|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.|