year one part ten: crab apples, spindle and the pomegranate from hell...

In October, I started work with determination. How to begin? To use a knitting analogy, do you have to start with a cotton dishcloth or can you launch into fairisle because that’s what you really want? Apparently the botanical equivalent of the dishcloth is an ivy leaf – a very good learning piece. Fortunately, West Dean had nicer things to offer so I picked a maple leaf and two tiny crab apples that shared the same basic palette of Indian Yellow, Sap Green and Alizarin. This was another botanical course (Orchard Fruits) with Sandrine Maugy but also a reunion weekend with Hazel and Jan who had been at primary school with me. We reminisced fondly about Patricia Scott who had taught us Art and Nature Study. It is to her that I owe my love of wild plants. She taught me names like Grass of Parnassus and Ploughman’s Spikenard and took our whole class to Formby sand dunes to look for Bee Orchids.

The maple leaf and crab apples were a real pleasure and I tried to set them in a quirky little composition. Putting down the shadow areas first really helped to keep me on track with the form. I used Fabriano grana fina – but cold pressed this time so that I could use wet in wet to lay down the basic colours. Using this slight texture was perfect for the technique and the results were very different. I guess it depends on the subject and whether it is very fine and shiny or translucent. Hot pressed is good for fine washes and layers and cold pressed for wet in wet. I more or less finished the painting and just tidied it up a bit at home.


“maple and crab apples” (watercolour on fabriano grana fina cold pressed traditional white)

Sandrine keeps an A4 and an A3 sketchbook which she uses for all her preliminary drawings and notes on colour. That way she can refer to them easily when she’s teaching or if she paints the same species again. This seemed to me like a really good idea so I’ve invested in a couple. Sketchbooks are beautiful just to look at and keep, as well as being great for storing information.

Back in my studio, I wanted to try something with really vivid autumn colours. I went to Fowlmead, the old colliery site that has been re-wilded and planted with native species. The walkways are edged with sea buckthorn, elder, rosehips, dogwood, sloe and spindle. Spindle fitted the bill with a promising palette of Permament Rose, Magenta, Opera Rose and Liz’s Passion Orange. I took some back and set about drawing it, using a composition that strayed diagonally across the top of the paper. I loved the colour but it was like walking a tightrope. Would I mess up the next step?

The spindle painting was sidelined while I did another week with Hazel West-Sherring. This was “Winter Fruits” and the reason why I embarked on the nightmare pomegranate. We think “Wow! That would be nice to paint” and dive in, full of false confidence. Whatever I attempt in this field, even the simplest fruit, proves to have an intricacy I wouldn’t have imagined. Everything is flecked and faceted and is hiding something inside. It dawned on me by day three that I had chosen a Kaffe Fassett of a fruit. My brain dissolved with the effort of conveying layers of pith and shards of Rose Doré. I fought the thing on several fronts. For a start, it was sticky. Every time I touched it, it oozed juice. Then it discoloured within minutes of cutting. We kept shaving layers off to retrieve the original colour and every layer changed the pith and the faceting and the level of the pips. Do you leave white bits for the millions of light reflections or do you lift them off at the end? Which reds and pinks stain? I had always thought that working from a photo would be frowned upon but the struggle to preserve the original material seems to make it a necessity prop.

On reflection I should really have tackled the outside. The inside was way beyond my capabilities. So I had to learn the hard way as usual. I worked hard on the arils but the bit I enjoyed most was probably the filaments and stamens at the top. This was one of those occasions when you know there must be an order for doing things and a trick or two. Paint the negative spaces between the filaments then glaze the filament colour (Gold Brown + Raw Sienna) over the top. Magic! The whole thing took me 5 days, but once again, I felt I’d done my best. I was really impressed with other people’s work too. I think Hazel has great skill in getting students to do their personal best.


“pomegranate and offspring" (watercolour on fabriano grana fina hot pressed extra white)

I came home and started work on a physalis trio, one half-open, one with outspread calyx and the two fruit halves. Of course, it proved more difficult than I had thought and was not helped by my using the wrong side of the hot-pressed paper for the first attempt. The pigment looked uneven and once I had checked both sides I could actually feel the difference in surface. I tackled the fruit first as it was changing and wrinkling by the minute. The papery calyx was a real challenge, although the contrast with the shiny, opaque fruit was what had attracted me initially. I soon discovered that it was papery but also furry along the veins. White hairs? Another bit of esoteric botanical know-how that I didn’t possess. October disappeared rapidly and the physalis was still sitting there sadly on Bonfire Night. Could do better.

next month: less is always more