Last Monday I sat expectantly in my first watercolor portrait class.  I’ve painted before but somewhere inside me a little voice was telling  me it was pretty audacious to think I could paint people’s faces.

Nonetheless, I was confident in my instructor.  Her studio was lined with amazing portraits of people of many nationalities, ages and expressions.  If she could teach others, perhaps she could teach me.

As the lesson progressed I realized that not only was she talking about painting but also her insights were applicable to my passion, leadership.

Here are a few observations on leadership from my watercolor portrait class.

Painting and leadership are more about “seeing” that doing.  In painting you need to see the outline or contour.  In leadership we call this the big picture.  One way to draw the contour of your subject is to draw a continuous line all the way around the subject.   It takes great physical discipline to keep your eye on the outline all the way around the subject.  Leaders require great discipline to keep connecting the dots of the big picture and communicating the big picture to people who may not see the whole.

The other perspective you need in painting is to see the shapes within the outline.  The painter trains her eye to see each shadow as it’s own entity.  It helps to squint, walk across the room or turn the subject upside down and draw it without the benefit of the “left-side” of the brain interpreting what you are seeing.  Leaders need to be able to see the big picture but they also need to see the distinctions inside the work at hand.  What are shapes of the parts that make up the whole?   What are the relationships of shapes or parts that don’t touch, but taken together create something bigger?

Once the contour and internal shapes are established the artist must establish the hues and value.  Hue is the color itself.  Is this the right blue?  Is this the right project?  Are we on the right course?  Do we have the right market strategy? Next is value, which is the intensity of the color.  Artist can create beautiful pieces just my focusing on value (monochromatic painting.) Leaders can bring out the best in their organizations by knowing what needs more value and what gets less.  It is the contract and balance that creates the art…that creates the business.

Daniel Pink, in A Whole New Mind, says that for people to thrive in the future of business one “must understand the connections between diverse, and seemingly separate, disciplines.  They must know how to link apparently unconnected elements to create something new. And they must become adept at analogy – at seeing one thing in terms of another.”  He made this observation will learning to paint a self-portrait.

Lastly, as an artist it is always wise to chose a subject you love because you’ll be working with it for some time; likewise for leaders.  Choose those projects that capture your heart as well as your mind because you are apt to spend a great deal of your life staring at the subject.

My first portrait was a black and white portrait of one of my favorite subjects in the whole world…my grandson.   I hope you have as much fun on your next endeavor as I had painting Oliver.