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.

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