Sunday, 25 December 2011

Botanical Studies

At the end of my gap year I was stuck of things to do so I enrolled on a botanical illustration course in Oxford.  I had briefly done watercolours when I was at school but it was pretty much the only medium I could not use. At all. I mean my watercolour stuff looked awful.  I wanted to do a course where I could expand the knowledge I already had in colour mixing as I thought some groups would be really basic, and I also didn't want to paint landscapes so then I happened upon botanical illustration.

The difference between watercolour still life and botanical illustration is simple.  A botanical illustration is a 1:1 scale representation of the plant you have in front of you and it's a scientific method of recording flora and fauna (it was the pre-cursor to nature photography).  Still life, however, is an artists interpretation and fills a much wider scope of styles (in terms of oils, look at Dutch still life compared to Matisse's still life).

Anyway, I was taught by a wonderful artist called Valerie Price in a class of about 8 women, all who were about 40 years older than me.  [The first day I turned up I think they thought I was a mis-placed school child as the course was run at 2pm on a week day in a school.]

It turns out that I am quite good at doing botanical illustration as a few pieces I gave to my parents have been admired, so I sat down and did a study of a pear for my Gran for her Christmas present!

This was the set up I had in my kitchen for my painting.   You want to position your pear (or whatever it is you're drawing) in a place with good general light, but with one strong directional light so you get good contrast and can more easily show off the shape.  That's why my pear has a lamp above it. You also want to put it on a piece of what paper so you can easily compare the colours you mix with the real thing.

I started off by doing a drawing with a 4H pencil in my A4 sketch pad.  While you're doing the drawings you have to measure the angles and the dimensions of the pear with a scrap of paper and the translate that on to your sketch.  

Once you're happy with the sketch, take a trace of it, using a very fine line and trace it on to a piece of watercolour paper.  If you press quite hard while tracing it means you'll get a slight indent on the paper so you can erase the pencil line completely.  You don't really want an outline at all for when you start painting.  I taped my watercolour paper onto a square of cardboard to keep it rigid then put it on my table easel but you don't really need one, it just stops me leaning on it and accidentally smudging it.

Oh also, I better say now, the reason this whole process takes a long time isn't the applying of the paint, it is because you must let the paper dry completely between coats.  If  you don't, the paper will begin to rub off  and destroy what you've done so be patient!

The first few washes (as you can see in the set up photo above as well) are very pale and help block in the highlights you will eventually have.  You can then start to add shadows in various colours.  My shadows varied from a muted olive green to a pale yellowy brown.

If you think of it in 4 stages, the photo above would be the third.  The 1st stage is a pale colour wash, the 2nd is shadow blocking and the 3rd is more intense shadow blocking and adding of background texture; in this case, stippling brown and green.

The above photo shows the 4th stage compared to the original sketch.  The fourth stage would be adding final details.  I do this by using gouache, which is a concentrated watercolour and comes in tubes, like tiny oil paints.  Using a very find brush, you can add scab-like marks and texture to the stem and by watering down you can add dark shadows to the edges to create a really dramatic effect.

This is a photo of the final painting.  I had to edit the contrast and things because the light wasn't very good but I think this isn't too bad for a close up on what it looks like.  The photo above it is better though (so look at that one!)

Merry Christmas!

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