year one part eleven: less is always more

November arrived. The physalis was still sitting there reproachfully and the little winged fruit in the fridge was turning black. I finished my painting, a bit at a time. I was not keen – something about it was boring, despite my best efforts. I was pleased with the transparency I got on the closed wings but it remained a bit of a “why bother?” painting.


"physalis family" (watercolour and coloured pencil on fabriano hot pressed grana fina)

Mid-month, I joined Liz’s students at Sevenoaks Reserve for a day painting with a botanical artist friend, Sue J Williams. She helped us all individually, patiently talking us through colours and methods. I went out into the Reserve and found a small spray of field maple. This was the wild acer I kept seeing everywhere in the Kent hedgerows, nondescript in summer but a dazzling Indian Yellow in autumn with dark markings. I had been catching glimpses of it for weeks and already had an idea in my mind. I made a shaded drawing and worked out the colours, enjoying the sketchbook page almost as much as the painting itself. Before we went home we all watched Sue paint a series of dewdrops which came to life superbly when she nicked them with a scalpel. It is good to know that even in botanical work some things can be done using tricks of the trade!


sketchbook page

I was enthused by my field maple and set to work at home with a gentle shadow underpainting, as taught by Sandrine. I used a grey made from Translucent Yellow, Cobalt and Permanent Red and followed this with Translucent Yellow washes on 2 leaves, Indian Yellow on 2 leaves and a mixture on 1 leaf, resulting in gentle colour variations. I built up some underlying colours using the same palette of Cobalt, Permanent Red and Translucent or Indian Yellow then added a couple more glazes in the 3 yellows, keeping the leaves in a balance of 2/2/1. I tried Faber-Castell Polychromos pencils for the soft leaf veins, Dark Sepia 175 for the main ones and Nougat 178 for the secondary ones. I used dry on wet Sepia for the dark blotches on the leaves so that they would spread slightly and warmed this up a touch with Burnt Umber. When it was dry, I added tiny dry brush spots in Indian Red. I finished with more glazes, keeping the 2/2/1 arrangement and trying to show both similarity and variety in the leaves. It is so liberating to be dipping into red and orange! It is also interesting to balance accuracy with the desire to create attractive random markings from the movement of the paint. Autumn leaves are an opportunity to experiment. Alongside the formal structures of veins and cells, different pigments mingle in a pattern created simply by weather and decay.

I chose to put in a small crab apple as well. I like juxtapositions and little surprises and had seen a tree outside the farm shop with a tiny ‘Golden Hornet’ variety whose colour and markings mirrored the leaves. (Not recommended in strictly botanical circles, though, as it might look as though you foolishly thought they were part of the same plant...Quirky juxtapositions are at your own risk.) I ended up using quite a lot of coloured pencil on this piece. Is this OK I wonder? I seem to be able to get what I want more easily but this is probably because my painting skills are not yet up to the job.


“field maple and a golden hornet crab apple” (watercolour and coloured pencil on fabriano hot pressed grana fina)

The weather has moved from dull and wet to brighter but very cold. The temperature must have dropped 10 degrees so I’ve reached for the thermals. I went to Fowlmead again in search of something interesting and found lots of hawthorn (sign of a severe winter?) covered with a lime green lichen. The berries were an almost purple red so the complementary colours looked inviting. I spent a long morning doing a shaded drawing, trying to get the casual drop of the berries on their long stalks. I built up layers of different reds, mixing watercolour with Polychromos pencils. My basic palette was Deep Red, Lemon Yellow and Ultramarine and I used this for my shadow mix. However, I also needed Scarlet and Alizarin in the thin layers and used Green Gold, French Ochre, May Green and Burnt Sienna for the lichen.


"hawthorn and friend" (watercolour and coloured pencil on fabriano hot pressed grana fina)

Half way through, I was quite pleased at the way it was developing but I felt my lack of knowledge in the final stages. There seemed to be quite a few things I couldn’t solve and I had to do some guesswork. I’m learning to see what’s wrong but don’t have the techniques to put it right. My sister asked after the Spindle painting so I thought I would finish it as well. Moving from hot pressed paper to cold pressed felt strange and I wondered whether I had chosen the wrong surface for the subject. I persevered, telling myself that it’s a good idea to see a project through and by the end of the day it was looking better. Once I’d accepted that it was not supposed to have such a refined look I started to get the hang of it.

I have completed 4 paintings this month in spite of the depressing weather and my accompanying weariness, so I am quite pleased. I think that mixing and looking at reds and oranges has actually been mildly anti-depressant. It has certainly been nice to sit peacefully in my studio observing and painting plants. For the first time for years I seem in control of my working time with no plates waiting to be editioned and no galleries waiting for work. It’s a good feeling.

next month: try again, fail again, fail better