Thursday, November 29, 2012

Taking a Chance

Many years ago when I first started taking art courses in the San Francisco area, even though I'd made art on my own since I was a child, there was one course that was a revelation to me: Oriental Brush Painting, as I think it was called. What was so unusual and revelatory was the importance of the brush mark. Each mark was important, not just the overall drawing/painting/impression.

This was made even more noticeable in the actual practice of painting.  The rice paper we painted on had a consistency similar to toilet paper. The black ink on the brush seemed to leap off the brush, even before it touched the paper, and form an indecipherable blob rather than the graceful mark I sought. What this taught me I think is that it's possible to make art that contains the most graceful and expressive marks, which are themselves a major component of the art.

This course was only one semester long and I never began to master it. Still I've never lost my appreciation for it. So when I took  up watercolor, after only the briefest foray into it as a student at Berkeley, I was quickly  reminded of the importance of marks. Watercolor is not as absorbent as the rice paper I used to use but still an inelegant mark can show up as just that: inelegant. It's much harder to cover over such inelegance as you can in oil or acrylic.

On the other hand some of my  favorite watercolor artists such as Winslow Homer did seem to cover over areas. As far as  I can tell Homer really wasn't all that interested in elegant marks. And no one can argue with his success as an artist. He's probably my favorite watercolor artist.

I mentioned in my last post how the realism of the sketches I've done recently  might soon be replaced by more abstract work, especially since I started reading Wildlife in Printmaking by Carry Akroyd. That is exactly what has happened in the 9x12 watercolor above. It revisits a familiar theme: shorebirds at high tide on Nummy Island. This one includes a Red Knot, as well as Short-billed Dowitcher, Black-bellied Plover and Dunlin.

In it I've tried to keep more of the white of the paper, to accentuate a variety of marks, and to avoid too much detail in the birds, or anything else for that matter. I've always liked more abstract art and the Akroyd book reminds me of how much I like that sort of art. When I used to be an abstract artist I'd always use a musical analogy to try  to explain it to befuddled onlookers. Most people don't demand that music tell a story or paint a picture. They react to the non-verbal music itself, to the melody, rhythm, etc.

These are also important elements in art and are often noticed most in decorative arts though not completely. Architecture also makes much  use of pattern and rhythm. When you use something like that in a  painting you  have to decide whether to sublimate accuracy for rhythm and pattern. I've made a first attempt at that here.

Over the last few years I've occasionally  made a painting that drifted in this direction then scuttled back to the safety of realism, which of course there's nothing wrong with. But my artistic background has always been much more appreciative of marks, of pattern, of design. So once again  I'm taking a chance on that direction. This time I hope I can stay with it a bit longer.

My linocuts I think do tend much more in this direction. But I've wanted to do it in painting  for quite awhile and keep getting scared off. Hopefully this time will be different.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Harriers and Mockingbirds

Ninety minutes of 30 degree birding at Morris Arboretum on Sunday reminded me that much of my field sketching is going to be on hold for the next 4-5 months. I could barely get my fingers to move enough to jot down what birds we saw, let alone sketch them.

During the winter my sketches will be done very quickly. Often I've tried to do field sketches of Northern Mockingbirds in winter. Generally what strikes me is a very long torso and tail, or a very dark eye, or a very long  bill and I'll try to capture one of those in a sketch. But then I'll come home, look at some photos and wonder where I got those ideas. So this fall when I took a photo that showed how long the torso of a Mockingbird can be I was quite happy. I've sketched that at top right above. I've also added the dark eye in most of the above sketches. The bill isn't really that long but it may be that a dark line in fron of the eye merges with the bill to make it look longer. If you look at the leftmost sketch though you  can see how I can get confused. Here the Mocker looks more like a rounded grapefruit than a very elongated bird.

I'm never happy with any attempts to do finished drawings from photos. They also seem lacking. But for understanding the structure of a bird, particularly if they show the whole bird and in good light, the sketching can be informative.

Northern Harries are quite different than Northern Mockingbirds in that I only see them on vacation. They're not a normal part of my local landscape like mockingbirds. They're magnificent birds to see but I almost never try to draw them as they drop down, lift back up, glide along then dip again, in constant movement. This year however I took my first photos at Cape May and also did a few brief sketches. The sketch above combines two photos of the same bird into one sketch. I've always admired other artist's drawings of harriers. It's nice to finally have my own.

Yellowlegs are also a vacation bird primarily though they're occasionally at Morris Arboretum. They're more regularly at Tinicum but I just don't have the time to drive down there that often. So this was another opportunity to try to learn their structure, and complex patterning, a bit better.

Finally we have the ubiquitous Northern Cardinal. Ubiquitous but impossible to draw from life. I'm not sure why this is unless it's the fact that the backyard ones are easily spooked. And then there is the black on the face of the male that I never seem to get right. Like the mockingbird they seem sleek one day and pot-bellied and heavy the next. I liked the way this photo gave a good sense of their structure so that was the impetus to do this sketch. They should be regulars in the backyard this year so maybe I'll finally do some decent field sketches.

That really is the purpose of these ballpoint pen sketches from photos I've taken: to understand the structure of certain birds so that I can do a better job when I do field sketches of them.

I recently received the wonderful book 'Wildlife in Printmaking' by Carry Ackroyd from Langford Press, publishers of the best wildlife art books in the world at least by my standards. As I've flipped through it I realize that the art I love is not limited by realism. It often takes great liberties with it. But it is founded in observation and knowledge of both the bird/animal and its surroundings. So I don't at all want to be trapped by the realism of these sketches, something quite easy to do I think. I hope that the knowledge I've gained will soon show itself in some much more abstract work, most likely in lino.

Monday, November 26, 2012

End of Harvest

About 20 years ago when I was a much more avid gardener I mentioned to a co-worker at the newspaper at which I worked that I just harvested something from the garden. One of the top level newspapers editors, with a good ear for cant, cackled back "HARVEST??!!". I never asked but my guess is that he was from a farm state where harvest meant something big, almost industrial.
But I didn't back down. It was indeed a harvest, in the true sense of reaping the benefits of something that I and my wife had spent a long time nurturing. As he was one of the most likeable and humorous people there he didn't argue further. I think he understood what I meant.
Now 20 years later it is still pretty much the same. We'll probably get our first hard frost tonight along with a bit of snow. I've kept a raised bed of hot peppers protected under tarps for the last few weeks, hoping that they'd finally ripen from green to red before I dried them in our dehydrator. It wasn't to be. 90% of the Anaheim style peppers will have to be dried green. The smaller, and hotter, serranos will be frozen and they're just as tasty green as red. The few other milder peppers will probably be cooked as is or frozen for later use in a soup.
Along with them is a bowl of Yellow Pear tomatoes. They are always prolific and pretty cold hardy. But I don't think they'll last the night so it was time to pick them. They'll slowly ripen to a beautiful lemon yellow and add to various meals.
Finally my wife has been busy picking and drying herbs from our herb bed. Pictured here is some Greek Oregano a descendant of what we first planted 20 years ago. Sage, savory and mints have also been harvested. They'll be used this winter and probably beyond.
As I've been able to devote more time to art and the business of art I've spent much less time writing about our garden and nature in general in this blog. But I haven't forgotten it. And it's nice to return to it occasionally.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

White-throated Sparrow Lino Edition

A few hours work and the edition of 15 White-throated Sparrow in Leaf Litter is done. The finished print uses Gamblin oil-based ink on Rives Heavyweight paper. The entire print is 7x9 inches and the image itself it 4x6 inches. It is for sale on my etsy store.

This is also the final weekend to see my show Wild at Art, including the work of local artists Lynnette Shelley and Melanie Fisher at the Manayunk Roxborough Art Center. Last chance!

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Day Three and Some Swamps

Above is the result of three-four hours of work on the White-throated Sparrow lino. Yesterday I mentioned that you often make decisions that you later have to live with in lino. That has happened here and the print has headed off in a slightly more abstract direction than I at first anticipated. Still I get nervous with strict naturalism so perhaps this veer toward abstraction is both good and inevitable, at least for me.

This is a rough print, with the ink a little too tacky. That causes a loss of detail. In visualizing it with sharper lines however I think that it may be nearing completion.

I had some apare time yesterday that I couldn't really devote to the lino so I did a few more sketches from photos, in this case photos I've taken of Swamp Sparrows over the last couple of years. The one on the right shows the peaked head that they often exhibit. This is one of my favorite sparrows. A small watercolor of one hangs at the Manayunk Roxborough Art Center for one more week in 'Wild at Art.' I have the feeling though that it will play a part in another print or painting soon. They are a really striking sparrow.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

White-throated Lino - Day Two

A few more hours and about six more cuttings and proofs led to the proof above. I'm shocked how much there is to consider formally in a linocut. For some reason it seems that there are far more decisions to make than in a painting. I've made a number of decisions so far and they all have consequences as to how this will develop.
Stay tuned.

White-throated Lino - Early Stages

Though I often feel my strongest work over the last few years has been in the field of linocut I often go long stretches without doing any. Hopefully that is about to change. I've made large orders of ink and paper and perhaps will get some new carving tools for the holidays.

That said here's an early state of a small 4x6 inch White-throated Sparrow. Part of the striking quality of this sparrow is the muted streaking of the breast and belly, something much more suited to watercolor than lino. Still I've decided to give it a try. Only time will tell if it was a wise move.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Neglected Sparrows

As I was walking at Andorra Natural Preserve yesterday the brilliant, clear blue sky coupled with the yellows, oranges, even deep purple blacks of leaves got me to thinking that nature seems to offer one last burst of splendor before turning to the cold grays and browns of winter.

The remaining birds however, with the exception  of the Eastern Bluebirds and a few others, are more muted. Perhaps because of that, perhaps because they can be numerous, or perhaps because many of them dip into cover as soon as you try to identify them, sparrows can be given short shrift, especially by birders.

If you look at them closely though they can be really  beautiful birds. Among the most common but also the most beautiful is the White-throated Sparrow.. The reds, yellows, oranges of warblers are striking. But the combination of yellow lores, brilliant white throat and sometimes supercilium, coupled with a subtly muted gray breast, deep brown crown stripe and eyeline, and more brown variations of mantle and wings  make for an equally striking bird.

I don't know my sparrows as well as I should so I'm always looking for the opportunity to see more and in particular to sketch them. Above is a field sketch of  a White-throat  coupled with a small watercolor sketch based on a photo I took. I did the watercolor in the hopes of solidifying what I saw while out fieldsketching. This is a matter of both understanding them better to aid in identification as well as just being able to draw and paint them better.

I also  saw a lot of small, flitting Chipping Sparrows yesterday.  But they were too small and too far away for me to get any sketches of them. I'd of course like to see and draw rare sparrows but I'm also always on the lookout for the opportunity to draw more common but still striking sparrows such as the Chipping and the Swamp. The blue grays of the Swamp Sparrow are a siren song to me. So one of these days I'll be back with them as subject.

Oh yes, I did stretch out that top White-throat a bit. I was concentrating on a mental  image that included the streaking on mantle,  the facial markings and the way the wings  hung down. While doing that I got the total proportions off a bit. Next time!
After posting this I did a few more ballpoint pen sketches from my photos. They are the lower photo at top.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Another Killdeer Watercolor

It's probably accurate to say that I've never done a watercolor that I'm completely happy with. Or perhaps I'm happy with it, I can think of one such sold piece, but it's more of a study than a full painting. I really don't have the temperament or training for watercolor. My years of painting in acrylic and oil taught me that nothing is ever set in stone. I could always replace one color or tone with another.

That's not the case with watercolor. You have to save some of the paper,  letting it show through completely or at least trasnparently, so that the painting retains a sense of light. Light to me is watercolor's greatest appeal. If you do too much covering over, as if it were an acrylic or oil, you soon end up with a muddy mess.

Knowing this it then becomes easy to be too careful, to plan so much that there is no sense of life at the end, almost likely a carefully colored in paint-by-number painting.

All of which just goes to say that I'm eternally seeking success in watercolor. Sometimes I think I  ought to first just be seeking a direction and worry about it being successful later on. I say this because I sometimes seem to veer between styles.

In any case above you see another experiment in watercolor: two Killdeer on a sand/rock bar in the wetlands pond at Morris Arboretum. When I was looking at the photo today I actually thought about using it as the source of a linocut and decided to try a monochrome watercolor to that purpose. But I got carried away and it's no longer a monochrome.

But I do like the scene, especially the almost handle-like tails of the Killdeer. I  always enjoy discovering them on the sandbar, often needing to use my binoculars to see that there are actually birds there among all the  muddy rocks.

The cold light of tomorrow may show me how much work is left to be done here. With the change of time there's no longer adequate natural light to see this, even at 4:30 in the afternoon. So partially I'm posting it in order to see it in another light. The next morning and I inevitably made some changes. The newest and most likely finished version is now at top.
Whether I continue working on it, consider it done, or abandon it I am happy  to have been able to explore the composition  of birds barely visible in their surroundings. They're always a pleasure to find in real life. I hope that will also hold true in a print or painting.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Birds That Shouldn't Be Here

Well at least according to ebird, the wonderful bird reporting site at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. I went to enter the birds I saw today including one Eastern Phoebe and two Red-breasted Nuthatches and ebird wanted confirming details because the birds are 'rare.'

I really can't complain about this. There needs to be some mechanism to screen out highly unlikely birds. But occasionally the screening process just doesn't match the facts on the ground very well. Normally I would call a Red-breasted Nuthatch rare in our area. But not this year. This is the fourth time we've seen them and we haven't really been birding all that much.

Same thing with the Easten Phoebe. It does seem a bit late for them but I'm pretty sure others  have seen them elsewhere in Philadelphia over the last week. Yesterday ebird questioned the 10 Chipping Sparrows we saw at Houston Meadonw. They were there and probably  in even greater numbers.

I didn't have  my camera with me yesterday but I did today. So  why didn't I take photos in case someone questioned what I saw? Because it's no fun and the birds weren't that rare. I don't enjoy taking photos but I do enjoy making sketches. If the birds had seemed rare to me I would have tried to get some photos. But doing so always takes away from sketching time so I never do it unless I think the  bird is 'rare' by my  standards.

I didn't intend to post these. But since ebird may ask for some proof here it is. Above you can see a young Eastern Phoebe at top  left, followed by two views of a male Belted Kingfisher and a Red-breasted Nuthatch hanging upside down with his head thrown back at bottom. On right is a poorly sketched Golden-crowned Kinglet that was just one jump away from landing on my hat, which seemed to be his target until he veered away. Finally a Canada Goose drinking some water he'd gotten from the pond at Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education. All of these sketches are from  today, on what may be our last warm day of 2012.

The sketches above are from the last week. On the left a couple of House Sparrows in the Silver Maple outside my studio and beneath them the first Hermit Thrush of the fall. On the right pages a House Sparrow from my studio window feeder, a White-throated Sparrow where I tried to concentrate on the streaking on nape and finally our first Brown Creeper of the year, hanging upside down like the Red-breasted Nuthatch. I have a long way to go in perfecting upside-down poses but it's always fun to try. These field sketches from life are a far cry from the sketches from photos I last showed. They're both useful but believe me these sketches in the field are a lot more fun!

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Incisive Sketches

'Incisive' is often used to describe a person's mental abilities I think. It indicates sharpness, an ability to see the important things through all the unimportant when viewing a problem. I'm not claiming that for me or my drawings, at least not for me in particular.

Actually it's almost the opposite. Almost all drawings are incisive. For me one of the most useful aspects of drawing is its ability to be incisive, to seek out the structure underneath the fluff and glitz. Not all drawing by  every person does this. But most do. It seems to be almost a primordial part of Western drawing if not all drawing.

I've  written about this before but it always strikes me afresh. There's something almost analytical and surgical about sketching. You try to see underneath the murk to the real thing.

I don't mean this in a mystical way, bur instead in a scientific way. I particularly mention  it with these drawings because they're all done from photos I've taken. What I always find with photos is that I need to see beneath the surface of masses color or tone and figure out how the underlying object is put together. With birds it's a question of what those feasthers are on the back and how do they relate to the wing feathers. Where do the legs go into the torso and how is the bird balanced on them.

For me, especially when working from photos like this, I feel like the pen or pencil I hold in my hand is like a scalpel trying to figure out the three-dimensional structure of what photography has turned into a flat two-dimentions. I'll in turn return it to the two dimenions of the paper on which I draw. But as I do so I  want it to be informed by my understanding of its three dimensions.

The drawing above is a pencil drawing on Stillman and Birn Gamma series sketchbook, size 7x10 inches. I haven't used these sketchbooks in awhile but they've always worked well for pencil sketches like this, among other  things.

Above is another sketch of the same Great Black-backed Gull seen near Flat Rock Dam on the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia a few days after Hurricane Sandy. I was there looking for any birds displaced to our area by the hurricane.Though I didn't really  find any I always enjoy seeing some of our more common birds, including Great Black-backed Gulls.

When I do drawings such as this I never intend them as finished works. Instead I do them with the intention of learning something. I hope that when I'm done I'll have a better idea of the structure of  the bird drawn. That knowledge in turn will be put to use in some drawing, painting or print in the future.

These two drawings were started while I gallery  sat for 3 hours this morning at the 'Wild at Art' show I'm in at the Manayunk Roxborough Art Center. And there were no visitors! Come on local readers, assuming there are some, I/we need some visitors and some sales! Still it was time well used. But it would be nice to see more visitors to the gallery  both for the current show and all shows. It's open 10 a.m. - 4 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.

Yesterday I tried another drawing from a photo, this one a smaller ballpoint pen drawing of two Cedar Waxwings on Stillman and Birn Beta Series paper. The birds themselves are somewhat successful though both show I think that I couldn't fully understand their structure from looking at the photo I used as my source. Worse I really was not successful rendering the bark of the tree in which they perched. Still I learned something in doing so.

I very rarely do a finished painting or print directly  from a photo I've taken and never from someone else's photo. But these sort of sketches seem to exorcise the photos in some way so that I later feel more comfortable using the drawings as the start of a painting or print. I know it seems odd. But it's true nonetheless. I think one reason is that the sketches make me feel a little clearer about the structure of whatever I'm painting. They're also like a warmup  exercise, like playing scales. All part of the process of making a work of art.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

'Wild at Art' - The Video

During  the hour before 'Wild at Art' opened last Sunday Brandon Lord Ross shot some video for a short film about the show and the artists in it. In the last 25 years or so I've been in two videos that I know of. I was a bit shocked by both of them, coming off as far more professorial than I'd really like. So I've been quite gun shy about video interviews for a good many years. But recently I saw one I liked by the artist Ewoud DeGroot Ewoud DeGroot at Wildlife Art Journal and it made me thinkg more positively about artist interviews/soliloquies.

Lynnette also spoke highly of a video that Brandon made for another show of hers. So I decided to give it a try. Now that I see the results I have to agree, professorial or not. Good work Brandon!

It's of course best to see the show in person. It's open Saturdays and Sundays in November from 10 to 4. But if you can't make it this will give you a good idea of the show and the artists.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Election Day Hermit Thrush

After voting yesterday Jerene and I took a walk along the Wissahickon. It's always a good way to get back to the real world and away from the hyped-up world of politics. Toward the end of our walk my second Hermit Thrush of the fall appeared on a pile of dead limbs along Gorgas Lane trail. Unlike most thrushes the Hermit will often sit still for a long time.

So that allowed me time to do a field sketch. This is a small 5x7 inch watercolor based on it.

When we got home we turned on the television and sat more or less glued to it until after 11. By that time the election had been called for Obama, at least by a few stations.

Since I've talked for more about politics than I normally  do recently I'm only going to say that we were both very pleased to see that a campaign that involved voter suppression, an extremely harmful Supreme Court decison, vast amounts of money that would have been better spent elsewhere and lies piled upon lies all based on the assumption that the voter is both stupid and easily manipulated failed. It FAILED.

I don't care what your political party. Eveyone should be happy to see the end of such a campaign and hope that we never see such a one again. This Hermit Thrush was a bit of fresh air amidst all of that.

Now there is very serious work to do in Washington. Let's hope that it finally gets done!

Friday, November 2, 2012

Three Honest Artists

Over my many years of making art I've always had styles of art that I liked much more than others. Not that my favorite styles didn't change drastically over time. But I also found that I always got surprised. I'd often see something in a style I didn't like and find that I liked the art nonetheless

Eventually I  found a common denominator. The art I liked, regardless of style struck me as honest. I can't define what I  mean by that or give  anyone else any clues as to how they might define 'honest' art. I hate to  think that the art I think  'honest' could be found 'dishonest' by others and vice versa. Still it may be true.

I mention this because after spending 4.5 hours yesterday  helping to hang the 3-person show, 'Wild at Art' opening at the Manayunk Roxborough Art Center this Sunday I left with the feeling that this was a very good show. Why? I think it is all honest art. Above are three works by Lynnette Shelley and two  of my own linocuts.

Above a view of a short wall that includes my 'Two Little Blue Herons at Morris Arboretum" acrylic painting as well as two recent watercolors of mine and two more works by Lynnette.

And finally four paintings by Melanie Fisher, with a deliberate nod to Charles Burchfield, and more of my own linocuts.

I apologize for the poor quality of these photos. Any attempt to photograph more than one single work runs into problems of inadequate light, distracting reflections on glass, and numerous other problems. In this case  the labels are still on work and need to be removed and transcribed onto price sheets. And some final straightening could be done.

But I  think it does give you a sense of what is there. It is, in my humble opinion, a collection of very strong work, all based in nature and particularly in animals.

Hope to see you there this Sunday. It's difficult to find wildlife or animal based art in Philadelphia. This is your chance.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

A Political Suggestion

There's no doubt in my mind that the worst decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in recent memory is Citizen's United. It allows unknown people to more or less buy elections. Most Americans believe this.

Most likely the greatest amount of that spending will take place over the next few days. I suspect it will mainly lean Republican but can't say for sure.

Here's my suggestion: Stop every single bit of it and donate it to the Red Cross for  victims of Huricane Sandy. It serves no useful purpose other than possibly having unknown people buy an election result. By now there has been plenty of advertising. And there is a real use for this money, helping all those who have been devastated.

The right and libertarians say government can't pay for everything. I understand the thought. It can't.  But in times like these it can certainly do a whole lot. For the rest of what needs to be done I suggest that people who want government out of their lives put their money where their mouth is. Ask all SuperPACS to donate to the Red Cross.