014).  Some of what he has to say may surprise you but all of it is relevant to all of us when tied to prospecting for pathways to a sustainable energy future.  How to sustain a creative work environment is the challenge, and the theme, of this book–to be highlighted here soon.  Given that the author is from Pixar Studios, it comes as no surprise, but still is surprisingly fascinating, to see that he has a lot to say about art, sketching, paying attention, and hand-drawn approaches to animation.  Coming up next…

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Surprise, Uncategorized

Room with a View

With nearly all the people in this area still inside their houses after the snowstorm of the past 36 hours, a cardinal took a peek into the window today.

Illustration:  Watercolor and pen and ink (Kuretake fine point black marker) by Black Elephant Blog author

Illustration: Watercolor and pen and ink (Kuretake fine point black marker) on Arches Cold Press 140 1b watercolor paper by Black Elephant Blog author

Sunlight lit up the scene outside, creating dramatic shadow shapes on the snow, a real challenge to paint.

After a while, it was time to take a walk outside in this wonderland, following a small path stamped down by others who passed this way earlier. Next on this blog, a look at why  about one inch of snow that fell last Wednesday caused relatively more havoc in this area of about six million people than nearly 30 inches that fell yesterday. It turns out that, like snow blindness, “paradigm blindness” can affect our ability to see, and prepare for, what’s right in front of us.  This is related to material we will commence teaching in the university semester which begins this week, so it is good for me to review it.

After the snow 1

Illustration: Watercolor sketch on Arches Cold Press 140 lb watercolor paper by Black Elephant Blog author

 

 

 

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Risk, Surprise, Uncertainty

Gridlock Sketch

Georgetown 2

Illustration:  Watercolor, gouache,  and Platinum Carbon pen and ink sketch, with some wax-resist and salt applied, in a Stillman & Birn “Epsilon” sketchbook by Black Elephant Blog author

A light snowfall caused havoc in the Washington, D.C. area last night as, unexpectedly, treacherous sheets of ice quickly formed and clung to roads everywhere.  Major interstates were clogged or even shut down.  No one was prepared for this. Despite the ordeal the wintry scenes made the ordinary appear quite extraordinary–such as this bank on a corner in Georgetown.  The sketch was done from a reference photo which was taken while in the probably historic traffic jam of 20 January.  By 3 a.m. the next day, the journey which started at 9:30 p.m. was safely over, thank goodness.

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Innovation, Risk, Surprise, Uncertainty

Wax-Resist & Creative Intelligence

A recent two-day artists’ workshop in “wax-resist techniques” provided loads of food for thought not just about this artistic process but also about the importance of thinking ahead to what you are trying to achieve…and how to get there.

Tulum wax resist 4

Illustration: Tulum, Yucatan Mayan structure in ink wash (Higgins waterproof black India ink) with wax marks, charcoal, Conte crayon, and Char-koal pastels by Black Elephant Blog author

It is normal to fall back too readily on what we think we know and on what we expect to see, and this blocks our ability to learn new things and see things in new ways–  which is so fundamental to art, innovation, business success, and progress.  As Ed Catmull, the author of Creativity, Inc. (Random House, New York, 2014) writes, “the best managers make room for what they do not know… not just because humility is a virtue but because until we adopt that mindset, the most striking breakthroughs cannot occur.”

As a newcomer to the wax resist technique, however, I found myself falling back onto old habits and ways of thinking.   Without a doubt, these were blocking my ability to internalize and apply these new approaches.   The wax resist approach, like any other truly artistic approach, benefits from taking a great deal of time studying the subject first.

“This process insists that you have a goal or else you get into trouble,” warned the instructor. “The wax is not forgiving,” he said.  “Everything you don’t plan” comes back to bite you.

The process involves repeated washes, first with plain water, and then ink washes, and a lot of intervals of drying the paper.

Drying art

Illustration: Drying the paper after one of the ink washes (after an initial waxing of the image)

This activity needs a large workspace that is forgiving of water drips and ink splashes!  The stipulated paper dimensions in this workshop were large too, so as to better capture details with the wax.  This paper  takes a beating, with multiple washes, and being hung to dry on a line after each wash (often after some time on the floor so that still wet ink wouldn’t run down the page.)

What is difficult to realize ahead of time is the repeated and gradual nature of the process of building up the darks and the clever use (not over-use as in the example here) of the wax.  This is not about painting or “rendering”, but it takes a while for the novice wax resist-user to grasp this.

Materials for Wax Resist

Illustration: Photo of some of the materials used in the ink wash and wax resist project

Now that class is out, there’s so much to practice.  Fortunately, the necessary supplies are readily available–such as Gulf Wax which can generally be found in a grocery store.  It’s the thought process that is more difficult to acquire.  It takes time and guidance, persistence, and, for the best results as demonstrated by our instructor, clearly some enormous talent that few of us can assume.

This workshop was an extraordinary learning experience relevant to much more than art. It underscored the huge gaps in our thinking processes when it comes to learning how to re-perceive what is right in front of us.  Such ability to reframe the obvious in new lights (and darks) is key  to achieving anything artistic, let alone the sort of breakthrough innovations we increasingly acknowledge are needed for (nothing less than) the future of the planet.   Strategic and design thinking come together in use of wax resist in this process, as well probably in other applications, such as watercolor painting.

Tulum watercolor sketch

Illutration: Watercolor and pen and ink sketch of Mayan structure at Tulum in Quintanaa Roo, Yucatan by Black Elephant Blog author

For goals of still larger scale, such as enabling a global transition to a low-carbon economy, how to create environments that can accelerate our ability to grasp these ways of thinking will be the subject of future posts.  The experienced artist who also is an effective teacher has a crucial role to play in the transition to the needed new thinking.

 

 

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Uncategorized

Learning from the Urban Sketching Masters: Anton Pieck

While at a dinner party over the holidays, the gentleman next to me, who was originally from the Netherlands, told me that the illustrations of Anton Pieck, a Dutch artist (1895-1987), had made a big impression on him as a boy growing up in Holland.

Illustration:  Graphic of "Christmas market" by Anton Pieck (Source: Wikipedia)

Illustration: Graphic of “Christmas market” by Anton Pieck (Source: Wikipedia)

Pieck’s illustrations were in his childhood books, he said, and everyone knew about his work then.  Pieck was an urban sketcher before people used the term, said the dinner guest. When I later looked up the work of Anton Pieck, what I found was something fantastic, inspiring, and somewhat familiar–surely I have seen some of these illustrations before. But what a “Master” to inspire the urban sketchers of today!

There is enormous detail in the work of Anton Pieck, sensitivity, and cheerfulness. In his illustrations, he recreates the feeling of the towns and cities of Holland in the 19th century and still keeps a fairytale atmosphere throughout his work. Pouring through his drawings, you will find whimsical details on both the architecture and in the market baskets people carry with them shopping. No subject escapes his notice, it seems. In the 1950s, after spending much of his professional life so far teaching and illustrating, Pieck was asked to help design a new theme park in the Netherlands called “Efteling.” This became his focus for the next 22 years.  Throughout this time, he was responsible for almost all the fairytale aspects of the park, which is still popular today but I’ve not heard of it before now.

Anton Pieck

Illustration: Tekenaar Anton Pieck 85 jaar; Anton Pieck in zijn werkkamer *18 april 1980 – Source: Wikipedia

There is much to learn from in the work of Anton Pieck, of course, and to immerse oneself in some fairytale worlds is tempting, (especially given the deeply disturbing nature what passes for news in the news these days).

So, while immobilized by some sort of bug going around, I opened my sketchbook to do these practice pieces of excerpts of Pieck’s work.

AP practice sketch 1

Illustration: Practice sketch (in watercolor, bistre and platinum carbon pen and ink, and Micron pen in a Stillman  & Birn “Epsilon” series sketchbook) by Black Elephant Blog author of excerpt of watercolor by Anton Pieck called “Christmas market”

It surely would be like a fairytale to be able to adopt some of his style to sketch the modern  street scenes of today–perhaps a “stretch goal” to work towards in 2016!

AP practice sketch 2

Illustration: Practice sketch by Black Elephant Blog author (using bistre ink and wash, and a limited palette of watercolors) after an excerpt of a painting by Anton Pieck

 

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Uncategorized

Museum Sketching and the Art of Serendipity

As the weather gets colder, sketchers tend to move inside.  Groups of them sometimes get together inside museums where, after an initial meet-and-greet, they disperse to go sketch before reconvening to share and discuss their results.

Sketching in museums presents many challenges not least of which is whether to stand or sit.

Often I will choose to sketch where I can sit because I can take my time noticing things about what I am sketching. This means more randomness in the selection of what I am sketching, as the choice relates more to the seat than the view.

Such an artificial constraint can be good as it forces me to focus on things I might ignore otherwise. And so it happened recently that the empty couch I spotted was facing this painting by Antoine Watteau (1684-1721). Upon taking a seat, I realized that I knew nothing about him or this painting.

Gallery Photo

Photo of Painting by Antoine Watteau

The painting itself is quite challenging, and not one I normally would consider sketching.  Adding to the complexity of the scene is a sculpture on either side of this painting in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.  One wonders why these three pieces are positioned together here.

Sketching, I’ve learned, helps you notice details you might otherwise miss. In a sense, sketching is a way of paying attention.  Some people describe it as a form of meditation.   And this sort of paying attention, as well as seeking out contradictions and analogies, are crucial to innovation, as was reported on just this past weekend in the New York Times on “How to Cultivate the Art of Serendipity.”    But, as this article discusses, we don’t know how to make processes fundamental to innovation happen reliably.

We do know many innovative breakthroughs involve uncovering possibly overlooked combinations.  Having a “wide horizon” is essential, according to Jaime Holmes, author of a book, Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing, discussed earlier on this blog. Holmes memorably noted that “recognition means closure, and it marks the end of thinking, looking, and listening.  When we recognize an object, we make unconscious assumptions about it.”   He emphasizes others’  research concluding the importance of having a process of “pulling insights from other fields,” also called an “analogy finder technique.” Ambiguity tolerance can be measured, moreover, he writes.   People’s “heightened need for closure” can be manipulated and people are more likely to jump to conclusions or “entrench their existing views” in conditions of uncertainty when instead “dwelling calming” within uncertainty “will help you make a more rational decision.”

Gallery Sketch

Illustration: Watercolor and Platinum Carbon pen and ink by Black Elephant Blog author  (watercolor added afterwards)

So back in the museum, at the end of an hour, by allowing a random thing like the placement of a couch affect the choice of subject to sketch, I ended up more curious about these art pieces in front of me. I learned, for instance, that Watteau was an innovator for his time, pushing the boundaries of the art world.

Watteau portrait

Photo:  Portrait of Antoine Watteau (Source: Wikipedia)

When our group of sketchers reconvened, it was possible to see others’ selections of sketching subjects and media. One could not fail to be impressed with the process of discovery evident in each one.  We gained some familiarity with new subjects even if we could not name them!

 

 

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