Friday, December 28, 2012

Birds That Shouldn't Be Here, More or Less

A few weeks ago I saw my first winter bird that shouldn't be here when I spotted a Green Heron along the Manayunk Canal in Philadelphia. I really don't like to be burdened with a camera and didn't have one that day. Though he was very close to me he flew before I could sketch him to the other side of the canal where he was much harder to see and sketch.

Since then I've looked for him numerous times, including for the Christmas Bird Count. But given all the herons I've seen there I suspected that he might still be around. Sure enough I ran into him again today, again on my side of  the canal, less than six feet away. This time I had deliberately brought my camera in case I ran into him or any other rarities. I really felt bad about not having photographic documentation of the Magnolia Warbler we saw  later in December so I'm trying to carry it right now.

Not that it did much good!! My Lumix FZ28(I think) is a good little camera, lightweight but with an 18x zoom, so it's a perfect compromise for someone who doesn't want to carry a camera. But it has a hard time deciding what to focus on at times. So if there are a lot of obstructions, e.g. twigs, between me and my subject it will often do a great job on the twigs and leave the bird out of focus. That was the case today with the Green Heron. Only one last shot as he was flying to opposite side of canal turned out well, miraculously getting him where he landed though I was trying to get him in flight. In any  case that photo is at top. Below is one of the nearer but out of focus shots.

Green Herons really should be gone by now. But I know one was sighted at John Heinz NWR  in Philadelphia last January. Perhaps a few are sticking around due to milder winters.

One of today's pleasant surprises along with the Green Heron was a bird I rarely see, a Rusty Blackbird. It's been at least five years since I've seen one, though they're also somewhat common at Heinz NWR in winter I think. Two photos are above.

And finally a bird that is not a surprise at all, but still a welcome sight, a Great Blue Heron. This time of year they seem a little more focused on fishing and a little less skittish than the Green Heron I've been seeing. So it's a lot easier to sketch them without them spooking as they do in summer. Of course the 35 degree temperature still limits how much time I spend sketching. I was happy for this opportunity. I just wish I'd been able to do it as well for the Green Heron. Hopefully he will stick around for the Philadelphia Mid-winter Bird Census in early January.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Value of History, and Sales

It's been a long time since I skipped an image with a post. But outside of some recent photos of a backyard Cooper's Hawk and a seemingly odd-looking Hairy Woodpecker at Andorra natural area I have no images to show. So we draw a blank.

But apropos of my last post on the 100th anniversary of abstract painting I'm currently rereading David J. Wagner's wonderful book American Wildlife Art. Most readers I think should enjoy it for the beautiful reproductions, but many may not like the amount of writing in it. As I reread it though I realize that the writing is actually the most striking part of it.

The reason for this as with much history is that it helps to put our own seemingly unique world into perspective. It's not often that you find anything new under the sun, the internet and social networking notwithstanding. For me it's fascinating that in the early 1800s there was the same dichotomy between painterliness and versimilitude in art that used wildlife as subject. Certainly in American art today I think it's taken for granted that verisimilitude is primary. I certainly don't think it should be. And it's interesting to see that it wasn't always.

This is just one of many  insights that the author gives into art, nature, nature sports and in particular wildlife art. One of the more surprising topics was Currier and Ives. I had no idea that in the 1800s almost 75% of images in Amercan homes came from them. Their exceptionally cheap prints made it very difficult for wildlife artists. How could they compete in price with the cheap price allowed my mechanical production of wildlife prints estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands per print? This reminds me of the extreme difficulty print journalism has today in the face of the internet. Of course Currier and Ives had to get their subject matter from artists just as online news today is often just a rehash or outright repetition of what a print journalist investigated and published. In either case it shows how culture changes, almost like a flooding river, changing everything in its path.

I enjoy reading history, of wildife art or anything else, because it seems impossible to read it without reflectiong on what it says about current life. Often it says more than all the talking heads in pundit land.

As  far as the sales in the  title I just wanted to let anyone who might be interested that all of my work for sale on etsy, both naturalistic and abstract is 10 % off throughout 2012. I realize that there may be few if any interested readers that are interested in this, especially after the huge sums that some people spend at Christmas. But just in case there are you should  visit the sites in next few days. Type in TENPERCENTOFF in coupon area when checking out. to have the discount applied My  naturalistoc work is at berkeleySU.  Some of my  older abstract work is at OldAndAbstract.

I hope that there's some chance I'll finish that long-lingering heron reduction print before the new  year. If so I'll post it here. If not, Happy New Year to all!

Saturday, December 22, 2012

100th Birthday of Abstract Art

Sadly I received the last or next to last print edition of Newsweek this week. I received it as a gift in its newest slimmed down version but I've very much enjoyed it, especially for the essays from various political perspectives. I hate, positively hate, reading anything online. It reminds me of eating cotton candy and seems incapable of substance. Still that is the way the world is going and there's nothing I can do about it other than pay for the print subscriptions I enjoy.

The reason I mention this is that the latest issue had an essay by Blake Gopnik on a show celebrating the birth of abstract and non-objective art. As the article begins he mentions a now lost newsreel of 1912 that shows Art That Has No Subject!
Not since the Italians invented fully realist painting, 500 years earlier, had visual art made such a huge leap. Up until that landmark fall of 1912, fine artists had always assumed their work would link up to the world, one way or another.
Today many art lovers have forgotten how revolutionary this was. And yet to much of the population, including many lovers of naturalistic and wildlife art, it's as though it never happened.

When I was a graduate student at Berkeley and Cornell I studied a lot of history along with studio art, which was my true field of study. I liked this as it seemed to confirm my suspicions about how art had developed over the years. In particular it was interesting to see throughout the 19th century a move away from detail, toward allowing more expressiveness in color, brushwork, composition. To me it seemed an inevitable separation of subject and method to the point where eventually method was stronger than subject and then eventually the subject was gone entirely.

I'm not about to say that this was good! It just seemed inevitable. I recently read a biography of John Constable, Even this beloved naturalistic painter seemed to move toward greater expressiveness in his brushwork.  Even Cezanne, whose letters showed that he wasn't trying to be an abstractionist but instead really portray exactly what he saw, made paintings where you couldn't help but notice the individual brushmarks,  the rich sense of color, and of course the composition. I could rattle through a list of 19th century artists and show how the great majority moved in this direction. Suffice it to say: Corot, Manet, Monet, Gauguin, Degas.

Studying the history of 19th century art is almost like reading a mystery novel. There is constant suspense, at least in the good ones. That suspense is based on just one question: when will subject matter be completely  dispensed with? The answer seems to be 1912.

At top is a pastel drawing and collage of mine that I did at least 20 years ago. It is called April. I show it mainly because I  don't want to run into copyright problems showing the work illustrated in Gopnik's article. I'd be better off showing a Kandinsky, Malevich or Mondrian. But this is also appropriate because it wouldn't exist without the abstract/non-objective tradition.

My  work today is always a mixture of abstraction and naturalism. Even if it doesn't show in the work in my mind there is always a dialog if not a brawling argument between abstract and representational.

The wildlife art world that I inhabit now has almost no truck with abstraction, except I think with sculptors for some unknown reason. I constantly  feel an alien in that world because of my abstract background, almost my abstract DNA.

Gopnik quotes the curator of the show as saying that the true nature of abstraction was not abstraction though. It was the idea of the heart ot art as being 'unsettling.' This is a common thought. But one I  don't buy at all, and the reason I'm writing this post.

It is true in the sense that most art today, at least that which comes out of the art schools, gets  shown in the better galleries and museums, and has ignorant speculators masquerading as collectors lined up to buy it, does in fact see 'unsettling' as the recurrent theme.

But it's not. Do you  know what is unsettling today? Wildlife Art! Ask yourself when you have last seen wildlife art, or just plain art that features animals or the outdoors at a quality museum or gallery. I'd bet that you can't. No one can. Why? Because for all the supposed diversity, plurality, openness of contemporary art there is one thing that cannot be tolerated: wildlife art.

I'd offer a different theory of abstract art and the current state of art. As I said abstraction truly seemed inevitable throughout the 19th century. Artist after artist was pulled in its direction. But inevitably painting about nothing, just like writing about nothing or composing music about nothing becomes a dead end. It  produced great art. Of that I don't have the slightest doubt.

But all great ideas eventually lose their influence and get replaced or revised by something else. That something else today I think is the world of realism, especially the natural world. I know that this is heresy in the art world. And it's probably just as much a heresy in the wildlife art world where there's so little appreciation of abstract art. But art has always been very big. It ignores small minds and goes its own way. In 50 years my guess is that people will see that art struggled for meaning in the late 20th century and early 21st century and eventually  found it in a return  to subject matter, especially that of tne natural world.

One other thing that was not part of abstraction, in fact I think had absolutely nothing to do with it was irony,  the ennervated motivation of artists like Duchamp. It would be easy to say that irony is the true common thread of much art of the last 100 years and certainly of the last 50. But irony  truly is a dead end,  the cheap trick used by  clever people to avoid engagement in the world. I don't believe anything of worth, in art or elsewhere, comes from the unengaged. And that's another reason I think why an art establishment totally  wed to the ironic stance just can't stomach the true and honest enthusiasm many wildlife artists have for both their subject and the artistic media that they  use to  portray their subject. It is just too honest and heartfelt fo be acceptable!

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Finished Winter Wren Lino

Here is the final Winter Wren lino, one of an edition of 24. My friend Ellen at The Spicebush Blog mentioned that it reminded her of a Carolina Wren due to bright supercilium and long tail. Sharp eyes! With lino there's only so much cross hatching you can do when trying to render a shade or gray. Because I didn't want to completely lose the supercilium by making it too dark I probably overcompensated and so it is a bit bright. As for the tail my wife Jerene also said she thought it looked too long. Since that was in an area I was thinking of changing anyway it was simple enough to shorten it.

One of the first things you notice about Winter Wrens is how dark they are I think I've captured much of that here outside of the bright supercilium. The ideal solution is probably watercolor with its greater ability to render gradations of tone. Eventually I might print another small edition of this that I will then color with watercolor.

The print by the way is 7x9 inches, with the image itself being just 4x6. It's printed with Gamblin oil-based ink(a combination of red and black) on Rives Lightweight paper. Most of these will be used as holiday greeting cards, but a few are now up for sale on Etsy. Because the ink is still wet I won't be able to ship them for a few days.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Winter Wren Lino

Above is something close to the last proof of a new Winter Wren lino. After seeing them on the Christmas Bird Count last weekend and doing a small watercolor based on field sketch I decided that a lino might make a good holiday greeting card.

I'm anxious to get back to my reduction lino of the Green Heron but sometimes it pays to be patient and let things sit. So I decided  to start this lino yesterday. As you can see it's simpler than normal for me. If I do anything more it will most likely be further simplification.

Before I began I did some leaf studies based on photos I've taken over the years, photos taken specifically for this purpose. Sometimes planning pays off! So above is a sheet of ballpoint pen sketches. I knew I wouldn't use them exactly as is but I was hoping that I'd gain some knowledge of the structure of various leaves that would help me in the print.

Finally I needed to figure out just how the composition would work. Above are two studies. The print is based on the lower one though it has changed along the way.

If I'm lucky I'll finish the proofing and perhaps print an edition  tomorrow, much earlier than my usual schedule for the holidays. Normally I'm mailing these off on December 24th.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Christmas Bird Count 2012

Yesterday we took part in the Christmas Bird Count with Wyncote Audubon. I think we began cold weather birding at least 10 years ago. I've always loved the opportunity to be outside in cold weather, a relic of my childhood I guess, when winter was one grand though cold adventure. I'm not sure how many times I got home from my long walk back from grade school wondering if I'd finally gotten the treatened frostbite on my ears. I didn't care. I liked the long walk home in the cold and snow.

Oddly I  paid little attention to nature at this time. I didn't know birds, mammals, trees. I just liked being outside. I think that is still a large part of my enjoyment of birding and is part of what I try to portray  in my artwork.

In any case the longer we've done this, especially in the same geographical area, the more knowledgeable we've become about what birds we might see. We also make a more determined effort to find them. One such bird is the Winter Wren, also known as Feathered Mouse. You can often hear them and often catch glimpses of them. But rarely do you  get a long long at them, especially long enough to sketch them. Experience paid off yesterday. We saw at least two and possibly four.

Both pairs were in the same location, Carpenter's Woods,  separated by 100-200 yards. Though they're very small they move quickly. So it's most likely they were the same birds.

Above is a quick field sketch of one of the birds. At top is a small 5x7 inch studio watercolor based on the field sketch. One of the pleasures of yesterday's views was that we stood stock still at one point and one wren didn't notice us. So he picked around in the leaf litter, often disappearing in it, just six feet away. It may have been the best look we've ever had. Even though we know that they  disappear in leaf litter it's always shocking to see it happen in front of you. Thus the Feathered Mouse reference. They really  do behave like small mice.

We ran into an acquaintance at Carpenter's Woods who told us where an Eastern Screech Owl roosted and when if flew. So we ended the day  waiting outside that tree for an hour. Owls are always a treat. But I think  the good views of two winter wrens was the best part of the day. We hoped to find the Green Heron I'd seen at the Manayunk Canal a 10-15 days ago but no such luck. We did see two Great Blue Herons, a couple of Pied-billed Grebes, one or two Brown Creepers, a Golden-crowned Kinglet and most of the birds you'd expect to see at this time of  year in the habitat that we birded. Missing birds that we'd hoped to see were Pileated Woodpecker and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. And not a single bird feeding on Poison Ivy, one of the most prevalent scenes of the last few weeks.

One last note on the watercolor. The Winter Wren is usually a dark bird in a dark environment. That makes for a difficult painting. Should the artist make the bird as hard to see as it is in real life? I've decided not to do so in this painting. The surrounding environment in particular is lighter and brighter than it really was. But the bird I think stands out, as I'd like it to.

Soon after I posted this I walked downstairs to find a juvenile Cooper's Hawk sitting right outside the kitchen window. Unlike the Winter Wren he held his pose for 30 minutes. So I couldn't resist getting the sketchbook back out.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Green Heron Lino - Color Three

Finally printed the third color today, a Prussian Blue that looks mighty black because I have no white ink. Still I'm happy with it. I now need to let it marinate, over the Christmas Bird Count tomorrow and probably for a few days beyond that, while I decide what to do next.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

How We See

It seems inevitable that every time I write about avoiding the effects of photography in art I see something, generally using the optical devices of binoculars or scope, that shows something in nature of such beauty that I want to portray it just as it is, without any stylization or any other artistic modifications.

Such was the case when I saw this Field Sparrow yesterday at Andorra Meadows in Philadelphia. More and more I'm struck by the subtle beauty of sparrows. I had such a hard time just seeing this sparrow that I never thought about doing a developed sketch, though I did two quick field sketches from memory a few minutes after seeing him. They and one successful photo from yesterday are the basis of this small 5x7 inch watercolor.

I'm a bit off on the colors The gray in the head is lighter and more subtle. It is a truly beautiful bird. But I wonder how much of my  reaction is due to the fact that my vision of it is based on a magnified view, 8x in my binoculars and 18x in my small Lumix camera. You have to wonder about artists who didn't have such technical help from optical devices. How did they see nature? Audubon of course shot his subjects so that he could examine them closely. But he'd also seen them enough in nature to know that they should be painted in  animated poses, not the stiff ones of dead birds. He wasn't cowed by detail.

I only bring this up because I really  don't understand the mania for photographic realism in wildlife art. My  reaction is: deadly dull! What at insult to the beauty and vitality of wildlife. When I looked at this Field Sparrow yesterday I thought maybe I had a clue as to the motivation. The subtlety of tones, color, pattern in birds seen at high magnification is seductive, like the Sirens. Perhaps it's the beauty revealed through advanced optics that makes some artists helpless in the face of photographic detail. That's all they can see. It has captivated them, like the Sirens.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Green Heron Lino - Color Two

Today I printed the second color of the Green Heron with Twelve-spotted Skimmer linocut. And I'm no longer flying quite as blind. Once a darker color gets printed it's easier to see the entire print, unlike when there was just the one yellow color. Still the yellow was necessary and it seemed best to print it as the first color.

My plans include a blue for the heron and part of the background, a maroon/purple for the heron and possiblly the background, and a black. After that who knows? One thing I do know is that I wish my white ink would arrive soon so that I can add a tint or shade. Since it is a manufacturing problem however my guess is that the print will be completed without the use of white.

I read an interview with a  wildlife artitst today  who mentioned that art was at least as important as realistic acccuracy in his work. That is exactly my thinking and I think that this print shows that philosophy. Unfortunately so much wildlife art seems enslaved to photographic realism and nothing more.For whatever reason this seems particularly true in American wildlife art.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Birds that Shouldn't Be Here, Part Two

While sorting through a mixed flock of Eastern Bluebirds, Chipping Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos at Andorra Natural Area today my wife said that there was a not completely surprising kinglet near the ground behind us. Then she yelled out "NO". Given the time of year my mind raced quickly to figure out what unusual bird that might look like a kinglet might be here at this time of year. Before I decided that nothing did she yelled out "MAGNOLIA." Sure enough we had a Magnolia Warbler six feet away hover-gleaning just a few feet off the ground. He was gone in about a minute and it was only by comparing what we'd seen that we could say that it undoubtedly was a Magnolia. Since I didn't do a sketch and wouldn't have had time to take a photo even if I had a camera the watercolor above is based on a photo I took of a breeding male changed to the non-breeding plumage we saw today. It leaves a lot to be desired but still it documents successfully I think a very unusual bird to be seeing in Philadelphia in December!

Friday, December 7, 2012

Flying Blind, With Obstacles

In retrospect I almost always like my reduction linocuts, the ones where I print the block in one color, cut away more lino and print in another color, and so on to the point where there's very little lino left by the time I'm done.

I say in retrospect because sometimes the actual time spent developing the print can have more than its share of problems. I don't do reduction linocuts to prove any technical  mastery. More likely they show the opposite. Instead I do them because I like the end result, in particular the mismatched overlaps of color that give the print a jangly quality, reminiscent in some ways to the jazzy work of Stuart Davis, one of my abstract heros, or to Mondrian in Broadway Boogie-Woogie. I'm not trying to put myself in their company, always a danger when mentioning well known artists, but to help explain my  motiivation.

I think  this jangly, jazzy feel is as appealing to some people as it is bothersome to others. I've sometimes theorized that this is due to a more urban versus more rural background but who really knows? I  grew up a half block from farmland, lived in the large cities of Chicago, San Francisco and Philadelphia, where I still live, but more and more find my interest rural rather than urban.

In spite of that my taste is still more for the jazzy. Perhaps it will pass!

In any  case I've decided that I want to do more reduction linocuts. When I do them I often tend to start off with a lighter color, then proceed to darker ones. But this is a bit like flying blind. It's really hard to even see the print when it's yellow on white. That's what you  see at top. And the photo shows a stronger contrast than you  can see in real life. That's where the 'flying blind' in title of post somes from.

But as with watercolor it's the whites  that will help to make the print sing.  The only time I have to create them is when I make the first cut and print the first color. After that any future cuts will show the last color printed, not the white of the paper. After the first color is printed all future printing happens on top of the first prints. So when I carve out more lino and print in a new color what show through is not the white of the paper but the colors already printed.

There are aome lino printers I suspect who think  out in advance which color will go where and when, more or less. But I can't work that way. For me instead I need to print something and then respond to it, what I called process in the last post. This is part of the appeal of the lino process, especially reduction lino. The one big problem is that you can bet I'll find I want some more white areas as the print develops. And it will be too late by then to retrieve them. My only chance is on this first color.

Because of that I also printed a slightly earlier proof of this in black ink. Black will most likely be the last color I use in the actual print. But I've used in here, printed on copier paper, just to allow me to see the contrast between ink and paper a bit better.

I think this explains pretty well the phrase flying blind. But what about with obstacles, the last part of the title? Well there are a number of  them. For one I can't order white ink in the brand I use because there's been a production problem. It should have shipped a week ago but it's still not ready. I thought I had some old white left and could get by with that for proofing. But what I had was just a tiny bit that included more specks of dry paint than of wet paint. That  meant that when I used it  I  just got dry flakes of paint all over my print, my inking slab and other tools. The same thing happened with my old transparent base which I hoped to use to make the initial yellow transparent. Eventually  I tossed those proofs and restarted with a brand new jar of yellow, free of dreid paint. But it's the lack of white which I suspect will  be the real problem. I'm sure that as thsi print develops I'll want to use a tint or a gray version of a color. But I won't have the requisitie white to do so. So that will be an obstacle, but also  might possibly result in a pleasant surprise.

I'm rarely a technical person when it comes to art. But with printing it can't be avoided completely. So please excuse this brief foray into technical problems. If the print is successful these problems will just add to the success.

I assume it's obvious what t he subject is but in case it's not: this is based  on a watercolor I did this summer of a Green Heron holding a Twelve-spotted Skimmer in his bill, ready to  eat it.

Monday, December 3, 2012

The Process of Art

As I've continued reading Wildlife in Printmaking by Carry Akroyd from Langford Press two things have struck me: one, how many of the artists represented use their sketchbook as the source of their art, and two, how many consider the process of printmaking as important as the subject.

Anyone who's not an artist might wonder what I mean by process. What I and most of the artists mean I think is that the surprises that come about as you develop the print are just as important as any plans that you might have had initially as to how the print would develop. When I  was interviewed for Printsy, the printmakers of Etsy, a couple of years ago I said that one of the things I  found that I most liked about printmaking was the element of surprise. That still holds true and I was surprised to see how many printmakers  have the same feeling. It is somewhat like an improvisatory art.

I could theorize forever about why this might be but I leave that to others. I don't know. But I  do know that I  very much like it.

At top is a watercolor study composed from three field sketches done at Higbee Beach at Cape May last October. It epitomizes Cape May in fall to me with raptors floating overhead and butterfles and dragonflies keeping to the lower level. This is just a compositonal study, most likely for a color reduction linocut.

Above are two field sketches. At top the Red-tailed Hawk is from  Morris Arboretum yesterday.  The Great Blue Heron and the upside down Red-bellied Woodpecker eating poison ivy berries is from the Manayunk Canal today. The second sketch is also from the canal and shows a Pied-billed Grebe from memory, a Ruby-crowned Kinglet eating a moth, and a totally unexpected Green Heron off on the far side of the canal after I moved too close to try to get a better view for a sketch.

Recently we've seen many Red-bellied Woodpeckers and Northern Flickers hanging upside down eating poison ivy berries. We also saw a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker doing the same thing last winter. This is a difficult pose to get right. So I've done the sketches above from photos I've taken of Red-bellies and Flickers. My hope is that such practice will help me to do more accurate drawings of these woodpeckers when I see them in the field.

As with the watercolor at the top I hope to develop a painting or print from the sketches. That's one of the wonderful things about many of the prints in Wildlife in Printmaking. They don't just capture the bird. They attempt to capture the entire experience. And they also improvise along the way,  based on what their medium tells them. The result is joyous art.