Sunday, February 23, 2014

Signs of Change

First Hermit Thrush of 2014. Watercolor Sketch by Ken Januski

Even week after week of cold and heavy snow eventually must acknowledge that the seasons are changing. It is still a bit of tough going out walking. Though many days in the 50s have melted the snow on well-trodden paths and walks the less well-trodden areas where we've gone birding recently still offer some surprises. Just when you put your weight on one foot to stride forward down it goes into the snow, throwing you off balance.

Yesterday I started the day viewing 50 Snow Geese flying NE outside my studio window. Later in the day a walk through  deep snow at the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education ended with 25 very low-flying Snow Geese. We've never seen more than one flock in a day. But just as we parked the car back home another flock, this one of 100 or so, flew over honking as they flew. I later learned that someone else in Philadelphia saw 5100! yesterday.

Yes there are signs of spring about. We also noticed yesterday that our 'Arnold Promise' Witch Hazel is starting to bloom.

When we arrived at Morris Arboretum this morning we were greeted by singing Red-winged Blackbirds, the first singing ones we've seen this year. We ended up seeing 29 birds, none particularly exciting. Again we saw a Common Merganser in the Wissahickon, the second time this year, after never having seen them previously. Much more exciting though were our first Hooded Mergansers of the year, in a tributary of  the Wissahickon, At the same time appeared the bird portrayed above, our first Hermit Thrush of 2014

Though they can be here during the winter they always are more likely early migrant birds. This is the earliest we've ever seen them. We do often see them in spring, though we sadly missed them last year, and I've done many sketches of them. Their signature pot belly and slowly lifting reddish tail are a welcome sight. So I'm happy to have the chance to add one more watercolor sketch to my collection.

Around the house the House Finches have been singing for a couple of weeks, even with all that snow. So have the Mourning Doves and the Song Sparrows, though it's hard to tell if the Song Sparrows actually ever stop.

In any case spring is definitely on the way. There is more snow in the forecast and an end to these 50 degree days. But no matter, spring will win out.

I'm more and more convinced that my artistic future lies with more abstract work. But for now I  couldn't resist this more or less realistic portrait of the handsome Hermit Thrush.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

GBBC 2014 -Day 4

Canada Geese with Wood Duck in Swan Pond at Morris Arboretum. Pen Sketch by Ken Januski.

My Kingdom for Some Snowshoes!! That was my thought yesterday as we finally dug out the car and drove to the last day of birding for the Great Backyard Bird Count. On day 1 and day 3 we'd walked and had to traipse through a lot of deep snow. It was difficult but I never thought I was going to injure myself.

Yesterday was something different. At Andorra Natural Area and also off the plowed walks at Morris Arboretum the snow was treacherous. There was just enough crust to make you  feel that it would support your weight. Then just as you moved a leg forward the back one broke the crust and fell 6-18 inches. At various times I, and to a lesser extent Jerene since she's so much lighter, wondered just what would get injured: knee, ankle, hip?

We cut our snow birding short at Andorra and did the last half of our birding from the road, having to dodge cars occasionally. It was a great relief when we went a short distance over to Morris Arboretum and were able to walk on plowed walks. Only occasionally did we tempt the snow and each time quickly gave up in defeat. Why in the world didn't we buy snowshoes when they  were on sale? Well the answer is simple. We never get much snow in Philadelphia! This year has been a shocking reminder that sometimes we really do get a winter.

In any case with all the effort of just walking I didn't do any  sketches  and only took a couple of photos. They  were of two Wood Ducks with a number of Canada Geese and Mallards in the Swan Pond.  I really only took them as proof that we'd seen some. I didn't have time to take photos of the ones we'd seen at the Schuylkill River on Friday.

In looking at them I  discovered that I'd also gotten a Canada Goose in full  stretch. Since I like to force myself to do an 'illustration' for these birding reports it seemed like a good one. The Wood Duck and other Canada Goose weren't in these locations so I took some artistic liberties.

I like forcing myself to do these. It reminds me of the many artists in visual, musical, literary media who have done some of their best work under pressure. None of these are my best work by far. But they do force me to try something new. Often that leads to a more developed work. And all in all I think they're far more useful to me artistically than the pen sketches of a week ago.

And as I've said before I thank the Great Backyard Bird Count for encouraging us, and everyone, to get out and see the beauty of nature in winter. I have to say that when I lived in California years ago I greatly missed it. It does have its disadvantages at time but also its own unique rewards.

Monday, February 17, 2014

GBBC 2014 - Day 3

Rusty Blackbird at Gorgas Run. Watercolor Sketch by Ken Januski.

With all the cold and snow it's harder than usual to convince ourselves to go out counting birds for the Great Backyard Bird Count, especially as we don't want to give up our parking space and know that when we return we'll need to search for longer than we'd like and park much further away than we'd like. Winter in the city!

So yesterday we decided to walk to our birding, just as we'd done on Friday. This is more appealing on a sunny day like Friday. But yesterday was supposed to become mostly cloudy, and not reach 32. Did we really want to take a long walk in that weather? Well we're happy that we did.

As I've written many times about winter birding, you just never know what you may find. When we finally got down to the Wissahickon our first surprise was a female Common Merganser. We've never seen any mergansers there but if we did we'd expect it to be a Hooded Merganser. In fact I guess it's not true that we've never seen mergansers there. We have seen Hooded Mergansers on tributaries of the Wissahickon a mile or two north at Morris Arboretum.

As we ended our Wissahickon walk heading back up the Gorgas Run trail to the city Jerene said she saw a grackle. But it looked a bit slim for a grackle. In fact it was a beautiful male Rusty Blackbird. I find them irresistible as a subject for art. Above is a quick watercolor sketch of one in the water of Gorgas Run from yesterday. We rounded out that part of the walk with a sighting I hoped we'd find: the same Eastern Phoebe we had found in the same location a month ago for the Philadelphia Mid-winter Bird Census. It's amazing that it was still around.

We rounded off our walk with a mile or so back down Ridge Avenue to our house. Not much to see in the urban part of the walk, but you just never know. Maybe next time.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

GBBC 2014 - Day 2

American Robin with Dried Fruit in Snow. Watercolor Sketch by Ken Januski.

Though yesterday started off well for the Great Backyard Bird Count with 21 Snow Geese flying over the backyard we never left the house and saw few new birds. Exhaustion from the previous day's walk along with  blustery snow and wind convinced us not to walk anywhere, even around the block, to see what birds were around.

So we just counted birds seen around the yard. We've watched birds, particularly American Robins, feed on the fruit of our trees all winter: crabapple, winterberry, Aronia. But eventually all the fruit was gone. And then we got another month's worth of cold, snowy weather. What would the robins eat?

We feed normal bird food to seed and nut eating birds but we assume robins will feed on the native food. Though there are many robins around I'm not sure what they're eating in Philadelphia. A month or so ago I saw a flock eating from an invasive Amur Cork Tree. The fruit is of very low nutritional value. So at least around our immediate neighborhood there's very little to eat.

I did a little research into  what could be fed to robins in bad weather. The best ideas I came up with were frozen blueberries, cut up apples. and perhaps dried meal worms in the same area, which they might discover while eating the fruit.

We have had one particular robin for at least a month. He chases all other robins off. With the newest batch of snow, ice and cold we decided we needed to try to feed him. Since we still have some lawn furniture outside there is a somewhat snow-free area under it. We've been putting blueberries, apples and mealworms under there for at least a week. And the robin is there constantly.

It seems a little silly feeding this one robin when we saw over 265 a mile away on Friday. But I'm not sure he'd survive without our help so we keep feeding him, and enjoying him.

The watercolor sketch at top, done in a Stillman and Birn Delta sketchbook, shows him feeding on our offerings, beneath those beautiful forest green lawn chairs.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

GBBC 2014 - Day 1

Wood Ducks on Schuylkill River. Watercolor Sketch by Ken Januski.

After posting to this blog yesterday Jerene and I bundled up and walked, with some difficulty due to the deep snow, down the hill from our house to the Manayunk Canal and Schuylkill River, along them for a mile or so, then back up the hill. Though we only saw about 15 birds they included some unusual ones: the first Common Goldeneyes we've ever seen in this area, two Wood Ducks, which are surprising to see at this time of year, and at least 265 American Robins.

As usual I'm thankful to the Great Backyard Bird Count for spurring us on to birding in worse weather than we might otherwise head into. Today it's more rain, sleet and snow. Fortunately 21 Snow Geese flew over the backyard while Jerene was out filling the bird feeders so we're off to a good start. Hopefully we'll at least take a brief walk to see what else is around.

Last year I posted a small and quick watercolor sketch illustrating, in one fashion or another, each day of the GBBC. I'm going to try to do the same this year. Above is a small watercolor on Stillman and Birn Delta paper done in about 30 minutes. I took no photos yesterday and only did some bad sketches of the Common Goldeneye so this is based on some of my older photos that show the ducks in a somewhat similar view.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Snowbound Sketching

Brown Thrashers. Pen Sketches by Ken Januski.
Carolina Wrens. Pen Sketches by Ken Januski.
Today and the following three days are the days of The Great Backyard Bird Count, an enjoyable and useful project that we always take part in. For years though we've preferred to replace the backyard with larger and more environmentally rich areas in the near vicinity.

BUT, we have I'd guess about 18 inches of snow outside right now. I can't really convince myself to drive around, and try to find parking places, in such circumstances so the GBBC so far has been limited to our backyard. Perhaps I'll  get a bit more adventurous soon. Who knows what affect all this snow will have on birds.

Because I've been stuck inside for the last 36 hours or so I've continued with doing ballpoint pen sketches based on my photos. A perceptive viewer might note that they are done in alphabetical order That's because my photos are organized that way and I'm slowly perusing them, sketching what strikes me.

These two are done using the two circle method. You might of course ask just where they are. Well I put them in very lightly, just as a guide for the final lines. It is always a bit surprising to me how delicate a ballpoint pen can be, perhaps because of the quick  movement of the pen across the paper. In any case I'm always surprised how rich it can be and also how easy it is not to feel too limited by the permanent nature of the ink. i.e. you can't erase earlier markings. Occasionally I've added a bit of white pastel if I've needed to try to erase some marks. But generally speaking I live with the marks I make.

As with the other recent sketches these are done in a Stillman and Birn Epsilon sketchbook.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Birds From Two Circles

Black-throated Green Warblers. Pen Sketch by Ken Januski.

In my last post I mentioned the two-circle method of drawing birds mentioned in John Muir Laws' Laws Guide to Drawing Birds.I've always been skeptical of simplified methods and shortcuts such as this. And yet you do have to start somewhere. Since I spent many years greatly exaggerating the length of necks in many birds I decided to try the two-circle method. Maybe it would prove helpful.

All of the ballpoint pen sketches in this post were used with that method. All in all I was pleasantly surprised. I can only guess how well this might work for a beginning bird artist but based on the good reviews of the book I'd have to guess that it works well for many. The best part about it to me is that it forces you to connect the head to the body, not just placing it on top of the body but actually taking away part of the space of the body, which is what it really does. This tends to create a more organic shape.

Black and White Warbler and Belted Kingfisher. Pen Sketch by Ken Januski.

Each winter I seem to eventually break down and do some sketches based on photos(always my own), just like the ones on this page. I thought I might be able to avoid it this year but exploring the two-circle method of drawing birds gave me the excuse to take it up again. I just find it very melancholy to work from photos. What life is there in a photo? I'd rather be outside seeing the bird in real life. Still it is also a learning exercise and hopefully I've learned something in such sketches and will be able to apply it in more developed work or in field sketches.

You could say that the two pages of sketches above, in an 8.25x11.75 Stillman and Birn Epsilon sketchbook are in the illustrative tradition of bird art, one that tries to portray birds accurately. I think that's correct, though for me it's not so much about portraying them accurately as internalizing what they  look like so that I can feel free to take artistic  liberties.

During the many years I was an abstract artist I often likened my work to music especially jazz. I wasn't interested in an literal interpretation but the more abstract one of music. This is partially what I was talking about when I mentioned the importance of theory in art. Perhaps I should have said formal consideration rather than theory.

I ran across a nice explanation of this recently in skimming The Enjoyment of Music by Joseph Machlis:

In expanding and manipulating his ideas the composer treats the tone material in the manner of a sculptor or goldsmith: he molds the material, deriving inspiration from the stuff in his hands, allowing it to dictate forms and shapes peculiar to itself. He is engaged in a kind of thinking possible only in music, one that has its own logic, its own procedures and meanings; a thinking that cannot be duplicated in any other medium. For this reason is it so repugnant to most musicians to have literary interpretations forced upon a piece of abstract music...
Black-bellied Plover and Dunlin. Pen Sketch by Ken Januski.

Just as music has its own language so does visual art. And that language is far more than realism. It is an abstract language of shape, color, composition, tone, texture, pattern, light, space, the actual feel of the material used. It is an interest in all of that language that I often find missing in illustration. I mention that here below the sketch of Black-bellied Plovers and Dunlin because what attracted me to them was the formal elements: the shape of each bird, the patterns they formed, the relationship of one to another. I didn't really pursue that here but in the back of my mind is always the thought of using the subjects as inspiration for the formal language of art. As Machlis says about music it is a language unto itself and it is most expressive when it is not limited by setting photographic verisimilitude as the highest goal. My hope here is that in understanding the forms of birds better I'll be able to create art with them as the subjects.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Big River of Art

Northern Mockingbird, Carolina Chickadee, Carolina Wren. Field Sketches by Ken Januski.

Northern Mockingbird and Carolina Chickadee. Pencil Sketch by Ken Januski.

Northern Mockingbird and Carolina Chickadee. Linocut by Ken Januski.

A few posts ago I threatened to write about my recent reading, something I really don't do too much, though the Journals of Delacroix have proved an exception. Sometimes it seems so foreign to art itself. You might also say its removed from birds and nature.  Reading is obviously more thoughtful, unless you're deep in some page turner.

Almost all of my reading has been about art or wildlife art, with a solid detour into music. And it's hard to write about art without getting into aesthetics. That in turn brings up the famous quote from artist Barnett Newman:

Aesthetics is for me what ornithology must be for the birds.

It's easy to understand the concept: some non-practicing artist forces some sort of theory upon actual art and artists and it rarely fits. Even the Impressionists didn't consider themselves an artistic movement.

The odd thing, as my reading of The Journals of Delacroix convinced me is that I can't resist  thinking about art and wildlife art. That seems to also be true of Delacroix and I think that's why his journals are so popular both with myself and more than a century's worth of readers. In fact for Delacroix is not just art but all the arts, from Mozart to Rubens to Racine and Shakespeare. He can't help but thinking about them in relation to one another. They're all creative endeavors.

Reading Delacroix and listening to the audiotape The Great Courses course on How to Listen to and Understand Music remind me how important theory is in art. Perhaps not for everyone but certainly for me.

This was emphasized from the opposite direction by my reading of a very popular new book on drawing birds, The Laws Guide to Drawing Birds. I have read about this book for more than a year but could never convince myself to buy it,  or place it high on a list of possible gifts I'd like. Why? I never liked the illustrations I've seen from the book: birds constructed of one circle, for the head, placed on top of another, for the body; and uninspiring more developed sketches.

Nonetheless after reading too many good reviews I decided to buy it. No matter how much you know about either drawing birds or identifying birds there's a good chance that you can learn something new. To my great surprise I learned a lot. Laws is a very good observer of birds. Many aspects of bird structure that I've only begun to notice after years of struggling with sketching them appear as short notes in the book, for instance the emargination of the outer primary feathers.

As I read the book these astute notes puzzled me a bit though because they are so advanced compared to the circle upon circle drawing method. But you can't argue with all the good reviewers. Many seem to find the book useful on many levels. And after my second reading of it I really am impressed by the amount of knowledge that is revealed in it. It should be helpful to anyone who wants to understand the structure of birds.

And yet.............I couldn't help thinking about other books on drawing birds: Drawing Birds by John Busby. Looking at Birds: An Antidote to Field Guides, also by John Busby, and Drawing and Painting Birds by my online acquaintance Tim Wootton. Tim's book is probably the most similar book in terms of goals, to teach people to draw and paint birds. But what a difference! I can look at Tim's book over and over and enjoy the artistic qualties of the work by various artists, many of them also online acquaintances of mine(I add this just in case there's any unknown bias on my part). I don't enjoy looking at the Laws book.

I was also surprised by the Laws book when I read of the bird artists he admired: John Busby, Tim Wootton, Bruce Pearson,  Nick Derry, among others. A very large number were the very same bird artists I most admire. Still I think the illustrations in the book don't show much evidence of this love, perhaps because the author really had a different goal  in writing the book. Though it is refers to 'drawing' in the title, 'illustration' is often mentioned in the text of the book. In the end I think that explains why I can't get too excited about the works themselves: their goal seems to be illustration not art.

The subject of illustration versus art is almost always on my mind. It seems endemic to any artist who chooses to portray wildlife as I do. Another online friend, 100 Swallows, recently got me thinking about this when he wrote about Norman Rockwell in his blogpost, Rockwell on Main St. This in turn convinced me to read the new book on Norman Rockwell, American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell by Deborah Solomon.

I confess that I've  never liked Rockwell. But I also have never looked at him. 100 Swallows' blog and Solomon's book have given me the opportunity to look at him in greater depth. Rockwell rarely if ever considered himself an artist but rather an illustratior. And yet the Solomon book indicates how often he felt he might be a failure because he hadn't pursued art with a capital A. Many wildlife artists that I've read about earned their living as illustrators but chomped at the bit to ditch illustration and turn to art with a capital A. One of the few who did successfully was Bob Kuhn.

Regardless of the ambivalence that Rockwell or any other artists felt about illustration you can't deny that narrative has been, can be and probably again will be a major part of the art wtih a capital A that gets shown in museums. I still really can't like Rockwell's work, just as I can't most of the more realistic wildlife artists. But I can appreciate the honest desire to portray either narrative or likenesses. In this Delacroix is well worth reading.Over and over he mentions how contemporaries of his fall short due to their obsession with detail. If only contemporary big cat painters would look at Delacroix's cat paintings to see how to paint art that that is not just illustration. I'm tempted to say that one thing Delacroix has and many illustrators don't is imagination. And yet that is one of Rockwell's strongest qualities, his imagination. Perhaps only history will come up with an objective view of him.

I suppose we all have biases that we will never overcome. One of mine is against a weak-kneed irony that seems incapable of taking a strong stand for or against anything. I can't forsee my ever abandoning my intense disllike of art that is based on irony, particulary of the clever type. I am biased toward abstract, what a critic might call designy,  art. But I understand the desire to portray what one sees and to tell stories. All are part  of the big river of art. It has been many things over the course of human history and it will continue to be.

And like nature, it is one of the most worthwhile and rewarding things that is available to humans. I hope that readers of this who like art but not nature and vice versa, will consider that they might be far more similar than they'd guess and just as rewarding.

And on a less theoretical note: the photos at top show the development of my new Northern Mockingbird and Carolina Chickadee linocut. The top photo is a field sketch of those birds as well as a Carolina Chickadee. It is followed by a sketch for the lino based on the field sketch. And finally the finished print, printed in an edition of 15 with Daniel Smith water-soluble ink on  Rives Heavyweight paper.