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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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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Innovation, Risk, Surprise, Uncategorized

Urban Sketching in Pastel

University classes are just about done but, just across the river, students in my pastel class are still in high-gear, clearly in no hurry to have this series of classes end.   Here is a practice pastel worked up in the studio class after some sketches made not long ago.  In the ever-expanding armory of art supplies, NuPastels have been joined now by Sennelier half-stick pastels in 120 colors.  This is a messier medium than watercolor, for sure, and a whole lot more “forgiving.”  It is just about as different as it could be, in fact.  But, how do people go “urban sketching” –especially if traveling abroad–with such an array of tools–hard and soft pastels, paper of all kinds, etc?  More “problems” to solve! 🙂

Illustration:  Pastel sketch, "Japanese Garden at the Hillwood Estates, Washington, D.C."  by Black Elephant author

Illustration: Pastel sketch, “Japanese Garden at the Hillwood Estates, Washington, D.C.” by Black Elephant author

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Innovation, Risk, Surprise, Uncategorized, urban sketching

Valuing the Value Study

There’s nothing like being reminded for the umpteenth time to do a “thumbnail.” For those who don’t know, this is a (usually small) simple sketch or two before attempting to dive right into drawing or painting the work you have in mind. Often it takes a teacher to get through to you on this; for those more accustomed to “multi-tasking” and thinking it is doing some good, it requires a bit of discipline to keep slowing down.

Illustration:  Value study sketch (Hillwood Mansion grounds) by Black Elephant Blog author

Illustration: Value study sketch (Hillwood Mansion grounds) by Black Elephant Blog author

In my experience, this business of reinforcing what we’ve already supposedly learned is one of the main benefits of keeping anchored in a class or two–so that your habits do not become too sloppy. And of course you keep learning new stuff even as you are reminded about the “old stuff.”

So, in the current class in pastel painting, the teacher handed out this handy little value chart (which I’ve protected in a little plastic sheath–see photo below).

Illustration:  Photo of value scale

Illustration: Photo of value scale

When we do thumbnails or sketches, one purpose (besides mapping out a composition) is to do a value study–a study of the “values” or the tones or shades of contrast. While it is tempting (and normal) to jump right to the details, I have learned that the details often blind us to the really important things in art (and elsewhere?…) –like values, shapes and shadows. This requires re-training the brain for many of us.  Doing value studies is the most direct form of problem-solving I’ve encountered so far in my art education. (And it seems quite transferable to other fields requiring problem-solving.)

While can be more fun to jump straight into colors (and sometimes, depending on what you are seeking to achieve, it is a good idea!), learning to see the values, shapes and shadows has its own delights. Doing this in different media, including water-soluble graphite…

Value Study in Graphite crayon

Illustration: Value study in water-soluble graphite by Black Elephant Blog author

and conte crayon

National Gallery of Art value study

Illustration: Conte crayon value study of Richard Serra metalwork sculpture (East Wing, National Gallery of Art) by Black Elephant Bog author

also provides valuable learning opportunities.

So during a recent visit to the majestic, privately-run Hillwood Museum and Gardens estate in the heart of Washington, D.C., the grounds were so beautiful underneath a

Hillwood photo

Illustration: Garden sculpture at the Hillwood Mansion and Gardens, Washington, D.C. –Photo by Black Elephant Blog author

clear blue sky that it was nearly impossible to go inside. Instead the sights of flowering trees and bushes, the gentle slope of the “Lunar Lawn”, and ornate garden sculptures were captivating. Frankly, it was a challenge to detect the “values” in different shades in such a riot of bright color. In addition, the diversity of people, from all over the world, and particularly Russian families, made it an even more memorable afternoon.  (The Hillwood Estate of Marjorie Meriweather Post features the most comprehensive collection of Russian imperial art outside of Russia, according to its website.)

Such a glorious visit to the Hillwood mansion gardens has provided much fodder for future practice in value studies and beyond…

  •    A small Japanese garden, for instance, features two   whimsical bridges, leading to a roughly sketched out ‘work-in-progress’ in pastel.

Pastel work-in-progress

  • And, a toddler sitting in the tall grass already has provided inspiration for a series of sketches and value studies…

    Boy sketch 1

    Illustration:  Sketch of Toddler sitting in tall grass at Hillwood Mansion, Washington, D.C. by Black Elephant Blog author

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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

Profiles in Watercolor

An out-of-print book, called Watercolor Solutions, by Charles Reid, is proving helpful in slowing down enough to grasp some important concepts related to watercolor painting! The book can be borrowed at a local library or you can pay about $50 for a used copy.  Reid is a highly respected watercolor artist and teacher who has an excellent way of explaining things; there are a couple of his lessons on YouTube.

In his book, he explains things as basic as how to hold, wet, and shake water off a brush. In addition, he explains how to mix colors on the palette and directly on the paper.  There are exercises in drawing profiles, portraits, and figures.   Reid recommends abandoning sketching, and to instead do contour drawings by keeping your pencil on the paper and doing one line (outline), stopping only to check on your location, but not lifting your pencil from the paper.

Here is one practice watercolor I did based on his instructions:

Portrait 1

Illustration: Watercolor and pencil sketch on Arches 140 1b CP paper by Black Elephant Blog author

and another based on Reid’s explanation on “Adjusting Values from Photos”.  This latter section inspired me to try my hand at practicing the values by trying to copy Reid’s own method of  painting of John Singer Sargent  at work painting.  What is fascinating in this section is his description of how to “lose edges.”  It means focusing exclusively on shadow shapes and not, for instance, where the edges of an umbrella or neckline or coat are; the purples below thus sort of run together, per Reid’s own painting example on p. 85 of the hardcopy of his book.

Portrait 2

Illustration: Copy after “John Singer Sargent” by Charles Reid in watercolor and white gouache with pencil underdrawing on Arches 140 lb CP paper by Black Elephant Blog author

 

From this experience so far, it is clear that there are good habits to work on developing, related to how much water is on the brush and how the colors are mixed and used.  Aside from all the lessons in the book, another challenge is not to ruin a library book with paint splatters.  Reid’s explanations are so helpful; it’s clear that complementing class instruction with a book like this is the way to go, at least for me (and maybe for some others!)

 

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