Thursday, November 6, 2014

Never Seek An Empty Perfection

Solitary Sandpiper. Watercolor Sketch by Ken Januski
But when something bores you, leave it alone. Never seek an empty perfection. Some faults, some things which the vulgar call faults, often give vitality to a work
Eugene Delacroix, The Journal of Eugene Delacroix , entry for Friday, May 7, 1824. Translated by Hubert Wellington, published by Phaidon Press.
The first and foremost thing in painting is the contour. Even if all the rest were to be neglected, provided the contours were there, the painting would be strong and finished. I have more need than most to be on my guard about this matter; think constantly about it and always begin that way.
Eugene Delacroix, The Journal of Eugene Delacroix, entry for Wednesday, April 7, 1824.

Hooded Merganser and Ruby-crowned Kinglet. Field Sketches by Ken Januski.

The most enjoyable book I've read in the last few years, particularly in regard to art but perhaps on any subject, is The Journal of Eugene Delacroix by Eugene Delacroix. Today Delacroix is the favorite artist of very few I'd guess. He's certainly never been mine. In fact I don't even know his work that well. During the days when I spent hours per month traipsing through art museums Delacroix was not an artist whose work I stopped to appreciate.

And yet it really doesn't make any difference what you think of his work once you start reading his journals. Though I hate to quote the television blowhard Chris Matthews he did mention the other night as we switched channels watching election coverage that politicians seemed to forget that politics is a profession. Amateurs, and I can think of a few who lost badly recently, don't fare well for long regardless of their good intentions. That has been my most frequent criticism of the current administration: they don't seem to have the slightest idea that it is a profession and works best for you if you treat it as such.

Sorry for the detour. Once you leave art school, assuming you went to one, your circle of artists seems to get smaller and smaller. This is no surprise. It happens to everyone once they leave college as family and work become more important than old college chums. What Delacroix offers is a very intelligent, curious and active artist in your home day after day, conversing with you about art. Every day a professional artist comes in to chat. I don't always agree with him. And often he contradicts himself. That really makes no difference to me. What is important is that he helps to clarify my own thoughts about art.

I particularly like the first quote about an empty perfection. I think that this is a thought that stays with Delacroix throughout his life. It reminds me of what I call a licked surface in painting. Everything seems licked clean, reminiscent of people who do the final trimming on their lawn with scissors. Since my work never looks that way you can see why I appreciate it. But my work never looks that way not just due to lack of skill but more due to lack of interest. If my painting or prints tend to look too perfect I tend to do something to destroy that empty perfection.

But my main reason for quoting Delacroix today is the second quote, about the importance of contour. Delacroix himself mentions how varied art and painting are. It's easy to think of great art that doesn't care so much about contours, starting of course with the Impressionists. But for anyone who doesn't want to totally break up the pictorial surface, who wants to portray objects not just the effects of light, then contour is important.

Contour can also be cloying and help to create the type of empty perfection that Delacroix decries. But I think for most artists it can be a lifeline amidst what might otherwise be a chaotic canvas. To me Winslow Homer is a great example of this. His early work seems almost enchained by line and contour. But his later work, especially in watercolor, shows incredible freedom. And yet underneath the freedom you can always sense that the contours are there holding everything together.

So I've been planning to do some work where contour is important, even if it may end up somewhat hidden. Shorebirds are perfect subjects for this because they are often out in the open where it's easy to see their contours. Kinglets, as shown in the field sketch, are different. They seldom sit still so it's hard to see anything other than a fluttering ping pong ball. But even if you do their complex flight feather patterns confuse things. They don't follow the normal wing bars that you see in so many sparrows, warblers and other passerines. But in trying to get them down correctly you almost always force the focus from the important contour of the bird, the thing that gives it life, toward the relatively unimportant flight feather patterns. That's what I've done above. But I do expect to do some more work based on kinglets that I hope will notice their details but do a better job of capturing their form.

Because I'm enjoying my rereading of Delacroix's Journals so much I expect to keep quoting from them as I slowly read them over the months to come.

Spotted Sandpiper Along Wissahickon Creek. Watercolor Sketch by Ken Januski.
After I'd posted this I returned to looking for a new subject for a painting or print. Soon I found a number of my photos of Spotted Sandpipers, a rarer bird here than the Solitary Sandpiper but still one that I see fairly often. Since they can be confused, especially when not in breeding plumage, I thought maybe I'd contrast the two. But of my 30 or so photos I've taken of Spotted Sandpipers over the last couple of years one that has stuck with me is this distant view of one across the Wissahickon Creek against some of the magnificent rock formations that border it. I had hoped that even at this distance it might be able to identify the bird but I don't think that is probably the case. Still I think it is obvious that it is a shorebird, and knowledgeable birders will realize that only a few would likely be in this location. By the way this is primarily a two color composition: Yellow Ochre Light and Paynes Gray, with touches of a few other colors like Neutral Tint, Transparent Yellow and Cobalt Blue.

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