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Sunday 29 August 2010

More Ginkgo-ing

I did find a gap in the clouds on Thursday and under pretty dappled skies cycled down to Leu for more Ginkgo inspiration.  Apart from the one large Ginkgo biloba tree by the Rose Garden there is a little Ginkgo grove of young trees, some not more than a foot high. These are the cultivars and there are a surprising number of different ones. .

Summer Rainbow has variegated leaves

summer  rainbow

G. tubiformis has bizarre fused leaves which, as the label implies form trumpet shaped leaf forms.


Spring Grove, Jade Butterflies, Green Pagoda, Mariken and Majestic Butterfly are all dwarf varieties, some have variegation in the leaves,  some have deeply divided or frilly leaves.

green pagoda   mariken  

Pendula is a more weeping variety. Then there are Chi-chi and Robbie’s Twist which is a slightly contorted variety.

When it comes to leaf shape, its very hard to pin a ginkgo down. There is a huge variation in shapes and sizes even on the same tree.

I sketched the tree shape while I was there. It’s not very distinctive just a regular tree shape, but a quick sketch does make you understand the configuration of the branches and how the leaves grow. With the ginkgo they grow in groups along each branch at fairly regular intervals. There is a slight weeping aspect to this particular tree and the branches are long and slender. It’s perhaps a bigger tree than it appears so I added a little bench on the right for a scale indicator.

ginkgo tree Leu 26th August sm

You have to “look” much harder to draw from real life, as opposed to copying a static photo, and it’s in the “looking” and “seeing” that lies the value. You will understand more. The drawing many mean nothing to someone else but it will be packed with information for you and be a real memory jogger when you see it again. You will remember the mosquitoes, the suffocating heat, the fire ant bites and the sweat dripping onto your sketchbook… really, it’s worth it, it is ..honestly..

I also made a very quick sketch of the leaves too..scruffy, but looks OK cropped down. The leaves are still a dull midsummer grey-green with no sign yet of their famously beautiful yellow autumnal colouring.

gink tiny leaves sm

Thursday 26 August 2010

Grey Skies and Ginkgo Sketches

It has now rained almost constantly for two days now,  not much in the way of beautiful clouds or apocalyptic storms but just gloomy grey skies. Have they been sent as a reminder of what the UK has in store for us? It’s time to seriously sort out, throw out, sell up and pack. I am now being ruthless.  It’s less than 3 weeks to go to our moving day. 

However to lift my spirits a bit I have started thinking about my next commission which  involves, to my delight, the wonderful gingko tree. I went to Leu Gardens a few days ago to collect a sprig of leaves. They have quite a few ginkgo trees which I wrote about long ago,  back in September 2008. when I drew three little leaves for  “Leaf of the Day”  see Ginkgo Leaves.


The leaves have been in the fridge and although not quite as bouncy as when I first brought them back, they are fine for sketching.   I hung the sprigs from my lamp to draw them.

ginkgo branch sm

The curious leathery leaves with their deeply ridged surface grow in groups from little nodules along the branch. Their flat fan-like shape and very long petioles allow them catch the slightest puff of wind and flutter so beautifully in the breeze. (I am reminded so much of the Cottonwood trees we saw up in New Mexico.) The raised vein structure in the leaves themselves is rather odd,  branching from just two parallel veins they repeatedly divide into two and do not join.

 ginkgo sm ginkgo 2 sm

Sketchbook drawings,  pencil 12'’ x9”

The Ancient Survivor

When I first wrote about them I was fascinated to learn more of their ancient and wonderful history and I quote again this passage from the really excellent site The Ginkgo Pages, which really sums up the appeal of this tree.

"As the paleobotanist, Sir Albert Seward (1938) remarks: "It appeals to the historic soul: we see it as an emblem of changelessness, a heritage from worlds too remote for our human intelligence to grasp, a tree which has in its keeping the secrets of the immeasureable past."

Dating back a staggering 270 million years, it rubbed shoulders with dinosaurs, in fact it predates them. It is unique, in an order entirely on its own, the Ginkgoales. Once widespread over America Europe and Asia, it was thought to be extinct but the wonderful explorer, physician and naturalist Engelbert Kaempfer found it while visiting Buddhist monks in Nagasaki 1691. He brought seeds back, planted them in the Botanic Garden at Utrecht where I think the ancient tree still survives and, talking about survival,  it is one of the few trees that survived Hiroshima.

I am struck that  it seems glib to summarise the story of Darwin’s  “Living Fossil” in such a few words.  So stop for a moment and ponder on those bald statements, the links to a time we can barely comprehend, the extraordinary journeys of the early explorers, the survival of some things which defy the most awful destruction dreamed up by man. It makes our little individual lives, our petty concerns and preoccupations seem so trivial.

Consider the gingko and be humbled!

And do go and read Cor Kwant’s Ginkgo Pages!!  More ginkgo tomorrow.

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Wednesday 25 August 2010

A Tattooed Bee?.. or two or three..

Amongst the commissions I have done recently was a little Blue Orchard bee tattoo design for Branne.  I am not going to post the design as it’s just too easy to copy and I want it to be her unique design.  But when it is finished I will ask for a skin shot!

This is not the first time I have been asked to design tattoos and bees are, quite rightly, rather popular.

There was an artsy tattoo “event” in the UK late last year and I know that my friend Damian who has done so much to publicise the plight of bees at “Help Save Bees” was considering a nice discreet bumblebee. The project was called “ExtInked”, and invited volunteers to be tattooed with one of 100 endangered plants, animals, and fungi to celebrate Darwin's bicentennial and draw attention (no pun intended ) to the decline of species. It was a rather cool project! .. You can read all about it here at Ultimate Holding Company (UHC) . There were a number of bee designs including the shill carder bee.  No images of the bees are available, but here is a rather nice big spider, not perhaps the choice for someone with an arachnophobic  partner.

p54_f_1258731332  “Extinked” tattoo designs see more on the UHC site.

Bees are somewhat more appealing, to me anyway and so I am very pleased to be able to share with you the great tattoo that Christine had done, based on a couple of my mason bee paintings. It’s rather nice as she has incorporated both the Blue Orchard Bee  and the Red Orchard  Bee, Osmia lignaria and Osmia rufa

Here are BOB and ROB happily buzzing around Christine’s shoulder!


Of course what we all really want to ask is, “ How much did it hurt, Christine?? “

There are lots of honey and bumblebee tattoos but it’s so nice that both Christine and Brieanne are giving the Orchard Bees a look in.

Am I getting one (or two or three)?…well, maybe.  They will go well with the leathers and the very big motor bike I am thinking of getting.. :) 

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Tuesday 24 August 2010

Dog Park Skies

Just a few more skies ..I thought I would try to do a few more sketches this week so it’s off to the Dog Park to look across the lake. Yesterday we had another terrific storm that set off all the fire alarms again.  This storm with its huge dark curl of rain sodden cloud kept just to the west of us today.

Dog park lake sky1  

Then there are  banks of fluffy clouds that sit on the horizon after the storm

 dpk lake 2

and clouds that seem to be lit from within.


You have to watch your back here as storms come from nowhere. The earsplitting thunder can make you jump right out of your skin and lightning is to be respected at all times. As Geoff, the friendly weather man tells us ..” If you can see the lightning, the lightning can see you!” . Should you think this is a lot of fuss about nothing, Florida is the lightning state of the USA, with more deaths than all other states combined.

The Dog Park, of course, also has dogs. It’s where they bring their humans for some fresh air and fun .. Look there’s one on the bench! dpdogs

Sunday 22 August 2010

Back from Nola and Painting the Croton

We are reluctantly back from a fabulous few days in New Orleans where we stayed with some good friends at the fun Creole Gardens B&B. We saw art, history, architecture old and new, terrible destruction and rising hope.  We heard great music and fascinating,  sometimes heartbreaking, stories everywhere we went.  We ate po’boys, massive muffulettas, andouille and boudin sausage, gumbo, and crawfish and covered ourselves in white icing sugar from the very excellent beignets from Cafe du Monde. We met wonderful people, visited the excellent Insectarium ( nice bugs !!), criss crossed the great Mississippi on the ferry and travelled the clattering streetcar, whose routes we explored from top to bottom and all things in between. We walked till we could walk no more, just to fall into a bar, drink plenty of hurricanes and fall into bed. Despite Katrina’s long shadow and the oil, it’s a great, unique city of laughter, spirit and optimism.  We will be back.


Meanwhile back at the drawing board I have been working on my lovely Croton leaf commission for some 3 weeks now and after a few days away from it (always a good thing) have added the final tweaks. I don’t blog about commissions until my clients know what they are getting.. It would rather spoil the surprise if they were treated to a blow by blow account! But this is now finished, approved and will be on its way tomorrow.   My client and I share an admiration for these leaves, their twists and turns and colour variations are seemingly endless. 


Just a few of my sample leaves from Leu Gardens.. they do have lots of crotons!

Back in July I started looking at various crotons and sketching and making colour studies before embarking on this large piece. It is a larger than life single leaf on full sheet watercolour so approx 25 inches high, which requires a a bolder approach and bigger brushes, just a bit different from 2 inch bees! 

First drawings

Drawing croton leaves is wonderful practice for getting the flow and shape of leaves

leaf sketch sm 2 leaf sketch sm 1  croton pencil_2

 More colour studies

croton studies sm

Colour trials in sketchbook and on different papers. There is a problem with painting green and red leaves because if you are not careful, especially with watercolour you get mud. Red and green are complementaries and will neutralise each other.. not really what you want!

col trials1sm

Larger scale trials

On to working on some larger versions, to get the colours and patterns sorted out and again try some different surfaces. Yes I am a messy worker!

I did start one full size painting on a rougher paper (See below) but decided against it. It just wasn’t working well for what I wanted.  It was on Arches cold pressed.. nice for some things but not quite right for this occasion, but it helped sort out some shapes and was a good trial for the colours.

The Final Piece…(as much as anything is ever final!)

I decided to work on full sheet Arches 140 lb, unstretched.  It’s a light weight paper but as I am not going to be working very wet  it won’t be a problem.. I work on the “wrong” side which I prefer to the “right” side.


I started at the top.. hoping and praying to keep everything clean! Its my biggest worry and most likely accident

I do cover up the pristine white paper as best I can. I should really cut a mask out of paper… but sometimes life is just too short! 

Next stage the greens and the pattern on the lower leaf and darkening of shadows etc.


Below I am almost there.. this is the stage  I left it, just over a week ago. This is the danger zone for me as I really really want to go on fiddling around which can be fatal. You can over-do everything and knock all the life out of a painting so easily.

So after a week away from it I just worked on a few areas of highlight and shadow.. I am sending it tomorrow and can hopefully keep it clean !!

Isolated from the plant these leaves have great presence and it will be an imposing piece when framed up, to a size,  I guess, of about 3.5 to 4 foot.

It has been with me for 3 weeks now and  I am thinking I may just do another one!

Friday 13 August 2010

Some Clouds on the Horizon… and some a bit closer than that.

We are having a lot of weather here at the moment. It’s a typical Florida summer.  The day starts clear and bright, then, as the heat rises to almost unbearable temperatures, the clouds bubble up from the west. By 3.00 or often earlier, huge apocalyptic thunderstorms sweep across the flat Florida landscape and just as quickly subside. The relief from the heat can be short lived and the evening slips back to being calm and still,  hot and airless.

It’s something I will always remember about our time here, so in between working on the commissions I sketched a few clouds.

There is not what you would call “a view” from our terrace just the rooftop of the opposite apartments, some tree tops and then sky..

clouds 4s 

There are clouds with holes in them…


Towers of vertical clouds crossed with horizontal  floating bands


Big puffy clouds which seem to link the land and the sky.

clouds 5

Bright edges of clouds.

storm cloud 2

Layers of dark rain soaked clouds which are so low you feel you could touch them. They move swiftly, obliterating everything.

clouds storm

And then, over the old buildings of Baldwin Park Naval base across the lake there are the high trailing clouds of early evening.

lake cloud 

Another storm has just passed over and it’s raining right now.
These little sketches cannot do justice to the magnificence of these skies. These are the skies which make you believe in Sky Gods.

We are going away for a few days but I think sky studies will resume next week.

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Saturday 7 August 2010

The Lovely Melissodes Bees, and Who was Melissa anyway?

I am busy with some commissioned work at the moment but for a break I have been going down to the Gardens for a bit of R&R and of course a bit of bee spotting.

If I was excited about the little leafcutter bee last week, I am even more excited about seeing the very beautiful black Melissodes bimaculata.  They are not so difficult to see but are fast, impatient bees and difficult to photograph. If one out of ten of my photos actually has a bee in it, I count myself lucky .. to have one with a non blurry bee is even more amazing.

These bees belong to the wonderful longhorned bees, the Eucerini tribe (Apidae), whose males have the exuberant long antennae. These particular Melissodes bimaculata are a beautiful inky black with robust hairy legs. Their back legs have bushy ivory/tan coloured hairs, a feature which reminded me very much of the striking female Anthophora plumipes. Are they related I wonder?  At the tip of the abdomen are two white spots,  the “bi-maculata”  of its name. They have a very distinctive shape, almost fly-like in a way. I have seen them mostly on the squash flowers where you can be taken by surprise as they are right down at the base of the flower.  Stick your nose in at your peril, there is often an odd assortment of insects down there!

This is the very characteristic  fly-like look of the bimaculata. bimac1

They have big broad heads..almost triangular from the front.


They love this native Firebush plant Hamelia patens. This is my one, lucky shot…you can see the white spot on the tip of the abdomen, one of the bi-maculata spots and the pale leg hairs.


Here the bee has its head right down the trumpet of the flower and is holding onto the sides with its feet. Its rather like trying on a hat.



This nectar rich plant is a banqueting table for many other insects, bugs and butterflies and as I approached this patch the other day there was a thrummm of hummingbird wings past my ear. I have only seen one other this year.

Below is the male bimaculata with his extra long antennae heading off to the White Cordia whose crinkled flowers are similar to squash flowers I thought.



Melissodes”… from the Greek “Melissa” meaning  “honey bee”.

So who was Melissa?

The original Melissa had many guises it seems. She is sometimes priestess, sometimes nymph.  The handmaidens who served the great earth goddess Artemis were called Melissae.

In one story Melissa is a nymph who lived in the “ bee haunted cave” on Ithaca. She it was who first discovered the delights of honey and mead and it is this lovely Melissa who named the bees. 

In another she is the daughter of Melisseus King of Crete. She is one of nurses for the baby Zeus and feeds him on goat’s milk and honey. “Melissaios”,  the Bee man, is another name for Zeus

The Melissae have some lovely associations with souls and spirits and the muses, honeyed words, sweetly whispered. Unborn souls, said to arrive as bees, were called Melissa and  Persephone also luxuriated in the name Melitodes …meaning the honey sweet one.

This is the tiny sketch I did last year of the ancient Bee Goddess plaque at the British Museum from 7th century Rhodes.

 queen bee 2 

Another “Melissa” but a plant this time is the beautiful Lemon Balm Mellissa officinalis much loved by bees and an ancient healing herb. The “sweet” mint used for alleviating pain and soothing practically anything..  another definite addition to my imaginary garden.


 Image by Richard Peterson at Shutterstock

So, I am delighted to have seen the Melissodes bimaculata. I rather like to think of them as strange little black muses, as purveyors of inspiration and ideas. I will be back down to the Gardens very soon.

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Monday 2 August 2010

Life on the Ledge, Update

It was still there. The sparrows nest survived a whole week. There had been a couple of heavy downpours and a vicious lightning storm which set off all the fire alarms in the apartment block, but the prevailing winds had shifted, their side of the building was more sheltered.  I had hoped that gave them a fighting chance.

As I said on the last post, they had started taking in fluffy stuff, mossy bits and pieces and the odd feather or two, not their own, but other bird’s feathers which in some ways seemed quite strange. On Friday a large black feather had been added to the top of the nest, like some sort of defiant flag or trophy. I sketched these on Saturday.

nest sat

 sp sm 

But yes.. you guessed.. by Sunday morning their home was gone, again. It lay at the foot of the column in a little tangled heap. The site of the nest is way too high for us to assist them at all, which is such a shame. That afternoon it poured with rain and the two sparrows returned to huddle on their empty ledge again.. I am really hoping that this time they will move on and find a safer location! They are still hopping around near the door outside and chirping in the bushes and trees and, I am sure, are undaunted by such a small setback.  Good luck little sparrows!