San Francisco-born artist Karl Martens creates beautiful paintings of birds using materials not often paired together – Japanese and Chinese calligraphy brushes with watercolor. What’s most fascinating is that he paints all of his works by memory, without reference to any guide. What you’ll notice first are the sweeping brushstrokes and then you’ll see all the fine details. While he uses large Japanese and Chinese calligraphy brushes to create the general shape and posture of the birds, the intricate markings of them are done using charcoal pencil and smaller calligraphy brushes. Martens studied birds for so long that he knows how to paint both the large and subtle differences including the birds’ beaks.Martens is inspired by Shih-t’ao (1642-1707), one of the most famous Chinese painters in the early Qing dynasty. He was considered revolutionary during that time because he didn’t believe in imitating old masters, while he respected them, he forged his own path. He valued innovation, and as such, he used bold, impressionistic brushstrokes and he left white space to suggest distance. Above all, Shih-t’ao believed that the artist must trust his or her own ability. He coined the term Holistic Brushstroke, which means that one could create something out of nothing. As Martens describes it, “Optimally, it contains no planned thought. It emanates from ’emptiness.'”
Here’s how the artist describes his own work. “Just as the union of calligraphy ink and paper always provides unexpected results, so does the watercolor on this rough hand made paper. Especially when calligraphy brushes are used. Each paper reacts differently to the medium. Sometimes it absorbs immediately, and other times it doesn’t absorb at all. A simple brush provides less control than fine one, and sometimes the opposite is true. This uncertainty is what inspires me. What will happen this time? In order to give life to some areas I sometimes use salt on the paper, which creates unexpected patterns as the paint dries. All in order to confront the unexpected.”
Below, you can watch Martens at work in a fascinating video he produced with Cricket Fine Art back in 2012.