Thursday, February 22, 2018

A Century of My Watercolors, or Perhaps Just Eleven Years

American Wigeon. Watercolor  by Ken Januski.

Well!!! It's been a long time since I've posted anything here. But not quite as long as the time between the two watercolors of Pine Warblers below, that being almost eleven years. As I said in 2017 I eventually found that there wasn't much of  an audience  for  the blog, if you ignored hackers or  other undesirables, and I also found that writing time took away from painting time.

Still art is a balance I think between work and thought and one should not be totally ignored for the other. So there are a couple of thoughts for this post.

One I was reminded of by Robert Greenberg in his Great Courses course on Concert Masterworks. I think  he was talking about Beethoven. He said that composing music is much more than just writing a  melody; it's also about rhetoric and logic, basically organizing a piece of music.  In terms of art it means that a representation of something is not enough, no matter how many details an artist might include. It's got  to hold together logically and also captivate an audience. That captivation is through expectation and surprise. We should all understand that from our own experience so I won't go into it.

Another thought: watercolor is  not my forte. But I keep going back to it. For one thing I've found  that it can be a way to quickly explore an idea or subject. But another is  that it is one of my favorite mediums, but only when done by a master like Winslow Homer or John Singer Sargent. It can be such a bright, fresh, light-filled medium and it seems perfect for portraying birds and the outside. I did a maximum of three watercolors in all my years as an undegraduate and graduate(at 2 colleges) student in studio art. It was only when I decided to use birds as subjects in late 2006 that I turned to  it. And boy did I have a lot to learn. I guess that's why I'm showing  the brand new watercolor from today below as well as one of the same subject from eleven years  ago  in 2007. They show, along with the other watercolors here, my progress over the years.

A final thought: sometimes it can take a long while to figure out the right medium for a subject, for instance woodblock, watercolor, charcoal drawing, oil painting, etc. I spend much of my time looking at photos I've taken or sketches I've done from life, waiting for one of them to spark an idea, some possible way to create a piece of art that I'll be happy with. In other words I'm looking for inspiration. But inspiration is not easily found. Recently I decided that when a subject seemed interesting but where I still couldn't figure out the medium to use,  or the composition or some such thing, that it was best to just do something  at  that time, rather than let if  fade into my memory because inspiration wasn't there yet. Most of the watercolors here, outside of the old Pine Warbler watercolor, were done with that motivation.

Both the American Wigeon and the Prothonotary Warbler were based on photos that I'd taken and that struck me. But I still couldn't figure out either the medium or  the composition. So I decided to just do fairly large watercolors and see what happened. At 12x16 inches they were too small, at least for me, to just be studies. But there also wasn't the pressure to do a finished work of  art. I'm happy with them and with the method. It seems like a better way to get to more developed work than to just file away an idea for another time.

Pine Warbler. Watercolor by Ken Januski.

Often in the past I've done quick pencil and watercolor  sketches  of birds that I've just seen. I often want to commemorate the sighting in some way. So  the first step is a sketch. That was the motivation for the Pine Warbler above. A very early one appeared very briefly outside my studio window two days  ago. But I also wanted to get away from small sketches. Such small sketches are nice in that they are too small to  create worry about failure. On the other hand they are also too small to motivate much ambition. So I'm  trying to work larger and on better paper when I want to commemorate experiences. Some will be failures. But I  also might get a more finished work of art. Right now I'm using watercolor  for this but the other day I  was a bit tempted to go back to  acrylic again. We'll see. In the meantime I'm relatively happy with this. And it is an improvement, though not  as much as  I'd like, over the watercolor from 11 years ago below.

Pine Warbler. Early Watercolor by Ken Januski

I've already talked a bit about the watercolor of a Prothonotary Warbler below. Since it is a rare bird for Philadelphia, and especially for anywhere  other than John Heinz NWR, I was really happy to see it. This is the second watercolor I've done of  it. The other is in sumi brush pen and watercolor  and is based on the same photo. So there is some similarity to  this. But neither of them fully portray the experience as I'd like to, even though I'm quite fond  of the watercolor below. That I think gets back to what Greenberg said about being more than a melody. Good art or music uses its language to create something much larger. So that will remain an ambition for my experience of a Prothonotary along the Wissahickon. It may very well be that only an abstraction, in one medium or another, will do the trick!!

Prothonotary Warbler. Watercolor by Ken Januski.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Moku Hanga Number 4 - American Robin in Crabapple


When I was a graduate student in Art Practice I used to feel sorry for a particular classmate of mine. He was very talented, primarily in a realistic manner, but he seemed always frozen in place because he thought too much about what he did. At least that was my view of the matter. I always  wanted to say to him: just paint, stop thinking!

And yet I now find myself  a bit  in the same situation. When I got to work on the newly finished print above I remembered how much I enjoyed printing, well at least now that I have a better idea about how to get consistent color than when I first started. But I think because printmaking is  a commitment of time, effort, paper and other materials I always want to have a good idea before I start. Thus the time between prints  drag into months and months, all while I wait for a 'good idea.' When I actually start a print I often ask myself why I didn't start earlier.

I could go on and on about this but I won't. Suffice it to say that I'm quite happy with the 6.5x10.5 inch moku hanga print above. I'm still printing it so I'm not sure how large the edition will be. It would be nice to have an edition of 100  or so but my guess is that it will be 30 at most. Now that all the excitement of getting a print I like is done it's not as easy to commit  to  the work of printing a large edition. We shall see. It also seems to put all of the creative work into it without getting the reward of a large, sellable edition.

Below you see the final proof before I actually started the print. The last block printed was the keyblock, which had outlines  of most  of  the shapes. I intended to follow the same procedure in the actual print. First I would  clean up each of the three color blocks, print then in solid, consistent color  rather than the uneven color below, and then print at least part of the keyblock. I thought I would experiment  a bit  and keep cutting down the number of lines I included until I had just the essential ones, enough to define the robin and make the print sing.

But a surprise happened. By the time  I got  to what you see above I loved the print as is. I couldn't imagine how any  lines would be helpful. I expected that they would just make the print  seem cluttered rather than fresh. So it's done!  One block short of where I thought  it would be.



One final thought. I never liked all the solvents involved with oil-based printmaking. Eventually I  changed to water soluble oil-based inks. That was better. But due to limited studio space I had to carve the print on second floor in my studio, but print it two floors down, in the basement. There was still a lot of cleanup. And then in early 2017 I tried my first moku hanga print.

Now I do everything in my second floor studio, both carving and printing. Cleanup is almost non-existent because the paint is water-based. Though it's difficult to get reliable coverage of the colors I feel more confident about it  and this print is by far my most successful in that aspect. I'm starting to get the rich color that I've seen others get. And all in a very small studio space. You could almost say it's miraculous.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Recent Work - Moku Hanga, Watercolor, Field Sketch

Yellow-billed Cuckoo with Worm. Moku Hanga print by Ken Januski.

It has been a very long time since I've posted anything here. One reason is an old one: I tend  to  write more  than make art on this blog. Though I  obviously  have an interest in thinking  about things, especially artistic things, I often feel that is to the detriment of  actually  making art. So a year ago or more I decided to limit my writing here.

A newer motivation is  both a seeming lack of  interest from readers and moreso a belief that most viewers are interested for the wrong reasons: hacking or some other motive not related to my art. This isn't just paranoia. It's based on reading the stats of who visits, who links, etc. The great majority are from countries known for their hacking, especially for the purpose of  identity theft, or from sites that aren't legit. This  didn't use to be the case but it  is now. So I have no reason to write posts for  hackers and others who just aren't interested  in anything I want them to be interested in.

Of course a lot of  this came about as social media became more popular. I finally relented and joined Facebook a few years ago, mainly to have access to some artists whose work was hidden without a Facebook logon and perhaps a friend request. I didn't like any of this but I finally decided to try it. All in all I'm not unhappy. But Facebook reminds me of what I used to call 'snippet journalism', journalism whether in print or online or television that was too breezy and short to be of much value.  There is something there but it certainly isn't the more developed, thoughtful discursive material that is available in something like a blog.

So perhaps blogs will return to popularity. But I used to think that eventually print, especially printed newspapers and magazines would make a comeback. It seems crazy to me that this has not happened but there's no doubt that is has not.

So.............I'm just going to show some recent work here, though without a lot of  theorizing.

At top  is the finished moku  hanga print of 'Yellow-billed Cuckoo with Worm.' Traditional moku hanga includes very finely painted,  carved and printed lines. Contemporary moku hanga has largely abandoned line for color fields. This makes sense for various reasons, but I  still miss line. So below you see a trial proof of the same print using lines just on the cuckoo. Another proof shows only color fields with no line  at all. The color  field proof was done much  earlier in the process and the linear one as I made the final edition.

My long history with abstract art has taught me that you really have to be careful about precious areas of  a painting, areas that can seduce the eye but that don't add much to  the entire painting or print.  There is  an aesthetic that says that this is just fine but it's not MY aesthetic. The proof without lines has a lot of areas I  like but they just don't fit with my idea of the  print. The proof below with minimal line was my attempt to keep the color fields and just use the most essential line. But in the end I decided that I needed all of the lines. It took a long time to come to this decision but I finally did. And I'm happy with it.

Yellow-billed Cuckoo with Worm. Trial moku hanga proof by Ken Januski.

Yellow-billed Cuckoo with Worm. Early state moku hanga proof by Ken Januski.

All of my work desires spontaneity in some form or another. And I rebel against too much detail and too much adherence to what something looks like. On the other hand, especially with wildlife art and particular species, I can't very well just ignore the specifics. So I try to do what I can to learn them but to let the actual prints and paintings look spontaneous, or at least not constipated.

Further down on this page are some field sketches I did  at Cape May a few weeks ago, mainly  of  Sora, Virginia Rail and Wilson's  Snipe. I wanted to capture the actual scene of Sora and Virginia Rail all together, constantly moving out of view and back into the reeds. The sumi brush pen and watercolor painting below is the result of  my attempt to capture the scene, be spontaneous but still be at least somewhat true to what the species actually looked like.

Inevitably this will not have the detail or the realism of more fastidious detailed work. But other than as a learning tool I have no interest in painting in such a manner. And I think my prints show that this is also true with them. In any case I'm happy with this  12x16 inch painting.

Juvenile and adult Sora and Virginia Rail. Brush Pen and Watercolor  painting  by Ken Januski.

Since the day I started wildlife art, specifically bird art, over 10 years ago I knew some things I didn't want. I didn't  want portraits, where cute animals were centered on the canvas or print as though posing in a photographers studio. I didn't want cameos either, where the bird is in focus and the background just fades out into mist. I also didn't want a totally flattened picture plane, with cropped subject and an interesting design. I used to admire this in Degas and in Japanese prints, including some moku hanga. But  today it seems easy and a bit too decorative.

I also knew, how could I forget, that I didn't want labored art. I'm always shocked at how artists, especially wildlife artists, will talk about how much time they spent on their work. Who cares?  That 's a bad sign not a good one. To me the best art looks effortless, regardless of how much work went into  it.

So I had a huge list of what I didn't want my art to look like. One thing I've realized is that I do want a sense of life, a sense of artistic knowledge and ambition, and more and more a sense of space and depth. The latter is not inherently good. It's gone in and out of artistic fashion over the centuries. But to me it seems to be a way to help the subject open up, to help it breathe. It seems to me that especially in wildlife art the subjects should breathe!

So that is what I attempted to  do in the 12x16 inch  watercolor below of a Black-bellied Plover and two Dunlin below. It's quite simple and has an extraordinarily  limited palette for me. It also leaves a lot of white space, something that is harder than anything else for  me to accomplish  in watercolor.

Black-bellied Plover and Dunlin. Watercolor painting by Ken Januski.

As I said above I still like to be able to portray my birds and other subjects with some sense of accuracy. The best method for  that bar none, is to work from life. I may not get the detail that I might if working from a photo but I get a sense of life and I also learn to make decisions about what is important in my subject in the brief seconds or nanoseconds before it moves. Because of that I always enjoy the chance to draw birds from life.

It is  still a bit difficult to do, especially with rarer birds, when my camera is hanging around my neck ready to use. And I do use it. But it never has the thrill of sketching from life!

Juvenile Sora. Field  Sketch by Ken Januski

Sora. Field Sketch by Ken Januski

Virginia Rail and Common Gallinule. Field Sketch by Ken Januski.

Virginia Rail Field Sketch by Ken Januski.

Wilson's Snipe. Field Sketch by Ken Januski.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Varieties of Artistic Motivation

Yellow-billed Cuckoo with Caterpillar. Moku Hanga Proof by Ken Januski.
Three artistic subjects have been on my mind over the last few weeks: field sketches, shorebirds and moku hanga prints. And to a lesser extent, the annual exhibition of  The Society of Wildlife Artists in London, UK.

All of these subjects relate to the idea of artistic motivation, specifically MY artistic motivation. I mention this because I think that unless you're an artist you might not realize that artists have motivations. They don't just make art the way you the viewer think art should be made.

My own motivations are often complex if not contradictory. For one thing I love sketching birds from life, though with a caveat or two! I particularly like sketching shorebirds and there's one primary reason for that: I can see them. I can even see the whole bird! That is not true with warblers, vireos, flycatcher, sparrows, etc. Most of them are hard to see period because they are moving so quickly and in addition they are often partially obscured by their environment, often vegetation. What a relief it is to go from a fast flitting warbler seen only briefly and partially through some leaves to a shorebird that sits out in front of you, often staying in the same area, if not same position, long enough for you to look through your spotting scope, see, and sketch some detail.

So that is why it was particularly exciting a couple of weeks ago to find a fair number of species of shorebirds at Morris Arboretum. I spent a good part of two days sketching them. They didn't sit quite as still as I've just indicated that they often do. In fact they rarely sat still. But they did remain out in the open so it was possible to get continued looks at them and build up a drawing over time, adding little touches of areas I missed earlier in the sketching.

As you can see I kept quite busy with both Least and Solitary Sandpipers.

But why? Given  that my work normally ends up being somewhat abstract or stylized why spend so much  time sketching birds from life? I'm not an illustrator whose job it might be to capture them realistically for a guide book or something similar.

Well it's a good question. For me I think there are a couple of answers. One is that the more I sketch them the more I understand their structure and the more confident I am in using them even in the most abstract form. I know that there is a basis in reality. The second, which I just figured out today is the challenge. Birds, especially shorebirds have subtle but elegant shapes. It is a real challenge to both see and put down on paper all that is in a shorebird, especially in regard to shape. This reminds me of figure drawing in a way. The subject is endlessly complex, challenging and rewarding. And as with figure drawing there is also an almost sculptural aspect, the desire to show movement and how weight is distributed. It almost entails a physical empathy with the bird, animal or model. Work that shows this, even when incredibly detailed, immediately attracts me.

There is a real excitement in both trying to see what is there and in trying to get it down on paper. I'm showing quite a lot of photos of field sketches here. Some are better than others. But I think most if not all capture the excitement of drawing birds in the field. (Though I rarely sketch animals I expect that the challenge and reward is similar).

And yet.....
Least Sandpiper. Field Sketch by Ken Januski.
Least Sandpiper. Field Sketch by Ken Januski.
Least Sandpiper. Field Sketch  by Ken Januski.
Least Sandpiper. Field Sketch by Ken Januski.
Least Sandpiper. Field Sketch by Ken Januski.


Solitary Sandpiper. Field Sketch by Ken Januski.
Solitary Sandpiper. Field Sketch by Ken Januski.
Solitary Sandpiper. Field Sketch by Ken Januski.
Solitary Sandpiper.Field Sketch by Ken Januski.
Solitary Sandpiper. Field Sketch by Ken Januski.
Solitary Sandpiper. Field Sketch by Ken Januski.

.... this is only one artistic motivation. There is also the one of artistic composition, which includes color, shape, texture, etc. In many ways it is more exciting to me. It is this motivation that I think non-artists are most unaware of. It is the thing, or at least one of them, that makes art Art.

It is both the motivation behind the moku hanga print at the top of this post and the motivation behind  the prints that I selected for my application to this year's  annual exhibition of The Society of Wildlife Artists. In fact it's really more than composition. It's more like personal expression and all that this entails, often a great deal of concern with composition. So it explains the endless proofing I've done on the Yellow-billed Cuckoo print in order to get  it to meet some subconscious sense I have of what is right and it explains why I chose the particular prints I did  for the SWLA show.

And in fact both works turned out to be rejected. This rejection was a bit of a disappointment but it really doesn't bother me that much. I chose what I thought were my best works, using the standard of personal expression that I  just mentioned, and I and the judges, whoever they were  just didn't see eye to eye. But when you think you chosen your best work you don't change your mind  because that judgment was not echoed by someone else. Particularly with juried shows things like this often happen. There could be a million reasons for rejection from any show. So my feeling is to always just choose your  best work and then let the chips  fall where they may.

What is worse I think is to submit  your work to a show you don't  really like. I've done this for years for  a show that I don't like. And I've never gotten in. This year I finally stopped applying because I realized I got  angry every time I looked at the catalog of what did get in. I didn't like 90%  of it, year after year after year. With SWLA it's far different. This is a show I like and admire. And I've never felt bad about submitting what I think is my best work to a show I like. If you're going to be rejected I personally find it much easier to deal with not getting into a show that I admire. Though I do have to admit it's always nice to get in  the show.

In any case both the SWLA experience and the Yellow-billed Cuckoo print represent what you might call ambition in art. You challenge yourself,  a challenge that maybe only you understand and/or appreciate, but it is what makes all art, at least for artists, exciting! Artist sacrifice a lot for art, more  than most people know. On the other hand it's not really a sacrifice, because most artists love what they're doing, even if  it  doesn't  always end up with success or sales, and even if  artists are not apt  to publicly admit  this.

Finally there is a last motivation in my bird-based art: getting not just the shape, and sense of movement and life of birds, but also getting the subtlety of  their coloring and plumage. Most wildlife artists spend far more time on this than I do. For me it isn't even very interesting, in either my work or the work of  anyone else. I think this is mainly true because so often it is at the expense of any sense of life in the bird. It often seems to exhibit the skill of copying photos, not a very valuable skill in my book.

But sometimes you are just so struck by the beauty of a bird that you'd like to try to get it down on paper or canvas. Often such attempts end up lifeless but I  do understand and appreciate the motivation.

But that was not the case with the two watercolors below. And this is something peculiar to wildlife art and especially bird art I think. I wanted to show some of the diagnostic characteristics of birds, the things that you  might see in a guidebook. I rarely get into this in my art. But I  do spend much  of  my time trying to identify birds and to differentiate similar ones from each other. So it's not surprising that occasionally I attempt to show that it  my artwork. But it is a rarity for me, and though exciting when I do it, can be disappointing afterwards if it doesn't also show some sense of self-expression.

As usual when you see shorebirds, especially if you're in a place like Philadelphia that doesn't really have all that many, there is the question of peeps. Are those small shorebirds Least Sandpipers, Semi-palmated Sandpipers, Western Sandpipers, something else? These questions were going through my mind as I looked at peeps recently and so I did these two watercolors, at least in part, to try to show the differences between the two. To some extent I've succeeded though I do think there is a little too much of the torpedo-like shape of a Red Knot in the solo Least Sandpiper watercolor.

It is this desire  to show something accurately which I think is most difficult for an artist like myself who comes from a 'Fine Arts' background. This type of almost scientific accuracy is just of no importance whatsoever in my training. In fact it's quite suspect. I would guess that my peers, at least at the time I was studying art in college, would have considered it an example of the most mundane and uninspired 'illustration', certainly not art. This is of course just one view of art and I have no idea how many people still subscribe to it.

But I do think the fact that you never, ever see contemporary wildlife art in any museum show or contemporary art show indicates that this view still holds. So I  personally find myself  in an odd position. I abandoned the art world I'd grown up in because I think it had become thoroughly fatuous. All art was 'important' art, at least if you believed the galleries and art magazines about 20 years ago when I got fed up with it. So there are a million reasons I think to criticize contemporary art which has just as much of an 'academy' today as in the mid-1800s when the Impressionists reacted against it.

I find the idea of working from nature, which has always had some importance in art, a good place from which to revive 'high art' to get it out of  its thorough insularity and self-referentiality. So that's where I'm working. But I can't  really see making art that is nothing more than illustration either, even if the subject is birds or wildlife. Art can be and has been so much more than that. So though there is some attempt at realism in the two paintings below I don't care in the least if I happen to miss one row  of scapulars or any other such detail. That to me seems more the concern of a pedant than a artist.

Least Sandpiper. Watercolor Painting by Ken Januski.
Least and Semi-palmated Sandpipers. Watercolor Painting by Ken Januski.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Moku Hanga Number Two - Jumping Squirrel, Kingbird, Damselfly, Butterfly)

Jumping Gray Squirrel, Eastern  Kingbird, Ebony Jewelwing  and Zabulon Skipper Moku Hanga print by Ken Januski. On Nishinouchi paper.

It's been quite a while since I posted here and though I've been working on a new print for some time I wanted to wait until the print was finished before posting. Above is one of the  finished prints. I've done 10-11 and am debating whether to print a few more in the edition. Given all the prepartory work it  always seems silly not to print a  relatively large edition. On the other hand it is more work!

Spring is a time of  almost too much natural wealth. There is so much  so see, hear, experience, and perhaps  draw, paint or photograph from life. But how do you  choose a subject for  an artwork? For me it  often comes from a quick sketch that I've done.

Below you can see the field sketch of  an Eastern Kingbird that led to this print. It probably wouldn't have just based on the kingbird sketch, but while I was sketching it a Gray Squirrel seemed to jump up straight in the air between me and the kingbird. Perhaps he saw a snake,  maybe a grasshopper,  or maybe he was just being squirrelly. In any case I tried to get some sense of it  down in my sketchbook.

As I said these chance encounters often lead to more developed work. My guess is that there seems to be a subject to portray, something more than just a portrait or study. In any case after I got  home I started doing various compositional  studies for a print, as well as studies as to just how a squirrel that jumped straight up in the air might look.  As I did so I realized how poorly I understood squirrel anatomy. So  I did some sketches based on photos I've taken over the years.

Field Sketch  and Studies for Moku  Hanga Print.

Studies for Squirrel Moku Hanga Print.

I'm not going to show all of the various compositional  studies I made. But finally I came up  with what I wanted. I then drew that with a brush pen onto a tissue like paper, pasted it  down on the block that would be the  key block(the one with most detail, and at least for me printed in black), and eventually printed that block onto more tissue (Usu Mino paper)  that I then pasted in reverse onto the other blocks to  be carved. Below is an example. I overdid  the amount of  Nori used to paste down the drawing(kyogo) and that is what the blotches are in photo below.

Anyone who's familiar with moku hanga will know what kento marks are but most people will not. They  are registration marks carved into the block itself so that there is a greater likelihood of  prints matching up as you print more and more colors. In the kyogo below you can see that I've also included the kento marks from the key block. Once the kyogo dried I used it as a guide as I carved away  the non-printing areas and just left the areas I planned to print in color.

Pasted down Kyogo for color block.

Below are the other blocks, well actually other block. Since both sides of each block can be printed I can get four blocks from two blocks. Additionally I can print more than one color  on some of the blocks, though I do  have to be careful as I ink up the areas not to brush the wrong color into an area. Below all of  the blocks except the black key block have more than one color: gray and blue, brown and a tiny orange area(for the skipper butterfly) and yellow and  a tiny second area  of black (for the squirrel's eye).

Blue and Gray, and Black Blocks for Moku Hanga print.

Yellow and Brown Blocks for Moku Hanga Print.

As the title says this is just my second moku hanga print. I'm happy to say it was  not as tortuous as the  first. All printmaking methods seem to require a fair amount of  technical  knowledge and skill, something I really have never liked. But the more  I print, regardless  of  method of printmaking, the more I realize that I just  won't  be successful without some technical knowledge and skill. Moku hanga seems more complicated than other methods I've tried.

Its virtue though is  that  it can lead to beautiful prints, that is almost thoroughly non-toxic, assuming  you don't eat any of  your paints/inks, and it requires very little space. I used to print in the basement after carving and designing my prints in my second floor studio. Now I do all my work in the studio. I only go to the basement to clean up.

There are many technical problems with moku hanga but  based on  my vast experience of two prints I'd  say that the most difficult is  getting consistent ink coverage. This print is not perfect but I've gotten much better with ink coverage. Registration is better and smudges are fewer. It will remain a learning experience. But it is one where I see a bright future.

From what I can see of contemporary moku hanga a great deal of it  is done with fields  of color  and NO lines. Since the mastery of line, and other things, seen in ukiyo-e artists and printmakers seems absolutely impossible  to match  today I  have some understanding of this. Who wants to compete with Hokusai? But  I  like  line and see  no reason to keep it out of my prints. I also , as in most of my work, like to combine naturalism and abstraction. It was that which made printmaking appealing to me to begin with. It is even more so with moku hanga.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Grabbing a Warbler in Your Hand

Northern Parula at Magee Marsh. Charcoal and Pastel Drawing by Ken Januski.

Northern Parula at Magee Marsh. Pencil Drawing by  Ken Januski.

Northern Parula at Magee Marsh. Pencil Field Sketch by Ken Januski.

Northern Parula at Magee Marsh. Photo by Ken Januski.

I recently spent over a week in the Magee Marsh area of Ohio with my wife. It is a great place to see warblers close up. But after a while you begin to suspect that warblers all have the same song: "click, click, click, clickclickclick". The sound of cameras drowns out the sound of the birds. It is that crowded and everyone seems to have a camera.

It's easy to understand. They are such beautiful birds and only rarely can most people see them so close. So you want to capture them. It's a real temptation, and one I always fall to. But there's something bothersome about 'capturing' them via photography. It can seem a bit aggressive as well as possessive, like an object to be obtained rather than something to enjoy. Drawing them from life is far more difficult than pushing the button on a camera. But it's also far more engaging. So I always plan to do sketches of them from life and eventually I do so. Such sketches are difficult because the birds move so quickly.

At that time it almost seems criminal to reach for the sketchbook. On the other hand it's also the only chance you may ever get to sketch them close up from life. I know that there will be problems with the sketches but I can't resist doing so. Many of them are shown here. I'm also including a number of photos, and also I hope a couple of videos. I think together that they give some sense of the full experience.

Above you see three different representations of a Northern Parula along with a photo.  Sometimes the warblers are so close you could literally reach out and grab them. That certainly was the case for me with Pine, Black-throated Green, Chestnut-sided and Yellow Warblers. They were within my grasp. My thinking here is that though you can almost reach out and grab these warblers any art work based on them ought also to have that quality. The charcoal and pastel drawing at the top, done today two weeks after getting back from Magee, attempts just that. It attempts to capture the experience, not just copy a photo.


Blackburnian Warbler at Magee Marsh. Pencil Field Sketch by Ken Januski.

Blackburnian Warbler at Magee Marsh. Brush Pen and Watercolor Painting by  Ken Januski.

Blackburnian Warbler at Magee Marsh. Photo by Ken Januski.

Above are three representations of the striking Blackburnian Warbler. The first is a field sketch done from life. Often I know that I'll get something wrong, perhaps the shape, more likely some part of their complex feather patterns. But trying to capture them live on paper gets me to see and know them better. If I later do a work based on a photo, as in the brush pen and watercolor painting above, it is much easier to take liberties with the photo, to be less intimidated by its 'reality.''

Below are a few more field sketches as well as photos of many of the other warblers seen at Magee Marsh.

Black-throated Blue Warbler at Magee Marsh. Pencil Field Sketch by Ken Januski.

Black-throated Blue Warbler at Magee Marsh. Photo by Ken Januski.

Black-throated Green Warbler at Magee Marsh. Pencil Field Sketch by Ken Januski.

Black-throated Green Warbler at Magee Marsh. Photo by Ken Januski.

Magnolia Warbler at Magee Marsh. Pencil Field Sketch by Ken Januski.

Magnolia Warbler at Magee Marsh. Photo by Ken Januski.
Nashville Warbler at Magee Marsh. Pencil Field Sketch by  Ken Januski.

Nashville Warbler at Magee Marsh. Photo by Ken Januski.


Chestnut-sided Warbler  at Magee Marsh. Photo by Ken Januski.

Though it is always exciting to see all of these warblers, and many other species, at Magee it often happens that as soon as we get home a bird that we'd gone on vacation specifically to see makes an appearance while we're out birding in Philadelphia. Such was the case with the first Prothonotary Warbler we've ever seen in Philadelphia. I found it less than two miles from home, along the Wissahickon Creek.

He actually stayed around long enough for me to shoot a short video with my camera as well as take a number of photos. One of the reasons I like shooting videos, and only with my camera so the gear is simple, is that I can often get the song along with the bird. For me a bird is not a bird without his  song.

One problem I've had with Prothonotary Warblers is that though they are quite striking visually I find it  difficult to make an interesting painting based on them. I think that this is due to the lack of pattern in their plumage. In any case I used this video as a springboard for my most successful version of a Prothonotary so far.


Prothonotary Warbler at Wissahickon. Brush Pen and Watercolor Painting by Ken Januski.

Prothonotary Warbler  at Magee Marsh. Photo by Ken Januski.

Finally I'd like to add something about the title of this post. When a warbler is close enough to grab in your hand you realize what tiny, fragile creatures they are. I like experiencing this. It helps to take them out of the 'cute' category and actually seem like the living things that they are. It also helps you realize how optics don't necessarily tell the truth about the world, neither through binoculars nor in photos. Things seem large, bold and detailed in both. But it often comes as a surprise to  find out just how small those bold, beautiful warblers really are.