Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The More Work The Better the Art, Not

Mallard Ducklings on Tire in Manayunk Canal. Watercolor by Ken Januski.

During my many years as an abstract artist my goal was often to 'get into a groove', 'get in the zone', etc., etc. To a non-artist this may sound precious and pretentious. But I think many people understand what it means through their own experience, be it as a second baseman on the baseball field, a computer programmer, a composer, a visual artist or many other occupations.

It means I think that you're able to move effortlessly from one step to the next in accomplishing your task, generally without even thinking about it. The process almost seems automatic. Occasionally of course, at least for artists, the next day shows that though you thought you were in the zone, you in fact were in left field and what you did makes no sense. But most of the time I think it's a valid explanation of a creative state. And it's one that many people to aspire to, not as some out of body experience but just because it means you're being successful at your job. It's being creative without work or bouts of doubt. There is no writer's block . Everything flows.

Because I experienced that often as an abstract artist, even though I didn't get quite the critical recognition I thought the work deserved, it still remains my goal as a naturalist artist. It may explain partially why I tire so quickly of much wildlife art.

So much wildlife art seems to be considered successful based on the amount of work involved. What a horrible, horrible thought. What a sad, Puritanical way to evaluate art. I mainly thought of this theme because of the watercolor above, one that obviously doesn't have a lot of work in it. In I've tried to make it look effortless, not so much because it means it's easier for me, in fact the opposite, but because I think the best art seems effortless. Artists may understand the amount of work that goes into making something seem effortless but my guess is most of the audience doesn't. But they do enjoy it.

In any case every once in awhile I try to make my watercolors seem effortless. This generally fails. They look more like the morning after in the zone paintings that are really deep in left field instead. But it's a worthy goal I think. In fact for me there's no other reason to use watercolor as a medium except to get that sense of effortless beauty that the best watercolorists, like Winslow Homer and John Singer Sargent have.

So that is the origin of the 7x10 watercolor on Arches 140# rough watercolor paper above.  The rough texture is very hard to deal with and seems to make clean strokes quite difficult. But still I like to occasionally attempt this type of watercolor on it. I believe that if I pursue this method I will eventually be able to really get in the zone with watercolor. I already do that with prints but I'd also like to be able to do it with a painting medium.

As I thought about this idea of effortlessness I also realized that to many, if not most, people who view this watercolor it will seem like a failure, one where I didn't put any work into it. But work is the sum of all your experience. If a major league pitcher strikes out batter after batter it rarely looks like he's working hard. But there was many years of work earlier in his career. It's when athletes look like they're working that they generally are being unsuccessful, not just in appearance but in fact. I remember seeing muscle-bound male swimmers flailing with all their might in the outdoor pool at UC Berkeley when I was a student there while women half their size flew by them, seemingly without effort. They understood how to swim. The muscle-bound men didn't. Their muscles just got in the way. They worked too hard.

The best example of the work behind effortless-looking results I think is Oriental brush painting. But outside of taking a class in the practice of it years ago in San Francisco I've never really studied it. What I do know though is that there are often very few brushstrokes involved. But they have to be deft and work in relation to one another. All the work is in the years of practice, of trial and error. You can't see it in the final painting, which in fact to many will look insubstantial. But to the more observant it's the seemingly effortless beauty that is the most important aspect of the art.

I was reminded of this perverse notion of work making art better when I read the new Birds In Art catalog. One artist mentioned doing 'monks work' as he did a very detailed background. Another mentioned painting every feather of a Great Blue Heron. Artists should have every right to do what they want. Perhaps this type of work in tremendously rewarding to the artists involved. But I can't at all give it any extra value for the 'work' involved. I'd much prefer that work be invisible. I prefer the graceful swimmers to the muscle-bound ones whose effort is concentrated on the down-stroke rather than the stroke that moves you forward.

Female Common Yellowthroat. Field Sketch and Watercolor Sketch.

Enough on the subject of work and art! I did want to show a couple recent sketches as well. Above is a field sketch of a female Common Yellowthroat, one of many that I saw at Houston Meadows this morning. Below it a quick watercolor sketch that I did when I got home, based mainly on the field sketch above. I'm continuing with this practice of trying to do something a bit more detailed and in color of whatever I've sketched in the field.

Marsh Wrens. Watercolor Wash Sketches by Ken Januski.

A few days ago I did these brush drawings from some photos I took of Marsh Wrens at Jake's Landing in New Jersey this June. As soon as I did I recalled the bird sketches of JA Shepherd in John Busby's book Drawing Birds. Unfortunately I can't find any online links to the drawing. But I did find it interesting how I, and my guess most artists, have an encyclopedia of images in their memory of birds, bird art, and other art that they've seen throughout their lives.

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