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!




The Hummingbird Effect

Hummingbird reduced

Image: Watercolor and ink by Black Elephant Blog author

Moving through the literature on how innovation occurs both in human society and nature,  it wasn’t long before I encountered another creature of surprise: the hummingbird!  If you’ve read Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From (2010), you’ll have a good idea of how he got to now in his latest book, How We Got to Now (2014) where he introduces the “hummingbird effect.” In the earlier work, he focused on identifying the most fertile conditions for innovative thinking. In his view, traversing across disciplines the way he does in his work does not just give us new metaphors: “It gives us new facts.”

It is best to look at the previous book in order to place the newer book in a helpful context for purposes of this blog.  In Where Good Ideas Come From, Johnson identified a “series of shared properties and patterns” that recur in unusually innovative environments. His ambitious aim in this earlier book was to present the common attributes of innovative systems, whether they involve natural systems, like coral reefs,or the sociology of urban life, or the intellectual evolution of a particular scientist.

In Johnson’s view–the “long zoom” view–unusually innovative (or “generative”) environments “display similar patterns of creativity at multiple scales simultaneously.”  He proposes that by moving across these scales we can gain insights we would not if we stay within the boundaries of a single domain. Johnson emphasizes that, whatever our goals, “we are often better served by connecting ideas than we are by protecting them.” Science “long ago realized,” according to Johnson, “that we can understand something better by studying its behavior in different contexts.” The different contexts he explored included ones he called: “the adjacent possible,” “liquid networks,” the “slow hunch,” “error,” and “serendipity,” among others. This earlier book is an excellent conceptual reference, in my view, for those keen to generate more hospitable conditions for creativity and innovation wherever they work. (Perhaps a future blog post will delve into it more.)

The newer book, How We Got to Now, investigates what Johnson calls the “strange chains of influence” that make up the “hummingbird effect.” The hummingbird effect refers to the phenomenon of innovations in one field triggering innovations in another domain altogether. He notes hummingbirds themselves evolved in such a way that they can hover alongside a flower, something few other birds could manage, according to Johnson. These unusual flight mechanics emerged from “coevolutionary interactions” between flowering plants and insects that led to the production of nectar that could only be tapped by birds with a capacity to hover–or, the hummingbird.

(Johnson distinguishes the “hummingbird effect” from the better-known “butterfly effect,” the latter of which also will be addressed in our zoological taxonomy of surprise in coming blog posts.)

In subsequent chapters, Johnson considers how the hummingbird effect influenced externalities and unintended effects in other fields after an innovation in one field took root. Sometimes breakthroughs open up new possibilities that are recognized only much later. Sometimes innovations lead to tools that influence us “metaphorically,” he writes, citing the connection between the clock and the “mechanistic view of early physics.” A main point is that, when we set out to do something, there can be many unintended, even invisible, ripple effects.


Image: Watercolor and ink by Black Elephant Blog author

It can take generations, centuries, and even millenia to see those ripple effects, as underscored by Johnson’s long zoom look at the “history of glass” early in the book.He traces the evolution of the discovery of layers of what we’ve come to know as glass on a vast stretch of the Libyan desert to the use of glass as an ornamentation, for windows, for magnifiers and reading glasses, beautiful transparent Murano glass vases, highly sensitive microscopes and telescopes and even fiber-optic cables. Less tangible but no less significant were the transformative possibilities brought forth by the advent of the mirror, changing the way artists managed perspectives in their paintings and how people everywhere literally saw themselves.

In our more interconnected world today, most important innovations “arrive in clusters of simultaneous discovery,” he writes. All around the world people will work on the same problem and approach it with the “same fundamental assumptions.”

As for individuals who appear to make conceptual leaps that propel them far beyond present-day boundaries, Johnson suggests that some of their genius stems from the fact that they “worked at the margins of their official fields, or at the intersection point between very different disciplines”–disciplines as varied as stenography, printing and anatomical studies of the human ear (influencing the development of a predecessor to the phonograph).

Johnson maintains that explorations of such interconnecting influences, even if prone to be speculative in hindsight, can be helpful for dealing with modern challenges:

“Learning from patterns of innovation that shaped society in the past can only help us navigate the future more successfully, even if our explanations of that past are not falsifiable in quite the way that a scientific theory is.”

Great stuff indeed! And we will come back to it in future posts, I’m sure.