|Kurt Plinke, Artist and Naturalist|
Between the Waters
life, Art and The Nature of things Between the Atlantic and the Chesapeake
First, I have to say that I found a wonderful website, devoted to animal and plant identification. I was looking for information about the Carbonated Swamp Warbler, one of those "mystery birds" painted by Audubon. The bird was a one-of-a-kind, which Audubon claims to have collected and then painted. He is the only person to have identified the little bird, and the only one to have illustrated it.
The first place I went to was the New York Historical Society's collection of Audubon's original watercolors, sold to the society by Audubon's widow, after his death in the 1860's. I read up on what the society had to say. I wanted more information however, so I continued to search.
I read a segment of a treatise written by Alexander Wilson, a contemporary of Audubon and considered to be the father of American ornithology. In it I learned a bit about what others at the time thought about the bird Audubon allegedly found. From there, I wound up at a very cool site, a blog set up and run by David Sibley. Most of his large site is devoted to the sale of his wonderful guides, but his blogsite is a little different. In his blog, Sibley posts identification hints, regular quizzes about identifying birds, and many of his thoughts and drawings. I find that I can not stop scanning his posts. You can find his blog here. I can't say enough about it.
...On to other things. As I drive across Caroline County every weekday morning, I am finding that at 6:30 am, I can finally once again see the countryside around me. As I head away from home, the sky begins to change from deep purple to streaks of red and orange. Driving down River Road has become a treat over the past few days, as the tide is low in the Choptank each morning right now, and the orange glow reflecting off of the flats is breathtaking through silhouetted trees. I will have to paint it soon.
Yesterday, in the dark of early morning and for the second time in a week, I have almost been struck in the face by sex-crazed woodcocks in my backyard. There seem to be a lot of woodcocks in the area this year. I don't recall hearing or seeing this many of the fat little birds in years past. I'll have to see if there is population studies being done, and if this cool little bird is on the upswing. However, why I mention woodcocks again is something I noticed as the birds whizzed past my head. As they approached out of the dark, I heard a weird noise that I had never noticed before. From about five or six feet way, I could distinctly hear the woodcock "chattering" as it flew. I've hear them twitter as they make great circling flights before in their mating display, but this was different. Honesty, each time they passed, it sounded as though the cartoon characters Bevis and Butthead were mumbling to themselves. I've never heard anything like it before. I think this one little thing I've discovered now firmly cements the woodcock as my favorite bird.
Eduard Monet, Hayricks, 1865
Today, the local weather reports predict snow. The prediction is perfect for next weekend's workshop, in which we'll be painting mallards on ice. The same is predicted for tomorrow and Monday, as well. If it comes, (and that's a big if) this will be our first actual big snow of the 2012-2013 winter. I used to like snow and cold weather, but as I get older, I seem to see less and less that I like about the fluffy white stuff.
However, there are a few things that I still find fascinating about the cold covering we expect over the next few days. My favorite thing about snow is how it changes the landscape so dramatically, and how it allows me to reinterpret what I see through my paintings. Being a sometimes-landscape painter, I love the way the changing of seasons and varied conditions allow me to explore how I see and record the effects of color, light and shadow in my watercolors.
Monet did this better than anyone. I'm not comparing myself to one of the great impressionists, but I am building from what he and others did as I venture out into the snow, or the sun, or evening dim to paint what I see at the moment. One of Monet's recurring themes and subjects was the effect of seasonal change upon haystacks. He painted hundreds of images of the tall French piles of hay and straw. Every painting was the same yet each was different, each unique. He painted them in early morning light, hazy blue and violet. He painted haystacks in the bright of day, in the spring, in the summer and in the fall. My favorite is the painting to the right, in which he painted several haystacks near nightfall, as the warm late summer sun set behind them. His use of horizontal bands of shadow and light make this painting calm and peaceful. Any modern interpretation of the same image could use his colors, his composition and his ideas, but could do no better.
Again, I am not comparing myself to Monet. However, I can make a connection in that I love painting the same subject, under different conditions. Often my landscapes depict the same subject. One of my favorite of these is an old house not far from my studio. The house on Holly Road, between Greensboro and Ridgely, was moved to it's current location from a nearby field years ago. I remember when it was moved, because I never understood why the owner of the house moved it. Since it's relocation the home has stood, abandoned, it's doors and windows boarded shut. Trees have grown up around it, and now it is difficult to find from the road because of the surrounding small pines, brush and vines. I have painted this old place at least a dozen times. Sometimes the paintings have been colorful, but most often the paintings I complete of this particular subject are stark, nearly colorless scenes, making them radically different than Monet's, and closer in feel to many watercolors by Andrew Wyeth.
In these two examples, I've used the same view and the same composition to create two glimpses of the same subject. The painting on the left is the old house in winter, The painting on the right is the same view in late fall. In these paintings I spent less time looking at the effect of light and shadow than Monet. Changes in value in these two paintings allow for the finished images to give the feel of seasonal change.
Speaking of seasonal changes and snow, this month's watercolor workshop here at the studio will be a landscape wildlife painting depicting several winter mallard ducks, sitting on an ice shelf in the river. I call it a landscape watercolor because we should plan to paint some environment in the painting, as well as just the waterfowl. We'll be looking not only at how to create the appearance of detail in the birds, but also at how to paint light and shadow on snow. It should be a good experience for new painters and experienced watercolorists. I hope to see you there.
Paint something today.
The special workshop we had today in the studio, looking at composition to make good-looking watercolor paintings was a great success. We learned about the concepts of design, compositional methods in creating a painting, and planning a soundly put-together watercolor. It looked to me as though everyone who attended learned a lot, and planned some great paintings. While no one finished a painting, a lot of thinking occurred. (actually, very little painting was done, because everyone was so intent upon creating movement in their work, looking for unity and a little variety, and placing their focal point. They just ran out of time. It was a great day!
While we were together, one of the participants asked about a workshop on perspective. She complained that she could never make her landscapes look like they had any depth. Last year about this time, we held a perspective workshop here at the studio, and it was very well received. But almost everyone at at today's workshop said that they would love to have another perspective day int he studio. So, I checked the calendar and we scheduled another perspective workshop for April 9th here at Sewell Mills Studio.
We spent a lot of time at the last workshop looking mainly at classic linear perspective, using one-point and two-point perspective to make buildings appear to back in space. This time, we're going to do look at linear perspective again, but also spend more time on the ideas of atmospheric, or visual, perspective as well.
LINEAR PERSPECTIVE was developed during the early Italian Renaissance, using mathematical principals to allow painters to dive their paintings the illusion of three dimensions.
Artists like Perugino created paintings like The Delivery of the Keys (in this case using one-point perspective), almost to show off their new-found understanding of how we see things. When we see paintings like this, we can begin to understand that it is not impossible to make our own work seem to go back in space. Perugino's use of a grid in this painting show us the way to complete our own paintings using his methods.
Hopper painted this using two-point perspective to show us a view of the lighthouse at an angle, and from below. At first, as you explore linear perspective, you'll feel the need to lightly draw a horizon line, add vanishing points and carefully render lines before you begin to paint. Soon, however, linear perspective will become second nature. You will find it easier and easier the more you practice.
Atmospheric perspective, however, is not quite so geometric, and easier for some to understand. Atmospheric perspective is just a series of observations that seem to be true in most cases. These observations include,
As things go back in space:
Once we understand these observations, we can include these ideas in our work. One of the obvious mistakes I see in so many watercolors is the misuse of the ideas of atmospheric perspective.
I'm looking forward to April's workshop. It should be a great refresher for many, and new information for some who attend. I think I'll try my hand at making a video of parts of the day, and posting the video here on my blog. We'll see how it works.
See you soon in the studio.
Kurt Plinke: About Life, Art and the Nature of Things on the Eastern Shore
I write about things I've noticed, places I've been, plans I've made and paintings I've finished or am thinking about.
See recent naturalist observations I have posted on iNaturalist: