Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Rescued by Rembrandt

Solitary Sandpiper at Morris Arboretum. Conte sketch by KenJanuski
I haven't been showing much here recently mainly because I'm of two minds about it, or more likely three or forur or five. In other words I've got too much thinking and second-guessing going on.

I first experienced this as a graduate student in studio art at the University of California at Berkeley. One advisor would come in, talk about my work, and often suggest certain changes. Within 24 hours another advisor would come in and do the same. Almost inevitably some of it was directly contradictory.

The end result was that I had to think for myself, sift through all the information and decide what I wanted to do. This wasn't too difficult because I've rarely painted to please others. I paint what I want. Still when you get opinions on your work they always continue to rattle around in  the back of your mind, like nagging little voices.

This isn't necessarily bad. It probably helps to confirm me or anyone else in their own decisions. Years ago I  think I startled some of my friends by saying that artists and CEOs were similar: they both had to listen to others but eventually  make their own decisions, and  live with the consequences. I'm not sure how many  CEOs would agree, thinking I assume that what they do is far more significant. But for good, serious art I think the decision making is similar.

In any  case I've had a lot of thoughts rattling around in my head recently. This was compounded when I got two emails within a 10 day period regarding  my work. One was from a well-known  artists organization. It offered a critique of my work,  very complimentary toward some of my linocuts, and fairly critical about others. All of this was done with the best of intentions and was overall quite complimentary. But the words hurried and pay more attention to anatomy still are in the forefront of my mind.

On the other hand I also received a completely unsolicited email from someone who'd seen my work online and very  much  liked it, especially the warbler portrayals. She normally didn't like wildlife art but to her my work seemed an exception. Since I entered the world of wildlife art with great foreboding, not liking much of it myself, this truly rang a bell. It was very appreciated.

Unfortunately now I think of both of these every time I touch pen,  pencil or brush to the surface. Should I worry about anatomy or not? When does anatomical accuracy, especially that of surface rather than underlying structure,  hurt rather than help the artisitic quality of the work?  Just as in graduate school both views are valid and valuable. I just have to decide what's true and what's important to me.

Another factor in my indecisiveness,  though to a lesser degree, was another rejection from Birds in Art. Yesterday I happened upon two blog posts alro regarding rejection in BIA: Sandra Blair and Susan Fox. I'm getting used to being rejected there. The one difference I think with me is that I expect it. And I also don't mind it all that much.

Why? Well unfortunately I'm never really all that thrilled with what I see in the catalogs. I know that it's heresy to say this. And I'd prefer not to say it. I've been included in the last two Society of Wildlife Artists shows in London. I won't this year because I just can't afford all of the costs involved. So I won't apply. But if I'd been rejected there I think it would bother me much more. Some of the artists I most admire are members of the SWLA. It would bother me not to be in. But I'd also see it as something to strive for, a prod to get my work good enough to show with artists I admire so much. Sadly this is never the case when I look through a BIA catalog. I never feel the same desire to work harder. Instead I feel it's best not to apply, that I'm wasting my time and money. Only working in a style not true to myself will ever have a chance of success there.

Some of those SWLA members, and other artists I very much admire,  also show in Birds in Art. But for whatever reason the catalog just always leaves me cold, even though it's a very high quality production.  Every year I flip through the catalog, not reading anything, just looking at pictures  to see what strikes me. It's the same way that I view big museum shows. First I want to see my immediate reaction. Later I can see what my  reaction is after being filtered through the text, ancillary information, etc. Almost without exception I'm not moved by anything I see in the BIA catalog. Only afterwards as I look at it for the second, third, or fourth time,  perhaps after reading the text as well, do I see the worthiness of the work. And I really do. I can eventually find much to admire in most of what I see. But every year I wish it would just hit me the first time through. I'm afraid I'm just on the very periphery of the type of art shown in BIA. This in turn reminds me of the recent appreciative email about my warbler works. Perhaps I have a very, very small audience, one that also would often be left cold by the BIA catalog. (One day later there is something I should add about the catalog. I've always very much enjoyed the essays that introduce the catalog when there is a Master Artist that is featured for the year. Whether it's artists I already like or ones that I'm fairly lukewarm too I almost always end up with a greater appreciation for the artist and their work when I'm finished reading it. In some ways this makes the entire catalog worthwhile even when I'm disappointed in the work that is actually in the show.)

With all of this in the back of my mind I've done various studies recently, most for possible linocuts. And I've looked through my  photos and sketches,  over and over and over, looking for a new subject. None have led anywhere. Too many voices rattling around. How can I do the type of wildlife art I want to do? Should I continue to do what I want to do, or should I try to go more in the direction of what I think someone else wants? This always seems like a mistake to me to I continue to work towards doing what I want to do, towards what looks good and fresh to me.

Then for whatever reason, possibly this recent post at The Best Artists, I got out Volume One of The Drawings of Rembrandt by Seymour Slive.What a breath of fresh air!! Though I admire all of Rembrandt's sketches it was the animals that struck  me most this time. Who has done better sketches of lions? Who has captured the feeling of a lion like this? The same is true of people. If you  look at a Rembrandt sketch you often see that just one line functions as a nose. A hand might almost seem to be a blob. BUT it reads as though it is a hand,  with real weight, attached to a  real moving body. Sometimes that hand will seem heavy as a five pound sack of flour. At other times it will seem as light as a  feather,  ready to waft off in the breeze. This is what Rembrandt captures with just a few lines.

Out of curiosity I also got out the only other Rembrandt book  I own, called The World of Rembrandt, from  Time-Life books. Both of these are very old by the way. Though I've studied Art History at both Berkeley and Cornell Rembrandt always escaped my attention. I have no idea why especially  as  I bought both of these  books long before I attended  either school. I can only guess that I saw his drawings somewhere when I was  very  young and decided I needed to see more of them. In any case the Time-Life book also includes paintings and in them too  you can see his incredible ability to capture the life of what he paints. He seems to have a physical empathy for everything he sees.

I think what really  hit me over the head in  looking at his work was how different it was from  work based on photos, particularly that of so much wildlife art. I did find one sketch of a Bird of Paradise, the only bird in the book as far as I could tell. It's not my favorite but still I like it. Today though  most artists would render every  feather. They wouldn't capture the entire bird. So much wildlife art crops out the full figure of a bird and instead focuses on the surface details of just one part of the bird. I prefer to see the whole bird, to see it as a living thing. I can of course only make the wildest guess as to what a contemporary Rembrandt would look like. But my guess is that it would show the same sense of liveliness and empathy for the subject portrayed, not in a cute, endearing way, but in a way that seems to actually feel the physical pose of each subject portrayed.

Female Rose-breasted Grosbeak. Watercolor sketch by Ken Januski

To make a long story short, well more or less at this late stage of the game, I've tried a couple of broader works since looking at Rembrandt. One is a female Rose-breasted Grosbeak, done from a photo of a bird seen at Magee Marsh about a month ago. I deliberately avoided using a pencil sketch and forced myself to work  more broadly, more like Rembrandt. I also tried the large Conte drawing of a Solitary Sandpiper at top of post, also based on a photo of a bird seen at Morris Arboretum earlier this year. It was incredibly refreshing to force myself to avoid sketching in all the information that was shown in the photo.

Great Blue Heron and Singing Acadian Flycatcher. Field sketch by Ken Januski

It has been non-stop rain here for the last few days so I've done little outside work outside of this sketch of a Great Blue Heron and singing Acadian Flycatcher, done in between storms. But when I next head out I think my Conte crayons will be with me, and Rembrandt rattling around in the back of my head.

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