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!

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Slow Progess, Hopefully Good, on a Woodcut

I have deliberately slowed down the number of posts I make on this blog. This began last year I think but has really become evident in 2016. It's been almost a month since I last posted. The main reason for that is that though I like to write, I'm not sure that many readers of this blog like to read. In general it seems to be a world of pictures rather than words. It sometimes seems as though words, like politicians, are considered inherently untrustworthy. So we have a major presidential candidate who thinks that mindless tweets constitute considered positions. And people like it!

I probably wouldn't have gotten distracted by this theme of words versus pictures if I hadn't wanted to use the word 'progress' in the title. That reminded me of one of my many pet peeves regarding current language use. You can just about bet that if you hear anyone use the word 'progress' as a noun today that it will be preceded by 'good.' I shudder every time I hear this. Just what other type of progress is there? Bad?! If it's bad then why not call it what it really is, regression rather than progression? It reminds me, going forward I might add, that language today seems to be used in the pastiche method of bad architecture, where you really don't understand the meaning or context of the words or architectural styles you use but you like them anyway because they have some vague feeling that is pleasurable. I was shocked recently to be watching some soccer matches on television and hear the phrase 'going forward' used in an intelligent way. The ball in fact is 'going forward' down the field of play. For most people it seems to be used as a socially acceptable bauble to encrust just about every sentence. But perhaps I should say babble rather than bauble, or perhaps both. It reminds me of some home architecture, where Greek columms are added to just about any type of home. How about some Greek columns on that yurt? It will give your home a sense of class!

I suppose it is no surprise that such totally fuzzy thought and language use should bring about a candidate like Donald Trump. He fits the time perfectly. But I should add that I don't consider this a particularly partisan issue. Democrats are just as bad in their use of spin, fuzzy language and fuzzy thought. I recently saw a Democratic U.S. senate candidate produce nothing other than verbal spin. Oddly I had just seen her conservative Republican opponent, with whom I almost always disagree, ask thoughtful questions in s Senate hearing. So who should a responsible person vote for? The spinmeister or the person who at least seems to have a working brain, even if it so often comes to conclusions with which I disagree?

In any case I decided more than a year ago that I would keep this blog more visually oriented and also visually oriented through art that I'd done not through photos that I'd taken. Above is the newest proof of my two-block woodcut of a Willow Flycatcher. It combines a reduction color woodcut with the other side of the block printed only in black on top of the color print. It's an odd way of working but one that at least so far has proven fruitful for me. Because both sides of the block can change as I go along I never really have a clear idea as to what the final print will look like. I will only know when I'm done. Because it takes time to make all the decisions for matching up two blocks and because it takes time for each layer of ink to dry before I can print over it this has been a very lengthy print. But it is nearly done. So far all of these proofs are on copier paper though I've printed all but the last color on good paper. Now I just need to print the last color on the good paper, decide on the final carving of the black block and then print it on good paper. Below are the color block so far as well as the black block so far.