I wanted to paint something big and bold. I had previously been working on a full size painting of ‘Cavolo nero’ so I started to investigate Scottish native vegetables.
‘Sutherland Kale’ was suggested and last May I found someone with an allotment at Inverleith who was growing a couple of plants. She kindly agreed to my drawing her plants and taking lots of photos over a period of weeks.
I also contacted The Real Seed Company and bought some seeds to grow my own plants. On their website, they explained that this particular variety (“Càil Cataibh” in Gaelic) had its origins in Sutherland where it was grown by local crofters. Not only does it produce lovely, tender green leaves, it is also very resilient, capable of fending off aphids, caterpillars, ravenous goats, and 70 mph freezing sleet!
Sutherland Kale grows waist high and is cooked in a very similar way to spinach. When it starts to bolt in spring, the flowering shoots can also be eaten, very much like sprouting broccoli shoots.
The original plants were several feet tall so the painting would take up a whole sheet of paper (1000 x 700 mm). As I didn’t have a whole specimen in the studio I started piecing together dozens of tracing paper drawings of separate leaves, stems and flowers. This got so complicated that when I came to transfer it to watercolour paper, I had to use coloured markers to define which parts I had already worked on.
I painted all the leaves first, leaving the stems white until near the end; then the buds and flowers before joining all together with the stems. Finally I completed the lumpy brown lower stem and roots.
My painting technique is usually fine dry-brush – which is what I’ve mostly used here. However, as the deadline for hand-in loomed closer and closer I had to speed up and started to use more water than I usually do. I always keep a record of my painting hours – this piece has taken 375 hours!
Many thanks to Kathy Parker whose kale I drew and painted.
For the full story about the history of the Real Seed’s Sutherland Kale, have a look at the following:
This painting is dedicated to Mr Al Bowley who taught me ‘O’ and ‘A’ level biology (30 years ago!). In one of Al’s letters to me he wrote “When I was 5 years old and on my way to school I was fascinated by the first Spring flower that I’d see. It grew in clumps on chalk grassland. In time the flower developed into a dandelion-type ‘clock’. The leaves did not come out until the flower had finished. These early flowers stimulated a love of botany which I have enjoyed all my life”.
I was quite astounded by the notion of a simple plant inspiring and directing the course of one’s life. I had to confess that I had never heard of or seen this flower before. My teacher, though long retired, was still teaching!
Commonly known as Coltsfoot, I learnt it was a native Scottish plant, favouring poor soils and sunny locations, often found beside ditches and streams or on compacted, gravelly paths. Then the opportunity to contribute to Flora Scotia for a Worldwide exhibition sharpened my focus and got my creative juices going! I resolved to keep an eye out for likely places in which it could grow on my walking circuit in South Edinburgh.
One April morning, my vigilance paid off. I found a large patch growing on wasteland beside a busy road, adjacent to a ploughed field. I was delighted with my discovery!
It is daunting to be faced with a white, smooth, empty page. There are so many questions to be answered before ever making a mark!
The Internet is a useful starting point to see other artists’ approach to composition and style – historical and con!temporary. I learnt the value of this during my 2 year Botanical Illustration Diploma course at the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh. Another useful technique practised on this course was plant dissection, using a white tile and scalpel. This answers questions like ‘what goes on inside the very heart of the flower or seed head? What part is attached to what and how? Exactly how many stamens are there, and what shape is the carpel?’
I like to start with an overall picture in my mind’s eye of the finished painting before making any paint marks. I find if useful to do thumbnail sketches of my composition on scraps of paper. If a 2” square scribble doesn’t look pleasing, then it’s unlikely that an A2 or A4 piece using this layout would be any better.
My finished composition could be described as ‘disruptive’. 2 flower heads are on the verge of opening and ‘having a conversation with each other’ whilst being overlooked by the drooping elder head. The fully opened ‘in it’s prime’ flower head is looking out of the page. This is the nature of ‘weeds’/ wild flowers. They can be disruptive – turning up where they’re not invited or they can disrupt a barren landscape and provide pockets of beauty.
I take photos of my subject mostly for peace of mind. I fear the plant will keel over before my painting is complete and having a static reference is a nice backup. I colour match from the actual plant itself and not from photos. I mix my colours for each part that I’m currently working on, and do test pieces on paper I’m using for the final piece (50% cotton watercolour Hotpressed paper Botanical Ultra smooth in this instance). I do this in my studio and then bring the plant and colour swatches outside to look at them in daylight. The match has to be perfect!
I am fascinated by the permanent rose and magenta colours of the first emerging buds from the soil surface that are covered in a thin cobweb-like mesh. I didn’t think I’d be using such colours for a plant I had assumed to be predominantly yellows and greens. This is detail you’d never see during an ordinary walk in the countryside, being so close to the ground.
The other peculiar thing about this plant I love, is the layers of beauty it reveals during its growth. After the bright yellow dandelion-like flower has done it’s work (by attracting pollinators) it folds and appears to die. The head droops as if the effort of flower production and increasing length of the stem has been too much for the plant. The next bit of magic occurs when the drooping flower head becomes erect again and ‘shows off’ the fluffy white seed ‘clock’. (Effectively sticking it’s head up high to allow the wind to disperse the seed.) And all this activity without a single leaf on show!
It is amazing how long a painting can take to produce. As an exercise I timed how long I spent actually ‘applying paint to the page’, but this is only half the story. I spend an extraordinary amount of time just looking. Looking at every tiny detail, every surface; is it smooth, shiny, hairy, rigid or flaccid? The very ‘temperament’ of the plant – is it strong and confident or weak and timid? I practice mindfulness and there could be no better example of being ‘mindful’ than when it comes to the JUST LOOKING phase.
The difficult parts of a painting require no distractions or interruptions; 100% concentration is necessary and Radio 4 has to be turned off! As the painting progresses, I begin to relax with it and the part I enjoy most is the ‘finishing’ – checking the edges with a 000 brush and magnifying glass.
I hope I have managed to capture some of the action and drama of this plant in the painting. I try to be less critical of my work these days. It is a fabulous way to improve future paintings when one asks ‘what went wrong?’ or ‘what could have been done better?’, but I also try to step back from the inner critic and note the resulting joy that a painting confers to both me and the viewer.
When I finish a painting, I have always learnt something new. Something about the beautiful intricate complex world of a particular plant, that is either new to me, or that unknowingly coexisted with me all my life, but one that I had never truly seen before. Botanical art is after all, an important means to help us really see and appreciate the intricate beauty, and astounding diversity, of plant life.
This is only the second time I have painted Mertensia. The first time was in 1993, when I was asked if I would like to provide an illustration for a future number of Curtis’s Botanical Magazine. (The illustration finally appeared in the magazine in 2009, as part of a special publication celebrating the 250th anniversary of the founding of Kew Gardens.) The accompanying article, by Steve Alton and Rosemary Fitzgerald, described the study of Mertensia seed and “its history and prospects as a subarctic plant at the southern limits of its range in northern Britain”. Included in the article was a line drawing by Stella Ross-Craig and a photograph of the plant in situ by Martyn Rix, the magazine’s current editor.
I was very keen to paint Mertensia again as it seemed an appropriate subject for the Flora Scotia exhibition. Its distribution around the coastline of the British Isles has declined greatly and Orkney is one of its remaining strongholds.
Tracking down the plant might have been a problem but, luckily, a fellow allotment holder and naturalist, Tim Dean, was able to point me in the direction of a particular beach in South Ronaldsay (the southernmost of the islands joined to the Orkney Mainland by the Churchill Barriers). This was great news for me, a non-driver, as I could get there by bus and a half-hour walk.
Finding the plant proved remarkably easy and there were enough vigorous specimens that taking a couple of stems wasn’t going to have any impact. I wondered at first if I would be able to locate it as the area just below the dunes was covered in frosted orache. However, I needn’t have worried as its wide spreading stems, blue green leaves and intense blue flowers made it instantly recognisable from some distance. It is a very beautiful plant and was just coming into flower so I was able to see it at its very best.
Back in the studio I had to find a way of laying out the specimen so as to mimic its prostrate habit. I solved the problem by using an orchid-holder tube hanging off the edge of a board, which I kept topped up with water at least twice a day. I was then able to spread the plant out and leave it untouched.
The specimen lasted very well and a second trip to collect another stem a couple of weeks later was all I needed.
One thing I discovered was that Mertensia is known as oyster plant as its leaves are edible. They are reputed to taste a bit like oysters and are considered a delicacy in some places. I did try one of the leaves but it wasn’t an experience I would want to repeat in a hurry!
Visiting a friend near Gatehouse, we were out walking her dogs up a rough track in the Galloway hills on a glorious day just before Easter, when I spied a tiny flash of purple nestling between two clumps of wild primroses. Stepping carefully into the muddy ditch and bending over as far as I dared, I marvelled at the beauty of a single tiny dog violet, its petals perfectly formed and opened towards the sun.
Rounding a bend a little further on, we came upon dozens of them dotted all over a large section of the bank, protected on one side by the deep muddy ditch and on the other by a thick layer of overhanging brambles. It was at that point that inspiration hit me, and I realised that this might make a suitable subject for suitable subject for my entry for the Flora Scotia exhibition. But could I get enough information to make it possible for me to record and paint this tiny delicate subject? Looking at the profuse array along that particular section of the track, I felt that as there were plenty specimens growing well, this would allow me to pot up two carefully, and take them home to observe, paint and identify. This we did, and while I braved the ditch and brambles to pot them up with plenty of the soil they were growing in, my husband set up his camera and photographed the best examples which I pointed out to him.
The potted specimens are continuing to thrive on my windowsill at home, and I have managed to paint several more heads from bud through to fully open. In the summer, when I have recorded and painted all the information I can about the plant, and perhaps even collected some seed, I hope to return them to the same bank where I found them.
I took up botanical painting in my retirement after teaching. I was one of the first students to take the RBGE Diploma in Botanical Illustration. About a year after the first graduation at RBGE, Chris Beardshaw, who presented us with our diplomas, asked each of us to illustrate one month of his monthly articles in the English Garden magazine. I was asked to illustrate a spear thistle and earwigs (2 separate illustrations) for the Sept. 2012 magazine.
I searched round the countryside between Doune and Dunblane where I live and found that the farmers cut them down. Eventually Alexa Scott Plummer (another Diploma guinea pig) gave me a huge spear thistle growing on her land in the Borders. It was a huge plant which more than filled the refuse sack in which I had to get it home. I potted it up in a very large pot. I made a drawing quite quickly but I spent nearly a month trying to paint it in watercolour. I just couldn’t get the fuzzy effect of the numerous hairs on the leaves. Eventually I tried coloured pencils and completed the illustration in less than one week!
I’m a keen gardener and I grow most of the plants I paint in my garden. In recent years I’ve painted commissions of fungi, Primula auriculas of various kinds, hellebores, snowdrops and the Madame Gregoire Staechelin rose. I’m also proud to have painted Thymus vulgaris for RBGE where it is housed in the Botanics Cottage. Most of my work is done on commission.