Friday, 20 December 2013

The Tightrope

The process of creating a botanical painting is a lot like walking a tightrope. 

You prepare yourself to take that first step, do all the preparatory studies, colour charts and practice runs, mentally telling yourself that you can do this.

After carefully selecting my subject, I draw it out and then trace the design onto tracing paper with black pen,
I retrace the drawing on the reverse with HB pencil. Then positioning it carefully over the vellum, go once more over the front of the design with red pencil

 “In the beginning you must subject yourself to the influence of nature. You must be able to walk firmly on the ground before you start walking on a tightrope.” 
Henri Matisse 

I place tracing paper over the vellum to protect it whilst I paint, and cutting out a little window in the paper to expose the piece I wish to work on. To the side of my painting, I keep the initial drawing as reference. 

You take those first tentative steps onto the tightrope, eyes firmly fixed on the task ahead and concentrating hard to stay focused.

And I'm off! I redraw the pencil lines in thin paint and then gently erase them. The paint that I am using is quite transparent so I don't want want the grey pencil lines to show through.
After the first few steps, you begin to feel more confident and even a little excited.

It's beginning to take shape

I'm using initial washes of winsor orange for the warmer berries, and for those in the shade, I use the cooler wash of Schmincke purple magenta. After that, I build up the colours with winsor orange-red, permanent rose, pink madder, scarlet red, purple lake and perylene violet. 

But halfway through, you begin to wobble precariously!
 What to do, what to do? It’s too far to go back and start again, too much time has been invested, and yet there is still so far to go.

Aargh! I'm beginning to overpaint!! I'm fiddling too much!!! When I try to lift paint, it all comes off in a lumpy mess!! It's losing balance!

Still not right but looking a bit better.
However  I have discovered that you can use a scapel to gently scratch off the paint where needed. Unfortunately, this is proving a little too addictive! Oh no!! I need to put down the scalpel or risk ruining the surface altogether. In fact, I need to move the scalpel away from me altogether!
“You simply have to put one foot in front of the other and keep going. Put blinders on and plow right ahead.” George Lucas

Deep breaths. Rebalance. Focus. Continue on. I can do this!
I continue on.  The tracing paper window is opened further.  I usually paint with my hand resting on a wad of kitchen paper, a habit from my Egypt days to save the paper from a sweaty palm. I also use the kitchen paper to wipe off the excess paint.

"Endure and persist; this pain will turn to good by and by." 

Life is full of wobbles...

... but I'm not giving up just yet!

“Life is always a tightrope or a feather bed. Give me the tightrope.”  
Edith Wharton


  1. Wonderful sharing, Shevaun! Very well told, I often fell the same. And I will tell my self that I need to leave the painting for a night and be back tomorrow morning with clearer eyes and light feeling. Wonderful painting as well! I can't wait to see it done.

    1. Thank you, Eunike. It's reassuring to hear that the doubt happens to the best of us. Hope you have a lovely Christmas!

  2. Even as a beginner I recognise the process...and I wouldn't even contemplate vellum yet! Anything painted outside of my notebook must be prepared for: drawn, traced, redrawn and only then painted...and still you doubt, question and second-guess yourself. Wonderful description Shevaun. If it were easy it wouldn't be half as much fun!

    1. Elaine, that's so true. It's not easy but when it goes well, it's such a great feeling. I wish you all the best with your own work.

  3. Shevaun, This is a familiar story for me too-- my painting/creative process is often an emotional roller coaster ride! As Eunike says, when I start feeling too panicky and frustrated, I put it away for awhile until I can get some perspective. And yes, the scalpel can become addictive...dangerously so! Who would have thought that botanical art could embody so much drama!

    1. I totally agree with you... It's such an emotional rollercoaster and so many dramas along the way!! I'm really looking forward to seeing your finished vellum piece too!

    2. Thanks--its going slow during the holidays!

  4. I have enjoyed reading this and learning from it too. While I am new to botanical art I would like to try vellum. I read far too much and never start anything, something I must stop but I love to learn what others do. Thanks for sharing this.

    1. Edith, we all have to start somewhere and reading and showing an interest is a great first step. I wish you all the best with your journey and if you need help, just message me.


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