Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Mary's Palm

In all things of nature, there is something of the marvelous. ~Aristotle

You may wonder why I am sharing an image of a dried up plant, but this plant plays a role in our story of Christmas.

It’s name is Anastatica hierochuntica, but it is known in Arabic as Kaff Maryam, meaning Mary’s palm. 

It grows in the Sinai, where it is common in the wadis, or dried river beds of the desert.

Legend has it that Mary carried this plant when she was pregnant with Jesus, and she is said to have clutched it in her hand during childbirth.  For centuries, it has been used by the people of the Middle East as a herbal medicine. Pregnant women were given an infusion of the plant to help ease labour pains.Whether there is any truth in this, we will never know, but ever since then, this little plant has been called Kaff Maryam. The word Kaff means the palm of the hand, and Maryam is the arabic for Mary.

 "If God can bring life from this dead plant shall he not much more bring life from your life?"        ~Bedouin saying

Anastatica hierochuntica grows in the deserts of North Africa and the Arabian peninsula.  It is a small inconspicuous plant, with soft blue-grey desert foliage and tiny white flowers. Once it has flowered, it curls up into a tight woody ball enclosing it’s precious seeds, and dies.  The plant can stay like this for many years, until the rain comes. The Bedouins told me that it takes two rains… the first to unfurl the branches, the second to bring the seeds to life. For this reason, it is also known as the Resurrection plant.

It’s life cycle is best described in this short video by the great David Attenborough, in his series Africa.

Another legend says that when Mary and Joseph fled Bethlehem with Jesus to avoid the massacre by King Herod, they stopped for a while in the desert of Jericho. When Mary climbed down from her donkey, this little plant began to flower in greeting, giving it the title of the Rose of Jericho.

Kaff Maryam is also traditionally  kept as a good luck charm, and hung in the home as a talisman for fertility, good health and hope. So on that note, I wish you all  a very Happy Christmas and a healthy and prosperous New Year!

“There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” ~Albert Einstein

Friday, 20 December 2013

The Tightrope

The process of creating a botanical painting is a lot like walking a tightrope. 

You prepare yourself to take that first step, do all the preparatory studies, colour charts and practice runs, mentally telling yourself that you can do this.

After carefully selecting my subject, I draw it out and then trace the design onto tracing paper with black pen,
I retrace the drawing on the reverse with HB pencil. Then positioning it carefully over the vellum, go once more over the front of the design with red pencil

 “In the beginning you must subject yourself to the influence of nature. You must be able to walk firmly on the ground before you start walking on a tightrope.” 
Henri Matisse 

I place tracing paper over the vellum to protect it whilst I paint, and cutting out a little window in the paper to expose the piece I wish to work on. To the side of my painting, I keep the initial drawing as reference. 

You take those first tentative steps onto the tightrope, eyes firmly fixed on the task ahead and concentrating hard to stay focused.

And I'm off! I redraw the pencil lines in thin paint and then gently erase them. The paint that I am using is quite transparent so I don't want want the grey pencil lines to show through.
After the first few steps, you begin to feel more confident and even a little excited.

It's beginning to take shape

I'm using initial washes of winsor orange for the warmer berries, and for those in the shade, I use the cooler wash of Schmincke purple magenta. After that, I build up the colours with winsor orange-red, permanent rose, pink madder, scarlet red, purple lake and perylene violet. 

But halfway through, you begin to wobble precariously!
 What to do, what to do? It’s too far to go back and start again, too much time has been invested, and yet there is still so far to go.

Aargh! I'm beginning to overpaint!! I'm fiddling too much!!! When I try to lift paint, it all comes off in a lumpy mess!! It's losing balance!

Still not right but looking a bit better.
However  I have discovered that you can use a scapel to gently scratch off the paint where needed. Unfortunately, this is proving a little too addictive! Oh no!! I need to put down the scalpel or risk ruining the surface altogether. In fact, I need to move the scalpel away from me altogether!
“You simply have to put one foot in front of the other and keep going. Put blinders on and plow right ahead.” George Lucas

Deep breaths. Rebalance. Focus. Continue on. I can do this!
I continue on.  The tracing paper window is opened further.  I usually paint with my hand resting on a wad of kitchen paper, a habit from my Egypt days to save the paper from a sweaty palm. I also use the kitchen paper to wipe off the excess paint.

"Endure and persist; this pain will turn to good by and by." 

Life is full of wobbles...

... but I'm not giving up just yet!

“Life is always a tightrope or a feather bed. Give me the tightrope.”  
Edith Wharton

Saturday, 14 December 2013

The Temple of Flora

“Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.”


This week I found a bit of heaven, right here in Dublin, at the Chester Beatty Library.
The Night-blowing Cereus, Selenicereus grandiflorus

Sir Alfred Chester Beatty (1875-1968) was a wealthy Irish-American who was passionate about collecting rare and beautiful objects. His dream was
"To show in one place, every material on which man has communicated with man, in all parts of the world and through all periods of time."

True to his word, he amassed the most incredible collection of rare books, manuscripts, prints, paintings and Oriental art in his lifetime, which he bequeathed to the Irish State. To house the collection, a small museum was built on the grounds of Dublin Castle.
The collection is so enormous that only a fraction of the artwork can be displayed at any given time, with the remainder being stored in the museum’s archives. Amongst those hidden treasures, are some rare and extremely beautiful botanical art books.

So this week, having been granted the special permission needed, I found myself being taken into an elegant room with an ornately carved ceiling and walls lined with mahogany bookcases. Carefully laid out on the table were the botanical treasures that I sought, The Temple of Flora, by Robert Thornton, and The Botanist’s Repository, by Henry Charles Andrews. A magnifying glass, book snakes and a small reading lamp were conveniently placed nearby. “Take your time” said the Librarian with a smile. Heaven!

Protea longlifolia in The Botanist's repository, by Henry Charles

Although both books are incredibly beautiful and date from the same period, it was The Temple of Flora that really caught my attention, because there is only one word to describe it… magnificent. I had seen a copy before at the Botanic Gardens in Dublin, but that was just a cursory peek. I was eager to spend more time poring over the illustrations and to learn more about the fascinating story behind the book.

The Snowdrop and The Crocus (Abraham Pether)
In 1797, a wealthy doctor and botany enthusiast named Robert John Thornton (1768-1837) decided to commission the most extravagant and sumptuous botanical publication ever produced. Inspired by the writings of Linnaeus, his florilegium was to explore the “philosophical principles of botany’, and would thrust Britain into the forefront of scientific and artistic achievements. The publication was titled The New Illustration of the Sexual System of Linnaeus and was dedicated to Queen Charlotte. It was made up of three parts, the third one being The Temple of Flora.
To create his masterpiece, he engaged the finest artists and engravers of the time- Philip Reinagle, (known for his portraits and animal paintings), Peter Charles Henderson (a miniaturist), Abraham Pethers (famous for his moonlit landscapes) and Sydenham Edwards. Thornton himself painted the Roses with nightingales.

A Group of Tulips (Philip Reinagle)

"As each individual Tulip shews a marked Variety, so when grouped together, you have a striking display of the remarkable power of the beneficient CREATOR,  who has placed these beautiful objects before us, for our recreation , and admiration! How much does the imitative power of painting fall short of trying to represent these ravishing beauties of the vegetable world."
 Thornton instructed the artists to paint the plants not in the traditional manner against a plain background, but to place them in their natural settings, or rather what they imagined the landscape to be! The prints were made in the basic colours, and the final image reworked with watercolour washes. No two copies were the same and in fact, I noticed huge differences between the book in the Library and the images available online. A team of the top engravers was also employed using the latest techniques in mezzotint and aquatint.

Strelitzia reginae or The Queen Plant (Reinagle)
Accompanying the 28 beautiful colour plates were various descriptions, histories and poetic odes about the flowers featured. It was all very flamboyant, bordering on the ridiculous at times, but delightfully evocative of the pomp and grandeur of the time. I couldn’t help but giggle at some of the descriptions. For example, when he discusses the Winged Passion-Flower, or Passiflora alata, he says that Nature has “often puzzled shallow philosophers”, and goes on to explain that the “three small serrated spear-shaped leaves” found at the base of the flower “afford abundant proof that use is not always the plan of Nature, but that she indulges sometimes in ornament. Thus we have nipples which answer no other end but as a correspondence with our better halves.”
 I’m not sure if humour was his intention but I bet that comment raised a few eyebrows!
The Winged Passion-Flower, or Passiflora alata (Henderson)

The Dragon Arum, Dracunculus vulgaris, one of my favourite illustrations, is given an equally imaginative introduction
“This extremely foetid poisonous plant will not admit of sober description. Let us therefore personify it. She comes peeping from her purple crest with mischief fraught; from her green covert projects a horrid spear of darkest jet, which she brandishes aloft: issuing from her nostrils flies a noisome vapour, infecting the ambient air: her hundred arms are interspersed with white, as in the garments of the inquisition; and on her swollen trunk, are observed the speckles of a mighty dragon … “.  
The painting is quite dramatic, “the clouds are disturbed” and in the distance a volcano erupts.
Dragon Arum or  Dracunculus vulgaris
The most famous of all the illustrations has to be TheNight-blowing Cereus. It is, even after 200 years, quite stunning. Set against a beautiful moonlit landscape, this gorgeous cactus flower glows with a luminous beauty. The cactus was painted by Reinagle and the background was painted by Pethers who was so well known for his nocturnal landscapes that he had the sobriquet of ‘Moonlight Pethers’.  I noticed that there were two versions of this painting. In the first, the background is of an English country churchyard, or as Thornton describes it
 “ Each scenery is appropriated to the subject. Thus in the night-blowing Cereus (Selenicereus grandiflorus) you have the moon playing on the dimpled water, and the turret-clock points XII, the hour at which this flower is in it’s full expanse.” 
However it was probably pointed out to Thornton that this cactus is highly unlikely to bloom in the English countryside, and so a second painting, equally beautiful but with a more appropriate background was commissioned. Compare the image below to the image at the top of this page.
Night-blowing Cereus, or Cactus grandiflorus (Reinagle)
"The scientific name [for this flower] Selenicereus literally means "lunar wax candle". It is likened to the moon because it blossoms in the night and with candles because of its candle-like long stem... This seems unnatural to us, as we are used to blossoms opening when exposed to the sun. But because the queen of the night is pollinated by nocturnal animals, in particular bats, it had to adapt its behaviour to the circumstances, and offer the glory of its blossoms to the night."

Thornton’s passion for the whole project leaps out from every page. Words pour out from him in a curious mix of botany, mythology, history and poetry. He dedicates pages to detailed descriptions of battles and to Persian, Greek, Hindu and Egyptian mythology. He discusses “the needless and atrocious murder of the Duke D’Enghien by torchlight”, which was obviously the hot topic of the day, but perhaps not what you’d expect to find in a botanical book!

Mimosa grandiflora or Large Flowering Sensitive Plant (Reinagle)  I loved the little image of the Aboriginal man in the background looking in wonder at this tree. Thornton includes a little poem by Darwin, comparing the tree to the chaste Desdemona.
"Fill'd with nice sense the chaste Mimosa stands,
From each rude touch withdraws her timid hands:
Oft, as light clouds o'erpass the summer's glade
Alarm'd she trembles at the moving shade

Alas the whole project was doomed to failure. 
Despite the lavishness of the publication, it just didn’t sell, and Thornton soon found himself in dire financial straits. Perhaps it was because of the Napoleonic wars, which as Thornton laments “The once moderately rich very justly now complain that they are exhausted through taxes laid on them to pay armed men to diffuse rapine, fire and murder, over civilised EUROPE”.
Perhaps the book was just too expensive, too sumptuous and too indulgent. Desperate to continue with the project (he originally wanted 70 colour plates), he set up a gallery in London called "Dr. Thornton's Linnaean Gallery", but even that failed to recoup his losses.
In 1812, faced with bankruptcy, Thornton had The Temple of Flora set re-engraved on a small scale for a quarto edition, with some of the compositions slightly altered. An act of parliament was passed allowing him to set up a Royal Botanic Lottery with 20,000 tickets at two guineas each, using the smaller formatted edition used as prizes, as well as the original paintings. However the lottery failed to catch on and his debts grew.
Robert Thornton died in 1837, destitute and heartbroken, despite having created one of the most beautiful and famous of all florilegia.  You can see the whole book online here.
The Nodding Renealmia (Henderson)

I found the whole story deeply moving, particularly given the outstanding quality of the artwork. The other botanical art books on display were beautiful too, but really faded in comparison to this intriguing book. I liked the concept of painting a landscape behind the plant too, one that reflects the character of the plant. I felt that it had allowed the viewer to relate to the plant in a completely different way, and helped the viewer to engage with the subject. Sometimes I find botanical art a little too clinical and remote, so Thornton’s approach is definitely something that I would like to follow up with in my own art. I think I’ll skip the poetry though!

Who can paint like Nature?
Can Imagination boast,
Amid his gay creation, hues like these?
And can he mix them with that matchless skill
And lay them on so delicately fine
And make these varied marks so just and true,
That each shall tell the name denoting
It’s peculiar birth?

Friday, 6 December 2013


We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we're curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths. (Walt Disney )

Iris foetidissima study on paper

 Last week was one where life’s distractions kept me away from the easel, and although it was great spending time with family, I was eager to get back to my art work. Fortunately the Iris foetidissima is a patient plant, and although the leaves had yellowed slightly, the seed pods last quite a long time.

The first thing that I needed to do was sort out the colour of the leaves, so I made up a small green colour chart and tried some different mixes. I wanted to keep the greens quite fresh as they made a nice contrast to the dried stalks and wispy bracts, so I substituted some fresher leaves for the yellowed ones of my subject. It’s always better to replace a leaf than to revert to using a photograph of how it looked when you started. 

Some messy sheets with possible colour mixes written out and different mixes used.
A colour chart like this quickly shows me the right mix to use. Here I found that winsor yellow+ perylene green, with cerulean and indigo, were the best match.
I liked how some of the leaves had holes and yellowed tips... my little bit of Wabi-sabi, the Japanese art of celebrating beauty with all of it’s flaws.Wabi sabi recognizes that all life is in a constant state of change and that decay is as much a part of life as growth.

So having worked out my colours, I finished off the little study that I began the other week.

At last, it was time to start on the vellum. Before I started on my larger piece, Dianne suggested that I first do a small study on the goatskin parchment that I have. It’s thinner, rougher and more transparent than the kelmscott vellum, and when you hold it up to the light, you can see all the pores. However it would allow me to try out the new techniques that I have learned  and give me a feel of what it is like to paint on vellum.

I await joyous surprises while working, an awakening of the materials that I work with and that my spirit develops. (Odilon Redon)

I felt a little like the beginner at the ice rink… you know the one who clings desperately to the edge, taking short faltering steps whilst hopelessly trying to stay upright. I started first with a few squares of flat washes, graded washes, dry brush and stippling. So far so good. But just as the novice ice skater gains a little confidence and takes a step too big, and crashes to the ground, I tried to put on one wash too many and soon found that I was inadvertently lifting paint with my brush and ruining my lovely first washes. Sigh!

However, if at first you don’t succeed, try again!
I drew the seed pod out on tracing paper first, then carefully went over in black pen, refining the image. Then I redid the lines with a HB pencil on the reverse, and then transferred the drawing onto the vellum by going over the lines once more with a sharp H pencil. Just don't press too hard!
 "Imagine that you are painting an butterfly's wing which would tear if you were heavy-handed"  (Margaret Stevens, former president of the Society of Botanical Artists)
Carefully, cautiously I began to paint.
I love my magnifiers!
Tucked away in my cozy studio, I soon found myself absorbed in the task of gently building up form and texture with layers of paint. The trick it seems is to use very little water and not disturb the layers underneath. 

My very dry palettes of paint. I used to use watercolour tubes but am slowly switching to pans as they contain more pigment, last a lot longer and are easier to travel with.  Janene Walkky wrote a great blog post on the subject which made me really think.
I found the new brushes (Winsor &Newton Series 7miniatures) wonderful for this. They held just the right amount of paint and kept a nice shape. As I paint, I like to listen to audiobooks and this week started The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, which I have to say is brilliant, full of plot twists and turns. Tucked away in my quiet little sanctuary, I painted away, lost to the world… what bliss!

Taking shape... carefully!!

My desk... with everything that I need within easy reach
Almost there!

The final stage is to lay a sheet of tracing paper over the almost finished piece and with a pencil, work out which parts need darkening, as I have done on the lower left. I then use this as my guide for the final washes. Somehow the tracing paper makes it easier to read the tones.
I enjoyed working on the vellum… it imbues a softness and rich intensity to the pigments that you just can’t achieve on paper. "Vellumptuous" is my word to describe it. My mother is a gilder and art restorer, so I am now thinking about trying out some gold leaf and creating some illuminated botanical art on vellum. 
Wouldn’t that be fun?
However, first things first! My kelmscott vellum awaits! Having put so much time into preparation and practice, I feel a lot more confident with this one.

Iris foetidissima seed pod study on goatskin vellum
“The object isn’t to make art, it’s to be in that wonderful state which makes art inevitable.”  
Robert Henri