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

Saturday, 31 May 2008

Leaf of the Day: Greater Celandine and a different way of looking.

It is the last day of May, the blue Florida sky is dotted with clouds, I have been swimming in the pool, the shuttle launches today just over on the coast and I have been thinking about the last three weeks in the the UK and what I have achieved or learnt.

Foremost in my mind is Liz Leech´s course. She opened up a world of close and informed examination of plants and flowers and help in getting to grips with understanding what things are, and why they are the shape and colour they are. Stripping away the layers and looking at the underlying structures did not lessen my appreciation of flowers, quite the contrary, it just increased the fascination. I can now draw with a little more understanding of the architecture and purpose of flowers and plants, not just make a record of their superficial beauty.
Also, just having this knowledge means I can approach the drawing with a greater sensitivity which in turn gives me a greater satisfaction. It is not, of course, an easy route to better draftsmanship but it really helps and, (as I do, and will, keep saying in this blog) it all comes back to the value of to drawing from life. Photographs while being a very useful tool, can just reduce things to distorted 2 dimensional cyphers of the real thing and can be endlessly misleading.

Another way of looking
This way of looking was botanically analytical, but a couple of years ago I experienced a completely different approach to drawing plants. I attended a short course run by Hibernia College in Stroud which is a college running, amongst other things, Art Therapy courses. The weekend class was devoted to the study of just one medicinal plant.
In short, the idea was to see if by studying the form, the habit and the "spirit" of the plant, through drawing, writing and discussion, we could come to some conclusion ( without first knowing its name ) about it's medicinal properties.
For a practical northern girl this seemed a bit airy fairy to start with but my initial scepticism was won over by some very interesting work that was produced.
Our first encounter with the plant was with closed eyes, just to limit the senses to start with. Then we studied the plant for only a few minutes, before it was taken away and we drew what we could remember. Then with the plant in front of us we made continuous line drawings without taking our eyes from the plant. From there the exercises and discussions branched out, working in monochrome, colour, and words and looking at every characteristic of how and where this little plant grew, roots, stems habit and habitat and perhaps most revealing of all, the startling bright orange sap which bled copiously from it cut stems.
Before we actually got to know what the plant was, we pooled our observations and drew up a profile of the plant. Those more in tune with natural remedies were the keenest observers, noting vigour of habit, sinuous wiry roots, the branching patterns of the stems and the vital searching orange sap as being keys to its use.



The little plant we got to know so well turned out to be the greater celandine Chelidonium majus a plant used historically as a valuable remedy for conditions affecting the liver, gall bladder, and stomach, a variety of skin diseases and a folk remedy for cancer, gout, and jaundice. A stimulant and purgative.
Other participants in the course were mainly teachers herbalists or therapists rather than artists and their work was by far more interesting and experimental than mine. I (ever the commercial artist ) was too bound up in the look of the thing.
I wonder what the drawings would have been like if we had had prior knowledge of the plants medical properties.

I am not sure what conclusion this exercise draws in terms of medical significance. Making associations about the way a plant looked and what it could cure, as laid out in the wonderful "Doctrine of Signatures" theories ( worth another post in itself ) was an extremely unreliable way of dispensing medicine but, for an artist seeking maybe a more sympathetic than scientific approach to analysing plants, this was a fascinating exercise.


The drawings were done on newsprint with charcoal, biro, and powder paints.. the drawings were not important here.. the method was. ___________________________________________

Greater Celandine Sketches
















Friday, 30 May 2008

Leaf of the Day: Tulip Tree Leaf

This pretty variegated leaf came with me from the West Dean Gardens, pressed inbetween the pages of a sketch book. I had forgotten I had put it there. So my drawing is of a slightly dried up leaf but the pattern was still as bright and its lovely shape still true to life. The stem is long and elegant allowing the leaves on the tree to flutter beautifully in the breeze.
It is the tulip tree "Liriodendron tulipifera" so called, of course, because of the shape of the flowers., but I thought the leaves were quite tulip shaped like too.

I have never seen one in bloom, but it was hard to miss this tree in garden with its beautiful variegated leaves, pale green with darker green markings, and of course the unusual shape.












The tree is native to the Eastern United States and the lovely wood is well known to cabinetmakers and it was the favoured tree of dug-out canoe makers including, allegedly, Daniel Boon the great 18th C American frontiersman.



This 16th Century engraving, showing the making of a dug out canoe is, I think, again from from De Bray's work based on the observations of Jacques le Moyne who I wrote about under the Yaupon Holly post here . He is the one who recorded the interesting black tea (yaupon holly) ceremony amongst the Timucua Indians of Florida. .. its hard to forget that one!
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Tulip Tree Leaf



Thursday, 29 May 2008

Leaf of the Day: Glass and Stone

I have spent most of today scanning images and completing the posts from my UK trip. I have been back one day and am still feeling completely disorientated but I am almost up to date now with the blog.
There are just a couple sketches left .. the first one is of the beautiful little panel of stained glass that was set into the window of my room at West Dean. Having so recently seen all the Tiffany glass in the Orlando museum this old glass is is quite different, fine and delicate by comparison. I think the panel has been assembled from fragments of old glass as the pieces don't seem to fit well within the leading. I always sleep with the curtains open because I love summer mornings and each morning this strange enigmatic figure playing its silent music was the first thing I saw. This mournful angel or saint with its delicate curls and sad mouth is accompanied by symbols of building of some kind and a flaming sun. It is quite beautiful. I wanted to paint it in order just to look at it more closely, more than that would be a waste of time I think. It is impossible to improve on the original.



The other sketch is of a lovely chunk of flint that I found on the path by the woods. Flint makes up much of the fabric of the buildings here. It is irresistibly drawable with its black smooth heart, the chalky white coating and bleached bone sculptural form.

These are two items which I would have happily put in my suitcase... there were many others.

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Glass and Stone




Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Leaf of the Day: Catching up..and a Leonardo moment.

Well .. I´m back in Florida and catching up on all the notes and drawings and postings from my UK trip. I managed to incorporate Kew Gardens, West Dean, Lincolnshire, London, relatives, and friends old and new, and made a few drawings too. The courses were excellent, the countryside was beautiful, all the exhibitions were inspirational and the weather was kind.. what more could you ask.
I have quite a few posts to make so I apologise in advance to my readers if your inbox gets a bit clogged..

On Saturday I had returned to the Amazing Rare Things Exhibition at Buckingham Palace to have another look at the beautiful work of the natural history artists chosen from the Queen's collection. This time I took the audio guide which is included in the price of the ticket and is well worth the listen. It really puts everything in context and having David Attenborough with you, sharing his knowledge and enthusiasm would surely persuade even the staunchest abstract artist to appreciate the skill and beauty of these paintings. While I was looking again at the tiny detailed Leonardo drawings made in red chalk I noticed that on the drawing of the Star of Bethlehem, which dominates the page, there is a little sketch of a euphorbia, sun spurge.. just like the ones I had drawn only 5 days previously here .. A strange coincidence from a distance of 500 years and while mine cannot be compared, its nice to think we both found this funny little plant worth a quick study.

These were apparently made as studies for plants to be included in the lost painting of "Leda and the Swan".
This, one of 2 known copies,is from the Borghese gallery in Rome dated approximately 1510 to 1520. It is impossible to see if there are in fact any euphorbia amongst the flowers at the base of the painting I guess I will just have to go to Rome to see for myself.



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Leondardo's Euphorbia ( and mine)















Star of Bethlehem, Wood Anemone and Sun Spurge c 1505-1511















a detail....







and mine ...

Leaf of the Day: West Dean Sketches

Today I will be travelling back to Florida. Its Bank Holiday Monday and its raining here in the Uk. My two days in London have been lovely and fun. No drawing done but I still have quite a few sketches to post from my trip.

There is not much spare time at West Dean as the courses are quite intensive, but to take a break from the close and detailed work I made some sketches outside in the beautiful walled garden here. The shapes of the espaliered and supported fruit trees really appealed to me and I made some quick loose charcoal sketches. Also of some forcing pots in the rhubarb patch and a cyprus branch. It's a long way from botanical painting but a good loosening up exercise. Of course now, having done these, I feel I want to get back to the oil painting... "when she's in she wants to be out, and when she's out she want to be in"....
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Walled Garden Sketches












Sunday, 25 May 2008

Leaf of the Day: Assorted West Dean Leaves

There are some wonderful plants in the glass houses and some glorious leaves that I really wanted to draw but there was just not enough time. There is also not enough room to draw in the glass houses and appropriating leaves without permission is not a good idea. However I always feel that fallen leaves are fair game and I found these little curly leaves from the "Aeschyanthus twister" on the bench top. They have a great rhythm and line.
Two more leaves, a lime with paddle like bract with fruit. and a huge red oak leaf.. all of 8 inches high.
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Aeschyanthus Twister, Lime and Oak






Saturday, 24 May 2008

Leaf of the day: Euphorbia Cyathia

When is a flower not a flower? .. when its a cyathium...

Whilst looking at the plants here at West Dean I became fascinated by the different types of eurphorbia which were growing along the paths bordering the stream walk. The "tops" are different according to the different varieties and the structures of the flowering parts are all different and very dainty.

The "flowers" are made up of a cyathia which is an inflorescence consisting of a cuplike cluster of modified leaves which encloses a female flower and several male flowers. Male flowers, the stamens, are included in the cyathia, while the female flower, the little ball with the tassels, sticks out of each cyathium on a long stalk.
The cyathia are all different shapes and the name comes from the Latin meaning a ladle..so it is maybe more helpful to think of it as spoon, rather then cup, shaped.
This diagram may explain better...


and here are a few sketches of the "flowers". I will, I am sure, be returning to these fascinating little plants. The euphorbia family is extensive and I have already included one of it members, the Crown of Thorns here.

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Euphorbia tops




Friday, 23 May 2008

Leaf of the Day: 1 hour Poppy

The last day at West Dean and I am so sorry to be leaving. It is the most beautiful place and I am thinking of stowing away in an attic room.. I could help clear the tables .. they would never notice.
I spent the morning finishing off the leaf and packing and taking some more photos of the park and the gardens. Yesterday as a break we did a quick and very useful exercise, working out of doors to collect information for a study to be completed indoors. There are times when you cannot pick the plant or flower that you intend to work on, so it is essential to be able to make studies in the field.
We had an hour to make a good tonal sketch with water soluble pencil and then, without using pencil a colour study. The theory is that you should be able to make a good finished painting with this information. ( I w0uld take photos as well! )
The self seeded oriental poppy I chose was quite impossible to colour match in the brilliant sunshine, its vivid orange-red petals so very vibrant. I don't think I have ever seen a painting that has ever really captured this colour.... to be honest nature's colours usually have the edge over any painting. The artist has to bring something else to the image.

The course has been excellent and fun, and I hope I will be able to put some of Sandrine's beautiful and apparently effortless technique into good use.
You can see some of her lovley work on her website here Sandrinemaugy.co.uk and she is a regular contributor to the Artists and Illustrator's magazine.

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Oriental Poppy Sketches



Thursday, 22 May 2008

Leaf of the Day: Calla Lily Leaf

Today I move on to the calla lily, Zantedeschia black, but just the leaf. Bearing in mind that when I return to Florida I will have only 4 weeks to prepare the next unit of the SBA course, which is 8 leaves in watercolour, I need some practice.
This plant is big and very handsome, and so are its spotty leaves. In considering how to do this I decide that I will have to use some masking fluid for the spots, so drawing, tracing and masking takes most of the morning... (hesitating is also filling up lots of my time at the moment too!)

The full size of the leaf is too big for the sketchbook and is, in its finished state, about 14 inches tall. It is a very beautiful curvy shape and I am creating some nice opportunities for light and shade which I then manage to obliterate with some clumsy colour work.. maybe wet in wet is not for me.. but I persevere and I am not too unhappy with my first botanical leaf.
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Leaf of Calla Lily, Zantedeschia Black




Wednesday, 21 May 2008

Leaf of the Day: Pansy 2

I am a bit disheatened by my lack of progress yesterday so I decide to try to learn from my first pansy mistakes and try another one.. this time a little different with a pale edge and a beautiful pink to burnt orange colour.

Laying the washes seems fraught with problems of drying too fast or too slowly, the paint creeping into forbidden areas or just refusing to budge and making horrible hard edges. I do a drawing first and then start painting, sketching a little spray of yellow rattle with beautifully shaped leaves while the layers are drying.
It's all a matter of practice I guess, and I think I now know what I should be doing .. doing it is another matter.
I also make some colour notes before starting this time.
I am a bit quicker today.. that's all I can say.
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Pansy 2




Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Leaf of the Day: Pansies again

Day Two of the botanical painting course and I only feel able to tackle a pansy. I take a deep blue one with a heart of black velvet.
The drawing I now approach in a Liz Leech fashion looking hard at what is underneath and sacrificing a flower in the process. Sandrine is no doubt hoping I won't be doing this on the gorgeous chocolate coloured calla lilly she has brought for us to draw.
The watercolour technique that she makes look so easy is very different from my normal style of brushwork onto dry paper. It is watercolour carefully overlaid, one wash at a time into wet paper. She makes it look effortless. It is nothing of the sort.
For a dark colour, really dark, like the inside of my pansy, up to 15 washes need to be laid, carefully darkening the colour each time taking care not to disturb the colour underneath. On this first attempt I keep forgetting to wet the paper, get wobbly edges and not enough colour, but I persevere.
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Pansy 1