Monday, 25 August 2014

Drawing from nature BAASA Gauteng outing - 23 August 2014

A crisp, cold August day had 14 BAASA Gauteng members visiting Jenny Hyde-Johnson in the Cradle of Humankind to listen to her stories about how she went about planning her paintings for past Kirstenbosch Biennales. The discussion (detailed below) was to be followed by sketching in the veld from which Jenny draws her inspiration for her botanical work. Let me hasten to add that Jenny is a three times gold medal winner at Kirstenbosch so we were eager to sit at her feet and learn some of her secrets.

In the veld we visited a lovely sinkhole that is very characteristic of the dolomitic area. The beautiful trees surrounding the sinkhole and protected within it included an Acokanthera and an impressive Olea growing out of the sidewall of the sinkhole itself.

Looking down the sinkhole
New life emerging

From there we went to find some delicate pink Harveya growing hidden amongst the grass on a slope (these are normally cream coloured, so the pink ones added a frisson of excitement), which also had numerous Ficus trees clinging to rocks with their new red foliage adding colour to the winter browns.
Pink Harveya
New leaves - Ficus ingens

Finally Jenny took us to a spot overlooking a lovely valley with the rolling hills all around and the Magaliesberg mountains forming a backdrop in the distance. What a peaceful place to sit and do some meditative sketching. It was over all too soon.
Meditative sketching

Back: Sue Cochrane, Angie Hill, Jenny H-J, Gill Condy, Helene Joubert, Karyn Bell
Front: Lucia Hickman, Isabelita van Zyl, Annatjie Greyling
Sketching in the veld (not in photo): Jocelyn Colombick, Brenda Shafir, Gwenda Caplan
Photos: Ingrid Howes & Angie Hill

Jenny’s discussion

For the first biennale in 2006 that Jenny entered she was pressed for time and launched into her paintings with some haste, choosing subjects that happened to be available to her and without being able to plan sufficiently. The end result was an eclectic collection that, when she saw them hanging together at the exhibition, she felt didn’t hang well together and didn’t represent a cohesive theme; nevertheless she won gold. She realised that the next time she needed to choose a theme for her work.

Jenny likes the interconnectedness of nature and while rambling in the veld she came across some Strychnos pungens fruits lying in the veld and noticed the teeth marks from baboons on them. However, the flowers of Strychnos are quite insignificant, but the fruits are attractive. This led to her theme for the 2008 biennale: plants with seeds that are eaten by animals. This collection, with the habitat and ecology of the plants, including the animals that live off them, not only won gold, but also Best on Show.

For the 2013 Kirstenbosch Biennale the theme of the exhibition was medicinal and traditional use plants. Living in the Cradle of Humankind that is steeped in history, Jenny got to thinking about mankind’s existence from the ape-like hominids to the more modern Stone Age and Bushman people, for whom hunting was an integral part of survival. Out of this was borne her theme for this biennale when she learned of the bushman’s poisoned arrow plant, Acokanthera oppositifolia, growing in the area – she would focus on lethal arrow poisons. In these paintings she included one butterfly or moth that relies on the plant toxins of each species for its survival. Once again the habitat forms an integral part of the painting and once again, she was awarded gold.

So how does Jenny go about tackling her entries for Kirstenbosch now? Here are some of her tips:

Choose a theme
Brainstorm your theme eg if doing trees ask yourself “What is a tree?” then jot down everything you can think about trees (big, spreading, branches, climb, leaves, wood, furniture, gnarled………. and so on). Then choose something that forms a unified theme eg colour, shape, area, biome, habitat, use, genus, etc.

Choose a subject that is nearby.
She has found that having the subjects nearby enables her to observe them closely throughout the seasons, two plant cycles being the minimum, but three is better. Observe everything about the plant – its habitat, what eats it, pollinators, growth habit, etc.

Then research it as much as possible using reference books, the internet, experts such as botanists, ecologists and horticulturalists, botanical gardens, museums, herbaria, etc and ensure that you have the correct botanical names or you will be disqualified (and be aware of any name changes). It also makes your painting more interesting when you are more informed about it. For example, while trying to determine if Podranea is indigenous or introduced, Jenny learned that historically it was used as an indicator of a slave trading post, evidence of which can be seen throughout Africa today. Trying to locate Adenia digitata in the veld, Jenny learned that the plants were extensively collected from the veld during the Cold War because the corms containing the very toxic cyanogenic glycosides were exported to the US, resulting in them being difficult to find now in the wild. Jenny found her plant using the advice of a lepidopterist friend who told her to follow the Acraea butterflies that get their toxicity from the cyanide produced by the glycosides in the leaves of these plants that are eaten by this butterfly's larvae. And if you don’t study the plant carefully you may miss distinguishing taxonomic features, such as the bacterial nodules on the undersides of Pavetta species.

Select your specimen
Choose the healthiest specimen you can find that is typical of the plant in its natural habitat. Often nursery or garden specimens do not exhibit the characteristics of the plant in the wild so study it in its natural habitat and observe its ecological niche. Do veld sketches and take photographs for reference.

Companion fauna
If you use companion fauna in your painting make sure that they are pertinent to your plant, eg. necessary for pollination or seed dispersal. Limit it to one example and make sure that it is the commonest one found. If using a museum or university collection specimen for reference for an insect, be aware that it may have been treated for preservation purposes, which could mean that what you are seeing is not the true colouration (tannins taken up by certain butterflies are often removed, resulting in a paler body colour). The companion should also not dominate or overwhelm the plant subject, but rather complement it.

Size – think of where your paintings are going (having to transport them and cost involved), where will they hang, should they be landscape or portrait or a combination, picture how they will hang on a wall – all the same size, two and two, three and one; where they are grouped by artist they must hang well together.
Composition – remember the rule of thirds and the sweet spots, triangles, tapering lines, circles, keep the eye in the painting and don’t lead it out. Working on tracing paper makes it easier to rearrange the elements so the focal point is in the right place. Group things together and avoid dispersing them around the page.

Habitat – to include or not to include?
Include habitat if it tells a story, gives more information about the plant or increases its credibility. How much habitat? Don’t let it overwhelm the subject matter. It can be used effectively to enhance a plant that is sparse and can pull elements of the painting together.

Finishing off
Using types or labels – type is powerful and draws the eye, so ensure that it is balanced and is an element of the design; make it small and tasteful. It can be problematic if the name is reviewed and changed at a later date though. If in doubt, leave out!
Put all four of your paintings together before they go to the framer and adjust elements to ensure that they work well together, eg hues, focal points, etc.

In conclusion and to paraphrase Vicki Thomas:
By the time you’ve completed your submissions it's equivalent to having written a thesis.
Text: Angie Hill

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