Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Warbler Return

Blackburnian Warbler at Papermill Run. Watercolor Sketch by Ken Januski.

Blackburnian Warblers breed in Pennsylvania, not unfortunately where I live in Phialdelphia, but farther north. So they are not all that uncommon as they migrate through in fall and spring. Still they do tend so stop most people in their tracks if seen closely. The one I saw today along Papermill Run at Morris Arboretum no longer had the fire engine orange/red of the spring in his throat but he was still orange enough to make me take notice.

If they were a bit more common I suppose I might have tried some field sketches today. But this one was 50-60 feet up and I couldn't really see him well even in my binoculars. So I reached for my camera and took about 10 photos hoping that at least a few would be worth keeping. One of the best became the origin of the sketch above in a Stillman and Birn Gamma sketchbook.

With warblers, especially if you use photos, it's the easiest thing in the world to get precious, to try to get every little nuance of color and pattern, letting composition and everything else that makes a picture fall by the wayside. I tried to not lose sight of the other elements of painting here. Hopefully I'll eventually become a master of this, knowing how to paint the most beautiful and striking of warblers without letting them dominate the scene.

The Blackburnian has been the most exciting fall warbler so far. A few days ago I saw two Blue-winged Warblers and that was pretty nice. Chestnut-sided Warblers have given me great looks at their undersides twice during the last week and Black and White Warblers have given us some good looks. The breeding Yellow Warblers, Common Yellowthroats and American Redstarts have also been around. It's great to be seeing them but sad to realize that once they're gone it will be at least another 6 months before they appear again in Philadelphia.

Least Sandpiper. Ballpoint pen studies by Ken Januski.

The watercolor at top and these ballpoint pen sketches from photos I've taken over the last year of Least Sandpipers both show my tendency to try to do studies of birds I've recently seen and sketched. I was recently engaged in an online conversation about what gear to take with you if you want to sketch birds. Video cameras and still cameras topped the list, but not my list. I really don't believe either are of much use until you've tried to sketch birds live. It's only when you do, and fail, that you realize how complex it is.

But more importantly you learn to make decisions, to choose this line over that line, in the brief time the bird is there. You learn ALL that you don't know, but also what questions to ask, what to find out when you look at photos or videos. For instance only if you've sketched shorebirds live do you realize how hard it is to properly place their head and neck when they're bent over feeding. Is the head above or below the back and how much?

I think my ultimate goal in sketching, outside of just liking the finished product, is to be able to know birds so well that if I'm sketching them facing one direction and then they face the other direction  I can effortlessly continue drawing. I'd like to know their structure so well that I can place them convincingly in any pose. And then of course I can abstract that since that's the way I like to portray them.

I think artists who work mainly from photos probably have much less of a chance of getting to understand the structure of birds. It's definitely a skill to be able to render what you see in a photo. Unfortunately it is far more common than you might think and my guess will never lead to a successful career in art. We watched a wonderful show on the Cuban musician Cachao recently. He said more or less the same thing about music as I recall. Rendering skills and technical music skills can only go so far. Then you need to do more.

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