Tuesday 30 June 2020

Becoming Blue XIII: Puya - DISTANCE

There was always going to be at least one Puya in the Blue Collection. There had to be. Not only because it is the most extraordinary flower, but because I have wanted to paint it ever since I heard Marianne North's story in her trying to find it in its natural habitat in the Andes 160 years ago. The distance she had to travel to find it in her petticoats. It's remoteness, it's faraway-ness, it's rarity. It's like Lapis and all things blue - far away, exotic and hard to find. It was Marianne's legacy, along with Yves Klien, that made me want to turn Blue Flower global. I had to paint at least one species of Chilean Puya, if not several. 

Puya Watercolour Painting Jessica Shepherd
Puya alpestris var. zoellneri, Watercolour on paper, 1.5m x 1m.
Jessica Rosemary Shepherd

However, this particular Puya wasn't growing in the Chilean Andes. This is a Puya found in an equally distant place by Artist Heidi Willis in 2016 in the Blue Mountains in Australia. She very kindly sent me lots of images of the Puyas growing in the botanical gardens there. Therefore, for the first time ever, I was painting only from photographs and I can tell you - it's not as easy as one might think. Painting from photographs is far from easy. I had the photographs on my laptop for four years holding off any Puya painting until I had seen my own version of the flower. I was secretly hoping I'd make it to Chile and be able to paint the specimen from life in 2021. But then these huge bush fires broke out in Australia in early December 2020 and we all watched in horror as the animals and plants died. I'd go to bed crying. It was awful. 

It was in these moments I decided to paint this particular specimen. I felt so helpless I didn't know what else to do and the sad irony that an endangered plant such as this, that should be protected where it grew in captivity in Australia, wasn't lost on me. The Blue Mountain nature reserve and botanical garden were damaged by the ferocious fires. The Puya might have been safer in Chile, where it battles with habitat destruction daily.

Puya Watercolour Painting Jessica Shepherd
Puya alpestris var. zoellneri, Watercolour on paper, 1.5m x 1m.
Jessica Rosemary Shepherd


I will admit, the Puya was a tough painting.  Several times it refused to be drawn - I found it difficult to do something on large paper in the new studio. I dropped the drawing, damaged the paper and had to start all over again. The studio was icy cold. I had to keep stoking the fire. Then I couldn't work on it while I had to house sit. Then I had a trip to Egypt and the impending doom for WWIII took over the Australian fire grief, and then a pandemic took over the issue of WWIII and then everything just conglomerated into a rather disturbing few months. 

The astonishing thing, is that the Puya painting documents all of this time - from December 1st 2019 right through to June 30th 2020. I didn't work on it every day as I couldn't, my eyes would go funny and I remember feeling restless throughout, as though I wanted to be freer. At the time I was locked in my house in Spain where I wasn't allowed to go out on walks, so there is no freeing of the soul. Working on such a 'tight' piece is hard under prolonged periods of time. So to relax I indulged in oils, painting pansies and danced in the hallway to get me through the tight spots. 

Finishing it in late June was equally strenuous. My hand's shock under the pressure and I could only work in half-hour slots. Dr. Shirley Sherwood has written to me expressing a wish to have it for her collection and I had another five people wanting it. I couldn't ruin it, for Shirley or for me or for Australia. I finished it at the end of June during a Pluto Jupiter conjunction. I decided to title her 'Blue Flame' in the hope that the forests of Australia would rejuvenate quickly.

Early stages

Mameri blu turquoise 
W&N Winsor Blue (Red shade) 
W&N perylene maroon 
Daler Rowney cobalt blue 
W&N Paynes Grey 
Schminke Cerulean Blue Hue 
W&N transparent yellow 
W&N permanent rose - anthers with the yellow

Puya Watercolour Painting Jessica Shepherd
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Puya Watercolour Painting Jessica Shepherd

Puya Watercolour Painting Jessica Shepherd

Puya Watercolour Painting Jessica Shepherd
Puya alpestris var. zoellneri, Watercolour on paper, 1.5m x 1m.
Jessica Rosemary Shepherd

One particular thing that really startled me with this painting, was how much a struggled to finish it. This piece took a lot longer than usual paintings of this size and usually the pressure speeds me up, not slows me down. Yes, it is a complex piece, but there were often weeks when I wouldn't touch it and I wondered why this was and I think it was linked to hidden knowledge. A knowing that the Puya will probably be my last accurate watercolour. After months of finding it hard to leap into a void - another void as there are several, I am feeling inside that I am going to try to let go again and there's a certain sort of grief associated with this letting go of a well-practiced way of painting. So powerful it is, that it has meant I have not been able to, I have been holding on, tighter and tighter. and the paintings have gotten tighter and tighter and some even ruined as a consequence. I couldn't bare to finish the Puya because I knew that this piece was the 'end point' - the last one. 

And so it is now the end of June and the end of the Puya and with everything that has come to pass in 2020. Hidden in my secret house with a blue door I am now going to start leaving things less finished than finished. It is for the viewer to finish them. Who wants a photographical representation anyway?! It's all an illusion, painting is an illusion and it's really up to the viewer to finish it to see what they want to see.

Puya Framed by Fine Art Solutions in Chessington, UK
Now in the Shirley Sherwood Collection of Botanical Art

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