Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Lilium Regale
watercolour on paper May to November 2007
Intent I am very aware that it has been a key process for botanical artists of the 20th century to understand the history of botanical art. Through this they recognised what is possible and what was and is needed to move the genre into the 21st century. Two examples that come to mind are the innovative work by Rory McEwen and Susannah Blaxhill that are contemporary in feel, not only because of their description form, but because of their innovative capacity for composition. Would it be enough for the major artists working in this area to simply repeat what has been done before by previous generations? Definitely not, because by recognising what has not yet been done, they have been able to set about achieving something new. In this way botanical art is now establishing itself as a very acceptable branch of contemporary art. I had been looking at old herbals and 18th century illustrations of white lilies, one of my favourite plants. These large flowering bulbs hold a great fascination for me. When I painted the Lilium regale for the RHS Lindley Library, I tentatively offered an accompanying sketch of the bulb in situ, which Brent Elliot was delighted with. Since then, I had been pondering upon the possibility of painting this same species of lily in life size mode, which would show the whole plant, with the bulb included. This would mean an image that would amount to nearly two metres high. With the advantage of owning some very large sheets of 600gms acid free watercolour paper, I knew it would be possible to achieve this. Since completing the life size iris with root tuber for Dr Sherwood, I knew that a lily would also be possible. The old masters were limited by the paper size that was available to them, and to include the whole of the plant in situ was simply not possible for P.J. Redout√© in his monograph Les Liliace√©s. Most of the flowering stem of a tall lily was placed on one side of the page. The stem was then cut and the remaining stem and root were arranged around this image. It was also common for the Bauer brothers to concentrate the size of the stem, foreshortening it to fit onto the page. And so for generations this went on in the same fashion, and this became the norm for creating a work where the whole of a tall plant was portrayed on the same piece of paper that was no where near as large as the plant itself. As far as I could see no one had yet painted a whole tall flowering lily without cutting the plant in half. I became focused on this, in the same way that I was when I set about painting Dr Sherwood’s Iris, and so I began to plan the work. The Plant The Lilium regale bulb was a mature bulb that had been successfully growing for several years in a large pot. In the autumn of 2006, I transplanted it carefully into a single long lily pot, using free draining material (compost, leaf mould, and grit), which I knew would be easier than garden soil to wash away from the bulb and roots once it was excavated. It was over-wintered outside, against a south facing wall, and with a stake as support, it was placed under glass in March 2007. This was to encourage an early flowering, which came in June, a couple of weeks earlier than was usual when grown outside. When the plant began to form an abundant head of buds, it became an inspiration. It was obviously going to flower well, which was doubtless due to the copious amounts of liquid comfrey it had received during the previous summer very hot summer of 2006. Method Quite a few comments have been made over the years about my methods of painting white flowers. For a watercolour ‘purist’ the use of white paint in the creation of the appearance of white petals is an anathema, and this is a philosophy I have generally subscribed to because of its effectiveness. This is historically quite a recent attitude, having been created by the late Victorians. The renaissance artists, such as Giacomo Ligozzi, painted plants in watercolour and regularly added white body colour (an early form of chalky and opaque gouache) to describe white petals or white hairs on stems. Sometimes the white was mixed with the watercolour to make opaque paint and all of the paler highlights in the painting were achieved this way, rather than with thin washes of watercolour that allowed the white of the paper to shine through and thereby do the work of white paint. For this technique, off-white paper was often successfully used to compliment the bright white of the painted highlights. One criticism that has been made regarding the purist method of omitting white paint is that it is easier because it avoids the technical complication of using white paint with watercolour. One of the difficulties for anyone who today wishes to use white paint is that pure white watercolour tends to have very little brilliance (being off white in colour), and, bright white gouache is too opaque to add to watercolour, even though it is perfectly safe to mix the two. Considering these complexities, I decided to use white paint to create white petals and white textures just as Ligozzi would have done. This was partly because some of my critics had suggested that I had adopted the purist method to avoid the use of white paint. So, instead of gouache or watercolour, I chose artists acrylic for the whole painting, deciding to employ the traditional techniques associated with the renaissance method with this medium.
This involves layering on thin washes that first soak into the paper. The opacity of the colour then builds up in stages. In terms of conservation, artist’s acrylic holds its colour well, and the best quality whites have proved to hold their brilliance. Paper and acrylic are compatible, and the paper remains stable when the paint has dried. The Process During the second week of June 2007, I set up my studio to paint the lily. The large piece of paper was rested on an equally large drawing board, and then placed onto my easel, adjacent to the lily. I made a pencil sketch of the composition, and calculated the depth of the bulb and where I needed to place the image. It just happened that the paper was the perfect size for the plant. The lily blooms last well when they are not forced, and the cool weather of this year’s summer was an advantage in helping them to last just that little bit longer. I chose a fairly symmetrical view of the plant as a whole, with one bloom dipping slightly to the right, and placing the plant in the centre of the paper. I then made one fast sketch on acrylic on an off cut of the same paper, and set off. No artificial light was used; the studio window is a constant cool north light, perfect for white flowers. One of the principle challenges of painting in a large scale is the tricky issue of perspective. One’s eye level is best left in one place, just as in a painting of a building, although it is necessary to move the plant closer to ones eye level to actually paint the lowest part or the bulb in detail. So, one needs to compensate by titling the plant to allow the perspective to follow through. In addition to this configuration, it can never be known exactly how high or low a painting will be hung in a museum or gallery, as all differ so much in scale. So, to minimise any sense of lack of proportion in the whole of the plant, a perspective that sees the plant at a distance away, say two meters is desirable. It is still possible for the painter to move forward to the plant to see the details of its structure when painting it. If the plant sits in the picture plane as if it is a meter away from the observer, the whole composition will hold together well.