Uncategorized, urban sketching, Watercolor Painting

Karlsruhe Marktplatz sketch

A month ago– a mere four weeks–I was sitting on this busy square in downtown Karlsruhe, Germany, enjoying a latte at a sidewalk cafe and idly sketching the scene in front of me, busy (still!) with construction of an underground train system.  I would make sketches of the most normal scenes, because everything offers practice for the eye.  But, now when I pick up my sketchbooks, a whole lot of other memories come flooding back to me.   It is amazing how everything little thing we did on this recent trip is now so utterly important to hold on to as a memory, never to let go at least of this.

 

Karlsruhe sketch

Illustration: Watercolor and pen-and-ink sketch, “Karlsruhe Marktplatz” (July 2017)

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Uncategorized, urban sketching, Watercolor Painting

Water/Color in Konstanz,Germany

Konstanz 2

Illustration: Watercolor and gouache on 12″x 8.5″ watercolor paper, “Harbor of Konstanz”, by Black Elephant Blog author (2017)

They say that for the best views of Konstanz (in the south of Germany on the border with Switzerland), you need to be on the water.  The views from Konstanz, however, seem equally remarkable to me, especially in the changing light at the end of the day.  Recently I sat right down to make a sketch, fascinated with the lemony tinge of the treetops in the evening sunlight and the sailboats in the distance.  Later I made a watercolor of the same scene, experimenting with some watercolor paper made in Germany.  (A great deal of art material we’ve come to expect actually comes from Germany, home of many types of inks, watercolor brushes and the Lamy fountain pen.)

Konstanz is a great city for walking around, and almost everyone here seems to go to work by bike or bus.  The city is nearly surrounded by water, the air is fresh and mild, with nice breezes coming off of Lake Constance, or the “Bodensee” in German.  Three countries border on this vast lake: Germany, Switzerland, and Austria. You can see mountain peaks blending with clouds in the distance, and know you are looking at Austria or Switzerland.  This is a great jumping off point for explorations by ferryboat to the many sights around the lake, including the island of Mainau (pronounced “my-now”) with its semi-tropical atmosphere, palm trees, and an ornate hilltop palace built by Swedish nobility that can be seen from far away.  I’ll save all that for a future post though.   The hordes of tourists reportedly over-running Venice this summer are absent here.  There is no shortage of sight-seers on the ferries but the crowds are manageable.  In short, it’s no wonder this area has long attracted writers, artists, travelers,  sailing enthusiasts–and people seeking to relax in the many spas around Lake Constance.

Stadtgarten Konstanz

Illustration: Pen-and-ink sketch of the Stadtgarten, as seen from the Harbor of Konstanz, Germany, July 2017 by Black Elephant Blog author

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living in truth, Uncategorized, urban sketching

Wandering through older sketches to make sense of the present

Blog post writing has taken a bit of a backseat lately.  Preparation for classes could be one excuse, but it wouldn’t be true. I guess it’s because I’ve been doing more thinking than drawing in this age of discontinuity.  The recent blast of winter in this area complete with snow and ice this year sadly has been too much for the many blossoms and flowers that proliferated here during an unseasonably warm February. Even the geese on a nearby lake are a bit confused by the eccentric weather.

This sort of disorientation (yes, that exhibited by the geese–as in “where are we?”) has been mirrored by the befuddlement of many people around the world at the jarring reports of current political events, especially domestically–more on that below.  Just as the early blossoms thought that the Spring in February was real, we humans are confused as to the political climate we are living through….

Looking back to look forward sometimes is useful, as paging through older sketchbooks can remind one.  While looking ahead to a forthcoming exhibition of my watercolors and sketches, I came across a few of my sketches from the past:

dupont circle

Illustration: Watercolor sketch, “Dupont Circle,” by Black Elephant Blog author (2016)

Lately, with the sun briefly peering out again, there are more inspiring palettes to explore in the near future…

vangogh

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

On the geopolitical level of human affairs, the emerging palette is more complicated–even “complex”– a crucial distinction not yet as appreciated as it could be, though “complexity”–as in complex systems–is something we spend a lot of time on in the university graduate class I teach.  Making sense of complex problems is a necessary starting point to resolving them–and is too often a (very intellectually-demanding and time-consuming) step skipped over, as we have recently seen an example of in the healthcare arena.

Similarly understanding this moment in our collective human history requires us to draw from the experience “palettes” of a wide variety of people in order to understand our true options going forward.  I would include in this “experience palette” respected contemporary professors of history, such as Dr. Timothy Snyder–whom I had the privilege of hearing speak in person at a local bookstore recently.  People doing fresh thinking about economics also have an essential role

Rodin The Thinker

Illustraton: Watercolor, “”The Thinker’ at the Entrance to Rodin Museum, Philadelphia, PA” (2017) by Black Elephant Blog author

to play in the efforts to apply different palettes to our common future.  And a look back to the founders and founding documents of this American nation would also be essential, as I just did a week ago by wandering through the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia again.

It’s true, at least for me, that once you become accustomed to painting–and more vitally, living and making choices– in ‘plein air,’ it’s harder to settle for bleak cold days–whether due to the weather or the political climate.

We can call up sketches of the past to help us make sense of the present.   Are the things which divide us still more important than taking stock in a clear-eyed way of what actually has happened and what pathways forward lie ahead?  These processes are sometimes known as “scenario practice,” “forward reasoning,” and simply “foresight”–also processes we focus on in class. There is no end to the usefulness of learning we can gain from those who have studied the past, I’ve concluded.   As Professor Timothy Snyder tells us in his work linking the history of Eastern Europe to our present, the choice is (still) ours to make.

 

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Innovation, Risk, Uncertainty, urban sketching

Learning from the Masters cont’d- “S” for Sargent and Signac

signac-2

Illustration: Watercolor, pencil and charcoal copy (approximately 9 x 12 on the new Canson Heritage Aquarelle hot press paper) by Black Elephant Blog author of Paul Signac’s watercolor (circa 1926?) of the town of Bourg-Saint-Andeol

In times of uncertainty, there’s no question that a hobby can be helpful! So amid the swirl of information which responsible citizens must keep on top of somehow (greatly taxing the “left brain”), it’s important to make time for that hobby.

It can be relaxing–I imagine sort of like those “zen-tangles”–to take on the task of trying to copy a painting by a master. The beauty of this approach is that you don’t need the perfect day weather-wise–you can try this almost anywhere.

simplon-pass

Illustration: Watercolor copy (on a quarter sheet of Arches cold press) by Black Elephant Blog author after John Singer Sargent’s “Simplon Pass” (1911, oil on canvas) at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

To serve as my model will either be a photo I’ve taken of the original, as in the case of John Singer Sargent’s (1856-1925) “Simplon Pass” painting in oil, or simply a painting selected from an art book, as in the case of the Paul Signac watercolors I’ve found in a beautiful book, Paul Signac: A Collection of Watercolors and Drawings (Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers in association with the Arkansas Arts Center, 2000).

Signac (1863-1935), like Sargent his contemporary, is best known for his oil paintings, but I came across a couple of watercolors of his during a recent visit to the Barnes Collection in Philadelphia.Signac’s style, known as neo-impressionism, intrigued me as did his compositions, mostly of port scenes with lots of ships and masts. It seems he was an inveterate ‘urban

signac-still-life

Illustration: Watercolor with charcoal copy (approximately 9×12 Canson Heritage Aquarelle hot press) by Black Elephant Blog author of Paul Signac’s “Still Life” (c. 1924 or 1918)

sketcher’ as so many of these watercolors clearly were done ‘live’, as it were, at the site.

One learns almost by osmosis about composition, color, and light effects when trying to copy the masters.  It is an elaborate and structured form of doodling as you don’t have to do as much planning but you can still relax and have fun.  There is more pressure when you are doing your own work, from start to finish.  Copying from anyone else, even the masters, is still just copying…–and  not something I want to do as a matter of anything other than as a learning exercise.  As all good teachers will tell you, it’s important to do your own original work, which means using your own photos, if you are using photos, or take the step to obtain permission from the owner of the photo you’d like

signac-book-cover

Illustration: Photo of book cover

to use.  But in the case of learning from the Masters, there’s nothing like copying to try to re-trace their thought processes and choices (really strategic decision-making!) in composing their works of art. In the end result, usually:   The destination  remains elusive for all but the rarest of artists but the journey’s worth taking, familiarizing me a bit more with individual works of art by the masters.

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Risk, Surprise, Uncategorized, Uncertainty, urban sketching

Transitions

On what seemed likely to be the last unseasonably warm day of the year, it was great late last week to have some time to get out and sketch along the banks of the Potomac River not far from the nation’s capital. With barely a cloud in the sky, temperatures hovered around 70 degrees–T-shirt weather barely a month before winter’s official start. The scene was placid without even a ripple breaking the surface of the water along the docks of the marina where I chose to sit–something to appreciate for as long as it lasted.

Illustration:  Watercolor and gouache by Black Elephant Blog author

Illustration: “Washington Sailing Marina” in watercolor and gouache by Black Elephant Blog author

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Uncategorized

Using Charcoal with Watercolor

Another gorgeous fall day today, with temperatures near 70 degrees, saw lots of families out hiking along the C&O Canal which runs along the Maryland side of the Potomac River. Several ‘plein air’ painting enthusiasts worked alongside the Canal, facing either the river or the canal; a path for hikers and bikers runs between them for gorgeous mile after gorgeous mile.

In such a perfect circumstance, it was a great day to try an experiment: using charcoal with watercolor as was done to such great effect by late-19th century and early-20th century French painter, Paul Signac (who also used black Conte crayon and graphite with watercolors). The canal next to us was drained nearly dry so there wasn’t an opportunity to practice painting reflections on the water except for a little puddle near the bridge over the canal.  However, even without water, the whole scene was already challenging enough.

The final verdict:  At first it didn’t seem like it would work, but certainly if the watercolor is added first and allowed to dry, then charcoal can be applied to make accents or give depth. Here is my first attempt to do so (with a charcoal pencil), and I think it’s going to be something I’ll want to keep trying in the future.

great-falls-tavern

Illustration:  Great Falls Tavern on the C&O Canal, Great Falls, Maryland painted in watercolor, gouache, pen-and-ink and charcoal on 6″ x 8″ Fluid cold press paper (in about 2 hours) by Black Elephant Blog author

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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.

photo-of-pan-playing-pipes

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.

sketch-of-pan-playing-pipes

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.)

pan-playing-pipes

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.

sully-photo

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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