year one part twelve: try again, fail again, fail better

December started with another week at West Dean studying ‘Orchids, Exotic Plants and Fruit’ with Sandrine. I had been looking forward to this but soon found that I had bitten off more than I could chew. The room was full of orchids and feisty women eager to paint them, which is what I should have expected had I looked seriously at the course title.


an intimidating real-life orchid

I had somehow thought that I could get by with a nice little persimmon. Instead, I found myself on day one eye to eye with a rather flashy phaleonopsis that was well outside my comfort zone. I decided to do a small section consisting of two flowers and a bit of stalk twisting round the support. I always have a problem on botanical courses because I take at least a day to get a decent preliminary drawing. I know from etching on copper that to commit to the real thing when you have a naff drawing is just a waste of time. If later you are lucky enough to manage the painting techniques, all your efforts are wasted if it’s based on a poor drawing. My first ever orchid drawing resulted in this rather a pathetic specimen.


small orchid selection

Sandrine’s painting method is rigorous and takes a long time to perfect. It involves a number of wet on wet washes which are built up gradually, allowing each one to dry completely. The pigment is dipped into the damp paper and worked gently with a clean brush. If the pigment is too wet it will creep towards the edges and make a sharp waterline. If the paper is too dry it will not spread properly and the results will be patchy or make “cauliflowers”. If…if…if. Every step is a trap for the inexperienced. Suppose you do a decent drawing, walk the tightrope to layer 10 then do a big flowery cauli? Well, back to the drawing board… (I wonder whether the expression was created by a botanical artist rather than someone from Mad Men). Having struggled my way through the drawing and managed to transfer it to paper, the initial shadows were wobbly and mostly too dark for a white flower, even one with look-at-me magenta splodges. Can you correct this? No such luck. Start again. (What was it my hero, Beckett said? “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”) And always keep your tracing, right to the very end and then some.

I did try a persimmon as well and spent a long time doing a shadowed drawing, both of the outside and the inside. I was not pleased that my fruit had no seeds as these should have been a point of interest (and the main point for the persimmon, I would have thought). I borrowed the pips from Sandrine’s demonstration piece in Artists and Illustrators. I kept my nerve for this one and got to layer 3 without any caulis or rivulets. By that time all the single-minded ladies were proudly showing an array of orchids. I crept along to the end of the line and exhibited my work in progress, which looked for all the world like a pale orange bum.


a bum result (unfinished)

It was lovely to stay at Hazel’s again and retire to her warm, cosy spare room every evening. I shared it with some wedding bouquets and a dashing red net petticoat as her daughter was about to get married. In spite of being busy she made me really welcome and we had plenty of time to share botanical disaster stories.

Back home, I looked at my efforts and decided that the best place for the now very ripe persimmon would be in a fruit salad. I did learn a lot and it was instructive to watch Sandrine at work, making it all look deceptively achievable. I had a re-think about courses in general as I felt I’d made a few wrong choices as a student this time. Sandrine also demonstrated a whole pomegranate and a physalis, but because I’d tackled both recently, I chose a persimmon. It would have been much more sensible to follow the tutor. So for the next time…

1. Look at the course title properly. If it says orchids, expect orchids.
2. Don’t be clever and choose something that’s not being featured
3. Shelve the desire to express your individuality until you’ve learned something
4. Keep taking the notes – they really help afterwards.

December is doing its worst and I have quite bad SAD. By about 2.30 the light is so poor that I have to stop work, so I have been typing up my botanical course notes and going through art magazines for useful articles to add to my file.The month ended with a trip to Germany for Christmas and a nice break from it all. I took a few walks along the river and saw some watery landscapes that would have filled me with enthusiasm at one time. I found myself strangely relieved not to want to “process” them. Instead, I was homing in on all sorts of berries, twigs and dead leaves.The urge to create something seems to follow me wherever I go. I spend a week or so enjoying the real world, imagine that I might stay in it, then gradually start to make pictures in my head and off I go again. Most of the artists I know are the same. Small wonder real people think we are a bit odd.

next month: fifty shades of green