Monday, July 21, 2014

In Case You Missed David Sibley's Free Library Lecture

Immature Wood Duck and Gray Catbird. Ballpoint Pen Field Sketches by Ken Januski.

you can see a video of David Sibley sketching that reminds me thoroughly of that lecture. The short few minutes in this video aren't equal to his lengthy lecture but I think are enough to  give you a very good feeling for how he works. I ran across it today and greatly enjoyed seeing it.

I don't work with the same goals as he but it's still very easy to appreciate his work and his discussion of his methods. I highly recommend it and recommend even more seeing his full presentation if it comes to your neighborhood. It's informative to both birders and artists.

Today, the day after posting, I did a bit of field sketching along the Wissahickon near our home. Since I hate to post without an accompanying artwork I'm adding this field sketch a day late, even though David Sibley had nothing to do with it. I assume no one will be confused.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Criminal Neglect of a Sketchbook

Red Admiral, White-tailed Deer, Common Whitetail and Great Blue Heron. Field Sketches by Ken Januski.

Soon after I started doing artwork based on birds I bought a Moleskine large sketchbook, large being just 5x8.25 inches. It's actually smaller than I'd like but it also fits perfectly in the back pocket of my jeans, something that the Stillman and Birn sketchbooks that I like so much do not do.

The two pages above are the last two pages from sketchbook number five. The caption explains the sketches with the exception of an apology for the White-tailed Deer. I rarely draw mammals from life. But when I found this deer staring at me from about 10 feet away, debating I'm sure whether to run or not, I decided I had to get down what I could. Seconds later he was gone and all I had was a vague visual memory to put down on paper. Unlike birds most mammals, at least in the face, seem harder to get in a sketch. As with humans the softness of the face is hard to get down with lines.

In any case I'm glad I tried. I also tried one of my few butterflies from life, a Red Admiral that cooperated by staying still for a bit. The reason I show these pages though is not to show what I've seen recently but to note how bad I've been over the last year about field sketching.

Much as I try to do sketches when I'm out I'm generally shocked when I look through a sketchbook and see the dates of the drawings in them. There are 96 pages I think. How long should a sketchbook like that last for someone who sketches frequently? One month? Two? Three if there weren't any vacations where I tend to draw more? The answer, on average since I began over seven years ago is 11 months!!

That is always shocking to me and works out to only about 8 pages per month or 2 per week. What's worse though is that the drawings above are the last pages of a sketchbook that took over 15 months to finish!! I'm really not sure why. Perhaps I spent more time on photos? Perhaps I spent more time in the studio working on prints? I don't know.

By the time I finished this sketchbook the other day though it was falling apart, the binding in tatters.

Eastern Phoebe, Gray Catbird, Acadian Flycatcher and Tufted Titmouse. Field Sketches by Ken Januski.

Yesterday I began a new sketchbook while walking along the Wissahickon in Philadelphia. Again the captions explain the drawings pretty well with the possible exception of that big, odd-looking Tufted Titmouse. It was harassing a White-breasted Nuthatch and I never got really good looks at it. So I put down what I could and then tried to finish up at home. Well that didn't work and that explains the white around the head and elsewhere. I used it to try to cover up mistakes in ink with white gouache. This happens almost every time I try to fix something once I get back in the studio. The only good part of it is that it generally forces me to go look at my photos or guidebooks afterwards to figure out what it was that I got so wrong.

Obviously neither of these pages exhibit the best field studies I've ever done. But they do remind me, and hopefully readers as well, of the virtues of having a sketchbook and using it quite often. It also makes what could be a relatively dull walk in the woods, at least in terms of seeing something new, a consuming adventure. Regardless of the fads and trends of contemporary art I think that there will always be a place for sketching.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Sumer Is Icumen In

Ruby-throated Hummingbirds in Backyard. Ballpoint Pen Sketch from memory by Ken Januski.

The confluence of the startling revelation that it is already mid-July, with summer half over, and my reading of The History of Western Music, 7th Edition, at least 75% of which is beyond me brought Sumer Is Icumen In to mind.

I first heard of it in my first college level English literature survey as I recall. Weird! And old, very old! It was mentioned in The History of Western Music as a very early example of English polyphony. I'm always pleasantly surprised to see that some parts of human experience, like the return of summer, have been celebrated for centuries, in this case almost eight centuries. You can find various sung versions of it with a quick web search. Here is one version by  the Lumina Vocal Ensemble. Unfortunately there is an ad to start it so you might want to quickly skip by it.

I enjoy the music, but also the notion that there is much to look forward to and enjoy in summer. We watch PBS Newshour  most nights and I'm always struck by the fact that one bad piece of news is always followed by one with worse news, one seemingly insoluble problem followed by another. It's nice to be reminded that there is also something enjoyable going on in the world.

In any case this is all a bit of a pretext for showing these two sketches from memory of two Ruby-throated Hummingbirds in our backyard over the last few days. We have no feeders but they feed on Monarda, 'Alabama Crimson' Honeysuckle, and just about every other flowering plant. And they are probably the most visible avian sign of summer.

Since my last few works shown here have been based on photos I wanted to get back to something in which photos played no part at all. The bottom sketch was done this morning about 24 hours after seeing this hummingbird. The reason that I can make a sketch from memory is that I've trained myself to spend a lot of time looking at birds. So when I go to sketch them from memory, even though I don't have much of a mental image in mind when I start, I find that as soon as I put pen or pencil to paper the memory seems to return guiding me as I draw. It's always a pleasant surprise.

The top drawing was interesting, at least to me, because I was reading outside when I turned my head to the left and saw a hummingbird less than two feet away. What was most interesting was that he seemed to have four wings, like a dragonfly or many other insects. Of course he didn't. But somehow the fast movement of his wings created that illusion. So this sketch tries to capture that.

In writing and thinking about artists such as Cezanne, Winslow Homer and others I've noted some of the things that strike me about their work. But one thing I think that I don't mention all that often is something that is unique I think to animal art and some art based on humans, e.g. Rembrandt's sketches. That is the sense of animation. So much wildlife art lacks it. This is no surprise since so much of it is based on photos. But birds and other animals move, they put some weight here and some there, they stretch this way and that. I think that capturing this can be one of the most enjoyable aspects of realistic art.

But today it doesn't seem very important in the art world. Animation has been left to the film animators. That's good for them but bad for art.

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Warblers of May, in Philadelphia, in Watercolor

Northern Parula at Carpenters Woods. Watercolor Sketch by Ken Januski.

Ovenbird at Carpenters Woods. Watercolor Sketch by Ken Januski.

May passed by in such a flurry of activity that, just like an eventful vacation, it seemed undigested. Like a good meal that was eaten in such a hurry that only afterwards do you actually enjoy it.

Such was the case as I looked through some of my photos from May. Such good looks at Worm-eating, Hooded, Prairie and Northern Parula Warblers as well as Ovenbirds and waterthrushes. Since I spent so much time trying to sketch them it's doubly surprising to see how many good photos I got.

I'd like to recommend the place where I saw them, an Important Bird Area called Carpenters Woods, only a couple of miles from our house. The reason I don't recommend it and don't visit much except in May and perhaps September is that there are so many loose dogs, even though it is illegal to have them in Fairmount Park, of which Carpenters Woods is part, without a leash. By May I'm so angry with anger at the dogs and their owners that I no longer enjoy being there. This battle, between birders and dog owners, is playing out across the U.S. When we first visited Carpenters Woods about 20 years ago we ran into a co-worker. When she saw we were birding she asked if we were familiar with the conflict between dog owners and birders. We weren't and were surprised by the question. Now it's all we think of when we visit.

But if you don't mind dogs running loose, scaring up rare birds, and perhaps ruining their nesting attempts then it's a great place to bird. It's been known for years as such and has, as best I can tell, declined tremendously over the last 10-20 years. But I say this only from hearsay not experience. Though we birded there 20 years ago we were too inexperienced to appreciate what was or wasn't there. This year though it seemed as full of birds as the far better known Magee Marsh of Ohio. I know it wasn't but if it seemed like it then who can complain?

In any case I was surprised to see what nice photos I had of some Northern Parulas, a beautiful bird that we see often but of which I have next to no photos. Nor very usable field sketches. Given the number of good photos I couldn't resist the watercolor sketch above, again in a Stillman and Birn 7x10 Gamma Sketchbook. My intent more than anything else was to get a sense of its striking colors as well as its pose.

Ovenbirds were incredibly visible this spring, both at Carpenters Woods and elsewhere. They are a thoroughly endearing bird, perhaps due to their cuteness, perhaps not. In any case we saw very many and I couldn't resist another watercolor sketch in the Gamma sketchbook. Luckily this year we've continued to see them in Philadelphia through the month of June. So though I've heard second-hand reports of a decline in breeding birds in Philadelphia, reports I've never really investigated, we're happy to report that at least some have stayed for the summer and most likely bred.

Eventually I'll get back to printmaking but for now I feel like trying to improve my skills at watercolor.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Northern Watercolor Sketches

Northern Mockingbird in Tangle. Watercolor Sketch by Ken Januski.

Northern Cardinal in Conifers. Watercolor Sketch by Ken Januski.

Since I wrote my last somewhat theoretical post I've been tempted to write many more. That's the problem when you get involved in theory. It's like quicksand. You keep sinking in deeper and deeper. Each theory leads to another, or to a different point of view, etc., etc. I'm sure that's why so often artists are given the advice to work, not theorize. So I decided not to get involved with theory again for a bit.

With that in mind I was looking through some of the many photos I've taken over the years to see if anything struck me as inspirational. I'd  also been through my sketchbooks without success. But I also noticed how very many of the prints I've done have been based on quick sketches. You just never know.

For today though I was struck by revealing poses of two birds with 'Northern' in their name: the Northern Mockingbird at top and the Northern Cardinal beneath him. Perhaps because the cardinal is so common I rarely take photos of him. And yet every time I go to sketch him, or her, from life I realize how little I know.

So occasionally I'll notice a photo, perhaps taken for that exact reason, that gives a fairly clear picture of the structure of a bird, from top to bottom, bill to tail and head to toe. That's how both the cardinal and the mockingbird struck me.

I also hate to just make a sketch. It's a never ending challenge to put a bird in a believable environment. So all the practice I can get with that, even if it ends in failure as they so often do, is worth the effort. In both watercolors I've tried to add the semblance of an environment as well as the semblance of a composition.

Both of these are done in a 7x10 inch Stillman and Birn Gamma sketchbook. I like doing pencil sketches in them and they're also strong enough to carry a few layers of watercolor washes, though usually I push them a bit further than their capacity as I try to fix mistakes. Still they are really perfect for watercolor sketches such as this.

I once was in a juried show that was jurored by a watercolorist. I had high hopes for my new watercolors but neither got in as I recall. It was easy to see why. They didn't stay within the lines. They didn't have clean washes, just as the sketches above don't. That's the way that the juror worked and most of the watercolors juried in were in that style. It's a very pervasive style.

I'd never argue that it didn't take skill. It does. But to me it also kills off the painting. Why do watercolor if you don't let the paper breathe, letting areas of the paper sparkle through? The most noticeable thing about watercolor is its transparency, its ability to create a type of light-filled paper that no other medium can. Anyone who studies the watercolors of the great American watercolorist Winslow Homer will see that he went gradually from the opaque, within-the-lines school to work that sparkled and rarely stayed within the lines. Guess which work he's remembered for?

As usual when I cite a famous artist I'm not claiming that I'm in that tradition. But I often find that they exemplify much of what I find exciting and admirable in art.

As I said I did these primarily to help me understand the structure of these two birds. So most likely I'll never do anything that uses them directly. But when I finally do a print or more developed painting that includes one of these two birds I'm sure that these two sketches will have helped them out.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Cezanne and Young Birds

Great-crested Flycatcher Fledglings. Watercolor Sketch by Ken Januski.

You understand Cezanne didn't know what he was doing. He didn't know how to finish his pictures. Renoir and Monet, they knew their craft as painters...
Cezanne's wife speaking to Matisse after Cezanne's death as quoted in Cezanne by John Rewald.

You'll be captivated by his deliberate and compact arrangements, the richness and novelty of his paintings........
From a brochure from the Barnes Foundation advertising The World is an Apple: The Still Life of Paul Cezanne.

Poor Cezanne. I might also have titled this post Cezanne: Eternally Misunderstood, and Undervalued. I've been itching to write about him but remembered his own comment about a contemporary artist he thought would be far more successful as an artist if he spent more time painting and less time studying other artists. Sound advice! It is all too easy to get distracted from art itself.

So I was planning to pursue my art work and not write about him and the marvelous book I just finished reading, based mainly on his writings and those of his contemporaries, by John Rewald. As I thought about what I'd want to write about these young Great-crested Flycatchers seen at Morris Arboretum in Philadelphia today however I thought about how common they are, at least for avid birdwatchers.

Beautiful though they are many birders don't go looking for them or quite a few other striking breeding birds at this time of year. The birds are too predictable I guess. Nothing new to check off the list. Nothing exotic. Cezanne exemplified the opposite of this. He painted the same themes around Aix in France over and over. As he said just shifting his view a bit presented an entirely new opportunity to paint. He didn't need the exotic.

That's the way birds are I think, if you'll just consider them in their environment. They present endless possibilities, a phrase that generally makes me cringe because I know most of the time it means the opposite. Cezanne though shows how monumental art can be made from the most common subjects.

Because Cezanne was so workmanlike in his methods, so devoted to painting and yet also so self-doubting it's sad to see that even his wife, though they weren't at all close, didn't see his value as an artist. And the Barnes Foundation shows itself not to be all that much better when it commends the novelty of his paintings. The last thing in the world that Cezanne wanted to be was novel. I can't believe their copywriters could actually write that and that they'd let it go to press. But in an age where advertising is more important than anything and truth less important than just about anything then I guess it's no surprise.

Still it was shocking to read, and has more or less prevented me from responding to their letter asking me to join. Sometimes you just have to stand for something, just as Cezanne did. It's difficult to think about joining an institution that holds so many Cezannes and yet seems to show such little appreciation for them.

In any case I'd like to say I show some sign of imitating Cezanne in the quick watercolor sketch above. I don't at all. I had to think of this when I read that sometimes he'd spend a year on a painting. This was done in 90 minutes. But there is at least the vague similarity of knowing that all of nature can be a never ending source of inspiration.

For all this though I haven't mentioned what I think is the greatest insult to Cezanne, that he is progenitor of abstraction and modern art. In one sense, the liberation of color, I think he was. Perhaps also in that his paintings often seem flatter than paintings that came before him.But he always used color to try to portray his sensation in front of nature. Modern art, of which I've been a long time practitioner, seems to like to forget about the nature part of the equation. He never intended, nor I think encouraged anyone, to break away completely from nature. He just sought to portray it in the way he experienced it.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Young Green Herons and Peregrines

Three Young Green Herons. Woodcut by Ken Januski.

Three Young Green Herons. Woodcut by Ken Januski.

I've finished the woodcut of the three young Green Herons seen along the Manayunk Canal. Or perhaps I should say I've finished part of the edition. I'm not making any more changes to the print but I may print more prints than the 24 that I did yesterday. A few of them had minor problems so I'm debating printing some more so that I have an edition of at least 30.

The image itself is 6x8 inches and the print with border is 8x11. It is printed with water-soluble ink from Daniel Smith on Shin Torinoko paper. It was carved on Shina plywood.

This print moved along more easily and more predictably than most, I think because I spent a lot of time developing the drawing on which it is based. As I said earlier I might still do a color version of it, most likely with two or three colors printed on another block and then this black printed on top. But for now I wanted to stick with this simple image, something that's a bit unusual for me.

So that explains the 'herons' of the title but where are the peregrines? As  I was printing this edition in the basement yesterday Jerene yelled out from outside: "Ken, come here!" That's always a sign of rare birds, or at least something worth seeing. So out I came protective blue gloves and all to see three Peregrine Falcons circling high above. What a beautiful sight it was. Neither of us had binoculars, or really the time to go get them. The peregrines soared slowly and with great loft but given their height and the wide circles that they coursed they would have been gone long before either of us got back outside with binoculars. But we saw them in similar circumstances last year and I expect we'll be lucky enough to do so again. It's something to look forward to.

Perhaps eventually they'll end up in a print of some sort.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Peregrines, Pretzels, Halloweens and Herons

Young Peregrine Falcon Balancing on Power Tower near Pretzel Park. Ballpoint Sketch by Ken Januski.

For quite a few years Peregrine Falcons have been nesting just a half mile from us in the steeple of St. John the Baptist Church right across from Pretzel Park. We only learned about them two years ago I think and have been extremely remiss in not following them more closely. If you must blame it on the half mile steep uphill climb that must accompany every downhill visit.

The climb can always lessen our motivation. But a close follower of them called us to say that she'd be there last night and so we walked down for a look. As usual I'd prefer to sketch them from life. But I couldn't convince myself to carry down a heavy tripod and scope not knowing if we'd find any peregrines. As is was two of the youngsters arrived though the other two and the parents had not yet arrived by the time we left. I took two quick photos and the ballpoint pen sketch above is based on them. In seeing them one thing that strikes you are the very large feet. When looking at the photo the very long primaries stand out. I intended to accentuate them here but I think I need to do a few more studies and sketches to get them right.

One of them was the youngest bird and as he hopped and flopped high in the towers with busy traffic below your heart dropped every time he seemed to miss his footing. But he did fine. Soon we'll be able to see peregrine acrobatics as the birds occasionally fly over our back yard shrilling calling in advance to alert us.

I still can't believe that we have such birds so close to us, and that we don't pay much more attention to them. I hope to get down next week to sketch them from life.

Three Young Green Herons at Manayunk Canal. Third State of Woodcut Proof by Ken Januski.

Above is the third state of the proof of the young Green Herons woodcut. I've decided to do one edition in just one color, black. After I finish it I may go back and do an edition with multiple colors. But for now I want to keep the stark and simple contrast that the print has. I expect to make just a few more changes before I print this edition. I do like it. And I especially like the fact that it incorporates a scene that we actually saw, three very young Green Herons.

Halloween Pennant Dragonfly at Houston Meadows. Photo by Ken Januski.

Many people consider Peregrines to be the perfect aerial predator. But others would say the same of dragonflies. I think it's probably true. Dragonflies are constantly active not because they're bored but because they're looking for live prey. And they will eat other dragonflies.

But when you see dragonflies such as the Halloween Pennant above or the Unicorn Clubtail below you don't think of predators, of 'nature bloody in tooth and claw.' Instead you just can't believe the beauty in front of you. I think that's particularly true of Halloween Pennants. What amazing structure, color and markings.

Unicorn Clubtail Dragonfly at Morris Arboretum. Photo by Ken Januski.

Though we do get good views of butterflies, dragonflies and other insects with our birding binoculars we finally broke down and bought some Pentax Papilio close focus binoculars which are made especially for viewing things that are very close. They are fairly inexpensive (around $100) and seem to work extremely well for butterflies and dragonflies. Recently I've had to rely on my photos to ID some butterflies and dragonflies. I'll still take photos. But with these binoculars it's possible to see detail in the field, both for identification purposes and for doing field sketches. One of these days my first field sketches will appear here.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Three Young Green Herons Woodcut, State One

Three Very Young Green Herons at Manayunk Canal. First State Proof of Woodcut by Ken Januski.

I've finally bitten the bullet and started something more developed on those fascinating young Green Herons seen a week or so ago along the Manayunk Canal. I did show a quick watercolor and pen sketch about that time. Since then I've done a fairly developed pencil sketch for a woodcut or linocut. This is based on that drawing.

I'm not yet sure whether I'll add a second woodblock with color. I'm tempted to due to the rich coloration of Green Herons. On the other hand I do like the stark contrast of this black and white print so far.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Drawing from Memory, and Photos

Unicorn Clubtail. Ballpoint Pen and Watercolor Sketch by Ken Januski.

When I first started using birds as my primary subject, about eight years ago, I realized quickly that my wife Jerene, who doesn't consider herself an artist, was far better at drawing from memory. This was most evident in her drawing of our cats but also in her small sketches of birds. This wasn't  a great surprise to me. But it did remind me that I've always been more skilled at drawing what's in front of me, rather than drawing something from memory. I don't tend to internalize shape and structure.

But I have gotten better. I think that's mainly due to doing so many sketches from life, where you really have to pay attention to structure, but also to working from photos, especially when I use them to help understand structure that has not been clear in the field.

The sketches below are all from memory. The Carolina Chickadee was drawn five hours after seeing it at Morris Arboretum as it brought a caterpillar to a youngster. The Eastern Towhee and Common Yellowthroat on the right side of page are based on birds seen at Houston Meadows yesterday, before the rain arrived. The towhee was started a few minutes after seeing it, then amended from other views over the next five minutes. As I recall I didn't do the Common Yellowthroat until I got home. But I was struck by the shape of the bird as it moved around and that's what stuck in my memory.

Common Yellowthroat, Eastern Towhee, et al. Pen sketch from memory by Ken Januski.

All well and good you might say, but So What!? I'm writing about this just because I continue to find the subject of drawing fascinating. And also because I think field sketching and memory sketching is a healthy antidote to the deadly work that is so often based on photos, and nothing else. So often there is no sense of a living thing underneath.

Working from memory I think helps to internalize the bird, or any other subject. The drawings above look a bit clunky. The proportions are off on the two Carolina Chickadee sketches. But next time I see one I'll look a bit more closely. Eventually I'll have an encyclopedia of birds in my memory. I can draw from that encyclopedia any time I wish to do a more developed drawing or painting.

The drawing at top, by contrast, is from a photo. It's based on a dragonfly I'd never seen before a few days ago. We saw very many of them at the Manayunk Canal a few days ago. This was the only one that ever sat still. So I was able to look at it and take some photos. At the moment for almost all dragonflies I need to take photos in order to ID them, though experts will tell you that even this is enough. For most you actually need to catch them and examine some details under magnification.

I'm not sure that we'll ever get that far. But they are fascinating creatures in appearance, history and biology. I won't go into all that here. My main concern is being able to use them as artistic subject.

But they seem to be even more susceptible to the constraints of photography than birds. How can you possibly see the detail without photos? Once you do how do you avoid putting down every single vein of the complex venation in their wings? As with birds I think the answer is to understand them well enough that you can internalize them in your memory, then use that to create a shorthand for rendering them.

I still haven't drawn one from either memory or from life. But I plan to change that this summer. In the meantime I've tried to keep a looser style in the ballpoint pen and watercolor sketch above.

As I was out yesterday I noticed many oak and sassafras leaves, particularly on young saplings. Especially with the sassafras I was tempted to sit right down and draw the leaf. They have a magnificent shape. That is another aspect of drawing that I can only touch on here but one that I think is very important, at least to me. Shape! It often seems to me that more than anything else drawing is connected to shape. And yet that is really not true for all art. Look at the more or less shapeless sketches of Seurat. So for some tone and mass are just as important. I value them. But I have to confess that for me drawing is primarily about shape.

I'll stop now but I do think I could write forever about drawing. And also, though so much of my work is abstract or quasi-abstract I do think that shape is at the heart of most of it.