Wednesday, 16 November 2016

The process of painting Atriplex stipitata

In this final post in the series, Roslyn Glow takes us through her process of her painting of Atriplex stipitata. If you would like to catch up with the other posts, the first is about identification and research  and the second about composition and colour matching.

Little details
On my (practice) painting paper I paint a few leaves and fruits, bigger than life size, then life size.   This helps me to get the colours right, and to select the best approach for applying the paint.  For example I could use a series of colour washes, (wet in wet) or dry brush technique.  This plant has few large areas, so washes are of limited use.  For some of the detail I use the fine brush (Winsor and Newton Series 7 sable000) like a pencil. 

Measured drawing
I draw a frame for my picture, using a 2H pencil.  I mark out important landmarks, such as the highest, lowest and widest points on architect’s tracing paper.  This paper is robust enough to withstand repeated erasures, but thin enough to allow me to trace through it. 

I draw the plant as accurately as I can within the limits of the composition.  As the leaves and branches are fairly congested, I sometimes put a piece of paper between the branches, in order to see the plant’s structure more clearly, and I omit some of the leaves and tiny branches, endeavouring meanwhile not to loose track of the structure of the plant. Because of the plant’s congested nature I have to pay particular attention to connections, rather than obscuring it by too many overlapping details, so that the viewer will understand the structure.

Transferring the drawing
I can use either a light box  (or window lit from outside) or reverse tracing to transfer the image to my paper. Reverse tracing involves going over my drawing on the reverse side, using a 2B pencil. It is quite hard to make sure all the details are included.  When I am satisfied I place the tracing paper on top of my painting paper (Arches 300gsm smooth) right side up and trace it again, using a 2H pencil to transfer the image onto the plain paper beneath.  Then I have to go over the drawing carefully, with a 2H pencil, to make sure the details are preserved.  The tracing process tends to blur some of the connections and details, so I sharpen them up.

Colour mixing
Before I can put colour on my painting I need to mix enough of the main colours  (various shades of greyish green and brown).  I do this by checking with my colour patches, the original specimens having dried out and changed colour by this time.  

Now starts the hardest part. It is hard because mistakes are difficult to correct, and keeping the page clean is a challenge. It is best to test each dab of colour on a practice sheet before putting it on the paper.  A slight difference in the proportions of pigment and water can make a huge difference on the page. If it is too dark, correction is difficult.  

I use tiny 000 brushes for the twigs, slightly larger for the leaves.  I love to see the coloured image emerge from the paper. But it is hard to slow down and paint thoughtfully, carefully, slowly, systematically. Despite the concentration required, I find it satisfying when I can find the right balance between concentration and tension. I haven’t yet given serious thought to the problem of getting the glistening texture of the plant right.  For the present it is enough to paint the twigs and branches.

This part of the process is the most time-consuming. I have particular difficulty getting enough contrast between the light and darker sides of each part of the plant, not least on the branches. Getting the appearance of solidity by placing the highlight, shade and reflected light in the right spots is not intuitive for me.  I have to work it out by following rules, rather than being able to paint what I see.   My first attempts are not very good but can be improved. Painting stems that are three dimensional and very small is quite hard.
Painting in progress (Photo copyright: Roslyn Glow, 2015)
Perhaps my tiny brushes are too soft.  I buy a few new brushes, in the smallest sizes. Like most artists I am always keen to hear of a better brush, or new watercolours. 
Getting enough variation of light and shade in the leaves is a similar problem to getting form into the stems. I don’t worry too much about this at first, as I can add darker colour later, but with so many tiny leaves I know it will take some time before I am happy with it. 

When I have given a preliminary coat of paint to all the branches and leaves I turn my attention to the addition of enlarged details. I go through the same process as before, composing and drawing. I decide to include the fruit and the male flower at four times their natural size. When I have completed the drawings on tracing paper, I try out different positions on the main painting. It is unfortunate that I don’t have a female flower. The fruit and male flower will have to suffice. 

Since I placed the female plant to the left of the male, I follow the same sequence, placing the fruit to the left of the male flower. This is unconventional, the usual sequence being male flower, female flower, fruit, but it seems to be neater to have the details in the same order in as the main depiction. With forethought, I could have ordered the two plants more conventionally male on the left, female on the right. 

Adding the magnified details
I trace the two details onto the main painting and paint them as before

Depicting the salt crystals on the enlarged detail
I consult Margaret Holloway about this problem. She encourages me to try as many approaches as I can think of. The main contenders are the luminescent range of water-colours by Daniel Smith, and Windsor and Newton’s Iridescent Medium. I try numerous combinations of Daniel Smith’s colours, with names like Pearlescent Shimmer, Interference Silver, Iridescent Jade and Duochrome Green Pearl. I am grateful for the fact that Daniel Smith provides ‘Try-out sheets’, so that one can experiment with numerous colours before buying. The particles in the Daniel Smith colours seem too small for the effect I am reaching for. I try the Windsor and Newton Iridescent medium and settle for it. The resemblance to the magnified look of the plant parts is not close.  My depiction looks flat whereas the crystals look quite three dimensional under the binocular microscope. It is the best I can manage.

Finishing the painting
I return to the full painting, concentrating on increasing the contrast between light and dark areas, and adding details such as the red tinge on the edges of the bigger leaves. 
The finished painting of Atripex stipitata (Photo and image copyright: Roslyn Glow, 2015)

I am happy with the result. My modest plant has taken on a more important look when subjected to such scrutiny and attention to detail. 

Cunningham, GM, Mulham, W E, Milthorpe, P L and Leigh, J H Plants of Western New South Wales  CSIRO Publishing, Collingwood, Victoria, 1992, 2013.  Pp 242, 244-5.

Landon, Carolyn  Banksia Lady: Celia Rosser, Botanical Artist  Monash Univeristy Publishing, Clayton, Victoria.  See especially Chapter 9: The Painting

The process of painting Atriplex stipitata

The second in our series about how Roslyn Glow goes about painting her plant Atriplex stipitata. Her first post was about her research into her plant.

Colour matching
It is important to get the colours right before the specimen dries out /dies/fades. I paint little patches of colour and label them. I use the same paper as my final painting. 
Part of my colour matching (Photo copyright: Roslyn Glow, 2015)
I notice that, under a hand lens or microscope, the surface of the plant looks as if sprinkled with crystals of some kind. Since this is a salt bush, I infer that they are salt crystals.  I don’t know how to depict this. I discuss it with others.  Mali Moir, project leader, suggests that Margaret Holloway (an artist involved in this project) has solved a similar problem.  I make a mental note to consult Margaret when I get back to Melbourne.  

I paint a blow up of the fruit and of the male inflorescence, using the binocular microscope. I don’t have a digital microscope, so I try to photograph parts of the plant through the binocular microscope. This is not really successful.
(Photo copyright: Anne Lawson, 2016)

The next task is to decide on a composition.  

Ideally the painting should show the back and front of a leaf, a bud, a flower, a fruit and any feature used to identify the species, including microscopic studies if microscopic features are essential for identification. Since the plant is dioecious, these details should be present for both male and female plants. The habit of the plant should also be shown, either in full or by implication.  We can’t always reach the ideal.   

I play around with my specimens, before realising that with only one small fragment with a fruit and a couple of sprigs with male inflorescences, my options are limited. Celia Rosser, who painted all the banksias was careful to show all stages of growth of buds to mature fruits.  This often required her to paint more than one branch.  She carefully arranged two branches into a pleasing composition.  Sometimes, at first glance it looks like a single branch, but the two branches are always separated although they form a single composition.  I decide to follow a similar path. 

I arrange my two sprigs as best I can.    We are taught to do a series of ‘thumbnail’ sketches before committing to a composition.  I can’t think of any more than one.  I consult Pam McDiamid, a fellow artist whose skill in composition and speed of decision making I much admire.  She realigns my larger sprig.  I am happy with the result.  She advises me to do the thumbnails.  I prepare the thumbnail sheet, but can’t think of any alternatives.   The big decision is whether or not to include microscope studies, and if so, which details should I depict, at what magnification.  And where should I place them.

Recording the composition
I photograph the specimen in its chosen position.  I will print these photos when I return to Melbourne.

Rough sketch

I make a series of rough sketches, using my softest pencil (an 8B), on sketch paper.  The size doesn’t matter, in fact the bigger the better, to get the character of the plant.  The series ends with one in 2B, at about the right size.   This is the part of the process I enjoy the most. 

Next time, in the last in the series, Roslyn will take us through the painting stage, and you will be able to see the finished painting.

The process of painting Atriplex stipitata

Once we have identified our plants the painting begins. In this series Roslyn Glow will take us through the process she uses to create her botanical portrait of Atriplex stipitata
Saltbush country (Photo copyright: Anne Lawson, 2016)
Roslyn's description was written for our honorary botanist, Andrew Denham, and she has allowed it to be reprinted here. This first part was published on the bog last year. We will publish the whole series over the next few weeks.

Getting to know the plant  
Atriplex stipitata (Bitter saltbush, Mallee saltbush, Kidney saltbush) is a modest subject, but I know from experience that, no matter what my initial reaction, by the time I have studied a plant and found out a bit about how it makes its living and the history of its discovery, I will undoubtedly find it fascinating. 
My specimen of Atriplex stipitata (Photo copyright: Roslyn Glow, 2015)
I turn the specimens around, and view them from every angle.  Because very little material is available in this case, I have little to choose from.  I try to identify the male and female flowers.  The female flowers are hard to identify. They are said to occur singly or a few together in the leaf axils. I paste various parts of the plant onto a scrap-book page, using book covering film. 
Scratch pad page with pasted parts of the plant, colour swatches and sketches of plant parts (Photo copyright: Roslyn Glow,  2015)
There is not enough plant material to paste up a complete series of parts and look at them under the microscope as well. The fruit is easy to identify. I look under the microscope, and try to dissect what I think is a female flower, but am unable to identify any parts.  (Later I find that the female flower can be embedded in the material of the stem, unable to be examined until dissected out.) There is only one little specimen that is clearly female.  I choose the more handsome of the specimens with male inflorescences, to depict in my painting.
That night, I use my iPad to research the plant. Next day I copy the most important identifying features of the plant onto my sketchpad. I am interested to find that this species can be monoecious or dioecious.  Mine is dioecious, that is male and female flowers are on separate plants.

The  “Picture Book”  (Cunningham et al) has a picture of my plant, and a drawing of the fruit.  I trace this drawing onto my sketchpad. 

I note that my specimen’s leaves are partially closed, while the photos on the internet show the leaves as more or less flat.  Eventually I discover the reason for this.  When the soil is very dry, the leaves close, presumably to help conserve moisture.  My specimens were clearly thirsty. 

Google finds me plenty of photos of A. stipitata but no paintings, and few 
drawings. The only comprehensive one is by Margaret Flockton, (1861-1953) the first person employed in Australia as a botanical illustrator. 
A. stipitata by Margaret Flockton
It is possible that an unpublished  collection of paintings of the plants of the Broken Hill area, held in the National Library in Canberra, includes a painting of A. stipitata, but I can’t be certain of this.

Next time Roslyn will show us how she composes and selects the right colours for her painting.