planning my choice of media
Deciding which plants to study and paint was only one of many decisions I needed to make. I also had to decide what material to paint on and with what!
I chose calfskin vellum.
In November 2016 I met some friends at William Cowley’s and we were shown round the family business in Newport Pagnell. Cowley’s have produced parchment and vellum there since 1870. It is a smelly business, but they were able to assuage some of our concerns about using a material from animals. Apparently, no animal is killed to obtain the skin – it is a by-product from animals used for our food and milk.
The cattle, goat and sheep skins used for parchment are all obtained from farms where livestock has been reared for wool, milk or meat. No animals are bred to make parchment.William Cowley website
Cowley’s staff select the best skins available and transform them into beautiful pieces of parchment and vellum.
The transforming process of changing the skin into vellum and parchment used for artwork and legal documents, is hand-done and takes a long time. Cowley’s vellum is ‘worth its weight in gold’. I bought some fairly well matched skins so that I could get seven pieces from them each measuring 25 x 31 cm when mounted; Cowley’s also did the mounting for me.
Vellum is a very special substrate and there are examples that go back hundreds of years. The Magna Carta was written on vellum 800 years ago. Today we have DNA testing and as vellum is skin, this can be a fantastic safeguard.
There are not many limitations as to what can be used on vellum with colour pigments in the form of watercolour paint, ink and gold foil well known. But graphite and waxy pencil can be a hindrance and not normally recommended because of their fatty nature and difficulty with adherence to the vellum. Whatever is used, lies on the surface and is not absorbed into the substrate as with paper. That is why the colours can appear more vibrant.
In botanical art it is customary to use watercolour on vellum, but I also wanted to introduce graphite which I knew could cause some difficulties. This was something else I needed to research.
Luckily, when I was teaching at the American Society of Botanical Artists (ASBA) conference in 2019, I watched two well known artists painting on vellum with watercolour and graphite graphite. I absorbed all the tips that they were able to give, and this helped enormously when adding the graphite sections to my pictures.
Composition is a very difficult subject, and it is something many of my students struggle with. There are loads of ‘rules’, but the best design is by those who know the ‘rules’ and know how to break them; look at Rory McEwen’s work as an example. When saying this, it sounds as though I have overcome the issue of composition – far from it. For every picture I paint, the result is my subjective view. For the person looking at the picture, their subjective view is likely to be slightly different.
However, in modern times there is much research into the placement of the main focal point and some equipment can ‘see’ what the brain notices first when accessing a picture or view. As a baseline, the Golden section is not far out. Therefore, defining the placement of the focal point in a picture is important.
I have spoken to quite a few people about what they would like to see in my series of pictures. I had decided on the measurement of the mounted vellum piece, 31 x 25 cm, therefore I had limited space.
I wanted to paint several elements of the plants, repeated across the series, demonstrating details of the plants not normally appreciated. I hoped that people taking their normal flora for granted would learn about these plants from my finished artwork.
As I was looking at edible fruits my main point of interest was the fruit. But, without overloading the composition I wanted to give information about the flower, its habit and habitat. I still hadn’t decided exactly which plants I would include, but I knew that they would normally live several meters over sea level, preferably in the mountains and probably have some sort of association with each other.
Read on in the next blog due to be published 30 March 2023
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