Monday, December 30, 2013

Spiritual Feasts to Which We Rarely are Bidden

Crepuscular Dragonflies. Conte Sketch by Ken Januski.

It was very late when I went to bed and I had a delicious sensation of the cool of the evening, the open windows, and the sparkling song of a nightingale. If it were possible to convey this song to the mind through the medium of the eyes, I should compare it to the twinkling of the stars seen through the trees on a beautiful night; the notes so light, or vivid, or flutelike, or full of unbelievable energy coming from so small a throat, seem to me like those fires, now sparking, now faintly veiled, that are scattered like celestial diamonds over the great vault of the sky. When those two sensations are combined, as so often happens at this time of year, the feeling of solitude and coolness, with the scent of the flowers and, above all, of the woods - a sense that always seems more intense in the evening - it is one of those spiritual feasts to which we are rarely bidden in this imperfect universe.
Eugene Delacroix in 'The Journals of Eugene Delacroix', Phaidon Press, translated by Lucy Norton, edited by Hubert Wellington
I was thinking of writing a post on the most impressive books I've read this year, mainly art and nature related, before year's end. At the top of the list was going to be The Journals of Eugene Delacroix, quoted above. But then I read this section of the journals this morning and just had to highlight it in the post title.

What surprises me in this section of the journal, about 1854, is how aware and appreciative of nature Delacroix has become. It also indicates just how thoroughly engaged with and sensitive to the world around him he is. This is just as true when he writes about art, music, literature or anything else. Because of that every time I pick up the journal and read it I enjoy it immensely.

I've often wondered why I prefer sketches to most finished visual work and Delacroix does too. He devotes page after page to his speculations on this. Whenever I've mentioned it online it seems to fall on deaf ears, as though I'm the only one who thinks this way. So you can imagine how much I've enjoyed reading Delacroix's thoughts on the subject, one which he comes back to again and again.

He also talks about another of my 'obsessions', how detail kills most paintings, not because there is anything wrong with it in itself, but because it neglects the overall idea and impression of the painting. This is what positively kills me about so much wildlife art, letting details drain any sense of life in it, so I greatly enjoy seeing that I'm not alone in this. Delacroix was writing the same thing more than 150 years ago.

There are times of course when I disagree but that is unimportant. What is so striking about this book is that it seems to be the honest, unfiltered writing of an extremely thoughtful and sensitive artist.

So if I were to pick a best book of 2013 this is it.

1. The Journals of Delacroix. Translated by Lucy Norton, edited by  Hubert Wellington, published by Phaidon Press.

2. Treasures of the Forgotten Forest. Written by Robert Williams, published by Wildlife Art Gallery. Sponsored by Artists for Nature Foundation.

This is one of a series of wonderful books sponsored by The Artists for Nature Foundation. I always prefer these books for the art shown. But after reading them I also enjoy the writing about the ecology, and economy, of areas of the world that are endangered by development but also have particularly rich natural resources(by that I mean wildlife not minerals). Artists like Lars Jonsson, Bruce Pearson, Kim Atkinson have splendid work in this volume. This book centers on the Tumbesian region of Ecuador and Peru. There is also a wonderful video which I've had for a number of years. It can be found online.

3. Troubled Waters: Trailing the Albatross: An Artist's Journey. Written by Bruce Pearson, published by Langford Press.

I'd have to say that most of the books that have really struck me over the last few years have been published by Langford Press. They are as far as I can tell the premier publisher of books on the type of wildlife art that I enjoy and appreciate. Bruce Pearson has been making art and films for many years. In this case he returns to Bird Island and South Georgia, to study the albatross and other seabirds that he first saw 35 years ago. Pearson, to me at least, is the epitome of artist and naturalist. The artistry is undeniable. But so is the passionate concern for nature. This is true in all of his work that I've seen. In this case he directs those talents and concern to birds I'm largely unfamiliar with but who have been in great decline over the last 20 years. It reminds me of the same concern with species and an entire environment, including the human and economic one, that characterizes the books and projects of the Artists for Nature Foundation.

4.Bright Wings of Summer: Watching Butterflies. Written by the late David Measures, published by Prentice Hall.

This book is almost 40 years old but I finally managed to get a copy this year. I'm only about half way through, having run into a lot of distractions, and other books, since first getting it about six weeks ago. Whenever I've seen field sketches of butterflies by David Measures I've been struck by their freedom and animation. As with Bruce Pearson they combine art and naturalism. I was surprised when I started reading to find that he actually spent hours and hours, often convincing his family to help him, studying the butterflies of a particular patch of land. If you've ever tried to draw butterflies in the field you know how difficult it is due to their unpredictable movement. David Measures shows you how easy it is with both determination and skill. It's also a very rich book on the study of butterflies. I highly recommend it. And I hope it will help my own field sketches this summer.

5. The Crossley ID Guide: Raptors. Written by Richard Crossley, Jerry Ligouri and Brian Sullivan, published by Princeton University Press.

Back when I was a programmer there was a series of books  from O'Reilly Press that stressed repetition, question and answer, interactivity and often humor, very low humor, as a means of learning. It sort of worked though I think it was a bit heavy-handed. Still it did match my own experience: I rarely learn anything the first time. I need to have it repeated.

And often the best manner of repetition is testing, over and over. The Shorebird Guide used this method to a large extent and this book does so even more. The end result is that I feel like I'm finally starting to get a handle on raptors and being able to differentiate one from the other, especially when they are high in the sky. My only problem, as it may be for many people, is that raptors are not regularly available to study in the field. I fear I've lost a bit of what I've learned and will need to go back to the book soon. But that's not necessarily bad. It's a book that I think I'll enjoy rereading. And eventually I'll get better at all those photographic identification quizzes.

6. The Art and Craft of Woodblock Printmaking : Woodblock Printmaking with Oil-based Inks and the Japanese Watercolour Woodcut, second edition. Written by Kari Laitinen, Tuula Moilanen and Antti Tantiu, published by Aalto ARTS Books.

As someone who's largely self-taught when it comes to woodcuts and linocut, I always feel that I'm missing some information that others learn their first week in class. My experience though shows me that most self-educated people feel this way and mistakenly attribute far better training to schooled artists than most actually receive. Still there are things I know that I don't know, like the proper viscosity of ink among other things. This book is good in that it covers much of that. It is an easy to read book, with just a few technically murky areas, that I've greatly enjoyed. I've read the first half and am just now on the section about traditional Japanese watercolor woodcuts. I don't expect to ever go in this direction but I expect it will still be informative.

7. Looking at Birds: An Antidote to Field Guides. Written by John Busby, published by the Langford Press.

Who knows how I forgot this in the original post since I wrote about it just a few posts ago. To repeat what I said there: This is a very slim book. I'd guess that there are more images than there are paragraphs. But the images show a wealth of experience in watching birds. The deceptively simple images show that the author thoroughly knows birds, so that when he sees something unusual, like a bird flying upside down, he has no trouble at all rendering the unique experience.

This book requires a bit of a leap of imagination: the leap being that there is far more to life and birding, than mimicking a photograph. There is so much more to see and to experience. And it is possible to get that down on paper.

People have always spoken of Delacroix as imaginative. I think you can say that John Busby is too. Not in the sense of summoning things out of a fantasyland. But in the sense of being able to construct the structure of birds seen only briefly in the most unusual situations, for instance that bird flying upside down, except for the head. That requires both experience, boldness and imagination.

100. Bad Boy. Written by Eric Fischl, published by Crown Publishers. I didn't really know where to put this book about famous contemporary American artist, Eric Fischl. I've been aware of his work for awhile but I stopped paying much attention to contemporary American art at about the time that he was first getting recognized. I was briefly introduced to him at a party at about this time. I don't remember a thing and I'm sure he'd say the same thing since this was a time of alcohol and drug induced haze as he writes about. And to be honest, I was a complete artistic non-entity. There's no reason in the world he would notice me, brain haze or not.

As I've reread this section on Fischl I think the obvious question a reader might have is: why mention a book you're so critical of? Why even bother reading it? I don't like writing negative criticism. That's not to say that I can't have quite negative reactions to art, books or anything else. But I mainly keep them to myself. As I recall the only reason I picked up this book is that I'd read somewhere that it was critical of the current art world where financial speculation is really the only factor involved. Though I never liked compatriots of Fischl such as David Salle I at least saw a painter in Fischl. So that and curiosity about his criticism of the current art world was enough to convince me to read it.

Oddly enough when I first posted this I'd included wealthy as an adjective to describe him. At that point in the book he was. But the oddest thing happened. His work lost favor, as I discovered as I struggled through the second half of the book, though he never quite became a starving artist like 99% of most artists.  I had to chuckle when he said he just didn't understand the work of the 90s, just as I really couldn't appreciate the work of him and other popular artists of the 80s. Another interesting note was that about midpoint in the book, in the late 80s I believe, he also stopped alcohol and drugs, having realized just where they were leading him.

Compared to Delacroix it is very boring. But it also seem honest, if a bit self-aggrandizing. His unusual family background helps explain his subjects to some extent I think. I can't at all agree with the blurbs on the back of the book though. It is not at all compelling reading. The pages about his pals John McEnroe, Steve Martin, et al. just seem like dull filler. But it still seems honest. Even when it comes to the huge sums that artists like Fischl were once paid for their work by collectors that he suspected might sell the work for a profit before even unpacking it. That strikes me as both an accurate picture of the art world I gave up on and as a very depressing realization for the artist. As I said I admire him for honestly talking about it. I just wish he had the thoughtful passion for art and the rest of the world that I find in Delacroix. But Delacroix I think was extremely unusual. Perhaps it's unfair to compare the writings of any artist to him. Still this book is dull in comparison.

Given all that there is to question about the art world of the last 20 if not 50 years it would have been nice to find something a little more trenchant. For instance he talks about his days at Cal Arts where he and fellow students were trying to be brutally honest, to move into new artistic areas. One could easily ask if this isn't the Academy of the last 50 years: New, New, New? Tough, Tough, Tough. Not a hint of joy. But no such thoughts arise in the book. Just a pretty weak criticism when the speculative art world turns from him to others.

I'm sure I've forgotten some books I really enjoyed. Perhaps I'll have to add an addendum or errata. The drawing at top by the way is one I've shown before: some unidentified dragonflies at dusk. The crepuscular activity reminded me of Delacroix and the nightingale.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Christmas Morning 2013

House Finches and Gray Squirrel Outside Studio Window. Ballpoint Pen Sketch by Ken Januski.

Early Christmas morning two House Finches feed at the window feeder outside my studio window while a Gray Squirrel hurries down a power line in a hurry to get to some festivities.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Christmas Bird Count Sketches 2013-2014

Scenes from Christmas Bird Count. Ball point pen sketches by Ken Januski.

So as winter begins our low last night was 64!!! Yesterday was also the Christmas Bird Count for Wyncote Audubon in the Northeast section of Philadelphia and surrounding areas. We are often bundled up in the warmest clothes for eight hours out in cold, gray, often wet weather. Though we started off with some pretty warm clothes I ended the day with my sleeves rolled up, skin exposed to weather in the high 60s.

The oddest thing this morning was to look out in the back yard and see no white - the snow was gone. So we've gone from what seems to be the most early December snow in Philadelphia in my 25 plus years to what may be record-breaking temperature this weekend!

All in all though I'm not sure, at least for us, that the weather made much difference in terms of the number of birds and bird species we saw. I haven't tallied the number of birds yet, but I'd guess 200-300. Generally though if we have a high total count then we have a low species count. Yesterday was 33 species, including the House Sparrows of the back yard. That's always the more exciting number to us, and 33 is about average I think for us and the areas we cover for the Christmas Bird Count.

I brought along my sketchpad and did just one sketch, a Golden-crowned Kinglet with a Great Blue Heron in  the background at the Manayunk Canal. That's the basis for the sketch above done with ballpoint pen on two pages of a 8.75x11.75 inch Stillman and Birn Epsilon sketchbook. The rest of the sketches are based on photos I took: Herring Gull with newly caught fish at Flat Rock Dam, Great Blue Heron with Mallards also at Manayunk Canal, and at bottom left some Common Mergansers seen on the Schuylkill River near Flat Rock Dam where it meets up with the Manayunk Canal.

Due to the pressure of covering a number of areas and seeing as many birds as possible there wasn't much time for sketching. But I'm happy that I got at least one in. Sketching is like exercise or anything else: you need to keep at it to get comfortable with it, to the point that it's a pleasure rather than a chore.

I've recently run across two online reviews from online friends on books with bird art of some sort or another as their subject. Debbie Kaspari at Drawing the Motmot recommends The Laws Guide to Drawing Birds by John Muir Laws, Drawing and Painting Birds by Tim Wootton and Capturing the Essence by William T. Cooper. Tim Wootton in turn on his blog recommends The Unfeathered Bird by Katrina Van Grouw, who spoke recently at The Free Library of Philadelphia.

I can recommend both Tim and Katrina's books and I've written about both of them here over the last couple of years. I've not read either of the other two, though I've heard many recommendations for the Laws book.

But I'd like to add another book for anyone interested in birds or bird art: Looking at Birds: An antidote to Field Guides by the artist and author who first convinced me you could actually make vibrant art with birds as the subject, John Busby (in his earlier Drawing Birds).

This is a very brief book, with very few words. But I think it is less a book to be read than a concept to be understood: an antidote to field guides. Early on he says:

It is a bonus to come face to face with a rare bird of course, but the adrenalin rush when encountering a rarity can narrow my observation down to diagnostic text - 'has it or hasn't it, got greenish-buff legs.'
Busby's book argues for sketching the unusual and surprising things that occur when you do more in looking at birds than find the markings that allow you to check them off a list. Right before the quote above he mentions getting excited about Blackbird shapes and the fun of collecting them.  There is a short chapter on preening birds and sketching them. Basically this book is about renewing an often jaded interest in birds, so that they are always interesting to look at.

There is almost nothing in the way of technical instruction. But with all the bird art out there that seems indentured to photography its nice to see one that instead focuses on getting your own experience  of the bird down, instead of  the feather count.

The sketch at top is a nod in that direction. I hope it captures some of the experience of the birds and the day.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Taking Inspiration Where You Find It

Red-eyed Vireo on Nest. Multiple block reduction woodcut by Ken Januski.
Well perhaps inspiration is too strong a word. I was looking through photos and sketches for something that I thought might work as a woodcut or linocut for a Season's Greetings card. When I saw my Red-eyed Vireo on nest photos I realized I could get a seasonal red and green theme by using a red border and a red eye along with the green leaves.

I almost never work in this way. But then again I'm rarely looking for something to meet a commission, in this case my own, that has specific requirements, like Season's Greetings. It was really quite a stretch to think that just the color combination would be enough to seem seasonal. So I designed it in such a way that the leaves, which are actually Beech, look a bit like Poinsettia. One more stretch.

Still I think it is what I wanted: a simple design that does, at least to me, seem seasonal.

If I happen upon one of the many Snowy Owls that have invaded Pennsylvania along with nearby states, then maybe I can think about a Happy New Year print. But I'm not at all counting on it.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Enthusiasm and Example in Art

Wilson's Snipe at Ottawa NWR. Watercolor Sketch by Ken Januski.
Wilson's Snipe. Ballpoint Pen Sketches by Ken Januski.
As much as I liked the quote from Delacroix in a recent post about the difficulty of finishing a painting there was something that bothered me. I didn't know the context. It was just an out of context quote. Because of that it was possible that I was reading into it a meaning that wasn't there about the complexity of painting.

Because of that I managed to pick up a copy of The Journals of Delacroix and have started reading them. How exciting they are. The early ones are as much about his love interests as his art but most of them were written when he was 50 and older and seem, from what I've read so far, to be more about his art.

What I've enjoyed so much about them is that they show a serious artist thinking about art. More important is that he is an accomplished and practicing artist, not an artistic dilettante lost in the ether of aesthetic theory. In another field, for instance politics, this would be called inside baseball, something of interest to practitioners and aficionados but not to anyone else.

The thing is it's very rare to find people who talk about their craft, who have a passion for it and can't keep from talking about it, theorizing about it. In some ways it's not even important what they say. From what I can tell so far Delacroix often contradicts himself. What is important, at least to me, is to run into someone who is passionate about art.

That thought in turn got me thinking about the times I've been most passionate about art, and enjoyed it the most. The first time was as a student at the University of California at Berkeley. Part of it was the classes both in studio art and art history. But more important was a small group of passionate fellow students. We, or at least I, thrived on working, seeing their work, talking about it, going to galleries, etc.

There is much to criticize about art education and my guess is that I'd be quite unhappy today. From what I can tell theory has come to rule over everything else. Some people wonder whether it makes sense to even go to art school. The one reason I'd advise doing so is the possibility of meeting people who are passionate about art, especially your peers.

The other instance of great enthusiasm for me occurred a number of years ago with the Wildlife Art thread of There was an excitement and shared enthusiasm that it was a great thrill to be part of, especially coming from total artistic isolation as I felt I was. There is no longer any activity there. But at the time it was wonderful.

You can look at books, go to galleries, etc. But I think that there is nothing that is better for artists than to be part of a group of people who share your enthusiasm about art. Eventually everyone has to go their own way. It happens with all artists. But I do think that anyone who's been part of such an enthusiastic group is lucky. It gives you the impetus to keep on when times are difficult.

So that is part of what Delacroix reminds me of: enthusiasm in the arts.

I was also enthusiastic about the arts from a child, though oddly enough it was mainly for abstract art. When I got to Chicago for college I spent hours upon hours at the Art Institute of Chicago admiring and enjoying the art. But I was majoring in English. The college I attended didn't offer any art courses. Art was not a viable occupation in my mind, neither in high school nor in college. The occupation and career of artist was something of the historical past not of the present or future.

For that you need acquaintance with practicing artists, i.e. adults who made art. That's what I discovered when I moved to the San Francisco Bay area, and especially when I started studying with famous artists at Berkeley. Their fame was not all that important though. What was important was that they were practicing artists. They made art!

This is the example that I refer to in the title. I do think that it must be very difficult to be an artist without the experience of both example and enthusiasm. I didn't have them early in my life but I am thankful that I eventually did. Reading Delacroix reminds me of just how exciting it can be to be an artist.

Apropos of nothing in this post are the two photos at top. Both are based on numerous photos I took of Wilson's Snipe at Ottawa NWR from this October. We rarely get a good look at snipe to this was a great thrill. We saw them in the same place for two or three days.

Because I don't know them that well I did the ballpoint pen sketches from photos, hoping that I might gain some familiarity with their form and markings. The watercolor sketch is an attempt to place them in their environment. Eventually I'd like to do either an acrylic painting or a woodcut/linocut.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

First Snow of 2013-2014 Winter

American Robin Eating Winterberry Fruit.
A predicted snow shower turned into something more today. In fact we're now expecting 3-6 inches of snow. For us that's actually a large amount this early in the year. Local birds look like they've been caught by surprise.

We counted 50 American Robins in trees around the yard. The smarter ones took advantage of the fruits of this winterberry. As you can see their neon red color is striking in winter, especially against snow. Sometimes we just admire their beauty. But when we get heavy snows we're happy that they're food for the birds. That was why we originally bought them.

Sharp-shinned Hawk on Backyard Bean Trellis.

When we first moved here and first discovered hawks in the backyard we believed that they were Sharp-shinned Hawks. And I think that's what they were. But here as in many places Cooper's Hawks have become more common. In this case though this was an immature Sharp-shinned Hawk. He finally left, without a meal. I assume he'll be back before dark.

The snow also brought some first of season birds (for the backyard) to our yard today: Dark-eyed Juncos, White-throated Sparrows, and surprisingly Northern Cardinals, which used to be here all year. We've seen these species elsewhere this year, quite a few in fact. But it's nice to finally see them in the backyard.

Eastern Towhee at Houston Meadows. Acrylic Painting by Ken Januski.

I thought this painting was done but as soon as I had a chance to take a good look at it things started bothering me. By this morning I could no longer stand it and had to start reworking it. But as soon as I changed one thing another started bothering me, etc., etc. For now it's done, though there is still one more change I'm tempted to make.

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher at Bartram's Garden. Watercolor by Ken Januski.

I finished reworking the Towhee painting by mid-morning, long before any serious snow had started. So that got me thinking about another 'finished' painting that had been bothering me more and more. Above is the new version of the watercolor of the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher. My original goal was just to get the bird down on paper. But the more I looked at it the more dissatisfied I was with the background foliage and sky. I'm going to try to keep my hands off of it and move on to something new but you just never know.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Heart of Steel

Eastern Towhee at Houston Meadows. Acrylic Painting by Ken Januski.

That's quite a title I admit. I found it while searching online for information regarding my recollection that Delacroix had a hard time letting a painting go, to the point of touching it up while hanging on exhibition. I never found anything regarding that but I did find something similar:

Finishing a painting requires a heart of steel: everything requires a decision and I find difficulties where I least expect them.

After the fact I realized that I might actually be thinking of John Constable or Edgar Degas. Perhaps all three of them had the same problem. In any case Delacroix says it well: a painting is really an orchestration, a visual symphony, of color, tone, shape, light, line, texture, etc. That's why there are so many decisions. Every thing you do affects everything else. Wildlife art or any art that just stresses accuracy in detail misses the only important thing in painting: the visual symphony.

All of which is just an explanation for the state of this acrylic painting of an Eastern Towhee. I think it's done. Every time I've tried to finish it up the marks I made in one area made another area look bad. So it's gone back and forth, back and forth. That's both the good side, and the curse, of acrylic painting. You can change it forever. The answer I think is either to sell it or hang it, in other words get it out of my hands so I can't do anything more with it!

Having worked so long in watercolor and woodcut/linocut where you can't keep changing over and over the freedom of acrylic is a shock. It's largely a pleasant shock. But still there is the problem of when is the painting done. This is something I'm sure all creators are familiar with. At some time you just need to boot the creative project out the door or have someone grab it from you, saving you from yourself. A less desirable alternative, though used by many, is to just destroy it in disgust. I've rarely used this method.

Great Blue Herons at Manayunk Canal. Field Sketches by Ken Januski.

Because of that these field sketches are a welcome relief. They of course don't have the detail of the painting, not even close. But they're fresher and simpler. These are two of the four different Great Blue Herons I saw at the Manayunk Canal the other day. Though there can be frustrations in art work in the long run I consider myself very lucky to be able to spend so much time either sketching outside or doing more developed work in the studio. It can't be beat.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Eastern Towhee Continued

Eastern Towhee at Houston Meadows. In-process Acrylic Painting by Ken Januski.

We were birding at Fort Washington State Park - Militia Hill today, killing time while waiting for our cat to finish at the vet. At one point a thoroughly recognizable shape hopped out into the path. It was an Eastern Towhee. I think because I've been spending so much time painting it the shape was instantly recognizable. We've actually been surprised at how often they can be found at this location in late fall and winter.

The high point though was a handsome Purple Finch, either female or first year just a few feet away from us. We rarely see them in this area of Pennsylvania so it was a pleasant surprise, especially as the predictions are for no irruption of northern finches into areas south this year.

When we got home, cat safely in tow, I decided to grab just a little time to continue work on this painting. There's still a lot of work to do, especially in incorporating its surroundings. But I am happy with its progress.