Monday, May 30, 2016

Back to Woodcuts, Again

Willow Flycatcher In Swamp Dogwood. Proof of Two Block Woodcut by Ken Januski.

So here it is with the unofficial start of summer(Memorial Day) and I've done just one print in 2016. Especially given what I said in last post about how much more successful I feel with prints than with watercolor it seems odd to have only done one.

There are a couple of answers. One is that migration starts in March and builds to a crescendo in May. Each day there is the siren call coming from outside suggesting I check to see what has arrived, as well as what is in bloom, what insects are also in flight, etc., etc. But more important in the paucity of prints I think is procrastination.

I've found a fairly easy way to experiment with watercolors, just do a small sketch on paper that is good but not so good as to be intimidating. That's the case with the Stillman and Birn sketchbooks as I've written before. So it is easy to make a non-committal foray. Though some people can do this with prints I'm sure, I haven't been able to. The few I've tried have looked exceptionally non-committal, too close to throwaway. The only print of 2016, the Black-crowned Night Heron with Yellowlegs and Short-billed Dowitcher was somewhat in this vein, but also successful.

Still prints can be intimidating. And that leads to planning, which can then lead to interminable procrastination. Should I do this, or should I do that? One of the great pleasures of printmaking, when I finally do resume it each time, is that I'm no longer in dialogue with myself. Instead the physical print has something to say, often pleasantly surprising me in some way or another, and all of a sudden things flow smoothly. To quote a cliché: The Possibilities Are Endless.

So now that I've proofed two colors on the woodcut above of a Willow Flycatcher in what I believe is Swamp Dogwood at Morris Arboretum I'm reminded again of how enjoyable printmaking can be once you actually get started printing, rather than just thinking (as with many things I suppose).

This is an early stage. It may be hard to believe but I intend this to be a light, bright print. But I wanted black lines to function as outlines more or less. Then I wanted a light brown gray for most of the flycatcher. But in printmaking you generally need to mix your own colors and so you don't necessarily get what you wanted. This turned out to me a dark gray-blue rather than a light gray-tan. That will eventually change but it's fine for early proofing.

Most of the rest will be yellow and green, at least that is my intention at the time. Of course the print will speak up soon enough and let me know how it foresees its future.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Comparative Success Rate in Prints and Watercolors

Seaside Sparrow and Marsh Wren at Jake's Landing. Watercolor and Brush Pen Painting by Ken Januski.

An odd title for a blog on art right? It sounds more like some sort of scientific study. But I was knocked over the head by my high failure rate with watercolors when I looked through all of my old ones in preparation for a small sidewalk show at Morris Arboretum on June 19, 2016. I plan to mainly show my linocuts and woodcuts but thought I should show some watercolors too, especially since so many have been based on birds and/or dragonflies seen at Morris.

Unlike many artists I don't rip up unsuccessful paintings and prints part way through in utter disgust. But it's easy to understand the impulse. Sometimes things just go horribly wrong on the way from intent to finished art work. As I looked through my storage box of watercolors though I realized that about 90% still looked bad. There were at least 125 of them and that doesn't include the 100s of additional watercolor sketches, works that were more quickly done with less focus on the finished product. I was tempted to ask why I continue with watercolor.

At the same time I'd been going through all of my linocuts and woodcuts. Though there were a few that were very disappointing, often where my ambition far outstripped my abilities the vast majority were successful. At least to me it looks like I know what I'm doing with prints whereas that's often not the case with watercolor, especially when I try to do a more expressive and spontaneous watercolor.

But that is in fact the rub. Watercolor when done well is one of the most expressive media, especially when it comes to light and the sense of fluidity and spontaneity. Trying to get some of that keeps drawing me back in spite of my numerous disappointments.

That said I'm always looking for a personal way to use watercolor, just as I do with printmaking. The recent works on this page are two examples. Above is a sumi brush pen and watercolor painting of a Seaside Sparrow and Marsh Wren both seen at Jakes Landing near Cape May, NJ over the last two Mays. Below is another painting using the same media. It shows four very active American Oystercatchers seen at 'The Meadows' in Cape May last week.

American Oystercatchers at 'The Meadows'. Watercolor and Brush Pen Painting by Ken Januski.

Both of these paintings are very loosely done, and due to a large extent to all the lines from the brush pen, look somewhat cartoonish. For many viewers I'm sure that this detracts from their appeal. Where is the detail, where is the subtlety? Well the fact is I just don't enjoy that type of work, certainly in my own work, though I can enjoy it in others. I'm not sure exactly what I'm doing here but I think some of it comes from a desire to show the liveliness of both the birds and their environment, to show a sense of animation, just as you see in many cartoons. Additionally this method and these media seem to lend themselves to studies for prints. So I think eventually some of this type of work will end up as a linocut or woodcut. And my guess is that, at least to me, they will seem successful.

Friday, May 6, 2016

One Good Thrush Deserves Another

Veery in the Wissahickon. Watercolor Sketch by Ken Januski.

I've written before about the simple pleasure of watching nature unfold in a more or less predictable manner. One bird follows another more or less, in returning to the area, either to stay and breed or to move further north for breeding.

The first thrush, outside of the American Robin, is the Hermit Thrush. It too can be here during the winter so it's not really the first migrant thrush. That honor generally goes to the Wood Thrush, pictured below in a pencil and watercolor sketch of a Wood Thrush seen in the last week or so.

Soon after the Wood Thrush comes the Veery, which will also breed here like the Wood Thrush. It is pictured above. I finished this pencil and watercolor sketch today based on some photos I took yesterday. The Veeries had been calling but not showing themselves for the previous 2-3 days.

Wood Thrush in the Wissahickon. Watercolor Sketch by Ken Januski.

Along with the predictable arrival of wildlife is the predictable arrival of wildflowers and flowering shrubs. You can bet that when you see the beautiful Pinkster Azalea in bloom that Wood Thrush and Veery will be very close by. It would make an absolutely prototypical woodland scene if I were to paint or print a Pinkster Azalea with a Wood Thrush or Veery nearby.

Pinkster Azalea in Bloom in the Wissahickon Valley. Photo by Ken Januski.

In the past people have experienced the opposite, flora and fauna not appearing when they should or in the numbers that they should. Occasionally this happens and it's often an unpleasant sign of something wrong in the environment. I hate to see the day when I'll live through such an experience. At the moment there are a reasons to be optimistic: Bald Eagles, Osprey and Peregrines are almost plentiful around here after drastic declines. But in grassland areas, with which I'm not that familiar, there are great declines. Only time will tell if people here and around the world will continue to care about nature and its preservation.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

First Shorebirds of Spring

Solitary Sandpiper at Morris Arboretum. Watercolor Sketch by Ken Januski.

Spotted Sandpiper at Manayunk Canal. Watercolor Sketch by Ken Januski.

This time of year it's easy to be totally distracted by the often brief appearance of the neo-tropical migrants, like warblers, orioles, etc. Often they also are very boldly colored in yellow, red, orange, blue, etc. The shorebirds are less common, unless you live near the right body of water, or shoreline. And often they are around a bit longer.

And of course they are easier to see. If you're an artist it's a thrill to be able to see the entire bird, not just a wingbar, or a partial face. I think that's one reason I like seeing them and sketching and painting them. But they also offer an artistic challenge. Their shape, markings and colors are subtle. As I've mentioned many times I'm not to concerned with capturing the subtlety of markings, most of which aren't visible to the naked eye except with the help of optics. But shape is always there, and it is subtle.

We used to have the hardest time differentiating Spotted and Solitary Sandpipers with their large eyerings and bobbing tails. But over time it has become easy. The Solitary is so much more fragile and elegant looking. The Spotted is often clunky and ungainly. So I enjoy trying to get that difference down, even in these quick pencil and watercolor sketches(based on photos I took). For all the ungainliness of the Spotted though I think it is my favorite, if I were to actually have to choose between these two most welcome visitors.

And I should add, that I didn't title this 'First Shorebirds of 2016'. The reason for that is that the Killdeer is here even during winter.