Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Winter Postcard Snow

Back yard in the snow.

It started to snow on Saturday evening, and continued all through the night. It was the first snow of the year, and by mid-morning there were about five inches on the ground. Several days before, I had arranged to deliver my artwork for a show at the Cylburn Arboretum in Baltimore that Sunday, and since our street was plowed before noon, I figured the main roads would be fine. Herb agreed to come along for the ride, just so I could feel a bit safer in case the roads were worse than expected.

We took the northern route through Harper's Ferry and onto I-70 east toward Baltimore--with very little traffic to compete with, it was a winter wonderland! The wet snow clung to every branch, transforming ordinary weeds and brush into lovely visions of snowy blossoms. I wanted to stop at every turn to take photos, thinking this view, or maybe that one, would make a lovely silverpoint, but first we had to deliver the paintings.

It took about two and a half hours to get there. After delivering the paintings I would have enjoyed  walking around the snowy Arboretum for a while, but Herb dissuaded me--his old Frye boots were in no condition to make the trek. And, we only had another two and a half hours of daylight left, so we started back.

I-70 was deserted--we saw a few vehicles heading the opposite way here and there, but we traversed long stretches where we were the only car on the road, on an interstate highway where traffic is heavy every hour of the day, every day. Unusual, to say the least!

It started snowing again as we approached Frederick, and the snow became heavier as we reached Harper's Ferry. I pulled over to the side of the road to get these shots.

The rocks by Harper's Ferry

Icicles on the rocks.

The Shenandoah River at Harper's Ferry.

After a brief stop here, we continued; the wet snow was building up on the road and making the hills  somewhat slippery, but not too dangerous. The snow slackened a bit as we got closer to home, but it continued well into the night, building up to nearly eight inches.

Our neighborhood.

Front yard evergreens.

The next morning as I was getting up, I noticed the sun was breaking through the clouds...lit in the brief flash of the rising sun, the wintry landscape from my studio window was a sight to behold!

The back yard at sunrise.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Indian Pipe Painting

Indian Pipe (Monotropa Uniflora) watercolor, 13"h x 10"w.

This painting is a new version of one of my favorite plants. Herb and I first came across this member of the Monotropaceae family years ago during a Fourth of July hike we took at Rachel Carson Conservation Park in Maryland when we lived in near-by Sandy Spring. It had been a very wet summer and the tiny flowering stalks of this ghostly apparition were all over the forest floor. I was charmed by their delicate beauty and decided to pick one to take home so that I could draw it.

When we got back to our house a few hours later, I unpocketed my prize only to find that it had turned completely black! In my disappointment I began an internet search, trying to find out what kind of plant it was, and why it was so perishable. I've been captivated by this family of myco-heterotrophic plants ever since, and painted a number of portraits of other family members such as the Yellow and Red Pinesap (Monotropa hypopitys), and the elusive Fragrant Pinesap (Monotropsis odorata) which I've documented in this blog. These members of the Ericacea family (they are relatives of heaths and rhododendrons) live in deep shade, have no chlorophyll to produce their own food, and must draw their sustenance from mycorrhyzal fungi that colonize other trees' roots. 

A few years later, after another very wet spring, we returned to the Rachel Carson tract and found another extraordinary flush of blooms, even lusher than the first one.  By this time I had acquired my first digital camera, and was able to take lots of photos of these flowers. In addition to newer photos, I still use that first set in my artwork, and this painting was done from those.

Wanting to incorporate some of the new techniques I learned at John Pastoriza Pinol's Brookside Gardens workshop, I put masking fluid over the lines after transferring the drawing to the watercolor paper, and laid down very pale washes of the three primary colors.

Step 1: color washes over masked line work

When that was thoroughly dry, it was time to remove the mask, soften the edges of the lines and then gradually build up color. At first glance Indian Pipe appears to be ghostly white, but the color is actually more subtle: the stems have hints of flesh coloring, particularly at the curved neck, and as the stalks age, dark spots emerge here and there where drying or insects have nicked the edges of the filmy scales.

Step 2: building up the color

As with my previous Monotropa paintings, I decided to include some of the dried leaves and debris on the forest floor to give the plants a base, and to allow the pale stems to stand out better.

Step 3: defining the shapes with deeper color

It was hard to decide how much of the forest floor to include, and how far up to extend the background, whether to include some of the green leaves behind. I hope the final painting strikes the right balance.

Step 4: adding a suggestion of green leaves

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Carolina Silverbell Tree

Carolina Silverbell (Halesia carolina), watercolor, 18" x 14."

The first post of 2019 is my finished painting of the Carolina Silverbell Tree (Halesia carolina). The painting was actually finished in early fall of last year, when the seed pods began to ripen. It was then that I was able to finally finish painting the last pod on the lower left, but I was busy with so many other things that I had forgotten to post it. The painting now shows the complete sequence from the flowers and emerging leaves of early spring, through the development and final ripening of the seed pods in the fall.

I'm hoping that a few of the seeds will turn out to be viable and germinate this coming spring. It would be wonderful to have a few seedlings of this lovely and unusual native tree to share with family and friends. Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Magnolia Seed Pod

Magnolia Seed Pod.

Back in October I had the opportunity to take John Pastoriza Pinol's workshop at Brookside Gardens, and I've been looking forward to sharing what I learned. John is a superb botanical artist who shares the distinction of also being a botanist, and he really knows his stuff.

First, he shared some tips for drawing accurately, focusing on the natural geometry that seed pods and leaves follow regardless of the species, and other botanical features such as leaf veins. Most seeds and pine cones are arranged in a way that follows the Fibonacci mathematical sequence that yields a spiral. How to foreshorten these structures to create a sense of 3-dimensional perspective is always a challenge.

John Pastoriza Pinol at Brookside Gardens workshop.

Explaining natural geometries.

Another technique new to me was the use of masking fluid, and applying it with a calligraphy pen. I had used masking fluid on a watercolor landscape  years before, but I had used a brush (ruining it in the process), and the process seemed so complicated, it hardly seemed worth the time and effort.

John's technique is to mask most of the lines of a drawing, including the outer edges, in order to leave very fine lines on the white paper, something that would be impossible to accomplish with just a brush and washes. Interestingly, this only works on Arches paper, and John explained that this manufacturer uses several layers of cotton fibers sandwiched between layers of sizing. Other watercolor paper manufacturers use only two layers of fiber with a layer of sizing in the middle, so if one applies masking fluid to those papers, the masking fluid will take off bits of fibers from the upper layer when it is removed, weakening the paper on the painted side.

Brookside Gardens had provided us a variety of interesting seed pods and leaves to work with, but I had brought a Magnolia seed pod that I'd picked a few years before that had dried into a very interesting state of disarray, and decided I'd stick with that.

Photo of my Magnolia seed pod.

Drawing this seed pod was a challenge, and putting masking fluid over the complicated line work, even more so. Once the masking fluid had dried, I was ready to start painting with very pale washes: Vanadium Yellow first, in the area immediately surrounding the highlights that were to be left white, which John referred to as the areas of "moon-glow." After this wash had completely dried, it was followed by a wash of Perylene Red in the areas of body color, and after that dried,  a wash of Cerulean Blue Hue for the shadow areas. As you can see, these pigments are very transparent, barely visible here. This was as far as I got on the second day.

Step 1: pale washed in primary colors.

On the last day of the workshop, stronger color was introduced: first a wash of Quinacridone Gold, then a chestnut color mixed from Quinacridone Gold with a bit of Perylene Red. When that was thoroughly dry, the mask was removed. We didn't have much more time, but John demonstrated how to begin the soften the edges of the masked lines to give the illusion of depth with a damp stiff-bristled brush called a Cosmotop spin. This works well with leaf veins also. The idea is to use a drier brush with each successive layer to build up the colors in a painting.

Step 2: gold and chestnut washes.

I wish the workshop had lasted a few more days, so that I could have learned ways to further refine my piece. As it was, I worked on it in the following weeks, gradually building up the darker colors layer by layer until getting what you see at the top of this post. I'm not sure it's quite finished yet--I may add a seed falling off or a fallen seed or two to the composition.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Little Brown Jugs

Variable-Leaf Heartleaf (Hexastylis heterophylla) and Little Brown Jug (Hexastylis arifolia),
watercolor with colored pencil, 17"h x 14"w.

Here's my most recent painting: an illustration of two unusual plants from the forests of southwestern Virginia. Hexastylis are part of the Aristolochia family (Pipevine), and considered a segregate of the genus Asarum (Wild Ginger). These plants are native to the eastern US forests and like Wild Ginger, have inconspicuous flowers that hide under the foliage. The flowers are pollinated by ants and/or beetles.

I saw these plants for the first time during a Virginia Native Plant Society (VNPS) spring field trip to this area in 2017. The unusual flowers, the "Little Brown Jug" (Hexastylis arifolia) and the weirdly-mottled, elaborate flower of the Variable-Leaf Heartleaf (Hexastylis heterophylla), intrigued me, and I wanted to illustrate both plants in one painting.

The flowers bloom in the spring just as the leaves are emerging from the ground. I worked from a number of different photos, some taken in different locations, so it's quite possible that the mature leaf on the lower left is actually yet another species, Hexastylis virginica--there were no flowers on that specimen photographed in Pandapas Pond in late summer.

Line drawing in ink

As usual, I started my painting with a pencil drawing and once I'd settled on a final composition, inked the lines to trace onto the watercolor paper. At first I had thought of including a lovely orange eft (a juvenile salamander) photographed at a different location during the same trip, it was such a neat thing to capture on film! You can see a bit of the drawing of the eft under the tracing paper here, but I discarded this idea as detracting from the original intent, which was to focus on the unusual flowers of these plants.

First stage: colored pencil on the flowers with watercolor underpainting.

Unfortunately, I didn't take any other photos along the way to the finished piece. The hardest part of the painting was deciding how much of the leaf litter to include, and how to shape it to give continuity to the painting while presenting the plants in context. I hope the finished painting gives the impression of looking at a small piece of the ground in the woods.

Friday, November 30, 2018

The Ginko Grove at Blandy

The Ginko Grove at Blandy Farm, watercolor, 10" x 14."

The Blandy Sketch Group had its last plein air outing on Halloween. The day turned out to be the last really warm, sunny day of the season, with temperatures in the 70's. What better way to spend a nice afternoon than painting in such a lovely setting?

The ginko grove lies at the very back of the Blandy Farm Virginia State Arboretum property, and was planted as an experiment to determine the germination ratio of male to female trees from seed (which turned out to be about 50-50).  Because the female ginko fruit is foul-smelling, planting female trees on city streets was banned during the early years of the 20th Century. Since tree nurseries seldom, if ever, sell female trees, this was the first time I'd ever encountered the offensive fruit, which was thick under the female trees. I'm glad we were warned to bring old shoes--it took almost a week of airing on the porch for the smell to wear off my gardening shoes after our excursion.

The leaves were just starting to turn yellow, so the grove was not as spectacular as I'd hoped, but the hollow with the Blue Ridge Mountains as a backdrop was still quite a sight. I hope my watercolor sketch conveys a bit of its charm. Here's a photo at the actual location.

Ginko grove at Blandy Farm

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Late Fall Color

Back yard in early morning light.

This fall had been so warm the leaves didn't start turning until late October, and didn't reach their peak until the first week in November. The leaves were not as colorful as in other years, perhaps because we had such a rainy September... Then as they were showing their best, a gale stripped most of them in one afternoon.

Back yard mid-morning
Front yard on Halloween

Side yard with Autumn Blaze maple.

The purple aster flowers (Symphiotrichum oblongifolium) have lasted a long time--the two small offshoots I split from the original clump and planted in the back beds also bloomed, though they probably won't reach the size of the first clump for another year or so. I divided the Thalia daffodils in the front yard and re-planted a bunch, the leftovers went in one of the back beds along with more daffodils. The other daffodils in the front beds probably could have used the same treatment, but I didn't have the energy to dig them all--they will have to wait another year.

Purple Asters (Symphiotrichum oblongifolium)

Taking advantage of the end of the season sales, I acquired a new Peony, 'Bartzella' (a lovely hybrid of a herbaceous and a tree Peony with yellow flowers), and a few more shrubs and bulbs. Most of these are already in the ground, but a few late purchases won't be shipped until next week. With the increasingly shorter and colder days, not to mention the frequent rains, it's getting harder to find decent weather for my garden chores now--the windows of opportunity present themselves less often.

West side garden

Just as I was finishing this post, our first snow arrived on Nov. 15, setting a record not seen in the past 22 years. The accumulation ended up being about 3-4", enough to lend a nice touch to our view, and as chance would have it, my plant order arrived exactly on that day! The weather has made it impossible to plant anything until the snow melts, which will take a few more days. I expect there may be at least one day next week when I can finally get those late arrivals in the ground.

Mid-November snow

Soon the ground will freeze hard and it will be time to put the garden to sleep for the winter. My gardening will then be confined to poring over colorful plant catalogs and dreaming... It's the season to spend my days in the studio working on paintings, remembering the glories of the past season, and looking forward to another spring.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Levant Cotton Painting

Levant Cotton (Gossypium herbaceum 'Nigra'), watercolor

Here is my finished painting of the Levant Cotton for the US Botanic Garden. I hope it gives a good sense of the plant's characteristics, its lovely flowers, unusual foliage and fruit (the bolls), as well as the way the bolls open when ripe, displaying their cotton-wrapped seeds.

I plan to take the painting to the USBG in the next week or so to be scanned, the image will become part of their collection. The original painting will be returned to me and will be offered for sale then. If you are interested in purchasing it, please contact me to request the price.