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!)

gf-closeup

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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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, 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

18th c. Watercolor Studies as a Source of Inspiration

Hubert Robert painting

Illustration: Painting of Hubert Robert (22 May 1733 – 15 April 1808) Source: Wikipedia

Inspired by the outstanding exhibition now on at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. featuring the ink sketches, watercolors, and oil paintings of French 18th century painter, Hubert Robert (22 May 1733 – 15 April 1808), I’ve gone back to experimenting with waterproof inks and watercolor more intensively than ever (as per examples included at the very bottom of this post.)

Hubert Robert Watercolor

Illustration: Watercolor by Hubert Robert, 18th century painter (Source: Wikiart)

Hubert Robert’s fantastically detailed watercolors (including use of gouache) are astounding.  Accompanying  placards in this exhibition note that such watercolors tended in those days to be sketches done for more finished oil paintings.  In Robert’s case, however, the watercolors often were at least as detailed as the oil paintings he later produced based upon them.  (Modern urban sketchers will appreciate the fact that Robert filled dozens of sketchbooks (I’ve forgotten the exact number) and one of them is on display in this exhibition; every page, front and back, is filled with wonderful ink sketches done in a deft but loose style.)

In another innovative departure from the times, Robert inserted human figures in many of his paintings–to help give a sense of scale to the structures–and adapted the  fantastical “capriccio” style (or painted architectural fantasy) for his technique of juxtaposing paintings of ruins with other statues or bridges not actually co-located with the ruins in real life. In addition, he included more modern scenes,  including those of contemporary laborers, artists and sketchers, and occasionally probably even himself, at work in the ruins.

Robert grew up in the midst of formal world-class art instruction from an early age, and it certainly shows. During the French Revolution, when he was thrown in prison due to his professional associations with his aristocratic clients, he managed to keep painting (and also managed to survive the ordeal); one of his dinner plates from prison is in this exhibition, with the surface painted with an ornate landscape. In addition, his paintings provide a visual record of life in the prisons during the Reign of Terror; the exhibition includes his paintings of a prison warden, a member of the aristocracy in his cell, and families entering the prison to bring their relatives food.  Seeing paintings from this horrific time cannot help but remind one of the power of art, and wonder how much power still remains untapped in our modern times.

In addition, seeing such sublime art might make one want to throw in the towel, or the paintbrush, as it were.  But it’s just as likely to make you want to learn more…and more…

ink sketches 2

Illustrations: Ink and watercolor sketches, “Guanajuato with El Pipila Statue on Hilltop”, and “Washington, D.C.” by Black Elephant Blog author

Woman with Potted Plant 2

Illustration: Watercolor and pen and ink, “Woman Adjusting Potted Plant on Her Deck” by Black Elephant Blog author

 

Even if most of us can never achieve a tiny fraction of such mastery, it is still wonderful to experiment with the elements of such imaginative painting as Robert’s, and envision the possibilities down the road.

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Surprise, Uncategorized

Santa Fe Sketches

Santa Fe 1

Illustration: Pastel by Black Elephant Blog author on grey Canson Mi-Teintes Pastel paper

New Mexico in the early Spring: bright yellow flowers in the snow, white drifts on mountain peaks in the distance, terracotta adobe houses hugging the hillsides, a fresh cold air that catches your breath, a startlingly blue sky, a lovely teahouse along Canyon Road…

From museums, churches, markets, and  hundreds of beautiful outdoor sculptures to parks, shops, and restaurants, there’s much to see and do… and sketch. But on this trip the temperatures have generally been too cold for much outdoor sketching.

Even finding the time to complete a sketch can be difficult with all the attractions all around.

St. Francis Park sketch

Illustration: Sketch on Strathmore Aquarius II paper by Black Elephant Blog author

There’s the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, for instance, which brings the story of this amazing artist alive, ensuring that one wants to know more.

Georgia O'Keefe paintbox

Illustration: Georgia O’Keefe’s paintbox on display under glass at the Georgia O’Keefe Museum

And the hundreds of years of history on display in the New Mexico History Museum inside the Palace of the Governors on the Plaza.

 

The colors of the hills and mountains that have made this area a favorite of artists for many years did not disappoint.

 

South from Taos

Illustration: Watercolor sketch, “South of Taos” on Strathmore Aquarius II paper by Black Elephant Blog author

With its rich history, intersection of cultures, and mix of ancient and modern, Santa Fe is a mecca for artists of all kinds. It’s easy to see why they call it the Land of Enchantment!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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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