Friday, 7 March 2014

Snake's Head old favourite

I know I've blogged about painting Fritillaria meleagris before but I do like it!.... and so do lots of other artists, most notable of course are Rory McEwen's paintings, which probably can't be bettered, but also Elizabeth Blackadder, Charles Rennie MackintoshPandora Sellars and many more have painted Fritillaries.

At the beginning of the month I decided to concentrate my efforts on this flower and have a number of pots to keep me going for the next few weeks. Over the last week several studies have been produced - although they are intended to be work towards a series of paintings....I haven't even started the actual paintings despite the fact that they're due to be exhibited during April! But today I painted this larger study ( x2). 
Study of flower head x2 in size ( 22 x 26 cm)
I even painted Fritillaries as part of the Nature Trail Sketchbook Exchange project this week.

Nature Trail Sketchbook pages for this month, showing a white and double headed forms. 
There's something unique about the colour and pattern in this plant, the colour varies between flowers and changes with the light, and, as the flower ages. The stems and leaves are elegant with beautiful curves and the hanging flowers are delicate. The tepals have the most interesting nectaries, which creates the distinctive square darker coloured 'shoulder'. A look inside the flower reveals the glistening nectary on the reverse of the 'shoulder'.
The petal showing the outside with the shoulder (top) and the inside with the nectary (bottom)
 F. meleagris is a member of the Liliaceae family, which grows in damp grassland and meadows. In Britain it is often referred to as a native species, however this is disputed by botanists, it was not recorded growing wild until 1736, prior to that it had only been recorded as a garden plant, so is now believed to be an introduced species and garden escapee which became naturalized. Although it was once commonplace, it was picked excessively and sold in markets as cut flower. Much of its habitat was lost after WWII due to the agricultural 'improvement' of the land, when ancient meadows were ploughed and turned over to food production. The plant is now deemed nationally scarce in Britain and only a few wild sites remain, including Magdalen College Oxford, Cricklade and the village of Ducklington.

It's a lovely flower to paint, the best approach is the lay down the washes first to form the basic shape of the flower. The colours range from cooler purples to fairly bright reds in places.  I used various combinations of Permanet Alizarin Crimson, Permanent Magenta and Permanent Carmine. In the really warm red areas I added a little Scarlet Lake. The warmer red shows through more prominently in some areas, such as near to the petal tips - also where the light shines through the back of petals. Yet in other light the colour is a cool purple.
Once the form is established the chequered pattern can be added on top, but remember that the pattern follows the contours of the petals and is also lighter or darker depending on where the light hits the flower. I mention this because I've seen patterns added on top of a form without enough consideration of the effect of light and shade on the pattern. 
I used Ultraviolet in the shadows and added Payne's Grey on the 'shoulder' and for the darks. A small amount of Manganese Blue Hue was used on the 'light' areas at the top of the petals and around the highlight on the shoulder. 

The first stages: washes are laid first to create form, the the pattern is added next.

Building up the pattern from light to dark,  pinks and purples but keeping a close eye on the light.

The stems are slender and elegant, they should be carefully observed because the way that the stem bends under the weight of the flower gives a very specific look. To keep the stem clean looking I draw slightly outside the area that I intend to paint and paint inside the line, this avoids painting over pencil lines, the pencil can be erased afterwards. The curve should be smooth and painted in flowing continuous strokes. Nothing looks worse than thick uneven stems on flowers like this. The colour of the stems is variable some are green and others have some red/brown in them but all are fairly light with a 'blue /grey' appearance. I use a mix for the basic green of colours with high light values. Manganese Blue Hue plus Winsor Lemon was used and a small amount of Permanent Alizarin Crimson added. I try as far as possible to use the same reds in a green mix as those used in the flower, this I believe gives continuity to the painting. 

   Above: detail of the stem and darker 'shoulder' areas

And then I came to a field where the springing grass
Was dulled by the hanging cups of fritillaries
Sullen and foreign looking, the snaky flower
Scarfed in dull purple, like Egyptian girls
Camping among the furze, staining the waste
With foreign colour, sulky-dark and quaint

from 'The Land' by Vita Sackville-West (1927)

And here's a late addition to the post, not quite finished but painted this morning

Saturday, 1 March 2014

The Green Book

This week I've been reading extracts from Ruskin's Elements of Drawing...what a wise man!
I love these Victorian texts because they feel much more philosophical than modern instruction manuals.  Anyway it got me thinking about whether there's a better way forward for my students than painting endless colour  charts, given that I've already put them through numerous torturous brush technique exercises and feeling duty bound to come up with something more interesting. I've nothing at all against painting colour charts but tend to do mine in the context of study pages because painting exercises need to be be put into context to make them meaningful.
Students of botanical art often cite the green palette as troublesome ....and hand-in-hand with the 'green'  problem comes difficulty with painting leaves. So I thought it might be a good idea to create 'colour' based  sketchbooks....Starting with green of course.  It's not exactly a new idea but I quite like the idea of colour reference books sitting on the bookshelf.

So before inflicting the idea on anybody else I made a start on my own Green Book this week to see how it works out..... It was tempting at this point to make a red book and a yellow book etc. but I want to keep this achievable.

My first Green Book entry, Asparagus, Painted using Cobalt Blue dp., Transparent Yellow and Permanent Alizarin Crimson. 
Using a low cost W&N sketchbook, I covered it with green paper ( Blue Peter style again). I wont be using the sketchbook paper but instead will work on watercolour paper off-cuts gluing the studies into the book later... to be useful, colour studies should be painted on the same paper as any final pieces.

The variety of greens is many and varied, so this should be an opportunity to really get to grips with them as well as a chance to study leaves and other subjects too. I started by collecting up some fridge finds followed by a collection of a few things from a morning walk (see images below) You can see the variety of greens in just that small collection....this will be a fat sketchbook!

One of the problems with greens, and any colour for that matter, appears to be in 'seeing' the particular variation of the basic hue - by that I mean that what we 'know' about an object, i.e. 'it's green all over!' which can over-ride what we actually see. It's simply not good enough to just add a standard looking highlight, a bit of shadow and a touch of reflected light in approximately the right place as expected. There's more to it than that!
When painting in watercolour we have to learn to 'see' all of the colours. To observe the way that the light interacts with the colour of an object is all important because it significantly alters the three attributes of colour, i. e. the hue,saturation and tone. I often use a piece of white card with a hole cut in it to identify the varying colours of the subject,  this helps me to see the effect of light and shade by isolating each colour and removing surrounding colours which influence our colour perception. The same effect of isolating colours can bee seen below in the lime image below.

Above: Observations of the variation in colour caused by the effect of light falling on a lime. You can see how the basic hue, which is found in the mid tones, becomes more yellow or blue and also warmer or cooler in relation to each other. How it becomes lighter or darker in tone, and less saturated under the effect of both light and shade. On the bottom row I have turned the colours to black and white to highlight the difference in the tonal values between the isolated colours. Observe the tonal values carefully without being fooled. Good observation of the values will really bring your painting to life...... and always preserve the highlights! 
There is no better test of your colour tones being good, than your having made the whites in your pictures precious , and the black conspicuous...Ruskin

When mixing colours I try to work with as few as possible, chosen from the primary palette I generally use 3 colours to mix greens; blue and yellow form the basic green plus a smaller amount of a red. I usually choose from 4 blues, 4 yellows and three reds. Occasionally I use two blues in a mix and also use overlaid washes, which results in greater transparency. I tend to work with transparent colours in the washes to preserve luminosity. The basic 3 colours can makes a very large number of different greens simply by altering the ratio of the 3 colours and also the with the ratio of water used. Personally I've always had particular dislike of opaque colours with black in them, indigo being one of the worst to use in a green wash, it results in a flat dull appearance when overlaid.  I was pleased to read that Ruskin refers to Field's Chromatography as follows: ....while Indigo is marked by Field as more fugitive still, and is very ugly.


Only observe always this, that the less colour you do the work with, the better it will always be.

A collection of leaves, branches and lichens made on a morning walk, showing a variety of leaf types and colours. 

And one of a few green creatures found among the collection
From my collection I chose a dark green ivy leaf with very prominent venation and which was not particularly shiny for ivy. Using good natural light, I first identified the basic hue and decide on which blue, yellow and red to try out for the mix. Once I have identified the basic hue I look at colour saturation and tone. 
Colour studies using 3 colours, shown  on the left page entry. A  quick leaf study putting the colour chart into practice.
I chose the three colours to work with and tried out a various combinations to get the yellow or blue biased greens and light and dark greens. I used Indanthrene Blue and Transparent Yellow plus a small amount of Quin Magenta. At first I though I might need something darker but decided that was unnecessary. The only other colour used was a small amount of Cerulean Blue which I used in an initial graded wash the bring out the soft highlights. That's probably a bit of a habit though and I'm not sure that I actually needed it. The stem was also painted using the same colours. I believe the less colours used - the better the continuity in a painting. I number all of the colours and make a note of the order of washes applied and the techniques used. Hopefully I can refer to this chart again in the future
Ivy leaf study with my initial colour choices.

So that's all from the Green book this week. I'll sign off with another Ruskin quote, one I must try to keep in mind when feeling bad tempered:

Your power of colouring depends much on your state of health and right balance of mind: when you are fatigued or ill you will not see colours well, and when you are ill-tempered you will not choose them well.

John Ruskin, Elements of Drawing in Three letters to Beginners, Letter III On Colour and Composition 1857