Friday, 8 October 2021

Cup and Saucer Plant Project: Cobaea scandens Study Page

As with many larger painting projects this Cobaea scandens is being painted over a two year growing period. I first grew it from seed, in March 2020 and now into the second year, so hope to finish before the end of 2021. C. scandens is a plant that's remarkably easy to grow from seed, it germinates quickly and grows rapidly and flowers for a long time, from August and into late December, although this year it's only recently flowered.  This is the story of my progress with the painting to date with the study page and initial's a fairly lengthy process from start to finish with such a complex plant.

Details from the study page

The A2 study page completed 2020. I was able to take many large cuttings from the plant

Cobaea scandens
, is a member of the Phlox family Polemoniaceae, commonly known as the Cup and Saucer Vine, Canterbury Bells or Mexican Ivy, originally from South America it does well in many locations around the globe.  The Latin 'scandens' means climber, Charles Darwin studied a number of climbers and his observations were published in 1875 in ' The Movements and Habits of Climbing Plants'  which had been made available by the Gutenberg project. Darwin made special note of the vigour of C. scandens, which he said revolved more rapidly and vigorously than any other tendril bearer he had seen, with the exception of one species of passiflora. He wrote: 

The long, straight, tapering main stem of the tendril of the Cobaea bears alternate branches; and each branch is several times divided, with the finer branches as thin as very thin bristles and extremely flexible, so that they are blown about by a breath of air; yet they are strong and highly elastic. The extremity of each branch is a little flattened, and terminates in a minute double (though sometimes single) hook, formed of a hard, translucent, woody substance, and as sharp as the finest needle. On a tendril which was eleven inches long I counted ninety-four of these beautifully constructed little hooks. They readily catch soft wood, or gloves, or the skin of the naked hand. With the exception of these hardened hooks, and of the basal part of the central stem, every part of every branchlet is highly sensitive on all sides to a slight touch, and bends in a few minutes towards the touched side. By lightly rubbing several sub-branches on opposite sides, the whole tendril rapidly assumed an extraordinarily crooked shape. These movements from contact do not interfere with the ordinary revolving movement. The branches, after becoming greatly curved from being touched, straighten themselves at a quicker rate than in almost any other tendril seen by me, namely, in between half an hour and an hour.


The long twisting tendrils described by Darwin, you can see how they branch with their small hooks...grabbing anything and everything in their path

Keeping sections of plant in florist tubes to keep them fresh
The compound leaves with tendril

 My observations start as always with research and a study page, I used a large sheet of A2 Stonehenge Aqua HP 300 gsm paper. The first interesting point to note is the change in the flower colour, which are pale green to creamy white upon opening and gradually turn to a rich purple, as colour spreads from a small spot. I thought there must be some purpose for this and after a little research learned that the pale flower has a fairly unpleasant odour, which attracts bats, many bat pollinated flowers are white so that makes sense, thereafter the scent becomes sweeter as the colour changes and bees are attracted. I made some studies on colour paper as I am still trying to decide on the final substrate for this work,  Initially I thought of Kelmscott vellum but may opt for the dark veiny vellum.

Studies of the newly opened flowers on coloured paper, pale subjects always look good on a colour background 

Study on dark veiny vellum 

Study on deer skin 

I made measured studies of all parts with colour notes, mature leaves, new leaves, stems, tendrils, flowers in various stages from bud phase to post pollination, dissection, suit and finally seed. This took a while as I had to wait for each stage to develop. Below you can see the development of the flower colour, note also the sequential opening of anthers, the male phase begins shortly after the flower opens, within 24 hours and then releases pollen sequentially, this maximises the time for cross pollination, once the pollen is released, the female style grows and the stigma becomes receptive, this reduces the risk of self pollination. Cross pollination is always favourable to plants because it increases genetic diversity, although I'm not sure if Cobaea is self compatible.

Each part is carefully measured and documented and a dissection is made, the beauty of growing your own plants is that there is plenty of plant material. 

Dissection of the flower, I also painted the individual male and female parts

Once the study page was complete I started on the composition, making very rough drawings and having large sections of the plant suspended on my easel. The aim is to show the various stages of the plant and its growth habit, its difficult with a plant like this as there are many stages, the bud, flower stages, fruit development and seed pod, plus dissection, also leaves, leaflets, tendrils, stems. Much overlapping is required but repetition should be avoided as far as possible and hopefully the final painting should aim to be aesthetically pleasing. It's a lot to think about but I believe that this study page process makes it easier and more accurate. 
Rough compositional sketches underway

The study has given me a good understanding of the plant, the next stage of the process is to think about overall light and shade and the tonal values. This is particularly important in complex plants when many parts overlap, separation between parts becomes important, and, if all parts are equal in saturation things can become confused. A common strategy is to make further away parts paler and closer parts more saturated and stronger, this is known as aerial or atmospheric perspective, a strategy traditionally used in  landscape painting, where further away parts in the landscape are paler and more blue due to the effect of atmospheric light. In a painting this approach creates the illusion of depth or recession and is also useful in creating the separation between overlapping parts- so that parts are clear. The same strategy can be used in botanical painting to but it should be subtle. 
Also, the tonal values between parts needs to be carefully observed, i.e. which parts are lighter and which are darker. Finally, light direction should be clear and consistent, cast shadows within the subject can also be used to create separation.

I find the best way of dealing with this is to make a painted tonal study using black paint, this helps me to make sense of all of the potential issues with overlaps, tonal values and lighting. It's also useful in cross checking whether or not the composition is working or not and is also a last chance to make alterations. 

Beginning the tonal study 

In the next post I will share the tonal study, transfer to the substrate and development of the final painting. 

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