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.


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