Thursday, 2 July 2009

Botanicals #3 (and a treatise on method).

I set out here to write a little about how I go about making a botanical illustration and (myriad frustrations apart), the gratification I get from absorbing myself in the subject and the process of laying pigments upon paper. I only intended to write a paragraph or two but several hours later I find I have written practically an essay. Even so, I feel I have scarcely scratched at the surface of one of my biggest passions. I really don't expect most of you to read it. I'm sure it was largely for my own benefit. However, it may be of some interest to other water-colour painters, natural-history illustrators and assorted pedants! For all the rest, there are a few pretty pictures as always!

-Edit- It's a shame you can't click on any of the pics (other than the first)to enlarge. A consequence of having to drag them from the top and re size. Blogger really is clumsy in this facility. Also I've had to retype this as Blogger 'ate' it earlier! Plus, the spellcheck isn't working so please excuse all my appalling blunders! Aargh!!

-Edit #2- Is it just me or is Blogger really playing-up today? Eventually the spellcheck returned only it appears to want to only correct words that I have in fact spelt correctly - with the exact same spelling! Then, each time I sign in, there are bits missing from this blog. Currently I have no followers which is patently untrue. I have 2!! You're both there on my dashboard but not on the home page. Seriously, has Blogger got sun-stroke or what? Grrr!

One of the reasons I paint plants is that I have never been able to meditate. I find the process of studying natural phenomena and then attempting to replicate them on a 2-dimensional plane absorbing and calming. I tend to steer clear of vague words like spiritual and transcendent, but so far as I understand the gist of these terms, it's only in the close observation of nature that I am able to attain something approximating those states.

Before starting on the work itself, I order and prepare my space in a quasi-ritualistic manner. The desk must be scrubbed and then covered end-to-end with white paper cut from a roll. Watercolour pans and palettes are carefully cleaned of any trace of contamination. I use Winsor and Newton series 7 Kolinsky sable brushes only. Each one costs a small fortune so they must be kept impeccably clean and protected in small plastic tubes inside a black velvet case. I check the points on each and lay them out on a slice of bamboo (designed for holding chop-sticks) in order of size. I place my specimen in a suitable container (usually a test-tube in a stand) which is then posited on a wooden block and manipulated until I am happy with the positioning. This latter stage can take up to an hour as I carefully consider both what is pertinent to describe and how to best to place each element within the format (otherwise known as design or composition)! Once I've done with investigating anatomy, I position the specimen entirely with regard to the empty spaces around it and between each element. This is a process that gets repeated again at the drawing stage.

Then I turn on my desk-lamp (which is fitted with a blue tinted craft bulb designed to imitate natural light) and leave the plant to 'settle in' for a couple or hours or more. If it's a delicate, it's likely to wilt initially before recovering firmness over time. During this little wait, I prepare my ground. Paper must be selected in accordance with the character of the specimen. I use hot-pressed watercolour paper only since it is silky smooth and somewhat harder than toothed paper. It's also a very 'difficult' paper to work on and requires a great deal of skill when laying seamless washes. It's entirely unforgiving in so far as it doesn't allow for any manipulation the instant the paint is dry. Traditionally, botanical illustrations were made on vellum (that's the stretched skin of aborted calf-foetuses) which is indisputably the best ground for maximising the brilliance and luminosity of watercolour pigments. There are a few purists around today who still insist on it but, ethical considerations apart, it's phenomenally expensive. I know if I was ever to afford a piece, I'd be too daunted to use it (it's even less forgiving than the paper - you can't erase pencil marks). For detailed work I like Arches which is also possibly the most difficult paper to work on but definitely the best for the very fine semi-dry brush work I often use. Fabriano no.5 is a good all rounder. It's also very white which occasionally has its advantages.

Once I've chosen my paper and considered the size and dimensions of the format, I then cut 2 or 3 pieces to size, select suitable boards and transport them along with tape, knife and a freshly laundered tea-towel into the bathroom. There's also the whole ritual of cleaning the bathroom and scrubbing the bath prior. I don't think I need to give a full account of this here! Suffice to say there must not be the smallest speck of dirt or grease in the bathtub or around the plug which could easily transfer onto the paper. I run a few inches of cold water then immerse each piece, one after the other. Timing is crucial and I use a quaint little egg timer with 3 hour-glass 'settings'. Fabriano must be 'soft-boiled' and Arches 'medium'. Once 'cooked', I drain each piece then lay it on the board, remove excess water with the towel and tape down with gummed masking-tape. Boards are them laid flat on the floor until dry. The stretching process takes around 3 hours depending on air-conditions, humidity etc. The slightest hint of a cockle and they're no good. Fortunately I am so familiar with this process now, I haven't produced a cockle in years!

I might spend the rest of the day/night just sketching my specimen in rough. This depends on the amount of time I have available. Usually time is limited or the specimen is likely to expire too soon so I often leap straight into the painting stage with the very minimum of drawing beforehand. I'm fortunate in that I have always been naturally good at drawing. I have a 'quick eye' and can usually draw perfectly to scale with only the occasional check with dividers. However, I still find this the most difficult phase of the work and he one most likely to provoke frustration. Just as soon as my lead touches down on the surface, I am switched to 'right-brain' mode. I don't draw the thing itself. Rather I follow the contours of the empty space around it. This way, my brain isn't shouting 'leaf' or 'stamen' or some other linguistic object - which commonly results in 'wrong' drawing from preconceived notions. Instead I'm focused entirely on shapes and relations; connecting points, distances, angles, depths of curve and so on. I encourage my students to draw this way. It's often a revelation to some of them how easy it is to describe, say, a foreshortened leaf by not actually looking at it or thinking about it but following the contours of the white-space around it instead.

Crucial decisions have to be made at the drawing stage, namely what to describe and what to leave out. Once the outline is in place, I then switch back into 'left-brain' mode and start considering features such as points of attachment (leaf-to-stem, style-to-ovary etc). If I'm unsure or if details are too small for the naked eye, I might do a reference check or use a magnifier. I stress the importance of research when I'm teaching. A good many 'bred' plants reveal a-typical features and mutations. For the purposes of Scientific Illustration we accurately describe only what is typical and natural to a specimen. This also involves understanding something of the plants habit.

It's at this stage also that I adopt another frame of mind, one which I can best describe as 'poetic'. This involves a certain amount of communing with the specimen and getting to know its character. I might think in terms of descriptive adjectives. 'Imperious' or 'aristocratic' for a lily, say or 'homely' and 'sentimental' for a violet. Some plants are passive, others aggressive. They might also be shy, flamboyant or weird! Similarly, I then start to think in analogies so that a leaf could be a fist unfurling or the bud of a cyclamen a perfect spiral shell. This facility comes even more to the fore during the painting process when I consider textures, colours, luminosity and so on.

Once I'm happy with the drawing I usually trace it onto the water-colour paper. This is a very painstaking process involving a very sharp 2H lead, a steady hand and a great deal of patience. Occasionally if I'm feeling bold or impatient, I might omit drawing altogether and wade straight into the paint-box. I'm most inclined to take this approach with subjects such as mosses, lichens and certain fungi. Some very structural subjects (e.g a poppy capsule or the regular pleats of a hellebore follicle) generally require careful preliminary drawing. Loose, blousey petals or thin, strappy leaves are often best attacked directly with a brush. Usually it's a matter of confidence. When I'm on a roll and in good practice I'm most likely to take risks and cut corners. Otherwise I'm circumspect and methodical.

It's during the painting phase that I truly fall for my subject. I don't think 'falling in love' is too strong a term for the real attachments I form. The motions are remarkably similar to the stages of a romance. There's the initial excitement and thrill of the chase when you first choose your subject. This can even involve a certain amount of stalking. For an entire month this spring, I walked past a nearby front-garden waiting for the owner's Monkshood Aconite to flower. Then as you begin to study and explore, there's the deepening of knowledge and understanding, a recognition of differences and similarities. When the going is good, you become one with the subject and the tools as you penetrate its essence or character which flows through and out of you onto the paper. There will be conflicts and frustrations, times when the subject evades or presents a barrier. I have witnessed students throw pine-cones against the wall and stomp on seed-heads that have refused to capitulate to their will - tantrums not unlike a lover's tiff. Sometimes it's best to walk away, take a stroll outside and return to the situation with a fresh eye. It's impossible to say who's in control - the artist or the subject. A certain bending to the will of the specimen is essential for genuine understanding and accurate portrayal. At other times it's necessary to take the upper hand. If a leaf gets in the way, for example, I might just snap it off.

For the most part, however, the painting process invokes a rapture far cooler than the throws of romantic passion. That's what I meant when I referred to the the process as meditative. I can be transported for hours at time, genuinely outside-myself. It's not so much a case of emptying the mind; more of allowing it to wander around and inside the subject. For a time, there really is nothing else.

Of course telephones can ring and folk wanting a piece of my time/money/soul can intrude upon this rapture. I try my up most to sequester myself but this is rarely possible for someone living a busy life in a cacophonous urban environment. When I am properly absorbed in my work I can break-off to attend to routine affairs whilst still inhabiting the mindset. It's alot like getting up for a pee in the night without properly waking up (the trick there is not to turn on any lights and keep at least one eye shut). I can negotiate the supermarket in a dream-like state, contemplate the stacks of fruit in terms of hues and tonal-range. Communication with other people is frequently the undoing of my little reveries. At that point, the dream is shattered and other far less enchanting measures and preoccupations move in.

To properly describe the painting stage - which necessarily demands a discussion of technique and materials - would require an essay or several in themselves (& believe me I probably will write them sooner or later). Infact, I could even write a treatise on the different properties of a cadmium yellow versus a transparent yellow. I could wax tirelessly on the vibrancy or quinacridrone, the importance of mixing greens from primaries over using ready-mades, not to mention the debate on whether red or yellow is the measure of 'warmth' in a green hue! Mostly my students are dismayed when I 'confiscate' 2/3rds of their paint sets. To begin with I restrict them to a basic palette of 6 primaries (a 'warm' and 'cool' of each). Only towards the end of the sessions do I allow them to bring out the pinks and the violets. I rarely use more than 7 or 8 pigments myself. I stick with the primaries and mix all other colours from these. I have a few quirky additions such as Opera Rose and quinacridrone gold too. It is difficult not to be seduced by the names of pigments. Rose madder (traditionally derived from the root of the Madder plant) intrigued me as a child. I never tire of reading up on the history of colour. There are so many fascinating stories lurking behind the wonderful pigment names. Indian yellow, for example, is made from the evaporated urine produced by cows fed exclusively on mango leaves! It wasn't available in Europe until the 19th century therefore it couldn't possibly have been used by Vermeer as (wrongly) represented in the film 'The Girl with the Pearl Earring'! (interesting but mostly useless fact for the day).

There's so much more to paint than mere colour. 'Handling properties' need to be given at least equal consideration. That's to say - the manner in which a pigment behaves, it's peculiar characteristics, its attractions and repulsions. Besides handling-properties there is lightfastness, permanence, staining-power and a whole host of other technical considerations that most bar the purists and anyone with enough foresight to consider archival properties tend to ignore. Handling properties, on the other hand, are of immediate concern. Blue-pigments such as French Ultramarine (nowadays made from sodium aluminum sulfosilicate which happens to be chemically identical to the principle pigment in the original lapis-lazuli) and cobalt-blue (cobalt-oxide) are both beautiful hues but notoriously quirky. Ultramarine tends to granulate producing a beautiful 'flocculating' texture in a wash. It also 'splits' a mix (i.e. the pigments separate like oil and water without either continued stirring or the addition of an emulsifier). This is all down to particles and gravitational pulls and hence requires a basic understanding of physics which I won't even pretend to have anything other than a vague intuitive grasp of. Cobalt blue is a heavenly colour although it's a bitch to handle - slimy and obstinate. I generally steer clear of the cadmiums when painting flowers. Sturdy and robust as they are, they have a certain amount of 'body', an opaqueness that dulls and muddies a mix.

Again, I form relationships with my palette in a similar way to my subject. I have my own personal little classificatory system for pigments, mostly in terms of energy (quick and slow), vibrancy, transparency, subtlety and weight (much aligned to energy). On rare occasions when the work is going really well, there's a near perfect concord between myself, the specimen and the materials. I realise that sounds quite hippy-dippy but I'm certain any crafts-person, from a bricklayer to a picture restorer would concur.

Painting comes quite naturally to me. It's as effortless as breathing, as....I was about to say falling asleep but that would be somewhat at odds with my constitutional insomnia. It's as easy as falling off a log, let's say (I'm not sure I ever have fallen of a log !). I practice and teach only the 'pure' watercolour technique which basically means I don't use white paint. It really is the only way to exploit the vibrancy and transparency of watercolours. For pale, bright and highlighted areas, the 'white' of the paper is left showing through. It's a tricky technique especially since most pigments are highly staining so once laid down, there's no lifting them off. Occaisionally I might mask tiny areas such as the spots on the Calla Lily leaves, which then allows me to continue laying broad washes over the entire leaf.

Every painting is a journey and an act of discovery. There is never a sure destination and no piece of work is ever truly finished. Sometimes I just have to force myself to stop. Frequently I shelve incomplete work (along with its colour swatches, notes and palette wrapped in plastic) to return to it again at a later date. Often it just doesn't happen. Usually there's a lot of pain and frustration to overcome before the work begins to truly 'sing'. Plants misbehave. They grow, move, wilt and die. Knowing that I only have a couple of evenings free to paint means I often talk myself out of starting something that could all too easily be abandoned just as soon as the specimen has faded. I haven't been terribly good lately. My mind has been very crowded and fast-moving. It has a tendency to flip from one thing to another without pausing and resting on any particular notion. Perhaps some painting therapy is much needed. Perhaps it might deliver me some calm! However, for the time being it's been enjoyable just writing about my work. I haven't haven't really covered much of the painting process but I sense this post is getting rather too long and by now I shouldn't imagine anyone is still reading. So I'll keep the rest for another time and slip the occaisional mini-treatise in here and there between the pics!

P.S. A few words on the weather (I'm British after all). I'm not one to complain about heat (in general I love it) but hasn't it been mighty oppressive lately? I'm unfortunate enough to live in the filthy bowl of the city centre where a breeze hasn't fluttered since last week. The air here presents a palpable, pollution encrusted wall the moment you open the door. People are shirking work and school. Tempers are fraying. As I type this, a ridiculously drunk woman is screaming frantically in Polish at her similarly inebriated boyfriend. I can scarcely hear my thoughts over the ruckus. Police seem to be everywhere I turn. They were even there at the knitting and weaving picnic yesterday FFS! This filthy, fabulous heat-wave has left me with an abiding sense of unreality. That combined with the sheer lack of sleep, I feel as if I've just wandered into some grubby, fly-blown, crazily fantastical tropical dream scape.

Now that tiff outside is really beginning to get on my nerves. Anyone know how to say shut the f**k up in Polish? Ah, here come the boys in blue to sort it out. Nice one!


  1. Lovely studies. I enjoyed reading and looking.

    It's not hippy-dippy at all - everyone gets their private technique that works, invents their own terminology... it's all part of the fun.

    Pigments... you took me back to the days when I used to make my own madder lake from the roots.

    Stretching... that took me back even further! I used to stick a drawing pin in the corners after the gummy tape, but that was just the way I learned.

    As for the heat, I've been loving it. Anyway, we had a strange five minutes where a bizarre wind rose from the west, like the angel of death flying over, and the temperature dropped about five degrees in the same space of time. So, business as usual again for the summer I suppose.

    Take care, Dx

  2. Thanks D - for reading it through to the end (and commenting). I really didn't imagine anyone would but then I guess I can rely on you!
    I've never tried making watercolour paints. I did make oils at one time but that's more straightforward. It's something I'd like to have a go at though - like making my own paper (successfully)and binding books (well). There's always something very appealing about taking full control over the means of production. Regrettably it's all so time-consuming and I'm presently spreading myself rather thin as it is. Necessary work so gets in the way of more important work.

    I'm also a big fan of heat although these last few days/nights it's just seemed a little relentless. The air is so clogged and chewy here, I'm struggling to properly breathe. I came home this afternoon and took a cold shower in my clothes before sitting out in the yard. That felt really good!
    Hope you're well and getting some rest.

  3. My madder-lake was for violin varnish - boil madder with alum, strain, and fix with potash, filter and wash, grind with the muller on glass for hours... happy days. I used to make my own varnishes too: nitrified colophony and fused amber in sun-thickened linseed oil was my favourite recipe. You had to be really careful adding the nitric acid to the dissolved colophony - jar in an ice bath, adding drop by drop, or else boooom!

    The heat's broken here, still sunny but cool breeze from the west. Been working off energy bowling ball after ball at some makeshift stumps in the garden. Why? Because!