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HomearilGetting to know you

Getting to know you

The thing that makes a painting difficult is uncertainty. Whereas if you plan in advance, the uncertainty is removed.  Dianne Sutherland Ball
File image from Wikipedia
It was the flash of orange at the side of the road that first caught my eye. Every day as I drove my daughters to school I noticed it, but this was a busy road, so I couldn’t stop. However I couldn’t stop thinking about it either. So when I spotted that same beckoning orange in a friend’s garden, I was thrilled. She kindly gave me some cuttings and the name of the object of my desire … Iris foetidissima.
The orange that I had seen was not the flowers, which are apparently quite dull, but rather the gorgeous seed pods, which burst open each winter to reveal brilliant scarlet orange seeds. Iris foetidissima is native to this part of the world and is said to have the constitution of an ox, willing to grow just about anywhere. It’s also known as the Stinking Iris or Roast Beef plant because the leaves are supposed to smell like roast beef when crushed.
Nicholas Culpeper wrote about it in his 17thcentury herbal of medicinal plants, The English Physitian, calling it `Stinking Gladwin’, and described the leaves as having “a strong, ill scent”. Even so, it was highly valued as a medicinal herb, especially for making poultices for drawing out splinters and the odd arrow head.
Pong or no pong, after all my practicing of washes and dry brushstrokes last week, I was eager to move onto the next stage of the painting, or the “Getting to know you” stage. The better you know your subject, the easier the painting will be, or at least, that’s the theory!
I usually work with two magnifying glasses to get up close and personal with my subject and it’s portrait.
Art is born of the observation and investigation of nature.Cicero (106 BC – 43 BC)

The first thing that I did was a quick line drawing in my sketchbook, just to get the feel of the plant. I couldn’t resist adding a seed, which I discovered is actually known in botany as an aril. It’s similar to a pomegranate seed in that the seed has a fleshy covering. 
Aril – fleshy and usually brightly coloured cover of some seeds that develops from the ovule stalk and partially or entirely envelopes the seed. Arils, such the red berry-like arils of the yew (Taxus baccata), are often brightly coloured to attract animals who eat them and disperse the seeds. 
After the first little section, I decided that I wasn’t too happy with the husk of the seedpod. The colours were a little too dull and that textured surface was a challenge! So I took one of the seed pods, pulled it apart, removed the arils and did some studies of the husks.
As I want to paint this on vellum, I thought carefully about the opacity of the pigments that I am using. The smoothness and translucency of vellum can bring a vibrancy and depth to colours, so transparent pigments really come into their own. Usually I don’t worry too much about how opaque a colour is, in fact I’ve quite a few opaque colours that I really couldn’t live without. However to get the best out of my vellum, it is worth taking time to reconsider your colour choices. So out went light red, to be replaced with burnt sienna + winsor orange and winsor orange-red (also used in the arils), and perylene violet came in to replace the caput mortuum. Gold ochre replaced yellow ochre.
 You can read more about the transparency of pigments here.

I continued to work on my seed pod study, experimenting as I went along, and was quite pleased with the potential of the subject. However I needed to work out the colour choices for the arils as I felt that some colour mixes were a little muddy.
The vellum is the creamy coloured section at the bottom… already the colours look smoother and the arils glossier.
I couldn’t resist trying out the tiny sample of vellum that I have. It’s such a lovely surface to work on, and to my great surprise, quite forgiving. You can literally wipe off what you have painted with a damp brush… but that is a double edged sword, because sometimes you might not want to wipe off what you have painted!!
The Iris foetidissima  seed pod study so far

So the practice continues. I’m onto the leaves now. I still haven’t quite worked out what colours to use… but transparent yellow is probably going to play a starring role. I have a small sheet of parchment, which is goatskin vellum (a slightly rougher surface) to play on.  It’s not quite the same thing but will help me test out colours and brush techniques.
My kelmscott vellum is ready, all powdered up and waiting for me to begin. My new sable brushes arrived yesterday and I have some fresh seed pods waiting to have their portrait painting. I am excited!
This suspense is terrible. I hope it will last. (Oscar Wilde)

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