Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Secret History of a Painting, part 2

In the previous post I explained how I came to remove an old painting from vellum. In this post I will run through the process of creating the new work of a leaf skeleton on the same piece of vellum.

My desk set up for leaf painting, the actual leaf ( and twig) attached with tape on the left, with colour testing on the same sheet of paper. I also have an enlarged photograph so that I can keep track of the vein pattern and a piece of watercolour paper on the right for colour testing and drying off the brush during the dry brush work. I take only the colours that I intend to use and keep them at hand. This is a relatively small piece of vellum so I have taped it to the board with masking tape.
I selected a leaf that had decayed to the point where it had become part skeleton. This is part of the process of decomposition when the softer tissue is decomposed, usually by fungi, leaving the tougher leaf skeleton behind. The remaining skeleton reveals the elaborate transport system for water and nutrients running through the's like a network of interconnected hollow tubes.  Dried leaves make great subjects for beginners simply because unlike live material they don't move and can't wilt or curl up!

To find skeletons look in the leaf litter. I found these holly leaves while wandering around Queens Park, Longton, where I collected a bag full of old leaves, twigs cones and flowers that fallen or been picked and discarded.

Queens Park, Longton. I used to visit this park as a child 40 + years ago! It's much the same today. 
I tape the selected leaf next to the vellum and light with a lamp from the left. Working at x1.5 actual size,  the initial drawing is made on tracing paper and then transfer to the vellum, this keeps pencil lines to an absolute minimum on the vellum.  Erasing on the vellum can leave marks so if you do need to remove anything use the pumice as described in the previous post.  I'm painting a twig with lichens as part of this composition but this post deals specifically with the leaf.

After transferring the drawing to the vellum with tracing paper. I paint a very light quick wash on the remaining dried leaf tissue, using W & N Raw Umber with a touch of Brown Madder, I used Cobalt blue for the highlight. I try to look for the underlying colour first, which is generally quite a bit brighter than the 'overall' look of the leaf.  This initial wash doesn't have to be particularly neat with a subject like this,  apart from at the outer edges which should always be sharp and clean looking! The important thing is to work fast and do not be tempted to go over it. The vellum doesn't like to be too wet and buckles and becomes sticky with too much water. Also if you use too much water the colour will separate and form an ugly thick line at the outer edge, so judging the right amount of water is the key to success when working on vellum.  Remember that unlike paper vellum does not absorb the paint in the same way, the paints sits on the surface.  

When the initial wash is dry add a very light indication of the veins on the leaf tissue and begin to build up the colour  using a dry brush technique. To achieve this effect I use a size 1 Rosemary and Co. spotter brush, The spotter or alternatively miniature brush works well for dry brush because it has short hairs so the paint is almost stippled on. The brush is made wet and dried on kitchen paper to take away the excess water before dipping into the paint. I also keep a piece of watercolour paper at the side of my work to further dry off any excess - it's rally just a case of experimenting to get just the right amount of paint. I find watercolour pans are better for dry brush because they are obviously dryer but also because the can be added in thinner layers. The paint needs to be gradually built up using the same technique but too much paint becomes ugly and lumpy. To achieve the darker cooler shades I add some French Ultramarine to the Umber mix, for the darker parts I added Neutral Tint. Don't be tempted to keep adding more of the same colour to make it darker ( it doesn't! - but instead makes it thicker) but darken the paint using neutral tint. (Neutral tint can be made using red, blue and a touch of yellow, it takes the tone down without altering the colour.    
I continue to build up the dry brush work in layers, gradually modelling the surface of the leaf and working carefully in between the main veins. There were various layers and darker patches, probably degrees of decay caused by fungi.  

The skeleton network is painted using a combination of  small brushes for fine lines. Initially with raw umber and then adding shade with same darker mix as used for the leaf. 

Finally the finishing touches are added to the leaf after putting it away for a while and looking again with   'fresh eyes'. This always gives a better overview of the work.  I find it allows me to see the lights and darks more clearly than working constantly on a piece. My main observation is that the mid rib is too light and needs to be darkened to set it further back into the leaf.

That's it for the disappearing painting and emerging leaf painting! Please feel free to ask any questions.

NEXT:  I'm going to start looking at the colour spectrum. Looking at colour mixes, starting at the warm end with red and pink flowers and working my way through to the cool end.




  1. Thanks for explaining your process on vellum. The leaf has turned out beautifully!

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  3. Interesting blog post Dianne :) Don't know whether I shall ever get round to painting on vellum!

  4. This is such a beautiful piece Dianne - you've painted the lichens and leaf veins perfectly. Great colour matching and such tight brush work. Inspirational .

  5. The leaf is incredible, I half expect it to just jump out of the page and into my hands!