Sunday, 27 July 2014

From Seed to Tree

“Every seed is a longing”   Khalil Gibran

Hayani dates

When excavating the Temple of Herod the Great in 1965, a dusty jar of date seeds was discovered. At the time of Herod, the kingdom of Judea was renowned for it’s forest of date trees, which had a distinctive sweet taste. Such was their importance to the economy, the palm tree was depicted on the coins of that time. However by 500AD, all the date trees had been cut down and the Judean palm tree was no more. This cache of ancient seeds was stored for a further 40 years, until  2005, when an inquisitive botanical researcher decided to try to grow one.  Three seeds were treated with a special solution of fertiliser and hormones. To everyone’s amazement, one little seed began to sprout, 2000 years after it fell off the tree, making it the oldest viable seed in the world. This tree, still grows today and is the last of the famous Judean date trees. Palm trees are dioecious (meaning it has separate male and female plants), and this tree is a male. So to continue the line, it is hoped to crossbreed it with it’s nearest living relative, the Hayani date palm from Egypt.

It’s been really interesting to do all this research about date palms. Beside the fact that the dates themselves are such wonderful subjects to paint, there is also a wealth of fascinating history to accompany the date palm.  My main objective this summer though has been to identify the main characteristics of the palm tree, and to figure out just how to portray all those features in six paintings for the RHS.
 One of my paintings will be the story of the seed.

Phoenix dactylifera seedling studies

Walking through the gardens here, I was struck by how many tiny seedlings were growing beneath each tree. I dug a few up and took them home to paint. The first few that I painted are still quite small, 6-10 months old. 

Study of older seedling showing the juvenile leaves which are non pinnate and entire
I also found a larger seedling, probably about 18-24 months old but still showing the juvenile leaves which are quite different to the adult ones. As this is quite large, I decided that I would carefully draw this out on tracing paper for now, backing it up with a few colour studies and numerous photographs.

A larger study on tracing paper which will be used later
But there was still one element missing from this story, and that was the seed itself. A friend mentioned to me that she once had a date seed that had accidentally sprouted in her compost in Ireland. Inspired by her story, I decided to see if I could grow my own. If a 2000 year old seed can grow, then surely I could coax at least one to sprout?
I soaked the seeds for two days in water, and then carefully placed them smooth side down on wet kitchen paper in a ziplock bag. I left the bag open but covered it lightly with a cloth. Fingers crossed!
Little date seeds grow into beautiful trees, so I also need to paint a tree.
Palm tree with fruit, plein air study 2103
Last year I spent a couple of enjoyable afternoons by the pool painting a palm tree, which was laden with fruit. It was great in that it gave me a good idea of what colours to use, but it was hard to fit it all onto the page and I felt that the bountiful fruit set the composition off balance. I wanted to do a study of the whole tree. I’ve been putting it off because this summer has been really hot, making painting outside quite a challenge. Fortunately there is a beautiful tree just outside my window, so I took the easier air conditioned option. 

It's hot out there!
I haven’t managed to finish it yet because it’s quite a big study (70cm high), and painting all those leaves takes a lot of concentration!  But there's something quite soothingly hypnotic in building up the patterns within the crown of the tree and  painting all those negative spaces. 

Palm tree study WIP 

Whilst I have been doing all these preparatory studies, the dates have been ripening slowly on the trees. To my delight, one of the gardeners offered to climb up and pick some of the riper ones which hang just out of my reach. My fridge is now full of sweet crunchy dates, some to eat and of course, plenty to paint.

Gathering dates for me!

However the best news of the week has to be this! After two weeks of careful incubation, I have my first sprout! I have so much to paint before I leave.

“The plant reveals what is in the seed.” Ancient Egyptian proverb

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

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

Saturday, 5 July 2014

The Spice Market

   "Let food be thy medicine, and let thy medicine be food." Hippocrates

Doum, Carob, Star Anise and Senna

Sometimes you find yourself painting a subject which absolutely captivates you, and this week has been one of those weeks for me. 
Yes, I know I tend to get pretty excited over most of my subjects, but the spices from the Egyptian market have been a joy to paint. It’s not just the rich colours and the variety of textures that have me spellbound, I’ve been reading up about them too, and spices are quite simply fascinating.

Nowadays we give little thought to these aromatic seeds and dried roots, but once upon a time, the Spice Trade was the world’s greatest industry. In fact, the spice trade has shaped the world as we know it- empires were created and destroyed, great fortunes were made and let us not forget, it was the quest for a new spice route that led Christopher Columbus to discover America.

Spices come mainly from the Middle East and Asia, and for many centuries, the Arab traders dominated the market. The wonderful tale of Sinbad the Sailor was inspired by the spice trade- he was said to have been a trader of cloves and cinnamon. Spices were brought from Arabia and Asia across land by camel to Alexandria in Egypt, and from there were shipped to Europe.  

Such was the value of these spices (frankincense , myrrh, nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves and peppercorns to name but a few), that the source of these spices was kept a closely guarded secret. To deter any rivals, the Arabs told fantastical tales about the dangerous creatures that the spice traders had to encounter. 

Herodotus, a Greek historian in  5 BC wrote that cinnamon sticks were collected by huge and ferocious birds from an unknown land, and used to make their nests on sheer cliff faces. To get the cinnamon sticks, the Arabs would bring dead donkeys and oxen as bait. The birds would swoop down and seize the meat, carrying it up to their nests. However, the nests would not be able to hold the weight of the meat, and would fall to the ground, enabling the cinnamon sticks to be gathered by the waiting Arabs.

In fact, cinnamon is the inner bark of Cinnamomum iners , a fairly common shrub that grows in Arabia!

With all these wonderful tales, it’s no wonder that I have been enjoying painting these spices! 

As this painting is for the SBA exhibition “Poisonous and Medicinal Plants” in Germany, I’ve also been researching their medicinal uses.
The spices in the market are presented in large baskets, which prompted me to paint this collection in a circular format.  Although they all differ in colour, I kept the same colour palette throughout to bring harmony to the composition. The smells were divine, always a bonus.

 Doum fruit,  Hyphaene thebaica  It has been shown to significantly lower high blood pressure, lower bad cholesterol, and raise the good cholesterol. You can read about that here

Carob, Ceratonia siliqua    Known as “nature’s candy”, carob is a healthy alternative to chocolate. It helps to regulate the digestion process, while serving as a natural anti-allergic, antiseptic, and anti-bacterial agent. It also helps regulate blood glucose.

Carob, Star Anise and Senna
Star Anise Illicium verum  Traditional used in the treatment of rheumatism, star anise is also the source of one of the main ingredients of Tamiflu, used for the recent influenza outbreaks.  

Senna, Senna alexandrina  is mainly used as a laxative

Cloves and Desert Gourd
Cloves are the aromatic flower buds of Syzygium aromaticum. Clove oil is widely used in dental treatments for it’s anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory and mildly anesthetic affects. In medieval times it was used to preserve meat.

Desert Gourd, Citrullus colocynth A powerful purgative with anti-inflammatory properties. Extracts from this plant are being used a therapy for the prevention of breast cancer cells

Kaff Maryam and Galangal

Kaff Maryam, Resurrection Plant Anastatica hierochuntica  Traditionally used for menstrual cramps and to ease childbirth. I wrote about this plant on my blog here.

Galangal Alpinia officinarum  The word "galangal" comes from the Arabic form of a Chinese word for ginger, liang-tiang. The galangal rhizomes were widely used for their stimulant and digestive effects in medieval Europe, and were said to smell of roses and taste of spice. This dried root has an important medicinal use- it contains high concentrations of the flavonol galangin, which has been shown to slow the increase and growth of breast tumor cells.

Cinnamon, dried Hibiscus , Cardamon

Hibiscus, karkade Hibiscus sabdariffa  Made from the dried flower calyces, this is usually made into a refreshing tea which is proven to reduce blood pressure 

Cardamon Elettaria    Has antiseptic, antispasmodic, carminative, digestive, diuretic, expectorant, stimulant and tonic qualities, and is also a rich source of vitamins and minerals

Cinnamon Cinnamomum iners  has powerful anti-viral properties and has been used in the treatment of diabetes. However it has also recently been shown to inhibit the development of Alzheimer’s disease in mice

Nutmeg Myristica fragrans   has anti-fungal, anti-depressant, aphrodisiac, digestive, and carminative functions. It is also a good source of minerals like copper, potassium, calcium, manganese, iron, zinc and magnesium, as well as being rich in vitamins B and C and folic acid.

The Spice Market,  ©Shevaun Doherty 2014

"All that man needs for health and healing has been provided by God in nature, 
the challenge of science is to find it." Theophrastus