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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Surprise, Uncategorized, urban sketching

Plein Air and Great Service at L’Auberge Chez Francois

During a plein air competition this week hosted by The Arts of Great Falls, Virginia, I had the opportunity to work on the grounds of one of the top French restaurants in the Washington, D.C. area, L’Auberge Chez Francois.

gf-plein-air

Illustration: Photo of “plein air” watercolor as a work-in-progress by Black Elephant Blog author

Braving unseasonably hot days (over 90 degrees!)  was made easier by the very attentive staff of this deservedly highly-rated restaurant, who came outside to the patio dining area several times to offer a cold glass of sparkling water or iced tea. This was very thoughtful, and probably outside their job description as their paying customers were inside the air-conditioned restaurant.   As it happened, I had my own ice water with me so did not need to accept their offers but their hospitality made what could have been a somewhat uncomfortable setting (due to the heat and occasional biting bugs) more pleasant.

The competition continues (and ends) today but a day already in this heat has left me content to submit only this one watercolor now on sale at the sponsors’ art gallery.  (There is something satisfying about going straight from the field to a gallery even if it is not a juried exhibition!)

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Illustration: Watercolor as a work-in-progress by Black Elephant Blog author

This experience is yet another reminder that ‘plein air’ is dominated by oil painters, it seems.  The history of watercolor’s admission into the ranks of accepted mediums for serious art is a fascinating one on which I started a blog post some months ago, and may try to finish soon.  These on-site ventures out into the world of artists (and gracious restaurant staff) are fun tests of one’s ability to frame and execute a concept quickly.  My approach was to go out one day and scout the place for a scene, and then to sketch it in pencil.  The following day I set aside three hours to do the watercolor.  My hope was that the white tablecloths of the scene would provide a brighter contrast; the end result was less effective in this regard than I wanted, but dissatisfaction can be a powerful motivator.  In any case, I popped it into a frame and the sponsors now have it on display.  How fun!  And I will be happy to take it home again, if it doesn’t sell,  as a memory of this experience.

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Uncategorized, Uncertainty

Studying Transparency (in Watercolor)

Passing through New Orleans International Airport this weekend, I spent some time at the departure gate sketching fellow passengers. It’s surprisingly hard to do, but they say practice makes perfect.

New Orleans sketch

Illustration: Watercolor and pen-and-ink by Black Elephant Blog author

A useful book has meanwhile fallen into my hands called Transparent Watercolor Wheel:  A Logical and Easy-to-Use System for Taking the Guesswork Out of Mixing Colors.  This unfortunately out-of-print (and therefore often expensive) book is by Jim Kosvanec, whose many watercolor paintings he includes in the book are of native peoples in the region of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico (discussed elsewhere here on this blog), where he lived and worked at the time of this book’s publication in 1994 and apparently where he still lives and works.

Transparent Watercolor Wheel Book cover

Illustration: Photo by Black Elephant Blog author of cover of book, Transparent Watercolor Wheel by Jim Kosvanec

The book is perfect for those who are curious about the differences between transparent, semi-transparent, semi-opaque, and opaque watercolors, and also gives one an excellent sense of which watercolors to use (based on top brands prevailing in 1994 at least) and how to mix them.   There are instructions, for instance, on how to produce light, medium, and dark-value grays, as below.

As in anything else one undertakes, the further you get into this subject the more you realize there is to learn…which makes it all the more challenging and fun.

Grays

Illustration: Swatches of gray mixtures by Black Elephant Blog author

There are no hard and fast rules, of course; we are talk about art after all, not science, but the book’s a great opportunity to get up-to-speed on some of the different effects people seek to achieve with watercolor.  To achieve transparency in watercolor (and perhaps in anything) requires experience, expertise, and experimentation…and practice!  I’ve got a way to go on this.

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Risk, Uncategorized

Plein Air Painting in Leesburg, VA

On Independence Day weekend, there was time to get some plein air painting done in the historic district of Leesburg, VA before the rain and the Fourth of July festivities took over the streets.  Setting up an easel on the sidewalk in front of a courthouse can feel like a somewhat bold thing to do, and more fun in the company of another artist, as in this case.

Leesburg 1

Illustration: Watercolor, gouache, white Pitt pen marker, terracotta pencil, and white pastel with Platinum Carbon ink by Black Elephant Blog author

Leesburg has the distinction of having one of the best preserved historic districts in Virginia.  In addition, during the 20th century, General George C. Marshall, after whom the  Marshall Plan was named, made his home here. The Marshall Plan extended U.S. aid to war-torn Europe following World War II.  (In more recent decades, such assistance has become more controversial, but it’s useful to do a “thought experiment” and imagine what postwar Europe might have become without such American assistance.)

There was time enough to get a sketch in and a first wash, all the while enjoying an unseasonably comfortable breeze, before at last we felt we had dared the weather enough and packed up, just to be on the safe side.  But the rain never came, leaving more time to enjoy holiday weekend activities outdoors…perhaps the subject of a few more sketches coming up in future blog posts.  Happy Fourth of July!

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Innovation, Risk, Surprise, Uncategorized, Uncertainty

Sketching is Seeing

Illustration:  Photo of entrance to Sketching Room at the National Gallery of Art (April 2016)

Illustration: Photo of entrance to Sketching Room at the National Gallery of Art (April 2016)

As the university semester comes to an end, the focus in our class is on tying  strands of inquiry together in an in-class simulation exercise. This week the students received a one-page scenario “sketch.” Scenario practice typically involves multiple (completely contrasting and credulity-stretching) stories or sketches for the purposes of ‘rehearsing the future,”  increasing agility of thinking and planning today, and enhancing readiness for the unexpected.   We do this because our course focuses on unconventional problems which in turn require unconventional approaches to problem-solving, examined earlier on this blog as in here, here, and here.  (The current relevance attached in some circles to the importance of becoming more aware of our decision-making processes, and impediments to solving the complex problems of today, can be seen in projects and events such as this upcoming presentation, “Missing the Slow Train:  How Gradual Change Undermines Public Policy and Collective Action”  at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.)

But, our  classroom process differs from standard scenario practice, though the goals remain similar. Having just considered case studies in the importance of “reframing the question” in order to design more effective problem-solving approaches to complex challenges, the students (who come from all over the world) have been given an intentionally unbounded rapidly-unfolding crisis situation in the form of a very sketchy sketch.  This scenario is ambiguous in terms of ‘ownership’ or national or jurisdictional boundaries or  even the exact facts on the ground  (simulating reality).  The students must even decide “who” they are in this simulation, in devising their plans by next week. Time is short, the situation completely unfamiliar, and two subgroups are working, respectively, in pre-crisis and post-crisis modes.  Within these groups people must work together outside of their usual lanes and routines. There is no one in charge, at least initially.  Usually the results are pretty impressive, surprising, and it’s a fun, albeit serious, way to end the semester.  We all learn something in the process.

Boy sketching

Sketching something imaginary?

We naturally start with sketches whether we are contemplating building a new deck on the house, designing a new organizational initiative, imagining something which we don’t see, or drawing a cartoon. Sketching has a role in seeing, as emphasized quite dramatically this very week (!) by a whole room devoted to sketching (complete with free sketchbooks and pencils) at the entrance to the National Gallery of the Art in Washington, D.C. So sketches can be something we draw, or practice (as on a stage,) or simulate in a classroom or a video game.

tulips and capitol

Photo: U.S. Capitol, Washington, D.C. taken by Black Elephant Blog author

Meanwhile a gorgeous Spring has provided the perfect palette to practice sketching in different media.

Bridge photo

Illustration: Photo by Black Elephant Blog author

Toggling between so many sketch-able things has produced many “works-in-progress” and aspirations to finish them!

bridge pastel 1

Illustration: Work -in-progress pastel sketch by Black Elephant Blog author

But each one is a step in a path towards hopefully something more polished.  Sketching is also good for incubating ideas, sometimes over a period of many years, in notes, notebooks, doodles, and …sketches… awaiting a moment perhaps involving serendipity when well-honed ideas can finally be implemented.  (Most of us know of people in history who, for various reasons (like survival) kept their own ideas and sketches hidden, like “The Origin of Species” written in the early 19th century, for a quarter of a century or more.)

Lakeside watercolor 1

Illustration: Work-in-progress watercolor by Black Elephant Blog author

It turns out, as many teachers have said over the past year, process matters if we are to make progress on tough challenges (whether in art, education, public health, or security matters) and create better outcomes.  Complacency and routines can be deadly in this regard.

How curiously different is the world of artists from the world of those in many other professions.  Artists must be original in order to have a chance at being successful, much as Georgia O’Keeffe was in adopting her various styles.  But so many other professions discourage originality in part because it’s impossible to manage traditionally. As  more and more challenges at the level of cities, regions, nations, and the world at large demand originality and creativity, traditional organizations are stumbling, although some are trying to adapt.  It’s a tall order for most of them, but necessary.  Would we better off  if creativity and originality were emphasized, rather than stifled, beginning in primary school?  One wonders.  Meanwhile, it’s  no wonder sketching is catching on like wildfire:  sketch away!

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Innovation, Risk, Surprise, Uncategorized, Uncertainty

Bridge Over Colored Water

Spring is finally here. This sketch made just yesterday in a bright and glorious sun is of a bridge with its destination obscured.

Bridge Over Colored Water

Illustration: Watercolor by Black Elephant Blog author

In other developments, experimenting now with Strathmore Aquarius II paper, converted into an accordian sketchbook, per instructions generously provided by urban sketcher Marc Taro Holmes on his blog, Citizen Sketcher; the sketchbook is for an upcoming trip out West later this week and will be featured here in the future.

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Innovation, Risk, Surprise, Uncategorized, Uncertainty

“Creativity, Inc.”, Innovation, and an “Energy Miracle”

At last, we are underway with our classes at the university, with the onset of a “Spring” semester which, delayed by some wintry weather, has so far not felt very spring-like.  With inclement weather, though, it’s been easier to get some work done on projects related to what we are covering in class, and a chance to compose a blog post on some of this. Hence, this post is a bit less about sketching present every-day scenes and more about designing alternative frameworks for the future.  (The eventual goal is to combine both in an accessible format for different audiences.)

Illustration:  Watercolor and pen and ink study for "Waiting for Spring" by Black Elephant Blog author

Illustration: Watercolor and pen and ink study for “Waiting for Spring” by Black Elephant Blog author

We have moved rapidly through diverse science and security-related issues and zoomed across the land masses of the planet to understand different climatic zones, the extent of challenges to arable land, and how incidents or policy changes at a local or national level–even on the other side of the world– can have global impacts. Not yet a month into the semester, therefore, we are confronting the realization that past experience will no longer be a reliable guide to managing many looming challenges, including the necessary transition to no-carbon and low-cost sources of energy.  Innovation thus is inescapably urgent.

None other than Bill Gates, who describes himself as an “impatient optimist,” admits that “time is not on our side” when it comes to globally applicable means of reducing carbon emissions to zero.  He puts his hopes on a “miracle” in energy R& D even as it’s plain to see investment in energy research by developed nations remains far below that in other areas.  (Gates says that the scale of innovation needed requires government investment as it involves risks that the private sector is poorly equipped to assume.) Conventional approaches to problem-solving in this area simply will not work.

energy research OECD

Illustration:  OECD chart

Already in our class there is focus on the social,  institutional, and cross-boundary aspects, as well as cognitive and psychological facets, of the problem. (It seems that, even this early in the semester, we are beginning to hear more readily the overly specialized or “silo’ed” limitations in the thinking on offer at some conference panels around town.) What does it take to harness innovative ingenuity on a global scale?  What can we learn from those who have studied processes of innovation and creativity?  Where do these subjects enter most conversations and efforts about transitioning rapidly to a low-carbon, or no-carbon, energy system?  While proposals on the global “table”, as it were, have merit, how to ensure that the collective “we” is not “betting the farm” on a strategy that will not pay-off?  Whose responsibility is it to even consider these things?  (Such are the issues we are dealing with in the classroom.)

Innovative approaches to solving complex problems, including developing the “energy miracle” Bill Gates has called for, require more than technological investment and novel financial arrangements.  They require organizations to invest in developing and sustaining creativity and strategic thinking in the workplace.  But who knows how to do this?  And have we any idea on how to be creatively collaborative across myriad institutions?  It seems that much of the material published on these topics is aimed at managers or, less often, educators.  But that may be too late for most people.  The concepts  involved must be introduced earlier in people’s careers so they have time to evaluate and internalize them with their peers. Thus such material is worked into our course at the graduate school level where students typically already have a few years of professional work experience. Understanding the obstacles to innovation–and its “fuel,” creativity–is fundamental to making progress on the complex problems, (especially “super-wicked” problems s0-called because they require the engagement of society as a whole), of today.

In many workplaces, however, the efforts of talented people are typically stifled in “myriad unseen ways,” according to Ed Catmull, President of Pixar Animation and Disney Animation in his book, Creativity, Inc., Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration,  (Random House, 2014).  Despite constant emphasis (belatedly in many cases) these days on the need for innovation (and creativity, and disruptive breakthroughs), rarely is any thought given to how such creative work is nurtured, evaluated and sustained…to say the least.  So it seems timely to take a few notes from the book, Creativity, Inc., to see how these issues are dealt with in an industry (producer of the films, “Toy Story,” “Up,” and “Ratatouille,” among others) that most everyone assumes exemplifies the best of creative workplaces.

Catmull credits his experience as a graduate student at the University of Utah, where he received his Ph.D in 1974,  with introducing him to the importance of leaders who understand how “to create a fertile laboratory.”  Much of the research in the university’s computer science department was funded by the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) of the Department of Defense (now known as DARPA).  The university laboratory leaders understood “they had to assemble different kinds of thinkers and then encourage their autonomy.” Catmull writes that the most valuable thing he gained from the university “was the model my teachers provided for how to lead and inspire other creative thinkers.”  One of the lessons from ARPA that stayed with Catmull was:  “When faced with a challenge, get smarter.”  He thus knew that, in order to “attract the sharpest minds,” he needed to put his own insecurities away.  When starting out as the lab director at the New York Institute of Technology while still in his 20s, therefore, one of his first hires was someone who seemed to Catmull more qualified to lead the lab than he was.

Catmull’s book is the story of his journey in learning to sustain a creative work environment.  Nearly every page contains a memorable lesson applicable in other fields, such as:  “Always take a chance on better, even if it seems threatening.”  The challenge for him and his colleagues in the mid-1970s was to solve technical problems involved in applying computer animation to the film industry.  There were a few companies working on these problems and most, Catmull writes, “embraced a culture of strictly enforced, even CIA-like, secrecy.”  By contrast, Catmull and his colleagues decided to share their work with the outside world instead; his view was that “we were all so far from achieving our goal that to hoard ideas only impeded our ability to get to the finish line. [emphasis added]”   (Might this view be relevant as well to the energy challenge mentioned at the start of this post?)  Catmull notes that the “benefit of this transparency was not immediately felt” but that the “relations and connections we formed, over time, proved far more valuable than we could have imagined, fueling our technical innovation and our understanding of creativity in general.”

As his project teams grew, Catmull had to move his organization from a flat team-like structure to more of a hierarchical approach.  He realized that his team at the New York Institute of Technology actually functioned more “like a collection of grad students–independent thinkers with individual projects–rather than a team with a common goal.”  Catmull describes the influence of “Starwars” and George Lucas on the field of computer animation, and traces the trajectory of his own career, and long partnership with Steve Jobs, through the lessons he learned along the way.

To give some sense of these lessons and their broad applicability, here are a few from the book:

  1. “There is nothing quite like ignorance combined with a driving need to succeed to force rapid learning.”
  2. Books with advice like “Dare to fail” divert people from addressing “the far harder problem: deciding what they should be focusing on.”
  3. “Being on the lookout for problems…was not the same as seeing problems.”…”The good stuff was hiding the bad stuff.”
  4. “Originality is fragile.”
  5. “We realized that our purpose was not merely to build a studio that made films but to foster a creative culture that would continually ask questions.”
  6. “Figuring out how to build a sustainable creative culture…was a day-in-day-out, full-time job.”
  7. “Ideas come from people.  Therefore, people are more important than ideas.”
  8. “The hallmark of a healthy creative culture is that its people feel free to share ideas, opinions, and criticisms.”
  9. “…without the critical ingredient that is candor, there can be no trust.  And without trust, creative collaboration is not possible.”
  10. “The key is to look at the viewpoints being offered, in any successful feedback group, as additive, not competitive.
  11.  “By resisting the beginner’s mind, you make yourself more prone to repeat yourself than to create something new.  The attempt to avoid failure, in other words, makes failure more likely.”
  12. “The pressure to create–and quickly!–happens at many companies…and its unintended effect is always the same: It lessens quality across the board.”
  13. “When we put setbacks into two buckets–the “business-as-usual” bucket and the “holy cow” bucket–and use a different mindset for each, we are signing up for trouble.”
Unexpected 1

Illustration: Watercolor wash and pen-and-ink sketch by Black Elephant Blog author

Dealing with “The Hidden”  Catmull’s book is exceptional for its sophisticated treatment of many tough management issues that arise in virtually any field, including learning to see “hidden” issues in the corporation and, just as important, realizing that just because you don’t see them doesn’t mean they do not exist.  He says that one of his core management beliefs is “If you don’t try to cover what is unseen and understand its nature, you will be ill-prepared to lead.” He also emphasizes that our ignorance about randomness affects our ability to face the unknown.  Catmull writes, for instance:

“We are quite adept at working with repeatable events and at understanding bell-shaped variance…[But] how can we think clearly about unexpected events that are lurking out there that don’t fit any of our existing models?  Catmull notes that there is a “human tendency to treat big events fundamentally different from smaller ones.”   This sets us up for failure, he explains, because we fail to realize that some of the small problems have long-term consequences and are, therefore, “big problems in the making.”

In another excellent section, “Learning to See,” Catmull describes how he hired an art teacher to come in to the organization to teach everyone “how to heighten our powers of observation.”   People who draw better than the rest of us, he says, “are setting aside their preconceptions” and everyone can learn to do that.  His point is that there are ways of learning to overcome biases while considering a problem.

In Sum:  It is easy to forget that the lessons in this book are derived from managing computer graphics and animation laboratories and not from the daily occurrences in organizations closer to one’s own experience.  It is thus relevant for people trying to move their organizations into a mode that makes the most of the talent within, and without (!)–or outside–, them. Understanding the forces that block our inspiration and effective creative collaboration both inside and beyond our organizations today  is key to moving forward on the many formidable challenges (some of them metaphorical“black elephants” ) facing the globe. (This is why, earlier on this blog–such as here and here and here— there has been a focus on the work of various experts regarding the barriers we face to even thinking effectively about these problems.)  Facing as many unconventional and complex challenges as we do today, it’s safe to say there are not enough books like this one and, for many people, not enough time to read and absorb them.  Some of the needed changes might not be “news-worthy” but still hugely impactful: Learning to draw, counterintuitively, may be part of the solution at the societal level, to inculcate ways, per Catmull, to overcome our ingrained biases and to sidestep cross-cultural barriers.

 

 

 

 

 

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