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.

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