Saturday, 30 November 2013

Egypt and Botanical Beginnings

There’s an old Egyptian saying, “Once you drink from the Nile, you are destined to return”.
However I knew from the moment I stepped out into Cairo’s warm night air, heavy with the sweet scent of jasmine, twenty five years ago, that Egypt would always be a part of my life.

Keystone over the main door of the Egyptian Museum, Cairo
Whilst living in Egypt, there was nothing that I loved more than to go off and explore the Egyptian countryside, always bringing my sketchbook and my camera . Once you escape the hustle and bustle of Cairo, it’s so easy to imagine that you have stepped back in time- cattle grazing in marshy pastures along the Nile, long-robed men working in the fields, children scampering down to the river’s edge to play and splash in the cool waters, tall palm trees standing silhouetted against a balmy sky.  It was scenes like this that inspired me to learn how to paint in watercolour.

Saqqara afternoon

Blue cabbages and egrets

Wherever I went, I was made feel most welcome, and would often look up from my sketchbook to find myself completely surrounded by curious children, or strangers bringing me hot mint tea or a cushion from their home to sit on as I sketched.
Crossing the Nile 
It was in Egypt too that I first started to learn about botanical art, inspired by all the beautiful flora and fauna that I saw.  How appropriate it was to discover that Egypt was also the birthplace of botanical art!

A lot of what we know about ancient Egypt comes from the art painted on the walls of temples, tombs and papyri. To the ancient Egyptians, art was not just a decorative feature, it also contained powerful magic.  The images that they created  reflected their love of order and the triumph of man over nature. Accurate representations were important because all of the people, plants and animals portrayed would continue to live on in the afterlife. They used clean lines, simplified forms, areas of flat colour, and a balanced composition to create their images. They were not interested in light and shadow as these were transitory features. Every image and colour had a symbolic meaning and purpose. Pigments were mainly mineral and mixed with mediums such as gum Arabic (resin from the acacia tree), wax and casein.

“Nature is the best and the shortest route towards knowledge”
 Inscribed on the wall of a temple in Luxor

The ancient Egyptians studied the flora and fauna carefully, believing them to hold all the secrets of life. Their culture was very closely bound to the natural world. The blue lotus, Nymphaea caerulea, was considered the most sacred of all plants. The flowers emerge from the water each morning at dawn, just as the sun is being rolled into the sky by Kheper, the sacred scarab beetle, and so the flowers were considered living proof of rebirth. Their intense fragrance was an indicator of a divine presence. The white lotus, Nymphaea lotus, was also sacred, as was the papyrus plant, Cyperus papyrus, which grew in dense thickets along the banks of the Nile, harbouring an abundance of wildlife. It symbolised fertility and also protection, and was one of the most useful and important plants for the ancient Egyptians.
Nymphaea caerulea in the Temple of Flora, Robert Thornton

Nymphaea lotus, L. van Houtte,
It was said that the ancient Egyptians celebrate a Feast of Lotus, where they placed candles in small silver lotus-shaped pots. Each person would go down to the Nile with the pot in his hand and an overwhelming dream in his heart. The pots were placed upon the water with the burning candles. If they remained floating, then their heart’s desires would come true.
The ancient Egyptians loved their gardens, which they filled with a large variety of trees, vegetables and flowers. Usually at the centre of each garden there was a pool of water filled with lotus and papyrus plants. As well as places of sanctuary and cool shade, gardens had religious importance and many  deities were associated with the plants grown within. 

A garden fresco from the tomb of  Nebamun, British Museum showing sycamore figs, date palms, doum palms, persea trees, mandrakes and a pond full of lotus plants, fish and geese
 The most famous of all gardens was probably that of Hatshepsut(1508–1458 BC), one of Egypt’s first female pharaohs and certainly one of the most successful, ruling for over twenty years. One of her great achievements was her trade expedition to the fabled land of Punt (thought to be Somalia), where they collected trees of myrrh and frankincense, the resin of which was vital in the ritual of embalming. The trees were transported back in baskets with their roots intact, and planted around her magnificent mortuary temple, Deir al Bahri, their transportation forever recorded on the walls of her temple.

An inscription of the walls of Hatshepsut’s temple states that "the ships were laden with the costly products of the Land of Punt and with its many valuable woods, with very much sweet-smelling resin and frankincense, with quantities of ebony and ivory . . ."
However it was her young nephew and co-regent Thutmosis III, who was the creator of the first botanical art. Whilst his aunt remained in Egypt, he travelled extensively, expanding their empire until it stretched from Sudan to Syria. When he returned, he decided to build a great Festival temple at Karnak, something that would reflect his greatness as God-King. He filled his Festival Temple with gold and precious stones, and at it’s heart built a secret sanctuary, known as The Botanical Chamber which was decorated with wonderful painted carvings of more than 300 specimens of flora and fauna. An inscription reads that the chambers contained
“…all the plants that grow, all the flowers that are in God’s hand …“

Although the temple lies in ruins now, it is still possible to identify many of plants and animals depicted- Dracunculus vulgaris (Dragon Arum),  Kalanchoe aegyptiaca, chrysanthemum, Arum italicum,  Dipsacus (teasel) , Iris flowers , Punica granatum (pomegranates), Vitis vinifera (grapevines), a female gazelle, a goose, a lapwing, a plover, a white egret, a migrating grasshopper and many more.
Fortunately, the Botanical Chamber has been very cleverly reconstructed in a video and we can get an idea of how this great work of art must have looked three and a half thousand years ago. It is in arabic but subtitled, well worth viewing!

Egypt has a special place in my heart, and as they say, I have drunk the waters so I will return.

“Egypt is a great place for contrasts: splendid things gleam in the dust.”
Gustav Flaubert, Flaubert in Egypt: A Sensibility on Tour

A sketch from the tomb of Thutmosis III

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Getting to know you

The thing that makes a painting difficult is uncertainty. Whereas if you plan in advance, the uncertainty is removed.  Dianne Sutherland Ball
File image from Wikipedia

It was the flash of orange at the side of the road that first caught my eye. Every day as I drove my daughters to school I noticed it, but this was a busy road, so I couldn’t stop. However I couldn’t stop thinking about it either. So when I spotted that same beckoning orange in a friend’s garden, I was thrilled. She kindly gave me some cuttings and the name of the object of my desire … Iris foetidissima.

The orange that I had seen was not the flowers, which are apparently quite dull, but rather the gorgeous seed pods, which burst open each winter to reveal brilliant scarlet orange seeds. Iris foetidissima is native to this part of the world and is said to have the constitution of an ox, willing to grow just about anywhere. It’s also known as the Stinking Iris or Roast Beef plant because the leaves are supposed to smell like roast beef when crushed.

Nicholas Culpeper wrote about it in his 17th century herbal of medicinal plants, The English Physitian, calling it `Stinking Gladwin', and described the leaves as having "a strong, ill scent". Even so, it was highly valued as a medicinal herb, especially for making poultices for drawing out splinters and the odd arrow head.

Pong or no pong, after all my practicing of washes and dry brushstrokes last week, I was eager to move onto the next stage of the painting, or the “Getting to know you” stage. The better you know your subject, the easier the painting will be, or at least, that’s the theory!

I usually work with two magnifying glasses to get up close and personal with my subject and it's portrait.
Art is born of the observation and investigation of nature. Cicero (106 BC - 43 BC)

The first thing that I did was a quick line drawing in my sketchbook, just to get the feel of the plant. I couldn’t resist adding a seed, which I discovered is actually known in botany as an aril. It’s similar to a pomegranate seed in that the seed has a fleshy covering. 

Aril – fleshy and usually brightly coloured cover of some seeds that develops from the ovule stalk and partially or entirely envelopes the seed. Arils, such the red berry-like arils of the yew (Taxus baccata), are often brightly coloured to attract animals who eat them and disperse the seeds. 

After the first little section, I decided that I wasn’t too happy with the husk of the seedpod. The colours were a little too dull and that textured surface was a challenge! So I took one of the seed pods, pulled it apart, removed the arils and did some studies of the husks.

As I want to paint this on vellum, I thought carefully about the opacity of the pigments that I am using. The smoothness and translucency of vellum can bring a vibrancy and depth to colours, so transparent pigments really come into their own. Usually I don’t worry too much about how opaque a colour is, in fact I’ve quite a few opaque colours that I really couldn’t live without. However to get the best out of my vellum, it is worth taking time to reconsider your colour choices. So out went light red, to be replaced with burnt sienna + winsor orange and winsor orange-red (also used in the arils), and perylene violet came in to replace the caput mortuum. Gold ochre replaced yellow ochre.
 You can read more about the transparency of pigments here.


I continued to work on my seed pod study, experimenting as I went along, and was quite pleased with the potential of the subject. However I needed to work out the colour choices for the arils as I felt that some colour mixes were a little muddy.

The vellum is the creamy coloured section at the bottom... already the colours look smoother and the arils glossier.
I couldn’t resist trying out the tiny sample of vellum that I have. It’s such a lovely surface to work on, and to my great surprise, quite forgiving. You can literally wipe off what you have painted with a damp brush… but that is a double edged sword, because sometimes you might not want to wipe off what you have painted!!

The Iris foetidissima  seed pod study so far

So the practice continues. I’m onto the leaves now. I still haven’t quite worked out what colours to use… but transparent yellow is probably going to play a starring role. I have a small sheet of parchment, which is goatskin vellum (a slightly rougher surface) to play on.  It’s not quite the same thing but will help me test out colours and brush techniques.

My kelmscott vellum is ready, all powdered up and waiting for me to begin. My new sable brushes arrived yesterday and I have some fresh seed pods waiting to have their portrait painting. I am excited!

This suspense is terrible. I hope it will last. (Oscar Wilde)

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Practice makes Perfect

 “Don’t only practice your art, but force your way into its secrets, for it and knowledge can raise men to the divine.” Ludwig van Beethoven

For a long time now, I have wanted to learn how to paint on vellum. For those that don’t know, vellum is a type of parchment prepared from animal skin (usually calf). It is prized for it’s smoothness, it’s durability and above all, that magical translucent luminosity that it brings to watercolour paintings.

Cherry leaf on vellum, Dianne Sutherland Ball

However, it’s not that easy- painting on vellum is not like painting on paper. It doesn’t like a lot of water, so requires a special dry brush technique and an awful lot of patience. It’s also eye-wateringly expensive!

Fortunately my friend, the very talented Dianne Sutherland Ball, recently set up an online course in vellum painting, and as I am a huge fan of her work, I signed up. I’ll be writing more about vellum as the course progresses.

So this week found me going right back to the basics once more, drawing out little squares and circles onto paper and practicing over and over again- flat washes, graded washes and dry brush techniques. I experimented with different brushes, trying ones that have been long neglected and forgotten, some that have never ever been used! Some worked beautifully whilst others were a total disaster! It’s the perfect excuse to order some lovely new brushes… well, I’ll need them for the vellum!

Back to basic- the top was my first attempt with dodgy washes and odd shaped balls. The second attempt was better. The egg was my first dry brush attempt..

I played with the paint, trying out new ways of putting pigment onto paper and pushing it around the page, lifting and blending and occasionally cursing!  As I worked, I found myself contemplating how beneficial these kind of exercises are, and how they can open the door to new discoveries about ourselves as artists.

A previous practice page of fresh dates (Phoenix dactylifera) with some real ones thrown in

So often in life, we rush into things headfirst, impatient to start and too eager to finish. However, there is a lot to be gained in taking things slowly and going back to the basics. Often the path to mastering a technique requires endless repetition.

Page of olive leaves (Olea europaea)

There is something quite satisfying about filling a page with leaves, repeating it over and over again. I’ve often spent an afternoon, chasing something across a page, each time tweaking it to get the right colour, the right tone.

Struggling to capture the soft fuzzy grey of the Dusty miller plant (Senecio cineraria)

It’s that relentless pursuit of perfection, or as Vincent Van Gogh said “I am seeking. I am striving. I am in it with all my heart.”

Oleander leaves (Nerium oleander) and a strange looking Aloe succotrina leaf 

Cinnamon quills

Shells make great practice pieces
A small dry leaf can keep me busy for a few hours... yes, I'm easily amused!

There's never an excuse not to practice... I once whiled away an afternoon in a busy waiting room .
Next week I hope to start on the vellum and will let you all know how I get on. For now I will leave you with a few useful links and another quote. I'm off to practice some more!

"As practice makes perfect, I cannot but make progress; each drawing one makes, each study one paints, is a step forward."  Vincent van Gogh

Friday, 8 November 2013

Back to Black

Last week, I went to visit an artist friend who has a small but exquisite garden, lovingly tended and filled with all manner of botanical treasures. She gave me some seed heads for my next painting project, and then almost as an afterthought, gave me some of the lovely black leaves and berries of Ophiopogom planiscapus 'Nigrescens’ or black lilyturf. I took them home, popped them into jam jars, planning to begin work on the seed heads once the weekend was over.

But all weekend long, my thoughts kept slipping back to black.

Jacaranda seedpod
It’s such a powerful and evocative colour, but one that most watercolour artists tend to avoid. In fact, it’s one of the few colours that I just don’t have in my box of paints. To be honest, I haven’t really had much use for black. I searched through my sketchbooks to see if I had used it in the past, but found just a page of olives, a jacaranda seedpod and a tiny scarab beetle.

Plein air study of an olive tree and olives, Cairo

Black paint can either be bought readymade, or created using mixtures of the three primaries. Of the commercial blacks, Lamp black is made from the soot of oil lamps (a rich velvety opaque black), whilst ivory black is made from crushed roasted ivory or bone (a warmer less intense black). There are also neutral tints (first developed by 18thcentury English watercolourists as an alternative to sepia) which are used to “neutralise” the intensity of the hue. Winsor and Newton’s neutral tint is actually a mix of lamp black, dark blue and violet. Payne's grey, another popular neutral tint, is a mixture of iron blue, yellow ochre and crimson lake.

Little scarab beetle painted using mainly Payne's grey, and a pectoral in the form of a scarab from Tutankhamun's tomb

It is generally agreed that the best blacks of all are the chromatic blacks, created by the artist by carefully mixing primaries. Ask a dozen artists their favourite chromatic black, and each will give you a different recipe of pigments.
A word to the wise... this is best done on a day when it's too dark to paint and too wet and cold to go out!

So, with all thoughts of the work that I should be doing cast aside, I found myself on Monday morning making the “mother of all black charts”. Not a quest for the fainthearted, but by the time that I had finished, I had made some very interesting discoveries.
  •  Hookers green, a pigment that I have really disliked up until now, made the most gorgeous range of dark earthy greens
  •   Viridian and Perylene green both made a delicious range of blacks, especially when combined with Winsor dioxide.
  •  Perylene maroon also came up trumps, better even than alizarin crimson, creating some beautifully rich colours. 
You can read more about pigments and their qualities here

So having satisfied my curiosity somewhat, I started to paint the Ophiopogom.  As it was only a study, I decided to throw caution to the wind and just dive in without a lot of preliminary sketches. I loosely arranged the leaves and berries onto a sheet of paper (using blu-tack to hold them in place), took a photograph to remind me of the composition and popped the leaves and berries back into the water to keep them fresh.

The berries are a beautiful blueish black. I mixed cerulean, cobalt violet and paynes grey to get the lightest colour, adding indigo and winsor violet to get the richer tones. 
I draw the berries out carefully in pencil and then paint the lines in a paler version of the finished colour

The leaves go from a gorgeous pale yellow to green to a rich inky black … a fantastic combination of colours!   I started with naples, blending it into lemon and first adding cerulean to the lemon and then indigo, before blending that into perylene green. The upper parts of the leaf were first given a wash of the cerulean/cobalt violet/paynes grey mix, and then finished off with a mix of perylene green with winsor dioxide and a teeny bit of perylene maroon. The veins on the underside were painted with perylene green.

 Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’ (lilyturf). Although it looks like black grass, lilyturf is actually a member of the asparagus family (Asparagaceae). Planiscapus means ‘flattened scape’ and refers to the flattened flower-stalk of this species, as seen on the stalk on the left.

Regardless of the mixes used, black flowers and plants make visually striking and dramatic paintings. I really love Rosie Sanders paintings of black flowers (see here), and Coral Guest's black tulips. Billy Showell’s gorgeous painting of Tacca chantrieri (batflower) has both elegance and intrigue.

Yes, I will definitely be going back to black.

"There's something about black. You feel hidden away in it." ~ Georgia O'Keeffe

Saturday, 2 November 2013

A quiet beauty, Hedera hibernica

Hedera hibernica, Irish ivy

It’s always a great feeling to finish up a project and to finally clear away all the scraps of paper, paint and plants that accumulate whilst the painting is being done. This latest project has taken even longer than usual, as I needed to paint the whole lifecycle of the plant, so my colour studies began in April this year with the berries, and finished this month with the flowers.

The plant is the Irish ivy, or Hedera hibernica, or Eidhne√°n.  It is not a plant that I would have really given much thought to before, but the more that I got to know it, the more I began to like it.

Ivy has captured our imaginations throughout history from the Acient Greeks to the Celts. It symbolised eternity and fertility, friendship and fidelity. During the Samhain festivities (Hallowe’en) in Ireland, young girls would place nine ivy leaves beneath her pillow to dream of the man she will marry.

Nine Ivy leaves I place under my head
To dream of the living and not of the dead
To dream of the man I am going to wed
To see him tonight at the foot of my bed.

Ivy is everywhere…it’s tenacious, it’s resilient, it’s adaptable. It has an elegant beauty with glossy leaves, delicate flowers and dark berries. It’s hugely important to wildlife too, with the flowers and fruit providing nourishment throughout the winter months, and it’s evergreen canopy giving welcome shelter to birds, insects and small mammals. True, it is invasive, but that is part of it’s charm… it doesn’t give up.

Early studies ivy berries. They start off as green and slowly darken to a purply black.
This unfinished study helped me remember just how to paint these berries. As with many fruits and berries, I started with cerulean and cobalt violet to capture the highlights and reflected lights. Perylene green, indigo, winsor violet, perylene maroon were also used. 
Ivy has two different types of leaves, palmately lobed juvenile leaves on creeping and climbing stems and unlobed cordate adult leaves on fertile flowering stems,usually found at the top of the plant. However when studying the plant I realised that there can be huge differences in the shape and size of leaves from plant to plant.

Non-flowering leaves
Hedera flower and leaves
The flowers grow in umbels and are surprisingly delicate. I had to use a magnifying glass and my teeniest brushes to paint the tiny pale green petals and stamens. Each flower that I saw had insects buzzing nearby, large bumble bees, dainty butterflies, wasps, hoverflies...all excitedly feasting on the abundant nectar.
I did a wasp study (rescued from a windowsill) but never painted it onto the final piece. Another studio find was a ladybird which gave a much needed pop of colour to the green leaves.

In the course of my studies, I stumbled across another "must-have" paint...  Winsor and Newton Transparent yellow. What a useful colour! It made painting those greens so much easier. I must have tried a dozen different mixes before settling on cerulean, indigo, perylene green and transparent yellow.

The berries were the most fun to paint... they were surprisingly colourful and made great botanical subjects. I loved the unfertilised flowers too... they remain for a long time on the plant and look like tiny fireworks.

Unfortunately I can't show the finished piece yet, but hope that these studies will help others notice and appreciate the unassuming beauty of this plant. I'll leave you with this lovely quote from Vincent Van Gogh~ 

"Painters understand nature, and love her, and teach us to see her"