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.

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