Thursday, 1 June 2017

A composition challenge - Navelwort - Umbilicus rupestris

Well, after a break of no writing on the blog for nearly 9 months, I am finally back.  I didn't intend to be away for quite so long, but the setting up of the online tuition and new painting projects has taken up a lot of time.

The painting projects continue, all of which include subjects that I am excited to paint and haven't painted already.  Several focus on medicinal plants for an exhibition that takes place next August (more about that to follow later) and I am also painting Yellow-horned poppy for the Botanical Art Worldwide Exhibition in 2018.

Now I am a painting member of the Chelsea Physic Garden Florilegium Society, I also need to complete a painting each year, which is then assessed and if acceptable will be included in the garden's archives. The subjects for the paintings are plants from the garden and this year I have chosen Navelwort Umbilicus rupestris.  It is a plant that I have always wanted to illustrate after spotting it growing on the ruins of Corfe Castle many years ago.
In the Physic Garden it grows on the pond rockery that has stood in the centre of the garden since 1773.  It is a Grade II listed structure and thought to be the oldest rock garden in Europe.  It also features stone from the Tower of London and black Icelandic basalt donated by plant hunter Joseph Banks.
 Sketching and colour notes of Navelwort on a chilly April day in the garden

The Navelwort leaves growing  in the pond rockery

The paintings need to be strictly botanical in style and if applicable show the different growth stages of the chosen plant.
The Navelwort isn't a large plant, although the flowering stems can sometimes grow quite tall.  The leaves can also be scattered, as you can see in the image above.  They are quite 'fleshy' and a have a little dimple in the middle.  The individual flowers are tiny, as are the seedpods when they are fully formed. 

So as you can imagine, there are many different elements to include in the composition.  How did I deal with a challenge such as this ?

Stage 1: I drew each element from life in my sketchbook.  Luckily I had some old field sketches of the plant that I could re-use as well.

Something to think about:  How can you know what is a successful composition until you have drawn each element ?  Treat each element as an entirely separate drawing until you have them all completed.  This where study pages really come in handy.  I have often had a composition idea in my mind that then doesn't work when I experiment with positioning the individual drawings.  See this as a good thing !

Stage 2:  Below you can see the individual elements having been traced onto drafting film and being positioned on the paper that I will be using for the painting. 
At this stage I haven't properly drawn the enlargements and dissections properly - I am just exploring ideas.

The drafting film is called Polydraw and is similar to tracing paper, but more durable. I use a Rotring Isograph pen for the tracing, although any permanent fineline pen with a very fine nib would be ok.
Using ink for the tracing will ensure that it shows through the watercolour paper when tracing on the lightbox.

Something to think about:  Work within a framed area.  As is the case with this painting I have to work to a particular size of paper, but having a frame drawn on the paper helps to interpret the balance and symmetry of a painting when I place the individual elements on the paper.

Stage 3:  

Here the drawings and tracings of the enlargements and dissections have been completed and are combined with the rest of the composition.

When drawing enlargements and/or dissections, draw each part in order of dissection.  This really enables you to get to know the finer details of the plant.

Another reason to draw them in order is that it helps in the decision making process of how many stages of enalargement/dissection there needs to be in the final composition.

Something to think about:  Draw and trace each stage of the dissection, even if you think you will not need them all.  In other words, draw more than you may need.  Less frustration in the long run !

Stage 4:

I have decided upon my final composition and the individual elements are taped down on the lightbox within the frame size decided earlier. The watercolour paper is then placed over the top (Fabriano 300gsm - old stock).

I have thought about the flow of the elements around the page, telling the life story of the plant in a logical progression. Here it is following an 'S' shape starting with the leaves, going to a stem with flower buds, then a full flowering stem and the finally to the dried flowers stem and seedpods and seed.

The other aspect that I have also considered is the alignment of the dissections and enlargements.  

I also take note of the negative space to ensure that there are no unnecessary spaces where your eye can be drawn to rather than the subjects.
In the case of this illustration some of the spaces will be filled with the painting of the substrate that the plant is growing on and in and enough space for the scale bars, of which there is likely to be 3 or 4.

Something to think about:  I was lucky enough to be at a lecture on composition led by one of the Botanical Artists from Kew Gardens, Lucy Smith.  One of the many things she said was to be aware of vertical symmetry and horizontal harmony.
This was something I really thought about with the positioning of the enlargements and dissection.

One other thing that I have always considered when creating a composition is the number of objects on the page.  Flower arrangers nearly always work with using odd numbers of flowers and if positioned well can give balance to a floral arrangement.  Can you tell the number groupings in this composition ?  Answers are below the next image.

3 main groups of leaves
3 stems
5 small drawings - enlargements and dissection

I hope that you find this post useful if you have to create a composition with multiple elements.  Do let me know if there are any other subjects that you would like me to cover in blogposts.  I can't promise that I can respond to every request, but will pick out several if suitable.

Other news and useful links:
  • The next 'in person' course with available spaces is:
Have a look on the website for more info.

  • All of the tuition from Natures Details is now on a new website:  Illustrating Natures Details. The original Natures Details site will become more of a gallery website over the summer months.
  • I will be taking part in Hampshire Open Studios this year, which I am really excited about.  I'll be exhibiting at Great Abshot Barn along with 10 other artists and crafts people.  I also hope to be demonstrating most days too.  So why not pop along and say hello !