oil painting, Risk, Uncategorized

Oil Painting Canadian Geese in Times of U.S. Turmoil

When one is accustomed to watercolor painting, experimenting with oil paints is initially frustrating.  There are a lot of differences and one is that it’s a whole lot messier. There must be a method to your madness too, or the colors will quickly become muddy from careless mixing and intermingling of brushes.  I set myself up with some Gamblin oil paints, which came with a handy 6″ x 12″ wooden panel.  I used this panel as my first surface (seen below). It’s easy to see how (and why) one could spend a lifetime trying to master this. As with watercolor, however, there is a difference between somewhat heavy-handed applications of paint, and a lighter hand.  It’s all going to require a lot more experimenting…

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Illustration: “Canadian Geese on a Fountain”, Oil on 6″ x12″ panel by Black Elephant Blog author (2017)

As to this image, it sprang to mind when I faced off with the blank wooden panel. While out taking a walk recently, I noticed that a nearby fountain is currently undergoing maintenance and our ubiquitous Canadian geese were resting on it in the middle of the lake.  This became my subject.  But remembering what Canadian geese look like proved harder than it should be–given that there are so many in this area that groups of them waddle through parking lots in search of food.  So I went out and looked at them again!

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Illustration:  Trying to make the Canadian geese more realistic!

A “touch up” later and the whole thing got still more complicated; (maybe this is like revising an already unacceptable healthcare bill).  When I start over next time,  I will try to stick with simple shapes, and see what happens.  Anyway, this is welcome distraction from the just-announced “healthcare” bill which, if passed, will cause immense damage to this country, apparently intentionally so!

A brief break from the easel to check the news online… and what do I see?   Video clips of U.S. Capitol Police trying to carry elderly and apparently disabled people out of the halls of the U.S. Capitol…   This is not very positive imagery for the erstwhile “leader of the free world” clearly.   Evidently these people had gathered there at considerable personal effort, in wheelchairs and on canes, to protest the secretly cobbled-together “healthcare” bill that will throw all of them out onto the street.  Here they were being picked up off the floor to be carried out to the street…how symbolic of the new government approach to people in need.  These are exactly the type of people who will be harmed the most if this bill passes, as major insurances companies warned again just today:  The proposed bill will most hurt “74 million low-income, disabled and elderly Americans whose health care coverage through Medicaid” depends on Congress’s next moves.  Right now, their obvious preferred option is to make the rich richer, and let the less fortunate fall through the widening cracks, come what may…  What kind of policy-maker thinks this way?

Ironic that Canadian geese must have determined this is a better place to live when, at least for American people (except for the famous “1 %”), it will become much more difficult in the U.S. in the years ahead. That is, unless we suddenly see an outbreak of forward-thinking readiness to consider the public good  among the people’s elected representatives–thinking that is not much in evidence, tragically.   They cannot connect the dots between the public good and national and global security, obviously.

As I turn back to the easel, I think about what I just saw:  U.S. Senators are embracing a bill that the U.S. President has described as “mean” even as he urges them to pass it without delay. It’s not making America great apparently that is the goal, but making America “mean”?  How could this sort of thinking possibly prepare this great nation for the unprecedented challenges rushing headlong at us, irrespective of our political leanings, in the years just ahead?  Clearly making sense of the news is harder than painting in oils.  I’ll stick with the task at hand…for now.

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Innovation, living in the truth, Risk, Surprise, Uncategorized, Uncertainty, Watercolor Painting

Scams, Shams, and (Body) Slams

While preparing for a presentation (and a little book stemming from it), and doing some color studies for sketches to accompany them, the news has continued to be very distracting as it is presumably for everyone. In the last 24 hours alone, from a journalist sent crashing to the floor allegedly “body slammed” by a person aspiring to elected office (or is he already in office?)–to confirmation from the CBO (Congressional Budget Office) that the health of our nation is going to take a huge body blow if the latest health care plan is passed–to disconcerting news about NATO (also “body slammed?”), it is tough to keep one’s eyes on the task at hand.  But perhaps the combination of these colliding impressions is good for something after all…

In sorting through older material, I came across the famous “boiling frog”–a metaphor, of course, for not noticing when there are gradual changes in your surroundings, until it is too late.  According to the metaphor, a frog in a pot of slowly heating water will not react quickly enough to save himself and will eventually die.  (This is literally not true; the frog will jump out if he can, apparently.  I myself have not tested it, but I respect scientists and experts and they have).

boiling frog image

Image: Watercolor, gouache, and ink by Black Elephant Blog author (2014)

This is a week too in which we have heard the word “suborn” used in open testimony. It’s a useful word.  It seems related to another one rarely heard:  “inure”, which the dictionary defines as “becoming accustomed to something, especially something unpleasant.”  (Perhaps this is a good time to recommend a currently best-selling new little book, available on Amazon for less than $6:  On Tyranny:  Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Century,” by Timothy Snyder, a professor of history at Yale.)

With so much coming at us almost hourly, it sometimes seems like the fate of the world is being decided right now.

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Illustration: Color study, Watercolor, acrylic and gouache, “Where Do We Go From Here?” by Black Elephant Blog author (2017)

People are tired of being distracted by it but the most conscientious know that too much is at stake to turn away. Much as we might like to, we can’t tune out what is going on because it’s unfortunately true– the fate of the world is being decided right now.  And if we tune out, we will surely not be as fortunate as the sensitive frog who manages to escape the dangers of his warming world.

So, we must not become inured to the bruising pace of the news cycle.  It seems to me essential to find ways collectively to both deal with every incoming distraction and yet look beyond it to make sense in time of where we are going and might wish to go instead.

Momentous times indeed, but I have faith we will prove to be at least as smart as  frogs.  So back to the drawing board…

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Innovation, Uncategorized, Uncertainty

Goodbye to a Tumultuous Year

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Illustration: Watercolor by Black Elephant Blog author (December 2016)

As 2016 winds down, it’s fitting in the quiet week before a New Year to consider the meaning of Black Elephants, Black Swans and the other metaphorical creatures of surprise, such as the boiling frog,  who opened up this blog two years ago this month.  There’s been a lot more attention given to them since then in other venues.  It’s surprising but true.  It’s equally surprising but true that the journey of many artists has, it seems to me, much to offer the rapidly changing world in which we find ourselves today–if we were to want to face up to these creatures of surprise.  This is because artists often try to see beyond the surface impressions to get at the truth of things–that’s what gives art its special meaning to many of us.

One could even say that we live in Black Elephant times if, by that, what we mean is what Thomas Friedman referred to in his op-ed of two years ago, called “Stampeding Black Elephants.”  In that article, he defined the metaphor “Black Elephant” as follows:

 “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.”

As I understand it, the phrase (which Friedman picked up from an environmentalist he’d recently met) “Black Elephants” refers to the concept of the uncomfortable, unthinkably unpalatable “elephant in the room” that we would rather not discuss or acknowledge, and therefore–too often–fail to address in time.  (This is also known as the “boiling frog syndrome,” or the “ostrich with its head in the sand,” or the “deer in the headlights” syndrome, etc.)

boiling frog image

Image: Watercolor, gouache, and ink by Black Elephant Blog author (2014)

This concept covers the increasingly (but extraordinarily dangerous) popular tendency to avoid what the accumulated history of knowledge and scientific progress tells us to be true. And so, perhaps it is another “Black Elephant” to observe that these “elephants” may be multiplying right now (paradoxically and quite sadly as their real-life versions dwindle in number due to poaching and encroachment on their natural habitat.)  Facing up to these “elephants” is something that calls for well-honed critical and creative thinking skills–whereby people of all backgrounds including, of course, artists–join forces in shedding new light and creating new possibilities for dealing with the challenges of today in a fact-based way.  This is in fact how mankind has conquered so many diseases that previously killed so many in childhood.  Understanding how innovative breakthroughs occur,and accelerating our society’s capacities for innovation in so many sectors, are right now key to survival on a collective level.

Fortunately there is more awareness of these challenges, as well as our own inherently human desire to ignore them–aided by the fact of more frequent “black elephant” and “black swan” events in the last two years alone.  It turns out this awareness extends well into the suites of CEOS around the world.  I refer in particular to a recent paper, Thinking the Unthinkable: A New Imperative for Leadership in a Digital Age, which I’ll turn to soon.  Last month I had an opportunity to hear the authors brief an audience on their research findings, and found their conclusions compelling enough to include in a revised syllabus for the coming semester of classes.  Interestingly, they too distinguish in their report between “Black Swans” and “Black Elephants”; the creatures of surprise are everywhere!

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Illustration: Watercolor, gouache, ink, pencil, gesso, and coffee grounds by Black Elephant Blog author (2014)

But for now with another spring-like day of temperatures in the 60s Fahrenheit, it’s time to be out enjoying the warm December weather, and re-charging our own personal energy reserves for what promises to be a challenging 2017!   Best wishes to all for a joyous New Year!

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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!)

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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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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.

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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!

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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.)

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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, 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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