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.

Tales Of The Unexpected : Tension and Release

Have you ever given an Ignite talk? The format can feel quite daunting – telling a story while 20 slides whizz by, each one auto forwarding after just 15 seconds. A rollercoaster ride. They’re not for everyone, and they are good for getting disciplined about pubic speaking. Should you fancy giving an Ignite talk a try, check out this great post by Scott Berkun titled ‘How To Give A Great Ignite Talk‘, it’s full of useful ideas on how to get through one in good shape.

I was part of the Ignite team at the CIPD Learning and Development conference in Olympia last week. The subject I chose was ‘The Art of Better Learning’, how we can use art to make learning more of an unfolding inquiry, less of a search for certainty. I drafted my story, drew some slides to illustrate my thoughts and got on with rehearsing. Normally when I give a talk I leave lots of room for emergent ideas – ebb and flow. The Ignite format doesn’t work like that so it’s important to prepare in order to keep things nice and tight. Cue cards work well for me during the prep stage. Thinking through things then writing it down seems to make subsequent recall a little easier. Once I was happy with my story and the pictures, I packed everything up and sent it over to Giorgia, my contact at the CIPD. She kindly confirmed safe receipt and checked over my slides to make sure they worked. Thank you Giorgia.

The Art of Better Learning.jpg


The day of the talk arrived, and in the minutes before the session started I asked to see how the slides would appear on screen. I’m used to working on a Mac and the venue had provided a Windows PC for the session, I wanted to see if there were any key differences. It turned out there was an unexpected key difference. Somewhere between the CIPD and the event, my slides had corrupted, and instead of a series of hand drawn slides, I was presented with a blank screen. No problem, a quick hop onto Dropbox will solve this…

Once the tech guy at the venue had confirmed there was no internet access from the presenter’s pc, I went through an emotional tailspin as follows:

Tension: Directed at myself for not bringing a back up on a memory stick.

More tension: All that hard work drawing slides and rehearsing – wasted!

Panic: Panic: Panic:

Defeated: I’ll just drop out of the line up, no one will know…

Recovery: Hang on a minute, I brought the cue cards with me, and a handful of the drawings. I’ve also got a random bunch of art works made by clients at previous workshops. There are twenty minutes until I’m on, surely I can rework the story in that time…

Reworking The Story.jpg
My Improvised Ignite talk props.

…and so I did.

The talk passed in a blur – I tried to make eye contact with as many people as possible. Having no images to play to meant I relied heavily on the cue cards, and while they kept me on track, they were a distraction too. I kept catching smiles from people when I could, and tried to return them too. The encouragement levels were high and I kept on going – keeping the pace up to remain authentic to the format, and to leave no room for nerves!


After I’d finished, people responded warmly and enthusiastically. A few folk approached me and congratulated me on how I’d set the whole thing up, they thought the tech fail was part of the plan! My heart rate for the next hour or so was proof that this was the genuine article, nerves and all. Looking back a few days later, and given the nature of what I wanted to talk about, the way things unravelled and then reassembled could not have been better. Thank you to everyone who supported me at the event, and online. Without People, You’re Nothing.


There is much talk of disruption in and around the world of work. People throw the term around with much excitement, it’s seen as cool to disrupt. I disagree. The verb disrupt is defined as: to drastically alter or destroy the structure of. True disruption often comes out of the blue, unseen and unexpected. In a way, I experienced a few minutes of disruption last week. I improvised, and whilst I just about coped, I wouldn’t wish to inflict that level of intensity on any one. The next time you call for disruption, spare a thought for the disrupted.

In case you are interested, Ady Howes filmed me giving this talk. If you want to see what the face of a speaker on a white knuckle ride looks like, Ady’s kindly agreed I can share the recording with you here!

The Art of The Possible : Working Out Loud

A story about showing your work, adapting your work, and being open to the possibilities.

I recently wrote about the art of the possible, and how analog tools (pencils, paintbrushes etc) still have powerful relevance in a digital world. I wasn’t suggesting that one is somehow better than the other, rather that both matter. An analog, artistic inquiry of our work can be a very powerful thing. Equally, lots of the work I love to do is generated through connections initially made online, and then nurtured in real life, and the idea of working out loud, something I love to practice, is made simpler thanks to the digital spaces we inhabit. Analog and digital. Both matter.

Last year, my friend Neil Usher kindly agreed to give me some feedback when I was compiling some information about my work to share with people interested in hiring me. Part of this work was a series of visual images, which I gathered together using the haikudeck presentation tool.

What Goes Around – Principles of Work 

The simplicity of the deck worked well enough, and Neil suggested that I could make it stand out more by creating another version. ‘Use your own stuff – not stock photo type images’, Neil offered. I took the idea on board and began what became a long process of drawing, tracing, and colouring my own version of the slides.

Though the general idea remains the same – there is a big difference between the two pieces of work. The second one is better. It’s me, showing my work, and what you can expect of me. I’m grateful to Neil for the suggestion.

I figured that was it. The work was done, things move on, and I was wrong. Crystal Miller, another friend in my network spotted my hand made slides and asked if I would consider drawing a set for one of her clients, who was seeking a visual representation for some values/principles. We talked, agreed the creative basis of the project, and some general terms, then I got on with it. Part of the deal was that I could represent these ideas as I saw fit. At first, I struggled to get going with such an open remit. Would the work be liked? That question quickly took me to all the usual ‘I’m not good enough’ places we experience, particularly when doing something new. My client was very supportive and though I wobbled a few times – the work began to flow. In time, a series of 16 images emerged.

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I learned a lot from this process. Some days the pens moved freely, some days not. At times when I got stuck, I asked for help, and I got it. Ideas, nudges, confidence – many things came from asking. At times I practiced the art of ‘it’s good enough, move on’. And at times, I redid images completely. Trying to balance satisfaction with deadlines can become an interesting tangle, and what emerged is a body of work the client is really pleased with. So am I.

Importantly, if I hadn’t responded to Neil’s suggestion, if I hadn’t been open to the possibilities, and if I hadn’t worked out loud, we wouldn’t be looking at these pictures now. And if I can work like this, you can too.