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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Risk, Surprise, Uncategorized, Uncertainty, urban sketching

Pictures at an Exhibition: From Sketches to Paintings

As the summer winds down, it’s time to prepare for an opportunity extended to local artists to submit about 10 paintings each to a “solo exhibition” through an Art-in-Public-Places program.  Of course, nine or ten pieces are quite a lot when most of your work is inside sketchbooks.  So, I’ve decided to see if I can convert some of my sketches from earlier in the year into a piece or two which could be included in the final selection of pieces to display.

Inevitably some of the “freshness” (and free-style/sloppy look) of starting a sketch right on-site, especially in a spot so beautiful as the one below, gets lost in the translation process to another sheet of paper far from the scene.  Though, it must be said, there are advantages too of this post-sketch revision, including no exhaust fumes from the local bus lines laboring up the steep road behind you, no tourists impatiently waiting to take your spot, and no surprisingly rapid drying of your watercolors in the heat of direct and intense sunlight.

San Miguel Draft 2

Illustration: Photo of painting in progress

In any case, here to the right is a photo of a recent attempt to re-do a sketch into another piece.  The sketch at the top of the easel is in a sketchbook and crosses the dip between pages.  It is from  earlier this summer when overlooking the Mexican town of San Miguel de Allende .  Below it is the work-in-progress.

This latter attempt  is seen in a  more finished state in the photo at the bottom of the post.  This is on Saunders Waterford paper (a popular U.K. brand) which I’m finding appealing but seemingly a tad more ‘thirsty’ than the Arches brand, relevant when it comes to issues of transparency raised in the previous post.  (Update: I am close to completing a v2 of this view on Arches hot press.)

As time goes on, I try to factor in lessons I’ve picked up from the reading I’m doing.  For instance, finding those dark values is the first order of business, according to Charles Reid in his book Watercolor Secrets, and then you can move to the lighter values.  This makes sense but is still counterintuitive and even contradicts what I’ve learned in some classes.  (If you need to go back and pump up some lights, there is also a fairly expensive liquid Arches “paper” as a form of white-out for watercolorists–it comes in most shades of watercolor paper whites. It seems a bit like cheating until one reads that John Singer Sargent no less resorted to white gouache rather liberally for similar reasons.  More on gouache and “body color” (and British and American watercolor practices in history) in an upcoming post.

Achieving a balance of transparent and opaque watercolor effects requires skill not only with a brush but also familiarity with the interactions between the types of paper, the amount of water,  and the characteristics of the paints you’re using.  Jim Kosvanec’s book on Transparent Watercolor Wheel (discussed in the previous post) is sure to sensitize any reader to the different qualities of both papers and paints (as of the book’s time of publication in 1994).  And, a heightened awareness of the “staining” and “attacking” qualities of some pigments when they are mixed with transparent ones brings to mind at least metaphorically some real-life situations.   Whether we are dealing with pigments or policies, it seems we must concede (in plain English) that some things just don’t mix: they create “mud.”  Come to think of it, such interdependencies are the stuff of life itself, ever more so given the interconnectivity of everyone and everything on the planet these days. (Who knew that the art of watercoloring might translate to a still larger stage?) Maybe the next time I’m at this overlook, I’ll be able to apply what I’ve learned so far right there in ‘plein air’.  That would be terrific!

San Miguel watercolor

Illustration: Watercolor and pen-and-ink, “San Miguel de Allende (v1)” on Saunders Waterford paper by Black Elephant Blog author

 

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Uncategorized, urban sketching

Fly Fishing Sketch at Violettes Lock, MD

Lazy days of summer continue with brilliant light and colors to challenge aspiring artists, some of whom gathered yesterday near Violettes Lock in Maryland, roughly a half an hour’s drive from downtown Washington, D.C..  The lock is one of about 75 locks, which were used in the 19th century (especially before the advent of the railroad) to regulate the amount of water coming into the C&O canal (which stands for Chesapeake & Ohio).  The canal used to be a major waterway for transporting goods between Washington, D.C. and Cumberland, MD and the main cargo tended to be coal from the Allegheny Mountains, according to Wikipedia.  Today it’s mostly a scenic route along the Potomac River for weekend hikers, bikers, and dog walkers.

At Lock #23, named after the last lockkeepers, the Violettes, to work here, there is a gently sloping patch of ground into a large, calm body of water, which obviously is a popular spot for kayakers , other boaters, and the occasional fly fisherman as seen here.

Violettes Lock 2

Illustration:  Bistre ink sketch by Black Elephant Blog author

The colors of the scene changed frequently over the course of several hours, as boaters arrived and departed from the rocky little beach in front of me.

I saved the watercolors for later, finding it a challenging enough scene to do in ink only while at the site.

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Uncategorized

Plein Air Watercolor Sketching

These days, when so very much is so obviously at stake more even than usual, it is sometimes a great solace to lose oneself in sketching a complex scene, without too much regard for the outcome.  The weather has turned marvelous, helping this bit of escapism to flourish.  Moreover, a new set of field watercolors has arrived, making experimentation–as well as getting outside–absolutely the order of the day.

Yarka paints

Illustration:  Photo of newly arrived Yarka St. Petersburg paints set up with a bit of Uhu Tac under each pan and marked for “lightfastness” according to the manufacturer’s claims

So, when early this week I found myself enjoying a park-like setting together with  some of those closest to me, it was quite natural to sketch some architectural scenes around me.

There is always so much detail that one can’t capture particularly in a short time, but perhaps the impression of these majestic buildings, part of a national historic landmark-registered site in Towson, Maryland, comes through in the watercolor sketch.  If the news at large gets still more difficult to absorb, it appears that one remedy will be to focus on some really ornate rococo architectural details!!  (And, while it is too early to evaluate the Yarka paints, it already has been fun to try them out.)

 

Towson MD

Illustration: Watercolor sketch in a Stillman & Birn Beta journal, “Towson, Maryland”, by Black Elephant Blog author

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Risk, Surprise, Uncategorized, urban sketching

Plein Air Sketching in Frederick, Maryland

Bell Tower photo

Illustration: Photo of Bell Tower in Baker Park, Frederick, Maryland

When it seems like water may pour from the sky at any moment (as it has done for nearly the past 10 days in this area), having all your watercolor kit out in the open may not be the wisest move. So in a recent gathering of sketchers and painters in a Maryland park, when the skies and winds suggested rain, it seemed safer to stick with a pencil sketch–at first.

Illustration:  Pencil sketch of Bell Tower in Baker Park, Frederick , Maryland by Black Elephant Blog author

Illustration: Pencil sketch of Bell Tower in Baker Park, Frederick , Maryland by Black Elephant Blog author

The subject in this case was a functioning bell tower–complete with enormous bells  ringing out not just the hour on the hour, but various melodies all day.  To be working on a sketch or a painting in the open air, with breezes, and flowering trees all around, while enjoying the sound of bells ringing out even the national anthem (Francis Scott Key  of Frederick wrote the “Star-spangled Banner” national anthem in the early 1800s) is a special treat indeed.  But here we were in the midst of a well-maintained park which also features a covered bridge and a theater pavilion in the historic district of Frederick, Maryland. The bell tower dates from 1941 and is named after one of the leading citizens of Frederick, Joseph Baker, whose philanthropy helped to ensure the creation of this beautiful park.

The iffy weather discouraged many from participating in this plein air event, but those who made it were amply rewarded when the skies cleared, and the entire lawn was lit up in the colors of a brilliant spring day.

Bell Tower Frederick W:C 1

Illustration: Watercolor and pen-and-ink sketch, “Baker Park Bell Tower,” on Arches watercolor board by Black Elephant Blog south

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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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