Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Sketching Gnatcatchers, Warbler Workshops

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. Ballpoint Pen Field Sketch by Ken Januski.

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, American Robin and Wood Thrush. Felt-tip Pen Sketch by Ken Januski.

Unexpected home repair projects have forced me to miss almost a week of migration birding recently. I hate to miss seeing the first birds of the year but the work was also something that needed to be done.

Because I've been so busy with the home repair I still haven't posted the finished woodcut of the Blackpoll Warblers in the Swamp Dogwood. I'll post it at bottom of page.

After I did finish it and before I knew about the need for the home repairs I made a quick foray to the Manayunk Canal. There I saw my first Blue-gray Gnatcatcher of 2014. I think perhaps only birders can understand how thrilling it is to see the first of a species for the new year. It really is like welcoming long lost friends.

I have a long history of NOT being able to do a good sketch of them. I recall the big eye and long tail and don't manage to see much of anything else or put it down on paper. Immediately above is a large felt-tip pen sketch of birds seen at nearby Carpenter's Woods a few springs ago: an American Robin bathing in a small stream, a Wood Thrush near him and a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher on a nearby shrub. I like the sketch except that the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher is all wrong.

So this year when I saw my first one I decided to try to concentrate on it and sketch it. At top is the result. It's still far from satisfactory. But each year shows improvement. Between it and photos I'm tempted to do some more sketches of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers. Then I'd really like to revisit the felt-tip pen sketch. Perhaps it can be redone as a woodblock or linoleum block.

While I've been stuck inside I've seen reports of warblers and other birds arriving in Philadelphia  and other parts of PA. I hate missing them but will get the chance soon. One thing I've done in the meantime is to listen to the bird songs and calls of warblers that accompany the newly published The Warbler Guide while looking at the sonograms in the book. Sonograms are a newer method of learning to know the songs, based on a visual picture of the song rather than various mnemonics such as 'Sweet, Sweet, I'm So Sweet' of the Yellow Warbler.

Bird songs can be hard to learn but learning them can be incredibly important and enjoyable. I've written before about the excitement of stepping into the woods and recognizing 5-10 different species as I take my first step based completely on their songs. It really is thrilling.  I first ran across the notion of sonograms, though spelled sonograms, in The Singing Life of Birds by Donald Kroodsma. I never mastered it from that book but it certainly did intrigue me. The new warbler guide and its songs seems to make it much easier.

And speaking of that book The Delaware Valley Ornithological Club has a special warbler workshop featuring the authors this weekend at John Heinz NWR and Belleplain State Forest in New Jersey. I'm not sure if we'll make it there but it should be very exciting for anyone who can.

Finally, before rambling too far afield, I wanted to post the final version of the Blackpolls in Swamp Dogwood print.  It is a very small edition and I have only a couple of prints for sale on Etsy. I did debate adding another yellow color on top but decided that it would make the print even more complex. I'm happy with this just as is. Though it may not look it this is based on an actual experience. I'm quite happy being able to transliterate real experiences into art.

Fall Blackpolls in Swamp Dogwood. Multi-block Woodcut by Ken Januski.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Would Stuart Davis Be Pleased?

Blackpoll Warblers and Swamp Dogwood. Five-color Woodcut Proof by Ken Januski.

Well I hope so! During my many years as an abstract artist the American artist Stuart Davis was at the top of my artistic pantheon for many years. There was something so vibrant and alive about his work, though he never really reached the heights of fame and appreciation that I think his work deserved.

I wasn't really thinking of him with this woodcut or the last one. But when I pulled this proof a short while ago, black on top of four other colors my first reaction was: Stuart Davis! Right now I'm very happy with this print. In the cold light of day however it may no longer look so good, nor so much like Stuart Davis. But my guess is that I'm going to remain happy with it.

At that point I'll need to decide whether to overprint the yellow block, the very first one, as I've thought about doing. Right now my inclination is not to, though I may just have to try it on a proof, just to see what it looks like. If I don't then I'll print the black on good paper and be done. All the other colors have already been printed on the Shin Torinoko paper.

In my long artistic journey as a bird/ wildlife/nature artist I've continually sought to be honest to birds and nature while still making art that doesn't look like its from 200 years ago. Right now I feel like this is close to accomplishing that. Then again, there is the cold light of day lingering around the corner.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Moving Along with the Blackpoll Woodcut

Blackpoll Warblers and Swamp Dogwood. Four Color Woodcut Proof by Ken Januski.

Blackpoll Warblers and Swamp Dogwood. Three Color Woodcut Proof by Ken Januski

One more beautiful day and I've been inside the entire day, working on this print. Oh well. If I didn't enjoy it and it wasn't important I would have delayed it and gone out and enjoyed the day.

We have a couple of 2.5 year old cats that tend to get into trouble, especially recently. My wife jokingly rationalizes this by saying that they're 'splorin, a contraction for exploring. Well I hate to be lumped in with those little troublemakers, but I too am 'splorin. This entire print is an exploration.

That is both the fun and the challenge of it. The top print shows the print in its most finished stage so far. But the black that is supposed to unify it and define the two Blackpolls dominates the print at this point. Tomorrow I need to make some final decisions on the bottom proof. Once I do I'll print the third color on good printmaking paper.

Then the real task will remain - deciding how much black to remove. And then deciding on whether or not to reprint any of the other three blocks on top of the black. I'm very tempted to print the first yellowish block. That will both tone down the black on the breasts of the Blackpolls and turn some of the pinks and roses a bit more orangey. At least that's how I visualize it.

Stay tuned.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Juggling Blackpolls and Woodcuts

Blackpolls and Swamp Dogwood. Yellow on Black Woodcut Proof by Ken Januski.

Blackpolls and Swamp Dogwood. Red on Black Woodcut Proof by Ken Januski.

The first warm weekend in spring is here and I'm inside working on this Blackpoll and Swamp Dogwood print. But that's fine. We birded early this morning, seeing our first American Kestrel of 2014, and then this afternoon I've been glued to my chair carving woodblocks and proofing them.

As I said this is very improvisatory, even more than the last mergansers and grebes multi-block woodcut. That leaves a lot that can go wrong. But it also leaves some room for excitement.

Above I tried two proofs, one of a yellow block on top of the black block and the next of a red block, just half the size of the black block printed on top of the black block.

I'm starting to see possibilities and excitement. However part of the excitement is transitory. I don't plan to print yellow or red over black but in fact the opposite. So most likely the print will never really look that close to the two proofs above.

Blackpolls and Swamp Dogwood. First Stage of Multi-block Woodcut by Ken Januski.

Above is the first color printed on good paper, Shin Torinoko. Here you can see that the yellow will be the bottom layer of color. But I do like the greenish effect of black over yellow. So tomorrow I'll proof some black, and red on top of the yellow block. If I like it I'll proceed. If not I'll have to leave somewhere in my plans for these four wood blocks (that's right I haven't mentioned the fourth yet) to reprint some of the yellow block over the black.

This sounds for more complicated than it is. Hopefully it will start to come together soon. I think the two proofs at top at least give a hint of just where it might go. In fact it's a bit like a warbler, ready to flit off in any direction at any moment.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Bloodroot Yes, Palm Warbler No

Bloodroot and Hellebore. Photo by Ken Januski.

I think nothing speaks of spring more than wildflowers poking through the leaf litter. In a certain sense it is the perfect metaphor for spring. Out of the drab leaf litter that covers the ground, and looks so unpromising, ephemeral wildflowers optimistically poke their way through. And before you know it they'll be gone.

With these Bloodroot flowers in our side yard we can always count on rain or hail wiping them out within a day or so of blooming. I always associate the earliest warblers with Bloodroot, Mayapples, Skunk Cabbage, Virginia Bluebells, at least in our area. After seeing some Palm Warblers and blooming Bloodroot at the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education a few springs ago I couldn't resist making a linocut print out of it. I've shown it before but here it is again. It remains a favorite of mine.

Palm Warbler Amidst Bloodroot. Linocut by Ken Januski.

Sad to say though we've never had a Palm Warbler in our yard, at least not one that we've noticed. But each year the striking white flowers of our Bloodroot put on a short but splendid show, just waiting for our first Palm Warbler.

I've finally begun a multi-block woodcut based on the watercolor sketches I showed in the last post of a Blackpoll Warbler, or two, amidst the striking Swamp Dogwood, seen last fall at Maumee Bay State Park in Ohio. As with the last print this will be quite improvisatory. Below is the start of the black block. Most likely it will be the last block printed.

Blackpoll Warblers and Swamp Dogwood. First State Proof of First Block of Multi-block Woodcut by Ken Januski.

Below is the red/pink block. It is half the size of the black block and will print on the left side of the black block. There will also be a block of the same size that will print on the right side of the black block. And most likely I'll flip the black block over and also print on it. Who knows where this will lead? But I do think it's the direction I need to go. There is just too much safe, predictable wildlife and bird art there. I for one want to try something different. Perhaps it will appeal to art lovers if not to lovers of bird and wildlife art. Or it may just be a mistake. Either way it's something that I need to try.

Blackpoll Warblers and Swamp Dogwood. First State Proof of Second Block of Multi-block Woodcut by Ken Januski.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Rambling with Pencil, Color and Theory

Blackpoll Warbler. Watercolor Sketch by Ken Januski

Blackpoll Warbler. Pencil Sketch by Ken Januski

Yes you would have a good right to question my honesty if I told you I recently saw this warbler. But there are some hints that it is fall and not spring due to the orange leaves, or should I say suggestion of leaves.

I'm working on ideas and sketches for a new somewhat abstract woodcut, similar to the one of the grebes and mergansers. Part of my idea in what I hope will be a series of such prints is that I needn't be limited, at all, by verisimilitude. I've always known this but it was reinforced recently while listening to a very lengthy introduction to music from The Teaching Company.

Music is of course the most abstract of the arts. It rarely is meant to represent something. But I was shocked to read about something, from the Renaissance, called non-imitative polyphony. In it two different themes are sung at the same time, creating counterpoint or polyphony. Often this was done with masses and in fact got to the  point where there was a reaction against it. So though one theme might be a recognizable song, often from the mass, the other, played at the same time, might be the most secular and non-religious of songs. I'm a beginner to music history to I hesitate to say more because I'll inevitably get it wrong.

But what struck me was that about 500 years ago composers felt free to experiment with even such solemn things as masses for decorative and emotional effect. There always was and always will be the desire on the part of artists to experiment. Even 500 years ago!!

Some musicians of that time felt free to mix and match in seemingly the most outrageous ways. Why I can't say for sure but I'd guess for artistic effect and expression.

What does this have to do with the visual arts, and particularly that fall Blackpoll Warbler seen among the Swamp Dogwoods at Maumee State Park? The sensation of color. What stuck with me more than anything else were the subtle colors of the warbler AND the pink/rose color of the Swamp Dogwood. There was an overall color harmony that was and is my most striking memory.

So just like non-imitative polyphony I'm going to take great liberties with the warbler in the interest of an overall color sensation.

The problem with this of course is that I could get so abstract so quickly that it would be easy to lose all moorings, all sense of connection to the warbler itself.

Blackpoll Warbler. Pencil Sketch by Ken Januski.

Blackpoll Warbler. Watercolor Sketch by Ken Januski.

That is where shape comes in. Many authors of bird field guides talk about the importance of shape in identifying birds. That's absolutely true. I recently had the pleasure of watching David Sibley discuss his working methods in a talk about the second edition of his famous guide to birds.

He said that he might look for 15 minutes or so before spending less than 30 seconds putting down the shape on paper. Details he could get later from photos. It was the shape that was important.

It is shape I think that gives life and individuality to birds. It's also one of the most pleasurable aspects of drawing. Sometimes when I'm sketching something it seems that there is nothing else of equal enjoyment in art. I felt that as I drew the three sketches of Blackpolls I'm showing here. I deliberately took photos of them before I added watercolor so as to accentuate the drawing itself.

In any case I think that shape can be an anchor in a more or less abstract painting or print. That is what I tried to do in the mergansers and grebes print and that's what I'll try to do if I make a print from the blackpolls. At the moment I'm just sketching trying to get a good sense of their shape. At some point I'll try to merge that with a much more abstract rendering of the pinks, oranges, and subtle yellow of the Blackpoll that I remember so well.

Blackpoll Warbler. Pencil Sketch by Ken Januski.

Blackpoll Warbler. Watercolor Sketch by Ken Januski

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Orange-crowned Warbler and Others

Orange-crowned Warbler along the Wissahickon. Photo by Ken Januski.

Orange-crowned Warbler along the Wissahickon. Photo by Ken Januski.

Orange-crowned Warbler along the Wissahickon. Photo by Ken Januski.

Orange-crowned Warbler along the Wissahickon. Photo by Ken Januski.

Orange-crowned Warbler along the Wissahickon. Photo by Ken Januski.

Louisiana Waterthrush along the Wissahickon. Photo by Ken Januski.

I do hate to crowd a post with photos like this. But my attempts with a watercolor sketch that combines a Louisiana Waterthrush and an Orange-crowned Warbler the other day upon first seeing them just didn't turn out. I just couldn't convince myself to show it.

But given that it seems to be a bit unusual to find an Orange-crowned Warbler at this time at this location I decided to go out again, this time bringing Jerene along. We started off by finding a Winter Wren and a Hermit Thrush but no Orange-crowned.

Thankfully we didn't give up. He eventually reappeared and I took upwards of 25 photos. The best are here. Since we were looking straight down at him most of the time the photos don't show everything that you might need to confirm the ID. Because of that I've tried to include photos that show pertinent parts of this bird we rarely see.

On the way back up the hill we saw warbler number five for 2014: two Palm Warblers. I don't think there's a more beautiful yellow in the American bird world than that of the Palm Warbler, though I'm also very partial to that of the Yellow-breasted Chat! Combined with the Pine, Louisiana Waterthrush, Orange-crowned and Yellow-rumped Warblers that we've seen you could say that spring finally, finally, finally has arrived.

In our yard the first buds of Bloodroot have poked their head up an inch or two. A very exciting two months lie ahead.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Arriving Warblers, Departing Ducks

Pine Warbler and Ring-necked Ducks. Watercolor Sketch by Ken Januski

I hate to post something new here. That's because I'm so happy with that last grebes and mergansers print that I'd like to leave it up permanently.

But time and the seasons move on and I hate to not mention something about them. Earlier this week, I saw my first Pine Warbler of 2014. After the long dreary winter their strong, bright yellow is always a welcome harbinger of things to come. I saw him while walking along Forbidden Drive in Wissahickon Park in Philadelphia but unfortunately the view was all to brief. Fortunately though he was low, just above eye level, so I did get a good look at his rich yellow.

Later in the week just as the first of 3-5 rainy days began I went to the wetlands of Morris Arboretum, looking for Wilson's Snipe, a bird we sometimes see there this time of year. I'd also heard that some long-billed shorebirds had been seen so that convinced me to brave the rain and go looking for them.

Try as I might I didn't find them but finally I realized that those strikingly contrasting Mallards at the far end of the pond were in fact not Mallards but Ring-necked Ducks. It's the first time I've ever seen any there  I think that during migration though it pays to pay attention. Migrants can't be too choosy and you just don't know what you may find in any location.

I never saw this scene. The Pine Warbler was about a mile away on a different day. But their juxtaposition is plausible and I like the idea of illustrating the arrival of one migrant and the departure of another.

I'm not too experienced with waterfowl but it seems this year has been far more active than normal, probably because of frozen water farther north. It's been a pleasure to see so many close to home. But without a doubt I'm ready to trade them for warblers, a symbol of a long awaited spring if there ever was one.

Each spring I find I do watercolor sketches like this, often combining birds not actually seen together. These really are the working through of ideas more than anything else. They are both illustrations of something and compositional studies. Yes they are sloppy and indistinct. But their purpose is really as a compositional study for a possible print or painting at another time. Perhaps even a woodcut like the last one. It is a direction I'll continue to pursue.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Completed Mergansers and Grebes Woodcut

Mergansers and Grebes on the Schuylkill River. Multi-block Reduction Woodcut by Ken Januski.

Done! Though inevitably as I print what should be the last state of a print I start thinking, 'Well I could do that or I could add this.' But Sometimes you just have to stop and save any new thoughts for a new print.

This is an edition of 15. The entire print is 9x11 inches and the image itself is 6x8 inches. I used Daniel Smith water soluble relief inks on Shin Torinoko paper from McClains. I had read that this paper, reasonably priced, was also good for use with multiple blocks. Since I knew I'd be using both reduction woodcut and multiple wood blocks it seemed like a good choice. And I have to say that it's held up well.

I'm quite happy I pursued this, especially the 5-6 abstract shapes that constituted the first image that I printed, way back when. They force this print out of the category of something you might actually see, I think, into the category of evoking something you might experience.

As returning readers well know I have a thing about photography. I doubt that it's far removed from the notion, apocryphal or not, that photographs steal your soul. To me they are always so much less that what I've seen and experienced.

I guess that's why I've always loved art. But wildlife art seems to be joined at the hip to photography. Numerous artists have complained about this but photographic wildlife art still seems to completely overwhelm any other type of wildlife art.

So since the day I started bird art, almost eight years ago now, I've wanted to create a type of art that is both naturalistic, in the sense that there is some sort of truth to the birds and other fauna and flora portrayed but that is also artistic, that is not limited by verisimilitude. A well known wildlife artist once questioned online my notion that artists can know too much. But surely they can, just like muscle bound athletes are limited. Knowledge is in the service of art and not the other way round.

In any case I found a few years ago that relief printmaking seemed to offer a way to combine naturalism and art. But I also found that I was still getting a little closer to photographic representation than I liked, even if it was fairly expressionistic.

So this print is really the first to really break out of that. The geometric shapes put a stumbling block in the way of representation, deliberately. In my mind they have served well in forcing me to keep this print about art, as well as about representation. All in all I'm quite happy with the results and hope that this will be a fruitful path to pursue. I'm pretty confident that it will.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Next to Last Color on the Mergansers and Grebes

Mergansers and Grebes on Schuylkill River. Third State of Multi-block Reduction Woodcut by Ken Januski.

After deliberating about the second color for the water in this print I went ahead and printed it this morning. Yesterday I had a deeper blue green but I decided that something more olive/yellow might work better. We shall see.

It's so hard to actually evaluate a print at this stage. I know that the final(hopefully) black color will bring back a lot of contrast. I hope it will both accentuate the birds, separating them a bit from the background, and add sparkle to the tonal sense of the print.

As Winslow Homer and many others have said, it is tone that underlies everything. I hated those gray scale charts in beginning art class and they really seemed worthless at the time. I'm not sure if you ever really learn anything from doing them. But I think at some point most artists realize that tone is their friend.

One of the things that turns me from so much illustration, including wildlife illustration, is that it often has no tonal contrast. There's just a variety of  lukewarm grays. As I said tone is your friend.

As usual when I print I realize how easy it is to get lost in technique. I never pursued printmaking in my lengthy college education, perhaps because it seemed to rely too much on technique. But the more I print the more I realize that technique too is your friend, though it may take many years to master or even vaguely control it.