Thursday, August 10, 2017

Varieties of Artistic Motivation

Yellow-billed Cuckoo with Caterpillar. Moku Hanga Proof by Ken Januski.
Three artistic subjects have been on my mind over the last few weeks: field sketches, shorebirds and moku hanga prints. And to a lesser extent, the annual exhibition of  The Society of Wildlife Artists in London, UK.

All of these subjects relate to the idea of artistic motivation, specifically MY artistic motivation. I mention this because I think that unless you're an artist you might not realize that artists have motivations. They don't just make art the way you the viewer think art should be made.

My own motivations are often complex if not contradictory. For one thing I love sketching birds from life, though with a caveat or two! I particularly like sketching shorebirds and there's one primary reason for that: I can see them. I can even see the whole bird! That is not true with warblers, vireos, flycatcher, sparrows, etc. Most of them are hard to see period because they are moving so quickly and in addition they are often partially obscured by their environment, often vegetation. What a relief it is to go from a fast flitting warbler seen only briefly and partially through some leaves to a shorebird that sits out in front of you, often staying in the same area, if not same position, long enough for you to look through your spotting scope, see, and sketch some detail.

So that is why it was particularly exciting a couple of weeks ago to find a fair number of species of shorebirds at Morris Arboretum. I spent a good part of two days sketching them. They didn't sit quite as still as I've just indicated that they often do. In fact they rarely sat still. But they did remain out in the open so it was possible to get continued looks at them and build up a drawing over time, adding little touches of areas I missed earlier in the sketching.

As you can see I kept quite busy with both Least and Solitary Sandpipers.

But why? Given  that my work normally ends up being somewhat abstract or stylized why spend so much  time sketching birds from life? I'm not an illustrator whose job it might be to capture them realistically for a guide book or something similar.

Well it's a good question. For me I think there are a couple of answers. One is that the more I sketch them the more I understand their structure and the more confident I am in using them even in the most abstract form. I know that there is a basis in reality. The second, which I just figured out today is the challenge. Birds, especially shorebirds have subtle but elegant shapes. It is a real challenge to both see and put down on paper all that is in a shorebird, especially in regard to shape. This reminds me of figure drawing in a way. The subject is endlessly complex, challenging and rewarding. And as with figure drawing there is also an almost sculptural aspect, the desire to show movement and how weight is distributed. It almost entails a physical empathy with the bird, animal or model. Work that shows this, even when incredibly detailed, immediately attracts me.

There is a real excitement in both trying to see what is there and in trying to get it down on paper. I'm showing quite a lot of photos of field sketches here. Some are better than others. But I think most if not all capture the excitement of drawing birds in the field. (Though I rarely sketch animals I expect that the challenge and reward is similar).

And yet.....
Least Sandpiper. Field Sketch by Ken Januski.
Least Sandpiper. Field Sketch by Ken Januski.
Least Sandpiper. Field Sketch  by Ken Januski.
Least Sandpiper. Field Sketch by Ken Januski.
Least Sandpiper. Field Sketch by Ken Januski.

Solitary Sandpiper. Field Sketch by Ken Januski.
Solitary Sandpiper. Field Sketch by Ken Januski.
Solitary Sandpiper. Field Sketch by Ken Januski.
Solitary Sandpiper.Field Sketch by Ken Januski.
Solitary Sandpiper. Field Sketch by Ken Januski.
Solitary Sandpiper. Field Sketch by Ken Januski.

.... this is only one artistic motivation. There is also the one of artistic composition, which includes color, shape, texture, etc. In many ways it is more exciting to me. It is this motivation that I think non-artists are most unaware of. It is the thing, or at least one of them, that makes art Art.

It is both the motivation behind the moku hanga print at the top of this post and the motivation behind  the prints that I selected for my application to this year's  annual exhibition of The Society of Wildlife Artists. In fact it's really more than composition. It's more like personal expression and all that this entails, often a great deal of concern with composition. So it explains the endless proofing I've done on the Yellow-billed Cuckoo print in order to get  it to meet some subconscious sense I have of what is right and it explains why I chose the particular prints I did  for the SWLA show.

And in fact both works turned out to be rejected. This rejection was a bit of a disappointment but it really doesn't bother me that much. I chose what I thought were my best works, using the standard of personal expression that I  just mentioned, and I and the judges, whoever they were  just didn't see eye to eye. But when you think you chosen your best work you don't change your mind  because that judgment was not echoed by someone else. Particularly with juried shows things like this often happen. There could be a million reasons for rejection from any show. So my feeling is to always just choose your  best work and then let the chips  fall where they may.

What is worse I think is to submit  your work to a show you don't  really like. I've done this for years for  a show that I don't like. And I've never gotten in. This year I finally stopped applying because I realized I got  angry every time I looked at the catalog of what did get in. I didn't like 90%  of it, year after year after year. With SWLA it's far different. This is a show I like and admire. And I've never felt bad about submitting what I think is my best work to a show I like. If you're going to be rejected I personally find it much easier to deal with not getting into a show that I admire. Though I do have to admit it's always nice to get in  the show.

In any case both the SWLA experience and the Yellow-billed Cuckoo print represent what you might call ambition in art. You challenge yourself,  a challenge that maybe only you understand and/or appreciate, but it is what makes all art, at least for artists, exciting! Artist sacrifice a lot for art, more  than most people know. On the other hand it's not really a sacrifice, because most artists love what they're doing, even if  it  doesn't  always end up with success or sales, and even if  artists are not apt  to publicly admit  this.

Finally there is a last motivation in my bird-based art: getting not just the shape, and sense of movement and life of birds, but also getting the subtlety of  their coloring and plumage. Most wildlife artists spend far more time on this than I do. For me it isn't even very interesting, in either my work or the work of  anyone else. I think this is mainly true because so often it is at the expense of any sense of life in the bird. It often seems to exhibit the skill of copying photos, not a very valuable skill in my book.

But sometimes you are just so struck by the beauty of a bird that you'd like to try to get it down on paper or canvas. Often such attempts end up lifeless but I  do understand and appreciate the motivation.

But that was not the case with the two watercolors below. And this is something peculiar to wildlife art and especially bird art I think. I wanted to show some of the diagnostic characteristics of birds, the things that you  might see in a guidebook. I rarely get into this in my art. But I  do spend much  of  my time trying to identify birds and to differentiate similar ones from each other. So it's not surprising that occasionally I attempt to show that it  my artwork. But it is a rarity for me, and though exciting when I do it, can be disappointing afterwards if it doesn't also show some sense of self-expression.

As usual when you see shorebirds, especially if you're in a place like Philadelphia that doesn't really have all that many, there is the question of peeps. Are those small shorebirds Least Sandpipers, Semi-palmated Sandpipers, Western Sandpipers, something else? These questions were going through my mind as I looked at peeps recently and so I did these two watercolors, at least in part, to try to show the differences between the two. To some extent I've succeeded though I do think there is a little too much of the torpedo-like shape of a Red Knot in the solo Least Sandpiper watercolor.

It is this desire  to show something accurately which I think is most difficult for an artist like myself who comes from a 'Fine Arts' background. This type of almost scientific accuracy is just of no importance whatsoever in my training. In fact it's quite suspect. I would guess that my peers, at least at the time I was studying art in college, would have considered it an example of the most mundane and uninspired 'illustration', certainly not art. This is of course just one view of art and I have no idea how many people still subscribe to it.

But I do think the fact that you never, ever see contemporary wildlife art in any museum show or contemporary art show indicates that this view still holds. So I  personally find myself  in an odd position. I abandoned the art world I'd grown up in because I think it had become thoroughly fatuous. All art was 'important' art, at least if you believed the galleries and art magazines about 20 years ago when I got fed up with it. So there are a million reasons I think to criticize contemporary art which has just as much of an 'academy' today as in the mid-1800s when the Impressionists reacted against it.

I find the idea of working from nature, which has always had some importance in art, a good place from which to revive 'high art' to get it out of  its thorough insularity and self-referentiality. So that's where I'm working. But I can't  really see making art that is nothing more than illustration either, even if the subject is birds or wildlife. Art can be and has been so much more than that. So though there is some attempt at realism in the two paintings below I don't care in the least if I happen to miss one row  of scapulars or any other such detail. That to me seems more the concern of a pedant than a artist.

Least Sandpiper. Watercolor Painting by Ken Januski.
Least and Semi-palmated Sandpipers. Watercolor Painting by Ken Januski.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Moku Hanga Number Two - Jumping Squirrel, Kingbird, Damselfly, Butterfly)

Jumping Gray Squirrel, Eastern  Kingbird, Ebony Jewelwing  and Zabulon Skipper Moku Hanga print by Ken Januski. On Nishinouchi paper.

It's been quite a while since I posted here and though I've been working on a new print for some time I wanted to wait until the print was finished before posting. Above is one of the  finished prints. I've done 10-11 and am debating whether to print a few more in the edition. Given all the prepartory work it  always seems silly not to print a  relatively large edition. On the other hand it is more work!

Spring is a time of  almost too much natural wealth. There is so much  so see, hear, experience, and perhaps  draw, paint or photograph from life. But how do you  choose a subject for  an artwork? For me it  often comes from a quick sketch that I've done.

Below you can see the field sketch of  an Eastern Kingbird that led to this print. It probably wouldn't have just based on the kingbird sketch, but while I was sketching it a Gray Squirrel seemed to jump up straight in the air between me and the kingbird. Perhaps he saw a snake,  maybe a grasshopper,  or maybe he was just being squirrelly. In any case I tried to get some sense of it  down in my sketchbook.

As I said these chance encounters often lead to more developed work. My guess is that there seems to be a subject to portray, something more than just a portrait or study. In any case after I got  home I started doing various compositional  studies for a print, as well as studies as to just how a squirrel that jumped straight up in the air might look.  As I did so I realized how poorly I understood squirrel anatomy. So  I did some sketches based on photos I've taken over the years.

Field Sketch  and Studies for Moku  Hanga Print.

Studies for Squirrel Moku Hanga Print.

I'm not going to show all of the various compositional  studies I made. But finally I came up  with what I wanted. I then drew that with a brush pen onto a tissue like paper, pasted it  down on the block that would be the  key block(the one with most detail, and at least for me printed in black), and eventually printed that block onto more tissue (Usu Mino paper)  that I then pasted in reverse onto the other blocks to  be carved. Below is an example. I overdid  the amount of  Nori used to paste down the drawing(kyogo) and that is what the blotches are in photo below.

Anyone who's familiar with moku hanga will know what kento marks are but most people will not. They  are registration marks carved into the block itself so that there is a greater likelihood of  prints matching up as you print more and more colors. In the kyogo below you can see that I've also included the kento marks from the key block. Once the kyogo dried I used it as a guide as I carved away  the non-printing areas and just left the areas I planned to print in color.

Pasted down Kyogo for color block.

Below are the other blocks, well actually other block. Since both sides of each block can be printed I can get four blocks from two blocks. Additionally I can print more than one color  on some of the blocks, though I do  have to be careful as I ink up the areas not to brush the wrong color into an area. Below all of  the blocks except the black key block have more than one color: gray and blue, brown and a tiny orange area(for the skipper butterfly) and yellow and  a tiny second area  of black (for the squirrel's eye).

Blue and Gray, and Black Blocks for Moku Hanga print.

Yellow and Brown Blocks for Moku Hanga Print.

As the title says this is just my second moku hanga print. I'm happy to say it was  not as tortuous as the  first. All printmaking methods seem to require a fair amount of  technical  knowledge and skill, something I really have never liked. But the more  I print, regardless  of  method of printmaking, the more I realize that I just  won't  be successful without some technical knowledge and skill. Moku hanga seems more complicated than other methods I've tried.

Its virtue though is  that  it can lead to beautiful prints, that is almost thoroughly non-toxic, assuming  you don't eat any of  your paints/inks, and it requires very little space. I used to print in the basement after carving and designing my prints in my second floor studio. Now I do all my work in the studio. I only go to the basement to clean up.

There are many technical problems with moku hanga but  based on  my vast experience of two prints I'd  say that the most difficult is  getting consistent ink coverage. This print is not perfect but I've gotten much better with ink coverage. Registration is better and smudges are fewer. It will remain a learning experience. But it is one where I see a bright future.

From what I can see of contemporary moku hanga a great deal of it  is done with fields  of color  and NO lines. Since the mastery of line, and other things, seen in ukiyo-e artists and printmakers seems absolutely impossible  to match  today I  have some understanding of this. Who wants to compete with Hokusai? But  I  like  line and see  no reason to keep it out of my prints. I also , as in most of my work, like to combine naturalism and abstraction. It was that which made printmaking appealing to me to begin with. It is even more so with moku hanga.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Grabbing a Warbler in Your Hand

Northern Parula at Magee Marsh. Charcoal and Pastel Drawing by Ken Januski.

Northern Parula at Magee Marsh. Pencil Drawing by  Ken Januski.

Northern Parula at Magee Marsh. Pencil Field Sketch by Ken Januski.

Northern Parula at Magee Marsh. Photo by Ken Januski.

I recently spent over a week in the Magee Marsh area of Ohio with my wife. It is a great place to see warblers close up. But after a while you begin to suspect that warblers all have the same song: "click, click, click, clickclickclick". The sound of cameras drowns out the sound of the birds. It is that crowded and everyone seems to have a camera.

It's easy to understand. They are such beautiful birds and only rarely can most people see them so close. So you want to capture them. It's a real temptation, and one I always fall to. But there's something bothersome about 'capturing' them via photography. It can seem a bit aggressive as well as possessive, like an object to be obtained rather than something to enjoy. Drawing them from life is far more difficult than pushing the button on a camera. But it's also far more engaging. So I always plan to do sketches of them from life and eventually I do so. Such sketches are difficult because the birds move so quickly.

At that time it almost seems criminal to reach for the sketchbook. On the other hand it's also the only chance you may ever get to sketch them close up from life. I know that there will be problems with the sketches but I can't resist doing so. Many of them are shown here. I'm also including a number of photos, and also I hope a couple of videos. I think together that they give some sense of the full experience.

Above you see three different representations of a Northern Parula along with a photo.  Sometimes the warblers are so close you could literally reach out and grab them. That certainly was the case for me with Pine, Black-throated Green, Chestnut-sided and Yellow Warblers. They were within my grasp. My thinking here is that though you can almost reach out and grab these warblers any art work based on them ought also to have that quality. The charcoal and pastel drawing at the top, done today two weeks after getting back from Magee, attempts just that. It attempts to capture the experience, not just copy a photo.

Blackburnian Warbler at Magee Marsh. Pencil Field Sketch by Ken Januski.

Blackburnian Warbler at Magee Marsh. Brush Pen and Watercolor Painting by  Ken Januski.

Blackburnian Warbler at Magee Marsh. Photo by Ken Januski.

Above are three representations of the striking Blackburnian Warbler. The first is a field sketch done from life. Often I know that I'll get something wrong, perhaps the shape, more likely some part of their complex feather patterns. But trying to capture them live on paper gets me to see and know them better. If I later do a work based on a photo, as in the brush pen and watercolor painting above, it is much easier to take liberties with the photo, to be less intimidated by its 'reality.''

Below are a few more field sketches as well as photos of many of the other warblers seen at Magee Marsh.

Black-throated Blue Warbler at Magee Marsh. Pencil Field Sketch by Ken Januski.

Black-throated Blue Warbler at Magee Marsh. Photo by Ken Januski.

Black-throated Green Warbler at Magee Marsh. Pencil Field Sketch by Ken Januski.

Black-throated Green Warbler at Magee Marsh. Photo by Ken Januski.

Magnolia Warbler at Magee Marsh. Pencil Field Sketch by Ken Januski.

Magnolia Warbler at Magee Marsh. Photo by Ken Januski.
Nashville Warbler at Magee Marsh. Pencil Field Sketch by  Ken Januski.

Nashville Warbler at Magee Marsh. Photo by Ken Januski.

Chestnut-sided Warbler  at Magee Marsh. Photo by Ken Januski.

Though it is always exciting to see all of these warblers, and many other species, at Magee it often happens that as soon as we get home a bird that we'd gone on vacation specifically to see makes an appearance while we're out birding in Philadelphia. Such was the case with the first Prothonotary Warbler we've ever seen in Philadelphia. I found it less than two miles from home, along the Wissahickon Creek.

He actually stayed around long enough for me to shoot a short video with my camera as well as take a number of photos. One of the reasons I like shooting videos, and only with my camera so the gear is simple, is that I can often get the song along with the bird. For me a bird is not a bird without his  song.

One problem I've had with Prothonotary Warblers is that though they are quite striking visually I find it  difficult to make an interesting painting based on them. I think that this is due to the lack of pattern in their plumage. In any case I used this video as a springboard for my most successful version of a Prothonotary so far.


Prothonotary Warbler at Wissahickon. Brush Pen and Watercolor Painting by Ken Januski.

Prothonotary Warbler  at Magee Marsh. Photo by Ken Januski.

Finally I'd like to add something about the title of this post. When a warbler is close enough to grab in your hand you realize what tiny, fragile creatures they are. I like experiencing this. It helps to take them out of the 'cute' category and actually seem like the living things that they are. It also helps you realize how optics don't necessarily tell the truth about the world, neither through binoculars nor in photos. Things seem large, bold and detailed in both. But it often comes as a surprise to  find out just how small those bold, beautiful warblers really are.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Some Field Sketches, Some Videos

American Kestrel. Field Sketch by Ken Januski.

Each spring I tell myself that I'll do more field sketching and each year I seem to fail to do so. But  seven field sketches yesterday and a few earlier in the week are a good omen for  this year. The seven sketches yesterday were made easier by the fact that I had my scope with me and that most of the birds stayed in one place at least for a second  or two. The last  sketch of a Yellow-rumped Warbler shows what happens in other circumstances, for instance when it never sits still. I have had my scope with me recently when I've seen Yellow-rumps but it's been of little use. The birds move too fast to give me time to even get them in focus in the scope  before they're gone.

Above is a male American Kestrel and below a male Eastern Bluebird. Both were sketched at Dixon Meadow Preserve.

Eastern Bluebird. Field Sketch  by Ken Januski.

I didn't have any problem with movement in the larger drawing below.  I'd been eyeing the broken, but still magisterial, leaves of this garden tulip for a week or more. There was something so sculptural about it. So I sat at our small garden table  and spent one morning sketching it last week. I'm quite happy with it and it reminds me how powerful pencil on paper can be, without any need at all for color or fine detail.

Storm-battered Garden Tulip. Field Sketch by Ken Januski.

Yesterday I brought my scope with me to Morris Arboretum, hoping to see some migrating shorebirds. But no luck. Then as I was training the scope on an Orchard Oriole some friends came up to tell me an unidentified  shorebird had  just landed. Sure enough there was a Greater Yellowlegs, the first I've seen this year. So I took the opportunity to keep doing sketches of it, four or five of them over an hour.

With field sketching I  often find that I tend to stop after one sketch, unless it's a bird I've never seen before. I think  this is due  to fear more  than anything else. If I've done one sketch I'm happy with why risk failing on the next one? It's a dumb way to think but one that still applies. Much better is to realize it's a rare opportunity  and just keep sketching until the bird flies away. So that's exactly what I did.

With sketching I think you soon realize that there is always more to learn, if not about the subject itself, then about the art of rendering the subject and the scene.

Greater Yellowlegs. Field Sketch by Ken Januski.

Greater Yellowlegs. Field Sketch by Ken Januski.

Greater Yellowlegs. Field Sketch by Ken Januski.

Savannah Sparrow. Field Sketch by Ken Januski.

Above is another page of sketches from Dixon Meadow Preserve yesterday. It shows a Savannah Sparrow, the first I've seen this year. Below  is a drawing of a Yellow-rumped Warbler, not drawn through  a scope. The reason is that the bird wouldn't begin to sit still, as is true of many birds, especially warblers. So in the end you just have to look and look, try to form a mental image and then stop looking and try to get that image down on paper. Inevitably you realize that your mental image has faded too quickly. So you keep practicing. I think that's the only way to do  it. And it does become satisfying  as you get better at it.
Yellow-rumped Warbler. Field  Sketch by Ken Januski.

When I did the sketch of the Yellow-rumped Warbler I also shot a video on my camera of the same bird. It seemed worthwhile to show it as well. I think it shows why sketching warblers is so hard.


I enjoyed that one so much that I took a few more yesterday. I'm including below ones of both a Blue-headed Vireo and an Orchard Oriole. The oriole sings toward the end but unfortunately the vireo does not.


Sunday, March 26, 2017

But Why Should It Look Like an Oil Painting?

Glossy Ibis. Watercolor by Ken Januski.

The show American Watercolor currently on at the Philadelphia Museum of Art is a quite timely counterpoint to these recent watercolors and watercolor studies.  We've seen it twice and I'm currently reading  the massive catalog that accompanies it. Both are well worth the money  and time if you are interested in watercolor.

As long-time readers know I've had a very mixed history with watercolor. I love the results in the hands of masters like Winslow Homer  and John Singer Sargent but my own work  has often led  me to near despair, or at least mild cantankerousness. I've also never had much interest in various watercolor  societies, because based on the little I've seen it seems to value control over everything else. And yet it  has such possibilities as a medium!

To make a long story short I've looked at a lot of watercolors, done a fair number myself and read a few books about watercolor, mainly American watercolor. (I'd be happy to read about British watercolor  but have not  yet heard of  a good, and affordable, book that covers that topic). In any case the end result is that I've thought a fair amount about the styles of  watercolor I like and those I  don't  like.

What is  so refreshing about the American Watercolor show is  that it covers  those same topics except in a broader range, with far more knowledge than I have, and with living, breathing examples. Because it is  such a huge subject and such a  huge  show I'm  not going to say much more about it. However I will say that you  can find great examples of so many different ways  of painting  in watercolor, from the extreme detail of  the followers of John Ruskin and the American Pre-Raphaelites, to those who seemed to think that it served no other purpose than to imitate large, exhibition oil paintings, to the 20th century abstractions of John Marin  and Georgia O'Keeffe, with many, many artists, many of  whom I'd never heard, both male and female along the way.

For me personally it has helped to crystalize what I  want in my own watercolors, though to a certain extent I already knew: Homer  and Sargent. So much  wildlife art seems so similar to the Ruskinites, artists who painstakingly tried  to portray every little  detail of nature. Tellingly most of them  eventually gave up. It is too much work for too little reward. More important to me is that though they can be quite beautiful they  also seem to live in a world with no air, where nothing  breathes.

So I've always preferred a looser style, that allows imprecision,  but that also allows light and spontaneity,  two of the elements that seem to be the greatest inherent strengths  of  the medium. I  won't  go on about  this. I  think that  if  you  like  watercolor you'll like the show  and you'll find examples of  the style  of watercolor you like. But you'll also find examples  of other styles  of watercolor  and you might walk away appreciating them as well.

Many early American watercolorists eventually gave  up  because they  just  did not  sell. They  weren't  'real' art works, like oil paintings. I've had my own dissatisfaction with watercolor but it really is  more related to the difficulty of  the medium,  at least when highlighting its strengths of light and spontaneity, than it is  to sales. Printmaking is now my primary medium. But I can't help going back to watercolor every so  often, as I have in this recent work.

One last comment about the show, though it is more noticeable in the catalog than in the show itself. That regards watercolor sketches as used by naturalists. Early on the book mentions a few types of  watercolor  that are pretty much outside of  the subject of the book, that seemed to proceed on their own, regardless of  movements in the art world  or watercolor  world itself. One of  those is the watercolor sketch of naturalists. It is  an interesting side note and perhaps explains at least to some degree why there are so many talented wildlife artists, especially in terms of  field sketching who use watercolor, and yet who seem oblivious  to or perhaps  even opposed  to everything that happens in the wider art world. The show does  include by the  way a wonderful watercolor  by John  James Audubon of some Black Rats.

Eastern Screech Owl at Rea Farm. Watercolor by Ken Januski.

Hermit Thrush. Pencil Sketch and  Pencil Sketch  with Watercolor by Ken Januski.

I really don't have much to say about my own works that I'm showing here, except to say that they were all done in  the last  week or  two. Most are a little bit more  finished, and a little bit less spontaneous, than my  ideal  watercolor.
Louisiana Waterthrush at 'The Magic Bridge.' Watercolor Sketch by  Ken  Januski.

Northern Harrier  at Dixon Meadow. Watercolor Sketch by Ken Januski.