December 21, 2019

close up of fremontia
Close up of Fremontodendron, 5 petals and 5 stamens, early 90s (watercolor on watercolor paper, Prismacolor yellow for stamens)

To add detail, or not to add too much detail. That is the artist’s question. Or at least that’s always my question when I’m beginning a piece of art. For me, I usually have some kind of picture in my mind of what I want to paint, or create, and that vision usually has a certain amount of detail in place, or not. But when you do a botanical like this one, there are “implicit” details you must include to make it so. Back then I was truly enamored with creating beautiful botanicals and had fallen for all those lovely late 19th and early 20th century detailed plant renderings. And for me that looked like the wonder and thrill of limitless detail. There is something very romantic about this art, with very soft colors and seemingly overly exaggerated curves in the leaves and petals. It’s as though the plant was still blooming and thriving in its perfect spot in the world. But of course all of those early plant renderings were not done Plein air, but rather from looking at a dried specimen that the artist or botanist had collected, sometimes months earlier. Maybe that’s why the art has such seductive curves and implied plumpness as the artist added imagined moisture to the dried up plant they were looking at. At the time I did this watercolor I was working in the botany and entomology departments of the California Academy of Sciences. I was not doing watercolors, but rather pen and ink renderings of plants from Chiapas, Mexico and wasps from Papua, New Guinea. I remember working with another botanical illustrator in the artist’s room in the botany department. She had surely captured this curvy quality even though she was only drawing with pen and ink. I had noticed her lovely art as we sat silently side by side, scrutinizing our dried up plant parts. I knew that Sheva was on to something wonderful that I vowed to try to add to my work. I often wondered if she learned this tiny bit of exaggeration from other botanical illustrators or if she just knew it intuitively. One way or another, I didn’t get that memo, but I can still see the lovely romantic roundness of her drawings in my mind to this day. 

To attempt rendering a true botanical you need to be all in with the horticultural aspect of every specific detail of the plant. For example, for this Fremontia (common name flannelbush) I first did a finished sketch, making sure you could count the five petals and five stamens. I also made sure that the shape and venation of each leaf was correct and they were arranged with the perfect posture, which relates to how the leaves sit on the stem. This kind of drawing/painting is known as the plant’s habit, or what an actual stem of the plant looks like. Sound like too much detail for you? Not for me. But there was one important step for this watercolor that I neglected to share. When I first started working at the Academy I hadn’t had much success painting with watercolor. But I was convinced that my pen and ink skills would overpower and diminish my lack of watercolor confidence. So, I went to the Native CA plant section of Strybing Arboretum one spring day and attempted to paint this plant. I sat on a rock, did a very nice sketch in my sketchbook, transferred that drawing to the paper and painted. I found myself once again trying to make the pigment do my bidding. It was an awful experience and the art looked tortured and awful. But I didn’t give up and I later took a watercolor and colored pencil illustration class right there at the Cal Academy of Sciences. It was taught by an amazing scientific illustrator who worked at the Morrison Planetarium. She showed us how to layer the watercolor and colored pencil onto good paper—drying the watercolor with a hand held hair dryer with every application of watery pigment. The romance and detail of those early botanical illustrations I described earlier began to appear before my very eyes. I was enchanted.

I did not sit on a rock for this botanical as I wasn’t sure where I would plug in my hair dryer. Instead, I painted it from one of my photos while sitting at my drafting table at home. It was so much more convenient to have a hair dryer plugged in there. 

You might be wondering about the raggedy paper I used for this illustration. I think I have shared that I try not to waste any of my materials and this paper had been a large sheet of expensive watercolor paper I had gotten wet, stretched onto my watercolor board, and then attached to the board with brown paper tape. I seem to remember that the bottom part of this paper had been the previous Fremontia disaster. I cut that off and used the upper left side of the paper you see here. 

Fremontodendron in CA garden at the Descanso Gardens, “Just add water,” 4/7/2019 (watercolor pencils, Inktense pencils on 6″ by 9″ watercolor paper)

Fast forward 30 years and I have another watercolor of a Fremontodendron that I did at the Descanso Gardens last spring. I think it is not only the antithesis of a botanical, but it also has a story of a different kind of day I had while painting it. This was done in SoCal, not in San Francisco. I didn’t sit on a rock to paint it, but did sit on the ground on a sheet of bubble wrap. And we have a botanical painstakingly done compared to a quick 30 minute Plein air experience—same plant, different day. (I have already posted this piece of art and it’s story April 13, 2019. I thought it interesting to share my artistic journey of style and substance from then to now.) What is probably the true story here is that maybe this piece isn’t so great, but what I have learned in more than 30 years of painting is that it just doesn’t matter. Paintings the thing, and that’s all that matters!

Happy Holidays and happy first day of winter!

In past posts I have described my love of flowers and landscapes. I just tucked in the ground 20 more Narcissus bulbs. I was reminded that my mom said that her dad had said you should put bulbs in the ground during the new moon phase. I’m a couple days off, but maybe it’s close enough. We’ll see if there is a difference in those flowers compared to the others that are already greening up in my garden. Stay tuned.

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