Thursday, July 10, 2014

Northern Watercolor Sketches

Northern Mockingbird in Tangle. Watercolor Sketch by Ken Januski.

Northern Cardinal in Conifers. Watercolor Sketch by Ken Januski.

Since I wrote my last somewhat theoretical post I've been tempted to write many more. That's the problem when you get involved in theory. It's like quicksand. You keep sinking in deeper and deeper. Each theory leads to another, or to a different point of view, etc., etc. I'm sure that's why so often artists are given the advice to work, not theorize. So I decided not to get involved with theory again for a bit.

With that in mind I was looking through some of the many photos I've taken over the years to see if anything struck me as inspirational. I'd  also been through my sketchbooks without success. But I also noticed how very many of the prints I've done have been based on quick sketches. You just never know.

For today though I was struck by revealing poses of two birds with 'Northern' in their name: the Northern Mockingbird at top and the Northern Cardinal beneath him. Perhaps because the cardinal is so common I rarely take photos of him. And yet every time I go to sketch him, or her, from life I realize how little I know.

So occasionally I'll notice a photo, perhaps taken for that exact reason, that gives a fairly clear picture of the structure of a bird, from top to bottom, bill to tail and head to toe. That's how both the cardinal and the mockingbird struck me.

I also hate to just make a sketch. It's a never ending challenge to put a bird in a believable environment. So all the practice I can get with that, even if it ends in failure as they so often do, is worth the effort. In both watercolors I've tried to add the semblance of an environment as well as the semblance of a composition.

Both of these are done in a 7x10 inch Stillman and Birn Gamma sketchbook. I like doing pencil sketches in them and they're also strong enough to carry a few layers of watercolor washes, though usually I push them a bit further than their capacity as I try to fix mistakes. Still they are really perfect for watercolor sketches such as this.

I once was in a juried show that was jurored by a watercolorist. I had high hopes for my new watercolors but neither got in as I recall. It was easy to see why. They didn't stay within the lines. They didn't have clean washes, just as the sketches above don't. That's the way that the juror worked and most of the watercolors juried in were in that style. It's a very pervasive style.

I'd never argue that it didn't take skill. It does. But to me it also kills off the painting. Why do watercolor if you don't let the paper breathe, letting areas of the paper sparkle through? The most noticeable thing about watercolor is its transparency, its ability to create a type of light-filled paper that no other medium can. Anyone who studies the watercolors of the great American watercolorist Winslow Homer will see that he went gradually from the opaque, within-the-lines school to work that sparkled and rarely stayed within the lines. Guess which work he's remembered for?

As usual when I cite a famous artist I'm not claiming that I'm in that tradition. But I often find that they exemplify much of what I find exciting and admirable in art.

As I said I did these primarily to help me understand the structure of these two birds. So most likely I'll never do anything that uses them directly. But when I finally do a print or more developed painting that includes one of these two birds I'm sure that these two sketches will have helped them out.

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