Thursday, 6 February 2014

Pondering Pigments


Ask any botanical artist which colour causes the most problems, and you’ll be surprised to hear them say Green.

Yes, that all essential, life-giving and luscious colour is notoriously difficult to get right. Unlike many colours which can be used straight from the pan, green has to be mixed. Commercial greens just don’t work … they are inevitably too blue, or too yellow, too vibrant (yes, I’m talking about you Viridian), too bright, too dark … all exasperatingly wrong! Even Sap green, a favourite of mine, has to be toned down to make it behave.

sketchbook experiments in green

This week began with the quest to find the right greens for my Calamondin orange leaves. The leaves are a dark blue-green on top, and a yellow-green underneath. I had used indigo for my earlier studies, but Indigo is like the Mariah Carey of pigments- it's such a diva! It’s a fabulous colour but it stubbornly refuses to be lifted. It muddies up all the other colours. It’s unpredictable and at times overbearing.

There was nothing for it but to find a better blue… so I made up a chart comparing  Indanthrene, Cobalt blue, Perylene green and Indigo. I mixed them with a selection of transparent yellows. I tried possible mixes over cerulean (which will be my first wash on the leaves)… but still the elusive green was not found.

By coincidence, Robert Genn’s weekly newsletter (worth signing up for if you haven’t already) was all about yellows. I was very interested to read that one of my favourite pigments, Indian Yellow, came about by feeding cows a diet of mango leaves, and then harvesting and drying the bright yellow urine. Remind me not to lick my paintbrush!! A similar colour, New Gamboge comes from the resin of the Garcinia hanburyi tree, found in Cambodia. In fact the word Gamboge comes from the word Gambogia, Latin for Cambodia. The pigment from this resin is used to dye the saffron coloured robes of Buddhist monks.

Comparing Winsor Yellow (deep), Indian Yellow and New Gamboge. I'm still sighing over the gorgeous Indigo though... look at the lovely dark it makes when mixed with sap green (second column from the right)
Inspired by this, I decided to compare the two pigments with my blues, and was surprised to find that although they look very similar on their own, the greens that they make are quite different. In fact Indanthrene and New Gamboge seem to be the answer to my green issue! Mind you, I haven’t yet put away the Indigo, so it might yet get a look in.

So onto the composition-
All traced out. I decided that I had too many leaves, so cut off a few.
 I selected three small branches of my little orange tree. I laid the sprigs onto paper to get the feel of the composition, took a photograph , and then drew each one out carefully onto a separate sheet of tracing paper. Then it’s just a matter of playing around until you get the right arrangement. As I plan to paint this onto vellum of a similar size to the Iris foetidissima, I felt that it would be nice to get a composition that would complement that of the iris. They are not a pair, but with luck, they will be both accepted into the SBA exhibition.

Laying them all side by side, helps me to envision what the final result will be
  
However I wasn't happy with the composition, and so redrew it to come up with a better one (right)
Tracing paper is such a great way of working out composition, particularly when you have more complex illustrations. You can move pieces about with ease and, if necessary, even flip images by simply turning the tracing paper over. If you use a photocopier, you can also reduce or enlarge your traced images- very handy when planning the composition of scientific botanical illustrations.

All set up and ready for action. The little bit of silver paper bounces light back up onto my fruit to give it a bit of "oomph!"

So, with my composition and the colours worked out, it’s now just a case of getting my head down and painting! I’ll try not to suck on the paintbrush though.

"They'll sell you thousands of greens. Veronese green and emerald green and cadmium green and any sort of green you like, but that particular green, never." Pablo Picasso

15 comments:

  1. Interesting post and well illustrated with your photos. I find indanthrene blue more useful than indigo.
    I have one of these trees too. Have you tried eating any of the fruits?

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    1. Thanks. No, I haven't tried the fruit yet, but I will as soon as I've finished.

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  2. This is fantastic! Thanks so much for putting so much work into it.

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    1. Thanks, it's encouraging to know that you like my blog!

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  3. OOOOO! So glad I stumbled onto your blog! STUNNING work and I love seeing the progress! Wanted to wave hello and thanks so much for sharing! ~Annie, Licensed artist, graphic designer.
    http://anniesdoodlebugz.blogspot.com/

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  4. Its so fun to see you progress through the steps of this painting! You are tackling a much bigger piece of vellum than I have tried thus far. Is it Kelmscott? Your line drawings are a delight in themselves, and great idea about intensifying the reflection with the foil. You are right--greens are definitely my biggest struggle. Not only the color but I find some mixes don't flow as well as others so don't make a smooth wash for larger leaves. Tricky!

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  5. Haha, Mariah Carey.... shall always call my indigo that now!! Great post Shevaun. I love seeing your colour charts... what patience you have. I always lick my paintbrush, a good reason to work with coloured pencil, methinks. however, I'm really enjoying paint again and you inspire me no end. Thanks!

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  6. I find painting yellow to be the most problematic. Green seems easy.

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    1. I have yellow as a close second for my problematic colours... but green still manages to test my patience! I wish I found it easy!

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  7. Great post as ever. I love green. I am always stunned by how much pink or purple you need to add to green. The hardest greens by far are those yellowy, limey, lurid greens for me. It's all about choosing your yellow carefully but then adding the right pink. Something very transparent. I mess it up on the pink.

    Then there's how it changes when it dries on the paper. That is often what I find most frustrating. Something can look so lush and rich when it's wet, and then it looses it's intensity upon drying. That's when the burnisher has to come out. You won't have this problem with the vellum though thankfully. It's looking great Shevaun - can't wait to see it develop. Those dimples will be fun!

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    1. Thanks Jess! Knowing your fondness for painting leaves, I think that you are pretty much an expert at handling greens by now! You're right too...it's amazing how much pink and red you need to add to get them under control! Dimples are always fun!

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  8. This blog page totally blew me out of the water in it's depth, scope and attention to detail! Marvelous blog! :)

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  9. As usual, Shevaun, your work is wonderful. Your blog provided much useful info. I like sap green as well and get mixed results with it, however, I've never tried Gamboge which is languishing in my paint box! Certainly will tap it next time I need a yellow-green combination. Enjoyed your bits of history to about where the pigment comes from. Good to know! Thanks for your post.

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