Saturday 12 July 2014

Bloom and Leaves

Take rest; a field that has rested gives a beautiful crop”  Ovid

After my flurry of painting last week, I needed to a few days to unwind, and there’s really no better place to relax and contemplate life, than under the gently swaying fronds of a palm tree.

I love date palms. They are such beautiful trees, particularly when laden with fruit, and I have been inspired to paint them many times over the years. The date palm, Phoenix dactylifera was an obvious choice when it came to selecting a theme for my RHS paintings. Unfortunately they don’t grow well in Ireland, so whilst I am here in Egypt, I need to gather as much visual information as possible (colour studies, sketches and photographs), to enable me to complete the paintings when I return to Dublin.

Dates and palm leaves studies from last year
For the last couple of years, I have concentrated on painting the fruit, but for the RHS I want to show all the aspects of this tree that make it so unique. So I have been reading everything that I can about this plant and trying to decide just how to depict it.

However before I can begin, I need to sort out my colour palette! Whilst I was happy enough painting the dates last year, the leaves were a struggle. Try as I might, I just could not get the right green. Green is always a difficult colour to get right, and palm leaves are a particularly elusive blue-green shade.

One of the reasons for their unusual colour is the waxy bloom that covers both the fruit and the leaves. 

All plants have this bloom- you can see it quite clearly on fruit such as plums and grapes, but it’s very apparent on desert plants. For years people thought that this bloom was caused by wild yeast cells, but recent discoveries have shown that this bloom, or epicuticular wax, is an important part of the plant. It's main role is to prevent water loss. It also reflects UV radiation and helps deter insects by making it difficult for them to walk on or lay eggs. Amazingly if the wax is accidently rubbed off the plant, it will grow back. Finally it helps the plant to self-clean, causing water to bead up and roll off, taking particles of dirt and dust with it. I found this really informative article which is well worth reading.

Bloom is also notoriously difficult to depict in watercolours, particularly when the use of white is so frowned upon. I know that some artists paint bloom by mixing a tiny bit of cobalt with white gouache and drybrush it on afterwards, but most (myself included) carefully paint the bloom first and build up the darker colours around it. The problem is trying to find the right bloom colour!

There was just one thing to do… make a colour chart of soft greens. The right one must be in there somewhere!!

Last year I read a really great article on the ASBA website by Carolyn Payzant, a botanical artist who has spent a lot of time painting the desert plants of Arizona. To achieve those grey blue greens, she recommended Oxide of Chromium. To my delight, I found that she was right. However Oxide of Chromium is not an easy colour to use. It’s very opaque and also heavily staining, a description that will have most botanical artists backing away in horror! I think the trick to using a colour like this is first to use it sparingly, and also to only mix it with transparent or semi-transparent pigments.

Sometimes the only way to get a colour right, is to keep practicing over and over again
I played around with several mixes and found that W&N Winsor yellow and M. Grahams Cobalt blue gave the best results. The big success of the day was M. Grahams Cobalt teal. What a gorgeous colour for bloom! I found that using Cobalt teal in my first washes gave that perfect glaucous blue, especially when I allowed a wash of Cobalt to bleed into that first wash.

Experiment with different mixes and don't forget to write down the names of the pigments

Alas, I have fallen out of love with my Saunders Waterford sketchbook. I really liked the look and size of this sketchbook, and have been using this for my date studies. The deckled edges and the creamy colour are so appealing, but I just don’t like the paper. It’s far too absorbent and rough. I switched to a piece of Fabriano Artistico to paint some date seedlings and was immediately amazed at how much nicer the surface was to paint on. It was much easier to get clean crisp edges on the Fabriano. I’ll still continue to use the sketchbook, but will probably stick sheets in.

A trio of date seedlings- colour studies which I plan to use in one of my future RHS paintings

I couldn’t resist painting one little date using the same green mixes as the leaves. This date is unripe and not full size, but the ones on the trees are beginning to turn a rosy pink. No prizes for guessing what I’ll be painting next week!

"Colour is my day-long obsession, joy and torment." 
Claude Monet


  1. Do my eyes deceive me? Is that really my wee blog on your blog list?! Shevaun, thank you so much. I'm energized to paint and knit and photograph the dog even more. BTW, your comments on various paints, their mixtures and the paper that is currently in your favour is always very helpful.

    1. Candice, you've won me over!! I think your blog is charming and I love your sense of humour, so I had to share it. Happy painting!!

  2. HAHA! You have fallen out of love with Saunders Waterford and I have fallen out of love with Fabriano Artistico in the same week - that is hilarious! Just shows you how different we all are. Fab paintings as usual Shevaun. I love your dates. Next stop - a dried date. That'll keep you busy on brown colour charts for sometime I feel?!

    1. That is a strange coincidence! It just goes to show how paper is a very personal choice. I think the paper also varies a bit with the weight and am wondering if you have been using the heavier weight. Anyway, the roll of Fabriano Artistico wasn't cheap so it;s just as well that I like it!! A dried date is definitely on my list... that will be a challenge. You're right, I really should do a brown chart some day.

  3. I'm with you on the Saunders Waterford paper. It's the paper I first painted on before finding Fabriano. Saunders Waterford is my least favourite with Arches coming in second place! I like Fabriano 5 and artistico almost the same,they're both brilliant! xx great post Shevaun xx

    1. Thanks Claire. Yes, the Fabriano papers suit me too, although I prefer the creamy colour of the Artistico. Thanks again for giving me the Cobalt teal paint... it's wonderful! xx

  4. I tried Oxide of Chromium once - and never touched it again .. :-)
    But good the hear that there really are objects that could be painted with it.
    /Karin Feltzing

    1. Hi Karin, it is a difficult colour to use. However, it's perfect for the colours here, and I'm using it very sparingly, mixed with other colours. I'm still playing around with colours, so who knows! By the end of the summer I could be using a completely different set of pigments! Thanks for commenting.


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