Saturday, December 31, 2011

Ending 2011 with Hawks and Acrylics

It would be nice to report that our last birding walk of 2011 turned up some extraordinary birds and I managed great field sketches of them all. Why leave it at that? I actually managed to do my first plein air paintings of them as well.

But that's what would have been nice. We did see 20 species at Morris Arboretum but didn't find anything extraordinary. The most unusual bird was a Brown Creeper, a winter bird that's always fun to see. But he didn't sit still long enough for me to get any sketches.

I did finish up the immature Red-tailed Hawk above though when we got home. It's 6x8 inches and done in acrylics. It's based on a bird that seemed to be at Morris the entire summer of 2010.

I've looked at photos I took of the bird many times and have always thought a beautiful painting was there for the taking, the whites and browns of the bird shimmering against the gray-blue sky. But for some reason I couldn't ever picture myself ever being successful doing it in watercolor. As I've continued to work in acrylic though(this being my fourth acrylic of the last few months, the first in over 25 years), I keep thinking that I can tackle previously forbidding projects in acrylic.

My guess is that the reason for this is that acrylic, or oil, is just so much more forgiving than watercolor. Since I spent many years as an abstract acrylic and oil painter I'm not surprised that it's starting to become comfortable to me.

That is not what got me started on this painting though. That can be attributed to the fact that I realized it was past time for our local accipiters, Sharp-shinned and Cooper's Hawks, to be visiting our feeders trying for our feeder birds. I decided to do some sketches of Coopers Hawks, above, from photos of previous backyard accipiters. My idea was to refamiliarize myself with them so that I could be prepared for possible field sketches. I'm always thrilled to sketch them but rarely satisified with the results. After I did these sketches from photos I added watercolor. Though these are not particularly successful they remind me of why I remain infatuated with watercolor: the sense of light. Oil and acrlyic can create great light effects as well but for true unadulterated celebration of light there's nothing that can beat watercolors, at least in the hands of someone who has managed to master them.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Surprise Art Materials

After all my years of art it's not often that I find myself with a medium that I'm not used to and didn't really expect to use. But a chance remark at a gallery opening led to a Christmas present of some oil pastels.

I can't remember how long ago it was I last used them but I know it was a VERY long time ago. Nonetheless I'm a bit rusty from the holidays and experimenting with the oil pastels seemed like a good way to ease back into picture making.

There is something about oil pastels that is appealing, for instance their rich colors. But there's something also I don't like: the difficulty of making sharp lines. Once you start using the pastel the shard edges become blunt. Regular pastels have this problem too but I've always found a way around it. So I can still make sharp lines when I want to. i find it harder with oil pastels. Maybe that's why I haven't used them in such a long, long time.

The drawing above is based on a photo of a Belted Kingfisher seen at Morris Arboretum this fall. I often sketch them from life at Morris. But there's always something more to learn, something that I need to learn because the bird flies before I'm able to get it all down. I think if I knew the bird better, for instance the size and shape of the bill or the relation of the flight feathers to the coverts, I might be able to sketch them in after the bird has flown.

I often feel, particularly in winter when it's harder to be outside sketching, that it's worthwhile to sketch from photos and try to get down all of the details that I miss in my field sketches. So that was the start of this: a fairly detailed drawing that I then covered over with the oil pastel.

It's very small, about 6x8 inches I think. I can't say I'm thrilled with it but it is acceptable. You can always learn something by working with new media. Sometimes that's the way you fall into the perfect medium for yourself.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Season's Greetings 2011

Since I resumed acrylic painting a few months ago I decided to buy some little pre-stretched and primed 6x8 inch canvases. I thought I might use them like sketches and they might force me to keep experimenting with acrylic.

So a thread on the Wildlife Art section of Birdforum today focusing on paintings that illustrated the theme of Season's Greeting and Happy Holidays was just what I needed to try out those canvases.

This is based on a photo of a Dark-eyed Junco that was in our Swiss Stone Pine after a rare October snowstorm. And we've seen no snow since!

Happy Holidays to all.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

CBC and Sapsucker

Yesterday we took part in a Christmas Bird Count, one of very many that began last week and will continue through January 5, 2012.

As the link to the national Audubon site above says it is now over 100 years old and has tens of thousands of participants. I imagine there are various reasons for taking part.

For us, as with the Philadelphia Mid-winter Bird Census, I always realize that much of it is that we just enjoy being outside in cold weather. I suppose if we didn't live in a large city we'd go skiing or snowboarding or something like that. It is more than that of course. It is about birding, the thrill of the hunt, as well as conservation. But in the end I always feel that I've just enjoyed being able to spend most of a winter day outside. Of course this would be far less thrilling without warm clothes!

I didn't expect to sketch or take photos yesterday. I knew it would be too cold to spend much time sketching. And I didn't really expect any rarities. But toward the end of the day this female Yellow-bellied Sapsucker curled itself up like a grub on the slender branch shown above. I assume it was eating but what? I don't think there were any insects on these tiny stems. I really didn't look closely enough to see if there were any tiny berries there. My recollections is that there were either catkins or small leaf buds. After I posted this I mentioned it to my wife. She was paying more attention than I: the bird was eating very small berries.

In any case it was an unusual pose for a sapsucker. It was made all the harder to draw because she was facing away from us. Her tail was in focus and her head was opposite the tail, horribly foreshortened.

But it was a pose too interesting to pass up. So I pulled out my sketchpad from my backpack and did a quick sketch before she flew a second or two later. This is an ink, watercolor and gouache sketched based on that quick field sketch. I missed so much information in the original sketch so reconstructing a correct view of the bird was difficult. So I looked at other sapsucker photos I have, at some downy woodpecker photos in a vaguely similar position that I have and guidebooks. This is pretty close to the original sketch.

There are some details I question in it. Are they correct? Perhaps not. But I'll look more closely next time I see an upside down woodpecker. It does get a sense of the pose and commemorates a moment in a CBC. Just one more of the enjoyable aspects of a Christmas Bird Count. This one by the way was for Wyncote Audubon, our local Audubon chapter.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Cutting Edges of Art

Many claim to be on the cutting edge of just about everything. An email I received today promoting something as 'cutting edge' got me off on a cliche rant. Just how many years can something be on the cutting edge? When does the cutting edge become the blunted through overuse edge? If everything is on the cutting edge is it better to be elsewhere?

So as a service to all readers I show you two of the true cutting edges of art. These are two of the carving tools I use when cutting linocuts.

My dislike of this cliche is very old. I tend to forget about it until I see someone promoting something as cutting edge as I did today. It makes you wonder if people think when they speak. Do they have any idea what their words mean?

What drives me nuts about this particular cliche is that it uses a hackneyed term to describe something that the user wants to embellish with a sense of newness. Instead it instantly shows that it is old and hackneyed.

It's always dangerous to generalize. Nonetheless I'd say that the majority of artists I've known have a particular nose for truth and falsehood, for honesty versus hype. My guess is that most of them would not describe their work as cutting edge. They may quite honestly be trying to do something new, different, fresh, to breathe new life into old forms and structures, to find a fresher way of expressing something. But I doubt that they ever care about being on the cutting edge. Even if the term were not a cliche I don't think newness for the sake of newness if the goal of many artists, except for the ones maybe who don't pursue art for personal reasons but more for the cache that if offers in society, a cachet that is as often a bad cachet as it is a good one.

Still I'm sure that the cutting edge will always be with us, especially in the arts, as artists push the envelope, over the edge, breaking new boundaries in the wonderful world of cliches.

That said here is my newest linocut made with my cutting edge carving tools. This print was more successful on copier paper using a cheap ink. I mistakenly added a thinner to the ink when I switched to oil-based ink and printmaking paper. Most of the crisp edges are gone and over 20 prints on two types of paper never really got them back. So for now there is this one somewhat indistinct edition. In the coming days I'll try a different ink on good paper to see if I can get a sharper edition.

This is based on the watercolor of House Sparrows in our Winterberry from the last post.

Monday, December 12, 2011

House Sparrows on Winterberry

Until recently I've had a lot of the local House Sparrows visiting my window feeder,which sits just a few feet away from me as I write this. I've shown a few of the field sketches. Since they're only there for the food though no one is sitting still. They all land on top of each other fighting for a place at the table. In a split second they're gone.

So I've been able to do some sketches of them that I think have a sense of dynamism. But they don't have much detail. I've haven't been able to get a good look at the bill, at the facial coloring, especially on the male, or at the feathers. So recently I took a few photos of them sitting on one of our winterberries on the backyard. There they are a bit more likely to sit but they're not as close. So I need to either draw while using my binoculars or a scope, or take photos. I opted for some photos.

As with many parts of nature the more you look the more beautiful you find it. The same is true of House Sparrows. I don't like them because they've driven off almost all of our other feeder birds. They constitute 90% of our feeder birds each winter any more. But they do have their own beauty and personality.

I've been using my various Stillman & Birn sketchbooks mainly to draw in ink recently. That was the case with the Canada Geese in the last post. The sketchbooks have worked well for that and for all of my work.

In this case though I wanted to use a fine pencil as a guide for a watercolor, one in which the orginal pencil lines probably wouldn't be evident at the end. This work is done on a 6x8 inch Beta series sketchbook. As I flip through the sketchbook I notice that the Lincoln's Sparrow of a week or so ago was also done in the same method in the Beta.

It has worked well for this method as well as for the runny ink and watercolor method that I often used. I used to use another brand of sketchbook for this type of work. It also worked well enough but I was always hesitant to sell any of the works that I liked. The paper didn't seem of high enough quality. I compensated by lowering the price for those works.

But with a stronger paper like this I'm not hesitant. The paper works fine for more finished work. But the purpose of these is still as small, experimental sketches. It's an easy and quick way to try something out and see if it might deserve fuller working in paint or printing ink. I'm still not sure where this one might lead but I am quite tempted to do a more permanent homage to these bullies of the bird feeder.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Canada Geese with Fallen Beech

With just a bit of daylight left after gallery sitting at the Manayunk Roxborough Art Center I decided to try the quick Bic pen and watercolor sketch above. I continue to like this manner of working. This is based on a photo I took a week or two at Morris Arboretum. I knew that I wasn't going to get much detail on the two geese. But I was really more interested in the entire scene: bright fallen leaves of autumn, huge fallen beech, and two Canada Geese on a sand bar in water that reflected all the colors around it. A sketch like this is just another way of exploring that scene and determining whether or not it deserves further exploration in paint or print.

The MRAC Holiday Show in Philadelphia continues on Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. tomorrow, the following weekend and in January. Above are two of my framed prints that hang in it. These prints as well as prints in mats are available for sale there, as are the works of all the other MRAC artists who are exhibiting. It is located in the rear of 419 Green Lane in Manayunk/Roxborough.

I had one more thing to finish up before starting something new like the quick watercolor at top.

This is the finished version of the small 4x6 osprey linocut. I finally finished adding watercolor to the edition of nine prints. This photo is a bit dark. The actual print is a bit brighter than this. There is much more that can be done with this method of working, as I mentioned in another post. But this served as a good introduction to me. It's very odd coloring in each of the prints, almost like going back to grade school. On the other hand some artists do incredibly sophisticated work with this method. I'm sure I'll try a couple more prints in this method to get a better idea of how it works for me.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Drawing From Memory

Yesterday we decided to take a brief break and take advantage of the sun and relatively warm weather. But a two hour walk at Morris Arboretum found few birds until we were getting near to closing time.

I thought I saw some movement in some tall grasses. I put my binoculars on it and saw a sparrow like bird with its tail cocked. Soon after it flushed and went to the top of a tall grass. The first thing I noticed was the buffy/ochre malar, one sign of a Lincoln's Sparrow. That got my attention and so I looked very carefully trying to note all the markings.

I was so involved with that that I forgot I was carrying my camera. Soon it flew, and then flew again. Another sparrow like bird flew with it. About 15 minutes later we came across two more very secretive sparrows in the grasses. You could see the stems move as they ate but the birds themselves just wouldn't show themselves.

For me this is always an interesting time. I'd love to say that at least one of the birds was the beautiful Lincoln's Sparrow. But was there enough evidence?

When I got home I looked through 3 or 4 guides trying to come to a conclusion. The buffy malars, fine streaking on breast and gray nape, all of which I carefully noted while looking at bird, indicated possible Lincoln's. But as it flew there was a flash of a light, whitish belly. That seemed more reminiscent of a Savannah Sparrow than a Lincoln's.

This is one of the many instances where as a birder you really can't say for sure what you've seen. And if the bird is mainly in memory without any visual representation it may morph into just about anything over time.

So today I decided to do some sketches from memory. I knew that they would look bad. I just don't know birds well enough that I can do a good job drawing them from memory.

Those sketches are above. In one I wanted to capture the buffy malar. In another I tried to show the fine-streaking and center spot when viewed from the front. Finally a sketch showing the cocked tail.

After that I pulled out some photos I'd taken of a Lincoln's Sparrow at Magee Marsh this spring. I then did the watercolor at top based on it. This was a very quick, 30-60 minute sketch.

As I did it I compared it to my sketches from memory. Boy I have the position of the malar wrong don't I? But I find that this is a good way to learn. Try to draw what I can recall. Then draw or paint from a detailed photo seeing both what was wrong with the memory sketches but also accentuating some areas, like the buffy malar, because of the strong memory of it.

I think the best artists can most likely do recognizable birds from memory. I hope one day that I'll reach that state. But the only way to do it is to keep practicing, knowing all the while that the results along the way maybe almost embarassing.

This type of exercise is also helpful to my abilities as a birder. As I compare what I remembered from memory to what a detailed photo of the presumed species i learn more about that species. At the end of the exercise I'm more convinced than ever that it was a Lincoln's Sparrow. But I'll have to go find it again to prove it!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Matting and Framing

One thing I never expected when I joined the local Manayunk Roxborough Art Center early this fall was the constant opportunity to exhibit. This is tempered somewhat by a smallish audience but you never know when that might change.

So this Sunday's Holiday Show, with festivities from noon to 3, is one more opportunity to show. I've just finished cutting mats for six prints, building a frame for one paintng, and experimenting with store bought frames for two of the prints.

I've always been an artist who's more interested in the art than in the packaging but that's easier to do when your art stays in the studio. If it's being exhibited somewhere then you need to consider things like mats, frames and of course their cost. I'm surprised that I don't mind this work and the cost hasn't been as bad as I feared.

I guess part of that is that the work just looks better in a mat and/or frame. If it doesn't end up on someone else's wall it might just end up on mine, somewhere outside of the studio. The photo above shows the newly matted and framed work in the studio along with some other work on the walls.

I've only had time to try watercolor on one of the tiny osprey prints. It is below.

I'll probably try another version or two on the two remaining proofs then watercolor the remaining prints in similar colors. This is not my most ambitious work but I still find it somewhat striking.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Late November Buckeye

We like to take a walk on most holidays. And based on the number of people we see we're not alone. But it's rare that we got the weather we've had this Tbankgiving holiday. Sunny and in the 60s.

Perhaps that explains the Common Buckeye we found at Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education yesterday. These butterflies are in fact common but we don't see them more than once or twice a year. Part of that is because we never go out with the primary intention of finding butterflies. When we do they're always a bonus, just like dragonflies. But both of them add to the pleasure of a day outside.

And if you're able to see them magnified through binoculars you have to just stop in wonder. They certainly give birds a run for their money when it comes to aesthetics. This one in particular is gorgeous.

If I were a photorealistic type of artist I'd try to render every color, every gradation of one color into another. But I just have never had any desire to paint in such a way. So this quick sketch of ink and watercolor tries instead to get a sense of the excitement of being outside, of seeing this beautiful butterfly perched on some oak leaves on the ground.

I've seen a number of artists who've done a wonderful job of portraying butterflies in their environment, definitely not in the photorealistic style. One of the best is the late David Measures. Another is Barry Van Dusen with his own version of a Common Buckeye.
Finally Bruce Pearson seems to do a wonderful job on whatever he sees outside! What i like about all of these is that they capture the excitement of being outside, of seeing nature outside. To me this is far more interesting and artistic than any photorealistic renderings.

I wish I could say that my little sketch at top was done from life like the work of the artists I've just mentioned. I did one field sketch of this Common Buckeye but I also took some photos. This is based more on one of the photos than on the field sketch. But I'm working my way to doing more painting outside. Next year when the predictably warm weather returns I hope to have more to show along those lines.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Tiny Osprey

A number of factors have conspired to get me to try some very small linocuts. Part of it is a holiday show of smaller works at the Manayunk Roxborough Art Center, part of it is the lower prices I can charge just in time for the holidays, and probably part of it is just the lack of pressure on me when I do something small.

In addition my plan is to hand color each print with a bit of watercolor. I guess the main reason for this is that I'd like the print to look something like the small watercolor and ink version of this I showed a week or two ago. Who knows how this will work. To see a masterly combination of linocut and watercolor look at the work of Andrew Haslen. One of his prints was often shown in media coverage of the Society of Wildlife Artist's 'The Natural Eye' show that I was also in a few weeks ago. It reminded me of how much I like what he does with the combination.

I'm afraid that I won't do anything very similar here though. Most artists seem to use linocuts to create the outlines of forms then use watercolor to fill in, though sometimes with a very sophisticated 'filling in.' But as usual I'm trying something different. There are very few outlines in this print, outside of the osprey itself. And the black ink and white paper will provide most of the fill color there.

That just leaves the grasses, water, and distant grasses. So I'll just add a few colors in indistinct areas. That is similar to the watercolor so that's what I'm going for.

It may not work at all. But that's the virtue of working so small. If it doesn't work I haven't lost much in the way of time or materials. So sometime after Thanksgiving we shall see what happens. And to be on the safe side I may just print a few with no added watercolor.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Finishing Up

In between my field sketches and watercolor of ospreys, other field sketching, general birding, etc. I've had two somewhat developed works: the ten terns lino, focused on the Black Tern in front, and my second acrylic painting in 25+ years, of the Ruby-crowned Kinglet in Cattails.

I've had the luxury of letting them sit while I work on other things and decide if they're really done. I think that they are. Above is the Ruby-crowned Kinglet, 11x14 inches.

This lino sat the longest. Like sculpture when you cut away on a linocut what you cut away is gone for good. You can't put wood back on a sculpture and you can't put linoleum back on the block. So inadvertently it's sometimes easy to go from a print that seems too dark to one that seems too light. I feared making this one too light, even though it was a very light scene to begin with. Finally I decided that I needed to lighten it up. I did that yesterday. I believe it's now done, though this is the type of thing you could probably fine-tune for weeks.

All of the proofs have been with water-based inks. They are so easy to work with and cleanup, though the ink seems to disappear extremely quickly compared to oil-based inks. I'm still deciding whether to print the edition in oil-based or water-based ink.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

George Bush and the Osprey

I know that the title of this post probably hints at a nasty joke at the expense of George Bush. I'm no fan of his but that's not the reason I titled it so.

I try to stay away from politics here, not that I don't have very strong feelings and thoughts about it. But I don't believe readers read this for politics and so I don't want to do anything to scare them off, well at least most of the time. Occasionally I can't help myself.

The reason I mention George Bush though really does relate to ospreys. I was trying to walk off the depression of his re-election on the day after the election in November, 2004. I was near Kitchen's Lane Bridge over the Wissahickon in Philadelphia. A huge shadow appeared in front of me and I looked up to see an osprey heading up the Wissahickon with a fish in his talons. I believe it was the first osprey I had ever seen there. It certainly was the latest.

I had mentioned this to an accomplished Philadelphia birder about a month ago and he expressed some surprise. It seemed late for ospreys here. That was my thought when I saw it and when I saw subsequent ones along the Wissahickon in October of numerous years since then. Still there was no doubt what I was seeing.

Yesterday Jerene and I went out to see if the immature Red-headed Woodpecker was still there. YES! Five weeks since I'd first found him. Since they bred here in the 19th century I do have to wonder if he might not stay. When I've seen him he's acted as though it's always been his home. As nonchalant as could be.

When we first arrived at Wissahickon near Valley Green we heard some whistles I couldn't quite place. They seemed wrong for the squeaky whistles of Wood Ducks. But we couldn't find the bird. When we returned from our walk down to the woodpecker though a huge shadow went over our heads. A beautiful Osprey. He sat in a snag directly across from the Valley Green Inn for at least five minutes. Then he flew around the nearby bridge for another five minutes before heading down stream.

I didn't decide to sketch him until just before he left. So the field sketch at top is really more from a visual memory of the bird I'd just seen than from actually looking at it and drawing it. The same is true of the bird as he flew downstream. This is definitely the latest I've ever seen an osprey at the Wissahickon.

This type of sketch from memory is often wrong. I've not made his wings as long as they should be. But each time I do this I learn more. Eventually I'll have a pretty good sense of an osprey's shape before I try to draw the one that just landed in front of me, along the Wissahickon at a time he shouldn't be here.

The watercolor at top is another done on Stillman & Birn Beta sketchbook. It has worked just fine for the washes and watercolor that I use. The ink is the same runny ink from a Bic pen that I've mentioned in the past. One of these days I'll have to explore a ballpoint pen whose ink does not run. For now I'm just using it to ease the way from a drawing to a painting. The painting is based on a photo and field sketch of osprey with punky looking head feathers seen in Cape May last August.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Kinglets and Cattails

One thing I forgot to mention, and it's kept nagging at me, is the emphasis on field work in much of the art of the Society of Wildlife Artists. I'm so used to it now that I forget that I take it for granted. But I just wanted to add that I think that's an essential ingredient to the liveliness of the art, at least wildlife and nature art.

The ink and watercolor sketch above reminded me of this principle. Ever since I saw and sketched the Ruby-crowned Kinglet on some cattails at Morris Arboretum in sketch below last week I've toyed with the idea of making a more finished work from it.

As I've mentioned for probably four years now Kinglets are very hard to draw in the field. They just don't sit still, at all!!! Almost as though they get paid by the flit. So the sketch above is really more from memory than from looking at the bird. I had just seen the bird but it was gone before I could put it down. So this is drawn from a mental image. That in turn is partially formed by all I've learned over the years in sketching Ruby-crowned Kinglets. I have to keep reminding myself that the wingbars start further back than I expect them to, etc., etc. The pose on the cattail was also from memory. Most cattails stand straight so already there's somehing a bit off in the sketch. But it did serve as the impulse to keep thinking about a more finished work with this subject.

Yesterday we spent much of the day at Peace Valley Park in nearby Montgomery County. We only get there about once a year. Yesterday's promise of sunny weather in the high 60s AND a selasphorous hummingbird seen the day before were enough to convince us to give it a visit. The hummingbird had not been seen since the day before and we didn't see it either. There were six Ruddy Ducks and lots of gulls but other than that the only surprise was a late season Gray Catbird.

But there were cattails! There is a lovely pond in front of the bird blind there. We sat for awhile and sketched cattails. Ever since I'd done the sketch of the kinglet and cattail I've regretted that I didn't take some cattail photos for reference. So when we found some right in front of us it seemed the perfect time to make sketches and take a couple of photos.

This morning I tried to put all that together in the ink and watercolor above. This one is done on paper from the Stillman & Birn Beta series of sketchbooks. It's similar to the Delta series in that it's a very heavyweight paper. The difference is that this is natural white rather than ivory. Both have proved very useful for this type of quick sketch that includes a fair amount of water.

As usual I'm finding this method of ink that runs when water touches it and a bit of watercolor on this paper to be a good way to work through ideas for more developed work. I'm still not sure that I can pull off a painting based on this theme. But I'm definitely toying with the idea.

A few hours after posting this I had decided to just make an acrylic from this idea. At top is the result of the first few hours work. I'm sure there's still much more to do. I'm happy to say it's based largely on sketching from life and only minimally on photos I took.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Ten Terns and SWLA(The Other Acronym)

In any field there are acronyms that often mean a lot to the few people that are interested in that particular subject but often are meaningless or actually sound like pretentious nonsense to others. I used to work in IT and as you can guess there were so many in that field that you could almost construct entire sentences of just acronyms - not that anyone in their right mind would want to.

As I've mentioned on and off over the years of this blog's existence I've struggled to combine my so-called 'fine art' background with wildlife art. I put 'fine art' in quotes because to me there's a false but nonetheless existent dichotomy in the art world between the two. If you doubt this actually occurs in practice ask yourself how many paintings with wildlife as subject you've seen in museums. It is almost unheard of to find contemporary wildlife art shown in museums.

I think this is both silly and harmful. But it's also a complex situation. There's much wildlife art I don't like. It's cute, or formulaic, or slavishly photographic. So I've always felt myself much on the far outskirts of wildlife art. And yet there's no reason at all that it shouldn't be the subject of contemporary, high-quality art. When I started using birds as subject five or six years ago I could find extremely little contemporary art with wildlife as subjects that I liked.

But slowly I found a few people. And then I found a lot. A huge number of them could be found at one place: SWLA. So for me this is an acronym that packs quite a punch. It exemplifies, particularly in the work of many of its members, what wildlife can accomplish and what it should aspire to.

SWLA stands for Society of Wildlife Artists. For years I've looked through the work of its members and admired it. When I can afford to I've bought books of their work. For others I'm waiting, eagerly, for their first books to be published.

It is based in London but accepts international members. There is also an annual competitive show, called as of last year I believe, 'The Natural Eye.' The 48th annual exhibition is on exhibit now in London.

I applied for it a number of months ago. I thought it would be difficult to get into, not to mention difficult to figure out how to ship. Because of the costs of shipping though they allow international artists to apply first with digital images. If they are pre-selected then they need to ship their framed works for the show and go through a final judging.

My work was pre-selected! So I created new mats and frames and figured out how to ship it there, without truly extravagant costs. But I didn't anticipate customs, something I've never really dealt with. To make a long story short the prints were still in customs on the day of final judging. I gave up on being in the show.

Then a few weeks ago I heard from Mall Galleries that the prints had arrived and would be in the show. I couldn't believe it! My prints hanging with some of the artists I most admire. I put a small notice at the top of my blog under 'About Me' that referred to it. But I didn't want to write about it on the blog until I knew for sure that the prints were hanging. A week ago I wrote that I was in two shows in one week, both with acronyms. This is the other one.

So I looked for reviews after the opening last week. The best I've read so far has a number of photos. But it and other reviews all showed the work with light colored mats and light colored frames. Mine had neither. Was there a framing rule I'd missed that required them? Since even pre-selected work could be refused for improper framing I began to doubt that my work was finally in it.

Today it was confirmed that it is and has been hanging at show for last week or so! I think I need to pinch myself in order to truly believe this. I only wish I could see the show myself. The review mentioned above states how high the quality is and also mentions that the printmaking is 'stunning.' I couldn't ask for much more than that, other than to actually see it.

There is one more thing that would even be better: to have gone to the opening and to have met my online friends from the Wildlife Art thread of birdforum that are also in the show. The ones I know of are: Tim Wootton, winner of Birdwatch Artist of the Year award, Nick Derry and Adam Bowley. I don't think any of them were at opening and may not even get to show. But as I said that is the one thing that I could wish for to make being in the show even more exciting. And I've never seen their work, or the work of SWLA members, in person. I'd love to be able to do that, especially with mine hanging somewhere nearby.

I had to choose an illustration for this post. I could have chosen two prints that are in show but I've shown them before. One in fact is now the header image for this blog. That's the Blackburnian Warbler. The other print is the black and white linocut of the Louisiana Waterthrush and Ebony Jewelwing.

But since I've nearly finished the newest lino I decided to show it instead. It's at a point now where every little change makes a difference. I think it's done, outside of printing an edition on good paper. But I need to let it sit for a day of two to make sure it's done before printing an edition.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Black Tern Day Two

The results of day two on this. My guess is that I'll finish tomorrow, then print a small edition. The one thing I like most about printing is that it engages my artistic skills, such as they are, rather than my realistic rendering skills. Since I'm far stronger with the former, at least in my unbiased eyes, there's generally a feeling of coming home to what I should be doing when I'm working on a print.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Black Tern Lino

It's been a very long time since I did a linoleum block print. The last one was the 9 color reduction print of the Blackburnian Warbler. And that may explain it: it was an exhausting process. Then there is the problems of oil based paints and solvents. I was getting a bit tired of them.

So a few weeks ago I bought a tube of water-based block printing ink. Above is version 10 or so of a new print of a Black Tern amidst Forster's and Common Terns. I did an ink, watercolor and gouache version of it a week or two ago.

What a pleasure it is to clean up with just water. This is a revelation to me. No smell at all, no use of oil and simple cleanup. As with most things though I wonder what the catch is. I do seem to go through more ink with this. And I haven't used good printing paper. These are just proofs on printing paper. But so far I can't complain about the appearance.

It looks like something I'll continue to explore. We saw this lifer Black Tern at Cape May Point State Park last August. I wanted to focus on him. As I've mentioned before it's always a bit of a shock to go to the linear medium of block printing. How do I get various tones? Especially if I'm only use one color as with this? Well it has to be one with marks of one sort or another.

So every print is an experiment. I'm happy with how this has gone so far. You can see that there is a dark area of background that I haven't touched yet. I wanted to keep working on it but prudence told me not to. It's too easy to make serious mistakes when working too long.

So more to come on this. At the moment I have high hopes. It's nice to be printing again.

Friday, October 28, 2011


I knew that it couldn't be true -- 6 to 10 inches of snow this weekend for Philadelphia. It's still October. We often don't get snow until January! And yet that's the current forecast.

But the House Sparrows at my studio window feeder looked like they might be preparing for snow. The sketch above is based on sparrows at my window. When there are a lot of them feeding frantically I can assure you that they don't sit still for long. Most of the time they're fighting. Just as I start one another sparrow lands on or near him or her and starts fighting. Often I can only get one line down, like the breast in the female at lower left, before the bird is gone. I need to try to remember the rest of the bird. Or, wait until another bird takes a similar pose.

This may seem either silly or masochistic. But it actually is fun. You're forced to really think about how the bird is put together. For instance you may need to put a head on a sparrow, as I did at lower left. Inevitably some things will be wrong. But just as true is the fact that you might capture some sense of life. And you do get more familiar with the birds you're sketching.

For this I'm using a Bic 537R ball point pen. It's extraordinary how much the ink runs when water touches it. Normally this would be a catastrophe. But here I like it. It's a very quick way to change a drawing into a painting, or at least a wash drawing. And you never know what surprises you might get.

Just as the sparrows are winterizing I've been doing the same, along with my wife, around the house and garden. Today just in time for the cold and snow I finished making some new windows for our cold frame. These are metal windows that I picked up off the street years ago thinking that they might come in handy. But they need a wooden frame to work as tops for the cold frame. I spent the last few days using a Stanley handheld multiplane to dado out grooves in some 2x2s to put the window into. They're not perfect but they look like they should keep the cold out. So my many choi seedlings will I hope be able to grow to a usable state. And my poor little basil seedlings, planted very late as you can guess, may survive long enough to give a bit of basil flavor to November and perhaps December meals.

Between this type of winterizing work, preparing frames and mats for the MRAC show, and getting end of warm weather birding in before it's too late I haven't done much in the way of art. When that happens I often feel like I need to do some sort of doodling, sort of thoughtless art, to warm myself and figure out where I want to go.

Recently I've done some of that with the runny ball point pen and a Stillman & Birn Gamma sketchbook. But that sketchbook isn't made for strong washes. So I finally broke down and bought a Delta sketchbook with a much heavier paper. I really wanted to try it out. So that's what you see above: the same Bic pen, watercolor and the Delta paper. This shows the immature Little Blue Heron that I saw at Morris Arboretum this summer along with a Painted Turtle, happily looking in the opposite direction as the heron. I've always tempted to do something with it. This seemed like the perfect opportunity to take that composition out for a spin.

I do really like the ability to test out compositions like this. Eventually it or some of the other recent similar experiments should end up as paintings or prints.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Week of Acronyms

This is an unusual week for me. For a few days I'll have works in two shows at the same time. And both shows have acronyms. The first is MRAC, the Manayunk Roxborough Art Center. I've mentioned this show earlier. It will end this weekend.

Above are two works both watercolors, a kildeer seen at Morris Arboretum in Philadelphia, and the pond at Freeman Road Tract of the Canaan Valley NWR in West Virginia. We vacationed there just over a year ago.

My friend Gabrielle at The Inner Artist asked if I would show any in situ photos. I'd like to but rules about not taking photos of other works limits me to cropping these photos so that only my own work is shown. Above is another watercolor of some greater yellowlegs seen at Heislerville WMA in New Jersey a year or two ago. It's in a slightly more abstract style.

And finally my newest acrylic painting which I documented extensively here. I'm not thrilled with either the painting or the frame. But both were the first in a long time. I have to give MRAC credit for finding a way to display the oddly sized frame.

As I've mentioned before MRAC is a cooperative gallery only a few blocks from my home. It's over 50 years old and included some very talented local artists among its founders. One of them Walter Speight used the local neighborhood and landscape as the subject of many of his paintings.

The other show with an acronym is scheduled to open tomorrow, not a few blocks but another continent away. More on that later.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Life Butts In

So just as I finish my latest post about taking liberties with the birds I see and paint I hear a neighbor yell out to another neighbor that a bird has just flown into his window. When I went over to check I found a beautiful Hermit Thrush.

Actually we'd seen our first Hermit Thrush of the fall yesterday at the Andorra section of Fairmount Park in Philadelphia. They're just starting to move through and some may stay. We've been lucky enough to have them as visitors during the last couple of years.

I thought about bringing my camera or sketchbook over to my neighbors but thought it more important to get there and check the health and ID of bird, not that I would have had much of an idea as to how to help it. When I got there the bird was standing up. Soon he flew up a few feet to the top of a garden fence. He just sat there for all to admire, though I'm sure that wasn't his intention. Just as I thought about heading back home for camera or sketchbook he flew.

But he was a beautiful bird. So I felt like doing some sort of visual documentation. This watercolor is based on a photo of one that was in the backyard early this spring. You can tell it's early due to my highly abstracted version of Gill-Over-The-Ground.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Taking Liberties

While waiting for my computer to reboot after finishing the painting above I leafed through a new issue of a birding magazine that included some photos of Common Redpolls. I was reminded again of how beautiful birds can be. You can see why many people desire to represent them as accurately as possible.

Of course one can easily argue about what is meant by accuracy. I've done it at other times. But for now I just mean something that resembles photos but doesn't mimic them. Some would say it emphasizes a scientific approach to birds over an artistic one.

The painting at top is pretty much in direct contradiction to this notion. I've taken great liberties in this ballpoint pen, watercolor and gouache painting. Why? Well I can't really say except that that is what I wanted to do. I wasn't interested in portraying the birds, especially the Black Tern, accurately.

For me the problem with this naturalistic type of art, at least if I'm doing it, is that the bird often seems dead when I'm done. Not always. I've done some paintings that are fairly naturalistic and I'm happy with them. But they're not my natural inclination. That's not to say that other artists don't manage this style wonderfully. But for me it rarely seems natural or true to myself.

When I think about taking liberties I often think of Matisse, and of the painting Tea in particular. I first saw this painting at least 30 years ago. But it still stays with me.

The painting combines abstraction, design, color, realistic portrayal all in one painting. And yet it doesn't at all look like a photo. But look at the way the dog scratches and the shoe of one woman dangles on her foot. Look at the sense of dappled light. There is a breath of life in this painting that is often missing from more scientific renderings.

I won't begin to claim that the small painting, really more of a sketch, matches the ambition of Matisse's masterpiece. But I think it may help explain my motivation in doing it. Sometimes an accurate portrayal doesn't seem enough. I'd like to do more. I'm sure much of this comes from my many years painting and loving what was once referred to as 'modern art.'

Above is another version of the Bladdernut and distant immature Red-headed Woodpecker. It is done in Caran d'Ache Neo-color II water soluble crayons, and a lot of water. I think it's very similar in motivation to the painting at top. In both instances I'm taking something naturalistic and using is as a leaping off point for something more abstract, more 'modern.'

It's very odd saying 'modern'. After all this term was first used more than 100 years ago. So it's not really modern in the sense of being new. But it is modern in the sense of coming out of that tradition. I don't claim that this tradition is better than a more realistic or naturalistic one. It's hard to deny the tremendous excesses that have come out of modernism and it's easy to understand why some might dislike it. But for me what is good, strong and true there is undeniable.

If I follow my heart in what I paint it more often goes toward naturalism saturated in modernism than anything else. I suppose another way of saying this is that I'm just trying to make what I see have some expressive power.

These two paintings are steps along the way to something more finished I think. Either or both may end up as paintings or prints. This is my way of moving in that direction. I've taken some liberties with realistic rendering and my guess there will be more along the way.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Oh Bladdernut!

I went out in search of Red-headed Woodpecker the last two days with no luck. I haven't seen it in three days so my guess is that it's gone.

Every once in awhile I run into the shrub portrayed at right above in the fall along the Wissahickon. And always have to look it up. It's Bladdernut. My guess it that it's more nondescript in spring and summer, hidden behind much green.

Today it was wet and foggy and that made the shrub, and particulary its seed pods, stand out. It's only in fall I think that I'm tempted to show photos for their beauty rather than for any documentary purpose. The dark graceful shapes of the seedpods against the brilliant yellows, oranges, reds and browns of the leaves was too much to pass up.

More than that it gave me an idea for a painting. I really only saw the Red-headed Woodpecker in the distance, atop a 60' snag. But portraying just that rarely works. So I thought about putting the bladdernut in the foreground and leaving a very small Red-headed Woodpecker in the background.

And that's what I did. I first did the drawing with a Bic pen, then decided to add watercolor wash. I didn't realize that the ink would run horribly. So almost all colors have some black in them, and the lines ran. So I added white gouache to try to redefine the shape of the distant woodpecker.

All in all I'm happy with this. It's so easy to feel that everything has already been done in bird art. One thing I often do is to try to combine a realistic environment and the bird in such a way as to make it seem fresh. I hope it seems fresh.Eventually I may work with this theme again, either as a painting or a print.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Problem with Redheads

There are some birds that are bold and beautiful in nature that always seem to end up dead on canvas. The first I ran into was a Scarlet Tanager. That brilliant red and black is so striking in real life. But try to put it down in paint, especially from a photo, and it seems to turn to mud. Same thing with a Red-headed Woodpecker, especially with the mature red-maroon head.

I think the reason for this is that both birds are largely undifferentiated areas of full color, black, white and two types of red, an orange red and a maroon red. The black and white would do well in a graphic design but never seems to work as a painting. Though I've never seen a Cock of the Rock the paintings I see always look horribly dead, even given the bright orange red of the bird. There seems to be a similar problem with it.

I took quite a number of photos of a Red-headed Woodpecker in Illinois a few years ago. As is typical it was on a snag silhouetted against an undifferentiated blue gray sky. I could never convince myself to do a painting of it. The best I could do was a felt tip drawing that accentuated the trees and sky as much as the bird.

So it seems hopeless right? Well until you see this Audubon painting. What imagination, both in terms of formal composition and actual event portrayed. All of the potential problems of portraying a Red-headed Woodpecker are smashed to bits. As Julie Zickefoose says after seeing work like that other artists might just as well pick up their toys and go home.

Growing up as someone most interested in abstract art I could never quite see the appeal of Audubon. I also couldn't tell where he fit in with the likes of Picasso and Matisse. Many people seemed to have his prints or reproductions of them. He must be considered an artist of some sort. I didn't actually dislike him. I just couldn't categorize him. I think that's one problem with learning something when young. You tend to think things belong into the categories you've been taught about. Then you realize that sometimes they don't.

The more I've done bird art the more my respect for Audubon has grown. The amount of imagination in this Red-headed Woodpecker painting I find staggering.

The other artist I automatically turn to for something like this is Louis Agassiz Fuertes. Some birders prefer him to Audubon. Much as I like Fuertes I prefer Audubon. Fuertes seems to have done a number of versions of this bird. One is here. There are others that are somewhat more dynamic in composition but I hesitate to link to sites I'm not familiar with. I think the one shown here shows the problems I mention with a Red-headed. They are just so simple: black, red, white, often on a grayish snag against a blue sky. It's very hard to make an interesting painting out of that. Fuertes does a good job. But to me Audubon creates art!

For any readers who have come here via my post on the Pennsylvania Rare Bird List I think this post may help explain why I'm not that concerned with taking documentary photos of birds I see, even when they are rare. I'm always much more interesting in painting a lively portrait of the bird, one that combines accuracy and art.

All of which is a very long way of saying that the immature Red-headed Woodpecker that I found along the Wissahickon in Philadelphia on Monday was also there on Tuesday in the same location. The watercolor at top is based primarily on a photo I took on Tuesday.

The best way to find the area if you're not familiar with it is to look at the trail map published by Friends of the Wissahickon. Unfortunately you cannot see it online. If you have the map the bird is in a snag across the stream from Forbidden Drive right upstream of where Gorgas Lane trail meets Forbidden Drive. There is a large 60' snag that is clearly visible and hard to miss. If you don't have the map you can use the Google map at the FOW site. Unfortunately it's not easy. If you see Gorgas Park on the left side of the map center it on the map. Then keep enlarging it until you see a tributary stream feeding into the Wissahickon. That is Gorgas Lane trail and the snag is right across the Wissahickon. You can cross the bridge a few hundred yards to get closer but you can actually see it better from the Forbidden Drive side. I haven't been out today but may check again on Thursday or Friday. Since it was there two days in a row I hope it will stick around awhile longer.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Semi-Annual Photos

About once or maybe twice a year I break down and post just photos. I make a concerted effort not to use photos but sometimes they seem appropriate. This is one of those times.

My guess is that few people have seen Red-headed Woodpeckers in Philadelphia. They're not uncommon elsewhere, but they are here. So I wanted to go back out and see if the Red-headed was still there and also to photograph it. Mainly I did this in case anyone else wanted to try for the bird.

It took awhile but I did find the bird in the same place, almost directly across from the Gorgas Lane entrance onto Forbidden Drive. I first went across the Wissahickon and stood right under the snag where I'd seen him earlier. I was there for 30 minutes but saw nothing. So I went back across the creek where the snag is clearly visible but much further away. I didn't seem him so moved on and found the mystery bird mentioned further down.

Eventually I made my way back to the 60' snag and there he was. So I spent about 15 minutes taking these photos. They are poor in quality but I think will convince anyone of the ID: juvenile Red-headed.

This bird was a real shock because of his blinding whiteness. My first thought was pigeon. But I rarely see them along the Wissahickon, and they never land except at Valley Green. Was it a dove? Didn't really look like it either, though the only one I really know is the Mourning Dove. So I snapped some photos, tried to get closer and scared off.

He moved very quickly like a hawk. But I've also been surprised at how fast pigeons moved. So I assume pigeon. But as I walked back toward the Red-headed I wondered. Could it be a kite? I don't know kites at all and certainly have never seen them this close. The more I thought about it the more I convinced myself that I'd topped the Red-headed with a kite.

When I got home though and pulled out my guides I couldn't convince myself that it was a kite of any sort. If anyone reading this has any opinions let me know. But for now, sad to say, I'm leaving it as a pigeon.

Red-headed Woodpecker - A Documentation Break

I always have to decide whether or not to bring my camera with me when I'm birding. Since my primary concern is always to see and sketch birds I often don't want the baggage of the camera. But often I'm also taking along a scope and tripod so the added weight of a camera is negligible. Today wasn't one of those days though.

I expected that most of the warblers were now gone, even though we saw 7 Black-throated Blues yesterday and almost 20 Yellow-rumps. If it's the height of migration I'm more likely to bring a camera too since I think I might be able to get some good reference photos.

So no camera today. A half hour into my walk, right past the Gorgas Lane entrance to Forbidden Drive I saw some movement in a 60-80 foot snag across the water. Two birds were chasing one another. Once I got my binoculars on them I found the first to be a Northern Flicker. No surprise. I've seen a lot of them recently. So I figured the second would be as well.

But not when I saw that flash of white on the wings. A Red-headed! I've never seen one in Philadelphia before. Expert birders I've talked to say that they are here very occasionally and almost always immatures.

The light on this one made it hard to see color. The white on wings was obvious but I really couldn't determine head or back color, at least on this first view. But there was no doubt it was a Red-headed.

Over the next two hours I got numerous looks at the bird, some much better than others. Then I could see that the back was dark gray-black and that the head was definitely not the deep, almost maroon red of the mature bird. So this was an immature.

At top are the field sketches I made. Things that struck me were the elegant sleekness of bird. The neck and head looked slimmer than I recall from other times I've seen the bird. Perhaps this was due to it being an immature. Or maybe it was just its pose. I also saw that there were a few black markings on the white section of the wings, something that Sibley notes in his rendering of the immature.

One of the great things about sketching is that you do notice things like this. I don't think I ever previously noticed those markings on an immature. I haven't yet checked my guides to see if the Red-headed is smaller than the Red-bellied. That was my impression though I had nothing to compare it to. I didn't really notice its smaller size when it chased off the Northern Flicker. Other woodpeckers landed in the tree but it seemed to reappear quickly and chase them off. I don't see Red-headeds often enough to have an impression of their character. But based on what I saw today I'd guess that they are agressive.