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Following the science: what should that mean?

It is a mantra repeated every day at the UK Government’s Covid-19 press briefing that they are following, or are guided by the science.

What does this mean or what should it mean?

Winston Churchill famously said that scientists should be on tap, but not on top. 

This meant, of course, that politicians should be the ones on top. 

Scientists can present the known facts, and even reasonable assessments of those aspects of a problem that are understood in principle or to some level, but for which there remain a range of uncertainties (due to incomplete data or immature science). As Donald Rumsfeld said, there are known knowns, unknown knowns and unknown unknowns. Science navigates these three domains.

Yet, it is the values and biases, from whatever colour of leadership is in charge, that will ultimately drive a political judgment, even while it may be cognisant of the evidence. The science will constrain the range of options available to an administration that respects the science, but this may be quite a wide range of options. 

For example, in the face of man-made global warming, a Government can opt for a high level of renewables, or for nuclear power, or for a radical de-growth circular economy; or something else. The science is agnostic to these political choices.

The buck really does stop with the politicians in charge to make those judgments; they are “on top”, after all.

So the repeated mantra that they are “following the science” is rather anti-Churchillian in its messaging.

If instead, Ministers said, “we have considered the scientific advice from the Chief Scientific Adviser, based on discussions of a broad range of scientific evidence and opinion represented on SAGE (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies), and supporting evidence, and have decided that the actions required at this stage are as follows …”, then that would be correct and honest. 

And even if they could not repeat such a wordy qualification at every press conference it would be like a proverbial Health Warning – available on Government websites – like on a cigarette packet, useful for anyone who feels brave enough to start smoking the daily propaganda on how brilliant the UK is in its response to Covid-19 (which, despite a lot of attacks on it, has not been as bad as some make out, and the Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA) and Chief Medical Officer (CMO) have rightly gained a lot of credibility during the crisis).

The uncomfortable truth is that ‘following the science’ is about proaction not reaction; about listening to a foretold risk years in advance and taking timely and substantive actions – through policies, legislation, projects, etc. – to mitigate against or build resilience in the face of known risks.

Pandemics of either a flu variety or novel virus kind have been at the top of the UK’s national risk assessment for a decade. Both SARS and MERS were warnings that South Korea took seriously to increase their preparedness. The UK was also warned by its scientists to be prepared. The UK Government under different PMs has failed to take the steps required.

Listening to the science in the midst of a pandemic is good, but doing so well in advance of one, and taking appropriate action is a whole lot better. Prevention is better than cure, is a well known and telling adage.

Of course, the naysayers will come out in force. If one responds to dodgy code prior to 2000 and nothing bad happens, they will say that the Y2K bug was a sham, an example of alarmism “gone mad”; they will not acknowledge the work done to prevent the worst outcomes. Similarly, if we mothball capacity for a pandemic, then once again, expect the charge of alarmism and “why so many empty beds?”.

Our economy is very efficient when things are going well – just-in-time manufacture, highly tuned supply chains, minimal redundancy, etc. – but not so great when shocks come, and we discover that the UK cannot make PPE (personal protective equipment) for our health and care workers and we rely on cheap off-shored manufacturing, and have failed to create sufficient stocks (as advised by scientists to do so).

Following the science is not something you do on a Monday. You do it all week, and then you act on it; and you do this for risks that are possibly years or decades in the future. You also have to be honest about the value-based choices you make in arriving at decisions and not to hide being the science.

Scientists don’t argue about the knowns: the second law of thermodynamics, or that an R value greater than 1 means exponential growth in the spread of a virus. But scientists will argue a great deal about the boundary between the known and unknown, or the barely known; it’s in their nature. Science is not monolithic. SAGE represents many sciences, not ‘the’ science.

For Covid-19 or any virus, “herd immunity” is only really relevant to the situation where a vaccine is developed and applied to the great majority of the population (typically greater than 85%), with a designed-in strong immunity response. Whereas immunity resulting from having been naturally infected is a far less certain outcome (particularly for Coronaviruses, where there is typically a weak immune response).

So, relying on uncontrolled infection as a basis for herd immunity would be naive at best. It is true that it was discussed by SAGE as a potential outcome, but not as the core strategy (as Laurence Freedman discussed here); the goal was always to flatten the curve, even if there was great debate about the best way to achieve this.

One of the problems with the failure to be open about that debate and the weighing of factors is that it leaves room for speculation as to motives, and social media has been awash with talk of a callous Government more interested in saving the economy than in saving lives. I am no fan of this Government or its PM, but I feel this episode demonstrates the lack of trust it has with the general public, a trust that Boris Johnson failed to earn, and is now paying the price in the lack of trust in his Government’s pronouncements.

Yet I do have confidence in the CSA and CMO. They are doing a really tough job, keeping the scientific advice ‘on tap’. They cannot be held responsible for the often cack-handed communications from Ministers, and failure to be straight about PPE supplies and the like.

Some people have criticised the make up of SAGE – for example, because it has too many modellers and no virologists. Well, virologists are clearly key for the medium-long term response, but a vaccine is probably over a year away before it could be deployed. So, at the moment, containment of the spread ‘is’ the Emergency, and social distancing, hand-washing, isolation, hospitals, testing, etc. are the tools at hand.

Groups at Oxford University and Imperial College are being funded to help develop vaccines and to run clinical trials. Virology is not being ignored and it is rather odd to suggest otherwise.  But again, transparency should be the order of the day – transparency on who is invited onto SAGE, when and why, and transparency on the evidence they receive or consider. But having a camera in there broadcasting live discussions may inhibit frank debate, so is probably not a great idea, but the Minutes do need to be published, so other experts can scrutinise the thought processes of the group.

The reason why Dominic Cummings (or any other political role) should not be sitting on SAGE, in my view – even if they make no contribution to the discussion – is that there is a risk (a certainty, probably) that he then provides a backdoor summary of the discussions to the Prime Minister, which may conflict with that provided by the CSA. It is the CSA’s job to summarise the conclusions of the discussion and debate at SAGE and provide clear advice, that the Government can then consider and act on. The political advisers and politicians will have plenty of opportunity to add their spin after receiving the scientific advice; not during its formation or communication.

Now, it seems, everyone agrees that testing and contact tracing will be key tools in ending or reducing the lock down, but of course, that means having the systems in place to implement such a strategy. We don’t yet have these.

The British Army, I understand, don’t use the term “lessons learned”, because it is so vacuous. We have “lessons learned” after every child abuse scandal and it doesn’t seem to make much of a difference. 

A lesson truly learned is one that does not need that label – it is a change to the systems, processes, etc., that ensures a systemic response. This results in consistently different outcomes. It is not a bolt on to the system but a change in the system.

Covid-19 asks lots of questions not just about our clinical preparedness but the fairness of our systems to safeguard the most vulnerable.

Like a new pandemic, the threats from global warming have also been foretold by scientists for decades now, and UK politicians claim to be listening to the science, but they are similarly not acting in a way that suggests they are actually hearing the science.

As with Covid-19, man-made global warming has certainties and uncertainties. It is certain that the more carbon dioxide we put into the atmosphere the warmer the world will get, and the greater the chance of weather extremes of all kinds. But, for example, exactly how much of Greenland will melt by 2100 is an on-going research question.

Do the uncertainties prevent us taking proactive action?

No, they shouldn’t, and a true political leader would take the steps to both reduce the likely size of impacts (mitigations), and increase the ability of society to withstand the unavoidable impacts (adaptation), to increase resilience.

The models are never perfect but they provide a crucial tool in risk management, to be able to pose ‘what if’ type questions and explore the range of likely outcomes (I have written In Praise of Computer Models before).

Following the science (or more correctly, the sciences) should be a full-time job for any Government, and a wise one would do well to listen hard well in advance of having to respond to an emergency, to engage and consult on its plans, and to build trust with its populace.

Boris Johnson and his Government need to demonstrate that it has a plan, and seeks support for what it aims to do, both in terms of prevention and reaction. It needs to do that not just for the Covid-19 crisis, but for the array of emerging crises that result from man-made global warming.

We need to change the system, before the worst impacts are felt.

(c) Richard W. Erskine, 2020.

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Becoming an artist: fundamentals

 

“you need three things for paintings: the hand, the eye, and the heart.  Two won’t do.  A good eye and heart is not enough; neither is a good hand and eye”

David Hockney reflecting on the Chinese attitude to art

 

I wrote about my ‘awakening’ in moving originally from a science background and finding my way to becoming an artist since my retirement.

Art may seem to be completely different to the science I grew up with, because there appear to be no rules. But the artist and scientist do have quite a lot in common, as I discussed previously:

        • a curiosity and playfulness in exploring the world around them; 
        • ability to acutely observe the world; 
        • a fascination with patterns;
        • not afraid of failure;
        • dedication to keep going; 
        • searching for truth; 
        • deep respect for the accumulated knowledge and tools of their ‘art’; 
        • ability to experiment with new methods or innovative ways of using old methods.

The difference is that in science we ask specific questions, which can be articulated as a hypotheses that challenge the boundaries of our knowledge. Whereas in art, the question is often simply ‘How do I see, how do I frame what I see, and how do I make sense of it?’ , then, ‘How do I express this in a way that is interesting and compelling?’.

In art we do not have rules like in science, but in order to make progress, it is important to articulate guidelines, or fundamental principles if you like.

My starting point is a desire to create representational art, but including impressionistic styles, and even abstractions. I am not interested in trying to create a perfect copy of a scene, because as I often say, if that was my objective I would use a camera, not a paint brush.

This is not about being lazy and not wanting to create all that perfect detail, but rather to highlight the fact that a painting is doing a completely different job to a photograph; it is an expression not a record.

This is the second essay in a series I am writing on Becoming an artist, and I want to turn to the fundamentals.

The fundamental principles can be loosely grouped under the following headings:

  • Heart – learning to develop one’s creative impulse;
  • Eye – learning to observe as an artist does;
  • Hand – learning general techniques applicable to any medium.

I cover just those principles that I have internalised particularly over the last few years as a student of Alison Vickery, my mentor on this journey.

I haven’t read Hockney’s reflections on the Chinese artist tradition, but it is curious that I independently – in my first draft of this essay – came up with Practice, Observation and Technique. It was Alison who suggested it fitted well with the Chinese approach that Hockney espouses, so I changed the headings to Heart, Eye and Hand. Maybe these really are universals that any student of painting, from any culture, will recognise on reflection.

I am always questioning things “why do you do that?” or “how do you do that?”, and then trying to find the why behind the why. 

Alison has never written down this list, this is my appreciation of the lessons I have learned, and I am sure I will have missed some important elements out, or presented things differently to how a professional artist like her would articulate things. 

I am sharing my journey and the ideas that have helped me, and so feel free to use and abuse these ideas in your journey.

Heart

The emotional side of painting is in many ways the most important. When you feel free to express yourself in the way you want, you are, by definition, an artist. 

While you try to be someone else and to follows somebody else’s standards of what you think you should be and do, then you will struggle to find your voice, and your language for expression. 

Under the heading of ‘Heart’ I highlight the things that most influenced me in finding my voice, which includes aspects of expressiveness.

Loosen up

In sport you need to do a warm up, and in art it is also important to free up any tension in your mind or body.  Try to start a session on a cheap piece of paper first (so you won’t stress about ‘wasting’ an expensive piece of art paper).

Even when doing a piece of work you wish to develop, you still need to be bold and work fast, initially at least, and avoiding tightening up.

Start with the biggest brush you can get away with, hold it loose not tightly.  When you start painting, avoid fine brushes altogether; they will kill your ability to work loose.

For watercolour, try starting with a size 12 brush  – a decent quality one that will hold a lot of pigment but still make a point.

Loosen up. Make mistakes, they may be happy ones.

Work the whole area

The opposite extreme would be to start painting in the bottom left and work your way up to the top right, or for Michelangelo to carve out the perfect head of the David before moving on to doing his willy! No, as with a sculptor, you must ‘chip away’ all over the subject in broad bold strokes.

As you move to less bold and more detailed strokes, still keep working all areas of the ‘canvas’.

A huge benefit of this approach is that you will being to see things that influence how you develop the painting. Maybe you had a preconception of how you wanted to develop it, but you can now see how to make it better.

Don’t be afraid of white space

Working every areas of the paper is not the same as covering every area with paint – it is ok and actually desirable to leave areas of white space (or whatever the background colour might be). You need the light to get in.

White might be used to suggest light falling on a subject; a painted tree might be dark on one side where there is shadow, and white on the other, suggesting light from the sun.

This is particularly important with a medium like watercolour, where you need to compensate for an inherent difficulty in creating good contrast, and the white space can help to achieve it.

Use sketches and studies

As part of trying to get to know the scene better, do several quick sketches or studies, maybe starting with a charcoal drawing, then a very quick watercolour. Give yourself a short time just to produce something. Use cheap paper again.

Perhaps tear off bits of paper and see how it changes your perspective on things.

Mess around. Don’t self censor. Just go for it. 

If you create something that you think ‘that looks interesting’, then cut it out and paste it into an art journal, and add some written side notes “I wetted the paper and dropped in a swathe of cobalt blue, then dabbed it with kitchen towel to create a cloud”. Build up an inventory of such experiments.

Play with composition

After doing an initial sketch of a scene, you can use a ‘window’ cut out of card (with the required aspect ratio for the final painting), placed at different distances from the sketch, and use it to see how much you want to include in the final piece.

Maybe you decide that the house in the foreground is a distraction from the copse on the hillside which is what you really want to be the main focus in the composition.

Learn when to stop

Picasso once said that a finished painting is a dead painting.

It is so easy to over-work a painting, so learning where that inflexion point occurs – between improving a piece and killing it – is perhaps the most difficult skill of all.

Always err on being slightly underdone to overdone.

Eye

Painting is not photography. You are not trying to replicate what a camera would see. 

You are creating an impression that speaks to you (and you hope, will speak to others, but that is a bonus). While the work is representational, that does not mean you cannot be impressionistic.

You can decide to remove the annoying road sign that is upsetting the composition; make the clouds more moody; or whatever you care to. But it is important to learn to observe. Having a good eye is as important as having a good brush!

Paint what catches your eye or interests you

It might be the shape of a tree that intrigues you, or the curve of a river, or the curious shape of a cloud, or the tree line on a brow of a hill. Whatever it is, it is a great subject for you, because you are emotionally invested in it.

Learn to be acutely observant

How much time are you spending looking at the paper, and your brush strokes and how much time observing the subject matter? As a novice it is often a 80/20 split in time, when if anything it should be a 20/80 split.

The more you look, the more you see. The brain is telling you that the grass is green, but look closely and in the evening sunlight there seems to be some blue grass in the shadows of the tree – impossible? No, trust what you see.

The light from the window makes the shoulder of the sitter look almost white, but how can that be – they are wearing a black jacket. Look again, trust what you see.

Even if you don’t particularly like drawing, it is worth having a go, because it is another way to help develop one’s observational skills.

Think tonally

It is so easy to become obsessed with finding the right colour to use, but much more important than colour is tone.

Seeing the dark patches lurking in the depth of the wood, and noting that even on the apparently uniformly yellow daffodil there are shades and shadows, that help create a sense of volume; these are example of being tonally observant.

Having a good tonal range can really bring a painting to life.

Doing charcoal studies can really help to develop a sense of tone, unencumbered by considerations of colour.

When preparing to compose a picture, establishing the tonal range of the scene or subject is one of the most important things you can do.

Hard and soft edges

Often we feel compelled to paint or draw a hard edge because our brain says ‘there is a vase there, so I will draw around it’. Look more carefully and the brightly lit side of the vase blends in with the brightly lit background, creating a soft barely discernible edge. Resist drawing what you cannot see!

Look through someone else’s eyes

Take time out to step back, get a sup of tea, and then imagine you are someone else viewing the painting for the first time.

Does it grab you? Have you resolved the different elements of the composition? Have you established a focal point that draws the viewer in?

Look out for symmetry

Humans seem to like patterns in nature and one of the most universal patterns is simple bilateral symmetry – the kind created by the reflection of a scene in a body of water (with a horizontal line of symmetry), or created by the centre line of a tree  (with a vertical line of symmetry).

It can really help draw in the viewer to exploit the symmetries we see around us, in our paintings.

Background

A background may naturally present itself, as in a landscape, but in a studio, doing a still life for example, there may be a white wall behind the subject and little else. To avoid a painting looking flat, it is helpful to create a background, even where none exists. Maybe some imagined shadows or some texture on a wall will help.

Think about how a background might enhance the composition. It is so easy to get lost in a subject in a foreground, and forget how important a background can be in developing a composition.

Hand

Most, but not all, of the techniques described below are applicable to any of the painting mediums I have in mind: charcoal, pastel, watercolour, ink and acrylic. 

Later essays will focus on techniques specific to each medium. There are hundred of different techniques and ‘tricks of the trade’ out there. You will never stop learning new ones, but it is easy to get overwhelmed. I have included here the ones I feel are most important, at least to me.

Experiment with mark making

Try using different shaped brush heads, and other tools to create marks on a page.

We cannot all be Van Gogh who created his own brilliant style of mark making, but we can all just have a play.

To illustrate this, think about how you might paint a branch of a tree. You could use a classical pointed watercolour brush and carefully follow a line to mark out the branch. But you might struggle to control the thickness of the branch.

Alternatively, you could use a very wide headed flat brush to create the branch with a single dab of the brush.

Use brushes of different shapes and sizes, twigs, bunched up cloth, sponges, palette knives, or whatever; depending on the medium.

There are no rules with mark making – only that you approach it with confidence – so best to just try out as many variations as you can. Find out what works for you.

Play with negative spaces

A brightly lit vase on a table with a dark background might be approached first by painting the dark background – the vase will appear out of the darkness.

This idea can we be used in different ways, even when doing a simple sketch. Wainwright’s pencil drawings of the Cumbrian hills often include sheep, brightly lit from above. So instead of outlining the back of a sheep, he drew the grassland in the background; a sheep then appears as the negative of the grassland.

Use layering / glazes

When a medium is translucent or thinly enough applied to effectively be so, one can build up multiple layers to create a desired effect. 

In some cases – particularly with pastels – the painting may need to be fixed before proceeding further to avoid muddying the colours.

Surprisingly, even when using a medium as basic as charcoal, it is good to think in terms of layering.

With watercolour, glazes can help to develop depth.

Just as an old piece of furniture develops a patina, a painting can also develop a sense of complexity from multiple glazes.

Thin and thick

In any medium, it is normally best to start thin and only later to use a thicker form of the medium.

In acrylics, this is very important (in oils also, but I won’t be discussing oils in this series); using a more diluted medium at first. But the same applies to watercolours where one starts with light washes on the wet side, and only later might use some gouache on the drier side for some highlights.

The idea applies to pastel painting also. You should use light strokes with the side of a pastel stick at first.

Minimal palette 

Try when working in colour to use a minimal palette. Primary colours and white at a minimum.

It is a great discipline to learn how to make one’s own greens, browns and greys. With 2 yellows and 2 or 3 blues you can make a huge range of greens, for example.  As with all rules, you may want sometimes to break this rule; a ‘sap green’ can be difficult to replicate and is useful for bright foliage.

By using a small palette it makes it easier to tie the painting together, chromatically.

One can always add a few additional hues to finish a painting.

Knocking back

Sometimes a pigment is too bright for the current situation, such as on a grey day in winter. By adding a little of the complementary colour (on the opposite side of a colour wheel), it dulls the intensity of the pigment you are going to use.

With watercolour you can also, of course, reduce the hue intensity by adding white gouache.

Use of resist mediums

A ‘resist’ medium is something you can place on the paper (or canvas, or board) that will not absorb the pigment being applied to the surface. This can be for a range of reasons.

A masking fluid can be used to precisely cover a shape that must remain white in the final piece, or at least, not be covered by whatever is about to be painted over the medium. The fluid must dry fully then be removed by rolling a finger over it. This is ideal, for example, for snowdrop flowers.

The other kinds of resist medium tend to be ones that are used to cover a line or area and remain in place. For example, wax or a clear oil pastel crayon. These can be used to create texture – when wanting to create some extra effects in clouds, or in some landscape or on a building. 

Alternatively, resist might be used to suggest gaps between trees or foreground grasses, or some other effect where you don’t want the background (usually white, but not necessarily so) painted over.

Wet and dry

Particularly with watercolour but also with acrylics, the amount of water used when applying pigment can have a big impact on the picture. There is frequently a benefit to starting quite wet and allowing pigment to flow a bit. This avoids getting hard edges too early in a painting’s development. You can also just drop in other pigments and just see what happens.

You may need to use a hairdryer at some point to allow you to move onto a new wash or glaze / layer.

Later on, it may be you need to do some relatively dry work, dragging a relatively dry and lightly loaded brush – without completely covered the area – in order to deliberately generate striations. In a watercolour, this might be done with water colour pigment added to white gouache, for example.

Dabbing, rubbing and scraping

Sometimes, it is useful to be able to partially remove medium in order to create a necessary effect.

When doing a charcoal sketch, the rubber is as important as the charcoal in building up a patina to develop the image.

In watercolour, a paper towel can be all one needs to instantly create a cloud in a sea of blue that has just be painted.

For acrylic, scraping an upper layer of pigment away – before it has completely dried – to reveal pigment below can be used in number ways, such as helping to suggest a line of trees on the ridge of a hill.

Flicking and spraying

No one wants to paint every leaf on a tree and there is no need to. Look at a tree painted by Turner or Constable and you will see a fair number of brush strokes for foreground trees, to give the impression of detail, without excessive labour, but only broad strokes for distant trees.

Modern painters will often use an additional technique of flicking or spraying pigment to suggest the necessary complexity of the foliage. It can be repeated for different hues to create additional complexity.

Flicking of white gouache, slightly diluted can be used to help suggest the froth of a breaking wave, for example.

It is useful to have a cheap brush with quite stiff bristles (such as one might use for applying PVA in collage; if not available, an old toothbrush will also do the trick), as this allows one to do flicking by merely stroking the bristles (rather than using the wrist), giving much greater control.

Consider the interplay of simplicity and complexity

As we have seen with use of layering, resist and flicking techniques, there are several ways in which to develop complexity, and the human eye is intrigued by complexity. 

That is why we prefer to look at a rusty corrugated tin roof to one that is pristine and uniform. Yet we also like simplicity. A perfectly  rendered blue sky, a flat sea and a wide sandy beach – with just a small sailing boat in the distance – brings a sense of calm.

In developing an idea for a painting we can observe this interplay of complexity and simplicity in the world around us, and then decide how we might render it.

Consider the interplay between precision and imprecision

The painter must choose where to put effort into developing detail.

Typically, the subject is given more attention and other elements of the composition are allowed to be imprecise. A photographer, when doing a portrait amongst a landscape, will often use depth of field to make the background loose focus, and in a way so is the painter, but with greater freedom to emphasise or play with this imprecision. 

It may be that one needs the woodland on the distant hill to frame the picture of the family by the river, but the trick is to be very imprecise in how it is rendered – less is often very much more.

Choice of paper or other surface

There is a bewildering array of different surfaces to paint on. 

Papers can come in different weights and also levels of roughness of the surface.

Pastels require some grain on the surface to ‘take’ the pastel. Watercolour paper can be smooth or mottled and it depends a great deal on how wet you want to work, and whether you find the texture a help or a hinderance.

You will learn about stretching paper, and about priming paper or board with gesso. 

For any single sheet of paper, you need a board and masking tape to secure it to the board. Whether you need an easel or not depends on how you end up working. Some artists work so ‘wet’ they need to use a flat surface to work on with the ability to raise one side to cause the medium to flow; this is a long way from the classic image of an old master with the canvas on an easel.

Ensure you have some cheap cartridge paper you can experiment with, so you don’t get frozen by the thought that ‘this board is so expensive I better make this one a masterpiece!’. 

It can also help to have a range of sizes, so try doing small watercolour pieces, before migrating to larger formats. It is quicker to get a result and also takes the pressure off you.

Whereas for charcoal, you generally need to work on a bigger piece of paper straight away; but a relatively low cost large format ring-bound sketch book (around A3 size) is fine for this purpose.

Mixed media

In truth, many painting use mixed media, although some more obviously than others.

For example, a watercolour may use a number of other media:

    • pens to resolve some features (but best used sparingly), such as railings;
    • inks to help develop greater tonal depth;
    • gouache to finish a piece with greater colour intensity, for flicking effects or for white highlights;
    • pastels to help develop a light glaze of texture – for foliage or other features – as a finish.

There are also numerous special materials that can be tried, such as liquid pencil, to create effects.

But there is no obligation to throw everything at a painting, and it can be easy to get carried away with mixing media.

A great artist like Kurt Jackson has developed his own brilliant style – a vocabulary that is special to him – and his use of mixed media feels unforced and natural.

It is always best to start simple and work on adding ingredients over time, as and when they come naturally to you, rather than merely including them to try to emulate Kurt.

Conclusion

These fundamentals are the things I have internalised from an intensive three years of learning to become an artist, with the help principally of my mentor Alison Vickery, but also some other helpers along the way.

In the following essays, I want to show how these fundamental are reflected in sketches, studies and a few developed pieces I will share, from my endeavours.

I often forget these principles, catching myself in an act of regression, and then have to remind myself. Alison’s voice is often in my head …

‘paint what interests you’

‘don’t get too fiddly’

‘work the whole area’

‘stop right there!’

‘put down the pencil’

‘is the tonal range ok?’

‘loosen up’

I call them “Alison’s Aphorisms”.

It takes years to internalise the fundamentals of being an artist, and even then, so easy to get carried away and still fall flat on one’s face.

Equally, as time goes by nice surprises happen. 

You find that you ‘accidentally’ created something quite good, and you scratch your head and ask ‘How did I manage that?’. 

Don’t be surprised, you are becoming an artist!

Gradually, the better stuff happens more frequently and the not so great become less frequent. The art folder gets fatter and the dustbin less full of discarded pieces.

But everything you do provides a learning moment. Keep some of the not so great paintings to remind yourself of how far you have travelled.

Keep asking questions; it worked for me when I was a scientist and as a consultant, and it is something I continue to do as an artist.

Keep experimenting, and keep asking questions.

Making mistakes is fine, because that is the only way to learn.

 

(c) Richard W. Erskine, 2020

Next essay in this series will be Becoming an artist: sketchbooks

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Becoming an artist: awakenings

This is about my journey. Everyone’s journey will be different. I am addressing those, who like me, have spent a long time thinking about doing art, but never finding the time or courage to do it.

How many people suffer from that debilitating idea “I can’t paint*”. This is often because someone told you so, or gave your confidence such a knock, you never quite recovered enough to try again [* paint, or anything else you would like to do – learn to play an instrument, be a sculptor, do maths, play the drums, or whatever].

Schoolchildren are expected to make a choice quite early in life as to what they want to be. At face value it seems reasonable to expect a student to start to specialise at some point, but the mirror image of this is that they must ‘drop’ a whole load of stuff that is valuable in life. Little wonder that in older age people often pick up on subjects they loved but did not have an opportunity to develop when young.

I chose to specialise in science, even before I was forced to make that choice. 

I’d happily freeze to death looking at the moon and stars through a small but much loved telescope, clutching my Observer’s Book of Astronomy (I think I may have had a 1st edition from 1962, when I was just 9). Geometry was my favourite subject. 

A little later but still quite young I had a laboratory, and loved to do experiments with bits of apparatus such as a Liebig Condensor, regularly causing a stink that required all the windows in the house to be opened to clear the smell.

I was never a rote learner. I always asked questions and challenged my teachers. I love the ability of small children to ask “why?” then why again, to never be afraid to ask questions. But it is also important to learn how to listen to the answers, to reflect on them and then to do work to explore things more deeply. This gives rise to more questions.

I wanted to understand the world and how it was put together, and went on to study Chemistry at university. To highlight my tendency to question things, there is a story from my final exams I want to share. 

There was a question about chemical bonding I didn’t like because of the way it was framed, so I answered it just like I knew the examiner would want it answered, but then wrote “However, I want to challenge the framing of this question, and believe the question ought to have been …”. 

I then wrote a second answer to my newly framed version of the question. The external examiner (Prof. S F A Kettle, I believe) was so impressed he told my mentor that he would have happily awarded me an upper first if such a thing existed. Nevertheless, I was very proud of the 1st Class Honours degree I did receive.

I stayed in academia for a while, doing a PhD at Cambridge and then a postdoc in Bristol, where I met Marilyn, who was to become my wife. 

For a range of reasons, I decided to leave academia in 1982, and worked in computer-aided design for several years, but for the final 30 years of my career up to 2016 I was an information management consultant, helping large organisation to be better at breaking down the information silos in their organisations, and be better custodians of their knowledge.

I enjoyed using creative ways to discuss and articulate problems. I never stopped asking questions. Clients liked my thoughtful approach, and the fact I didn’t try to ram software products down their throats (as had been their experience on the previous times somebody had promised to fix their issues).  In ways that I now recognise only in retrospect, my scientific and artistic sides both found expression in the way I did consultancy.

Throughout this time, I was always questioning myself, always learning from new engagements about other ways to look at things. Even when one thinks one has mastered a skill, there will always be opportunities to explore nuances or discover new variants of a skill.

Over my 63 years before I retired I had tried on a few occasions to learn to paint. Even at school there was a group of us scientists who showed artistic promise and the art teacher allowed us access to the studio to paint just for fun, not for any examination. And I have attended classes on watercolours 30 years ago, but it never went anywhere.

Meanwhile, one of the favourite activities that Marilyn and I enjoyed over these years was visiting art exhibitions, and we have numerous catalogues to testify to this. I was great at looking at art, but not doing it.

There could have been many reasons for the failure of my early attempts to develop further. 

I had a time-consuming and at times stressful job, involving a lot of travel abroad. Marilyn and I brought up two girls, and there were always too many projects (that, funnily enough, seems not to have changed!). In Bristol I was an early recruit to Scientists Against Nuclear Arms (SANA), and became its Secretary for a while. Writing and speaking took up a lot of my extra curricula head space (SANA later became SGR, Scientists for Global Responsibility, and is still active).

Since my retirement, I have become very active on climate change, giving talks and helping to found a group, Nailsworth Climate Action Network in my home town, which I am currently Secretary of.

Despite being busy with family – now with grandchildren – and home, garden, climate change, etc. I decided I wanted to have another go at learning to paint. 

Marilyn and I have for several years tried to stop buying stuff – we have too much already – and instead buy vouchers for experiences or classes. 

About 6 years ago she bought me a voucher for a set of 1-to-1 art lessons from our dear friend Di Aungier-Rose. Unlike previous art teachers I had tried, Di was very good at getting me to loosen up and not stress about what I was doing; to not obsess about colour and so on. To just have fun, and see what emerged. She imparted little nuggets of wisdom here and there, but without overloading me.  

This unlocked the first door to me becoming an artist, and gave me a boost in confidence. I knew from that point on that I had an innate ability to become an artist, even while I knew it would be a long journey.

However, the ‘3 steps forward, 2 steps back’ rule seemed to hit me. I got waylaid by climate change, sorting out my pension for retirement, etc. There is always a long list of things stopping us doing what we want!

Also, I was really hankering after learning how to use watercolours, and had a lot of admiration for the work of another local artist, Alison Vickery. So, a few years ago Marilyn bought me another present: to attend a batch of classes at Alison’s weekly art class, held at Pegasus Art in Stroud.

I will talk more about what Alison has taught me in later essays in this series, but the key point here was that I started to carve out a time during the week – every week – when I wouldn’t be distracted by the other things crowding in on me. Wednesday afternoon was to be art time. So even if I didn’t manage to do any art during the rest of the week, this time was sacrosanct.

I have kept attending these classes ever since.

Maybe that is the secret – and of course a lot easier when you are retired – to find a space to do your art. 

If you are very disciplined and no longer require a mentor, then it is perfectly possible to create this time and space for yourself. It may mean creating a Woman Shed or Man Shed in the garden, to get away from domestic distractions.

However it is done, you need to find your time, and your space.

You need to unlearn the “I can’t do X” gremlin in your brain.

Now it is time to loosen up; to experiment; to ask questions; and to rediscover the joy of learning something new.

(c) Richard W. Erskine, 2020

Next essay in this series will be Becoming an artist: fundamentals

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Keep Calm, But Take Action

How do people respond to ‘signals’ regarding their health and well-being? 

Some people will refuse to respond, such as these smokers I saw outside a hospital a few days ago (where I was visiting my daughter, thankfully now discharged after a nasty infection; not coronavirus).

Screenshot 2020-03-13 at 07.27.24

There is a large sign ‘Strictly No Smoking’, that is routinely ignored.

And what of people who read Richard Littlejohn and others, for years in the Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph, The Spectator, etc., railing against the ‘nanny state’ or ‘elf and safety’ ?

Large swathes of people are effectively inoculated against alarm, and will not respond to signals, even if a megaphone was put to their ear. 

These are the super-spreaders of denial and complacency. 

I am not talking here of professional dissemblers in the climate realm who make their living trying to undermine the scientific consensus. Those who write opinion pieces claiming, wrongly:

  • more CO2 is good for us because plants will flourish (Matt Ridley);
  • or claiming ocean acidification is non-existent (James Delingpole);
  • or that it’s the sun’s fault (Piers Corbyn);
  • or that we are about to enter an ice age (Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph every 6 months for the last 10 years) .

Like stories of Lord Lucan sightings, these lazy opinion formers simply dust off the old rubbish to serve it up again, and again. Year in year out. It pays the mortgage I suppose. And when they tell people what they want to hear – that we can carry on regardless – there is no shortage of chortling readers. Ha ha ha. How very funny, poking fun at the experts.

No, I am  not talking about these dissemblers, but rather, the mass of those who have been reading this rubbish for 30 years and are now impervious to evidence and scornful of experts.

And there is an epidemic of such people, who believe

no need to be alarmed, staying calm and carrying on regardless 

It is not just health or climate change, but is applied universally. For example, the  Millennium Bug was apparently overblown according to these people (having seen the code that needed fixing, I can assure you, it wasn’t).

However, those who deal with addressing threats are in a no-win situation: if they act and prevent the worst happening, then people – who are largely unaware of what is being done behind the scenes – will say ‘you see, it wasn’t a problem’.  If they didn’t act, then guess who would get the blame.

Yet when people do raise the alarm, such as when parents wrote letters complaining of the risks of the vast colliery tip adjacent to the Welsh town of Aberfan, they are often brushed off, and the result was a disaster that lives on in our memory (see Note).

Now we have the Covid-19 virus. 

It is no surprise that there have been many saying that people are being unnecessarily alarmed; and the message is the same – we should ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’.

It’s just like seasonal flu, don’t worry. It will disappear soon enough.

These are often the same people who rail against ‘climate alarmism’.

Man-made global heating will be orders of magnitude worse than Covid-19, across every aspect of society – food security, sea-level rise, eco-system collapse, mass migration, heat stress, etc. – and over a longer timescale but with increasing frequency of episodic shocks, of increasing intensity.

Unlike Covid-19, there will be no herd immunity to climate change.

But we have the ability to halt its worst impacts, if we act with urgency.

We cannot quarantine the super-spreaders of denial and complacency, but we can confront them and reject their message.

I wonder, as the mood seems to be changing, and experts are now back in fashion it seems, could this be a turning point for action on climate change?

Can we all now listen to the experts on climate change?

Can we Keep Calm, but Take Action?

(c) Richard W. Erskine, 2020

 

Note

There was a collapse of part of the massive colliery spoil tip at 0915 on 21st October 1966  The main building hit was Pantglas Junior School, where lessons had just begun. Five teachers and 109 children were killed in the school.

As one example of numerous correspondence prior to this, raising concerns, was a petition from parents of children at The Grove school raising the issue of flooding undermining the tip. This was passed up through the bureaucracy, but a combination of the Borough Council and National Coal Board failed to act. As the official report noted in unusually strong words:

“As we shall hereafter see to make clear, our strong and unanimous view is that the Aberfan disaster could and should have been prevented. … the Report which follows tells not of wickedness but of ignorance, ineptitude and a failure in communications. Ignorance on the part of those charged at all levels with the siting, control and daily management of tips; bungling ineptitude on the part of those who had the duty of supervising and directing them; and failure on the part of those having knowledge of the factors which affect tip safety to communicate that knowledge and to see that it was applied” (bullet 18., page 13)

1966-67 (553) Report of the tribunal appointed to inquire into the disaster at Aberfan on October 21st, 1966

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Thoughts on starting a community climate action group (a talk)

Good evening.

Professor Katharine Hayhoe, a leading climate scientist, and hugely influential communicator, is often asked:

What is the first thing I should do about climate change?

Her answer is simple:

Talk about it!

How on Earth can that reduce our carbon footprint you may ask?

On the other hand, it is a common phenomenon when climate groups start, that the first thought is often ‘we need to build a solar PV array on the edge of town’. 

I am not saying don’t do that, but there are big benefits to talking about it, and not rushing to build.

  • Firstly, if people are not fully on board with the idea that urgent action is needed to address global warming, then some talking will really help change hearts and minds.
  • Secondly, there are many different ways we can reduce our carbon footprint, and we need to push forward on all fronts. Don’t let the enthusiasm for one project crowd out ideas for other things that need to be discussed, and weighed up.
  • Thirdly, if we focus solely on technological solutions like electric cars, we potentially exclude a lot of people who are put off by technology, or cannot afford to invest in them; and would like a reliable bus service to be a priority! 
      • We need to build a much bigger tent where we discuss topics like consumption, waste, heating, public transport, energy efficiency and local food. Topics that will draw in as wide a population as possible.
  • Finally, by developing a wide perspective on all different approaches and potential initiatives, the group will be in a better position to call on community support for emerging projects.

Some will argue: but why is the challenge of addressing dangerous global warming being placed on the shoulders of householders and local communities? 

Surely, Government and big business have the resources and power to make it happen?

I reject the implied binary thinking here.

In fact, Government, big business, pension funds, County Councils, District Councils, Parish Councils, local businesses, householders – you and me – can all make a difference and influence what happens.

Ok, so there are some things that only Governments and big business can do. But ultimately, every product and service is – directly or indirectly – created for us. 

We have agency – we can decide: 

  • what we do, 
  • how we do it.
  • and how often we do it.

We can choose to car share twice a week; or opt for that staycation; or reduce our meat consumption. Every family is different, but we make lots of choices, intentionally or not; and every choice matters.

We started NailsworthCAN in 2016 around the time of the Paris Agreement. Our focus was always on practical action rather than protest. But action comes in many forms: engaging, influencing, networking, capacity building, constructing.

We have spent a lot of time developing the conversation with different groups in the community: with the Town Council, Church, Schools, Rotary, Transition Stroud, etc., and with our previous and current MP.  We act sometimes to lead, sometime to act as a catalyst, and sometimes simply to provide support to others. Hence the use of the word ‘network’.

We have run stalls, organised talks on diverse topics, and identified a range of projects. We created and distributed a Carbon Pledges sheet. We have met and talked with hundreds of local people, and we have recruited members with a fantastic range of skills and knowledge.

We have ran workshops to gather ideas on local projects that people are interested in across a range of topics –

  • Food and agriculture;
  • Mobility and transport;
  • Buildings and their environment;
  • Energy generation;
  • Waste;
  • Nature and the Environment;
  • Health and Wellbeing.

We have worked with the Town Council to help develop an outline plan across these areas.

One specific initiative is to conduct a survey of hospitality venues in town to assess current practice on energy use, waste, etc., and identify ‘wins’ for these venues, the town and the planet.

Another initiative is to develop a 5-year tree planting plan on council land.

And another is a community-led domestic retrofit scheme.

And yes, we have a few renewable energy generation schemes in the pipeline.

Each of the climate groups I have met has its own personality, way of organising, and methods for coordinating their efforts with their respective Parish councils.

Each has had ideas on how to push forward on different fronts, and all can learn from each other.

The great evolutionary biologist E. O. Wilson – when being interviewed on BBC Radio 4’s ‘The Life Scientific’ said:

“Humanity has Palaeolithic emotions, medieval institutions and god-like power, … and that is a dangerous combination”.

But I would respond by saying we also have the capacity to overcome our destructive power, and work collectively to reveal the positive side of our humanity.

Don’t be critical if you start with talking, then move to small actions.

Just don’t stop at small actions.

Small actions can provide learnings and help us move to larger ones.

Share and celebrate success, as we do on social and printed media. 

Small conversations can be the foundation for bigger ones, resulting in significant actions, and system change.  Ultimately, this is all about system change; business as usual  will not get us to where we need to be.

Remember, it is a marathon not a sprint, and like a marathon, we need to help each other stay the course.

I wish Minchinhampton every success as it starts its conversation.

Thank you.

…. o o O o o ….

Richard W. Erskine, Secretary of NailsworthCAN

Invited talk at the launch of Minchinhampton Climate Action Network.

11th March 2020.

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The Curious Case of Heat Pumps in the UK

Heat Pumps, whether Air-Sourced or Ground-Sourced, can and should be making a major contribution to decarbonising heating in the UK. Heating (both space heating and water heating) is major contributor to our carbon footprint.

Heat pumps are now incredibly efficient – for 1 unit of electrical energy you put in you can get at least 3 units back in the form of heat energy (a pump compresses the air and this causes it to rise in temperature; two century old physics at work here).  The process works sufficiently well even in UK winters.

The pumps are now relatively quiet (think microwave level of noise). They can deliver good payback (even more so if there was a cost on carbon). They even work with older properties (countering another one of the many myths surrounding heat pumps).

I even heard Paul Lewis on BBC’s ‘Money Box’ (Radio 4) – clearly getting confused between heat pumps and geothermal energy – saying ‘oh, but you need to be in a certain part of the country to use them’ (or words to that effect).

We clearly need much more education out there to raise awareness of the potential of heat pumps.

When combined with solar (to provide some of the electricity), they are even better.

So why is the take-up of heat pumps still too slow? Why is the Government not pushing them like crazy (it is an emergency, right!)? Why are households, when replacing old boilers, till opting for gas?

When we had the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, the UK Government undertook a major health awareness campaign, and other countries also, which largely succeeded. In an emergency, Governments tend to act in a way that ‘signals’ it is an emergency.

The UK Government is sending no such signals. Bland assurances that the commitment to reach net zero by 2050 is not a substitute for actions. In the arena of heat, where is the massive programme to up-skill plumbers and others? Where is the eduation programme to demystify heat pumps and promote their adoptions?

And where is the joined up thinking?

This article below from Yorkshire Energy Systems, based on their extensive research and practical experience, suggests one reason – that EPCs (Energy Performance Certificates) issued for homes and including recommended solutions – are biased against heat pumps.

The mismatch between what the Government is saying (that heat pumps are part of the decarbonisation solution) and what EPCs are advising suggests a clear lack of joined up thinking.

… and no sign that the Government really believes that urgent action is required.

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Increasing Engineering Complexity and the Role of Software

Two recent stories from the world of ‘big’ engineering got me thinking: the massive delays in the Crossrail Project and the fatal errors in the Boeing 737 Max, both of which seem to have been blighted by issues related to software.

Crossrail, prior to the announcement of delays and overspend, was being lauded as an example of an exemplar on-time, on-budget complex project; a real feather in the cap for British engineering. There were documentaries celebrating the amazing care with which the tunnelling was done to avoid damage at the surface, using precise monitoring and accurately positioned webs of hydraulic grouting to stabilise the ground beneath buildings. Even big data was used to help interpret signals received from a 3D array of monitoring stations, to help to actively manage operations during tunnelling and construction. A truly awesome example of advanced engineering, on an epic scale.

The post-mortem has not yet been done on why the delays came so suddenly upon the project, although the finger is being pointed not at the physical construction, but the digital one. To operate the rail service there must be advanced control systems in place, and to ensure these operate safely, a huge number of tests need to be carried out ‘virtually’ in the first instance, to ensure safety is not compromised.

Software is something that the senior management of traditional engineering companies are uncomfortable with; in the old days you could hit a machine with a hammer, but not a virtual machine. They knew intuitively if someone told them nonsense within their chosen engineering discipline; for example, if a junior engineer planned to pour 1000 cubic metres of cement into a hole and believed it would be set in the morning. But if told that testing of a software sub-system will take 15 days, they wouldn’t have a clue as to whether this was realistic or not; they might even ask “can we push to get this done in 10 days?”.

In the world of software, when budgets and timelines press, the most dangerous word used in projects is ‘hope’. “We hope to be finished by the end of the month”; “we hope to have that bug fixed soon”; and so on  Testing is often the first victim of pressurised plans. Junior staff say “we hope to finish”, but by the time the message rises up through the management hierarchy to Board level, there is a confident “we will be finished” inserted into the Powerpoint. Anyone asking tough questions might be seen as slowing the project down when progress needs to be demonstrated.

You can blame the poor (software) engineer, but the real fault lies with the incurious senior management who seem to request an answer they want, rather than try to understand the reality on the ground.

The investigations of the Boeing 737 Max tragedy are also unresolved, but of course, everyone is focusing on the narrow question of the technical design issue related to a critical new feature. There is a much bigger issue at work here.

Arguably, Airbus has pursued the ‘fly by wire’ approach much earlier than Boeing, whose culture has tended to resist over automation of the piloting. Active controls to overcome adverse events has now become part of the design of many modern aircraft, but the issue with the Boeing 737 Max seems to have been that this came along without much in the way of training; and the interaction between the automated controls and the human controls is at the heart of the problem. Was there also a lack of realistic human-centric testing to assess the safety of the combined automated/ human control systems? We will no doubt learn this in due course.

Electronics is of course not new to aerospace industries, but programmable software has grown in importance and increasingly it seems that the issue of growing complexity and how to handle the consequent growth in testing complexity, has perhaps overtaken the abilities of traditional engineering management systems. This is extending to almost every product or project – small and large – as the internet of everything emerges.

This takes me to a scribbled diagram I found in an old notebook – made on a train back in 2014, travelling to London, while I debated the issue of product complexity with a project director for a major engineering project. I have turned this into the Figure below.

Screenshot 2019-08-14 at 19.30.09

There are two aspects of complexity identified for products: 

  • Firstly, the ‘design complexity’, which can be thought of as the number of components making up the product, but also the configurability and connectivity of those components. If printed on paper, you can thinking of how high the pile of paper would be that identified every component, with a description of their configuration and connection. This would apply to physical aspects but also software too; and all the implied test cases. There is a rapid escalation in complexity as we move from car to airliner to military platform.
  • Secondly, the ‘production automation complexity’, which represents the level of automation involved in delivering the required products. Cars as they have become, are seen as having the highest level of production automation complexity. 

You can order a specific build of car, with desired ‘extras’, and colour, and then later see it travelling down the assembly line with over 50% of the tasks completely automated; the resulting product with potentially a nearly unique selection of options chosen by you. It is at the pinnacle of production automation complexity but it also has a significant level of design complexity, albeit well short of others shown in the figure. 

Whereas an aircraft carrier will in each case be collectively significantly different from any other in existence (even when originally conceived as a copy of an existing model) – with changes being made even during its construction – so does not score so high on ‘production automation complexity’. But in terms of ‘design complexity’ it is extremely high (there are only about 20 aircraft carriers in operation globally and half of these are in the US Navy, which perhaps underlines this point).

As we add more software and greater automation, the complexity grows, and arguably, the physical frame of the product is the least complex part of the design or production process. 

I wonder is there a gap between the actual complexity of the final products and an engineering culture that is still heavily weighted towards the physical elements – bonnet of a car, hull of a ship, turbine of a jet engine – and is this gap widening as the software elements grow in scope and ambition? 

Government Ministers, like senior managers, will be happy being photographed next to the wing of a new model of airliner – and talk earnestly about workers riveting steel – but what may be more pivotal to success is some software sub-system buried deep in millions of lines of ‘code’; no photo opportunities here.

Screenshot 2019-08-14 at 19.30.27

As we move from traditional linear ‘deterministic’ programming to non-deterministic algorithms – other questions arise about the increasing role of software. 

Given incomplete, ambiguous or contradictory inputs the software must make a choice about how to act in real time. It may have to take a virtual vote between independently written algorithms. It cannot necessarily rely on supplementary data from external sources (“no, you are definitely nose diving not stalling!”), for system security reasons if not external data bandwidth reasons.

And so we continue to add further responsibility, onto the shoulders of the non-physical elements of the system.

Are Crossrail and the 737 Max representative of a widening gap, reflected in an inability of existing management structures to manage the complexity and associated risks of the software embedded in complex engineering products and projects? 

© Richard W. Erskine, 2019

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