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.


Gabrielle said...

I was admiring your red-tailed hawk painting and accipiter sketches and then went back and read your blog and was surprised to read you didn't feel the sketches were successful. I thought you had captured their poses and nuances very well and they were instantly recognizable to me. If you don't mind me asking, what did you find lacking?

I was in your neck of the woods again last week. In fact, my husband and I took a long walk along the Wissahickon in Valley Green and I was keeping my eyes peeled for someone sketching and birding, in case you might be there (given the timing last summer at Tinicum)! We didn't see you unfortunately, but we did spot quite a few wood ducks.

Happy New Year!

Ken Januski said...

Hi Gabrielle,

I can't believe you were at the Wissahickon last week! We were there for about four hours on Christmas. And we were specifically looking for some wood ducks and didn't find any!! There's a bird census next weekend and I want to try to add them to the list if they're still around. So I was hoping to scout out their location. We did see the Red-headed Woodpecker though. It's been here for close to 3 months now I think. Generally they're only seen every couple of years in Philadelphia. I've actually been able to see him change his head color from the purplish brown of the immature to the ruby red of the adult. I'ts been a real treat.

As far as the accipiters I think it's really a matter of expectations not met than anything else. But thanks for your question because it's made me articulate what I'm unhappy with. The worst is the bottom bird. I think I just made it too long, and the dark feathers are just too undifferentiated. The top birds I like better. The top left one lacks something in the top of the head, so the little bit of dark that shows isn't strong enough to me and doesn't set it off from the background. The middle one has that odd patch of light on the back. That's due entirely to me sticking to what was in the photo. It's true to photo but just doesn't look right. I think if I ever get very accomplished I'll be able to rely less on photos when I use them and know when the photo is misleading. On the top right one the head is too dark and loses some of the lighter aspects that should be there. And you can't see it but I foolishly put some white gouache on one of the legs thinking I'd brighten the white. But as often happpens with gouache, especially if I have a bit of another color on the brush, I get a duller white than I had with just the white of the paper.

This may seem picayune but I know how wonderful watercolor can be, especially when showing the effects of light, and these just didn't measure up to that. Of contemporary watercolor artist Tim Wootton always reminds me of what I'm striving for. Further back there's Winslow Homer. And I'm sure many others. So, for better or worse, I know that I want to do something as exciting and accomplished as their work. Even though I think these do capture some sense of the pose and look like accipiters, they're just not as exciting as I'd like them to be!

Something to strive for in 2012 I guess! Hope to see you birding in Philadelphia soon. Happy New Year!