Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Challenges! Painting the Laburnum

Laburnum anagyroides painting by Shevaun Doherty
Laburnum anagyroides on natural calf vellum © Shevaun Doherty 2015
“Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.”
Arthur Ashe

Sometimes we sail through life like a ship on a calm sea, and at other times, everything seems to come at once- a veritable maelstrom of appointments, deadlines, exams, exhibitions and meetings. I’ve been channelling my inner Wonder Woman recently, and rather than allowing everything to overwhelm me, facing my challenges one at a time.
I can do this!

A plentiful supply of fresh flowers is a must for a complex painting such as this. Okay, perhaps I was a little too enthusiastic!
Right at the top of my To-do list has been the laburnum. Not only did I have a deadline that was looming with ever increasing urgency, but the flowers were blooming and finishing before my eyes!

Laburnum painting Shevaun Doherty
Plant, vellum, I'm all set to go!

Often when I start a botanical painting, I check on a website called www.plantillustrations.org to see how botanical illustrators of the past have dealt with issues like composition. I suppose alarm bells should have started to ring because despite the popularity of the lovely Laburnum, there were very few images on the site. I soon found out why… the laburnum is not an easy plant to paint! 
In fact, I think the laburnum has been one of the most challenging of all my paintings so far!

A test tube, blue tack and a third hand tool help me position my flowers
It is the role of a botanical artist to tell the story of the plant, of how it looks and how it grows. 

The laburnum flowers hang in pendulous racemes (clusters of flowers) from the tree, so I had to find a way to recreate the way that they hang in my studio. Frustratingly, I found that the flowers have to be kept in water or else they droop with alarming speed. Even when they were put in water, they would only last a day. I became increasingly inventive over ways to hang my flowers.
 A test tube, floral oases, jam jars, blue tack, and a very handy Third Hand Tool became my studio essentials!

Here the Third Hand Tool hangs over the top of my easel, holding the clip which holds the test tube, which holds the plant


Tracing paper helps me play around with composition ideas. Sadly the bee buzzed off and refused to wait for his portrait.
I’ve often been asked why I simply don’t paint photographs, but I just find it easier to paint from life. Fortunately I had a plentiful supply of laburnum flowers. However because I was changing my raceme of flowers almost every day, I had to constantly redraw the composition. I started with a basic drawing which was my template. 

Then each day I would match up fresh flowers, paying particular care to the arrangement of the pedicels (flower stalks) on the stem. Using tracing paper, I would draw out the flowers that were to be painted that day using tracing paper. By the time I had finished, I had amassed quite a large pile of tracing paper drawings!!


Struggling to get the yellows to glow on the dark vellum. The first few flowers were a disaster!
I had a beautiful piece of natural calf vellum that I really wanted to paint on. It was a lovely golden tan colour with dark markings that would show off the golden yellow of the flowers. However the yellows that I had carefully selected when doing my earlier studies were completely lost against this darker ground. They simply disappeared and totally lacked the "oomph" that I wanted. So I had to completely change my palette and switch from transparent watercolours to opaques as a base.
One advantage of using vellum though is the ease in which mistakes can be wiped off, but it meant that progress was slow.

The magic wand... a damp cotton bud can wipe away any mistakes easily!


Ah! I thought I had it all worked out a few weeks ago when I did my studies, but alas no! My first few flowers ended up being a mucky overpainted yellow mess whilst I struggled to find a method that worked. After about 30 flowers I was feeling a bit more confident. 

I start with Lemon yellow watercolour and white gouache, making sure to erase the pencil marks. This collage shows the before and after.
First washes down- the next photo shows the finish
Despite my large array of yellows, I ended up using just a few. For the base I used white gouache which mixed with lemon yellow (which is quite an opaque yellow), followed by Cobalt violet and Verditer blue (Daniel Smith) for the shadows. Once this base was dry, I floated over transparent colours- winsor lemon and winsor yellow, new gamboge. The trick is to not disturb the underlying layers. Quin violet, Light red, Indanthrene blue and Perylene green were also on the palette.


Having tried and tested quite a few brushes, I have to say that Winsor & Newton Series 7 short sables are by far my favourites, although the Rosemary & Co make great brushes too. Vellum is brutal on brushes, and the gouache just seems to speed up their demise into hairless stubbles. I went through three brushes on this painting, something that I really need to factor into the costs. Still the thought of ordering new brushes is definitely the carrot that gets me through! I see that Rosemary & Co have a new range of sables which look very tempting!

Despite the challenges that faced me, I managed to get this done (and everything else) before the deadline. My poor tree had definitely seen better days by the end of the painting as I ended up stripping it of most of it’s lower branches, and (ahem!!) those of a nearby tree. As a friend of mine once told me, no self-respecting botanical artist leaves home without her secateurs! 

Larger photographs can be seen on my facebook page-

Right, onto the next challenge!

“The best way out is always through.”   
Robert Frost


  1. Marvelous painting Shevaun. I've loved it from the get-go. I love the way you stick with a difficult project. Hearing the way you dealt with those difficulties is not only fascinating but very informative. I also like the research you do beforehand. Great work!

    1. Thanks Laura. That's a lovely thing to say. Although it was a bit of a difficult subject to paint, that only makes it all the more satisfying to finish.

  2. Your blog is extremely interesting Shevaun. Thank you for showing the different stages you went through and telling us about the problems you encountered - including the issue with brushes. In recent years I have avoided W&N brushes as they are so expensive, finding Rosemary brushes very good and much cheaper. Which do you prefer?

    1. Thanks Gaynor. I love reading your blog too! I have to say that I prefer the Winsor and Newton, although I have been using the Rosemary &Co spotters too. I've just ordered a new type of Rosemary & Co brush (well, new to me), the Series 8 pointed round. Which ones do you use?

  3. It's fabulous, not easy to get that glowing yellow and I haven't seen the site plant illustrations before. I always keep my secateurs in the boot of my car, hee hee!! xx

    1. Yes,and scissors and a plastic bag in my handbag!

  4. The Laburnum flowers visually pop off the page so much that its hard to believe that they are not 3D. Your use of the gouache base is very clever and effective! Thanks for explaining how you developed this approach for light flowers on a darkish background.

    1. Thanks Janene. I hope you're keeping well.


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