Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Continuing the Warbler Travelogue

American Redstart, Ovenbird, Black and White Warblers, et al. Field Sketches by Ken Januski.

A number of years ago I showed a group of sketches like these on the Wildlife Art section of Birdforum. One person responded that they were a wonderful travelogue. In a sense that is true. Some people use the term field sketch to refer to a more considered study of one particular species. I don't and call any sketches I do in the field field sketches.

But it is also accurate to call them a travelogue, as they illustrate what I've seen in my travels. Often they do actually involve travel, but these are all based on birds seen over the last few days within five miles of my home in Philadelphia. They are a very local travelogue.

Above are: my first Green Heron of the year in flight, an American Redstart, a Black-throated Blue warbler all on the left side. And on the right: a Hermit Thrush, Ovenbird, Common Yellowthroat and Black and White Warbler.

Part of my process here is illustrated by the Black and White Warbler. There is something off with it. Often when something is wrong it will involve staring at the bird, trying to then old all the information in my memory and then putting it down. Inevitably I'll forget part of the info, in this case the fact that I could see some of the stripes on the mantle of the warbler. In my drawing I have the coverts going too high up, completely obscuring the mantle. With a complexly feathered bird like a Black and White Warbler it can take awhile to understand how all these markings fit together into a recognizable pattern.

Unlike David Sibley who said he first tried to get shape and pose right in his work and could pick up feather detail from photos I like to have some sense of where the markings are. I'm not at all sure that this is wise on my part. Getting the shape right is probably more important. But I can't see leaving out all pattern and then adding it in later from photos. I'd like to make at least some attempt in the sketch.

Inevitably something will be wrong. But it's only in getting it wrong that I'm likely to remember this and get it right the next time.

Baltimore Oriole, Eastern Kingbird, et al. Field Sketches by Ken Januski.

A common piece of advice for field sketches is to avoid putting in what you haven't seen or remembered. Again this is very hard to do. In the sketches above I tried to remember where the legs were on the Veery in the upper left. As you can see I struggled and struggled. So it makes the drawing looks clumsy and wrong. But it will remind me to pay more attention next time I see a Veery, thrush or in fact any bird. Below is a Baltimore Oriole, with an Eastern Kingbird and Common Yellowthroat on the right side.

As I drew the kingbird I had the feeling that the tail extended just a short distance beyond the undertail coverts. But I knew that they have long tails so I made it long. I also happened to take some photos. They prove that I should have trusted my visual memory: the tail is actually very short due to the length of the undertail coverts. I tried to fix this by adding some white chalk to shorten the tail.

Black-throated Green Warbler. Photo by Ken Januski.

I didn't plan on taking any photos today and wanted to force myself to sketch. I largely followed that plan until I saw a Wood Thrush in a standing position. I got out the camera so that I could compare him standing to his two relatives the Hermit Thrush and the Veery. And of course he flew before I could take a photo.

But the camera was out as I continued to bird and to sketch. When a Black-throated Green Warbler landed just a few feet away I got this photo. It is nice to see all the detail. But it also reminds me of the danger of photos. If this were at a larger scale you'd be better able to see all the subtlety of the markings. That's the problem.

I think it's actually a problem of knowledge and the limiting effect of knowledge. Once you see all those details it's hard to ignore them if you're an artist. The end result I think is a type of hyper-realistic bird art that has become fixated, willfully or not, on photographic detail and loses all sense of the other aspects of the bird, including the ones that make it seem most alive.

I've written about this before so I won't repeat myself. But I thought the juxtaposition of detailed photo and field sketches that are full of mistakes was a strong one. And you well know I'd guess which I prefer.

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