Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Sketching and Beautiful Weather

Young Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers with Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Ballpoint Pen Field Sketch by Ken Januski.

We've seen beautiful late September weather here the last few days. But wait, it's only late July! I read recently that this may presage another long and brutal winter like last year's. If so we may regret this weather then but for now there's nothing to do but revel in it. And because of that I've found that each day I tell myself I have to be outside sketching rather than in the studio working on that woodcut that I started a few days ago.

Above is the work from today. On the left an immature Hairy Woodpecker with a Downy Woodpecker beneath him. The Downy was almost all white from this perspective with just a bit of black around eye and on underside of tail. The lack of black, esp. around eye made me think he also was an immature.

I've continued to spend a lot of time watching the Ruby-throated Hummingbirds that have been visiting our backyard. On the right side above are three drawings from today, the smallest of which was done from memory after he hovered two feet away from me for a few seconds. All too soon the hummingbirds will be gone so I'm really trying to take advantage of them while they're here. Oh yes, the bill of the hummingbird on lower left looks a bit odd because he's sticking out his tongue! I love being able to get such seemingly unusual behavior down in a sketchbook though I doubt that it's really all that unusual.

Eastern Kingbird, Question Mark Butterfly and Great Blue Heron in Field. Ballpoint Pen Field Sketch by Ken Januski.

The drawings above were done at Morris Arboretum, though I think on different days. The Eastern Kingbird didn't stay for long so there's a lot of memory used in this drawing. Beneath him a Red Admiral that stayed for a few seconds, though not enough for me to get everything down. On the right one of three immature Great Blue Herons that were at Morris yesterday. I got a kick out of this one in the field. He was sketched live and some of the landscape was done at the same time. The rest of the landscape was improvised over the last 24 hours.

Before I move on to the delayed Green Heron woodcut I wanted to mention John Busby. After I posted the last post I realized that John Busby's most recent book, Looking at Birds: An Antidote to Field Guides, is the perfect book to encourage drawing encounters with birds, even if you just get the briefest of sketches. As I googled for the exact title of the book just now I ran across a video of John Busby sketching on the web site of author and artist John Muir Laws. When I posted this yesterday I hadn't yet had time to watch the full 24 minutes of the video. But today, a day later, I have. It is spectacular. About minute 15 or 16 he sits amid hundreds of gannets and mentions how he could never do a glorified portrait of one of them, in spite of their beauty. Take a look at most bird art shows and catalogs and that's all you'll see - glorified portraits, made possible only through photography. John Busby is interested in the full experience of seeing the birds and not just the birds but the birds in their environment. Towards the end he says that he thinks his goal might be for the viewer to wish he'd been there. And in that he succeeds. A far, far more lofty and worthwhile goal than all those deadly glorified portraits!!  And who knows what else you might find of interest on Laws' site.

Crouching Green Heron. Second Proof of Woodcut by Ken Januski.

Okay, back to the woodcut. I've done some minimal cleanup in the heron woodcut. I've also copied this onto a second block so that I can use at least one more color if I feel like it. Time will tell. I want to keep this pretty simple. I was really only trying to catch the striking pose. But once I printed it the pattern of the wood came out in the background and now I'm tempted to keep it, which of course is threatening to send the woodcut off in a different direction. I hope it rains soon so I can figure out what to do.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Crouching Green Heron in Many Media

Crouching Green Heron. Woodcut First Proof by Ken Januski.

I started this small 4x6 inch woodcut today. This is a very early proof. At this point I don't even know if I'll use more than one block each in a different color, turn it into a reduction woodcut in numerous colors, or just leave it as one black woodcut.

It's based on the field sketch below. Hard to believe perhaps? I was walking along the Manayunk Canal on one of the recent refreshingly cool early mornings. I was greeted by a rabbit. A bit later I saw a Green Heron crouched down looking for food. I was struck by the way he lifted his feet while in this crouching position. Of course he didn't hold the pose long and the sketch below gets the feet somewhat correct but drastically misplaces the head.  Still if I hadn't done it I probably wouldn't have pursued any artwork based on it. At the bottomis  a Great Blue Heron. In it I was trying to study his bill more than anything else.

Rabbit, Green Heron, Great Blue Heron. Field Sketch by Ken Januski.

I had my trusty Panasonic Lumix FZ28 camera with me. It has a video function that I didn't even notice until after I'd had the camera three or four years. I still rarely remember to use it and I'd hate to come to rely on it. But in this case I thought it might be good for capturing how the heron lifted his feet. Me and Eadweard_Muybridge together again! My guess is that I wouldn't be so fond of the videos I occasionally take if they were taken by anybody than myself, that is there is probably nothing special about them. But I do still get the biggest kick out of seeing birds, especially herons and shorebirds as they pursue food. I sometimes wonder if it's not like a child seeing his first cartoon.

The sketch below combines what I saw in the video with my original field sketch and with a couple of other photos I took. It was meant as a template for the woodcut at top. After I'd scanned it into the computer and reversed it so that I could copy it on to the wood block I realized that the bill was too short. So I modified the drawing on the woodblock to account for that.

Crouching Green Heron. Pencil Sketch by Ken Januski.

I also saw a Killdeer, well actually two, in the same area as the Green Heron. I was happy with this field sketch. It's probably the best field sketch I've ever done of a Killdeer. And I was also somewhat happy with the Gray Catbird below. On the same trip I noticed the curve of the lower bill and tried to capture that. Nice sketches I thought! But then as I sat in the backyard yesterday afternoon a Ruby-throated Hummingbird visited our Monarda. I used my new extreme close focus binoculars to watch him and try to sketch him. I particularly noticed the big eye with white area behind, and also the surprising thickness and darkness of the bill. I think I captured most of that. But then I tried to portray the humming wings. Oh well. That part is pretty unsuccessful.

As I was doing this a Northern Cardinal was just about to land in an Arbor Vitae 5 feet away from me. So there he was stretched out, his landing gear, i.e. feet, dropped and in position to land when he saw me. Gone! I tried to capture this and did a very bad job. It's at moments like this that I realize that I don't know enough about birds to capture them in surprising but momentary positions. Still if I didn't try I'd never pursue it. And then I'd never learn how to do it. So that's really why I sometimes show these field sketches that look so bad - as an impetus to others to give it a try, and to me to pursue it.

Killdeer, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Gray Catbird, Northern Cardinal. Field Sketch by Ken Januski.
I'll probably do no more work on the woodcut today but I'm hoping it will move along quickly over the next couple of days.

Monday, July 21, 2014

In Case You Missed David Sibley's Free Library Lecture

Immature Wood Duck and Gray Catbird. Ballpoint Pen Field Sketches by Ken Januski.

you can see a video of David Sibley sketching that reminds me thoroughly of that lecture. The short few minutes in this video aren't equal to his lengthy lecture but I think are enough to  give you a very good feeling for how he works. I ran across it today and greatly enjoyed seeing it.

I don't work with the same goals as he but it's still very easy to appreciate his work and his discussion of his methods. I highly recommend it and recommend even more seeing his full presentation if it comes to your neighborhood. It's informative to both birders and artists.

Today, the day after posting, I did a bit of field sketching along the Wissahickon near our home. Since I hate to post without an accompanying artwork I'm adding this field sketch a day late, even though David Sibley had nothing to do with it. I assume no one will be confused.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Criminal Neglect of a Sketchbook

Red Admiral, White-tailed Deer, Common Whitetail and Great Blue Heron. Field Sketches by Ken Januski.

Soon after I started doing artwork based on birds I bought a Moleskine large sketchbook, large being just 5x8.25 inches. It's actually smaller than I'd like but it also fits perfectly in the back pocket of my jeans, something that the Stillman and Birn sketchbooks that I like so much do not do.

The two pages above are the last two pages from sketchbook number five. The caption explains the sketches with the exception of an apology for the White-tailed Deer. I rarely draw mammals from life. But when I found this deer staring at me from about 10 feet away, debating I'm sure whether to run or not, I decided I had to get down what I could. Seconds later he was gone and all I had was a vague visual memory to put down on paper. Unlike birds most mammals, at least in the face, seem harder to get in a sketch. As with humans the softness of the face is hard to get down with lines.

In any case I'm glad I tried. I also tried one of my few butterflies from life, a Red Admiral that cooperated by staying still for a bit. The reason I show these pages though is not to show what I've seen recently but to note how bad I've been over the last year about field sketching.

Much as I try to do sketches when I'm out I'm generally shocked when I look through a sketchbook and see the dates of the drawings in them. There are 96 pages I think. How long should a sketchbook like that last for someone who sketches frequently? One month? Two? Three if there weren't any vacations where I tend to draw more? The answer, on average since I began over seven years ago is 11 months!!

That is always shocking to me and works out to only about 8 pages per month or 2 per week. What's worse though is that the drawings above are the last pages of a sketchbook that took over 15 months to finish!! I'm really not sure why. Perhaps I spent more time on photos? Perhaps I spent more time in the studio working on prints? I don't know.

By the time I finished this sketchbook the other day though it was falling apart, the binding in tatters.

Eastern Phoebe, Gray Catbird, Acadian Flycatcher and Tufted Titmouse. Field Sketches by Ken Januski.

Yesterday I began a new sketchbook while walking along the Wissahickon in Philadelphia. Again the captions explain the drawings pretty well with the possible exception of that big, odd-looking Tufted Titmouse. It was harassing a White-breasted Nuthatch and I never got really good looks at it. So I put down what I could and then tried to finish up at home. Well that didn't work and that explains the white around the head and elsewhere. I used it to try to cover up mistakes in ink with white gouache. This happens almost every time I try to fix something once I get back in the studio. The only good part of it is that it generally forces me to go look at my photos or guidebooks afterwards to figure out what it was that I got so wrong.

Obviously neither of these pages exhibit the best field studies I've ever done. But they do remind me, and hopefully readers as well, of the virtues of having a sketchbook and using it quite often. It also makes what could be a relatively dull walk in the woods, at least in terms of seeing something new, a consuming adventure. Regardless of the fads and trends of contemporary art I think that there will always be a place for sketching.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Sumer Is Icumen In

Ruby-throated Hummingbirds in Backyard. Ballpoint Pen Sketch from memory by Ken Januski.

The confluence of the startling revelation that it is already mid-July, with summer half over, and my reading of The History of Western Music, 7th Edition, at least 75% of which is beyond me brought Sumer Is Icumen In to mind.

I first heard of it in my first college level English literature survey as I recall. Weird! And old, very old! It was mentioned in The History of Western Music as a very early example of English polyphony. I'm always pleasantly surprised to see that some parts of human experience, like the return of summer, have been celebrated for centuries, in this case almost eight centuries. You can find various sung versions of it with a quick web search. Here is one version by  the Lumina Vocal Ensemble. Unfortunately there is an ad to start it so you might want to quickly skip by it.

I enjoy the music, but also the notion that there is much to look forward to and enjoy in summer. We watch PBS Newshour  most nights and I'm always struck by the fact that one bad piece of news is always followed by one with worse news, one seemingly insoluble problem followed by another. It's nice to be reminded that there is also something enjoyable going on in the world.

In any case this is all a bit of a pretext for showing these two sketches from memory of two Ruby-throated Hummingbirds in our backyard over the last few days. We have no feeders but they feed on Monarda, 'Alabama Crimson' Honeysuckle, and just about every other flowering plant. And they are probably the most visible avian sign of summer.

Since my last few works shown here have been based on photos I wanted to get back to something in which photos played no part at all. The bottom sketch was done this morning about 24 hours after seeing this hummingbird. The reason that I can make a sketch from memory is that I've trained myself to spend a lot of time looking at birds. So when I go to sketch them from memory, even though I don't have much of a mental image in mind when I start, I find that as soon as I put pen or pencil to paper the memory seems to return guiding me as I draw. It's always a pleasant surprise.

The top drawing was interesting, at least to me, because I was reading outside when I turned my head to the left and saw a hummingbird less than two feet away. What was most interesting was that he seemed to have four wings, like a dragonfly or many other insects. Of course he didn't. But somehow the fast movement of his wings created that illusion. So this sketch tries to capture that.

In writing and thinking about artists such as Cezanne, Winslow Homer and others I've noted some of the things that strike me about their work. But one thing I think that I don't mention all that often is something that is unique I think to animal art and some art based on humans, e.g. Rembrandt's sketches. That is the sense of animation. So much wildlife art lacks it. This is no surprise since so much of it is based on photos. But birds and other animals move, they put some weight here and some there, they stretch this way and that. I think that capturing this can be one of the most enjoyable aspects of realistic art.

But today it doesn't seem very important in the art world. Animation has been left to the film animators. That's good for them but bad for art.

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Warblers of May, in Philadelphia, in Watercolor

Northern Parula at Carpenters Woods. Watercolor Sketch by Ken Januski.

Ovenbird at Carpenters Woods. Watercolor Sketch by Ken Januski.

May passed by in such a flurry of activity that, just like an eventful vacation, it seemed undigested. Like a good meal that was eaten in such a hurry that only afterwards do you actually enjoy it.

Such was the case as I looked through some of my photos from May. Such good looks at Worm-eating, Hooded, Prairie and Northern Parula Warblers as well as Ovenbirds and waterthrushes. Since I spent so much time trying to sketch them it's doubly surprising to see how many good photos I got.

I'd like to recommend the place where I saw them, an Important Bird Area called Carpenters Woods, only a couple of miles from our house. The reason I don't recommend it and don't visit much except in May and perhaps September is that there are so many loose dogs, even though it is illegal to have them in Fairmount Park, of which Carpenters Woods is part, without a leash. By May I'm so angry with anger at the dogs and their owners that I no longer enjoy being there. This battle, between birders and dog owners, is playing out across the U.S. When we first visited Carpenters Woods about 20 years ago we ran into a co-worker. When she saw we were birding she asked if we were familiar with the conflict between dog owners and birders. We weren't and were surprised by the question. Now it's all we think of when we visit.

But if you don't mind dogs running loose, scaring up rare birds, and perhaps ruining their nesting attempts then it's a great place to bird. It's been known for years as such and has, as best I can tell, declined tremendously over the last 10-20 years. But I say this only from hearsay not experience. Though we birded there 20 years ago we were too inexperienced to appreciate what was or wasn't there. This year though it seemed as full of birds as the far better known Magee Marsh of Ohio. I know it wasn't but if it seemed like it then who can complain?

In any case I was surprised to see what nice photos I had of some Northern Parulas, a beautiful bird that we see often but of which I have next to no photos. Nor very usable field sketches. Given the number of good photos I couldn't resist the watercolor sketch above, again in a Stillman and Birn 7x10 Gamma Sketchbook. My intent more than anything else was to get a sense of its striking colors as well as its pose.

Ovenbirds were incredibly visible this spring, both at Carpenters Woods and elsewhere. They are a thoroughly endearing bird, perhaps due to their cuteness, perhaps not. In any case we saw very many and I couldn't resist another watercolor sketch in the Gamma sketchbook. Luckily this year we've continued to see them in Philadelphia through the month of June. So though I've heard second-hand reports of a decline in breeding birds in Philadelphia, reports I've never really investigated, we're happy to report that at least some have stayed for the summer and most likely bred.

Eventually I'll get back to printmaking but for now I feel like trying to improve my skills at watercolor.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Northern Watercolor Sketches

Northern Mockingbird in Tangle. Watercolor Sketch by Ken Januski.

Northern Cardinal in Conifers. Watercolor Sketch by Ken Januski.

Since I wrote my last somewhat theoretical post I've been tempted to write many more. That's the problem when you get involved in theory. It's like quicksand. You keep sinking in deeper and deeper. Each theory leads to another, or to a different point of view, etc., etc. I'm sure that's why so often artists are given the advice to work, not theorize. So I decided not to get involved with theory again for a bit.

With that in mind I was looking through some of the many photos I've taken over the years to see if anything struck me as inspirational. I'd  also been through my sketchbooks without success. But I also noticed how very many of the prints I've done have been based on quick sketches. You just never know.

For today though I was struck by revealing poses of two birds with 'Northern' in their name: the Northern Mockingbird at top and the Northern Cardinal beneath him. Perhaps because the cardinal is so common I rarely take photos of him. And yet every time I go to sketch him, or her, from life I realize how little I know.

So occasionally I'll notice a photo, perhaps taken for that exact reason, that gives a fairly clear picture of the structure of a bird, from top to bottom, bill to tail and head to toe. That's how both the cardinal and the mockingbird struck me.

I also hate to just make a sketch. It's a never ending challenge to put a bird in a believable environment. So all the practice I can get with that, even if it ends in failure as they so often do, is worth the effort. In both watercolors I've tried to add the semblance of an environment as well as the semblance of a composition.

Both of these are done in a 7x10 inch Stillman and Birn Gamma sketchbook. I like doing pencil sketches in them and they're also strong enough to carry a few layers of watercolor washes, though usually I push them a bit further than their capacity as I try to fix mistakes. Still they are really perfect for watercolor sketches such as this.

I once was in a juried show that was jurored by a watercolorist. I had high hopes for my new watercolors but neither got in as I recall. It was easy to see why. They didn't stay within the lines. They didn't have clean washes, just as the sketches above don't. That's the way that the juror worked and most of the watercolors juried in were in that style. It's a very pervasive style.

I'd never argue that it didn't take skill. It does. But to me it also kills off the painting. Why do watercolor if you don't let the paper breathe, letting areas of the paper sparkle through? The most noticeable thing about watercolor is its transparency, its ability to create a type of light-filled paper that no other medium can. Anyone who studies the watercolors of the great American watercolorist Winslow Homer will see that he went gradually from the opaque, within-the-lines school to work that sparkled and rarely stayed within the lines. Guess which work he's remembered for?

As usual when I cite a famous artist I'm not claiming that I'm in that tradition. But I often find that they exemplify much of what I find exciting and admirable in art.

As I said I did these primarily to help me understand the structure of these two birds. So most likely I'll never do anything that uses them directly. But when I finally do a print or more developed painting that includes one of these two birds I'm sure that these two sketches will have helped them out.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Cezanne and Young Birds

Great-crested Flycatcher Fledglings. Watercolor Sketch by Ken Januski.

You understand Cezanne didn't know what he was doing. He didn't know how to finish his pictures. Renoir and Monet, they knew their craft as painters...
Cezanne's wife speaking to Matisse after Cezanne's death as quoted in Cezanne by John Rewald.

You'll be captivated by his deliberate and compact arrangements, the richness and novelty of his paintings........
From a brochure from the Barnes Foundation advertising The World is an Apple: The Still Life of Paul Cezanne.

Poor Cezanne. I might also have titled this post Cezanne: Eternally Misunderstood, and Undervalued. I've been itching to write about him but remembered his own comment about a contemporary artist he thought would be far more successful as an artist if he spent more time painting and less time studying other artists. Sound advice! It is all too easy to get distracted from art itself.

So I was planning to pursue my art work and not write about him and the marvelous book I just finished reading, based mainly on his writings and those of his contemporaries, by John Rewald. As I thought about what I'd want to write about these young Great-crested Flycatchers seen at Morris Arboretum in Philadelphia today however I thought about how common they are, at least for avid birdwatchers.

Beautiful though they are many birders don't go looking for them or quite a few other striking breeding birds at this time of year. The birds are too predictable I guess. Nothing new to check off the list. Nothing exotic. Cezanne exemplified the opposite of this. He painted the same themes around Aix in France over and over. As he said just shifting his view a bit presented an entirely new opportunity to paint. He didn't need the exotic.

That's the way birds are I think, if you'll just consider them in their environment. They present endless possibilities, a phrase that generally makes me cringe because I know most of the time it means the opposite. Cezanne though shows how monumental art can be made from the most common subjects.

Because Cezanne was so workmanlike in his methods, so devoted to painting and yet also so self-doubting it's sad to see that even his wife, though they weren't at all close, didn't see his value as an artist. And the Barnes Foundation shows itself not to be all that much better when it commends the novelty of his paintings. The last thing in the world that Cezanne wanted to be was novel. I can't believe their copywriters could actually write that and that they'd let it go to press. But in an age where advertising is more important than anything and truth less important than just about anything then I guess it's no surprise.

Still it was shocking to read, and has more or less prevented me from responding to their letter asking me to join. Sometimes you just have to stand for something, just as Cezanne did. It's difficult to think about joining an institution that holds so many Cezannes and yet seems to show such little appreciation for them.

In any case I'd like to say I show some sign of imitating Cezanne in the quick watercolor sketch above. I don't at all. I had to think of this when I read that sometimes he'd spend a year on a painting. This was done in 90 minutes. But there is at least the vague similarity of knowing that all of nature can be a never ending source of inspiration.

For all this though I haven't mentioned what I think is the greatest insult to Cezanne, that he is progenitor of abstraction and modern art. In one sense, the liberation of color, I think he was. Perhaps also in that his paintings often seem flatter than paintings that came before him.But he always used color to try to portray his sensation in front of nature. Modern art, of which I've been a long time practitioner, seems to like to forget about the nature part of the equation. He never intended, nor I think encouraged anyone, to break away completely from nature. He just sought to portray it in the way he experienced it.