Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Painting with Crayons

Wood Ducks, Mallard and Canada Geese at Valley Green. Crayon and wash by Ken Januski

Wood Ducks, Mallard and Canada Geese. Pencil sketch by Ken Januski

Once warblers arrive it's easy to convince myself that I ought to go out and look for them even if there are a million other things I should be doing. That happened yesterday. And of course, outside of three singing Louisiana Waterthrushes, they were nowhere to be seen. The highlight of the day was an Osprey sailing up and down the Wissahickon, calling in his full throated voice as he went. I say 'sailing' deliberately. The wind was so strong that he went by as though shot out of an arrow, twisting and turning with the curves of the stream itself.

I brougth both my Moleskine and Stillman and Birn sketchbooks. As I said last post I'm in the habit of using the Moleskine for ballpoint pen field sketches. When I took up wildlife art I pretty much thought that's what defined a 'field sketch.' And to a large extent that's true.

But I also found myself really admiring the more compositional sketches of a few wildlife artists, often done in the field as well. The problem with field sketches that just try to understand and portray the bird by itself is that they present a problem when used as the basis for a painting. How do you compose it? What goes in the background, the foreground? What are the colors, the light?

That's something that more compositional studies can accomplish. I decided that this might be a very good use of the Stillman and Birn sketchbooks. So yesterday I brought along a small 5.5x8.5. Zeta sketchbook. It was hardbound so I knew that could open it and use  it as one 8.5x11 sheet.

Since I'd seen few birds along the way, and since there were up to 30 handsome Wood Ducks, all at Valley Green I decided to sit down on one of the benches and at least work up a pencil sketch. None of these birds ever appeared as they do in the sketch above. I started with the foreground Canada Goose, then moved on to two different Wood Ducks and placed them behind him, then added a distant goose to his left, Finally I added the female Mallard that floated by later.

This type of compositional study is something that I greatly enjoy. In some ways it exemplifies the very center of art, especially natural art: creating something new out of things actually seen. It emphasizes creativity.

I'm not saying that this is a great 'creation.' I did the pencil sketch on site and then added crayon and wash in my studio over the last two days. I thought I was finished last night but when I looked at the photo I'd taken I saw that all the values seemed to be the same. In particular I thought it would be better to make the foreground darker than the background. This is the type of compositional decision that I think involves another type of artistic creativity.

The quintessential medium for this type of creativity is I think oil or acrylic, mainly because they allow endless variation, modification, fine-tuning. And that's the nature of the title of this post. I really do think that using these Caran d'Ache Neocolor II crayons allows as much flexibility and modification is as possible on a paper surface, outside of actually painting on paper. I think that's one thing I find so exciting about using them on the sturdy Stillman and Birn paper. I can get much closer to painting, and all the artistic fine-tuning that that implies, without actually using paint on canvas.

So that's why I call this post 'Painting with Crayons.' This process gets very close to painting. And for me it gives me the chance to try out small paintings. In that sense this is a true sketchbook inthe original use of the term - a tool in which ideas can be tried out.

I've often liked artists drawings more than their paintings. Rembrandt is a prime instance of this. They show the individuality, creativity, rawness of an artist without a lot of cleaning up to make presentable for the buying public. I think that's still pretty much true today. I often prefer the sketches of wildlife artists to their paintings. An exception I can think of right off is Bob Kuhn, mainly because his paintings don't have a high finish. They keep some of the raw power of sketches, and they make artistic composition as important as nature itself.

It's the ease with which I can make artistic compostional and color decisions with the crayons and the Zeta sketchbook that make me so happy with them as working method for art. Finally I should add that I'd never make a finished painting based completely on the sketch above. There's too much that I'm unhapy with. But it is enough for me to picture a painting in my minds eye, and think about how I might change it to make an actual painting. That's incredibly valuable. After I'd posted this I realized that another version might be good for this Saturday's demo, listed at upper right of this page. I won't have time to do a drawing and use crayons to color it so I've been planning to have the sketch done in advance. This is a variation on the crayon sketch, but this time done with the benefit of reference photos. It's done on Stillman and Birn Delta paper, at a largish 9x12 size. Something I've mentioned before but is worth repeating is that this paper erases beautifully.

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