Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Comparative Success Rate in Prints and Watercolors

Seaside Sparrow and Marsh Wren at Jake's Landing. Watercolor and Brush Pen Painting by Ken Januski.

An odd title for a blog on art right? It sounds more like some sort of scientific study. But I was knocked over the head by my high failure rate with watercolors when I looked through all of my old ones in preparation for a small sidewalk show at Morris Arboretum on June 19, 2016. I plan to mainly show my linocuts and woodcuts but thought I should show some watercolors too, especially since so many have been based on birds and/or dragonflies seen at Morris.

Unlike many artists I don't rip up unsuccessful paintings and prints part way through in utter disgust. But it's easy to understand the impulse. Sometimes things just go horribly wrong on the way from intent to finished art work. As I looked through my storage box of watercolors though I realized that about 90% still looked bad. There were at least 125 of them and that doesn't include the 100s of additional watercolor sketches, works that were more quickly done with less focus on the finished product. I was tempted to ask why I continue with watercolor.

At the same time I'd been going through all of my linocuts and woodcuts. Though there were a few that were very disappointing, often where my ambition far outstripped my abilities the vast majority were successful. At least to me it looks like I know what I'm doing with prints whereas that's often not the case with watercolor, especially when I try to do a more expressive and spontaneous watercolor.

But that is in fact the rub. Watercolor when done well is one of the most expressive media, especially when it comes to light and the sense of fluidity and spontaneity. Trying to get some of that keeps drawing me back in spite of my numerous disappointments.

That said I'm always looking for a personal way to use watercolor, just as I do with printmaking. The recent works on this page are two examples. Above is a sumi brush pen and watercolor painting of a Seaside Sparrow and Marsh Wren both seen at Jakes Landing near Cape May, NJ over the last two Mays. Below is another painting using the same media. It shows four very active American Oystercatchers seen at 'The Meadows' in Cape May last week.

American Oystercatchers at 'The Meadows'. Watercolor and Brush Pen Painting by Ken Januski.

Both of these paintings are very loosely done, and due to a large extent to all the lines from the brush pen, look somewhat cartoonish. For many viewers I'm sure that this detracts from their appeal. Where is the detail, where is the subtlety? Well the fact is I just don't enjoy that type of work, certainly in my own work, though I can enjoy it in others. I'm not sure exactly what I'm doing here but I think some of it comes from a desire to show the liveliness of both the birds and their environment, to show a sense of animation, just as you see in many cartoons. Additionally this method and these media seem to lend themselves to studies for prints. So I think eventually some of this type of work will end up as a linocut or woodcut. And my guess is that, at least to me, they will seem successful.

Friday, May 6, 2016

One Good Thrush Deserves Another

Veery in the Wissahickon. Watercolor Sketch by Ken Januski.

I've written before about the simple pleasure of watching nature unfold in a more or less predictable manner. One bird follows another more or less, in returning to the area, either to stay and breed or to move further north for breeding.

The first thrush, outside of the American Robin, is the Hermit Thrush. It too can be here during the winter so it's not really the first migrant thrush. That honor generally goes to the Wood Thrush, pictured below in a pencil and watercolor sketch of a Wood Thrush seen in the last week or so.

Soon after the Wood Thrush comes the Veery, which will also breed here like the Wood Thrush. It is pictured above. I finished this pencil and watercolor sketch today based on some photos I took yesterday. The Veeries had been calling but not showing themselves for the previous 2-3 days.

Wood Thrush in the Wissahickon. Watercolor Sketch by Ken Januski.

Along with the predictable arrival of wildlife is the predictable arrival of wildflowers and flowering shrubs. You can bet that when you see the beautiful Pinkster Azalea in bloom that Wood Thrush and Veery will be very close by. It would make an absolutely prototypical woodland scene if I were to paint or print a Pinkster Azalea with a Wood Thrush or Veery nearby.

Pinkster Azalea in Bloom in the Wissahickon Valley. Photo by Ken Januski.

In the past people have experienced the opposite, flora and fauna not appearing when they should or in the numbers that they should. Occasionally this happens and it's often an unpleasant sign of something wrong in the environment. I hate to see the day when I'll live through such an experience. At the moment there are a reasons to be optimistic: Bald Eagles, Osprey and Peregrines are almost plentiful around here after drastic declines. But in grassland areas, with which I'm not that familiar, there are great declines. Only time will tell if people here and around the world will continue to care about nature and its preservation.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

First Shorebirds of Spring

Solitary Sandpiper at Morris Arboretum. Watercolor Sketch by Ken Januski.

Spotted Sandpiper at Manayunk Canal. Watercolor Sketch by Ken Januski.

This time of year it's easy to be totally distracted by the often brief appearance of the neo-tropical migrants, like warblers, orioles, etc. Often they also are very boldly colored in yellow, red, orange, blue, etc. The shorebirds are less common, unless you live near the right body of water, or shoreline. And often they are around a bit longer.

And of course they are easier to see. If you're an artist it's a thrill to be able to see the entire bird, not just a wingbar, or a partial face. I think that's one reason I like seeing them and sketching and painting them. But they also offer an artistic challenge. Their shape, markings and colors are subtle. As I've mentioned many times I'm not to concerned with capturing the subtlety of markings, most of which aren't visible to the naked eye except with the help of optics. But shape is always there, and it is subtle.

We used to have the hardest time differentiating Spotted and Solitary Sandpipers with their large eyerings and bobbing tails. But over time it has become easy. The Solitary is so much more fragile and elegant looking. The Spotted is often clunky and ungainly. So I enjoy trying to get that difference down, even in these quick pencil and watercolor sketches(based on photos I took). For all the ungainliness of the Spotted though I think it is my favorite, if I were to actually have to choose between these two most welcome visitors.

And I should add, that I didn't title this 'First Shorebirds of 2016'. The reason for that is that the Killdeer is here even during winter.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

A Busy Time of the Year

Falling, Fighting Blue-Gray Gnatcatchers. Sumi Brush Pen and Watercolor Sketch by Ken Januski.

April is such an extraordinary time of year, and currently my favorite month of the year. The warmth of spring and summer is there but most mornings start off cool, brisk and invigorating. Bird, butterflies, insects and flowers, among others are arriving, departing, flowering or in some other way being fascinating to observe.

Because of this time spent indoors seems wasted and it's difficult to get much artwork done. I have done a few field sketches, but very few and very brief. A couple of an Osprey eating a fish are further down the page.

Often this time of year I take photos but they can also be a distraction where time spent fiddling with the camera means any chance of actually seeing something has disappeared. Such was the case with the blue, gray, black and white mass falling from the trees like a mis-colored Sycamore leaf along the Wissahickon a week or so ago. It floated like a large leaf, slowly twisting in the wind, until that is it hit the ground in a flurry of activity and dust. It was two Blue-gray Gnatcatchers fighting. The experience lasted just a second or two, from drifting drop to dusty departure. I did grab for my camera as they landed but they were gone instantly.

Still such an experience is unique, or certainly rare and I wanted to portray it. Eventually I did so, working almost solely from my imagination in the sumi brush pen and watercolor sketch above. Eventually I may make a print based on it.

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. Photo by Ken Januski.

A few days earlier I decided to try to do a watercolor which captures the subtle colors and shapes of a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. The occasion for this was one of the best photos I've ever taken of these hyperactive birds. But subtlety can easily turn to mud, especially with watercolors, and I came close to that here. Only some coloristic touchups a day later I think salvaged it.

Osprey Eating Fish at Morris Arboretum. Sumi Brush Pen Field Sketch by Ken Januski.

The two images at top show two different ways of making art out of birds and bird experiences. Immediately above these quick sumi brush pen sketches done from life show another. I like them but think I need to start using a bigger sketchbook and more time. Hopefully this will lead to more developed work in the field.

First of Year Louisiana Waterthrush Along Wissahickon. Watercolor Sketch by Ken Januski.

Finally another way to celebrate/illustrate a bird or bird experience. This really is more typical of me: a quick watercolor and pencil sketch done soon after seeing a bird, in this case the first Louisiana Waterthrush of the year, and based on a photo I took. Though the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher was also based on a photo it was a larger, more finished work and fairly unusual for me.

These have been the main artworks I've done over the last few weeks, since the end of the last woodcut, and excluding some abysmal failures.  But there has been plenty to see outside. Below you can see some of the many photos I've taken of birds seen recently, the ones that are currently distracting me from doing much actual artwork.

Diving American Kestrel. Photo by Ken Januski.

First of year American Redstart. Photo by Ken Januski.

Bald Eagle over Walnut Lane Golf Course. Photo by Ken Januski.

Eastern Towhee at Andorra Natural Area. Photo by Ken Januski.

Palm Warbler at Morris Arboretum. Photo by Ken Januski.

Yellow-rumped Warbler at Morris Arboretum. Photo by Ken Januski.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Happy Easter/Spring/Whatever 2016

Cottontail Rabbit at 'The Meadows' of Cape May.Watercolor by Ken Januski.

It seems that rabbits have always, at least in my experience, been associated with Easter. They also play a big part in much wildlife art, especially British wildlife art from what I can tell. I've often wanted to use them as the subject for a painting or print but every time I see one in the wild they are gone before I've put down more than a few lines of a sketch or taken a largely out of focus photo.

Nonetheless I decided to try this one yesterday. I posted the result on my Ken Januski Artist Facebook page and then shared it elsewhere. One comment  on the share, well intended I'm sure, liked the drawing but suggested that watercolor was a difficult medium and perhaps I'd prefer colored pencils or pastel.

But I consider this one of my most successful watercolors. I'll let the viewer guess why. One thing I can say is that I've always hated color pencils. They seem to reinforce the idea of coloring between the lines and perhaps even worse mistaking the surface of a bird, animal or anything as somehow representative of that living, breathing thing. Though I wish my grasses and background had a bit more substance here, I love the rabbit. It looks like a rabbit, a nanosecond away from bolting, but made of patches and marks of color that don't at all look like the exterior of a rabbit and yet from a distance resolve into a believable representation. To me that is part of the magic of painting. And it's something you never ever see in the eminently safe method of colored pencils. I'm sure someone somewhere has made exciting lively art using colored pencils, but I surely can't recall seeing any.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Finished Woocut, 1000 Year Old Painting

Black-crowned Night Heron, Short-billed Dowitcher and Greater Yellowlegs. Woodcut by Ken Januski.


I finally finished the woodcut of a Black-crowned Night Heron, Short-billed Dowitcher and Greater Yellowlegs. It is 4x6 inches, printed with Daniel Smith water soluble ink on Shin Torinoko paper. The edition started at 12, but has dwindled to between 6 and 9 due to sloppy mistakes on my part.

As I was finishing this and also looking at other prints and wildlife art I realized that where many artists devote their energy to a finish of detail(wildlife art) or technique(printmaking) my energy instead goes into more formal aspects, composition, color, tone, etc. I think I also have a greater concern for how birds actually behave physically, i.e. where their weight is distributed, how they move, etc. than many wildlife artists who instead devote a lot of time and energy to detail.

Part of what got me thinking about the sense of movement and weight of animals was my skimming of the relatively new book on Bob Kuhn  Drawing on Instinct. He seems to actually feel the weight, balance and movement of the animals he portrays. This may be a bit easier with big animals like lions than with small ones like birds but I suspect he's just as successful with birds. One other artist who has at least one reproduction in the book is Karl Rungius. Again he is a master of understanding the weight, almost the presence of animals. Surprisingly a contemporary wildlife artist who I think also is very successful with this is Harriet Mead, currently President of the Society of Wildlife Artists. Her somewhat abstract found object metal sculptures of a variety of animals and birds always have a sense of connection with the living, moving subject, even though done with various bits of found metal objects. They are striking in their believability.

I'm of course not comparing myself to any of these. But I do think that I'd rather get at least some sense of the physical empathy they have for the subjects that they portray than waste my time on details. For many wildlife artists I'm sure this seems like sacrilege. But for me it's as necessary as air.


Along with the finished woodcut I wanted to show a photo of a Chinese painting that is nearly 1000 years old. It was painted by Cui Bai in 1061. It seems particularly fitting for Easter weekend:
Cui Bai - Magpies and Hare

It is amazing to see such strong wildlife art from almost 1000 years ago.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

A New Woodcut, a New Bird or Two

Black-crowned Night Heron, Greater Yellowlegs and Short-billed Dowitcher. Woodcut proof by Ken Januski.

I can't remember how long it's been since I last printed but it must be six months or more. The oddest thing about this is that I got a new brayer and baren towards the end of 2015. You'd think I'd be eager to use them. Well I was but I just didn't have any ideas for prints.

I've been looking at photos and sketchbooks for 2-4 weeks now and finally decided on a small 4x6 inch woodcut of this grouping of birds, first seen at Forsythe NWR quite a few years ago. I always liked the lurking night heron and the oddball dowitcher amidst all of the yellowlegs.

I've mentioned many times that I never plan out my prints, unlike so many prints that I see. I can't say that this is good or bad. But I know such planning is beyond me. In any case once I get going with a print I remember how enjoyable it is to go through the process of carving, proofing, more carving, more proofing, etc. There's always a great anticipation of seeing how the print will develop.

Given that this print is only 4x6 inches I really can't do much in the way of detail. So it is probably nearing completion. I'll most likely print an edition just in black. But after that I may eventually do an edition that also includes some color on the reverse side of this block.

Eastern Phoebe. Photo by Ken Januski.

Along with my first print of 2016 I'm also seeing some first birds of 2016. Above is an Eastern Phoebe, a sure sign that breeding birds have returned. It's always a question of when we'll see the first one. The photo above is from one seen yesterday. But we've been seeing them for at least a week. This was the first that sat still for a minute, in good light, so that I could take a photo.

Savannah Sparrow. Photo by Ken Januski.

Dixon Meadows Preserve has turned out to be a great spot to see Savannah Sparrows. I can't remember whether or not I saw some in early 2016 there. But we got clear looks at this one last weekend. They're always a pleasure to see. We may have heard another Pine Warbler yesterday but we're still waiting to get our first look for 2016.

Friday, March 18, 2016

A Brush Painting, a Field Sketch, a Watercolor from a Photo

American Robin in Silver Maple. Chinese Brush Painting by Ken Januski.

In my lengthy digression into Chinese brush painting all of my previous examples have been on paper made for sketching. But I did break down and buy some practice quality rice paper for brush painting a month or more ago. Because it came in a roll I had to cut pieces to size and then flatten them. I started that process at least a month ago soon after I got the paper.

But I've been dawdling on them just as I've been dawdling/procrastinating with a return to prints. Today I again spent time looking through my sketches trying to figure out what might make a good print. Then an American Robin landed right outside my studio window on the flowering Silver Maple.

Mourning Dove and American Robin in Silver Maple. Sumi Brush Pen Field Sketches by Ken Januski.

I did the quick brush pen sketch above of it, right next to an earlier field sketch of a Mourning Dove in the same tree. Once I'd done it, in less than a minute, I decided it was time to try that flattening rice a paper. The result is at top. It is a very quick spontaneous process, at least for me. And it's foolish for me to even be trying it since I don't at all intend to devote myself to Chinese brush painting. But still I'd like to pursue it a bit more and I'll continue to do so. Who knows where it will lead.

Swamp Sparrow in Papermill Run. Watercolor by Ken Januski.

First of year birds are starting to make their appearance, this week both Eastern Phoebes and Swamp Sparrows. I didn't do any field sketches of the 1-2 Swamp Sparrows at Morris Arboretum this week nor did I get any decent photos. So the watercolor above is based on some photos I took at Morris a number of years ago. After I'd finished this I realized that I did another watercolor based on the same photo a couple of years ago. I must like the pose. I certainly think it is a handsome bird.

I've shown some very different styles today. I much prefer the former. But every once in a while, when I'm struck by the beauty of a bird, I like to try to get it down in a more 'realistic' manner. Though as you can see it will never fool anybody into thinking it's a photo. That type of likeness just scares me.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

The Unreasonable Pleasure of Sketching

Sora at Tinicum. Sumi Brush Pen Sketch by Ken Januski.

It has been around 80 degrees the last two days, unseasonably warm to say the least for Philadelphia in early March. But at the moment I'm not complaining. I need a reminder that spring is on the way, though I hope it doesn't arrive for a few weeks, and at 60 degrees not 80.

Due to workmen at the house I've had to stick close by most of the last two days, not taking the opportunity to get out and see what migrants have arrived. But given the bright sun I can sit in my studio sketching from old photos and feeling almost as though I'm back at Tinicum last August watching and sketching these handsome Sora.

At times like these sketching almost seems like singing, a gift to those who are able to enjoy it and do it. Sketching can often be tough, more like work than fun, more failure than success. But at other times it can seem the most enjoyable thing in the world. That was true of sketching these Sora today.

Sora at Tinicum. Sumi Brush Pen Sketch by Ken Januski.

Sora at Tinicum. Sumi Brush Pen Sketch by Ken Januski.

Northern Flicker. Sumi Brush Pen Sketch by Ken Januski.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet in Goldenrod. Sumi Brush Pen Sketch by Ken Januski.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet in Goldenrod. Sumi Brush Pen Sketch by Ken Januski.

Female Rose-breasted Grosbeak. Sumi Brush Pen Sketch by Ken Januski.

Female Orchard Orioles in Hercules' Club. Sumi Brush Pen Sketch by Ken Januski.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Birding Your Own Patch

Indigo Bunting on Cherry. Watercolor by Ken Januski.

Quite a few years ago I also painted an Indigo Bunting about this time of year. It seemed like a strong antidote to the cold and gray of winter. But I made this painting today more as a reminder of the value of birding your own patch as they say.

We used to see our first Indigo Buntings of the year in Shenandoah National Park in early May, often with temperatures in the 40s. It was a thrill to see them, made all the more thrilling by the fact that we knew we probably wouldn't see them again until the following year. We knew we wouldn't find any in Philadelphia, our home.

Now, less than 10 years later I guess, it's more a question of just how many we'll see in Philadelphia. I'd guess we see them at least 10-25 times each year, and always within five miles of our house. I often look through photos I've taken in winter, when it's difficult to do much sketching outdoors due to the cold. As I did so this year I've been impressed by how many photos I have of birds I once thought rare: Least Sandpipers, Indigo Buntings, Black-throated Green Warblers, Louisiana Waterthrushes, et al.

These were birds that we used to think that we needed to travel to see. But the vast majority of photos are from birds seen in Philadelphia. It is amazing how many birds are here. I'm not sure if that's true everywhere or if Philadelphia is slightly unusual. It really doesn't make much difference though. What's important to me is how rich the natural world is right in my own backyard.

The watercolor by the way is 9x12 inches on Arches 300# cold press paper. Though are a few things I'd like to change on it I think I've learned enough over the years to know it would be foolish to do any more work on it.