Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Rambling with Pencil, Color and Theory

Blackpoll Warbler. Watercolor Sketch by Ken Januski

Blackpoll Warbler. Pencil Sketch by Ken Januski

Yes you would have a good right to question my honesty if I told you I recently saw this warbler. But there are some hints that it is fall and not spring due to the orange leaves, or should I say suggestion of leaves.

I'm working on ideas and sketches for a new somewhat abstract woodcut, similar to the one of the grebes and mergansers. Part of my idea in what I hope will be a series of such prints is that I needn't be limited, at all, by verisimilitude. I've always known this but it was reinforced recently while listening to a very lengthy introduction to music from The Teaching Company.

Music is of course the most abstract of the arts. It rarely is meant to represent something. But I was shocked to read about something, from the Renaissance, called non-imitative polyphony. In it two different themes are sung at the same time, creating counterpoint or polyphony. Often this was done with masses and in fact got to the  point where there was a reaction against it. So though one theme might be a recognizable song, often from the mass, the other, played at the same time, might be the most secular and non-religious of songs. I'm a beginner to music history to I hesitate to say more because I'll inevitably get it wrong.

But what struck me was that about 500 years ago composers felt free to experiment with even such solemn things as masses for decorative and emotional effect. There always was and always will be the desire on the part of artists to experiment. Even 500 years ago!!

Some musicians of that time felt free to mix and match in seemingly the most outrageous ways. Why I can't say for sure but I'd guess for artistic effect and expression.

What does this have to do with the visual arts, and particularly that fall Blackpoll Warbler seen among the Swamp Dogwoods at Maumee State Park? The sensation of color. What stuck with me more than anything else were the subtle colors of the warbler AND the pink/rose color of the Swamp Dogwood. There was an overall color harmony that was and is my most striking memory.

So just like non-imitative polyphony I'm going to take great liberties with the warbler in the interest of an overall color sensation.

The problem with this of course is that I could get so abstract so quickly that it would be easy to lose all moorings, all sense of connection to the warbler itself.

Blackpoll Warbler. Pencil Sketch by Ken Januski.

Blackpoll Warbler. Watercolor Sketch by Ken Januski.

That is where shape comes in. Many authors of bird field guides talk about the importance of shape in identifying birds. That's absolutely true. I recently had the pleasure of watching David Sibley discuss his working methods in a talk about the second edition of his famous guide to birds.

He said that he might look for 15 minutes or so before spending less than 30 seconds putting down the shape on paper. Details he could get later from photos. It was the shape that was important.

It is shape I think that gives life and individuality to birds. It's also one of the most pleasurable aspects of drawing. Sometimes when I'm sketching something it seems that there is nothing else of equal enjoyment in art. I felt that as I drew the three sketches of Blackpolls I'm showing here. I deliberately took photos of them before I added watercolor so as to accentuate the drawing itself.

In any case I think that shape can be an anchor in a more or less abstract painting or print. That is what I tried to do in the mergansers and grebes print and that's what I'll try to do if I make a print from the blackpolls. At the moment I'm just sketching trying to get a good sense of their shape. At some point I'll try to merge that with a much more abstract rendering of the pinks, oranges, and subtle yellow of the Blackpoll that I remember so well.

Blackpoll Warbler. Pencil Sketch by Ken Januski.

Blackpoll Warbler. Watercolor Sketch by Ken Januski

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