Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Osprey and Goldfinch Prints in Progress

Osprey with Fish at Valley Green. Proof of multi-block Linocut by Ken Januski.

Experience is absolutely necessary in order to learn all that may be done with one's own instrument of expression, and more especially to avoid what should not even be attempted. When a man is immature he plunges into all kinds of senseless experiments, and by attempting to force his art to yield more than it either can or should concede, he fails to reach even a small degree of superiority within the bounds of what is possible... Only fools and weaklings torture themselves by trying to achieve the impossible.

And yet we need to be very bold. Without daring, without extreme daring even, there is no beauty...
Eugene Delacroix, The Journal of Eugene Delacroix, translated by Hubert Wellington, published by Phaidon Press, entry for Sunday July 21, 1850.

So ... to put it briefly, I hope I'm being bold and not foolish and weak by experimenting as I am with the two prints shown here. Above is a linocut that I abandoned about four years ago. It was based on a field sketch I did of an Osprey seen at Valley Green, along the Wissahickon in Philadelphia on November 15, 2010.

I stumbled upon it by accident recently. As I recall I decided it just looked too clunky and primitive for my tastes. But now I find something appealing in it so I'm reviving it. Out of curiosity I printed the image on the back of the mounted linoleum and carved away the pressed wood backing where the Osprey would print. I then used a rolled blend, something I've never tried, onto the pressed wood surface, not the most inviting surface in the world.

Well as you can see it didn't really respond well to being inked. And yet it did give some color, which is really all that I wanted, to serve as a backdrop for the black linoleum print. This is a proof. Most likely I'll do some more carving on the linoleum, getting rid of a lot of gouge marks and probably just print in one color, black. But only time will tell.

American Goldfinch on Thistle. Proof of multi-block Woodcut by Ken Januski.

I started the Osprey print today after printing the proof above for the Goldfinch woodblock. I'm trying to figure out how much of the yellow to keep. Since most of the first proof is yellow, whatever I carve away will stay yellow.

American Goldfinch on Thistle. Proof of multi-block Woodcut by Ken Januski.

Most likely the last printing will be the black from the first side of the woodblock. As I continue adding colors I'll need to carve away much of the black so that it doesn't overprint as it does here. But I proof it continually at points like this just to get some idea of what it might look like, and what I might lose forever if I cut it away now. Most likely there won't be much black left when I finally print that block on top of everything else. But that stage is still quite a ways away. One thing I would like to get, and I think I have it to some degree in the proof without the black, is a fairly bright print, just like my recollection of the goldfinch on the thistle.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

November Osprey and Butterflies

Juvenile Osprey at Wissahickon. Ballpoint Pen and Watercolor Sketch on double-spread of Stillman and Birn Beta Sketchbook by Ken Januski.

Variegated Frittilary at Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education. Ballpoint Pen and Watercolor Sketch in Stillman and Birn Beta Sketchbook by Ken Januski.

As I have written elsewhere on this blog it was walking off what seemed to me the disastrous election of George Bush as president in November of 2004 that I came across the first Osprey I'd ever seen at the Wissahickon, less than a mile from our home. Over the years I've learned that it's not all that surprising to find one there, most likely during migration. But it is far less likely to find them in November.

So each November I make sure to spend a little more time birding the Wissahickon rather than other areas so that I can keep that tradition alive. Sure enough Jerene and I saw one last week, flying 15-20 feet above the water and only 15-20 feet away. Since he was here and gone so quickly I didn't sketch him or take a photo. But we could see enough white markings on him to identify him or her as a juvenile. We had a more cooperative juvenile here in 2013 and I'm showing the pen and watercolor sketch I did last year at the top of this post.

Because we've gotten used to seeing them in November it's actually more of a surprise these days for us to find butterflies, excluding the still ubiquitous Cabbage White and perhaps a Mourning Cloak. Yesterday we did see at least one Cabbage White, flying dangerously close to one of the highlights of the day, a Fox Sparrow, one of two together at the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education.

But the highlight of the butterfly day was the Variegated Frittilary, pictured above in a ballpoint pen and watercolor sketch. My first reaction to the butterfly, without having really looked at the pattern, was that was a Great Spangled Frittilary. But as I read my guide books I saw that this was very unlikely as they mainly fly in summer. As I looked more closely I realized it was instead a Variegated Frittilary, a butterfly that flies into November.

That in turn prompted me to check another butterfly that we found in the same location in late November a couple of years ago. It was a Common Buckeye. Sure enough they also fly into November. But that was news to me! As I said I was actually more surprised by these butterflies than by the osprey.

Thinking about this convinced me to collect some of my artwork based on Osprey and butterflies, primarily those seen in November. I've added them to my Facebook Page. It includes these works along with 5-6 others, including an abandoned linocut of an Osprey seen at Valley Green along the Wissahickon in late November a few years ago. I didn't like the clunkiness of the print so gave up on it. But now I'm tempted to return to it.

As a side note I have to say it's hard to figure out how to use butterflies in an artistic composition. They in themselves are both striking and beautiful. But you really only see them in three positions: 1, with their wings spread flat, making for a very static composition; 2, with their wings closed, making for a slightly less static composition; and 3, in flight, where they are often too small to see. I'm new to painting butterflies but I can already see that they will be far more difficult than birds to work into a successful composition.

I did print the first color of the American Goldfinch and Thistle woodcut today. But it's light yellow on white/cream so not much shows up. Once it dries and I've printed another color I'll get back to posting on it. For now it seemed like a good time to instead celebrate the Osprey and butterflies of November.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

A New Woodcut and Surprising Influences

American Goldfinch on Thistle. Early State of Multi-block Woodcut by Ken Januski.

Whenever I resume printmaking there's a sense of excitement and possibility, as though I'm finally getting back to what I really should be doing. Since I've been involved with art for 40 years though and with printmaking less than 10 this is a bit surprising. Still it seems to be true. I do find much to like in printmaking, if you ignore of course all the technical problems that it is always throwing up.

A few months ago I did a watercolor sketch of an American Goldfinch vigorously tearing apart a thistle. I first did some field sketches and used those and some photos I took as the basis of the watercolor.

As so often happens these watercolor sketches eventually become prints. Who knows why this procedure seems to be comfortable and work well for me?

What struck me about the American Goldfinch when I saw it was the very vigorous pose. I couldn't help but notice the force that was shown in the legs as they gripped the flower tenaciously.

Perhaps because of all the years I spent doing figure drawing from life, and perhaps for a million other reasons, I've always liked work that shows the gesture of things. I've always been this way no matter how deep I might have been in abstract art.

And that's one thing I found that I really liked about wildlife artist Bob Kuhn when I first started looking at his work about two years ago. I've never been very fond of wildlife art, especially the big game type that Kuhn often did. What I discovered though was that what I didn't like was the clichéd big game art, not the portrayal of big game itself. Good wildlife art, as Kuhn's was, really appreciates the subject portrayed and tries to do it justice.

What was even more surprising in reading about Kuhn though and in looking at his work in reproduction is how aware he was of contemporary art. Most surprising was his use of contemporary art influences, most obviously painter Mark Rothko, in his work. He combined, quite successfully, abstraction and vigorous, realistic action.

That's the surprising influence I refer to in my title. His example always reminds me that it is possible to combine realism and abstraction in art. And he remains a surprising influence on my own work. Off the top of my head I can only think of one other such person: Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, the 18th century French still life painter. I don't think his work has ever knowingly influenced my work but I don't think I'll ever be able to un-digest as it were the quirt simplicity and beauty of his paintings. I'm sure that this is true for most artists. At least I hope so.

The woodcut above includes, at the moment, both sides of a piece of Shina plywood. On one side I'm carving the black areas, and on the others the colored areas, most likely, yellow, pink, perhaps a green and perhaps a blue. My current plans are to print the color as abstract shapes, as in some other recent prints, and print the black last on top of that. But I never know. Once a print is started it, and not me, dictates what happens next.

I wrote recently of being contemporary in your art. I think more than anything else it's the sense of improvisation that seems most contemporary in my work. This is not really good or bad, nor even planned or unplanned. It's just the way I prefer to work.  I can't say why.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Achieving Beauty Through an Infinite Amount of Pains

Hooded Mergansers at Morris Arboretum Wetlands. Watercolor by Ken Januski.

He[Corot] will not allow that one can achieve beauty by taking an infinite amount of pains. Titian; Raphael; Rubens; etc. all did their work easily. ..
Eugene Delacroix, The Journals of Eugene Delacroix, Phaidon Press, translated by Hubert Wellington, entry for March 24, 1847.

As I said in my last post I plan on continuing to quote from Delacroix's Journals as I continue to reread them. Almost every page has something that sticks in my mind and that I write down as something to remember.

But I wasn't thinking of Delacroix when I started the watercolor of four Hooded Mergansers, surprise visitors to Morris Arboretum last week. Or if I was thinking of him it wasn't in regard to the idea of working easily. Instead I was thinking about doing work that seemed more contemporary.

In my earlier reading of him today he mentioned how he thought that perhaps he enjoyed Beethoven more than his beloved Mozart because Beethoven seemed more contemporary, more of his own time. This is a theme throughout his writings. Of course I always take notice of it. What could be more anachronistic than painting and drawing birds, especially in a more or less realistic manner?

I'd answer, as Delacroix also does in earlier in his journals, that artists always feel that something that has already been seen and expressed has still not been seen and expressed well enough for that individual artist. So the old is new and vice versa.

Still I think he's right about the need to be contemporary, though who knows what that might mean today. Video is passé as is environmental art. What in the world is contemporary in art today, outside of a lot of hot air proselytizing about something or other? Worthy though the causes may be didactic art and proselytizing art has never preached to anyone but the choir. The rest of the world, and posterity, does not notice. Probably because it seems so much like what it is, preaching.

So when I think about being contemporary in my art, either prints or watercolor, my two main media these days I realize that by contemporary I mean about 100 years ago. In terms of watercolor, especially ones like the one above, I'm probably closer to John Marin or Raoul Dufy than anyone else. Neither are great favorites of mine, though I did like both quite a bit when I was much younger.

Watercolor can be the most constrained, the most obviously done with an infinite amount of pain, medium in the world. So much watercolor I see today is done in that style. My goal, less so in the sketches but very true in actual watercolors, is to get away from that to get some of the freshness and brashness of artists like Marin and Dufy. I'm not at all trying to paint like them. But I do think, based just on looking at their work not on having read anything by them about their intentions, that they also wanted to free watercolor from its bonds to what I would call the infinitely finicky.

It's for that reason that I chose to work on Arches Rough paper instead of Cold or Hot Press paper. It's a bit like painting on cinder block. It's nearly impossible to get smooth marks. But it's also impossible to be finicky. You have to be bold and hope for the best. That's what I did in the watercolor above.

I think it is a lot less beautiful than the watercolor sketch of the Solitary Sandpiper from my last post. But it's more expressive and more contemporary I think. I do hope though that I learn something from watercolor sketches like that of the Solitary Sandpiper and that it still comes out in a bolder way when I work more in the manner, a seemingly rough and careless manner, of the four handsome Hooded Mergansers above.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Never Seek An Empty Perfection

Solitary Sandpiper. Watercolor Sketch by Ken Januski
But when something bores you, leave it alone. Never seek an empty perfection. Some faults, some things which the vulgar call faults, often give vitality to a work
Eugene Delacroix, The Journal of Eugene Delacroix , entry for Friday, May 7, 1824. Translated by Hubert Wellington, published by Phaidon Press.
The first and foremost thing in painting is the contour. Even if all the rest were to be neglected, provided the contours were there, the painting would be strong and finished. I have more need than most to be on my guard about this matter; think constantly about it and always begin that way.
Eugene Delacroix, The Journal of Eugene Delacroix, entry for Wednesday, April 7, 1824.

Hooded Merganser and Ruby-crowned Kinglet. Field Sketches by Ken Januski.

The most enjoyable book I've read in the last few years, particularly in regard to art but perhaps on any subject, is The Journal of Eugene Delacroix by Eugene Delacroix. Today Delacroix is the favorite artist of very few I'd guess. He's certainly never been mine. In fact I don't even know his work that well. During the days when I spent hours per month traipsing through art museums Delacroix was not an artist whose work I stopped to appreciate.

And yet it really doesn't make any difference what you think of his work once you start reading his journals. Though I hate to quote the television blowhard Chris Matthews he did mention the other night as we switched channels watching election coverage that politicians seemed to forget that politics is a profession. Amateurs, and I can think of a few who lost badly recently, don't fare well for long regardless of their good intentions. That has been my most frequent criticism of the current administration: they don't seem to have the slightest idea that it is a profession and works best for you if you treat it as such.

Sorry for the detour. Once you leave art school, assuming you went to one, your circle of artists seems to get smaller and smaller. This is no surprise. It happens to everyone once they leave college as family and work become more important than old college chums. What Delacroix offers is a very intelligent, curious and active artist in your home day after day, conversing with you about art. Every day a professional artist comes in to chat. I don't always agree with him. And often he contradicts himself. That really makes no difference to me. What is important is that he helps to clarify my own thoughts about art.

I particularly like the first quote about an empty perfection. I think that this is a thought that stays with Delacroix throughout his life. It reminds me of what I call a licked surface in painting. Everything seems licked clean, reminiscent of people who do the final trimming on their lawn with scissors. Since my work never looks that way you can see why I appreciate it. But my work never looks that way not just due to lack of skill but more due to lack of interest. If my painting or prints tend to look too perfect I tend to do something to destroy that empty perfection.

But my main reason for quoting Delacroix today is the second quote, about the importance of contour. Delacroix himself mentions how varied art and painting are. It's easy to think of great art that doesn't care so much about contours, starting of course with the Impressionists. But for anyone who doesn't want to totally break up the pictorial surface, who wants to portray objects not just the effects of light, then contour is important.

Contour can also be cloying and help to create the type of empty perfection that Delacroix decries. But I think for most artists it can be a lifeline amidst what might otherwise be a chaotic canvas. To me Winslow Homer is a great example of this. His early work seems almost enchained by line and contour. But his later work, especially in watercolor, shows incredible freedom. And yet underneath the freedom you can always sense that the contours are there holding everything together.

So I've been planning to do some work where contour is important, even if it may end up somewhat hidden. Shorebirds are perfect subjects for this because they are often out in the open where it's easy to see their contours. Kinglets, as shown in the field sketch, are different. They seldom sit still so it's hard to see anything other than a fluttering ping pong ball. But even if you do their complex flight feather patterns confuse things. They don't follow the normal wing bars that you see in so many sparrows, warblers and other passerines. But in trying to get them down correctly you almost always force the focus from the important contour of the bird, the thing that gives it life, toward the relatively unimportant flight feather patterns. That's what I've done above. But I do expect to do some more work based on kinglets that I hope will notice their details but do a better job of capturing their form.

Because I'm enjoying my rereading of Delacroix's Journals so much I expect to keep quoting from them as I slowly read them over the months to come.

Spotted Sandpiper Along Wissahickon Creek. Watercolor Sketch by Ken Januski.
After I'd posted this I returned to looking for a new subject for a painting or print. Soon I found a number of my photos of Spotted Sandpipers, a rarer bird here than the Solitary Sandpiper but still one that I see fairly often. Since they can be confused, especially when not in breeding plumage, I thought maybe I'd contrast the two. But of my 30 or so photos I've taken of Spotted Sandpipers over the last couple of years one that has stuck with me is this distant view of one across the Wissahickon Creek against some of the magnificent rock formations that border it. I had hoped that even at this distance it might be able to identify the bird but I don't think that is probably the case. Still I think it is obvious that it is a shorebird, and knowledgeable birders will realize that only a few would likely be in this location. By the way this is primarily a two color composition: Yellow Ochre Light and Paynes Gray, with touches of a few other colors like Neutral Tint, Transparent Yellow and Cobalt Blue.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

A Volatile Ride With Watercolor

First Winter Chipping Sparrow in Pine. Watercolor by Ken Januski.

Somewhere there is a quote from Eugene Delacroix about the virtue and success of just pursuing your artwork, as though practice does indeed make perfect. I couldn't find it after a quick search though so this post will live without it. As I recall he was saying something like steady workmanship can be as important as high-flying inspiration. But don't quote me on that!

In any case that was my thought in pursuing more watercolors after the success of the Chipping Sparrow above. What makes it a success to me? The fact that it seems fresh, bright, unlabored. Those are the elements I think that make watercolor such a desirable medium to use. But I rarely get freshness, brightness and light.

I think that I always have far higher expectations for the watercolor than what I actually get so I immediately start reworking it, killing off all the freshness as I do so. The pursuit of perfection can be a dangerous thing. And yet art and life would be quite boring if you didn't keep striving. In any case that wasn't in my mind as I started the watercolor below. Instead I thought maybe I'd be able to continue in this fresh vein if I just kept at it.

Herring Gull Along Schuylkill River (The Day after Hurricane Sandy). Watercolor/Gouache by Ken Januski.

When I pull out white gouache to add to the watercolor you can bet that I haven't been successful in being fresh and light. Instead I've tried to whip the painting into shape, banging, hammering and kicking it until it does what I want. This is the way I always worked when I worked abstractly, particularly if I was using the very forgiving media of oil paint or acrylic.

I think you can learn a lot by struggling with a painting. Sometimes it will show in the painting. As Delacroix might say, the painting will have rigor. But it also might look constipated. I've done abstract paintings like that, ones that I struggled with forever ending in either defeat or a draw. So the finished product doesn't always look like much. Still I might have learned a lot.

In the case of the Herring Gull and roaring Schuylkill River the day after Hurricane Sandy came through I think the painting sort of works. But it is completely held together by white gouache. It does not use watercolor to its advantage but really is more like an oil or acrylic. The freshness and easiness I'd hoped to continue from the Chipping Sparrow is gone.

Hermit Thrush Bathing in Wissahickon. Watercolor/Gouache by Ken Januski.

With the mixed results of the Herring Gull it might have been wise to halt my watercolor explorations for a while. I didn't. In this case it really was more the local birds that forced me to it than anything else. On a fairly cold and gray day yesterday we were shocked to find one group after another of 2-3 Hermit Thrushes. Some were on the fences of horse stables, some were bathing in the Wissahickon, shaking off the water. others stood pot-bellied on logs along the Wissahickon, or at eye-level or below in small shrubs and trees and some just scuffled through the leaf litter. I've never seen so many Hermit Thrushes in one day. At a minimum there were 7 and more likely 10 or more. In any case I took a number of photos and decided I'd like to try to capture this one taking a bath.

There are very difficult technical challenges in capturing flying water in watercolor, unless you want to use masking, which I always think looks horribly hokey and contrived. So I knew this would be difficult.  Even just plain old flat water can be difficult in watercolor, especially it takes up a fair amount of the composition. Even anticipating all of these difficulties I still hoped I could make a successful watercolor.

To make a long story short I think this is the worst of this group of three watercolors.I had to use extensive white gouache. This is probably something that should not be attempted in watercolor. But nothing ventured, nothing gained. Hopefully the pose itself does capture some sense of the lifted wings of the Hermit Thrush as he shakes the water off. That in itself is a worthy goal, and I hope I've accomplished it. All in all it has been a very volatile ride with watercolor. But it remains a medium that I'd like to master, in one way or another, in one style or another. So I keep at it.

One of these days it's back to prints.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Not Loafing, and Not at SWLA Annual Exhibit 2014

Baltimore Oriole at Tent Caterpillar Nest and Black Skimmers. Thumbnail Pencil Sketches by Ken Januski

Black-throated Blue and Green Warblers and Bonaparte's and Laughing Gulls with Forsters Terns. Thumbnail Pencil Sketches by Ken Januski.


First things first: I'm never much bothered by not getting into the Birds in Art Show in Wisconsin each year. Sour grapes you might say but you'd be wrong. At this point it's hard to even want to get in. The catalog, which is all I've seen since the museum was closed the one day I tried to see the show, is so disappointing year after year after year that I've lost my enthusiasm for either applying or being accepted.

However I have been in two of the Society of Wildlife Artists Annual Exhibition in London, UK, in 2011 and 2012. Those shows I was excited to be in and would have been sorry not to have been in if I'd not been chosen. In fact I had no expectation whatever of actually being accepted. When I saw the video of last year's show, including the talk by David Attenborough I was doubly sorry that I hadn't applied for the 2013 show. There was only one reason that I didn't apply - the approximately $500 I paid in 2012 to have the works stored when they arrived in the UK until the official drop off days and then transported there and picked up again if they didn't sell. This did not include the shipping costs of about $100 each way that I decided I could live with. But a total bill nearing $1000 and no sales was just too much to pay for the prestige, and to me it surely was prestige, of showing at the annual exhibit.

But this year I decided to try again. The reason is simple: there is nowhere in the US that I know of where I'd like to show my work. Birds in Art unfortunately is not the place for me. I wish it well but my reaction to the catalog year after year tells me how foolish it is to apply. On the other hand every time I see works from SWLA members and from the annual exhibit it's like a breath of fresh air. This is a show worth getting rejected from. It is a show worth trying harder to produce work that will be accepted. I don't at all feel that about Birds in Art.

So to end this tangent I decided this year I would pay the extravagant prices to try to get in. That is until I learned that I now needed to have a Tax Representative in the UK in order to apply. I don't blame anyone for this. It is probably a necessary complexity of international trade and international exhibiting. But for someone like me it is just too much, in both monetary and bureaucratic costs.

Today I got an email from the Mall Galleries where the show takes place. That included two links to the upcoming show for this year. SWLA Browse and Buy shows work that can be bought online. In addition the SWLA 2014 Online Catalog can be seen at the second link. This is what wildlife art can and should be, at least to me. I wouldn't mind getting rejected from a show like this. The director of the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum, which inaugurated and has hosted Birds in Art for years, recently suggested that artists who didn't get in needed to just work and try harder. I think this advice was well meant but I think it's just wrong. Some types of art will never get in and I wouldn't be surprised if many of the artists who do show in Birds in Art would not be accepted into the SWLA or their annual exhibit. Unfortunately for me the type of show I aspire to be in is thousands of mile and thousands of dollars away, though I'm sure the reverse is also true and there are some European artists who'd be much more comfortable with Birds in Art than with the SWLA Annual Exhibit. It is a sad truth.

Now to my loafing. It might seem like I'm just not doing much artwork these days. I am spending a lot of time birding and in doing so looking for subjects for new prints and paintings. I've really enjoyed all the sparrows I've seen recently and in particular all the Purple Finches. But I've also been looking through photos and sketchbooks for new subjects. I always do this and it's a time-intensive process, one where even I think I might be loafing.

After you've done art for awhile I think that for many it is a constant change from contemplation and thought to work and back and forth again. Just working without much thought may work when you're younger but at some point I think that many artists don't want to repeat themselves and end up thinking about what they want to do next. But too much thought is bad as well, probably even worse, in that it can totally shut down an artist, like a deer in the headlights scared to go this way or that.

Recently I've realized that doing small thumbnail sketches of ideas that pop up as I look through my photos and sketches is a good way to not get lost in thinking, to work while also deliberating. That is what I'm showing at the top. None are finished works and weren't at all intended to be. But they are me working my way towards my next painting or print, the one that will be showing with SWLA in 2015. Well maybe........................

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Rich Colors of Fall (Birds)

Palm Warbler at Manayunk Canal. Watercolor by Ken Januski.

Yes, everyone knows, and the lucky few appreciate the rich colors of fall. They seem a bit of a reward for the cold grays and browns that will be here soon. But occasionally you also find a bird that takes part in the rich splendor.

Such is the case with the eastern race of the Palm Warbler. The western race is much duller. And the eastern race in spring is very bright. But there aren't too many more richly colored birds, outside of perhaps some ducks, at this time of year.

As I walked along the Manayunk Canal and Schuylkill River this very brisk but sunny morning I decided to take a detour into a junky field, once an asphalt lot I think, that is now dominated by wild chamomile and who knows what other plants. Burs of some sort because I always leave covered in them. And sparrows.

But rarely warblers. I don't think I've ever seen Palm Warblers there though this certainly is the time for them. In any case a good number of them were there amidst the very rich, orange, red, yellow and purple foliage. I took a number of photos and determined that when I got home I'd find the time to do a watercolor. Not a watercolor sketch this time, but a finished watercolor.

It is 7x10 inches on Arches 140# cold press paper. I'm once again reminded that I think a well done watercolor is without a doubt the most difficult medium in two dimensions. It is so easy to turn it into mud. I was afraid many times that I'd done that here. But I think in the end that I've gotten the rich colors of the foliage and the handsome Palm Warbler.

Before I'd even gotten my binoculars out of the back of the car when I arrived this morning a mature Bald Eagle flew by, over the Schuylkill River. That I think was an omen that it would be a good day for birding and for art.

Addendum. After I'd posted this I looked at watercolor again and noticed how much duller the actual watercolor looked. Part of this is due to the nature of viewing anything on a computer screen and the heightened brightness that occurs. But the rest was due I think to the drying of the watercolors. So this morning I scanned what I think is a more accurate, but slightly less rich, version of the watercolor.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Reconciling Naturalism and Abstraction

Dead Tree Along Kankakee River. Lithograph by Ken Januski.

The recent sale of an older abstract work, Chesnut Park Number 16, along with the completion of a watercolor sketch of a juvenile Purple Finch based on a sighting last week reminded me of how much my art has often fluctuated between abstraction and naturalism and/or realism.

In looking for a very old etching I did that married abstraction and naturalism to some extent I ran across the lithograph pictured above. I've never formally studied woodblock or linoleum block printing, my current printing media. My first actual study of printmaking was in the basement of the UC Berkeley Student Union, thus the name of my etsy store berkeleySU, and the subject was lithography.

Since I did strictly abstract art for so many years after getting my MA from Berkeley and only recently turned to naturalism I'm always a but surprised to see something like the print above. Obviously there is a realistic subject but I tried to hide it pretty well, concentrating instead of both composition and the process of lithography, experimenting to see what types of marks I could get. Still I did like the idea of combining the two. I hope that perhaps this explains a bit why I continue to stay away from naturalism that is particularly straightforward.

Chestnut Park Number 16. Charcoal Drawing by Ken Januski.

When I moved to Philadelphia around 30 years ago my first works were abstract charcoal drawings like the one pictured above. It's 23x29 inches and titled Chestnut Park Number 16. The entire series was called Chestnut Park, Chestnut because my studio was on Chestnut Street almost next door to the Ben Franklin Hotel, and park because I felt that my shapes were getting more organic, like critters you might see in a park.

I've always liked this work even though I no longer work in this style. Because I'm still quite fond of it and think that it is of high quality I also have some of it for sale on a separate etsy store, OldAndAbstract. I was happily surprised to sell my first work from that store just recently.

Juvenile Purple Finch in Dogwood. Watercolor Sketch by Ken Januski.

As I've said here more than once before when I got disgusted with the contemporary art world and could no longer see a viable place for myself in it I eventually turned to naturalism, first insects found in the garden and drawn while viewed under a dissecting microscope and finally birds, in about 2006. I quickly realized how little I knew about birds, even though I'd been birding for 10 years or so at that point. It has been a long struggle to be able to understand them and to be able to draw or paint them successfully.

Soon after I started I realized I'd get nowhere working from photos and that I needed to work from life in order to truly understand birds. Easier said than done but I can say that today I'm at least somewhat comfortable working from life. And because of that I'm also more comfortable working from my own photos when there's a compelling need. The small watercolor sketch above is such an instance. We rarely see Purple Finches in Philadelphia. But last Sunday we saw four at the Andorra Natural Area, an adult male and female and two juveniles. I have to assume that they were a migrating family but that could easily be wrong. I wanted to be certain of their ID so I spent most of my time taking photos and one sketching. But the image stuck with me.

I particularly was struck by the scruffy plumage of the juvenile above. So yesterday and today I did this watercolor and pencil sketch based on one of the photos. I'd like to do something that combines both adults and juvenile but that is a bit ambitious so I'm not sure when I'll actually take it up.

When I do though, most likely once again I'll try to reconcile abstraction and naturalism. Who knows what might turn up?

Thursday, October 9, 2014


Gray Catbird with Walnuts Version I. Multi-block Woodcut by Ken Januski.
Gray Catbird with Walnuts Version II. Multi-block Woodcut by Ken Januski.

I really wasn't sure how I'd name the post with the final edition(s) of the Gray Catbird with Walnuts woodcut. But the excitement of seeing birds, especially hawks, in flight today at Houston Meadows provided the answer: Flight.

I'm sure that there are many people who first get interested in birds through an admiration, perhaps even envy, of their ability to fly. I've never been one of those for better or worse, perhaps because I just have never seen all that many hawks in flight. But when you do see them soaring, like the juvenile Red-shouldered Hawk shown below, it is quite a sight. The sense of elegance, excitement, power is quite striking.

So I determined that I'd call the post Flight. I suppose it's a good thing that I'm happy with the woodcuts. Otherwise I might have needed to try something like Dive. But I am happy with the results so the title stays.

Juvenile Red-shouldered Hawk at Houston Meadows. Photo by Ken Januski.

As I said previously I printed on two types of paper, partially because I had a half sheet of Rives Heavyweight to use up. Once I started experimenting with the background color I decided it made sense to make the 12 prints on Shin Torinoko paper one color, yellow, and the 6 prints on Rives Heavyweight another, sort of gray olive. I've always preferred the yellow one but there's also something that I like about the more subdued olive gray print. Both images are 4x6 inches and the entire print is 7x9 inches.

They are now up for sale on my Etsy site(see link at right). I've also added some photos and an explanation of the process involved on my Facebook site(also in link at right).