Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Paint with a Brush - Number Two

I wanted to title this post, 'Think Like a Brush' or something like that. But I had this vague recollection that I'd already used that title. A quick search showed I hadn't used exactly that but something similar last November.

My point in the original post was that I came to the revelation of the quite obvious that when you paint you should paint with a brush. I know this seems self-evident but what I meant was that often people use a tool while pretending that it is actually a different tool, like mistaking a brush for a pencil. One makes linear marks. The other can make linear marks but can also create areas, volumes, space and atmosphere. A brush has far more flexibility than a pencil once you learn how to use it.

So that's the loose theme to hang around a couple of recent watercolors: Think Like a Brush. What I mean here is just a continuation of the first theme: once you've realized that a brush is not a pencil, or some sort of manual equivalent to a computer fill tool that just colors in an area, then you can start to explore what a brush can actually do.

The watercolor at top is a relatively quick watercolor of some Laughing Gulls at Reeds Beach in New Jersey. We had gotten there a few days before the migrating Red Knots and other shorebirds had arrived to feast on the Horseshoe Crab eggs. But the Laughing Gulls were already there, as wild and raucous as could be. Though the stars of the locale were not yet present I really wanted to portray another common scene, that of the Laughing Gulls.

My last watercolor of the Glossy Ibis required more control, at least in the bird, than I'm used to so I felt like doing something here that allowed a little more freedom for brushwork and design. I also wanted to keep the work transparent and not veer towards opaque watercolor as I'd done with the ibis.

One of the best ways to think like a brush is to allow yourself only 15 minutes to do a painting. And don't use any pencil guidelines. In doing so you really have to consider areas of color and value. You can't spend too much time on lines, or finely delineated contours. That's what I did in the quick watercolor of the Hermit Thrush above. I did use a small brush to articulate the eye ring and to make some of the facial markings. I knew I only had 15 minutes so most of the painting had to use broader brush strokes. This too is part of thinking like a brush. You have to make very quick decisions about which brushes to use and how to use them.

The painting really isn't complete. That's because I stuck strictly to the 15-minute limit. I can always do something more developed later. For now it forced me to decide what I thought was most important in the painting and that was primarily the bird itself.

I do think many people are fearful both of brushes and watercolor. Obviously great art has been done with them. But once you pick them up and try to use them yourself you can also quickly see how easy it is to make a real mess, probably an irredeemable mess. The best way to get over that fear of a mess is to just keep working and painting.

Learn to think like a brush.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Glossy Ibis

Though Glossy Ibis are fascinating to see as silhouettes in the sky, and I wish I'd been successful in my field sketches of this so I could show you, they're even more fascinating up close. But this year at Cape May, NJ was the first time we had the opportunity to see them up close, not just in one place but in many. I'm not sure if we just got there as they were returning from migration, or if they were just passing through in migration.

The above watercolor is 11x14 inches, somewhat large for me, though not really large for a watercolor. But many of the watercolors I post are quick watercolors on smaller paper of lesser quality. They're more sketches than finished work. But this is a finished work.

And as with many of my finished works it has lost some of the spontaneity and freshness of the quicker studies. I don't like this but I've accepted it. At least for awhile the price of doing a more developed work on good paper is that I might overwork it in the process. I'm not unhappy with this as a painting but I am unhappy with it as a watercolor since it doesn't take advantage of the brilliant light effects that watercolor's transparency offers. Still the first step in solving a problem is acknowledging it. I'm at step one and eager to move on to step two.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Smart Doodling

I'm a very logical person and perhaps that's why I did well in computer programming. But I'm also a big believer in non-linear thinking, roundabout thinking, or just plain daydreaming. When I was young I read a book called 'The Act of Creation' by Arthur Koestler, which as I recall these many years later, was about the similarity in the process of discovery of both scientist and artist. The particular analogy was the pun, where there is a slight mental explosion when a word understood in one context in suddenly seen in another context. As I recall this was Koestler's basic thesis about how all creativity works.

He also mentioned that many important discoveries occur not when a person is concentrating on a problem, but at some other time when the problem, whether scientific or artistic, is no longer in the forefront of consciousness. This seemed true to me then and it still seems true to me now.

Humans can be very logical. But the brain works in strange ways, and not always logically. So when I'm doodling away on a new drawing or painting for a picture I'm often not highly focused. I have the subject in front of me but I don't try too hard to get it right. I tend to let the medium take the lead in where the picture goes.

That's more or less true with the work here, including the watercolor of a Black-bellied Plover at top. This is not pure doodling, in the sense of pure randomness. But it is doodling in the sense that I just wanted to put down marks and see what happened. Still I did try to be true to the plover.

Since I used a similar, loose approach, in all of the works here, including the watercolor of two Black-bellied Plovers above, I thought I would use doodling as the theme.

But before I did so I decided to look up its meaning. Imagine my surprise to see that Wikipedia says it was first used in the 17th century to indicate a fool or simpleton. This supposedly was the intended meaning of 'Yankee Doodle' as used by British soldiers. Huh?! This wasn't what I expected.

Wikipedia goes on to this further surprise: Mr. Deeds in the film 'Mr. Deeds Goes To Town', used it to mean 'scribblings to help a person think', the contemporary usage. According to wikipedia this meaning was invented by the screenwriter Robert Riskin!

Well who would have thought the word had such a complex history?

Back to the project at hand though. These last two works, one a watercolor and the other an ink drawing with some watercolor washes, also were somewhat doodly. I knew the subject matter but I just started making marks on the paper to portray it, then responded to the marks as much as to the subject. So in that sense they were somewhat improvisatory.

All these works were also investigative. I'm not really sure if I want to do a more developed work using Black-bellied Plovers and other shorebirds as subject. Playing around with them like this gets me to understand their form and markings better and also decide whether it looks like a painting is lurking within the doodles.

The answer to that: I'm still not sure. This doodle may need to get back to doodling.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

That Heronry - Step by Step

Yesterday I finally settled down and got to work on a finished watercolor of the heronry on good watercolor paper. For some reason I just wanted to get some version of it done in paint.

The problem with heronries is that they are large. You can capture some sense of all the trees or you can capture an individual bird or two. But it's very difficult to capture both. After all the preliminary studies of last 7-10 days this seemed like the best way to get both birds and trees.

The painting at top is the finished version, an 11x14 inch watercolor. I'm including some of the steps along the way below.

I did a sketch first on same size paper to make sure I had the proportions more or less correct. Then I drew the sketch above on the good paper. I often skip sketches but this time I didn't because I wanted to make sure I had planned out where the birds would go, especially since I needed to preserve white of paper for them. One problem with this however is that the lead of the pencil itself can dirty the paper.

Then I got to the first problem. Where should I start? I knew I had a number of possible problems: 1) how to show the individual reed stalks, especially since they were very light in value; 2) how to show the pine needles at right, near the Black-crowned Night Heron; 3) how to blend in the dark areas in shadow. When I know I have such problems I just sort of feel my way along. So in the painting above I painted the pine needles, some of the reeds and some of the shadow.

I then added more dark shadows as well as the dark part of the trees. I knew that this would be a problem though. There were light reeds going on front of some of the dark trees. How could I accomplish this in transparent watercolor. The reeds would never look light on top of the dark of the trees. I've never used masking fluid and that might have worked but it's always seemed far too finicky for me. Still if I had some I might have tried it but I didn't. So I just put the dark down and figured that the solution would eventually appear.

Next I added some of the green foliage at top as well as the light reeds in center. I knew that using yellow for reeds would not really accurately portray what I saw. They were actually much lighter and tanner in reality. But I couldn't figure out how to get that in watercolor.

And some more finetuning to try it all together. At this point the one big question loomed: should I try to make the reeds lighter by adding white gouache. And if I did that should I add it in other places as well to try to get a few more white highlights. Finally I decided to do so. I then went over some of the gouache with transparent yellows to try go get a more realistic portrayal of the reeds.

This is shown at top in the final version. I also did something I didn't really intend to. I made the water darker and with stronger reflections than I planned. Once I made a small change I saw that I needed to make another small change, etc., etc. I think it works like this. But it was a surprise that just took over the painting at the end.

For me that's just the way art works...

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Building a Heron(ry)

When I do a number of quick works as I have over the last two days I wonder where I should post them, here, on the Wildlife Art thread of birdforum, both, or maybe neither. Birdforum seems to be more for professional and/or dedicated wildlife artists. This blog, I think, tends towards a more general audience, people who are interested in nature and birds and art but maybe aren't as thoroughly devoted to it.

This is a guess on my part. I don't do reader surveys of people who read the blog. But based on the comments I've gotten over the years I think it's primarily people who are interested in nature or those who are just getting comfortable with nature-based art.

Because of that I tend to detail my process more here than at birdforum, on the assumption that people will find it interesting AND aren't already familiar with it because they work similarly themselves. The end result of that is that I don't always post the highest quality work. This is more like a scratchboard than a gallery for finished work, though I do include that as well.

Which brings me to today. A week or so ago I did a quick 15 minute watercolor sketch, seen below, based on a photo of a heronry at Heislerville WMA. I wanted to see if I could make a painting where the two herons were so small as to be almost unnoticeable. I realized after the attempt below that I'd need to study herons more so that I could summarize them at a very small scale. To do that I tried a quick watercolor of a Black-crowned Night Heron, above. Then I tried another version of the heronry. It is at the top.

I think I'm at the point now where I'm ready to try a version on better quality watercolor paper.

In checking my reference photos of the heronry I also ran across some photos of a couple of very striking Yellow-crowned Night Herons from this spring in Cape May. So I tried a couple different versions of them. Though there are no Yellow-crowned Night Herons in the heronry painting it seemed like a good idea to try them in two different media.

I like to work this way. I keep approaching the subjects from various directions. At one point I think all I've learned will come together in a finished painting.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

I Never Win Prizes

I think the last time probably was in 1983 at the 'Small Works' show at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. And I never even saw that show. It was too far away to go to. I MAY have won some other art prizes but none spring to mind. It's just something I don't hope for or solicit. I get into shows and exhibits, but I've learned not to expect awards.

So I was a bit surprised when I got a 'Beautiful Blogger' award from Debbie Drechsler at Just Around the Corner, a blog that I've only discovered recently. I enjoy Debbie's pursuit of portraying what she sees in nature artistically. She has quite a variety of styles and is bravely sketching from life, something that can intimidate many.

I'm not really sure where 'Beautiful Blogger' came from. I know that I've seen other blogs that I read win it or similar awards. I've just never paid much attention to them. One reason I suppose is that I'm not in a hurry to write some random things about myself, one of the 'requirements' of getting the award, though I think it's a requirement that can't really be enforced.

I now know another reason. You're supposed to then give the award to other bloggers. Some awards seem to require that you give it to 10 recipients. This is just plain silly, unless you spend all of your time blogging and reading blogs. I probably don't read more than 20 blogs all together, at least art or nature-related ones. And many of them are already extremely popular. They don't need, and probably don't want, another such award. When I checked back to see who had given Debbie her award I found that a number of the people I thought of giving it to had also just been given it. Fortunately this award requires that I only give it to four others.

But there's still another problem. What if some of the bloggers have authors even more reticent than I? What if they don't even want such awards?

Well I will have to just take my chances and hope that they're happy to have the award. They certainly deserve recogniton. I'm going to start with one of my favorite blogs: The Best Artists. 100Swallows, the author, tells stories about famous works of art, generally European art, as far as I recall. He helps bring famous art to life, particularly in terms of the narratives behind the work. Though 100Swallows talks about more formal matters he seems to concentrate on the history of the work and the stories about the artists or the subject, It is history as STORY, and it always shows a true love of art. You can't help but get excited about the art when you read each post.

In a completely different light is Ellen Synder at The Spicebush Log. I first read her blog when it popped up as a new blog on The Nature Blog Network. Since I and my wife both love the spicebush that grow in our local forests, as well as in your small urban sideyard, I couldn't resist reading it. What I found was a thoughtful, witty exploration of Ellen's adventures in nature. Sometimes she also talks about her dogs, the local farm, or other subjects. But daily experience of nature seems to be the predominant theme. Ellen's a very thoughtful person and I greatly value reading her postings. I think that you will too.

Combining some of each of the first two awardees is Gabrielle at The Inner Artist. I first ran into Gabrielle when she commented on my blog and mentioned that she had lived around Philadelphia for many years. I'm still planning to take her advice on visiting the nearby Norristown Zoo for artistic subject matter. In fact I was tempted to give it a try the other day. Gabrielle's blog has been relatively quiet recently due to the travails of finding a new apartment. I'm actually not sure what city she lives in but it is in the Northwestern US. As she says on her blog:
Sorry Mama...I know you told me if I became an artist I'd sell my soul, but I can't refuse the siren call of the paints (or the pencil, ink or charcoal either, for that matter). I am a graphic designer by day, an artist by night and a nature nerd at all times.

I think this describes Gabrielle's blog well. I particularly like her blogs about art but also enjoy the ones that are strictly about nature. My guess is that the blog will pick up in activity soon, hopefully with some drawings of her resident chickens.

These first three choices were easy. I've enjoyed them all, though as I said I'm not sure they'll be thrilled with getting the award. But who should I choose for the fourth? Some candidates have already won it recently. Some are too popular already. Should I give it to a little known, little read blog in Illinois that I enjoy? Or should it be to the blog of an artist who already has his hands quite full already I'm sure? I'm finally choosing extraordinary wildlife artist Tim Wootton just because his art is so good and ought to be seen by more people.

Forgive me fellow bloggers, and artists, for putting you in the limelight. I hope you'll enjoy the unexected award.

So now for those 10 random facts:
1)I suppose this actually isn't all that random. I do remember the last time I won a prize. It was at the Philadelphia Inquirer where food critic Craig Laban had a contest for best tasting sourdough bread. It included a bread flown in from a famous bakery in France as well as bread from some of Philadelphia's best artisan bakeries, and my second ever homemade loaf, based on a recipe from Nancy Silverton. I won second place in the blind taste-testing, beaten only by the bread from France. Credit Nancy Silverton, not me.
2)My first job was handing out rodeo programs.
3)My wife and I both worked in separate battery factories in Illinois in our early years, long before we first met in Philadelphia.
4)In high school I took an aptitude test that showed I should be an artist or work with computers. I didn't even know what a computer was. But many years later I made my living as a computer programmer. longing all the while to return to my true love, art.
5)I once bought some Charles Ives LPs and thought I must be playing them at the wrong speed they seemed so wrong. Later I learned to love them, just as with Charles Mingus. I learned from this that our tastes are ever changing.
6)Though I'm tall and have large hands I used to tie my own flies for flyfishing. I thought this would be impossible. How in the world could my large hands fool around with sewing materials, especially at such a small scale? Catching my first trout on my own fly was thrilling.
7)It was flyfishing that led me to birding. I was getting skunked at Hickory Run State Park in Pennsylvania about 20 years ago and so got distracted by some flocking birds. I looked them up when I got home and found that they were Cedar Waxwings. Eventually all the time that I spent fishing became time spent birding.
8)I enjoy identifying birds by ear as much as I do by sight.
9)I once lived on the ocean on Great Highway in San Francisco, with the Pacific Ocean right across the street. But I never enjoyed it much. The area was too foggy and the water was too cold. This was a great surprise to me.
10)I studied tap dancing as a child. This wasn't my idea. Neither were the accordion lessons.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Take a Break - Sketch a Bird

A short year ago I could never have written the title above. Finished artwork was easy. It was field sketching that was torture. I took a break from field sketching by doing the easy work of a finished drawing or painting.

But times have changed. I think there are really two reasons for this: 1, I bought a decent spotting scope so that I got better views of birds, and also had another free hand for drawing, and 2, the incredible bird artists on the Wildlife Art thread of birdforum, most of whom are dedicated field sketchers. Those two factors I think, along with a fair amount of practice, have helped to make field sketching fun for me.

After all the work that went into the last painting, including all of the studies, and the pressure of not messing up the final painting after all the preliminary work, I felt ready for something different. So the last two days I've been able to devote a little time to sketching in the field. Fortunately it hasn't been so hot that it was uncomfortable doing so. In fact today was a beautiful sunny day in the 70s.

Anyone who knows birds well will realize that there are many mistakes in these drawings, sections where I just got something wrong. But often I also realize that myself, after I've made the mark, or maybe after I get home and have looked in a guidebook to check on something. That doesn't bother me. It's only when you learn that you don't know something that you're capable of gaining that knowledge. So the bills on my Common Grackles are not quite right. I need to take a better look at them in guidebooks and other reference material and next time I'm more likely to get them right in the short time that a grackle poses for me.

I've never been all that bothered by failure, at least in the things that are important to me. The reason for this is that early on I learned that you have to fail in order to learn. It's just part of the process. Everyone who is successful has failed. It just doesn't work any other way. The important thing is not to lose all momentum due to fear of failure. You just have to try something and then learn from it. I normally wouldn't go on in this preachy way except that I've seen so many people in my life who don't seem to understand this.

Enough of that psycho-babblish diversion! I just meant to say that today the successes in my sketches, at least to me, far outweigh the failures. So that keeps reinforcing me to do more of them. And I make greater effort to get more unusual birds down on paper. I don't have to stick with the big, more sedentary birds.

And today's star bird, though you'll probably have a hard time finding it, is a female Orchard Oriole feeding her young in their pendulous nest. It was a real treat to find them today. Unfortunately she was rarely there. She was out looking for food for 5-10 minutes at a time, then appeared for less than 15 seconds to feed the young, generally just one of the young. Then she'd fly off again, often with a fecal sac. I really wanted to get this down on paper, so I set up my scope and focused it on the nest. I drew the nest, and the open mouth of one of the young, then waited for the mother's return. This was a lengthy process. This is portrayed in the lower right of the second page of drawings. I wish I'd been able to do a better job but I'm happy with what I got. And I'm happy that I just decided to try it, and didn't worry about it being too difficult.

Also on that page are a number of Cedar Waxwings, which are surprisingly antsy, some Commong Grackles, and a hastily seen and drawn White-breasted Nuthatch in the upper right.

The first page includes Mallards, Canada Geese, as well as Mallard hybrids and more Common Grackles.

The last page includes just one juvenile Tree Swallow. I also focused the scope on him. Every once in awhile he'd let out a squawk, open his mouth and lift up his wings. A second later another Swallow would appear, in seeming attack. This is portrayed in the middle of the page.

It's these individual moments as well, that of the Orchard Oriole feeding her young, and the Tree Swallow fighting off a young peer, that give added meaning and enjoyment to this type of sketching. You actually capture a moment in time. I believe that the excitement of doing so often comes through in sketches from life. And that makes them all the more worthwhile and exciting.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The End of Junk

After a week's worth of studies in pencil, watercolor and felt-tip pens I finally got to work on a finished version of the Semipalmated Plovers, Semipalmated Sandpipers, bottles and other detritus at Heislerville WMA in New Jersey.

As I might have said before I and my wife didn't even notice all the junk on the 3-4 days that we visited. We were too taken with the birds. It was only when I looked at some of the photos that I took that I saw that all the mud was really mud-covered detritus, and the birds, especially the plovers, blended in perfectly. It was just the oddest, and saddest, juxtaposition.

I could go on and on, making analogies about this and the oil spill in the gulf and other such portrayals of man's degradation of his environment and the creatures who live in it. But I won't. The one thing I will say is that progress is both good and bad. I'm more skeptical about it. But when I'm in the company of certain other people, and doctors spring to mind right off, they are more positive because they're more exposed on a daily basis to the good aspects of progress.

There is no doubt that it is both good and bad. But I think most people know that. The problem I see is that much progress is irresponsible. We need oil for various things so we will sacrifice anything and everything to get it. If an oil company were to try to be responsible they'd probably be driven out of business by their competitors who are less responsible and have a lesser concern for safety.

I've just finished reading a number of books on the financial crisis. Almost every financial firm eventually felt that it also had to take excessive risks just to keep up with its more successful rivals. Often the latecomers suffer the worst.

But my point is that we don't seem to live in a society that cares much about being responsible, that thinks about other species or our own species in the future. I really don't know if this has always been the case. I fear that it has. Either way there are always a small number of people who try to be responbible. But they always face an uphill battle.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

More Junk

I know I'm probably pushing the 'junk' theme. Why would anyone title their posts 'junk' of some sort or another? Well because that's the subject, at least partially, of a painting that I hope to do: Semipalmated Plovers, and maybe Semipalmated Sandpipers as well, amidst the mud, muck, bottles and other junk that I saw recently at Heislerville WMA.

I'm not an artist that deliberately seeks out the ugly. But I don't like to do 'cute' art either. It's so easy for shorebirds, plovers in particular, to look cute. That's not their fault. It's just the way humans tend to anthropomorphize their appearance. So the odd juxtaposition of them with the junk of the mud and bottles was some how appealing, especially as the way the light hits the muddy bottles is in itself beautiful.

Anyway, I hope to create a beautiful painting of this scene eventually. In the meantime I've been doing some watercolor studies of the mud, bottles and occasionally a bird or two. I'd much prefer to just get on with the birds. But the junk is an integral part of the painting. So I've forced myself to spend some time with it. You always learn something from such tasks.

A few hours later. Just couldn't resist experimenting with this theme in felt-tip pens in a larger scale. The new drawing is at the top. Eventually I hope all of these works will lead to a particularly good finished watercolor. Never any guarantees though! You just have to hope for the best.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Such a Lot of Junk

Ah, you thought I was talking about some current art show weren't you, one that relies all on words, but has nothing for the eyes, or maybe even the soul? Or maybe I've just been wondering why I pay for cable TV?

No, this junk I didn't even know existed until I took a look at a photo I'd taken of Semipalmated Plovers at Heislerville WMA last month. I'd also done some field sketches and thought I might use both to come up with ideas for a more developed sketch. But imagine my surprise when I noticed that the camouflage-like background of the birds was primarily muddy, broken bottles.

Such a juxtaposition of beauty and ugliness. So yesterday I did a quick pen sketch to which I added watercolor. It did get the sense of camouflage but the birds were largely lost. Still it seemed like it could make a good painting.

So today I decided I needed to do some studies of the birds. Thus this 15-minute watercolor sketch of one of them.

I'm happy with it, though less happy with yesterday's quick sketch. I hope eventually to do a more finished watercolor of this theme that incorporates the beauty of the birds, the sense of camouflage and the surprise of the muddy bottles.

We shall see.