Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Sandy - We Were Lucky

Mid-afternoon yesterday Hurricane Sandy seemed headed straight for Philadelphia. All the warnings seemed correct. The city was declared in a state of emergency. I expected that we would lose power, perhaps have other damage from falling trees or flying debris, and on a lesser note, lose all the tomatoes and peppers still in an unripe state hanging on bushes in the backyard.

With heavy winds and rains predicted, and already taking place to some extent, I was certain of one thing: the beautiful but seemingly delicate flowers of  the volunteer Nicotiana in the backyard would certainly be destroyed. At top you see a photo of one of them from a few minutes ago, with Sandy largely gone.

They emerged unscathed, as did our household and as far as I can tell those of our neighbors.

The only sign of local damage I could find was a fallen tree across the street. Amazingly it fell parallel to the sidewalk and not perpendicular so that it crossed the street and landed on any of the cars parked there, including our own. In fact it doesn't even seem to have disturbed traffic driving down that side of the street. A photo is above.

So we've been extremely lucky. By late afternoon it looked like the predicted turn to the left of the storm was a more southerly turn than expected. The maps on television and online indicated Philadelphia would be on the outer edge of the strongest part of the storm. But maps are one thing, reality another. I was still quite wary. Though the trees whipped around  most of the night and early morning and though the wind howled, the storm did in fact largely pass us by.

But that's obviously not the case elsewhere. When one area escapes another does  not. That's a sad fact. We can only  wish the best for those millions, yes millions, of people who were not so lucky.  I just heard on the radio that 20% of Pennsylvania is without power. The only  positive thing you  can possibly say about something like this is that at least some of the victims will be able to weather it and turn it into an interesting experience and story: 'I  remember back in 2012. We got hit by Sandy and didn't have power for xxx days...' For others sadly some of the losses will be irreparable.

One last note on those Nicotiana. We last planted them at least 15 years ago. Then they were absent for at least 10 years. About five years ago they started appearing as volunteers in various parts our backyard garden. But they  never survived long enough to flower. Then this year as they  started taking over varioius raised beds Jerene transplated them to various spots around the beds. By mid-October they  almost looked tropical, four feet tall and full of exotic blossoms. Nature remains full of surprises: some bad, some good.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Waiting on a Hurricane, and Tumult

I can think of better things to do than wait on the likely power outage and other discomforts that Hurricane Sandy will most likely bring to us in Philadelphia. We've been lucky in our years here to have escaped much serious storm damage. But it seems we'll need to be really lucky to continue that string.

So after  doing as much storm preparation as is reasonable and possible given how many things have been sold out at stores I decided it made sense to put the final touches on preparation for my  3 person Manayunk Roxborough Art Center show 'Wild at Art' which opens next Sunday. I've decided to exhibit mainly prints. I now have 15 framed and ready to go.

And I plan to show the large acrylic of the two immature Little Blue Herons at Morris Arboretum. But I'd also like to  show some watercolors. As I looked through them today I  finally decided on the small 5x7 inch watercolor of a Swamp Sparrow also seen at Morris Arboretum. I did some minor tweaking on it today and then decided to show it, assuming that is that there is enough room.
I'm very happy with my new watercolor of the Saddlebags dragonfly, Savannah Sparrow and Pumpkins so that was a certain entrant. It is shown newly matted and framed above. It looks a bit cockeyed due to poor photography. In person everything has the expected right angles.

Finally I decided on the watercolor of seven Piping Plovers seen at Stone Harbor last year.  I hate to think what some of my favorite birding places in Cape May and Stone Harbor will look like in a few days. There are a couple of reasons for including this. One is that some people write off bird art and wildlife art as 'pretty' art. It's easy to understand since much of it is. Given the beauty of birds it's a difficult task to show that beauty without verging into sentimentality. I don't think this painting could be considered pretty.

The other reason is a bit more serious. I've written about Piping Plovers in the past. Each time I'm newly struck by the fact that less than 2000 exist! When you see them they can come right up to you, the picture of innocence. They just don't seem rare or threatened for their very existence as a species. Just recently while flipping through a environmental/birding magazine I noticed a headline about 2000 being in existence. I've not had time to go back and read it. But it does remind me of just how rare these birds are. And how threatened they are, including by the idiots with the 'Piping Plover Tastes Like Chicken' bumper stickers.

I should add that the tumult of Hurricane Sandy seems appropriate for the tumultuous times in the U.S. and abroad. I try to avoid politics here, largely because I think people prefer places where they can take  a break from it, those that is who aren't on permanent break from it. And opinions obviously differ. I backed Obama as a practical matter not because of his oratory. That was a strike  against him to me and I think it's harmed his performance as President. Such facility, in art or in politics, can be helpful in the short run and harmful in the long run. So I have mixed feelings about him. Still I think there was no doubt that he clobbered Romney in the last debate and showed how shallow and ignorant Romney is when it comes to foreign policy. So I've been shocked to see intelligent talking heads talk about how he won or showed he's got the right stuff to be President.

I just cite this to show how thoroughly opinions differ. But one thing did strike me in the debate. Romney learned a new word: 'tumult.' The world truly is in tumult, just as areas affected by Hurricane Sandy will be. But the world is always in tumult if you're President of the United States. It's  not a game. It's a  complex world and I'm sure far, far moreso if you're the President. But one thing I'm sure all presidents of the last 50 years would agree on is that the world is tumultuous, as is the job. To look upon the world in tumult today as Romney  has and express dismay at it, as though peace in the world is as simple as just  saying it, immediately disqualifies him for the office.We really can't afford to have someone so vacillating and inexperienced in the world as our next president.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Season of Pumpkin and Amaranth

A surprising pleasure of birding around Cape May in the fall is the foliage, not just the tree leaves but that of shrubs, even weeds. Many of the fields at Higbee Beach have been sown with plants and shrubs that birds use as food. In particular the amaranths and polygonums stand out. And then you have the pumpkin fields at Rea Farm.

In various stages of ripeness they range from deep green to brightest orange. On one of our last days birding there we found numerous Savannah Sparrows hiding in the shadows along the pumpkin field. In the sunny field  itself, brilliant amaranth, pumpkins and the very handsome Red/Carolina Saddlebags dragonfly. I use 'Red/Carolina' designation because I'm not sure which of the two it was. In any  case it made for a striking and memorable sight.

The only field sketch I made of this scene was of the saddlebags when it finally alighted momentarily after what seemed hours of flight. The pumpkins, amaranth and sparrow were primarily based on photos I took. A few posts ago when I showed my field sketches from the trip I also included a preliminary sketch of this composition. It's repeated at the bottom of this post.

At the top is the newest version, 11x14 inches. It's nearly done. If I do much more I'll lose whatever brilliance is stiil left. I'm happy with it though I think it doesn't retain as much bare paper, and thus brilliance, as the smaller watercolor below.

In the 7x10 watercolor above I think I've captured more the sense of brilliant afternoon sunlight that was evident when we saw the saddlebags in the field. But the sparrow is not rendered as well as I'd like and there's more emptiness in the field than I'd like. The newest watercolor tried to improve upon those aspects without losing the brilliance.

My history with watercolor shows that I often overwork watercolors (of course who doesn't?) especially when I work larger. Only time will tell whether or not I come to that conclusion about this one. For the time being though I'm happy with it. It captures a beautiful fall day in Cape May, complete with actual  flora and fauna. I'll probably still do a few more tweaks but it's very nearly done. If I'm still happy with it in a week it will be in my show at Manayunk Roxborough Art Center.

The above pen and watercolor was the first in the series. I haven't used this style in awhile. But now that I have it reinfoces my thought that it's a good way to work in developing ideas and compositions, at least for me. In less than an hour I can try out what in effect are small paintings. They may look like a mess but for me they always prove quite valuable.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Wild at Art - Here and Abroad

'Linnets Feeding on Sorrell Seed(detail)' by Kim Atkinson - 2012 SWLA Announcement

Late this week, after returning from our trip to Cape May, I was pleased to find a small package of five announcements for the Private Opening of the Society of Wildlife Artist's 'The Natural Eye' Exhibition at the Mall Galleries in London during the last week of October. Only fear of some sort of copyright infringement prevents me from putting up a photo here. Suffice it to say that an annoucement that includes the work of Tim Wootton, Chris Rose, Michael Warren, John Paige, Harriet Mead and Nik Pollard is a thing of beauty. It also explains why I'm thrilled to be in the show. After posting this I noticed another site that used the photo above from the Mall Galleries web site. This seems to be the official announcement. Kim is another artist I greatly admire who is a member of SWLA.

Then just yesterday the announcements for the 'Wild at Art' show at Manayunk Roxborugh Art Center arrived. This show opens three days after the London show. A photo is at top. I'm showing with other Pennsylvania artists Lynnette Shelley and Melanie Fisher. All of us use wildlife in one way or another in our art. It should be a very good show and I encourage anyone who is in the area to come to the opening from noon to 3 p.m. on Sunday, November 4, 2012.

With all the sketches of unusual birds I was able to do in and around Cape May recently I always wonder if local birding and sketching will be disappointing. Today gave the answer: no. We really didn't see any unusual birds but it was such a beautiful day, leaves and vegetation in full autumn splendor against a pure blue sky. Above are some of the birds I saw: Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Eastern Phoebe, female Common Yellowthroat, Belted Kingfisher and Cedar Waxwing. Most of thsee look fine in black and white but the Yellowthroat's brilliant throat loses something without color.

One of the things I like about so many SWLA artists is that they TRANSLATE natural experience. They don't try to produce a photo. If you're unfamiliar with the artists I mentioned above I'd suggested researching them. Additionally I think my best work is when I also try to translate my experience. Above is one of many trial sketches of Red Saddlebags dragonfly, pumpkins in field, Savannah Sparrow and deep purple Amaranth. As soon as I saw the dragonfly with it's deep burgundy wing patches in the pumpkin field I started thinking about a painting. This isn't it. Hopefully though it will be one step along the way to a successful painting.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Cape May Travelogue

About a year ago someone on the Wildlife Art thread of Birdforum said that my collection of vacation field sketches were a great travelogue. That stuck with me. In some ways my sketches are closer to a travelogue in that I just sketch much of what I see rather than sitting down and just concentrating on a few species and really getting to know them well. So that's the nature of the title.

Above is one of the first birds we saw in upper left, a juvenile Common Moorhen, barely visible in the dusk at 'The Meadows' in Cape May. Below him a Merlin seen the next morning at Hidden Valley along with a Magnolia Warbler and juvenile White-crowned Sparrow within 100 yards of Merlin. On the opposite page a Common Yellowthroat at same location. At bottom a Pied-billed Grebe seen later that day back  at 'The Meadows.'

The following day brought an Indigo Bunting and a Purple Finch to Higbee Beach on the left page. Also a distant seabird, possibly White-winged Scoter and a hint of the Common Moorhen again. At right also from 'The Meadows' that afternoon a Stilt Sandpiper at top, Pied-billed Grebe, Ruddy Duck, and a Virginia Rail from memory. One end of the ponds at 'The Meadowns' held Soras, Virginia Rails and a juvenile Common Moorhen. We saw them almost every night of our stay but always in so much dark and in such crowded(with birders) conditions, that I was never full satisfied with my sketches.

The next day we found a number of Brown Thrashers at the viewing platform at Higbee Beach. A partial drawing of one is at top left above. Below him a beautiful juvenile Blue Grosbeak, mainly in rich browns with just a hint of blue/black. At right a smallish Pine Siskin at top, followed by a Northern Flicker and two versions of a Magnolia Warbler stretching to reach food on the leaves above him. The Pine Siskin was indicative of the many irruptive birds around Cape May: huge numbers of them Red-breasted Nuthatches and Purple Finches.

Later that day we stopped at Rea Farm where both kinglets, especially many Golden-crowned Kinglets, flitted about. At the top of the left page is one of each. Below is an immature Black-crowned Night Heron, about 50 yards away from the Kinglets. In another portion of the farm we found a nicely perched Northern Flicker, one of nearly 100 we must have seen as well as the beautiful Red Saddlebags dragonfly. It flew about a field of pumpkins, rarely landing long enough to ID let alone sketch. In the same area were numerous crisply marked Savannah Sparrows. In the back of my mind is a painting that combines saddlebags dragonfly, those sparrows and the numerous pumpkings.
The following day, with rain predicted we drove to Forsythe NWR. There some of our first birds were Dunlin at upper left. Later we saw a distant mature Bald Eagle, as well as the ubiquitous Yellow-rumped Warblers also on left. The following day we were back at Higbee Beach on a very windy day. Raptors swooped, dove, exploded up and around us. It was thrilling. At top right two versions of Sharp-shinned Hawks. We sat and had lunch and I sketched an Eastern Comma on ground in front of us while Northern Harriers carried on in front of us. At bottom is an attempt to capture one of them.

Later that day we were back at 'The Meadows' where we saw a kiting Osprey, his torso curved in an unlikely position. He's at top left followed by a perched Northern Harrier who just didn't stay long enough for me to finish him, in particular his head.
On our last day we hunted for a bird someone had told us was a Northern Wheater and showed us photos they'd taken. Since we've never seen one but knew that one had been there recently we thought the person was correct in calling it a Northern Wheatear. In particular I noticed the rich buff orange color. Later as I thought about it, and looked at guidebooks, I remembered that the photo reminded me of a phoebe. The color then got me thinking about a Say's Phoebe, especially given it's location, perched on a fence rather than down on the ground like a wheatear. As we left town we searched for it for at least an hour where it had been reported. Only when we got home did I get an email saying that it had been IDd as a Nothern Mockingbird, given the misleading buff/orange cast by the sun and the camera. Once again I was reminded of how low a consideration color should be when identifying a bird.
The non-discovery of that rare bird out of the way we headed home and stopped a various Cumberland County locations along the way. It was largely quiet. But we did see a Royal Tern along with a number of Greater Yellowlegs so tucked into themselves that the shape looked more like Dunlin. The tern with a background yellowlegs is portrayed at top right. We saw them at Heislerville WMA, our last stop before returning to the yard American Robins and House Sparrows of our own back yard.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Early Fall Field Sketches

When you see as many birds as I do, mainly because I'm lucky enough to be able to get outside often, you might ask how I choose what to sketch? One of the first questions I think I ask myself is how long I think the bird might stay in its current position? Is it even worth trying to sketch or will it likely be gone before I even open my sketchbook and get my pen ready, just as a wood warbler might? This is always a combination of gut feeling, sense of adventurousness or caution at that very moment, desire to portray an unusual bird, etc.

In the page of sketches above, which actually took a full two weeks to do there were a number of motivations. With the male Black-throated Blue Warbler and the Solitary Vireo on left page it was just the desire to get these birds down on paper. Even while I was sketching the Black-throated Blue I couldn' t remember what part of the face was black and what blue on the bird I'd seen less than 30 seconds previously. There is so much to try to take in and remember when you know the bird may  be gone in a split second. Similar questions arose for the vireo.

Woodpeckers I've found have different bills from one species to the next. One lower mandible may go out from the head in a more horizontal direction and less of an angle than that of another species. So  I'll often try  to sketch a familiar bird just so  I get a better idea of just  how the bill is situated. That's the case with the Hairy Woodpecker on left and Northern Flicker on right here It's all just a learning process, storing up knowledge, made through both success and failure, so that when I do something more developed I'll have the confidence that I'm being true to the bird.

I can't stand overly detailed work, like that which attempts to get every single feather in  the right place. But I also don't want to have the general sense of the bird wrong. For me, unlike for the buyers of much wildlife art, accuracy is not paramount. But it is a bonus. Artistic qualities always come first.

This has always been an odd part of 'wildlife art.' Is is art or science? For me it is always art, but I'd prefer to also know the science  involved.

I never seem to get Belted Kingfishers right. I'm always a bit disappointed. And  sometimes I'm completely thrown by the bill. Is it thick or thin, short or long? It seems to change by individual bird and my viewpoint. In this case the bill seemed particularly long and thick. So that's how I've portrayed it, even though I have many other sketches, and photos, where it s eemed thinner and shorter. I suppose that's one of the exciting parts of field sketching: things are never quite as simple and pat as you might expect.

Last bird here is a House Sparrrow at lower right and a Broad-winged Hawk at lower left. Such a hawk doesn't have a tail that is dark just on the  sides. It has bands of light and dark. And yet that's what I saw so I put it down. I've done this with other birds where what I saw made no sense and didn't match my knowledge of the bird. Since it's an unsual situation though to me it makes sense to just put down what I saw. After the fact I can double check with guidebooks to see if I can make sense of what caused me to see what I thought I did. At times like this I guess I'm showing more of my scientific side than my artistic.

People often think that science and art are opposed. But my guess is that many knowledgeable artists and scientists know that the opposite is the case.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Preliminary Show

With two big shows in November it's somewhat surprisng to be in another one in October. This is a smaller one, the Member's Show at the Manayunk Roxborough Art Center, a few blocks from our house. In it members of the art center in general can show not just the members of the Artists Coop. For me it's a good opportunity to show work that I might not put in November shows, e.g. 'Killdeer with Worm' above, a 12x16 watercolor, or works I've just finished and am eager to see hanging, e.g. 'High Tide at Nummy Island', a 9x12 acrylic below.

There is some possiblity that not all works will be hung because you just never know how much work will be submitted. If there's too much then not all work will go up. On the theory that there will be enough room though I'm also submitting the work below, a watercolor titled 'Great Black-backed Gull at Flat Rock Dam.' This work seems to be among my most unpopular recent works, at least judged by certain criteria. It was rejected from the 4th Annual Juried Show at MRAC this summer. It tops the list of least visited works at my Etsy store. Almost no one has bothered to look at it. And yet I like it quite a bit and it was well received when I showed it online when I first did it. In the end popular response is not important. I like it so I'm submitting it. I just realized I also showed it at the recent Manayunk Arts Festival and it got little response. Perhaps it's too dark, with a barely visible bird, and even a dark mat. Who knows? As I said it's something I like and it captures the scene of a huge gull dwarfed but seemingly unfazed by the giant dam behind him.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Line, Mass and Lies

Looking through some old framed artwork recently I realized I'd been telling some lies in writing about my move from abstract to representational art over the last 10-15 years. I was looking for a frame I could use for some upcoming shows. I needed something larger than what I've been using.

That's when I found this large (23x29 inches) drawing I'd done about 30 years ago. It was  one of about 10 I did of musicians I liked, both classical and jazz. Above is one of Thelonious Monk. At that time I was doing abstract drawings that were just about as spare as this one. I'd decided, rightly or wrongly, that you could make a strong work of art using almost entirely lines.

It was a similar method I used for my  first artworks featuring birds about six years ago. The only difference is that I also used mass and erasures so that it was more than just a linear drawing. Still it was a shock to me to realize that birds and insects were not my first attempts at represenational work.

Inside baseball you might say and you're probably right. But it did remind me of how often art, at least for me, is a balance/conflict between line and mass. Almost all of my field sketches focus on lines. There is something so appealing about line, about getting just the right line to capture a shape. Lines of course don't really exist in nature. But they sure do in art.

The other side of line however, as seen at top, is mass. Instead of defining edges of things the artists tries to capture  their mass, often using light to help.  As an artist line is often a real security  belt. Paint gets messy and it's easy to come unmoored, especially when painting with brushes that really are  too large to make lines.

Perhaps this explains why I  change media so often. I feel a bit unmoored and want the security that line brings, in either sketches or linos. But then I miss mass, color, light and I'm back to painting. More inside baseball I think, but something many artists will understand.

The painting at top, based on a simliar drawing of a week or so ago, is not yet done. Hopefully I will get it done in time for the Members Show at the Mayanunk  Roxborough Art Center on Sunday.  If not it should be in my three person show, 'Wild at Art',  also at MRAC in November.