Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Style - Curse or Blessing

Sometimes you hear people talking about an artist's 'style.' They mean generally something that easily distinguishes one artist from another. Really well known artists, e.g. Matisse, El Greco, Cezanne, Donatello, Mondrian, all have individual styles. But a style, especially for a living artist is both a blessing and a curse. It's a blessing because it indicates that there must be enough consistency in their work for viewers to notice it. They've at least accomplished consistency and aren't just foundering wildly from one style to another. But it's also a curse. What artist wants to do the same thing over and over again? I think this is probably most evident with musicians. How often have you been to a concert where the artist insisted in performing it somewhat differently than you had memorized it note for note from constant playing? I remember the first time I saw Bob Dylan and he played his songs at about twice their normal tempo. Artists really resist being pigeonholed.

There is a reason I bring this up in relation to the painting at top. I think most of my recent pastel work shows something that comes natural to me, a type of boldness. I don't say this to pat myself on the back. Boldness isn't necessarily good. It's just something I feel at ease with, at least when working with charcoal and pastel.

But today I decided to paint a Ruby-crowned Kinglet. I've tried to draw them from life for three years or more, never with any success. That's in fact been the subject of past blogs. In this case though I liked some photos I took this spring of some kinglets right over my head. I thought about doing a pastel, and still may. But for today I did a watercolor. Do you see the problem?

It is not bold at all. It is delicate and a bit tentative. When I looked at the photo, as well as searched my visual memory, I just couldn't see being bold with a kinglet. It's a petite bird. It's surrounded by petite, delicate blooms. The odd thing is that I found it easy to work this way. But I'm not sure that it really suits me, and it certainly doesn't fit with my pastel and charcoal style.

I don't think this is necessarily good or bad. It's just something that struck me as I worked on it. And it may be why I have a vague uneasiness about it - like someone else came in, stole my psyche, and whipped this out.

The watercolor above took about 30 minutes. I whipped it out as an illustration for my blog on Devil's Walkingstick. This also really isn't in my style. Or is it? Anyone who reads this regularly knows that I've done quick watercolors for at least the last year. Often they're done for a purpose just like this: to illustrate something. Generally I'm in a hurry so I work on them very quickly and don't bother with niceties. And generally I like them, even with all of their flaws. That's the case with this Robin in Devil's Walkingstick.

In a way I guess it's bold. Or maybe it's just the work of someone who's impatient. Come to think about it that may be my true style: Impatient.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Common Birds in Uncommon Situations

Though American Goldfinches are beautiful birds I've never had a lot of interest in painting them, even when they take their classic and classically photogenic pose on top of some Purple Coneflowers. The reason is simple. It looks like a cliche. They may be the most photographed American bird. It's just so hard to think about them without feeling the wet blanket of cliche settling on my shoulders.

My guess is that this is one element of artmaking that is most unfamiliar to art viewers. Most artists have seen a lot of art. So they can get jaded quickly. My own feeling, and I think it's true for most artists, is that I want my art to seem fresh. Something that can't be immediately dismissed by viewers because it looks so much like art that they've seen before, and often with better examples. At the same time I don't at all believe in the shock for shock's sake school of art that began 100 years ago with Duchamp. I have no interest, or reward, in shocking. I just want my work to look fresh, to get the viewer to actually look at it. In any case because goldfinches can be so cliched I've shied away from them.

But sometime in the last week or so I saw them along the waters edge of the wetlands at Morris Arboretum and I saw them in a completely new light. The cold dark of the water just seemed to really set off the colors of the goldfinch. The pastel at top shows this.

I believe it was that same day that I saw numerous Sachem Skipper butterflies on the Joe Pye Weed also around the pond. They were actually on the opposite side of the pond from where I found the goldfinch. But I felt that this composition needed a little bit of extra color and spatial dimension. So I added butterfly and flower at lower left.

I'm including an earlier version of this pastel below. As I looked at it though I realized that I'd gotten away from the cold dark water that I'd actually seen. And the result was pretty dull. One of the problems of art that allows color, brushwork, shape to become as important as the subject itself is that it's easy to be seduced by them and head off along the wrong track. I liked the blues in the water below as I put them down. The color in itself is just so striking. But as I looked at the entire drawing I realized that the color really didn't look that good with the other colors and also no longer reflected what I saw. So I added some very dark grays to get it back closer to what had originally struck me in the first place.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

4 at 2

Last Saturday Jerene and I went to one of our favorite nearby birding spots looking for migrating wood warblers. I'd been to Carpenter's Woods earlier in the week and seen Black and White, Blue-winged and one or two others. It was about 8:30 a.m. and sunny and seemed like a perfect day and time to find warblers. We found none.

So today I had to do some grocery shopping near Carpenter's Woods at 2 in the afternoon. A foolish time to go looking for warblers right? But the woods is so close to the coop grocery that it seemed silly not to stop by briefly. Sure enough I'd hardly gotten there before I saw a handsome female or immature Black and White, soon followed by a male Canada. Within the next hour I also found a female Common Yellowthroat and a female or immature American Redstart. Twelve other species, including a Hairy Woodpecker also made an appearance.

This shows that anytime really is a good time for birding. This summer I did some very early morning birding at the Wissahickon Creek and was happily astonished by the number of birds, especially singing birds. But you can also find birds at mid-day. Perhaps not as many, at least not all the time. Today from 2 p.m. until 3 p.m. I found four warblers versus none fron 8:30 a.m. until 11 a.m. a few days ago.

I've vowed to do some good field sketches of wood warblers this year and their season is drawing to an end with no success on my part. So that was one more reason to stop by today. But the two quick sketches I did of the Black and White and the Canada are just too bad to show. So I need to keep at it over the next month.

In the meantime I'm showing a recent quick watercolor of a Canada based on some photos I took a couple of years ago. I'm happy with it. But I'd sure prefer to show some good field sketches!!

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Tossing the Paisley Bell-bottoms

Two posts back I mentioned that I was undecided about the state of my new pastel of a Hermit Thrush and Sandhill Cranes. Something made me want to leave a number of areas of white. I wasn't making any sort of statement. It just looked good to me, just as some paisley bell-bottoms did to me, and not just me alone, many, many years ago. But finally I decided that it was more important to put some color in those areas than to leave them white. I ditched the bell-bottoms.

I think that the version above is the last. It seemed more important to me to try to unite the entire drawing by color than to leave the bright white of the paper. I particularly thought I needed more darks toward the bottom and sides and so that white tree trunk on the left became brown-orange.

This drawing is an accomplishment for me in that this scene never existed. It's a composite of two views I saw at Horicon Marsh last fall. The two scenes are only separated by a few hundred yards and a 90 degree change of direction so such a scene could have happened. But it didn't. Not until my imagination came along. I don't think I ever would have tried this in watercolor. But the loose way in which I use charcoal and pastel made it much easier to do.

Among the many skills an artist needs is the ability to alter reality, even if only slightly. Not all artists do this and for all my hankering for expressiveness I've never been one of them. But I felt that I was limiting myself. That's why this seems like a personal accomplishment. It opens up a lot of possibilities for future paintings.

I made far fewer changes to the Osprey drawing. Almost all of them are in the sky. I hope that I've made it interesting enough, through color and texture, to create an interesting interplay with the silhouette of the birds, nest and tree.


After my last posting on Devil's Walkingstick I decided that I really wanted to be able to keep track of what birds I, and others, saw feeding on their berries this fall. If you're interested or would like to add your own observations please visit Feeding on Devil's Walkingstick.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Devil's Walkingstick - Nectar of the Migrants

Each year at this time of year I see the value of the American shrub Devil's Walkingstick, also called Hercules Club and Aralia Spinosa. The 'Spinosa' and the 'Devil' give a clue that it is spiky. And yet migrant birds love it. It is a native plant and yet time and time again I read about how it is an invasive that must be eradicated.

I'm not an expert on it. Perhaps it has some hidden noxious qualities I'm unaware of. But I suspect all that prickliness makes in not a 'proper' plant. I'm thinking of keeping track of all the birds I see feeding on it this fall. Today Robins were chasing off some other members of the Thrush family, Wood Thrushes and Veeries. Given the wealth of berries you'd think there wouldn't be a problem with sharing. I've also seen Swainson's Thrushes on it later in the year. Woodpeckers also found it irresistible today. Both a Downy Woodpecker and a Northern Flicker were on them. And, maybe most surprisingly, last year we saw a Pileated on a small 6 foot shrub. I assume they were all eating buries. Most birds get themselves so buried in the plant that it's hard to tell what they're doing.

But my favorite birds that love Devil's Walkingstick are American Wood Warblers. Black -throated Blues in particular love it. If you have this plant around you can almost guarantee finding some Black-throated Blues on it in September and October, if the berries haven't already been eaten. I can't recall all of the other warblers we've seen so I'll keep track this year. I'm pretty sure that Northern Parulas are one of them.

As I've said many times I don't like using photos. They just leave me feeling empty. But I didn't feel like I had time to do anything else today, AND I'm just not sure of what the quality of the art would be.

The next day: It's been bothering me that I can't find a way to keep track of what birds others see feeding on Devil's Walkingstick. So thanks to Blogger I've created a new blog devoted entirely to that. Please visit and add the birds you've seen as well as your location as a comment.

That wasn't the case with the 15-minute watercolor above. Yesterday I found at least five different warblers, migrating I'm sure. The high point was a Blue-winged. I also took a couple of photos. But when I got home and saw this one I couldn't begin to figure out what it was. Can you? This watercolor is not very detailed. But I deliberately made it somewhat confused because that's exactly what it was in the photo. In fact I've probably accentuated some clues that weren't quite so evident in the photo. It's a Black and White Warbler. In the photo the dark above eye looked like it covered the entire head and made it even more confusing. And the butt, which more or less takes up the entire picture, had a buff wash I'd never noticed before.

In any case I just wanted to do a quick version of it because it was so surprising. Try as I might I couldn't get any sketches of the other warblers, including a Canada.

Because migration of the passerines has started here I've had an excuse to be out the last couple of days, birding and trying to sketch. But those two pastels from last post are still there waiting to be finished. I did ditch the paisley bell bottoms.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

On the Easel, More or Less

These two pastel and charcoal drawings are both works in progress. I got to a stopping point yesterday with the Ospreys and so decided to make a bold move and try a subject I'd been thinking about for at least six months - combining a Hermit Thrush and some Sandhill Cranes seen at different spots at Horicon Marsh last fall.

I say "on the easel, more or less" because I don't use an easel. But you get the point. They're unfinished works. Who knows how much more I'll do or where they'll end up?

The ospreys offer less opportunity. There's not a lot to work with. I at first thought I could get the silhoutte-like composition to work by the use of color and texture in the sky. But so far it's a bit dull. Maybe more experimentation with the sky will make a difference.

The more exciting drawing to me is the Hermit Thrush with Sandhill Cranes. They were seen within a few hundred yards of one another but they were never in the same view as seen here. However I've toyed with the idea of putting the cranes behind the thrush for months. I think I felt a bit more experimental yesterday because I'd already worked on the osprey drawing. I'd done my work for the day so now I could goof off with this one.

I'm often tempted to leave some completely white areas in pastel drawings, just as I used to do in oil paint. This is different than allowing some white of the paper to show through to give a sense of light. But I think it is connected. It gives a sense of brightness. However it completely breaks the conceit of illusion. If I leave a complete shape white, for instance the tree trunk at far left, I'm calling attention to the fact that this is a drawing.

If I were showing this in a contemporary gallery I could rattle on forever about how this forces the viewer to confront the fact that all art is illusion, blah, blah, blah, blah. But I couldn't stand to do that. Such nonsense, which is fresh in my mind from hearing about a local 'environmental art' show on the radio, drives me nuts. I'm not trying to educate viewers. I'm not dealing in 'issues'. I'm an artist and my concern is visual. So let's just say my preference for letting white show through like this is just a personal preference. I know many people, including many artists, don't like it. But they never liked my paisley bell-bottoms either. I gave up on those bell-bottoms and I've removed the white from many pastel drawings. But for now I'm leaning toward keeping it here. Sometimes you just have to do what feels right, even if it turns out to be embarrassingly wrong in the future.

One possible problem with this drawing is that you can hardly tell that the sandhill cranes are there. That is one area that will probably get more work.

Someone on the Wildlife Art thread of birdforum said something recently about all artists having different ways of destroying work we're not happy with. Some paint over it. Others cut out just the good part. When I worked abstractly I just radically changed what the painting or drawing looked like until I was either happy with it or felt defeated. I haven't pushed myself that far with my naturalistic work and have instead let the work be and saved any changes for the next version. This thrush drawing might get pushed a bit though. Stay tuned.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Finding the Correct Tool

The drawing above is based on a photo I took at Thompson's Beach in southern New Jersey last May. I really liked the photo, both the birds and the color of the water. The blue of the water really set off the black and white of the Black-bellied Plovers. But the one or two watercolor sketches I did of it previously only hinted at what I saw.

Since I've decided to work in pastel and charcoal for a bit I was looking for subject matter. When I saw this photo I just had to try another version.

I'm not sure if it's the fact that I'm now in abstract mode or just that the way I use pastel I never have to worry about details, probably the latter. In any case I soon found that this was just the medium to get across what I saw that day, both the beauty of the plovers, in shape, pose and color, and the striking beauty of the water, two different shades of blue. This was rounded off with the rusty color of the Short-billed Dowitchers.

I'm not sure if this is done. Sometimes I just like to post them so I can get another perspective on them. Most likely it is done. I'd like to keep it fresh. Either way at least to me it shows that sometimes you just have to stumble upon the right tool for the job. The scene seemed to lend itself to the broader and bolder method of treatment that both pastel and abstraction allow.

And yet realism is in here. I never would have felt free to do these generalized dowitchers and plovers if I hadn't done many more realistic paintings and drawings of both.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Heron Suite

As you may have guessed I've really been taken with the Green Heron we saw at Tinicum last year. Here they're not all that uncommon but the markings on this particular immature bird, coupled with the surrounding environment, made him seem special and kept calling me back for another portrayal.

I've done four new watercolors, two I've aleady shown, one is too bad to show, and the other is below. While showing them at birdforum Tim Wootton, one of the inspirational artists there, suggested that it looked like an abstraction was dying to break loose.

Abstract/non-onbjective art is my true background. I've only worked naturalistically for the last four years. So the work at top is the Green Heron redone abstractly.

I could go on theorizing forever about the motivations for abstract or non-objective art. And I'm sure I wouldn't come up with any definitive answer. But for me at least part of the appeal is artistic expression. I've always likened this to music, especially music without lyrics. No one doubts its power and yet their is no story connected with it. You enjoy the music itself, the melody, rhythm, orchestration, etc. It has a real emotional power. The same can be said for the elements of art, color, shape, brushwork, pattern, etc.

The great difficulty I think with it is that it can lose any connection to the natural world and become somewhat febrile, too much of a greenhouse flower. So to me it needs to constantly be fed by observation of the natural world. At one time I considered this heresy. This was a limitation on art, and an archaic one at that. Not something anyone in 20th, or 21st, century should be bound by. But I haven't thought that for a long while. Nature is nature, regardless of century, and it's always one of the most important sources of art.

All that said you'll have to make what you will of the pastel at top. I'm happy with it and will probably do some more abstract works. I do have to say that I wouldn't have felt so comfortable taking liberties with the heron and turtles if I hadn't just finished so many recent realistic versions.

The painting above was the last watercolor. It's also the largest, at 12x16 inches. Oddly I also like it. There are times when the background just seems too empty. But most of the time it just looks tranquil, as it was.

So perhaps this ends the suite of Green Heron paintings and drawings. It's been fun and I think that between them all I've captured some sense of what it was like seeing this one on that day.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Veery With Geology

Recent weather hasn't exactly been conducive to getting out and birding and sketching. Too hot and humid. But if you get out early enough it's not horrible.

While walking along the Wissahickon Creek this week I noticed a geologic formation that is fairly common there, terribly warped rocks that look like pulled taffy. I believe that they're metamorphic, perhaps Wissahickon Schist. For more on Wissahickon Creek geology look here. Since I'd been telling some online friends about the local geology I took a couple of photos.

Not yards away I saw a Veery. I've been hearing them and Wood Thrushes all summer long at the Wissahickon but I'm not sure how much longer they'll be here. I've yet to really track their departure dates. Maybe this year. In the past we've just all of a sudden realized that they are gone and that another winter is on its way.

I recently read a book on American watercolors in the Brooklyn Museum. It was quite enjoyable and informative. At one point there was a contemporary criticism of Homer I believe, though it might have been Sargent, saying that they were very good at portraying what they saw, but nothing more. Uh, oh! Somebody wants IMAGINATION, BIG THOUGHTS, etc.

This has always struck me as bogus. Big thoughts are right in front of you, if you portray what you see. Nonetheless there is something to the ability of an artist to construct scenes based on sketches, photos, memory, etc. I've never been good at this. So this time I decided to put the Veery in the scene of the metamorphic rocks that I'd photographed. The first attempt was the watercolor immediately above.

But the veery was not in the photo. I needed to use another of a Veery I'd taken a year or two ago along with my knowledge of veeries to place him in the picture. I think it turned out better in today's charcoal drawing at the top than in yesterday's watercolor.

That's not all that surprising. I'm much more comfortable with charcoal than with watercolor. But at least I'm no longer terrified of it. And now I have two versions. I'm also a bit terrified of portraying rocks. But these rocks are something special. So it was worth the effort.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Field Boxes, Part II

About a year ago I wrote of my experience with my new
Winsor Newton field box
. I never got any more comfortable with it than I was in that original post. In fact I was quite disappointed and stopped using it. Instead I now use a small plastic box, above, that I bought at the local Dick Blick store for about $5. I filled it with my most often used Winsor Newton colors. There's no room for a brush or water bottle so I carry them separately. But I prefer it to the WNFB setup.

So today after having already posted I changed the template for my blog and was checking on some of the links. Imagine what I found when I clicked on the link for the wonderful wildlife artist Bruce Pearson? A shot of the field box I have to assume that Bruce Pearson uses. Yes, I'm pretty sure that's a WNFB at the top of the page.

I normally wouldn't bother to write this type of light, newsy post. But any chance to introduce people to his work shouldn't be passed up. And I'll now have to take a look at that expensive, silly little box that I bought a year ago.

Seeing the Bird for the Feathers

Almost a year ago my wife and I saw a young Green Heron at Tinicum(John Heinz NWR) in Philadelphia. All Green Herons are striking in color, shape and pose, but the younger ones have an intricate pattern on the wings which is particularly striking. This one had the added appeal of just sitting 10-15 feet in front of us and not moving. This was puzzling and I wondered if perhaps he was a migrant who'd just flown a huge distance and was too worried about food to be concerned with nearby humans.

In any case I did a number of sketches and took a lot of photos. And I did a really unsatisfactory watercolor of this handsome heron. I was never satisfied with it and always felt I hadn't done justice to a great bird and a great view.

A few weeks ago I took him up again. I'm looking at the first new version from a couple of weeks ago hanging on the wall six feet away. Sorry but it's just too bad to submit to public exposure.

The second version, from about a week ago, is above. I'm not really happy with it either. Like the first one there is almost no sense of transparency, none of the vibrancy that accompanies the type of watercolors that I like, in fact the type that is my only justification for doing watercolor. If I'm going to use opaque paint I might as well just use oil or acrylic. There is something I like about it, maybe the blue of the water, but all in all it's another disappointment

Because I was bothered by the lack of transparency in both this version and the one from a year ago I decided to be very careful about losing it in the newest watercolor at top. I finished(?) it yesterday.

This one has a better sense of transparency and freshness. Not as much as I'd like but still some. And yet I'm still a bit uneasy with it as well. Why? Well one thing that has struck me in doing these, and going back to the title of this post, is that it's all too easy to get fixated by the complicated pattern in the wings. I'm not a detail type of guy, at least not in art. I don't have the patience. And I don't really like much art that focuses on detail. Not that it's not accomplished. Just that it's not to my taste.

Of course other birds also have detail. If you are close enough to see almost any bird you can see a wealth of detail, much of it quite striking. But I think I've gotten comfortable enough with portraying some birds, like warblers, sparrow, shorebirds, so that I use shorthand to indicate the detail but not actually portray it. My guess is that's what I need to do with this heron. But I'm like a deer frozen in auto headlights. Once I see the pattern in the wings I become transfixed and feel like I need to paint every little detail. I don't see anything else.

My guess is that this starts me off in a tighter style than is comfortable for me and I never really recover.

Another possible problem, and I encountered it in my Glossy Ibis watercolor as well, is that I tend to use an opaque color to render the maroon like color. This immediately puts a darker value in the painting that then becomes hard to orchestrate, like a Concerto for Tuba. I did start off the heron in a very light wash. But before I knew it the bird was largely opaque.

Finally there is the complex design and space. By letting the branch on which the heron stands go off the page I flattened the design. The slashing diagonal mark tends to make the painting look like a two-dimensional design. It works against a three dimensional reading. But I knew that and stopped it before it went off the top in an earlier version of this painting. However I didn't like the looks of that and decided to let it go off the page, well aware of the danger of that.

Adding the foreground foliage also complicated the design and sense of space, as did the turtles on the log, and the stick in the water at upper left. These are all compositional decisions that may or may not work. They complicate the painting. If I'm successful then I think they can add to the painting, especially as they're indicative of the environment in which you actually find herons. Unlike Great Egrets you don't often find them artistically placed as a graceful silhouette against simple blue water. If I fail to bring this complex design off however the end result can be a mess. I think I've barely avoided a mess here.

For now this is done. It's possible over time that I'll decide to go back into this. But most likely any changes will be in another version.

It's almost the anniversary of seeing this bird. It may be time for another trip to Tinicum.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Story of a Commission

A few months ago I wrote about never winning any prizes. It never really bothered me; it was just the truth. I could say the same thing about commissions. I don't recall ever having a commission for art.

That's not to say I haven't sold art, just never by commission. When I went to art school many years ago commissions were frowned upon. The unspoken rule was that buyers came to artists and took what was on offer, not vice versa. I largely went along with this. And yet I also knew from my study of art history that much of the world's best art was done by commission. It also bothered me that this rule automatically wrote off some very well meaning people who really liked art but wanted a particular type or subject.

Since I've been involved in wildlife art for the last few years I realize that it's common in that field. Certainly very few artists contemptuously refuse a commission.

So when a client who had bought one of my older watercolors contacted me last week about buying a new one I mentioned ones I thought she might like that were available on my online store. Somehow or other the subject of bluebirds came up and thus was born my first commission.

But there was a problem. There are many birds that I've painted or sketched many times, birds that I have taken numerous photos of. A commission with one of them as subject would not be particularly daunting.

I really don't see Eastern Bluebirds all that often. I have seen them under ideal conditions, for instance a sunny day against the background of pure white snow on a Christmas Bird Count at Schuylkill Center For Environmental Education in Philadelphia. However I didn't take photos or make sketches.

Above is one recent photo, from another bird count at SCEE in late spring of this year. But there's no detail and it just looks ordinary. I just couldn't foresee a good painting based on it.

I and Jerene had also seen some Eastern Bluebirds at SCEE on New Years Day a couple of years ago. But I did no sketches and my photos were too dark to be of any use.

That left a few photos of some bluebirds seen at Morris Arboretum this spring, as above.

But there's nothing there: just the bird, a few limbs, leaf buds, and sky. This might make a traditional 'cute' picture of a bluebird but I just couldn't see how I could make a fresh, vibrant painting of it. And since I see them annually at most I just didn't have any sketches or intimate knowledge of them.

What about using someone else's photos? NO! I don't like using photos to begin with, I think because they're already one step removed from the subject. But at least with my own photos I have an emotional recall of the bird. There's an emotional response to the photo and art thrives on that.

Finally I decided to try one from the last group of photos. I didn't have much choice.

I'd been working on some quick ruby-throated hummingbird sketches at the time so whipped up the first version on the same sheet of watercolor paper. It wasn't much but it least it showed my idea for the composition.

The next morning I spent a few hours on a more developed watercolor on cheaper paper. I showed it to the client. She was quite pleased.

So over the following days I worked on the final version at top of this post. Half of that time was just spent staring, figuring out whether any more work would ruin the freshness that I thought the painting had. Finally I got up the nerve to show it to the client. She loved it. It's now with UPS on the way to her.

What did I learn from this? In one respect something I've known for many years: artistic constraints don't really constrain you. Instead they are a great opportunity and force you to try something you might never otherwise do. It is a way to grow. I'd looked at those bluebird photos many, many times and always decided that there was no painting in them. Then necessity forced me to look a little harder.

I couldn't be happier with the results.