Live Painting

Working with uncertainty, going with the flow.

I attended Martin Couzins‘ excellent Bar Camp after day one of the Learning Technologies event last week. I often feel lost in big conferences, but I really enjoy the fringe events, the more conversational, interactive stuff around the edges. I was at the event to meet and catch up with good people, listen, and live paint.

One of the interesting things about live painting at an event, is the not knowing. How will things go? Where will inspiration arrive from? Will inspiration arrive at all? On the way to the event, I thought of the people gathering to meet each other, and as I sat on the train I drew and cut out a face in profile. I’ve used various facial profiles in the past for an occasional art project called Passing Strangers and it struck me I could start (or maybe I already had started?) with a new piece in that vein.

On arrival at the venue I set out my paints and other bits and pieces, and as people began to gather, I got to work using the stencil I’d already cut, and some metallic paints. The stencil allowed me to work fairly quickly, and before long, this started to emerge. The design represents the hurry and rush of people at a big conference as they move to a smaller space, slow down, and begin to talk.

I continued to fiddle with this piece of work for a while – touching in marks here and there. Doubt nagging in my mind about where to go next, a not uncommon sensation in these circumstances. I eventually abandoned the safety of the canvas and wandered the room, listening to the conversations.

The room was noisy. Nothing was coming to mind, and even though I knew that whatever happens next is OK (even if that is nothing), I felt a little nervous. A quick check in with Martin revealed that time was running out. That knowledge seemed to release something in me, and I picked up my second canvas and hurriedly applied a layer of paint to it. This is a canvas I’ve used and reused a few times, revealing then obscuring images over time. I often over paint many layers like this. I used a credit card to get the paint down in a hurry, then rubbed and wiped it over with my hand to rough the paint up a bit over the previous layers, and help it dry more quickly.

Artist at work. Photo by Martin Couzins

I continued to work at pace – this piece was becoming less about what was going on around me, more about my response to a sense of nervous urgency. In the moment, I decided to make a guardian. Normally, I lay larger guardian designs out very carefully, measuring, mapping and plotting. Before I commit the paint to the surface, I want to know the wings are equal in length, raised to the same height. Here are some studio photos to give you a sense of that structure.

Working on a guardian in the studio.

On this occasion – I threw all that precision out of the window. I estimated where the centre of the canvas was, guessed the angle and length of the wings, grabbed the credit card and began to attack the surface with paint. I scratched and scraped and scored out my design, barely stopping to look until it, and the conversations were finished.

I think this might be my favourite guardian yet. It emerged almost unthinkingly, it has the basic shape and design, yet it is completely different. It appears to me to have been in the wars, yet it’s made it through to the other side, bearing scars and a sense of fragility for all to see.

Both designs are a representation of working out loud, examples of what can happen when you just do the work, accepting that not knowing is OK. The Passing Strangers canvas is 30cm x 30cm, and the guardian is 30cm x 80cm. The guardian has since been framed and sold, and the Passing Strangers piece is available to purchase. email if you’d like further information.

Thanks to Martin Couzins for the kind invitation.

Live Painting at Workplace Trends : Psychological Safety

Last week I was at the Workplace Trends Research Spring Summit. I was there to learn, to do some live painting, and to give a talk on creative practice at work. This is a short blog post about a piece of art I made on the day.

Early on in the presentations, I listened to Nicola Gillen and Charlotte Hermans talking about how AECOM is undertaking new research to investigate predictors of wellbeing and performance in populations of office workers.

AECOM is testing to identify the most influential factors of work (e.g., job design, management, culture) vs. workplace (e.g., quality of work settings, noise, air quality) in predicting physical, mental, social, intellectual, spiritual and material dimensions of wellbeing, performance and satisfaction. Something which caught my attention was Nicola’s observation of the importance of psychological safety. In particular she spoke of the idea of being your ‘whole self’ at work, and how potentially harmful it can be in a workplace where this doesn’t feel possible.

I know from personal experience and from listening to many stories, how tricky it can be in some places to be yourself, to be open and honest about what you see, and how it’s making you think and feel. As I considered how I might get over that sense of reluctance when things are a little unclear, I began to paint. The blurred background indicates uncertainty, things moving at speed, not being quite sure what’s going on. The winged creature indicates a guardian within – open arms encouraging that sense of being sufficiently confident to speak truth to power, to be myself at work. I chose to title the piece ‘Thank You For Letting Me Be Myself Again.’

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Above are photographs of the piece as it was finished and displayed in conference, and a couple of close ups so you can see some of the detail. It took me all morning and some of the lunch break to paint this, each line on the wings is a single free hand brush stroke. Patience was required to complete the piece, and at times during the making, I felt like quitting and starting again on something easier. I’m glad I persisted, people gave me lots of positive feedback on the finished piece and it sits well alongside some of my other recent works.

I’ll share more live painting from the event soon, and some slides and speaker notes too. For now, thank you Nicola for the spark of an idea which brought the art into being.