Saturday, June 27, 2015

Seduced by Sum Brush Pen Studies

Osprey. Sumi Brush Pen Studies by Ken Januski.

Ovenbirds. Sumi Brush Pen Studies by Ken Januski.

This hasn't been much of a June so far. Either too hot and muggy to spend much time outside, or too wet to spend much time outside. So I've spent far more time, and ink, using the Kuretake Sumi Brush Pen than I ever would have anticipated. But it is addicting nonetheless.

I think that there are a couple of reasons for this: one has to do with the pen itself -- it makes very fluid strokes. But the other has nothing to do with the pen. It is instead the thrill I've always found in sketches that capture animation, from Rembrandt to some cartoons. I do think there is an almost primordial appeal to art that translates marks into an evocation of a lively, moving body, whether it belongs to humans or animals. Almost like a magic capturing of spirit.

My background is as a formal, abstract artist. Among my many teachers was a famous woman artist in California whose somewhat diaristic art garnered her many avid female (mainly) students. Though I wasn't fond of the adoring followers or the diaristic aspect of the art it was honest as could be I think. I greatly liked her. But she did say one thing that stuck with me when she critiqued my work as a graduate student in art: it was very good formally she said but it didn't seem to be ABOUT anything.

This has never bothered me, the fact that my art was formal and not about anything in particular. But when I started to work from nature I suddenly found that it was ABOUT something. That in turn allowed me to indulge in my liking for art that captured animation, the sense of liveliness in subjects.

So once I started using the sumi brush pen I found that I liked many of my drawings, even though most were done from my photos, because they did seem co capture the animation of birds, the sense of the postures they take, the way the weight is distributed, etc., etc.

Palm Warblers. Sumi Brush Pen Studies by Ken Januski.


Least Sandpipers. Sumi Brush Pen Studies by Ken Januski.

And so with the weather keeping me inside more or less I've continued to do these 11x14 sketches of birds with the sumi brush pen. I'm up to about 40 pages in about 10 days I thnk. Besides the sense of animation there is something else that is very important I think that the pen forces me to do: SIMPLIFY.  I've actually not simplified that much in the sketches of Least Sandpipers immediately above and I think they suffer a bit from it. I got carried away I think trying to show too many of the beautiful feathers. Photography allows us to see the details in feathers and feather patterns that we don't really see with the naked eye. When they're right there in front of us in a photo it's tempting to try to put them all down. But it's far more productive I think to just suggest the feathers by simplifying. It certainly creates a more lively work by simplifying them.

So I may be able to make just two marks for the bill, one above and one below. Even the line separating the two may be too much. So I have to look closely at the photos and then decide which few lines I want to put down. Not all of these work. There are many mistakes and missteps. But there are others that I'm quite happy with. They simply capture the sense of the bird. And they look alive.

Northern Mockingbirds and Pintails Sumi Brush Pen Studies by Ken Januski.

As I said in another post I'm unhappy that I've been able to do so few field sketches with the new brush. Below you see my two newest attempts. Not much to write home about. I think part of the problem is that the sketchbook is too small for the brush, this being a much smaller Moleskine sketchbook. Also I don't have as solid a surface to paint on since I'm holding the sketchbook in one hand and that's not as stable as a table. And of course my subjects are quite uncooperative and move on me. But there are compensations with sketching from life: like the Great Crested Flycatcher eating a Red Admiral butterfly. I thought he had a dragonfly. Until I put the binoculars on him in his new location and saw the unmistakable outer wing edges of a beautiful Red Admiral.

I do like the very simple Gray Catbird at bottom right. And I'm confident that this brush pen will eventually come in very handy in the field.

Carolina Wren, Great Crested Flycatcher with Red Admiral and Gray Catbird. Sumi Brush Pen Field Sketches by Ken Januski.


Picture-winged Fly, Veery and Common Grackle.  Sumi Brush Pen Field Sketches by Ken Januski.

After I'd posted this I decided to try to combine sumi brush pen and watercolor, in my years old quest to get a vigorous watercolor that still looked like something more than random marks. This still remains a goal of mine. With that said this is a 12x16 watercolor with underlying sumi brush pen sketch on Arches 140# paper. It's based on a number of shorebirds, mainly Red Knots, Ruddy Turnstones and Dunlin seen at Cooks Beach, NJ in May.

Red Knot and Other Shorebirds at Cooks Beach. Sumi Brush Pen and Watercolor by Ken Januski.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Green Jewels of June

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

Ebony Jewelwing on Leaf. Sumi Brush Pen and Watercolor Sketch by Ken Januski.

June brings two green jewels to Philadelphia each year, the Ruby-throated Hummingbird, whose back always has some green on it, and the Ebony Jewelwing damselfly, where the male is a brilliant blue/green, though his wings are black(ebony) as could be.

As I've continued to experiment with the Kuretake Sumi Brush Pen, so much so in fact that the first ink cartridge is drying up, I've decided to try it with both of these green jewels as subject. Above both are done first with the brush pen. Then I added a bit of watercolor for color. Since the ink is water-soluble it runs a bit. Given my style that does no harm. But I am investigating how to use permanent ink in the pen.

Ebony Jewelwing and Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Sumi Brush Pen Field Sketch by Ken Januski.

I've always planned to use the pen primarily for field sketching. Finally today I did do with the 20-30 Ebony Jewelwings, the most I've ever seen at one time, at Morris Arboretum. This was a matter of looking through binoculars, trying to remember what I saw, then putting it down, at a very small scale in my sketchbook. Not great but at least recognizable. That's a good base to build from. When I got home I saw the first Ruby-throated Hummingbird in our yard for today. They or it has been here for 4 days straight, feeding primarily on trumpet honeysuckle. The sketch is done from memory later. At this time of year I rarely have drawing utensils with me when they appear so I stare until they leave, trying to memorize the bird and it's movements.

Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. Sumi Brush Pen Sketches by Ken Januski.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Sumi Brush Pen and Watercolor Sketch by Ken Januski.

Above are two more sumi brush pen sketches of hummingbirds from photos. In the bottom one I've added watercolor. It may seem hard to believe but one of my purposes in trying the pen was to find a way to sketch my subjects with lines of varying width. This works well in sumi and I'd also like to use the varying line width in my prints as so many have done before me. I haven't really done that much yet in my prints but I hope the sumi sketches will help in that transition.

Below is a woodcut of a Ruby-throated Hummingbird seen in our yard last year and a linocut of an Ebony Jewelwing and Louisiana Waterthrush from 2011. I'm sure more prints will eventually appear.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird on Yew Twig. Woodcut by Ken Januski.

Louisiana Waterthrush and Ebony Jewelwing.Linocut by Ken Januski.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Some More Sumi Brush Pen Sketches

Hermit Thrush. Sumi Brush Pen Sketches by Ken Januski.

Many years ago I used to do three hours of figure drawing five nights a week in San Francisco, this immediately after leaving my full-time job. I ate supper when I got home at 9-10 pm with a stop in between for an espresso or cappuccino at one of San Francisco's many coffee houses.

It wasn't the healthiest life style but it was exciting, especially as I did almost all of my life drawings using felt tip pens, or reed pens dipped in ink on paper about 18x24 inches. In other words I did many quick, large sketches night after night. There was something both mesmerizing and fulfilling about working so quickly and at such a relatively large scale.

I'm including three new sheets of Kuratake Sumi Brush Pen sketches. They are also very quickly done. That it just inevitable with the drawing tool. If you don't move it quickly you get a blob. I suppose it is possible to contemplate your stroke for awhile before you actually put it down. This in fact might be the best way to use the brush pen. But for now I'm doing these quickly. Each time I put down one stroke I quickly move to the next stroke.

These are done in an 11x14 Cachet sketchbook so they are somewhat large. I think it is the quick fluidity of the brush pen rather than the size of the paper that is the main factor in the effect created. And it thoroughly reminds me of the excitement of those figure drawing classes.

Great Egrets. Sumi Brush Pen Sketches by Ken Januski.

As I've mentioned, ad nauseum I'm sure, I'm not at all interested in detail. I want to scream when I read compliments on 'the detail' in someone's work. For me the telling detail is important, the one that through suggestion indicates both a knowledge and a feel for the bird, or any other object for that matte, but that is quite different than millions of little details that work against one another so that there is no focus in the work.

This brush pen, or just a regular sumi brush, forces you I think to go for overall impression and just one or two details. That's the goal I seek and I think working with the sumi brush pen will be very helpful along those lines. Eventually I'm sure at least some of these sumi sketches will appear in a new woodcut or linocut.

Great-crested Flycatcher. Sumi Brush Pen Sketches by Ken Januski.
Oh yes, these are all done from the many photos I've taken over the years. If the rain, and hot weather, ever stops I plan to try the pen drawing from life.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

A New Toy

Sketches of Northern Rough-winged Swallows.  Kuretake Sumi Brush Pen Sketches by Ken Januski.

I rarely look for new toys for my artmaking. I might add a carving tool or another watercolor brush but generally speaking they are just variations of tools I already use. I don't consider them toys. And really I don't have any use for a million distractions. I tend to only buy what I know I need. For many, many reasons though, some of them totally unconnected to one another I've been wanting to try sumi brush painting again.

I first took a course in it in San Francisco more that 40 years ago. Since we were studying the traditional Chinese method on a type of cheap paper that soaked up brush strokes and turned them into blobs I enjoyed it but was never successful. Still I've always had a lot of respect for the art.

I've also wanted to find a painterly way to sketch birds, particularly from life, but also from photos. I wanted a method that would deny an obsession with detail. Sumi seemed like a good idea but my old brushes and ink probably weren't the right media to use. When I investigated I found that there is a new type of brush, similar to waterbrushes. Given that I found only good reviews I decided to buy one. These pens have a reservoir similar to waterbrushes, filled with ink rather than water. They have the same, or hopefully better, fluidity of stroke that waterbrushes sometimes have.

The sketches above, almost all of Northern Rough-winged Swallows, are my first attempts using the Kuretake Red Barrel Sumi Brush Pen. I haven't mastered it quite yet, oddly enough. But the possibilities do seem to leap out at me. I expect that I will be using this new 'toy' a lot in the future.

Northern Rough-winged Swallow at Gorgas Run. Pencil and Watercolor Sketch by Ken Januski.

Northern Rough-winged Swallows aren't the most colorful of birds but they always hold my interest, I guess because they are so common here in summer. Yesterday I did a quick sketch from life of one at the Manayunk Canal. To try to consolidate what I learned it that sketch I did the pencil and watercolor sketch above from a photo I'd taken last year when I got home. For me watercolor remains a chore. But it is one that I think I keep getting better at. At some point I may be able to do watercolors with the freshness that makes them so special. My guess is that the finesse of touch required with the sumi brush pen will also show up in my watercolors, if in fact I develop any finesse. In any case it's a rare moment: a truly new toy!

Friday, June 12, 2015

Forgotten Warbler, Another Snake, Completed Woodcut and a Very Influential Artist

Louisiana Waterthrush and Snake. Pencil and Watercolor Sketch by Ken Januski.

As I wrote about the local breeding warblers in my last post I expected that I probably would forget to mention one or two. Sure enough I forgot the one that breeds within a mile of our house: the Louisiana Waterthrush. It's hard to believe I forgot that one. So above is a quick pencil and watercolor sketch of one, seen with an as yet unidentified snake, in a tributary of the Wissahickon at Morris Arboretum. I saw it and another one there this May. They've been somewhat sparse, at least for me, in the Wissahickon this year so I need to make a point of looking for them before they leave.

'Black' Squirrel, Palm Warbler and Mourning Cloak. Final Edition of Two Block Reduction Woodcut by Ken Januski.

More important news is that I've finally finished the 4x6 inch two block reduction woodcut of the 'Black' Squirrel, Palm Warbler and Mourning Cloak seen at the very beginning of migration season in early April 2015. This photo is a bit off in that the blue is not that bright. I sometimes use more than one dark color in my prints and when I do you can bet that they will not photograph well. In this instance my camera insisted in seeing a brighter blue than is actually on the print.

I'm happy with this print, though of course there are some things I'd prefer had worked a bit better. But with a complex print like this that sentiment is inevitable. For me the most exciting thing is that I have transmuted something actually experienced into art. That is one great differentiating factor between my work and much wildlife art, or even contemporary art in general. I'm not interested in making an imitation photo,  nor in portraying any existential angst against the state, the unfairness of life, etc., etc. There's much to enjoy in life, particularly outside in the natural world, and I'd like to capture that experience in some way. I don't care about the details of scientific illustration. I care about the thrill of being outside.

And speaking of that I was sad to learn, as were many others, that John Busby had died. I probably wouldn't have changed from an abstract artist to a bird artist if it weren't for him. Or I would have withered on the vine, in the dull and lifeless world of wildlife art as I knew it. It was only in reading and looking at his book Drawing Birds that I saw wildlife art that showed some sense of the excitement of outdoor experiences and also had some sense of art rather than illustration. If you've never read this book, and you have any interest at all in wildlife art or bird art, I'd recommend it. Though he's had an impact on me I think that his impact on artists in Europe and in England in particular is probably hard to overestimate.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Like A Day without Sun

American Redstart. Pencil and Watercolor Sketch by Ken Januski.

...it seems like a Spring without Warblers. I've been out birding a number of times over the last few days, including about three hours today as part of the Breeding Bird Census and the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education. And almost all the warblers, and other neo-tropical migrants, are gone. The ones that remain are breeding birds.

The warblers that breed in Philadelphia that spring to mind are in order of  likelihood: Yellow Warbler and Common Yellowthroat, followed by American Redstart and Ovenbird. Perhaps there are others that might be found, a Northern Parula perhaps, but those first four are the most likely ones. And it seems, though I could be wrong that one of them, the Ovenbird is in decline. No one saw or heard any today during the bird census, in an area that should be fairly likely for them.

Of course the thrill of warblers is often the very many that don't breed here, that are moving onto other locales, even if they are only 100-200 miles from here. So in retrospect I'd have to say it's been one of the saddest years for local warblers that I can recall. There were very few warblers, at least in the places I birded.

As a tribute to them and to warblers in general I decided to do a quick watercolor based on a photo I'd taken last year of the handsome American Redstart. I chose this photo because I liked the way it showed the full bird, including the somewhat hefty undercarriage and the slightly curved bill.

I was mentioning to Jerene that though northern migration has ended southern migration could begin again by the end of the month, not warblers but shorebirds and perhaps others. Once you're attuned to nature the spectacle and excitement really is neverending. And of course dragonflies and butterflies are just starting to come into their own.

Milk Snake at SCEE. Photo by Ken Januski.
And of course snakes. No, not really. I'm not a great snake afficinado. But when I saw this unusual one, unusual at least to me, at the Schuylkill Center today I had to take a photo. As far as I recall it's the first Eastern Milk Snake I've ever seen.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

'Sketching a Man Jumping Out of a Window Before He Hits the Ground' Is Easy


While trying to SEE let alone identify or sketch dragonflies that we've seen in backyard and at Morris Arboretum and the Manayunk Canal over the last few days I was struck by how incredibly difficult it can be to use them as subjects for art. Some, not all, seem to never sit still. Worse they constantly change direction so that it's difficult to even take photos. I say this because with other subjects you might reasonably consider that the subject will continue in the same direction. So you can focus the camera a little bit ahead of the moving object hoping that the shutter will click just as he flies by. Forget that philosophy with dragonflies. They instead will have made two or three 90-180 degree turns instead of heading on to where you expect them to be.

I seemed to remember a quote from either Delacroix or Degas about being able to sketch a cat as if fell out of a window. Hmm. I don't think I have any hidden antagonism to our cats. As it is it turns out the quote was from Delacroix and he said that if you couldn't sketch a man jumping from a 4th floor window before he hit the ground you had little future as an artist. But there at least gravity is at work. You pretty much know where the man is heading. He won't make any 90 degree turns or looping curlicues. That's the source of the post title. Compared to drawing dragonflies from life Delacroix's task is easy.

Yesterday I took a number of photos of the small damselfly at top. As usual it looked unusual, perhaps a damselfly we'd never seen before. But I know better. It is, at least I'm pretty sure, a Variable Dancer, a damselfly fly that we've seen before including at Morris.

You can probably see why this type of photo, or sketch if I'd tried, doesn't often lead to interesting art. The seen is always one of incredible flatness, an almost two-dimensional subject against a flat two-dimensional background. Flat, flat, flat. I think that's one reason that when I use dragonflies in my artwork I make them small, part of a larger scene so that their two-dimensional qualities won't be so evident.

On the other hand if I paint them small I lose much of the detail, which is often quite striking. There are plenty of people doing illustrations of dragonflies and they concentrate on the detail, often at the expense of a sense of either animation or environment. But it's hard to get both. I try it various ways. The way I've tried here is to use a pen for the sketch. I know I won't be able to get many details, that the ink will run, and that every mistake will be there to stay. But it does seem to give me some chance of getting a bit of artistic spontaneity into such a horribly flat composition. The Dancer does disappear a bit more than I'd like but at the same time the painting doesn't look like a detailed, but somewhat dead illustration. Since dragonfly season has just begun I'm sure that there will be many more opportunities ahead.


I printed another color on the two-block reduction woodcut of the 'Black' Squirrel, Palm Warbler and Mourning Cloak butterfly and it is below. But the ink continues to take a long time to dry so I had to stop work on it and let the ink dry. In the meantime I decided to try some sketches based on many photos I've taken over the year of 2015. I don't like working from photos. But they can be good for studying details of birds that are often hard to see in binoculars. So anything based on them is almost always a quick study. I can't see doing developed work based on them. In this instance I happened to see a lot of Orchard Orioles over the last few weeks so it was nice to be able to see, and sketch, some of their details. This is a quick pencil and watercolor sketch in a Stillman and Birn Gamma sketchbook.


And finally the newest state of the two-block reduction woodcut. After much experimental proofing I decided that I needed to use a lighter tone in the background on the right side, especially as I wanted it to contrast with the black of the squirrel and tree on the left. The last step, I hope, will be to print that black, and to determine how much to leave on the right. This is a 4x6 inch print. It seems ridiculous to be making so many difficult artistic decisions about something so tiny. But what can I do? I've started and I'll finish. Hopefully the results, though small, will prove to be worth the effort.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

The Thrilling Sketchbook, The Hand-colored Linocut

Acadian Flycatcher, Wood Thrush, Red-eyed Vireo, Field Sketches with Watercolor by Ken Januski.

You might think that after a number of years of making art, abstract, realistic, or otherwise that it would be easy to get jaded. In some cases that is true. I certainly did with all the IMPORTANT ART that started to be shown around the 1980s. In fact it was hard to go to a gallery and find art that wasn't important. All that important art all over the place. Little matter that is was self-declared IMPORTANT ART. If I had gotten a gallery show at that time, when I was still doing abstract art, I would have tried to have it called UNIMPORTANT ART.  Sad to say the art world has only come to take itself more seriously in the years since then, though the huge sums that are used to speculate in art these days makes it easy to keep the illusion up.

But I digress............. Even though it is possible to get jaded in art, or any other field, there is one thing that is most likely to bring back the thrill of art to me: someone's sketchbook. It used to be the sketchbook of people like Rembrandt, Degas, etc. But since I've turned to art based on birds it is more likely the field sketchbooks of numerous bird artists. Of course most of the most famous and best-selling bird artists don't seem to do sketching in the field. And it shows. But for those artists that do I can't find anything more exciting. Whether it is the work of a known or unknown artist I find it endlessly rewarding and exciting to see the field work of accomplished naturalistic artists. And the best ones, or at least the ones that move me the most, seem to combine sketches with watercolor.

Given all that you'd think I'd be doing that sort of exciting fieldwork myself. Well it's not that I haven't tried. Unfortunately I generally fail miserably. So it's with great pleasure that I show the two pages from a small Moleskine sketchbook above. The Acadian Flycatcher, Wood Thrush and Red-eyed Vireo were all seen and sketched in Philadelphia over the last three days. This afternoon I added watercolor to them in the studio.  As usual there are a few things that aren't completely accurate about the portrayals. And I could go back, look at reference photos, and correct them. But that I can do in new versions. With these I just wanted to leave them as I sketched them. I'm happy to say that for the first time I excited about my own hand-colored field sketches!

Female American Kestrel with Dead American Robin. Hand-colored Linocut by Ken Januski.

And speaking of hand-coloring I also completed the linocut of the female American Kestrel eating a freshly killed American Robin with watercolor yesterday. 16 of the prints were left as black prints on white paper. But I wanted to experiment with adding watercolor to 8 of them. Most of the motivation for this was due to the subtle coloring of the kestrel. It is something best captured in watercolor. But I didn't want to do a finicky version in watercolor alone. So hand-coloring a print seemed like a good idea.

After you work in the limitations of printmaking it's shocking to all of a sudden be able to use the freedom of painting in a print. So here no print is identical. They are very similar but the brushwork and color in the foreground for instance is slightly different from print to print. That also is very exciting. Both prints are now for sale on Etsy.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Fieldsketching Chats

Yellow-breasted Chat at Higbee Beach. Field Sketch by Ken Januski.

As I've mentioned more than once one of my great ambitions is to be able to portray warblers in the field, from life that is, not from photos. I was thinking I'd title this post 'Chats and Cuckoos' and begin by saying what a dud spring it has been for warblers, both here and in Cape May. But then I realized that, at least for the time being, a Yellow-breasted Chat, IS a warbler.

So I'm happy to say that all the sketches on this page were done from life, with the Yellow-breasted Chat, right in front of me, singing his unique song, where the silences are as important as the notes. It's always a thrill to hear and see them. All of these sketches were done through a scope since the bird was really too far away to sketch from binocular views.

In the sketch above I added watercolor when I got home, back in the studio. The two below were colored in the field, using Caran d'Ache Neocolor II water-soluble crayons and a water brush. I did touch them up a small bit back at home when I returned.

None are great but they do have, at least for me, the excitement of seeing the bird in the wild. And that is what I find necessary in order to do anything more developed, as either a print or a painting. I'm sure that either a print or a watercolor will come from these. I do particularly like the fact that in most instances I've captured each bird as he sang.

Yellow-breasted Chat at Cape May Point State Park. Field Sketch by Ken Januski.

Yellow-breasted Chat at Higbee Dike. Field Sketch by Ken Januski.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

It Happens Every Spring


It's not the most elevating experience of spring but it is one that happens with great regularity, a Red-tailed Hawk pays a visit to the nest of Red-winged Blackbirds. And you can guess why he's there: to make food of the eggs and/or young. So every spring you see the sight above: Red-winged Blackbirds attacking a seemingly impervious Red-tailed Hawk. I've never actually seen one make off with an egg or young but I pretty much expect that this is what happens. This quick pencil and watercolor sketch is based on a photo I took today at Morris Arboretum.

What I had hoped for if not expected today was a great show of warblers. But it was not to be. Spring is moving along and we've seen very few warblers. The one great showing recently was as I walked out of Carpenter's Woods to meet a deadline. After 4 hours of birding they appeared, mainly Black-rhroated Blue Warblers, just as I had to leave. Warbler Karma.



But there is more to the world of birds than warblers. including American Kestrels and American Robins. Above you see the final edition of the American Kestrel Eating American Robin linocut. I printed it in an edition of 24, but I'm holding 8 back to hand color. So this version is 16. The hand-colored version, when I get to it, and if all goes well, will be 8.

It is completely by accident that I'm focusing on raptors here.