Thursday, 21 August 2014

Summer Travels.....a Sketchbook Encounter with Linnaeus's 'Monster'

Last week I travelled by road to Austria and Switzerland via France, Belgium, Holland and was a long way! But the opportunity to paint the flowers on this trip was too good to miss. It's a long time since I've painted wild flowers and I'd forgotten that it can present quite a challenge.... and when the weather is wet it's near on impossible at times! Nevertheless I managed to produce some sketchbook studies and notes and took lots and lots of photographs. There's a whole heap of material from my trip so will spit it into two blog posts. Next week I'll focus on the mixed study pages but first off I'm dedicating this post to common Toadflax. It's a pretty common plant but it's an old favourite of mine so I make no apologies for getting carried away with it.....sometimes the story behind a plant makes a plant too tempting!
Linaria vulgaris L. (Common Toad flax) study page. Commonly found on disturbed ground at the roadside in Austria, Germany and Switzerland ( and much of Europe). This one was found in Germany near the roadside on waste ground. Note the mutated plant on the right.
The reason I couldn't resist Linaria vulgaris was sentimental, having grown it in my garden in Scotland some years ago, I'd been given a young plant from Aberdeen University Botanic Garden where I worked in 2005. Although I'd written about and it had flourished in the garden, I'd never actually painted it - so it was nice to encounter it again in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, where it can be seen at almost every road verge at lower altitude. Initially and visually it wasn't a plant I was particularly interested in painting but the history of the plant really is fascinating and it became  more interesting as I studied it. I first learned about L.vulgaris when I chose to write and essay about floral mutations for an assignment about Carl Linnaeus, to celebrate the tercentenary of his birth - this task was part of a course I undertook with Uppsala University in 2007. The University provide some great resources on Linnaeus for anyone interested.
Carl Linnaeus had a particular interest in L. vulgaris because it is prone to a strange mutation which he first described over 250 years ago. A mutated form occurs on occasion, and the plant produces radially symmetrical  flowers with five spurs instead of the usual bilateral flowers, which have just one spur.
Left: The normal bilateral flowers with one spur. Right: the mutated 'Peloric' flower, exhibits radially symmetry with five spurs. The mutation is caused by a defect in the Lcyc (cyclooidea like gene) which controls the dorsoventral asymmetry in 'normal' flowers. Similar mutation is found in Antirhinums.
 Apparently Linnaeus was so captivated by the plant and the mutation that he grew it by his front door at his summer home in Hammarby for many years. He had originally been presented with the 5 spurred mutated version in 1742 by a young botanist, Magnus Zioberg and went on to write a thesis describing the mutated plant in 1744.
Carl Linnaeus, was the first to write about the peloric form of Linaria vulgaris over 250 years ago. Copyright Wikimedia Commons 
  Linnaeus placed the mutated plant in a separate classification from L. vulgaris and named it  'Peloria' which translated in Greek to 'Monster'. He could only conclude that the 'Monster' was an example of hybridisation which resulted from interbreeding between two separate species and suggested common toadflax and some other unknown species had interbred to create a new species. This controversial view challenged the religious views of the time and presented Linnaeus with a problem which left him in conflict with the church. The problem of conflict persisted for him as he developed his sexual system and classification of plants, which were seen to question God as the creator. Linnaeus's work was banned and ordered to be burned by by Pope Clement the XIII and he was accused of impiety by the Lutheran Archbishop of Uppsala.
L. vulgaris has continued to fascinate and has been discussed in works by numerous evolutionary biologists, including Darwin, de Vries and Huxley, and used as an example of how mutation can lead to changes in morphology.  Read more about Linnaeus's Peloria
The mutation is now known to be caused by a single gene mutation. Linnaeus was wrong because L. vugaris was not a separate species but the principle he identified was an important one in evolutionary biology and the L. vulgaris research continues to this day.   
The study page, Linaria vulgaris I worked on 14 x 10 inch Langton extra smooth HP paper ( kept in a plastic bag!)
I also had a small notebook for listing species and notes.
Although its only a study page I still prefer to create a well balanced page so try to fill the space as evenly as possible. This usually happens fairly naturally as a rule. Just make sure nothing is too cramped or far apart. 
  • I make one colour study of the whole plant in situ to document the general plant 'arcitecture'  - this is the focal point of the page. 
Focal point - whole plant, quick watercolour sketch in colour
  • After drawing the whole plant I make some small colour studies at the page edges before drawing and painting a couple of flowers to test the chosen colours. I had a fairly limited palette. An Ultraviolet light wash was used for the shadows. I put this in first because it's a light flower and I find it easier to lay shadows first on light flowers). I used Lemon Yellow (NT), Cad Lemon and Cad Yellow. For the greens I used Cerulean Blue, Cad Lemon with a small amount of Perm rose. I also added some Fr Ultramarine for the darker greens. I varied the ratio of  the colours for the lighter and darker shades ( i.e. more yellow for the lighter stems and new growth). I made a couple of smaller studies of the individual flowers in colour to test the colour before painting the larger piece. I think that I would change the Cad lemon for Win Yellow if i were to paint it again because WY is transparent. On this occasion I didn't have it with me.    
Colour studies
  •  A simple line drawing of the plant was also made for clarity - this enables me to get a really clear understanding of the plant in terms of the leaf and flower arrangement on the stem.
Line drawing, whole plant stem
  • Flowers are the feature of the work so I made studies of the regular bilateral flowers, front and side view ( required for a bilateral flower ) I already had a rear view in colour, so no need for duplication but I did also draw a flower which had yet to open. These were made in graphite using a 2H and HB pencil and scaled x 1.5 for clarity. I made a single study of the mutant flower ( only one study required because it's the same on all sides). Peloric version shown above in main text.  
Flower studies showing various stages and views
  •  I didn't draw the reproductive parts other than the stigma on spent flowers but could possibly track down a potted specimen at a later date if I wanted to add this.
  Back to the Travels
After many hours of travel and an overnight stop in Germany we finally arrived in Kappl, a small village in the Paznaun valley, Province of Tyrol, Austria. Kappl is located over 1,250 m above sea level, the clouds roll through the mountains and the air feels incredibly clean.   As we climbed the winding roads a far greater diversity of flowers was immediately apparent. Many of the plants commonly seen can be found here in the UK but seldom is there such diversity in one small area. In my next post I will share the mixed study pages from Kappl and St Moritz.

The road up to Kappl where a diverse range of Alpine flora was found.

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Which Pencil?

Continuing from the last blog post I'm still working with graphite, this time for the Nature Sketchbook Exchange Project. It seems appropriate to do a bit more than just drawing a picture because it's a sketchbook project, so over the last couple of days I've been experimenting with a few different pencils brands.

Sketchbook pages, experimenting with different brands of pencil
  There are a number of pencil to choose from, all of which are suitable for botanical work, I tend to stick with the same pencils but having tried out quite a few over the years I've accumulated some unused ones. I try to buy from an art shop when possible rather than online because it would be a great shame to lose our art shops. I've been buying from Webberley's since I was a child in the 1970's. Webberley's is a beautiful old building and apparently it's been an art shop since 1913! Today it looks much the same with the old dark wood fittings and staircases. The prices are still pretty competitive and it's great to browse and try for real.
From experience my personal favourite is Faber Castell 9000 and find it the smoothest and most consistent pencil but I thought I'd give some of the others a try.

A selection of some of the pencils accumulated over the last few years
 The subject I've chosen to draw is a Clematis, I don't know the cultivar name but it's one my mum bought from the RHS show I exhibited at in 2008. I'm working from a few cuttings with a fairly 'free form' arrangement which sprawls across the two pages of the sketchbook. I haven't  really planned the composition but work with the natural shapes of the cuttings, which makes the layout fairly easy.
The sketchbook is a Stillman & Birn 270 gsm HP white paper for watercolour, line and wash. It's the best sketchbook I've tried and used by all of the artists participating in the project. It's slightly more white than the paper I usually use, my normal paper is Fabriano Artistico 140 HP natural. What is immediately noticeable is that the same grade of pencil looks a little darker on sketchbook paper compared to the Fabriano, so this needs to be taken into account when choosing grades. Always bear in mind that different brands of pencil may be harder or softer, so an HB in one brand may be quite different than an HB in another. That doesn't mean that you can't mix and match brands when drawing if you are familiar with the properties but if you're creating tonal strips for reference never mix brands. For this mini experiment I tried out three brands of pencils for comparison:
  • Faber Castell 9000 Art and Graphic set ( my usual pencils) 
  • Staedtler Mars Lumograph 100
  • Derwent Graphic
Also used tried Cretacolour Monotlith, which is a graphite stick and lovely for softer grades and very dark subjects, it goes on velvety smooth! I also use some mechanical pencils but only for line drawing and fine detail rather than for tonal work. Mechanical used were: Staedtler mars Micro - mechanical pencil 0.3 and 0, Rotring Tikki 0.5 and Pentel 0.3. All are good. I still taper the end of the lead on fine glass paper (actually a nail file!)

What's in a Pencil?
A pencil is a stick of powdered graphite mixed with clay. Graphite is a mineral comprising almost pure carbon. In the mid to late 1500's a large graphite deposit was discovered in Cumbria, England and from its appearance was mistakenly thought to be a form of lead, which was named Plumbago, which is Latin for lead ore. Apparently locals used it to mark their sheep and wrapped string around the plumbago to use it as a primitive mark making tool. Further deposits were found in the US, Siberia and Asia but none so pure and soft as the Cumbrian find. The name ' lead' stayed with the pencil but pencils were never actually made of lead. However, the painted wood on old pencils did contain lead so it was possible to suffer from lead poisoning if you chewed your pencil! 
In 1795 Nicolas Jacques Conte discovered the process of mixing the soft graphite with clay and mixing with water slurry before firing. By adjusting the ratio of clay to graphite the pencils could be made harder ( lighter in tone) or softer ( darker in tone). Today pencils cover a range from 9H ( very hard) to 9B (very soft). The quality of the graphite can vary considerably though.
Poor quality pencils are very scratchy and rough and the core breaks easily when sharpened. The outer wooden casing tends to be cedar.
My Findings:
Long leads are definitely best! it saves constant sharpening of the wood and you can just fine tune on sandpaper. For a guide on how to sharpen see my last post.

Faber Castell (left), Staedtler (middle) and Derwent (right). All 2H Faber Castell seemed slightly harder than the other two brands. Both Faber Castell and Staedtler sharpened well but Derwent was prone to breaking.  
The Faber Castell sharpens well as does the Steadlter, which has lovely soft wood which peels away beautifully with the scalpel. The Derwent seems to have a harder 'pink' wood which is more difficult to whittle away and it tears at times.  Also with softer grades the Derwent breaks frequently compared to the other two  pencils, but if you do suceed in sharpening without constant breaking and still have some pencil left .......  they sharpen to a pretty good tapered point.    

Tonal Work
I found the Faber Castell to be a harder than the other two brands. The harder grades are therefore slightly lighter in tone. The difference is less noticeable in the softer grades for all brands. But given that I do most of my graphite work in grades between 2H and 2B this doesn't really matter so much. With this in mind I would say that the equal tonal value for a 2H Faber Castell could be achieved with Staedtler or Derwent using a 3H. The Staedtler felt very smooth on the sketchbook paper but I have found some pencils to be slightly scratchy in the harder grades and this was the case with Derwent, which was slightly  'scratchy' in application. All in all though a decent drawing could be completed with any of these pencils. The differences are minor, and a lot comes down to personal preference. I used different pencils on different parts of this drawing and it's impossible to tell and difference visually. I have heard students mention small marks in their graphite and while this can be a problem its often caused by small fragments of rubber rather than the pencil. I will probably stick with the faber Castells as they are still my preferred pencil, the Staedtler were also OK but I'll probably give the Derwent pencils a miss due to the problems with breaking and waste.
 The paper is equally important because an uneven or fibrous surface means the pencil picks up the paper grain. I didn't find such a problem with Stillman & Birn paper. One of the main reasons for imperfections seems to be where a non putty rubber has been used  and left some small fragments of debris 
Comparison between Faber Castell 9000 and Staedtler Mars Lumograph.  A slightly smoother ( less grainy ) finish is achieved with Faber Castells pencils. This test is on watercolour paper, particularly in the 2H to HB range.   
Comparing an F and 5B in the 3 pencil brands. Faber Castell is slightly lighter in the harder grades but all 3 are much the same in softer grades

When teaching graphite I put students through fairly rigorous tonal exercises in order to help them to gain control of the pencil. Squares of graphite should not be darker at the edges but smooth and flat. This skill is vital particularly when working around areas such as leaf veins. When the control is poor it's obvious on leaves and quite often veins look outlined where they shouldn't be outlined.

The correct amount of pressure must be mastered when using continuous tone, there is a maximum tonal value or  'darkness' of tone for each grade of pencil. There should be no need to add additional pressure to go darker and you should never make indentations in the paper or end up with 'shiny' areas. The weight of the pencil is kept predominantly in the arm /hand and not at the point where the pencil makes contact with the paper. If you find that the point where you start is darker it means that you are starting with a heavier pressure on initial contact - the pressure should be consistent.  It's actually much the same as watercolour washes regarding a maximum tonal value. Usually there is no point in adding more than 3 or 4 washes of the same colour because there is a maximum tonal value to each colour after which it just gets thicker and flatter looking but not any darker in tone, to go darker you need to add a complementary colour or neutral tint.......... But that's another subject for a different blog post.
With pencil If you want to go darker, don't apply more pressure but switch to a softer pencil grade of pencil.
The line drawing is made lightly using a 0.3 mechanical 2H pencil. For the tonal work I used the Faber Castells and started with a 2H initially to add a layer of continuous tone all over, leaving only the brightest highlights clear, there should be no outline as such once the tone is added, thereafter form is created by using increasingly softer grades, paying careful attention to the light and shade between veins and folds ( 2H -2B and all grades in between). Detail is added on the darker ares such as the spent dark anthers using a softer 2B mechanical pencil. I used a combination of Cretacolour 3B on the dark soft areas, such as the leaf tips and also the 2B mechanical pencil to keep the edges tidy. 

All three brands were used in different areas of the drawing and it's not possible to see any real difference. The only difference is in using different grades to achieve the same tonal value in each brand.