year one part four: my first tulip and other stories

I discovered that my friend Hazel was doing some botanical painting, so we decided to do a short course together at West Dean College. I had been a member of the Society of Botanical Artists for over 20 years, despite not actually being classified as one. The Society, as it was founded by Suzanne Lucas, was a broad church and artists using plants in their habitat, as I did in my etchings, had always been admitted to make a more varied exhibition. Surrounded by so much fantastic work, I had steered well clear of trying it out for myself. However, I had botanical artist friends, loved discussing their work and had my own growing collection.

Our tutor at West Dean was patient and expert Sandrine Maugy, who gave us a calm, concentrated learning experience. I had imagined that after the roller-coaster of etching, botanical painting would be boring. Instead, I found it hugely challenging. For one thing, if you are not going to end up with a dreary little specimen, you really need to get a grip on the composition and the impact of the piece right from the start. There are no second chances or corrections, no overpainting or scraping back. So you have to give the initial drawing your full attention and then transfer the best basic lines to the pristine watercolour paper. Some artists like to work straight on to the paper. I have always maintained that it takes years of practice to make this spontaneity work (or you have to throw lots of good paper away).

I should have been warned by my January hellebore experience. It's also necessary to record all the shadows, lights, veins etc. on the original drawing for reference, because by the end of the painting your tightly closed little pink tulip will have opened, changed to a bruised mauve and drooped (or actually disappeared).
“Use the drawing for the form and texture and the real specimen for the colours”. But don’t leave either too long!


modest little tulip (watercolour)

This is my first botanical. I drooled over the gorgeous parrot tulips on offer but they were not for the novice.This little specimen took me long enough but I grew quite fond of its funny twisted leaves and did, I think, make a reasonable stab at their smooth, silky texture.

Sandrine’s method of work is unusual among botanical artists and involves underpainting the shadows before applying several layers of pure colour. This avoids muddying the pigment at a later stage. She mixes beautiful shadow greys from the three dominant primaries in the flower in the appropriate proportions and dilutes as necessary. I found this worked really well for me because it forced me to observe the form and stop working in too linear a way. I would never have managed the roundness of the shapes without the underpainting. You also discover some very subtle grey mixes in the process and can ditch the idea of Payne's Grey.

I discovered that the simple subjects pose their own problems. How do you make them arresting? How do you make their simplicity work? There’s a lot to learn here. The design and the statement you make are everything, because that is what will impact on the eye. The space around has to play a role. There is also nowhere to hide with botanical work. Once the design has attracted you, you move in to the detail and it all has to work together. I had stupidly imagined that it was not “creative”. In fact it is creativity on a tightrope – one false move and it’s into the bin.

Back home, in Angelo’s class we looked at works by Emile Bernard, Gauguin, Toulouse Lautrec and some of the Post-Impressionists. Our task was to put together still life studies of brightly coloured objects, using multi-coloured brush strokes over oil pastel marks. We then gave the shapes graphic dark outlines. I chose a stone bottle with a lime green chrysanthemum and a dark red rose, a brass hand bell and a delightfully decorated wooden duck. I did notice that I was having “a good drawing day”, working quite spontaneously and freely, in a way that I couldn’t have done a few months ago. The result was not my usual sort of work but ticked all the boxes for learning - and the duck does look rather endearing.


hello duckie (oil pastel, watercolour and ink on paper)

The month ended with the dramatic dismantling and departure of my etching press. It went out to a good home on Friday 27th, leaving a gaping hole in the studio. My neighbour insisted on taking a photo of our last embrace and I shall probably be grateful to her eventually.


goodbye press

Next month: Looking back, then moving forward