Saturday, 19 July 2014

A Date with Colour

To be a botanical artist, you need a certain amount of obsessiveness.
Some botanical artists are obsessed with colour, making endless colour charts and memorising pigment numbers and characteristics. Others are passionate about certain plants or  habitats, tenderly creating their own leafy paradises, or travelling to the far corners of the earth to find their subject.

Date studies, 2012
For me, it’s dates (Phoenix dactlifera). I really love painting them. You would think that having painted them so many times over the years that I would be bored of them by now, but I’m not. I still find them fascinating and I still learn something new every time I paint.

Date studies 2013
Now at last the dates have started to ripen. They hang heavy in the trees, full size now, slowly changing from green to a beautiful soft pink, and every colour in between. Gradually they will turn a rich red colour, crunchy and sweet, darkening slowly through the whole range of reds and purples until they are a delicious black, becoming as soft and juicy as a plum. After that they slowly dry out and become the brown fruit that is so familiar to us all. I will need every colour in my box to capture these changes.

Date Studies 2013
They are still not ready for eating, but I want to capture the changes. Last year I did some colour studies of this green to red stage, but of a different variety. For the RHS I have chosen to work on a variety that is more common in Egypt called Hayani. It tastes better too, always a bonus.

Armed with my colour notes from both last year and my leaf studies, I started with the green dates. It’s fair to say that I struggled. The green dates had a blush of pink, and a layer of bloom which made it a challenge, because when you mix green and red you get mud.

So I just kept practicing and practicing, filling my page with dates.  Date Studies 21014
I discovered that the bloom colour depends on the underlying pigment. Where there is a green part, I used cobalt teal and cobalt. Where there was a red part, I would use permanent rose and cobalt violet. First I wet the whole of the date with clean water, and whilst it was still damp, dropped in these bloom colours, allowing the pigments to mix.  Avoiding the areas where the highlights were, I would blend in some Naples in the centre part whilst it was all still damp. I would then build up the layers of paint, blending all the time with a soft clean brush, being careful to retain both the highlights and the softer colours along the edges.

I ended up using a lot of colours! 
I've a nice big palette, but I only used about half of the paints here.
The most important thing though is to closely observe what you are painting… there are shadows and reflections where you don’t expect it. Sometimes the whole thing can come to life with the addition of a blemish or mark. From time to time, I would take some of the layers back off using clean water and kitchen towel.

 I decided to do another quick study, this time with the dates hanging in front of me. 

At first I was going to draw one little spikelet and perhaps not paint every date, but it’s addictive! I couldn't stop!!

 I will use these colour studies for a larger painting that I plan to do when I return to Dublin. 
As they say, practice makes perfect!

Color study of ripening dates, Phoenix dactylifera  'Hayani'  ©Shevaun Doherty 2014

"The creative habit is like a drug. The particular obsession changes, but the excitement, the thrill of your creation lasts.
Henry Moore


  1. Amazing, Shevaun. So much to learn for just this post alone.

  2. Beautiful colour studies and subject Shevaun, every date is different.

    1. Thanks Jenni! I always think of you when I'm painting green and orange now!!

  3. I think the study is exquisite. I can imagine the challenge in finding the colours to achieve the degree of ripeness and that bloom. I'm glad someone besides me does studies pre-painting. :)

    I can see your fascination with dates and being able to capture the various stages of ripening would be interesting. I guess I think of dates as those dark dried versions in the supermarket and never the original fruit.

    1. Thanks Jeanette. I agree, doing a study first makes life a whole lot easier when you go to paint the real thing, and you have a better idea of how it will all come together. I'm glad that you like the dates... I don't wouldn't imagine that you have too many date palms in Newfoundland!

  4. I am so happy that you share your obsession with us and share so much good information. So gorgeous!

  5. This post recalls a quote from one of those country estate restoration programs on BBC . . . "I'm in the agony of despair at the arrangement of colours." Not that you're in despair . . . I just liked the words.

    1. Haha!! I like those words too! I did feel a bit like that at times


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