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.
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.”
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.
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!
One thought on “Museum Sketching and the Art of Serendipity”
Dwelling calmly in uncertainty is hard but crucially important in these turbulent times. It means allowing oneself the freedom to let the unexpected connections and analogies emerge. Unfortunately, the process can’t be forced, especially when we are impatient for a practical and significant result. But if we can tolerate the discomfort of avoiding closure, not “recognizing,” not “knowing” the subject of our observations, sometimes a remarkable new insight or connection will push its way to the surface of one’s conscious mind.