Monday, October 20, 2014

Relief from Botanical Painting -- Why Not Just Take a Picture?

Making art is the venting of feelings that have bundled themselves in sensory/emotional knots, with more or less labor devoted. When I began to draw and paint native plants I had walked up against in the Indiana pastures or along the Lake Superior shores, I was so smitten with exact form, color and circumstance that I knew only to illustrate the plant on the scene. The process entailed surrender to the conditions of that place, with the flower's ephemeral stage of development creating a sense of obligation which crowded aside everything else I needed to do. At first I'd feel a bit crazed by a sense of insurmountable disorder. At the work's completion days or weeks later I was at peace, gratified by the translation of vision to materials, but each painting ended up as a documentary, a throwback to times when cameras were inadequate to record color, leaf texture and the subtler features of a flower. The more that I felt impelled to bring the weather and the background in with the botanical detail, the more the work became a documentary of a place and a day occupied by a plant. Meanwhile the botanical cards I sold the most to customers as likely as not bore the simplest illustrations on a white background.

Fantasy tends to prevail over the purely documentary impulse in painting and drawing today since we have the camera for the utmost capture of what meets the eye as it makes its distinctions. Wanting to see what my own fantasy assisted by photo images would lead me to do in botanical art, especially since the days and weeks of the brisk northern flowering season get ahead of me--much as I'd like to do all botanical painting out of doors in a sweet and lonely place--I made most of my floral paintings this year supported by photos I had taken in the field from assorted angles around a plant at the peak of its blooming cycle. We sped from June to mid-August before I could start on the wild blue flag, Iris versicolor, that I had wanted to conjure on paper since the late 1990s. In the season's lateness I'd have to rely solely on photos, my own and infinite others, for my examples. I decided to give form to a somewhat grotesque notion of purple iris. The result, after a great deal of indoor hand labor, leaves me a bit disenchanted. Despite my careful attention to assorted close-up details gleaned from at least four photos, the piece fails to acclaim the essence of June in the bogs and peatlands, where wild blue flag upholds its perfection, saying scion, rebirth in its hallmark pattern of immaculate blue, purple, gold and white.

Here is the new mixed-media painting of the iris, or wild blue flag:

<a href="" style="font: 10pt arial; text-decoration: underline;">nature watercolor paintings</a>

Distortion and simplification in this work suggest that it would call out to a somewhat different set of tastes than the pieces done in solemn homage to the plant waving in the wild. Surely there's a lot of middle ground between botanical illustration and jubilantly decorative floral art.

Pride, brought about through learned skill and certain inclinations to work deliberately by hand and eye, urges the belief in me that hand illustration is more profoundly artistic than any genre that begins with a photograph, with however many techniques applied to heighten certain effects in the ultimate photo image. And yet there are some photos, I think, that override all of an artist's instinct to lavish effort on a painting. On occasion these photos happen in our hands and cameras by accident, a moment's inspiration out of which the camera does all the labor.

As an example, while visiting my mom who lives in Hingham, not far south of Boston, Massachusetts, I went walking on a couple of days that proved lead-ups to soaking rain in the wake of a drought. Just past a pile of cement rubble on the trail skirting the boundaries of her retirement community I came upon the pokeweed, a robust plant with a huge tradition in the pioneer United States and no doubt over the eons before there was a U.S. Immediately the plant's bulk and flashy green and pink, familiar as it was to me from near a rusty tin barn and a fence in Indiana long ago, whispered: heirloom.

If I had nowhere else I had to be I would pull together the materials and paint the wonderful subject over the few weeks it would require, source of salad greens and pie filling and writing ink to many of our American forebears, but why bother? Look at the misty springtime aspect, even in late September, that the camera drew in around the leaves with their beads of rainwater. Far be it from me to deny photography its place as an art genre. But back in the Upper Midwest, looking out at yellowed meadows, marshes and aspen groves I am remembering May and June and the reappearance of evolved perfection. Through the winter I will be drawing and painting a lot of stumps and black spruce, its frizzy few branches bedecking a wand that might almost be dead wood. But next spring, barring any misfortune, I had better get back to those poolsides where Iris versicolor emerges and do careful justice to the precision of tender buds as they unfold, to the re-patterned functioning of countless iris genes as I lean out of a folding chair whose legs nestle into the mud.