Thursday, 5 March 2020

The Crown Flower: Painting Calotropis gigantea for the IDSBA exhibition

Calotropis gigantea, otherwise known as the Crown Flower or Giant Milkweed, is a plant that I've admired ever since first seeing it on Gili Trawangan Island, Indonesia, in 2015 and every year since. It's the most striking of plants in structure, so I didn't have to think for too long about selecting it as a subject when it came to entering the Indonesian Society of Botanical Artists exhibition, scheduled for June 2020 in Jakarta.

Calotropis gigantea finished painting, 51cm x 39cm watercolour on paper
The Plant
For me the first stage for any painting is to carry out research, so here are just a few of the many facts about the Crown flower.
Calotropis gigantea (L.) Dryand, belongs to the Apocynaceae family, which is a pretty diverse and large group of plants with 410 genera and 5, 556 accepted species names. Apocynaceae means 'dog-away' in Greek, which explains why this family is also known as Dogbane, basically it's known to  poisons dogs and other animals. In the case of C. gigantea, this is a pretty toxic plant to be handling and great care is needed, The sap contains white 'milky' substance which really does pour from the stem like milk when cut, if you happen to get this into your eye, it can temporarily or permanently blind and causes severe headaches too. I've also read that the plant is toxic if ingested, but not sure who would be dining on this one! Apparently the centre of the flower is supposed to be edible... I won't be trying it! The sap is allegedly used as an arrow poison, although I think perhaps this relates more to the African Calotropis procera, which is even more deadly and known as the Apple of Sodam,  it has a more rounded fruit and a far worse reputation.
The Genus name, Calotropis, comes from the Greek 'Kalos' meaning 'beautiful' and 'tropes' meaning 'boat' which refers to the structure of the flower.

Large swathes of plants on the north west coast of Bali, near to the quiet black sandy beaches, where just a few fisherman  are the only people to be seen.
Seed pod
Native to temperate and tropical Asia, China, Malaysia and Indonesia, C. gigantea grows as a shrub or small tree, growing to over 4 m tall. I've seen it in many sites in Bali and Lombok and it's common in dry coastal areas where there is full sun but also near lagoons, I saw a beautiful one last year in Candidasa. Flowers are purple to white but some appear to be closer to a magenta colour and they are quite variable in colour depending on location/environment and age, the older flowers lose colour and fade quickly. Flowers are in large umbellate clusters. They have an unusual ' crown like' structure, at the centre is a large star shaped stigma which has 5 points, this is where pollen is found in the form of pollinia. The pollinia become attached to visiting nectar seeking insects, many insects are found in the nectaries but bees, possible carpenter bees are thought to be the specialist pollinators who inadvertently collect the pollinaria and carry it to other plants, which facilitates cross-pollination.
Leaves are elliptic to oblong and are very woolly, the colour is a light grey green. Stems are also woolly. Fruits are large and pointed with many seeds.
Flowers and buds, note the yellow 'star' shaped stigma, the pollinia, which are pollen sacs (just like orchids) which  become attached to insect pollinators and carried to other plants.
Like many poisonous plants, this plant has medicinal uses, it contains calotropin and cardiac glycosides, the latter being similar to digitalis ( the foxglove) has been used in the treatment of heart conditions, however, much of the medicinal uses are reported to be anecdotal folklore type remedies but some studies regarding its efficacy in the treatment of cancers have been carried out, and reported to be effective in the treatment of asthma. There is also some evidence that it has mosquito controlling properties in the Japanese encephalitis carrying mosquitos.
Fibre similar to flax is extracted from the stems and leaves of the plant and seepods produce a wooly material used for stuffing pillows. In Thailand the flowers are used for garlands but this can result in some eye problems for those making the garlands. Theres so much more that could be said about this plant, its beautiful and fascinating but I'll move on.

Garlands made from the flowers are used in religious ceremonies copyright Wikimedia Commons 

Study Pages 
I visited the north west coast of Bali is 2019 and found a the wasteground with hundreds of these very common plants near to the volcanic black beaches. After carefully bagging cuttings and taking hundreds of photographs,  I set to work in the sketchbook. The colours are unusual, the grey green hairy leaves were going to be challenging, there is no shine to work with, once cut the plant fades quickly and the leaves wilt so I did a mixture of sketches and field studies. colours so change one a plant is cut so it's important to colour match with a live or fresh plant.
I used my usual system of colour matching using my trusty old green chart, its a high light value grey green, which means its a light blue, cerulean or cobalt or maybe a mix of the two, to achieve that light opaque quality, I used the Lemon Yellow nickel titinate and opaque which is great for these pale colours as well as glaucous leaves, it needs frequent mixing as it will separate but I liked this quality for this plant, I don't paint particularly wet so I don't have the separation issue on the paper.  I also used some Winsor Lemon in the mix in places. the make a more natural green a small amount of Quinacridone Magenta was added. The flowers were fairly simple, also Quinacridone Magenta and Cobalt in various  ratios, with a small amount of the lemon in places. So a very simple palette.

Starting by making drawings of the small parts of the flower as well as of larger sections of the plant is useful to get a feel for them, using a hand lens is useful at this stage to examine the unusual structure. The leaves are difficult because of the way that they rotate around the stem, so significant foreshortening is required. This is an important part of the process for me because it helps me to understand the plant and how it fits together, drawing larger sections of the plants give me ideas about the composition at an early stage.
At this point I've already got a clear idea in my head about how I want to portray the plant and make a few thumbnail sketches to think about the arrangement.

I photographed and made measurements of all plant parts and referred to any reference material that I had to confirm points. Some of the leaves are large and I didn't want them to dominate the composition, so selecting a typical but appropriate cutting was important and I also wanted to show the typical upright growth habit but also shows the drooping nature of those stems with the weight of the large flower heads, this type of information about a plant can only be gained by observing the plant in its native habitat.

Colours, measurements and notes on observations regarding growth habit and arrangement etc. were made in a Stillman & Birn Zeta sketchbook, 8 x 10 inches, which is a good size for most plants. There aren't too many books on the Flora of Bali! but there is a lot written online. 

The greatest challenge about this work was the heat and humidity, it was November and quite late in the year, the first rains had just started. I had to use tracing paper at all times to stop my hands sticking to the paper, but the tracing paper kept sticking to me! next time ill use something less sticky, like mulberry paper.  After 5 days of observation and sketching I had sufficient material to continue back home and planned to complete the painting in the uk. It's never the best option to complete the work at home and away from the plant but its not always practical to complete large works at the site.

I wanted to have three component parts of the plant in the composition and possible the seed pod. I made separate drawings of these parts on drafting paper and in ink and transferred them using a light pad, a MiniSun A2 size is great for transferring, even through this heavier weight Stoonehenge Aqua paper.
The A2 light pad is pretty bright and allows me to transfer through 275lb  Stonehenge Aqua Hot Press paper - as long as the initial drawing is in ink. The separate flower on the right hand side was discarded as unnecessary, it was just left on the tracing because as one point I was considering dissections and a seedpod but decided against it. 
After transferring the drawing using the light pad I used my reference to begin the painting plotting in the star shaped flowers on the main cluster. 
I started off in natural daylight on an easel but because of  the short timeframe to complete this work, I decided to work under lamps on an upright large desktop easel. It was a full sheet of imperial paper so I had to put an additional board underneath as the easel is slightly too short. I use two daylight lamps 5500 K and +90 CRI. I also use a x2.5 magnifier on an adjustable arm to check detail and for clean edges etc.  
Making a Start and Materials 
The paper chosen was Stonehenge Aqua HP, which is a paper that I've used for quite a while, it's fine for smaller works but the surface sizing is really quite soft and as a consequence it's less robust than Saunders Waterford High White, which my normal choice these days but decided to give the heavier weight 275lb Stonehenge Aqua a try. It's incredible smooth and hard to see any mesh on either side. If you keep your work very clean and don't use too much water or if you refrain from pushing the paint around, this is a decent enough paper but it is quite difficult if you should happen to make an error - obviously no one likes to make an error but thats how it goes sometimes. Edges are clean and crisp but make sure you don't use an eraser on it as it ruins the surface, so a light clean tracing is vital. Also, use plenty of spare paper around the edge and the low tack tape with pull off the surface leaving a fluffy mess! which confirmed that sizing is very soft. I'm still not sure how much I love it for larger works. All paints are Winsor and Newton Artist quality pans. The colours previously mentioned were used for everything, so only 4 paints in total. Cobalt Blue, Windsor Lemon, Lemon Yellow NT and Quinacridone Magenta. I didn't use the Cerulean on the final painting.

It's OK to Start Again
Sometimes I find I'm just not in the best frame of mind to paint and feeling slightly stressed with too many distractions is never good, anyhow, there was a back facing leaf that I didn't much like, the only option for me was to start over.  I always do this if somethings not quite right, its often quicker than trying to fix or alter something to distract. It wasn't that I hadn't planned it out well but when the paint starts to go on it becomes obvious. So after 4 days of work I started again, with a more focused approached and tweaked the composition and the offending leaf plus a few other areas.

First version, spot the difference with the one below (this one was scrapped but used for practice)
Leaf position, take 2:  I just couldn't live with the ugly back facing leaf and twisted it slightly in this version, this didn't alter the accuracy and was a small adjustment. I made a few other changes too. I actually have two attempts at pretty much every painting and try not to be overly precious with any work.... if its not going to plan, start over and save yourself the grief of the 'annoying' bits. 

The leaves are difficult in this plant, the dull surface doesn't give provide and highlights and they have a 'v' shape or flat profile, this requires some careful use of shadows, especially at the leaf margin, where the leaves curve in places, these small shaded areas only required a more dense / creamy mix of the same colour and were carefully dry brushed on. I't amazing how little is needed sometimes. Cast shadows were Cobalt with a touch of Quinacridone Magenta. Rear leaves were kept paler and more blue bread to give the effect of distance, which is important with a plant where leaves rotate around the stem, this is commonly referred to as aerial perspective, it's no big mystery but simple creates separation between near and far parts using the same effect as those used by landscape painters - if you look to the distance the mountains will be paler and more blue and the foreground is stronger and more saturated - a very simple observation which is most useful in botanical work too.

Burning the midnight oil! still not added the smaller bud branch at this stage because initially I wasn't altogether convinced I needed it, so had left it off the tracing. 
Almost finished, decided to add the smaller bud stem on the right as originally planned,  it did need it as it describes the plant more accurately,  C. gigantea is multi branching plant with many flower heads at different stages of development.
It was hard work and many hours were spent on the intricate parts, I didn't have time for the seedpod and felt it was well balanced as it was, so declared it finished. I sent it off just in time before the deadline  had to send in time for the IDSBA Call for Entries deadline, which was on the 29th February. Fingers crossed that it's accepted.  I do hope to paint this again, it's so interesting and challenging. 

About the Exhibition
The IDSBA exhibition  " Botanical Art for Friendship' is a collaboration between the Indonesian Society of Botanical Artists and the Korean Botanical Artists Cooperative. The exhibition is a great idea by this relatively new Society and will take place in the capital city of Jakarta at the National Gallery of Indonesia, which is a major achievement. I have been so encouraged by both the friendliness and professionalism of the Indonesian Society. Last year I taught a class there, which was a wonderful experience filled with enthusiasm and kindness. Their submission process required background information on the plant and references for information provided, something I think all societies should ask for. I hope to return to Indonesia for the exhibition in June, Coronavirus permitting of course! 

The beach, near to where I found the Crown flowers 

It's really great to be painting more, although I do feel a little 'painted out' just now, having completed previous paintings for the current exhibition (I'll write another blog about that). This was my 9th painting completed this year!... although to be honest most of the planning for this one, which is the hard part, took place at the tail end of last year.  

Now it's time to do other teaching work before starting my next painting, which will be to finish the Sutherlandia frutescens. 

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for showing your process. The painting is beautiful!