Innovation, Uncategorized, Uncertainty

Goodbye to a Tumultuous Year


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, are 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!

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.


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!

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.