Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Recent and Not-so Recent Sightings

Pileated Woodpecker Excavating Hole. Watercolor by Ken Januski

In spite of myself I seem wedded, at least for the time being, to these small 5.5x8.5 watercolor sketches in Stillman and Birn Gamma sketchbooks. In the case of the Pileated Woodpecker above I think it was the strong pose that convinced me to try to draw it and then perhaps to use watercolor to add color.

In my mind certain birds are very hard to paint: Pileated Woodpecker, Scarlet Tanager,  Cock of the Rock and others. This isn't because of complicated plumage, which might be the case for instance with a Ruffed Grouse. No it's the very simplicity of their colors. When painted it's very easy for them to look flat, like a graphic. I've yet to see a Cock of the Rock painting I like. I won't even try to paint Scarlet Tanagers though I do recall seeing a painting I liked over the last year or so.

We saw this Pileated four to six weeks ago at Carpenter's Woods throwing his head and bill into this dead tree for all he was worth. Every few minutes he'd lean deep into the tree, almost his entire body disappearing, and start tossing the chiseled wood over his head and out of the hole. It was fascinating to watch.

When I looked at some photos I'd taken I though that the pose just might be strong enough to overcome the problem of his simplistic black, white and red foliage. His head is thrown back ready for another thrust into the hole. His leg is planted solidly in almost a completely horizontal line. Hopefully a viewer can figure out that his massive head and bill will soon go flying into the hole in front of him.

I'm not big on painting trees and bark. But until I go much more abstract I need to deal with them in some way. So this is my attempt. I was a bit afraid that it might overwhelm the woodpecker. But I think it works as is. I've left the background sky and foliage very simple, perhaps too much so. But I wanted a stark contrast with the dark of the Pileated and his tree. Time will tell whether or not I try to do any more work on the foliage and sky.
Young Male Baltimore Oriole. Watercolor by Ken Januski.

This far less successful painting of a first year male Baltimore Oriole was based on a couple of photos taken yesterday at Houston Meadows. I've realized recently that I need to expand my yellow palette in watercolor. Once again I've lost the brilliant yellow I was looking for. The only real reason there is for showing this is as an apology to a person who will probably never read this. While looking at this bird, far too yellow to be a male Baltimore Oriole, two birders walked up to us. One of them argued that it was not a female Baltimore Oriole as we thought but instead a male. We knew it wasn't a mature male because of the yellow color. The head was in shadow and so could have been brown or black. The other birder was convinced it was black. To make a long story short I also took a couple of photos of it and when I looked at them they clearly showed the head to be black. So it is indeed a male Baltimore Oriole, but a first year bird.

Just as with tree bark I really need to do better with the foliage that so many birds hide in at this time of year. This is a start but only that. There's much left to be desired. And the bird lacks the brilliant yellow with just a hint of orange wash that he had in real life. I make go back into this but I think it's too late to salvage it. That will have to wait for a new work. And perhaps a new tube of a transparent yellow watercolor.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Keep Sketching, and Painting

Ovenbird at Magee Marsh. Watercolor by Ken Januski.

Great Egret at Morris Arboretum. Watercolor by Ken Januski

With the arrival of football season once again......... I know it's almost June but the weather has been reminiscent of early fall, with a real chill in the air. We started off birding on Friday morning, after dropping off one of our cats at the vet, in low 60 degree weather. As the rain continued the temperature plunged. Soon we were birding, none too successfully, in 49 degree weather.

When we returned from the vet I decided that I wasn't going to bird again until the wind died down and the weather warmed up. As I sat in my studio trying to decide what to do I looked through some photos and once again turned to sketching, again in my Stillman and Birn 5.5x8.5 Gamma sketchbook.

As Bob Kuhn, among many others, has said: you should always keep drawing. I think that's true. One loss I felt when I turned to completely abstract work was that of drawing. Though I still drew it wasn't from anything real. I always missed that. Now that I'm doing it again I remember just how satisfying it is.

At the same time though I'd add 'Keep Painting.' They really are two different methods of portraying the world, though often quite well merged in many successful artists. There's the desire for line and structure that drawing fulfills. And there's the desire for color, shape, texture that paint seems better at.

For some reason at least to me it seems that wildlife art relies more on the linear aspect of art, perhaps because of its desire for verisimilitude. But painting is about paint, whether oil, acrylic or something else. For me watercolor remains a difficult but rewarding medium. So after I'd done these two sketches I decided to continue on in watercolor. Particularly with the ovenbird it became much more a painting than a drawing with watercolor added. To me it's just as important to keep painting as it is to keep sketching. Do both, and eventually, you'll have something to show for it.

I'd much prefer if I could work from life like this, rather than rely on photos. But it is a learning experience, particularly in regard to learning watercolor. I'm sure it will eventually pay off in the field, the next time that ovenbird walks by.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

A Day Without Warblers

Bay-breasted Warbler. Watercolor by Ken Januski.

Black and White Warbler. Watercolor by Ken Januski.

Black-throated Green Warbler. Watercolor by Ken Januski.

Black-throated Green Warbler. Watercolor by Ken Januski

Baltimore Oriole et al. Field Sketch by Ken Januski

After all the warblers of Magee Marsh, seen with very little obfuscating foliage, it's been quite a change to return to my local Philadelphia haunts and find that the few warblers that are here are often extremely high and/or hidden by extensive foliage. Each day out reminds me of the saying about a day without wine being like a day without sunshine. Or perhaps a day without jazz is like a day without sunshine as a public radio station in Kentucky used to say. I feel like I'm going through warbler withdrawal.

But there have been some warblers and also other first of season or first of year birds for Philadelphia. It's been a treat to see familiar thrushes, flycatchers and orioles again. Many of them will remain here and nest. The field sketch immediately above shows some of the local birds, a not quite local Chestnut-sided Warbler seen from more or less straight underneath, a House Finch at feeder, a mystery flycatcher that turned out to be an Acadian, and a Baltimore Oriole.

Each year I promise myself to be a bit more discriminating in the art I show on this blog and elsewhere. My intent it so show more finished work and less working sketches, often of not the best quality. But guess what? It's easier said than done, this producing finished quality work idea.

I've struggled for the last week with small watercolor sketches in my Stillman and Birn 5.5x8.5 Gamma sketchbook. These are all based on photos from Magee, the things I took after I'd done some field sketches. The sketchbooks themselves are fine.

But most of the sketches leave something if not a lot to be desired, especially when you consider the beauty of the birds when seen live.  And of course there is size. I had one Black-throated Green land within a hand's reach of me. At that close range you see how delicate and really tiny they are. All the more reason to pursue my ongoing goal of doing them justice in paint. I've seen thousands of illustrations of warblers. I've seen exceedingly few successful paintings of them.

I recently read a post elsewhere about watercolor not actually being hard. But it is. It is exceedingly hard. It's only easy if you really don't understand how great watercolor can be, for instance in the work of Winslow Homer or John Singer Sargent, both of whose work is full of light and life. If you only use watercolor to fill in areas with color that is something else again. It still requires skill I think. But it completely ignores the sense of transparency and light which in my humble opinion is the only reason to even use watercolor.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Philadelphia Empidomax

Empidomax Flycatcher - Willow? Watercolor by Ken Januski

As we hurried out of the house yesterday to do our bluebird nest monitoring at Morris Arboretum before any rain started I was in such a rush that I forgot my sketchbook and drawing pens. So when this very active flycatcher kept dropping to the ground and back I had no drawing utensils other than the small notebook I use to list birds seen and one of my old Faber Castell Pitt Artists Pen, my previous pen of choice.

There was something puzzling about this flycatcher. It had what is called a teardrop shape eye, something not found in local flycatchers. He also flicked his tail occasionally but was obviously not an Eastern Phoebe, the best known local tail-flipping flycatcher. There was also a fairly obvious vest.

I noted all of this in the tiny sketch that I did. But when I got home I didn't refer to the sketch but instead tried a new sketch based on my memory. This is much progress for me - actually being able to retain a memory of a bird. I think this is due to hard looking and much practice.

Though I had brought along a number of Stillman and Birn sketchbooks on the trip to Magee Marsh I found that I only had time to use the one sketchbook that fit handily in my back pocket, a Moleskine. With more time and perseverance I would have gotten to the Stillman and Birn.

In any case yesterday I decided to inaugurate a 5.5x8.5 Delta hardbound sketchbook with this drawing from memory. This is the first page. But as I worked on it I realized I really needed some of the space on the inside book cover. Since it's made of the same paper it was easy enough to do. As usual the paper erased beautifully so that I could keep drawing and erasing until the bird seemed right. After that I added a small amount of watercolor. Given the overall gray color of the bird there really wasn't much color that I could add.

I often find that painting the bird like this soon after seeing it helps to confirm the ID, or at least suggest a likely possibility. This was most likely a Willow Flycatcher, a common bird at Morris, with a surprisingly large eye-ring. If he had called I'd know for sure but he was frustratingly quiet.

I'm happy with this watercolor sketch and especially with the paper. To me it works beautifully, and keeps a very clean quality in spite of strong erasures, for watercolor sketches such as these.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

A Democracy of Birders

Bay-breasted Warbler and other birds. Field sketch by Ken Januski.

American Redstart and other birds. Field sketch by Ken Januski.

Horned Lark and other birds. Field sketch by Ken Januski.

Magnolia Warbler and other birds. Field sketch by Ken Januski.

Prothonotary Warbler and other birds. Field sketch by Ken Januski.

I had a hard time deciding on a title for this post about field sketches of birds seen at Magee Marsh in Ohio last week. The most notable thing I think for just about anyone who was there was the number of birds, though there was in fact one very quiet day. For me the high point might have been when a woman who had wandered up to watch me sketch a Blackburnian Warbler from life said something like "You've made my day. This is even better than the birds, especially with all these cameras." What she meant I think was how refreshing it was to see someone sketching and by inference interacting with the birds amidst all the people with their cameras, and whirring motor drives, and flashes, and big lenses, and big tripods.

Since I value field sketching so highly it was easy to make that the title of this post. Instead though I chose "A Democracy of Birders." I did this because I think it is interesting philosophically. It is very easy to get frustrated at Magee Marsh this time of year, perhaps even more so during The Biggest Week in American Birding , an organized event that has gone on for about the last 10 days there. It surely adds to the crowds.

Between rude and oblivious photographers who think nothing of plunking their huge tripods in the middle of the boardwalk and then planting their 200 plus pound selves behind them so that no one can get through and drivers who have to stop for every Canada gosling on the causeway to the boardwalk turning each two minute trip into at least a ten minute trip it's easy to get frustrated. But I think most people feel it's well worth the frustrations because of the wealth of birds to be seen, most at such close range that most people can only dream about.

If you listen to the conversations you soon realize that the level of skill and experience is almost infinite, from the most expert to the most beginning and everywhere in between. And as far as I can tell the excitement and joy of seeing so many birds so close, most of them neo-tropical migrants, makes up for everything else. Barriers between old-style birders and technology-loving birders, experienced and inexperienced birders seem to disappear, or at least be greatly sublimated, in the experience of seeing so many striking birds in so many numbers and at such close proximity.

So that's the nature of the title. The last week, The Biggest Week in American Birding, really did show a democracy of birders, a democracy in all its varied and sometimes uncomfortable or even unwelcome( I'm thinking of big lenses and tripods when I say this) diversity.

The diversity of birds however was as welcome as could be. So from the top I'll enumerate the birds portrayed. They are only some of the many we saw.

Page one: Blue-winged Warbler and Yellow-throated Vireo, actually seen here before the trip, and a Bay-breasted Warbler on left and a Nashville Warbler, Chestnut-sided Warbler and American Woodcock on right.

Page two: Red-eyed Vireo, and a distant sparrow viewed through scope and finally identified as the familiar Swamp Sparrow on left, and male American Redstart, Rose-breasted Grosbeak and head of an American Woodcock on right.

Page three: singing Yellow Warbler and subtly beautiful Warbling Vireo on left and Horned Lark and Least Sandpiper on right.

Page four: Least Flycatcher, Magnolia Warbler and horrible rendering of Sandhill Crane in flight on left and Black-throated Blue Warbler and Ovenbird on right.

Finally on page five: Black-throated Green Warbler and Northern Parula on left and Blackburnian Warbler and Prothonotary Warbler on the right.

Given the plethora of some of the world's most beautiful birds all within close range it's hard to know what to do: enjoy them, soak them in, keep staring trying to capture all that's there in your memory, take photos, sketch. Though I've always tried to do field sketches when you have this seemingly once in a lifetime opportunity it's easy to try to preserve it in film. I'm sure that explains much of the sense of camera-driven birders. But my own experience is that the results are always lacking in emotional resonance. Even on this trip I succumbed to taking quite a few photos. But when I did I was no longer engaged with the bird.

To get around this I started off each day sketching. Only when I'd done a satisfactory sketch or felt it was such a rare view of a bird did I take the camera out of its case and start shooting. For myself I have to say it's been tremendously satisfying not just to see these birds but also have these sketches of them. I just wish I could stay there for a month or so to truly do them justice.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

First Shorebird and Yellow Yard Wildflowers

Solitary Sandpiper at Morris Arboretum. Watercolor by Ken Januski

Perfoliate Bellwort in Bloom in yard.

Golden Ragwort in Bloom in Yard.

Yellow Trillium in Bloom in Yard.

There really is not enough time in the day in late April and May. Between the refreshing weather, migrating birds, wildflowers in bloom and garden chores every day is a full day.

Since we spend a lot of time outdoors we've come to appreciate wildflowers and over the years we've tried to grow various ones that we've become familiar with out in the wild. Fortunately a number of local nature centers, arboretums and such offer a great variety of choices. This time of year it is the yellow ones in particular that stand out. Above you see a Perfoliate Bellwort at top. This was sold to us as a Large-flowered Bellwort but both color and stem-pierced leaves make me think it is really Perfoliate. We're not complaining either way.

One of our favorite wildflowers in Shenandoah National Park is Golden Ragwort. That is the plant above with the numerous bright rays. It is a marvelous combination of colors and shapes in its basal leaves, its stem and its flowers. The one difference we've found between this and the Shenandoah plants is that ours do not hold their deep burgundy stems but instead turn green.

The last wildflower and newest addition is a Yellow Trillium, also called Trillium Luteum. It is more common to the Smoky Mountains than here so only time will tell if it will survive. Over the years we've lost a number of trillium but we keep trying. It is with good reason that many woodland wildflowers are called ephemerals and here and gone before you know it. That makes them all the more special and probably explains why we try to grow some in our small urban yard.

And finally along with all the warblers, quite ephemeral themselves, and other neo-tropical migrants that are passing through come the shorebirds. They are far more subtle than the warblers. But their story of very lengthy migration, often breeding in Alaska, is a gripping one. Once you know it it's hard not to be taken by them. Above is a small watercolor sketch of the first Solitary Sandpiper of the year seen at Morris Arboretum yesterday. Oddly enough he seemed to behave oddly, almost as though stunned. We don't seem them all that often but when we do they seem more active than this one did. Perhaps he was just acclimating to his new climate, or just recovering from one long flight. By the way we actually saw our first shorebird in January, a Killdeer. But since they possibly overwinter I'm calling this the first true shorebird.