Innovation, living in the truth, Risk, Surprise, Uncategorized, Uncertainty, Watercolor Painting

Scams, Shams, and (Body) Slams

While preparing for a presentation (and a little book stemming from it), and doing some color studies for sketches to accompany them, the news has continued to be very distracting as it is presumably for everyone. In the last 24 hours alone, from a journalist sent crashing to the floor allegedly “body slammed” by a person aspiring to elected office (or is he already in office?)–to confirmation from the CBO (Congressional Budget Office) that the health of our nation is going to take a huge body blow if the latest health care plan is passed–to disconcerting news about NATO (also “body slammed?”), it is tough to keep one’s eyes on the task at hand.  But perhaps the combination of these colliding impressions is good for something after all…

In sorting through older material, I came across the famous “boiling frog”–a metaphor, of course, for not noticing when there are gradual changes in your surroundings, until it is too late.  According to the metaphor, a frog in a pot of slowly heating water will not react quickly enough to save himself and will eventually die.  (This is literally not true; the frog will jump out if he can, apparently.  I myself have not tested it, but I respect scientists and experts and they have).

boiling frog image

Image: Watercolor, gouache, and ink by Black Elephant Blog author (2014)

This is a week too in which we have heard the word “suborn” used in open testimony. It’s a useful word.  It seems related to another one rarely heard:  “inure”, which the dictionary defines as “becoming accustomed to something, especially something unpleasant.”  (Perhaps this is a good time to recommend a currently best-selling new little book, available on Amazon for less than $6:  On Tyranny:  Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Century,” by Timothy Snyder, a professor of history at Yale.)

With so much coming at us almost hourly, it sometimes seems like the fate of the world is being decided right now.

WhereDoWeGoFromHere?

Illustration: Color study, Watercolor, acrylic and gouache, “Where Do We Go From Here?” by Black Elephant Blog author (2017)

People are tired of being distracted by it but the most conscientious know that too much is at stake to turn away. Much as we might like to, we can’t tune out what is going on because it’s unfortunately true– the fate of the world is being decided right now.  And if we tune out, we will surely not be as fortunate as the sensitive frog who manages to escape the dangers of his warming world.

So, we must not become inured to the bruising pace of the news cycle.  It seems to me essential to find ways collectively to both deal with every incoming distraction and yet look beyond it to make sense in time of where we are going and might wish to go instead.

Momentous times indeed, but I have faith we will prove to be at least as smart as  frogs.  So back to the drawing board…

Standard
living in truth, Uncategorized, urban sketching

Wandering through older sketches to make sense of the present

Blog post writing has taken a bit of a backseat lately.  Preparation for classes could be one excuse, but it wouldn’t be true. I guess it’s because I’ve been doing more thinking than drawing in this age of discontinuity.  The recent blast of winter in this area complete with snow and ice this year sadly has been too much for the many blossoms and flowers that proliferated here during an unseasonably warm February. Even the geese on a nearby lake are a bit confused by the eccentric weather.

This sort of disorientation (yes, that exhibited by the geese–as in “where are we?”) has been mirrored by the befuddlement of many people around the world at the jarring reports of current political events, especially domestically–more on that below.  Just as the early blossoms thought that the Spring in February was real, we humans are confused as to the political climate we are living through….

Looking back to look forward sometimes is useful, as paging through older sketchbooks can remind one.  While looking ahead to a forthcoming exhibition of my watercolors and sketches, I came across a few of my sketches from the past:

dupont circle

Illustration: Watercolor sketch, “Dupont Circle,” by Black Elephant Blog author (2016)

Lately, with the sun briefly peering out again, there are more inspiring palettes to explore in the near future…

vangogh

Illustration: Watercolor sketch by Black Elephant Blog author (2016)

On the geopolitical level of human affairs, the emerging palette is more complicated–even “complex”– a crucial distinction not yet as appreciated as it could be, though “complexity”–as in complex systems–is something we spend a lot of time on in the university graduate class I teach.  Making sense of complex problems is a necessary starting point to resolving them–and is too often a (very intellectually-demanding and time-consuming) step skipped over, as we have recently seen an example of in the healthcare arena.

Similarly understanding this moment in our collective human history requires us to draw from the experience “palettes” of a wide variety of people in order to understand our true options going forward.  I would include in this “experience palette” respected contemporary professors of history, such as Dr. Timothy Snyder–whom I had the privilege of hearing speak in person at a local bookstore recently.  People doing fresh thinking about economics also have an essential role

Rodin The Thinker

Illustraton: Watercolor, “”The Thinker’ at the Entrance to Rodin Museum, Philadelphia, PA” (2017) by Black Elephant Blog author

to play in the efforts to apply different palettes to our common future.  And a look back to the founders and founding documents of this American nation would also be essential, as I just did a week ago by wandering through the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia again.

It’s true, at least for me, that once you become accustomed to painting–and more vitally, living and making choices– in ‘plein air,’ it’s harder to settle for bleak cold days–whether due to the weather or the political climate.

We can call up sketches of the past to help us make sense of the present.   Are the things which divide us still more important than taking stock in a clear-eyed way of what actually has happened and what pathways forward lie ahead?  These processes are sometimes known as “scenario practice,” “forward reasoning,” and simply “foresight”–also processes we focus on in class. There is no end to the usefulness of learning we can gain from those who have studied the past, I’ve concluded.   As Professor Timothy Snyder tells us in his work linking the history of Eastern Europe to our present, the choice is (still) ours to make.

 

Standard
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.

Standard
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.

Standard
Uncategorized

Adventures with Still Life

sunflowers-1

Illustration:  Watercolor and gouache first draft by Black Elephant Blog author

It’s already fall and that means getting outside as much as possible to enjoy the light and the weather. Sometimes, to save time, rather than seek out the “perfect” view or landscape elsewhere, it seems like it’s great practice just to set up a still life on the deck nearby.

In my experience, sunflowers always make a great subject, as they seem to last a while and have so many different shades of yellow and green. Just staring at a bunch of them and figuring out how to present them is fun.

In this case, I also experimented with Pitt-brand hard slightly waxy crayons–similar in look to the Conte crayons.  These turned out to be just fabulous for sketching..and, for sure, a new favorite!

sunflower-sketches

Illustration: Sketches in bistre, sepia, and sanguine Pitt crayons by Black Elephant Blog author

In the process of sketching, it was possible to see the foreshortening challenge presented by observing the blue vase with sunflowers from above. The vase would have to be presented as roughly half as high as its width from this angle even though the brain tells you this cannot be so!!!   In addition, the shadow cast by the vase onto the deck floor seemed to call for “losing edges” between the vase and the deck boards.   Initially the shadows seemed perfect for the use of Daniel Smith’s Moonglow watercolor but I still found myself having to darken up the shadows with deeper mixtures, suggested better planning was needed at the outset.  Leaving in some white untouched paper after first seemed to be reasonably successful in the area where the sunlight reflected off the side of the vase.  However,  a dribble of paint from above soon forced me to tidy up this area with white gouache.

After all this, efforts to paint this scene took on a bit of urgency when it was clear that someone else nearby was looking at this still life from a different angle, and clearly contemplating eating it.

rabbit-with-sunflowers

Illustration: Photo of a snacker enjoying a still life

As a reminder of the need for adaptability discussed in earlier posts,  I watched several of the fallen petals I’d already painted in to my picture disappear in front of my eyes.   Fortunately, there will be more sunflowers and sunny-day opportunities to paint them, and maybe next time I’ll be faster.

 

Standard
Risk, Uncategorized

Sketching-on-the-go

Sketching is about solving problems, sometimes very quickly and–interestingly, in most successful art, according to professional artists–over-riding what your analytic brain is telling you.  It involves careful observation, composition, shading, meaning, and even purpose (including story-telling and “narratives”) usually within some constraints related to time or weather or materials or ability. This week just having a pencil in my bag has made a brief ride on the subway more interesting.

Illustration:    Pencil sketch using Staedtler 0.7mm mechanical pencil by Black Elephant Blog author

Illustration: Pencil sketch on notepaper using Staedtler 0.7mm mechanical pencil by Black Elephant Blog author

But sketching people “live” is fraught with complications.  At a minimum, when people know they are being sketched, they typically no longer act naturally.  Some people are intrigued, or even flattered, while others–especially women, it seems to me–are mildly alarmed or annoyed.

Illustration:  Pencil sketch in Stillman & Birn Alpha series sketchbook by Black Elephant Blog author

Illustration: Pencil sketch in Stillman & Birn Alpha series sketchbook by Black Elephant Blog author

Experienced teacher-sketchers advise inviting the subject to see (or even accept as a gift) the sketch if you, the sketcher, are detected sketching; that will sometimes ease tensions.

FullSizeRender

Illustration: Pencil sketch by Black Elephant Blog author

In some countries, the idea of sketching people without their approval seems to cross a line of propriety.

In any case, a sketch is generally not a finished painting-like piece, but a way to practice and even expose your weaknesses in drawing. The sketch below, done in a brief spurt this week while waiting in a cafe for someone to arrive, shows my botched effort to depict a drawing of a planter painted on the wall to the rear.

Cafe Sketch 3

Illustration: Sepia graphite (Artgraf Tailor made in Portugal) water-soluble wash in  Stillman &Birn Beta series sketchbook by Black Elephant Blog author

In the end, it really doesn’t matter because it’s sketching, which falls into the category of rehearsals, practice, and education. Even focusing on an umbrella, or a toe, can be a useful sketching practice.  I was using ArtGraf sepia graphite in water-soluble form for the first time, and that was really fun.

Standard
Uncategorized

Studio Portraits in Ink Wash

Ink Wash Portrait

Illustration: Brown ink wash and graphite

Today I tried Higgins “dye-based drawing ink” in washes on Fabriano 140 lb Cold Press watercolor paper to create some portraits in the studio. I used a watercolor brush (now an ink brush!) to do the washes, and filled in some contrasts with a Platinum Carbon fountain pen with waterproof black ink. The results seem promising enough that I’m eager to try something similar again.

Working in one color–in this case, brown ink–and trying to distinguish different values (or degrees of contrast)–seems easier than managing all the interactions between paper, water, and different colors involved in doing a watercolor portrait.  This paper, moreover, seemed well-suited to the ink washes.

Standard