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.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Cuckoo! Cuckoo!

Black-billed Cuckoo at Houston Meadow. Watercolor Sketch by Ken Januski

It all started with a loud "Coo, Coo, Coo, Coo." That is more or less the truth. It actually started with a Philadelphia e-bird rare bird report that a Black-billed Cuckoo had been seen at Houston Meadows last Saturday. I'd already been planning to go to there on Monday morning but the report gave an added impetus.

After sorting through the 10 or so more familiar bird songs and calls I heard as soon as I arrived the loud and clear call of the Black-billed Cuckoo,  sounding more what the non-birder would expect a cuckoo to sound like, rather than the "kowlp, kowlp, kowlp" of the Yellow-billed Cuckoo, the more common cuckoo in our area.

It took me a while to find him and I moved slowly and cautiously because cuckoos seem easily spooked. I knew he was close and finally spotted him 20-30 feet away 30-40 feet in the air, pretty much out in the open.
Black-billed Cuckoo and Wood Thrush. Field Sketches by Ken Januski.

Once I got a good look at him in my binoculars I took out my sketchbook and started sketching. I didn't have my scope and tripod so it was back to the usual method of looking through binoculars, then sketching while I stood, tying to coordinate with two hands the three objects -- sketchbook, pencil and binoculars -- that really needed three hands. This is an awkward method and much is lost. BUT it's much harder to get lost in detail, thus missing the overall sense of the bird, that is so easy when viewing a bird with the heightened magnification of a scope. (Later in the day I stopped at Carpenter's Woods and indulged in one of my favorite type of drawing -- drawing thrushes. That is the other drawing on the page).

Later in the day I did the pencil and watercolor sketch at top of the Black-billed Cuckoo. Though I took at least 30 photos only 2-3 turned out. The watercolor is based on the best one, coupled with my field sketch. Oddly I didn't realize until I started looking through my field guides that this bird had some characteristics of an adult cuckoo, specifically the red orbital ring, and some of a juvenile, the buff/rust wash on throat and the grayish underside of tail.

Yellow-billed Cuckoo at Carpenter's Woods. Watercolor Sketch by Ken Januski.

Thrilled as I was with seeing the Black-billed Cuckoo I decided to spend early Tuesday at Carpenter's Woods looking for warblers. It was pretty quiet. Until 8:00 a.m. when a large bird landed in the ungainly way of cuckoos about 10 yards away. There was a Yellow-billed Cuckoo. I've learned to not immediately grab for my camera when I see a bird I'm happy to see. First I look, just appreciating the bird, but also trying to memorize its appearance. Then I may sketch and/or I may reach for my camera.

I realized that given how close he was that the movement of removing my camera from its case might be enough to scare him off. And, yes, just as I got the camera out and raised it to my eyes to focus he flew, not to be found again. Since cuckoos are favorite birds of both myself and Jerene when I returned home I suggested that we stop by again later, while out running errands nearby, in the hopes that he'd still be there and that Jerene could see her first cuckoo of the year.

We did return to Carpenter's Woods but found no sign of the cuckoo. At least not in the area he had been. But quite a distance away we heard the familiar "kowlp, kowlp, kowlp." Momentarily he appeared near us then flew off to distant trees. He was just close enough to recognize in our binoculars and barely close enough to take a photo of. Again I took about 30 photos but all with the bird a tiny speck in the entire photo. Still there was enough detail for me to do this pencil and watercolor sketch this morning.

I'm still looking forward to seeing all the warblers. But I can't complain about three looks at two different cuckoo species in the space of 24-30 hours. Later to day I hope to print the one color version of the American Kestrel linocut.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

The Age Old Problem of Painting Neo-tropical Migrants from Life

Palm Warbler, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Blue-headed Vireo and Scarlet Tanager. Pencil Field Sketches with Crayon and Wash by Ken Januski.

Anyone who has read this blog, even if only occasionally, over the last few years know how I struggle with trying to capture the migrating Neo-tropical migrants from life. I also take photos and I've done work based on them. But my goal is to be able to work from life.

I started working with birds as subject way back when at the end of 2006. Occasionally I look at the oldest work and I'm astonished at how bad it is. This is true of my bird art in general but especially with bird art based on field sketches and birds seen in the field.

The first problem of course if that I may only see them for a split second before they're gone or obscured by foliage. In the course of trying to capture them from life I've tried: photography, pencil, ballpoint pen, Faber-Castell pen, Caran d'Ache pen and fixpencil, crayon, waterbrush, watercolor, Stillman and Birn Sketchbooks, Moleskine sketchbooks, Aquabee sketchbooks, to name the ones that stick out in my mind.

Above you see the most successful results so far, in a small Moleskine sketchbook. These sketches were all done from life or from memory soon after seeing them live with Caran d'Ache fixpencil and Neocolor II Water-soluble crayons, with a wash done by picking up the pigment from the crayon with a waterbrush.

That's quite an explanation for what could be considered mighty skimpy results compared to the work of those who are successful with sketching and painting Neo-tropical migrants from life. But for me it is a huge distance I've travelled.

I currently go out with a larger sketchbook and hope to do some larger field sketches from life. If I do I hope to be able to add color through the same use of crayon and wash. It's hard to do field sketches of such striking birds. The easy temptation is to just grab the camera. But I try to forgo that, instead sketching first as with the Scarlet Tanager seen today and the Blue-headed Vireo seen a couple of days ago. I also know that I've never been able to make anything out of Scarlet Tanager photos. I think I'll never be able to make a painting that works with them. But when I saw this one today, with such a simple shape and such starkly contrasting Red and Black I was sure that I could capture it with the Neo-color II crayons. And I think I did. It is this boldness that strikes me when I see a Scarlet Tanager and it is that more than anything else that I want to capture. Maybe eventually I'll do something more developed. But for now I know that this simple, small sketch captures for me the thrill of a male Scarlet Tanager.

'Black' Squirrel, Palm Warbler and Mourning Cloak. Color Three of Four/Five Color Reduction Woodcut by Ken Januski.

It has taken forever to print the third color of the squirrel woodcut. I cut and proofed, cut and proofed, cut and proofed, trying different colors, trying to get the ink to flow evenly and trying to figure out what to cut and what to keep. Finally today I printed the third color. It is darker and grayer than this photo shows. But that doesn't make a lot of difference because I hope that little of it will remain in the end. I want it primarily to create a sense of sheen on what I hope will be the rich black of the squirrel.  Some of the blue in the background will remain, but more will be covered by the black and possibly another yellow that should make a green.

My hope, for this tiny 4x6 inch print, is that it will end up being a bold and striking print, contrasting the rich black of the squirrel with the bright yellow of the Palm Warbler and Mourning Cloak butterfly. It seems a bit crazy to me spending so much time making decisions about a tiny 4x6 inch print. But I hope I'll learn something from it that will pay off in larger prints.

Purple Finch at Morris Arboretum on 05.02.15. Photo by Ken Januski.

The other delay with the woodcut, and the kestrel linocut which remains in limbo, is migration. These early days of May, especially if not too hot are the best fullest days of the year for a birder or bird artist in this part of the country. The birds are here, the foliage largely is not, so that you can actually see the birds, and the weather is beautiful. So I've been out a lot, looking, sketching and taking photos. There are many birds I expect to see. But one that caught me by surprise yesterday was this Purple Finch at Morris Arboretum. This is one of 6-8 that were there, handsome as could be, right where the migrating warblers should have been.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Possibilities in Print

Black Squirrel, Palm Warbler and Mourning Cloak. Proof of Reduction Woodcut by Ken Jansuki.

Female American Kestrel with Dead American Robin. Proof of Linocut by Ken Januski.

It's almost unheard of for me to have two prints in progress that I'm happy with at the same time. It's hard enough to just get one. Of course just voicing this thought will probably jinx one or both of them.

I've been working mainly on the kestrel print since the ink is taking so long to dry on the squirrel reduction woodcut. But I had some left over ink from proofing the newest state of the kestrel today and decided to try it on the woodcut, especially as the color is close to the one I plan to use. The color is a bit thin but it gives me a good idea as to how the woodcut might continue to develop.

And the linocut looks good as is. I still plan to print two versions of the kestrel, one in just one color and the other with hand-coloring on top of that one color. I've ruined a number of prints by carving too much away and ending up with a print that is just too white. So this one may be ending soon. I just need to let it rest a bit and see if it looks like it holds together as is or needs a bit more tweaking.

Still not too many new warblers to distract me from finishing this though today did bring the first Greater Yellowlegs I've ever seen at Morris Arboretum. Did I ever mention that shorebirds are just as distracting as warblers?

In any case it's nice to have so many possibilities in print. And then there is that Warbling Vireo with Catkins seen recently. Maybe that would make an interesting print..............

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Raptors Not Warblers

Osprey with American Robin. Early Proof of Linocut by Ken Januski.

Yes, yes, yes it is the time of newly arrived warblers and other neo-tropical migrants. And though I've been out many hours and walked many miles over the last few days I have seen very few warbler or new migrants.

Yesterday we saw our first Eastern Kingbird, Warbling Vireo, and first in Philadelphia Common Yellowthroat at Morris Arboretum. We also heard our first Baltimore Oriole at Andorra Natural Area yesterday and saw our first Yellow Warbler today at the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education, all locations I'm happy to say that are within 5 miles of our house.

So we have seen some new migrants, just not as many as you'd expect for the time of year. The last photo in this post does include a warbler, the brilliantly golden Palm Warbler. But a problem with slowly drying ink forced me to put it on hold yesterday and start something new.

I didn't want it to be particularly complicated so I went with a linocut based on the female American Kestrel eating an American Robin at the parking lot of Morris Arboretum about a month ago. I'll most likely print it in just one color but may hand color at least some of the resulting prints. It is based on a photo I took and then a pencil drawing based on the photo. So far I like it and the fact that it pretty well captures the stance and look of the feeding kestrel.

Mature Bald Eagle Along Wissahickon Creek. Photo by Ken Januski.

So the kestrel is the start of the 'raptors' in the subject line of this post. A few days ago I also saw my first of the year Osprey in Philadelphia, just down the hill from us along the Manayunk Canal. Then today, while looking for warblers along the Wissahickon, I saw this handsome mature Bald Eagle. This is near the place that I saw our last Philadelphia Osprey, on Thanksgiving, 2014. This part of the Wissahickon is also less than a mile from our house, like the Manayunk Canal, and like the nearby church that hosts nesting Peregrines.

It remains astonishing to me that all these raptors can be seen, though not by appointment, within a mile of our highly urban home.

Black Squirrel, Palm Warbler and Mourning Cloak. Early Proof of Reduction Woodcut by Ken Januski.

When I said that I wanted to do a simple linocut I meant simple in comparison to the complexity of the reduction woodcut above. It is tiny, only 4x6 inches. But the composition is complicated and I'm sure the process as it goes along will be complicated. I showed a pencil sketch and crayon version of this recently, based on something I'd seen one day.

What I like so far about this print is that it captures exactly what a Palm Warbler looks like in the drab days of early spring. a golden yellow bird, decorated in rich Burnt Siena. I'm taking artistic liberties by using the same yellow for the light part of the wings of the distant Mourning Cloak. And the Gray Squirrel is in fact a 'Black' Gray Squirrel, one that is almost velvety black. Every time I see one of these squirrels I want to include that rich black in a painting or print. So the challenge here is to combine the black and the yellow and Burnt Siena in some plausible and I hope strong way. Even though it is a very small print it is thus far more complicated than the larger kestrel print. Time will tell how they both work out.

And very soon, perhaps tomorrow, all those neo-tropical migrants will arrive and make it so much more difficult to concentrate on these prints. But who can complain?

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Bits and Bobs, Sketching and Short Video

Almost as soon as I published my last post on including an environment in bird and wildlife art I noticed another method of bringing vitality and a sense of the excitement of nature that I'd forgotten to mention. This is surprising since it is what really convinced me that you could make art out of natural and specifically wildlife subjects. That other method of course is working from life.

I first noticed this in Drawing Birds by John Busby. But as soon as I posted the  last post I noticed another fine example by a contemporary Spanish artist. I think that there is something that so often comes through in the work of anyone who draws or paints birds or other wildlife from life. That sense of stagnation and boredom that so often accompanies work based solely on photos is completely absent in artists who work from life.

As you can see from the sketch above though not everyone is equally able when working from life. Except for the Common Green Darner at upper left the other birds on these pages were sketched by me over the last couple of days in Cape May, NJ. One of the more exciting birds was a Whimbrel at the Wetlands Institute on bottom left, two Seaside Sparrows only one of which I sketched on bottom right and the first visible Common Yellowthroat above. I'd heard them the day before but finally  a number came out to sing in their striking black, yellow and white colors. Though I didn't succeed very well I wanted to capture the fabulous yellow throat of the Common Yellowthroat.

In any case there are really quite a number of artists who work from life, though I know of very few American artists who do, though there are some. But they are well worth pursuing. And they do often create really strong art that has all the excitement of being outside in nature.

Black Skimmers at Heislerville WMA. Photo by Ken Januski.

I always enter my bird sightings in ebird and today I had problems with some birds seen on our trip. Ebird, with good reason, doesn't expect certain birds to be around yet, based on years of previous data. But birds always surprise you. One species that created problems was the Black Skimmer, two examples of which are seen above, from yesterday at Heislerville WMA in Cumberland County, NJ.
Normally I just upload my photos to Picasaweb and create a link that I can embed in my ebird list. Not today. All of my photos are currently missing on Picasaweb. My guess is that this is due to Google trying to force people to use Google+, their answer to Facebook. I understand their point of view but it's also a slap in the face to their users. So I won't soon be using Google+. In the meantime though I have no way of showing the photos to ebird. That is the main reason I'm showing the photo above.
Semi-palmated Sandpipers at Heislerville WMA. Photo by Ken Januski.

Less well seen and photographed at the same location yesterday were some Semi-palmated Sandpipers. Two are pictured above, also as proof for ebird.

Before we left Philadelphia for Cape May I had heard my first Louisiana Waterthrush, singing and singing but never making himself visible. Though I love to finally know that they are here it's always an exciting day when we see our first one. Today at Morris Arboretum Jerene had the honors of finding the first one. More than that he was very cooperative and seemed oblivious to us. So along with photos I also took a quick video with my camera and put it on YouTube: Louisiana Waterthrush at Morris Arboretum. I always greatly enjoy seeing them. And I think you can see from this video why it is difficult to sketch them, at least when they are moving as quickly as this.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Bloodroot in the Wild, Etc.

Bloodroot Along the Wissahickon. Photo by Ken Januski

So you might ask, where else would you find Bloodroot if not in the wild? After all they are a wild flower. The odd thing is that we used to see so many of them while at Shenandoah National Park and elsewhere that we wanted to get some for our own small yard. So over the years we've bought such wildflowers from local arboretums and nature centers. Most of my previous photos of Bloodroot on this blog have been of our yard wildflowers. It seems like quite a while since I've shown wildflowers in the wild.

Today though I happened upon this small group, just about ready to fully open so I took a photo. I'd like to have seen the Louisiana Waterthrush that was singing today and possibly would have included a photo of him. But it was not to be. Even on leafless trees I could not find him, though he sang for at least 15 minutes. Soon enough though. In our yard Black Cohosh, Blue Cohosh, Trillium Luteum and most likely Goldenseal are all up as of this week. Soon wildflowers will be all over and just as soon they'll be gone.

Common Green Darners, Tree Swallow, Pied-billed Grebe and Canada Goose on Nest. Watercolor by Ken Januski.

Speaking of wild above is a new watercolor on the same theme as the last post: spring flight with Common Green Darners and one Tree Swallow. I'm happier with this than with the first pencil and crayon sketch.

It would be easy to complain about the lack of detail in this. In wildlife art detail still seems to rule the roost. Comments like "I love your detail" are common. But I have no interest. When I first started with bird art, almost nine years ago I immediately saw one of the biggest problems: what world do you put the birds in? Do you avoid the problem completely by just doing a vignette, where the bird is the focus and the background just fades away to nothingness. Do you crop it drastically, somewhat as I've done with the Tree Swallow above, and hope that viewers will be happy with just a partial view of the bird, or any other wildlife subject? This seems to be the most common method, but it's also a glaringly obvious method.

Some artists do try to include the background, or really the environment, foreground, background and everything in between. They try to put the bird in a world. And if they've actually experienced birds in the world, rather than just copying them from photos, then the paintings/drawings/prints tend to work. The real problem is that it is so easy to care too much about the environment, to feel that every little leaf must be portrayed. But no one sees or experiences the world that way. The world moves too quickly. If you're focusing on some leaves then your eye can't possibly be also focusing on feathers of a bird or fur of an animal. That's not the way the eye works, at least not in real life. How do you capture the environment and still have something that has even the slightest hint of wildness.

When I do a painting like the one above I  willingly give up a lot of detail. I'd rather get details wrong but get the whole scene right. Every time I do a painting like the one above I soon realize that something is wrong, some detail, if not something larger, is off. But I really don't care. It has taken me a long time to realize that this is my voice in art and wildlife art: to somehow or other portray the whole scene, sometimes more abstractly than others, but still to try to capture the actual experience of being outside and seeing birds in their world. As a consequence I do my best to value spontaneity and the overall scene over actual detail.

A few rare artists I think manage to do both, but only those who see the value of portraying the entire world and have the experience of being out in it and who also have mastered the structure of birds. For them the spontaneity is there but the shorthand they use is so sure I think that no one even notices that the details might not be there, or even more miraculously they also are able to include the telling details while still remaining spontaneous. I won't name any names but that is wildlife art at its best.

No I don't care a whit for detail in wildlife art. Please show me wildlife art that is wild, rather than the tamest thing in the world.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Spring Flight

Common Green Darners, Tree Swallow, Pied-billed Grebe and Canada Goose on Nest. Pencil and Crayon Sketch by Ken Januski.

One of the great thrills of spring is the exuberant flight, or at least it looks exuberant to me, of birds and insects. Tree Swallows are always among the most impressive and such a welcome change from the slow pace of winter. Yesterday they were joined by the first dragonflies of the year, Common Green Darners, as well as soaring Red-tailed Hawks. I couldn't find a place for the hawks here but I did manage to combine the Tree Swallows and Common Green Darner. Typical of this time as well, particularly in the wetlands of Morris Arboretum, are nesting Canada Geese. Much rarer and in fact yesterday was the first time we've seen them there were Pied-billed Grebes, in migration I'm sure.

I think because this is such an exciting time I'd like to use a medium that matches the excitement and exuberance. Over the years I've found that pencil and water soluble crayons, which are capable of also being used as a wash, work very well. As in the last post this is done with Caran d'Ache Neocolor II crayons..