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.


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!)


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.

Surprise, Uncategorized

Zoo Animals Enjoying the December Sun

All kinds of animals–from lemurs from Madagascar to turtles; and from elephants to the orangutans clambering on the thick cables overhead, and also, of course, the flamingos–were out basking in the warm sunshine on this first Sunday in December at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C.  It was a lazy bright day, perfect for showing off to the few humans who were touring the zoo on a day which annually is usually quite a bit colder.

Flamingo Park

Illustration: Watercolor and Platinum Carbon waterproof ink with Lamy Safari fountain pen in Stillman & Birn Beta series sketchbook


Five Trees in dem Schwarzwald

So, today was another beautiful day, a perfect day for a hike in the Black Forest, or Schwarzwald. Our origination point was the small “Kur” hamlet tucked in between forested hills called Bad Wildbad. A stream runs through the middle of the town, which has a massive sanitorium building straight out of an earlier age looming above it. Bad Wildbad 2 This town, in a smaller version of Baden-Baden, is centered around thermal natural spring baths and also lined with outdoor waterfront cafes, hotels, and stylish shops.  People were out enjoying the sunshine and a coffee on the terraces along the stream, accompanied by the soothing sound of the waterfalls below. Initially our destination was the Sommerberg Bahn, a small train that glides up (and down!) railway tracks at a very steep angle to and from the top of the berg, or mountain.

Sommerberg Zug im Wildbad

Sommerberg Zug im Wildbad

The scenery was gorgeous at the top of the mountain with hiking trails going every which way and intersecting here and there, with “Skiihütte” (skiers’ huts) helpfully positioned at the crossroads, in case you need a rest or want to measure your pulse. (The bigger Skiihütte offer steaming plates of wurst and salad along with beer or lighter drinks.)  It seems important to mention that there even were raised hiking trails on platforms at least thirty feet above our heads that extended through the trees in a wide circuit (the “Treetop Path”), making the hiking experience easily accessible–and particularly scenic–for those who wanted to see the sights from a yet higher vantage point, including those who are wheelchair-bound.

There is a Nordic method to calisthenic hiking and it involves hiking poles. This method reportedly burns up more calories and leads to greater fitness. So, many people getting on and off the Sommerberg Zug had their hiking poles (a bit like ski poles) with them. While you are on the Sommerberg Bahn, you may pass by people sunning themselves on their otherwise apparently private terraces  (alongside their drying laundry arrayed on racks to catch the sun). There are a great many Kliniks and sanotorium in this area, reminding one perhaps of The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann.

It seems doubtful that anyone is in a hurry here, so probably it would be a great place for sketching.  It would be painless, for sure, to check in here for a few months!!  In any case, although the watercolors were along for the ride, the circumstances were such that only a simple sketch of one of the Skihütte sites was possible. This is the site of the Fünf Baüme, or the Five Trees, a surprising spot in several ways.

Ski hut Since this spot is surrounded by trees, it is natural to ask, as we did, why it is called “five trees.” Soon we spotted the reason; there were five trees growing together and protected by a fence just to the right of the hut. A clearing above the hut had permanent recliners–sort of anti-gravity chairs for hikers or, possibly, for sketchers passing by.  Below the hut, through the trees, a horizon of mountains and tree tops as well as blue sky was visible.  The many trees in the foreground were all possible shades of green–a fabulous place to take a rest, as several hikers and bikers did while this sketching was underway.


Eastern Market Meanderings

For locals and tourists, the Eastern Market in Washington, D.C. on Capitol Hill is a fun place, full of surprises. These are sketches done in situ in a Stillman & Birn 5 1/2 ” x 8 1/2″ Alpha series sketchbook, as urban sketching practice.  Capturing a lot of information,in a short time,with attention to shades of difference, context, and composition–is what this sketching activity involves.

Illustration:  Pen and ink by Black Elephant blog author

Illustration: Watercolor and pen and ink by Black Elephant blog author

Although this is “Capitol Hill,” it does not seem like a place for people in a hurry, generally speaking.  Even in slow motion, however, people are difficult subjects for sketching.  Hopefully it will get easier!

Illustration:  Watercolor and pen and ink by Black Elephant blog author

Illustration: Watercolor and pen and ink by Black Elephant blog author

Innovation, Risk, Surprise, Uncertainty

Frame Innovation in Change-Resistant Organizations

An important book has accompanied the traveler/doodler author of this blog, making it possible, at least, to consider taking some notes on it.  The book is called Frame Innovation:  Create New Thinking By Design, by Kees Dorst (The MIT Press, 2015).  Dorst is a Professor of Design Innovation at the University of Technology, Sydney, Australia and at Endhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands.

Illustrations:  Pen and ink and watercolor by Black Elephant Blog author

Sketchbook on-site illustrations: Pen and ink and watercolor by Black Elephant Blog author

As one reads the book, it is clear that the book’s author has been researching and developing case studies of the concept of design thinking–as applied to practical and often seemingly intractable social and urban problems–for many years.  Although the text of this book is necessarily abstract in places–explaining, for instance, the difference between traditional analytic approaches of “deduction,” and “induction” and design thinking approaches of “abduction” and design abduction”–the author is quick to remedy this through his use of case studies and helpful word-graphics. ((To fast-forward a moment to the topic of a future blog post or two, the basic issue here is a very big and momentous idea.  It is that our traditional methods of analytical reasoning, deduction and induction, “are not enough if we want to make something. If we want to create new things–or new circumstances–we need different approaches, for which even “normal abduction” (the reasoning pattern behind conventional problem-solving using tried and tested patterns of relationships) is insufficient.))

As explained in the series foreword by the editors of this new MIT Press series on design thinking and theory, design challenges today “require new frameworks of theory and research to address contemporary problem areas.”  Often problem-solving for modern challenges requires “interdisciplinary teams with a transdisciplinary focus.”  According to the editors, three contextual challenges define the nature of many design problems today.  These issues affect many of the major design problems that face us in whatever field we’re working.  They include:

–a complex environment in which many projects or products cross the boundaries of several organizations and stakeholder, producer, and user groups;

–projects or products that must meet the expectations of many organizations, stakeholders, producers, and users; and

–demands at every level of production, distribution, reception, and control.

Past environments “were simpler,” write the editors, and “made simpler demands.”   To meet modern challenges, experience and development are still necessary, but “they are no longer sufficient.”  “Most of today’s design challenges require analytic and synthetic planning skills that cannot be developed through practice alone,” they write.  What is needed, they say, is “a qualitatively different form of professional practice that emerges in response to the demands of the information society and the knowledge economy to which it gives rise.”

Designers today confront complex social and political issues, the editors note, quoting the work of Donald Norman, (“Why Design Education Must Change,” 2010).  What the authors are talking about is the fact that education today is not training professionals in ways to take integrated approaches to solve complex, inter-sector problems and imagining new futures.  The book by Kees Dorst is the first in the series and, based on this writer’s close reading of it, it represents an excellent start to this ambitious (and profoundly needed) project.

Dorst argues that society today is being “tripped up” by the “emergence of a radically new species of problem:  problems that are so open, complex, dynamic and networked that they seem impervious to solution.”  He writes:  “What all the news stories show us is that it makes no sense to keep trying to tackle these problems the way we used to.  The trusted routines just don’t work anymore.  These new types of problems require a radically different response.”

In the spirit of the focus of this blog–understanding “surprise” and the ways and whys for when we get “tripped up”–future posts will examine some of the important ideas in Dorst’s book.

Surprise, Uncertainty

Urban Sketching in Richmond, VA

VMFA Richmond

Image: On the lawn behind the Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, Virginia

Yesterday a group of us spent pleasant hours sketching on the exquisitely beautiful lawn behind the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) in Richmond, Virginia–as part of the “Urban Sketchers – Richmond” course.

It was clear at the start of the course that most of us have much to learn about “loose” drawing.  That’s why we are here, after all. While each sketcher develops his or her own style–and there are few hard-and-fast rules–in general urban sketching involves lots of squiggly lines depicting buildings, trees, and people followed by applications of ink and possibly watercolor.  This training is particularly good for appreciating differences in “tone” or shades, to the point that the distinctions can be made with no more than a pen or pencil.  By the end of the first day, it was clear we were learning a lot from this course.

Earlier today we were on Monument Avenue which, as its name suggests, has many monuments, especially at traffic circles. As cars zipped by in both directions, some of us sketchers chose to sit under the shade of beautiful trees in the ample (at least 30 foot-wide) median area next to one such traffic circle. Other sketchers were scattered about in shady spots along the sidewalk to one side of the avenue.  All around us were stately mansions, no two alike and each with all sorts of architectural flair.  Urban sketching, while it certainly can be done solo, is the type of activity that benefits from having company.  Fortunately, there are urban sketcher groups all over the world.

Monument back 1

Illustration: Pen and ink by Black Elephant Blog author

The weather’s been great and so are the restaurants! Sketchers have come in from far afield but some, it turns out, live practically next door back home. Architects are part of our sketching group, and know the professional lingo for–and can certainly draw!!–the architectural details we’re seeing.

Monument Front 2

Illustration: Pen and ink by Black Elephant Blog author

Now that we’re all heading back home, hopefully, loose, squiggly drawings–combining ink and watercolor–will be ready for this blog before too long!  (The teacher’s work is much, much better–which is why his book and his courses are so popular with urban sketchers.) These sketches from the weekend have sketchers sketching in them– live action images of urban sketchers at work!