Friday, 27 June 2014

The Fruits of Doum

Marianne North's Doum and Date palms on the Nile above Phillae
I’m very excited about the SBA’s exhibition, “Medicinal and Poisonous Plants”, in Frankfurt this October. The theme is one that really appeals to me, and has given me the perfect excuse to paint and research some medicinal plants that I have been wanting to paint for ages.

Egypt has long been famous for it’s herbs and spices, and in every Souk (market), you can find a spice shop- a wonderful Aladdin’s cave of spices, medicinal herbs, aromatic incenses, fragrant essential oils, all stored in large colourful baskets. Buying your wares involves a fair amount of haggling and friendly banter, along with the obligatory cup or two of fresh mint tea. I left with a bag full of exotic treasures.

First onto the drawing board is the very peculiar fruit of the Doum palm, Hyphaene thebaica, also known as the gingerbread tree. The tree is not as common as it once was, in fact, I have only seen in growing in the south of Egypt, but in ancient Egypt, every Egyptian of standing would have had these trees growing in his garden. 

Doum tree painting on the tomb walls of Sennedjem

The Doum Palm was considered a sacred tree, and symbolised of male strength and virility.   In fact, the fruit of this tree was of such importance that eight baskets full of dried doum fruit were discovered in Tutankhamum’s tomb, left to provide him with sustenance in the afterlife.

I am also painting the dried fruit. It’s rock hard with a shiny sienna-coloured appearance, and even though it’s dry, it smells delicious. Pliny describes it in his Natural History Book-

“... the wood of the cucus is held in very high esteem. It is similar in nature to the palm, as its leaves are similarly used for the purposes of texture: it differs from it, however, in spreading out its arms in large branches. The fruit, which is of a size large enough to fill the hand, is of a tawny colour, and recommends itself by its juice, which is a mixture of sweet and rough. The seed in the inside is large and of remarkable hardness, and turners use it for making curtain rings. The kernel is sweet, while fresh; but when dried it becomes hard to a most remarkable degree, so much so, that it can only be eaten after being soaked in water for several days. The wood is beautifully mottled with circling veins, for which reason it is particularly esteemed among the Persians.”

I never knew that the ancient Egyptians used curtain rings!

I paint little squares of all the possible pigments first, to help me select the right colours

Despite being dry and hard, you can eat it. The only way that I can describe it is like biting into MDF to find it dissolving in your mouth and tasting a bit like the honeycomb centre of Maltesers. I haven’t tried soaking it. It’s usually made into a very sweet drink. The ancient Egyptians were correct to appreciate it’s health-giving properties- studies conducted by Egypt's Mansoura University found that it significantly lowered high blood pressure and great reduced the risk of cardiovascular disease. In fact, it’s an all-round “super-fruit” packed with many nutritious and medicinal properties.

It is extremely hard and took me a long time to scrape the doum nut clean for the dissection. The “nut” is also rock hard, and has been described as “vegetable ivory”. Apparently there once was a factory set up over here to make buttons from it, in the days before plastic took over the world.

Building up the layers of colour slowly (not finished)
Painting here has proved a bit of a challenge, mainly because it’s so dry and hot. This year I brought a small bottle of ox gall with me, and although it doesn’t extend the drying time of the paint, it certainly helps improve the spreading of the washes. In between layers of paint, I’m having to pull a damp brush over the whole surface just to soften the edges of the paint. My new Rosemary flats are perfect for this.

I painted a few practice doum fruit, and then tried out a Carob seed pod, Ceratonia siliqua. I’ve often seen these pods but was put off by the rather pungent smell. However having read about all the amazing health benefits, and the fact that it’s being used more and more as an alternative to chocolate, I decided to try some. It’s delicious. The pods are quite edible dry and nicely chewy, but it’s more usually made into a really refreshing drink. Again, it’s one of those "super-foods", having analgesic, anti-allergic, antibacterial, antioxidant, antiviral and antiseptic properties. The seeds are interesting too. A resinous gum can be extracted from them which, in ancient Egyptian times was used to bind mummies. Nowadays this extract is used as a thickening agent, emulsifier and stabilizer in beverages, candy, desserts, ice cream, salad dressings, cheeses, jelly, baked goods and other products. The seeds were also used as a measurement of gold during Roman times … twenty four seeds being equal to the weight of one gold coin, which eventually gave us the phrase “24 carat”.

I added a few more practice pieces to my study page- karkade (the dried calyces of hibiscus flowers Hibiscus sabdariffa ) which are used to make a refreshing drink)

Carob seeds, Cardamom pods (Elettaria cardamomum) and  Star Anise (Illicium verum

Senna pods (Senna alexandrina) and dried Desert-gourd (Citrullus colocynthis

I’m going to enjoy painting this piece- the colours, the textures and the smells. My practice page is almost done, now it's time to start on the real thing.

"Each morning sees some task begun, each evening sees it close 
Something attempted, something done, has earned a night's repose."

Friday, 20 June 2014

Flaming Hot

The Flamboyant Tree, Delonix regia     ©Shevaun Doherty 2013
They say that once you have drunk the waters of the Nile, you are destined to return.

There must be some truth in that, because for twenty five years I have been coming back to this beautiful country. It really is wonderful to be here once more, back to the palm trees and shimmering heat, and my lovely home by the sea. It took a few days to unpack, settle in, and  recover from the long trip. I am delighted to say that my paints, brushes and large tube of paper all arrived safely too.

My studio overlooks the gardens and the pool, and you can just glimpse the turquoise sparkle of the sea through the palm trees … it’s not surprising that I love it so much!
 My only grumble was that the air conditioning in my studio wasn’t working. It’s fine in the morning, but by early afternoon the sun has crept around to that side of the house and with temperatures of 41°C, it makes painting a challenge! Somehow I don't think I'm going to get that much sympathy!!

Yes it is!!
Bird's eye chili peppers Capsicum annuum 2014

The dates are still not quite ripe. They hang in clusters, small, green and hard, and tantalisingly just out of reach. They need a few more weeks of sun to ripen. However, there’s plenty to keep me inspired and busy whilst I wait. I decided to do a small study of one of my favourite trees, Delonix regia, also known as the Flamboyant Tree or  Royal Poinciana

It is considered one of the most beautiful trees in the world, and you only have to see it in bloom to realise why. It is covered in an exuberant mass of fiery red blossoms. Quite simply, it’s a stunner! 

Sketchbook studies 2010- I didn't have a lot of reds in my art box then!!
I have painted this tree, or rather, I’ve attempted to paint it many times. One day I will do a painting that does it’s beauty justice. The flowers themselves aren’t too difficult, but the lacy fern like leaves with their multitude of tiny leaflets are not for the faint-hearted! It also has pretty impressive seedpods of up to 50cm in length! I was grateful to be able to look up my earlier studies to see what colours I used- it makes life so much easier when you take note of your colour palette!

Sketchbook studies 2012... better paper, a bigger selection of reds but a poor photograph (sorry)
Sketchbook study 2014
As this was just a sketchbook study, I decided to experiment and include a plein air study of the tree as well. Okay, I confess! The fact that there happens a tree growing right beside the pool where I have a comfortable sun lounger and an umbrella did play a part in this decision. It was great to loosen up and splash the paint about a bit, and I also had a bit of a splash in the pool to cool off when I had finished! 
This little piece will be stuck into a sketchbook upon my return for the Nature Trails sketchbook exchange.

A little plein air piece finishes it off nicely. The colours used were Winsor lemon, Winsor yellow, Winsor yellow deep, Winsor orange, Winsor red, Vermillon (Sennelier), Dark red (Schminke), Pink Madder (Pebeo), Alizarin, Quin red, Quin violet, Cerulean, Indanthrene and Perylene green.

So onto the next painting whilst I wait for these dates to ripen! The SBA are holding an exhibition in Palmengarten in Frankfurt in October, Poisonous and Medicinal Plants. I love this theme. I’ve already started a few studies in preparation. I won’t say much more, except that it involves a trip to the Spice Shop in the local Souk. Thankfully the air conditioning is now fixed… I’ve no excuse!

Plein air sketch of the local spice shop, 2009
I hope you are all enjoying your summer!

 “We live in a wonderful world that is full of beauty, charm and adventure. There is no end to the adventures we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open.”

Friday, 6 June 2014

Preparing for the Next Adventure

“ Here’s to freedom, cheers to art. 
Here’s to having an excellent adventure and may the stopping never start.” 
 ~Jason Mraz

May really has been exhilarating and fun, but tiring too. 
The paintings have all been taken down- some heading to new homes, others heading to Claregalway Castle, and the ISBA’s Aibitir exhibition is heading to Derry and Belfast.
I’m also packing up and preparing to travel. 

I'm dreaming of warmer weather and painting outside
School has finally ended and for me that means only one thing … Egypt. This year I’m going back with added purpose, because I will finally start on my next project, my RHS paintings.

Last year I applied to the RHS and to my amazement, I received a letter saying that my work is suitable for an RHS exhibition! I now have five years to complete a set of paintings on a theme of my choice, and I know exactly what I would like to paint! It has to be the date palm, Phoenix dactylifera. Our garden in Egypt is full of them, and I just love painting them.

Sketchbook studies
Ripening dates

However I need to plan this out very carefully. I need a minimum of six paintings for the RHS and these paintings must work as a coherent exhibit. So my first consideration has been what paper to use, and what size the paintings should be.
I have been really fortunate to have met some amazing artists in recent months and have asked them all about their paper choices. Katherine Tyrrell was a great help- not only has she written a great series of articles on RHS winners, but she also took the time to go around the SBA exhibition with me and talk to me about size.
It appears that size DOES matter after all.

Struggling to make it fit on an A3 paper. 

Gael Sellwood was also a great source of information- she recently won a gold medal and also Best at Show at the RHS in Malvern. After our conversation, I decided that I would ditch the Fabriano Classico which I had been using since my SBA student days, and go for the better quality Fabriano Artistico.
My good friend Dianne Sutherland wrote an excellent blog post on all the papers. An RHS medallist herself, she too favours the Fabriano Artistico. Finally Sarah Morrish wrote a great piece comparing all the papers , and even gave me a few samples to try out at home.

So this week I took the plunge and  bought what seems an absolutely enormous roll of Fabriano Artistico 300gsm paper. By chance I found that the cheapest place to buy the paper was on my own doorstep at K&M Evans in Dublin. They were significantly cheaper in price than the UK companies.

My enormous roll of Fabriano Artistico dwarfs the A3 Fabriano Classico that I've been using. Below is the  tube which at 75cm wide. just fits into my suitcase.
Oh the thrill of all that paper! It’s a massive 140cm wide and 10 metres long, which, when you consider that I’ve been working on paper that’s 29.7x42cm (A3), seems quite daunting. I have been struggling with this restrictive size, so it will be a welcome relief to be able to work on a bigger area! The nice folks at K&M Evans also gave me a tube for travelling. I will have to cut some of the paper down to 75cm in order to fit, but at least the paper will be survive the numerous plane journeys ahead!

Completed study page 2013
I’ve also been making the slow switch-over to buying pans instead of tubes of watercolours. I had never really given the whole pans vs tubes debate much thought before, but read a fascinating post by Janene Walkky about the difference. What a revelation! 
Having pans of paint also meant that I am less likely to run into problems when travelling. I hate having to put my paints into my suitcase and into the hold of the plane. I can survive without clean clothes or even toiletries, but if my suitcase was lost with my paints inside, I would be a very grumpy artist indeed!

Date tree study, laden down with fruit 2013
It was also time to think about brushes. I really love my Winsor & Newton series 7 sable miniatures, but it seems that recently everyone has been raving about the Rosemary& Co brushes. I put in an order for some spotters and some ‘cat’s tongue’ filberts and was delighted to find that not only are they a better price, but they were delivered incredibly promptly too. 

New brushes!
So that’s it. I’m all set for the long journey ahead and hopefully a very pleasant summer of painting. I’ll need a week or so to get myself settled and the internet sorted, so there’ll be a short break in the blog posts until then.

I’m ready for a new adventure!

"There is joy in feeling the bristles of a quality brush, seeing the richness and lush color of truly good pigment flowing onto the paper or canvas. The cheap stuff just makes for harder work and lesser results."
 ~Gene Black