Sunday, March 30, 2014

Arriving Warblers, Departing Ducks

Pine Warbler and Ring-necked Ducks. Watercolor Sketch by Ken Januski

I hate to post something new here. That's because I'm so happy with that last grebes and mergansers print that I'd like to leave it up permanently.

But time and the seasons move on and I hate to not mention something about them. Earlier this week, I saw my first Pine Warbler of 2014. After the long dreary winter their strong, bright yellow is always a welcome harbinger of things to come. I saw him while walking along Forbidden Drive in Wissahickon Park in Philadelphia but unfortunately the view was all to brief. Fortunately though he was low, just above eye level, so I did get a good look at his rich yellow.

Later in the week just as the first of 3-5 rainy days began I went to the wetlands of Morris Arboretum, looking for Wilson's Snipe, a bird we sometimes see there this time of year. I'd also heard that some long-billed shorebirds had been seen so that convinced me to brave the rain and go looking for them.

Try as I might I didn't find them but finally I realized that those strikingly contrasting Mallards at the far end of the pond were in fact not Mallards but Ring-necked Ducks. It's the first time I've ever seen any there  I think that during migration though it pays to pay attention. Migrants can't be too choosy and you just don't know what you may find in any location.

I never saw this scene. The Pine Warbler was about a mile away on a different day. But their juxtaposition is plausible and I like the idea of illustrating the arrival of one migrant and the departure of another.

I'm not too experienced with waterfowl but it seems this year has been far more active than normal, probably because of frozen water farther north. It's been a pleasure to see so many close to home. But without a doubt I'm ready to trade them for warblers, a symbol of a long awaited spring if there ever was one.

Each spring I find I do watercolor sketches like this, often combining birds not actually seen together. These really are the working through of ideas more than anything else. They are both illustrations of something and compositional studies. Yes they are sloppy and indistinct. But their purpose is really as a compositional study for a possible print or painting at another time. Perhaps even a woodcut like the last one. It is a direction I'll continue to pursue.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Completed Mergansers and Grebes Woodcut

Mergansers and Grebes on the Schuylkill River. Multi-block Reduction Woodcut by Ken Januski.

Done! Though inevitably as I print what should be the last state of a print I start thinking, 'Well I could do that or I could add this.' But Sometimes you just have to stop and save any new thoughts for a new print.

This is an edition of 15. The entire print is 9x11 inches and the image itself is 6x8 inches. I used Daniel Smith water soluble relief inks on Shin Torinoko paper from McClains. I had read that this paper, reasonably priced, was also good for use with multiple blocks. Since I knew I'd be using both reduction woodcut and multiple wood blocks it seemed like a good choice. And I have to say that it's held up well.

I'm quite happy I pursued this, especially the 5-6 abstract shapes that constituted the first image that I printed, way back when. They force this print out of the category of something you might actually see, I think, into the category of evoking something you might experience.

As returning readers well know I have a thing about photography. I doubt that it's far removed from the notion, apocryphal or not, that photographs steal your soul. To me they are always so much less that what I've seen and experienced.

I guess that's why I've always loved art. But wildlife art seems to be joined at the hip to photography. Numerous artists have complained about this but photographic wildlife art still seems to completely overwhelm any other type of wildlife art.

So since the day I started bird art, almost eight years ago now, I've wanted to create a type of art that is both naturalistic, in the sense that there is some sort of truth to the birds and other fauna and flora portrayed but that is also artistic, that is not limited by verisimilitude. A well known wildlife artist once questioned online my notion that artists can know too much. But surely they can, just like muscle bound athletes are limited. Knowledge is in the service of art and not the other way round.

In any case I found a few years ago that relief printmaking seemed to offer a way to combine naturalism and art. But I also found that I was still getting a little closer to photographic representation than I liked, even if it was fairly expressionistic.

So this print is really the first to really break out of that. The geometric shapes put a stumbling block in the way of representation, deliberately. In my mind they have served well in forcing me to keep this print about art, as well as about representation. All in all I'm quite happy with the results and hope that this will be a fruitful path to pursue. I'm pretty confident that it will.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Next to Last Color on the Mergansers and Grebes

Mergansers and Grebes on Schuylkill River. Third State of Multi-block Reduction Woodcut by Ken Januski.

After deliberating about the second color for the water in this print I went ahead and printed it this morning. Yesterday I had a deeper blue green but I decided that something more olive/yellow might work better. We shall see.

It's so hard to actually evaluate a print at this stage. I know that the final(hopefully) black color will bring back a lot of contrast. I hope it will both accentuate the birds, separating them a bit from the background, and add sparkle to the tonal sense of the print.

As Winslow Homer and many others have said, it is tone that underlies everything. I hated those gray scale charts in beginning art class and they really seemed worthless at the time. I'm not sure if you ever really learn anything from doing them. But I think at some point most artists realize that tone is their friend.

One of the things that turns me from so much illustration, including wildlife illustration, is that it often has no tonal contrast. There's just a variety of  lukewarm grays. As I said tone is your friend.

As usual when I print I realize how easy it is to get lost in technique. I never pursued printmaking in my lengthy college education, perhaps because it seemed to rely too much on technique. But the more I print the more I realize that technique too is your friend, though it may take many years to master or even vaguely control it.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Regaining, Temporarily, Some Black and White Contrast

Mergansers and Grebes on the Schuylkill River. Proof state of Multi-block Woodcut by Ken Januski.

Way back in the beginning when I started this there was a fair amount of black and white contrast. That was partially because I was using black ink on a more or less white paper. But it also was because three of the four subjects had a large amount of black and white contrast in themselves.

Most noticeable is the male Common Merganser, a study in black and white if there ever was one. Less strong but still there is the upper head of the Red-necked Grebe in contrast with the white of parts of the neck.  And stretching it just a wee bit is the dark gray/brown/black of the Pied-billed Grebe contrasting with the white of the bill and eye ring.

That contrast disappeared once I printed the gray blue color yesterday. I still have one more color, for the rest of the water, to print before I print the black on top of everything. But I'd like to get a hint as to what the black will look like before I print the second color of the water.

So this is a proof of the black block on some proofs of the print as of yesterday. As I ponder it I'll make a decision about what color to choose for the remaining water. The print will never ever look just like this in its final state. But it will help me decide on the final state. Once the black of the water is replaced by a new color, possibly an olive green, the black and white contrast of the birds should stand out more strongly. And of course I'll need to do a bit of cutting away of the black on the female Common Merganser so show her handsome chestnut head and neck.

To repeat myself from yesterday I still like the way this is going. And now it hardly even looks experimental, at least to my unbiased eye.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Stravinsky - A Rite of Spring

Mergansers and Grebes in the Schuylkill River. Second State of Multi-block Reduction Woodcut by Ken Januski.

Well I missed it! I was too busy out seeing what new birds might have arrived and sketching an American Wigeon that is lingering and then too busy working on the second state of the mergansers and grebes woodcut to listen to Stravinksy's Rite of Spring.

Each year for the past few years WRTI, our local classical and jazz radio station has played it on the first day of spring. I assume that they did so again today. I mention it because each time I hear it I'm reminded of how exciting it is, and yet how old it also is, 101 years to be exact.

I have the same reaction each time I hear it: how can anyone be doing traditional art in the light of music as revolutionary as this?! I know we can't, and shouldn't, all be revolutionaries. But each time I hear it I am forced to question the type of art that I do.

So given the experimental nature of my new print it seemed quite fitting to mention Stravinsky. Though it certainly wasn't planned or intentional this print does to some extent try to answer the question of how to make art, especially wildlife art, in the light of over 100 years of modern art, in the visual arts, music, literature etc.

I planned out what I intended to do today, cut out a little more from the second wood block, and then printed it. I really had no idea what the print would look like when I lifted it up off of the block. No idea at all and only the vaguest notion that I thought it might be exciting.

Well I'm pleased. I did some more cutting and proofing and then finally printed this second color on the good paper. For the first time I'm trying Torinoko paper. So far it's worked fine.

As usual I always discover a few technical problems when I print. I think that's largely because I'm not a full time printmaker. I'm not devoted just to it so I often forget things that I learned about technique. But I'm improving. One thing I've noticed is that I prefer a washier ink when using woodblock. That lets the grain of the wood show a bit more. It ends up giving the image an overall softer quality and that seems fine.

I plan on at least two more colors here: a second color for the water on the block I printed today, and then black on the first block. I'm hoping it will tie everything together. If not I may have to go back into the third block, the one I printed first with the colored geometric shapes. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

For now I can just say that I'm happy with the way that this is going.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

That's a Different Print, Right?

Mergansers and Grebes on Schuylkill River. First State of Multi-block Reduction Woodcut on good paper by Ken Januski.

I debated showing this and I might very well be sorry that I did once I try to incorporate it into the mergansers and grebes print. Yes this is part of the same print. Not only that but this is printed on the good paper, not proofing paper. There's no going back now.

All along I've wanted to break up the traditional pictorial space. This is nothing new of course since it's been going on for at least 100 years since Cubism or perhaps earlier. But I just felt like I needed to do something to get to a different type of bird/wildlife art, at least a different type for myself.

It's not unusual to see abstraction in bird sculpture but it seems pretty rare in bird painting. The only artists I know that seem comfortable with it, or at least with trying it, are British.

I've debated doing something like this for quite awhile. In fact I've started off paintings abstractly only to veer back toward realism at the end. But that can't very well happen here.

So in the coming days I'll start printing the two other blocks on top of this. Though it probably doesn't look it there is some rhyme and reason to these shapes, their color and their location. The orange triangle should intersect the bill of the female Common Mergansers. The small yellow square at top left should intersect the bill of the Red-necked Grebe. The two browns should intersect the neck and head of the female Common Merganser and the neck of the Red-necked Grebe.

Since they are printed first they'll go under the two other blocks with their separate shapes and colors. But I may feel the need to print all of these shapes, some of these shapes, or just parts of some shapes on top of the colors from the next two blocks if I don't like what I get.

This is truly improvisatory. Many printmakers, again primarily British when it comes to bird art, use monotypes as their main outlet for improvisation. And surely you can get improvisation that way. But you also get just one print, the mono of monoprint. I'd like to get more than one print. In fact I'd like an edition of prints that still is largely improvisatory.

It will be a great surprise when I start printing the other colors. And I think it's more likely that I'll fail than that I'll succeed. But it's something that I've felt  I needed to try for a long time. We'll see what happens.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Mergansers and Grebes - Day Two, Block Two

Mergansers and Grebe on Schuylkill River. State Three of Multi-block Reduction Woodcut by Ken Januski.

It may not look like it but there are two separate woodblocks used on this print, well actually both sides of one woodblock, which is effectively two woodblocks. The colors at the moment are too close to one another, black and slate blue/gray. Now that I see what it looks like I know that I'll need to lighten up the slate blue/gray.

I want at least two colors in the water. One, a new lighter gray, will also serve as part of the plumage of both grebes. As I determine how these two blocks interact I'll change each of them. At the moment I've printed the black of the first woodblock on top of the slate blue/gray of the second block. But I need to cut away more of the black so that more of the new improved gray will eventually show through.

There is still the red of the female Common Merganser head and the yellow of the Red-necked Grebe bill to contend with. And most likely I'll try to break the picture plane by adding a second color in the water that makes a zigzag from back to front out towards the viewer. That is my intent. If it works as planned it will take away much possibility of this being read as realistic. That at least is my goal.

As I said in the last post I would like this to look like the 20th and 21st century have actually taken place, at least part of the 21st century, and that I'm not completely blind to them. In a way I hate to do this because it takes liberties with the birds and with realistic space among other things. But sometimes you just have to try something new.

Stuart Davis was an old hero of mine when I was an abstract painter and I always envisioned myself doing something similar to him when I turned from abstraction to birds. But I think that if I were to try something similar I'd feel that the resulting print too drastically flattened space and veered a little too close to decoration. So I'm going to try to avoid it and see if I can get some kind of compromise. Time will tell.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Mergansers and Grebes Woodcut - The Beginning

Mergansers and Grebes on Schuylkill River. Stage Two of Woodcut by Ken Januski.

I know that this print is a far cry from my last watercolor sketch. But it won't stay like this. I'm putting it up more to show a print in a very raw state, and to convince myself I hope to keep some of the rawness. This is the second state of the print, replacing the pockmarked first state that I put up yesterday.

I'm really much too old to be a bad boy when it comes to art. But often as I look through reproductions of wildlife art there's something in me that wants to scream, that makes me want to become a bad boy.

I can appreciate more realistic art work, and when it seems honest I can like it very much. But if it doesn't feel true, if it feels formulaic or sentimental my hackles go up. I want to do very raw wildlife art as an antidote. I also know that at heart I 'm just not the type of person who should do particularly realistic art. It may please me a bit, perhaps please others even more. But it will never be really exciting to me. For excitement and fulfillment, at least in my own work, there has to be something else.

So we'll see where this leads. I often find that I can think art to death. This results in procrastination. It's hard to know if all the thinking eventually adds to future work. Perhaps when this print is done I'll have a better idea. In the meantime I decided it was time to stop thinking and instead start working.

One recent thought upon looking at some catalogs from shows of wildlife art was that so much of it looked like it was from the 19th century. That's not inherently bad. Great art has been done in many styles. Perhaps someone really loves 19th century art and nothing since then. It's quite easy to throw your hands up in the face of contemporary art. But isn't it possible for some wildlife art, and I know that there is some, to look like it's familiar with both the 20th and 21st century?  I can't claim to represent this type of art but it is something I've been thinking about and it may help decide where this print goes.

Pictured are Common Mergansers, both male and female, and two grebes, a Red-necked and a Pied-billed. I saw all over the last month in the nearby Schuylkill River.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Cutest Duck?

Ruddy Duck in Schuylkill River at Flat Rock Dam. Watercolor Sketch by Ken Januski.

With temperatures predicted to drop 40 degrees overnight, from 62 to 22, I decided I ought to take one more look on the Schuylkill River to see if any new waterfowl were there. My thought was that they might soon be departing. On the other hand I could be wrong and the cold snap might convince them that they should linger. It can only be worse, with more frozen water, farther north.

Right off I saw a number of Common Mergansers. But rarer birds, like Red-breasted Mergansers or more Red-necked Grebes didn't make an appearance. That was fine though. With the warmer weather of last few days I also knew that I might find some new, smaller migrants.

After walking over a mile along the Manayunk Canal and then back I saw the tiniest shape in the Schuylkill along the shore, right at Flat Rock Dam.

If I didn't know better I'd say Rubber Ducky. It was a Ruddy Duck, seemingly the smallest and cutest duck, though I'm not sure that it's the smallest. Green-winged Teal would have to be in the running but I never see it at my feet as with this duck. So it's hard to judge its size in comparison to the Ruddy Duck. But I believe it's actually smaller.

I did a ball point pen field sketch and then took some photos. At one point two Mallards approached the duck, intimidation on their mind I'm sure. No problem for a diving duck. You just dive and reappear elsewhere. By the time the Ruddy Duck was back up the Mallards had lost interest.

This small watercolor sketch in a Stillman and Birn Gamma sketchbook has more feather detail than I normally do, though it's still done impressionistically. Part of the reason for that is that this duck might be called dull and non-descript by some. It's color variation is subtle. I tried to get some of that in the portrait by putting a little more detail into the feathers.

Soon all the ducks will be gone though I think, except for Mallards and Wood Duck. Then it will be on to truly tiny birds, that sure do not sit still like the recent waterfowl.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

90 Minutes at the Schuylkill, or Risky Composition

Common Merganser, Pied-billed Grebe and Bufflehead on the Schuylkill River, Watercolor Sketch by Ken Januski

The explosion of Red-necked Grebes and other unusual waterfowl continues throughout Pennsylvania. I wondered in the last post if we were seeing more because we'd become better birders or more likely because of the cold and snowy winter. Soon after I posted this I realized that it was probably neither, though it was related to the latter. It's not so much snow, as ice. Many traditional waters are frozen. I've continued to read about this, though more in regard to gulls than waterfowl, on the PA Birds listserv. Just yesterday someone mentioned seeing a sight they never thought they'd see: Red-breasted Mergansers being fed bread along with the more typical geese and mallards. The birds we so much enjoy seeing are visible because they're famished.

In any case we couldn't resist a quick drive across the Green Lane Bridge to the other side of  the Schuylkill River today hoping to see something unusual. It was about 20 degrees cooler than Saturday though so we limited the time of our visit. In many ways it seems silly to drive a greater distance just to see the other side of our nearby river, the Schuylkill. More than anything else it's a matter of comfort and vantage point. On this side, at least close by, there is nowhere to park, nowhere to sit, and not much of a clear view. You have to walk, which is generally what we do. But it's always a question as to whether it's worth it to carry a scope and tripod a long distance just on the possibility that we'll see something in the river once we have a decent view. This changes once you cross the bridge. You park and then set up your scope, the river right in front of you.

Oddly enough we saw a grebe that we should have seen a long time ago, a Pied-billed Grebe. That is the grebe we expect to see during winter. So it was shock to find a Red-necked in 2014 before seeing a Pied-billed Grebe.

We also saw numerous Common Mergansers and two Bufflehead. Though we'd seen a number of female Bufflehead for the Philadelphia Mid-winter Bird Census in early January this was our first male of the year.

It was too cold to try sketches and my time was limited. Instead I took one photo of the buffleheads. The watercolor sketch above is based on it and other photos I've taken. Since I wanted to get four birds in I changed to a slightly larger, 7x10 inch Stillman and Birn Gamma sketchbook.

I normally wouldn't put a second title in this post's title, as though I'd reverted back to the type of title used in the very first British novels from centuries ago. But I wanted to emphasize that this is a painting that is about composition more than anything. I wanted to do more than just a portrait of one bird.

But how to you get more than one bird on a piece of paper or canvas without everything looking staged? None of the scene above actually happened, outside of the close proximity of the Common Merganser and Pied-billed Grebe. This is an attempt to put all four birds together in a way that both seems believable and is artistically exciting. I think that I've succeeded. (Please don't tell me otherwise...........). Artists reading this will probably ask why I bother to point out the obvious. My reason, rightly or wrongly, is for those who enjoy seeing art based on nature, but just don't understand anything other than straightforward portraiture. For me it is the excitement of coming up with compositions, with finding ways to make the old new, that makes art worth doing. If all I wanted was a photographic representation I'm not sure I'd continue to find art rewarding.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Wigeon at the Manayunk Canal

American Wigeon at Manayunk Canal. Watercolor Sketch by Ken Januski.

This winter has been one of surprising waterfowl. They aren't surprising I imagine to local birders who bird large bodies of water, e.g. the Delaware River. But we don't see too many in the small water areas close to home that we bird.

Just today I read of a possible irruption of Red-necked Grebes in Pennsylvania. Right after we saw one last weekend I noticed that they were being found all over Pennsylvania, sometimes in numbers of 10 or more. But the only reason we saw ours in the Schuylkill River is that we've started to expand our birding territories to include more of the Schuylkill, both on the Philadelphia County side and on the Montgomery County side.

Waterfowl we've seen include Common Goldeneye, Bufflehead, Red-necked Grebe, Common and Hooded Merganser, Ruddy Duck, Greater Scaup, and today an American Wigeon. All but the mergansers are the first we've seen in the northwest section of Philadelphia. Surprisingly we've found three species, American Wigeon, Bufflehead and Common Merganser, in the Manayunk Canal, a small canal that parallels the Schuylkill River. I'm not sure if we're just getting to be better birders or if more likely the cold, snowy winter has brought more waterfowl to the local waterways.

In any case we've enjoyed it. I was hoping to find a Red-necked Grebe in breeding plumage today, as others have found recently, but we couldn't find one in any plumage. But as I looked at some of the local mallards, in fact looked at them is an overstatement, one of them seemed wrong. When I actually focused on it I realized it was a handsome male American Wigeon.

I took a few photos, debated about trying to do some sketches but finally decided not to. The small and quick watercolor sketch in a Stillman and Birn sketchbook is based on one of the photos. Once again though I was reminded of how paralyzing photos can be for an artist. Faced with the detailed beauty of an American Wigeon, and there is no doubt of its beauty, it is hard to know what to do. It's so easy to be seduced into portraying every little charming detail of the feathers. They are hypnotizing.

But in doing so all sense of proportion, of animation, of everything except the surface detail is lost. It's a  price I'm not willing to pay. So this like so much of my work just tries to get a sense of the bird, to portray it's beauty in large strokes, avoiding the siren song of duck detail. It is a quick 30-60 minute study.

It is another unambitious work. I'm spending my time these days mulling which direction to go next. I keep thinking it should be toward greater abstraction. But so far I've been reluctant to take the plunge. In the meantime I keep doing these studies. That will change one of these days, hopefully sooner rather than later.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Dreaming of Warblers But Seeing Grebes

Red-necked Grebe in Schuylkill River. Watercolor Sketch by Ken Januski.

I've been dreaming about birds recently. I've never done that before as I recall, though I do think that we dream far more than we think. And the only reason we think we dream more is that sometimes we happen to wake up more. If we wake up when we're dreaming then we tend to think that we're dreaming more. I'd guess that we normally dream the same amount.

In any case one of the dreams was about being out looking for warblers. I can't remember which ones. My guess is that the impetus for this dream was my resuming of my reading of The Warbler Guide by Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle. Actually it's not so much reading it as looking at the sonograms of warbler songs while listening to a download of those songs.

I've written before how much I enjoy hearing bird songs and calls and being able to identify birds based on this. I don't say this to brag. I know some people find bird song difficult. I don't. I've always loved it. But the real pleasure in it is that it makes birding a far more involving activity. It is not just seeing; it is also hearing. There is something so satisfying about walking into a woods, field, beach or whatever and knowing what is there based on what you hear. It's even more enjoyable when you're hearing the first song of a bird that has been gone for 3-6 months or more.

Because I know that there is still a lot more to learn I finally paid for and downloaded the songs from The Macaulay Library to go with the sonograms. I hope that the combination of seeing and hearing the song together will help me to know it better. So that I think is what prompted me to dream about warblers.

And warblers will soon be here. But not quite yet. I was reminded of that when we went birding at Flat Rock Park today to look for winter birds, some reported Hooded and Common Merganser as well as Scaup. We found all three. The mergansers are not a great surprise for this time of year though the Common are in fact far more common that the Hooded. Both I think are quite beautiful.

We went more for the Scaup, which we found fairly early on. We don't see Scaup very often so I wouldn't begin to call myself an expert. These are the first we've seen in the nearby Schuylkill River. Still I'm pretty sure what we saw were five Greater Scaup, not the slightly more likely Lesser Scaup.

But that wasn't the thrill of the day. That was taken care of by a bird that sure looked like a grebe we'd never seen. We followed it up and down the river, trying to get it in the scope,  sketch it and photograph it. After about 30 minutes I was pretty confident that we'd found our first Red-necked Grebe. I confirmed it when I got home.

Above is a small and quick watercolor sketch based on the field sketch I made as well as photos that I took. I wish it had gotten a bit closer so that I could have gotten a better look. I could of course go to reference materials of others to help me out but I like to show more or less what I saw. So this has just about as much detail as we could see, even with the scope. Perhaps it will lead to something more developed at another time.

I'd like to think that I could go out tomorrow and try to  get a better look at it. But with another snow storm on the way I imagine I'll be stuck at home, perhaps dreaming of warblers.