Sunday, May 3, 2015

The Age Old Problem of Painting Neo-tropical Migrants from Life

Palm Warbler, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Blue-headed Vireo and Scarlet Tanager. Pencil Field Sketches with Crayon and Wash by Ken Januski.

Anyone who has read this blog, even if only occasionally, over the last few years know how I struggle with trying to capture the migrating Neo-tropical migrants from life. I also take photos and I've done work based on them. But my goal is to be able to work from life.

I started working with birds as subject way back when at the end of 2006. Occasionally I look at the oldest work and I'm astonished at how bad it is. This is true of my bird art in general but especially with bird art based on field sketches and birds seen in the field.

The first problem of course if that I may only see them for a split second before they're gone or obscured by foliage. In the course of trying to capture them from life I've tried: photography, pencil, ballpoint pen, Faber-Castell pen, Caran d'Ache pen and fixpencil, crayon, waterbrush, watercolor, Stillman and Birn Sketchbooks, Moleskine sketchbooks, Aquabee sketchbooks, to name the ones that stick out in my mind.

Above you see the most successful results so far, in a small Moleskine sketchbook. These sketches were all done from life or from memory soon after seeing them live with Caran d'Ache fixpencil and Neocolor II Water-soluble crayons, with a wash done by picking up the pigment from the crayon with a waterbrush.

That's quite an explanation for what could be considered mighty skimpy results compared to the work of those who are successful with sketching and painting Neo-tropical migrants from life. But for me it is a huge distance I've travelled.

I currently go out with a larger sketchbook and hope to do some larger field sketches from life. If I do I hope to be able to add color through the same use of crayon and wash. It's hard to do field sketches of such striking birds. The easy temptation is to just grab the camera. But I try to forgo that, instead sketching first as with the Scarlet Tanager seen today and the Blue-headed Vireo seen a couple of days ago. I also know that I've never been able to make anything out of Scarlet Tanager photos. I think I'll never be able to make a painting that works with them. But when I saw this one today, with such a simple shape and such starkly contrasting Red and Black I was sure that I could capture it with the Neo-color II crayons. And I think I did. It is this boldness that strikes me when I see a Scarlet Tanager and it is that more than anything else that I want to capture. Maybe eventually I'll do something more developed. But for now I know that this simple, small sketch captures for me the thrill of a male Scarlet Tanager.

'Black' Squirrel, Palm Warbler and Mourning Cloak. Color Three of Four/Five Color Reduction Woodcut by Ken Januski.

It has taken forever to print the third color of the squirrel woodcut. I cut and proofed, cut and proofed, cut and proofed, trying different colors, trying to get the ink to flow evenly and trying to figure out what to cut and what to keep. Finally today I printed the third color. It is darker and grayer than this photo shows. But that doesn't make a lot of difference because I hope that little of it will remain in the end. I want it primarily to create a sense of sheen on what I hope will be the rich black of the squirrel.  Some of the blue in the background will remain, but more will be covered by the black and possibly another yellow that should make a green.

My hope, for this tiny 4x6 inch print, is that it will end up being a bold and striking print, contrasting the rich black of the squirrel with the bright yellow of the Palm Warbler and Mourning Cloak butterfly. It seems a bit crazy to me spending so much time making decisions about a tiny 4x6 inch print. But I hope I'll learn something from it that will pay off in larger prints.

Purple Finch at Morris Arboretum on 05.02.15. Photo by Ken Januski.

The other delay with the woodcut, and the kestrel linocut which remains in limbo, is migration. These early days of May, especially if not too hot are the best fullest days of the year for a birder or bird artist in this part of the country. The birds are here, the foliage largely is not, so that you can actually see the birds, and the weather is beautiful. So I've been out a lot, looking, sketching and taking photos. There are many birds I expect to see. But one that caught me by surprise yesterday was this Purple Finch at Morris Arboretum. This is one of 6-8 that were there, handsome as could be, right where the migrating warblers should have been.

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