Sunday, December 20, 2020

Is That What I Want?

Whimbrel at 2 Mile Landing. 9x12 acrylic painting. Copyright 2020 by Ken Januski

I have had a number of "successes" and a number of "failures" in my artistic career. I put quotes around the terms to indicate that there is a bit of artificiality in them. For instance I have been in a number of competitive art shows in my career and I have been rejected from quite a few as well. I have gotten some likes on Facebook, a very low standard of appreciation I know, and I think a much greater number of non-responses. I have sold some work, often looking quite different from one another, but I haven't sold anywhere near as much work as I'd like.

Sometimes these are more meaningful to me than others, for instance I'm always quite happy to have my work accepted into the annual exhibit of The Society of Wildlife Artists because I think so much of the work that I'm showing with. I've been excited to get into some competitive shows when I was an abstract artist often to find that I wasn't at all happy with the work that hung beside mine. But I also realized early on that competitive shows are often the end result of competing tastes on the part of judges or other 'stakeholders'  and that the show reflects it. Often they are odd hodgepodges. Again I think that this is not the case with 'The Natural Eye,' and that's why I'm always happy to be in it. I used to be somewhat depressed not to get into another competitive show that I applied to frequently. But I always got the catalog of the show. And finally, after quite a few years, I finally said to myself:  "This is silly. I don't LIKE most of  the art in the show." And a year or  two after that I stopped submitting work.

My end of submissions isn't necessarily a critique of  the show but it is an understanding of myself by myself. I'm far better off creating art that I like and only trying to exhibit it at shows I'd be happy to be in. What's the point of  trying to get into a show, even a prestigious one, if you don't like most of the art in it? In the same vein what's the point of trying to gain entry to various galleries or associations if you don't appreciate the work of  most of  the other artists involved?

To make a long story short at some point I decided I really have to make sure I'm the judge who counts most. What do I think of my work?!

And that leads me to my most recent painting at top. I like it!

I have been reading Tolstoy's Anna Karenina over the last month or so. In it there is an artist, Mikhailov. I'm not really sure of why he's there but what struck me is a section  where he expects very little from the people who come to look at his paintings, then begins to think much more of them when they say something  that might possibly be interpreted as positive. Tolstoy I think is criticizing him but I think the scene might also ring true for many artists. As soon as someone says they like your work, or purchases it, you tend to see them and your work in a slightly better light.

I'm reminded of that by the watercolor painting I did of two Whimbel pictured below.

Two Whimbrel at 2 Mile Landing. 12x16 watercolor. Copyright 2020 by Ken Januski

It is one of a number of paintings and drawings I did on the way to the painting at top. It is a bit more realistic. It's also true that I've sold a number of my watercolor paintings. I'm happy with the watercolor paintings and I'm happy that someone likes them well enough to buy them. But I realize that I might disappoint some of  those buyers because I don't too often put those paintings up for sale. That's not because I'm too fond  of them. It's because I don't do that many any more and I'm often not happy when I do most. But when I put them up for sale it's because I do like them.

The thing is I realize that my own watercolor paintings don't do much for me. When I'm done with them I ask, as the title of a well-known blog says: Is That What I Want? I've come to realize that though I admire many who work in watercolor it's not something I really aspire to in my own work. When I do I often feel more like I'm imitating something I like rather than painting what I like.

What I'm getting at is that whether I achieve what I want in a work of art, even if I don't know what that is when I start the art work, is what determines the artistic success. It is meaningful to me. There are times of course when I'm fooled. I  think I've made some sort of breakthrough, then days, months or  maybe years later I decide that the artwork wasn't all that I thought it was. But most times this is not true. If I'm really happy with a work I stay happy with it, even years later when  I might work in a completely different matter.

I've had a number of such moments with the acrylic paintings that I've done over the last 6-9 months. To me they are showing me the path of the future in my work both in paint and print.

Some are more successful than  others. The sumi brush pen and water soluble crayon drawing/painting below is somewhere in between. It seems like a step toward the painting at top. There are things I like about it but it seems a bit derivative. I'm not sure I would have done the painting at top without it. But the painting at top seems like What I Want.

Whimbrel at 2 Mile Landing. 11x14 inch sumi brush  pen and crayon drawing. Copyright 2020 by Ken Januski

I realize that not all artists can worry about What They Want. They have to worry about what their customers will buy so that they can pay the bills, etc., etc. I've seen no sign in my life that it's easy for an artist to make a living as an artist. Throughout history many of  the most successful artists in any medium have had to keep their customers/patrons happy. I can't criticize that and I don't. What I'm saying is really more personal. I do know when I've done something that I'm happy with, regardless of what others think. That is my idea of artistic success.

Whimbrel Studies. Sumi Brush Pen. Copyright 2019 by Ken Januski

Just to round off these thoughts the drawings above are done with sumi brush pen and are all based on photos that I took. I like them in many ways but I'll probably never really like work that I do that is  based solely on photos.

The sumi brush pen sketch below on the other hand was done from life at 2 Mile Landing in Cape May, NJ in May of 2019. I was looking through a scope at some distant whimbrel and was thrillled with this sketch  that I did over a 5-10 minute period. Later I looked at it and realized how crude it was. But I still loved  it! It captured my reaction to what I saw. It too is an artistic success, far more so than the sketches above or even some theoretical sketch from photos that is far more detailed. Such a sketch wouldn't be successful to me because it's not what I want. It would just be a study

On the other hand I was thrilled with the field sketch below and I think I'm even more thrilled that i've been able to do a painting based on it that still has the same feeling. That to me is true artistic success.

Whimbrel at 2 Mile Landing. Sumi brush pen field sketch. Copyright 2019 by Ken Januski.

Thursday, December 3, 2020

Leaping Into and Perhaps Beyond Cliche

Female Black-throated Blue Warbler Feeding on Devil's Walkingstick. Original Moku Hang by Ken Januski. Copyright 2020

Leaping Female Black-throated Blue Warbler. Pencil sketch by Ken Januski. Copyright 2020

With so many years of abstract painting behind me I found that I had a lot of artistic tools that also served me well when I started using subjects from nature. I didn't understand the structure of much of  what I saw in nature. So I had a lot to learn about birds and insects, not to mention mammals, vegetation, etc. But there was one thing in naturalistic art, though also in the figure drawing that I spent a number of early years doing, that really wasn't in my abstract art. In fact off the top of my head I don't think  it's in most abstract art. That is movement and/or weight.

I did a lot of figure drawing in my distant past, about 3 hours a night, 3-4 days a week for a year or more, followed by additional classes in graduate school that often included figure drawing.  I loved figure drawing, though I particularly loved quicker poses. I'm not sure how fond I would have been of  1 hour plus poses. What I loved was trying to capture both movement AND a sense of weight and how it was distributed. No I don't mean how heavy a model might be. I mean an almost physical empathetic  knowledge of whether there is a lot of weight on one leg, very little on another, a great stretch in one area of the body, perhaps with a contraction in another part of the body, etc., etc. I don't think this can be easily explained. You either look at a drawing and get that feeling of where the weight and movement is, or you don't, assuming of course that the artist captured it. Most of all I think it is a matter of physical empathy.

I've noticed this in the drawing  of others, and also sculpture where it seems even more noticeable,  with various subjects, people, horses, hippos, birds, etc. But with birds in particular there is one new element: loft, that physical sense of weight that you can sometimes see and feel when something is moving above the earth, sometimes 100s of feet, sometimes just a few feet as in the female Black-throated Blue Warbler above.

I was reminded a bit of this when I watched part of a  so-so show on Rembrandt on tv last night. One early painting showed a hand that seemed to be lying lightly  on whatever. But there was a definite sense of lightness. It wasn't a dead lobster, heavy as could be. It had the sensation of  lightness. This in turn reminded me of seeing something similar in a hand by Giotto, probably a Madonna and child, seen  at the Uffizi in Florence many years ago. Some of the best artists capture the  weight of  limbs as they portray them. Sometimes they are light but  other times you get the  sense of  real weight bearing down into the ground.

Of course with birds the sense of weight is just different, at least if they're in flight. I have to confess that  I've never flown, at least under my own power. Neither has any human as far as I know. And yet I think we can still feel  the sense of soaring in a soaring hawk. Though humans have no real experience of flying or floating many can still 'feel' what it is like.

I know artists who can capture the sense of flight in birds while drawing them from life. I can't  do that. Perhaps I could  if  I tried harder and had more experience with seeing birds in flight, particularly soaring raptors. But  if  pressed I think I could do a sketch with some  sense of  reality.

That is not the case with birds that leap into the air, mainly to pick off something  to eat. This is a much less seen phenomenon than birds soaring. If it were much more common perhaps I would even try it from life. But the fact is often I don't even know it is happening. I only realize it because I take photos and some of them show the movement. So for instance with this female Black-throated Blue Warbler feeding on the berries of Devil's Walkingstick I really couldn't see what she was doing, even when looking throughout my  high quality binoculars. Only the photos I took showed it.

So I'm faced with a dilemma. Do I want to paint or  print a subject that requires photos? I really don't like art that shows a heavy reliance on photos. I'll admit that this could just be a matter of taste, which can be very personal and change from person to person. Nonetheless I really don't like such art. Too many well delineated ripples in water will drive me screaming from the room! Most often they can only be done by using photos. Humans don't see that way.

So deciding to use a photo of a bird leaping up into the air was hard for me. Not only will any art I do based on it look like it came from  a photo but it might also look quite cliched: Bird In Flight. Nonetheless I decided to go ahead and use this as a subject. I did so because I think it's fascinating to see birds in flight. And I wanted to try to  capture it.

As I was working on some of my recent acrylic paintings I kept noticing the sketch I'd done weeks previously of the Black-throated Blue. I guess you could say it just kept calling to me. Finally I decided to return to moku hanga using it as a subject. At top you see the finished result. There are two slightly different versions, one in a  edition of 9, and the one pictured here in an edition of 8.