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.

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