Cynara scolymus © Shevaun Doherty 2012
Once upon a time, on a tiny island in the Aegean sea, lived a beautiful girl by the name of Cynara. So fair and lovely was she, that the Greek god Zeus, emerging from the sea after a visit to his brother Poseidon, fell for her charms the moment he laid eyes on her. He persuaded her to return with him to Mount Olympus, to live as a goddess and keep him entertained whilst his wife, Hera, was busy. However Cynara grew homesick for her family, and disobeying Zeus, returned once more to the mortal world. Enraged at her betrayal, Zeus cast her back to earth, transforming her into the artichoke, Cynara cardunculus.
There is a lot of debate as to the true origins of the artichoke, although I quite like the fanciful tale above. It certainly grows in abundance throughout North Africa and the Mediterranean, and was much favoured as a delicacy by the early Greeks and Romans. The cultivated form of the plant lacks the spiny bracts of it’s wild cousin, the cardoon, and is called Cynara scolymus.
|Sketchbook studies of Cynara scolymus|
It was first described by Theophratus, (371-287 BC) considered the “father of botany”, in his treatise ‘Enquiry into Plants’. Later the artichoke became one of the illustrated medicinal plants that featured in Dioscorides’ Greek Herbal in the first century AD.
|Unfinished sketch of a dying flowerhead|
As well as being a tasty dish, the Greeks and Romans considered the artichoke a digestive aid and an aphrodisiac. In fact, such was it’s reputation as a powerful aphrodisiac, that by the 16th century, women were actually forbidden from eating it! It was Catherine de Medici, wife of King Henry II who broke with that tradition, when she introduced it to France from Italy. She is said to have once eaten so many at a banquet, that the guests watched in horror, convinced that she was going to burst.
I can totally understand Catherine de Medici’s great fondness for the artichoke, as it is one of my favourite vegetable dishes too. My Egyptian mother-in-law always makes “al-kharshuf mashi” for me whenever I visit, a delicious dish of baked artichoke hearts stuffed with minced lamb. You can find that recipe here.
|Placing a white board behind the plant is a great way to isolate it from it’s surroundings for painting|
It’s also a great plant to paint, having a wonderful sculptural shape, with elegant arching silver leaves and round flower head, topped by mass of purple florets, known as the “choke”. I’ve painted it a few times now and it’s not as difficult as you would think.
|Follow the lines of the spiral. The bracts fit into those little shapes. A simple line drawing on tracing paper is a handy guideline to refer back to when painting|
I begin by drawing out my plant in pencil first. This is one of the plants where the Fibonacci Spiral is quite evident, so getting the drawing right is very important. I’ve found that it’s best to draw the basic shape of the flower head first (round in this case), and then to carefully observe the direction of the spirals within that shape, keeping in mind that they curve around the shape and aren’t just straight lines. Count the bracts on each line to make sure that you have the right amount. It’s a good idea to trace out this initial drawing and to keep this as a reference to one side, because once the paint goes on, it’s quite easy to lose your way.
I paint over the pencil lines in watercolour, using mixes of naples, raw sienna and quinacridone violet. I then erase my pencil lines. Once that is done, I started to slowly build up the colour, bract by bract. The green is a mix of lemon, cobalt and indigo. In places I switched to winsor yellow.
I also used raw umber, manganese brown, caput mortuum, perylene green and winsor violet here.
**This was painted last year and if I was doing it again, I’d probably replace the manganese brown and the caput mortuum with more transparent colours such as burnt sienna mixed with winsor orange or winsor orange-red, and perylene violet.**
|I’ve added masking fluid to the little florets at the front of the artichoke and a few suggestions of the tips of ones behind|
To tackle the choke, I’ve picked out a few of the front florets with masking fluid. I apply it with a thin brush (a cheap one, not a sable!!) Sometimes I put it on with a toothpick. It’s important to let it dry before you apply any paint, but also don’t leave it on the paper for more than 48 hours as it can be hard to get off.
The choke was done using Cobalt violet and helio blue. I painted this mix loosely over the masking fluid, dropping more paint into the wet wash and allowing it to blend and mix on the page. Once that was completely dry, I carefully rubbed off the masking fluid, and began to paint the little florets using pale mixes of the blues and purples. I used purple lake (quin violet would also work), Egyptian violet (Lefranc & Bourgeois), permanent blue violet (Rembrandt), winsor violet and perylene maroon.
You have to slowly build up the shapes within… at first painting the florets, and then once you have achieved the right colour and tone for them, switch to painting the shadows and negative shapes between. I did have to lift a few florets out as I went too dark… it’s just trial and error. Try to keep the florets that had been masked off quite pale.
It will look a real mess at first, but persevere. It takes time and patience. All of a sudden it takes shape and becomes believable.
Getting the dark shadowy bits at the top of the bracts and just below the choke made a real difference, and pulled the painting together I used winsor violet mixed with perylene green to make a nice dark colour.
|Artichoke flower head, Cynara scolymus © Shevaun Doherty 2013|
I’ve yet to paint an artichoke flower this year, but only because I haven’t come across one yet. Any offers would be gratefully received! My botanical artist friend Jarnie has been growing one in her garden and has been taking gorgeous photographs of it on her blog, so I’ll be watching with interest to see just how she goes about painting it.
“The artichoke with a tender heart
Dressed up like a warrior, standing to attention,
It built a small helmet under its scales,
Pablo Neruda, Ode To The Artichoke
Note: although the story of Zeus and Cynara is widely found on the internet, I can’t find a verification of it being a genuine tale from the Classics, but I like it anyway