Monday, August 31, 2015

Confusing Fall Warblers, And Vireos

Warblers and Vireos at Morris Arboretum. Sumi Brush Pen and Watercolor Painting by Ken Januski.

I ran into a large number of migrating warblers and vireos at Morris Arboretum last Saturday. But I had hardly any satisfying views of any of them. Some, for example a Blackburnian, were just too high in some Tamaracks to see well. Others were down low, right at eye level, but they were so active and there was so much foliage that again it was very difficult to get a good look at any of them.

The 12x16 painting above gives some sense of that. A Nashville Warbler in the lower right corner was the best seen bird, with the possible exception of the Warbling Vireo in the top right corner. The other were just yellow blurs, or a tail with black edging, perhaps fluttering wings.  Some of the quick looks were tantalizing, for instance the largish yellow bird at center top, but as soon as they were seen they flew behind other foliage.

Most likely the yellow bird was a Canada Warbler, especially as we've seen one at Morris two other times during the last week. But I can't say for sure.

Because of all of this uncertainty I decided to paint just that: uncertainty.  So I'm not trying to portray a recognizable species at center top. Instead it's reminiscent of what I saw. The fluttering wing at lower left and tail at top left don't indicate specific species. They represent instead the real experience that you can easily have at this time of year. Uncertain clues, here and gone before you know it. But that is the thrill of looking for warblers and their sometime companion vireos at this time of year.

This is another in my series of sumi brush pen and watercolor paintings. All but the Nashville warbler are drawn from memory. I used some of my own photos of Nashville Warblers as a minor reference. But in it also I tried to keep it free as in a drawing from memory.

Friday, August 28, 2015

The Transformative Cliche

Great Blue Heron in Tree, Red-tailed Hawk and Ruby-throated Hummingbird at Honeysuckle. Sumi Brush Pen Field Sketch by Ken Januski.

I want to nudge the birdwatcher into a wide-eyed frame of mind, and to be open to ways of watching which will greatly enhance the time they spend looking at birds. It takes a while to unscramble the filters that our brain puts on everything we look at. When we do, we experience moments to savour that carry with them evocations of time and place that can transform our bird watching into poetry.
John Busby, LOOKING AT BIRDS: An antidote to Field Guides.

I was struck by this quote from the late John Busby as I leafed through the first few pages of his latest book, in particular the part about transforming bird watching into poetry. I guess I would also say it is about transforming sketching into visual poetry. It is much more than just getting the details right.

I hate to use the word transform since it seems to be one of the great clich├ęs of the last few years. We have transformative politicians, transformative technology, etc., etc. Only time will tell just how transformative anything really is. Remember the New Economy?

But when I read this small section about transforming bird watching into poetry it made perfect sense to me. There is a way of looking at the experience of birding that can be much more than just a tick on a list. Pete Dunne wrote the same thing recently by saying that he was not a lister. And then the bulk of the article was about his own personal list of interesting experiences he's had while birding.  His list is called a journal.

What I think both Busby and Dunne are getting at is that capturing the actual experience, especially when it is more than just finding a bird you haven't seen before, can be memorable. And your personal connection to it can change it into poetry or its visual equivalent, art.

Juvenile American Robin with Grasshopper. Sumi Brush Pen and Watercolor Sketch by Ken Januski.

I had also been thinking about this because of my recent field sketches. For some reason I just haven't felt like trying to get down the details, even in the abbreviated manner of 'getting down the details' that I use. Instead I keep going for very quick sumi brush pen sketches. Everything portrayed here was either done in the field or when I got home from my memory of something I'd seen. None of these rely on photos or guide books. AND it shows! No doubt about it. What in the world is in the mouth of the Robin above?

This was an interesting experience because I saw something moving low along the ground today along the Manayunk Canal. It was so low and seemed to be moving in such a straight direction that I assumed I'd eventually find a rabbit or some other 4-legged animal. Instead I found a juvenile American Robin, poking at a large grasshopper. I guess he was following him along the ground and thus looked more reminiscent of a rabbit than a bird. In any case I just tried to remember what the grasshopper looked like, not that I really saw it well, and it has turned out as somewhat of a mess.

But that's not all that important. What is important is that I've gotten down the experience. It was enjoyable in itself and it also, now that I've visualized it on paper, might prompt me to do a more developed painting or drawing. Though I enjoy more realistic field sketches I find that they rarely lead to other work for me. I'm sure that I incorporate the knowledge gained in some way. But they rarely lead to a painting or print. They are learning  experiences, but they are learning about what something looks like and how to represent that on paper.

They are not about creating poetry. The final sumi brush pen sketches below are a bit more interested in getting down what I saw, for instance the shape of the black facial marking on a Sora. But by using the sumi  brush pen I can't be very realistic. This shows up even more I think in the Tri-colored Heron. It is almost nothing. And yet it does, at least for me, capture what I saw. It also has enough freshness to it that it might spark my interest in doing something more developed from it.

Sora, Tricolored Heron, Acadian Flycatcher. Sumi Brush Pen and Watercolor Field Sketch by Ken Januski.
I have conflated two ideas here, John Busby's notion of another more rewarding way of birding, and my own sumi brush pen drawings from life or memory. But I think that they are closely tied together. And I'd encourage any birder to read his last book. It is very simple but also very fresh.

Friday, August 21, 2015

To Neither Paint Nor Print Nor Bird

Juvenile Baltimore Orioles at Houston Meadows. Sumi Brush Pen and Watercolor by Ken Januski.

Last Friday I learned that the work I submitted for Society of Wildlife Artists 52nd Annual Exhibition had passed the first stage. That meant they had to pass the second judging in London to get into the show. That in turn meant a whole lot of logistics: finishing matting and framing, finding supplies with which to ship, contacting an art courier in the UK, etc., etc., and then getting everything off, without breaking the bank, on a very short deadline.

That coupled with a vet appointment and then a cat emergency have made the last week or so incredibly hectic. There's been no time for birding, painting, printing or much of anything.

But I got the works shipped off on Wednesday and Jerene and I made some progress on the cat emergency later that day. That of course is when the car AC starting overflowing liquid into the front of the car but that emergency was taken care of yesterday.

So FINALLY, this morning I birded Houston Meadows. There were three juvenile Baltimore Orioles feeding quite openly in one area, mainly on insects on some saplings. I got a kick out of them, and not finding anything more visually compelling, I decided to do this quick 12x16 painting sumi brush pen and watercolor.

I knew that given the scale of the birds that they wouldn't get much attention or detail. But my plan was to make their bright color help them to stand out. This isn't a very developed piece. I probably only spent about 2 hours on it. And I may do a bit more. But basically it's just a quick piece to celebrate my life getting back to normal again.

Now let's just hope for success with the SWLA. Due to the extraordinary expenses involved I didn't submit to the show in 2013 and 2014 after having been in the 2011 and 2012 shows(much to my happy surprise). But as time has gone on I've realized that there is only one place that I really want to show: SWLA. It's sad that this is the case. But it certainly is. There is an adventurousness and a familiarity with nature in the SWLA work that makes it extremely appealing. So I've decided that it is worth all the effort and expense. Now it's just a matter of waiting for the results to see if I'll be in this year's 'The Natural Eye' exhibit.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Pushing On With Watercolor and Sumi Brush Pen

Adult and Juvenile Sora at Tinicum. Sumi Brush Pen and Watercolor by Ken Januski.

I'm not sure why it is that members of the rail family are among our favorite birds. I'm sure partially it's due to their relative rarity and to their general secrecy. But when you see them you also realize that they have a very subtle beauty to them. Not exactly Scarlet Tanagers or Cape May Warblers but striking all the same.

We were at Tinicum (aka John Heinz NWR) the other day looking for some of the collection of unusual birds that have been there recently. These sora were among them and they were very cooperative in staying out in the open for us to look at them. There was also a third adult that made a brief appearance.

I did a couple mediocre sumi brush pen field sketches of them and of one of the two Tri-colored Heron. I'm not showing them because I pretty much ruined them by trying to add color back in the studio. But I did take a number of photos. Because they were so striking I decided to do another 12x16 sumi and watercolor painting of them. It's based on a number of photos, and my memory of the birds.

My favorite watercolor artists generally use it in a much more gentle, fresher and more subtle way than I do. I can greatly admire their work. But when I try to work in that way I'm generally disappointed with the results. But I still want to work in watercolor. The sense of light and freshness that it can have is just too desirable to ignore. So I keep trying. This is the fifth of the larger, for me, 12x16 paintings with watercolor and sumi brush pen.

Eventually I'll turn back to printmaking but for now it makes sense to keep pushing on with this combination of media. It feels liberating to be working at a larger scale, though it's nowhere near the 72x96 inch abstract paintings that I used to do. In any case I feel like I might finally be able to get to where watercolor is a comfortable, or at least somewhat comfortable, medium for me if I continue working at this size and with these media. So I will keep at this for awhile.

Though I did start reading a new book on Japanese woodblock printmaking, and that is already teasing me with the thought of returning to wood blocks.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Dragonflycatchers, Tomatoes and Tidbits

Flycatchers are among the comparatively small number of birds expert enough to catch dragon flies on the wing, and these insects are too wary to be taken sitting.
Arthur Cleveland Bent, Life Histories of North American Flycatchers, Larks, Swallows and Their Allies, p.218, Least Flycatcher entry. Published by Dover Books, 1963.
Eastern Wood Pewee Eating Dragonfly. Watercolor Sketch by Ken Januski

Flycatcher Eating Dragonfly. Photo by Ken Januski.

After seeing what I'm just about positive was a very early Least Flycatcher this week I have been reading Arthur Cleveland Bent's book noted above. I was quite surprised, though perhaps I shouldn't have been, to read how unusual it is for birds to be able to catch dragonflies. Along with the Least Flycatcher we saw numerous other flycatchers, mainly Eastern Wood Pewees and Traill's Flycatcher. I say Traill's because I think a couple of birds were Willow Flycatchers. But since they didn't call there is no way to separate the more likely Willow from the nearly identical Alder. The photo above, from that day is most likely a Eastern Wood Pewee, though the glare and washed out color remove a lot of the field marks that could confirm this. Above is a watercolor sketch I did a few years ago of an Eastern Wood Pewee about to swallow a rather large dragonfly. I do love both flycatchers and dragonflies so their combination, though bad luck for the dragonflies, is quite interesting  to me.

Cherokee Purple, Unger's Cherry, Stupice, Brandywine, Mexico Midget, Tasty Evergreen, Cherokee Purple and Yellow Pear Tomatoes. Photo by Ken Januski.

Also interesting and tasty to boot are all of the tomatoes that are now coming ripe in our garden. All of them above are grown from seed from Seed Saver's Exchange though the very small Mexico Midget are volunteers from seeds planted years ago that keep reseeding year after year. I'm not complaining! I don't often show much from our garden but I did want to show these beautiful and tasty tomatoes.

Killdeer Chick, Young Green Heron and Great Blue Heron. Sumi Brush Pen Field Sketch by Ken Januski.

Though I've been out birding a fair amount this week I've done very few sketches. Above are two of the young Killdeer which I said in an earlier post are too bad to show. Oh  well. On the facing page a young Green Heron and beneath him a striding Great Blue Heron. I'm really only showing this to show that I'm still working in the field with the sumi brush pen and because I like the Great Blue Heron sketch.

Below a less successful Great Blue Heron, sideways Green Heron and young Wood Duck from Morris Arboretum today. Though there's not much to the Wood Duck sketch I do like it. To a certain extent these sum sketches are accomplishing what I want: they are simple, get a sense of the pose, and might be enough to spur me on to a print or painting.

Wood Duck, Great Blue Heron and Green Heron. Sumi Brush Pen Field Sketch by Ken Januski.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Rendering the Experience, the Photo, or the Picture Postcard

Ruby-throated Hummingbird on Monarda in Backyard. Sumi Brush Pen and Watercolor by Ken Januski.

I always feel a bit guilty showing work of mine that is largely based on photos. That's because I'm so critical of art based on photos. That was the case with the Killdeer in my last post. The more I've painted though, especially since I turned from abstraction to naturalism the more I realize that photos aren't anathema. They're just very dangerous.

But I think it would be safe to say that the vast majority of people who look at my work, or most art, are very partial to work that looks like a photo. And that's why I'm so adamantly against it. The general populace now gauges reality through photos, even though they are very limited and show only one aspect of objects portrayed.

Still I use them occasionally because they help me to remember all the details that I often can't seem to force into my memory. In that sense they are a useful aid to memory(aide memoire).

More often though I'd like to portray the experience of something. If you've ever seen a Ruby-throated Hummingbird you probably realize that they rarely sit still. They are always moving, well almost always. And the movement is more emblematic of them than  those rare times when they perch.

So the 12x16 watercolor above is done strictly from memory. I've looked at the Ruby-throated Hummingbirds in our yard a lot over the last few summers. That doesn't mean that I also haven't missed a lot. But I wanted to do something spontaneous that was based on my memory of them and of the Monarda on which they often feed. The painting above is meant to render just one hummingbird, not a number of them. And within a few seconds just one hummingbird will have been in that many different positions.

So which is more 'real', the painting above, or one that captures every iridescent feather in a sitting bird that looks like it's been stuffed?

As I started to write this brief post I was going to stick to the dichotomy between rendering an experience and rendering a photo. But I realized that there is also a third alternative and that is the picture postcard. It is more like a picturesque rendering of a scene, relying more on sentimental formula than anything else. I don't see that much of this sort of art, but I'm sure that's only because I try to steer clear of places that concentrate on cute art. Still it is one of the other ways in which artists try to portray what they see, especially in terms of birds and wildlife.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Another Killdeer Painting

Killdeer and Chick. Watercolor Painting by Ken Januski.

I'm still hoping to do another large watercolor and sumi brush pen painting over the next few days but there was something that kept nagging me about the young Killdeer that I saw along the Manayunk Canal. last week. So finally I broke down and did this small 7x10 watercolor of one adult and one of the young. It is very closely based on some photos that I took.

As I was doing this I was also listening to some music by Igor Stravinsky and reading about him. Though I'm not an expert, not even  a pseudo-expert, nor even an aficianado of classical music I think it's safe to say that he was the most revolutionary 'classical' composer of the 20th century and the most influential. Everything I hear by him sounds fresh.

When I think about most wildlife art, or for that matter art period, it often seems of another era, perhaps reminiscent of baroque music, perhaps romantic 19th century music, or in the case of fine art, stuck in an endless loop around Marcel Duchamp's 'Urinal' of about 100 years ago. There is not much that seems as fresh as Stravinsky.

I don't know the answer to this, nor do I know if it needs an answer. I still love music by Handel and Bach, to name just a few older composers. It is thrilling to listen to today even if it doesn't seem timely. The same is true of the art of Piero della Francesca, Rembrandt, Velasquez to name just a few older artists. It's hard to criticize contemporary art that emulates people like that.

I only mention this because I think the watercolor above is more an homage to much older work than anything else. Much of my other work tries to achieve the freshness of Stravinsky, though I think it rarely does. Still it is a worthy goal.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Raptors Overhead, Watercolor Off the Easel

Adult and Two Juvenile Great-crested Flycatchesrs. Watercolor and Sumi Brush Pen Painting by Ken Januski.

I think I mentioned recently that I've been hoping to do some more developed work for an international competition whose deadline is fast approaching. After all those sumi brush pen sketches I finally bit the bullet and started work on the 16x20 inch watercolor and sumi brush pen painting above. I've wanted to make a painting of a scene similar to this for the last 18 months or so ever since I saw one or two adult and two juvenile Great-crested Flycatchers all together at Morris Arboretum last spring. This is based on various photos from that day. We've seen another 3-4 Great-crested at the same location over the last few weeks so maybe that is what spurred me on to this subject.

I still have a bit of time before the competition so there may still be one more painting using this medium in the near future. In the past I've entered this competition twice and had my linocuts accepted twice. But I lost money on all the various costs involved. Even if I'd sold I would have lost money because prints are almost by definition less expensive than paintings. So this year I've decided to enter some paintings and perhaps a couple of woodcuts. We shall see.

Peregrine Falcon Flying Over Backyard. Photo by Ken Januski.

It was after a 12 hour day exhibiting at the Manayunk Arts Festival in 2012 that I hiked up hill to our house. As soon as I got a block away from Main St. and the festival I heard a shrill cry. When I looked up I saw at least one and maybe more raptors. Almost immediately I realized that they must be part of the peregrine family from the nearby church steeple. That was in fact the case and just a half block away were birders keeping track of the adults and the newly fledged young. Later that summer we often heard the same shrill cries overhead in our backyard and saw up to three peregrines at the same time flying high overhead.

We heard and saw them again in the summer of 2013 then not at all in 2014, though they had again bred at the church. They bred again this year, though I never saw them in my few trips to the church. But just this week Jerene heard their cries again. She heard and saw them briefly on Tuesday and Wednesday. So yesterday I sat out in the back with camera binoculars hoping to do the same. No luck. Then at the same time today we heard then saw two of them. I was ready with binoculars and camera but almost immediately they flew into the sun and were gone. I was only able to get the one grainy photo above, most likely a juvenile.

It's amazing to me to know that they breed near here. It's almost more amazing to see some, and I assume that they're the same ones, flying over our backyard!!

Osprey Flying Over Manayunk Canal. Photo by Ken Januski.

Not quite as surprising but just as welcome a sight was this Osprey seen about a half mile downhill along the Manayunk Canal yesterday.

Two Juvenile Killdeer at Manayunk Canal. Photo by Ken Januski.

This time of year can also bring shorebirds and sometimes Night Herons to the canal so I've been looking recently. I've often suspected that Killdeer breed there. Yesterday that was confirmed when I saw these two very young Killdeer with one of their parents at the canal. They always look like a ping pong ball on stilts. I did a couple of not quite successful sumi field sketches which I'm not going to show here. But I wouldn't be surprised if they eventually appear in a print or painting.

July is often considered a dull time for birding. But that certainly has not been my experience.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

May You Be Forever Sketching

Willow Flycatchers. Sumi Brush Pen Sketches by Ken Januski.

As I was completing the two pages above in a Stillman and Birn Epsilon sketchbook yesterday I was thinking about how much I've been enjoying drawing recently, especially with the sumi brush pen. Then on the radio I heard a version of Bob Dylan's 'May You Stay Forever Young,' a song I've always very much liked. It seemed to parallel my feelings about sketching: may I and anyone else who likes to draw continue to do so. It is hugely rewarding.

Cedar Waxwing, Fish Crow, et al. Sumi Brush Pen Field Sketch by Ken Januski.

I mentioned on another post that many of these sumi sketches have been based on my own photos. I started somewhere near the beginning of my boxes of them, all alphabetically sorted. As you can see with the Willow Flycatchers above I'm reaching the end. There are no local birds whose names start with 'Z'. That just leaves 'Y', with all those Yellow Something-or-Other birds.

I've also tried to continue using the sumi brush pen when I'm out birding. It creates a line that is a little too large for the size of the sketchbook that I carry in my back pocket. But I'm getting better at being able to use finesse and sensitivity of touch to be able to work this small. Above a Cedar Waxwing and young Green Heron, both seen along the nearby Manayunk Canal, and a Fish Crow on telephone pole and as yet unidentified wasp on the flowers of our Mountain Mint, both seen while I sat in a chair in our backyard.

Grass Spider and Wasp, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, et al. Sumi Brush Pen Field Sketch by Ken Januski.

I spent about 10-15 minutes watching the scene above in our backyard, just a foot away from where I sat, through my Pentax Papilio Extreme Close-Focus Binoculars. (I'm not trying to name drop in this post but when a product works well, like Stillman and Birn sketchbooks, the Kuretake Sumi Brush Pen and the Pentax extreme close focus binoculars I'm happy to mention them in case others might want to use them. In fact I only know about the binoculars due to a talk by an accomplished local birder on Birding Beyond Birds, e.g. dragonflies, butterflies, etc. where he mentioned how good they were).

For the first time ever we've noticed a not of three-dimensional spider webs in our yard. They can be as deep as they are broad. As I watched the small wasp and the spider in the web I really couldn't figure out what was going on. Both were upside down. Was the wasp trapped and desperately trying to get out? If so why did he sometimes seem to approach the spider rather than vice versa? Was the web sticky, like most are? If so why did he seem to move so freely. As I watched it through the binoculars, mainly so I could see the spider better, I decided I might as well try to get it down on paper. That is the scene in upper left.

Later when I went inside I investigated and found that the spider is most likely a 'Grass Spider', one of many funnel spiders, whose webs are not sticky. This spider is also timid and will often run from whatever is in its web. Well that pretty well explains what I saw here. It is amazing how much there is to see in nature if you take the time to look.

Also on the page one of the visiting Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, feeding on the Monarda in the yard, and a Willow Flycatcher at Morris Arboretum, the same bird portrayed from photos at the top.

Whimbrel and White Ibis. Sumi Brush Pen Sketch by Ken Januski.

There is a big juried show coming up that I'm preparing to submit work for. No it is not Birds in Art. In any case as I continue to do sumi brush pen drawings from my photos I'm always thinking about which ones could be used for something more developed. Above are two pages of Whimbrel, seen in Cape May, NJ over the last few years, and an immature White Ibis seen at Heinz NWR in Philadelphia a number of years ago. I never know until I do the drawings which resulting drawing might convince me that it is the one to develop more. Time will tell. There are only a couple of weeks before submissions are due to I'll need to decide soon.

Common Whitetail., Killdeer, Great Blue Heron in Tree, et al.  Sumi Brush Pen Field Sketch by Ken Januski.

And finally a couple more small sketchbook pages of sumi brush pen sketches from life. Except for the Common Whitetail at top left, all of the images are from the Manayunk Canal a few days ago: another immature Green Heron, with nearby Killdeer, and three versions of a Great Blue Heron curled in various intriguing shapes up in a tree.

I realize that in switching from pen or pencil to sumi brush pen in my field sketches I'm losing a lot of detail. But I think I'm gaining life and/or animation as well as a greater concentration on the entire scene, all of which are helpful in doing a more developed painting or print. It's well worth it to me. And it probably has something to do with why I have a renewed excitement about the possibilities of drawing.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Gulls, Terns, Watercolor, Sumi Brush Pen

Forster's Terns, Laughing and Bonaparte's Gulls at "The Meadows.' Watercolor and Sumi Brush Pen by Ken Januski.

At least once a year, sometimes more, I try a more energetic, spontaneous type of watercolor. Though I'm excited with them as I start by the end of the day or maybe a day or two later I've become disappointed again. They haven't lived up to my expectations.

This year though I'm still happy with the Red Knots and other birds from Cooks Beach, NJ that I showed a week or two ago. Something seemed to work well in that combination of sumi brush pen and watercolor. Perhaps the larger size, at least for me, of 12x16 inches helped. In any case after weeks of sumi brush pen studies I wanted to get back to a larger work.

This is it above. I have long wanted to do something with a photo I took at 'The Meadows' in Cape May, NJ about three years ago. The combination of Laughing Gull with wings up in the air, smaller Bonaparte's Gull and even smaller Forster's Terns was appealing. I just couldn't figure out how to do it without it looking like a blatant copy of a photo.

Finally I decided that adding some other birds, including the Forster's Tern coming in for a landing might give it a bit more energy and depth and help prevent it from looking like a staged scene. I'm largely happy with it. The potential problem with this type of more spontaneous work is that in working quickly, you'll make a mistake, either in a bird itself or in the proportion or scale of birds in relation to one another. This type of thing can be worked out in studies for more finished work but it seems antithetical to the type of spontaneous work I'm trying to achieve here.

As I said I generally only do one or two more energetic watercolors like this each year. I'm generally so disappointed in the first one that I don't return to it. But that's not the case with these last two sumi and watercolor paintings. So this time I expect to do a few more and see if I can't come up with a semi-permanent way of working in watercolor.