Thursday, March 28, 2013

Avoiding Cliches

Piping Plovers at 'The Meadows'. Watercolor by Ken Januski

I have a lot of photos that I've taken of birds over the years. This may come as a surprise to some given how much I write about the problems of relying on photos in art. It's true. I think more bad art has come out because of the use of photos than vice versa, not that this view is based on any scientific studies.

I suppose it's similar to birders I meet who want to rely on some digital technology to confirm the bird that they see or hear. Yes you may get an ID that way, just as you may get some likeness of a bird if you rely solely on photos. But what's the point? You're missing all the enjoyment of learning something, of interacting with the world, of portraying the excitement of that interaction. Would you rather interact with the bird or the photo of the bird?

Still when I started I knew so little about the structure of birds that I found I was also trying to take photos of them when I saw them rather than just look at them or try to sketch them. Now over six years later I tend to look and sketch first and only take photos later. Even with photos as a secondary motive I've ended up with a fair amount of them.

And when I'm searching for an idea for a new painting or print I often flip through them. In doing so there are always a fair number that I reject out of hand: poorly seen bird, dull composition, impossible pose, and quite often, cliche, or fear of cliche.

That's always the case with Piping Plovers. They always seem impossibly cute, at least by human standards. I'm sure they don't look cute to the nearby American Oystercatchers. Still I know that they'll seem cute. I can't even tell if that's why I'm attracted to them. But I also know that no subject should be out of bounds for a true artist. A talented artist can always breathe new life into overdone subjects.

Still that fear of cliche stays with me. Everytime I look through my many Piping Plover photos something scares me off. And that is the one beauty of the surprise project of using a number of Stillman and Birn sketchbooks for examples for a demonstration on their use. For me it takes the pressure off. I can give subjects I normally shy away from a try. That's been true of almost all of the work I've done over the last week, with the exception of the Eastern Phoebe.

Today's Piping Plovers was another. I decided to concentrate on drawing the birds, something that turned out to be far more complicated than I expected, and then to just experiment with Caran d'Ache Neocolor II watersoluble crayons for color. I also  decided to stick with the smaller 7x10 Gamma sketchbook, one that really doesn't like too much water.

I thought I could get around the problem of too much water by just being spare with both crayon and water to turn the marks into washes. And that's exactly what I did. I just made faint crayon marks on the birds and then used a small waterbrush to move the color around into larger areas. With the sand I basically just made small dots or marks with the crayons then used the waterbrush to smear them and blend them into one another. This was an experiment but I think it turned out pretty well.

One additional thing is the luminosity of the Neocolors. This is something I really liked. Though I knew the background here might be too simple and too boring I hoped that the richness of the colors would be enough to offset that. I think, at least to these unbiased eyes, that it turned out that way.

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