Thursday, September 13, 2018

The Lilium regale Essay from the RHS Lindley Library

This is post contains the essay written for the RHS Lindley Library on the painting of the Lilium regale. As a prelude to this publication, a short introduction is included here.


Visitors at the RHS Lindley Library, Botanical Art Seminar Day, 2018 

© Claire Collins/RHS  

Visitors at the RHS Lindley Library, Botanical Art Seminar Day, 2018 

© Claire Collins/RHS 

This post is hopefully a comprehensive reply to the many artists, gardeners, students and art collectors, who have written to me personally with questions about artwork documentation and with a request to read my essay that accompanies the Lilium regale painting in the Royal Horticultural Society’s contemporary botanical art collection.

By kind permission of Charlotte Brooks, RHS Art Curator, and Fiona Davison, Head of Libraries and Exhibitions, I am pleased to publish the essay in this blog post.

As a citation, this and all contemporary botanical artist’s documentation, offers insight and leaves a record of what it is to be a botanical artist today. Each artist’s process is unique and everyone has a characteristic way of talking or writing about their work. Many artists who are new to this pursuit would simply like to view further examples of how it is done in order to develop their own individual approach.

The following Lilium regale essay is focused on two interlinked features:

Firstly - the process of observational painting and drawing directly from life.

Secondly - the importance of gardening to the creation of the artwork.

By publishing the unabridged essay here on this blog, I wish to uphold the unique but ongoing history of the practicing Artist Gardener. If the subject in general were further unearthed, it would doubtless reveal a world-wide vista of unique associations that are intriguing and unusual. 

Many painters come to Botanical Art as a direct result of being a gardener. Through a love of horticulture and tending plants, they have become artists. For some it is the reverse, the act of observational painting has brought them to gardening.

An artist feels a connection to the plant they have cultivated, and gardening offers a layer of meaning to a botanical artwork by allowing the artist to depict what they have understood from watching a plant grow.

The essay is published here with the intent to support the new RHS guidelines for artists wishing to exhibit their work at the RHS Botanical Art shows, whereby a short piece of descriptive writing is required to accompany the artwork.

My following example was specifically written for the Lindley Library archive and is longer than that required for an RHS Botanical Art show.

By offering a demonstration of how it could be done I hope to support those artists who are new to writing about their work. It is always worth remembering that what may seem insignificant to us as practicing artists and gardeners is often a subject of great fascination to a wider audience.

You might like to read an earlier post that covers the same subject of the Artist Gardener:

Here followeth the essay:

The Painting of the Lilium regale for the RHS Lindley Library

Coral G Guest

The Art of the Naturalistic Flower Painter

In 1999, when Brent Elliott asked me to paint a work for the Lindley Library Contemporary Botanical Art collection, I decided instantly upon the Lilium regale as the subject matter. It was my aim to present a work that would offer a clear example of the naturalistic approach, which I had developed over a series of years as a painter and draughtswoman from a fine art background. My work follows a timeline from a European artistic tradition that began with the naturalistic studies of plant life depicted in the illuminated manuscripts of the 13th century.

I work from live plant specimens, and this often involves growing the plants that I paint and draw. At the time of this commission, I was occupied with the accurate depiction of white flowers on white paper, using the purist method of watercolour painting wherein the brightest highlights are left unpainted and no actual white paint is used. I felt that in the post-modern world, Botanical Artists had not been particularly successful in this particular type of rendition - white flowers on a black background being the exception. My interest in creating imagery of white flowers on white paper coincided with the ongoing cultivation of various white lilies and other white blooms from bulb, corm, and tuber.

The Lindley Library commission therefore gave me the finest kind of opportunity, which was to paint a work depicting a much-loved flowering plant that forms a significant part of my personal history. This particular lily was one that I had grown up with and had seen blooming each year in our suburban English garden. It became a focus for learning the basics of plant propagation, which I was taught by my maternal grandparents who were part of a wartime generation of devoted gardeners.

Observation and Preparation

The Naturalistic Flower Painter works directly from life, through observational painting and drawing. The Lilium regale painting depicts a plant that was grown from a large bulb originally procured in 1996 from the RHS Gold Medal winning Bloms Bulbs.

The plant as subject matter defines the process of my work. The key to the practice of painting this lily directly from observation, was to understand its flowering time, the length of the flowering season, and the current weather patterns that were influential in the years 1999 and 2000. Having gardened with the Lilium regale from a young age, I understood its horticultural requirements from my own experience. A careful monitoring of the Lily was essential, as this allowed me to choose the right time to begin work in synchronicity with the plant. The studio was arranged and prepared one week before the lily actually flowered, during which time I prowled around the garden and the studio just waiting and observing.

I understood the Lilium regale as dependent upon my stewardship to grow and to flourish. Consequently, the preparation and the creation of the artwork were inextricably bound to this horticultural process.

For this work, I acquired a Fabriano Artistico 640gsm HP paper, Winsor and Newton Artists Watercolours, Da Vinci sable brushes, and an H pencil. The colour palette was: French Ultramarine, Permanent Magenta, Quinacridone Magenta, Permanent Alizarin Crimson, Cadmium Red, Cadmium Lemon Cadmium Yellow, Yellow Ochre and Burnt Sienna.

The dimensions of the paper, in size 56 x 76 cm, would allow me to include the inflorescence and a part of the stems in a life size rendition. Therefore, the bulb was not included in the RHS completed precision work. I did not wish to repeat the imagery of artists of previous generations who would cut the stem and place the bulb image beside it on the paper, as this would have been contrary to my naturalistic approach. However, the interest in the bulb remained, which was followed through in the Colour Study.

The Flower Painter as Gardener 

The tradition of Flower Painter as Gardener is a long and fruitful one. One of the earliest artists in the naturalistic tradition documented as being an avid gardener, was the renaissance artist Albrecht Dὒrer (1471-1528). The Lindley library commission of the Lilium regale follows his approach and includes my individual contribution to this genre in both technique and outlook.

The advantage to the Botanical Artist of growing plants in proximity of the studio is palpable. The lily had spent several years in a large clay pot, happily increasing its number of blooms each year. Lilies are known to do well in pots, and the pot-grown specimen is of great importance to any Botanical Artist who may need to bring the living plant into the studio. The bulb had been acquired as a fully developed specimen, which by early June of 2000 had sent forth an offset second stem with only two flower buds. I decided to include this within the artwork composition as it was growing alongside the main stem, which displayed a whole group of trumpet flowers from the original bulb. In the process of growing this white lily, the plant was staked in the pot to keep it safely upright. It was grown in a south facing location, on a slight slope in the garden, allowing maximum light.

At the point of flowering the heavy clay pot was carried into the studio by two people. The lily stayed in the studio during daylight hours whilst it was being drawn and painted. It was then returned to the cooler garden where it stayed over-night. When in the studio, the pot was raised or lowered to my eye level to enable me to view and depict the lily in a believable way. This required the application of perspective to portray the naturalism of the subject matter. The flowers were drawn out first and painted, thereafter the stem and leaves were completed to the same level.

The Natural Light of the Studio

Painting flowers from life demands a specific understanding of natural light. As a painter and gardener, I perceive plant life as inseparable from natural light and this is what I set out to represent. It was my intent for the Lilium regale to receive the full complement of light and shade from a north facing window. I was careful to avoid hard and contrasting shadows when depicting the trumpet form of the blooms. The white of the lily flowers also received a measure of reflected light from the white walls in the studio, which enabled further subtle description of the white colouring. I aimed for the blooms be understood as actually white in colour and separate from whiteness of the paper.

The modus operandi of painting from life in natural light is part of my ethic, therefore the work was not painted during the evening, and lamplight was not employed. I work in an almost empty white room with the one north facing window to convey a constant light source upon the plant. I paint on an upright painter’s easel to enable me to step back and forth from the image.

The Lilium regale work represents my philosophy to honour the natural beauty of plant life. I focus upon the unique characteristics of individual plants, which in 1991 I termed ‘the general demeanour’. This label denotes the characteristic disposition of the plant, its interaction with its surrounding space, and its manner of presenting itself as a system of related features.

The real and metaphoric space in which the plant is located, within the artwork, is represented by the white paper. A neutral plain background, as a foil for the image is the province of the Botanical Illustrator, which is in contrast to my work.  As an observational painter I seek a pictorial reality wherein space as a dimension is holding the image. In the Lilium regale work, I set out to balance the whiteness of the blooms with the whiteness of the space that the paper represents. This uniquely comes from the practice of large brush calligraphy in Japan, as a student in the late 1970’s.

The Colour Study

I recall clearly that I was commissioned by the Lindley Library for one precision work of the Lilium regale. I was not commissioned for the Colour Study works, which were a part of my individual exploration into the plant, and my way of acquiring a more thorough understanding of the subject. The Study Works were not in any way as popular then, as they are now. Because of this, I often took my own initiative and pushed them forward and often donated them. Colour studies are now accepted and collected as artworks in their own right.

The Lilium regale painting demanded colour study work to enable enough information to be gathered for a finished artwork. The colour studies were completed by depicting the chosen view of the blooms with their colouring. This was achieved by rapid work over several hours. 

The colour studies differ from the conventional preliminary sketches as they are created out of a sense of urgency and an immediate response to the plant. I was particularly interested in recording the white colouring of the blooms with their central golden gaze. The annotation enabled me to experiment and record the colour mixtures and the number of transparent layers that were required in a final precision painting.

This colour study work of the lily is essentially a product of my thinking process, and because of the spontaneity required, it is in some ways only legible to me. This is perhaps part of their fascination to the viewer, as it offers an insight into the thinking process of the artist.

For the Lilium regale, the colour study of the inflorescence, stem and leaves were painted first. Thereafter the whole plant was drawn out and painted as a precision work, wherein a high level of detail is observed and included. By the time the painting of the whole stem and inflorescence was complete, these elements were beginning to die back, and so I did what I would normally do as a gardener and cut the stem down to a few inches above the soil level.

I wanted to paint a study of the lily bulb because of the strange dichotomy between the floriferous light filled flowers and the gross impression of the swollen storage unit in the darkness of the earth.

In other smaller works, I had previously excavated bulbs and tubers whilst the plant was in full bloom and suspended the entire plant in the air via a system of threads. With the Lindley lily, I felt it would be a beautiful idea to include the soil in the Colour Study, particularly as the work was for the RHS and nature of the soil is relevant to the gardener.

When the precision painting was complete we placed it in storage and raised the plant pot to my eye-level in the studio. I then attempted to carefully remove a section of the pot in order to view the bulb in situ. I covered the floor of the studio and proceeded to gently chip away at the pot using a mallet and a small chisel. Eventually, a series of cracks appeared, and a triangular section of the pot fell away.

Chaos was anticipated and this experiment certainly lived up to my expectations. The pristine white studio room was peppered in composted soil, which seemed to fly everywhere and took days to eradicate in spite of the careful use of excavation brushes, a trug and a vacuum cleaner. However, it worked, and the bulb stayed in situ because the stem had been cut, and so it was held there with no extra weight placed upon it. I do not recommend trying this at home.

The lily bulb managed to stay in position for the colour study painting, being sprayed gently with water for the duration of the work. The bulb was then removed from the pot and replanted and the offset and bulblets were extracted and re-potted too. One of these bulblets grew into the 2007 lily painting in Shirley Sherwood Collection.

Painting White Flowers and the Neutral Tint Mixture

I came into the botanical art field to find that the genre was lacking in enough useful colour mixtures of greys and blacks to describe the shadows present in white flowers and to tone and shade the brilliance of bright hues.

The Lilium regale painting needed to portray the highlights, by leaving the white of the paper without any paint, and at the same time to depict the tones of the grey that describe the trumpet form. These tones of grey were created with the use of a Neutral Tint mixture.

I had begun prescribing the use of the Neutral Tint mixture in flower paintings in the early 1980s because this way of working came naturally to me as a landscape painter. The Neutral Tint is recorded as first being brought into the English landscape tradition of watercolour painting in the early 18th century. Various Neutral Tint recipes in the history of landscape painting have been used. Neutral Tint is the name given to any mixture of two or more colours that generates the colour black through to grey. Payne’s Gray is one such mixture. It was my specific intent to enable the Botanical Artist to move forward through the use of a contemporary version of Neutral Tint. The mixture I created is a combination of French Ultramarine, Permanent Alizarin Crimson, and Cadmium Yellow. In the mixing process all colour values cancel each other out to become truly neutral. It is a gentler mixture than a pure black pigment, which tends to deaden a hue.

One traditional way of creating form in a botanical painting is to apply a tonal grey under-painting over which colour is layered. I tend not to take this approach because painting directly from life has demanded that I use a more expedient way of working.

I therefore mix the Neutral Tint in a separate small dish and add this mixture to the colours on the palette when I need to tone or darken them.  I then apply these mixed colours directly to the painting.

Through this process, I built a spectrum of colour and tone in the Lilium regale artwork that ranges from the light areas of the lily trumpets to the dark tones of the leaves and bulb.
Because my Neutral Tint recipe uses a blue, red, and yellow that are already present on my basic palette of colours, the resulting outcome was a harmonised botanical image of naturalistic colour that works in unity with a realistic representation of the plant form.

The bulb that grew the plant for this artwork has since then been referred to as our Lindley Lily. Its offspring continue to be propagated and are often studied in sketchbooks and paintings.

Copyright Coral G Guest 2018
All rights reserved

Please note that this essay is not available as a download and may not be copied, pasted or photographed.