Saturday, July 7, 2012

Part 2: Foliage / Every Leaf

Is it possible to accurately paint every leaf and every blade of grass in a piece of landscape? 

Raymond Ching gave it a try in 1972. He set up with his watercolors along a roadside bank near his studio. Working in watercolor, he had to paint around all the light leaf shapes. Wasps made his life a misery. Unfortunately, they lived in the small, dark hole at the left of the composition.

People were especially keen to try such experiments a hundred and fifty years ago. Inspired by the writings of John Ruskin, who urged students to 'reject nothing, select nothing, and scorn nothing,' artists have taken as long as months to record the plants in a scene as faithfully as possible. 

In 1852, William Holman Hunt painted "Our English Coasts (Strayed Sheep). He did the bulk of the foliage work outdoors, setting up his easel in different viewpoints to capture the near and far scene.

Earlier on the blog I mentioned the story of John Millais who endured flies and built a shed during the months that he painted the verdure in his painting of Ophelia. Another case was Frederick Leighton, who drew a lemon tree leaf by leaf by working from dawn to dusk over the course of a week.

(Video link) Each of these artists ran up against the limitations of the challenge. As the time lapse video of petunias demonstrates, leaves don't hold still. They grow and tilt through the day to face the sun. There can be hundreds of thousands of leaves on a single tree or even a roadside bank, and each leaf has its own variegation of texture and reflectivity. And then there's the practical economic problem. How much would your gallery dealer have to charge for your painting if you spent all summer on it?

Foliage Series
Part 1: Painting Tools


Making A Mark said...

Plus Lucian Freud - who was apparently nearly driven to distraction when he tried to paint every leaf in the overgrown garden outside his studio window.

This is a podcast about one of the etchings of the painter's garden which Freud did

Making A Mark said...

...and there's Albrecht Dürer's Great Piece of Turf

Although I rather think he may have "cheated" and dug it up and brought it back to his studio!

Florante Paghari-on said...

I've tried this idea of painting amarillo flowers in a pot and having trouble painting them still because the flower keeps on growing for just four hours. Horrible! Maybe you can do it to some other slow growing plants or by simply cutting its stem and put it in a jar with water. Almost gallery here in my country don't consider the effort for how much detail you put in the painting instead they charge every artwork by size.

DesB said...

Victor Erice filmed a documentary in 1990 called "The Quince Tree Sun". It followed the Spanish Artist Antonio Lopez Garcia re-inacting his annul, obsessive,
attempt to paint every leaf, the changing light and the growing fruit on his quince tree using an elaborate registration system of a lattice of strings an paint dots on the leaves. Year after year the changes in the tree and fruit through the Summer and Autumn and decay make his attempts futile.
A subtle, hypnotic documentary which is essentially about the artist's compulsion to depict his sensations in the face of relentless change.
An excellent documentary. Watch it if you can.

Olivier Morin said...

Or «Quince Tree of the Sun» (,
a documentary on Antonio Lopez.

MrCachet said...

Niggle did it! (J.R.R, Tolkein, Leaf By Niggle).

K_tigress said...

sketching or painting popcorn is a great project on a smaller scale till you try painting veg or landscape like the ones you featured.

Susan said...

Why would anyone want to?

Dan Kent said...

Great post, and the comments with links are phenomenal! Thank you all.

Tom Hart said...

This type of detail, while technically impressive, leaves me cold. I prefer to see the artist's hand in the work, and a variety of detail levels. A piece can still be very realistic and satisfy this personal preference.

Anonymous said...

I feel like a bad artist because I can't paint every single leaf. Maybe I'm being too hard on myself.

kat said...

Raymond Ching is an astounding watercolorist, a true genius. He apparently started off as a street urchin that an art instructor "discovered" and nurtured. His bird watercolors are magnificent.

"The Lemon Tree" is one of my favorite works of art. I definitely prefer the extreme close observation of the "every leaf" school. The love and triumph of the eyes! Caressing each form with infinite care, each unique and ephemeral -- visual appreciation of existence at an extraordinary pitch.

DesB said...

Beautifully said Kat

Roelof Venter said...

How does one compensate or prepare if ones subject is bound to move around (animals, people) and the lighting to change position?

I have been sketching people in a small pad I carry with me. People tend to move, so I am limited to how much I can draw using my FIRST IMPRESSION of what I saw.

I cannot imagine how to even approach a plein aire painting. Any posts relating to this issue, perhaps?

James Gurney said...

Roelof, that's the all-important question. Sunlight moves or goes behind a cloud, trees grow and change, people shift poses, and animals don't hold still at all. Capturing this requires directness and speed and a trained memory. If you're lucky, something will return to an earlier state. Once you get hooked on trying to capture these dynamics, working from photos is like talking to a corpse.

Susan, Why? Trying to capture every leaf can be an almost religious experience. Read John Ruskin's "Modern Painters" for the most eloquent explanation and defense for such a quest.

DesB, thanks for mentioning Antonio Garcia Lopez. By chance I've been reading about him lately, and I'll do a post on him soon. That documentary is amazingly honest.

Katherine, yes, I appreciate you pointing out Durer's turf. He was so ahead of his time in confronting mundane reality and finding the transcendence in it. I didn't know about Lucian Freud's work in this area.