Tuesday, March 24, 2015

First Warbler of 2015

Yellow-rumped Warbler. Watercolor Sketch in Stillman and Birn Gamma Sketchbook by Ken Januski.

I don't normally post on two days in succession. In fact I keep telling myself it would be better to post less rather than more. But the arrival of American Wood Warblers causes all sorts of people to make all sorts of exceptions for all sorts of things. It might even be interesting to compare how many people change their work schedules for the arrival of these migrants compared to those who do so for March Madness. Of course most people may just skip work from their desk to keep up with the basketball games.

In any case I noticed today that we saw our first warbler last year on March 26, a beautiful yellow Pine Warbler. We normally see them before Yellow-rumps but never in the same numbers. After mailing off a Piping Plover woodcut which I was happy to find out I'd sold yesterday we decided to spent a brief time on this cold gray day looking for Pine Warblers. What we didn't expect to find were Yellow-rumps. But we did, in two places, along with three first of year Eastern Phoebes and two Hermit Thrush.

So cold and gray as it may be the first signs of migration, outside of the earlier ducks, are finally here. I was never able to sketch any of today's warblers. Most were very high in trees against an overcast sky. Even the photos I took showed next to nothing. So this is based on a photo from a previous spring.

Yellow-rumps are so ubiquitous that they are not the most inspirational of warblers. But they are nonetheless quite beautiful. And I'd have to say that all my previous attempts have been failures to a large extent. The quick pencil and watercolor sketch above is I'm sure my most successful to date. As with many of my quick watercolor and pencil sketches it's done in a Stillman and Birn Gamma sketchbook. These sketchbooks continue to be my favorite for this type of work. It is really hard for me to believe that it is once again warbler season.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Why I Bother with Prints, and Other Stuff

Part of the Newly Signed Edition of Mergansers and Bufflehead Woodcut. Photo by Ken Januski.

With all the consternation that seems to be an integral part of printmaking it's easy to wonder why anyone bothers with it. One of the main reasons can be seen above. Rather than just one object, as with a painting or drawing you can end up with many, more or less identical. When you're happy with the print this is great. When you're less happy then you might again question why you do it. Fortunately I'm happy, or at least satisfied with the results most of the time.

Red-breasted and Common Mergansers with Bufflehead at Flat Rock Dam. Two-block Woodcut by Ken Januski.

I debated whether to leave a little white in the upper right hand corner of this print. Almost all art can benefit from a variety of lighter, or in this case lightest, areas. But sometimes it just looks tentative and can call attention to itself in the wrong way. That was the case here so I touched up that area with watercolor similar in color to the color of the foreground water.

Female American Kestrel Eating American Robin at Morris Arboretum. Watercolor Sketch by Ken Januski.

Speaking of calling attention to itself in the wrong way that's exactly what happened to the American Robin above. It was in front of the car of a visitor to the Morris Arboretum wetlands yesterday. When she returned after birding the area she found this female American Kestrel having it for lunch. If you pay much attention to the natural world you can quickly see how brutal it can be. As another example a male American Kestrel met a similar fate along the wetland ponds a few months ago. I stumbled upon some beautiful feathers that could only have come from a male American Kestrel. My guess is that he was eaten by a Red-tailed Hawk. Also this winter we ran across the remains of a Great Horned Owl, which itself is usually the predator. We're not really sure what might have gotten the owl.

The Announcement of Spring -2015. Pencil Sketch by Ken Januski.

A few weeks ago there were signs of early spring everywhere: two Killdeer together at the Manayunk Canal, singing Song Sparrows everywhere, and the first singing Red-winged Blackbirds again at Morris Arboretum. In my mind I toyed with the idea of combining some of these sites into a print celebrating spring. Above is a template for a possible woodcut or linocut. Unfortunately I could find no way to include the newly returned Wood Ducks.

Friday, March 20, 2015

First Day of Spring - 2015

Witch Hazel with New Snow - First Day of Spring 2015. Photo by Ken Januski.

Normally I plant peas by St. Patrick's Day, March 17th. But wet soil delayed that task. Just as well as today, the first day of spring, we're predicted to get 3-5 inches of snow, of which at least 3 has already fallen. Above is a photo, out a dirty inside window, of the fresh snow on an Arnold's Promise Witch Hazel.

Temperatures in the 50s are predicted for tomorrow though so my guess is that this is winter's last gasp. It's always nice to see the first birds of spring and I've been out looking for them. Instead I've found the last birds of winter. including the male Canvasback and Hooded Merganser, still at Morris Arboretum where they've been for a few days.


Canvasback and Hooded Merganser. Field Sketch by Ken Januski.

If you work in a number of media as I do pictures often present themselves in your minds eye in a certain medium. Even though I had thought of a print featuring the deep mahogany brown of the Canvasback, and lighter cinnamon brown of the Hooded Mergansers, coupled of course with their striking blacks and whites I instead thought of doing it in charcoal, or perhaps a one color linocut. The contrast in black and white, and rich mahogany of the Canvasback head seen as another rich dark seemed more important than color. Rick black and white is what I thought.

So I returned to an old method of charcoal, both vigorously drawn and erased. Someone once mentioned that an earlier work in this method might work well as a woodcut and a few years later that suggestion is what got me to start linocuts. I've toyed since then with charcoal, and sometimes pastel, but more or less stopped because of the health hazards of the fixative used to fix the colored powder on the paper. I probably won't return to this method. But yesterday I was happy to turn briefly to the striking immediacy of this method. The drawing below is 18x24 in compressed and vine charcoal.
Canvasback and Hooded Merganser. Charcoal Drawing by Ken Januski.

And now I think, it's about time for the birds of spring to replace the birds of winter, beautiful though they are.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Completed Bufflehead and Mergansers Woodcut

Red-breasted Merganser, Common Merganser, Bufflehead at Flat Rock Dam. Two-block Woodcut by Ken Januski.
I finally finished the two block woodcut of the Red-breasted and Common Mergansers with Bufflehead at Flat Rock Dam yesterday. It seems like it took forever, most of that time being spent with the final black block.

The problem was that I just couldn't get an even inking that both filled all of the framing edges but also filled the heads of the merganers, and yet didn't fill them so much that it blotted out the small orange/red eye of the Red-breasted Merganser in the foreground. I switched from Daniel Smith to Caligo in the proofing stage, trying to get the inking that I wanted. I finally decided to stick with the Daniel Smith, which is the ink I used for the other colors. But even then I went back and forth as I printed from a thinner ink to a thicker ink trying to get it just right. The print above, one of an edition of somewhere between eight and twelve, is one of the best but still leaves something to be desired.

I realize in using the heavy black outline, including frame, type of woodcut that I veer toward the heavy-handed and cartoonish. But I also find something quite desirable about this method. I have no interest in fussy brushwork that manages to get a great deal of plumage detail. Instead I find, at least at the moment, something appealing in this stark almost primitive portrayal of the subject at hand. But still I do think that if the black ink had worked more smoothly my goals, simple though they are, might have been more thoroughly accomplished.

Finally I should add that there is a little more color richness to the actual print than can be seen in this scan.

I'm still tempted to do something with the recent combination of drake Canvasback and drake Hooded Merganser seen at Morris Arboretum on Monday. But after that I think the season of waterfowl will be over. Though there is snow predicted for Friday. Perhaps one more opportunity for some colorful ducks.

One last thought, which I hate to bring up for any reader who's not a printmaker. I continue to be amazed at how much dumb technique plays a part in printmaking.  I don't like technique and I think I always kept my distance from printmakers in my art education because so many seemed thoroughly enamored of the esoterica of technique. I still dislike it. But the more you print the more you realize that at a basic level it is an integral part of printmaking. If you want to print an edition, i.e. more than one copy of a print, then consistency between the prints of an edition is desirable. And as with this print you don't want splotchy areas, or smudges or dried ink or any of the other small things that can ruin a print. It's a very different mindset from that of a painter or draftsman, unless I suppose you're looking for a very polished surface in either of those. With a painting you just work on one painting. It works or it doesn't and then you move on to the next painting.

Printmaking requires more thought and care I think, not that this in turn makes it better than painting. I like printmaking both for the surprise it offers, and for the need to have a dialog with the materials and process, but also because I can print more than one. And I better be able to for all the work involved. The virtue of this is that I can sell more prints for less. And even when I have sold one or many I probably still have a few more to sell. It's an odd way to work, and for me a very different one after so many years as a painter. But it seems like the right method for me now and it's one I imagine I'll continue for quiet a while, eventually learning the technique that I have so little interest in.

Monday, March 16, 2015

First Field Sketches of 2015

Long-eared Owl and Drake Canvasback. Field Sketches by Ken Januskil

Ken Januski Sketching Hooded Mergansers at Morris Arboretum.

I officially declared 'Spring Is Here' I believe in my last post so I suppose I really ought to prove it by doing some field sketching. That wasn't the main intent in going to Morris Arboretum today but I did want to try out a new Tripak Tripod Pack that I bought recently. You can barely see it here but basically it is a very small backpack whose main function is to carry your tripod and scope on your back leaving your hands free for using your binoculars, sketching, drinking coffee or whatever.

I'm not a big gear person but I've often lamented the pain of carrying around a tripod and scope when I'm out sketching, especially when I'm at a place where I don't know if there'll be much call for a scope. So I often end up carrying it on one hand, tripod legs fully open, or folding the tripod legs and carrying over my shoulder. The problem with that is you can almost never see a bird that appears and disappears quickly. By the time you set the scope down and put up the binoculars the bird is gone. So I decided to gamble on this.

Here's my verdict. It almost paid for itself on the first day today. Even though I have an older, and thus heavier, tripod I hardly noticed I was carrying it. The only thing that did make me notice it is that the tripod legs tended to spread out behind me, something I hadn't thought about. I suppose a small bungee cord might fix that, or further experimentation.  The main thing though is that I was free to bird and sketch as though I didn't have a tripod and scope. Until I needed one. Then there it was conveniently on my back. The only adjustment needed is to lengthen the legs. But for birds seen with a scope you often have time to do that. In any case I have to say I'm really happy I bought this and expect that I'll be taking my scope with me on far more sketching outings.

Early on in our trip we saw eight Hooded Mergansers at the far end of the wetlands pond. But what was that big white shape? Detritus? That seemed unlikely given that the wetland is not public water and thus very clean. I'd forgotten that a Canvasback had been seen there yesterday. So I put the scope to its very first use and saw a handsome drake Canvasback. What a beautiful bird. One of our guides calls it 'The Aristocrat of Ducks.' It's hard to argue with that. Though I also took photos I really wanted to spend some time sketching him. So the photos at top took place over 15-30 minutes as he kept drifting all so slowly but still changing his position every few seconds. So it took awhile of continuing to draw him in various positions before any of the sketches above started to look like much.

Behind him were numerous Hooded Mergansers and I wouldn't be surprised if that combination ends up in a new print or painting. I've been thinking about my favorite prints recently, my own prints I mean, and almost always they stem from a real experience such as this. My background is an abstract artist, or more accurately a non-objective artist, where everything comes out of the artists own imagination, more or less. That's fine and I enjoyed it for years. But now I really enjoy making art based on something that actually happened in the external, especially the natural world.

And that woodcut? I believe that the carving is finished. Each day I continue to proof the black block on good paper, all that I've got left at this point, and I'm unhappy with the ink itself. Tomorrow I'll try one more time. Once I get a good inking the edition should be printed quickly.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Next To Last Color on the Mergansers and Bufflehead Woodcut

Red-breasted and Common Mergansers with Bufflehead at Flat Rock Dam. Nearly Finished State of Two-block Woodcut by Ken Januski.

In a way it's silly to show this woodcut in it's current state. That's because the black block, which is so important to the mergansers in particular has not yet been printed on it. But I thought some readers might be interested in seeing it from my perspective, before I print the black block which I hope will pull it all together.

Those white spaces on the mergansers are particularly bothersome but they'll disappear when I print the black block. This is the print on good paper by the way, Shin Torinoko. So the print will look largely like this except for whatever changes the black block brings about.

In my proofs I haven't been happy with the black. I'm not quite sure if that is due to the ink or not, my last tube of Daniel Smith Water-Soluble black ink. As a test I'll probably at least try the other water-soluble black ink I have, from Caligo. I haven't used it in at least a year. But I do want to make sure that the black I print prints fully and doesn't leave any faint inking as it has on my proofs. It if takes a different ink to get full saturation of the black then that's what I'll use.

I do hope I can finish this before I get distracted by all sorts of new migrants, and other of the distractions of a long sought after spring. Related to that, our witch hazel is finally in bloom, about a month later than usual!

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Visiting Owls Delay Woodcut

Long-eared Owl at Heinz NWR. Watercolor sketch by Ken Januski.

So I had thought I might try the next to last color on the woodcut today but all those reports of rare owls just 10-15 miles away kept getting in the way. Given that it was supposed to be sunny today and the ground had probably absorbed much of the moisture from recent rain and snow it seemed like it was worth giving Heinz NWR a try.

Five, yes FIVE Long-eared Owls were reported there a couple of days ago, along with a Northern Saw-whet and Great Horned Owls. Since we've never seen either Long-eared or Northern Saw-whets it was hard to resist trying for them. It turned out that we didn't have good directions for either of the rare ones. But then someone pointed the Long-eared Owl out just 10-15 yards from where we were. We watched him for about 15 minutes, walked and birded for another 3 plus hours, then came back and watched again. Though his silhouette was quite obvious with the naked eye, he was in shadow, facing away from us and draped in vines and twigs. So neither my sketch nor my photos turned out to be much. But they were enough for me to do this quick watercolor sketch. The most memorable parts I think I've gotten, the huge tufts and the buff on the primaries. The yellow eye, surrounded by a coppery color is also striking but the best we could see was an occasional bit of yellow eye. So I used just a bit of artistic liberty here.

We also searched for the Northern Saw-whet Owl unsuccessfully. But who can complain after seeing the Long-eared? We also saw our first of year Tree Swallows and Green-winged Teal. Over the last few days, and closer to home, we've seen our first Wood Ducks of the year. YES, spring is here!

Red-breasted and Common Mergansers with Bufflehead at Flat Rock Dam. Late stage of two-block Woodcut by Ken Januski.

Above, badly photographed and cropped, is the newest version of the woodcut. I still need a gray for the Red-breasted Merganser and perhaps the Bufflehead and some water accents. Then the bulk of the print will be printed with the second black block. And then we'll see what we have. I'm hoping for the best.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Proofing the Mergansers and Bufflehead

Common and Red-breasted Mergansers with Bufflehead at Flat Rock Dam. Early Proof of Two-block Woodcut by Ken Januski.

Though we've gotten about eight inches of snow over the last couple of days that has nothing to do with the slow progress of this woodcut. Instead I was waiting for the delivery of a 'economy' print-drying rack before I started printing on good paper. It arrived early this week but it took another day to get it put together.

I've always just laid the proofs, and prints, on whatever flat surface I could find. It's not an ideal method by any means but it has worked so far. But recently I needed to use a small rolling table I'd built a few years ago for the purpose of storing home-grown seedlings. Where was it? Underneath one of my main flat areas for drying prints. Since many of the seedlings are up I need that table and can no longer use it to dry prints. The solution: a print-drying rack. Since even the most basic ones cost many hundreds of dollars I had to opt for one that is geared for schools and very young students. It's not exactly professional looking but it seems to work.

This also got me thinking about reorganizing the large table I use for inking and printing. In the end I've spent a few days reorganizing my printing area as well as putting together the print-drying rack and so there's been a delay in continuing this print. But now the reorganization is done and yesterday's printing of the first color on Shin Torinoko paper went much more smoothly than normal.

The background color in the proof above is pretty much the same color as that which I've printed on the good paper. Today I proofed some orange for the bills of the mergansers and then proofed the black block on top of it once I thought the orange ink was dry.

As usual there are also sorts of blotches and uneven ink. But I don't care much. I'm really just trying to use the proofs as a guide as to what to do next on the actual print on the Shin Torinoko paper. I'm pretty happy with the orange, though I had to make it redder than I'd planned in order to stand out. The next step will be to print it on the good paper. After that it's a brown/maroon for the neck of the Red-breasted Merganser in the foreground and then onto a darker green for the water at top. on the other side of the dam.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Getting a Sense of the Print

Red-breasted and Common Mergansers with Bufflehead at Flat Rock Dam. Early Proof of Multi-block Woodcut by Ken Januski.

Yesterday I said that I wasn't sure whether or not I'd add color to this woodblock. But after proofing more of the black block today I felt that I had to at least experiment with color. So I flipped the block over, transferred the black block to it and did some minimal carving. I then proofed one color, a blue-green which is much bluer I think than I'll eventually use. A little bit later I printed the black block on top of it.

That's what you see above, with a cockeyed photo, on cheap copier paper. I wouldn't use it to try to enter a competition but that's not my purpose. That is to explore what the print might actually LOOK like. I know a lot of contemporary artists use the computer to see what something might look like, experimenting with colors, shapes, etc. But I prefer to work with the actual materials, to take a chance and live with the consequences.

This is always the most exciting part of printing. Until then I have something that has started to look like a print but that is also missing essential ingredients, like color. Only printing will show how the colors, and shapes, work together. I imagine that there is still a long way to go here. But now I can actually make, then test, some of my plans for the print.

I'm still not positive that I'll make this a color print. It may go wrong somewhere along the line and I'll try to salvage just the black block. But I think it's very unlikely that will happen. Most likely this will be a two-block, and 4-5 color woodcut.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Birds In Our Own Backyard, More or Less

Mergansers and Bufflehead at Flat Rock Dam. Early Proof of Woodcut by Ken Januski.

When we first started birding in Philadelphia many years ago we didn't find that many birds here and instead found our best birds at Pocono Environmental Education Center, about 150-200 miles away I believe. We went to marvelous weekend workshops that included room and board for about $100, though the food was cafeteria style and the lodging was bunk beds with thin mattresses.

But we were too busy enjoying the birds and the trips with knowledgeable leaders to mind the spartan room and board. It was all that we needed to keep us going. The odd thing about this is that we got used to looking for Black-throated Green Warblers, among other birds, 100 feet above us in hemlock ravines. Needless to say we didn't get great views at that height.

About five years later I ran across one or more Black-throated Greens at eye level less than a mile away along the Wissahickon. It was quite a revelation to find these seemingly rare birds, here at home and with great views. If I could summarize our birding since then I'd say that much of it has been about discovering just how many birds can be found within 5 miles of our house.

This transformation began with warblers and other passerines but it eventually included raptors, shorebirds and water birds. With the recent cold winters in the Midwest we've gotten more and more unusual, or somewhat unusual waterbirds, right in our own backyard.

Yesterday we saw our first ever Canvasback at the Manayunk Canal, in a very small spot of open water, along with an American Wigeon, two Gadwall and numerous Mallard and Canada Geese. In my last post I mentioned the birds portrayed above, seen near Flat Rock Dam in the nearby Schuylkill River, two male Common Mergansers, a male Red-breasted Merganser and further back a male and female Bufflehead.

We really do enjoy the birds we see when travelling, and we're lucky to have such a rich birding spot as Cape May, NJ nearby. But I think it's even more satisfying to be seeing all these birds of various types so close to home. It certainly makes for easier travelling.

I expect the woodcut above to be in color, using a second woodblock for the colors. But there's a slim possibility I'll just leave it as a one color, one block woodcut. As usual this proof is on copier paper so it doesn't look like much. But for now it's just to give me an idea as to how to proceed. I'll get to better paper later.