Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Botanical Garden Interview

The NYBG posted an interview about painting outside in the gardens. Here are some of the questions and answers:

NYBG En Plein Air (Photo by Ben Hider)

Helena La-Porte Burns asks: "What makes plein-air painting so special?"

JG: I like interpreting the world around me with no filter. It’s just me and my little book and my handful of pigments trying to make intelligible the whirling chaos of reality. As artists it’s hard not to fall back on conventional approaches, but sketching from life helps me discard my expectations about what an “artistic” subject ought to look like.

I try to find something beautiful in a subject that most of us overlook, such as a supermarket doorway or a jet airplane parked at the airport. This inclination sometimes makes me feel ill at ease in places with such obvious beauty and lushness as a garden, because the tradition is so strong, and the standards have been set so high by garden painters such as George Elgood or Mildred Butler.

Cleome, casein on canvas mounted to panel, 11 x 14

Do you have a favorite flower to paint, and why?

JG: One year in the Garden I fell in love with a small group of cleomes, or spider flowers. They were tucked away in the Family Garden. I used an old-fashioned paint called casein, which was popular before acrylic was developed. I was fascinated by the shape contrast between the oval petals and the long, filament-like stamens. I love the way the leaves get smaller and yellower as you go up the stem. You don’t see paintings of cleomes as often as other flowers, but to me they just call out to be painted, because they make such a beautiful silhouette, and they seem so delicate.

HLB: Which NYBG collection is your favorite to capture?

JG: I know roses are the popular favorite, and they’re my favorite, too. There’s so much richness of form and color from an artist’s perspective. And of course on a warm summer day the scent is heavenly, the people are friendly, and there’s a painting just begging to be captured anywhere you look. In the included video I’m painting the variety called “Carefree Beauty.” I’m close enough to see the structure of individual flowers and leaves, but far enough away to allow the individual flowers to group into masses.

What amazes me with roses on a warm day is how much the blossoms change from the morning to the late afternoon. If your painting shows the particular shape of specific blossoms, they will change drastically by the time the session is over, and if you return the next day hoping to find the same arrangement, it won’t be there. Seeing plants in the dimension of slow time is a huge revelation.

HLB: What does the NYBG Plein-Air Invitational mean to you?

JG: When I think of each of the years we’ve done it, I recall the feeling of camaraderie and common purpose shared by a group of friends, each of us trying to carve a slice of the magic that is NYBG. After weeks of anticipation we head out to our chosen spot on a golf cart. As we paint, it’s a chance to meet members of NYBG’s loyal public, many of whom have artistic inclinations of their own. At the end of a busy day of painting, we gather to munch on treats, sip wine, share our tales of triumph and disaster, and check out what each of us created.

HLB: Which seasonal collection do you look forward to painting in the future?

JG: I want to get back to painting the lilacs again. The aroma is heavenly, the variety of colors and types are incredible, and I appreciate being allowed to set up our easels on the grass around them. While studying the lilac flowers, it’s fun to watch the bees busy at their work. I love the way the flowers start out as bulbous buds, each with a tiny “X” at the tip, and the way they open into four-petaled flowers, starting at the base of the spike.


(Link to videoHLB: What is the most challenging aspect of the art?
JG: I’m always fascinated and challenged by the way petals of hollyhock, roses, and peonies can focus and intensify color in the center of the blossom. Nobody described the artistic effect better than Gertrude Jekyll:

“Some of the colour is transmitted through the half-transparency of the petal’s structure, some is reflected from the neighbouring folds; the light striking back and forth with infinitely beautiful trick and playful variation, so that some inner regions of the heart of a rosy flower, obeying the mysterious agencies of sunlight, texture and local colour, may tell upon the eye as pure scarlet; while the wide outer petal, in itself generally rather lighter in colour, with its slightly waved surface and gently frilled edge, plays the game of give and take with light and tint in quite other, but always delightful, ways.”

HLB: As a longtime plein-air artist, have you noticed any significant changes in the environment that affect your work? Do you have any examples?

JG: I live in the mid-Hudson Valley, and I’ve noticed the effects of invasive plants such as Japanese stiltgrass in the understory, and I’ve certainly noticed the effects of the big die-off of pine forests when painting mountain landscapes in Colorado. During this recent lockdown period, I’ve noticed some encouraging signs of nature bouncing back, with far more native wildflowers, such as trillium, in our local forest. I don’t know why they haven’t been browsed by the deer, but I appreciate seeing them again.

HLB: What tips do you have for budding plein-air artists?

JG: I would suggest that young artists who want to paint from life should always keep a sketchbook for pencil sketches and quick color studies. Building up a practice of regular sketching excursions with friends is a great way to get started. There are Urban Sketchers groups and plein-air meetups in almost every city. Every once in a while I think it’s important to slow down and spend more than one session on a work of plein-air, perhaps at least three or four hours on one study. And you don’t have to do it in a busy, public location if you’re nervous about people watching or judging you.

Look for non-touristy places where artists rarely go, and where no one would expect to find someone painting. You’ll have it all to yourself and you’ll really be able to concentrate.

HLB: Is there anything else you would like to share with us and the readers at this time?

JG: I’m grateful to the NYBG for its sponsorship, both of botanical illustration and plein-air art. While both may result in attractive images of flowers, the botanical artist is more concerned with portraying individual flowers with a scientist’s perspective, removing a plant from its context to understand form and function while still seeing the beauty in it. The plein-air artist pays attention to the whole living ensemble as influenced by light, air, atmosphere, spatial depth, and that intangible element of life and change. A goal of mine is to combine the two perspectives, to see both the forest and the trees.

Watch my video "Flower Painting in the Wild,"available as a DVD from Amazon and as an HD download from Gumroad and Sellfy.   
Also sample my Gumroad tutorial: "Casein Painting in the Wild." 
Musicians in the garden were members of the Dolce Ensemble.                                                             


Susan Krzywicki said...

I just took a field botany class for San Diego local plants and then started a field journal. Native plants may not be as showy as roses, and it is sometimes a bit hot and dusty out there, but the chaparral is fascinating - especially since I am trying to capture insect and animal life as well. Not even remotely good at it, but by writing copious notes, I can kinda pull together an in-expert bit of drawing into something mildly entertaining to myself.

The scent of California sages and sagebrush is magical in the wild. I like the idea of combining a safe solo outdoor activity with a bit of science and a bit of healthy hiking to get to a good spot.

It feels like such an adventure. Thanks for this post - I will refer back to it as I practice.

nuum said...

"The Plein-air artist pays attention to the whole living ensemble as influenced by light, air, atmosphere, spatial depth, and that intangible element of life and change. A goal of mine is to combine the two perspectives, to see both the forest and the trees."


Paulo - Rio

Stephen and Nyree said...

I love that portrait by Ben Hilder. And your thoughts are poignant, thank you.

Debasree Das said...

Nice article