living in truth, Risk, Uncategorized, Uncertainty, urban sketching

Half-Truths and Lies

Events recently reminded me of sketches done while wandering in the halls of the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. not so long ago.  This is an inspiring place which often is missed by visitors to the capital because it is not on the Mall. It is a bit off the beaten path.  But in this Gallery is so much history, so much art, and so much that is astonishing.  It is a relaxing place too with lots of places to sit, including in a covered light- and plant-filled atrium.

tennyson

“A lie that is half-truth is the darkest of all lies.” – Alfred Lord Tennyson Illustraton: Pencil sketch by Black Elephant Blog author of a bronze bust of Alfred Lord Tennyson sculpted by William Ordway Partridge and located in the Smithsonian Museum of American Art

Co-joined with the Smithsonian’s Museum of American Art (which is where I came across an intriguing bust of Alfred Lord Tennyson), this entire city block is devoted to the proud history and artistic accomplishments of the people of the United States, and visitors to the United States, right up to the present time.  Like the National Constitution Center and Independence Hall in Philadelphia, these two museums present powerful evidence of the fact that this nation is built on a pretty solid foundation, if only we would bother to understand and protect it.

With so much to keep up with these days, it’s more likely than not that we will pay inadequate attention to the requirements for this solid foundation–which is a huge risk that has been with us at least since the onset of the digital revolution.

In our social media-saturated world, we are more likely to be guilty of rushing to judgment than pausing long enough to try to understand what’s going on.  That’s why taking some time out to sit in the National Portrait Gallery can be helpful!  Sketching has a way of concentrating the mind at the same time that it opens us up to new perspectives.  At the National Portrait Gallery, you can bring your drawing tools right inside, and the atrium/courtyard is a perfect place to practice drawing people in motion too.

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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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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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Risk, Surprise, Uncategorized, Uncertainty, urban sketching

Transitions

On what seemed likely to be the last unseasonably warm day of the year, it was great late last week to have some time to get out and sketch along the banks of the Potomac River not far from the nation’s capital. With barely a cloud in the sky, temperatures hovered around 70 degrees–T-shirt weather barely a month before winter’s official start. The scene was placid without even a ripple breaking the surface of the water along the docks of the marina where I chose to sit–something to appreciate for as long as it lasted.

Illustration:  Watercolor and gouache by Black Elephant Blog author

Illustration: “Washington Sailing Marina” in watercolor and gouache by Black Elephant Blog author

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Risk, Surprise, Uncategorized, Uncertainty

Sketch of the Day

Illustration:  Sketch adaptation by Black Elephant Blog author of an oil painting (circa 1922) by Mexican artist Adolfo Best Maugard (1891-1969) which is part of the "Mexican Modernism: Paint the Revolution 1910-1950) exhibition currently running at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Illustration: Sketch adaptation by Black Elephant Blog author of an oil painting (circa 1922) by Mexican artist Adolfo Best Maugard (1891-1969) which is part of the “Mexican Modernism: Paint the Revolution 1910-1950″exhibition currently running at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

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Risk, Surprise, Uncategorized, Uncertainty, urban sketching

The Path Ahead

Unseasonably warm weather and bright light this weekend added to the joys of walking through the fall colors wherever we were.  People strolled in the streets everywhere including in this neighborhood of Old Town Alexandria, Virginia, where the scene (below) in the private garden attached to a historic mansion demanded to be painted.

old-town-alexandria

Illustration: Watercolor and gouache, “The Path Ahead,” on Fluid Cold Press 4″ x 6″ watercolor paper by the Black Elephant Blog author

At every turn in this colonial-era town not far from Washington, D.C., it was impossible to ignore the symbols of our rich history as a still great, if troubled, nation. And it was impossible to forget that this very week,  we will be facing a most consequential election .

And yet, when literally everything is on the ballot, the path ahead  couldn’t be more clear.  As one young voter wrote in an opinion piece today, this moment “can be a moment of all those who  hope for a better future, who believe in American leadership and who know that our best days are still ahead.”  Clearly, current and future generations here and abroad depend on us to engage constructively, and not cynically, with this moment, and thereafter to engage similarly with the process of governing.  There is no other path ahead.

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Innovation, Risk, Surprise, Uncategorized, Uncertainty, urban sketching

Painting Pan & Avoiding Panic

Painting in the outdoors, or “plein air,” is a popular past-time for artists and great practice for everyone who wants to learn to appreciate their surroundings with new eyes. I am most likely to be found doing this on weekends when I have painting pals who want to be outdoors.  But a few (most, actually) of the people with whom I correspond do not have much time to paint whether in or out of doors, so I thought I’d write a post about what art is teaching me about readiness for the unexpected.

The other day, I found myself in a setting devoted to sustainable gardening and wild meadows where my subject turned out to be a small garden statue of the ancient Greek god of the wilds, fields, and flocks, Pan, with his man-like body and a goat’s hind legs.  The word “panic” is derived, I’ve since learned, from Pan’s name.

photo-of-pan-playing-pipes

Illustration:  Photo of garden statue of Pan at the River Farm, Alexandria, Virginia

This subject promised to be challenging, especially given changing circumstances. Sunlight vied with overcast skies, changing the shadows on the figure every few minutes.  In addition, a wedding was scheduled for these very grounds in a short time, so planning ahead was of the essence.  First off was a quick sketch to familiarize myself with this scene, and gain some idea of lights and darks.

sketch-of-pan-playing-pipes

Illustration:  Quick sketch in terracotta watercolor pencil by Black Elephant Blog author

Such a sketch can boost confidence for the next step, though it is true that you never know how a sketch is going to turn out and many sketchbooks, like diaries, are private partly for this reason.  Nor, increasingly, do we know what we will face, so sketching (or  a rehearsal or a “scenario”of any kind) is a way to increase our readiness for the unexpected, a subject that received more attention in the early days of this blog.

Seeing Things Differently and Avoiding Panic  Learning how to see in different ways, sometimes very quickly–including connecting with others who see things differently–is fundamental to survival, not only for the artist.  It has been called various things including cognitive agility, mindfulness, and “rapid reflection.” But I’ve observed that it often doesn’t get the attention you’d expect for something so critical.  In fact, in too many places, people are incentivized to ignore the unfamiliar and to treat it as irrelevant until an altogether too-obvious change in the status quo forces (some of) them to reconsider…and sometimes that is too late.   (Even in the absence of crisis, such a disinterest in the world can harden into a lack of curiosity which calcifies one’s situational awareness at a dangerously low level.  This has proven in the past to be particularly bad for living species of all kinds–not to mention modern-age businesses–and is especially risky in today’s world where we–and all our things, such as watches, cars, and phones–are more interconnected than ever before.)

pan-playing-pipes

Illustration:  Watercolor on Arches Hot Press by Black Elephant Blog author

Topping off this day  of plein air painting was the opportunity to see the movie, “Sully,” on the inspirational pilot and the first responders on that incredible day when a fully-loaded passenger plan had to land on the Hudson River.  From painting Pan in the wilds, I was confronted with wild scenes that would leave most of us panic-stricken if we were in the midst of them.

sully-photo

Illustration: Photo from indiewire: http://www.indiewire.com/

But this is a film of human strength and prowess, strong team work, and genuine leadership.  From the pilot and his co-pilot, to the crew, the ferryboat operators, air traffic control, and many other responders, the rapid response to this unprecedented event demonstrated the value of consciously preparing (across disciplines, stovepipes, and other boundaries) for the unexpected.    In this case, one imagines that such pre-crisis teamwork contributed to enhancing preparedness for an unprecedented situation.  Remembering the importance of the  “human factor”, as per Sully when he explains himself to the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board), is the critical difference.  His performance seems to be an example of “rapid reflection” crisis management in action; this film carefully adheres to the facts of the crisis as it actually unfolded and, therefore, truly is a “must-see” for all those in top management, whatever the field.

I’ve been reminded regularly that true artists respect unintended consequences  whereas experts of other stripes too often don’t.  Artists regularly experiment with techniques and materials, and absorb others’ approaches like sponges; many experts of other stripes too often don’t. There is seemingly an important paradox in this.

In an age when many clearly believe it is more acceptable to bash experts than to emulate them, the aspiring artist knows that study of others’ solidly perfected techniques–and, beyond this, historical appreciation as to what has been humanly possible and achieved over time–leads to greater consciousness of our individual shortcomings and more rapid recognition of the truly exceptional (as the film, Sully, also reminds us).  Recognizing these gaps can inspire us to be more curious and to learn more.  At the same time, experts themselves must prepare for circumstances never before seen (and, thus, for which there is no sketch, textbook or field of expertise). Indeed, a certain cognitive and doctrinal flexibility seems necessary, at a minimum, lest very deep expertise lead us to think that everything can be scripted, measured, and predicted ahead of time–as the differences between the NTSB and Sully demonstrated in the film.

The artist with skill in applying paint (or ink or any other medium) to paper or canvas–and expertise such as pilot Sully’s extraordinary tacit knowledge of the limits of his airplane, his ability to derive quickly from different inputs the most sensible course of action, as well as his abiding awareness of the value of human life–demonstrate human capacities  that total reliance on computers, for instance, or checklists can never achieve.

So, while it is true that you generally don’t want the pilot of your commercial jet to be creative in getting you from point A to B, the movie, Sully, does show us that adaptation in the face of the unexpected requires a degree of mindfulness  (and openness to ongoing learning) that cannot be assumed.  At their best, therefore, artists and experts of all types, whether commercially successful or not, seem to combine deep knowledge with a degree of cognitive flexibility that is hard to sustain from deep within “stovepipes” of all types, from academia to industry.  Dealing effectively with this conundrum seems to me to one of the most important things we could do these days.

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