Friday, 16 July 2021

Dandelion Sketches

I have decided to write the occasional post about some of the plants featured in my sketchbooks. It seems a shame to present a painting without all of the 'other stuff' or back stories, such as the description, history, process of painting or whatever, it's one of the many reasons why keeping a sketchbook is so appealing to me. Of course a finished painting is a stand -alone piece and takes a lot of time, but the process of learning about a plant in a sketchbook study is much more than the visual sum of its parts, and recording in a broader context interests me more and more as I get older. Most of these studies will probably never make it to finished paintings due to time constraints but all contribute to my understanding of both plants and painting. The first plant to feature is the humble dandelion, Taraxacum officinale, or the Common Dandelion.

Above: Sketchbook pages of Taraxacum officinale, painted from my garden, April 2021. This sketchbook is a project that I've been working on since early this year - with fellow artist Debbie Crawford, we paint a plant of our choice each week, mine are from the locality where I live - in Staffordshire and Debbie's are from her garden in New Jersey. It's certainly helped with motivation and focus during the lockdowns, I even made the sketchbook myself! Here the Dandelion is illustrated  from above,  because that's often how we come across it. Also, notes and colour swatches are shown, which I record for reference,  they also tie everything together visually. Note that the painting is unfinished and sketchy - the aim is to record rather than produce finished works. This was my second entry for the dandelion in the book. 

Initial Observation and Thoughts: Dandelion Friend or Foe

As a child I recall my grandmother complaining about stubborn dandelion 'weeds' in the lawn, path and elsewhere. We were forbidden to take these flowers indoors, I think because of association with it as a diuretic, hence its other common name 'Piss-in-the-Beds', in fact there was a pretty negative association with dandelions but most children still loved to blow the seeds of the dandelion clock.... helping to spread them even more. The poor dandelions had a lot of bad press at one time, mostly because of human obsession with neat lawns. Today the dandelion has a lot more respect for providing pollinators with food, most of us have fond memories of dandelions but in some circles feelings are still mixed. 

My grandson preparing to blow the seeds of the dandelion 'clock',  a fond memory for many of us.

I've never illustrated a dandelion before and only knew a limited amount from my plant biology days but that was more to do with allelopathy, a process whereby plants release chemicals that inhibit the growth of other plants - it's something that dandelions do well, which is why they take over in the garden and elsewhere. This can be a real problem in agriculture because the chemicals released from the roots can  inhibit the germination in grasses.  On the flip side those long dandelion tap roots can access soil nutrients for some shorter rooted plants, so can help other species. In some countries, T. officinale was introduced as a crop but became an invasive species, research has shown that it may inhibit the the germination of native wildflowers through interspecific pollen transfer, when pollen is lost to other species or when the stigma of flowers becomes clogged with the alien dandelion pollen, but we have to consider how or who enabled them to arrive in these places. 

Bombus ruderarius on Taraxacum officinale copyright Wikimedia Commons

Despite these negatives, dandelions are an important early food source for pollinators most notably the bumblebees and T. officinale provides both pollen and nectar food sources. Nectar is a rich carbohydrate but pollen is needed by bumblebees at some stages of life - the female bumblebee needs the pollen protein to raise her young. That said, dandelion pollen is not the most nutritious compared to other pollen sources, in fact some research even suggests that bees become trained to the dandelion pollen and neglect other more important food sources, such as pollen from fruit trees. A field or garden full of dandelions are visually appealing to bees and they are very easy easy to alight with their flat topped landing sites. Although the study is interesting it's likely that generalist bees feed on different pollen at different times of day, because plants have varying optimum times for releasing pollen and bees benefit from a variety of pollen. For pollinators though, it does seem like the dandelions are the fast food of the bee world! whatever you think about dandelions, there can be little doubt that a lawn full of dandelions is better than manicured grass lawn. 

Whilst all this is fascinating it doesn't really help so much with my illustration, but it's interesting how a plant is valued, some people love them for the pollinators, whilst others praise the herbal benefits, lots of people hate them because they can dominate and destroy grasslands and gardens. ....There is always so much to consider with every plant and maybe we need to think beyond plants as human resources - the story isn't ever clear cut. In the end I suppose it's all about balance, my garden is pretty full of dandelions, I like them and so do the insects, I definitely see them as a friend and not a foe.

 I wanted to know as much as possible and begin by looking around the field of dandelions next to the house, the first thing that strikes me is the sheer number and then variability, in size, colour and leaf shape. My garden is an extension of the field, so no shortage of plant material with this one, also I had the luxury of using one that had decided to grown in an old plant pot, dandelions are good at that, they pop up just about everywhere.

A garden full of dandelions makes a great study subject, the more accessible plant material is - the better. Common plants are just as interesting as rare ones and much easier to study. 

The luxury of a plant with roots  

 This year there seems to be many more or maybe I was just paying attention because of the painting. Drawing and painting definitely enhances the powers of observation. 

Using Secondary Reference Material 

After deciding to paint the dandelion and carrying out some additional observations of the habitat, I undertake some further reading. Firstly understanding the plant name can reveal a lot with both common and Latin names. The origin of the common name, 'Dandelion' is a corruption of the French name,  'Dent-de-Lion' which you will see in older books,  it means 'lions tooth' and refers to those toothed leaves.  The Genus name Taraxacum is derived from the Greek 'taraxos' which means 'disorder' and 'akos' which means remedy. The specific epithet (second part of the Latin name) 'officinale' is derived from Latin 'officina' meaning 'pharmacy', referring to plant use in medicine, today the dandelion continues to be used in many remedies, as diuretic (remember the 'Piss-in-the-beds). All parts are edible and you can put them in salads although they are rather bitter, make wine or feed to the guinea pigs, which is what I do. 

Carrying out research can seem like a lot of extra work when you just want to paint but it doesn't actually take long, I tend to read in the evenings and digest the info before painting, preferring to paint in the early morning daylight, then dipping back into research when I want to know more. This really helps me to understand the plant, especially if I decide to make a final painting. The most important research initially is the plant description, a quick look at Wikipedia can actually give an overview but content can be variable, depending on how well researched it is, there is usually so much more to learn from other resources, that said, some Wikipedia entries are pretty good and that's the case with the dandelion. If you're not sure how to find other information, good descriptions can be found in any good flora book and there is much available online. For British species Stace's New Flora of the British Isles, is the standard but it is quite an expensive book and to be honest its a bit dry and complicated, so if you don't know much botany it's going to be a tough one - you can pick up previous editions for very little if you intend to go into depth but will need to cross check for updated information.  A beautiful and brilliant book that's much more accessible is William Keble Martins The Concise British Flora in Colour (1965), which took over 60 years to complete,  that isn't so surprising because it has 1486 illustrated species, I love the way this book is constructed with some lovely dissections too. I picked up a copy for just a few pounds but a first edition will cost, my botany tutor at University always referred to Keble Martin's book, but the descriptions are pretty limited for many plants and you may need to look for more in-depth descriptions. Illustrator Marjorie Blamey and Kew author Christopher Grey-Wilson's, The Illustrated Flora of Britain and Northern Europe, is a great book with 2,400 species listed, I've had this book since it came out in 1989 and still use it today, you can pick it up for around £20 upwards.  Same issues with out of date info but its usually not that difficult to find access up-to-date cross references. 

From Keble Martin's Concise British Flora in Colour (1965)

From Marjorie Blamey and Christopher Grey-Wilson's Illustrated Flora of Britain and Northern Europe. pp 436-437 (1989) 

For cross checking there are some brilliant online resources, too many to name here, but the Botanical Society of the British Isles is excellent and up-to-date resource.  Here's their entry on T. officinale.  Also World Flora online is a global resource for plant names. 

Then there are some very old books, such as George Bentham's Handbook of British Flora (1859), which was illustrated by Walter Fitch, I'm pretty fond of the old floras most have a lot of incorrect information because plants have been reclassified as new discoveries are made, however old floras and editions are interesting from an historical perspective, Bentham's book was met with mixed reception, he described it as for 'Beginners and Amateurs' but failed to use particularly accessible language, he also wrote a book on Australian Flora, called Flora Australiesis (1863) as part of Kew's series of colonial floras. There are many floras for different parts of the world, if you do a little research you can find them from booksellers like Abe Books. 

If you want to learn about plants, the plant family is an important starting point, as a botanical artist, we should always know what family a plant it belongs to and be able to give some of the key features. It's hard though because there are so many but remember that you don't have to learn all!  - I work on a 'learn as you go' or 'need to know' basis and build knowledge over time. I'm not trying to be a botanist but need to know about what it is and how it fits together. Botanists have identified 452 flowering plant families across the world. In 1883 just 197 families were recognised and in 2016, the most resent assessment, 416 families, so this is an ongoing process of recording and clarifying/ reclassifying and also the reason why those old floras might be less useful. In total there are in the region of 300 thousand flowering species, that's a lot of plants! not to mention the non flowering (www.stateoftheworldsplants). Cultivars is a whole different area but still learning feature of plant families is just as relevant.

From Bentham's Handbook of the British Flora (1859), Illustrated by Walter Fitch. It's always useful to look at how botanical illustrators recorded plants in these plates -  illustrators had such limited size and shapes to fit the plant into. They had to bear in mind the small size of the publication too, so clarity in this style of illustration is key. It requires extremely skilful composition to get all parts of different shaped plants into the same template. Sometimes people say how do I work within the confines of the sketchbook but my sketchbook offers considerable freedom and I can use a single page or double page spread in any orientation. 

Benthams book met with some controversy, 'For the use of amateurs and beginners'  

In the sketchbook I begin by noting the date of the entry first, then the correct Latin name (genus and specific epithet) and the plant family. Taraxacum officinale is an easy one to identify, we all know it and it's a member of one of  the largest plant families, Asteraceae, (formerly Compositae, i.e. having composite flowerhead comprising many small flowers). There are more than 1,900 genera and 32, 000 species in Asteraceae - aster, daisies, sunflowers are all members. 

The Genus Taraxacum,  from Blamey and Grey-Wilson (1989) is described as follows:  perennial herbs, with milky latex, rosettes of basal leaves sprouting from a tap root. Leaves lobed or unlobed. Flowerheads yellow or white, solitary, borne on hollow scapes, flat topped when open, florets all rayed, the inner shorter than the outer; flower bracts in two rows, the outer shorter and often recurved. Fruit a large and conspicuous 'clock. A large and extremely complicated genus; some 200 micro species are recognised in Britain alone. 

There are hundreds of species in the Taraxacum genus, so it's important to add the species. 

Taraxacum officinale description: This is an extract for the specific epithet information from Blamey and Grey-Wilson (1989) Very variable, low to medium plant, 5-40cm, often  robust, leaves lobed to unlobed, coarse, never spotted, with broad winged, lobed stalks. Flowerheads mid-yellow, 25-50mm, often convex above, the rays usually with a brown or grey violet strip beneath, borne on stout scapes; flower bracts usually dark blueish-green, the outer recurved, not horned...

If you consult several resources you can find much more information. The plant has 1-10 stems which can be green or tinted red/purple. Basal leaves are 5-45 cm longhand 1-10 cm wide, oblanceolate, oblong or obovate, have narrowing petioles that can be winged or unwigned, lobed to deeply lobed with sharp or dull teeth. Florets number 40 to over 100.... and so on. 

Viewing Works on the Same Subject

I already mentioned that the botanical illustrations in the old floras are useful but as an artist I also want to look at work on the same subject by other artists. A Google search of the 'species name and illustrations' will yield a good range of images but also the website  is a fantastic resource. Type in the species/specific epithet or vernacular name into the box to view old illustrations. Here's a little screenshot of what comes up. There are only so many ways of arranging the elements on the page and it's always useful to see what went before - to decide what works and doesn't work, and occasionally what hasn't been done before. The idea here isn't to replicate but to look at approaches, much can be learned.

Screenshot from

Making Initial Studies: My Primary Research and Colour Studies 

I begin with measured drawings of all of the individual parts and work out the colours as I develop the pages, cross checking at all stages with the secondary research already consulted. Usually beginning with the flower in a prominent position on the page. I don't have a specific system but generally go with natural order of parts (higher and lower on the plant) or where they best fit on the page. At an early stage I decided that this plant deserved more than one page, so would follow up with the full plant and maybe the seed-head, with a view from above of the whole plant - this puts the individual parts into context. It's a fairly organic process which I don't want to constrain it by having too many 'rules, there are no rules in a sketchbook but it makes sense to complete flowers first because they will change and die first. Illustrating the plant parts in a study like this gives me a good feel for the plant, and I can I then move on to the next parts of the study. Want to include as many phases and stages as possible but need to avoid repetition. 

Initial sketches and colours chosen, these can be changed or adjusted as the work progresses. The whole process is to experiment and to include the different parts and stages.

The good thing about dandelions is that you can have all stages at hand and lots of plant material. I start with some views of the main flower, there is no front facing view here but I had decided to make a second study from above. 

The leaves are highly variable, with the extent of the toothed margin. The tap root on this one is relatively young compared to some that I've seen. 

The full two page spread with colour swatches, I use a primary palette and number the colours with notes re the mixes for reference, this is useful for painting of the plant at a later date. My palette is on my website but use whichever brand and colours you prefer, sometimes I use a few other colours, simply because I've accumulated so many over the years and don't want to be wasteful but I find can paint everything with this range of colours from Winsor & Newton Artist quality range. There are many ways of getting to the same place with watercolour - having the exact same colours is not that important. Also, consider the substrate, don't copy someone else's colours, there are many variations in plants which can also vary depending  on the light. The paper also affects the colour, I think it's vital to understand and work out your own colours, although many basic hues will be the same, the variations within them can be different.  the aim should be to create a typical specimen but with dandelions there is much variability.

Moving on to the Next Study

As an artist, we have the freedom to represent the plant as we see fit, as a botanical artist we want to represent the plant with scientific accuracy, so the two need to be balanced. Judgements are taken and a sketchbook is a great way of experimenting with approaches. In the second study it seemed a natural progression to go for the whole plant approach from above, because of the rosette arrangement when viewed from above, i.e. more than the sum of parts approach, this is a key feature of the plant so is important.  I felt pretty familiar after my first studies and sketched out the plant directly, it's drawn life size. Smaller parts, such as the seed is scaled up in size and the scale is written. 

A rough sketch of the view from above was made, in probably less than an hour, it's so much easier to do this after the initial observations and studies, which build familiarity with how it fits together. If I hadn't done the previous work, this drawing would have been so much more confusing and time consuming, so all the work pays off and reduces and areas of doubt.

Experimenting with approach, adding parts here and there to see what works best can be invaluable if a final painting is going to be completed.  

I stop short of finishing because there's really no need to, I figure at this point I understand both the subject and approach. There are many things I learned, including what not to do.

One More

The idea of adding a third page in the sketchbook, focusing on the seed stage was there, I wanted to include the famous 'dandelion clocks' and had done in part in the previous pages, but to be honest the will to do more was gone.  I was getting bored with dandelions at this point and don't like to feel that way with the sketchbook because its a quick turnover and need to feel sufficiently motivated.  So moved on with the idea that I could add more at a later date given that they are still throwing out the odd flower rand seed-head into August. In June I was enthused again and added a further study but this time in a different sketchbook, on the black paper in the Stillman & Birn Nova book, this move was for no particular reason other than I felt like it. It needs more work but there is still time. 

The cycle starts again with the many seeds, up to 5000 seeds a year can be produced by one plant (54 - 172 per head) they can be blown by the wind for several hundred meters. The fruit is called cypselae are oblong and narrowing and have sharp edged ribs, the white silky pappi act like a parachute to carry them on the wind.


Thats about it for the dandelion, it was good to finally paint it, I probably wouldn't have if it wasn't for the sketchbook project and that's the case with many of my entries. 

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