Learning from the Urban Sketching Masters: Anton Pieck

While at a dinner party over the holidays, the gentleman next to me, who was originally from the Netherlands, told me that the illustrations of Anton Pieck, a Dutch artist (1895-1987), had made a big impression on him as a boy growing up in Holland.

Illustration:  Graphic of "Christmas market" by Anton Pieck (Source: Wikipedia)

Illustration: Graphic of “Christmas market” by Anton Pieck (Source: Wikipedia)

Pieck’s illustrations were in his childhood books, he said, and everyone knew about his work then.  Pieck was an urban sketcher before people used the term, said the dinner guest. When I later looked up the work of Anton Pieck, what I found was something fantastic, inspiring, and somewhat familiar–surely I have seen some of these illustrations before. But what a “Master” to inspire the urban sketchers of today!

There is enormous detail in the work of Anton Pieck, sensitivity, and cheerfulness. In his illustrations, he recreates the feeling of the towns and cities of Holland in the 19th century and still keeps a fairytale atmosphere throughout his work. Pouring through his drawings, you will find whimsical details on both the architecture and in the market baskets people carry with them shopping. No subject escapes his notice, it seems. In the 1950s, after spending much of his professional life so far teaching and illustrating, Pieck was asked to help design a new theme park in the Netherlands called “Efteling.” This became his focus for the next 22 years.  Throughout this time, he was responsible for almost all the fairytale aspects of the park, which is still popular today but I’ve not heard of it before now.

Anton Pieck

Illustration: Tekenaar Anton Pieck 85 jaar; Anton Pieck in zijn werkkamer *18 april 1980 – Source: Wikipedia

There is much to learn from in the work of Anton Pieck, of course, and to immerse oneself in some fairytale worlds is tempting, (especially given the deeply disturbing nature what passes for news in the news these days).

So, while immobilized by some sort of bug going around, I opened my sketchbook to do these practice pieces of excerpts of Pieck’s work.

AP practice sketch 1

Illustration: Practice sketch (in watercolor, bistre and platinum carbon pen and ink, and Micron pen in a Stillman  & Birn “Epsilon” series sketchbook) by Black Elephant Blog author of excerpt of watercolor by Anton Pieck called “Christmas market”

It surely would be like a fairytale to be able to adopt some of his style to sketch the modern  street scenes of today–perhaps a “stretch goal” to work towards in 2016!

AP practice sketch 2

Illustration: Practice sketch by Black Elephant Blog author (using bistre ink and wash, and a limited palette of watercolors) after an excerpt of a painting by Anton Pieck


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.


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.

Innovation, Risk, Surprise, Uncertainty

Black Elephants and the Magic of Insights

Elephant 6

Illustration: Watercolor, gouache, ink, gesso and coffee grounds by Black Elephant Blog author

If you’ve had a chance to see the new film, “The Imitation Game”, about the brilliant but sadly socially outcast British mathematician Alan Turing, you’ve probably been powerfully reminded–through its artistic rendering of a true story–of the critical roles which serendipity, hunches, and chance encounters have played in devising solutions to the most challenging problems of any age.  (Spoiler alert:  If you haven’t seen the movie, and wish to be surprised when you do see  it, perhaps it is best not to read further.)

In the film, Turing and his teammates–a collection of unusually gifted mathematicians, including one woman– at Bletchley Park in England literally were racing against the clock to figure out how to decode German wartime communications during World War II.  Their efforts centered on the invention by Turing of a decoding machine (basically a prototype computer) but, despite hours of hard work and all their smarts, the team was about to be shut down by uncomprehending bosses under pressure to deliver results.  (The film has received mixed reviews–such as this one–due to its mix of imagined and actual events, and its alleged failure to convey that the Turing effort was part of a much larger effort underway at Bletchley.)

Illustration:  xxx plays Alan Turing in the film, The Imitation Game (Image from xxx/The Economist)

Image: Allstar/The Economist

Without giving away the storyline (the general outline of which is, however, a matter of historical record), it is in a moment of relaxation away from their secret laboratory,  bantering with friends who were supporting the war effort themselves but not privy to any of the Turing team’s information, that a chain of interactions leads to a breakthrough insight.  In the film, a casual comment by someone who is not on the Turing team has an instantaneous effect.  Her hunch becomes Turing’s insight and he and the rest of the team, up to then stymied in their task, had to act immediately.

This insight turns out be the what the team needed to successfully break the Enigma code.  Their success is credited by historians with turning around Britain’s fortunes in the war.  They also estimate that the code-breakers helped shorten the war by two years and saved approximately 14 million lives.

This film subtly highlights  some of the necessary ingredients of breakthrough thinking:  talent, expertise, hard work, team work,  intensity, diversity, false starts, time pressures, clear purpose, and random encounters with ideas from disparate sources outside the immediate field of inquiry.  While perhaps failing to give sufficient credit to Turing’s bosses (per some of the critics), the film also hints at why so many traditional organizations are so poor at facilitating this sort of thinking.  Whatever the gap between the historical reality and the movie, it is worth pondering:  What are some of the implications of a mismatch between the outsized global issues of our time and the incapacity of most organizations to nurture the modern equivalents of Bletchley Parks?  How can talent and good judgment be assembled most effectively to deal with the important, as well as urgent, “Black Elephants” of our times?

Most of us by now have heard of the Black Swan concept but the Black Elephant concept is not well known.  For this writer, it came into being when encountered in an op-ed by New York Times columnist, Thomas Friedman, in late 2014.  As he explains, a “black elephant” is a “cross between a ‘black swan’ (an unlikely, unexpected event with enormous ramifications) and the ‘elephant in the room’ (a problem that is visible to everyone, yet no one still wants to address it) even though we know that one day it will have vast, black-swan-like consequences.”

At a time of mounting challenges (including but extending well beyond the environmental issues cited in the Friedman piece) that are too big to fit into anyone’s inbox, or even anyone’s organization–where speed, as in the case of Bletchley Park, is of essence and stakes are high–the concept of black elephants seems a timely one.

The focus here on the roots of surprise inquires into how insights and breakthroughs come about.  The current age is no different from past ones, such as the example illustrated in The Imitation Game, in needing to aggregate, cull, and distill insights that can be acted upon in a timely way.  With more challenges filled with potential for highly improbable (but, therefore, according to Dr. Hand’s “laws of improbability,” practically inevitable) outcomes, however, the need for insights may be multiplied in present circumstances.

With high stakes involved in multiple arenas, this blog’s inquiry into the roots of surprise will next explore the findings of experimental psychologist and expert in “adaptive decision-making,” Dr. Gary Klein, in his fairly new book, Seeing What Others Don’t:  The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insights (2013).  Klein notes that generally we know very little about how insights are formed or what blocks them.  He too thinks it’s important to know more about where insights come from, so his book is meant to fill some of our knowledge gaps about the magic of insights.  In an upcoming post, I’ll feature some highlights from this book, and link to related material as I come across it.