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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Innovation, Risk, Surprise, Uncertainty

Drawing the Light

Illustration:  Pastel pencil and white charcoal by Black Elephant Blog author

Illustration: Pastel pencil and white charcoal by Black Elephant Blog author

During a recent art class, the teacher encouraged the students to “draw the light.” With black sheets of paper and a few xeroxed black and white images fished out of a pile to serve as models, we tried seeing the opposite of what we have been trained to expect. Instead of trying to represent the external reality of someone or something in terms of its casing or flesh and bones, we were to draw the light reflected from the surfaces. This was a fascinating exercise for those of us who hadn’t tried it before.

In drawing the light, at least for the first time, you can almost feel a different part of your brain working, and see an image emerge on paper that you know you didn’t draw in a standard way.  Out of total blackness and emptiness emerges a figure, an expression, and new possibilities previously unimagined.

While many an effort doesn’t work out exactly as originally hoped, sometimes the outcome is surprising simply because we didn’t expect it.  Drawing in search of such surprises seems to have parallels in methods for thinking strategically. If we applied similar counterintuitive reasoning strategies to some of the world’s greatest problems–drawing the light instead of (or at least in addition to) reacting always to the darkness we can see more readily–what could be the result? How much of what happens is driven by our expectations, as low as they might be for some issues?

Art can help reset the mind to realize that by learning to see differently we can open up different possibilities. Indeed, could persisting in traditional ways of seeing actually be dangerous in  a world so obviously transformed and transforming by the hour, if not the minute? Might we more inevitably face more dangerous surprises by persisting in unproductive ways of thinking (or working, or organizing, measuring, or valuing)?  Alternatively, by embracing more surprising thinking ourselves, might there be a way to gain strategic advantage?  Isn’t this already recognized in business as identifying ‘niche’ opportunities or fostering innovation?  In any case, by trying to draw an image again and again, it is possible to see how much went unseen before.

Image: Poster of child's drawing displayed on the Paseo de la Reforma, Chapultepec, Park, Mexico City

Image: Poster of child’s drawing displayed on the Paseo de la Reforma, Chapultepec Park, Mexico City as part of program focused on preserving the Lacandon Jungle

It seems that artists, including children, have much to teach us about different ways of seeing the modern world.  Without fully exploring these “adjacent possible” spaces, to use the phrase coined by Stephen Johnson in Where Good Ideas Come From, how many opportunities do we miss?  The recent lesson in drawing the light was a powerful reminder of how much innate capacity remains untapped in most traditional approaches to challenges!

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Uncategorized

Little Dancer Coincidences

Little Dancer #1

Illustration: Watercolor, gouache, pencil, and gesso by Black Elephant Blog author

Earlier this week I had a chance to see the glass-walled exhibit containing the wax figurine sculpted by the artist Edgar Degas in the late 19th century out of bric-a-brac and old paintbrushes and wire laying around in his studio.  While at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., I learned that this sculpture caused quite an uproar in the art world at the time.  Depicting a real-life 14 year-old aspiring ballerina of limited means, Degas captured the tensions over the haves and have-nots of his era.  (These young ballerinas were often called “opera rats” , and regularly exploited by unscrupulous individuals (whom Degas also frequently painted) who hung around the theater scene of the time.)

Breaking with conventions of the age, which did not include making sculptures out of trash and using real fabric to dress a figurine, Degas did something all successful artists do:  he forced people to change their perspectives on issues they would rather ignore or take for granted.

Image:  From National Gallery of Art website

Image: From National Gallery of Art website

By coincidence, later this week, in a class, I was told that Degas did not use any measurement techniques to do his figure drawings.  We were told to draw something without looking at the paper on which we were drawing.  This was new to me:  but the teacher said to the class, “Your intellect gets in the way of your ability to see” if you study what you are doing.  This was fascinating; I had just read Seeing What Others Don’t: The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insight, by psychologist and developer of “naturalistic decision-making,” Dr. Gary Klein.  Too much focus, he writes, on eliminating errors prevents us from having insights.

Most places we work focus on preventing mistakes and not on fostering insights.  Klein explains, mistakes embarrass organizations, and it’s easier to measure reduction of mistakes than it is to measure increasing production of insights.  (The enthusiasm over Six Sigma’s statistical approach to eliminating errors has just about killed off any potential for insights in the organizations that rely on it, he says, for instance.)  How natural is it not to make mistakes, and what are the downsides?

According to Klein, a risk-averse environment leads to a checklist mentality.  He notes that: “A checklist mentality is contrary to a playful, exploratory, curiosity-driven mentality.”  Of course, we want people with our lives in their hands–pilots, surgeons, and others–to use a checklist if this assures they won’t forget to close the doors before take-off or that they remember to remove a surgical tool in our brain.  And organizations everywhere play it safe by tabulating how many of their employees had the required training in this or that–a form of accountability and insurance, if not guarantees that errors won’t be made.

Apparently controversies, such as the ones that swirled around Degas’s “Little Dancer,” are necessary for helping us, eventually, to reframe our perspectives.   And this reframing does not involve minor adjustments or “adding more details,” according to Klein; the changes involved are not incremental.  Instead shifts occur that change our core beliefs.  Such shifts are “discontinuous discoveries,” he writes, giving many of his own examples accrued during years of study in his quest to learn where insights come from.

These shifts transform us in several ways, changing how we “understand, act, see, feel, and desire.”  They transform our thinking, and give us a different viewpoint, thus changing how we act and even “our notions of what we can do.”

It seems possible, in an age of digital hyperconnectivity and empowered individuals, etc, that integrating improved understanding (and insights) of how to develop and convey appealing narratives already has become something separating winners and losers in the battles for attention, “hearts-and-minds” and other contests of our age.  Perhaps this always was true but is amplified by today’s unprecedentedly interdependent world.

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