Saturday, November 1, 2014

A Volatile Ride With Watercolor

First Winter Chipping Sparrow in Pine. Watercolor by Ken Januski.

Somewhere there is a quote from Eugene Delacroix about the virtue and success of just pursuing your artwork, as though practice does indeed make perfect. I couldn't find it after a quick search though so this post will live without it. As I recall he was saying something like steady workmanship can be as important as high-flying inspiration. But don't quote me on that!

In any case that was my thought in pursuing more watercolors after the success of the Chipping Sparrow above. What makes it a success to me? The fact that it seems fresh, bright, unlabored. Those are the elements I think that make watercolor such a desirable medium to use. But I rarely get freshness, brightness and light.

I think that I always have far higher expectations for the watercolor than what I actually get so I immediately start reworking it, killing off all the freshness as I do so. The pursuit of perfection can be a dangerous thing. And yet art and life would be quite boring if you didn't keep striving. In any case that wasn't in my mind as I started the watercolor below. Instead I thought maybe I'd be able to continue in this fresh vein if I just kept at it.

Herring Gull Along Schuylkill River (The Day after Hurricane Sandy). Watercolor/Gouache by Ken Januski.

When I pull out white gouache to add to the watercolor you can bet that I haven't been successful in being fresh and light. Instead I've tried to whip the painting into shape, banging, hammering and kicking it until it does what I want. This is the way I always worked when I worked abstractly, particularly if I was using the very forgiving media of oil paint or acrylic.

I think you can learn a lot by struggling with a painting. Sometimes it will show in the painting. As Delacroix might say, the painting will have rigor. But it also might look constipated. I've done abstract paintings like that, ones that I struggled with forever ending in either defeat or a draw. So the finished product doesn't always look like much. Still I might have learned a lot.

In the case of the Herring Gull and roaring Schuylkill River the day after Hurricane Sandy came through I think the painting sort of works. But it is completely held together by white gouache. It does not use watercolor to its advantage but really is more like an oil or acrylic. The freshness and easiness I'd hoped to continue from the Chipping Sparrow is gone.

Hermit Thrush Bathing in Wissahickon. Watercolor/Gouache by Ken Januski.

With the mixed results of the Herring Gull it might have been wise to halt my watercolor explorations for a while. I didn't. In this case it really was more the local birds that forced me to it than anything else. On a fairly cold and gray day yesterday we were shocked to find one group after another of 2-3 Hermit Thrushes. Some were on the fences of horse stables, some were bathing in the Wissahickon, shaking off the water. others stood pot-bellied on logs along the Wissahickon, or at eye-level or below in small shrubs and trees and some just scuffled through the leaf litter. I've never seen so many Hermit Thrushes in one day. At a minimum there were 7 and more likely 10 or more. In any case I took a number of photos and decided I'd like to try to capture this one taking a bath.

There are very difficult technical challenges in capturing flying water in watercolor, unless you want to use masking, which I always think looks horribly hokey and contrived. So I knew this would be difficult.  Even just plain old flat water can be difficult in watercolor, especially it takes up a fair amount of the composition. Even anticipating all of these difficulties I still hoped I could make a successful watercolor.

To make a long story short I think this is the worst of this group of three watercolors.I had to use extensive white gouache. This is probably something that should not be attempted in watercolor. But nothing ventured, nothing gained. Hopefully the pose itself does capture some sense of the lifted wings of the Hermit Thrush as he shakes the water off. That in itself is a worthy goal, and I hope I've accomplished it. All in all it has been a very volatile ride with watercolor. But it remains a medium that I'd like to master, in one way or another, in one style or another. So I keep at it.

One of these days it's back to prints.


Gabrielle said...

Hi Ken,

Oh, I feel your pain with watercolors! The very things that make watercolors so wonderful can be so elusive in practice.

I see your point about the fresh and unlabored look of the first watercolor, but I'm going to play Devil's advocate here a minute and say that I also think the success of First Winter Chipping Sparrow is in the composition. That's what really made me sit up and take notice. It's a really lovely piece.

Ken Januski said...

Thanks Gabrielle,

I always try to get decent compositions, though I'm not sure that I'm always successful. It is amazing how difficult watercolors can be, though I have seen some people who just seem to be wholly at ease with them from the first time they try them. Not me!! So I think that's why I was so pleased with this one. I almost never do one that is fresh and unlabored.

Hope all is well.