Sunday, March 11, 2018

Spring Paintings

Rhododendrons in the Mist, pastel, 9" x 12."

Here's a couple of new pastel paintings for this spring's Art at the Mill show. The one above was done from photos of last spring's week-long botanical excursion to SW Virginia with the Virginia Native Plant Society (VNPS). This particular day when we visited Cumberland Gap was the only rainy day we had. It had been pouring in the morning, but the rain had started to let up a bit when we drove up this hilltop. The spectacular view of the valley below was completely veiled in mist, it was very cold and wet, but the Rhododendrum minus on the hillsides covered with soft pink blossoms looked lovely in the moody light.

The View from Sky Meadows, pastel, 9" x 12."

This other pastel was done from a photo taken a number of years ago on an overcast day. The lush grasses on the rolling hillsides hadn't been mowed yet, and the sprinkling of white dogwood flowers in the thickets of trees were echoed by the dots of the houses in the small town of Paris beyond. It's a classic view of the Blue Ridge Mountains that surround us here in Virginia.

Crocus thommasinianus, last week of February

Early daffodil 'February Gold' in first week of March

White hyacinths, first week of March

The first signs of spring are popping up in my garden--crocuses, early daffodils and white hyacinths are emerging. Unfortunately, this particular hyacinth clump was dug up and eaten (likely by ground hog) just a few days after I took this photo. I've sprinkled powdered hot pepper on the flowers as a deterrent to future depredations--let see if it works. The deer don't seem to find the C. thommasinianus too palatable, thank heaven, and daffodils are known to be toxic to them, so those are safe, but it's a constant battle to keep all these pests from eating everything in my garden. They're particularly ravenous at this time of the year.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Sky Meadows in Spring

Sky Meadows in Spring, pastel on Wallis paper, 9"h x 12"w.
Photo of Sky Meadows Sate Park

I've been working on a couple of small pastel landscapes for the Art at the Mill 2018 Spring show. This one is based on a photo I took a number of years back when I visited one of our nearby state parks, Sky Meadows. The park is located in a beautiful area of rolling hills at the eastern base of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The day was overcast, and the grass had not been mowed yet... the creamy spikes of the blooming grasses echoed the sprinkling of white of the dogwood blossoms peeking out of a thicket in a delightful symphony of greens and cream.

Sometimes a simple photo can be a great opportunity to explore composition, and for this painting I brought the edge of the grassy hill closer to the viewer to push the line of the trees forward, leaving the bluish mountain range to be seen through the emerging leaves of the trees. For the sake of comparison, below it is the photo the painting was based on.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Winter Blooms

Orchid 'Scent of a Woman'

The mid-winter doldrums are upon us, a prolonged cold snap has brought unusually low temperatures recently. Evidence of the snow flurries that came down on the last days of the old year is still on the ground in my back yard; there is very little else to see out there. What better time to enjoy the blossoms of my house plants indoors?

Brassidium in bloom

The orchids in my bathroom are at it again--this lovely Brassidium hybrid  has bloomed faithfully around this time for the past four years. Some years there are more flowers than others; this year one spike opened before Christmas, and two others are still developing. The flowers should last till about mid-February or perhaps later.

Another hybrid, the Oncidium Ruffles 'Scent of a Woman' put out one flowering spike. This orchid is more unpredictable, it usually flowers in early spring, but this year it started to bloom much earlier, and is flowering at the same time as the Brassidium.

Bearss lime tree

My lime tree was laden with fruit when I brought it inside this fall--I counted nine limes. Two have been harvested so far, and there are about seven or eight more, with more blossoms setting fruit. It seems the frequent feedings are paying off. I don't recall ever having a lime tree as prolific as this one, despite the constant attacks of ants and accompanying scale insects.

Tabernaemontana divaricata

Other exotic plants are also blooming--I've been growing this small tree known as Butterfly Gardenia (Tabernaemontana divaricata) for a couple of years, and it bloomed last summer, but this is the first winter it has bloomed. The flowers are lightly scented, but relatively short-lived, lasting about 3-4 days before fading.

Yellow hibiscus

I almost left the large yellow hibiscus tree with a braided trunk that my sister Silvia gave me a couple of years ago, outside to perish with the first frost, because the huge plant seems to attract mealybugs like a lightning rod. It's a constant battle with them both indoors and out, and the bugs tend to spread to other plants. But the flowers are so beautiful, I decided it was worth keeping. Spring seems so far away at this time... a little indoor cheer is welcome.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Great Blue Lobelia

Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) watercolor and graphite, 20"h x 14.5"w.

Here's my latest botanical art piece painted for our Botanic Artists Society of the National Capital Region (BASNCR) show at the Center for the Arts in Manassas. The exhibition "Nature's Pharmacy" opening on November1st will feature plants that were traditionally used for medicinal purposes throughout history.

As the new Exhibitions Chair I've been working hard to assemble this ensemble of artwork, media and techniques by twenty-two of us artist members of BASNCR. Starting with logging the entries, developing the list of works and arranging to get the artwork from artists who live farther away to facilitate delivery their pieces to the gallery, it's kept me really busy.

It's been difficult for me to carve out the time to finish the piece I had committed to painting for this show. I had originally planned for this composition to include a pencil drawing of a clump of Lobelias behind the flowering spike in color that is the focal point, but I didn't have time to add the drawing. I may yet put this in at a later date, since the piece seems a little bare to me without it, but there is no time to draw it for this show.

Lobelia growing in my garden

I bought this Great Blue Lobelia at last year's Arborfest at Blandy Farm from one of the local native plant vendors, and put it in the east bed last fall. It has grown into a handsome clump that I photographed over the summer at different stages of blossoming. I'm hoping it will spread more next spring so that I can take a few offshoots and plant them in other beds which I'm expanding this fall.

Close-up of the flowers.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Garden Interlude

Caryopteris 'Longwood Blue' with marigolds

After a very dry June, July and August, usually our driest months, brought plenty of rain. My rain gauge recorded over eight inches in July and five in August. The plants responded gratefully. Above is one my new beds in the back, with Caryopteris 'Longwood Blue' and a dwarf Fothergilla to the right, surrounded by marigolds and a black cotton plant behind the Caryopteris.

Black cotton (Gossypium herbaceous 'Nigra')

Close-up of  black cotton flower

I grew the black cotton from seeds collected at the USBG last fall. I should have started the seeds indoors earlier, as the plants developed much too slowly after being set out in the beds, and didn't begin to bloom until late August. I haven't seen any seed pods yet, so I may not be able to continue the line unless I am lucky to collect more cottony seeds at USBG during our upcoming BASNCR fall meeting. The flowers are quite lovely with their intricate veining. I would love doing a painting of this plant, as well as the one in the photo below.

Cuban Raintree (Brunfelsia nitida)

One pleasant surprise was this single flower on my Cuban Raintree plant which I've been growing for the past year. I set it out on the porch this spring hoping it would bloom, to enjoy its heavenly scent, but only one flower appeared. This is supposed to be the Cuban "Galan de noche" fabled for its perfume--but it seems to be a fussy plant at these latitudes. Perhaps it may do better next summer, if I can keep it going during the winter...

East bed in the evening

All of the native plants I put in last fall are performing well--the hardy Ageratum (Conoclinium coelestinum) above, and the Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) have both grown lushly in the east bed among the Japanese maples. The Carolina Silverbell tree (Halesia carolinana) on the back left is growing into a respectable-sized shrub. Herb helped me plant a Sourwood tree (Oxydendrum arboreum) in front of it in late spring which unfortunately died back to the ground, and is regrowing from the roots; it's only 6" tall at the moment, and is a slow-growing tree, so it will be a while before it looks like much.

Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica)
The back yard in July

Despite the large, still-empty expanses, the backyard is gradually attracting more birds, butterflies and bees. We have a pair of nesting bluebirds nearby that have raised several broods in the past couple of years--the fledglings like to visit our deck and we enjoy watching their antics. The mockingbirds love the blackberry bushes in back, and some mornings I would see four or five of them perched in the bushes, gorging on the berries. One morning I was able to observe a male Ruby-throated hummingbird perched on my neighbor's tree, preening and stretching his neck to show the telling ruby spot on his throat.
Pink striped Oakworm moth

Another morning after a rainy night I found this moth clinging to the sliding door screen. An internet search revealed it was a female Pink Striped Oakwood Moth (Anisota virginensis pellucida), an insect I'd never seen before. It stayed there for a long time and appeared nearly dead, so I waited and eventually carefully gathered it for my insect collection. Adding pollinating insects or birds to botanical paintings has become very popular lately, and I've started collecting as many as come my way for future use.

White hibiscus (Hibiscus moscheutus)

Here are more photos of the beautiful seasonal flowers from this year's summer garden. Every year is a revelation of color and form, of nature's perfection. This living canvas of plants is a challenging way to create beauty, and very humbling, but the successes are so rewarding.

Daylily hybrid

Daylily hybrid

Yellow rose 'Molineux' with catmint

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Painting the Sweet Pinesap

Sweet Pinesap (Monotropsis odorata), watercolor, 14"h x 10.5"w.

After the adventure of finding this rare plant in its habitat, creating a painting in the studio to convey its charm and beauty was equally challenging. It took a couple of months for me to to find the time to even start. I began by studying my photos, deciding which ones to use, how to stage the plant, and at what scale to paint it. The plant is so tiny it would need to be shown at three to four times its actual size in order to reveal the details.

Stage 1: pencil sketch

I chose the photo I had used for the opening image of the series, which shows a side view of one flowering stem on the left and another from the front with the colors appearing unusually vivid.

The sketch looked somewhat unbalanced and obviously needed another element on the right to complete the composition. I found another photo showing a stem with one single flower and added it on the right to complete the composition as a triangle. I pondered on the best way to tie the three flowering stalks together, and decided painting the leaf litter on the forest floor was ideal, as it would unify the disparate elements and show how well the plant was camouflaged. The dried pine needles offer clues about this plant's association with white pines and hardwood forests.

Stage 2: ink line drawing over the shade and shadow study.

After the shade and shadow pencil study, I was ready to trace the line work in ink and transfer the drawing onto watercolor paper (Fabriano Artistico extra white). Now I could finally begin the painting.

Early stage of the painting.

As usual, I get so involved in the doing that I forget to take photos of the process as I go along, but here's one intermediate shot I remembered to take. The finished painting is above.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

The Devil's Steps and the Eye of the Needle

The Devil's Steps Trail

After our visit to the site where the Sweet Pinesap grew, my friend Dr. Matt Klooster had to get back to his family, so he drove me back to the Hemlock Lodge. It was a bit late for lunch at this point, but I had the rest of the afternoon ahead, so I went back out to explore more of the Natural Bridge park trails. The most challenging trail led back up the ridge to a place called the Devil's Steps on the left, flanked by the Eye of the Needle on the right.

The Eye of the Needle

Although it had stopped raining during the night, as I climbed up the hill I noticed there was a good deal of run-off filtering down through the sheer limestone cliffs, making virtual waterfalls in some places. I reached the place where the trail forked and saw there were many steps going up either side. Upon closer examination, I decided it would be smarter to ascend up the Devil's Steps-- harder work, but since the trail seemed wetter, footing would be easier going up hill. Once on the ridge, I could walk around and descend from the Eye of the Needle, which seemed to have less run-off.

Going up the Devil's Steps
Looking down

It was hard work getting up all those steps, but the spectacular views and the pockmarked cliffsides were more than enough reward. I can't imagine what it must take to maintain a trail like this... There were quite a lot of folks on the trail, thought the trail was wide enough only to allow passage single file. I gave priority to those coming down, especially some who had young children with them.

Hikers descending the Devil's Steps

Last stage of the Devil's Steps

I held my breath as I saw this young couple going down those slick rock steps carrying their toddler...
They made it in one piece, whew! Then it was my turn to start up.  Looking down this chute from the top was incredible.

Looking down

Once on the ridge it was easy going. There was more Trailing Arbutus growing on the rocky ledges among the rhododendrons. The Eye of the Needle could not be seen while standing on the ridge, only the steps leading down showed the way.

Trailing Arbutus among Rhododendrons

Coming down from the Eye of the Needle

Eye of the Needle steps

After the Devil's Steps, these steps seemed tame by comparison, and I was glad these were much drier. I was all tuckered out by the time I got back to the lodge in the late afternoon, but happy to have accomplished my purpose. I only hoped my photos of the Sweet Pinesap had turned out well enough to be usable for my paintings.

Eye of the Needle steps

This would be my last hike here, as I would be leaving early tomorrow morning for the seven and a half hour drive back home. I felt a great sense of accomplishment, and to have hiked such a beautiful site as Natural Bridge State Park in Kentucky was an extra bonus. I hope to return some day, perhaps when the Rhododendron maximum is is bloom.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Finding the Fragrant Pinesap

Fragrant Pineseap (Monotropsis odorata).

I texted my on-line friend, Dr. Matthew Klooster, on Saturday morning to arrange the time we would meet, since Natural Bridge State Park was about an hour's drive from his home. He expected to arrive sometime around 10 AM and I agreed to wait for him in the lobby of the Lodge.

He was running a bit late, but since there weren't many guests at the lodge, we identified each other right away even though it was our first face-to-face meeting. He was a nice looking young man, sporting a fashionably trim beard and we chatted easily at the lodge for a short while before setting out to find the Fragrant Pinesap plants.

Dr. Matt explained that the site was in the Daniel Boone National Forest, about a ten minute drive from the lodge. He drove back towards the main road, but from there I couldn't tell the direction where we headed, nor what turns we made to get to the site. We reached the area and there were a lot of cars parked along the gravel road--apparently this is a popular hiking area, and despite the cloudy, chilly weather, there were lots of hikers here today. We had to circle around to find a suitable place to pull off and park his SUV.

We walked for a few minutes along a trail and as we were passing by a few scrubby young pine trees he looked into the underbrush and exclaimed "Here's some!" I looked but saw nothing there. He walked further into the woods behind some bushes and said, "Here's more, there's lots of them right here."

Dr. Matt Klooster photographing the Fragrant Pinesap

I leaned down close to the ground and he pointed to these tiny caps peeking out from the leaf litter--one could barely tell they were plants, much less flowers. I could have walked right on top of them and never known I was upon them! I got down on my knees to see better and started taking photos.

I marveled at how Matt had been able to spot these tiny flowers and he told me it had taken him some time to learn to see them, but after a number of years studying them for his dissertation, he had it down perfectly. Interestingly, the plants here seemed to prefer growing under young pine trees, rather than the more mature forest I would have expected. I wonder what species of mycorrhizal fungi they associate with?

Fragrant Pinesap

I had a difficult time with my camera's automatic focus--the leaf litter competed with the inconspicuous flowers so well it couldn't decide where to focus. Fortunately I had my cell phone with me and Matt suggested I try using that. The phone's camera did the trick--it was much easier to zoom in and get exactly what I needed. I shot lots of different individuals, more than enough for my illustrations, in just this one small patch.

The range of color variation from plant to plant is considerable, some of the stems were a deep magenta-purple, with others a much more subdued reddish brown or nearly black. There wasn't much fragrance today, but if you got your nose down very close, a faint aroma of camphor, or maybe clove, could be detected. I figured this had to be due to the cold, since I've heard that many people locate the plant by scent before they can see it.

With such tiny flowers, I wondered what insect pollinated them. Presumably the scent attracted the pollinator. Matt explained that the flowers were buzz-pollinated by bumblebees. Buzz-pollination is accomplished by the bee beating its wings at a certain frequency that causes the pollen to be released from the pollen sacs. How exactly does the bee know to do this is a mystery worth pondering...

After this we walked a bit farther down the trail, where Matt pointed out some crested iris starting to open, and a few other spring flowers. The orange color of the fruiting bodies of  some lichens again caught my eye.

Orange-fruited lichen

These looked very like the Pink Bubblegum lichen I'd seen on Laurel Ridge the day before, but bright orange in color. It was growing alongside some Trailing Arbutus, just as on the ridge.

My friend Matt had to get back to his family soon, so shortly after this, we walked back to his car and he dropped me off at Hemlock Lodge. A brief, but amazing encounter with a fascinating gentleman and botanical subject! I had more than enough material to keep me busy painting for a good long time.

I started the painting several months later, recently. Here's a photo of my painting in progress (not very well-lit).

Monotropsis watercolor in progress.