Tussilago farfara – Eleanor Christopher

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”.

Thumbnail sketches © Eleanor Christopher

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.

Test pieces © Eleanor Christopher

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!

Work in progress © Eleanor Christopher

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.

Eleanor in her studio

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