Saturday, August 19, 2023

A Passing Reference

Red Phalarope at Wissahickon Waterfowl Preserve. Moku Hanga by Ken Januski. Copyright 2023.  9x12 inches.

 Earlier today I was looking through some of my earliest blog posts trying to find one in which I talked about the problem of making a painting that had a bird as the subject. I never did find it but I did run across one on ‘building a picture.’ It touches on the same subject.

In my many years  as an artist, but particularly in my early years, including all the time I was studying art in college, my art was about building pictures, not portraying something. During my many years  as an abstract artist that remained true. One of my main concerns was making the picture ‘hang together,’ or as Matisse said to have every inch of the surface contribute something to the overall work.

 As my work veered toward abstraction that seemed organic and seemed to reference the natural world in some way I also started considering those references when I built my pictures. An overall disillusionment with the art popular in galleries. and art magazines in the early 90s, coupled with my practice of drawing insects that I found in the garden, eventually led me to use birds as my primary subject.

As I did so I was surprised to find what an easy transition it was from abstraction to naturalism/realism! Except that I did have a fair idea of what birds looked like. And because I knew what they looked like it was easy to see how wrong my work often was! All the formal elements of abstraction could be used in realism. But accuracy was another matter.

To finally get to the  point (!!) I also realized that I didn’t want to fudge my inability to draw birds with some degree of accuracy and realism by resorting to abstraction. So I spent 5-10 years trying to paint and draw them somewhat realstically.

In doing so I sublimated my interest in building a picture. You may guess where this is going. I no longer want to sublimate building a picture to accurate bird portrayal. Sometimes I still get a pretty good balance I think. But sometimes I don’t even want a balance. I want to abstract the bird, especially in the interests of the entire picture,

Such is the case with my newest moku hanga. It is based not  only on a specific bird, a Red Phalarope, but also on the other birds even at the Wissahickon Waterfowl Preserve that day. It also includes the island on which a number of the birds were situated, a tree on that island, the very bright washed out colors of the day, and the bubbler/aerator which  seemed to attract the phalarope. All highly abstracted, and all in the interest primarily of a visually exciting picture. Many of the subjects I just mentioned are seen as passing references, just an in music you may only need to use a note or two to recollect a much longer musical phrase.

In my journey through bird art I have tried a lot of things in order to actually build a good picture but also be true to the bird portrayed. Much of it has frustrated me because I felt giving up too much ‘art’ to keep the’ accuracy’, not just in terms of the bird itself but also in its environment and space. Many viewers might have actually felt the opposite, that I was letting ‘art’ get in the way of accuracy. But here’s the thing. Cubism is over 100 years old. Non-objective art is over 100 years old. Even Abstract Expressionism is over 50 years old. So much art has happened  over the last 100-150 years. I really don’t think bird art or wildlife art does well to ignore that. On second thought bird artists and wildlife artists would probably not do well, at least financially! I think that is probably part of the problem. The buying audience is very conservative, with some exceptions. I know bird/wildlife artists who are not at all conservative and yet do very well in terms of sales. So it is possible. In any case I at least I know that I can’t ignore the last 150 years of art, sales or no sales. To do so is like being forced to wear someone else’s clothes. So my art continues to try to find a way to portray the natural world with a contemporary visual vocabulary.

Friday, April 28, 2023

A Pileated Moku Hanga

Pileated Woodpecker at Flat Rock Dam moku hanga. Copyright 2023 by Ken Januski.

Soon after I finished my last moku hanga, at the end of January, 2023 I believe, I started thinking about a new print. Since nothing sprang to mind I started going through all of my old sketchbooks and came up with six to eight images that I thought had possibilities. Often they were based on something I'd seen while out birding. And before you knew it I went out birding and found something new that might work as the idea for a new print.

Pencil compositional sketch of Pleated, Buffleheads, Common Merganser and Flat Rock Dam. Copyright 2023 by Ken Januski.

What I first saw were two Bufflehead and one male Common Merganser just above Flat Rock Dam on the Schuylkill River near where I live in Philadelphia. As I looked at them in the distance though I heard a Pileated Woodpecker calling behind me. I didn't look for it though, instead concentrating the waterfowl. My guess is that I was trying to see them well enough to get a mental image that I could then use as a subject for.a memory sketch/field sketch. I don't seem to have any so my guess is that they were just too far away and instead I concentrated on taking photos, even though neither are rare birds.

Finally they flew off and so I turned around to look for the Pileated, which was no longer calling and which I assume had flown off. But no, there he was at the top of a distant snag. Of course once I saw him he flew off. He was not the first I've seen along the Schuylkill. BUT they are the first I've seen there  in over 25 years! A few weeks earlier I'd seen one flying over the Schuylkill, hugging the shore as he flew. It was just such an odd sight. I'm much more used to seeing them deep in forests! 

Pencil studies of Pileateds from my photos. Copyright 2023 by Ken Januski.

Pencil studies of Pileateds from my photos. Copyright 2023 by Ken Januski.

Pencil studies of Pileateds from my photos. Copyright 2023 by Ken Januski.

Pencil compositional sketch of Pleated, Buffleheads, Common Merganser and Flat Rock Dam. Copyright 2023 by Ken Januski.

In any case I started toying with idea of using the waterfowl and Pileated as the subject of my next print.  Though I know Pileateds well I know them to ID, not to draw. Drawing or painting them, even when highly abstracted, requires more complete knowledge. So I did a number of studies from my photos which are above.

I also kept working on a sketch of the entire print. One of the main decisions I made was to make the entire picture one seen from behind the Pileated, looking down on the Pileated, the Schuylkill and the waterfowl in it

Digital compositional and color study using Procreate on iPad. Copyright 2023 by Ken Januski.

Recently I've found myself developing compositional studies on my iPad using Procreate. A stylus is incredibly limited compared to a pen or pencil or paint brush. But used in conjunction with Procreate it is an incredibly quick way of sorting through, and modifying, different ideas for a print or painting. I"m sure it is limiting in ways I don't know about, leading me to make decisions based on the medium itself rather than the idea I would have without these digital tools. But right now I'm not worried about it.

Once I started the print, and the eight wood blocks I used to create it I didn't look back at the digital version. At that point the medium in front of me took over: watercolor, or watered down gouache and Japanese printmaking paper, washi. It is such a beautiful medium that only a masochist would ignore it and let the digital version be his guiding light as to where to take the print.

All 24 prints of the Pileated at Flat Rock Dam moku hanga. Copyright 2023 by Ken Januski

I have to say it is still bizarre to think of myself as a printmaker and to think in terms of editions. I've always been a one-off painter. You only make one of a thing. All the effort goes into the final product. You don't spend anytime thinking about what you need to do to be able to reproduce an identical image more than once. It has driven me nuts. Until I sell a print made 5-10 years ago. At that point I'm glad I've taken the time and made the effort to print an edition.  And for those who don't know there is no printing press involved. I am the printing press, along with my baren. My guess is that it is far easier to make identical prints, without blemishes and mistakes, using a printing press  than it is the way I do it with a hand held baren. And I have ruined many, many, many prints by some errant sloppiness or lack of focus that can occur when doing all printing by hand, with no mechanical help.

That is why I now tend to show photos of the entire printed edition. It was so much work and it is such an accomplishment!! It also helps explain why moku hanga often is, and always should be, more expensive. There is just so much more work involved and so much greater risk of failure.

My old oil-based reduction linocuts and woodcuts were also full of risk and they were also printed by hand. I've never owned a press. But one of the additional appeals of moku hanga is that it seems to encourage a slower, less frantic pace, regardless. of complexity and possibility of failure. It seems to encourage a more human pace of production that does reduction printmaking. I'm starting to be experienced enough with it to be able to proceed at a saner and more human pace. Perhaps with time this would have also happened if I'd continued with reduction prints using traditional methods. But I doubt it would have ever gotten to the point I have with moku hanga.

A somewhat calm printmaker: something I never at all envisioned or desired and yet here I am, and very content with it.

The new print will be for sale in my Etsy store sometime about mid-May.


Friday, January 13, 2023

Orchestral Conductor or Courtroom Artist?

Three Brant, Three Black-bellied Plover. Moku Hanga. Copyright 2022 by Ken Januski.

Northern Cardinal on Tomato Cage. Moku Hanga.  Copyright 2023 by Ken Januski.

Boy it has been a long time since I've written here. That was not deliberate. The delay was due to the fact that almost as soon as I finished my newest moku hanga, 'Three Brant, Three Black-bellied Plover' at top I started thinking  about doing another moku hanga, 'Northern Cardinal on Tomato Cage', which is immediately above. It is not so much that they are related visually but that they are related in terms of the contradictions in my artistic motivation.

Sometimes I want to orchestrate my art work, like a conductor, matching this color here with that one there, this shape with that shape, etc., etc. It might sound very formal but I think it is also what gives both joy and delight to so much art. 'Three Brant, Three Black-bellied Plover' uses the same blocks that created the print below, 'Brant and Black-bellied Plover on Nummy Island.' It happened almost by accident when I used some overlapping color on the original print and liked what I saw. But I felt it didn't fit in with the general direction of the print so I got rid of it, thinking that I might come back to it in another version. That is how the print at very top, 'Three Brant, Three Black Bellied Plover', started. 

But I didn't want to carve all new blocks, nor did I want to re-carve the old. blocks in case I decided to print another edition of the first print. That meant that I had to set myself some odd formalistic limits in the second print. I wanted to use the same blocks, but with more overlapping color, without modifying the blocks. The answer was to print some of the old blocks upside down and right side up, and to selectively ink them, that is not print everything on the block. Oddly enough I was listening to some Bach fugues at the same time and realized that there was at least some similarity. I speak from the perspective of a non-musician who enjoys music. My understanding of a fugue is that it takes one or more 'subjects', then  modifies them perhaps playing them backwards or in some similar but creative and musical variation I wasn't trying to create a visual fugue. I couldn't even if I wanted to. But I was pursuing a formal method: theme and variation. If it is a fit subject for some of the greatest music in the world then it certainly is a fit subject for my art. 

All of this gets back to at least part of this blog's title "Orchestral Conductor"... This formal playing has been part of almost all art I've done, even as a child. Strict representation was never all that important to me. In fact representing the real world has only become important to me artistically as I've gotten older. Sometime this summer or early fall I did a sketch from life in the garden of a young Cardinal on a tomato trellis(second photo after this text). I loved it! It doesn't look like a photo, something I have almost no interest in. But it does capture at least for me the sense of seeing that young Cardinal. But is is so, so different in terms of artistic motivation than orchestrating visual elements like a conductor.

This motivation I think is a bit more similar to that of a courtroom artist. It's not the best simile in the world since a good deal of accuracy is wanted in a courtroom sketch. But because those sketches are done quickly from life they almost never look like a photo. But they can be exciting. In any case I find my now field sketches quite exciting, though not all are successful. Some are dreadful. That happens with working quickly, especially in ink, with a subject that may disappear at any moment.  But for me there is a tremendous artistic excitement in them.  I had that field sketch of the Cardinal of the tomato cage in my mind as I did the second version of the Brant and Black-bellied Plover. And I didn't want to post anything on that second version until I'd also done a moku hanga based on the young cardinal. That took another 3 months or more. I finished it yesterday.

You could say my work is erratic. Perhaps people do. But to me it is just a continuing synthesis of varied interests and motivations. I'm somewhere between and orchestra conductor and a court sketch artist using moku hanga as my medium.

Brant and Black-bellied Plover on Nummy Island. Moku Hanga. Copyright 2022 by Ken Januski

Young Cardinal on Tomato Cage. Field Sketch with Sumi Brush Pen. Copyright 2022 by Ken Januski.