Leaf of the Day: The Loquats are Ripe

I know I have been here over a year now because everywhere the Loquat trees are full of delicious and ripening fruit. This was my first free food discovery here in America and, having tasted them, I could not believe that so many local trees were left un harvested. There are many ways of serving these little fruits, I like the idea of preserves eaten on hot buttered toast, but they are delicious eaten, just picked, from the tree. There are at 2 trees at Leu Gardens which are bearing fruit and another one the Bronze Loquat, Eriobotrya deflexa which is only a small immature tree but is already very handsome with beautiful big serrated leaves. This variety will only have small fruit but the leaves are magnificent.

The Loquat I have drawn is Eriobotrya japonica also known as the Japanese medlar, or in Spain as the Nispero. The name is derived from “erion” which is Greek for wool and “botrus” for grape, which quite neatly describes the fuzziness of the stems, leaves and sometimes the fruit too. I wrote about it last year here so I won’t repeat myself, only to say that if you haven’t tried them you really must!

I picked a few fruit a couple of days ago but when I went back many had been eaten or picked, here is one of the culprits.

Loquats are very delicate and pulling them off the stem bruises the fruit. You have to eat them, (or draw them) quickly, as they don’t last. The one I cut open was beautifully juicy but browned quickly as I was drawing it. The thin skin of the fruit is yellow or orange, sometimes tinged with red and there are the remains of some flowers on the slightly fuzzy stem. Inside are up to 5 large brown seeds that have a golden sheen to them.


The Loquat or Nispero

Leaf of the Day; K2 almost finished

The mountaineering analogy seemed more apt the more I worked on the kohlrabi, progress measured inch by painstaking inch. I decided some time ago that I was not going to resort to a magnifying glass for painting. They are useful for looking at the details of the plants and I know some artists do use them but if I can’t see something with out my good glasses then I am not going to worry about it too much. One undoubted advantage of age and less acute eyesight is that everything has nicely blurred, soft focus edges, including wrinkles, grubby worksurfaces and the wobbly edges on my work. To submit my kohlrabi to the pitiless scrutiny of the magnifying glass would seem too cruel and could be just too disheartening.
My models are all wilting and smell more cabbagey by the day, but they have stayed fairly fresh in the fridge every night. In the photo below you can see them along with K1 at the back.

This is the most complicated piece I have tackled so far and the biggest ..phew.. I will think twice before doing a dark subject with dark leaves again. I used an amalgam of bits and pieces, a leaf from one and the rounded base from another. They all differ in colour slightly but all did have a purple tip to almost every leaf serration, which drove me to distraction.
I can’t say it is really “finished” and as usual, all I can see now are the mistakes, but I have had enough of it. Tomorrow I will venture out and see if the world is still there.. hurrahhhh..


Kohlrabi middle and (almost) final stage

Watercolour on Fabriano Artistico HP, size 16.5 x 12 inches.

Leaf of the Day: The K word..slow progress..

I redrew the Kohlrabi today and put a light wash over it and, as I now have a “spare” drawing, I decided to use it for some painting practice before committing myself to the real thing. There are many things I still don’t really understand about this type of work. I have said before that learning from books is so difficult and this is a major drawback of the course. One hour with a top class botanical painter would answer many of my questions. I still don’t know how thick to have the paint or how wet to have the paper etc etc. I am not used to working on smooth paper and the paint seems to sit on the top of the surface which is giving me a headache when building up dark tones, maybe I need to change the paper. …so it’s trial and error…
I have however come to one very important conclusion. To be a really first class botanical painter you need to be very methodical and very patient. I am not and think I am too set in my ways and bad habits to change. I cannot imagine pursuing this very detailed type of work as a career but I may combine a bit of my own looser style with some detail to create something different. There is room for some experimentation. However I will persevere with this.. but TGIF..

Leaf Trials and First Wash

Kohlrabi Leaf Trials …

First colour wash for Kohlrabi, 16 x 12″ watercolour on Fabriano HP

Leaf of the Day: Kohlrabi Leaves ..yet more drawings

There are some days when you just wished you had stayed in bed with a good book aren’t there? Today has been a bit of a disaster work wise, and the only thing to do is just start again tomorrow. I am in a hurry with this assignment, but this sort of painting just can’t be hurried and of course things go wrong. So having spent all afternoon drawing the whole wretched thing out on my pristine watercolour paper, ready for the final painting, and laying down the first tones, I managed to get a nice big splash of purple paint on it. So far, for a splashy painter I have been fairly lucky, with only the odd little spot of stray paint but this is, of course, in a non disguisable area. If it were not for this assignment I would have turned it into an insect of some sort..but hey, it’s just sods law and better it was at the start of the painting than at the end. So I am drawing it out yet again.. I am getting a bit fed up with kohlrabi!

I did however make some more quick sketches, a drawing of one of the leaves just to sort the shape out and then a quick painting of one of the folded leaves. They are quite complicated with an irregularly serrated edge, in fact nothing is quite regular about them. There are little ancillary leaflets which grow at intervals along the stem (petiole) and the main blade of each leaf has deep divisions at the base, but not always two. As you pull the leaf away from the rounded and thickened part of the stem, there always seem to be 5, 6 or 7 main veins which anchor the leaf and pull away leaving the little indentations on the leaf scar. Fascinating.
Well I guess finished version 2 will be better…Hmmmm. Meanwhile I am going to find some chocolate..

More Leaves…

Leaf of the Day: Stella Ross Craig’s Botanical Illustrations

I had recently written of Mark Catesby and his magnificent twenty year production of the Natural History of Carolina in 1749 here and had thought how very few publications now would be able to sustain interest, or stamina, on behalf of either the public or the artist for something of that length. But a more recent and equally wonderful accomplishment was that of Stella Ross Craig, who must be one of my favourite black and white botanical illustrators.
I came across her work many years ago but only in the form of some old second hand paperbacks. Then, in a college library, I found the whole staggering collection of her Drawings of British Plants. The work, which is a systematic record of British Flora comprising over 1300 black and white plates, was started in 1942 and not completed until 1973. What made this different from Catesby’s work was that, rather than being aimed at wealthy patrons these drawings were issued as modest paperbacks priced initially at 6 shillings. In 1999 Stella Ross Craig became only the sixth person to receive the Kew Award medal and four years later was given her first ever exhibition at the Kew Gallery…at the age of 95.
She died in 2006 and the following is from the very nice obituary and appreciation in the Telegraph here

As she drew in black and white, colour was not an issue, so Stella Ross-Craig was able to draw from dried specimens in the Kew herbarium.
It was nonetheless a considerable feat of art and imagination to turn something dead, brown and flat into a vibrant image of a living plant. “They all come alive to me,” was her explanation. Perhaps the answer lay in the fact that she was a rarity among botanical illustrators in having been trained as an artist as well as a botanist. She completed the drawings at a rate of two a week, a remarkable feat considering their astonishing detail.
First she would read everything available about the plant and then, either from a live example or a dried specimen, she would work out the presentation and the magnified diagnostic details.
This would be followed by a detailed drawing in light pencil on white board, using a dissecting microscope and compass for the enlargements – vital for identification – and completed in ink with a lithographic pen. Finally, neat snippets of printed card would be glued in to provide the reference key to the likes of suffocated clover, spotted medick and hottentot fig. The medlar was her favourite of her drawings.

This is her drawing of the Medlar.

These are some of my particular favourites:
The ubiquitous Dead Nettle

Cuckoo Pint or Lords and Ladies

And the lovely drawing of the Blackberry, well, one of the 13 plates titled “bramble” I had no idea there were so many different varieties of wild blackberry in the UK.
She writes in the introduction to the section,

fourteen species of the subgenus Eubatus (the blackberries and dewberries) were all growing in Surrey where I could observe them throughout the year. First year stems and flowering shoots were taken and the bushes marked. Later in the year the fruits were collected from these marked bushes – a race with two legged predators lending a spice of excitement to the work! “

These days such modest looking drawings are easily overlooked, often only appreciated and used by botanists for identification. They are beautiful because of the sureness of the line, the clarity of the information provided and the arrangement on the page. The sheer skill in drawing in pen and ink to this quality and keeping that quality consistent over so many years is breathtaking. Should anyone doubt that, they should try to draw two parallel curving lines, freehand with a technical pen. There is much more “art” here than in many paintings I see in galleries today, it’s just quieter.
I am in total awe of this lovely work, her accomplishment and dedication.

Leaf of the Day:Acanthus Montanus.. Some Prickles.

The very prickly thing I have drawn today is a piece of the Acanthus montanus or Mountain Thistle. It’s in bloom now at the Gardens and I took this photo a week ago. I have to say that even though this may be handsome, it is an extremely unfriendly plant. Every bit of it is covered with sharp spines.

This is not the acanthus leaf of the classical Corinthian capitals which were more likely to have been inspired by the Acanthus mollis, also charmingly named Bears Breeches, which I will come back to. I would like to draw a real, Corinthian column type, acanthus leaf.

A quick sketch of the leaf itself and a detail of the leathery spiny surface, and then a small watercolor for some texture practice. The veins are deep, the sections well defined and the surface shiny and it has prickles ..a bit of a nightmare to paint really and these small pieces take a ridiculous amount of time for what you get ..hence very short post.. but it is good practice.


Mountain Thistle Leaf

Leaf of the Day: More Practice, More Bamboo..some definitions..

I spent far too long with the bamboos today, but that is easy to do. ..in amongst the towering stands of Giant Timber Bamboo and Weavers Bamboo there is a quiet hidden world. If you wanted to stow away at Leu (something I have often considered) that would be the place to go. You would be quickly lulled to sleep by those quiet hollow tappings and the gentle rustlings and sighing, (one of my favourite beautifully descriptive words “sussuration” A faint, indistinct, or background sound resembling whispering applies here). It is no wonder that bamboo forests were the chosen refuge of Chinese hermits or that these beautiful plants have been the inspiration for so much poetry or art.

Wang Wei, 8th Century Tang Dynesty poet:

Alone I sit in the shade of the bamboo trees,
My strings I pluck, then long and loud I sing.
Deep in the forest, none knows I exist,
None but the moon, to me she comes, shining.

Lee Kan from the Yuan Dynasty (1271 – 1368) was considered one the finest painters of bamboo. The painting of bamboo was a great art and required a lifetime’s study and practise and, as I have said before about many other art forms, it was a process of constant observation and refinement of technique until the simple beauty of line, shape and form were achieved. Their aim, to express the very essence of the plant, bird or rock they are depicting rather than botanical accuracy.

Bamboo was very special to the Chinese and became associated with the best moral characteristics, uprightness, modesty, openness and steadfastness.
Su Dongpo of the Song Dynasty (960-1279) wrote :

I can eat without meat, but I can’t live without bamboo. No meat makes people slim, no bamboo makes people meretricious. Slim people can put on weight again, but meretriciousness cannot be rooted out.”

I particularly liked this translation just for the use of the word “meretricious” which is a wonderfully descriptive word, as one definition puts it:
Resembling the arts of a harlot; alluring by false show; gaudily and deceitfully ornamental; tawdry; as, meretricious dress or ornaments.
A perfect word for the poem, being the complete antithesis of everything bamboo.

I did get a couple of sketches done and then my small practice piece,(for tight botanical paintings, the very antithesis of beautiful Chinese brushwork…sigh.. ) is part of a small philodendron of some kind. This is a particularly delicate split leafed variety which twines affectionately round various trees at the Gardens.
philódendros” ..from the Greek, meaning “fond of trees”.. as I am.


Bamboo sketches and Monstera Leaf

Leaf of the day: Some Texture Practice, Snakewood Leaf and Bamboo

Today I opened two doors, which led me to worlds I could have stayed in for a very long time. One led to the world of Darwin and the other to the world of Bamboo. I have been transfixed all morning listening to the BBC’s programmes about Darwin on the radio and was then overwhelmed by the amount of information about Bamboo I saw on the Internet.

Of the many many things I have yet to explore at the Gardens, Bamboo is just one. Amongst the others are the palms, the pines, the cacti, the roses and camellias, not to mention the lilies the vines, the mulberry trees and on and on .. and generally anything with leaves too big to fit in my back pack, or dangle from the bike handlebars. The Elephant’s Ears are all bigger than I am, so precariously wobbling along with one one of these through the urban wastelands of Winter Park would be bound to excite the interest of the local sheriff, or at best incite ridicule, both of which I generally try to avoid. And then what would I do with it? It would take up 90% of my work room and I would have to flatten myself against the wall to be able to see any of it in perspective and I imagine it would quickly become the “elephant in the room” as I tried to ignore the problem of drawing it. So for these big subjects I either have to draw in situ or use photos. I will probably do a bit of both.

Yesterday and today I decided I needed some practise in painting texture in detail. (The next unit for the course is vegetables and texture must come into it). Two contrasting textures that I had to hand were the Snakewood leaf and these wonderful Bamboo sheaths. I have had them for some time. I know nothing about bamboo except that it has many and various uses, it is exceptionally beautiful and there are hundreds of different varieties. We used to have an unruly clump in the garden when I was young but nothing that ever grew to the towering heights of the ones here. I also did not know that bamboo stems were called “culms”. What I have sketched are the sheaths that protect the shoots and stems which are shrugged off as the stems grow.

I was captivated by these strange and beautiful things that littered the ground around the bamboos and brought 5 home, that was in September. They have some nasty prickly hairs on the outside which can be a skin irritant but the shapes are wonderful, simple and sculptural. I just put these 5 on the floor and sketched them as they were. The painted detail is from the edge of one. I have taken a few casual photographs of the bamboos at Leu but tomorrow I am going back to take a closer look.

I chose to do small sections just for the practice, but I have to admit I was reluctant to start them because this is slow, slow work. These are very small, only 3.5 inches by 4, too small and fiddly for my natural way of working. I am thinking they would be better and less time consuming 5 times the size or more. But this is supposed to be practice for botanical painting..so I just have to resign myself to the number 2 sables and knuckle down. The Snakewood leaf was particularly slow but I liked this section, it reminded me so much of the classic Corinthian capitals which were based on the acanthus leaves. There are a couple of acanthus plants in flower at Leu whose leaves I have been considering drawing but tomorrow my job is to find some more textures to try to paint. I am daunted by the 9,988 hours I still have left to become proficient.

By the way, thank you very much, both Phillip and Richard for letting me know that the pretty little orchid from the other day is the lawn orchid “Zeuxine strateumatica”, and yes Phillip, gorgeous name, I think I would like to be called Zeuxine, fame and fortune would inevitably throw themselves at my feet..

Bamboo Sheaths and Some Texture Practice

Leaf of the Day: Tea and Tornadoes

We are on tornado watch today, looking out for “tornadic activity”. I had to go out but was careful not to wear my red shoes and Toto had to stay at home with Ant, although it is just the season to whisked away on some exciting holiday adventure. I don’t think we did actually have a tornado just very blustery heavy rain so it wasn’t too bad. It’s shaken a few leaves down and I am sure there will be some fallen fruit at the Gardens when I go tomorrow.

On my last visit to Leu I collected a couple of tiny seedlings from the ground around the Tea Camellias,Camellia sinensis. I would be so pleased if one of these grew. These and the Lipstick tree, which at the moment is looking glorious with its red spiky pods, were the first plants that Pedro wanted me to see in the Garden…the tea of course because I am British and true to form, we do drink lots of tea. I have drawn a leaf and pod before here and I wrote a little bit about tea and my complete ignorance that the tea I drink is from the leaf of a camellia. At the moment it is in full bloom and so pretty, the small flowers are very delicate and the whole bush is alive with bees, so I wanted to make a few more studies while I can.

There is so much to write about tea, its history, its complicated and precise preparation, the rituals and very individual ways of drinking it: black, white, with or without sugar, lemon or not, tea bags or loose leaf, brewed in a tea pot, in a cup, served in a mug, in fine bone china, etc… etc…all so personal.

The tea-plant originated in southern China, and was thought by the Taoists to be an ingredient of the elixir of immortality, a belief still held dear by many British people today. It was claimed to relieve fatigue, delight the soul, strengthen the will and repair the eyesight The Buddhist monks drank tea to keep awake while meditating and there is a rather gruesome legend which says the tea plant grew from the eyelids of Bodhidharma who cut them off in disgust at his own weakness in falling asleep during a particularly long meditation. He thew them down on the ground and from the eyelids sprang the tea plant, a gift to us all to aid alert meditation.

On a more lyrical note there are several Chinese poems about tea translated by Martin Tai here This a beautiful poem from the Sung Dynasty about the making of tea written by Su Dong Po, with a note by the translator.

Fetch water from the river to brew tea
Living water must be boiled with living fire
I fetch deep clear water by the Fishing Rock
A big bucket saved the moon into a jar for spring,
A small scoop divided the stream into a bottle for the evening

This poem has a distinct style, it described the essence of tea brewing: tea must be brewed with living water, with out it one cannot extract the full aroma of tea. Dong Po knew this very well indeed. I lived at Fu Sa county for a while, and did fetch water from the river to brew tea; the color, aroma and taste were excellent on all three counts. That location also produced the best tea in the world, probably due to its water. Brewing tea with such water enhanced the aroma. Even cloth washed with this water looked extra clean and white, this is an indication how light and clean the water was.”

Ah yes, how very important the water is! Tea made with limestone filtered water of Linconshire tasted so different from the tea brewed with soft Yorkshire water. My father used to long to get back to a “good” cup of tea after visiting our relatives in Leeds.

The painting is of one little seedling complete with its pod. I doubt this one will survive having been out of the water for too long. I feel guilty. I have put it in pot with the others to salve my conscience. Tomorrow a flower and maybe a pod.


Tea Camellia Seedling

Leaf of the Day: Small Fruit from Leu Gardens

I did work really hard today, and what I forgot to do yesterday was scan an early stage of this piece which is a shame because it is interesting for me to see at what point I could have stopped and it would have been an acceptable, but fairly loose watercolour. Then there is the transition stage where it all looks so horrible, at this stage it is neither fish, flesh nor fowl. Hope begins to fade but you just have to plod on through. Then there is (hopefully) the last stage where you begin to see some sharper details. At this stage I am not sure if I like it or hate it. I can only see the mistakes and problems.
Finally, there is the impossible “when to stop” question. Without a real live tutor (one whose advice you respect) it is impossible to tell. The dreaded step by step books are 100% unhelpful and also it’s very often personal taste. I stop because I am fed up or don’t know what else to do….or just run out of time. This time it’s a bit of all three.
One huge pitfall for the watercolourist is the almost uncontrollable desire to “improve” this or that part. I have the ability to turn something passable into a complete dog’s breakfast in just two strokes of a brush or one unconsidered wash. Sometimes I wish someone would just come and prise the brush out of my hand and say “Enough!”. The very best advice is to put the wretched thing away, out of sight, lock it in a cupboard and give someone else the key, for at least a week.

So is it finished? As usual, I don’t know, but I am finished with it. Do I like it? Well it’s very traditional for me but this is a very traditional course. Time enough for strange and wonderful compositions and experiments when I have learnt the basics. Whatever the outcome I will always be fond of it because these little fruit are from the Gardens where I have spent my happiest days this year .. so good luck on your transatlantic journey, my “Small Fruit from Leu Gardens”.


Small Fruit from Leu Gardens