Wednesday, April 1, 2015

First Brood Parasites of 2015 (Please Note the Date)

Drake Canvasback and Hooded Merganser. Woodcut by Ken Januski.

Blame it on something I read about April Fools Day. I wouldn't normally use such a jokey title as I have today. But it is appropriate. We saw our first Brown-headed Cowbirds today, shortly after the first Eastern Phoebes have arrived, and you can bet that some poor phoebes will soon be raising cowbirds, even if the young cowbirds are twice their size.

Below are some recent field sketches: I've already mentioned the female American Kestrel feeding on an American Robin at Morris Arboretum. On the opposite page are some of the first Eastern Phoebes and Hermit Thrushes that we've seen this year. At bottom right another thrush, the American Robin, that posed just long enough outside my studio window to sketch in everything but his head. When I looked up to do that he was gone.

One of the things I always notice about Hermit Thrushes is that they are pot-bellied. Because of this I sometimes think that all my Hermit Thrush look the same, almost always starting with the pot belly. Still it is accurate. That's just the way they are. They're also a bit smaller than American Robins and 2 out of the 3 times we've seen them together over the last week the Robin chased the Hermit Thrush out of his feeding area. Given his size I guess the Hermit Thrush wasn't going to argue.

American Kestrel with Prey, Eastern Phoebe, Hermit Thrush, American Robin. Field Sketches by Ken Januski.

Yesterday I experienced something new: printing two editions of the same print in the same day. This wasn't planned. It's just that the first edition of the Canvasback and Hooded Merganser at top was much too dark, with many of the finer lines covered/blurred by ink and/or the type of paper I used. I also switched from a soft to hard brayer part way through the edition with little improvement. After all the work that goes into a print it's very unsatisfying to have the end result be something other than what you anticipated.

So after some errands I returned home and printed a somewhat smaller edition. This time I used the smooth side of some Shin Torinoko paper as well as a hard brayer. That seemed to keep the ink just about perfect on the surface of the print. That is what I'm showing at top. This edition is for sale on Etsy. I may eventually put some of the rougher first edition up for sale at at a lower price. It looks alright but it just isn't what I planned on.

I've read recently something I read every year or two in a different source. Audiences, to a large extent, like their art to be interactive. By this I don't mean the silly online interactive quality that many struggling businesses use to try to save their businesses. What I, and the people I'm reading, mean is that the artwork is not so perfect, so closed off that the viewer or reader is left cold, as though he's an observer rather than a participant. In other words he is able to use his imagination and experience to finish the work. The most obvious case for this is novels. They are not visual, nor aural. And yet most readers react badly when they see the characters they're familiar with from novels portrayed in film or on television. We often react badly because we've developed through our imagination a far different view of the character.

In visual art I think that this is why I shy, to put it mildly, away from high finish in my work. High finish may impress those who assume it must take work to get such a finish, but for an audience that looks for something more I think they often react badly because the art work is closed to them. Their imagination cannot enter into a dialog with the work and complete it as they see fit because there is no room. The artwork is a closed door. Stand back and admire my skill, or else.

This is a lengthy argument and something I won't purse at length. But it is not something new, not some fad forced on art by modernism. If you think so then take a look at Rembrandt. Up close so many of his works just show brushstrokes. But from a distance the viewer uses his imagination to complete the work, and history shows that they are far more esteemed than contemporary work of a high finish.

Why do I bring all of this up now? It's something I think about in regard to the woodcut. Woodcuts, just like linocuts, can be exceedingly linear and graphic. It would have been possible to outline every branch and twig in the print. I could have made neater more regular lines for the water. Relief printing lends itself I think to linearity. But even though we undoubtedly see line in the world it's not all we see. And if everything is line it undoubtedly can have a strong graphic, two-dimensional effect but it eliminates the possibility of three dimensions, the world in which we actually live.

All of which goes to say that I try to avoid too much regularity in my prints. I could easily add them and get a snappier two-dimensional, flat result. But that's not what I want. I think that the more irregular method used above and in many of my prints gives the viewer a little more room to enter the picture and enjoy it. Sorry for this lengthy digression but I often write about my dislike for too much finish in art, especially wildlife art, and I just realized another reason why: it closes off the viewer from the experience.

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