Thursday, 19 February 2015

It Starts with....Nothing!

After a great trip to Dublin the other week I felt enthusiastic about work and was looking forward to preparing two paintings for the SBA annual exhibition, titled, 'In Pursuit of Plants'  but what to paint?
Completing any painting is never without some form of struggle. It starts with nothing.... a blank page, or skin in this case, and slowly builds. There never seems to come a point when it's an easy process, some days go well, which is the best feeling.... and others don't, which is the worst ......... it can be extremely frustrating at times, especially with a deadline looming!

I decided to complete two paintings which were prepared for and planned last year., both are of Fritillaria imperialis 'Rubra' ( below).  

Work in progress (19th Feb), Fritillaria imperialis 'Rubra'
 on Kelmscott vellum, size 72 x 47 cm
It seems like a suitable subject,  F. imperialis first arrived in Britain from Persia in the sometime after the late 1500's, it is native to Turkey and also found in Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, where it grows on scrub and rocky slopes.
Several cultivars of the plant are available and 'Rubra' is one of the older forms. Last year I purchased three different plants, the above plus Aurora and the yellow Lutea, all are very beautiful but smell terrible. The leaves are sprouting at the moment but unfortunately it won't flower until April so the work will have to be completed using last years reference and studies. I spent a considerable amount of time working on this 'foxy' smelling member of the Lily family last year so feel fairly comfortable with working in this way on this occasion.

The blank skin...this has to become a painting! The whole skin, Kelmscott vellum from William Cowley. It cost about £130 for this piece so I don't want it to make too many mistakes
 Both paintings are on vellum,  one is painted on a whole skin and has so far proved a very difficult painting. The skin has lots of imperfections which I rubbed it down with pumice but it still hassome flaws, nevertheless it's a very nice looking piece of vellum. The smaller piece, in contrast, is very smooth. This is just the nature of vellum, every piece is different, which is also part of the charm. Working on vellum is always time consuming, usually with plenty of error,  invariably I end up removing some parts and re-doing them. Recently I painted some small works on vellum to get back into the swing of it but these two works are considerably more challenging, largely due to the rich colours and large size. I knew that the darker green leaves would be difficult so decided to start there.

Beginnings, I always put the stem in lightly first with a tea wash, followed by the leaves, I like to make sure the stem is smooth and it's an integral part of a painting, a bad stem ruins a painting! The initial washes on the leaves are more of a yellow biased green mix, using Indanthrene blue Winsor yellow and a small amount of  Permanent rose

These tricky leaves, rotate around the stem in whorls. After the initial washes I vary the ratio of the green mix from the initial yellow bias to a more blue biased mix in the darker greens. I also used some Danial Smith Verditer blue to push the highlights forward and some paynes grey for the darkest shadows.
Painting is a very personal thing, I spend a lot of time on my own with a painting. I've been working on this one for days and not getting very far, in fact I've hardy been out of the flat for over a week and find I need this concentrated working time to 'tune in' to a larger painting. When it's not going so well I have to try to resist getting up, making endless cups of coffee, and general procrastinating, such as checking Facebook and emails every 5 minutes etc. this behaviour must to be curtailed if  I'm to complete on time but this week already I've watched 4 films, drank nearly 3 bottles of wine and chomped through a whole bag of wine gums!  I've painted and removed several leaves already. Today I had to make progress and with just a couple of days left the pressure is on! At first I can't decide on the right brush for the job and frustrating little things happen that make me want to walk away - the worst is the little bits of hair that break from the brush and weld themselves to the vellum! or the annoying little flick of paint at the edge of the brush stroke. Anyone who paints on vellum will no doubt know what I'm talking about ....but I put the headphones on and after a few hours it starts to fall into place.
I don't want to finish the leaves before putting the flowers in so move on to the flowers as soon as I establish the basics with the greens. Ideally I should have put the green crown in but for some reason I didn't.
The first wash in and adding detail. Cobalt Violet  and Verditer Blue both ( Daniel Smith). For the vivid orange, Transparent Yellow and Scarlet lake plus some Daniel Smith Transparent Pyroll Orange. This image from the second painting, which is a simpler study of just the flower head with pollinating bees.
I'd worked out most of the colours for the painting last year but decided to try a few additions from the Daniel Smith range in addition to my usual W&N pans. It's really important to work with  transparents colours if possible, particularly on vellum, because the opaques tend to be flat and heavy looking in anything other than an initial wash. This bright orange colour will require a significant amount of building up and I want to maintain that brightness and luminosity.

A messy business! I usually use Winsor & Newton pans but decided to try a few of the Daniel Smith paints. More so on the larger painting. They have some very nice colours but I have to say that I prefer the W & N pans for the dryer style of working required on vellum, I found too much gum arabic present in the Daniel Smith paints but the colours are good, albeit slightly unnecessary.

Building up the dry brush work, adding some Perylene maroon to the palette for the rich red/ orange
Adding the bees!
On the smaller work I decided to add bees. It's one of the things I'd noticed about the plant last year....the bees and flies love it! F. imperialis is also known as 'Mary's Tears', this is because of the huge nectaries, hence the appeal to pollinators! Last year I'd taken the potted plant into the house one morning to paint it ,when all of a sudden two large bumble bees emerged from the flowers and flew around the kitchen in panic before escaping through the patio doors.

'Mary's Tears' Huge nectaries appeal to potential pollinators
 Another interesting  story about this plant is that it is also pollinated in the UK by Blue Tits,  the birds can often be seen scurrying up and down the stems! This is the most northerly observation of a bird pollinated plant (ornithophily), and the only example in Europe , so is of some significance. In April I hope to be able to paint the yellow  Fritillaria ' Lutea' with a blue tit. I've never seen this portrayed in a painting before.
Here's a bit of further reading for those interested. There are a number of research journals  regarding this subject, (this is a downloadable pdf.). For more general observations on pollination  click here.

Blue Tit, Parus caeruleus. A pollinator of  Fritillaria imperialis. Image copyright WIkimedia Commons  

A study from last year F. imperialis 'Lutea' a subject for a painting later this year
I'm afraid that writing this blog is yet another form of procrastination, so I'd better get back to the job.
Will the paintings be finished on time?....probably. Will they be acceptable...I don't know!
But are we ever really satisfied with our painting?  probably not....but that's all part of the challenge and the fun!


  1. What fun to see your impressive paintings emerge! I don't think I've seen a painting on a whole skin before--you are very ambitious. I can't wait to see the cute Blue Tit in a painting as well--great idea!

    1. Thank you Janene. It felt a bit over ambitious, those leaves were painful to do. I kept thinking ' why didn't I use paper' would have been so much easier. I think I could have put more darks in on the orange flowers but it's framed now.... You know how it is ;)

  2. Wonderful Dianne, I can't wait to see these finished.

    1. Thank you Polly, I decided not to submit the version with the bees. Needs more work and I want to reposition the stem. One painting will have to do this year.

  3. So LARGE is that full sheet of vellum? Usually from a calf so it might be quite large - ? Love the story of blue tits pollinating. Such busy bossy little bundles rather like an idealised ragamuffin, cap 'n all. That a painting to look forward to.

    1. Thank you Liz, it's quite a small skin.... But not that small! I cut off the edges but not much more, so the framed image is about 72 x 47 cm. plenty large enough though!

  4. Love love love your paintings, as always!!! I ordered some of the verditer blue myself- it looks beautifully transparent. I can't wait to see the addition of the blue tit. Keep going!!!xx

    1. Thank you Shevaun, it's a nice colour hope you like it ;) I'll paint the blue tit later this year. I'm hoping we get some here, seems like there are lots of birds around the flat - I see a wren most days, in the Ivy right outside my painting wiindow and a pair of blackbirds too. I notced little stone bird baths in the graveyard a few weeks ago ;) Can't wait to see which little feathered friends arrive :)

  5. Dianne I have seen your pictures as you have developed/ struggled with this painting and enjoyed this blog about it just as much. I read every word and some of it out loud as I certainly recognised many of your thoughts-particularly needing to 'tune in' to the painting. What an apt description. Thank you for writing it.