Sunday, August 7, 2016

Lino In Progress; Odds and Ends

Falling, Fighting Gnatcatchers. Linocut. Early proof by Ken Januski.

A few months ago Jerene and I had the oddest experience while walking along Forbidden Drive in the Wissahickon Valley in Philadelphia. A large grayish object came floating down in front of us, somewhat like a Sycamore leaf but of the wrong color. When it hit the ground it exploded into a flurry of blue/gray, black and white. It turned out to be two fighting Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, more or less locked together as they fell.

Soon after I got home I did the sumi brush pen sketch below, completely from memory because there was no way in the world to have gotten a photo. It all happened too quickly. But I did think that I'd like to make a print of it. So at top is a fairly early proof of a two block linocut. I'm running out of wood blocks to carve so decided to try this old piece of mounted lino.

Currently I'm debating whether or not to add another color or two to the color block. Most likely I'll add at least one more color.

Fighting, Falling Gnatcactchers. Sumi Brush Pen Sketch by Ken Januski.

I'm sure I've mentioned before that I get varying responses to my work. Some people love the more realistic watercolors, as in the Blue Grosbeak below. But others turn their noses up at this type of work and like the more abstract work of the newest Gnatcatcher print. I've come to the firm conclusion that I'm best working abstractly. My work is I think somewhat personal when I work like that. With watercolors I could look like many other painters, just not as good.

Blue Grosbeak at Higbee Beach. Watercolor by Ken Januski.

But I still admire the way some people can use watercolor, and by 'some' I should say I definitely do not mean the color within the line school of very deadly watercolor. I've never understood that claustrophobic way of working. Watercolor begs to be used freely, even if that is the most difficult way to use it. In any case I always learn something when I work in watercolor, about the bird portrayed, about the use of watercolor, or in this case about how difficult it is to render grasses in a free, yet believable way. It's a bit like learning to dive. I try a new watercolor, perhaps am happy with it, then do a big belly flop. It can be a painful way to learn. But I keep coming back. Still I think I'll never develop the individuality I have in my prints in watercolor.

Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. Sumi Brush Pen Memory Sketch by Ken Januski.

This is a very lucky time of year for people, at least people in the Eastern US, because during much of July and probably all of August and if you're lucky much of September as well, you can have Ruby-throated Hummingbirds as daily visitors. For all my years of watching them I've come to the conclusion that the best way to portray them is not from a field sketch and not from photos. Instead I stare at them for a number of minutes, try to memorize what I see, and then put it down on paper.

Inevitably I realize how much I have forgotten in the five seconds it takes to switch from looking to drawing. Still I keep trying and I keep learning. Hopefully I'll have some drawings I'm happy with before they depart in September or so.

Recently a friend of mine, who is both an accomplished artist and a lover of music posted a note about the recently deceased composer Einojuhani Rautavaara. It included a link to one of his works: Concerto for Birds and Orchestra. It is almost 20 minutes long but well worth listening to. It reminds me of how ambitious 'wildlife art' can be if it wants to. It can be aware of art of the century in which it is created, i.e. 21st not 19th or earlier, and yet still be true to and appreciative of the 'wildlife' itself. I realize that not everyone will enjoy this. But as with many things it seems criminal not to at least alert people to the existence of such strong pieces of art.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Normally Distant Plover Walked Right in Front of Our Car

Black-bellied Plover at Heislerville WMA. Watercolor by Ken Januski.

We don't see that many Black-bellied Plovers. That is primarily because of where we live. They just don't appear in Philadelphia. Less than 100 miles away in Cape May, NJ it's another story. They're not uncommon. And the same is probably true for a number of other spots about that far away.

They are an attractive bird and I always hope to get a good look at them. But in my experience, limited though it is, they tend to be the most distant shorebird when a group are congregated together, in deeper water and further back than any other species. So when we spied one from inside the car at Heislerville WMA in New Jersey last May it was even more surprising to find it so close. Perhaps the car served as a blind and we weren't noticed by the bird? I'm not really sure. But I took advantage of the situation and took numerous photos. Since we were on vacation and still hadn't reached our destination all my sketching gear was packed away. But I was able to get out the camera and take some photos.

So this approximately 9x12 inch watercolor was done yesterday. I often find that after a lengthy print, even one that I end up being happy with, that I want to take a break from printmaking, especially if it was a developed or ambitious print. As with cooking and eating, exercise programs or a million other things a change is often welcome. Variety is the spice of life.

I recently organized my old watercolors and it is truly shocking how bad my first ones, from about 2006, are! By comparison the watercolor above is a masterpiece. But of course my ambitions have grown over 10 years. What would have more than satisfied me 10 years ago no longer does. And yet I am happy with this. It captures the bird I think and yet also doesn't look too fussy. Watercolor is a truly wonderful medium, or at least it can be, and very rarely I feel that I'm starting to use it the way it should be used.

A convoluted series of circumstances recently reminded me of my background in art, especially my artistic training. It is strictly as a 'modern' artist, in the tradition of Degas, the Impressionists, the Post-Impressionists, Picasso, Matisse, American Modernists like Stuart Davis, Abstract Expressionism, the Bay Area Expressionists like Elmer Bischoff and Richard Diebenkorn and many, many, many others. One of the more or less common themes in this tradition is the unimportance of subject matter. If there's a recognizable subject then most likely it takes away from the quality and seriousness of the art. That's not my current thought but I'd say it was pretty much the unspoken and sometimes spoken theme underlying almost my entire artistic education. And it made perfect sense to me. Art should be about self-expression and not be limited by subject matter.

Of course this is a massive subject and I'm not going to pursue it. All I want to say is that it was my artistic training. When I started using insects and then birds as subjects I went against that theme and found it somewhat liberating. You can be just as expressive with subject matter as without and sometimes the limitations of subject matter can lead you to more accomplished art. Constraints lead to creativity. The total lack of constraints for most people leads to entropy and chaos. In any case I just found it interesting to think about my artistic background and my current art, where subject really is important, and yet it is always sublimated to expression itself. For me it is a good place to be.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

It's Not an Illusion

Willow Flycatcher in Swamp Dogwood. Two block Reduction Woodcut by Ken Januski.

As I look through my older prints, as well as my other work and the work of others that I admire, I often think about whether or not I want to create an illusion of reality, or maybe even just the illusion of a photograph, since many people think that reality and photography are the same. I've done work that is more illusionistic, though it rarely looks like a photo. And I can often admire such work, both by contemporary artists and older ones.

But I've pretty much decided that this is not the route I want to take. If I were more of a plein aire painter I would perhaps think differently. In that case the illusion I might try to create might be more in reaction to what is right in front of me and actually all around me, not just to the flat surface of a photo. But though I do field sketches I don't work plein aire. When I do my work from photos my skin starts getting prickly, as though I'm allergic to it.

So for me I've come to think that I'm best off working somewhat in the manner of this newest, two-block reduction woodcut. It is representational but it is not illusionistic. Just the color block by itself, before being overprinted by the black block and all its lines, looked somewhat illusionistic, more like a painting, and was appealing to me. I felt that to a certain extent I'd captured the diffuse light. But it wasn't the way I wanted to go. So I added the last black block, just as I'd intended to all along. I think this has created a more graphic, almost iconic image. That's neither good nor bad. But it seems to be the way that I want to go and the way that seems most fruitful to me. I suppose it is that impulse that also convinced me to change my cover photo recently to the woodblock print of a Gray Catbird guarding his walnuts. And just yesterday I saw another Gray Catbird in the middle of the road, seemingly as imperious as could be, daring a car to come near him. That reminded me of one of the reasons that I like my Gray Catbird woodblocks. I believe that they capture, from at least one perspective, the experience of seeing a Gray Catbird.

Illusion can be great but sometimes you just feel like something different.

This woodcut by the way probably took longer than any print I've ever done, even the 9-10 color reduction linocut of the Blackburnian Warbler at Magee Marsh. It wasn't really that complicated. But I felt like I needed to keep proofing different colors until I got the ones I wanted. And then I spent a week or two figuring out how to get a final black that printed full and rich and not splotchy. It's at moments like that that I wonder why in the world I ever got involved with such a technical medium!

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Slow Progess, Hopefully Good, on a Woodcut


I have deliberately slowed down the number of posts I make on this blog. This began last year I think but has really become evident in 2016. It's been almost a month since I last posted. The main reason for that is that though I like to write, I'm not sure that many readers of this blog like to read. In general it seems to be a world of pictures rather than words. It sometimes seems as though words, like politicians, are considered inherently untrustworthy. So we have a major presidential candidate who thinks that mindless tweets constitute considered positions. And people like it!

I probably wouldn't have gotten distracted by this theme of words versus pictures if I hadn't wanted to use the word 'progress' in the title. That reminded me of one of my many pet peeves regarding current language use. You can just about bet that if you hear anyone use the word 'progress' as a noun today that it will be preceded by 'good.' I shudder every time I hear this. Just what other type of progress is there? Bad?! If it's bad then why not call it what it really is, regression rather than progression? It reminds me, going forward I might add, that language today seems to be used in the pastiche method of bad architecture, where you really don't understand the meaning or context of the words or architectural styles you use but you like them anyway because they have some vague feeling that is pleasurable. I was shocked recently to be watching some soccer matches on television and hear the phrase 'going forward' used in an intelligent way. The ball in fact is 'going forward' down the field of play. For most people it seems to be used as a socially acceptable bauble to encrust just about every sentence. But perhaps I should say babble rather than bauble, or perhaps both. It reminds me of some home architecture, where Greek columms are added to just about any type of home. How about some Greek columns on that yurt? It will give your home a sense of class!

I suppose it is no surprise that such totally fuzzy thought and language use should bring about a candidate like Donald Trump. He fits the time perfectly. But I should add that I don't consider this a particularly partisan issue. Democrats are just as bad in their use of spin, fuzzy language and fuzzy thought. I recently saw a Democratic U.S. senate candidate produce nothing other than verbal spin. Oddly I had just seen her conservative Republican opponent, with whom I almost always disagree, ask thoughtful questions in s Senate hearing. So who should a responsible person vote for? The spinmeister or the person who at least seems to have a working brain, even if it so often comes to conclusions with which I disagree?

In any case I decided more than a year ago that I would keep this blog more visually oriented and also visually oriented through art that I'd done not through photos that I'd taken. Above is the newest proof of my two-block woodcut of a Willow Flycatcher. It combines a reduction color woodcut with the other side of the block printed only in black on top of the color print. It's an odd way of working but one that at least so far has proven fruitful for me. Because both sides of the block can change as I go along I never really have a clear idea as to what the final print will look like. I will only know when I'm done. Because it takes time to make all the decisions for matching up two blocks and because it takes time for each layer of ink to dry before I can print over it this has been a very lengthy print. But it is nearly done. So far all of these proofs are on copier paper though I've printed all but the last color on good paper. Now I just need to print the last color on the good paper, decide on the final carving of the black block and then print it on good paper. Below are the color block so far as well as the black block so far.




Wednesday, June 8, 2016

A Peregrine Fledgling

Peregrine Fledgling Straddling Garbage Can and Recycling Bin. Watercolor Sketch by Ken Januski.

The woodcut is progressing but I don't want to show every step of the way here. Perhaps I'll show a new stage soon. Yesterday I decided to try to sketch some newly fledged Peregrine Falcons in my scope. Of course I didn't know if they'd be around or if I'd be able to get a good view of them. When I arrived I heard a couple calling but they didn't sit still. Their mother did though so I set up my scope to draw her.

As I did so though I heard some people talking about an injured bird and calling the Game Commission. It turned out to be the Peregrine pictured above. After many phone calls and various plans of action I moved my scope so that I and it were near the bird but hopefully far enough away not to scare it, especially since there was a fair amount of traffic on the street between him and me but also near enough so that traffic might see me and slow down. I was afraid to move closer for fear of scaring it, possibly into an unhappy traffic accident.

About 90 minutes later, with the bird never having moved from this perch on a garbage can lid next to a recycling bin the Game Commission officer arrived. And just as he stepped up to capture him in order to take him to be checked for injuries the bird flew across the street towards me and then off and away. Afterwards the general consensus was that if he could fly that strongly he was fine.

So hopefully we will see him flying around soon enough. During my lengthy stay with him I took numerous photos. I did one sketch as well but gave it up as soon as I realized I couldn't keep my eye on him if I was busy sketching. This morning I did this quick watercolor sketch based on one of the photos.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Back to Woodcuts, Again

Willow Flycatcher In Swamp Dogwood. Proof of Two Block Woodcut by Ken Januski.

So here it is with the unofficial start of summer(Memorial Day) and I've done just one print in 2016. Especially given what I said in last post about how much more successful I feel with prints than with watercolor it seems odd to have only done one.

There are a couple of answers. One is that migration starts in March and builds to a crescendo in May. Each day there is the siren call coming from outside suggesting I check to see what has arrived, as well as what is in bloom, what insects are also in flight, etc., etc. But more important in the paucity of prints I think is procrastination.

I've found a fairly easy way to experiment with watercolors, just do a small sketch on paper that is good but not so good as to be intimidating. That's the case with the Stillman and Birn sketchbooks as I've written before. So it is easy to make a non-committal foray. Though some people can do this with prints I'm sure, I haven't been able to. The few I've tried have looked exceptionally non-committal, too close to throwaway. The only print of 2016, the Black-crowned Night Heron with Yellowlegs and Short-billed Dowitcher was somewhat in this vein, but also successful.

Still prints can be intimidating. And that leads to planning, which can then lead to interminable procrastination. Should I do this, or should I do that? One of the great pleasures of printmaking, when I finally do resume it each time, is that I'm no longer in dialogue with myself. Instead the physical print has something to say, often pleasantly surprising me in some way or another, and all of a sudden things flow smoothly. To quote a cliché: The Possibilities Are Endless.

So now that I've proofed two colors on the woodcut above of a Willow Flycatcher in what I believe is Swamp Dogwood at Morris Arboretum I'm reminded again of how enjoyable printmaking can be once you actually get started printing, rather than just thinking (as with many things I suppose).

This is an early stage. It may be hard to believe but I intend this to be a light, bright print. But I wanted black lines to function as outlines more or less. Then I wanted a light brown gray for most of the flycatcher. But in printmaking you generally need to mix your own colors and so you don't necessarily get what you wanted. This turned out to me a dark gray-blue rather than a light gray-tan. That will eventually change but it's fine for early proofing.

Most of the rest will be yellow and green, at least that is my intention at the time. Of course the print will speak up soon enough and let me know how it foresees its future.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Comparative Success Rate in Prints and Watercolors

Seaside Sparrow and Marsh Wren at Jake's Landing. Watercolor and Brush Pen Painting by Ken Januski.

An odd title for a blog on art right? It sounds more like some sort of scientific study. But I was knocked over the head by my high failure rate with watercolors when I looked through all of my old ones in preparation for a small sidewalk show at Morris Arboretum on June 19, 2016. I plan to mainly show my linocuts and woodcuts but thought I should show some watercolors too, especially since so many have been based on birds and/or dragonflies seen at Morris.

Unlike many artists I don't rip up unsuccessful paintings and prints part way through in utter disgust. But it's easy to understand the impulse. Sometimes things just go horribly wrong on the way from intent to finished art work. As I looked through my storage box of watercolors though I realized that about 90% still looked bad. There were at least 125 of them and that doesn't include the 100s of additional watercolor sketches, works that were more quickly done with less focus on the finished product. I was tempted to ask why I continue with watercolor.

At the same time I'd been going through all of my linocuts and woodcuts. Though there were a few that were very disappointing, often where my ambition far outstripped my abilities the vast majority were successful. At least to me it looks like I know what I'm doing with prints whereas that's often not the case with watercolor, especially when I try to do a more expressive and spontaneous watercolor.

But that is in fact the rub. Watercolor when done well is one of the most expressive media, especially when it comes to light and the sense of fluidity and spontaneity. Trying to get some of that keeps drawing me back in spite of my numerous disappointments.

That said I'm always looking for a personal way to use watercolor, just as I do with printmaking. The recent works on this page are two examples. Above is a sumi brush pen and watercolor painting of a Seaside Sparrow and Marsh Wren both seen at Jakes Landing near Cape May, NJ over the last two Mays. Below is another painting using the same media. It shows four very active American Oystercatchers seen at 'The Meadows' in Cape May last week.

American Oystercatchers at 'The Meadows'. Watercolor and Brush Pen Painting by Ken Januski.

Both of these paintings are very loosely done, and due to a large extent to all the lines from the brush pen, look somewhat cartoonish. For many viewers I'm sure that this detracts from their appeal. Where is the detail, where is the subtlety? Well the fact is I just don't enjoy that type of work, certainly in my own work, though I can enjoy it in others. I'm not sure exactly what I'm doing here but I think some of it comes from a desire to show the liveliness of both the birds and their environment, to show a sense of animation, just as you see in many cartoons. Additionally this method and these media seem to lend themselves to studies for prints. So I think eventually some of this type of work will end up as a linocut or woodcut. And my guess is that, at least to me, they will seem successful.

Friday, May 6, 2016

One Good Thrush Deserves Another

Veery in the Wissahickon. Watercolor Sketch by Ken Januski.

I've written before about the simple pleasure of watching nature unfold in a more or less predictable manner. One bird follows another more or less, in returning to the area, either to stay and breed or to move further north for breeding.

The first thrush, outside of the American Robin, is the Hermit Thrush. It too can be here during the winter so it's not really the first migrant thrush. That honor generally goes to the Wood Thrush, pictured below in a pencil and watercolor sketch of a Wood Thrush seen in the last week or so.

Soon after the Wood Thrush comes the Veery, which will also breed here like the Wood Thrush. It is pictured above. I finished this pencil and watercolor sketch today based on some photos I took yesterday. The Veeries had been calling but not showing themselves for the previous 2-3 days.

Wood Thrush in the Wissahickon. Watercolor Sketch by Ken Januski.

Along with the predictable arrival of wildlife is the predictable arrival of wildflowers and flowering shrubs. You can bet that when you see the beautiful Pinkster Azalea in bloom that Wood Thrush and Veery will be very close by. It would make an absolutely prototypical woodland scene if I were to paint or print a Pinkster Azalea with a Wood Thrush or Veery nearby.

Pinkster Azalea in Bloom in the Wissahickon Valley. Photo by Ken Januski.

In the past people have experienced the opposite, flora and fauna not appearing when they should or in the numbers that they should. Occasionally this happens and it's often an unpleasant sign of something wrong in the environment. I hate to see the day when I'll live through such an experience. At the moment there are a reasons to be optimistic: Bald Eagles, Osprey and Peregrines are almost plentiful around here after drastic declines. But in grassland areas, with which I'm not that familiar, there are great declines. Only time will tell if people here and around the world will continue to care about nature and its preservation.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

First Shorebirds of Spring

Solitary Sandpiper at Morris Arboretum. Watercolor Sketch by Ken Januski.

Spotted Sandpiper at Manayunk Canal. Watercolor Sketch by Ken Januski.

This time of year it's easy to be totally distracted by the often brief appearance of the neo-tropical migrants, like warblers, orioles, etc. Often they also are very boldly colored in yellow, red, orange, blue, etc. The shorebirds are less common, unless you live near the right body of water, or shoreline. And often they are around a bit longer.

And of course they are easier to see. If you're an artist it's a thrill to be able to see the entire bird, not just a wingbar, or a partial face. I think that's one reason I like seeing them and sketching and painting them. But they also offer an artistic challenge. Their shape, markings and colors are subtle. As I've mentioned many times I'm not to concerned with capturing the subtlety of markings, most of which aren't visible to the naked eye except with the help of optics. But shape is always there, and it is subtle.

We used to have the hardest time differentiating Spotted and Solitary Sandpipers with their large eyerings and bobbing tails. But over time it has become easy. The Solitary is so much more fragile and elegant looking. The Spotted is often clunky and ungainly. So I enjoy trying to get that difference down, even in these quick pencil and watercolor sketches(based on photos I took). For all the ungainliness of the Spotted though I think it is my favorite, if I were to actually have to choose between these two most welcome visitors.

And I should add, that I didn't title this 'First Shorebirds of 2016'. The reason for that is that the Killdeer is here even during winter.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

A Busy Time of the Year

Falling, Fighting Blue-Gray Gnatcatchers. Sumi Brush Pen and Watercolor Sketch by Ken Januski.

April is such an extraordinary time of year, and currently my favorite month of the year. The warmth of spring and summer is there but most mornings start off cool, brisk and invigorating. Bird, butterflies, insects and flowers, among others are arriving, departing, flowering or in some other way being fascinating to observe.

Because of this time spent indoors seems wasted and it's difficult to get much artwork done. I have done a few field sketches, but very few and very brief. A couple of an Osprey eating a fish are further down the page.

Often this time of year I take photos but they can also be a distraction where time spent fiddling with the camera means any chance of actually seeing something has disappeared. Such was the case with the blue, gray, black and white mass falling from the trees like a mis-colored Sycamore leaf along the Wissahickon a week or so ago. It floated like a large leaf, slowly twisting in the wind, until that is it hit the ground in a flurry of activity and dust. It was two Blue-gray Gnatcatchers fighting. The experience lasted just a second or two, from drifting drop to dusty departure. I did grab for my camera as they landed but they were gone instantly.

Still such an experience is unique, or certainly rare and I wanted to portray it. Eventually I did so, working almost solely from my imagination in the sumi brush pen and watercolor sketch above. Eventually I may make a print based on it.

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. Photo by Ken Januski.

A few days earlier I decided to try to do a watercolor which captures the subtle colors and shapes of a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. The occasion for this was one of the best photos I've ever taken of these hyperactive birds. But subtlety can easily turn to mud, especially with watercolors, and I came close to that here. Only some coloristic touchups a day later I think salvaged it.

Osprey Eating Fish at Morris Arboretum. Sumi Brush Pen Field Sketch by Ken Januski.

The two images at top show two different ways of making art out of birds and bird experiences. Immediately above these quick sumi brush pen sketches done from life show another. I like them but think I need to start using a bigger sketchbook and more time. Hopefully this will lead to more developed work in the field.

First of Year Louisiana Waterthrush Along Wissahickon. Watercolor Sketch by Ken Januski.

Finally another way to celebrate/illustrate a bird or bird experience. This really is more typical of me: a quick watercolor and pencil sketch done soon after seeing a bird, in this case the first Louisiana Waterthrush of the year, and based on a photo I took. Though the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher was also based on a photo it was a larger, more finished work and fairly unusual for me.

These have been the main artworks I've done over the last few weeks, since the end of the last woodcut, and excluding some abysmal failures.  But there has been plenty to see outside. Below you can see some of the many photos I've taken of birds seen recently, the ones that are currently distracting me from doing much actual artwork.

Diving American Kestrel. Photo by Ken Januski.

First of year American Redstart. Photo by Ken Januski.

Bald Eagle over Walnut Lane Golf Course. Photo by Ken Januski.

Eastern Towhee at Andorra Natural Area. Photo by Ken Januski.

Palm Warbler at Morris Arboretum. Photo by Ken Januski.

Yellow-rumped Warbler at Morris Arboretum. Photo by Ken Januski.