year one part eight: all about flowers

In August I treated myself to another week at West Dean, this time on Mariella Baldwin’s "Summer Colours" botanical painting course. This meant that I met a new teacher and a different perspective. I had thought, ignorantly, that botanical painting was a bit formulaic and that most artists approached it in the same way – lots of pale glazes then dry brush work. Of course, everyone has a particular method, just as in any other form of painting. Mariella had wonderful sketch books and paint charts for reference which were works of art in themselves. Her small watercolour paper notebook had colour mixes for all sorts of primary combinations (e.g. Indian yellow, Prussian Blue and Alizarin or New Gamboge, Permanent Rose and Ultramarine) which she’d built up over the years. Just looking at them was an inspiration.


flowers in the sink at west dean

I chose a magenta cosmos flower, as much for the feathery leaves as for the vibrant colour. I started with a basic outline drawing and transferred it to hot pressed Fabriano using Tracedown. This was a surprise, as it had been on the tulip course. An accurate drawing with a good composition is important but you don’t need to do it directly on to the watercolour paper. To be able to wrestle with the drawing and design until they looked right, then to transfer just the bare bones was perfect for me. One of the reasons I’d never tried botanical painting was because I knew that the drawing was very challenging and that I would destroy the paper surface rubbing out before I’d painted a stroke.

The cosmos is not finished because I work slowly and the thing died on me. I learned the hard way that a shaded drawing is a must if you want to continue a bit of posthumous painting. Unlike landscape, which stays put even if the light changes, plants are here today and gone tomorrow. Not only do they curl up and die, they also change colour dramatically in the process. You may well come back in the morning, as I did, to find a heap of petals, pollen and a stalk. Most botanical artists do have to use photographs as an aide-memoire. The first steps are therefore a shaded drawing to keep you on track and some accurate colour mixing based on the fresh specimen.



fun with colours: permanent rose and lemon yellow mixes

I knew that I was having a lovely week and sitting in Hazel’s garden after a hard day’s painting, the penny finally dropped. I could see with botanical painting that once I’d grasped the principles, I could get results. I also felt that of all the things I’d tried, I had most natural aptitude for this. I think I might have been resisting it for that very reason, imagining that I should somehow become more “cutting edge”. However, I have always felt that art takes care of itself. If it’s right, you really want to stay with it and move forward. As had been the case with etching, ideas had started forming fast and I knew that I was going to go home and get on with it. I was also falling in love with colour. After years spent with a British Isles landscape palette – fifty shades of green – I had a craving for violet, magenta and scarlet. I had assumed that retirement would “liberate” me and turn me into a freestyle artist. It had never occurred to me that I was also free now to be as detailed and tight as I wanted and that this was as valid a way of working as any. I knew plenty of artists working brilliantly in this way and could join them at my own modest level. No one would ever tell me again to “loosen up”.

My ten year old self was utterly content painting a flower calendar for my sister. When I told her that I thought I might concentrate on botanical painting for a bit, she just said, “About time too. I’m so glad, because I’m afraid you’ll never be Nolde”.
I suppose that with age we learn to accept what we are truly like when we don’t have to follow the prevailing mood any longer. Artistically speaking, there are lots of styles and subjects we could practise adequately, but the secret is finding what really floats your boat, what gets you out of bed in the morning and stops you inventing displacement activities. When you’d rather do the ironing, you’re on the wrong track.By the time I went to Carole’s last session at Marden, I knew that much as I loved her work, I had taken a step in the other direction.

So, I’ll be giving botanical painting my best shot from now on. If it doesn’t seem to be working out I’ll be free to try some abstract expressionism, but I think that this particular seed has been quietly growing for some time. I will even confess now to moments in the past year or so when I’ve felt (whisper it) bored with landscape. Not the look of it, but the sense that what I had to say about it in paint was boring. I had probably best expressed it in my etchings. It will be a nice change to walk comfortably in the countryside without making pictures in my head all the time. Once back in the studio though, I shall revel in a bit of scarlet and magenta.

next month: florum and five leaves