Thursday, December 18, 2014

Printing (A Chickadee) Under Pressure

Carolina Chickadee. State 3 of Multi-block Woodcut by Ken Januski.

Carolina Chickadee. State 4 Proof of Multi-block Woodcut by Ken Januski.

I've never heard it before but it would be easy to theorize that the oldest joke in the history of printmaking is that when deadlines come you print under pressure. The reason it's a joke is that by definition pressure is one of the main ingredients of printmaking. In one way or another you apply physical pressure to get the ink onto the paper of the print.

Still it's the first thought that came to mind for this post about my attempts at a print that will also serve as a holiday greeting card. After I finished the very complicated Goldfinch on Thistle woodcut, and after giving up on getting anything usable from sketching our cats, I went back to the quickest way for me to do a print: base it on a photo I took. I don't like to do this. However it was a last resort.

So that's what we have here. For all their ubiquity I have less than five photos of Carolina Chickadees. Of course one appeared at my studio window feeder as I brought the above prints up from the basement a few minutes ago. It helps having them nearby. But they are one of the very quickest of feeder birds: here and then gone, before the bully birds chase them away.

In any case I decided that Chickadees were a typical holiday bird and my time was limited. At top is the actual print. I just finished printing the third color, and the last one on one side of the woodblock. So the print will look a lot like it.

On the other side of the block I've carved the black areas. I did a proof of that block on the lower photo. I still need to figure out how much more of the black to remove. There may be just a bit too much thick line there. But I'll have to do some proofing to know for sure.

I hope to get it done tomorrow, in time for holiday mail and for late holiday selling on Etsy.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Curse of Facility

American Goldfinch Eating Thistle. Cropped Version of Final Edition of Two-block Woodcut by Ken Januski.

I think I have discovered what distinguishes a painting that is simple and unpretentious from one that possesses lasting qualities. In short, I have often wondered why the extreme facility and boldness of touch in Ruben's work never disturbs me, but in paintings of men like Vanloo(and I include modern painters as well as his contemporaries) it merely seems an odious form of technique. Fundamentally, I am perfectly well aware that the facility in the work of a great master is not the chief quality, that it is only the means and not the end, and that the reverse is true of mediocre painters.
Eugene Delacroix in The Journal of Eugene Delacroix, Phaidon Books, translated by Hubert Wellington. Entry for Tuesday, October 9, 1849.
I don't care if a drummer falls off a stool as long as he keeps the beat...There is something human about imperfection.. and we could use a lot more of it.
My paraphrase of record producer Rick Hall as recently seen and heard in the film Muscle Shoals. Magnolia Pictures, directed by Greg "Freddy" Camalier.

I've never had to worry about facility. The only time I've come close to it, or come close to it today, I think is when I do vigorous drawings in charcoal, both abstract and representational. I always feel like maybe I'm skating by problems when I work that way and may be making more superficial art. On the other hand there are times when it's nice to feel that I have a natural skill at some things. But I've had friends with seemingly inborn facility. It's often given them more immediate artistic success but from my perspective at least, at a cost. Their work can sometimes seem empty.

I mention this mainly because I like to acknowledge all the nuggets of wisdom in The Journal of Eugene Delacroix. But it also holds true for this print and most of my prints, especially the multi-block ones. The first block is printed in four colors in the reduction method. So I carve, print a color, carve some more and print another color onto the earlier prints and hope that the registration works, i.e. the new color goes where I expect it to on the earlier color, not 1/8 of an inch off in this direction or that. By the time I've gotten four colors down I've held my breath four times.

And then comes the other side of the block, where I've carved the final black color. Even if all the other colors have lined up pretty well the last block can still bring serious problems. In this print there were a few minor registration problems on a  print or two but basically things turned out the way I planned.

I mention this because I think it shows that it's a bit hard to get carried away by facility when working with reduction and multi-block prints. There is just too, too much that can go wrong.

I always know this from the start. I use this complex process not to exhibit some sort of facility or technical ability. And it's a good thing because I might get laughed out of town if I did. I do it because it allows me to get the expressive range that I'd like, a multiplicity of shimmering colors and shapes. In this sense a lack of registration can sometimes help, at least in places.

In that sense too I think it echoes Rick Hall in the final moments of the wonderful film Muscle Shoals. I mainly listen to classical music now followed by jazz, and rarely rock or blues or soul. But I did grow up with them and love them and this film reminds me of some of the best of it. What I like about that quote though is the emphasis on imperfection.

The world will always  be imperfect, though I think technology always offers the false lure of perfection. We should all be thankful for imperfection.

American Goldfinch Eating Thistle. Full Version of Final Edition of Two-block Woodcut by Ken Januski.

Above is another version of the print, this time showing the paper border. This print started off in an edition of 16 but now is down to either 12 or 13. It is printed with Daniel Smith water-soluble colors on Shin Torinoko paper. When the ink finally dries I'll scan it and if the photo is better replace these slightly off center ones with those. I'll also put some of them up for sale on my Etsy store, but only once the ink is dry enough to safely ship.

As I recall this year started for me with the print that is the header for my blog now, Mergansers and Grebes on the Schuylkill River, another multi-block reduction woodcut. More important than the medium though is the combination of realism and abstraction. I think I've finally reached a style I can be happy with for a while, though I'll also continue with much simpler woodcuts as in the Piping Plover, also from this year.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Almost Done With the American Goldfinch Eating Thistle

American Goldfinch on Thistle. Late State of Two Block Woodcut by Ken Januski,
American Goldfinch Eating Thistle. Late State of Two Block Woodcut by Ken Januski.

Almost there............. If I didn't know better, from bitter experience, I'd just finish off the print today. As I said earlier I've run out of proofs so the only way to test the final changes to this print are by doing so on the prints I have made on good paper. Since they will be slightly different than the final print I really can't call them part of the edition. It is a choice between getting a smaller edition of what I hope is exactly what I want and getting a slightly larger edition of almost what I want.

Fortunately, I guess, there was some smudging on a number of the prints from the block that printed all the colors you see here, yellow, pink/rose, olive/brown and dark blue/green. So I've used those to test printing the final black block. I probably wouldn't have been able so salvage them for part of the edition anyway. But with all the work involved so far I hate to lose any prints from what I had hoped to be an edition of 16.

In any case I printed what you see very early this morning. I'm largely happy with it though the coverage of the black is spottier than I'd like, and in this photo you can't even differentiate the black from the dark blue/green. But it still captures the pose of the goldfinch I think, and the rose of the thistle. And it is exciting to look at. That is what I'd hoped for and I think I have it.

I recently read Rebecca Salter's Japanese Woodblock Printing. I don't print in that style though I have incorporated aspects of it and use Japanese carving tools to a large extent. What struck me though was the technical complexity of the prints and how much that was valued. It is something I rarely value myself though. I like to think that I devote my energy to compositional and artistic complexity rather than technical complexity. So this print and almost all of mine do not meet high technical standards; in fact they probably don't meet medium ones. But I do think, just as in my older abstract work, that they do meet high artistic standards. That is what is important to me.

Still you can't just ignore technical matters. So I'm going to try to get the black printing as full and smoothly as possible before I finish printing this edition. Most likely that will be tomorrow.

...A surprise cold has prevented me from proceeding any further here but I did follow through, once the print above had dried, in scanning it. The image at top is a scanned version. The image below, which is what I posted originally, is a photo. The print itself is somewhere in between. And I'm still deciding on any last tweaks before I print the edition.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Goldfinch Woodcut Waylaid by Goldfinch

American Goldfinch at Houston Meadows. Watercolor by Ken Januski.

With an icy mix predicted for tomorrow and 60 plus degrees for today it was easy to convince myself to start the morning with birding rather than continue on my woodcut. Who knows if this will be the last 60 degree day for 3-5 months?

So the first bird I saw puzzled me with it's yellowish nape and warm rusty colors. I couldn't really see the black of the wings on first view but I still suspected it was an American Goldfinch in non-breeding plumage. But boy was I struck by the combination of yellows and rusts in the head. For all the goldfinches I've seen I'd never been struck so strongly by that before.

So I took a number of photos and thought I'd try a watercolor at some point later in the day. This is the result. It's on Arches Cold Press watercolor paper, 7x10 inches I think.

It's a far cry from my current American Goldfinch woodcut, where I've taken a lot of artistic liberty. That is still my preferred way of working. But sometimes you can just be struck by the beauty of something and want to try to get it down more or less like you saw it. Such was the case with this.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Nearing Completion on the Seemingly Abandoned Goldfinch

American Goldfinch on Thistle. Late State of Multi-block Woodcut by Ken Januski.

No I didn't abandon ship on the multi-block woodcut of the American Goldfinch on Thistle, which it seems like I must have started months ago. Outside of the distraction of late visiting Osprey and the holidays the real reason for the delay is that I've been making too many incremental tests on proofing paper to really show anything.

Today I bit the bullet and printed what I believe will be the last color, outside of black, on the good Shin Torinoko paper that I'm printing on. The dark blue green is the newest color and I've changed it many, many times on proofs.

Below you see one of the last attempts at that color and it is much greener than the final color. I also tried a lighter blue and green and some variations on those. There is a vibrancy to the color above though that has finally dictated where the print would go.

As the original scene was in bright sunlight that's where I'd hoped to go. But artistically this higher contrast dark blue/green works much better.

American Goldfinch on Thistle. Late Proof of Multi-block Woodcut by Ken Januski.

In the proof above I've printed the other side of this block, one carved to just print black (at least so far!). I intend the black to pull everything together and especially to set off the brilliant contrast between yellow and black in the American Goldfinch. So the real question now is how much black to print. I've already removed some of what shows in this proof. I want the black to pull things together but not to overwhelm them as in a cartoon.

I've also run out of earlier proofs to test on even though I started out with 20. So the final testing before printing will either be in my mind or on some of what I'd hoped to be final edition prints. Time will tell. But I do have fairly high hopes for this. It is starting to look good to me!

AND, how could I forget, all of my work on my Etsy stores are on sale for 10% off on Monday, Dec. 1, 2014 only. The discount applies only to the art itself and not to shipping. See For Sale link on the right side of this page to access stores.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Another Thanksgiving Osprey Along the Wissahickon

Osprey with Fish at Valley Green. Linocut by Ken Januski.

Juvenile Osprey Along Wissahickon on Thanksgiving Day, 2014. Photo by Ken Januski.

Osprey with Fish at Valley Green, 2010. Field Sketch by Ken Januski.

Juvenile Osprey Along Wissahickon on Thanksgiving Day, 2014. Photo by Ken Januski.

I know I've talked a lot about Osprey in recent posts. That's for a couple of reasons: 1, we enjoy seeing them especially in November along the Wissahickon in Philadelphia, PA; 2, e-bird from Cornell Labs seems to think this is unusual; and 3, yesterday I finished a new linocut, one that was first begun, then abandoned four years ago.

At top you see the new linocut. It's based on the sketch done from life over four years ago. I abandoned it soon after I started because it seemed too clunky and primitive. But when I ran across it recently I liked it. So I reworked it, first with color  as I illustrated in an earlier post. When that didn't work out I made minor modifications and printed it in a small edition of six. One of them is at top.  I had thought we'd seen this Osprey on Thanksgiving but that actually was another one. This one was seen on 11.15.10.

I finished it on Wednesday. Today we went out to walk along the Wissahickon before cooking our Thanksgiving meal. When we first started this 15-20 years ago we saw a Pileated Woodpecker, a relatively rare bird for us at the time. So each Thanksgiving, and Christmas, we go out with the hope of seeing another.

More recently though we've seen something that actually is rare, at least according to e-bird, for this time of year, an Osprey. That was what we hoped to see today. And sure enough we did. Two of the best photos of the 60 plus that I took are above. This juvenile Osprey did not move from this position, except to change direction, in 30  minutes! Often I've hardly begun to sketch him or remove the lens cap from the camera before he's gone. The one, actually probably this one, that we saw a couple of weeks ago flew by and gave us all of 3-5 seconds to view him.

I'm including the last photo because it was illustrates an aha moment. We saw him most of the time with his back to us. What was striking was how short his tail was. As you can see his wings extend far beyond the tail. The overall shortness is due to foreshortening. But the relative length of the wings is no surprise when you consider what they look like in flight - very long wings. But it took us both awhile to reconcile that with the seemingly very short tail.

Among the many, many things we have to be thankful for is the Wissahickon and the wildlife that inhabit it. If you watch the news as we do, it seems like just about the entire world is 'fed up and not going to take it anymore'. I blame this partially on talk-radio and web sites, particularly news sites, that allow unbridled and unedited ranting. Everyone can now rant endlessly, and often anonymously .In any case most people actually have a lot to be thankful for if they think about it. This is all the more obvious when you see Ebola victims in Africa, terrorist victims anywhere, and the poor people of Syria, to name just a very, very few.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Titian Probably Never Knew How He Was Going to Finish A Picture

American Goldfinch on Thistle. Proof of Multi-block Woodcut by Ken Januski.

American Goldfinch on Thistle. Later Stage of Multi-block Woodcut by Ken Januski.

Titian probably never knew how he was going to finish a picture, and Rembrandt must often have been in the same state. His extravagantly vigorous brushstrokes were less the result of planned execution than of feeling his way with repeated touches.
Eugene Delacroix, The Journal of Eugene Delacroix, translated by Hubert Wellington, published by Phaidon Press, entry for November 3, 1850.

I continue to reread The Journal of Eugene Delacroix and can't resist quoting much of what Delacroix has written. Sometimes it's directly relevant to the artwork I'm showing and sometimes not. Today I think it is pretty relevant, at least in the sense that I'm feeling my way with this print. I find this is the way that I work most often.

You can set up a skeletal framework to start a painting or print, but in the end you need to have a dialog with your medium, sometimes giving it its way and ending up in surprising places.  I know that there are artists who plan out everything, and supposedly Alfred Hitchcock was the epitome of this in film, but I think most successful artists stay open enough as they proceed to veer off in a slightly different direction if they see that the opportunity arises and probably will offer a better result.

In the case of Titian and Rembrandt they are of course feeling their way in more representational work than mine. And they are using brushes not chisels and wood. But there is a great similarity in the sense that I really don't at all know how this print will end. I don't know how I'll finish it.

At top the black block is printed on top of a proof with the three colors that I've printed so far: yellow, rose and olive/brown. Beneath it is the actual print with those three colors. As I move on to the final colors I'd like to have a better idea of what the black will look like. But I don't want it covering everything as it does in top print. So I'm going to need to feel my way along, removing more and more of the black woodblock and proofing it. The danger, and one I'm well aware of from past experience, is that I'll remove too much black. That's why I've removed so little up until now.

But it is time to start removing it. I'll be feeling my way with repeated carvings.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Osprey and Goldfinch Prints in Progress

Osprey with Fish at Valley Green. Proof of multi-block Linocut by Ken Januski.

Experience is absolutely necessary in order to learn all that may be done with one's own instrument of expression, and more especially to avoid what should not even be attempted. When a man is immature he plunges into all kinds of senseless experiments, and by attempting to force his art to yield more than it either can or should concede, he fails to reach even a small degree of superiority within the bounds of what is possible... Only fools and weaklings torture themselves by trying to achieve the impossible.

And yet we need to be very bold. Without daring, without extreme daring even, there is no beauty...
Eugene Delacroix, The Journal of Eugene Delacroix, translated by Hubert Wellington, published by Phaidon Press, entry for Sunday July 21, 1850.

So ... to put it briefly, I hope I'm being bold and not foolish and weak by experimenting as I am with the two prints shown here. Above is a linocut that I abandoned about four years ago. It was based on a field sketch I did of an Osprey seen at Valley Green, along the Wissahickon in Philadelphia on November 15, 2010.

I stumbled upon it by accident recently. As I recall I decided it just looked too clunky and primitive for my tastes. But now I find something appealing in it so I'm reviving it. Out of curiosity I printed the image on the back of the mounted linoleum and carved away the pressed wood backing where the Osprey would print. I then used a rolled blend, something I've never tried, onto the pressed wood surface, not the most inviting surface in the world.

Well as you can see it didn't really respond well to being inked. And yet it did give some color, which is really all that I wanted, to serve as a backdrop for the black linoleum print. This is a proof. Most likely I'll do some more carving on the linoleum, getting rid of a lot of gouge marks and probably just print in one color, black. But only time will tell.

American Goldfinch on Thistle. Proof of multi-block Woodcut by Ken Januski.

I started the Osprey print today after printing the proof above for the Goldfinch woodblock. I'm trying to figure out how much of the yellow to keep. Since most of the first proof is yellow, whatever I carve away will stay yellow.

American Goldfinch on Thistle. Proof of multi-block Woodcut by Ken Januski.

Most likely the last printing will be the black from the first side of the woodblock. As I continue adding colors I'll need to carve away much of the black so that it doesn't overprint as it does here. But I proof it continually at points like this just to get some idea of what it might look like, and what I might lose forever if I cut it away now. Most likely there won't be much black left when I finally print that block on top of everything else. But that stage is still quite a ways away. One thing I would like to get, and I think I have it to some degree in the proof without the black, is a fairly bright print, just like my recollection of the goldfinch on the thistle.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

November Osprey and Butterflies

Juvenile Osprey at Wissahickon. Ballpoint Pen and Watercolor Sketch on double-spread of Stillman and Birn Beta Sketchbook by Ken Januski.

Variegated Frittilary at Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education. Ballpoint Pen and Watercolor Sketch in Stillman and Birn Beta Sketchbook by Ken Januski.

As I have written elsewhere on this blog it was walking off what seemed to me the disastrous election of George Bush as president in November of 2004 that I came across the first Osprey I'd ever seen at the Wissahickon, less than a mile from our home. Over the years I've learned that it's not all that surprising to find one there, most likely during migration. But it is far less likely to find them in November.

So each November I make sure to spend a little more time birding the Wissahickon rather than other areas so that I can keep that tradition alive. Sure enough Jerene and I saw one last week, flying 15-20 feet above the water and only 15-20 feet away. Since he was here and gone so quickly I didn't sketch him or take a photo. But we could see enough white markings on him to identify him or her as a juvenile. We had a more cooperative juvenile here in 2013 and I'm showing the pen and watercolor sketch I did last year at the top of this post.

Because we've gotten used to seeing them in November it's actually more of a surprise these days for us to find butterflies, excluding the still ubiquitous Cabbage White and perhaps a Mourning Cloak. Yesterday we did see at least one Cabbage White, flying dangerously close to one of the highlights of the day, a Fox Sparrow, one of two together at the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education.

But the highlight of the butterfly day was the Variegated Frittilary, pictured above in a ballpoint pen and watercolor sketch. My first reaction to the butterfly, without having really looked at the pattern, was that was a Great Spangled Frittilary. But as I read my guide books I saw that this was very unlikely as they mainly fly in summer. As I looked more closely I realized it was instead a Variegated Frittilary, a butterfly that flies into November.

That in turn prompted me to check another butterfly that we found in the same location in late November a couple of years ago. It was a Common Buckeye. Sure enough they also fly into November. But that was news to me! As I said I was actually more surprised by these butterflies than by the osprey.

Thinking about this convinced me to collect some of my artwork based on Osprey and butterflies, primarily those seen in November. I've added them to my Facebook Page. It includes these works along with 5-6 others, including an abandoned linocut of an Osprey seen at Valley Green along the Wissahickon in late November a few years ago. I didn't like the clunkiness of the print so gave up on it. But now I'm tempted to return to it.

As a side note I have to say it's hard to figure out how to use butterflies in an artistic composition. They in themselves are both striking and beautiful. But you really only see them in three positions: 1, with their wings spread flat, making for a very static composition; 2, with their wings closed, making for a slightly less static composition; and 3, in flight, where they are often too small to see. I'm new to painting butterflies but I can already see that they will be far more difficult than birds to work into a successful composition.

I did print the first color of the American Goldfinch and Thistle woodcut today. But it's light yellow on white/cream so not much shows up. Once it dries and I've printed another color I'll get back to posting on it. For now it seemed like a good time to instead celebrate the Osprey and butterflies of November.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

A New Woodcut and Surprising Influences

American Goldfinch on Thistle. Early State of Multi-block Woodcut by Ken Januski.

Whenever I resume printmaking there's a sense of excitement and possibility, as though I'm finally getting back to what I really should be doing. Since I've been involved with art for 40 years though and with printmaking less than 10 this is a bit surprising. Still it seems to be true. I do find much to like in printmaking, if you ignore of course all the technical problems that it is always throwing up.

A few months ago I did a watercolor sketch of an American Goldfinch vigorously tearing apart a thistle. I first did some field sketches and used those and some photos I took as the basis of the watercolor.

As so often happens these watercolor sketches eventually become prints. Who knows why this procedure seems to be comfortable and work well for me?

What struck me about the American Goldfinch when I saw it was the very vigorous pose. I couldn't help but notice the force that was shown in the legs as they gripped the flower tenaciously.

Perhaps because of all the years I spent doing figure drawing from life, and perhaps for a million other reasons, I've always liked work that shows the gesture of things. I've always been this way no matter how deep I might have been in abstract art.

And that's one thing I found that I really liked about wildlife artist Bob Kuhn when I first started looking at his work about two years ago. I've never been very fond of wildlife art, especially the big game type that Kuhn often did. What I discovered though was that what I didn't like was the clich├ęd big game art, not the portrayal of big game itself. Good wildlife art, as Kuhn's was, really appreciates the subject portrayed and tries to do it justice.

What was even more surprising in reading about Kuhn though and in looking at his work in reproduction is how aware he was of contemporary art. Most surprising was his use of contemporary art influences, most obviously painter Mark Rothko, in his work. He combined, quite successfully, abstraction and vigorous, realistic action.

That's the surprising influence I refer to in my title. His example always reminds me that it is possible to combine realism and abstraction in art. And he remains a surprising influence on my own work. Off the top of my head I can only think of one other such person: Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, the 18th century French still life painter. I don't think his work has ever knowingly influenced my work but I don't think I'll ever be able to un-digest as it were the quirt simplicity and beauty of his paintings. I'm sure that this is true for most artists. At least I hope so.

The woodcut above includes, at the moment, both sides of a piece of Shina plywood. On one side I'm carving the black areas, and on the others the colored areas, most likely, yellow, pink, perhaps a green and perhaps a blue. My current plans are to print the color as abstract shapes, as in some other recent prints, and print the black last on top of that. But I never know. Once a print is started it, and not me, dictates what happens next.

I wrote recently of being contemporary in your art. I think more than anything else it's the sense of improvisation that seems most contemporary in my work. This is not really good or bad, nor even planned or unplanned. It's just the way I prefer to work.  I can't say why.