Sunday, 24 January 2021

New Year, Old Painting: Cupani Project

This week I finally finished off a commission which began last year. It's a painting of the sweet pea 'Cupani' on dark vellum, which will be making its way to its owner in Seattle this coming week.  It's been a long time in the making, as many paintings are - from buying the seeds and growing the plants in the garden, initial studies and sketches to the final painting all takes time.

Finished painting of Cupani Lathyus odoratus on dark veiny vellum 
This project began about one year ago, I think about the same time we first heard of Covid 19! I purchased the heirloom seeds of Lathyrus odoatus 'Cupani' from Chilterns Seeds in early February. Referred to as the 'original' sweet pea, it's believed to have first arrived in England in 1699, when Sicilian monk Father Francesco Cupani sent seeds from his home in Sicily to schoolmaster and botanist Dr Robert Uvedale. Father Cupani was a man ahead of his time and you can read more about  his work in this Acta Botanica Gallica Journal and also about other plants that bear his name and his publication on native flora of Sicily on Professor Hedghog's Journal, which is well worth following. Reading about these plants makes me want to visit Sicily to see the native flora.....maybe next year. 

Botanist Father Cupani Img. Wikimedia Commons 

Compared to modern day cultivars, this is a much more conservative looking flower, the hairy slender stems usually bear just two flowers, which are relatively small, however the colours are stunning with a rich red maroon, and blue/ violet wings with a paler keel inside, most outstanding is the perfume of the flower. Dr Uvedale succeeded in growing the flower which soon became popular in the 1700's, being given the name 'Cupani' and marketed commercially by around 1730. Our modern day cultivars descend from Cupani, so we have much to be thankful for. 

It's an easy enough plant to grow, and I started it off in seed trays in early February with a late second batch in early March (sow anytime Sept - March), they germinate quickly, within a few weeks, and the tips need to be pinched out to encourage bushy growth. Planting two batches meant I would have a longer flowering period to work with. Despite the Covid lockdown the weather from March and all summer was incredible and the Garden flourished, Cupani likes full sun so this was good. Much to my relief the first Cupani flowers appeared July 23rd, it didn't take long before they were scrambling over fences and up canes. It's best to remove most seedpods to promote longer flowering but I kept a few for the illustration purposes.

First flowers appeared July 23rd 

Within a couple of weeks Cupani is scrambling all over the garden 

I set to work on a study page once a few flowering stems were established, it's a lovely plant to paint, with such vibrant colour. I always complete a study page - this allows me to understand the it fits together and grows. For me this study page is a problem solving exercise in advance of the final painting and it's always good to have plenty of plant material to work with, that way I dissect and deconstruct to achieve the best understanding. Measuring and making notes as well as working out all the colour mixes is all part of the process. 

Studies, revealed that some stems have three flowers but most only have two, Later on I decided to stick with what is typical in the final painting. 

The finished study page shows different aspects of the plant, an enlarged dissection in graphite, notes about the plant, dates and colour mixes. This process makes composing and completing the final piece much easier. 

For the final composition, I wanted to keep a similar look to the study page but with a more square format, so made some drawings based on this arrangement but kept some aspects a little more spontaneous. 
The next task was to move on to the painting; the client wanted the piece on vellum and initially I though manuscript might be the best option because it has some delicate veining and is a clean and fairly white substrate, the flower has strong colour so I though perhaps the darker vellum might not work so well, however, despite starting on manuscript, curiosity go the better of me and I made a small flower stud on dark vellum, some adjustment was needed with the colour mixes and I made use of some body colour by using gouache to increase vibrance, to my surprise it worked well. 

On the light manuscript the colours are more vibrant and venation is still visible
The developing composition on manuscript before I had a change of heart 

Comparing surfaces, left study page, centre manuscript and right dark veiny vellum

A small study on a  scrap of dark vellum, after discussion with the client we decided this was the best option 

 After discussions with the client we decided that the dark vellum was the way to go, I'd had this beautiful piece of vellum from William Cowleys for some time, the strong veins complement the climbing stems so well and the warm colour gives a lovely vintage feel. Although I wouldn't finish this painting until long after flowering had finished, I had enough preparatory material and photographs to complete it at a later date. Sometimes it's good to change your mind. 

'Cupani' has been a wonderful project and I'll definitely be growing it again this year! Apparently the sweet pea is symbolic of goodbyes as well as for pleasure, I'm sure we'll all be glad to say goodbye to this current situation and can maybe get out into the wider world again in the not too distant future to do more plant hunting, but for now though it's time to begin the next 2021 project.


1 comment:

  1. everything i grow here (except columbine) ends up deer i can envy your sweetpeas