Sunday, January 28, 2007

My process - you can do it too! : )

For those hardy souls who are interested in botanical illustration, I offer the following advice:

I'd first decide what media you're going to work in, pull together the materials, find some tracing and transfer paper to transfer the drawing to your support (canvas, gessoed board, heavy illustration board or hot press watercolor paper), do the drawing, trace the drawing, take another look at the plant (or piece of the plant) you've chosen to draw, to see if it's moved from your original composition and make changes accordingly. Then transfer the drawing onto the support you've chosen, taping your tracing paper onto your support - watercolor paper, drawing paper, gessoed board or canvas, or whatever - with the transfer paper in between. Make sure the side with the graphite imbedded in it is facing down! (it doesn't work the other way, which should seem obvious, but you'd be surprised how many of us make that mistake at least a few times) Oh - light. You need really good light to draw and paint by. I suppose this is a given, but I always feel it's important to mention it. I have an OTT-Light that gives good results and I can draw late into the night. It's color balanced. This is also important.

Choice of plant: I'd find a plant I can represent life size. Why life-size? Because you can see all the details easily, you can work close to your plant, you can do one-to-one measuring from plant to paper (or whatever surface you've chosen) with dividers (or a ruler, but I like a simple set of dividers - you can use a compass and just put in its extra point, in the place of the pencil lead, in a pinch). Now, I have to betray my bias here: I think orchids are wonderful for this first sort of initial study. If there's a Home Depot or a nursery near you that has some nice, smaller plants in bloom, that's what I'd try first. (There are also some nurseries which ship blooming plants by FedEx.) The flowers last a few weeks on the plant, at least, they're beautiful to look at, and the lines are clean and uncomplicated. I know for a fact there are many illustrators and teachers besides myself who use them in their botanical illustration classes for just these reasons! : ). And even if the plant doesn't thrive in your care over the years you still have a beautiful drawing or painting to look at afterwards... But if you can't get orchids, don't fret - any attractive flower with good substance should do well for you. Keep it in the fridge (in a zippie bag to hold the entire thing without crushing any parts) when you're not painting it and it will last longer.

Note that plants with fuzzy textures or lots of little leaves are just plain frustrating for a first or second project and you're going to get bogged down in the details. For a first botanical, you don't need that. Draw what you love, and that love will give you the energy and inspiration to do your best work.

I usually do a graphite drawing first. Five values is fine. You need to know where your highlights, darkest darks and the three intermediate values between those are. Work on a pleasing composition, turning the plant around a few times to capture its best aspect, but when drawing, be extremely faithful to what you see in front of you. Be content to give it the time it needs, and be aware that a live plant will move and grow and shift itself around searching for the light. If you keep it in a sunny (tho not harshly so) window it will tend to move a bit less. Notice the grace of the plant, the line of growth, and measure it to make sure it fits comfortably on your page. You could take a photo but personally, I wouldn't. You won't capture the detail, the values will be off, and you'll be using the photo as a crutch. Don't go there this time. The next time around you can play with the form of the plant and the presentation of the blooms on the stalks, but for now, I'd just paint what I see.

After you've competed and transferred your drawing, and you're ready to put paint down, study your greens. There are very very few greens right out of the tube that will match anything you see on any plant. Mix your greens carefully, realizing that the basis color of the leaves (usually yellow, tan or brown; in some deciduous trees it's red) will depend on the species, and that the green you see is from the photosynthesis process. Don't mix too many pigments together, you'll get mud. Keep a simple palette of a cool red, a warm red, a cool blue, a warm blue, a cool yellow and a warm yellow. This will vary depending on your media. There are a few colors you just can't mix, and I have some of those on my palette (I work primarily in watercolor, acrylic ink, colored pencil and computer) too.

I'd probably paint the flowers first, since they're the most fragile. If a flower falls off, take the opportunity to dissect it and draw and paint it (later - put it in a zippie in the fridge for now) on a separate support - paper, whatever. If you have a magnifying glass, use it to appreciate the fine details. Don't make too much of them but make sure you indicate them somehow - botanists want to see that the attachments of the leaves to the stem and the flowers to the stem are accurate. If you're not sure what you see, find a botanist to help. Or take out a botany textbook from the library to go over the parts of plants. Don't get bogged down with this, just use it for simple reference. Brian Capon's Botany for Gardeners is a pretty good reference too. (to be continued)

Thursday, January 11, 2007

What makes me paint what I paint? Well, like any other artist, perhaps I want to freeze some special scene, some moment, some awareness of life's fragility - in time and space. I have a good friend who is a musician, and listening to his music reminds me even more of the fragility of life, of our experience, of just how arbitrary our minds are in their ability to seize onto something and remember it or have it make an impression. Even with classical music, which often but not always follows a score, each performance of a piece will be different - the instruments will have a different timbre, the conductor will vary the tempo, the color, the quality of the player, even their mood will affect the piece. So with music, it's played and then it's gone. Even a recording will only capture a certain fragment of that music. Where was I going with that? Probably to say that painting is like trying to capture the moment of our "music" - our life experience - so that we can revisit it. But are we going to step in that same river twice? Probably not. Each viewing, each session of painting will bring something new to us, or at least I hope so...

If I had unlimited time to catch each wave of inspiration I would paint all day - but I can't. I have to pay the rent, see that my son has health insurance, clothes, and food and the other things he still needs from me, few tho they be... So I've had to focus my efforts on what makes my heart sing - and that's orchids. I have painted portraits, and still lifes - would someday like to paint landscapes but they're daunting - and for the past several years orchids still call me by name. Hopefully by painting our native orchids I can help promote the conservation of the natural areas they live in, so they can continue to be enjoyed by generations to come... Like that music, we try to catch on to it and hold it in our hearts but it's gone as soon as the sound fades. And I am very afraid that orchids will do the same thing - global warming has changed the natural landscape, drying out many areas where orchids thrived, inundating others. And real estate development has created sprawl into the last few areas where orchids still exist - forests, wetlands, prairies. So I'm trying to paint them because I'm so afraid we're going to lose them all. And that would make me unspeakably sad if that happened, wouldn't it?

I have to tell you, the recollection, the painting, is no substitute for the real thing. Get outside. Get up close and personal with a flower sometime - even a dandelion. Drink it in. Sink into its beauty. Care.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Why this fascination with orchids?

Orchids, to me, are sort of the plant kingdom parallel to humans - they're adaptable, vulnerable, beautiful, long-lived (sometimes), and have a long "infancy" - that is to say the period before they are fully able to be self-sustaining. Orchids are fairly old as far as flowering plants go, and we can tell that because they have developed so many different forms, because they are present on every continent except Antarctica, and they have more chromosomes than humans do, in some cases! They are very vulnerable to the water cycle, as is all life, tho there are some orchids which live in very dry climates. Some live inside the Arctic circle, and others live in the southern part of Tasmania, just next to the Antarctic circle! When orchids are not just being completely bizarre, they are fascinating, beautiful, addictive to many collectors and rare plant fanciers. They can live for many many years - I had one that lived over twenty years with me (and was probably ten years old when I was given it as a gift), and a year of neglect while I was juggling school, parenthood, work and many other things, finally brought its health to an end, and I lost it. : (

Orchids start life as a very very tiny seed. If you remember your basic fourth-grade botany lesson, all seeds contain an embryo (which develops into the growing plant), a seed coat to protect the embryo until it sprouts, and endosperm, to feed the embryo while it reaches up to the sky and down to find some anchoring place and set roots. Right? Uh, not in the case of orchids! Oops! No food! The poor things are sent on their way in a papery seed coat, with no food. The little orphan, with its zillion brother/sister seeds from the same capsule (that is to say if there are any pollinators left in town!) are sent across the air currents to find a hospitable place that has - what? Fungus??? Right. The embryo develops a relationship with a fungus which, if it doesn't kill it outright, feeds it (by borrowing sugars and starches from other plants it's attached to already) in the hope of getting some food itself once the plant is big enough to share some. A web of life, indeed! Everything's all connected by the fungus in this ecological chain!

The embryo turns into something called a protocorm with the help of this fungus (and different orchid species need different fungi, too). It takes a loooonnnnnng time for this to happen! A year or more sometimes! Finally, the protocorm develops something looking like leaves and roots, and the little plant is on its way. But it takes years - several years! In the case of north American terrestrial (that means living with its roots in the ground) orchids, up to fifteen years before you see flowers!

If you dig up an orchid to take it home and plant it in your yard, you've killed it. You just removed its food source. A single orchid plant needs a web of fungus at least an acre in size to grow and bloom. If you dig up the plant, it's like cutting off its roots. That's bad. Then that ecosystem, which probably didn't have a lot of orchids to begin with, just lost a lot of good genetic material - so we just lost diversity. That's bad too! Diversity is good. So moral - don't dig up orchids. That's just mean.

Saturday, January 6, 2007

Isn't teaching fun?

I love teaching - my first class was at the Hyde Park Art Center, where my academic advisors had set it up that I teach watercolor for a year. Now you can probably tell I'm a representational artist. How I got into HPAC was only due to extreme policial pull by my one advisor, who was connected to everyone on that board in some way or another - probably a donor, too, if I know Chicago! : ) Seriously, there is a lot to be said for community good will, and Jean Knoll and her friend Gretchen Anderson were great at building that. I think they even got Ronne Hartfield, who is a wonderful artist, and writer and artist educator involved in the hiring process....

Anyway, being able to draw, and render, and apply paint convincingly is no preparation for the world of teaching! Some of my students looked at my work and said "But I want to learn English watercolor method. Can you teach me that?" Huh? We're not in England. We're drawing and painting from life... no thatched cottages south of Winnetka! And the room - well, we had multiple light sources - mostly bare bulbs. Interesting, drawing a still life with three sets of shadows! Somehow we managed, I sent them home with assignments to work on, from a single light source, and to my amazement, we all survived the process. And thrived! Today I do things somewhat differently with the classes I hold in my studio. We do four-week sessions and much of it is student directed. Nature is the syllabus!

With time limited, tho, frankly I'd rather paint than teach, unless someone is really persistent and motivated, and already can draw a bit. The teachers at Morton Arboretum had wonderful systems in place, handed down mostly by Nancy Hart Stieber, with the most fair, supportive but directed critiques I've observed before or since. And I have the comparison of taking classes at the Art Institute of Chicago, where I believe you got points for being as cruel as possible - tho I'm not certain about that, actually... it just seemed that way. It was a privilege to study there and to learn great skills for teaching art. Teaching certainly shows you how effective your communication skills are!

My favorite painting and drawing teachers - Louisa Boshardy, Frederick Franck, Richard Schmid, Irving Shapiro, Eldon Danhausen (sculpture also), and Walter Parke. Least favorite teachers - Al Algaminas, who sat in the corner doing crossword puzzles during class and just grunted when he looked at your work. He kept repeating "Paint back to front, dark to light, thin to thick" for three months' worth of oil painting classes. And a design instructor who somehow didn't communicate the beauty of good, simple design, instead having us arrange a system of geometric shapes which made no sense to me at all - maybe if she first discussed why?

More than you wanted to know...

For some crazy reason - and my son disagrees strongly - people are impressed by so-called "educational credentials." Don't you think that your life itself is credential enough, is validation enough for respect? But for some reason there is esteem for the process of jumping through all those hoops of attending classes, getting good grades, pulling a portfolio or some other questionably valuable artifact together to prove you did the work, learned some facts and are now equipped to present yourself worthy to the world.....

But I have some credentials, just in case readers need to satisfy curiosity about them: B.A., Visual Arts, DePaul University, Chicago; Masters of Religious Education, Loyola University Chicago, and a botanical illustration certificate from Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, with their naturalist certificate in process. I was president of the Palette and Chisel Academy of Fine Arts a number of years ago (no, I won't tell you how many even if you beg!) - one of my cooler accomplishments, since they only started to admit women in 1967, when Ruth Van Sickel Ford applied. Formerly an all-boys artists' club, with wives relegated to preparing and putting out (and cleaning up) food for the exhibitions and parties (and non-wives posing nude upstairs), they finally had to break down and admit Ruth, since she had taught half or more of them how to draw and paint while she was president of the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, where Walt Disney and political cartoonist Bill Mauldin studied. Ooops! After that they did their best to bar the doors, smoke lots of cigars and otherwise discourage women from applying but we finally made our way in. One of my favorite women members at the P&C was the first woman president, Diana Farran, who got the place on the National Register of Historic Places, not just for its history but for its interesting double-bay Italianate architecture and connection with Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler.

The other two women I feel privileged to know from there were Nancy Guzik, wife of former P&C president Richard Schmid, and Susan Lyons, who is the better half of Scott Burdick. Oh, I better not forget Wendy Anderson Halperin, who's an amazing children's book illustrator... see what they were missing the first three-quarter's century? And last but not least my dear dear friend Louisa Boshardy, who was a student of Bill Moseby at the American Academy of Art in Chicago. Bill, I heard, made it really difficult for women students in his class. In a nutshell, he didn't take them seriously. He tried to pretend they weren't there and wouldn't talk to them hardly at all. His critiques blistered, only bested by the ones specially reserved for representational artists at the Art Institute of Chicago... Louisa was- is- not only a top-notch draftswomen, she also has a wonderful alla prima style that is amazing to watch - and is facile in watercolor, oil, pastel, pen and ink - you name it! I'm privileged to know her - and all of them. Women artists rock!

Friday, January 5, 2007

Tribute to a friend

Don was an artist, and the son of a famous artist, Pete Llanuza, whose baseball comics are still highly collectable on eBay, and her question was why, when he was finally able to have the time to paint, why he didn't do more of it? Well, I responded, being an artist is a kind of delicate thing - if you do it just for money or to meet gallery quotas and deadlines you have to be careful not to let it develop a financial tyranny of its own, and lose your voice and true creativity in the process. The best artists know how to take risks, work the system so there's money coming in to pay the rent on a fairly regular basis, eat a balanced diet, have at least one good friend, and produce like crazy. The so-called Sunday painters often make a lot of excuses why they don't have time to paint, don't have discipline or passion. But there are a lot of fine artists who also slowly chip away at the mountain of their talent, discovering themselves in there over years and years of effort. Never write yourself or anyone else off who says they want to create - it's good for the soul.

There's a dance to it too, I found: If I was too content with life, my art lacked sparkle and depth; if things were too intense, absorbing my energy and time, draining me of that extra I needed to create, there was nothing left to create from. If my kid or his dad or anyone else were making me crazy or I seriously was out of harmony with myself for any reason, I couldn't paint. If I had space and some calm but not too much calm, that was perfect. There needs to be a fire in the furnace or nothing cooks...

This week, with the son away and a little space, things are cooking - not going great but at least going. And I am so behind schedule I may have to raid my son's supply of Bawls... Ooops! He won't miss them, will he?? Well, I really have to go back and finish that stem of flowers, and pull out the materials for the next painting - I need to have three finished by Monday night... and my portfolio in decent shape for a meeting Tuesday that will make me or break me... Now, if I can just keep peace with son and boyfriend - is there a better word out there, someone, please???? - I might, just might, make that meeting...
Today I went to the art store with three little kids who stood there patiently for several minutes while I agonized over color choices. Last night I was working on a painting and the colors I was putting down just didn't match my reference, either in front of me or from my recollections of this amazing orchid I saw out in a swale up north this past summer. And being the persistent artist, while fully accepting that few colors in pigment match faithfully the ones in nature (or vice versa) I was determined to find something that was closer than what I had on my palette. Would it be permanent rose or quinacridone magenta, or perylene maroon, or winsor red or thalo red or? Well, perylene maroon ended up looking like I had scrubbed a bloodstain for half an hour, winsor red was too warm, ditto thalo -bingo! the synthetic quinacridone magenta was the one!

When the kids went home with their mom I was left to bliss out with my paints and the studies for this new venture. Great - another interruption!! I'm going to pull that darn telephone out of the wall! Oops - can't do that - tied into the internet via cable, my lifeline to my son and my boyfriend - if you want to call him that, being well past boyhood and crazymaking enough that sometimes I wonder if he's as much a friend as some demon fate had ordained to pay me back for every one of my past misdeeds... in this life, and if you believe in reincarnation (don't know that I do, but sometimes I wonder...) and all the ones ever lived since the late Paleolilthic...

But the call is important - a friend had passed away and his daughter-in-law was checking in to see whether the travel arrangements for family members had been all sorted out, and we ended up chatting, chewing away at precious moments I really needed to spend solving problems of composition, value and infinitesimal watercolor details... and, since the friend had been part of our lives for half mine, I provided her a side of him she had not known.

Don was an artist, and the son of a famous artist, Pete Llanuza, whose baseball comics are still highly collectable on eBay, and her question was why, when he was finally able to have the time to paint, why he didn't do more of it? Well, I responded, being an artist is a kind of delicate%