Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Magic of Light

Just recently I needed to complete a resume of my artistic career and also create an Artist's Statement for an upcoming show. One of the notable parts of it was the fact that I've done abstract art since grade school. As I thought about it I realized that I've always preferred abstract art, from grade school through graduate degrees in college and beyond.

When I tried to think of contemporary representational artists who had influenced meduring my artistic training two stood out: Elmer Bischoff, with whom I studied at University of California, Berkeley, and Richard Diebenkorn, a fellow Bay Area Figurative Painter of Elmer Bischoff's, though by now a far more famous  one.

Even the White House currently  hangs an abstract Diebenkorn. This Diebenkorn is from his earlier Berkeley series and not the later, and really magnificent, Ocean Park series. When I was in California and studying with Bischoff it was his contemporary abstract paintings and those of Diebenkorn that really struck me. I'm sure I did many bad imitations!

Nonetheless I also was thoroughly taken with their ink and wash  figurative drawings. Both seemed to portray light as solidly as if it were a Yosemite rockface. I was competely entralled with this and also did many  poor imitations in my figure drawing classes.

I didn't turn to representational art until about 10-12 years ago, first with insects, then six or seven years ago with birds. Occasionally my love of light will surface in that work. That is partially what happened in the ballpoint pen drawing at top. It's based on a photo, which in itself seems to do something with light in terms of capturing it and making it solid. I do feel it's cheating in a way to use it as a source. But I've always loved the photos I've taken of shorebirds on Nummy Island last spring..The birds are Black-bellied Plovers, Short-billed Dowitchers and Dunlins.

The combination of light, variety of shapes  and bills, not to mention color makes this scene one that I keep  wanting to portray. Here I  did it with the intention of just getting  down the shapes of the different birds. Inevitably I also tried to capture the sense of light.

Art can be many things. Though as I've said I've spent so much of my artistic career as an  abstract artist I can't help but stand in wonder at the way  some artists capture light in naturalistic paintings. I think that Diebenkorn captured light in  his abstract paintings but it seems to me to be a rare accomplishment. For that representational artists as varied as Hopper, Vermeer and Constable are always  the best examples. And a very strong reason  to work representationally. I'd have to say that for me there's  not anything much more moving than light captured in art.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

More Flycatchers

A little over a month ago I saw an Olive-sided Flycatcher at Morris Arboretum. Though I'm well aware of what they look like I took a photo of it because of the color of the underside of its tail, not because I recognized it as an Olive-sided. I didn't I think because it wasn't in the right context. I just don't expect to find them here, even though I've been reading about them migrating through Pennsylvania for the last month.

Yesterday Jerene and I decided to take  advantage of the beautiful weather and visit Morris in the afternoon. Almost as soon as we arrived a large flycatcher landed near us in a large dead tree, a popular spot for many birds at Morris. Sure enough it was another Olive-sided. Above is a quick watercolor done this morning from one of the photos I  took as well as two field sketches done from life. In the second you  can see I've portrayed the white tuft that occasionally is visible behind the tertials on this bird. It's also visible in one of  the photos below.

Because this seems to be an unusual bird in Philadelphia I've included the two photos above for ebird reviewers or anyone else who wants more 'proof' than my own say so. In a way I hate to encourage the reliance on photos since they're so often unreliable. But when they're clearcut I guess that they do no harm. Still I do try to avoid them. There are a few trillion blogs with photos. I think some people hunger for something different.

In the page of field sketches above are a female Black-throated Blue warbler, a Chestnut-sided Warbler, an Eastern Phoebe, tiny Northern Parula seem from beneath and another flycatcher that sketching helped me to ID as an Eastern Pewee. I'm still struck by how much sketching is a from of learning, not so much about the skill of drawing as it is about seeing better. It's long been a British tradition with birders. It's too bad it's not so here.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Showing with SWLA Again

About a month ago I hurriedly finished off the framing, glass cleaning and packing of three prints to send them off to the Society of Wildlife Art's 49th Annual Exhbition at The Mall Galleries in London, UK. Above is a photo of the three prints I sent. I still hadn't switched  plexiglass for glass in the one on lower right so that's why it looks somewhat matte.

 Last year I had the great adventure of sending two prints off to the competition and having them sit in customs for weeks. I completely gave up on them being in the show because they were still in customs on the day of final judiging. Then I got an email a week or two afterwards that they  had arrived at the gallery and would be in the show after all. What a thrilling email that was!

I couldn't afford to have them sit in customs for weeks this year because they  needed to be at the gallery for final judging in about two weeks. And they  had to be delivered on one of two specific dates. That meant that I had to find a courier to recieve the shipment then bring them to the gallery on one of the two specific dates. I couldn't just have them delivered by a specific date. I really debated whether I should just forget about it. Again I was thrilled to be pre-selected, but pre-selection seemed to make it less certain of final acceptance than last year when it was only offered to overseas applicatnts. It was only thanks to a courier, PicturePost, in Britain that I decided to gamble on the expense, possible delay in customs and then possible rejection after all of that.

I mentioned this to a doctor a few days afterwards and she said: why bother? Well it's a good question. It's answered in part by this review at Making a Mark . Among the other things it mentions are 'a masterly approach to the printmaking', 'an exhibition which puts a very strong emphasis on the quality of the art and the creative process', and 'the standard of the art in the exhibition is exceptionally good.'

More than that though is the work of the members of The Society of Wildife Artists . I just really like so much of the art of its members. I really  can't think of a group of artists I'd rather exhibit with. As I've mentioned many times I've always been somewhat reluctant to call myself a 'wildlife artist.' Why? Because I found that I didn't like so much of the wildlife art that I saw, especially that which looked like it was based on photographs. The longer I've been at it though the more artists I've come to admire. And many of the ones I most admire belong to the SWLA. It is still hard to believe that last year I exhibited with artists that I  greatly  admire, including some whose books I own. Since I didn't get to London to see the show though,  it still seems a bit unreal to me. The line is on my resume but not the experience.

It's very unlikely I'll get to London to see the show this year, especially as I'm in a three-person show here at the Manayunk Roxborough Art  Center at the same time. But again I can't say how thrilling it was to find out at the end of last week that I'll again be showing at this exhibition. Of course once I found out I was in all the tribulations about cost, customs, possible rejection, etc. quickly faded away.. You just can't beat showing with the artists you most admire.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Those Dragonflies

In my last post I mentioned taking some photos of dragonlfies. Recently I've been looking through my photos and just couldn't resist trying some sketches.I last did insect sketches 10-15 years ago. What a difference time makes! In those I had to draw the insects under a dissecting microscope. That was the only  way to see enough detail. I also had to kill them in a killing jar in order to study them.

Today I can take digital photos while they're still alive and active. The magnification is equal to that of the dissecting scope I used to use. Of  coures I can't move them around to see hidden parts and understand the structure better. Without my memory of structure from those old drawings these photos might be not quite as useful.

In any case I've greatly  enjoyed doing these. They are all on Moleskine A4 Sketchbook paper and all done with  a Caran d'Ache ballpoint pen. One thing I immediately remembered as I did them was why  I love drawing insects: they are a marvel of structure and shape and they allow an artist to bring to  bear many skills.

Drawing the nude is mainly an exercise in curvilinear shapes. Drawing from nature often involves amorphous, undifferentiated shapes, at least when it comes to most foliage and many landscapes. Hard edges are there but not all that often and if so broken up by  softness, for instance in tree trunks and the foliage that hides them. But with insects you  can have the sweeping elegant curve of a wing  coupled with  the hard edges of the limbs or thorax.
As I've drawn these I found that I couldn't resist trying to capture the shapes of the thorax and head, even when they were hidden by wing and bad photography. One of the appeals of naturalistic drawing, at least for me, is rendering the complexity of three dimensions into two dimensions. I love doing this and sometimes wonder if it's not almost a primitive desire, a evolutionary remnant of early days in the life of man. There is something so satisfying about getting down the structure of something. In any case, before I waft way in the ether, this is one of the things I enjoy about drawing insects.

And of course dragonflies are beautiful as well as having a fascinating life history if you care to study it. Many people will of course love dragonflies for their color, pattern, movement. I do too. But for now it's time to get their structure down. Perhaps in the future I'll be able to sketch them live and add color, trying to  get many of their striking qualities captured all at once.

The sketch at top includes, at least as best I can tell, a Blue Dasher and Eastern Pondhawk. The sketch at bottom has the ubiquitous, at least at Morris Arboretum, Twelve-spotted Skimmer and an unidentified damselfly.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Chasing Flycatchers

I didn't really expect to find an unusual flycatcher when I found the Olive-sided Flycatcher at Morris Arboretum a fe weeks ago. I was more on the lookout for warblers and shorebirds. In fact it was only when I got home and looked at the photos I'd taken that I realized that the bird was not the Kingbird that often is up there.
But yesterday was another story. Many people throughout Pennsylvania had been seeing migrating flycatchers, in particular Yellow-bellied. I don't there's anything particularly interesting about them other than their relative rarity here. I don't believe we've ever seen any except perhaps at Magee Marsh in Ohio a number of falls ago. Many warblers and other migrants have been seen in Philadelphia and its surroundings during the last week and yesterday's perfect weather made a trip to Morris Arboretum irresistible.

One of the first birds I saw was one member of the flycatcher family, the Eastern Phoebe. They weren't around Morris in summer but seem to me passing through in migration. Over the next four hours I saw a number of flycatchers. But they were quiet and mobile. There were no vocal clues as to their identity. I'm just about positive that one or two were Eastern Wood Pewees, a regular bird there.
But what was the bird with the golden orange bill? I hadn't really noticed the color of the bill on this flycatcher until I put my binoculars on it. When I did I was shocked by the brilliant color. It almost looked the the bright mouth interior of feeding young. But it was the bill. I'd never seen a flycatcher with a bill this color before. Of course light can play tricks with color. Still both my visual memory and the photo above show that bright orange color. In one view I didn't see an eyering but at other times I did and the photo above shows a bit of one. It is really a disappointing photo because it just shows a hint of both eyering and orangish lower mandible. Unfortunately the bird didn't stick around. Later in the day I saw another flycatcher with large eyering but it flew before I could put my binoculars on it and see anything more.

Above is the only other photo I could get of the bird. The eyering made me suspect a Yellow-bellied but I saw no yellow on the underside. So I left unsure of what I'd seen. When I got home I was happy to find this in Richard Crossleys's guidebook:
Bill shortish and broad-based, usually all bright, lollipop-orange lower mandible.
. That's not quite enough to confirm it as a Yellow-bellied but it does go a very long way!
As I said it was a perfect day yesterday. I was able to do the two field sketches at top, of a Northern Rough-winged Swallow and Green Heron, all the while debating whether I dare try to sketch the magnificent clouds. I was afraid I'd get nothing else done if I tried so I didn't. Dragonflies were also busy so I also took a number of photos of them. They're beautiful creatures and some day I'd like to do field sketches of them. But their quick movements and complex patterns have me sticking to photos for the time being. Last bird of the day was something I'd given up on seeing: a shorebird. The water seems to be too high 90% of the time this year for shorebirds at Morris. So when I saw this bird with an active tail on the path I suspected Northern Mockingbird, not shorebird. But I soon learned differently. It was a Solitary Sandpiper, picking in the tiny water depression in the path. Eventualy he noticed me and flew by, zigzagging all the way in typcial shorebird fashion.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

The Secret Migration

Kenn Kaufman had a great article in my print copy of the newest Bird Watcher's Digest. In it he talked about the 'secret' migration season, the one right now that no one pays any attention to. I'm not going to summarize it but just suggest that you read it yourself. A quick look at the web site didn't find it but if it's not there you can always subscribe or pick up a copy at newstands, assuming they still exist in this for-better-or-worse digital age.

The secret migration is something I've been talking about in some recent posts. It's what helps to get me out in what seems like an enervated time, the end of summer. There are probably many reasons not go  go birding now but for us we know that we may find shorebirds, warblers, flycatchers, hawks(like the osprey today) and who knows what else.

I was at Morris Arboretum mid-week and found three Solitary Sandpipers. One of them is above in a small 7x10 inch watercolor. I may do more with it but probably very little. As usual I don't want to mess it up. Of course by tomorrow fresh eyes may convince me that I just can't leave it as is.(Well a day later and I had to make a few tweaks. The new version has now replaced the old one at top.)

It can take me a long time to do artwork. I can think and plan it to death. Often it's better to just start and learn from what happens rather than trying to  plan perfection from the start. That's pretty  much what I did here.

I spent a lot of time sketching three Solitary Sandpipers at Morris the other day.  Inevitably though  I realized that I got something wrong when I looked  at my collection of photos I've taken. The more detailed one above is pretty good but I finally decided I'd use a similar photo as the basis for this watercolor. It may not seem so but it really is informed by all the time I spent sketching these sandpipers earlier this week. Field sketching is as much  about looking and seeing as it is about getting something down on paper. There is a tremendous amount of learning that goes on. That learning continues when I eventually do a more developed work in the studio. In fact one reason to do more finished work is to try to consolidate, and perhaps remember, all that  I've learned. If  I'm happy with the results it's particularly satisfying.

Also on the pages above are a Northern Rough-winged Swallow, immature American Redstart and poorly remembered Nashville Warbler. Both the Redstart and the Nashville were drawn from memory 30-60 minutes after seeing them. This isn't the ideal way to do things but warblers move so quickly that  often when I see them I'll give up on sketching them because they're here and gone so quickly. Then in a quiet period later, especially if I happen to be sitting down, I'll decide to try  them anyway, just putting down what I remember. What I distinctly remembered about the Nashville were the bright yellow  belly and undertail coverts. What I  forgot was just how much of  the head and back is blue-gray. Much more of the head than I remembered it turns out.

So something gone awry with it but still a very fruitful time outside in the secret migration season and also later in the studio.