Uncategorized, urban sketching, Watercolor Painting

National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden Sketches

Few places in Washington, D.C. are more relaxing than the fountain area in the sculpture garden of the National Gallery of Art.

NGA sculpture garden

Illustration: Watercolor and pen-and-ink on 5″x7″ Stonehenge “Colors” paper

As with most parks and museums in this city, entrance to the sculpture garden is free and it’s open until 7 p.m.  There is a patio restaurant and cafe to one side with indoor air-conditioned seating and ample outdoor seating.

NGAsculpturegarden2

Illustration: Stabilo sepia pencil (“aquarellable”) on Stonehenge “colors” 5″ x 7″ paper by Black Elephant Blog author (2017)

It’s all truly an oasis in the middle of a busy, politically fraught city…and so, yesterday, taking a break from some other concerns, I sat there a while, near the fountain, and practiced sketching some of the people, many of them apparently visitors to this usually beautiful and dignified city.  It’s restorative to see people of all backgrounds and walks of life enjoying the spray of water from the many jets of water criss-crossing the Sculpture Garden pool in huge arcs above.  It’s hard to see how they could leave this city with a bad impression if this garden is representative of their experiences.  And indeed many of the people I watched were in no hurry to leave, staying an hour or more.

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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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Innovation, Risk, Surprise, Uncategorized, urban sketching

Valuing the Value Study

There’s nothing like being reminded for the umpteenth time to do a “thumbnail.” For those who don’t know, this is a (usually small) simple sketch or two before attempting to dive right into drawing or painting the work you have in mind. Often it takes a teacher to get through to you on this; for those more accustomed to “multi-tasking” and thinking it is doing some good, it requires a bit of discipline to keep slowing down.

Illustration:  Value study sketch (Hillwood Mansion grounds) by Black Elephant Blog author

Illustration: Value study sketch (Hillwood Mansion grounds) by Black Elephant Blog author

In my experience, this business of reinforcing what we’ve already supposedly learned is one of the main benefits of keeping anchored in a class or two–so that your habits do not become too sloppy. And of course you keep learning new stuff even as you are reminded about the “old stuff.”

So, in the current class in pastel painting, the teacher handed out this handy little value chart (which I’ve protected in a little plastic sheath–see photo below).

Illustration:  Photo of value scale

Illustration: Photo of value scale

When we do thumbnails or sketches, one purpose (besides mapping out a composition) is to do a value study–a study of the “values” or the tones or shades of contrast. While it is tempting (and normal) to jump right to the details, I have learned that the details often blind us to the really important things in art (and elsewhere?…) –like values, shapes and shadows. This requires re-training the brain for many of us.  Doing value studies is the most direct form of problem-solving I’ve encountered so far in my art education. (And it seems quite transferable to other fields requiring problem-solving.)

While can be more fun to jump straight into colors (and sometimes, depending on what you are seeking to achieve, it is a good idea!), learning to see the values, shapes and shadows has its own delights. Doing this in different media, including water-soluble graphite…

Value Study in Graphite crayon

Illustration: Value study in water-soluble graphite by Black Elephant Blog author

and conte crayon

National Gallery of Art value study

Illustration: Conte crayon value study of Richard Serra metalwork sculpture (East Wing, National Gallery of Art) by Black Elephant Bog author

also provides valuable learning opportunities.

So during a recent visit to the majestic, privately-run Hillwood Museum and Gardens estate in the heart of Washington, D.C., the grounds were so beautiful underneath a

Hillwood photo

Illustration: Garden sculpture at the Hillwood Mansion and Gardens, Washington, D.C. –Photo by Black Elephant Blog author

clear blue sky that it was nearly impossible to go inside. Instead the sights of flowering trees and bushes, the gentle slope of the “Lunar Lawn”, and ornate garden sculptures were captivating. Frankly, it was a challenge to detect the “values” in different shades in such a riot of bright color. In addition, the diversity of people, from all over the world, and particularly Russian families, made it an even more memorable afternoon.  (The Hillwood Estate of Marjorie Meriweather Post features the most comprehensive collection of Russian imperial art outside of Russia, according to its website.)

Such a glorious visit to the Hillwood mansion gardens has provided much fodder for future practice in value studies and beyond…

  •    A small Japanese garden, for instance, features two   whimsical bridges, leading to a roughly sketched out ‘work-in-progress’ in pastel.

Pastel work-in-progress

  • And, a toddler sitting in the tall grass already has provided inspiration for a series of sketches and value studies…

    Boy sketch 1

    Illustration:  Sketch of Toddler sitting in tall grass at Hillwood Mansion, Washington, D.C. by Black Elephant Blog author

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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!

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Innovation, Risk, Surprise

Hellenistic World Bronze Sculpture Exhibit

There’s one more week left before the inspiring “Power and Pathos: Bronze Sculptures of the Hellenistic World” closes at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. Seeing these exquisitely detailed figures from two millennia ago, and knowing that quite a few of them were discovered only recently, in some cases at the bottom of the Mediterranean, leaves one simply amazed.  As a whole, the exhibit is stunning; the alcove with the bronze statue of Artemis and the stag is so beautifully designed that it almost demanded to be seen, again and again, on multiple visits.

Illustration:  Pencil sketch of bronze medallion with the bust of Athena (c. 150 B.C) by Black Elephant Blog author

Illustration: Pencil sketch of bronze medallion with the bust of Athena (c. 150 B.C)–the ancient Greek goddess of wisdom–by Black Elephant Blog author

According to the exhibit catalogue, between the late seventh and second centuries B.C., Greek sculpture of the time was most distinctive for “its obsession with ever greater naturalism.” Thirty-four museums in thirteen countries on four continents contributed the sculptures that made this exhibit possible, an example of extraordinary international cooperation involving priceless treasures.

According to the organizers, this exhibition is unprecedented in its scope and ambition. Although marble sculpture was more common in Hellenistic times, bronze sculptures, such as those in this exhibition, were more “highly prized in antiquity.”  Unfortunately, since bronze was “easily melted down for recycling,” many of the sculptures were melted down and repurposed over the years.  Thus, “thousands of spectacular [bronze] sculptures produced throughout the Hellenistic world have disappeared from the archaeological record” and the finest of those that have survived are in this exhibition, say the organizers.  It’s an unforgettable experience for those who have a chance to see it.

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Risk, Uncertainty

Sculpture Garden Night Skating Sketch

A very snowy  week is coming to an end, leaving wonderful winter scenes in its wake.

night skating on the mall

Illustration: Watercolor and pen-and-ink sketch,  “Night Skating in the National Gallery Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.”  by Black Elephant Blog author

With so much closed due to snow, there’s been time to experiment with night scenes in watercolor and to give “hot press” watercolor paper a whirl. It took a couple of tries to start to get the hang of the paper, with its smooth surface, but it’s fun.

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Uncategorized

Museum Sketching and the Art of Serendipity

As the weather gets colder, sketchers tend to move inside.  Groups of them sometimes get together inside museums where, after an initial meet-and-greet, they disperse to go sketch before reconvening to share and discuss their results.

Sketching in museums presents many challenges not least of which is whether to stand or sit.

Often I will choose to sketch where I can sit because I can take my time noticing things about what I am sketching. This means more randomness in the selection of what I am sketching, as the choice relates more to the seat than the view.

Such an artificial constraint can be good as it forces me to focus on things I might ignore otherwise. And so it happened recently that the empty couch I spotted was facing this painting by Antoine Watteau (1684-1721). Upon taking a seat, I realized that I knew nothing about him or this painting.

Gallery Photo

Photo of Painting by Antoine Watteau

The painting itself is quite challenging, and not one I normally would consider sketching.  Adding to the complexity of the scene is a sculpture on either side of this painting in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.  One wonders why these three pieces are positioned together here.

Sketching, I’ve learned, helps you notice details you might otherwise miss. In a sense, sketching is a way of paying attention.  Some people describe it as a form of meditation.   And this sort of paying attention, as well as seeking out contradictions and analogies, are crucial to innovation, as was reported on just this past weekend in the New York Times on “How to Cultivate the Art of Serendipity.”    But, as this article discusses, we don’t know how to make processes fundamental to innovation happen reliably.

We do know many innovative breakthroughs involve uncovering possibly overlooked combinations.  Having a “wide horizon” is essential, according to Jaime Holmes, author of a book, Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing, discussed earlier on this blog. Holmes memorably noted that “recognition means closure, and it marks the end of thinking, looking, and listening.  When we recognize an object, we make unconscious assumptions about it.”   He emphasizes others’  research concluding the importance of having a process of “pulling insights from other fields,” also called an “analogy finder technique.” Ambiguity tolerance can be measured, moreover, he writes.   People’s “heightened need for closure” can be manipulated and people are more likely to jump to conclusions or “entrench their existing views” in conditions of uncertainty when instead “dwelling calming” within uncertainty “will help you make a more rational decision.”

Gallery Sketch

Illustration: Watercolor and Platinum Carbon pen and ink by Black Elephant Blog author  (watercolor added afterwards)

So back in the museum, at the end of an hour, by allowing a random thing like the placement of a couch affect the choice of subject to sketch, I ended up more curious about these art pieces in front of me. I learned, for instance, that Watteau was an innovator for his time, pushing the boundaries of the art world.

Watteau portrait

Photo:  Portrait of Antoine Watteau (Source: Wikipedia)

When our group of sketchers reconvened, it was possible to see others’ selections of sketching subjects and media. One could not fail to be impressed with the process of discovery evident in each one.  We gained some familiarity with new subjects even if we could not name them!

 

 

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