Sunday, February 3, 2013
Thoughts On My 500th Post
I don't spend a lot of time watching such statistics as how many blog posts I've made. But I did notice that I was inching toward 500 and so I've paid a bit more attention. This is number 500. Above are some sketches from one of the very first posts. The following is a very lengthy post. Most likely I'll add no images other the ones above. So I know that this post will lose most readers somewhere along the line. Still it seemed like it was worth writing.
So what have I learned over 500 posts and more than 6 years? That I talk too much?! That's certainly possible. If so I think I can trace it back to high school when I and two friends would go to a local diner, order only coffee, and then sit all night philosophizing and arguing. Who knows why the waitresses didn't just throw us out? Maybe we provided entertainment. I'm sure we were considered a bit odd. Setting that thought aside though I think there were a couple of things I originally wanted out of this blog: a place to write about my experiences in nature, particularly while birding, and a place to show my incipient bird sketches.
I'd decided to turn to naturalistic art, primarily birds, at the same time I began the blog, so I had only the vaguest idea of what type of naturalistic art I'd do. I think that at the beginning I expected nothing more than tentative sketches and illustrations of things I'd seen. Since I really had no background in naturalistic art I knew that they were going to be tentative.
Since I have a number of advanced degrees in fine art and had spent much of my life as an ambitious, if not equally successful, fine artist it's no surprise that I soon wanted to do more ambitious work with nature as a subject. I wanted more than tentative illustrations of what I'd seen. I also soon realized that there were all sorts of people blogging about nature that were far better and more experienced and more motivated than I was. I found that I was more passionate about art and probably a bit more unusual in this passion. So my posts turned to my own nature-based art, rather than nature itself.
This will get very boring if I go step by step through my very slow progress. Some recent reading has fortuitously summarized many of the themes of my years with naturalistic art. The books are: The Unfeathered Bird by Katrina van Grouw, Wildlife in Printmaking by Carry Akroyd, The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: the Curious Economics of Contemporary Art by Don Thompson, American Wildlife Art by David J. Wagner, American Birding Sketchbook by Michael Warren and Bob Kuhn: Drawing on Instinct by Adam Duncan Harris.
I don't think too many readers of this blog are as interested as I am in art, the history of art and making a living as an artist. Even fewer from what I can tell are interested in what is called 'modern art', something I mentioned about a month ago: 100th Birthday of Abstract Art. Still it's always been an undercurrent in most of what I write. I think about it almost every day.
To make a long, and possibly boring, story short: I've always been quite conflicted about my background as an abstract artist and my new interest in representational art, especially what's often referred to as 'wildlife art', a type of art often despised by the galleries I used to desire to show in and one generally given very short shrift by the establishment art world of which I used to be a part.
If I were to summarize my experience I'd say that it has been a greater and greater appreciation for at least some wildlife art as well as greater and greater criticism of contemporary art, so much so that I'd say it's become almost anti-art. The books mentioned above all are indicative in some way of this. I don't think by any means that they are the only books that would lead to this conclusion. They're just all very good books and ones that I happened to be reading over the last few months that all seemed to reinforce my thoughts and feelings.
One of the first things I noticed in my bird art was that I didn't understand their structure. What did all those feathers do? Were they all the same? Was their any similar pattern in the feathers of both sparrows and gulls? I still give most small birds a neck that they don't have, stretching it out far more than I should. So over time, and over many questionable drawings and paintings here, I've learned something. Much of this has been helped by field sketching, something I was horribly unsuccessful with until I started frequenting the Wildlife Art section of birdforum.net, which at that time had numerous artists who were fully devoted to sketching birds in the field. I say 'at that time' because this forum I'm afraid has paid the price of Facebook desertion and quieted down quite a bit.
I've written much about the value, and thrill, of field sketching so I won't repeat it here. What I would like to note though is Katrina van Grouw's book, noted above. I'm not quite finished with it yet but it's a unique and wonderful book on the structure of birds, particularly their skeleton, with many, many drawings by her coupled with an excellent text on why certain birds seem to differ structurally from one another. All the hard earned clues that I've picked up about how birds are put together are also here, along with many I've not yet picked up, portrayed and explained both in text and illustration. Not everyone will enjoy looking at the musculature-skeletal structure of birds but I think anyone who's observed birds closely will. Evolution is a main theme, along with convergent evolution, which indicates unrelated species that seem to have both adapted in the same way so that they look like they're related. It really is a fascinating exploration of birds and their structure.
My very first bird works were vigorous charcoal drawings based on photos of birds I'd taken. But I soon saw that photos only showed part of birds and I was at a complete loss as to what was happening in the blurred, indistinct or hidden parts. I knew from the start that I didn't want to fudge this. But neither did I want to be limited by it, i.e. I didn't want to end up doing scientific illustrations just to show I understood the structure. I think what I find so rewarding about this book is that it helps to crystallize my understanding of the structure of birds, and show how closely it is related to their lifestyle. That type of knowledge is easy to keep in mind in any type of bird portrayal, realistic or abstract.
So that is one thing that I think this blog has touched on, over and over, trying to understand how birds are put together so that whatever work I do, no matter how abstract, looks like I'm actually familiar with the birds and haven't just picked up some random photo and started copying.
Another theme is background and environment. Birds don't exist in a vacuum, nor does any living creature. And subjects in art don't either. One of the first things you should learn as an artist is that you can't just plop your subject down in the middle of the canvas or paper and expect it to be exciting. All in all I'd say that this is the biggest mistake of wildlife artists, the one that most makes their work dull. Many people, probably far more than you'd imagine, are capable of making a passable rendering of birds, animals or just about any other subject. But just as music is not just melody, or not just rhythm, art is not just a subject realistically portrayed. Compostion is an extraordinarily important part of art.
I was very well aware of this in my abstract art. Matisse famously said that his paintings were done when everything was in its proper place, i.e. every little bit of the painting was important. Because I firmly believed this I had a very hard time with the poor or non-existent composition of so much wildlife art. One common solution was the vignette, where the subject is in the center, surrounded by a light halo that fades to nothing as it reaches the edge of the paper or canvas. I myself have tried all sorts of impressionstic, slightly abstract backgrounds, none very successful. I quickly realized that this was another major aspect of naturalistic art that I needed to contend with.
So much of this blog, either in word or in the art itself, has been about my attempts to compose bird art. Both the Bob Kuhn and the Michael Warren book have been interesting to read and view in this regard. Though Kuhn worked for many years as an illustrator and thus almost by definition had to include more or less realistic backgrounds he was also good at composition. When he dropped illustration work at age 50 to devote himself to fulltime paintng he eventually minimized the background to where it was almost abstract. I confess I'm really new to his work and hadn't seen much of it until I got this book. So I'm reluctant to say all that much about him. What I know is from reading this book and looking at the art involved. But he has surprised me by showing an unexpected solution to composition and environment in wildlife art: minimize it but based on what you know. He does a wonderful job of making believable backgrounds and environments that are quasi-abstract.
Michael Warren on the other hands goes in the opposite direction. Often his work especially in the book mentioned above, devotes more space to the environment than to the bird. What is most shocking, pleasantly shocking, is that he seems to have paid attention to the surrounding environment. All the trees, limbs, foliage, water, rocks, etc. look right. And yet they're not photorealist detailed renderings ala Robert Bateman, but something I much prefer a fresh, more abstracted version of them. So much realism seems musclebound, as though it can't break free from the chains of minute detail. Warren's work shows the same knowledge of the environment but portrayed, at least to me, in a more artistic way.
In any case both books have been revelations about how to situate a bird in its surroundings and on paper or canvas in such a way that it both seems believable and also has all the excitement of the best art. I'm really not sure which direction my own work will go from here. But both of these artists show high quality examples of two very different directions. And they both illustrate another theme that has been very important to me throughout this blog. I should add that though I think my talents lie more in the line of Kuhn I'm partiularly impressed with Warren's accomplishments.
As I've struggled with being a 'wildlife artist,' I've often wondered why some artists work the way they do. Why the slavish devotion to photographic detail, a truly stultifying style of art most of the time. A somewhat surprising answer came to me via David J. Wagner's book: to pay the bills. I've never made a living as an artist, abstract, wildlife, or anywhere in between. The best I did was teach art at the college level for a few years and that is far different than making a living from your art.
When you're trying to make a living from your art things are a bit more complicated. The fascinating thing about his book is seeing how this has played out through history. We tend to forget that people didn't always have sporting vacations in the Adirondacks or anywhere. The notion of 'sport' is relatively new. In any case various artists, from Arthur Fitzwilliam Tate to Winslow Homer, were able to make their living by portraying the wilderness that was being explored for 'sport' in 19th century America. I know Homer better than Tait and for him I'd guess it was an easy enough subject since he personally enjoyed it. Still if there hadn't been a market for it perhaps we'd have a different Winslow Homer. Bob Kuhn too happened to paint African wildlife just at the same time that there was a market for it, especially from safari hunters eager to remember their adventure.
By contrast the early Bob Kuhn as well as many other wildlife artist had only one way to make their living in the early to mid 20th century - magazine illustration. Coming from the art for art's sake tradition, where it was almost suspect to make a living from art, I tend to forget that many artists had to do what their clients wanted. The great British artist Charles Tunnicliffe seemed to have commissions almost all his life, even at at time of great fame.So often artists have had to do what they were paid to do, not what they might have personally wanted to do. Kuhn's paintings after age 50 are far stronger than his illustrations but it took him until then to believe it was safe to risk his economic well-being on art as he wished to do it.
There are of course other influences on art mentioned in the Wagner book, including the many artists, such as Louis Agassiz Fuertes, who made their living more in the scientific sphere. Another book on wildlife art whose name I don't recall offhand mentions how many wildlife artists didn't begin painting the way they wanted until they retired from scientific jobs, often with natural history museums or universities. I'm not sure that this makes me like some of the work anymore but it does help to explain why wildlife art is the way it is. For me that has been important because I've always felt like the round peg in the square holes of wildlife art.
Another theme of Wagner's book is the long history of conservation and environmentalism in wildlife art. That too has been interesting and rewarding to see. And it brings up an interesting question. What is more important, liking the style of another wildlife artist or sharing some kinship with his concern for wilflife even if rendered it a thoroughly different or even distasteful style? There's no obviuos answer to this but it is something I've often thought about. I can admire many things about Robert Bateman's paintings but I rarely really like them. On the other hand I thoroughly admire and like him as an enviromentalist.
These previous books, at least for me, help to explain my place in wildlife art, something that I think has been a major theme of this blog through the years. I've always been uncomfortable in the role of wildlife artist.
The last theme is the other side of this: my relation to contemporary art and the state of contemporary art.
If you've made it through this far, in what surely is my lengthiest post, I'll reward you with the postive first. I love much of modern art, for example Matisse, Cezanne, Stuart Davis, Mondrian, Richard Diebenkorn to name just a very few. My hope when I began wildlife art was that I could use a modernistic style with a naturalistic theme. I wish I could show you a book by the very talented Nick Derry but the best I can do is show you this link to his Nick Derry Facebook page. Carry Akroyd's printmaking book mentioned at top shows some artists who I think do exactly this. Many are members of the Society of Wildife Artists and this help explains why I've spent huge amounts of money to send my work for their last two annual exhibits. It's the only venue I know of that seems to combine modern art and wildlife art.
One artist who is particularly successful at this I think is Kim Atkinson. Some of her work is in the Akroyd book. One theme that I think is particularly interesting is what I'd call synesthesia. the use of one sense, or medium, to evoke another. Early abstract artists talked about this as a goal, where their art also evoked music among other things. One or two of Atkinson's works include sound in their title. And I think that's exactly what modern art is capable of. It is capable of portraying, or evoking, the sense of spring, including the chatter or birds, the smell of lilacs, etc. So this book reminds me of what has always been a goal of mine, to keep the broad expressiveness of modern art in my representatiaonal art.
I think this is more often a goal than an accomplishment and often I work more traditionally. But it is a huge, if underlying theme.
Finally we have contemporary art, and the cost of art. I dropped abstract art 10-15 years ago out of disgust with the contemporary art world. I'm only more disgusted now. But I no longer spend any time with it so it's not so bad. From a distance I've theorized as to what seems so wrong with it. I've also theorized as to why you'll never see wildlife art in an art musuem and rarely any galleries other than 'wildlife art' galleries. My conclusion was that contemporary art is now strictly a world of finance and financial speculation.
This is not to say that all artists believe this but my own experience with art schools is that art students quite eagerly follow the leader, even if the leader is a 'shocking' artist. So everybody is 'shocking' together. I can't prove any of this and don't want to spend the time or energy doing so. But I did fnally decide to read a bit about it. The Don Thompson book is revelatory. It's mainly a reporting book rather than a critical analysis, i.e. he's not as appalled as I am. In fact he's an occasional collector himself. But it does show how the contemporary artists who sell for millions got where they are. It shows the tremendous monetary incentives for artists, dealers, auction houses, museums and collectors. To me it's a sick world. There's no other way to put it. Art is no longer important and money and prestige are. Contemporary art is bought, and sold, for financial gain and/or to keep up with the Jones, the hedge fund manager Joneses.
This really isn't of much importance to me, except that I think it does degrade the long and honorable tradition of art. Of course I could be accused of philistinism, but who hasn't over the last 150 years? It's an insult that no longer has meaning. But what's saddest about it is that there are so many legitimate artists, including many wildilfe artists, who will never sell, never be shown in museums or galleries while instead the stuff mentioned in this book will, most selling for over one million dollars.
I'm not going to go on any futher with that particular depressing theme. What I've found interesting in the book is that it makes me feel more strongly than ever that today's art work has nothing to do with art and has no place for me in it. In other words it solidifies my convicition that today I'm truly wildlife artist.
With ALL of that said perhaps my future posts will deal less with thoughts about art and wildlife art and instead just concentrate on my artwork and the nature that has inspired this. If you've gotten all the way through this: CONGRATULATIONS. I know it's been very long and self-referential.