Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The More Work The Better the Art, Not

Mallard Ducklings on Tire in Manayunk Canal. Watercolor by Ken Januski.

During my many years as an abstract artist my goal was often to 'get into a groove', 'get in the zone', etc., etc. To a non-artist this may sound precious and pretentious. But I think many people understand what it means through their own experience, be it as a second baseman on the baseball field, a computer programmer, a composer, a visual artist or many other occupations.

It means I think that you're able to move effortlessly from one step to the next in accomplishing your task, generally without even thinking about it. The process almost seems automatic. Occasionally of course, at least for artists, the next day shows that though you thought you were in the zone, you in fact were in left field and what you did makes no sense. But most of the time I think it's a valid explanation of a creative state. And it's one that many people to aspire to, not as some out of body experience but just because it means you're being successful at your job. It's being creative without work or bouts of doubt. There is no writer's block . Everything flows.

Because I experienced that often as an abstract artist, even though I didn't get quite the critical recognition I thought the work deserved, it still remains my goal as a naturalist artist. It may explain partially why I tire so quickly of much wildlife art.

So much wildlife art seems to be considered successful based on the amount of work involved. What a horrible, horrible thought. What a sad, Puritanical way to evaluate art. I mainly thought of this theme because of the watercolor above, one that obviously doesn't have a lot of work in it. In I've tried to make it look effortless, not so much because it means it's easier for me, in fact the opposite, but because I think the best art seems effortless. Artists may understand the amount of work that goes into making something seem effortless but my guess is most of the audience doesn't. But they do enjoy it.

In any case every once in awhile I try to make my watercolors seem effortless. This generally fails. They look more like the morning after in the zone paintings that are really deep in left field instead. But it's a worthy goal I think. In fact for me there's no other reason to use watercolor as a medium except to get that sense of effortless beauty that the best watercolorists, like Winslow Homer and John Singer Sargent have.

So that is the origin of the 7x10 watercolor on Arches 140# rough watercolor paper above.  The rough texture is very hard to deal with and seems to make clean strokes quite difficult. But still I like to occasionally attempt this type of watercolor on it. I believe that if I pursue this method I will eventually be able to really get in the zone with watercolor. I already do that with prints but I'd also like to be able to do it with a painting medium.

As I thought about this idea of effortlessness I also realized that to many, if not most, people who view this watercolor it will seem like a failure, one where I didn't put any work into it. But work is the sum of all your experience. If a major league pitcher strikes out batter after batter it rarely looks like he's working hard. But there was many years of work earlier in his career. It's when athletes look like they're working that they generally are being unsuccessful, not just in appearance but in fact. I remember seeing muscle-bound male swimmers flailing with all their might in the outdoor pool at UC Berkeley when I was a student there while women half their size flew by them, seemingly without effort. They understood how to swim. The muscle-bound men didn't. Their muscles just got in the way. They worked too hard.

The best example of the work behind effortless-looking results I think is Oriental brush painting. But outside of taking a class in the practice of it years ago in San Francisco I've never really studied it. What I do know though is that there are often very few brushstrokes involved. But they have to be deft and work in relation to one another. All the work is in the years of practice, of trial and error. You can't see it in the final painting, which in fact to many will look insubstantial. But to the more observant it's the seemingly effortless beauty that is the most important aspect of the art.

I was reminded of this perverse notion of work making art better when I read the new Birds In Art catalog. One artist mentioned doing 'monks work' as he did a very detailed background. Another mentioned painting every feather of a Great Blue Heron. Artists should have every right to do what they want. Perhaps this type of work in tremendously rewarding to the artists involved. But I can't at all give it any extra value for the 'work' involved. I'd much prefer that work be invisible. I prefer the graceful swimmers to the muscle-bound ones whose effort is concentrated on the down-stroke rather than the stroke that moves you forward.

Female Common Yellowthroat. Field Sketch and Watercolor Sketch.

Enough on the subject of work and art! I did want to show a couple recent sketches as well. Above is a field sketch of a female Common Yellowthroat, one of many that I saw at Houston Meadows this morning. Below it a quick watercolor sketch that I did when I got home, based mainly on the field sketch above. I'm continuing with this practice of trying to do something a bit more detailed and in color of whatever I've sketched in the field.

Marsh Wrens. Watercolor Wash Sketches by Ken Januski.

A few days ago I did these brush drawings from some photos I took of Marsh Wrens at Jake's Landing in New Jersey this June. As soon as I did I recalled the bird sketches of JA Shepherd in John Busby's book Drawing Birds. Unfortunately I can't find any online links to the drawing. But I did find it interesting how I, and my guess most artists, have an encyclopedia of images in their memory of birds, bird art, and other art that they've seen throughout their lives.

Friday, September 12, 2014

More Warblers, and Birds In Art 2014

Chestnut-sided Warbler and Veery. Field Sketches and Watercolor Sketches by Ken Januski.

There has been a flurry of migrant activity in the last few days, much of it centered around the berries of Devil's Walkingstick. On Wednesday thrushes, mainly Veeries and American Robins, but also one Wood Thrush dominated the early part of mywalk, while warblers and vireos dominated the last part.

Today I started an hour later than usual and found fewer thrushes. But the warblers and vireos were still manically feeding,  some on Devil's Walkingstick but others elsewhere, including a Red-eyed Vireo in the huge and bright red fruit of the Umbrella Magnolia. If  you're alert and doing more than just checking species off a list, now is the time when you can find a lot of interest in what the migrant birds are eating. Spicebush fruit are also popular, as are of course all of the insects on them and other plants.

As I said in last post I really do have enough photos of most species. So I tried to concentrate on looking and sketching today. It was hard as both warblers and vireos were hyperactive. Finally I'd seen enough Chestnut-sided Warblers that I thought I could risk a field sketch from memory as seen at the top of photo above. It was alright but seemed off in ways. So after getting home I looked very briefly at one of my field guides then did the very small watercolor sketch on the bottom of page above.

It's very small but I'm happy with it, though I did mistakenly paint olive green where the white throat should be. I know artists who often do slightly more developed works as soon as they can after getting back from sketching birds in the field. It seems like a good idea, especially if you can use the field sketches as the basis of it and not rely much on photos and guides. I think that help keeps it simple, unified and fresh.  (A day latter and I saw a Veery while out walking. I added a field sketch of it above and then a quick watercolor based on it when I got home, as seen on right hand page above).

Speaking of simple, unified and fresh I received the catalog from Birds in Art today, a show I've been rejected from for about 10 years now. I'm not even sure why I apply any more. And I always have to steel myself to open up the catalog and look at it. I know my reaction will be immediate dislike at the timidity and formulaic quality of much of the work, and stronger dislike at the photographic origins of even more.

I wasn't quite as apprehensive today because I knew that the featured artist, and Master Artist for 2014, is Barry Van Dusen. His  work is simple, unified and fresh, in the best sense of all of those words. And I wasn't disappointed. Such refreshing work and a refreshing essay on his work by artist Darren Rees. I wouldn't be surprised even if a little bit of influence of those watercolors didn't make it into the tiny sketch of the Chestnut-sided Warbler above.

I go nuts when I look at BIA catalogs, wishing that just once I'd find a happy surprise in one of them. I almost never do. There were one or two today, though none that just knocked me over as happened the first time I saw work from The Society of Wildlife Artists. But the work and the essay on the work of Barry Van Dusen certainly brightened my day.

As I've written before I'll continue to look at the catalog and eventually find in looking at the work and in reading what artists have written about their work that I can appreciate far more than I can at first, second and third glance. But I do wish that one day I'd open it up and be knocked off my feet.  I'm definitely not holding my breath.

After I'd finished this I realized that I can sound extremely negative about bird art and Birds in Art. So I thought it made sense to add a bit more about this catalog. There is much competent art in it. That itself is an accomplishment. And I suppose that's why, over time, I find that I can find much to appreciate in each catalog, even if I don't really like it.

But I do like some work and I decided to name artists who struck me right off the bat:

John Busby
James Coe
Peter Elfman
Anne Senechal Faust
Andrew Haslen
Lars Jonssson
Johannes Nevala
Andrea Rich

I should add that I was already fond of all of the above artists with the exception of Johannes Nevala. I was newly struck by him. If I wasn't already familiar with the others I'm sure at least some of them would have knocked me over. The Andrea Rich woodcut was the opposite in that it grows on me each time I look at it. Some of this is very rich work.

There were some others who are not as much to my taste perhaps but whose qualities I can't and wouldn't want to deny. They are striking in their own way:

William Althier
Robert Bateman
Jim Bortz
Kathleen Dunphy
Cindy House
James Morgan
Sean Murtha
Peter Nilsson
Thomas Quinn
Maynard Reece(pretty bold for 94!)
Chirag V. Thumbar
Sherrie York

I haven't mentioned sculpture mainly because I'm not as familiar with it. In general though I find that  I like it more than much of the two dimensional art. I'm not sure why that is but I wouldn't be surprised if it's because it seems more direct and less mediated by the numbness of photography. Certainly there is far more abstraction in the sculpture than in the two dimensional work and this seems true year after year.

In naming names like this I know that anyone who reads this and happens to be in the show might be disappointed especially if I don't mention them, though most will have no idea who I am, nor care. As I said most of the work is competent. And in a week I'm sure I could add many more artists to the second group. Perhaps even in 15 minutes after posting this.

Perhaps this year's show is better than average.  I do find that I seem to like more and am pulling my hair out about less. But I do wish I'd find more exciting work. Perhaps that is asking too much, particularly given the stranglehold that photography has had on American wildlife art for so long.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Drawing Killdeer With a Brush

Killdeer. Wash Drawing by Ken Januski.

Killdeer. Wash Drawing by Ken Januski.

I haven't been able to decide on what to use as a more ambitious project, either in print or true watercolor. So I continue with these small wash sketches of birds.

Inevitably the small size means that a slight miscalculation in the placement of the brush and I have a bill or eye that is horribly misshapen or twice as large as it should be. This is of minor importance to me. The goal is to think about the bird in terms of mass and very few lines, to capture the essence if not the detail of the bird with very minimal means. In doing so I hope/believe that I'm internalizing the structure of the birds I sketch. And of course I can't forget the structure because I'm distracted by getting detail correct. There's no way to get it correct when working at this small scale, at least not with a brush, or without a strong dose of masochism.

I do think these have a sense of what Killdeer are really like. I'm sure that eventually I'll move on to something more ambitious.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Practicing the Warbler Scales

Black-throated Blue Warblers. Wash Drawing by Ken Januski.

Black-throated Green Warblers. Wash Drawing by Ken Januski.

Anyone who has followed this blog for awhile knows how I've struggled with portraying New World Wood Warblers, the ones most North Americans know as plain old warblers. I've been noting when the First of Season ones arrive in fall. As I did so I noticed that most of them first arrived about May 1st of this year. And a great number are now migrating back south starting about September 1st. A few arrive both earlier and later but as a general rule it seems to be May 1 and September 1.

Who cares? Well most birders do and I think that most people given the opportunity to actually see one of these birds before it flies out of sight would as well. They are among the most beautiful birds in the world as far as I can tell. Certainly they are among the most colorful. I think it is that color combined with the knowledge that they're hardly here before they're gone that makes them so appealing.

When I'm out birding most people have a hard time even getting a good look at migrating warblers. (This is less true for those who live where warblers breed. But still they don't normally stand still and pose for anyone). A few people will try to photograph them. But very, very few will try to draw or paint them from life.

And yet that's when they are most themselves, flitting from place to place, generally looking for an insect snack. To try to portray them without somehow portraying some of the excitement of seeing them seems almost contradictory. To paint them in the studio seems a bit like admiring the dead butterflies in a collection without ever actually going outside to see them.

To make a long story short I've tried to draw them from life for about 8 years now. I've gone from such abysmal failure that I gave up instantly and went for the camera to my current state of about 50% of the time sketching or looking and trying to memorize their structure and 50% or less taking photos. Today's first of season Black-throated Blue found me sketching and looking over 80% of the time I'd guess and taking photos about 20%. With all the photos that I already have there's no great reason to spend any time taking any more.

And yet my efforts today in sketching are quite disappointing. As were my experiences last week trying to use wash drawings for warblers from photos. But I did pursue it last week and got some halfway hopeful wash drawings of Black-throated Green Warblers. Today I decided to try the same method with Black-throated Blue Warblers. Both pages are sketchy and tentative, nowhere near or as sure-footed as my shorebird sketches of last week. Still I think that practicing the warbler scales is finally starting to pay off.

I'm beginning to get a feel for warblers I think, so that they actually seem like they might be alive regardless of how tentative the actual lines might be. That is what I keep aiming for so that at some time I'll feel like when I portray warblers I'm actually giving them their just due. They've been gone for four months. And now they're back for a few weeks. Then they'll be gone until next May, a time too long to contemplate!

Friday, September 5, 2014

More Brush Drawings

Black-bellied Plover. Wash Drawing by Ken Januski.
Black-bellied Plover and Dunlin. Wash Drawing by Ken Januski.

As I was working on the wash drawings for the last post I realized that I had two advantages in them that might make them more likely to be successful. First I was working larger, about 9x12 in a Stillman and Birn Delta sketchbook; and second, I was using shorebirds for subjects. Why are they easy? Because unlike many birds, especially warblers, you can see the entire bird.  Most of it is out in the open, not hidden by leaves or gone due to quick movement.

So over the last few days I've tried some other subjects. The American Redstarts and American Wigeon are too bad to show. After a bad morning with the wigeon I went back to shorebirds this afternoon. These are done in a much smaller 5.5x8.5 Gamma sketchbook from Stillman and Birn. Because of that much smaller size I had to work somewhat daintily, a method pretty foreign to me. (The following morning I did another set of Black-bellied Plover wash drawings. They are at top).

Still it was informative. When I was an abstract artist, even when I did figure drawings contemporaneously, I tended to work large. When you're drawing 22x40 or so you can make sweeping gestures with your arm. Make a sweeping gesture with a small sketchbook like this and you're quickly off the page and knocking something over perhaps your watercolors and water bottle.

So at this scale you have to make marks differently. But that is good. Like learning more about yourself by traveling in a foreign country you learn more about your subject by drawing or painting it at different scales. Hopefully I learn to conceptualize it. If you learn the pattern or structure of birds you've learned something that works at all scales and media.

So that's my justification for showing these tiny little sketches. Each bird is probably 2x2 inches or smaller. But one of the wonders of realistic art is that it doesn't take much, perhaps just two or three marks, to create the illusion of something. No matter how much 'progress' is made in art, or how many new media replace old media, there is always the magic of illusion. It's magic to the artist and to the receptive viewer. I get far more excitement out of seeing someone bring forth an eagle from just a few brushstrokes than I do from seeing someone who's rendered most of the eagle feathers in great detail. Which really is more magical? Or to quote Aristotle, which one creates the most delight?

I'm not sure where all this will lead. Many of my recent woodcuts have used simplified outlines of the birds portrayed. I think the simplification required in working with wash will help me in simplifying in other media. In the meantime it is a lot of fun. Except for those passerines, obscured by leaves.

Oh yes, these are based on photos I've taken. I wish I could walk down the block and find shorebirds to sketch from life, but outside of the occasional Spotted and/or Solitary Sandpiper or Killdeer they are very scarce around the immediate vicinity. So I'm using the photos I've taken over the years.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Drawing With a Brush

Solitary Sandpipers. Watercolor Sketch by Ken Januski.

While out enjoying the cool weather early this morning I ran across a Solitary Sandpiper. Every time I see one I realize that if I want to portray them believably, even if abstracted or stylized, I need to understand them better. In particular I need to understand where the head and neck are in relation to their slim elegant torso when they're bent over hunting for food.

I'd thought that I'd been pretty successful as I kept reworking the field sketch below to get the outline right. Only now that I see it online do I realize how many problems it has. But no matter. It convinced me to spend some time sketching them from the many photos that I've taken, mainly within 5 miles of home, over the years.

I took up a method of painting that I used to love in order to do these sketches: sketching with a brush using a wash. I used to use India ink and Chinese brushes. This time I used watered down watercolor and my normal watercolor brushes.

There is something exhilarating in working like this. Part of the exhilaration is that you can fail pretty quickly! Since you have to make big strokes that encompass much of the shape of whatever you're drawing it's easy to get it wrong, and see that it's wrong. Oddly this adds to the excitement and tends to keep you focused. There's really no room to be tentative.

Because it's a light wash it's also possible to make other darker corrective lines without the drawing looking too bad. So it's far more forgiving than it at first might seem.

Perhaps best of all it combines drawing and painting. This is really just about the main problem for most realistic artists I think: are you painting or are you drawing? Does line, often outline, matter most or does mass, and sometimes color, matter most? Skilled artists learn to get some lines from the edges of color masses without enclosing everything in an outline or within strict edges. A great example of this is Winslow Homer.

He started off wedded firmly to line and outline. By the end of his career most line was implicit not explicit. He added line in subtle ways. Wash drawings like this really do meld both line and mass, and can easily include color as well. Of course the masters of this method are Chinese and Japanese artists. Hokusai immediately comes to mind but I haven't really studied art of that part of the world well enough to know all of the other skilled artists.  If you look at Hokusai though you can see an incredible fluidity. He was a master!

So having stumbled accidentally upon this method of working today I'm quite pleased. I'm forced to simplify the shapes of things and in doing so to make a commitment to what I think they should be. It's a great way to work and I suspect I'll be doing a lot more of it.

Below is the field sketch of Solitary Sandpiper, as well as Green Heron on a log, that sent me off in this direction.

Green Heron on Log and Solitary Sandpiper. Ballpoint Pen Field Sketch by Ken Januski.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Successful Orange Garden

Pearl Crescent, Thai Hot Pepper, Starfire Signet Marigold. Watercolor Sketch by Ken Januski.

Ellen at Spicebush Blog posted today on her garden success this year. Sounds good Ellen! I however have been holding off. The main reason is that the garden just doesn't seem to have been all that successful. We started off great with 50+ lettuces. As usual they were starting to go to seed before we could eat them all. But we did pretty well.

For a change this year I really leaned heavily toward nightshade family plants, mainly tomatoes and sweet and hot peppers. But they just haven't done all that well, other than the diminutive Thai Hot Peppers which survived and thrived even when completely buried by the wild arugula that I let grow and go to seed each year. When I finally cut the arugula there were 100s of tiny red Thai Hot Peppers.

Our Fortex beans are doing well, covering a 6-8 foot high a-frame bamboo trellis. I'm sure that they'll go until October or so.  But they just don't seem as flavorful as normal, perhaps because of the extremely mild summer. The peppers also may perk up in September and October, as they often do, so I haven't yet written them off.

But all in all it's been a disappointing year in the garden. Except for the orange garden!

We used to grow the very show Pinwheel Marigolds. But they get so tall and lanky that they take over more of the garden than I like. So this year I opted for a small marigold, Starfire Signet Marigold, an heirloom from Seed Savers Exchange. Though it's also gotten lanky because it starts off so small it hasn't really created a problem. Instead those bright yellow/orange/red blossoms have brightened the garden since June. Recently what I believe is Karl Foerster Feather Reed Grass (I'm not sure because Jerene bought it years ago) has draped itself elegantly over the garden including some of the marigolds. It's just orange enough to creating a striking accompaniment to the Starfire Signet Marigolds.

Today I finally decided to take some photos. I'd been thinking about this for about a week. But as I was making coffee today I saw some fluttering in the marigolds. When I  checked in my binoculars I found the tiny but beautiful Pearl Crescent butterfly.  He added an unexpected orange accent to what was already developing in my mind as an orchestration in orange. When I finally got the camera and went out he had moved to the Thai Hot Peppers but their bright red peppers also fit into my orange composition.

As usual there was no way to get all  of this in one photo. And for me even individual photos always seem so lacking, at least mine. But I thought that I could take the various photos and my knowledge of flowers and butterflies and make a watercolor to illustrate the Orange Garden.

And that's what I've done. Like many of my works it's quickly done, certainly more of a sketch than a finished watercolor. But I've found over the years that it's often these quick studies, some much quicker and less fully resolved than this, that lead to my most successful prints and watercolor paintings. And, no surprise, I haven't stayed within the lines. My type of watercolor.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

More Migrating Warblers and my Favorite Watercolorists

Northern Parula. Watercolor Sketch by Ken Januski

I might as well say right off that the watercolor sketch above is pretty horrible. I recently saw this first year/fall female Northern Parula at Houston Meadows in Philadelphia. It was a beautiful little bird flitting around too quickly for me even to identify it with any certainty let alone do a sketch.

I did take a number of photos and two turned out. So I thought I'd use the best as the source of this watercolor sketch in the pages of a small Stillman and Birn Zeta sketchbook.  As usual it shows the dangers of basing anything on photos. When you do so you often copy what's in the photo rather than follow an idea in your mind, one that firmly understands the structure of the bird, and has thought about the placement of the other objects in the painting.

Often with sketches I'll just start with the photo and improvise as I go. Since it's just a sketch, unlike the watercolor of the Least Sandpipers. I have a lot of leeway. But really I don't. Even though this is sketchier it still shows a lack of conviction and sureness that just adds up to a dull little watercolor, in spite of its striking subject.

So I'm not at all pleased with it. Later I'll get to the work of watercolorists I am very pleased with. Since I feel free to criticize so much work in watercolor it's only fair to show what I consider good examples of watercolor.

But first I just wanted to mention the slow but steady flood of warblers that are migrating through. Recently I've seen Blackburnian, Tennessee, Black-throated Green, Chestnut-sided Warblers, along with American Redstarts, the Northern Parula above and of course the locally breeding Common Yellowthroats. Today I was also treated to two Great Horned Owls, and yesterday an early morning Common Nighthawk doing blazingly fast acrobatics across the sky. It is a good time to be able to be out and about. I'd love to capture that nighthawk but it seems almost too impossible to even try.

While taking a break from birding and artwork today I was skimming through Treasures of the Forgotten Forest, published by the Artists for Nature foundation about the Tumbesian region of Peru and Ecuador. As I leafed through it I realized how many examples of the artists who took part in it were in watercolor. Almost all have a freedom, freshness, creativity and boldness that accentuate the boldness of watercolor itself rather than deny it its soul, more or less, by painting within tight little contour lines, never a brushmark out of place.

The more I've done wildlife art, and looked at wildlife art shows, particularly bird art shows the sadder I get. So much of it just so lifeless. There is no other way to say it: it is lifeless. Quite an irony given the vitality of the subject matter. But looking at this book you see the opposite: examples of artists whose work complements nature's vitality. I can't really show the illustrations from the book so I'll just name some of the artists in it. I'm familiar with almost all of them and have seen their work elsewhere, but this book seems almost by accident I think to show a lot of watercolor.

So if you get a chance look online for examples of, or perhaps buy a book by, the following artists: Barry Van Dusen, Lars Jonsson, Kim Atkinson, Darren Woodhead, Vadim Gorbatov, Bruce Pearson, Juan Varela Simo, Michael Warren, Wolfgang Weber. There are also other artists in the book but I've named just the ones whose watercolor work is so striking. If you perhaps are able to see the book itself I think you'll also see how varied their work is.

Before I accidentally picked up that book I had planned to choose some of my favorite watercolor paintings by Winslow Homer, perhaps America's best watercolorist. But before I did I looked through my book of John Singer Sargent's watercolors. Maybe HE's America's best watercolorist. Who knows? Both show how exciting watercolor can be and how it can be just as ambitious and powerful as oil painting. So here's a small list of some of my favorite watercolors by each:

Winslow Homer:
1.The Blue Boat
2.Saguenay River, Lower Rapids
3.In the Jungle, Florida
4.Shooting the Rapids
5.Under the Falls, the Grand Discharge
6.The Adirondack Guide
7.A Garden in Nassau
8."For to be a Farmer's Boy", the last not because it's my favorite but because of the loose way that he handled the pumpkin vines and field. It's a great example of how to paint with watercolor rather than use watercolor washes to fill in a drawing.

John Singer Sargent:
1.A Tent in the Rockies
2.Lake Louise, Canadian Rockies, an incredibly bold painting, esp. for  its time.
3.Derelicts, boats not people
4.The Bathers
5.Muddy Alligators
7.La Biancheria
8.Carrarra: Quarry II
9.Mountain Stream
10.Bus Horses in Jerusalem.

These are just a few. As I've flipped through my Homer and Sargent watercolor books as I've written this I keep coming across new ones that I'd like to add. But this should give you a taste. I've included Homer's In the Jungle and Sargent's Muddy Alligators because both have wildlife, non-bird wildlife as subject. And yet you can bet you will never, ever see work of this quality in a wildlife art show. Sad but true.

All in all I think what's struck me about their work is that they truly do use watercolor to paint, not to color in lines. That is probably the main reason that I think so highly of them and so little of watercolors that just color in the lines, a method by the way with which Homer began his career.

When I say how disappointed I am with my own watercolors, especially the sketches, it's because I want to some day do work like the artists I've mentioned here.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Another Return - Watercolor

Three Least Sandpipers at Morris Arboretum. Watercolor by Ken Januski. Last version.
Three Least Sandpipers at Morris Arboretum. Watercolor by Ken Januski. First version.

I have no idea when the last time I did a watercolor was, probably more than a year. I have done numerous watercolor sketches, the most recent just yesterday. But they are different. They're just sketches and they're not done on good watercolor paper. Though the paper I use is great for sketches it doesn't have the brightness and more importantly the robustness of true watercolor paper. I can only make so many changes before the color gets muddy and the paper no longer accepts the paint.

There are many reasons for my not doing watercolors but the main reason is fear of failure, abysmal failure. I've quoted before the great, perhaps greatest American watercolorist Winslow Homer, on watercolor: it is making the best of an emergency.

What in the world does this mean? It makes perfect sense to me so I'll say what I think it means. Watercolor dies a horrible death if it doesn't retain both spontaneity and freshness. It's greatest strength is the vibrancy that it can create through its basic property of transparency. Winslow Homer knew this. But it also doesn't want to be held by boundaries. Neither does oil painting.

Though there are some great oil painters, David comes to my for instance, who tended to paint within the lines many great painters didn't, for instance Rembrandt. For them painting is, I think, an orchestration and weaving of marks across the entire canvas. The heavy impasto of Rembrandt doesn't stay within any boundaries. By painting in such a way the viewer himself is able to put together all those marks and see what is probably a more realistic portrayal than that of paintings that stay within the lines. Of course the Impressionists also tried to get away from line and outlines, saying that's not really the way we see. Look out the window and I'm sure you'll agree. Where is the line that defines the edge of that tree?

In any case there are some watercolor painters, Homer for instance, who try to paint like Rembrandt but in transparent watercolor. The problem? In watercolor you can't successfully paint white or any lighter color over a darker color. That's the nature of transparency. Transparency both makes watercolor the vibrant medium that it can be and also makes it just about the most difficult medium that there is to use, at least as a painting medium.

I think it's that knowledge that you might be putting down an irreversibly bad color or mark that Homer was talking about. When you do you either give up, or try to think of some way to salvage it. Thus watercolor is always an emergency.

I can't stand paint within the line watercolors, though I'm sure someone could point out some exception to that rule, perhaps Charles Demuth, who vaguely stayed within the lines. But for me painstaking dabs of watercolor, kept within the lines is just of no interest. It almost makes my skin crawl because it seems such a betrayal of the beauty of watercolor. It demands skill no doubt. But the end result is deadly. I should add that there are some contemporary bird artists that I know of who use watercolor in a fresh way. They stay close to the lines but still manage not to be inhibited by them. The watercolors still are fresh and lively.

But these artists are masters of the medium. I'm not, not by a very, very long shot. So I know that when I choose to do a watercolor I'll soon have an emergency. And yet the beauty of watercolor, when used as a transparent, painterly medium is irresistible. So I finally gave it a try with the Least Sandpipers above.

My watercolors have never been as well received as my prints. I'm not surprised because I know how far I have to go to master the medium in a way that I'm happy with. But still I can't help but try it again, every once in a while.

Most likely the painting is done. It is painted on 9x12 inch 300# Arches watercolor paper.

Well perhaps the painting SHOULD have been done. I couldn't resist a few changes. The newest version is at top.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Warbler Return

Blackburnian Warbler at Papermill Run. Watercolor Sketch by Ken Januski.

Blackburnian Warblers breed in Pennsylvania, not unfortunately where I live in Phialdelphia, but farther north. So they are not all that uncommon as they migrate through in fall and spring. Still they do tend so stop most people in their tracks if seen closely. The one I saw today along Papermill Run at Morris Arboretum no longer had the fire engine orange/red of the spring in his throat but he was still orange enough to make me take notice.

If they were a bit more common I suppose I might have tried some field sketches today. But this one was 50-60 feet up and I couldn't really see him well even in my binoculars. So I reached for my camera and took about 10 photos hoping that at least a few would be worth keeping. One of the best became the origin of the sketch above in a Stillman and Birn Gamma sketchbook.

With warblers, especially if you use photos, it's the easiest thing in the world to get precious, to try to get every little nuance of color and pattern, letting composition and everything else that makes a picture fall by the wayside. I tried to not lose sight of the other elements of painting here. Hopefully I'll eventually become a master of this, knowing how to paint the most beautiful and striking of warblers without letting them dominate the scene.

The Blackburnian has been the most exciting fall warbler so far. A few days ago I saw two Blue-winged Warblers and that was pretty nice. Chestnut-sided Warblers have given me great looks at their undersides twice during the last week and Black and White Warblers have given us some good looks. The breeding Yellow Warblers, Common Yellowthroats and American Redstarts have also been around. It's great to be seeing them but sad to realize that once they're gone it will be at least another 6 months before they appear again in Philadelphia.

Least Sandpiper. Ballpoint pen studies by Ken Januski.

The watercolor at top and these ballpoint pen sketches from photos I've taken over the last year of Least Sandpipers both show my tendency to try to do studies of birds I've recently seen and sketched. I was recently engaged in an online conversation about what gear to take with you if you want to sketch birds. Video cameras and still cameras topped the list, but not my list. I really don't believe either are of much use until you've tried to sketch birds live. It's only when you do, and fail, that you realize how complex it is.

But more importantly you learn to make decisions, to choose this line over that line, in the brief time the bird is there. You learn ALL that you don't know, but also what questions to ask, what to find out when you look at photos or videos. For instance only if you've sketched shorebirds live do you realize how hard it is to properly place their head and neck when they're bent over feeding. Is the head above or below the back and how much?

I think my ultimate goal in sketching, outside of just liking the finished product, is to be able to know birds so well that if I'm sketching them facing one direction and then they face the other direction  I can effortlessly continue drawing. I'd like to know their structure so well that I can place them convincingly in any pose. And then of course I can abstract that since that's the way I like to portray them.

I think artists who work mainly from photos probably have much less of a chance of getting to understand the structure of birds. It's definitely a skill to be able to render what you see in a photo. Unfortunately it is far more common than you might think and my guess will never lead to a successful career in art. We watched a wonderful show on the Cuban musician Cachao recently. He said more or less the same thing about music as I recall. Rendering skills and technical music skills can only go so far. Then you need to do more.