Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Ending 2016 with Two Woodcuts(Or Keep Calm During Chaos)

Wood Ducks in Snow on Wissahickon Creek. Reduction Woodcut by Ken Januski.

It's always a bit of a struggle to keep politics, or other things that occasionally seem important, out of what is supposed to be a blog about art, birds and nature. I try to but Trump blasts away all my resolve due to his constant attack on decency, logic, reason, fairness and just about any other quality that used to be considered part of 'civilized' behavior. So I'll just say that I expect chaos both here and in the rest of the world, largely due to Trump. It may not be immediately evident, especially if you ignore his tweets(as everyone should), but it will eventually become so. That being the case I think the Wood Ducks portrayed above, seen in a blustery winter storm a number of springs ago, may serve as a good example. They look calm and serene amidst the chaos. Hopefully the world can do the same under whatever conditions he brings about.

I'd originally intended this small 4x6 woodcut as a season's greeting card that I tried to whip out in time for the holidays just as I was also finishing the woodcut below. But I soon let it got more complicated than I should have, especially at such a small scale. Still in the end I'm happy with how it worked out. It does have the misty, blustery feel of the actual day that I saw the Wood Ducks. It is printed on a good quality Japanese paper, Nishinouchi. The ink went on a bit more sparsely than I expected but in the end it didn't seem to be a problem. I was also impressed that I could keep adding new colors and the paper accepted them without problem.

I loved this scene when I first saw it a few years ago. This print, like many I've done, is based on a watercolor I did of the original scene. Little did I know as I did it that it might need to serve as a motto for the next 4, and God Forbid, 8 years: Remain Calm During Chaos!

Killdeer and Great Blue Heron in Snow at Manayunk Canal. Two-block Reduction Woodcut by Ken Januski.

I finished the Killdeer and Great Blue Heron woodcut a few weeks ago, just adding a few minor tweaks to the last version that I posted here. As usual with prints, especially reduction prints, I often find at the end that there is something I wish I'd done differently earlier on. With a painting I can just paint over it. But not in a print. So printmaking I think really forces you to live with simplification. You can only tweak so much. The final tweaking probably took two weeks and affected only about 10% of the entire area of the print. But I do think it made the print a bit livelier, both in terms of color and tone.

As anyone who has followed my work and this blog for very long knows I'm always trying to reconcile naturalism/realism and abstraction. To me this print goes quite a way in that direction, though here I think I'm a bit more realistic than in some of my other attempts. Others may view it differently.

I've been listening to a lot of music by Beethoven recently as well as reading two biographies and taking a number of audio courses. At one point Beethoven talks about writing for the future not the past. With wildlife art it's easy to get tricked into sticking with the past. But in the end I think it's a mistake. Art needs to remain lively and not just be an imitation of the past. That is my goal in my hybrid realistic/abstract work. For me it works and is endlessly fulfilling I hope that also proves true to people who view it.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Reduction Woodcut, Recalcitrant Snipe, Leftovers, Trump's Greatest Sin

Killdeer and Great Blue Heron. Partially completed reduction woodcut by Ken Januski.

I guess one of the benefits of writing posts so infrequently these days is that I can ramble all over the place in terms of subjects covered. Thus the title.

My most recent artwork is the reduction woodcut above, based on one of numerous sightings of Killdeer and Great Blue Heron in the Manayunk Canal over the last few winters. I'm moving along more speedily than normal on this one, spending less time in endless deliberation about what to do next. I think one or at most two colors are still left and I plan that they will just be in a few small areas.

Wilson's Snipe and Greater Yellowlegs at Ottawa NWR. Watercolor by Ken Januski.

I say 'recalcitrant' snipe in the title because I keep going back to these snipe seen at Ottawa NWR a number of years ago in the hopes of getting a painting, print, drawing I'm happy with. Above is the newest effort, I think 11x17 or something like that. It's the biggest watercolor I've done in a while.

Wilson's Snipe and Greater Yellowlegs at Ottawa NWR. Acrylic Painting by Ken Januski.

Next is an acrylic painting, actually smaller than the watercolor, that I painted then repainted a number of years ago. It seems like such a great subject and yet I'm not completely happy with any of my attempts. I've also done numerous pen and ink and watercolor studies along the way. So we shall see. Sometimes it almost seems like you need to exorcise a subject. I do think eventually that I'll get a good print out of this subject.

Chipping Sparrow in Pines. Brush Painting by Ken Januski.

When I print I always tear large sheets of printmaking paper to size. And always there are small leftover strips of good paper. I've never known what to do with them so they just accumulate. Recently I ordered a new Chinese brush, ink stick and grinding stone from Oriental Art Supply. I realized that this leftover paper might be just the ticket for experimenting with the new brush and ink. So after about 5-6 horrible failures I ended up with this passable brush painting of a Chipping Sparrow in a pine tree. One reason I wanted a better quality ink stick was so that I could get richer blacks. As you can see there are at least one or two here.

'Tula' salvia in backyard. Photo by Ken Januski.

I haven't written anything on Trump and the election so far. I'm not completely shocked by the results. The white working class has been effectively abandoned by Democrats for years. There's also a sense of moral superiority in many Democrats that I think fuels a resentment of them, a resentment Trump was all too happy to take advantage of. But what of Trump? To a certain extent I agree with both Obama and Clinton in the idea of at least giving him a chance.

But for all of his faults, and everyone except the blind know that they are legion, there is one that I think will do more harm than anything else: his lack of civility, respect for others, and respect for truth, all willingly jettisoned by him. As he said to the Wall Street Journal when questioned about whether he'd gone too far in some of his statements he said: "No, I won!"

Most Americans know that the presidency is more than just a matter of winning. It's not a football game, or a backstreet brawl, though I suppose it has been in the distant past. But in an age where there is already far too much ranting, too much eager willingness to  not even consider the other side, Trump sets the worst possible precedent. Anything and everything is legitimate as long as you win. History will decide I fear that this is his very worst legacy.

I should add, as others have, that he might actually be successful. History never unfolds as predicted. But I'll still never forgive him for his utter degradation of the process.

And, to end on a happier note, the last photo  is of 'Tula' Mexican Sage, almost always the last flower blooming in our garden, even in December. We buy this plant at about 12 inches tall every few years, then watch it grow and grow until November without flowering. And then finally in a race against a hard frost it starts to bloom. Each day we wonder: will it be the last? Not so far.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Some Tiny Watercolors

White-rumped Sandpiper in Cape May, NJ. Watercolor by Ken Januski.

It seems that a few times a year I'm at a loss as to what to do next and so, in a manner somewhat similar to practicing on a musical instrument I'd guess, I do either sketches or small paintings based on photos that I've taken.

As I've said forever I don't like working from photos, mine or anyone else's. In fact I don't believe I've worked from anyone else's since I was a child. If I'm going to work from a photo I want it at least to be one where I have a personal recollection of the experience.

All of the small 5x7 watercolors in this post, with the exception of the Cattle Egret below, were done over the last few days.

Sometimes when I do work from a photo it's because I've seen a bird, perhaps done a field sketch of it, but want to get to know it better, both in my mind's eye and on paper or canvas. That's the case with the White-rumped Sandpiper above. I both wanted to understand it better and also do a successful watercolor of it. With their generally subtle colors shorebirds lend themselves to plumage detail I think. If you don't get the plumage subtlety, they all you have to work with is the shape, which in the case of shorebirds is actually quite a lot. But who wants to paint a feather map? Not me. So this type of watercolor allows me to see what I can do in getting some sense of plumage complexity and subtlety while still having the watercolor retain some spontaneity and fluidity.

Cattle Egret at Cape May Point State Park. Watercolor by Ken Januski.

The watercolor above was actually painted as a gift for the people who rented us their house recently while on vacation. So the motivation is somewhat different. But it was also exciting to see a Cattle Egret, actually two, so I wanted to get the experience down on paper. It is based on field sketches and on looking at a photo on my camera, about 1x1 at most I'd guess. So it is not particularly detailed. More importantly though I think it gets a good sense of Cattle Egrets and their fascinating movement.

Ruddy Turnstone at Reed's Beach. Watercolor by Ken Januski.

I'll rarely try to paint a bird in flight. Almost always they have the deadly quality of a bird painted from a photo. But in this case I liked the photo and decided it was time to give a try to a bird in flight. I guess that is one of the appeals of such small watercolors. You can't try out something new without worrying too much about a possible disaster.

Warbling Vireo at Morris Arboretum. Watercolor by Ken Januski.

Finally a Warbling Vireo from Morris Arboretum. I've always wanted to do a painting based on these photos. It's still not completely satisfactory but I'm not unhappy with it either.

One virtue of these small watercolors is that I learn more about the structure of the bird, well some of the time anyway. The end result might appear in a more finished, more detailed work or just as well, it might give me the confidence to take much greater liberties and do something abstract.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Cape May Field Sketches - Part Five

American Coot at 'The Meadows.' Field Sketch by Ken Januski.

Unusual circumstances found us back in Cape May, NJ for the second time this fall, not a bad place to be of course. Though it's always tempting to reach for the camera first, especially for rarities, I tried to force myself to first reach for the sketchbook.

With the exception of the one more developed pencil sketch of a Cattle Egret and Ring-billed Gull all of the sketches are done with various brush pens. After a week of such drawings I was more firmly convinced of how much I like them and how I ought to stick with them.

They of course don't offer the detail of pencil or ballpoint pen but they do offer the sense of fluidity and spontaneity. This is more important to me and is much more likely, at least for me, to lead to a more developed print or painting.

The one more developed sketch by the way was more developed only because the Cattle Egret was so cooperative alternately strutting and meandering around the lawn adjacent to the Cape May Point State Park parking lot. I was able to sit on a bench set up my scope and sketch him. Of course he didn't sit still but I was eventually able to see him enough times in one more or less similar position to do the pencil sketch. When he disappeared I turned to the far more stationary gull.

Cattle Egret at Cape May Point State Park. Field Sketch by Ken Januski.

Cattle Egret at Cape May Point State Park. Field Sketch by Ken Januski.

Cattle Egret and Ring-billed Gull at Cape May Point State Park. Field Sketch by Ken Januski.

Eastern Phoebe and Yellow-rumped Warbler in Cape May. Field Sketch by Ken Januski.

Immature Hermit Thrush at Rea Farm. Field Sketch by Ken Januski.

Long-billed Dowitchers and Killdeer at 'The Meadows.' Field Sketch by Ken Januski.

Long-billed Dowitchers. Field Sketch by Ken Januski.

Long-billed Dowitcher and Yellow-rumped Warbler. Field Sketch by Ken Januski.

Long-billed Dowitcher at 'The Meadows.' Field Sketch by Ken Januski.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

More Sora and Rail

Sora, Virginia Rail and Mallard. Sumi brush painting by Ken Januski.

Sometimes I seem to want to go fairly deeply ( I will not say 'deep dive' thank you very much) into a subject. That's been the case with sora and rails recently. I can't explain it other than the desire to get familiar enough with them that I think I can eventually do a fairly spontaneous work with them as subject. Today's newest foray is seen above, a sumi brush pen and ink painting of a Sora, Virginia Rail and Mallard, all seen a few weeks ago at 'The Meadows' of Cape May, NJ.

Every time I return to sumi brush painting I'm reminded of how extremely little I know about it, how low my skill level is, but also how much I love the rich tonalities and vigorous brushwork that it can allow. I'm using an extremely old sumi ink, one bought back in San Francisco when I was a student and my guess is that the lack of true black in this painting is at least partially due to the quality of the ink. Once of these days I need to buy a better ink stick.

Sora at Heinz NWR. Watercolor by Ken Januski.

I've also been experimenting with more detailed works and you can see them above and below. They are both based on photos of Sora at Heinz NWR that I took last year. Both are in watercolor.

Sora at Heinz NWR, version 2. Watercolor by Ken Januski.

Sora at Heinz NWR. Watercolor sketch by Ken Januski.
Before I started the watercolors I did a quick watercolor sketch, seen above, and a couple more ballpoint pen studies. But there are only so many ballpoint pen studies I can do. At some point they just get too frustrating to me and I need to move to a looser medium.

Sora at Heinz NWR. Ballpoint pen sketch by Ken Januski.

And speaking of loose media, the sumi brush or sumi brush pen may be among the loosest. The synthetic brush pen, used below, seems to me to be mainly a linear medium. You can't use it like a sumi brush and ink to get both line AND tone. But that also means that mistakes, generally impossible to correct, jump out at you and the viewer. But the feeling of spontaneity that it allows is well worth the risk involved.

Sora at Heinz NWR. Sumi brush pen sketch by Ken Januski.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Back in the SWLA Again

Ruby-throated Hummingbird and Turkey Vulture. Two-block Reduction Woodcut by Ken Januski.

I'm quite happy to be able to once again entitle a post with the words 'back in the SWLA.' For those of you who don't know it refers to the annual exhibition of The Society of Wildlife Artists at The Mall Galleries in London, Great Britain.

Anyone who follows this blog knows that I have a real love/hate relationship with wildlife art. The love part of it can be seen very reliably in the work of the SWLA and in their annual exhibit.

I've never seen it in person and once again this year, mainly due to lack of proper planning on my part, will miss it. And each time I see an online gallery of some of the work I realize what a great opportunity I'm missing.

But for anyone else you can, if you're not near London, take a look at The Natural Eye - 2016. Each year it again gives me hope for wildlife art! My print is for sale on page 5 of the online gallery.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Another View of a Sora

Sora at 'The Meadows' in Cape May. Ballpoint Pen Drawing by Ken Januski.

It's been quite a few years since I've done a more developed ballpoint pen drawing. I'm not sure why I chose this medium other than the fact that it seemed like it might be a good method for showing the lights and darks that often surround Soras as they move in and out of deep vegetation at the water's edge.

This could probably stand some darker darks but I think I've gotten it about as dark as I can with this ballpoint pen.

I always enjoy seeing Soras and other rails. My guess is that the Soras and/or Virginia Rail that we recently saw in Cape May will end up in either a watercolor or a print. Sometimes I just like to explore a number of media on the way to doing a more finished work.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Field Sketching Around Cape May - Part Four

American Bittern in a Tree. Brush Pen Field Sketch by Ken Januski

I think it's been three years since I've posted on field sketching in Cape May, NJ. As I recall we've been there in 2014 and 2015 but most likely I just didn't do enough field sketches to bother to show.

In any case this fall I made a more concerted effort, though based on what you see below that may be hard to believe. Over a total of six days I have only these few sketches, none of them very developed. There are a couple of reasons for this: birds didn't cooperate by standing still at a reasonably close distance, I was too busy trying to identify them, I was worried about my wife Jerene getting bored as I sketched or sometimes it was just too windy, too rainy, etc., etc.

One day gave great views of Ruddy Turnstone and other shorebirds on one of the jetties at Stone Harbor. But it had been a long day and it was time to leave. I figured that was alright as we'd just come back another day. But when we did there were no birds on jetty on either day. It was too windy on one day. And there were few birds on the other day. The Piping Plover, American Oystercatcher and hint of a Dunlin are from that day.

Field sketching though is a very rewarding experience. I'd say that more than half of the linocuts and woodcuts I've done are based on field sketches. A good number of recently sold prints and watercolors were as well. There is just so much more of a connection to your subject matter when you are sketching it live than when you are working from photos.

As I've written about this many times before I won't repeat myself, at least anymore than I already have. In the weeks and months that follow I'm sure I'll be showing some artwork based on these sketches. The Sora is the one that seems to be calling loudest at the moment.

American Oystercatcher and Dunlin. Brush Pen Field Sketch by Ken Januski

Killdeer. Brush Pen Field Sketch by Ken Januski

Laughing Gull. Brush Pen Field Sketch by Ken Januski.

Merlin. Brush Pen Field Sketch by Ken Januski.

Ruddy Duck and immature Peregrine Falcon. Brush Pen Field Sketch by Ken Januski.

Piping Plover and Tri-colored Heron. Brush Pen Field Sketch by Ken Januski.

Ruddy Turnstone and Snowy Egret. Brush Pen Field Sketch by Ken Januski.

Snowy Egret. Brush Pen Field Sketch by Ken Januski.

Sora. Brush Pen Field Sketch by Ken Januski.

Immature Yellow-crowned Night Heron. Brush Pen Field Sketch by Ken Januski.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

A Finished Reduction Linocut

Falling, Fighting Blue-gray Gnatcatchers. Two-block Reduction Linocut by Ken Januski.

This two-block reduction woodcut is finally finished. I'd guess it took about three months altogether, with many interruptions for allowing the ink to dry and other things. The main delay though was compositional decision-making.

I often see prints, in all media, that obviously take a lot of time to complete either due to a wealth of detail, technical complexity or something else. This type of print is generally unimpressive to me. As I've said many times in the years I've been writing this blog I'm not impressed by work in and of itself. That seems a very puritanical way of appreciating art.

But I'm sure another perspective is that time spent on compositional decision-making is just as off-putting to others. That may well be. And it may also be that many people looking at the print above won't realize how much time was spent deciding on colors, shapes, which colors on which shapes.

I've had the good luck to sell quite a few prints over the last month. They've been in a variety of styles, some more primitive, some more realistic and some more abstract. In general I'd say that the prints I've sold most of over the last years have been simple and direct, often almost primitive. When I package them off for shipment I feel some kinship with the people who buy them. And I wonder if I shouldn't stick to this more simple and direct style.

On the other hand I come from a tradition, particularly in my abstract work, of worrying over a painting or print until it is just right. Matisse said that every shape, every color, every brushstroke had its place. And it's something I'm very sympathetic to. One reason for this I think is that such work rewards viewing over the years. There is always something more to find and appreciate.

So when I do more compositionally complex prints that is the main motivation. I want a print that sticks with you.

The other thing that I think really delayed this print, and most compositionally complex prints, is that I know that I'm not making just one print. I'm making many. That is the nature of a print. You make more than one. So I figure if I'm going to be making 15, 20, 25, 30 prints I want them to be good enough that someone might want to buy them, even years after I've made them.

Solitary Sandpiper and Twelve-spotted Skimmer. Linocut by Ken Januski.

I was reminded of that when I sold the 2012 print pictured above. So much work goes into a print, into being careful to print them in such a way that they are as identical as possible, to avoid ink smudges that ruin the print. And yet most don't sell when made and just go into storage(a separate complication). But the reward is to be able to pull one out years afterwards, be reminded of how much you like it, and send it off to a buyer.

Because I know that I've already spent hours on the print, and that I'll be spending more hours printing an edition, I want to make sure that the composition is as good as I can make it before I print.

Thus the three months making the gnatcatcher print.

Since I've not made many prints this year I haven't written much about printmaking. But I have been thinking about it. One type of print that I often like is the monoprint. I like it because it is very spontaneous, and more like a painting than a print. But I've never made one. Why? Because I don't see the point of just making one. I might as well paint as print just one(thus monoprint). Still I very much like what many people do with monoprints.

In many of my prints I'm actually trying to create a multi-print monoprint. What I mean by that is that I hope to capture the feeling of spontaneity that a monoprint has. And yet still make an edition of it. I think that this gnatcatcher print may capture that better than any print I've yet done.

Still it is a far cry from my simple and direct prints. My guess is that I'll continue to find a place for both styles.

Dead Common Yellowthroat. Pencil and Watercolor Sketch by Ken Januski.

We have one outdoor cat. But because I'm seriously allergic to them we've set a limit as to how many we can have inside. So our outdoor cat, who my wife adores and I have to say I like, causes far more problems with local birds than I'd like. In fact we've drastically cut down our bird feeding so that we don't attract birds that in turn might end up as prey for the cat. We do pretty well but recently he got our first backyard migrating warbler of the late summer. It's a very sad event. The best I can  do is to make a quick sketch of the bird, in this case a Common Yellowthroat. It is amazing what small, delicate creatures they are.

Pectoral Sandpiper. Watercolor by Ken Januski.

A slightly less delicate creature, though I can't say for sure since I didn't hold him in my hand, was this Pectoral Sandpiper. I had committed to bird and try to sketch shorebirds for World Shorebird Day. But I said I would do so nearby in locations that sometimes but certainly not always have shorebirds. Over four days I found none in very local locations and only a few further away at Heinz NWR. Those were too distant to sketch. So instead I did this watercolor of a Pectoral Sandpiper, seen and photographed at Morris Arboretum last fall.

I still greatly enjoy watercolor and it is no longer the sheer torture it was when I started. I like going back and forth between it and printmaking. But I think printmaking will remain my primary medium.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Lino In Progress; Odds and Ends

Falling, Fighting Gnatcatchers. Linocut. Early proof by Ken Januski.

A few months ago Jerene and I had the oddest experience while walking along Forbidden Drive in the Wissahickon Valley in Philadelphia. A large grayish object came floating down in front of us, somewhat like a Sycamore leaf but of the wrong color. When it hit the ground it exploded into a flurry of blue/gray, black and white. It turned out to be two fighting Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, more or less locked together as they fell.

Soon after I got home I did the sumi brush pen sketch below, completely from memory because there was no way in the world to have gotten a photo. It all happened too quickly. But I did think that I'd like to make a print of it. So at top is a fairly early proof of a two block linocut. I'm running out of wood blocks to carve so decided to try this old piece of mounted lino.

Currently I'm debating whether or not to add another color or two to the color block. Most likely I'll add at least one more color.

Fighting, Falling Gnatcactchers. Sumi Brush Pen Sketch by Ken Januski.

I'm sure I've mentioned before that I get varying responses to my work. Some people love the more realistic watercolors, as in the Blue Grosbeak below. But others turn their noses up at this type of work and like the more abstract work of the newest Gnatcatcher print. I've come to the firm conclusion that I'm best working abstractly. My work is I think somewhat personal when I work like that. With watercolors I could look like many other painters, just not as good.

Blue Grosbeak at Higbee Beach. Watercolor by Ken Januski.

But I still admire the way some people can use watercolor, and by 'some' I should say I definitely do not mean the color within the line school of very deadly watercolor. I've never understood that claustrophobic way of working. Watercolor begs to be used freely, even if that is the most difficult way to use it. In any case I always learn something when I work in watercolor, about the bird portrayed, about the use of watercolor, or in this case about how difficult it is to render grasses in a free, yet believable way. It's a bit like learning to dive. I try a new watercolor, perhaps am happy with it, then do a big belly flop. It can be a painful way to learn. But I keep coming back. Still I think I'll never develop the individuality I have in my prints in watercolor.

Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. Sumi Brush Pen Memory Sketch by Ken Januski.

This is a very lucky time of year for people, at least people in the Eastern US, because during much of July and probably all of August and if you're lucky much of September as well, you can have Ruby-throated Hummingbirds as daily visitors. For all my years of watching them I've come to the conclusion that the best way to portray them is not from a field sketch and not from photos. Instead I stare at them for a number of minutes, try to memorize what I see, and then put it down on paper.

Inevitably I realize how much I have forgotten in the five seconds it takes to switch from looking to drawing. Still I keep trying and I keep learning. Hopefully I'll have some drawings I'm happy with before they depart in September or so.

Recently a friend of mine, who is both an accomplished artist and a lover of music posted a note about the recently deceased composer Einojuhani Rautavaara. It included a link to one of his works: Concerto for Birds and Orchestra. It is almost 20 minutes long but well worth listening to. It reminds me of how ambitious 'wildlife art' can be if it wants to. It can be aware of art of the century in which it is created, i.e. 21st not 19th or earlier, and yet still be true to and appreciative of the 'wildlife' itself. I realize that not everyone will enjoy this. But as with many things it seems criminal not to at least alert people to the existence of such strong pieces of art.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Normally Distant Plover Walked Right in Front of Our Car

Black-bellied Plover at Heislerville WMA. Watercolor by Ken Januski.

We don't see that many Black-bellied Plovers. That is primarily because of where we live. They just don't appear in Philadelphia. Less than 100 miles away in Cape May, NJ it's another story. They're not uncommon. And the same is probably true for a number of other spots about that far away.

They are an attractive bird and I always hope to get a good look at them. But in my experience, limited though it is, they tend to be the most distant shorebird when a group are congregated together, in deeper water and further back than any other species. So when we spied one from inside the car at Heislerville WMA in New Jersey last May it was even more surprising to find it so close. Perhaps the car served as a blind and we weren't noticed by the bird? I'm not really sure. But I took advantage of the situation and took numerous photos. Since we were on vacation and still hadn't reached our destination all my sketching gear was packed away. But I was able to get out the camera and take some photos.

So this approximately 9x12 inch watercolor was done yesterday. I often find that after a lengthy print, even one that I end up being happy with, that I want to take a break from printmaking, especially if it was a developed or ambitious print. As with cooking and eating, exercise programs or a million other things a change is often welcome. Variety is the spice of life.

I recently organized my old watercolors and it is truly shocking how bad my first ones, from about 2006, are! By comparison the watercolor above is a masterpiece. But of course my ambitions have grown over 10 years. What would have more than satisfied me 10 years ago no longer does. And yet I am happy with this. It captures the bird I think and yet also doesn't look too fussy. Watercolor is a truly wonderful medium, or at least it can be, and very rarely I feel that I'm starting to use it the way it should be used.

A convoluted series of circumstances recently reminded me of my background in art, especially my artistic training. It is strictly as a 'modern' artist, in the tradition of Degas, the Impressionists, the Post-Impressionists, Picasso, Matisse, American Modernists like Stuart Davis, Abstract Expressionism, the Bay Area Expressionists like Elmer Bischoff and Richard Diebenkorn and many, many, many others. One of the more or less common themes in this tradition is the unimportance of subject matter. If there's a recognizable subject then most likely it takes away from the quality and seriousness of the art. That's not my current thought but I'd say it was pretty much the unspoken and sometimes spoken theme underlying almost my entire artistic education. And it made perfect sense to me. Art should be about self-expression and not be limited by subject matter.

Of course this is a massive subject and I'm not going to pursue it. All I want to say is that it was my artistic training. When I started using insects and then birds as subjects I went against that theme and found it somewhat liberating. You can be just as expressive with subject matter as without and sometimes the limitations of subject matter can lead you to more accomplished art. Constraints lead to creativity. The total lack of constraints for most people leads to entropy and chaos. In any case I just found it interesting to think about my artistic background and my current art, where subject really is important, and yet it is always sublimated to expression itself. For me it is a good place to be.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

It's Not an Illusion

Willow Flycatcher in Swamp Dogwood. Two block Reduction Woodcut by Ken Januski.

As I look through my older prints, as well as my other work and the work of others that I admire, I often think about whether or not I want to create an illusion of reality, or maybe even just the illusion of a photograph, since many people think that reality and photography are the same. I've done work that is more illusionistic, though it rarely looks like a photo. And I can often admire such work, both by contemporary artists and older ones.

But I've pretty much decided that this is not the route I want to take. If I were more of a plein aire painter I would perhaps think differently. In that case the illusion I might try to create might be more in reaction to what is right in front of me and actually all around me, not just to the flat surface of a photo. But though I do field sketches I don't work plein aire. When I do my work from photos my skin starts getting prickly, as though I'm allergic to it.

So for me I've come to think that I'm best off working somewhat in the manner of this newest, two-block reduction woodcut. It is representational but it is not illusionistic. Just the color block by itself, before being overprinted by the black block and all its lines, looked somewhat illusionistic, more like a painting, and was appealing to me. I felt that to a certain extent I'd captured the diffuse light. But it wasn't the way I wanted to go. So I added the last black block, just as I'd intended to all along. I think this has created a more graphic, almost iconic image. That's neither good nor bad. But it seems to be the way that I want to go and the way that seems most fruitful to me. I suppose it is that impulse that also convinced me to change my cover photo recently to the woodblock print of a Gray Catbird guarding his walnuts. And just yesterday I saw another Gray Catbird in the middle of the road, seemingly as imperious as could be, daring a car to come near him. That reminded me of one of the reasons that I like my Gray Catbird woodblocks. I believe that they capture, from at least one perspective, the experience of seeing a Gray Catbird.

Illusion can be great but sometimes you just feel like something different.

This woodcut by the way probably took longer than any print I've ever done, even the 9-10 color reduction linocut of the Blackburnian Warbler at Magee Marsh. It wasn't really that complicated. But I felt like I needed to keep proofing different colors until I got the ones I wanted. And then I spent a week or two figuring out how to get a final black that printed full and rich and not splotchy. It's at moments like that that I wonder why in the world I ever got involved with such a technical medium!