Monday, December 30, 2013

Spiritual Feasts to Which We Rarely are Bidden

Crepuscular Dragonflies. Conte Sketch by Ken Januski.

It was very late when I went to bed and I had a delicious sensation of the cool of the evening, the open windows, and the sparkling song of a nightingale. If it were possible to convey this song to the mind through the medium of the eyes, I should compare it to the twinkling of the stars seen through the trees on a beautiful night; the notes so light, or vivid, or flutelike, or full of unbelievable energy coming from so small a throat, seem to me like those fires, now sparking, now faintly veiled, that are scattered like celestial diamonds over the great vault of the sky. When those two sensations are combined, as so often happens at this time of year, the feeling of solitude and coolness, with the scent of the flowers and, above all, of the woods - a sense that always seems more intense in the evening - it is one of those spiritual feasts to which we are rarely bidden in this imperfect universe.
Eugene Delacroix in 'The Journals of Eugene Delacroix', Phaidon Press, translated by Lucy Norton, edited by Hubert Wellington
I was thinking of writing a post on the most impressive books I've read this year, mainly art and nature related, before year's end. At the top of the list was going to be The Journals of Eugene Delacroix, quoted above. But then I read this section of the journals this morning and just had to highlight it in the post title.

What surprises me in this section of the journal, about 1854, is how aware and appreciative of nature Delacroix has become. It also indicates just how thoroughly engaged with and sensitive to the world around him he is. This is just as true when he writes about art, music, literature or anything else. Because of that every time I pick up the journal and read it I enjoy it immensely.

I've often wondered why I prefer sketches to most finished visual work and Delacroix does too. He devotes page after page to his speculations on this. Whenever I've mentioned it online it seems to fall on deaf ears, as though I'm the only one who thinks this way. So you can imagine how much I've enjoyed reading Delacroix's thoughts on the subject, one which he comes back to again and again.

He also talks about another of my 'obsessions', how detail kills most paintings, not because there is anything wrong with it in itself, but because it neglects the overall idea and impression of the painting. This is what positively kills me about so much wildlife art, letting details drain any sense of life in it, so I greatly enjoy seeing that I'm not alone in this. Delacroix was writing the same thing more than 150 years ago.

There are times of course when I disagree but that is unimportant. What is so striking about this book is that it seems to be the honest, unfiltered writing of an extremely thoughtful and sensitive artist.

So if I were to pick a best book of 2013 this is it.

1. The Journals of Delacroix. Translated by Lucy Norton, edited by  Hubert Wellington, published by Phaidon Press.

2. Treasures of the Forgotten Forest. Written by Robert Williams, published by Wildlife Art Gallery. Sponsored by Artists for Nature Foundation.

This is one of a series of wonderful books sponsored by The Artists for Nature Foundation. I always prefer these books for the art shown. But after reading them I also enjoy the writing about the ecology, and economy, of areas of the world that are endangered by development but also have particularly rich natural resources(by that I mean wildlife not minerals). Artists like Lars Jonsson, Bruce Pearson, Kim Atkinson have splendid work in this volume. This book centers on the Tumbesian region of Ecuador and Peru. There is also a wonderful video which I've had for a number of years. It can be found online.

3. Troubled Waters: Trailing the Albatross: An Artist's Journey. Written by Bruce Pearson, published by Langford Press.

I'd have to say that most of the books that have really struck me over the last few years have been published by Langford Press. They are as far as I can tell the premier publisher of books on the type of wildlife art that I enjoy and appreciate. Bruce Pearson has been making art and films for many years. In this case he returns to Bird Island and South Georgia, to study the albatross and other seabirds that he first saw 35 years ago. Pearson, to me at least, is the epitome of artist and naturalist. The artistry is undeniable. But so is the passionate concern for nature. This is true in all of his work that I've seen. In this case he directs those talents and concern to birds I'm largely unfamiliar with but who have been in great decline over the last 20 years. It reminds me of the same concern with species and an entire environment, including the human and economic one, that characterizes the books and projects of the Artists for Nature Foundation.

4.Bright Wings of Summer: Watching Butterflies. Written by the late David Measures, published by Prentice Hall.

This book is almost 40 years old but I finally managed to get a copy this year. I'm only about half way through, having run into a lot of distractions, and other books, since first getting it about six weeks ago. Whenever I've seen field sketches of butterflies by David Measures I've been struck by their freedom and animation. As with Bruce Pearson they combine art and naturalism. I was surprised when I started reading to find that he actually spent hours and hours, often convincing his family to help him, studying the butterflies of a particular patch of land. If you've ever tried to draw butterflies in the field you know how difficult it is due to their unpredictable movement. David Measures shows you how easy it is with both determination and skill. It's also a very rich book on the study of butterflies. I highly recommend it. And I hope it will help my own field sketches this summer.

5. The Crossley ID Guide: Raptors. Written by Richard Crossley, Jerry Ligouri and Brian Sullivan, published by Princeton University Press.

Back when I was a programmer there was a series of books  from O'Reilly Press that stressed repetition, question and answer, interactivity and often humor, very low humor, as a means of learning. It sort of worked though I think it was a bit heavy-handed. Still it did match my own experience: I rarely learn anything the first time. I need to have it repeated.

And often the best manner of repetition is testing, over and over. The Shorebird Guide used this method to a large extent and this book does so even more. The end result is that I feel like I'm finally starting to get a handle on raptors and being able to differentiate one from the other, especially when they are high in the sky. My only problem, as it may be for many people, is that raptors are not regularly available to study in the field. I fear I've lost a bit of what I've learned and will need to go back to the book soon. But that's not necessarily bad. It's a book that I think I'll enjoy rereading. And eventually I'll get better at all those photographic identification quizzes.

6. The Art and Craft of Woodblock Printmaking : Woodblock Printmaking with Oil-based Inks and the Japanese Watercolour Woodcut, second edition. Written by Kari Laitinen, Tuula Moilanen and Antti Tantiu, published by Aalto ARTS Books.

As someone who's largely self-taught when it comes to woodcuts and linocut, I always feel that I'm missing some information that others learn their first week in class. My experience though shows me that most self-educated people feel this way and mistakenly attribute far better training to schooled artists than most actually receive. Still there are things I know that I don't know, like the proper viscosity of ink among other things. This book is good in that it covers much of that. It is an easy to read book, with just a few technically murky areas, that I've greatly enjoyed. I've read the first half and am just now on the section about traditional Japanese watercolor woodcuts. I don't expect to ever go in this direction but I expect it will still be informative.

7. Looking at Birds: An Antidote to Field Guides. Written by John Busby, published by the Langford Press.

Who knows how I forgot this in the original post since I wrote about it just a few posts ago. To repeat what I said there: This is a very slim book. I'd guess that there are more images than there are paragraphs. But the images show a wealth of experience in watching birds. The deceptively simple images show that the author thoroughly knows birds, so that when he sees something unusual, like a bird flying upside down, he has no trouble at all rendering the unique experience.

This book requires a bit of a leap of imagination: the leap being that there is far more to life and birding, than mimicking a photograph. There is so much more to see and to experience. And it is possible to get that down on paper.

People have always spoken of Delacroix as imaginative. I think you can say that John Busby is too. Not in the sense of summoning things out of a fantasyland. But in the sense of being able to construct the structure of birds seen only briefly in the most unusual situations, for instance that bird flying upside down, except for the head. That requires both experience, boldness and imagination.

100. Bad Boy. Written by Eric Fischl, published by Crown Publishers. I didn't really know where to put this book about famous contemporary American artist, Eric Fischl. I've been aware of his work for awhile but I stopped paying much attention to contemporary American art at about the time that he was first getting recognized. I was briefly introduced to him at a party at about this time. I don't remember a thing and I'm sure he'd say the same thing since this was a time of alcohol and drug induced haze as he writes about. And to be honest, I was a complete artistic non-entity. There's no reason in the world he would notice me, brain haze or not.

As I've reread this section on Fischl I think the obvious question a reader might have is: why mention a book you're so critical of? Why even bother reading it? I don't like writing negative criticism. That's not to say that I can't have quite negative reactions to art, books or anything else. But I mainly keep them to myself. As I recall the only reason I picked up this book is that I'd read somewhere that it was critical of the current art world where financial speculation is really the only factor involved. Though I never liked compatriots of Fischl such as David Salle I at least saw a painter in Fischl. So that and curiosity about his criticism of the current art world was enough to convince me to read it.

Oddly enough when I first posted this I'd included wealthy as an adjective to describe him. At that point in the book he was. But the oddest thing happened. His work lost favor, as I discovered as I struggled through the second half of the book, though he never quite became a starving artist like 99% of most artists.  I had to chuckle when he said he just didn't understand the work of the 90s, just as I really couldn't appreciate the work of him and other popular artists of the 80s. Another interesting note was that about midpoint in the book, in the late 80s I believe, he also stopped alcohol and drugs, having realized just where they were leading him.

Compared to Delacroix it is very boring. But it also seem honest, if a bit self-aggrandizing. His unusual family background helps explain his subjects to some extent I think. I can't at all agree with the blurbs on the back of the book though. It is not at all compelling reading. The pages about his pals John McEnroe, Steve Martin, et al. just seem like dull filler. But it still seems honest. Even when it comes to the huge sums that artists like Fischl were once paid for their work by collectors that he suspected might sell the work for a profit before even unpacking it. That strikes me as both an accurate picture of the art world I gave up on and as a very depressing realization for the artist. As I said I admire him for honestly talking about it. I just wish he had the thoughtful passion for art and the rest of the world that I find in Delacroix. But Delacroix I think was extremely unusual. Perhaps it's unfair to compare the writings of any artist to him. Still this book is dull in comparison.

Given all that there is to question about the art world of the last 20 if not 50 years it would have been nice to find something a little more trenchant. For instance he talks about his days at Cal Arts where he and fellow students were trying to be brutally honest, to move into new artistic areas. One could easily ask if this isn't the Academy of the last 50 years: New, New, New? Tough, Tough, Tough. Not a hint of joy. But no such thoughts arise in the book. Just a pretty weak criticism when the speculative art world turns from him to others.

I'm sure I've forgotten some books I really enjoyed. Perhaps I'll have to add an addendum or errata. The drawing at top by the way is one I've shown before: some unidentified dragonflies at dusk. The crepuscular activity reminded me of Delacroix and the nightingale.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Christmas Morning 2013

House Finches and Gray Squirrel Outside Studio Window. Ballpoint Pen Sketch by Ken Januski.

Early Christmas morning two House Finches feed at the window feeder outside my studio window while a Gray Squirrel hurries down a power line in a hurry to get to some festivities.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Christmas Bird Count Sketches 2013-2014

Scenes from Christmas Bird Count. Ball point pen sketches by Ken Januski.

So as winter begins our low last night was 64!!! Yesterday was also the Christmas Bird Count for Wyncote Audubon in the Northeast section of Philadelphia and surrounding areas. We are often bundled up in the warmest clothes for eight hours out in cold, gray, often wet weather. Though we started off with some pretty warm clothes I ended the day with my sleeves rolled up, skin exposed to weather in the high 60s.

The oddest thing this morning was to look out in the back yard and see no white - the snow was gone. So we've gone from what seems to be the most early December snow in Philadelphia in my 25 plus years to what may be record-breaking temperature this weekend!

All in all though I'm not sure, at least for us, that the weather made much difference in terms of the number of birds and bird species we saw. I haven't tallied the number of birds yet, but I'd guess 200-300. Generally though if we have a high total count then we have a low species count. Yesterday was 33 species, including the House Sparrows of the back yard. That's always the more exciting number to us, and 33 is about average I think for us and the areas we cover for the Christmas Bird Count.

I brought along my sketchpad and did just one sketch, a Golden-crowned Kinglet with a Great Blue Heron in  the background at the Manayunk Canal. That's the basis for the sketch above done with ballpoint pen on two pages of a 8.75x11.75 inch Stillman and Birn Epsilon sketchbook. The rest of the sketches are based on photos I took: Herring Gull with newly caught fish at Flat Rock Dam, Great Blue Heron with Mallards also at Manayunk Canal, and at bottom left some Common Mergansers seen on the Schuylkill River near Flat Rock Dam where it meets up with the Manayunk Canal.

Due to the pressure of covering a number of areas and seeing as many birds as possible there wasn't much time for sketching. But I'm happy that I got at least one in. Sketching is like exercise or anything else: you need to keep at it to get comfortable with it, to the point that it's a pleasure rather than a chore.

I've recently run across two online reviews from online friends on books with bird art of some sort or another as their subject. Debbie Kaspari at Drawing the Motmot recommends The Laws Guide to Drawing Birds by John Muir Laws, Drawing and Painting Birds by Tim Wootton and Capturing the Essence by William T. Cooper. Tim Wootton in turn on his blog recommends The Unfeathered Bird by Katrina Van Grouw, who spoke recently at The Free Library of Philadelphia.

I can recommend both Tim and Katrina's books and I've written about both of them here over the last couple of years. I've not read either of the other two, though I've heard many recommendations for the Laws book.

But I'd like to add another book for anyone interested in birds or bird art: Looking at Birds: An antidote to Field Guides by the artist and author who first convinced me you could actually make vibrant art with birds as the subject, John Busby (in his earlier Drawing Birds).

This is a very brief book, with very few words. But I think it is less a book to be read than a concept to be understood: an antidote to field guides. Early on he says:

It is a bonus to come face to face with a rare bird of course, but the adrenalin rush when encountering a rarity can narrow my observation down to diagnostic text - 'has it or hasn't it, got greenish-buff legs.'
Busby's book argues for sketching the unusual and surprising things that occur when you do more in looking at birds than find the markings that allow you to check them off a list. Right before the quote above he mentions getting excited about Blackbird shapes and the fun of collecting them.  There is a short chapter on preening birds and sketching them. Basically this book is about renewing an often jaded interest in birds, so that they are always interesting to look at.

There is almost nothing in the way of technical instruction. But with all the bird art out there that seems indentured to photography its nice to see one that instead focuses on getting your own experience  of the bird down, instead of  the feather count.

The sketch at top is a nod in that direction. I hope it captures some of the experience of the birds and the day.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Taking Inspiration Where You Find It

Red-eyed Vireo on Nest. Multiple block reduction woodcut by Ken Januski.
Well perhaps inspiration is too strong a word. I was looking through photos and sketches for something that I thought might work as a woodcut or linocut for a Season's Greetings card. When I saw my Red-eyed Vireo on nest photos I realized I could get a seasonal red and green theme by using a red border and a red eye along with the green leaves.

I almost never work in this way. But then again I'm rarely looking for something to meet a commission, in this case my own, that has specific requirements, like Season's Greetings. It was really quite a stretch to think that just the color combination would be enough to seem seasonal. So I designed it in such a way that the leaves, which are actually Beech, look a bit like Poinsettia. One more stretch.

Still I think it is what I wanted: a simple design that does, at least to me, seem seasonal.

If I happen upon one of the many Snowy Owls that have invaded Pennsylvania along with nearby states, then maybe I can think about a Happy New Year print. But I'm not at all counting on it.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Enthusiasm and Example in Art

Wilson's Snipe at Ottawa NWR. Watercolor Sketch by Ken Januski.
Wilson's Snipe. Ballpoint Pen Sketches by Ken Januski.
As much as I liked the quote from Delacroix in a recent post about the difficulty of finishing a painting there was something that bothered me. I didn't know the context. It was just an out of context quote. Because of that it was possible that I was reading into it a meaning that wasn't there about the complexity of painting.

Because of that I managed to pick up a copy of The Journals of Delacroix and have started reading them. How exciting they are. The early ones are as much about his love interests as his art but most of them were written when he was 50 and older and seem, from what I've read so far, to be more about his art.

What I've enjoyed so much about them is that they show a serious artist thinking about art. More important is that he is an accomplished and practicing artist, not an artistic dilettante lost in the ether of aesthetic theory. In another field, for instance politics, this would be called inside baseball, something of interest to practitioners and aficionados but not to anyone else.

The thing is it's very rare to find people who talk about their craft, who have a passion for it and can't keep from talking about it, theorizing about it. In some ways it's not even important what they say. From what I can tell so far Delacroix often contradicts himself. What is important, at least to me, is to run into someone who is passionate about art.

That thought in turn got me thinking about the times I've been most passionate about art, and enjoyed it the most. The first time was as a student at the University of California at Berkeley. Part of it was the classes both in studio art and art history. But more important was a small group of passionate fellow students. We, or at least I, thrived on working, seeing their work, talking about it, going to galleries, etc.

There is much to criticize about art education and my guess is that I'd be quite unhappy today. From what I can tell theory has come to rule over everything else. Some people wonder whether it makes sense to even go to art school. The one reason I'd advise doing so is the possibility of meeting people who are passionate about art, especially your peers.

The other instance of great enthusiasm for me occurred a number of years ago with the Wildlife Art thread of There was an excitement and shared enthusiasm that it was a great thrill to be part of, especially coming from total artistic isolation as I felt I was. There is no longer any activity there. But at the time it was wonderful.

You can look at books, go to galleries, etc. But I think that there is nothing that is better for artists than to be part of a group of people who share your enthusiasm about art. Eventually everyone has to go their own way. It happens with all artists. But I do think that anyone who's been part of such an enthusiastic group is lucky. It gives you the impetus to keep on when times are difficult.

So that is part of what Delacroix reminds me of: enthusiasm in the arts.

I was also enthusiastic about the arts from a child, though oddly enough it was mainly for abstract art. When I got to Chicago for college I spent hours upon hours at the Art Institute of Chicago admiring and enjoying the art. But I was majoring in English. The college I attended didn't offer any art courses. Art was not a viable occupation in my mind, neither in high school nor in college. The occupation and career of artist was something of the historical past not of the present or future.

For that you need acquaintance with practicing artists, i.e. adults who made art. That's what I discovered when I moved to the San Francisco Bay area, and especially when I started studying with famous artists at Berkeley. Their fame was not all that important though. What was important was that they were practicing artists. They made art!

This is the example that I refer to in the title. I do think that it must be very difficult to be an artist without the experience of both example and enthusiasm. I didn't have them early in my life but I am thankful that I eventually did. Reading Delacroix reminds me of just how exciting it can be to be an artist.

Apropos of nothing in this post are the two photos at top. Both are based on numerous photos I took of Wilson's Snipe at Ottawa NWR from this October. We rarely get a good look at snipe to this was a great thrill. We saw them in the same place for two or three days.

Because I don't know them that well I did the ballpoint pen sketches from photos, hoping that I might gain some familiarity with their form and markings. The watercolor sketch is an attempt to place them in their environment. Eventually I'd like to do either an acrylic painting or a woodcut/linocut.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

First Snow of 2013-2014 Winter

American Robin Eating Winterberry Fruit.
A predicted snow shower turned into something more today. In fact we're now expecting 3-6 inches of snow. For us that's actually a large amount this early in the year. Local birds look like they've been caught by surprise.

We counted 50 American Robins in trees around the yard. The smarter ones took advantage of the fruits of this winterberry. As you can see their neon red color is striking in winter, especially against snow. Sometimes we just admire their beauty. But when we get heavy snows we're happy that they're food for the birds. That was why we originally bought them.

Sharp-shinned Hawk on Backyard Bean Trellis.

When we first moved here and first discovered hawks in the backyard we believed that they were Sharp-shinned Hawks. And I think that's what they were. But here as in many places Cooper's Hawks have become more common. In this case though this was an immature Sharp-shinned Hawk. He finally left, without a meal. I assume he'll be back before dark.

The snow also brought some first of season birds (for the backyard) to our yard today: Dark-eyed Juncos, White-throated Sparrows, and surprisingly Northern Cardinals, which used to be here all year. We've seen these species elsewhere this year, quite a few in fact. But it's nice to finally see them in the backyard.

Eastern Towhee at Houston Meadows. Acrylic Painting by Ken Januski.

I thought this painting was done but as soon as I had a chance to take a good look at it things started bothering me. By this morning I could no longer stand it and had to start reworking it. But as soon as I changed one thing another started bothering me, etc., etc. For now it's done, though there is still one more change I'm tempted to make.

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher at Bartram's Garden. Watercolor by Ken Januski.

I finished reworking the Towhee painting by mid-morning, long before any serious snow had started. So that got me thinking about another 'finished' painting that had been bothering me more and more. Above is the new version of the watercolor of the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher. My original goal was just to get the bird down on paper. But the more I looked at it the more dissatisfied I was with the background foliage and sky. I'm going to try to keep my hands off of it and move on to something new but you just never know.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Heart of Steel

Eastern Towhee at Houston Meadows. Acrylic Painting by Ken Januski.

That's quite a title I admit. I found it while searching online for information regarding my recollection that Delacroix had a hard time letting a painting go, to the point of touching it up while hanging on exhibition. I never found anything regarding that but I did find something similar:

Finishing a painting requires a heart of steel: everything requires a decision and I find difficulties where I least expect them.

After the fact I realized that I might actually be thinking of John Constable or Edgar Degas. Perhaps all three of them had the same problem. In any case Delacroix says it well: a painting is really an orchestration, a visual symphony, of color, tone, shape, light, line, texture, etc. That's why there are so many decisions. Every thing you do affects everything else. Wildlife art or any art that just stresses accuracy in detail misses the only important thing in painting: the visual symphony.

All of which is just an explanation for the state of this acrylic painting of an Eastern Towhee. I think it's done. Every time I've tried to finish it up the marks I made in one area made another area look bad. So it's gone back and forth, back and forth. That's both the good side, and the curse, of acrylic painting. You can change it forever. The answer I think is either to sell it or hang it, in other words get it out of my hands so I can't do anything more with it!

Having worked so long in watercolor and woodcut/linocut where you can't keep changing over and over the freedom of acrylic is a shock. It's largely a pleasant shock. But still there is the problem of when is the painting done. This is something I'm sure all creators are familiar with. At some time you just need to boot the creative project out the door or have someone grab it from you, saving you from yourself. A less desirable alternative, though used by many, is to just destroy it in disgust. I've rarely used this method.

Great Blue Herons at Manayunk Canal. Field Sketches by Ken Januski.

Because of that these field sketches are a welcome relief. They of course don't have the detail of the painting, not even close. But they're fresher and simpler. These are two of the four different Great Blue Herons I saw at the Manayunk Canal the other day. Though there can be frustrations in art work in the long run I consider myself very lucky to be able to spend so much time either sketching outside or doing more developed work in the studio. It can't be beat.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Eastern Towhee Continued

Eastern Towhee at Houston Meadows. In-process Acrylic Painting by Ken Januski.

We were birding at Fort Washington State Park - Militia Hill today, killing time while waiting for our cat to finish at the vet. At one point a thoroughly recognizable shape hopped out into the path. It was an Eastern Towhee. I think because I've been spending so much time painting it the shape was instantly recognizable. We've actually been surprised at how often they can be found at this location in late fall and winter.

The high point though was a handsome Purple Finch, either female or first year just a few feet away from us. We rarely see them in this area of Pennsylvania so it was a pleasant surprise, especially as the predictions are for no irruption of northern finches into areas south this year.

When we got home, cat safely in tow, I decided to grab just a little time to continue work on this painting. There's still a lot of work to do, especially in incorporating its surroundings. But I am happy with its progress.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Eastern Towhee in Wet Paint

Eastern Towhee at Houston Meadows. First state of Acrylic Painting by Ken Januski.

Wet paint of course is redundant. All paint is wet. But it's a tern used by many artists to describe juicy, thick paint. It's the way I painted for years when I was an abstract painter in oil and acrylic. It's the opposite of paint consisting of thin washes and glazes.

All in all I still have a preference for thicker paint, though it's not something I've indulged much in the last 5-10 years. In any case it is the state of this initial version of an Eastern Towhee seen at Houston Meadows this summer.

Towhees are common birds here, though heard far more often than seen. When they do appear though anyone who appreciates color has to be taken by their rich combination of black, white and chestnut. They are very striking birds.

I did a few field sketches of this bird, but also took some photos. But I've never chosen one as the subject for a painting or print. When I looked at the photo today though I couldn't help but think: wet paint! As I think about how I go about starting a painting or print it generally involves looking through my photos and sketches. More time is spent looking than doing anything else.

What is surprising now that I've resumed acrylics is that some subjects that never jumped up and said "Paint me!" now do.

My guess is that this will get toned down a fair amount as I develop it. But only time will tell.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Garden Royalty and White-throated Sparrow

White-throated Sparrow. Acrylic Painting by Ken Januski.

Above is the finished 6x8 inch acrylic painting of a White-throated Sparrow. It's not as yellow orange as the photo indicates but close. I decided to leave it as is rather than fool around with it on the computer and perhaps make it less close to the actual painting.

In my many years of art I've always swung between what I think are it's two main elements, at least in two-dimensional work, line and mass. They both have tremendous appeal and at times I'll value one over the other. I think in good painting you get both but there are artists who manage to make a great painting out of mass alone. And of course there are great drawings out of line alone.

In any case now that I've taken up acrylic over the last week I realize how much I love being able to move mass around. That's the virtue of painting, especially oil or acrylic where you can keep painting over the first layer of color, unlike in watercolor.

Watercolor, especially in the hands of artists like Homer and Sargent, has a singing light that can't be beat. I much prefer the watercolors of both to their oils. But if you can't get that singing light then at least you have a better chance of getting the sense of mass right in oils and acrylic because you can keep reworking them.  I think that's what I'm enjoying in acrylic right now. But I'll never lose the desire to use watercolor like Homer and Sargent.

Early Wonder Tall Top Beets.

Pictured above are some of the last vegetables from the garden, pulled yesterday: Early Wonder Tall Top Beets, from Seed Savers Exchange. If I can I like to recollect at this time of the year, really the end of the growing season, just what has been particularly successful this year.

This changes, sometimes drastically from year to year, depending upon weather, pests, how much time we have to keep on top of the garden, etc. So here are what I'd called the Kings and Queens of the Garden this year:

1.Early Wonder Tall Top Beets. I've always hated beets. In fact I grew these for the greens at the top, not the beets in the ground. But out of curiosity we tried various methods of using the beets themselves: beet salad in the summer, and  roasted beets with other vegetables in the fall. They were a revelation to me. Now I see why so many people love beets.

2.Tasty Evergreen Tomatoes. These also are from Seed Savers Exchange. We usually grow some green tomatoes. They taste like red tomatoes and are eaten when fully ripe, not as 'green' red tomatoes are in an unripe state. We always try to grow one green tomato but most of the time we grow Green Zebra. We like green tomatoes for their less acidic taste. What was surprising about these was their larger size and their prolificness. I think they were our favorite tomato this year.

3.Hillbilly Potato Leaf and Cherokee Purple Tomatoes. A tie I guess. These are both heirloom tomatoes, as are all of the tomatoes from Seed Savers Exchange. The rainbow colors, and rich taste of Hillbilly Potato Leaf can't be beat. But each time I grow the purplish, almost bruised looking, Cherokee Purple I'm taken with it as well.

4.Clio Dandelion. This is from Johnnys Selected Seeds. We've grown it for a number of years now. In the spring and summer there is nothing better than wilted dandelion greens where you eat them raw with a warm bath of olive oil, vinegar, garlic and shallots. When I first tried dandelion greens I cooked them. Inedible!!! Only later did I realize that they are best raw. Not only do they taste good but they also taste healthy. I really can't describe that except that it strikes us that way each time we have them. This spring and summer their usual accompaniment was grilled chicken - a perfect combination.

5. Bennary's Giant Zinnias, already featured many times in this blog. Their bright appearance, popularity with bees, wasp and butterflies, and beauty even when dead in the late fall garden make them one of the very best plants in the garden.

6. Oregon Giant Snow Pea, also from Johnny's. Peas are always a bit of a problem for me. Are they worth the time it takes for them to fruit or do they take up too much of our little garden space for much too long? I'd stopped growing them, and garlic which I used to plant in late fall, because they weren't ready until June, often mid-June. But this year we got so many of these delicious peas that it was well worth the wait.

7.Basils. I can't remember all of the types we grew and where the seed was from. But basically they were these types: Genovese, Lettuce Leaf and Thai. We got them in earlier than usual, mainly because I planted seed inside earlier than usual, and we reaped the benefits: basil all summer long and lots of pesto now frozen in the freezer.

8.Beam's Yellow Pear Tomato. We grow this each year, and each year it gets out of hand, growing 10-12 feet high and long, escaping all constraints. But at the end of the year, when all else is dead, there is the Yellow Pear, with a few more tomatoes still there and waiting to be picked. You can't beat that.

And of course there are the annual duds and disappointments. For some reason the Fortex Pole Beans from Johnny's, royalty in other years, were disappointing this year. Perhaps it was just different weather. Dester Tomato, from Seed Savers Exchange, was very bland we thought, even though taste testers at SSE thought it one of the best tasting.

Monday, November 25, 2013

An Acrylic Detour

Dark-eyed Junco in Pine. Acrylic Painting by Ken Januski.

In going through my expired listings on my Etsy store the other day I noticed this painting of a Dark-eyed Junco in the small Swiss Stone Pine in our backyard. The painting itself is next to the light switch in my studio so I see it every day. But it's always seemed a bit unfinished to me. It may also be the first acrylic I did in 15-20 years. I do know it was one of the first, if not the first.

In any case I finally decided to put down printmaking tools and watercolors and pick up my acrylics. Above is the updated version. Primarily it sharpens the bill and adds some dark to the background.

Killdeer on Rock Bar. Acrylic Painting by Ken Januski.

Of course once I started on it I looked at another painting in my studio, a Killdeer on a rock bar in the wetlands pond of Morris Arboretum. I struggled and struggled with this painting a year or more ago. I did exhibit it for sale but never actually put it up for sale online because something kept nagging me about it. In any case I also reworked it. Most of the work was spent on making the rock bar lighter in tone.

The Junco is a small 6x8 inch painting. This is a larger 11x14 inch painting.

White-throated Sparrow. Unfinished Acrylic Painting by Ken Januski.

After finishing these two I couldn't resist trying a new 6x8 inch canvas since I had one just sitting there. This is not at all done. But before I worked too much on the background I wanted to concentrate on getting this handsome White-throated Sparrow right. I'm just starting to see them again and they'll be here all winter and much of the spring. Each time I see them I realize how handsome they are. Sparrows have a subtle beauty.

It sometimes is a mistake not to have figured out the background before you actually start the painting. When you don't you cans spend forever, fiddling here and fiddling there trying to make the whole thing work. I have some confidence that won't be the case here. but I could easily be wrong.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Big Flycatcher Delays Tiny Shoveler

Northern Shoveler at 'The Meadows' of Cape May. Multiple Block Reduction Woodcut by Ken Januski.

Northern Shoveler at 'The Meadows' of Cape May. Multiple Block Reduction Woodcut by Ken Januski.

One reason we didn't go out to see the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher at Bartram's Garden over the weekend, when any sane person would have gone, was that I was involved in this tiny two-block, reduction woodcut.

It is just 5x6 inches including the borders, and 4x2.5 inches for just the woodblock itself. Who would think you could get so involved with such a tiny, little thing? But you can. And I've enjoyed it. I've liked woodcuts and linocuts since I first started them three years ago. But I'm still finding my way with them, looking for a method that both gives me the results I want but also doesn't drive me crazy with all the technical complexity, or endanger my health with unhealthy fumes.

Two of my favorite prints were also the most difficult and the most nerve-wracking, The Blackburnian Warbler and the Green Heron with Twelve-spotted Skimmer.They were total improvisation from start to finish.

Since then I've tried various other methods, always with the original intent of keeping the process simple. It didn't always turn out that way though.

A few months ago I bought a Shina Plywood Grab Bag. It includes numerous very small pieces of Shina Plywood. They seemed perfect for experimenting and so that's how I got started here. At first this was just a one block, one color experiment.

But once I was done with seeing the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher and doing a watercolor based on it I wanted to get back to this. To make a long story short I printed two colors on the original woodblock then flipped it over and printed four more. It is finally done.

In many ways I prefer this to the flycatcher watercolor. I think that's because it is a separate, almost abstract painting, while at the same time being fairly accurate in portraying a Northern Shoveler. Prints and particularly woodblock prints seem to lend themselves to this method.

So I'll keep at it and keep experimenting.

This is an edition of 12 on Rives Lightweight paper and will eventually be for sale on my Etsy store.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

First Attempt at Scissor-tailed Flycatcher Painting

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher at Bartram's Garden. Watercolor by Ken Januski

I don't normally work this realistically but sometimes when seeing a bird for the first time I tend more in that direction. I guess it's just an attempt to understand the bird.

I spent a lot of time looking at this wayward Scissor-tailed Flycatcher yesterday so have a mental image of it. At the same time I took many photos and this is based on one of them. It's a 9x12 inch watercolor on Arches 140# hot press paper. I used the hot press because it has a smooth surface and allows me to be a bit more finicky in getting a good pencil outline for the bird.

Eventually I'll prefer a rougher cold press paper but I wanted to be able to spend time trying to get the shape right here. Somewhere along the line I think a print will make an appearance.

I do love watercolor but it's still not my strongest suit. Today is the third anniversary of the opening of my Etsy store. Hard to believe. Since I already had another store when I opened it I planned to just use it for prints, which I was trying for the first time in many years. But gradually I closed the other store and moved everything to Etsy.

In searching through the annual statistics for the store I see that all of the top ten or more most viewed items are linocuts or woodcuts. I do think that they have more individuality. Still I know that there are some people who much prefer the watercolors. And occasionally I do as well. So I keep working at them. They are just something quite different than the prints.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Regrets and Feeding Scissor-tailed Flycatcher

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher in Prickly Ash at Bartam's Garden.

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher at Bartram's Garden in Philadelphia.

The last week or so has been full of regrets for me. The largest by far was not applying for the Society of Wildlife Artists Annual Exhibition. Since I was in the previous two years I think I had a good chance of also getting in this year. But the costs were just so high last year, mainly due to needing to hire a courier to deliver them on a certain day and pick them up on a certain day, that I told myself I just couldn't apply this year.

Then I noticed, much too late, that it was the 50th exhibition, surely one to be in! And one of my favorite bird artists, Nick Derry, won a couple of awards. On top of that David Attenborough was there for the opening and gave a Wonderful Talk on Art and Nature. Once I read reviews of the show I knew I'd made a mistake regardless of costs.

The second regret? On Saturday a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher was reported at the storied Bartram's Garden. John Bartam was America's first great botanist. Among his visitors the early ornithologist Alexander Wilson. There is far too much history associated with the area for me to go into. Suffice it to say it's an area that is special to us, and many. Unfortunately we haven't been there in years.

Once a photo was posted of the bird it was even harder to avoid driving down to try to see it. And yet we did, finding other things to do on both Saturday and Sunday. I immediately regretted not going in the beautiful weather of yesterday. Then today also turned out nice, in the high 60s in fact. Once I heard that the bird had been seen, and after getting errands done, we headed down.

We rarely hunt rare birds, preferring to just go to a good location and see what's there. But I did expect that we'd have to work to see the bird. That was not the case. Over three hours we saw it at least five times in various locations.

Above are two of the best photos: the first showing him in a Prickly Ash. It's not as good as some other photos but I like the fact that it shows him in the shrub whose berries he was eating. Below that is a better photo but I'm not sure what the tree is. You can see how striking he is.

In addition his axillaries are orange like his lower belly and his tail opens widely when he flies. All in all he's a bird not to be missed, or forgotten.
Field Sketches of Scissor-tailed Flycatcher by Ken Januski.

Above are two field sketches that I tried, the first not as good as the second. I didn't have my scope with me so these were done by staring at the bird through binoculars then trying to get that memory down on paper. There is a thrill to that which cannot be matched by photos. If I'd had the scope I might have done more developed sketches. As it is I'll use my sketches, my memories and my photos to do at least a painting if not a painting and a print.

Finally this short video of him after he did what flycatchers normally do: catch a fly, or in this case something larger, perhaps a dragonfly. You can hear Jerene in the background suggesting that it was big. It's always great to see a new and rare bird, but it's also nice to get a chance to study his behavior, in this sense flycatching and eating the berries of the Prickly Ash.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Dancing Crane Flies, High Herons, Giant Zinnias

Dancing Crane Flies over Arbor Vitae.

Dancing Crane Flies over Arbor Vitae.

Each fall and winter, as far as I can tell after the first hard frost, a huge number of insects dance about in the air above a 6' Arbor Vitae that we bought years ago. They've always puzzled us so finally last year I got out my butterfly net and caught some: Crane Flies. What a surprise! Additionally I've found that there are numerous ones in Pennsylvania and obviously even more throughout the US and the world.

They are so busy bouncing up and down, almost like dowitchers of  the air, stitching air rather than mud, that it's almost impossible to see one individual. Today however I decided to spend 15 minutes trying to get decent photos of them. Two of the best are above. I think they give some idea of what it's like to see them in the yard. The oddest thing, still, is why they don't seem to come alive until cold weather. And why do they always choose this arbor vitae, one of the lesser shrubs of our garden, one that we bought when we were raw beginners as gardeners and just never replaced?

In any case it's always a pleasure to see them.
Two Great Blue Herons at Manayunk Canal. Field Sketch by Ken Januski

At this time of year it's always tempting to take a birding walk to see what is still about. There will be a few new arrivals, like mergansers and grebes, but mainly it's a matter of seeing what is still here.

Today found no real surprises at the Manayunk Canal. But I was puzzled about the herons. I'd hoped to see a Green Heron but knew that would be unlikely. But where were the Great Blues? They should surely be there. Has all the development there driven them out?* I fear that it eventually will. It's been two years since I've seen a night heron there. But when I started my return walk I found two, both high in trees. I always forget to look up! I've done a lot of Great Blue Heron sketches so today I concentrated on sketches that placed them in their environment.
Benary's Giant Zinnias after first hard frost.

Benary's Giant Zinnias after first hard frost.

Ever since our first hard frost a few nights ago our Benary's Giant Zinnias have looked the worse for wear. And yet they may still be the most beautiful things in the garden. But anyone who has seen Mondrian's Chrysantemum drawings will know that the structure of this type of flower is in and of itself a thing of beauty, regardless of whether the color is still there or the plant is still alive. Each fall I look at out spent zinnias and think of Mondrian.

I'm not really sure when he did them. I assume before the paintings that he's famous for. If so you can tell just by looking at them that this will be an artist to reckon with. By the way seeds for these wonderful zinnias are currently on sale for half price at Seed Savers Exchange. I'm pretty sure that's where ours are from.

I know this is a bit of a hodgepodge. But I did want to post something about each of these so into the HodgePodge Post they went.

*After I wrote this I realized that I should add that it is not all bad news at the Manayunk Canal, though I think it is far more bad than good. About a month ago Fairmount Park planted 100s of native trees and shrubs along the canal. As I recall there were a few oaks, though not many, birches, magnolias and numerous shrubs. Invasives have been removed to a certain extent to make way for the native plantings.

Eventually that should help the wildlife of the Manayunk Canal. On the downside I also learned that they're planning to dredge the canal to make it passable again, hopefully for nothing larger than a canoe or kayak. I'm sure that will have negative effects on the wildlife that are there. A Spotted Sandpiper hung out in that area this summer and I wouldn't be surprised if it's the hidden deeper area that is going to be dredged that also protects the herons. I fear it will become just another city park.

Some monstrously large, and ugly, buildings have been going up for months on the eastern side of the path. They nearly abut the path and much vegetation has been cut as they've been developed. I can only guess the negative effect of all the people moving into this grouping of monolithic housing will do. But as I said at least there is a small bit of good news in all of the native plantings.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

A Finished Piping Plover Woodcut

Piping Plover at 'The Meadows' in Cape May, NJ. Multi-block Reduction Woodcut by Ken Januski.
Piping Plover at 'The Meadows' in Cape May, NJ. Multi-block Reduction Woodcut by Ken Januski

Well I kept it pretty simple. I added a third color on second woodblock which is barely visible, mainly toward the top. On the first woodblock, which was printed last, I printed black, and then just a few areas of orange, mainly in parts of the bill and legs but also scattered throughout the background. The third color on the first block really added almost nothing but I decided to keep small portions of it.

I'm happy with this print. I did what is next to impossible for me: keep it simple, also known as the KISS principle, a concept I first came across in computer programming: Keep it Simple Stupid! It probably applies in art as well. Don't trip over your own complications.

I wish the photos did justice to the print. They make it seem a bit crude I think and the blue/gray works much better than it seems to here. Perhaps I'll try more photos later. I've been surprisingly unhappy with my photos of prints recently but I'm not really sure why that is.

The print is 7x9 inches, with the image itself being 4x6. It is printed with Daniel Smith water soluble relief inks on Rives Lightweight printing paper. It is an edition of 12.

I've written about Piping Plovers numerous times. You can find the various post by using the search box at the bottom of this page. Though estimates vary the most recent data I could find in a quick search showed a total world population of 8000. In the US they seem evenly split between the East Coast and the Midwest.

Obviously they are a cute bird. But when you realize how few of them exist in the entire world you realize that they are far more than just cute. These were seen on the beach portion of 'The Meadows' at Cape May, NJ a few years ago. They are cute but also tough. Let's hope they're tough enough to withstand all of their challenges.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Piping Plover Woodcut Continued

Piping Plover at 'The Meadows'. Multi-block woodcut proof by Ken Januski.

So far so good. I've kept this simple. This is still a proof on copier paper but I have printed the ochre and blue-gray colors on good Rives Lightweight paper as part of an edition. Since the black of the first block will probably be the last block printed I keep testing it on proofs to see what it might look like and give me some idea as to what to do next.

I do still need an orange for bills and legs. Other than that it's really a question of keeping it simple or trying to get subtle with added colors, or even a new block, in the background.

By the way the Japanese method of woodcut, from what I can tell from my uneducated background, is to carve outlines and then print color within that. The Western European way, and the way I first tried, dispenses with outline and just carves and gouges to get the subject down. This is a vast oversimplification from someone who's pretty new to printmaking.

Nonetheless this is probably the most linear work I've done so far in the sense of carving out just the outlines of the subject on a separate block. There is something appealing about that though also the danger of looking too much like a cartoon or stained glass window, at least in my humble and personal opinion.

So it's odd for me to be working this way. But I do like having the solid outlines of the main subject there to anchor and pull together the entire print. Because it's so unusual for me I am tempted to just keep this simple and not start getting too subtle and finicky with the background. I might faint if I ever finish a simple, uncomplicated print. Time will tell..............

Thursday, November 7, 2013

A Simple, So Far, Piping Plover Woodcut

Piping Plover at 'The Meadows'. Woodcut Proof by Ken Januski.

There's something appealing to me about the Shina woodblocks that I bought a few months ago. Perhaps the wood has a gentler surface than linoleum. I'm not sure. I also very much liked the way I was able to combine wood blocks in the Hummingbird Hawk Moth multiple block woodcut of a few months ago.

So with that as inspiration I've started this new multi-block woodcut based on a drawing I did last spring of a couple of Piping Plover seen at the beach of 'The Meadows' in Cape May, NJ.

It's almost impossible for me to keep anything simple. But I'm going to try here. Perhaps a gray of some sort, and then orange touches for bill and feet. It would be nice to do a woodcut/linocut that stayed simple from start to finish.

By the way this is printed with Daniel Smith water-soluble inks. This is the first time I've tried them and so far I'm pleased.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Another Election Day Osprey at Wissahickon

Juvenile Osprey at Wissahickon. Pen and Watercolor sketch by Ken Januski.

It was way back in November, 2004, the day after the presidential election that I saw my first Osprey along the Wissahickon Creek in Philadelphia. I only noticed him when I heard a splash behind me then saw a huge shadow fly over me. I then saw him head up the creek, fish in talons.

This was a great surprise. First of all it was a surprise to even find one in the Wissahickon. Second of all it was a surprise to find one in November. Since then I've seen them many times in November, often for weeks at a time.

As Jerene and I headed out for a brief walk today there were a few birds we hoped to see, first of fall birds more or less: Winter Wren, Brown Creeper, and Osprey among them. As we neared the end of our walk, with just a scant 18 species I theorized which of those species we might see in the last few hundreds of yards to up our count to 20.

Soon after Jerene stopped and said there was an Osprey across the creek. Sure enough there was a beautiful juvenile male Osprey, crisp white edges to most of his covert feathers. I've tried sketching them before with mixed results in this situation. So this time I decided on a few photos first, then sketches. Sure enough four quick photos and he was gone.

So this is based on one of those photos. It's done with ballpoint pen on a Stillman and Birn Beta sketchbook, opened wide to use both pages. I then went over the drawing with just a bit of watercolor. My hope was to capture the striking white, and almost punky head, as well as some of the many light feather edges.

I once told an accomplished local birder that I often see Osprey in the Wissahickon in November. He expressed skepticism. But they are there, sometimes vocal, and sometimes utterly quiet as today. But they're there and well worth looking for.

Their little brethren, the Golden-crowned Kinglet, might have been the most numerous bird of the walk. We also saw a Black Squirrel as we left. Now of course I'm toying with just how to combine the Osprey and Squirrel in a painting or print.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Sketching the Natural Wealth of Cape May, Part Three

Tri-colored Heron and Palm Warbler in Goldenrod. Field Sketch by Ken Januski.

Continuing on an old theme here I'm showing some field sketches from a recent trip to Cape May. Sadly it seems each trip produces fewer field sketches even though my skills are better each time I visit. This time I can blame it partially I think on the colder weather of this time of year, though even then we had some days of weather in the high 60s/low 70s, quite a warm temperature for late October/early November.

Above is a Tri-colored Heron, fishing at Fish Dock Road I believe it's called though I normally just call it Two Mile Landing for the restaurant at its end. We don't see Tri-colored Herons that often so they are always a treat. This pose was particularly striking for the way the heron was stretched out just about to pounce.

We of course see many Palm Warblers, though more in spring than fall. And we're fortunate to get the golden yellow ones rather than the blah brown/gray ones of the Midwest. But I like this one perched and feeding in the goldenrod along the beach at Cape May Point State Park. Unfortunately I only had time to get his head before he moved.
Black Skimmer, Gadwall, Tri-colored Heron. Field Sketch by Ken Januski.

We were fortunate to have a motel room facing the ocean and at very reasonable prices due to the time of year. From there I could set up my scope and scan before breakfast. One morning I saw over 30 Black Skimmers, though at a distance. Scoter were also visible in the distance. Then one morning as I scanned the gulls on the beach I found something different, a handsome Black Skimmer. That is him at top, just before he flew. He's the first of Birds with Too Big Bills in this post. Not shown here, sadly is one of the many Northern Gannet that appeared the morning that we left. I had no time to try to capture at least one of them on paper.

Ducks were everywhere and I wish I'd sketched more of them. Above is jut one attempt at a Gadwall in the pond at 'The Meadows.' Beneath him another sketch of a Tri-colored Heron at Fish Dock Road. As I sketched him a long-billed bird swam in front of him. I couldn't place him then realized it was a Clapper Rail as it climbed up on shore. I called over Jerene to see one of her favorite birds. As she looked in the scope another rail appeared and the two squabbled among themselves before disappearing. So sadly I lost the chance to sketch them.
Brown Thrasher, Ring-necked Duck, Northern Harrier. Field Sketch by Ken Januski.

One morning at Higbee Beach we were treated to numerous Brown Thrashers, many of them at the beginning of the trail. I was thrilled to be able to see them so long and do a good field sketch, until I looked at what I'd done that is. How had I managed to make such an elegant bird look so dumpy? One thing was that he seemed to have almost a hunched back and I tried to capture that. But overall his elegance is completely lost. Perhaps I'll regain it in a print or painting. Later in the day we saw our first Ring-necked Duck of the year. I haven't checked but I think this sketch probably looks almost identical to the one I did a few years ago a the same place, the pond in front of the hawk watch platform at Cape May Point State Park. Again I have to ask how the bird ended up so dumpy!? Still they, and all the birds we saw, were thrilling to see.

There had been a somewhat rare Swainsons Hawk seen at Cape May a day or two before we arrived. I wasn't really thinking of it as the lanky bird at bottom of page moved slowly toward us. At first I thought it was an osprey, though I thought most had already left. As he got closer I saw the colors were wrong. Then I noticed the white/light breast and very dark head and throat. That combined with lanky wings, and a bit of wishful thinking, convinced me that the Swainsons Hawk had returned. But I was still a bit cautious. When I got home and looked at our guides I realized too many things just didn't add up. Finally as I looked at Richard Crossley's recent Raptor ID Guide I saw a picture that pretty much matched what we'd seen and I'd sketched: a Northern Harrier seen directly from below, and much higher than normal. That explained why the throat was dark and not light as it should have been.

While we were out we ran into all sorts of birders who would call up an app on their phones to check the ID of a bird. It was alarming. These apps have  so little information, at least from what I can see as they show them to me. I wonder how many birders would have used them to turn our Northern Harrier into a Swainsons. One thing I find so fulfilling, and Jerene does as well, is really looking at birds and figuring out what they really are, not what we want them to be. For that sketching is invaluable.

Many birding books suggest never looking at a guide after seeing a bird. First really look at it and take notes so you can trust what you have seen. Then look at a guide to help determine the ID. Phone apps seem even worse for tricking people into the wrong ID. They get just a hint of something and then go find something vaguely similar and label the bird. I really don't see the point of these apps but then I don't really see the point of cell phones period so I suppose it's no surprise. Even with my bias against them though its hard for me not to think that they do more harm than good. Perhaps some day someone will convince me otherwise. In any case the instance of the Swainson's Hawk turned Northern Harrier seems to me a good example of why you should first observe and then take notes before you begin to pin a label on a bird.
Northern Shoveler. Photo by Ken Januski.

Last year I did a small watercolor based on three Northern Shovelers that we'd seen at Brigantine/Forsythe NWR. I only had a few photos and even fewer field sketches to go on. And the bills just seemed abnormally large in the finished painting. This time we got to see quite a few Shovelers. It was a great surprise to see how small a duck they really are. This surprised us day after day. There larger appearance I think is really caused by their bill, one that I think the photo above shows at its true size, one even larger than in my watercolor!

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Feeding and Sketching Birds

Robin in Crabapple in Yard, House Sparrows at Window Feeder. Sketch by Ken Januski.

Droll Yankee Window Feeder hanging on my studio window.

Last year I got the feeder pictured above for Christmas. I thought it would be nice to sketch birds outside of my studio window, right in front of my drawing table with its table easel. Hah! December - no birds. January - no birds. February - no birds. I may exaggerate a bit. But I'm pretty sure that no birds, not even House Sparrows, would try it until March or so.

The idea of course was to get me to force myself to look at birds more closely and get better at this odd thing called field sketching. Well it was a great idea. But the birds didn't cooperate.

But things have changed. All of the field sketches on this page are from the last few days. Ninety percent of the birds have been House Sparrows and the other ten percent a recent fall arrival, Carolina Chickadees. At the top you can see another bird that has arrived in the yard but is too big for the feeder - one of many American Robins. They are having a good time in our crabapple, the one we were told wouldn't reach eight feet and is now about 25 feet high. But it does present a good view fro the third floor.

In any case it's been nice to have so many birds. But I'd sure prefer something more interesting, as we sometimes get in our backyard. For practicing sketching from life though there's nothing wrong with House Sparrows. Their constant quarrels and fights over food and feeding position mean that there are always animated poses.

And every few seconds they all disappear in a choreographed wave. It's always amazes me how they can all leave like this at seemingly the exact same nanosecond. One of these days I'll try to capture that in paint, I hope?!
Carolina Chickadees and House Sparrows at feeder. Sketch by Ken Januski

House Sparrows at Feeder. Sketch by Ken Januski.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Recent Migrant and Resident Field Sketches

Great Blue Herons and Ruby-crowned Kinglet. Field sketch by Ken Januski.

House Sparrows at Feeder. Field Sketch by Ken Januski.

I have to say it's been refreshing to get back to field sketches, to drawing birds that are alive as can be, right in front of me. A few days ago a flurry of migrants came through, including five different Great Blue Herons and one Ruby-crowned Kinglet at the Manayunk Canal, pictured at top.

When I got home our first Carolina Chickadees and Northern Mockingbird of the fall in our backyard made appearances. But by the next day they were gone.  I'd hope to sketch them as well but no such luck. The Ruby-crowned Kinglet lasted for four days but now seems gone as well.

Instead we have the resident House Sparrows, pictured above, feeding outside the window of my studio at my window feeder. American Robins are still here as well but they stick to the trees and bushes that have berries in our yard.

After missing photos of some fairly unusual birds, like a Magnolia Warbler seen at Andorra Meadows last December I've learned to normally carry my Lumix FZ28 camera with me in case I see something unusual. But there's always the temptation to get it out and take one more photo of a more common bird like a Great Blue Heron.

It's harder to convince myself to sketch. But once I do I'm always happy that I did. I realize each time I do that drawing is a skill that needs to me exercised every day. The more you draw the better you get. The other thing I realize is how much I hate working from photos. No news there, any regular reader of this blog can tell you.

Still it surprises me every time when I contrast the two. When I work from photos I always feel that I may see more detail but that somehow the source is impoverished, like I'm seeing the bird through a curtain or two. When I field sketch I know that I may miss much. I may make many mistakes. But it's also exciting, like I'm actually drawing, and interacting, with something that is alive.

Interestingly enough I was reading Alvaro Jamarillo's essay in the new edition of Bird Watcher's Digest today about how important sketching is both to become a better birder and to document rare birds. I couldn't agree more.  You learn most when sketching live I think. Perhaps because there is far more pressure. You know that the bird may leave before you've finished sketching or even finished forming a mental picture. That makes it far more engaging as you try to truly SEE the bird. I'm rarely engaged when I work from photos, even though they're always my own and remind me of the time, usually quite enjoyable, when I saw the bird.

In the sketches above one Great Blue Heron flew away but beneath my line of vision. This is an unusual perspective. He was there and gone in a split second and I tried to capture it even though I'm sure much of the pose is wrong. It was worth the effort and I'm glad I tried. Same thing with the flying House Sparrow in the sketch below.  I also enjoyed doing the Great Blue Heron with tilted neck, looking straight at me and walking slowly my way. Such things occur in a split second and it is a real thrill to try to capture them. I think I can safely say I have never, ever been thrilled when working from photos.

Monday, October 21, 2013

How Can It Be So Hard?!

Ruby-crowned Kinglets. Watercolor Sketch by Ken Januski.

I began the sketch above soon after completing the recent watercolor sketch of Golden-crowned Kinglets. It's based on more photos and I was quite dissatisfied with it when I was done. I realized that even though we had a Ruby-crowned Kinglet overwinter two different years in our backyard I didn't really have good photos. And I certainly didn't have good sketches.

So wouldn't you know that the very next day one arrived in our yard. Either he or different birds have been here each of the last three days. I've also seen them while out birding over the weekend and took numerous photos. The watercolor below is based  on one of them.
Ruby-crowned Kinglet. Watercolor by Ken Januski.


Today when I and Jerene chased him down our small side yard from crabapple, to dogwood, to aronia, ninebark and finally viburnum I decided not to go back in to get my binoculars or camera. I just wanted to see the bird with my naked eye as he picked insects off of all those plants. Perhaps one day I'll do a painting of him picking them off of some of the remaining Yellow Pear tomatoes.

When I came back in I was determined to do a definitive sketch of him, one that really captured both his shape and proportions as well as his markings. Would you believe I spent at least two hours just sketching the watercolor above before adding any color? The undeveloped state of the watercolor may reflect the fact that I'd worn myself out just trying to get the drawing right.

It's been awhile since I've posted something that's been such a struggle. But struggle is a true part of an artist's life. You can't be successful without it. I do actually like the drawing here. It's too bad the background leaves something to be desired.

One thing that has always puzzled me on kinglets is that when briefly seen their wing bars make no sense. Half of my field sketches have them going the wrong direction. Others have different problems. One thing I've learned over the last week or so is that their scapulars often cover the median coverts(i.e. the upper wingbar). You can see here how just a hint of the white of the upper wingbar peaks out. Additionally they have dark-based primary feathers.

Normally when you see a wingbar on a bird the tips might be light or white with the upper part being darker. That is true with kinglets as well. What's surprising and confusing though is that the base of the primaries, the area beneath the greater covert(or lower wingbar) is also dark. So at first glance, and that's often all you get with kinglets, the wingbar looks backward with the dark on the bottom rather than the top.

Many people I'm sure won't have the slightest interest in this. But for me it's exciting to have finally understood this.

Kinglets truly are the most endearing of birds. We're fortunate to have them in the yard right now, and just about everywhere else. I feel like I'm getting closer to doing them justice. But it has been a struggle.