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.