Flow: One Painting, Eight Times

The same painting done eight different times.

One painting, eight ways.

Since we moved to Alameda last fall, a bike ride out to Alameda Point (and the decommissioned Naval Base) is part of my regular routine. Roughly a 7-mile round trip ride, it’s good exercise and I enjoy the strange isolation of the abandoned base, the wide open spaces, and the breathtaking views of San Francisco. Riding out there this weekend I was struck by the fact that every time I go, I see something previously unnoticed…an unusual building, a road option, a strangely worded sign, or a half buried railway track. This weekend it was the airport control tower, squatting at the western end of the base. How had I missed seeing that before?

My spurious powers of observation got me thinking about the value of repetition.  How much easier it is to find your way around a place that you’ve been to before.  How much more you notice on a subsequent visit. How much better a recipe turns out the second or third time its made.  How much more help you can be to someone new to a task when you yourself have done it before. And how much more I notice each time I visit Alameda Point.

Repetition is what I’m talking about here. Not redundancy. It’s pretty tough to stand up for needless duplication, boring drills, or mind-numbing recurrences.

Repetition, not redundancy.

Repetition, not redundancy.

The lesson took on a new dimension with a small water-color painting of a plucked flower, pictured at the top of this post. I sketched, then painted it. Unhappy with the result, I decided to try it again.  Better.  Maybe a third time?  Much better. Ok, so maybe I took the idea too far by trying the same painting eight times, but the resulting output was intriguing. It wasn’t a steady improvement where the eighth painting turned was the best of the bunch. Rather, some elements improved steadily – color blending, perspective on the leaves – while others (the sketched arch of the plant) were best in the earliest iterations.

It wasn’t the productivity or consistency sought in the automation of a process (such as the value of an assembly line) but there was a state of flow to the endeavor. My brain was fully engaged with the task and certain parts of it became easier and easier to do because I didn’t have to think about them too much.

Perhaps the most interesting part to me was the experience of inhabiting the process – dwelling there for more time than I normally would have devoted to it – which served up the opportunity to observe a range of possible outcomes.  There was comfort, even pleasure, in the recreation and insight to be gained.



Filed under Reflections, Uncategorized

4 responses to “Flow: One Painting, Eight Times

  1. You HAVE to put all those pictures together into one frame in just the way you have them in this post. Stunning!

    Since I’ve lived in several new places for short time frames (several months to a year), I’m pretty familiar with how my brain maps out the new territories. I think of it more like an expanding map in my head, or a jigsaw puzzle rather than repetition. Connections, sort of like in the Vygotsgian Zone of Proximal Development. We build up knowledge in overlapping and connected layers.

    Cool post!

  2. Perhaps enough of it has to be rote or familiar to be able to notice smaller things, differences, or changes?

  3. Louise

    The points you make about repetition leading to deepening observation, insight and “flow” remind me of an exhibit on Thoreau currently at the Concord Museum. His journals contain such detailed observations of natural events – when the birds returned in the spring, the dates that different plants flowered, the thawing of the ice on Walden Pond – over many years – that they are now an invaluable resource to modern scientists trying to understand climate change. His contemporaries marveled at his observation skills, honed my walking the same woods and fields every day for a lifetime. As Thoreau famously phrased it, “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.”
    The tagline for the museum exhibit is “Be Thoreau” – encouraging us all to become citizen scientists. It certainly has made me reflect on the value of taking the time to “see” and experience the world around me — and repetition, iterative explorations, is key to that kind of learning and appreciation – whether you are exploring an abandoned naval base in Alameda or Walden Woods in Concord.

    • rheyden

      What a lovely line to draw, between Thoreau and the value in repetition. Iterative experience really is such an underrated approach! I’d forgotten that Thoreau quote…. how completely perfect.

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