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.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Out in October

We've spent most of the last three beautiful sunny days outside. Morris Arboretum, Carpenter's Woods, Wissahickon Environmental Center at Andorra and Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education are all very local birding spots and we visited them all, often more than once.

I'm never fond of the shortening days of fall. But days like the last three make up for it: blue skies, sun, comfortable weather, the smell of decomposing leaves, leaves starting to turn color, the familiar sound of migrating Blue Jays, but most of all the migrating birds. Most are passing through on their way south. But some are new arrivals from the north that will probably stay here.

So our lists for last few days are full of the former; Black-throated Green, Black-throated Blue, Magnolia, Tennessee, Northern Parula, Black and White and Yellow-rumped Warblers among them. At the same time some of the latter are also appearing, including the handsome Swamp Sparrow portrayed at top, White-throated Sparrows which will probably stay until next May, Field Sparrows, which may have been here all summer. Rusty Indigo Buntings are sparrows that are on their way south as is the White-crowned Sparrow.

The season is turning from one of warblers to one of sparrows. And ducks if we visit water. It's a great time to be out and see this variety of birds.

We saw a few Swamp Sparrows a couple of days ago at Morris Arboretum, the first of the fall. I did a field sketch that just didn't turn out. The watercolor at top is based on a photo I took of one at Higbee Beach in Cape May, NJ about this time last year. They are a truly handsome bird. They're not as bright and bold as warblers but still subtly handsome in their own way.

I'm not thrilled with this watercolor. Though I tried to sketch out some detail for the background it disappeared as I tried to get the color and light to work. But I'm not unhappy with the sparrow. It shows I think that wonderful combination of dark gray, dark brown and chestnut. Catching that was one of my main goals and so I'm happy to have gotten that.

If I'm lucky I'll have a few more weeks of warm weather in which to see and sketch these beauties.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Empty Perches, Empty Nest and Francis Speight

The flocks of American Robins and Northern Flickers we saw today during a brief walk at Carpenter's Woods should be enough to convince us that the season has changed from summer to fall.

But a visit to Morris Arboretum on Friday after dropping off my last piece for the group show had other signs: empty perches. There on that dead tree should be a Eastern Kingbird. That large dead tree over there should hold one or more Belted Kingfishers, Tree Swallows, maybe some Cedar Waxwings and possibly a Great Blue Heron. The smaller trees there in the pond should hold more Cedar Waxwings, some Eastern Phoebes and maybe a Willow Flycatcher or two.

But almost all of the perches were empty. Most of the birds that use them have gone. I did see a couple of Eastern Phoebes in another area and Belted Kingfishers and Great Blues can be around all winter. But the Eastern Kingbirds are gone for good I think, as are the Tree Swallows and Willow Flycatchers. Even though Cedar Waxwings can be found somewhere in Philadelphia most winters I've rarely if ever seen them here.

I think because I saw so few birds on Friday it really struck me that another summer has turned to fall. As I left one bird did take his place atop one of the dead trees, much higher than I usually see him. That is the Northern Mockingbird, seen in the quick fieldsketch at top.

The empty nest I refer to is my studio. I've spent the last few weeks working on my first acrylic painting in 20 years or so as well as making mats for watercolors and a frame for the acrylic. But acrylic and watercolors were delivered on Friday.

Now the studio seems empty: an empty nest. The photo above shows the finished painting as well as the finished frame. Due to complications like the size of the fence on my handheld rabbet plane, there is a much deeper lip on the frame than I wanted. So this looks a bit like a shadow box, something I didn't intend to make at all. But I convinced myself that it fit with the subject and kept it.

Once I put the painting in the frame the orange in the reflections at upper right looked positively garish. I decided I really needed to tone it down. So the final version is much more subdued than I originally intended.

It is proudly hanging in the 55th Annual Members Show of the Manayunk Roxborough Art Center. When I was much younger I had no interest at all in anything that had a tradition. That gave it no special cachet with me. But as I've gotten older I've developed a greater respect and appreciation for things with a tradition - like a show that has been going on for 55 years.

Part of this is probably just due to being older myself. But I think much of it is just a reaction against a throwaway culture. I once bought a used wooden woodworking plane that was from 19th century France. I didn't pay much for it. But it is functional and I love the idea of using the same tool that someone else did over 100 years ago. I like the sense of continuity and common cause and purpose.

I was particularly reminded of this while gallery sitting at the group show on Saturday. While there I noticed a plaque commemorating the original founders. Among them was Francis Speight!

Francis Speight you say? I'm sure not everyone will know him. In fact I had to search online to see if he was who I thought he was. And he was.

When I first moved to the Manayunk Roxborough area I was strictly an abstract artist. But over the years I kept thinking that this areas, particularly the hills and the view of the Schuylkill River below, needed to be painted. There was and still is an undeniable beauty.

As I investigated, informally and inexactly to be sure, I found that there were artists who had painted its beauty. One of, if not, THE best was Francis Speight. This painting of his is not much different from the view from our house if I walk a few 100 yards to get a view between neighboring houses and down the hill to the Schuylkill River. Cotton Street, the same Cotton Street in the title of the painting, is just a few blocks away.

So I've always, well for the last 10-15 years anyway, had a special appreciation for Francis Speight. To find that he was one of the founding members of the Art coop I just joined was more than I could have expected. It's a great honor to be part of such a tradition. Obviously this area was once a thriving area for the arts. Hopefully it will soon be so again.