Thursday, July 26, 2012

Smooth Sailing

It seems like four or five years ago that we were treated to the sight of many Sandhill Cranes around Horicon Marsh in Wisconsin. I was shocked to realize it was only three years ago. In any case I and my wife were both thrilled to see the birds. I wanted to portray them, based on some very bad field sketches that I had made as well as some photographs that I took. But I wasn't interested in portraying them in one of their typical poses.
While we were there we also happened to see a Hermit Thrush sitting in a tangle near one of the ditches that run through the marsh. There were no cranes on the other side. But if I turned 90 degrees to the left and moved up a few hundred yards there were. So I put them both into one composition and made a charcoal and pastel drawing of that three years ago.
I've found that often my best linocuts are ones based on the design of some earlier art work that I've made. I've always wanted to pursue the thrush and cranes so I finally did so, starting about a month ago. Unlike the skimmer and sandpiper lino which has given me constant grief this one has been easy. The only hard part was letting it sit for a week or two while I made the final decision on minor tweaks to finish it up. I finally did that today.
This is an edition of 18 hand-pulled prints, i.e. no press to help me out. I used Gamblin Portland Intense Black in on Rives Lightweight printing paper. The image is 6x9 inches and the full print is 9x12 inches. It's been a treat to have such smooth sailing on this one.
Some of you may be familiar with Sandhill Cranes. When you first see them there is a sense of touching something primordial, something from not just another time, but another geological epoch. Given this it's been very hard to understand the desire of many states to allow Sandhill Crane hunting. My first reaction on hearing about this was that it was just ignorant bloodlust. But when we saw them they often were in farmer's fields. Were they possibly doing any damage? I don't really know. But a quick search before posting this indicated that Wisconsin itself, where we saw these birds, is considering a hunting season. The rationale according to one source is that there has been a boom of cranes and that they are wiping out corn crops, devouring the seed as soon as it is planted. If that's the case then it is not a foolish and ignorant bloodlust, kllling everything in site for 'sport.'
It's been a long day so I didn't have time to pursue it. Julie Zickefoose has written extensively on Sandhill Crane hunting in various states. I hope that the hunt is disallowed in Wisconsin but if not I hope at least it is a very short season and allowed for only the best intentions. Anyone who has seen these birds will know why I say this. They remind me that we are part of a larger, more complex, and far older world than most of us ever even consider. All too often, probably throughout history in fact, there has been a battle between those who see the bigger picture of the world we live in and those who see it only as a source of immediate personal profit.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

A Most Recalcitrant Print

In my long history as an artist there have been numerous times, maybe two or three times a year, when I have battled a work. I don't know what else to call it. From one perspective it's a battle of wills. From another perspective it's an unwillingness to admit defeat, something that is not true of all artists. Some have the sense to just destroy or abandon the troublesome work and move on. From one other perspective it's a chance to learn, to face difficulties and come out having either conquered them or at least have learned something in not conquering them. When I was a graduate student one professor/artist said, partially I think because he wasn't that fond of my painting in its current state, that one of my most admirable qualities was that I'd press on to completion with the work, one way or the other.
What he said I think is true. It's not a badge of honor though. Sometimes it's far smarter to just abandon ship and find a new more seaworthy vessel. But I'm now stuck on the current dinghy, headed I fear for capsizing on the rocks.
I ran out of an oil based black ink about two weeks ago. Perhaps partially because of that, but I think also just because of the appearance of the print I decided it needed a third color. So I printed the brown that was in the last print. It was far too dark and didn't really indicate the true color of the Solitary Sandpiper. I showed that version in last post.
But I hoped that once I received my new jar of Gamlin Portland Intense Black that I'd be fine. I could remedy the problems with the black, especially in the Twelve-spotted Skimmer. Well to make a long story short that didn't work. The results are at top. I eventually cut away all blacks except for the skimmer and the eye of the sandpiper. Everything else just looked like a fuzzy mess.
The black was supposed to be the last color. But I see that it will never work as is. So I hope to add a fourth color now, a lighter brown for the sandpiper and perhaps for highlights in other brown areas. I don't have high hopes for this but you never know. Sometimes artists tend to be too critical immediately after making something. A few days later, especially with some modifications, things may look better.

You could say that this print has been snakebitten though. I did the first version of it about four months ago, just in black. By the time I'd taken this photo I'd already used ink that was too tacky and that convinced me to recut the lino more deeply, losing much of its original crispness. Just a day or two earlier it was much crisper than it is above. All in all this print has been going downhill for four months now!! But I've always loved the composition. So that's why I decided to redo it in color. It has been a real, and very lengthy, struggle. But as I said this will happen a few times a year, just as financial advisors will tell you that your investments, if you're fortunate enough to have them, will go down at times. In the long run though, if you're not constantly buying and selling, you'll come out ahead. I think that's true here as well. But I'd prefer to come out ahead, RIGHT NOW.

Due to the smell of the solvents in oil-based inks I try to avoid them in the initial stages of a print. I've found that Dick Blick's Water-based black ink printed on copier paper is perfect for proofing as I develop the print. But towards the end I like to change to the ink, and eventually paper, that I'll print the edition on. Above is the first proof of the Hermit Thrush and Sandhill Cranes lino using the Gamblin ink. It looks very good and gives me hope for the edition. It will be printed on Rives Lightweight paper which is nowhere near as willing to accept the ink as the copier paper. Still I hope it will do well enough. That is the next challenge ahead, outside of color number four for the dragonfly and sandpiper print
Finally I got my new ink, and a new Japanese carving tool, from McClains Printmaking Supplies. Along with them came a catalog, the first I've seen from them. My eyes are still BIG from looking at the tools, papers, etc.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Scenes of Summer

I suppose the typical natural scene of summer depends on where you live. If we lived nearer the coast I'm sure that terns and shorebirds would come to mind as part of a typical summer for us. Here though I think one of the scenes that most typifies summer to me are orange skippers on purplish ironweed. To me it is an irresistible color combination, especially when combined with the green foliage of the ironweed. Yesterday we were at Morris Arboretum scouting out birds, dragonflies and damselflies and found the scene above.
I'd love to make a painting or print from this and probably will at some time. But yesterday I was so out of practice that even my field sketches of two Green Herons and an immature Great Crested Flycatcher weren't much to speak of. I wasn't about to try to sketch butterflies, dragonflies or wildflowers. So I took a number of photos. Only after I got home did I ID the butterflies as Zabulon and Least Skipper. I'm not absolutely sure on the Zabulon but the tiny size and distinct markings don't leave much doubt as to what the small skipper is. And now I have three 'Leasts' that I always love to see: Least Sandpiper, already in Pennsylvania but not seen at Morris, Least Tern, the subject of my last acrylic painting, and now the handsome Least Skipper.
There was quite a swarm of Least Skippers. Though we did see the one on ironweed most were seen on mint leaves, and on the flowering plant above. It's equally as striking a combination as that of skippers and ironweed. The color and shape of the flowers are quite striking. When we saw these skippers most were on mint-like leaves. So we just assumed they were mint. But as I looked at these flowers I was pretty sure that they weren't mint. They did remind me of an agastache that we once grew in our garden. Today I did a quick online search for agastache and now I'm not convinced that this is what it is. Still I think it must be in the mint family. Eventually I'll do a bit more investigating.
It too calls out for a painting or print. Though these photos looked good enough on t he camera they're quite disappointing here. That seems to always be the case with me and photos. And that's why I paint: to try to get the excitement of actually seeing something.

I was temped to title this post 'Good Progress', and then make fun of the title. What other progress is there? If things are progressing then they are good. If not they are regressing and bad. In truth a more accurate title might have been 'Slow Progress' for the lino above and 'Possible Regression' for the lino below.

I've said before that much of my art I consider to be a type of orchestration: of color, shape, tone, pattern, texture, composition. Unless I'm just doing a study then it is far more than just putting a likeness down on paper or canvas. Whether or not anyone sees this is secondary. It would be nice but it's generally too much to expect. So I keep changing things, trying to reach my idiosyncratic sense of what looks like a finished painting or print. I wouldn't bring this up except to explain why I've spent so much time on these two prints.
The top one of a Hermit Thrush and Sandhill Cranes at Horicon Marsh in Wisconsin is coming along well and just about ready for me to print an edition. The bottom one now has the second color printed. I was very tempted to leave this lino with just two colors, a golden/ochre and black. But I decided to add a third color, a brown for the sandpiper and dead stems. I'm not happy with the new color. I'm awaiting a shipment of black ink. When it arrives I'll see if the third black color can salvage this. I surely hope so. I will have spent 40 hours on it by the time I'm done. If not it will be a disappointment for sure, but sometimes you just need to have failures in order to learn. Time will tell.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Multiple Blocks, Online Stores

One of the methods I've never before used in my linocuts is that of multiple linoleum blocks. You print one or more colors on one block and then one or more colors on another block. As usual the biggest problem is registration, so that what you print on one block matches up with what will be printed from the other block.
I'm not sure if doing a reduction linocut as I've done on my other multi-colored linos is easier or more difficult. In them you keep carving into the same block. But each time you print a new color you have to make sure that you place the paper you've already printed earlier colors on onto the block so that it registers. This was not an easy job with my 9-color Blackburnian Warbler lino. What made it possible for me, without my head exploding, is that I've never been finicky. A slight lack of registration gives me a bit of dissonance that I think I prefer in my own art.
For some reason such dissonance seems more modern. I'm not sure if that's true or not. And it's quite a comment if it does. Still it does strike me as true. In any case in the lino at top I've tried to revive my old lino of the Twelve-spotted Skimmer and Solitary Sandpiper from late last year. This is a proof at top but I do like it. In particular I like how the striking black and white spots of the dragonfly show up strongly. I'm still deciding whether or not to add a second color to one of the blocks using reduction. If I do so it will be a brown that more accurately reflects the color of the sandpiper. But I may decide to just leave is as is. I don't want to lose the strong contrast that I have right now.

Though I've wanted to do more with this subject for quite a while I was prompted to do so now because I needed to keep my mitts off the lino above. It's nearly done. But when I'm not sure what to do next it's very tempting to just do something and see what happens. That's the odd thing about art. I don't believe you can really ever THINK something through. It's always a combination of thought and action. But too much action, especially with media like lino and watercolor, that punish you for overwork can also be very dangerous.
So to force myself to leave it alone and glance at it occasionally I've started on this new lino. Only time will tell how much more work will be done on it. Eventually I'll need to print both of these linos on good paper.
I think it was at least three years ago and probably a few more that I started an online store to sell my work. That link is listed on the upper right as 'For Sale.' But I've never been too happy with it. It's expensive, has teeny, tiny images in the various templates that it offers and has very bad analytics, so that it's hard to know who is coming to the store, where they come from, why they might put an item in their cart and then not checkout.
So about a year and a half ago when I took up printmaking again for the first time in many years I opened an online store on etsy that was mainly for prints. Since they were lower priced and etsy, at least from what I can tell, is also geared to lower prices this made sense. But as I've gotten more and more unhappy with my main online store I've added more work to etsy. I'm now at the point where I'm seriously thinking about just dropping the other store. Etsy has its own problems. Who knows how anyone can ever find anything there. There is just so much STUFF!! But it also has tools like Etsy Mini, the little grid of images of my own items that is at upper right of this blog. I like this and my guess is that it sends a number of viewers to my etsy store.
I don't think too many people who read this blog frequent my online store. But in case you do this will explain what happened if you no longer see it in a few weeks.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Hermit Thrush/Sandhill Crane Lino Continued

Above is the result of my 3rd day of carving the new linocut. I need to be very careful from here on out. It's so easy to overcarve, to get too much variety of pattern, mark and tone, to lose a simple design. I have a very hard time not wanting to do just one more thing, which of course leads to another, then another, etc.
The close cousin of the Hermit Thrush, the Veery, was very much in evidence today as I walked along the Wissahickon. It's hard to believe but they won't be here all that much longer. Time to enjoy them, the Wood Thrushes, Acadian Flycatchers, et al. that are my constant companions as I walk the Wissahickon.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

And What of Lino?

It's been quite awhile since I've done any linoleum block prints. This is odd because it's a way I like to work and my prints are relatively popular, at least in terms of comments I receive. I think one reason is that for me linos require more planning than the other media I use: acrylic, pastel, charcoal and even watercolor. Once you carve away part of the linoleum block it's gone for good. So it seems smarter to have at least some rough guidelines before starting.
There are a number of other reasons that I won't go into here. Suffice it to say that generally speaking I think my best linos have been ones that are based on other work I've done in other media. Transposing something I've already done seems to work well for some reason
So after hemming and hawing for months on what to do next I finally decided that the newest lino would be based on an old pastel of a Hermit Thrush and Sandhill Crane in the background. At the top is the second stage of this, printed with cheap ink on copier paper.
Since it's been so long since I've done any linos I was surprised to find the block for the Twelve-spotted Skimmer and Solitary Sandpiper in my printing and proofing area. THAT was a disappointment, the finished print I mean. I seem to lose all detail when I changed inks going from proof to edition. I then cut deeper to make up for it, before I realized that the problem might be the ink itself. I finished the edition but told myself that sometime in the future I should go back to the block with different ink and try a proof. That's what I did today with some leftover ink. The results remind me of how much I like this idea. I think that once I finish the Hermit Thrush/Sandhill Crane lino I'll return to this. I still think there's something great waiting here.
It supposed to be 100 degrees or more later today. I do all my proofing and printing in our very cool basement. Do you think that had anything to do with my decision to finally return to lino? I don't think so but it is compelling evidence!

Friday, July 6, 2012

Finished Acrylic

This is the finished version of the Least Tern, Forster's Terns, Mallards and Great Egret painting at 'The Meadows' in Cape May, NJ. I did add just the slightest bit of detail to the egret. And of course went over the reeds many times.
In contrast to the sense of animation that I mentioned in a recent post here I'm much more concerned with orchestration or perhaps design. Color, light, shape, texture and the subjects themselves should all add up and fit together in a 'certain' way. Who knows what that 'certain' way is but I think it's unique to each artist. You know when it seems right. For me in this painting a lot of it has to do with a feeling of beautiful calm that seems so typical of this area. The birds add to it but are not primary. It was trying to orchestrate all this that caused me to do the reeds over and over again, especially trying to make the back ones seem less important than the front ones.
The frame is simple pine lattice. It doesn't look great. But to me it looks better than almost any frame I can buy! For some this may seem hard to believe. But it's true. There are times when ornate frames look appropriate and actually add to the work. But I've always used lattice to frame my large abstract paintings. It's cheap but it also does what I want: put a simple edge to the painting that differentiates it from the background wall. When I switched to naturalistic painting I found that I wanted the same thing for my acrylic paintings. This it not true for my watercolors or prints, where I think the combination of mat and fairly simple frame work to set off the art and give it it's own little world to live in. But for acrylics I still think that just enough wood to give the painting an edge looks best. If I had more time though I would have preferred mitered corners to the butt joint that I used.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Least Tern in Acrylic

When I go birding, especially in a place like Cape May, NJ, where unusual birds are very possible, my goals are to see new birds and to see them well enough to sketch them. That's not to say that in places like Cape May I and my wife don't enjoy just being out in the environment. We do. Much of our birding, whether here or away, is in beautiful places.
We had hoped to see the endangered, and protected, Least Tern during our visit in late April/early May. Through the last day of our trip we still hadn't seen one.But as walked 'The Meadows' on our last night there we saw a smaller tern out on a spit. Sure enough we could see just enough to identify it as a Least Tern.
It was just too far away, even in my scope, to sketch. Instead I took some photos and hoped for the best. They still showed almost nothing to indicate it was a Least Tern. But it did show how small it was compared to the Forster's Terns to its left. And it showed one of the most striking aspects of this area, the bands of water and reed.
I always enjoy this view. It is so indicative of Cape May. I also liked the fact that the photo showed various birds all together in the same environment. This is what you actually see when you're outside, not individual birds, posed as though in a photographer's studio. As much as I like to show the beauty of birds I like to do it with them in a recognizable environment, not in the equivalent of a photographers studio.
This is on a 9x12 inch canvas. I'm not sure how much more I'll work on it. I have gone back and forth on the two bands of reeds four or five times. At some point all of the shapes, colors and sense of light will look good to me, or at least as good as I think I'm capable of doing. The birds will remain loosely defined. But that is the way that they really are at that distance. I do like the fact that this looks pretty much just like what you might see at 'The Meadows' in late spring.