Putting Engineering Practice into Art

engineering notebook lessons learned peach blossoms record keeping for artists

Documenting Color:

As I return to a daily practice of painting, a time luxury I have not had for many years, I return to art a changed person. In the years since I last painted regularly I have developed routines about how I approach my work.

One of the lessons I learned from my career as a Materials and Processes Engineer is to document my actions. In my research at work, every detail gets recorded in notebooks or spreadsheets for record keeping and analysis. Now that engineering is only a small role in my life (adjunct instructor) I find that the data driven side of me wants to play a part in the art that I am making everyday. 

I have found the process of recording my successes and failures in my artwork to be so useful that I want to challenge you to maintain your own personal notebook of lessons learned. You might be pleasantly surprised.

Engineering Notebook for Painting Colors

In engineering we refer to “lessons learned” as the experiences that are recorded to be passed down to teams as improvements or best practice moving forward. I was introduced to this concept when I worked as a subcontractor for NASA in New Orleans. They keep what they call a NASA Lessons Learned system and anyone can search their database. If you have a free hour (or ten) you can check it out at NASA.gov. You will be captivated; I can get lost in this database for hours. 

A simple but impactful example of an engineering lesson learned might be to use a specific material for a task. This might be noticed in a research and development setting first or simply an observation from years of practice. Once the benefit is recognized, the parameters are defined and the lesson is recorded and shared. 

I worked for a company that taught people to use a certain type of bag adhesive during manufacture and a different type when the part was cured. It worked well so no one questioned it. This company had the benefit of many people that had decades on the job. They had incorporated their own lessons learned into the procedures over the years passed down simply as tribal knowledge. Years later I worked for a much younger company that allowed for the option of using either of the adhesives at any time. When a manufacturing engineer complained to me about losing bags during cure I asked him which bag adhesive he was using for cures. He was using the one we had only used during manufacturing at my previous job (the loss of a bag during cure can result in scrapping a part that costs tens of thousands of dollars). I suggested to him that he always use the other tape option during cure and a year later he reported to me that they had not lost a bag since making the change. It was a lesson I had not even realized I had learned until I saw the problem that was prevented by following the established practice of my previous job.

With many engineering programs, improvements have a very painful and slow path finding their way into standard operating procedures because testing (and more testing) is required to prove out the superior performance and/or cost savings. This can take months or even years. Imagine my excitement knowing that if I find a better way of doing something today, I can incorporate it into my practice tomorrow! This might sound obvious to any “maker” but after years of being stifled by the paperwork required to make changes, this feels like a revelation to me.

Peach Blossoms, work in progress

To satisfy my craving for using data in my artwork, I record and document my painting in a way I never considered doing in art school. So I started an engineering notebook for my paintings to record color, binder ratio, treatments to the canvas or fabric and techniques. I have found these notes to be an important record to have in order for me to improve my colorist skills and exploit my materials.

This has helped me most recently in discovering color combinations I like with light and shade. I generally experiment with these in chalk pastel knowing I can erase or add colors easily. It is more tedious to change colors in a painting so recording the combinations that work for me in a painting saves me time. I am also painting with a toddler often in my shadow so I have constant interruptions. If I record my colors, it is much easier to pick up where I left off. Simply put, I have found my engineering notebook to be priceless for improving my painting efficiency.

Engineering Notebook for Paint Colors

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