Leaf of the day: Two Big Leaf Paintings ..almost done

I have to stop work on the two big leaf paintings now. I would like to carry on and can never say when things are really finished. Sometimes you just stop, or run out of steam or ideas or time. I have definitely run out of time.

But one of my blog readers asked me the other day why/how these paintings came about and I realised that in the past posts I had not really said anything about the ideas behind them.
It is probably obvious that I very much admire leaves, the unsung heroes of the plant world, and wanted to make a couple of bigger images of leaves for the show and also to have a break from small watercolours and close work.

When I was sketching out the ideas, Mark Catesby’s work was fresh in my mind and in some ways these are a small tribute to him. His simple way of combining elements without too much regard for scale or perspective appealed to me. Also he painted what he found interesting, what he liked and what he had seen together on a particular day or in a particular location. That simple and honest way of working was my jumping off point.

The Aralia leaf image occurred more by accident than design as I had randomly put the leaf on the sheet of paper at that I had sketched on and I had been looking at lizards that day, so the the two seemed to work together. I like paintings that include other paintings or drawings. It’s an interesting angle on reality.

The dried Snakewood Tree leaves are just magnificent on their own and in some ways I could have left it solo, but I do like a narrative and so this picture now links a few things that I felt worked together and have a reason for being together. The first snake I saw here was one of the beautiful black racers and it seems fitting to have a snake with a snakewood tree leaf. The favourite soapberries rather abstracted here were on my desk when I was looking for something else to add to the painting. I have been backwards and forwards with this painting.. I tidied it all up got rid of all the brush strokes and it lost its sparkle so spent most of today trying to “rough it up” again
I like this painting. People who don’t like snakes won’t. People who like something more than a landscape might.

I have always liked paintings or images which combine seemingly unconnected elements or objects. They create a mystery and a tension and a story which can be interpreted in different ways according to the ideas and experiences of the viewer. It would be interesting to ask people how they would interpret these two paintings.

I do wish I had a huge airy studio and had been able to tackle something 6 ft x 4 ft, maybe next time.

Ant Contributes

Ant has been helping. He is the most curious creature. Wherever I am working, he appears. If I am on the computer he is clambering over the keyboard or the screen, if I am painting or drawing at the desk he is running around the paper or the brushes. Today he has been living very dangerously, climbing in and out of my acrylics palette and yesterday he made it to the big oak painting, from which I had to remove him before like a little fly in amber, he was glued forever to the canvas in a layer of varnish, giving “caught on canvas” a more sinister meaning. I guess it’s the movement that attracts him. He has never stung me so I don’t think it’s territorial protection. somehow I don’t think ants are capable of affection, but I could be wrong. Hmm .. who knows but it’s nice to have my tiny little companion frolicking about. I really should immortalise him in a drawing or painting somehow.

Ant on the oak branch painting.

Leaf of the Day: Big Leaf #1 a Bit of Progress, Big Leaf #2 a Start

I have worked all day to get some more paint on these canvases. It’s a good 18 months since I worked on either a large scale or in acrylics and I am trying to brush up on my rusty techniques, and get re-aquainted with bigger brushes and having to stand back, rather than working with my nose 3 inches from the painting surface. I tend to forget how very “plasticy” acrylics are, how horribly quickly they dry on everything they touch ( a mixed blessing) and how much paint I need to cover the larger surface. These are not expensive acrylics though, just student grade which is fine for now for working out these ideas. There is always the possibility of working over in oils later.
I am not at all sure how these will turn out at all, but it’s good to have a change.

Leaf number two is the beautiful twisted Snakewood Tree leaf which I had already sketched and made a detail study of here. I think it may be easier to work on at a larger scale as I found the small detailed study very tedious. This leaf has the huge advantage of already being dried up and has not changed since I last drew it, so I can take my time. The other one has been in and out of the fridge for the last few days and is on its last legs now, but I am not so worried about the absolutely correct details in these big paintings, more the spirit of the thing.

Big Leaf #1 Stage 3, acrylic on canvas 2 x 3 ft.

Big Leaf #2, Snakewood tree leaf, Stage 1, acrylic on canvas 2 x 3 ft.

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: Roots and Pandan Mats

These are the root sketches from yesterday, the Snakewood again, the Screwpine Pandanus utilius, and some Strangler Fig roots.
Having done some quick research today on the Screwpine I see that the tree at Leu is just a small one with very modest stilt roots. It also seems that it will have spectacular “edible” fruit,
and its leaves are used for weaving beautiful mats and baskets in India and Indonesia.
One curious little tradition from North Maluku in Indonesia requires a woman to be able to weave screwpine leaves before getting married, as she will not only weave a marital outfit, but also give the groom 3 screwpine mats in acceptance of his proposal.

Here are some “pandan” mats from Farls blog “Photojourneys” here. His photos of the Phillipines are beautiful, it makes me want to get a plane ticket and go! He writes, The Philippines claims to produce the handsomest mats in Asia and arguably the most colorful and intricate fine-grained mats are handwoven by the Samal tribe of Tawi-Tawi.
These lovely mats are, at their most expensive about $20.

The following is an extract from from an article in “The Courier” Unesco’s online newsletter,(here) about one of the best traditional weavers in the Phillipines, Haja Amina Appi.

Mat weaver Haja Amina Appi walks with a strong stride that betrays her 80 years. She is off to harvest leaves from the pandan trees that grow behind her home in Ungos Matata, in the province of Tawi Tawi, a small island in the southwestern tip of the Philippines.

The bulky leaves are thorny-edged, but she prefers this variety because it produces strong and sturdy matting strips. She has become accustomed to the prickly thorns after years of working with them to produce the raw materials of her art. Throughout her life she has been a mat weaver, teacher, artist, and most recently, a National Living Treasure or Gawad sa Manlilika ng Bayan Awardee. A mat can take up to two months to weave, even longer for more intricate designs.
Her work begins with the harvest of the pandan leaves. She then removes the thorns with a small knife and and strips them with a jangat deyum, a thin piece of wood with sharp tines. The resulting narrow ribbons are then sun-dried and colored in a boiling vat of anjibi, a commercial powdered dye.

To soften the strips and make them pliant enough for weaving, she crushes them repeatedly with a paggosa or heavy log, in a process called pagtabig. This arduous and repetitive chore is essential to properly dry the pandan strips without rendering them brittle and useless.

photos Renato S. Rastrollo

Haja Appi is famous for her even weaves and the creativity of her designs.
She does not work from a written pattern, nor does she use paper and pencil to keep track of each loop and fold. She relies on her innate sense of mathematical progression to calculate when and how the colored fibers will eventually join to create symmetrical geometric
designs.What sets Haja Appi apart from her fellow mat weavers is the exceptional evenness of her weave and the startling creativity of her patterns. Although she uses a traditional repertoire of weaving techniques to create delicate, precise, and minutely detailed patterns, her simple geometric designs are dramatic bursts of color that both defy and celebrate tradition. “

I really love these traditional crafts which use natural materials and only hope that they can be sustained. Our society seems to be obsessed with needing to have more and more piles of cheap and tacky ‘things’. Surely one beautiful handwoven mat is worth 50 cheap mass produced synthetics? But the drive to show off the quantity of possessions, cheap or expensive, seems to be hardwired into many. Does it actually make people feel better? The sheer volume of really horrible decorations here, which spewed out of every gift shop before Christmas was staggering. Clogging up the shops one day, in the rubbish bins the next, but I suppose it keeps all the factories in China busy. (small rant, brought on by the news of the heartbreaking demise of first Royal Worcester and now Wedgwood, two of the great fine china factories in the world.. I just can’t believe it. It all makes me terribly sad.)

These sketches are done on a 8×10 inch sketch book with a black pen that will run a bit if you add water..which makes sketching easy and quick. All you need is sketchbook book, pen, brush and water…sometimes just sketchbook and pen will do, as spit (sorry) and fingertip will give you some smudging. Improvisation is the friend of the impoverished artist.
The pen is good for confidence in drawing because there is no prelim pencil work and no rubbing out, just straight in with the pen, you can’t fuss about with it. Worrying about incorrect lines is pointless and anyway if a root is a bit askew who’s to know. You can get way with an slightly misplaced root whereas an arm or leg wrongly positioned can be more serious.

Root Sketches

Leaf of the Day: Snakewood Leaf 2 and the wonders of metamorphosis.

Today I had the good fortune to see a butterfly hatching and, purely by coincidence, a caterpillar transforming itself into a chrysalis too. There are two chrysalis cases at the Gardens which Joel cares for with great solicitude and affection. He collects the butterfly eggs and raises them, through caterpillar stage, up to chrysalis stage, when he brings them to the cases. He nurtured and liberated over 1000 of these beautiful creatures last year.The butterfly garden at Leu is his domain. I was asking him more about the milkweeds which are the food source for the Monarch butterfly and as we were looking at the line of exquisite jade Monarch chrysalis, one began to emerge.

It is a fascinating sight. The butterfly at this stage has tiny crumpled wings and a huge black and white spotted body which over about 15 minutes pumps liquid into the wings along the main veins expanding them to their full width and beauty. We could see the butterfly experimentally curling and uncurling its divided proboscis which has to join into a tube before it can feed. At the same time a stripy caterpillar was busy shrugging off its striped coat and transforming itself into a chrysalis.

I held in my hand the tiny concertinaed skin of the caterpillar complete with little antennae and legs.
We may have all seen this on the TV and “know” about this extraordinary aspect of nature but to see it happening in front of you is riveting and it’s so quick. I was so busy watching I forgot to take more photos.

I did drag myself away to find the Snakewood again and then I bumped into Pedro who tells me that snakes like to hide in the snaky Snakewood roots and he has seen a couple of old shed skins there, which followed on neatly from the butterflies and also my thoughts about the leaves looking like sloughed skins. It’s a good time of year to consider renewal and re emergence.
He also showed me some beautiful little orchids which have just sprung up in one of the borders on the drive. I have not yet discovered out what they are.

I made a couple more root sketches around the Gardens which I will post tomorrow…Meanwhile I sketched another Snakewood leaf and there is a series about Darwin on the radio this week to catch up with, and I read some more about Burchfield…Oh dear…so much to do/ read/ listen to/ watch/ draw/ design/ write etc etc … so little time…. I am constantly running out of time and the white rabbit in Alice came to mind… so with apologies to Tenniel here is my own Time Keeping Rabbit reminding me that I should get a move on, which I think I will now use as shorthand in the posts, signifying lack of time.

I will have a few others too, each describing my day, sloth (often), procrastination (every day), despair (sometimes), inspiration ( fleeting), ..with a key in the side bar. I need never write again! I could just use pictograms..Hmm that’s a nice little project for a rainy day.


Snakewood Leaf Sketch

Leaf of the day: The Snakewood Tree

It seems this is the worst day of the year for low spirits, the euphoria of Christmas and New Year is over and for some, the unwelcome return to work, school, routine etc. I however am glad it is all over and I look forward to spring, which is my favourite time of year. In tribute I spent some time today spring cleaning my computer, in between reading about Joseph Stella and Charles Burchfield and thinking about some big leaves to draw. I am totally engrossed in the books. Burchfield’s story is particularly interesting. His diary entries are so poignant revealing his struggle, both to survive as an artist, and to cope with his own melancholy nature. More soon.
I have had some Snakewood Tree leaves here for a few weeks now and they are just gorgeous. If there is a Snakewood Tree nearby, you would probably see the pale curled fallen leaves before noticing the tree itself. This one is Cecropia peltata. The palmate leaves are big, the one I have here on the desk is 25 inches from top to toe, with 11 leaflets which curl up into fantastic ribbed shapes as they dry. Their outer surface turns pale grey/brown while the inside of the leaf remains a chocolate brown.

They also have these wonderful prop roots which give the impression that the tree is poised to move, just when your back is turned.

As trees they are interesting, useful and, I think, beautiful. They are used medicinally for all manner of complaints, the young shoots can be eaten and the handsome leaves sometime used as sandpaper…but no time for more research today.

I had been looking at these leaves for the last few days, not feeling quite up to the challenge. Drawing or painting them in detail is not a quick job. I made a couple of small sketches to encourage myself. One problem is to find just one angle that lends itself to a 2 dimensional piece. When you have one in your hand you endlessly turn it around to trace the twists and turns. Some are so contorted that they lose their leaf like characteristics and appear like the sloughed skin of a strange reptile. I will want to keep the leafiness of it.
There is also a sketch of the roots I made at the Gardens last week.
Roots, trunks and bark texture, are some of the “bigger”subjects I want to explore now. The variety of pattern and textures are infinite. Quite how I will do this I am not sure. Probably a combination of working from life and from photographs. I hope to go sketching tomorrow at Leu to look at these roots again.


Snakewood Tree Sketches