|Northern Parula. Watercolor Sketch by Ken Januski|
I might as well say right off that the watercolor sketch above is pretty horrible. I recently saw this first year/fall female Northern Parula at Houston Meadows in Philadelphia. It was a beautiful little bird flitting around too quickly for me even to identify it with any certainty let alone do a sketch.
I did take a number of photos and two turned out. So I thought I'd use the best as the source of this watercolor sketch in the pages of a small Stillman and Birn Zeta sketchbook. As usual it shows the dangers of basing anything on photos. When you do so you often copy what's in the photo rather than follow an idea in your mind, one that firmly understands the structure of the bird, and has thought about the placement of the other objects in the painting.
Often with sketches I'll just start with the photo and improvise as I go. Since it's just a sketch, unlike the watercolor of the Least Sandpipers. I have a lot of leeway. But really I don't. Even though this is sketchier it still shows a lack of conviction and sureness that just adds up to a dull little watercolor, in spite of its striking subject.
So I'm not at all pleased with it. Later I'll get to the work of watercolorists I am very pleased with. Since I feel free to criticize so much work in watercolor it's only fair to show what I consider good examples of watercolor.
But first I just wanted to mention the slow but steady flood of warblers that are migrating through. Recently I've seen Blackburnian, Tennessee, Black-throated Green, Chestnut-sided Warblers, along with American Redstarts, the Northern Parula above and of course the locally breeding Common Yellowthroats. Today I was also treated to two Great Horned Owls, and yesterday an early morning Common Nighthawk doing blazingly fast acrobatics across the sky. It is a good time to be able to be out and about. I'd love to capture that nighthawk but it seems almost too impossible to even try.
While taking a break from birding and artwork today I was skimming through Treasures of the Forgotten Forest, published by the Artists for Nature foundation about the Tumbesian region of Peru and Ecuador. As I leafed through it I realized how many examples of the artists who took part in it were in watercolor. Almost all have a freedom, freshness, creativity and boldness that accentuate the boldness of watercolor itself rather than deny it its soul, more or less, by painting within tight little contour lines, never a brushmark out of place.
The more I've done wildlife art, and looked at wildlife art shows, particularly bird art shows the sadder I get. So much of it just so lifeless. There is no other way to say it: it is lifeless. Quite an irony given the vitality of the subject matter. But looking at this book you see the opposite: examples of artists whose work complements nature's vitality. I can't really show the illustrations from the book so I'll just name some of the artists in it. I'm familiar with almost all of them and have seen their work elsewhere, but this book seems almost by accident I think to show a lot of watercolor.
So if you get a chance look online for examples of, or perhaps buy a book by, the following artists: Barry Van Dusen, Lars Jonsson, Kim Atkinson, Darren Woodhead, Vadim Gorbatov, Bruce Pearson, Juan Varela Simo, Michael Warren, Wolfgang Weber. There are also other artists in the book but I've named just the ones whose watercolor work is so striking. If you perhaps are able to see the book itself I think you'll also see how varied their work is.
Before I accidentally picked up that book I had planned to choose some of my favorite watercolor paintings by Winslow Homer, perhaps America's best watercolorist. But before I did I looked through my book of John Singer Sargent's watercolors. Maybe HE's America's best watercolorist. Who knows? Both show how exciting watercolor can be and how it can be just as ambitious and powerful as oil painting. So here's a small list of some of my favorite watercolors by each:
1.The Blue Boat
2.Saguenay River, Lower Rapids
3.In the Jungle, Florida
4.Shooting the Rapids
5.Under the Falls, the Grand Discharge
6.The Adirondack Guide
7.A Garden in Nassau
8."For to be a Farmer's Boy", the last not because it's my favorite but because of the loose way that he handled the pumpkin vines and field. It's a great example of how to paint with watercolor rather than use watercolor washes to fill in a drawing.
John Singer Sargent:
1.A Tent in the Rockies
2.Lake Louise, Canadian Rockies, an incredibly bold painting, esp. for its time.
3.Derelicts, boats not people
8.Carrarra: Quarry II
10.Bus Horses in Jerusalem.
These are just a few. As I've flipped through my Homer and Sargent watercolor books as I've written this I keep coming across new ones that I'd like to add. But this should give you a taste. I've included Homer's In the Jungle and Sargent's Muddy Alligators because both have wildlife, non-bird wildlife as subject. And yet you can bet you will never, ever see work of this quality in a wildlife art show. Sad but true.
All in all I think what's struck me about their work is that they truly do use watercolor to paint, not to color in lines. That is probably the main reason that I think so highly of them and so little of watercolors that just color in the lines, a method by the way with which Homer began his career.
When I say how disappointed I am with my own watercolors, especially the sketches, it's because I want to some day do work like the artists I've mentioned here.