It is the last day of May, the blue Florida sky is dotted with clouds, I have been swimming in the pool, the shuttle launches today just over on the coast and I have been thinking about the last three weeks in the the UK and what I have achieved or learnt.
Foremost in my mind is Liz Leech´s course. She opened up a world of close and informed examination of plants and flowers and help in getting to grips with understanding what things are, and why they are the shape and colour they are. Stripping away the layers and looking at the underlying structures did not lessen my appreciation of flowers, quite the contrary, it just increased the fascination. I can now draw with a little more understanding of the architecture and purpose of flowers and plants, not just make a record of their superficial beauty.
Also, just having this knowledge means I can approach the drawing with a greater sensitivity which in turn gives me a greater satisfaction. It is not, of course, an easy route to better draftsmanship but it really helps and, (as I do, and will, keep saying in this blog) it all comes back to the value of to drawing from life. Photographs while being a very useful tool, can just reduce things to distorted 2 dimensional cyphers of the real thing and can be endlessly misleading.
Another way of looking
This way of looking was botanically analytical, but a couple of years ago I experienced a completely different approach to drawing plants. I attended a short course run by Hibernia College in Stroud which is a college running, amongst other things, Art Therapy courses. The weekend class was devoted to the study of just one medicinal plant.
In short, the idea was to see if by studying the form, the habit and the “spirit” of the plant, through drawing, writing and discussion, we could come to some conclusion ( without first knowing its name ) about it’s medicinal properties.
For a practical northern girl this seemed a bit airy fairy to start with but my initial scepticism was won over by some very interesting work that was produced.
Our first encounter with the plant was with closed eyes, just to limit the senses to start with. Then we studied the plant for only a few minutes, before it was taken away and we drew what we could remember. Then with the plant in front of us we made continuous line drawings without taking our eyes from the plant. From there the exercises and discussions branched out, working in monochrome, colour, and words and looking at every characteristic of how and where this little plant grew, roots, stems habit and habitat and perhaps most revealing of all, the startling bright orange sap which bled copiously from it cut stems.
Before we actually got to know what the plant was, we pooled our observations and drew up a profile of the plant. Those more in tune with natural remedies were the keenest observers, noting vigour of habit, sinuous wiry roots, the branching patterns of the stems and the vital searching orange sap as being keys to its use.
The little plant we got to know so well turned out to be the greater celandine Chelidonium majus a plant used historically as a valuable remedy for conditions affecting the liver, gall bladder, and stomach, a variety of skin diseases and a folk remedy for cancer, gout, and jaundice. A stimulant and purgative.
Other participants in the course were mainly teachers herbalists or therapists rather than artists and their work was by far more interesting and experimental than mine. I (ever the commercial artist ) was too bound up in the look of the thing.
I wonder what the drawings would have been like if we had had prior knowledge of the plants medical properties.
I am not sure what conclusion this exercise draws in terms of medical significance. Making associations about the way a plant looked and what it could cure, as laid out in the wonderful “Doctrine of Signatures” theories ( worth another post in itself ) was an extremely unreliable way of dispensing medicine but, for an artist seeking maybe a more sympathetic than scientific approach to analysing plants, this was a fascinating exercise.
The drawings were done on newsprint with charcoal, biro, and powder paints.. the drawings were not important here.. the method was. ___________________________________________