Monday, April 24, 2017

Some Field Sketches, Some Videos

American Kestrel. Field Sketch by Ken Januski.

Each spring I tell myself that I'll do more field sketching and each year I seem to fail to do so. But  seven field sketches yesterday and a few earlier in the week are a good omen for  this year. The seven sketches yesterday were made easier by the fact that I had my scope with me and that most of the birds stayed in one place at least for a second  or two. The last  sketch of a Yellow-rumped Warbler shows what happens in other circumstances, for instance when it never sits still. I have had my scope with me recently when I've seen Yellow-rumps but it's been of little use. The birds move too fast to give me time to even get them in focus in the scope  before they're gone.

Above is a male American Kestrel and below a male Eastern Bluebird. Both were sketched at Dixon Meadow Preserve.

Eastern Bluebird. Field Sketch  by Ken Januski.

I didn't have any problem with movement in the larger drawing below.  I'd been eyeing the broken, but still magisterial, leaves of this garden tulip for a week or more. There was something so sculptural about it. So I sat at our small garden table  and spent one morning sketching it last week. I'm quite happy with it and it reminds me how powerful pencil on paper can be, without any need at all for color or fine detail.

Storm-battered Garden Tulip. Field Sketch by Ken Januski.

Yesterday I brought my scope with me to Morris Arboretum, hoping to see some migrating shorebirds. But no luck. Then as I was training the scope on an Orchard Oriole some friends came up to tell me an unidentified  shorebird had  just landed. Sure enough there was a Greater Yellowlegs, the first I've seen this year. So I took the opportunity to keep doing sketches of it, four or five of them over an hour.

With field sketching I  often find that I tend to stop after one sketch, unless it's a bird I've never seen before. I think  this is due  to fear more  than anything else. If I've done one sketch I'm happy with why risk failing on the next one? It's a dumb way to think but one that still applies. Much better is to realize it's a rare opportunity  and just keep sketching until the bird flies away. So that's exactly what I did.

With sketching I think you soon realize that there is always more to learn, if not about the subject itself, then about the art of rendering the subject and the scene.

Greater Yellowlegs. Field Sketch by Ken Januski.

Greater Yellowlegs. Field Sketch by Ken Januski.

Greater Yellowlegs. Field Sketch by Ken Januski.

Savannah Sparrow. Field Sketch by Ken Januski.

Above is another page of sketches from Dixon Meadow Preserve yesterday. It shows a Savannah Sparrow, the first I've seen this year. Below  is a drawing of a Yellow-rumped Warbler, not drawn through  a scope. The reason is that the bird wouldn't begin to sit still, as is true of many birds, especially warblers. So in the end you just have to look and look, try to form a mental image and then stop looking and try to get that image down on paper. Inevitably you realize that your mental image has faded too quickly. So you keep practicing. I think that's the only way to do  it. And it does become satisfying  as you get better at it.
Yellow-rumped Warbler. Field  Sketch by Ken Januski.

When I did the sketch of the Yellow-rumped Warbler I also shot a video on my camera of the same bird. It seemed worthwhile to show it as well. I think it shows why sketching warblers is so hard.


I enjoyed that one so much that I took a few more yesterday. I'm including below ones of both a Blue-headed Vireo and an Orchard Oriole. The oriole sings toward the end but unfortunately the vireo does not.


Sunday, March 26, 2017

But Why Should It Look Like an Oil Painting?

Glossy Ibis. Watercolor by Ken Januski.

The show American Watercolor currently on at the Philadelphia Museum of Art is a quite timely counterpoint to these recent watercolors and watercolor studies.  We've seen it twice and I'm currently reading  the massive catalog that accompanies it. Both are well worth the money  and time if you are interested in watercolor.

As long-time readers know I've had a very mixed history with watercolor. I love the results in the hands of masters like Winslow Homer  and John Singer Sargent but my own work  has often led  me to near despair, or at least mild cantankerousness. I've also never had much interest in various watercolor  societies, because based on the little I've seen it seems to value control over everything else. And yet it  has such possibilities as a medium!

To make a long story short I've looked at a lot of watercolors, done a fair number myself and read a few books about watercolor, mainly American watercolor. (I'd be happy to read about British watercolor  but have not  yet heard of  a good, and affordable, book that covers that topic). In any case the end result is that I've thought a fair amount about the styles of  watercolor I like and those I  don't  like.

What is  so refreshing about the American Watercolor show is  that it covers  those same topics except in a broader range, with far more knowledge than I have, and with living, breathing examples. Because it is  such a huge subject and such a  huge  show I'm  not going to say much more about it. However I will say that you  can find great examples of so many different ways  of painting  in watercolor, from the extreme detail of  the followers of John Ruskin and the American Pre-Raphaelites, to those who seemed to think that it served no other purpose than to imitate large, exhibition oil paintings, to the 20th century abstractions of John Marin  and Georgia O'Keeffe, with many, many artists, many of  whom I'd never heard, both male and female along the way.

For me personally it has helped to crystalize what I  want in my own watercolors, though to a certain extent I already knew: Homer  and Sargent. So much  wildlife art seems so similar to the Ruskinites, artists who painstakingly tried  to portray every little  detail of nature. Tellingly most of them  eventually gave up. It is too much work for too little reward. More important to me is that though they can be quite beautiful they  also seem to live in a world with no air, where nothing  breathes.

So I've always preferred a looser style, that allows imprecision,  but that also allows light and spontaneity,  two of the elements that seem to be the greatest inherent strengths  of  the medium. I  won't  go on about  this. I  think that  if  you  like  watercolor you'll like the show  and you'll find examples of  the style  of watercolor you like. But you'll also find examples  of other styles  of watercolor  and you might walk away appreciating them as well.

Many early American watercolorists eventually gave  up  because they  just  did not  sell. They  weren't  'real' art works, like oil paintings. I've had my own dissatisfaction with watercolor but it really is  more related to the difficulty of  the medium,  at least when highlighting its strengths of light and spontaneity, than it is  to sales. Printmaking is now my primary medium. But I can't help going back to watercolor every so  often, as I have in this recent work.

One last comment about the show, though it is more noticeable in the catalog than in the show itself. That regards watercolor sketches as used by naturalists. Early on the book mentions a few types of  watercolor  that are pretty much outside of  the subject of the book, that seemed to proceed on their own, regardless of  movements in the art world  or watercolor  world itself. One of  those is the watercolor sketch of naturalists. It is  an interesting side note and perhaps explains at least to some degree why there are so many talented wildlife artists, especially in terms of  field sketching who use watercolor, and yet who seem oblivious  to or perhaps  even opposed  to everything that happens in the wider art world. The show does  include by the  way a wonderful watercolor  by John  James Audubon of some Black Rats.

Eastern Screech Owl at Rea Farm. Watercolor by Ken Januski.

Hermit Thrush. Pencil Sketch and  Pencil Sketch  with Watercolor by Ken Januski.

I really don't have much to say about my own works that I'm showing here, except to say that they were all done in  the last  week or  two. Most are a little bit more  finished, and a little bit less spontaneous, than my  ideal  watercolor.
Louisiana Waterthrush at 'The Magic Bridge.' Watercolor Sketch by  Ken  Januski.

Northern Harrier  at Dixon Meadow. Watercolor Sketch by Ken Januski.

Monday, February 20, 2017

First Moku Hanga Print

Nashville Warbler on Bean Trellis in Winter. Moku  Hanga Print by  Ken Januski.

For quite some time I've debated trying Moku Hanga printmaking. As best I can tell the term itself just refers to Japanese woodblock or  woodblock  printmaking. Most  people will probably be familiar with it through ukiyo-e prints, such as those by Utamaro, Hokusai, Hiroshige et al.

Though I've always liked those prints I suspect I first liked them more for their influence on the art of people  like Edgar Degas than for any other reason. That is no longer the case but it was my first reaction to them. Now my interest is completely different. It is more related to things like the use of  non-toxic materials(since the ink  is water-based not petroleum  based), the fact that it can be done without a printing press, though this has been true  of all my other prints as well, that it has a registration system that most likely is  better than the one I've used in the past, and perhaps most of all it is capable of a rich color, a color that actually is absorbed into the paper, rather than lying  on top of it.

Though I'd read the last statement before, the fact that the color merges with the paper,  you  actually need to see it to understand it. Now I have! It can be seen in the two prints above and below of a Nashville Warbler  on a Bamboo Bean Trellis in Winter,  which we had in our backyard on and off over a two week period a number of winters ago.

These two prints also show at least one of the problems with this type of printmaking:  the background color, in particular, varies greatly between prints. I began printmaking about 5-6 years ago I  think, though  I had had a brief introduction in college. The more I've done it the more I  remember why I shied away from it in college. Printmakers seemed SO interested in technique! At the time that was the last thing that I thought art should  be about. But after my 5+ years of printmaking I realize that technique is an integral part of  it,  at least if you want to make an edition, i.e . more than one more or less consistent print  of the same image. And given all the work involved, at least when I make a print, it seems silly to not have more to show for  it than just one print.

Still I don't like having to worry about technique. It's a necessity, not a virtue, not something I seek out. That said I've seen some moku hanga prints that are extremely rich in color and that is  something that I think is desirable enough to more than compensate for  the technical problems involved. At least I hope so! Time will tell.

Another thing I love in many ukiyo-e prints is the sinuous, graceful line, based most often on the sinuous, graceful line of the original brush paintings on which the prints were based. For  me there at two huge obstacles to doing this myself: first I can't do graceful, sinuous brush paintings, and to do so would  probably take  years  of practice; and second, I'll never  become such an accomplished carver of wood as to translate sinuous lines from paint to carved wood. In ukiyo-e prints this was no problem because the artist and the carver were two different people! And the printer was a third person involved in the process. This helps to explain some of the accomplishments of this type of print. And it also shows the difficulty of doing it today.

There seem to be quite a few contemporary Western printmakers using moku hanga today, each in their own way. From what I can see many skip the part based on graceful, sinuous lines and instead are more interested in rich color fields. I know of some art in this manner that I greatly like. But it's not for me, at least not at the moment. So crude as my lines might be I plan to continue  to use  them in my prints. Only time will tell how I come into my own interpretation of moku hanga.  Above and below you see the first.

Nashville Warbler on Bean Trellis in Winter. Moku  Hanga Print by  Ken Januski

All printmaking seems to require a lot of time in the studio. So I was happy a couple of  times recently to  leave prints and printmaking behind and head outside. Below you see two recent field sketches. As you may be able to tell they are done with a brush pen, something that resembles a Chinese  or Japanese brush but that comes with a reservoir of ink. It may be hard to believe but when I first started using them a year or two it was with the idea of developing the sinuous, graceful line that I talked about above. I find it far more refreshing that a labored pencil sketch,  at least for myself.

Great Blue Heron and Killdeer at Manayunk Canal. Brush Pen Field Sketch  by Ken Januski.

Two Great Blue Heron in Trees Along Manayunk Canal. Brush Pen Field Sketch by Ken Januski.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Some More Firsts of 2017 and a Reminder About the Artistic Status of Wildlife Art

White-throated Sparrow Eating Staghorn Sumac. Watercolor by Ken Januski.

It's been a slow artistic start to 2017, probably due more to the number of bird censuses we do at this time than to any other factors. In any case I have been somewhat busy over the last week or so and am including that work here.

Above is a 9x12 inch watercolor of one of a number of White-throated Sparrows Eating Staghorn Sumac, seen along the Manayunk Canal in Philadelphia. It's on a new paper for me, Saunders Waterford.

Nashville Warbler on Bean Trellis. Moku Hanga Proof by Ken Januski.

I also decided to take a stab at traditional Japanese woodblock printmaking, called Moku Hanga. Since it can take a while to learn I've debated whether it was worth the time involved in learning it. Finally I decided to bite the bullet and buy the minimum materials required to give it a try. Readers may be most familiar with it as ukiyo-e prints from the 19th century. It is a watercolor based printmaking and thus uses far safer and more environmentally friendly materials, though it also has purely aesthetic appeal. In any case this is a first proof of the black block. When I receive some newly ordered supplies I'll be experimenting with additional color blocks.

If done correctly Moku Hanga allows for very precise registration which should allow colors and black to blend seamlessly. We shall see. That's never been a high priority for me but it's worth experimenting with.

Nesting Bald Eagles at Heinz NWR. Brush Pen Field Sketch by Ken Januski.

I was horribly lax with field sketches last year despite my stated goal of doing more of them. So at least this year I can say I'd done a number by mid-January. These are all from Heinz NWR based on birds seen last weekend. They include two nesting Bald Eagles above, a well-hidden Northern Saw Whet Owl below and a Black-headed Gull at bottom. The latter are life birds for us. There's nothing quite as exciting as sketching a life bird from life. Photos don't even enter the competition.

Northern Saw Whet Owl at Heinz NWR. Brush Pen Field Sketch by Ken Januski.

Black-headed Gull at Heinz NWR. Brush Pen Field Sketch by Ken Januski.

Lastly I was reminded recently of the artistic world I've abandoned: that of mainstream galleries, museums, etc. This occurred due to my being contacted by an old artist friend of mine. As I looked at her recent work and exhibitions I was reminded that though I once exhibited like that, though not as much as I would have liked to, I can no longer do so.  Most galleries and museums will not take seriously art that uses wildlife as subject.

But I've known this for the entire time I've focused on wildlife art, about 10 years now, so I'm not complaining. I knew exactly what would happen when I chose to use nature, especially birds, as subject. On the other hand I rarely try to show in wildlife galleries or exhibitions because to a large extent I don't like the art. In fact it more often illustration than art. I've also known this for a long time so it's not a complaint.

Though not intentionally or willfully I guess I've always been an iconoclast, even though I'm one with great sympathy for past accomplishments in the arts. Vital art always revives clich├ęs and makes them live again, regardless of what art establishments of whatever sort think art should be. So I'm quite happy working as I am, with few venues in which to show or sell, but still able to do exactly what I want. You can't beat that!

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

An Artistic Team of Rivals

White-throated Sparrow in Staghorn Sumac. Sumi Brush Pen Sketch by Ken Januski.


When the flush of newborn sun fell first
On Eden's green and bold
Our Father Adam sat under a tree
And scratched with a stick in the mould
And the first rude sketch that the world had seen
Was a joy to his mighty Heart
Till the devil whispered behind the leaves,
"It's pretty but is it Art?"
From 'The Conundrum of Workshops' by Rudyard Kipling, quoted in 'Lines from Nature' by John Busby, Langford Press.

'"I have attained," he said, "a form filtered to the essentials."'
Henri Matisse speaking about his later cutout artwork, as quoted by John Elderfield in 'The Cutouts of Henri Matisse', George Braziller.

Every animal, plant, or fish exhibits individual moods compatible with its nature. It is difficult to understand, but once understood their spirit expressed in your painting will be complete -- otherwise you are painting mere likeness. Few artists can express their subjects spirit -- the first rule for this is universal empathy. As you progress in this, not only will you understand the spirit behind the few animal motifs on which you are studying, but every creature will begin to be enlivened with mood and spirit. Later, when you meld the myriad creatures together with your emotions and nature through your brush you attain a 'dissolution of opposites,' a realm where both subject and object are transformed together. Every scene that passes your vision and leaves your brush becomes enlivened with your individual personality. The average person may not recognize this, but other artists will acknowledge your paintings as possessing both feeling and character. At this point painting becomes an art of life, perfected by transforming your disposition. Neglecting to mold your nature inhibits you from attaining a higher realm of painting. This is why abstract art has become an art for this modern, chaotic age.
Cheng Man-ching: Master of Five Excellences, translation and commentary by Mark Hennessy, Frog Ltd.

I recently received the last book by John Busby , 'Lines from Nature' and was struck by the opening quote from Kipling. And I'm not sure exactly what Busby meant since his own work exhibits both direct observation of nature and art based on that as well as more formal aspects. Perhaps he just wanted to show that it is an age-old dichotomy.

Seeing a wonderful film recently called 'A Model for Matisse' about a nun who was a subject for many works by Matisse and was also instrumental in his late works for the chapel at Vence, renewed my appreciation for Matisse. There's no question that his work is ART.

Thus a dilemma: straightforward response to nature, which may or may not be ART, and ART that intends to be ART. I love them both.

So that got me searching through 'Cheng Man-ching: Master of Five Excellences', translated with commentary by Mark Hennessy for some of his thoughts on art. The one I quote is not actually the one I was looking for, about chi in art, but it's good enough and I'm not trying to write a research paper.

My point is really to show how many different attitudes there can be toward making art, and how one person, namely me, but I suspect most other artists as well, are influenced by many of them, even when they can seem contradictory. And out of all those contradictions comes ART. And I think the best art comes from an artistic team of rivals, not from just one source or one school. As I've been noticing so much recently while listening to Beethoven it is out of conflict that the most bracing, striking and honest beauty sometimes comes.

Since this really is more about ideas than pictures it was hard to know how to illustrate this. So I chose the only art I've made in 2017. This is a fairly quick sketch with a sumi brush pen of a White-throated Sparrow eating the seeds of a Staghorn Sumac. Perhaps it will eventually become a print, or painting, or perhaps even a cutout.