Saturday, 28 February 2015

A Bit of Sparkle! Beautiful Blue Butterflies

Had a busy week dropping off paintings at Westminster for the SBA annual and also picking up from the Brompton hospital exhibition. I also managed a quick visit to the Manchester Museum to see the newly refurbished natural history section and even managed a quick look at the amazing and beautiful gun powder drawing installation 'Unmanned Nature' by Cai Guo-Qiang!  
The whole time I've been thinking about the butterflies! I really want to start the painting of a collection of British Butterflies on a single large sheet of vellum, but it has to wait because I need to finish off the Jade vine first. Monday seems like a good time to crack on with the vine, which left me with today to clean the desk and play about with the paints!

I've been looking at the iridescent paints on the Daniel Smith dot cards for a while and wondering what on earth to do with them, then it dawned on me that they would be perfect for some of the butterflies. So that's what I've been playing with this morning! Not sure whether it's a good idea or not.
Male Chalkhill Blue Polyommatus coridon (Poda 1761) Watercolour on vellum
I decided to try them on one of my favourite butterflies, a male Chalkhill Blue. It's not one of the smallest Blues, which makes it a bit easier,  it's got the most amazing delicate iridescent colour and is so shiny!.....I couldn't resist it!. It seems sensible to paint all of the butterflies individually before trying them on the large sheet anyway.

The beautiful iridescent paints on the Daniel Smith dot card
The wings of this butterfly really do catch the light and the colours on the dot chart offer some  perfect matches. I opted for a wash of  W&N Manganese Blue Hue first with a touch of Lemon Yellow added. Thereafter I used the DS Duochrome Lapis Sunlight to overlay a wash in selected areas and Cabo Blue,  also where there is a slight violet sheen violet pearl and in the more electric blue areas Iridescent Electric Blue. These paints are quite light in application so this is good.

Close up of the wing showing the light catches the scales and hairs.

A quick colour test on paper first was carried out in the Stillman & Birn sketchbook, scaled to x2 to make it easier. This allowed me to work out the drawing and vein patterns in the wings at a more manageable size. The colour will be different on vellum though as it's much more cream in colour. So I will have to make adjustments.

Working out the drawing and colours in the sketchbook

Fortunately I have quite a few small pieces of Kelmscott vellum left over from the skin used for the last Fritillaria painting, these will be perfect for the small studies. I worked life size this time, the butterfly has a wingspan of 35mm so it's pretty small. I tape the vellum to a piece of cream cardboard board using Frog tape, which holds the vellum in position better than masking tape. The bright green colour of the tape is a bit off putting, so sometimes I cover it with ordinary masking tape. It's always better to tape the vellum to a similar coloured background as the vellum because the skin is transparent, a darker or  lighter background will give a false impression of the colours. Taping to card instead of the drawing board enables me to rotate the work for easier access.

Ready! The difference in colour of the sketchbook paper and the vellum is clear to see.
The blue wash was laid down first - As suspected,  I had to alter the blue mix for the vellum, to make it cooler than the original mix, so reduced the yellow and added some Cobalt blue. The veins were lightly painted in on top using a mix of Sepia and Neutral Tint. To be honest I made a pretty bad job of this! but thought it would probably work out as more was added.

Early stages on vellum...hmmm didn't look so great!
 I added the darker markings and started to add the Lapis Sunlight. I gradually built up the iridescent colours and finally strengthened the darker veins and wing tips also adding some titanium white for the white border.

Beginning to add the dark wing markings

The body strange the hair looks almost dyed! the blue is brighter so I used cobalt for this. The iridescent paints were used again and finally the dark veins and leaf tips strengthened. I used a scalpel to create some fine hairs, as a final touch white was added to the wing tips.
 That's about it for now. It was a bit rushed and I'll take more time when it comes to the final piece. I hope the add the underside of the butterfly too, which is equally beautiful or the female, shes is brown in colour and not shiny at all. I might even add the food plant, Horseshoe Vetch Hippocrepis comosa, to the right hand side of the butterfly, but will have a think about it......for now I'm out of time. 

Work in Progress, adding the iridescent paint.

Heres a bit more about the Chalkhill Blue, Polyommatus coridon (Poda 1761):
 This beautiful shimmering butterfly is found on chalk but also on limestone downland. It declined quite dramatically due to loss of habitat from the intensification of farming and although the species has recovered fairly well in numbers its distribution had reduced and so is still designated as a 'species of conservation concern' under the UK BAP ( Biodiversity Action Plan), with unfavourable weather patterns causing the distribution problems. Unfortunately changes in climate present butterflies with a challenge which is altering their distribution and chances of survival. The more specialised the butterfly, e.g. only one food plant,  the more challenged they will be.
 Distribution of the species follows the availability of the food plant,  Horseshoe vetch, which is  found only on the grasslands, so the species is pretty much only found in the south east of England. The Chalkhill blue butterflies can also be seen feeding on nectar from Birds foot trefoil, several thistles and self heal, amongst other plants.
 There is strong dimorphism between male and female, she is a dark rich brown colour and although not so extravagant and shiny, she is equally beautiful,  I hope to paint her too!

The female lays just a single egg on the foodplant. The larva is concealed at the base of the foodplant during the day and as is the case with other  Lycaenid larvae, the Chalkhill Blue has a Newcomer's gland on the 7th segment which produces a honeydue secretionwhich attract ants. A mutualistic relationship is formed between the ants and the larva, which provides the ants with food and the larva protection against predators. Larvae are believed to produce vibrations and sounds that travel underground and communicate with the ants to advertise their sugar rich food source. This relationship is known as Myrmecophily and around 75% of Lycaenid's are believed to have such an association.

For more information on our butterflies, refer to
 The State of Britain's Butterflies 2011
JNCC The Butterfly Red List for Great Britain

There is also an excellent site called UK Butterflies

Thursday, 19 February 2015

It Starts with....Nothing!

After a great trip to Dublin the other week I felt enthusiastic about work and was looking forward to preparing two paintings for the SBA annual exhibition, titled, 'In Pursuit of Plants'  but what to paint?
Completing any painting is never without some form of struggle. It starts with nothing.... a blank page, or skin in this case, and slowly builds. There never seems to come a point when it's an easy process, some days go well, which is the best feeling.... and others don't, which is the worst ......... it can be extremely frustrating at times, especially with a deadline looming!

I decided to complete two paintings which were prepared for and planned last year., both are of Fritillaria imperialis 'Rubra' ( below).  

Work in progress (19th Feb), Fritillaria imperialis 'Rubra'
 on Kelmscott vellum, size 72 x 47 cm
It seems like a suitable subject,  F. imperialis first arrived in Britain from Persia in the sometime after the late 1500's, it is native to Turkey and also found in Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, where it grows on scrub and rocky slopes.
Several cultivars of the plant are available and 'Rubra' is one of the older forms. Last year I purchased three different plants, the above plus Aurora and the yellow Lutea, all are very beautiful but smell terrible. The leaves are sprouting at the moment but unfortunately it won't flower until April so the work will have to be completed using last years reference and studies. I spent a considerable amount of time working on this 'foxy' smelling member of the Lily family last year so feel fairly comfortable with working in this way on this occasion.

The blank skin...this has to become a painting! The whole skin, Kelmscott vellum from William Cowley. It cost about £130 for this piece so I don't want it to make too many mistakes
 Both paintings are on vellum,  one is painted on a whole skin and has so far proved a very difficult painting. The skin has lots of imperfections which I rubbed it down with pumice but it still hassome flaws, nevertheless it's a very nice looking piece of vellum. The smaller piece, in contrast, is very smooth. This is just the nature of vellum, every piece is different, which is also part of the charm. Working on vellum is always time consuming, usually with plenty of error,  invariably I end up removing some parts and re-doing them. Recently I painted some small works on vellum to get back into the swing of it but these two works are considerably more challenging, largely due to the rich colours and large size. I knew that the darker green leaves would be difficult so decided to start there.

Beginnings, I always put the stem in lightly first with a tea wash, followed by the leaves, I like to make sure the stem is smooth and it's an integral part of a painting, a bad stem ruins a painting! The initial washes on the leaves are more of a yellow biased green mix, using Indanthrene blue Winsor yellow and a small amount of  Permanent rose

These tricky leaves, rotate around the stem in whorls. After the initial washes I vary the ratio of the green mix from the initial yellow bias to a more blue biased mix in the darker greens. I also used some Danial Smith Verditer blue to push the highlights forward and some paynes grey for the darkest shadows.
Painting is a very personal thing, I spend a lot of time on my own with a painting. I've been working on this one for days and not getting very far, in fact I've hardy been out of the flat for over a week and find I need this concentrated working time to 'tune in' to a larger painting. When it's not going so well I have to try to resist getting up, making endless cups of coffee, and general procrastinating, such as checking Facebook and emails every 5 minutes etc. this behaviour must to be curtailed if  I'm to complete on time but this week already I've watched 4 films, drank nearly 3 bottles of wine and chomped through a whole bag of wine gums!  I've painted and removed several leaves already. Today I had to make progress and with just a couple of days left the pressure is on! At first I can't decide on the right brush for the job and frustrating little things happen that make me want to walk away - the worst is the little bits of hair that break from the brush and weld themselves to the vellum! or the annoying little flick of paint at the edge of the brush stroke. Anyone who paints on vellum will no doubt know what I'm talking about ....but I put the headphones on and after a few hours it starts to fall into place.
I don't want to finish the leaves before putting the flowers in so move on to the flowers as soon as I establish the basics with the greens. Ideally I should have put the green crown in but for some reason I didn't.
The first wash in and adding detail. Cobalt Violet  and Verditer Blue both ( Daniel Smith). For the vivid orange, Transparent Yellow and Scarlet lake plus some Daniel Smith Transparent Pyroll Orange. This image from the second painting, which is a simpler study of just the flower head with pollinating bees.
I'd worked out most of the colours for the painting last year but decided to try a few additions from the Daniel Smith range in addition to my usual W&N pans. It's really important to work with  transparents colours if possible, particularly on vellum, because the opaques tend to be flat and heavy looking in anything other than an initial wash. This bright orange colour will require a significant amount of building up and I want to maintain that brightness and luminosity.

A messy business! I usually use Winsor & Newton pans but decided to try a few of the Daniel Smith paints. More so on the larger painting. They have some very nice colours but I have to say that I prefer the W & N pans for the dryer style of working required on vellum, I found too much gum arabic present in the Daniel Smith paints but the colours are good, albeit slightly unnecessary.

Building up the dry brush work, adding some Perylene maroon to the palette for the rich red/ orange
Adding the bees!
On the smaller work I decided to add bees. It's one of the things I'd noticed about the plant last year....the bees and flies love it! F. imperialis is also known as 'Mary's Tears', this is because of the huge nectaries, hence the appeal to pollinators! Last year I'd taken the potted plant into the house one morning to paint it ,when all of a sudden two large bumble bees emerged from the flowers and flew around the kitchen in panic before escaping through the patio doors.

'Mary's Tears' Huge nectaries appeal to potential pollinators
 Another interesting  story about this plant is that it is also pollinated in the UK by Blue Tits,  the birds can often be seen scurrying up and down the stems! This is the most northerly observation of a bird pollinated plant (ornithophily), and the only example in Europe , so is of some significance. In April I hope to be able to paint the yellow  Fritillaria ' Lutea' with a blue tit. I've never seen this portrayed in a painting before.
Here's a bit of further reading for those interested. There are a number of research journals  regarding this subject, (this is a downloadable pdf.). For more general observations on pollination  click here.

Blue Tit, Parus caeruleus. A pollinator of  Fritillaria imperialis. Image copyright WIkimedia Commons  

A study from last year F. imperialis 'Lutea' a subject for a painting later this year
I'm afraid that writing this blog is yet another form of procrastination, so I'd better get back to the job.
Will the paintings be finished on time?....probably. Will they be acceptable...I don't know!
But are we ever really satisfied with our painting?  probably not....but that's all part of the challenge and the fun!