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: 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.)