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


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!

Innovation, Risk, Surprise, Uncertainty

Seeing What Others Don’t

Illustration:  Watercolor, goauche, ink and gesso

Illustration: Watercolor, gouache, ink and gesso

Where we left off, in the previous post, “Little Dancer Coincidences,”  was with the notion that “discontinuous discoveries” can result in a shift in our core beliefs. This notion comes from the book, Seeing What Others Don’t:  The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insights, by Gary Klein who, as mentioned previously, is a research psychologist specialized in “adaptative decision-making.” Klein studied 120 cases, drawn from the media, books, and interviews, involving stories of how people “unexpectedly made radical shifts in their stories and beliefs about how things work.”   From these cases, Klein was able to organize his research into five different strategies for how people gain insights, including: Connections Coincidences Curiosities Contradictions, and Creative Desperation According to Klein, all of the 120 cases he examined fit one of these strategies, but most relied on more than one.

Martin Chalfie

Image: New York Times

Klein begins with the strategy of connections, and before proceeding with several fascinating examples, recalls the story told earlier in the book of Martin Chalfie, a biologist at Columbia University who–by virtue of attending a seminar on a topic unrelated to his work–ends up getting the idea for a natural flashlight that would let researchers look inside living organisms to watch their biological processes in action.  At the time he attended the seminar, Chalfie was studying the nervous system of worms.  The seminar covered topics that didn’t interest Chalfie initially, according to Klein; suddenly the seminar speaker described how jellyfish can produce visible light and are capable of bioluminescence.  This led to Chalfie’s insight applicable to his own field.  His insight led to an invention “akin to the invention of the microscope,” writes Klein, because it enabled researchers to see what had previously been invisible.  For his work, Chalfie (seen in the photo to the left above) received a Nobel Prize in 2008.


Image: Wikipedia

Like Chalfie, certain people make connections between unrelated matters that their close colleagues don’t.  Klein also tells the story of how the Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto (April 4, 1884- April 18, 1943) saw the implications of the British attack on the First Squadron of the Italian Navy early in World War II–before the United States had entered the conflict–then sheltered in the Bay of Taranto.  Since the bay was only 40 feet deep, the Italians believed their fleet was safe from airborne torpedoes.  The British, however, had devised adjustments to their torpedoes, including adding wooden fins to them, so that they wouldn’t dive so deeply once they entered the water.  For Yamamoto, the successful British attack at Taranto produced the “insight that the American naval fleet “safely” anchored at Pearl Harbor might also be a sitting duck,” writes Klein.  Yamamoto refined his ideas until “they became the blueprint for the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941” (although he himself was opposed to Japan’s decision to go to war with the U.S.); ironically, his other insight was that Japan would lose the war with the United States. Yamamoto studied in the U.S., and had two postings in Washington, D.C. as naval attache; he had insights about the U.S. that his colleagues did not. He was resented by his more militaristic colleagues for his views.

Organizations generally block the pathways of connections (and other strategies) needed for such insights to occur, according to Klein.  This is because organizations are primarily concerned with avoiding errors.  Ironically, this risk-aversion makes people inside organizations reluctant to speak up about their concerns, leading organizations to “miss early warning signals and a chance to head off problems.”  Such problems are common in many fields, including science, according to Klein. Promoting forces that can countervail risk-aversion sometimes requires designating “insight advocates,” writes Klein, even though he admits he is dubious that any organization would sustain them or “any other attempt” to strengthen the forces for insight creation.  Another method he suggests is to create an alternative reporting channel so that people can publish work that doesn’t go “through routine editing” and thus would “escape the filters.”  But, he thinks this method “may work better in theory than in practice.”

A key problem for many organizations is not related to having or noticing insights, but instead it is “about acting on them.” Organizations that are less innovative because they are stifling insights, he says, “should be less successful” than they could be.    The deleterious effect of the defect-exposing Six Sigma program on U.S. corporations is an example of how an all-out focus on eliminating errors gets in the way of innovation, says Klein.  Clearly it is not a simple matter to balance the needs for efficiency and innovation within the same organization, particularly a “mature” organization. Klein concludes that the examples he gives are, for him, a “collective celebration of our capacity for gaining insights; a corrective to the gloomy picture offered by the heuristics-and-biases-community.”  He continues: “Insights help us escape the confinements of perfection, which traps us in a compulsion to avoid errors and in a fixation on the original plan or vision.”

Klein ends up recommending “habits of mind that lead to insights” and help us spot connections and coincidences, curiosities and inconsistencies.  The more successful we perceive ourselves being because of our beliefs, “the harder it is to give them {our beliefs} up.”  The habits of mind Klein has covered in his book may “combat mental rigidity,” he writes. “They are forces for making discoveries that take us beyond our comfortable beliefs.  They disrupt our thinking.” There is a “magic” that occurs when we have an insight, Klein concludes, and it “stems from the force for noticing connections, coincidences, and curiosities; the force for detecting contradictions; and the force of creativity unleashed by desperation.” So, while there is no blueprint for insight creation in Klein’s book, the many examples he cites are compelling reminders of the crucial role that insights play in stimulating new directions in any endeavor.

It seems, then, that insights can be both the source of surprises as well as help spur readiness for surprises.  They can be the needed “black swans” to deal with inevitable “black swan events.”  A take-away from this book:  There may be no ten-step  list to creating insights but understanding how to create favorable conditions to disrupt our thinking–so as to stimulate new connections and ideas–seems like useful knowledge in a world of inevitable surprises. Ostriches with their heads in the sand may not do as well as those who see what others don’t.