Friday, October 30, 2020

Painter Watching 'Painters Painting', with Birds

Three Chipping Sparrows  at Houston Meadow. 9x12 Acrylic Painting by Ken Januski. Copyright @2020  by  Ken Januski.

I recently stumbled upon the old documentary film Painters Painting, by Emile de Antonio(1972). I would say that of all the films I've ever watched about art this was the most influential.  Now I'm sure  some readers might say: oh no, those horribly  antiquated old male chauvinists and all their heroic paint-splattered gestures.  Or  perhaps  any number  of other things. And some will respond: oh yes, what a great film about great artists, including Helen Frankenthaler.

I have loved seeing it again but for a different reason than many might think. It reminded me that most  if  not  all people, especially artists, probably have  formative periods where  the influences of  those times stick  with them more  than  any other later influences.  I have no  appreciation at all of  Pop(actually included in this film), Minimalism,  photographic appropriation, and any of the myriad  art fads/movements that have occurred over the last 50 years or more whose names I probably don't even know.

I used to always be puzzled when I  read that some of my favorite  artists didn't  go to museums or more particularly to  galleries as they got  older. They seemed to lose interest in newer art. Now  that I'm older  I understand this  better. Though there may be new art, that does not necessarily make it compelling new art. It may seem to an older artist not all that much different than various types of art he has seen in his lifetime. I  recently read Matisse's take on this  in the second volume I believe of Hilary Spurling's biography. He didn't  criticize newer art, as I'm much more  likely to do,  but  just said  that was the nature of the world, that youth always needed to  find its own 'new'  way. That makes sense to me. He didn't criticize newer art. He just wasn't particularly interested in it.

All of which means I think that many artists still seem anchored  by  their  formative period,  just as supposedly James Joyce was by his  Christianity. He might reject  it  but it remained influential even as he got older. That's what I've realized as I have re-watched Painters Painting.

The things I thought about, or maybe just felt, when I was a young artist still are with me in one way or another. So when Frank Stella, probably the  fastest talking artist I've ever heard, talks about his desire to remove any sense of  space, of depth, of reference to the real world in his paintings of  the the time of the film it rings  a bell. That's what I wanted to do in the late 70s. There just seemed to  be something too quaint,  cute, sentimental about including any  type  of  subject matter. Eventually, quite  obviously to anyone who knows my work, I changed my mind. But it was a goal that affected me and hundreds  if not thousands or  hundreds of thousands of  artists at one time.

So that is what is so fascinating about this film. It's not spin. And though there are  segments with art critics and gallery owners and even some collectors the film is  primarily the artists, mainly painters, talking. And you feel that they are absolutely sincere. This is  what they thought and felt  deeply as they made their art. It's not often you  get to see something like this. Even if you hate their art, and I definitely don't,  I think many people who  see the film will be taken by their  passion and perhaps begin to see their art freshly.

On the other hand, even if they're impressed by their sincerity, they might still wonder why  in the world  anyone would  want to remove any  reference  to the visible  world from their work. And I  can't  explain it myself. But it was something that I definitely felt. And I don't believe it  was because I learned  this  in school or  in any other way. I just seem to  have absorbed it from somewhere, just like many people  just seem  incapable  of listening to classical music  right now. It 'seems' irrelevant, though of course  it's not.

I really didn't  know much about de Antonio, the director. But I just learned that he was fairly leftist and mainly did political  films. Supposedly the FBI had  a large file on him. But in my recent viewing  I  happened to notice a couple of things I hadn't before. Like when one of the artists, I think Kenneth Noland or maybe Morris Louis, says that he realizes his  work is only for  very rich  people  with sophisticated taste. Of when de Antonio quizzes Leo Castelli about how much he makes, about the whole monetary aspect  of the art business. It's just something I noticed in passing. But it made me wonder if underneath it the director didn't  have some questions  about who was actually buying and appreciating the  work. At one point someone, perhaps Castelli, talks  about  the competitive  aspect of collecting, where  one rich person wants to keep up with another rich collector. And thus art stars are born. Though they are talented, perhaps  even great artists, they're also part of something that is driven by the egos of  certain rich collectors.

So I've thoroughly enjoyed  the film. But it also  makes me think about how  hard  it  was for me to go into  'wildlife art.' It  must represent everything that Stella was trying  to  get rid of  at the time. It's still pretty much not  taken seriously by  galleries  other than those  that specialize  in  it.

But  one thing I've realized  over  the years and that this  film inadvertently affirms  is that the art world  is  thoroughly affected by fashion.  What is  popular, what is new, what  is  obviously the next step  in the development of  art, really isn't. Fads and trends come and go. You might have a harder time selling something  that isn't currently fashionable, or  you might not get it  into  the most prestigious galleries but it  is still art and it might very well be  far better art than that that is in the galleries. There is  a lot  of  fiction in the art world, especially the art world of rich collectors.

In revisiting my theoretical past as an artist, so to speak, it's been enlightening. It was a hard decision to  go from large abstract paintings to much smaller art based on nature and wildlife. But  I've never regretted it. It seems foolish to  me now to want to exclude the outside  world, especially the natural  world, from  my art. But I'm still affected by the tastes I had so many years ago. It's still hard for me to allow much  if any atmospheric space in my work. I  still like it to be somewhat flat, somewhat like the work of  Stuart Davis in coming out  at the viewer rather than receding into space. I won't go on about this. But it has been interesting to revisit the art that was so important to me at one time.

And I'm sure it still has had some affect on my newest painting, the three chipping sparrows at top.


 

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Some Thoughts on Art and Birds

Pencil Sketches of Blue-headed Vireo. Copyright 2020 Ken Januski

Sumi Brush Pen Field Sketches of Great Blue Heron. Copyright 2020 by Ken Januski

Sumi Brush Pen Field Sketches of Great Blue Heron. Copyright 2020 by Ken Januski

Sumi Brush Pen Field Sketches of Wilson's Snipe. Copyright 2020 by Ken Januski

Sumi Brush Pen Field Sketches of Wilson's Snipe. Copyright 2020 by Ken Januski

Sumi Brush Pen Field Sketches of Wilson's Snipe. Copyright 2020 by Ken Januski

Pencil Sketches of Yellow-rumped Warblers. Copyright 2020 Ken Januski

I've been thinking about writing about the annual exhibit of  The Society of Wildlife Artist's, 'The Natural  Eye,' for some time now. Since I've participated in it many times but am not a member I don't feel right about writing about  it. On the other hand it's the one exhibit I spend a lot of effort trying to get into each year because I like the work so much. As I've said many times it's thrilling to see my work with the work of so many artists whom I admire. Though I have to say, until I and Jerene actually went to the show in London the excitement was still somewhat tempered. It's one thing to admire work online. It's  quite another to be standing in front of, and surrounded  by it.

I've been in a lot of shows, both group and solo, though far fewer of the latter than the former. These were almost all when I did abstract work. Once I switched to representational art, I think  about 2006, I didn't really try to  get into many group shows, and with the exception of  'The Natural Eye'  and group shows at a local art center I belonged to  I didn't get into any  competitive juried shows I did apply for. I'm pretty sure  why. Wildlife art is not  considered serious art in the US. I feel confident saying  that. Though I'm not Robert Bateman's biggest fan, the fact that, unless things have changed recently, he's never been shown in a major Canadian museum says a lot. With the possible exception of Carl Rungius I'm not sure how many major American museums  have ever shown any wildlife art. I suppose some fishing scenes from Winslow  Homer, a John Singer Sargent alligator and a few others. But in the 20th century and later it's just not considered real art. ( I'm ignoring any possible contemporary artists who use an ironic  take on wildlife art and therefore might possibly be shown, because irony in itself discounts the subject it portrays).

I know I'm taking a while  to  get to the point..... The recent sketches above, some from life, others based on looking into the viewfinder of my camera to sketch from the small images of photos there show  I think how far I've come in actually being able to  draw birds. Though  I'm sure most people will say that they agree with that much more with the pencil sketches from photos than with the sumi brush pen sketches from life. But trust me they are much better than when I started about 15 years ago.

But even if  they showed twice or maybe even 10 times as much improvement as they do  there would still be a big problem. How do you make a finished work of art out of a sketch?  How do you make a painting? How do you make a print? How do you  make either a painting or a print as ambitious as the old abstract paintings I used to do? How  do you, based on these sketches, do something that both galleries and museums would be willing to show? How do you make art that is taken seriously  and not just  considered cute?

Just about the first thing I realized when I started drawing and painting birds, outside of how little I actually knew about what they looked like even though I'd birded for at least 20 years at that point, was  that they just can't sit by themselves in the middle of  a canvas. I could make a portrait like that, and did try to  do so, but what was I supposed to put around the bird? Impressionistic marks that might hopefully make it look like  they fit in perfectly with the bird to make a final composition?  A vignette like fading into nothingness around the bird? Sad to say, I realized that I had to contend with the environment in which they lived. Sad, I say because that meant not only did  I have  to learn more about drawing and painting birds but I also had to learn more about drawing and painting the various environments in which they  lived.

But at the same time I didn't want a lot of stultifying detail, especially something reminiscent of that based on a faithful detailed rendering of  a photo. That work did  and still does make me very nervous. Though some people can breathe a sense of life into it, perhaps because they actually are familiar with birds and their environment, most artists do not. One of  the other things I learned very on is that I didn't  at all want my work to look like that! Stultifying! After all the subject was alive, very alive and that was part of the point of even using them as a subject.

So................. that finally brings me to one of  my main points. What a complete revelation it was to discover The Society of Wildlife Artists! What exciting art, all based on wildlife! This is a link to the current show, which will open on 10.28.20: https://www.mallgalleries.org.uk/whats-on/exhibitions/natural-eye-2020. In case it's not evident, I'm fortunate  enough to be in it, and have actually pre-sold one of  the unframed prints.

I'm a bit used to seeing the show now, having exhibited 7-8 times over  the last 10 years or so, but it is  still very exciting. The link I posted shows much of the work, though of course it is without the context of a gallery so you can't  see the size, texture, etc., etc. That just adds to the excitement of the show.

I'm not going to say a whole lot about it. But I mention the problems I had when I started  making bird/wildlife art because this show I think is often the answer to those  problems. It shows lively art, lively both in terms of the subjects and environment portrayed, but also lively artistically. All of  this art could easily be  shown in a museum if museums were alert enough to realize its vitality and power.

If you look at my sketches above you can see what a far cry they are  from most  of the work in the show, though some  have a similar simplicity. But many artists want to be able to make something more finished or perhaps more ambitous and yet also want to keep it  from becoming stultified. I think most people who read this and  who  also look at the show  will see that's there is very little that is stultifying. Particularly  as a whole the show is vital, the exact opposite of  stultifying.

And yet it  is also not  at all monolithic. There is  a great variety of subject matter, media, formal methods and imagination. The name of this blog, actually named  before  it  even was a blog if I recall correctly, is  ArtBirdsNature. My idea was that all are equally important and that they can reinforce and bring out  the best in each other. That I think is what 'The Natural Eye' does. I wish there was a similar  show in the US. I also hope you'll enjoy looking at the work, and perhaps  even buying some, in the online  gallery.
 

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Painting and Finishing, Painting and Finishing

Blackburnian, Canada and Black-throated GreenWarblers. 9x12 inch  acrylic painting. Copyright 2020 by Ken Januski.

Savannah Sparrow at Dixon Meadow  Preserve. 9x12 inch acrylic painting. Copyright 2020  by Ken Januski.


 

Though I had thought I might  have returned to printmaking by now I obviously have not. I think I know why. September  and October so far  have both been very active with migrating birds. I see them,  am stimulated to  portray them  and/or  the experience of  seeing them  and  I have to choose a medium. Which medium seems to offer the most flexibility? Not printmaking, not watercolor, at least for  me, but acrylic.

Most of my artistic background  is in painting, either acrylic  or oil, where I  can make a major change in a nanosecond. It turns out that this is  the way I feel like working right  now. I want a  direct way to make some sort of portrayal of  what I've seen.

But  I almost never want a portrait. I realized after almost my first or second bird painting that I didn't  like the idea of  bird portraits. Yes, there are many  handsome, beautiful birds, including all of the ones above. But to  portray them to me seems wrong. Too often it makes them seem cute. Nicely posed, painted in understated colors, etc., etc. I occasionally do something like this in a watercolor study, though I wouldn't argue that I do so with any great skill. But they are just  studies. They aren't finished  paintings and for me aren't even studies for  finished  paintings. Why? Because they would just look like portraits, like photos from  the 19th century of  your distant ancestors in photographic studios. Very stiff and unnatural!

I've never know how to portray them in a way that looks more natural, though this is a lack of both imagination  and skill with particular media, e.g. oil, watercolor, printmaking, et al. Acrylic painting allows my imagination to run free. I can keep experimenting and changing until the composition seems right. It's a very direct way to work.

So that is more  or less what the "painting" refers to in the title. I just keep painting trying to find the right way to  make a picture of something,  in this case birds that I've recently seen.

There's also the question of "finishing." I've always, and I do  think always is correct, disliked paintings with high finish, particularly paintings  where you  can't  even see any  brushstrokes. This  has been an ideal for  some painters for many centuries.  And I'm sure I can find some painters, Raphael perhaps, where the high finish doesn't bother me. But often it  just is very irritating. Ingres is somewhere in between. I have to  admire his work but  it does leave me pretty cold. Unfortunately in wildlife art it has been de rigeur for 100s years or more as far as I can tell. And it is wildlife  art that it seems most misplaced. For still life, nature morte,  it might make more sense. Most of  the subjects are no longer alive. Even the fruit has  been plucked. But wildlife IS alive. Why paint wildlife that looks like a still life? As I've written about this  many times  before I won't go  on. I'll just say that it is not a type of  "finish" I want in my  paintings.

My idea of  "finish," is much closer to Matisse's, at least the Matisse who wrote early in his career that in his paintings he wanted everything in its place, where there was nothing extra and everything worked  together. I think that idea has probably been prominent in my work for 40-50 years. I wouldn't argue that  it's the only way to make art. And  I'm sure that for  some viewers it can be just as offputting as the high finish of  more photographically-minded painters is  to  me.

So the other thing I like  about painting is  that also allows me to get to the type of  formal finish much more quickly than any other medium. Both printmaking  and watercolor generally require some planning and exclude much change and modification. It's  just the  nature of those  media. If you have a good  idea what you want to start with then they can be ideal media. And I do  love to the work of  others in  them. I even like some of my own.

But right now I'm more interested in both formal finish, ala Matisse, and wildlife art that seems alive and not a portrait, sometimes a stultified portrait. So  I continue to work in acrylic, painting and finishing.

I'm sure there will come a time when I want to translate some of  that into prints.

I had hoped to write more  about the upcoming Society of Wildlife Artist's 'The Natural  Eye ' show  in London. But I think that should  be another post. For now you can see, and  buy, much  of the work at The Natural Eye 2020.


(I'm starting to hate the new Blogger. My html may indeed be invalid as Blogger tells me but I didn't  create  it, Blogger did. I'm sure that this is of no interest to readers to I'm just going to ignore it. I don't have time to babysit Blogger.)





Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Off to London and The Society of Wildlife Artists Annual Show

Two Moku Hanga Prints and One Acrylic Painting About  To Be Shipped to the Mall Galleries

With the pandemic I assumed that the Mall Galleries in London and the Society of Wildlife Artists would have to call off their annual show. So it was a pleasant surprise to get an email in the summer indicating  that the show was on and entries could be submitted.

I always love this show, though I've only seen it in person once, two years ago. I think my work has been in it  between 6 and 8  times. As I'm somewhat rushed today, mainly with trying to get the entries shipped, I'm not going to write much  more at the moment. Suffice it  to say  that it is the one show I am excited about applying  for and  getting into. Even when I  don't get in it's both thrilling and inspiring to see much of  the show online.

But this  year three of my works  will be in: two moku hanga prints, A Frenzy of Golden-crowned Kinglets and Three Shorebirds; along with an acrylic  painting, Common Buckeye  and American Lady. The photo shows them just before I  get ready to pack them up and send  them off.

More later..................


 

Monday, September 14, 2020

Finishing Damselflies, Returning to Warblers

I've finally finished the Stream Bluets acrylic painting, having let it sit for between 4 and 8 weeks. For me one of my great artistic fears is overworking a painting to the point that it seems lifeless. Sometimes it  can take years to sense the lifelessness, possibly because after all the work of the overworking I, and probably many others, hate to admit that it didn't work. So when I started up acrylic painting again early this spring I often left paintings temporarily finished in very early states. I didn't want to overwork them.

Finally I decided that I was willing to take the chance of overworking on this painting. It's always hard to say when a work of art is done, particularly ones done in such fluid media as oil or acrylic. It's just so easy to make a few more changes. Of course it's never quite that simple. One change leads to another, etc., etc. But in this  case I think I've frozen the fluidity at the best place.

To me it still looks like a painting, one concerned with shape, color, composition, etc. But it also looks like a plausible representation of a real event, damselflies in a frenzy over a stream, with many of them mating and  ovipositing. To me it is more realistic than many illustrations  that show much more detail. It's a very old debate between painting and illustration. But for me I think it's fairly simple. Illustration always values some sort of representational  detail over something both truer to experience and more satisfying artistically, not that there isn't artistically satisfying illustration. I'm going to leave it at that since I've written about this before. The last thing I'd say is that when most people actually see such a scene in front of them I think that they experience it more the way my painting portrays it than the way most illustrations do.



Stream Bluets at Papermill Run. Acrylic Painting. Copyright 2020 Ken Januski

Due to Covid and lockdowns we missed much of spring migration. But now that fall migration has begin and now that I've figured out where I can bird with a fair amount of safety and few crowds I've been doing a fair amount of birding. Fortunately that has resulted in my seeing many migrants including the colorful warblers, even if some of them are not as colorful as in spring.

As usual it is often quite hard to even SEE them long enough and well enough to identify them, let alone photograph them and in particular sketch  them. I think that probably the only way to successfully sketch migrating warblers from life is to find an area where you think that they might remain for more than a few minutes and then concentrate on just one or  two species. If you continually are trying to identify each little flurry of movement you see you'll never get any sketching done.

But for me, especially having missed most of spring migration, it's hard to make that sacrifice. And so I've tried to both identify and photograph them but not sketch them. BUT I don't at all like trying to make art from the photographs I've made of them. I've written about  this for years and so I hope  I won't  rehash too much of what I've already written.

But I think it is similar to what I just wrote about illustration and damselflies. There is a real danger  of  too much  information. When you know a great deal about insects, birds or whatever you may feel a great need to show all of this knowledge in each piece of  art that you make. Perhaps you feel that someone might say, oh he doesn't understand that bird because  he left out the dark at the base of the primaries. Many years ago there was an article on the front page of the Wall Street Journal about such art and its audience. Unfortunately it was in praise of it!!!

Art is a lively, fluid medium that I don't believe should be beholden to reality, not that anyone agrees on just what reality is. But art is one thing, science is  another, knowledge is another, etc., etc. To me it is a bit like the male athletes I used to see at the outdoor swimming pool when I was a student at Berkeley. Smaller females would fly by the young male athletes in the swimming lanes, seemingly without effort. The males were all effort, all that strength, but strength directed in the wrong direction, down rather than forward. It was a sight to  see. But it's also I think an example of  being not using your abilities in the best manner. The males had strength but they used it wrongly. They would have been better off, at least in the pool, forgetting all about it, or at least directing it forward. The  same thing happens I think with knowledge in art. It can weigh you down just as much as the strength of  those male floppers, I  mean swimmers.

So with all that in mind I wanted to somehow use the warblers I've seen recently as the subject of prints and/or paintings. But  I just didn't want to deal with the excess information of a photo. That's when I decided that if I just looked through the small viewfinder  of my camera at the photos I took the view would be small enough that I'd have to ignore details and just stick to the basics. So  that's what the next four photos are. After I'd sketched them in pencil I added a small bit  of watercolor. I particularly chose photos that had the birds in what to me were fairly active positions, i.e. not just sitting there as though posing.

Pencil and watercolor sketch of Blackburnian Warbler. Copyright 2020 Ken Januski

Pencil and watercolor sketch of Black-throated Green Warbler. Copyright 2020 Ken Januski

Pencil and watercolor sketch of Tennessee Warbler. Copyright 2020 Ken Januski

 
Pencil and watercolor sketch of Chestnut-sided Warbler. Copyright 2020 Ken Januski

After I'd done those sketches I started making compositional studies where I combined one, two or more of the warblers. At one point I decided I needed a larger warbler in the foreground. For some reason I decided to add a Canada Warbler. But since I haven't seen one recently I used a photo that is more than 10 years old, and one that also served as an early unsuccessful watercolor. After I'd done a few pencil and collage studies I added watercolor  to one.

Pencil compositional study for warblers. Copyright 2020  Ken Januski

Pencil and watercolor compositional study for warblers. Copyright 2020  Ken Januski

I will probably use the color study as the basis of a painting or print. But in the meantime I've continued to bird and so see birds. Yesterday I saw both male and female Black-throated Blue Warblers. After I'd been home for awhile I decided that I'd like to do a small study of the female. This is something I used to do with much more frequency. It's both a celebration of the bird and an educational exercise, trying to get me to look closer and imprint on my memory some of the details of the bird. I'm not sure if the educational goal ever gets achieved. I'm sure I forget much of what I think I'm learning as I make the sketch. Still there is always something rewarding in doing them, assuming that I can stand to look at them once I've done(i.e., they don't always work  out).

Ballpoint pen and watercolor study of  female Black-throated Blue Warbler. Copyright 2020 Ken Januski

(Well the new Blogger continues to create more expletives than blogs. But at this point I can't worry about it and I'm sure my readers don't care either. But I have to say it reminds me of Facebook and its recent changes, made by people who seem to have never used the product.)

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Those Insects, That Paintbrush

American Lady and Common Buckeye. 9x12 inch acrylic painting by Ken Januski. Copyright 2020 Ken Januski

I'm not sure how many months it's been since I stopped printing and started acrylic painting. If I weren't in the middle of using the Blogger interface to write this I'd check.  And I actually am a bit curious myself since  I think that change occurred some time after Covid-19 stay at home orders.

In any case I keep being tempted to return to print but that temptation  is overwritten by the desire to keep painting. At top is  a newly finished painting  of an American Lady and Common Buckeye. It is based on photographs I took. But as you can probably see I wasn't too limited by that. At least I hope that's the case. Between covid, hot and humid, or just plain rainy weather I've spent little time in 2020  working outside. When I bought a number of pre-stretched canvases to paint  on I actually envisioned working on some in our backyard. It's almost September and no  such luck so far.

Because I've felt a great degree of freedom in returning to paint, and painting in acrylic I've been very tempted to move from birds to insects, just to see if a bit of freedom with them might also make for results I like. That is certainly true with the American Lady painting. I'm quite happy with  it.

The Stream Blue painting was begun over and month ago, and stopped soon after, as I mentioned  in my last post. I had some freshness in it and I wanted to keep it, regardless of what detail I might be losing. One thing about damselflies is that they are very small, and their primary shape, that of a toothpick, is hard to get all that excited about. It's  also hard to get very painterly with. 'Hmm, which way shall I  flourish  the  brush on this  toothpick?' But  after finishing the American Lady painting  I decided that I  wanted to see what I could do with adding some detail(which is about the only way to identify  dragonflies, especially damselflies) while still keeping it a painting, not an illustration.

Below are the results so far. I should add that there was a flurry of damselflies here when I saw them, mainly a large collection of  males pouncing on the few females who arrived at Papermill Run. You almost need binoculars to even notice the frenzied behavior. Without them you might think that you're just looking  a  calm, almost bucolic stream. I wanted to get that sense of frenzied activity in as well. For me that means that there is just going to have to be some abbreviation in the painting. Painting every single pair along with all the solo males in detail might show a lot of detail but it  certainly wasn't going to represent the experience of seeing this.

So this is my attempt so  far. I'm not sure how much further I'll go. I have added more detail on the two primary damselflies but I'm reluctant to do much more.


Stream Bluets at Papermill Run. 9x12 inch acrylic painting in progress by Ken Januski. Copyright 2020 Ken Januski.

One additional thing I've been thinking about as I look at my old prints and think about new ones is that printmaking  is mainly about lines and edges. Not being a printmaker or  having much training in it I'm sure more experienced printmakers will say: what about lithography, what about this or  that? I think  it is true that lithography  comes close to painting  and certainly gets away from line. If I had a printmaking studio with all the equipment for printing lithos I'd  probably give it a try. I don't. The fact is that most of my printmaking, especially moku hanga, is primarily linear.


There's nothing wrong with  that. And I'm certainly happy with what  I've done. But as I go  along painting insects and birds as I'm currently doing I can't begin to see how I can translate them into prints or moku hanga in particular.

But  I've never worried about such things. Go with the artistic flow, and be thankful if  you have one! For now it's Those Insects and That Paintbrush.

I just looked at this outside of Blogger. It looks like crap. Thank you Google and Blogger. I'm sorry but I don't have time at the moment to go back and try to fix all the bad HTML that the new Blogger  interface so kindly forced me into using.

 

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

"You Must Execute Freely"

Stream Bluets at Papermill Run. Acrylic painting in progress. 9x12 inches. Copyright 2020 Ken Januski


  12 May. One finds  that one never has enough learning. The drawings of Ingres -- Decamp's bottles of  fat oil and clear oil -- Not  one false note in the work of men feeling -- Before you begin, study unceasingly, but once started , make mistakes if you must but you must execute freely. The Journal of Eugene Delacroix by Eugene Delacroix, edited by Hubert Wellington, Phaidon.

 
I'm finding more and more with my acrylic paintings that I don't want to go very far  with them. The fear of overwork and  too much detail/finish/polish  is  almost overwhelming. I've always been this  way but  it  seems particularly  true with my new acrylic paintings. Because of this I did a quick  scan of some of my handwritten notes  on 'The Journal of  Eugene Delacroix,' for  me the most engaging work I've ever read  by a visual artist. I knew he'd written a lot about the danger of finish and  detail.

The quote above is  apt for this painting, not  in the sense that I've  studied  damselflies and streams "unceasingly," but  certainly in  the sense  that  I want to "execute freely."  I  don't  want stultifying brushwork and a painting that feels like all life has been smothered from it. I  thought that I'd try to make some minor  changes to this painting but  having reread this Delacroix quote I'm more tempted to just stop. I want the execution to continue  to  look free.

But I was also looking for  another  Delacroix  quote, one in which  he says studies and such are fine but that at artist doesn't  really test himself without doing something more ambitious and more finished.  I didn't like  the quote when I read, and probably re-read it, years ago  but I always worry that it might be true. One of  these days I'll probably find  it and post  it. But for  now  this  quote seems perfect for this painting. And "high finish"  is something I just can't  do!


Sunday, June 28, 2020

So When Is a Painting Done?

Prothonotary Warbler Along the Wissahickon. Acrylic Painting in progress. 9x12 inches. Copyright 2020  Ken Januski





Prothonotary Warbler Along the Wissahickon.  Acrylic Painting in progress. 9x12 inches. Copyright Ken Januski  2020



The smart ass answer to the question in the title is: right before you screw it up. I should know, as I'm sure should a lot of other painters. I'm working for the third day on this nearly finished painting of  a Prothonotary Warbler  along the banks of the Wissahickon in Philadelphia. I have made very minor  changes to it  today and yet it is  a different painting than it was when  I stopped working on it two days ago. (After I'd posted this I went back into my studio and realized that the painting there  looked different than the one here. I posted the older version. So now I've added the newest one. But I'll leave the viewer to decide  which is  which. Sorry....)

I made those very minor changes because  I wasn't completely happy with the shape and color of the Prothonotary. I hope I've made it better but I'm not sure. I hope this painting won't stay in my memory as one of the "before I screwed it up" types.

Though I run across a number of painters, rarely ones  who  make a living from it, who brag about how much time they put into their painting, time spent has nothing to  do with when a painting is finished.  For me it is mainly when the painting seems to have a coherence, to look like it is all of a piece.

But  you might ask, well couldn't you have a coherent painting  that was just dull, dull, dull?? I suppose you could. There certainly are plenty around and probably have been throughout  history. This is where  the answer to the question gets difficult.

For the artist I think the painting has to have some excitement to it, something that keeps the painter interested in painting. So I'd say it's finished when the painting  still interests the artist and also seems coherent. I think many artists, certainly myself, assume that if it's interesting to  them as a painting it will also be interesting to at least some others.

In this  painting the coherence  came very quickly. And I think it is  still exciting. When that happens I think it's very wise to just stop. I did  for two days and then went back into  it  because  something bothered me a little bit about it.

Artistic  wisdom I think is knowing when you shouldn't  worry about the little thing that bothers you.

When a painting comes together quickly like this I think  it  has a freshness that is rare  in painting. That's another reason to stop and let it sit.

On the other hand sometimes a day or two later the painting will just look dull, or wrong, just too bad to leave as is. That is the case with the next painting. I'm not sure how long I left it sit but  I think it's somewhere around seven years.!!





   
Wilson's Snipe at Ottawa NWR. Acrylic Painting. 9x12 inches. Copyright Ken Januski 2020

I went back into it because I returned to acrylic painting recently, was feeling somewhat confident about using it again, and had been bothered for many years by  this and the three or  four similar versions  I'd done of the same theme: Wilson's Snipe, and one Yellowlegs in the  distance, at Ottawa NWR.

I don't believe I'll go back into this but I do think it  is now  a coherent painting. To me it doesn't begin to have  the artistic excitement of the Prothonotary Warbler painting but it does at least seem like a reasonable, workmanlike and coherent portrayal of the scene.

Spring Hill #4. Collage of old drawings with Charcoal and Pastel. 23x29 inches. Copyright Ken Januski 1981

There are also artworks, in this case a collage/drawing rather than a painting, that seem to need to be kicked into submission. Or that finally defeat me or other artists. Sometimes you just feel like you need to break through to something new, that your old way of  working is just stale and dissatisfying. It's the exact opposite of the method in the Prothonotary Warbler painting. Because I have a long history of  working this way in my older abstract work I will often work this way in my paintings and sometimes my prints. It is NOT a good way to work in watercolor, and perhaps not Moku Hanga either!

This way of working can be both  incredibly wearing and incredibly rewarding. The main time I worked this way in printmaking was when I did reduction prints, mainly linocut but sometimes woodcut  or  both together. I decided it was just too wearing for the reward, particularly when coupled with the oil-based inks I was using at the time and the solvents that they required.

It can also lead to  constipated  paintings. They can become just thoroughly  overworked without a hint of  freshness. And yet at other times they can be the epitome of both excitement and freshness. The collage/drawing  above isn't my favorite drawing of  all time but I am very happy with it.

It came about as I  was getting disgusted with some of my abstract charcoal drawings and decided that the best way out  of  this  was to just tear them up and use them  as the basis for something  new. It was liberating and led I think to some very good, and at least to me very satisfying , art works.

But I'm equally satisfied, at least I hope I still will be tomorrow by painting at top. There are many ways to make a work of  art and many ways to know when it is  done! Some  happen far more quickly than others. I think what's most important is to  in dialogue enough  with the painting to know when it  seems done even if  you'd already planned  to do something more.

P.S. Blogger seems to have been kidnapped by a new interface. I've had to edit most  of the html that it  'automatically' came up with because  it  seemed so bad. But  I  don't have time to write html, nor do I want to. So if  this looks bad, and if it was that bad you probably wouldn't reach this point, I would  blame it on  Blogger's horrible new interface.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Warbler in Progress


Mourning  and Black-Throated Blue Warbler. Acrylic painting in progress. Copyright 2020 by Ken Januski


Two of my warbler paintings remain in progress. The Yellow-breasted Chat that I showed in the last post  and this new acrylic painting of a Mourning Warbler and a Black-throated Blue Warbler. The Yellow-breasted Chat remains unchanged but  I'm still not convinced that it is  done. This new one I think is nearly done  each time I  finish work on it. Then I decide I'm unhappy with it  the next day and resume painting.

Because I'm uncertain  about both of them, though generally happy with them,  it seems silly to write about them. But there is one  thing I did  notice in painting most of my new acrylic paintings, especially when compared to many of my older acrylic paintings of birds. These do not seem crabbed. They don't seem like they are fighting for room to breathe.

I used to have a very large live-in studio where my 6x8  foot paintings were dwarfed by the 12-16 foot ceilings. When we moved to our  house all of that changed. I could  barely get my paintings in the  house  and I certainly couldn't  paint any more that size. Even a 4x2 foot painting was extremely difficult  to do  because I couldn't back up  far enough to see it.

So I went to smaller sizes, 9x12 like these, and some smaller and some larger. The problem with most of them, especially as I look at them now, is that they look spatially constrained, like I didn't feel comfortable painting on such small canvases. The big surprise with my new paintings  is that I DO feel comfortable. I have no idea why. But I won't look a gift horse in the mouth.

I should add that I think one of the things I don't like about the Curlew and Great Cormorant painting that I also showed here recently is that it does look spatially confined. I'm not sure whether or not  I'll be able to fix  that.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Some More Warblers


Yellow-breasted Chat. Acrylic Painting in Progress. Copyright 2020 Ken Januski

I guess it should be no surprise given the time of year and my interest in birding that I might be tempted to do some art work based on birds, particularly migrating birds, and most particularly warblers. Oddly that's even more true than in past years because this year I and my wife have been little distracted by actual birds! We didn't bird, or do much of anything else beyond the perimeters of our yard for about 8 weeks, right at the height of migration.

But I knew the birds were out there and could see many entries in e-bird indicating that they were in the Philadelphia area. But the inability to bird safely actually made it a bit easier to concentrate on  painting birds. This was made even easier, at least to some extent, by the fact that I decided to return to painting in acrylic.

As a painter most of my life it's been quite frustrating to use both watercolor and all of the relief printmaking methods I've used. Painterly handling just runs against the grain of those media, though  there are probably some examples of very talented watercolorists, for example Winslow Homer and John Singer Sargent, for whom that wasn't the case.

I have been happy with my work in printmaking and less so in watercolor. But that doesn't mean that I didn't miss the spontaneity of acrylic and oil. So it has been quite refreshing to return to acrylic.

At top is about the fourth or fifth version of  a Yellow-breasted Chat, based on field sketches, my own photos and my memories of seeing them. I keep being happy with it, then decide in the next  day or two that it needs more changes. Unlike watercolor  I can easily do this without ruining the painting.


Pencil Sketch  of Yellow-breasted Chat. Copyright 2020 Ken Januski

Because I don't see chats all that often though I felt like I needed to so some pencil studies of them before beginning the painting, even though I knew that the painting would not be as detailed as the sketches. In the end I just did this one though I struggled over it  for  days. For me it seems like a good way to work.  In struggling to get the bird on paper somewhat as I saw it in the photos, sketches and memory  I got a better idea of how it  was put together. This is one of the real benefits of sketching from life I think. And the knowledge that the bird might leave at any time makes my mental focus stronger I think. As long as it doesn't  leave me frozen like a deer in headlights as sometimes happens!

In any case this drawing was the basis of the painting.

I also had the pleasure of seeing a somewhat rare Mourning Warbler recently,  actually on only my  second birding walk since  the arrival of Covid-19. It is a bird I'm particularly unfamiliar with so it  was even more important to try sketching it.


Pencil Sketch of Mourning Warbler. Copyright 2020 Ken Januski

It wasn't visible for  long so all I  got from seeing it  was a memory, four photos and no sketches. This drawing, also done over a number of days, is based primarily on one photo. I'm not sure I'll try a painting of it but most likely I will. Acrylic painting, at least for me, allows me to have a more carefree attitude towards a painting. Maybe it will work. Maybe  it  won't. But I  might as well give it a try.

If I do attempt a painting I'm going to try to include a Black-throated Blue Warbler and a Carolina Wren, which were also in the vicinity. The only question is how much I'll try to work out a composition before I  put paint to canvas.



Monday, May 11, 2020

' You Need to Have a Subject', She Said

American Redstart, Northern Parula and Black-throated Blue. Acrylic Painting by Ken Januski. 9x12 inches Copyright @2020.

When I was a graduate student in Studio Art I used to have revolving critiques by the faculty. Often one faculty member's opinions would  be immediately contradicted by  that of  the next faculty member.  It made me learn to think for myself artistically,  though I think  I was already quite a ways along in that direction.

But one opinion puzzled me. A well-know woman artist whose  work was quite involved with autobiography and narrative told me I needed to have a subject. But I was an abstract painter.  The painting itself  was the subject. So I didn't pay much attention to her opinion though it did stick with me. I should  add that personally I liked her as did most other  painting students,  and her artists  colleagues as well I think.  My rejection of  her opinion had nothing to  do with personality.

But I did think about it again when I  took up painting  birds and wildlife after many, many years of painting abstractly. In painting birds all of  a sudden I felt a need to be true to them as a subject, no matter how much I might abstract them. This need I think created an emotional grounding to my painting that was new to me.

I of course was emotionally attached  to my abstract paintings. It's hard to imagine doing any type of  art without emotional  attachment to it. But wanting to portray a specific subject, or maybe  specific experience since birds are seen and experienced in an  environment, seemed to make painting easier! My lack of knowledge of  birds, wildlife, vegetation, etc. of  course did not make their portrayal easier. But  I did  find it much easier to paint  because there was always some grounding experience to compare my painting to.

With all that said  I would add that one of my primary interests has always been portraying warblers, some of the most colorful birds in the US. So for more than 10 years I've tried to sketch them from life, mainly when they migrate through  in spring and then fall, but also from the few who breed here. I also tried portraying them in watercolor, crayon, felt tip pen mainly from photos I'd taken.

I won't  replay all the difficulties that has entailed. But I think it's safe to say I've never been completely happy with any of  my warbler portrayals until I painted the acrylic  at the top  of this page last week. FINALLY it seems to capture the excitement of seeing migrating warblers, especially the spring ones in their generally more colorful plumage.

This painting is  finished. I'm not going to do any more work on it. It's not every day you can say that you've done the best warbler painting you've ever done so it would be silly to try to improve it.

Curlew and Great Cormorant at River Deben. Acrylic in progress by Ken Januski, 9x12 inches. Copyright @2020/

By contrast I started this painting before the warbler painting. I had no intention of  stopping my moku hanga prints and turning to acrylic.  I've done less than 10 acrylic naturalistic/realistic paintings  in my life, none in the last five years I think. But it was World Curlew Day, I had no ongoing prints and I had seen and photographed some curlew on our trip  to  England 18 months  or so ago.

On a lark I  did  a large watercolor  of  this same theme -- a curlew and Great Cormorant near one another. But watercolor doesn't allow much in the way of revision so I decided to try again in acrylic. It was so exciting to be working in such a malleable, immediate medium again. I could change anything I  wanted, over  and over, and the over  and over again! This is  the way I spent most of my life making art.

After I'd revised this for a second time I decided to let it just sit. That's when I did the painting at top that I'm so happy with. When the warbler painting was done I went back into  this. I'm still not happy. And perhaps it's the basic composition. With an abstract painting it's easy to wipe  out an area and just paint over  it. I could do that here as well but  then, because there is a subject, I'd have to repaint  whatever I had painted out, a time consuming  task and one open to mistakes. Though I'm sure it would be worth it in the end if I decide to do so.

I'm still not sure that this will be required. But something bothers me about the painting so I'll continue to stare at it as I work on other paintings. In the end maybe I'll decide it's best just to leave it as is and spend my energy on new works. Either way the fact that this painting has a subject will continue to keep me grounded in how I determine what to do  with it. Now I  know what my old teacher was talking about.

And I should add that I will go back to printmaking, though I'm not sure when. Whenever I happen to look through my old sketchbooks  I  realize that at least 50% of my prints  stem from earlier paintings, mainly watercolor. I'm sure that these new acrylics will eventually lead to some prints.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

I Break for Curlews

Curlew and Great Cormorant at River Deben. Acrylic in progress by Ken Januski, copyright 2020.

Over the many years of this blog I've written occasionally about the sideways nature of my progress in art, or perhaps assumed progress. My point is that I often head off in a different direction and/or medium at some point. I think the reason for  this is pretty simple: I need a break, though maybe I didn't  realize  it.

I wasn't really planning on a break from my moku hanga printmaking but a notice that it was World Curlew Day prompted me to take a look at my photos of the only Curlew we've ever seen, both in England about 18 months ago. Looking at them convinced me to paint the watercolor that is further down in this post. It was a quick one so that I could get it painted on the correct day.

This is  a fairly accurate portrayal of the scene. I just moved the position of the two birds closer together so that I could get them both in the picture. I also decided, intuitively, that a vertical format seemed best. So that's why there's so much seemingly empty space at top.  It was a fortuitous accident I think.

But it also reminded me of one of the main problems  I, and as far as I know just about everyone else, have with watercolor. You really can't  change much. Much of its appeal is the sense of freshness and light. If you try to paint over what you've already painted the painting often seems turgid, muddy and stale. And I know I've seen a lot of such paintings, including many of  my own.

After I'd finished the watercolor below I still felt like I'd like  to make some changes. I'm not sure why, perhaps it was just a matter of feeling like I had more time on my hands due to staying at home due to Covid-19, but I decided to try to repaint the scene in acrylic.

Most of my artistic career has been as an abstract painter in acrylic and later oil, though as I continue with both watercolor and printmaking that statement will eventually no longer be true. I think  I still try to  paint in watercolor as though it is one of those media. Every mark is put down just to see what it looks like  and then I can change it  if  I don't like it. But  of course watercolor doesn't work that way. And neither by the way does most printmaking. I suppose the amount of pre-planning and deliberateness necessary in both could easily build up a desire to return to  a more spontaneous and forgiving medium.

So it has been enjoyable to return to a medium where I can change  things over and over and over. The painting at top is close to being done. I guess the nature of a painting that can be changed endlessly is that it possibly could  NEVER be done! But most artists I think realize that you eventually just need to move on to something new. So I don't think I'll too much more on this.

I don't know how long I'll stay with acrylic. I'm enjoying it now and have ordered new canvases and some new paint. (Finding my large jar of white completely dried out will tend to get me to order new paint  given how  important it is!!).

I think it's important to keep art enjoyable. Sometimes that means changing media, subject or who knows  what for a while. I always find that I'm happy to return to other  media, like moku hanga perhaps, when I eventually do. 
Curlew and Great Cormorant at River Deben. Watercolor by Ken Januski, copyright 2020.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

What's With All That Gray?

Original Moku  Hanga of Male Canvasback and Hooded Merganser. Copyright 2020 by Ken Januski. 8x10 inches on  Nishinouchi Japanese paper.

This new moku hanga came about due to a combination of two things: Facebook reminding me of a field sketch I'd done and posted about 4 years ago of a male Canvasback and Hooded Merganser at Morris Arboretum and the resulting large charcoal drawing I'd done based on the field sketch and photos; and The International Moku Hanga Conference whose theme this year is the use of sumi in moku hanga.


Charcoal Drawing of Drake Canvasback and Hooded Merganser.Copyright 2015 by Ken Januski

Field Sketches of Drake Canvasback and Hooded Merganer seen at Morris Arboretum. Copyright 2015 by Ken Januski

Original Woodcut of Drake Canvasback and Hooded Merganser. Copyright 2015 by Ken Januski

What I particularly liked about the charcoal drawing was the rich blacks I'd used in it. It reminded me of the rich black I used to get by using compressed charcoal and heavy duty erasers in my abstract work. I also did a woodblock print based on the drawing, in fact I did  two variations, but I was never completely happy with them.

In any case I'd been toying with submitting  to the conference(though my guess is now  that it might be cancelled/postponed) and thought I would submit some of my earlier moku hanga. But the notion of incorporating  a large amount of sumi in a  new moku hanga was intriguing. And I did  love the blacks and grays I'd gotten in my little exploration of both Chinese and Japanese brush painting. So I thought I'd try a new version of the Canvasback and Hooded Merganser.

But a funny thing happened. As I started this new print I eventually shied away from the deep blacks that had dominated the charcoal  drawing and the previous woodblock prints based on it. I was reminded of just how rich and vibrant various grays could be both in brush painting from China and Japan and in ink wash drawings  in traditional European and American art. My personal favorites of the latter were Rembrandt and, much more recently, Richard Diebenkorn and Elmer Bischoff(with whom I'd studied and done many wash drawings in life drawing classes). Ink wash drawings can capture light in the way no other medium can, with  the possible exception of  watercolor.

So before I knew it I was doing a moku hanga print  that did include some deep blacks but also used a variety of  grays.  That's what you see at top. The grays don't sing as much as I'd like and the blacks are not as deep as I'd like but I'm happy with it. Monochromatic art is not everyone's cup of tea. But it has great possibilities. I've actually written years ago on this very blog about how I think tonal orchestration may be the most  important aspect of painting, but an orchestration that is  after the fact and intuitive, not formulaic. My guess is that I could spend years doing such work before I'd be  able  to really explore its potential. And I doubt I'll do that. But I am glad I tried!

Part of the edition. This photo shows 12 of the prints.  I've started a second batch of 12.

Though I spent a lot of time in art school, and though I knew a couple of printmakers during that time I never actually studied  it. I'm largely self-taught. That's neither here nor there but  it  does mean I'm never quite sure how common my approach to printmaking is. That said I'll just say that I spend forever proofing the prints, changing it after almost every proof. There is some planning but far more improvisation. There are generally more proofs than actual prints. By the time I  finally get a print  that I'm happy  with I'm exhausted. I really don't feel like spending much time printing an edition.

And yet! It seems silly to have spent all that time and energy for just one print. So I try to buckle down and print an edition. An added benefit, as I'm sure I've mentioned  before, is that I may sell one of the prints from an edition years after I've made it. I like that. Both the sales and the appreciation. Another benefit of having to print an edition is that it forces technical practice on me. I don't like technique. But most good artists have some sort of technique, even if it's nothing more than knowledge built on experience. I already have a lot of experience with composition. What I lack is experience with printing. So every edition I  print, even when reluctantly, does give me more experience. And I think makes me a better printer.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Metamorphosing Amberwings and Background

Eastern Amberwings II. Moku Hanga by Ken Januski, copyright  2020. 8x10 inches.

I've just finished the second of two Moku Hanga based on Eastern Amberwing dragonflies. Above is the second version. I got the idea for  it as I was printing the background blue for a second time  on the first version(below) and accidentally printed  it upside down. I'd done  the same thing on my recent Golden-crowned  Kinglets Moku Hanga and both times was intrigued by how it changed the  print.

This time I decided to finish the first print without the upside down overprinting. But when I'd finished  the edition I kept  wanting to explore the overprinting and see where  it would lead.

Eastern Amberwings I. Moku Hanga by Ken Januski, copyright  2020. 8x10 inches.


One of the odder things about both prints is that the first print is printed on much better paper than the second. And yet the  first print looks sloppier, especially in the background. So at the moment I much prefer the second more abstract print. But it's possible another printing of the first  would  make it look stronger.

Something I continue to realize  about my work -- it almost catches me by surprise -- is  that I really don't like traditional space in my own work. Perhaps this is  just a matter of the influences of  the time when I first started making art. Much twentieth century art rebelled against a confined flat space in painting, particularly an illusionistic one. Instead either complete  two dimensional  flatness with no hint of depth was admired or more of a pulsating space, as for  instance in Piet Mondrian or Stuart Davis where  various parts of the canvas/picture, no matter how abstract, seemed to intermittently call out for attention. Similar  to the latter I think  was the popularity of collage where fragments of different pictures or representations were pasted together to create something new.

Though I did go through an abstract period  of wanting absolute flatness  and no hint of space I've always been more attracted to the broken, often pulsating space of collage or painters like Stuart Davis. Perhaps if  I'd never left the small town I grew up in and had spent less time in large cities my perspective  would be different. Certainly large cities do have a more pulsating environment with something new always catching your attention.

And yet when I look, very briefly, at video  games or even commercials during  some televised sporting events their wild  cacophony and chaos make the pulsating space of Mondrian and  Davis  look positively bucolic. That type of  non-stop activity seems to me to lead to mental chaos. No wonder so many people  have short attention spans.

But I digress!!!!! I really went through all of  that to explain why I have what may seem to some to be a perverse desire to ruin a good picture. Again this reminds me of  painters  who made sure that their paintings, even when realistic, showed signs of  process, most noticeably in paint drips.  And of course paint drips eventually became one of  the biggest  cliches in modern art.  It's hard  to say how much  coming  of  age when showing process was de rigeur  in art has influenced my own ideas of  what art should  be. But I'm sure I still have a bias for signs of process and for collage.

All I can say is that there is an intuitive desire to  prevent my own work from having a space that seems too confined, too settled. So I often do things to prevent that. I do it  because  is seems  right to me. It gives the picture the ability to breathe, not to be claustrophobic.

So when I mistakenly printed  the background upside down in my last too prints  I was very happy  with the result. It seemed to open up the space in both, to give the prints some room to breathe. But that in itself doesn't make a good painting or  print. It can just look completely out of place. So  for me the challenge of the second Eastern Amberwings print was to develop  the broken background with the  rest of the print so that it all looked cohesive, like it belonged  together. That is what I think I've done.

I have great admiration for  many artists who work with traditional space. But for  me I always get a bit antsy when I see it in my own work. There is a desire to try for something else.