Sunday, August 23, 2009

Field Boxes, Flycatchers, Waxwings





I've spent a lot of time at the Wildlife Art section of birdforum.net over the last month. There are some incredibly good artists there, not to mention a vibrant and helpful community. As I've looked at the work there, especially the watercolor field sketches of Nick Derry and Tim Wootton a question has been rumbling around in the back of my mind: Why don't I use real watercolors for my field sketches rather than watercolor pencils and waterbrushes?

The latter method is quick and very convenient. Most of my recent sketches from life are done in this manner. But it is limiting as well: you're pretty much stuck with the colors of the pencils you have with you and color blending is difficult; the end result is half-sketch/half-watercolor; it almost always, at least in my work, looks tentative.

When I see field sketches that look almost like finished paintings I've quietly asked myself if I don't need to change methods. Finally a couple members of the forum suggested I just get a watercolor field box that I can bring with me so that I can do full-fledged watercolors. So I did.



The time was right and I'd just gotten a 10% off coupon from Dick Blick Art Supplies. So I bought an expensive field box set. I surely didn't want to spend as much money as I did, especially as I have a fair number of Winsor & Newton tube watercolors as is. But this looked like a convenient well designed set and it included pan watercolors, which I thought might be better and maybe less strong than tube watercolors.

Well there are field boxes and there are field boxes. I'm sure many people make their own, some from wooden boxes, and some from small mint tins. But I never thought that I was buying something about the size of a mint tin!!

You can see its size in the photo above. That is a quarter to the right of the watercolors! So it's far smaller than I expected. I got it on Friday but wasn't able to get out yesterday due to the rain. Out of frustration I gave it a try using a photo of a Barn Swallow I'd taken. I used the teeny, tiny collapsible brush and the results are below.




To some extent I feel like I cheated because I didn't work from life on this. It's based on a photo. Nonetheless I'm happy with the vibrant colors, especially compared to the watercolor pencil Mallard in upper left.

So, to finally get to the point of this lengthy and wandering post, today my wife and I again went to Morris Arboretum to see what we could see and to try some field sketching, especially with the new field box.

Immediately I saw the first problem. There have been many Cedar Waxwings at Morris recently but they rarely sit still long enough to draw or paint. But today I tried. I got one lined up in scope, then got out my field box and sketchbook. Here's the problem. I need one hand to hold the sketchbook, and one hand to hold the tiny plastic tin of watercolors, and a THIRD hand to do the painting. And really a fourth hand to hold the small container of water. The small watercolor of a waxwing below shows how quickly I gave up on this method!



This isn't much of a page. The waxwings just wouldn't sit still and I just couldn't get a good drawing let alone a good watercolor. The even worse sketch in upper right is a Willow Flycatcher. I just couldn't get anything right on it but I did get enough notes to clearly identify it later as a Willow Flycatcher.

After the three hand fiasco I decided that I needed to sit down somewhere so that I could manage this with two hands. Those drawings are at top. Still more problems presented themselves. Should I draw first with a pencil? Should I just start with brushes? That seemed like a good idea but then there were new problems. The tiny little collapsible brush held no water and so was constantly out of water. So it was like painting in the dry brush method. So then I tried a waterbrush but its flow is erratic even though it has its own reservoir. Finally I went to a standalone brush that was bigger than the collapsible one. That was okay but also ran out of water quickly, or had too much water and ran. So all of the sketches on top two photos are me feeling my way around.

They are a bit clumsy, particularly in regard to color. But they also feel more like paintings. If I can just grow a third or possibly fourth hand I think the future is bright!!

All kidding aside I am hopeful. Today was very frustrating but I see clearly the possibilities ahead and look forward to getting out again. There's nothing like painting.

4 comments:

Jo said...

I think the first thing I did when I bought my little field box was to toss that collapsible brush -- totally useless! A 1/4" Cotman angle brush is my weapon of choice in the field. I really liked the waterbrush when I first tried it, but soon found that the amount of water was just too hard to control, and the brushwork just gets lost.

My water container is an emptied "Stubby" bottle (a carbonated kids drink that I came across at the grocery store). The lip hangs easily between my fingers, the sketchpad rests on my forearm, watercolour box on the pad, and I've got a free arm for sketching and adjusting the scope. Still awkward as hell, though. :)

Ken Januski said...

Hi Jo,

It's nice to hear that someone else has run into the same difficulties I have!! The little watercolor set looks so good and seems like it will be so easy to use -- until you actually get out in the field with it.

I actually might like the collapsible brush for detail at some point but it obviously won't work as the primary brush. And like you say the water in the waterbrush just seems uncontrollable - there when you don't want it and absent when you do!! I thought painting birds from life was difficult enough already!!

At least there is the camaraderie of fieldsketching struggles.

Pam Johnson Brickell said...

Wow! I had no idea that the field box kit was sooooo tiny!! Great swallow!!!!!!!!!!!

Have you tried using the niji watebrush with pan colors? I like the large nib the best for this. Saves holding water jug but you do need lots of paper toweling to clean the brush on.

Ken Januski said...

Hi Pam,

Soooooooooooooo tiny is right. I couldn't believe it when I opened up the big box and found the tiny W&N box inside. It is very cleverly designed but still mighty, mighty small. The white water container is as thin as a flat chocolate bar. And I looked all over to try to find the size before I ordered it. It's not published anywhere including the W&N site. Maybe this is why.

But other than that it seems well designed. So I need to give it some real trials in the field before coming to any conclusions.

I did use the Niji waterbrush in some of the above. Either it didn't have water when I wanted it, as I find happens often with them, or it all came out at once. Thus the blob on one of the sketches! Or maybe that was from my bigger W&N brush. I do know I wasn't satisfied with it either.

But I'm sure I'll figure it out eventually. The main thing is that my big expenditure for tiny fieldbox at least has me working in field with watercolor and that was really my goal.

They just need to get a WHOLE LOT BETTER!!