Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Best, and Last, of 2014

American Wigeon at Manayunk Canal. Pen and Wash by Ken Januski.

Killdeer at Manayunk Canal. Pen and Wash by Ken Januski.

So let's talk very briefly about the 'last' of the title before we go on to the best. Above are two ballpoint pen and waterbrush sketches of birds seen along the Manayunk Canal in Philadelphia this morning. Unless a rare bird lands in the yard in the next few hours before dark they'll be the last birds of 2014.

I've been busy with bird counts, holiday prints, and the holidays over the last few weeks so I'm making a slow return to art. It began yesterday with sketches from photos, also using a pen and a waterbrush to pick up some of the somewhat water-soluble ink and use it as a wash. Those three drawings are below. A beautifully sunny, though cold, day convinced me I should take a walk along the Manayunk Canal this morning.

It was too cold to sketch and almost too cold to take photos - only the Killdeer convinced me to get out the camera. When I got home I decided to do the pen and wash drawings at the top. This is the time of year when it's generally too cold to work outdoors. So it seems that work from photos often appears in January and February. I think I prefer pen to pencil for this because I have to take more chances with a pen. I can't erase as I can with pencil. So I still learn something as I sketch but the drawings have a bit more freshness to them. In any case below are the other last sketches of 2014, two Carolina Wren sketches and one Cedar Waxwings sketch.

Carolina Wren. Pen and Wash by Ken Januski.

Carolina Wren. Pen and Wash by Ken Januski.

Cedar Waxwing. Pen and Wash by Ken Januski

My primary reason for writing this post though is not the last of 2014. It's the best of 2014. I thought of this as I was listening to some classical music CDs I got for Christmas as well as reading through The Great Fen, published by Langford Press. It was another Christmas present.

Each year for the last few years I've gotten at least one book from Langford Press. As I realized how much I enjoyed this one, and almost all books from them, I realized that they really do deserve a Best of 2014 Prize, even if it's only from me. To me there is no better publisher of books on wildlife art. That's because their subject matter is wildlife and art, not just wildlife without the art, not wildlife with art that mimics photography.

In addition they have published some books in conjunction with Artists for Nature Foundation, a foundation that tries to bring attention to habitat that is especially valuable to wildlife and also under threat, through the medium of art. So as I read this book and others, greatly admiring the art work, I also read about the environmental aspects of the area, including that of people and commerce. I mainly enjoy these books for the art. There's no denying that. But I also find it fascinating to read about the nature of the area and how it relates to man, both in the past and possibly in the future.

I know of no such projects or publishers in the US, though ANF did do a project in Alaska. It would be nice to see many of the US conservation organizations show such interest in art and its possibilities.

The other candidate for Best of 2014 is Robert Greenberg and his music courses for The Great Courses. I first started listening to How to Listen to and Understand Great Music, over a year ago. But the main influence has been this year. In addition to that course I've listened to Thirty Great Orchestral Works, and I'm part way through How to Listen to and Appreciate Opera and The Symphonies of Beethoven. I'm actually shocked at how rewarding these classes have been.

I'd also be a bit shocked if I'd paid full price for them(though it probably would still be worth it. But I've gotten them at a much lower cost through Audible). How do you put a price on something that opens up one of the most valuable things in the world, music, to you? When I first played the first lecture I thought: Uh, oh. A smart ass! Some people may come to the same conclusion, and keep it. But the fact that he jokes a bit more than I'd like proved to be of no importance whatsoever. What was important was that the world of classical music became approachable.

I've always listened to it, but never from the position of knowledge. And I don't believe that you need knowledge to appreciate any of the arts. More often it's the opposite. Art needs to first be appreciated at the gut level. Then you can add knowledge and come to appreciate it more. I shudder at docents and portable media devices in museums. They put a barrier between people and the art rather than make it more accessible.

Because of this I was hesitant about buying this course. But I was completely wrong. It is one of the best purchases I've made in my entire life. It is so nice to have both a historical framework for classical music as well as the barest rudiments of a musical theory framework. They have added immensely to my enjoyment of music.

To me some of the most valuable things in human existence are art, both visual and musical, and the other arts as well, and nature. Both Langford Press and Robert Greenberg and The Teaching Company with its Great Courses do a tremendous job of giving people the gift of art and nature. They are the Best of 2014 and of many other years I'm sure.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Never Too Late to Write About the Garden

Cold Frame in Raised Bed with Choi, Tatsoi, Beets and Mustard. Photo by Ken Januski.

It seems that I spend less and less time writing about the garden on this blog but it is still an important part of our life. I built a cold frame at least 15 years ago based on plans from a booklet from Storey Publishing. Since then I've replace the windows on top numerous times. But this year I finally had to break down and replace the thoroughly rotted pine frame. I even painted that and repainted the windows.

The raised bed that it sits in is 6'x8' and it takes up most of the bed. So it's fairly large. And yet when I take photos it always seems puny. So much time and expense for so little reward?, I ask myself. But it is always worth it. When the world seems cold and gray, at least here in the northeast, it's nice to be reminded that green, or in this case red as well, things are still growing. I'm not sure if we'll harvest any of this before spring. If we don't it will most likely go to seed, except for the beets at the far end. But I hate to pick anything until it gets as big as it's going to.

Even when everything has been picked though it's still a place for early plantings in spring and for moving out transplants from inside. So soon enough it will pay off the cost in time and money spent this fall and then give us profits, of many sorts, for years to come.

Red Russian Kale in Raised Bed. Photo by Ken Januski.

We started growing kale before it became trendy. In fact it's still unbelievable that the nearby chain grocery store has a big billboard for a kale-based drink. I originally started growing it mainly because it's so indestructible and will last into winter. I guess the squirrels think so too as yesterday I found one sitting down and chomping away on the leaves. (I wasn't happy!). But since I started growing it years ago I've discovered raw kale salad. So some of this will probably be harvested soon and will go into salads, kale pestos and other meals.

We don't have the cleanest winter garden but that's not due totally to laziness. I've also found that birds scour the plants for food. So you never know what small insects on the plants will provide at least some food for some of our birds.

I always think that I'll get around to art based on our garden but it still hasn't happened. But you never know. Those kale plants certainly do have intriguing shapes..................

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Finished Chickadee Woodcut, After Cold and Gray CBC

Carolina Chickadee. Multi-block Reduction Woodcut (Full Version) by Ken Januski.

A fuller day than I expected on Friday prevented me finishing the Carolina Chickadee on Friday as I'd hoped. Saturday was the Wyncote Audubon Christmas Bird Count so I knew I'd have no time then. And I didn't. We started birding at the house at 7:00 A.M., walked about six miles along Manayunk Canal, at Andorra Nature Center and at Pastorius Park, and then did some final birding before it got dark at home around 4:30 P.M. I didn't want to risk the entire print by trying to work on it after such a long day.

One of the last changes I'd made before Friday was the addition of a small bit of wood putty to try to regain a very small section of wood that I wanted back. I've now learned that this rarely makes sense for me as long as I work at such a small scale. For larger pieces the wood repairs might be large enough that I could carve them like fresh wood. But in my recent forays on a small scale I've not been pleased with the results.

So early this morning I carved those areas a bit, proofed and then printed. Minor smudges ended up on more prints than I was happy with but I did finish printing the edition. It will be 24 minus six or more that I'll make Trial Proofs. Above is the full version, 7x9 inches on Rives Heavyweight paper. Below is just the image itself, 4x6 inches.

Carolina Chickadee. Multi-block Reduction Woodcut (Cropped Version) by Ken Januski.

As usual I often end a print thinking about all the mistakes I've made and lessons I've learned for future prints rather than just enjoying the one I've finished. Though there are some problems with this print, more technical, e.g. the wood putty, than anything else my guess is that by tomorrow I'll be quite happy with the print.

I made it in a hurry, more as a holiday greeting print than as a finished print. But once I got started on it my artistic preferences kicked in and I tried to make it a work of art, with all the time and effort that this often entails. It's a good thing that I remembered it was a holiday gift with a deadline. So I finally had to forget about artistic improvements I'd like to make.

It's always been intended as a somewhat rough, somewhat primitive print. Though it may have had its origins in a photo, no one will mistake it for a photo. And that's just the way I like it!

As for the Christmas Bird Count we really saw no special birds. The only raptors we saw were a couple of Red-tailed Hawks, and a lonely Black Vulture. Who could expect a full day without at least one Turkey Vulture? The only thrush we saw was an American Robin, in our own yard before we took off. We saw no Eastern Bluebirds at Andorra Natural Area where we often see them this time of year.

But we did see our first Pied-billed Grebe in a few weeks in the Schuylkill River just north of Flat Rock Dam and the Manayunk Canal. Flying in that same area, and landing only briefly, were four male Common Mergansers. These two species might have been the highlight of the day.

Today it's bright and sunny, quite a contrast to yesterday. We'd probably see far more birds today. But the count was scheduled for yesterday. If it had been scheduled for today then yesterday probably would have been the sunny day. Regardless we always enjoy the chance to be out in winter seeing and counting birds. More counts will soon be here as 2015 arrives so we're looking forward to seeing more birds on those counts.

What prints are not given away will be up for sale on my Etsy store in a day or so.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Printing (A Chickadee) Under Pressure

Carolina Chickadee. State 3 of Multi-block Woodcut by Ken Januski.

Carolina Chickadee. State 4 Proof of Multi-block Woodcut by Ken Januski.

I've never heard it before but it would be easy to theorize that the oldest joke in the history of printmaking is that when deadlines come you print under pressure. The reason it's a joke is that by definition pressure is one of the main ingredients of printmaking. In one way or another you apply physical pressure to get the ink onto the paper of the print.

Still it's the first thought that came to mind for this post about my attempts at a print that will also serve as a holiday greeting card. After I finished the very complicated Goldfinch on Thistle woodcut, and after giving up on getting anything usable from sketching our cats, I went back to the quickest way for me to do a print: base it on a photo I took. I don't like to do this. However it was a last resort.

So that's what we have here. For all their ubiquity I have less than five photos of Carolina Chickadees. Of course one appeared at my studio window feeder as I brought the above prints up from the basement a few minutes ago. It helps having them nearby. But they are one of the very quickest of feeder birds: here and then gone, before the bully birds chase them away.

In any case I decided that Chickadees were a typical holiday bird and my time was limited. At top is the actual print. I just finished printing the third color, and the last one on one side of the woodblock. So the print will look a lot like it.

On the other side of the block I've carved the black areas. I did a proof of that block on the lower photo. I still need to figure out how much more of the black to remove. There may be just a bit too much thick line there. But I'll have to do some proofing to know for sure.

I hope to get it done tomorrow, in time for holiday mail and for late holiday selling on Etsy.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Curse of Facility

American Goldfinch Eating Thistle. Cropped Version of Final Edition of Two-block Woodcut by Ken Januski.

I think I have discovered what distinguishes a painting that is simple and unpretentious from one that possesses lasting qualities. In short, I have often wondered why the extreme facility and boldness of touch in Ruben's work never disturbs me, but in paintings of men like Vanloo(and I include modern painters as well as his contemporaries) it merely seems an odious form of technique. Fundamentally, I am perfectly well aware that the facility in the work of a great master is not the chief quality, that it is only the means and not the end, and that the reverse is true of mediocre painters.
Eugene Delacroix in The Journal of Eugene Delacroix, Phaidon Books, translated by Hubert Wellington. Entry for Tuesday, October 9, 1849.
I don't care if a drummer falls off a stool as long as he keeps the beat...There is something human about imperfection.. and we could use a lot more of it.
My paraphrase of record producer Rick Hall as recently seen and heard in the film Muscle Shoals. Magnolia Pictures, directed by Greg "Freddy" Camalier.

I've never had to worry about facility. The only time I've come close to it, or come close to it today, I think is when I do vigorous drawings in charcoal, both abstract and representational. I always feel like maybe I'm skating by problems when I work that way and may be making more superficial art. On the other hand there are times when it's nice to feel that I have a natural skill at some things. But I've had friends with seemingly inborn facility. It's often given them more immediate artistic success but from my perspective at least, at a cost. Their work can sometimes seem empty.

I mention this mainly because I like to acknowledge all the nuggets of wisdom in The Journal of Eugene Delacroix. But it also holds true for this print and most of my prints, especially the multi-block ones. The first block is printed in four colors in the reduction method. So I carve, print a color, carve some more and print another color onto the earlier prints and hope that the registration works, i.e. the new color goes where I expect it to on the earlier color, not 1/8 of an inch off in this direction or that. By the time I've gotten four colors down I've held my breath four times.

And then comes the other side of the block, where I've carved the final black color. Even if all the other colors have lined up pretty well the last block can still bring serious problems. In this print there were a few minor registration problems on a  print or two but basically things turned out the way I planned.

I mention this because I think it shows that it's a bit hard to get carried away by facility when working with reduction and multi-block prints. There is just too, too much that can go wrong.

I always know this from the start. I use this complex process not to exhibit some sort of facility or technical ability. And it's a good thing because I might get laughed out of town if I did. I do it because it allows me to get the expressive range that I'd like, a multiplicity of shimmering colors and shapes. In this sense a lack of registration can sometimes help, at least in places.

In that sense too I think it echoes Rick Hall in the final moments of the wonderful film Muscle Shoals. I mainly listen to classical music now followed by jazz, and rarely rock or blues or soul. But I did grow up with them and love them and this film reminds me of some of the best of it. What I like about that quote though is the emphasis on imperfection.

The world will always  be imperfect, though I think technology always offers the false lure of perfection. We should all be thankful for imperfection.

American Goldfinch Eating Thistle. Full Version of Final Edition of Two-block Woodcut by Ken Januski.

Above is another version of the print, this time showing the paper border. This print started off in an edition of 16 but now is down to either 12 or 13. It is printed with Daniel Smith water-soluble colors on Shin Torinoko paper. When the ink finally dries I'll scan it and if the photo is better replace these slightly off center ones with those. I'll also put some of them up for sale on my Etsy store, but only once the ink is dry enough to safely ship.

As I recall this year started for me with the print that is the header for my blog now, Mergansers and Grebes on the Schuylkill River, another multi-block reduction woodcut. More important than the medium though is the combination of realism and abstraction. I think I've finally reached a style I can be happy with for a while, though I'll also continue with much simpler woodcuts as in the Piping Plover, also from this year.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Almost Done With the American Goldfinch Eating Thistle

American Goldfinch on Thistle. Late State of Two Block Woodcut by Ken Januski,
American Goldfinch Eating Thistle. Late State of Two Block Woodcut by Ken Januski.

Almost there............. If I didn't know better, from bitter experience, I'd just finish off the print today. As I said earlier I've run out of proofs so the only way to test the final changes to this print are by doing so on the prints I have made on good paper. Since they will be slightly different than the final print I really can't call them part of the edition. It is a choice between getting a smaller edition of what I hope is exactly what I want and getting a slightly larger edition of almost what I want.

Fortunately, I guess, there was some smudging on a number of the prints from the block that printed all the colors you see here, yellow, pink/rose, olive/brown and dark blue/green. So I've used those to test printing the final black block. I probably wouldn't have been able so salvage them for part of the edition anyway. But with all the work involved so far I hate to lose any prints from what I had hoped to be an edition of 16.

In any case I printed what you see very early this morning. I'm largely happy with it though the coverage of the black is spottier than I'd like, and in this photo you can't even differentiate the black from the dark blue/green. But it still captures the pose of the goldfinch I think, and the rose of the thistle. And it is exciting to look at. That is what I'd hoped for and I think I have it.

I recently read Rebecca Salter's Japanese Woodblock Printing. I don't print in that style though I have incorporated aspects of it and use Japanese carving tools to a large extent. What struck me though was the technical complexity of the prints and how much that was valued. It is something I rarely value myself though. I like to think that I devote my energy to compositional and artistic complexity rather than technical complexity. So this print and almost all of mine do not meet high technical standards; in fact they probably don't meet medium ones. But I do think, just as in my older abstract work, that they do meet high artistic standards. That is what is important to me.

Still you can't just ignore technical matters. So I'm going to try to get the black printing as full and smoothly as possible before I finish printing this edition. Most likely that will be tomorrow.

...A surprise cold has prevented me from proceeding any further here but I did follow through, once the print above had dried, in scanning it. The image at top is a scanned version. The image below, which is what I posted originally, is a photo. The print itself is somewhere in between. And I'm still deciding on any last tweaks before I print the edition.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Goldfinch Woodcut Waylaid by Goldfinch

American Goldfinch at Houston Meadows. Watercolor by Ken Januski.

With an icy mix predicted for tomorrow and 60 plus degrees for today it was easy to convince myself to start the morning with birding rather than continue on my woodcut. Who knows if this will be the last 60 degree day for 3-5 months?

So the first bird I saw puzzled me with it's yellowish nape and warm rusty colors. I couldn't really see the black of the wings on first view but I still suspected it was an American Goldfinch in non-breeding plumage. But boy was I struck by the combination of yellows and rusts in the head. For all the goldfinches I've seen I'd never been struck so strongly by that before.

So I took a number of photos and thought I'd try a watercolor at some point later in the day. This is the result. It's on Arches Cold Press watercolor paper, 7x10 inches I think.

It's a far cry from my current American Goldfinch woodcut, where I've taken a lot of artistic liberty. That is still my preferred way of working. But sometimes you can just be struck by the beauty of something and want to try to get it down more or less like you saw it. Such was the case with this.