Sunday, October 27, 2013

Feeding and Sketching Birds

Robin in Crabapple in Yard, House Sparrows at Window Feeder. Sketch by Ken Januski.

Droll Yankee Window Feeder hanging on my studio window.

Last year I got the feeder pictured above for Christmas. I thought it would be nice to sketch birds outside of my studio window, right in front of my drawing table with its table easel. Hah! December - no birds. January - no birds. February - no birds. I may exaggerate a bit. But I'm pretty sure that no birds, not even House Sparrows, would try it until March or so.

The idea of course was to get me to force myself to look at birds more closely and get better at this odd thing called field sketching. Well it was a great idea. But the birds didn't cooperate.

But things have changed. All of the field sketches on this page are from the last few days. Ninety percent of the birds have been House Sparrows and the other ten percent a recent fall arrival, Carolina Chickadees. At the top you can see another bird that has arrived in the yard but is too big for the feeder - one of many American Robins. They are having a good time in our crabapple, the one we were told wouldn't reach eight feet and is now about 25 feet high. But it does present a good view fro the third floor.

In any case it's been nice to have so many birds. But I'd sure prefer something more interesting, as we sometimes get in our backyard. For practicing sketching from life though there's nothing wrong with House Sparrows. Their constant quarrels and fights over food and feeding position mean that there are always animated poses.

And every few seconds they all disappear in a choreographed wave. It's always amazes me how they can all leave like this at seemingly the exact same nanosecond. One of these days I'll try to capture that in paint, I hope?!
Carolina Chickadees and House Sparrows at feeder. Sketch by Ken Januski

House Sparrows at Feeder. Sketch by Ken Januski.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Recent Migrant and Resident Field Sketches

Great Blue Herons and Ruby-crowned Kinglet. Field sketch by Ken Januski.

House Sparrows at Feeder. Field Sketch by Ken Januski.

I have to say it's been refreshing to get back to field sketches, to drawing birds that are alive as can be, right in front of me. A few days ago a flurry of migrants came through, including five different Great Blue Herons and one Ruby-crowned Kinglet at the Manayunk Canal, pictured at top.

When I got home our first Carolina Chickadees and Northern Mockingbird of the fall in our backyard made appearances. But by the next day they were gone.  I'd hope to sketch them as well but no such luck. The Ruby-crowned Kinglet lasted for four days but now seems gone as well.

Instead we have the resident House Sparrows, pictured above, feeding outside the window of my studio at my window feeder. American Robins are still here as well but they stick to the trees and bushes that have berries in our yard.

After missing photos of some fairly unusual birds, like a Magnolia Warbler seen at Andorra Meadows last December I've learned to normally carry my Lumix FZ28 camera with me in case I see something unusual. But there's always the temptation to get it out and take one more photo of a more common bird like a Great Blue Heron.

It's harder to convince myself to sketch. But once I do I'm always happy that I did. I realize each time I do that drawing is a skill that needs to me exercised every day. The more you draw the better you get. The other thing I realize is how much I hate working from photos. No news there, any regular reader of this blog can tell you.

Still it surprises me every time when I contrast the two. When I work from photos I always feel that I may see more detail but that somehow the source is impoverished, like I'm seeing the bird through a curtain or two. When I field sketch I know that I may miss much. I may make many mistakes. But it's also exciting, like I'm actually drawing, and interacting, with something that is alive.

Interestingly enough I was reading Alvaro Jamarillo's essay in the new edition of Bird Watcher's Digest today about how important sketching is both to become a better birder and to document rare birds. I couldn't agree more.  You learn most when sketching live I think. Perhaps because there is far more pressure. You know that the bird may leave before you've finished sketching or even finished forming a mental picture. That makes it far more engaging as you try to truly SEE the bird. I'm rarely engaged when I work from photos, even though they're always my own and remind me of the time, usually quite enjoyable, when I saw the bird.

In the sketches above one Great Blue Heron flew away but beneath my line of vision. This is an unusual perspective. He was there and gone in a split second and I tried to capture it even though I'm sure much of the pose is wrong. It was worth the effort and I'm glad I tried. Same thing with the flying House Sparrow in the sketch below.  I also enjoyed doing the Great Blue Heron with tilted neck, looking straight at me and walking slowly my way. Such things occur in a split second and it is a real thrill to try to capture them. I think I can safely say I have never, ever been thrilled when working from photos.

Monday, October 21, 2013

How Can It Be So Hard?!

Ruby-crowned Kinglets. Watercolor Sketch by Ken Januski.

I began the sketch above soon after completing the recent watercolor sketch of Golden-crowned Kinglets. It's based on more photos and I was quite dissatisfied with it when I was done. I realized that even though we had a Ruby-crowned Kinglet overwinter two different years in our backyard I didn't really have good photos. And I certainly didn't have good sketches.

So wouldn't you know that the very next day one arrived in our yard. Either he or different birds have been here each of the last three days. I've also seen them while out birding over the weekend and took numerous photos. The watercolor below is based  on one of them.
Ruby-crowned Kinglet. Watercolor by Ken Januski.


Today when I and Jerene chased him down our small side yard from crabapple, to dogwood, to aronia, ninebark and finally viburnum I decided not to go back in to get my binoculars or camera. I just wanted to see the bird with my naked eye as he picked insects off of all those plants. Perhaps one day I'll do a painting of him picking them off of some of the remaining Yellow Pear tomatoes.

When I came back in I was determined to do a definitive sketch of him, one that really captured both his shape and proportions as well as his markings. Would you believe I spent at least two hours just sketching the watercolor above before adding any color? The undeveloped state of the watercolor may reflect the fact that I'd worn myself out just trying to get the drawing right.

It's been awhile since I've posted something that's been such a struggle. But struggle is a true part of an artist's life. You can't be successful without it. I do actually like the drawing here. It's too bad the background leaves something to be desired.

One thing that has always puzzled me on kinglets is that when briefly seen their wing bars make no sense. Half of my field sketches have them going the wrong direction. Others have different problems. One thing I've learned over the last week or so is that their scapulars often cover the median coverts(i.e. the upper wingbar). You can see here how just a hint of the white of the upper wingbar peaks out. Additionally they have dark-based primary feathers.

Normally when you see a wingbar on a bird the tips might be light or white with the upper part being darker. That is true with kinglets as well. What's surprising and confusing though is that the base of the primaries, the area beneath the greater covert(or lower wingbar) is also dark. So at first glance, and that's often all you get with kinglets, the wingbar looks backward with the dark on the bottom rather than the top.

Many people I'm sure won't have the slightest interest in this. But for me it's exciting to have finally understood this.

Kinglets truly are the most endearing of birds. We're fortunate to have them in the yard right now, and just about everywhere else. I feel like I'm getting closer to doing them justice. But it has been a struggle.

Friday, October 18, 2013

The Kinglet Nemesis

Golden-crowned Kinglets. Watercolor sketch by Ken Januski.

Ruby-crowned and Golden-crowned Kinglet. Field sketches by Ken Januski.

Late October is always the time of kinglets, both Ruby-crowned and Golden-crowned. I walked along Forbidden Drive in Philadelphia yesterday along the Wissahickon Creek and they were everywhere. My conservative count was 5-7 each but there were probably more likely 10 each.

When I headed out yesterday I in fact hoped to see some, along with perhaps an early Winter Wren and a late Black-throated Blue Warbler. Perhaps an Osprey. All are birds that I've seen in this location at this time of year.

But for all the times I've seen kinglets I just can't draw them from life. For many people a 'nemesis bird' is one that they'd like to see but just can't. It always avoids them, appearing instead perhaps for the person who strolls along 15 minutes later.

That's not my problem with kinglets. I see them. I just don't see them long enough or well enough to sketch them. Above are two field sketches from yesterday. I feel that they're getting better but still leave a lot to be desired.

As I sketched them I realized that I still didn't fully understand the markings, especially on the wings of kinglets. So today I decided to make some small sketches of Golden-crowned Kinglets based on photos I've taken. As I added them I started thinking about making them into one big watercolor sketch. This is just about how you see kinglets, except of course that at most 10% of them are standing still.

They are an exhuberant bird, both the Golden-crowned and the Ruby-crowned. I hope the watercolor sketch at top captures some of that. It's now been seven years I think that I've tried to portray kinglets in the fall. I can see that I'll be at again this fall. A much better painting I'm sure is somewhere over the horizon.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

A Less Bulky Chipper

Chipping Sparrow at Houston Meadow. Watercolor Sketch on Stillman and Birn Gamma paper by Ken Januski.

It seems inevitable that just after I've finished, and often posted a photo of, a more realistic work that I'll run across something that makes me doubt its accuracy. Yesterday it was rereading Ken Kaufman's Field Guide to Advanced Birding, second edition. Sure enough he divided sparrows into families and mentioned the slim build of the spizella group, which includes the Chipping Sparrow.

I of course know this from experience. They are small, slim birds. And yet my last watercolor made the one portrayed look bulkier than it normally is. So I decided to try another sketch and watercolor based on recent photos. The one above is based on photos taken of some Chipping Sparrows at Houston Meadow in Philadelphia this past Monday. I like that I've captured the grassy habitat in which they bury themselves.

A number of years ago the Wall Street Journal ran an article on Birds in Art and wildlife art in general. One of the more horrifying aspects of it was the demand of buyers of such art for exactitude in portrayal. Every little detail needs to be accurate for some collectors.

But that's not art. That's a type of deadly illustration enforced by someone other than the artists. It positively scares me! So when I venture into worrying about accuracy as I did here I'm quite uncomfortable. And yet I also like to get a believable portrayal of the subject. I just don't want verisimilitude to be paramount.

In the painting above it's obvious that there is just an impression of the weeds in which the sparrow fed and hid. That's the way I like it. I'm trying to make art, something that will be enjoyable to both the scientist and the general viewer.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

More Chipping Sparrows

Chipping Sparrow. Watercolor Sketch by Ken Januski.

After seeing the Lincoln's Sparrow a week or so ago it's of course tempting to turn every slightly unusual sparrow into something rare. The last few days Jerene and I have seen first winter and non-breeding Chipping Sparrows at Andorra Natural Area and Houston Meadows.

Their big eye ring and other facial markings made us want to turn them into something else. But the small size was right for Chipping Sparrows and they're common at those locations. I took a few photos for confirmation.

As usual the more I look at sparrows the more I'm taken with them. They really do have very complex patterns in their plumage, if you can see them of course. The first thing we remembered about sparrows as we've run into them the last few weeks is how quickly they dip back into cover, a few feet below and beyond what your eyes can see.

I think it's the brief view that pushes me to keep drawing and painting them, sometimes from life and other times from photos. I'd like to really understand their structure.

Today I learned something new about their structure and that of most birds while rereading The Unfeathered Bird  by Katrina van Grouw, who will be speaking the Free Library of Philadelphia on November 7, 2013. For more information check here.

What I learned is that the coverts, which cover the flight feathers, lie at an angle to them. This is somewhat obvious once you know it but it's something I'd never really articulated. So in the watercolor above of one of the recent Chipping Sparrows you can see how the coverts are not parallel to the primaries and secondaries but at an angle. It's the articulation and  explanation of such things that I find so valuable in the book.

In fact it reminds me of why I don't find arts, crafts and computer programming, my old job, too different. All of them require knowing how something works, perhaps the PERL programming language, perhaps watercolor or the glazes of ceramics, perhaps the structure of birds. That knowledge can be a springboard for creativity. That's in fact what it should be though it's easy to see people in all fields who think that rules are to be followed absolutely and never thoughtfully.

When I started in art I couldn't think of anything more stifling than perspective or anatomy. Rules, rules, rules. Who needs them? Who wants them? But if they are not taken as absolute they can be quite helpful to anyone in any field.

Some people of course never want to know how anything works and do just fine without this knowledge. But I realized a long time ago that I'm someone who likes to understand things. I just hope the understanding doesn't inhibit creativity.

And speaking of understanding as in the last watercolor I don't quite understand the background well enough in the watercolor above. It began as a detailed pencil drawing in a 7x10 Stillman and Birn Gamma sketchbook. I've found this sketchbook great for this type of drawing because it allows multiple erasures without the paper degrading.

However I then thought I'd add just a bit of watercolor to the bird, then just a bit of the same to the background. If only I could learn to use a deft and sparing hand with the background. Look for more sparrows to come over the next few months. Most likely I'm going to stick with watercolor for a few more weeks. Then I think it will be time to return to a print or two.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Lincoln's Sparrow

Lincoln's Sparrow at Morris Arboretum. Watercolor by Ken Januski.

One of the most exciting moments of my birding life was during the Philadelphia Mid-winter Bird Census in January of a cold, snowy, windy day about 10 years ago. There in front of me was a sparrow that had an ochrish wash, fine streaking, and other elements of a Lincoln's Sparrow. The only other one I'd ever seen had actually been seen by someone else and pointed out to the birding group we were with as it flew away.

I looked as hard as I could to try to memorize everything that I saw and then scribbled it down in my notebook with hands that were shaking due to the cold. The distinguishing characteristics were so strong that I really didn't have much doubt that this is was a Lincoln's Sparrow, the first I'd seen in Philadelphia.

Since then I guess I've always had a special love for Lincoln's Sparrows. I thought I saw one at Morris Arboretum in Philadelphia a few falls ago but just couldn't get a good enough look to be sure. Since then we've mainly seen them in the spring at Magee Marsh in Ohio or Cape May, NJ in the fall. We just don't see them that often.

Last weekend I think it was we spent some time birding at Morris Arboretum, curious as to what might be around. Though others were reporting warblers throughout Philadelphia we knew that we wouldn't find that many there, some but  probably not that many. I suppose it was sparrows and possibly raptors that drew me there.

And we did see sparrows: our first Swamp Sparrow of the year in Philadelphia, a relatively common bird that we'd just missed in the spring; our first White-throated Sparrows of the fall in Philadelphia and a few handsome Savannah Sparrows, also the first of the year in Philadelphia.

And then the bird painted in watercolor above and photographed below that had this striking ochish wash, fine streaking and peaked head among other characteristics. I was pretty sure it was our first Philadelphia Lincoln's Sparrow in a long time but took a number of photos before he disappeared in order to confirm it. They are below.
Lincoln's Sparrow at Morris Arboretum. Photo by Ken Januski

Lincoln's Sparrow at Morris Arboretum. Photo by Ken Januski

Lincoln's Sparrow at Morris Arboretum. Photo by Ken Januski

Lincoln's Sparrow at Morris Arboretum. Photo by Ken Januski

I chose the last photo as the basis of the 7x10 inch watercolor at top on Arches 140# paper. The photo wasn't ideal as parts of the bird were hidden, as in so many photos. But I thought I knew enough about sparrows and this species in particular to try a watercolor.

I think passerines always present difficulties to painters. So often you see them buried in leaves and twigs. How in the world can you make an interesting composition out of this? The Chipping Sparrows that I showed in last post were the opposite. Being perched upon some sculptural weed stalks the composition was almost created for me. There was very little work left for me to do.

A warren of leaves and twigs is another story. Some artists do if far, far better than I. But I do keep working on it. Last post I mentioned watercolor being a compromise between accuracy and spontaneity. That is still the case here but I found it very difficult to keep any spontaneity, probably because I just couldn't find my way through the warren.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Back to Splooshing Paint Around

Chipping Sparrows Eating Seed. Watercolor on Arches Paper by Ken Januski.
After all those recent prints and a week of chasing birds, identifying them and rarely sketching them I found that when I went back in the studio I felt like splashing paint around. There are a few ways to do this. The first, oil, I've more or less abandoned because the smells associated with it just aren't too healthy in the house I believe. That leaves acrylic and watercolor. If I had some big canvases stretched and ready to go I'd perhaps try acrylic.

The default for splooshing though is watercolor, both because it can be done on any size of paper, so I generally have plenty about, and because it's hard to get less toxic, unless you decide to put the paintbrush in your mouth.

There's also of course the special sense of light that watercolor can give. It's something not matched by other media I think. It's also the medium I'm least familiar with of the three mentioned. But I've kept at it over the last 5-7 years and finally feel halfway comfortable with it.

I always loved the photo on which this is based, though I only took it about a month ago. There's something Oriental about it, like a brush painting. So though I sketched it in with some detail, at least on the birds, I kept it very loose when I picked up the brush. To me watercolor is always a compromise between accuracy and spontaneity. If accuracy kills spontaneity then I'm very disappointed. If spontaneity harms accuracy a bit I can easily live with it. If I just want accuracy I can stick with the photo.

Speaking of accuracy it's true that the breast of a Chipping Sparrow seems brilliantly white when it's in flight. But in shade, and in the photo on which this is based, it was quite blue-gray. I pushed it a bit beyond that for the sake of a colorful painting.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Snipe, Blackpolls, Dogwoods, Moorhens, Autumn Meadowhawks

Wilson's Snipe and Belted Kingfisher. Field Sketches by Ken Januski.

During the last week or so we've encountered herbicide spraying in a state park, deer archery hunting in a state park, unknown spraying and government shutdown affecting a National Wildlife Refuge we visited, even the transmogrification of the road leading to the NWR into a one-way road whose direction changed every few minutes due to road construction. I've never thought about having to worry about leaving an NWR and wondering if I was about to drive the wrong way into head-on traffic.

But this is what we remember from the week: Wilson's Snipe that seemed to forget anyone was near; ubiquitous, and that's an understatement, Blackpoll Warblers; almost as ubiquitous Autumn Meadowhawk dragonflies; large groupings of Common Moorhens; the only good look I've ever had at a Philadelphia Vireo;  Northern Swamp Dogwoods filled with warblers predictably at about 5 p.m., and strikingly beautiful on their own, with or without migrating birds; American Copper and Variegated Fritillary butterflies.

Though we enjoy spring birding which is accompanied by all the signs of spring there's surely something to be said for autumn birding when vegetation seems to have one last burst of color before winter. That color accentuates the subtle beauty of migrants like the Blackpoll Warbler. Together they make a visual feast.

The high point of the trip though I think had to be the Wilson's Snipe that we saw each of three days on the auto tour at Ottawa NWR near Toledo, OH. We always love to see snipe but rarely do. Most often is just a squawk and the sight of a vanishing shorebird that might or might not have been a Wilson's Snipe. Over three days in more or less the same location they seemed oblivious to humans and everything else. I took the opportunity to do the field sketches above. They're quick and nowhere near as developed as I'd like but they do capture their essence I think. It's had to notice much other than their long bill and striped back without really concentrating, something that's there's rarely time to do.

After doing a sketch I'd turn to photos hoping to get more detail from them and use the two for more developed work. But in most cases they were too far away to get as much detail as I would have liked in the photos. After I'd looked at them for awhile I decided to risk scaring them off by walking closer for a better look and photo. That's what happened below. Then I walked even closer and off this one went.

Wilson's Snipe at Ottawa NWR. Photo by Ken Januski.

Over a number of days we saw numerous warblers in a plant we later identified as a Northern Swamp Dogwood next to the nature center at Maumee Bay State Park, near Ottawa NWR. We were nearly knocked over by the warblers flying in and out of them. They're truly a beautiful shrub that are made even more so by their attractiveness to birds. We really didn't know all Blackpolls before we arrived in Ohio. We'd seen them occasionally but not often. Last week they were everywhere and they might have become our favorite bird, well at least MY favorite bird, next to the Wilson's Snipe. Below is one of many photos I took of them. I didn't try sketching them but almost think I could draw them from a mental image if I tried.

Blackpoll Warbler in Northern Swamp Dogwood at Maumee Bay State Park. Photo by Ken Januski

The last Philadelphia I thought I saw was also in this area, two years ago in the spring on the boardwalks of Magee Marsh/Crane Creek. But I just wasn't as certain as I would have liked. So I did a lot of studying of how they differed from Warbling Vireos. When this one popped up into a dead tree next to some of the Northern Swamp Dogwoods I had no doubt what it was. I just wish he'd stuck around for Jerene to see and me to sketch. His photo is below

Philadelphia Vireo at Maumee Bay State Park. Photo by Ken Januski

I do wish I had more sketches to show. And I'm severely limiting the photos I show. There should be a Cape May Warbler here, and a Rose-breasted Grosbeak, and one of many Common Moorhens, and Autumn Meadowhawk and Variegated Fritillary. But I'm just going to include this one last photo, of a bird we rarely get a good look at except in Illinois is fall.

Below is a Tennessee Warbler, with its extraordinarily short tail, perched in a shrub that, now that I look at it looks surprisingly like the Northern Swamp Dogwood. This picture was taken at Kickapoo State Park in central Illinois.
Tennessee Warbler at Kickapoo State Park. Photo by Ken Januski.

With sights like these who could be bothered by government shutdowns and closed parks everywhere we turned? Every obstacle took us to an alternate location that dished up something special.