Some Clouds on the Horizon… and some a bit closer than that.

We are having a lot of weather here at the moment. It’s a typical Florida summer.

The day starts clear and bright, then, as the heat rises to almost unbearable temperatures, the clouds bubble up from the west. By 3.00 or often earlier, huge apocalyptic thunderstorms sweep across the flat Florida landscape and just as quickly subside.

The relief from the heat can be short lived and the evening slips back to being calm and still,  hot and airless. It’s something I will always remember about our time here, so in between working on the commissions I sketched a few clouds. There is not what you would call “a view” from our terrace just the rooftop of the opposite apartments, some tree tops and then sky..

clouds 4s

There are clouds with holes in them…


Towers of vertical clouds crossed with horizontal  floating bands


Big puffy clouds which seem to link the land and the sky.

clouds 5

Bright edges of clouds

. storm cloud 2

Layers of dark rain soaked clouds which are so low you feel you could touch them. They move swiftly, obliterating everything.

clouds storm

And then, over the old buildings of Baldwin Park Naval base across the lake there are the high trailing clouds of early evening.

lake cloud

Another storm has just passed over and it’s raining right now.

These little sketches cannot do justice to the magnificence of these skies. These are the skies which make you believe in Sky Gods. We are going away for a few days but I think sky studies will resume next week.

Leaf of the Day: Pima Cotton

I only “noticed” this lovely shrub last week but it is another I have walked past many times. It grows by one of the main paths, set back in the border and has been masked by a showier thing until now, when it is coming into its own. The day I saw it, the low autumn sun was illuminating the tops of the spiky bracts, and I had no idea what it was. Sometimes I am amazed at my own ignorance because this plant has played an important and comforting part in my life. Allergic to wool and many other itchy scratchy fibres, cotton has been my very closest friend for as long as I can remember.

Had I seen a fluffy white “bol” first I think I would have guessed
but coming from northern climes I have never seen a cotton plant. I was interested to discover that Andalucia province, where we lived in Spain, has quite a large cotton growing area around Cordoba and Sevilla and that Spain was instrumental in the history of cotton as a commercial crop in America, the Spanish being the first Europeans to grown cotton near St Augustine in Florida in 1556.

Image from plants of Hawaii here

But I don’t really know how to write about cotton. I have already spent too long today reading about it and not working. It is the most wonderful plant with a fascinating early history dating back to 3000BC, but its more recent history is fraught with exploitation, slavery, and terrible working conditions, not only in the cotton fields but in Blake’s “dark satanic” cotton mills of the Industrial Revolution. Even now there are questions over its production, its ethical and green credentials. Buy organic if you can is the message. See here

From an artistic perspective this is a very beautiful plant and I am spending a couple of days with it. The leaves, the lovely big yellow flowers, the spiky bracts containing the buds and the seed pods are all fascinating.
Today I drew a leaf. It is big, 11 inches from top to toe and the lower lobes curl back on themselves…quite beautiful.
More tomorrow ..

Pima Cotton Leaf

Leaf of the Day: Cedar Key Cedar and Sharp Green Pencils..again.

Sunday evening and we have returned, sun burnt and completely exhausted from 3 days on the Gulf coast. We dodged most of the rain, encountered some enormous sponges, learnt about scalloping, ate fabulous fish, saw some very interesting plants, met some very nice people, communed with some ancient spirits and our last day at Cedar Key was just heavenly. I will be retro posting blog entries with a few relevant details but we saw and did so much it would take me a week just to write it up.

Cedar Key Sunday morning

It’s funny how things come around though. At the very start of the blog I wrote about my favorite pencils, Faber Castell my lovely, elegant, sharp, racing green pencils, here and when I go away there is usually one somewhere in my bag with a small sketchbook. While in Cedar Key we took the excellent Captain Doug’s tour to see the outlying islands and some of the wonderful bird life. The boat trip took us to nearby Atsena Otie Key which was the site of the original town, called Cedar Key after the red cedar tree a type of juniper, which grew on the island. Captain Doug explained that the community was once much larger than the current 900 inhabitants, a thriving town and home in fact to one of Faber’s timber mills. I felt I should have jumped up brandishing the pencil I had in my bag but I didn’t.
In 1849, J. Eberhard Faber came to America looking for wood suitable for the booming pencil factory which his brother was running in Germany. This he found in abundance on Florida’s Gulf shores between the Suwannee and Withlacoochee Rivers so he bought both land and timber, floated logs to the Keys, and initially shipped logs over to the factory in Germany.

Planning to expand his pencil empire into America, in 1858 Faber built a slat mill on Atsena Otie and started shipping wooden slats to the newly opened Faber pencil factory in New York. The Eagle Pencil Company followed with their own mill in 1876. Helped by the newly developed first railroad which ran across from Cedar Key to the Atlantic coast the little town became an important port but on September 29, 1896 a powerful hurricane and a 10 foot tidal wave crossed the island, destroying the mills and almost all of the town. A year later the remaining inhabitants left, Atsena Otie was abandoned and a new community built up where Cedar Key is today.
On a short walk just outside the town along the disused railway line we found one of the cedars along with many other, well labeled, native plants. (Very useful for this blog.) The Seminole name for this particular red cedar (Juniperis silicicola) is atcina which gave the island Atsena Otie its name. The red cedar has beautiful aromatic wood which as well as pencils was used for making chests and wardrobes as moths dislike the smell. Juniper oil is distilled from the wood, twigs and leaves and its pretty dusty blue cones are known as berries and the European junipers cones are used to flavour gin.

One of the constantly watchful pelicans

Early morning at Cedar Key from the hotel room, opposite is Coconuts Bar and the fishing deck…very handy.

Cedar Key is just so beautiful with many natural places to explore and when your feet hurt and the bites are itching what could be better than chilling out on the fishing deck at Coconuts with a cool beer listening to some zydeco and watching the pelicans, the magnificent frigate birds, the little terns wheeling overhead. We did all that and we will do it all again soon I am sure…and we saw dolphins too.
More about Cedar Key from their website here

I did a quick drawing of a tiny piece of the cedar and thought it would be appropriate to add a photo of the pencils, the drawing and the model. The sprig is tiny and the drawing is enlarged x 3.


Red Cedar Sprig

Leaf of the Day: Shampoo Ginger and a Hill

This will be a brief post today. We have decided to go away for a couple of days to the coast, so a quick(ish) drawing of the inflorescence of the Shampoo Ginger Zingiber zerumbet which grows just outside the apartment here.

The flower cone sits on top of a long stem, this one is about 2ft. The little cream flowers grow from in between the “scales” or bracts of the cone. As I was drawing it, some drops of liquid appeared I have drawn one of them. This may be the shampoo. I have yet to try it, but it is true that if you squeeze the cone gently you will be rewarded with a liquid which was used by the Polynesians for bathing both skin and hair. I can’t imagine anything nicer than a natural, ginger scented face wash. This then, and the soapberry are two handy additions to the bath and laundry departments.
In my case a few ants appeared too, which I didn’t think would add very much to the drawing today so I took them outside. Ants seem to cover most the blossoms of the gingers. I have had to shake some of them vigorously to get an ant free photo. Gingers are another example of ant friendly plants, offering nectar and shelter in the bracts in exchange for protection against malign insects.
At the moment this cone is green but, as the flowering phase begins to finish, it will turn red. I will probably return to it then for a colour sketch.

So I will not be posting any drawings until next week now unless torrential rain and the odd hurricane sweep the Gulf coast. We are going to Tarpon Springs a small Greek community north of Tampa, (I am so looking forward to some Greek food!) Here they used to dive for sponges and I am told there is still a small sponge industry.
We will go via Bok Tower gardens which will be a real treat! There we will see the beautiful gardens, the wonderful Gothic /Deco “singing tower” with a 60 bell carillon, and … a hill!

The view from the top of Sugarloaf Mountain Florida

Sugar Loaf Mountain nearby rises to a magnificent 312 ft above sea level. The second highest spot in Florida. My information is from a necessarily brief web page entitled “General Florida Climbing Information” here . I am looking forward to the view.

Shampoo Ginger Cone.

Leaf of the Day: Amazing Rare Things Exhibition

The day of the Embassy visit for the my USA visa which after a 3 hour wait was, I am glad to say successful. London is hot and beautiful, I walked from my hotel in Gower St along the Mall and through St James’ Park and dropped into the Mall portrait exhibition and on to the Amazing Rare Things exhibition housed in the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace.

The exhibition was wonderful, the Leonardo drawings were especially exquisite and so tiny, and the fierce upside down sloth that I mentioned in a previous post was there too.
Mark Catesby’s work was particularly interesting to me as he drew and painted in Florida in the early 1700´s. He was another of those early and dedicated painters who recorded the natural history of America with both skill and charm. For me, again, the attraction of his work is in the combination of the study itself, with some aspect of of its surroundings or a companion plant or insect. He was a self-taught artist who travelled to America from England with the help of both a small legacy, and his sister who was married to the secretary of the Governor of Virginia. His comprehensive notes watercolours and collected specimens of the flora and fauna were the basis for his great book of engravings.
Making his watercolour studies directly in the field he later said that

‘In designing the Plants, I always did them while fresh and just gather’d: And the Animals, particularly the Birds, I painted them while alive… and gave them their Gestures peculiar to every kind of Bird…’.
He had a particular problem with fish
” which do not retain their colours when out of their element, I painted at different times, having a succession of them procur’d while the former lost their colours.”
but the resulting painting of the Great Hogfish was probably worth the sacrifice.

One very poignant drawing of his is that of the passenger pigeon, once so numerous that huge flocks containing millions of birds flocks flew over the prairies of North America, but with human settlement this once numerous bird suddenly declined and sadly the last lonely passenger pigeon name Martha died in Cincinnati Zoo in 1914..

Maria Sibylla Meriam’s work is superb..the detail incredible and the design very idiosyncratic. I will return to her in another post but the exuberant spectacled caiman tangling with the coral snake has to be one of the most arresting images in the exhibition.. wonderful.

Also, there is work by Alexander Marshall from his wonderful 30 year project, his floreligium, which again, I will get round to exploring in more depth.. but with my great affection for all long dogs this had to be my favourite drawing of his.

All the images can be seen on the excellent website for this exhibition here

Leaf of the Day : A Gummy Unfinished Begonia Leaf

The trials of the natural history artist 2..problems with the weather, materials and mosquitos.
If I am ever tempted to complain about the discomfort and the difficulty of working in a hot climate I always try to think of two great lady pioneers of Botanical Illustration, Margaret Mee and Marianne North who both took their art materials out into the jungle to record rare species, braving disease, violence and sweltering temperatures. Today however, my comparably very trivial problems have been enough to make me want to throw the coloured pencils in the bin, head straight for the airport and and book a ticket to ( I hear ) snowy England.
The humidity and torrential rain have made the paper damp. The high temperatures have wilted my model and made the already quite waxy coloured pencils gummy and soft, so drawing with them has become like applying a candle to a hotplate. My attempts to draw the fine delicate fringe to this little begonia leaf has tried my patience to the very limit. I have given up.
To add to all this I have 11 mosquito bites, 5 of them on my hands.. Why?? Why are there mosquitoes? Why do they bite your fingers when there are nice big accommodatingly smooth and unwrinkled bit to attack. What is the point of the bites itching so badly that you want to tear the flesh from your bones with your teeth? …
However, thankfully, I did get to the library today which was a more soothing experience.

Some early accounts of Florida ..good and bad.
There I found a book about an early intrepid Florida explorer and recorder, Jacques Le Moyne, who in 1562 arrived in Florida with a French expedition and recorded the lives of the Native Americans. The French were driven out of Florida by the Spanish and Le Moyne was one of the few to escape alive. The survivors eventually landed in Britain where Le Moyne remained. I will return to him when I have read more.
But I also came across this early song about Florida. The first on record written in English, it appears in a manuscript in Oxford’s Bodleian Library dated 1584. Had the Anon author, I wonder, whiled away a couple of hours in an ale house with Le Moyne hearing about bizarre and improbable practices from this foreign land, such as smoking dried leaves?.. a notion almost absurd as yesterdays sloth. (Tobacco doesn’t arrive in England until 2 years after this poem , but Le Moyne had already recorded its “medicinal use” in his notes.)

“As I walked toward St Pauls
I met a friend of myne
Who took me by the hand and sayde “come drynk a pynt of wyne,
Wher you shall here
Such news I fere,
As you abrode will compel.
With hy!

Have you not hard of Floryda
A countree far by west?
Where savage pepell planted are,
By nature and be hest
Who in the mold find glysterynge gold
And yt for tryfels sell
With hy!

Ye , all along the water side
Wher yt doth eb and flowe
Are turkeyse found and wher also
Do perles in oysters grow;
And on the land do cedars stand
Whose bewty do excel
With hy!

Wunnot a wallet do well? ”
( a wallet would be useful!)

Almost 200 years later, in 1770, Oliver Goldsmith has a more disconcerting tale to tell prospective settlers who may have felt compelled to try the fair land of La Florida. This is from The Deserted Village.

Through torrid tracts with fainting steps they go,
Where wild Atlantic murmurs to their woe.
Far different there from all that charmed before,
The various terrors of that horrid shore;
Those blazing suns that dart a downward ray
And fiercely shed intolerable day;
Those matted woods where birds forget to sing,
But silent bats in drowsy clusters cling;
Those poisonous fields with rank luxuriance crowned,
Where the dark scorpion gathers death around;
Where at each step the stranger fears to wake
The rattling terrors of the vengeful snake;
Where crouching tigers wait their hapless prey,
And savage men more murderous still than they;
While oft in whirls the mad tornado flies,
Mingling the ravaged landscape with the skies.

Today I am definitely with Goldsmith!

Poems from ‘Florida in Poetry’ by Jane Anderson Jones & Maurice J. O’Sullivan


Leaf of the Day: Florida Orange

Here I am in Florida and only today I realised that orange blossom is the State flower. I could be forgiven because it’s not so easy to find an orange tree locally but there are some obvious clues.
We live in Orange County, Orange Avenue is three blocks away and the notorious OBT, Orange Blossom Trail, parts of which are synonymous with extreme low life, runs north-south through Orlando.

Oranges were brought by the Spanish to “La Florida” and became established in the wild, where the early American naturalist, John Bartram, in his journal entry in 1766, writes of them growing growing on the banks of Salt Springs, their wonderful refreshing fruit and delicate perfume.
However the citrus industry really began to take off in the 19th century and by 1880 oranges, lemons, grapefruit and limes were being shipped and sent by rail to New York and Philadelphia.

However, just as earlier this year, Florida is subject to terrible frosts and in 1894 and 1899, the satsuma orange trees were virtually wiped out. The last great freeze was in 1980s when vast acres of citrus groves were destroyed, many owned by Tropicana. The unreliability of the climate has discouraged any major regeneration and who needs oranges when you have Disney?

Here is a saucy American slightly Disney version of Nell Gwynne.

poster images from

Another reminder of the great old orange days is of course the famous train, (and fiddle tune)”The Orange Blossom Special” bringing city dwellers of New York down to the sun kissed shores of Florida. Inaugurated in 1925 I can only imagine how wonderful it must have been to leave the cold city streets of New York to travel in style to the sun.

Well talk about her ramblin’
She’s the fastest train on the line
Well talk about her travellin’
She’s the fastest train on the line
She’s the Orange Blossom Special
Rollin’ down the seaboard line3.

Well, I’m going down to Florida
Get some sand in my shoes
Or maybe California
Get some sand in my shoes
I’ll ride the Orange Blossom Special
And lose those New York blues

I found this great image and further links to Florida history here

On this day of financial gloom take a second to smile as you watch these kids playing this great blue grass anthem. Check out little Katie giving it her all, “Go Katie”

or a classic bit of Johnny Cash

A footnote on American trains.. don’t you just love them? We live near the railway track and hear and feel the long slow Amtrack train as rumbles and hoots its way along the Winter Park loop. We can hear the constant rise and fall of its plaintive whistle for a good half hour warning people away from the largely unprotected track. To us Brits brought up on old American movies of pioneering rail travel, the particular clanging sound of the crossing gates and the mournful whistle evoke ideas of freedom, of wide open spaces, of hobos flipping the freight cars and great railroad songs with those lonesom’ harmonica solos.
We love the train. Our neighbours think we are strange.

In this drawing I have tried some burnishing where the colour is smoothed down. It’s an interesting technique and blends the colours more but makes the surface very slippery and difficult to work over. The drawing could be more finished but at the moment I don’t want to spend more than one day on a drawing unless its something special. I still consider all this experimental. I persevere.

Orange Blossom

Leaf of the Day: Violets and The Bulow Sugar Plantation

Today is Saturday and the first day of March. Chris and I headed out north-east of Orlando to find the Bulow Sugar Plantation .
All that remains today of this once prosperous plantation is the ruins of the mill and some wells. The land, 6000 acres, was bought in 1820 by Charles Wilhelm Bulow a rich merchant from Charleston. Here he grew sugar cane, indigo and rice, but after only 3 years died at the age of 44 and the plantation, plus a substantial legacy, was taken over by his son John Joachim (apparently a dashing young man who liked to live in style). He built a sugar mill which was the largest in Florida, a grand house where he entertained Audubon, and the plantation prospered.
This high life and the fortunes of the plantation were cut short by the Seminole war in 1836, when Indians burnt down the plantation and the mill. John returned to Paris where he had been educated and died very young, at the age of only 27.

It’s a beautiful place to visit. The ruins lie quiet and still amongst pines and oaks. The wide creek which used to transport the sugar to the coast meanders its way down to the Atlantic and you are a million miles away from Disney here.
Apart from the chance to see some real un-Disneyfied Florida history, we went out of curiosity as Chris’s surname is Bulow. A relative possibly? We don’t know really but it made going there even more interesting. Here is Chris by the ruins of the (his)mill.

The woods were full of interesting fungi, plants and fallen seed pods which I have yet to identify and by one the old wells a carpet of pretty violets, their little heart shaped leaves unfurling as they push up through the moss and dead leaves of the forest floor.

The journey was made more exciting today due to the fact that this week is bike week at Daytona.. Bikes of every kind, colour and size accompanied us on the road. I have seen some Harleys to die for.
Today I only have time for a pencil sketch of a couple of the violet leaves.

The next stage of the course begins this month with an assignment using coloured pencils. I shall need some practice as it is many years since I used them. I will be trying a basic Prismacolor set and Bristol board to start with.

PS. I did remember to say “white rabbits” this morning 3 times, so I am expecting good luck this month.


Leaf of the Day: Umbrella Plant

Oh the poor umbrella plant .. unhappy victim of many a dusty airless UK front room. Here in Florida it thrives and is a sturdy and happy thing. This one lives in close companionship with the little oak, again at the bottom of my steps. Its just a plain green one. The Schefflera Arboricola. Its not so easy to draw. It is my first compound leaf, which really means I have had to draw 10 leaves, not just one. .

The Umbrella Plant

the drawing can be bought for $40 plus postage

The Big Ugly Freeze

We are gripped here by some very cold weather. As the temperatures plummeted the weather man got more agitiated.. “its going to be real ugly out there” He was right.The wind was so cold it delayed my leaf hunt. That and the fact that I am still hobbling about from my New Years Eve fall down the steps… pre alcohol sadly. The nurserymen are fleecing and foaming their plants, orange growers bringing in the fruit early and Blizzard Beach is closed. Frostbite is a possibility for those caught outside in the early hours and growing queues at the doctors for “cold related ” illnesses are a sure thing in these “downright fridgid temperatures”. I am hunkered down contemplating redesigning this blog… DB..