"There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion" Francis Bacon 1561-1626

Wednesday, 16 April 2008

Leaf of the Day: On Durer's "Turf" and the problem of Greens

Today I returned to sorting out my paints and thinking about the colour "green" for the next part of the course. Just one quick glance from the window shows so many different greens, from the olive/yellow of the palms right the way through to bluey greens of the hollies and everything else in between. At the moment many trees have new bright leaves, some brilliantly yellow-green and glowing against the blue Florida sky. It is very true that the light of a place has a huge effect on your perception of bright colours. You know how that colourful Caribbean throw you bring back from a holiday looked just lovely in its natural habitat, but now may somehow appear garish against the softer colours of a British climate.














Albrecht Durer. "A Piece of Turf" 1503




I went back to look at the the colours of one of my very favourite paintings, which to my mind is amongst the best of "botanical" paintings and one which still shapes my thinking about about the subject. Painted so long ago in 1503, Durer is considered to be one of the earliest watercolour painters. In this image it wouldn't be Durer's intention to paint botanic specimens for the sake of identification but to make a study of something he found interesting and beautiful. It's a curious image in some ways. Unlike most contemporary botanical work the flowers and grasses with all their imperfections are presented intermingling in a natural way and have a relationship to each other, but then, like conventional botanical work it is set against a plain background. I am given the feeling this piece of land belongs to something else, has left a gap in a field, like a missing piece in a jigsaw.
It is a little slice of reality, without the plants being obviously arranged into a "design", although I am sure Durer made many compositional and tonal decisions in the execution of this lovely painting.

In my original application to the course I remember writing that I particularly like work that gives a sense of place to the plants.. the artspeak word would be "context".
Durer also gives each plant its identity (I have spoken of this before) rather than an averaged out version which smoothes out the wrinkles and takes away the character. While I can admire the execution of a beautiful individual unblemished specimen in celebration of the height of perfection of a species, for me, a more interesting piece is something that demonstrates that we do not see plants in isolation, but relating to earth, the interaction of animals and insects and the play of light. I suppose, being an illustrator I like the story!.

Thinking about colour, I also wondered about Durer´s paint. He would have had little choice of green pigments. There were very few natural green pigments and the bright strong greens, like gorgeous viridian, the much loved Pre Raphaelite green, are relatively recent. Green is a notoriously difficult colour for artists because most greens need to be mixed either by you or a paint manufacturer. However, with the continuing development of artist's paints we do now have more choices for brilliant and lightfast colours. We need them!.. the colours of the natural world are often vibrant beyond belief!

So, green is to be my focus for the next few weeks and I am very happy about that. My own starting point was to draw some leaves from the little euonymus bush. which have an endless variety of pattern and shape. I painted them with the yellows I have and overlayed them with different blues and then ready mixed greens.. not very methodical or scientific but its a start.

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Euonymus Leaves





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