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.

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