Wednesday, 19 December 2018

Becoming Blue: Blue Sun Orchid - HAUNTING I

My life is planned by the movements of petals

It was October and the leaves outside my window were beginning to turn. I carefully packed away my brushes in glass jars and placed a blue drape over my unfinished paintings, mindful that I would not see them again until the year ended with a '9'. It was a funny feeling. Over the past few months, I had been mindful of a great shift occurring inside of me as I prepared for my trip to the Antipodes. No doubt it was another growth spurt from within my chrysalis. It is a long way to travel and I suppose it was inevitable that more 'wisening up' would be required on my part in order to navigate the new landscapes I would be in over the next couple of months. I often find that landscapes on the outside test the ones on the inside. 

With the studio mopped I went for a motorcycle ride to the Sierra Nevada before joining a party in the almond groves near Alhama de Granada. Autumn was very much underway - the  Spanish air was cold and once again full of the heavy fragrance of olive wood smoke. I inhaled as much of the air as my lungs could take, just in case I missed it once I was absent. I touched the mountain and its trees and picked up a cone before I said my farewell. I was only supposed to be gone for two months, but my bones knew it would be for longer. 

Blue Sun Orchid - Tasmania
20cm x 25 cm - tiny sketch :: work in progress
Watercolour and charcoal on paper
I arrived in Melbourne at six in the morning under the cast of an October full moon and as my airplane danced in the city’s airspace, I watched the sunrise like the opening scene of 2001: A Space Odessy. A thin, crescent-shaped flash of light covered the curved horizon.  I felt like I was being born.  Weeks later, I ripped a thin gash in one of the arms of my black Indian dress - 'the chrysalis is breaking' I thought. Then a week after that I ripped another split in the armpit of my silk shirt as if to confirm it. I thought back to the paintbrushes and the paintings waiting for me in my studio in Spain and then of the lettuces and artichokes waiting for me in England. There are Horcruxes of me scattered all over the place. It was a strange feeling. I pictured an invisible bungee rope which was metaphorically attached to my navel and pretended to twang it. It was stretched as far as it might have been able to go and I was aware of how very far away I was and that I was upside down, and yet my soul had arrived in this landscape before me. Or perhaps it was always here? 

I arrived in Tasmania on the eve of an immense storm the day after All Hallows. ‘Another one’ I thought, as I reflected on the days I spent in Scotland looking for Meconopsis. Electrical storms, like me, appear to also be chasing blue. I had never really considered Tasmania as a location before. It was always one of those places that seemed remote and peculiar. It certainly was never on my radar, but I ended up visiting the island because I wanted to find blue orchids and I had been informed that this was the best place to do so. Unprepared, I hopped off of the propeller plane and felt another sense of belonging – only this was more profound than what I had felt in Melbourne. This feeling only deepened as I drove along the island’s winding roads, smelt it’s damp air, touched it’s old soil and paddled in its choppy waters. The days rolled past like the raging clouds in the sky – everything on this isle was saturated with meaning and magic. I was inside a novel, inside a painting, inside a song. 

Most of the sun orchids in Tasmania remained dormant in bud as they patiently waited for the storms to pass. You could almost taste the tension in each capsule as the week grew old. Desperate to cross-pollinate I think that in the end many of the flowers this year had to opt for the far less exciting prospect of self-pollination instead. The weather just was not on their side, or, it seemed, on mine. I sat with a several budded stems in a heathland for a few hours while a swarm of mosquitoes and March flies feasted on me. I watched and waited and then watched a little more. Their plump, tight buds becoming heavy with me as we cooked our spells together. It was like looking into a mirror. Partially ripped chrysalises not quite ready to open. The orchids and I were chanting together beneath the folds and sheets of blue.

My life unfurls with the movements of petals and stars. As soon as I understand the workings of one blue flower, another seems to embrace me. With pieces of me spread out all over the globe like pollen, my body begins to cry out in pain and pleasure. It is ready to receive a place and a time. I believe the place has arrived, almost at the start of this journey into Blue, but possibly not the time. I shall return.


There are many layers to blue. Six weeks have passed since my time in Tasmania. It is now December 14th 2018 and I feel my head shifting gear as it readies itself towards practical work after having spent a month in New Zealand. Unable to sleep and pining for a place I have only just discovered, I decided to extend my Antipodean trip for a further two months and booked a one-way ticket to go back to Tasmania. I do not know when I will be returning to the mainland and I secretly wish I wasn’t. I bought ten meters of canvas to paint on whilst in Wellington and will be bringing this with me, along with oil paints, paper, and my dreams.

To be continued...

If you want to be taken to the environments I have been in with the power of your imagination and hearing, I have uploaded a few podcasts which combine commentary on the painting process along with field recordings taken from the sights I have visited. I have edited these so that listeners are taken on a non-interrupted journey through the landscapes and they are available here:

Sunday, 16 December 2018

Becoming Blue: The Antipodes

In October and November 2018 I was invited to teach several workshops on painting leaves in Australia and New Zealand as part of the first leg of my Blue Flower trip. I was totally blown away by everyone's support and love, not only for what I am doing in my work but for botanical art in general. It is so good to have so many of us working towards getting botanical art out there into galleries and on walls. Enthusiasm is so important and the most contagious type of love. 

East of Melbourne in the middle of nowhere

Here are some photographs which were taken during some of the workshops and as part of my expedition to find the Blue Sun Orchid in Tasmania. My journey started in Melbourne where I gave a talk to the friends of the botanic garden soon after touch down. After this, I was whisked away from a city I was growing to love to a place further away from the humdrum near Lakes Entrance. After a few days off grid for my birthday, I then found myself back in Melbourne for a business meeting after having packed for Tasmania. It was touch and go if Tasmania was going to go ahead as severe weather had been predicted, but after much mulling over I decided to go. 

Tasmania, orchid hunting in between storms. First week of November 2018
After a week in Tasmania which took me from the North to the South of the island, I was back in Melbourne for four days, before then flying to Canberra for a few days for a workshop. The day after I returned, I then had a workshop at Geelong Botanic Garden and then a day after that I had another workshop at Melbourne Botanic Garden. Then I had a few days turn over before flying to New Zealand for three workshops in Wellington, Hanmer Springs and Auckland. Eventually arriving in Tauranga. 

It was a jam-packed schedule. I worked out on December 21st that I hadn't had a single day of solitude since October the 22nd! For an introvert, that's quite a change of routine... 

So here are the photographs. I would like to thank Sandra Morris, Sue Wickison, Lesley Alexander Smith, Elizabeth Yuill Proctor, Mali Moir, Dianne Emery, Jenny Coker, John Pastoriza-Pinol, Cheryl Hodges and Amanda Ahmed for making all of this possible. I would also like to thank my friend Meg and her family for their generosity and kindness in helping me with my arrival and for planning such a magical birthday and my friends Emily and Chris for their support and care. I would lastly want to thank my friend Thomas, for his organisation and for teaching me so much. Thank you. 

Tasmanian coastline.  November 2018

Arthur River,  Tarkine Forest, Tasmania, the first week of November 2018

Arthur River,  Tarkine Forest, Tasmania, the first week of November 2018

In the ancient woods of the Tarkine in Tasmania. This part of the wood is due to be logged very soon. Some of the work I am doing for blue Flower will be used for an exhibition that is trying to raise awareness of these woods and get them legally protected.
Working in Tasmania. November 2018
Working in the Tarkine, Tasmania. November 2018

Gum forests, suburbs of Hobart, Tasmania, the first week of November 2018

The view from my desk at Sue Wickison's house in Wellington, New Zealand. 

Looking for Dragons with Elizabeth Yuill Proctor, Hamner Springs, New Zealand
New Zealand, South Island

New Zealand, South Island

New Zealand, South Island

Moana, New Zealand. December 2018
In Tauranga with aritst Jenny Coker, New Zeland, 15th December 2018
View from Jenny's garden, Tauranga, New Zealand, North Island

Student's work after a workshop at Otari Botanic Gardens, Wellington, New Zealand.
With thanks to Sue Wickison for organising this workshop. 

Workshop at Otari Botanic Gardens, Wellington, New Zealand.

Workshop at Otari Botanic Gardens, Wellington, New Zealand. 

Workshop at Otari Botanic Gardens, Wellington, New Zealand. 

Workshop in Hamner Springs, New Zealand South Island.
Thanks to Elizabeth Yuill Proctor for organising this!

Birthday celebrations during the workshop in Hamner Springs, New Zealand South Island. 

Workshop in Hamner Springs, New Zealand South Island. 

Workshop at NatureArt Lab, Canberra Botanic Gardens, Australia.
Thanks to Cheryl Hodges for making this class happen.

Workshop at NatureArt LabCanberra Botanic Gardens, Australia 

Workshop at NatureArt LabCanberra Botanic Gardens, Australia 

Workshop at NatureArt LabCanberra Botanic Gardens, Australia 

Finding a Wahlbergia in Canberra, Australia. Thanks to Cheryl Hodges for taking this shot1

Teaching at Melbourne Botanic Gardens.
Thanks to Mali Moir and Dianne Emery for organising this one!

Teaching at Melbourne Botanic Gardens.

Teaching at Melbourne Botanic Gardens.

Teaching at Melbourne Botanic Gardens.

Workshop in Auckland, New Zealand.
Thanks to Lesley Alexander Smith and Sandra Morris for organising this workshop. 

Teaching a workshop in Auckland, New Zealand 

Workshop in Auckland, New Zealand 
Workshop in Auckland, New Zealand 

Samples of my portfolio on show in Auckland

Class photo in Auckland, New Zealand 

Workshop in Auckland, New Zealand 

Workshop in Auckland, New Zealand 

Workshop in Auckland, New Zealand 

Workshop in Auckland, New Zealand 

Workshop in Auckland, New Zealand 

Workshop in Geelong Botanic Gardens, Australia.
Thanks to John Pastoriza-Pinol for organising this workshop and for an amazing lunch!

Thursday, 23 August 2018

Becoming Blue IV: Consolida - FORGIVENESS

Things are taking time, but I am making progress. I have invested in a car. It's a leap of faith that I have been putting off for ages but in the end I decided to commit. He's black with a very large boot and blackout windows. I have named him Diego after Valaquez. He has the same initials as Darth Vadar. In fact, he probably looks a more like him if Darth was ever reincarnated as a car, but I went with a painter's name in the end. So here we are, another step towards the travelling part of Blue.

Flower art
Consolida (2018)

As I start to learn to drive again I find myself having to re-acquaint myself with many other old skills whilst learning new ones including how to use sound recording software. These are the frustrating stages I have to get my head around before I can really start to grapple with Blue. It's frustrating as there is nothing tangible to show for the time put into learning (yet). However, I am enjoying the process of becoming broad.

So I continue to feel very much as I am starting from the beginning again. Up until the end of May I was still in a very lonely, dark place. I am not sure what it was. A dark realisation most likely. Nature can be dark. It also can also be miraculous. I am trying to concentrate on that. However one cannot have one without the other, we all cast shadows, and as a painter I feel drawn to explore the dark shades of what I have been feeling for the past 15 months. Rabbit holes are dark places. Wonderous, but, like my car, dark.

'To live with our shadow is to understand how human beings live at a frontier between light and dark; and to approach the central difficulty, that there is no possibility of a lighted perfection in this life; that the attempt to create it is often the attempt to be held unaccountable to be the exception, to be the one who does not have to be present or participate, and therefore does not have to hurt or get hurt.'
- David Whyte

Blue Rose
Blue Rose, Columbia Road Market, 2018, Watercolour on Saunders Waterford paper. No Charcoal.

In my search for something cathartic and mystical, I have been looking at the work of religious painters and the paintings of El Greco. I have also noticed in my sketch work and daydreams things are starting to become out of focus and the proximity of the flowers keeps changing. Sometimes I am a fairy enveloped in the petals, sometimes I am just hovering above like a ghost-seeing it all laid out in front of me. Pinned to a board as if to be dissected.

As I carry on exploring this enclave*, I am noticing that what I am starting to tackle is most likely the notion of flower painting, which is actually quite different to anything I have ever done before. For me, flower painting still falls under the umbrella of botanical art, but it is moving further away from the scientific end of the spectrum and closer towards the more artistic end, the more emotionally descriptive and mystical.

Consolida botanical painting
Consolida, Covent Garden Flower Market, London 2018botanical painting by J R Shepherd (2018) Work in Progress.
Watercolour and Charcoal (powder and pencil) on paper.

In my last post, I touched on the distance of blue and how for me it describes the eternal longing or desire for things. This is why for me, blue has always been a romantic colour and the colour that sparked the Romantic movement in 'Blue Blume'. I nodded briefly to the Romantic Movement when working on Leafscape when I looked into the elements that go to make up Gothic horror. These themes still to beguile me. But what makes blue 'blue'? I find it is a colour who's meaning can readily changed by its context, by neighbouring colours and by lighting. You can make blue happy just by upping the brightness or its intensity. You can make it sad by lowering the saturation and its clarity.

My Consolida is my consolation and consolidation as I learn to forgive and re-build myself. 
- J R Shepherd

Lately, black backgrounds have begun to lure me in just like they did four years ago when I first arrived in Spain. At the time I didn't know why I wanted to paint dark backgrounds, I just played around in the dark not even considering it. Now, however, it is May 2018 and I am sitting in my very English room wondering why I am drawn to paint black backgrounds again and then finally the penny drops. It is from being in Spain. I have been influenced. Spain's stark contrasts continue inthrall to me. The shadows on the white walls and under the canopies of popular trees. Its the darkness we see in Ribera paintings and of course those of Goya. Ribera is my favourite Spanish painter. It's difficult to writtle them down, there are so many and if El Greco was Spanish I'd probably choose him. However, the intensity of a Ribera painting is what I find so entrancing. The perfection of his painted fingernails, the red robes and the endless blackness around. I want to paint like this. I want to paint with intensity. So now I am changing tactics in my attempt to combine the elements of Mannerism with the Romantic.

St. Paul the Hermit, Guiseppe Ribera (1635 - 1640), Oil on canvas, 118 x 98 cm.
Paul of Thebes is known as the first Christian hermit, living alone in the desert from the age of 16 years

The incredibly dramatic illumination we see in these dark Baroque paintings is called, Tenebrism (Tenebroso in Italian) which can be translated into English as very dramatic illumination. Chiaroscuro is another kind of play on lighting in painting, but I feel it isn't the same. Tenebrism seems to be to be more dramatic and the tenebrist artist’s tend to use more darkness in the light-dark contrast while the chiaroscuro artist’s use more light. Famous tenebrist artists are Rembrandt, Gerrit van Honthorst, Francisco Ribalta, Jusepe de Ribera and Georges de La Tour. Artemisia Gentileschi, one of the few women artists of the Baroque, was an outstanding exponent of tenebrism. 

Queen - Bohemian Rhapsody (1975)

Tenebrism came into popularity around 17th century in Italy and some parts of Spain. Chiaroscuro on the other hand was already famous from works created in the Renaissance era (around 14th century). Although the artist Caravaggio is generally credited with the invention of the tenebristic style, this technique was used much earlier by other artists, such as Albrecht Dürer, Tintoretto, and El Greco. There were probably lots of other painters too who have just faded into their murky black backgrounds since their time as forgotten ghosts. This sadly happens all too often, even now. 

Cornflower paper collage
Mary Delany (1700-1788) - Centaurea cyanus, formerly
in an album (Vol.II, 79), 1779 - collage of coloured papers,
with bodycolour and watercolour.

What I am doing is nothing new. Barbara Regina Dietzsch is very well known for her botanical paintings on black backgrounds, as is Mary Delany for her botanical collages and then there are all the Dutch Masters. More recently artists Coral Guest and Rosie Sanders have both produced works with dark backgrounds/space. Currently, my paintings are not painted using black per se, but with a mix of Winsor Blue (Red shade) and Perylene Maroon, working to keep it all to the blue end of the spectrum. I want the whole pieces to be blue.

Barbara Regina Dietzsch 'Delphinium with a Butterfly), Gouache

For the first darker piece I chose to paint a Consolida, which is also known as Larkspur. I heard one of the gardener's talking about them when I went to Great Dixter last June (just before I dispatched 300 INKQs containing 'The Kiss: Onslow Gardens') and so it seemed like a good flower to paint. It was the next flower on my extraordinarily long list. Furthermore, I feel my visit to Dixter really was quite pivotal in many ways. In helping me to close the painful doors of the past and encouraging me to venture onwards. I had to travel through Brighton station, (where only 11 months earlier, the Cheshire cat had bid me farewell) so that I could get to Rye. Without Dixter, I wouldn't be planning my first long-haul expedition to the Antipodes. Funny how things flow.

'To forgive is to put oneself in the larger gravitational field of experience than the one that first seems to hurt us.'  - David Whyte

Morning Glory Blue Flower
Maud Purdy's 'Heavenly Blue Morning Glory' (1932) Brooklyn Botanic Garden

Consolidae, and their close cousins Delphinium, are stately spikes of eye-catching blossoms in astounding shades of blue. The name Delphinium is derived from the Greek word 'δελφίνιον' (delphis), meaning dolphin, for the nectary's resemblance to the bottlenose of a dolphin. The world Larkspur originates from 1570s, from lark (n.) and spur (n.) to describe the resemblance of the calyx and petals to the bird's long, straight hind claw. Delphinium are native to the Northern Hemisphere and historically, were used by Native Americans and European settlers to make blue dye, and across the pond, it was the primary source for ink. 'The juice of the flowers, particularly D. consolida, mixed with alum, gives a blue ink' (Figuier, 1867).

Early stages of the Consolida painting working with charcoal and watercolour

The background of this painting was painted using charcoal powder in the mix with watercolour paints. I guess it is the gum arabic in the paint which acts as a binding agent, stopping the charcoal from falling off. The bonus of combining charcoal powder in the paint is that it removes shine and brush marks, so you are left with a very velvety surface that absorbs light like Vanta Black. With the Consolida, I have tried to 'bring' the background into the plant to create black space by using a charcoal pencil on the flowers themselves. I like the effect, but I am not completely sold, so I am still experimenting. The second painting, 'Blue Rose', has been executed only in watercolour. For this painting I decided to do something that botanical painters don't usually do and paint a flower that is not natural. A Rose that has been deliberately altered by mankind using synthetic dyes as representative of our unwavering quest for perfection and the darkness this obsession can bring.

'To cast no shadow on others is to vacate the physical consequences of our appearance in the world.' 
- David Whyte

There are many sides to blue. Love and loss come hand in hand. Joy and pain. The breaking down of things, and the building up. My Consolida is my consolation and consolidation as I learn to forgive and re-build myself. To forgive is an act of love and compassion. It is a skill of generosity and of understanding and truly necessary if one is to live a full life. Consolidated, I now more able to step out of my enclave and beyond.

*The word enclave is French and first appeared in the mid-15th century as a derivative of the verb enclaver (1283), from the colloquial Latin inclavare (to close with a key). A parcel of land surrounded by land owned by a different owner, and that could not be reached for its exploitation in a practical and sufficient manner without crossing the surrounding land.

In the meaning of flowers, Delphium is about enjoying the lighter side of life, even when troubles get you down and expanding your options and attracting new opportunities. 

Blue Rose
Blue Rose as a work in progress. Watercolour on Saunders Waterford paper.


Karen Wiese, (2013), Sierra Nevada Wildflowers, p. 52

RHS A-Z encyclopedia of garden plants. United Kingdom: Dorling Kindersley. 2008. p. 1136. 

Jabbour, F., and S. S. Renner, (2011), Consolida and Aconitella are an annual clade of Delphinium (Ranunculaceae) that diversified in the Mediterranean basin and the Irano-Turanian region. Taxon 60(4): 1029-1040.

Figuier, L. (1867). The Vegetable World, Being a History of Plants. Harvard University. pg 396.