Portraits of Plants, Lesson 3

For the first lesson in this sequence, go here.

I always draw from real plants—never photographs—because plants are three dimensional and were once alive… They are physically present, and can move, change, and challenge the person drawing them. Sarah Simblet, Botany for the Artist

Two summers ago I signed up for a class on botanical drawing taught by Claudia Fitch. Most of our classes met at the wonderful Victorian conservatory at Volunteer Park in Seattle. It was a difficult experience for me in many ways, plunging me back into the sense of inadequacy that I remembered from my high school art classes.

Claudia began with assignments to produce contour drawings like those I described in the first two lessons. Then she introduced us to the concept of drawing negative space. The illustration from the Betty Edwards book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, shows how if we try to draw what we see (as the artist did in the top picture) we will often produce an unsatisfying reproduction. If instead we try to focus on the negative spaces and the outlines, we can produce something that looks more like the object being drawn.

When drawing a plant, the easiest way to see the negative space is to use a frame to isolate the plant. We created viewfinders out of thin cardboard (they should be the same proportion as the page on which you are sketching).  (You can also take a photograph to frame a subject as well.) What you want to do is make sure the plant is not floating in white space in the middle of the page but that it extends to the edges, on at least three sides. Then you draw the negative space, rather than the positive space. The illustration on the left comes from Edwards.

Claudia also taught us to do ten or so quick sketches, trying to frame the subject in different ways, before deciding how we were going to draw. We could move our frames (cut out of stiff cardboard) to see what would make for the best composition as in the example below. As you can see I didn’t finish all of my sketches of the tree trunk I was studying.

When I did these assignments, I became totally absorbed in the task at hand, just focusing on my tools (usually a pen or pencil and a sheet of white paper). It was only when I stopped drawing and looked at my drawing critically that I got frustrated. My sketches bore little resemblance to the plant in front of me.

Yet now, when I am no longer confronted by the actual tree, I am quite happy with the result. This unfinished sketch, takes me back in memory to the actual tree, to the intimacy established as I traced each of its curves with my pencil and then the charcoal.

Once we had achieved some success at reproducing the shapes we actually saw in front of us, we began working with tones and shading. Claudia had us create five distinct tones, ranging from very light to very dark, as samples on the side of the page and then isolate those tones on the plant, almost like doing a paint by number painting. Though it sounds mechanical, this was another interesting exercise in seeing what was really there, rather than what I thought. Again, I didn’t like this sketch of a broccoli leaf at the time I did it, but I can see that by focusing only on tone, I was able to capture some details that I would have overlooked because they didn’t fit my belief about how a leaf looks.

Jude Siegel in A Pacific Northwest Nature Sketchbook suggests another way to learn how values work: choose a color photo and make a black-and-white reproduction of it. She also suggests turning the photograph upside down as a way to dissociate from what you think you know about the item you are drawing and look instead merely at the shapes and colors.

Making an Impression

And yet, I know artists whose medium is life itself and who express the inexpressible without brush, pencil, chisel or guitar. They neither paint nor dance. Their medium is Being. Whatever their hand touches has increased life. They see and don’t have to draw. They are the artists of being alive. Frederick FranckThe Zen of Seeing

I have to admit I really struggled throughout the botanical drawing class. If, like me, you suffer from perceived artistic ineptitude, you might prefer some of these other ways of capturing the likeness of a plant.

Try painting making leaf impressions.  Claudia Nice in How To Keep A Sketchbook Journal describes her technique. She brushes leaves with a medium thick coat of water color, blots them with a paper towel and then presses them on the paper. Gaps in the print can be filled in afterwards with more of the water color paint. She mentions that fuzzy leaves like sage make nice prints. Siegel suggests experimenting with dry and damp paper. She places a piece of newsprint over the plant and smoothes it down with her fingers or an artist’s brayer, a little roller you can buy at art supply stores.

You can also do this in reverse. Put the leaf down on the page (it’s better if it’s something fairly flat and stiff), secure it to the paper with rubber cement or tiny bits of tape, then brush or sponge or spatter paint around it.

I own an extraordinary book called Leaves: In Myth, Magic & Medicine, which is composed of the most exquisite leaf prints created by Alice Thoms Vitale. She applied water-based printer’s ink to the surface of fresh leaves with a brayer. She then lowered the paper onto the leaf (rather than the other way around) and pressed carefully and selectively with her thumb. Then the paper was lifted off and allowed to dry. The delicacy of these images just has to be seen to be believed which is why I am reproducing the paper birch on this page to show you how Vitale elevates what seems like a child’s kindergarten project into an art form.

Another easy way to play around with the shapes of leaves is to do a shadow tracing. Place an object between the sun and your paper so that it casts a clear shadow. Then trace the outline. You can then color in the outline, if you like. I’ve done this with chalk on a sunny day with a tree shadow. It was a fun ephemeral art project.

Assignment for Week 3

If you aren’t totally terrified of an art assignment, then try any one of the sequence of steps I outlined above:

  • Choose a subject and draw it, focusing on the negative space.
  • Create a viewfinder; use it to make six or nine quick sketches framing your subject
  • Choose one view you like and spend time just filling in the negative space with color or charcoal
  • Choose a subject, create a tone palette and then color in your drawing

If you are terrified of art assignments, try one of the more playful approaches.

  • Paint a leaf or flower with water color paint and impress it on a wet or dry page
  • Outline a shadow of a leaf or flower
  • Create a stencil by placing a fern or other stiff plant on paper and painting around it
  • Draw around the shadow of a tree on the pavement with chalk

 

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Earth Day/Arbor Day

Earth Day is a fairly new holiday. Earth Day was first proclaimed on March 21, the Spring Equinox in San Francisco in 1970. Doesn’t that seem perfect? The spring after the Summer of Love. Just a few weeks later, also in 1970, Senator Gaylord Nelson, a Senator from Wisconsin, called for an Environmental Teach-in (modeled after the Vietnam war sit-ins) on April 22, which had been celebrated for many years as Arbor Day.

Arbor Day is almost one hundred years older than Earth Day, but still young for a holiday. In 1872, J. Sterling Morton, the Secretary of the Nebraska Territory, declared April 10 a day for planting trees (according to this history compiled by the Arbor Day Foundation).  In 1885, it was declared a legal holiday in the State of Nebraska and moved to April 22, Morton’s birthday. It was adopted as a holiday by other states but the date has varied, depending on when tree planting is ideal. It is now usually celebrated on the last Friday in April but it seems to have fallen out of favor as Earth Day has gained popularity.

Venus Verticordia by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Although Arbor Day and Earth Day are relatively new holidays, they align with many older traditions. There are many ancient April festivals which honor the goddess as garden guardian (Venus Verticordia on April 1) and Earth mother (Megalisa on April 3, Cerealia on April 13, and Fordicalia on April 15). April is also the month of St. George (his feast day is April 23), the dragon slaying saint. For centuries, the celebrations in honor of St. George have associations with verdant nature. The very name George means farmer.

In Carinthia and Transylvania, a birch tree or willow tree, decked with flowers, is called Green George. Sometimes a boy is dressed up in branches, leaves and flowers. Albanians slaughter a lamb on this day and smear blood on sills (recalling the Jewish holiday of Passover) to protect them from evil. Before an icon of St George, they pray: “Holy St George, this year thou hast sent me this lamb, next year, I beseech you, send me a larger one.” People go on picnics and weigh themselves holding sprigs of green. St George or Mari Ghergis is the most popular saint in Egypt where he is associated with El Khider, the green man, who appears to travelers who are lost or in despair.

Mrs Sharp (an alter ego of Sarah Ban Breathnach) celebrates Earth Day by doing an inventory garden tools and supplies. She makes presents of gardening gloves and other accessories. Each of her children has a tree, and on this day they clean around their own tree and tie a ribbon on the trunk to honor it.

On the very first Arbor Day, more than one  million trees were planted in Nebraska. Planting a tree can still be a great way to celebrate.

Or you can simply admire trees. Go on  a tree walk like the one I took two weeks ago at the University of Washington with our local plant and tree expert, Arthur Lee Jacobson.
I was delighted when we entered the quad which is famous for its flowering cherry trees and found it thronged with people. Students were lounging on the lawns. Japanese families were taking photos of their young ones under the trees. The profusion of pink flowers seemed like an ample reason for celebration.

If you don’t have knowledgeable guide, the Arbor Day Foundation provides this useful key which will help you identify trees.

In honor of Earth Day, experiment with eating only local food. Determine what foods are available within 250 miles of your home and create meals based on those foods. Find out where your eggs come from. Visit a local farm. Stop at a roadside stand. Invite your friends for a feast or a potluck to celebrate local foods.

Resources:
Al Khidr web site (source of picture)

Arbor Day Foundation web site
Blackburn, Bonnie and Leofranc Holford-Strevens, Oxford Companion to the Year, Oxford University Press, 1999
Breathnach, Sarah Ban, Mrs Sharp’s Traditions, Simon & Schuster 1990
Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology & Legend, Maria Leach, editor, Harper and Row 1984
Rufus, Anneli, The World Holiday Book, Harper San Francisco 1994
Morrow, Susan Brind, The Names of Things, Riverhead 1997
Spicer, Dorothy Gladys, The Book of Festivals, The Woman’s Press 1937
Wikipedia article on Earth Day

First published on April 12, 2012

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Easter Monday

locks 036Easter Monday

There are many unique celebrations that take place on Easter Monday but most involve playful pranks, splashing with water, whipping with switches and spending the day outdoors.

In England, particularly in the Northwest and along the Welsh border, young men roved around in a group, carrying a stout chair decorated with greens, flowers and ribbons in which they placed each woman of the house and lifted her three times in the air. They then claimed a kiss and a small gift of money. On Tuesday, women went around with the chair and lifted the men. The lifting ended promptly at noon on both days.

In some places the observance was rowdier. Both men and women were hoisted into the air and kissed by roving gangs. Sometimes a rope was stretched across the road and those who were halted by the obstacle were then placed in a chair and lifted. Christina Hole in her book on British folk customs suggests that lifting was the remnant of an older agricultural and magical custom, perhaps a rite of fertility designed to foster the growth of the crops.

In Shropshire and Herefordshire, the feet of the person being lifted were sprinkled with water from a wet bunch of flowers, recalling the watery sprinkling of the Easter Service (the purification and new birth symbolized by baptism) and the New Year festivals of Thailand and Sri Lanka (Apr 13 & 16).

Gertrud Nelson Mueller when writing about how she celebrates Christian rituals always takes the day off to take her kids to water. Usually they go to a nearby marsh for birding, but splashing is a part of their celebration.

pussywillowsDyngus Day/Smigus Day

The Poles celebrate the Monday after Easter under the name of Dyngus Day or Smigus Day. The customs are familiar: boys splash girls with water on Monday; and also strike at them with pussywillow wands (both sound like remnants of fertility rituals).  In earlier times, the girls had to wait for a chance to get revenge until Thursday when they threw crockery at the boys. However, now it is more common for them to fight back with water on Monday. This article discusses both names and traces them to the pagan practices of splashing with water and whipping with pussywillows.willow switches by shaw 0312

In American cities with strong Polish communities, like South Bend, Indiana and Buffalo, New York, Dyngus Day is celebrated with parades, pussy willow whipping and squirt-gun fights and traditional food, like kielbasa and pierogi.

When my daughter and I were in Prague around Easter time 2012, she took a photo of these willow switches that were for sale for use on Easter Monday.

La Pasquetta

In Italy, this day is called La Pasquetta, Little Easter. Everyone goes on a picnic, meant to last all afternoon (like the Persian festival of the Thirteenth Outside). They take along an antipasto of a hard-boiled egg and salt and local bitter herbs like aurugula or radicchio or fennel.

Feast of the Blajini

In Rumania on the Monday following Easter, women throw red Easter eggs into running streams for the benefit of the Blajini, the lost race of spirits which live on the bank of the river fed by all the streams in the world. They live so far away, they don’t know what’s happening in our world, so this is how they know that spring has come.

Hole, Christina, A Dictionary of British Folk Customs, Paladin 1978
Field, Carol, Celebrating Italy, William Morrow 1990
Nelson, Gertrud Mueller, To Dance with God, Paulist Press 
Spicer, Dorothy Gladys, The Book of Festivals, The Woman’s Press 1937
 
First published April 21, 2014
 
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Portraits of Plants, Part 2

Portraits of Plants, Week 2

Second in a series of posts from My Year in Flowers. During the month of April I learned how to draw plants. The first post is here.

Draw bamboos for ten years,
Become a bamboo,
Then forget all about bamboos when you are drawing.
Georges Duthuit

I produce pages of sketches for every plant I study. I usually begin with a contour drawing or spirit drawing. Then I do a more literal contour drawing, placing the flower on the page, and tracing around it. Although this usually produces a rather clumsy outline, at least I have a life-size reproduction.

Clare Walker Leslie and Charle E.Roth in their book Keeping A Nature Journal, recommend a series of sketches. A contour drawing, then a modified contour drawing (that is one where you are allowed to look at your page). They then recommend what they call quick gesture sketches. Looking at your subject and your page, draw a quick sketch in 5 seconds, then another in 10 seconds, then another in 15 seconds.

The next sketch is diagrammatic. This is where I focus on the details.  How many petals? How many stamens? How do they line up? I try to describe colors (a silvery pink, a greenish-brown) and note scents. As you work with the flower, the botanical terms that seemed so artificial become real. The intricate parallel lines of the monocot family become apparent in the leaf. You notice right away that the leaves are alternating rather than opposite on the stem. I find the sepals most interesting—like little green jewel cases with their green ribs and undulating shapes. They almost always recapitulate the number of petals and stamens.

I tend to draw flowers straight on but they rarely look right. Leslie and Roth suggest several different approaches: a profile, looking down, looking straight at the flower, viewing it from the side.

Sometimes I create a design sketch, breaking down the shape of the petals into simple shapes, lining them around the center in an ideal pattern. I examine the way the flower and the leaf are attached to the stem and draw those nodes on the paper. These botanical details can be rendered as blueprints, and in that way, they begin to resemble design patterns.

I’ve always dreamed in design. It used to be that when I closed my eyes, I would see designs for fabrics, for china, for wrapping paper, flashing behind my eyelids. These went away as I got older. Where did they go? Perhaps they atrophied due to disuse. But even now when I look at the plates from old herbals, the ones I like the most are the ones in which plants are “reduced to decoration” or “stylized beyond recognition” in the words of Wilfrid Blunt in his book The Illustrated Herbal.

William Morris is one of my heroes. I love the dense, color-saturated floral patterns of the wallpapers for which he is famous. Perhaps I was his wife, Janey Morris, in a former life and my visions of designs were simply etched into my brain because of all those hours spent embroidering them into curtains.  Try transforming your flower into a two-dimensional shape that will still convey the quality of the flower. What is the simplest shape that is still recognizable?

You also don’t need artistic talent to do this sort of drawing. Of course it helps. But I have none (as my high school art teacher made clear to me). Yet I manage to create sketches that are recognizable. More important, they are educational. Remember the purpose of the sketch is not to create a lifelike rendition of the flower, such that people will gaze at it and say, “Wow! That looks just like an alstromeria!” But rather that you will have learned more about it.

I was a snob about alstromerias until I drew one. I thought of them as frivolous products of the cut flower trade. They have no scent and they last forever in the vase, two signs of a flower that has been turned into a freak of nature. But a few years ago I spent two cold, wet weeks in March at a writer’s retreat. The only flowers to be found were the alstromerias that had been purchased to adorn the main house where we ate our dinners. I took a few stems with me to my cabin in the woods and I began to draw them. It was me and the alstromerias for hours. I could not get enough of them. I loved the clever shape of the flower with its three rounded pink tepals, serving as a base, for the more narrow, more vertical tepals, flaunting splashes of yellow and distinctive black nectar lines, designs as decorative as the spots of a cougar or the stripes of a zebra, luring bumblebees into the nectar at the heart of the flower.  I loved the six-sided little green basket of the ovary, the three little curlicues on each pistil. I loved the way the snake-like curve of the stem, the twist of the leaves. Never again will I snub an alstromeria.

Assignment for Week 2

Continue to sketch flowers. Choose another one. Bold flowers with simple shapes are probably the easiest. Lilies and tulips. Buy a stem of flowers from the grocery store or florist if you can’t find anything you like in your garden. A stem with leaves is just fine.

Try a number of different techniques: contour drawings, quick gesture sketches, tracing the outline of the flower, viewing the flower from different angles, diagramming the various parts, reducing a flower to its simplest outline.

For the third lesson in this series, go here.

Illustrations: The lovely William Morris design is the pattern called Chrysanthemum. I found the painting of the sage looking at the bamboo here. I took the photo of the alstromerias I was drawing. But I haven’t found the drawing I did of them.

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Family Egg Traditions

From LoriDeMarre

After my mother died, I inherited her cedar chest which was full of things from family members deemed important enough to save and pass on. I’m continually fascinated by the odds and ends of what has remained.  So much of it is such a mystery, and is left to my imagination.  As I go deeper, I pull out an odd assortment of random possessions, such as an ancient cardboard assortment of black snaps for making clothing, the much used Ouija Board and a small booklet called: Text Book of Osteopathy from the Standpoint of Mechano-Therapy, copyright 1910.

One of the most precious findings: a string of painted eggshells– still intact and whole.  The eggs have delicately painted flowers on them and there is a ribbon that connects them.  One egg has Easter 1906 painted on it, although Easter is misspelled.  Another egg has the name of Robert on it.

As a child, I remember being fascinated by these magical treasures and asking my mother for their story.  She didn’t know the mystery, so we would just put them back into her grandfather’s trunk that lived in our dirt cellar.

These fragments of family myth and mystery, have inspired me once again to pick up my camera and other art supplies, in a way that I haven’t done in many years.  Art is my personal way of exploring the creative mystery of living.

First published March 14, 2010

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Pysanky: Ritual Eggs

Decorating eggs is one of my favorite spring time rituals. Every year around this time, I set out the pots of dye and the cartons of eggs, the tools and the candles and the beeswax I need to make pysanky.  And for the few weeks before Easter, I spend a few hours every night or so, inscribing patterns on eggs. I can get lost for hours, totally absorbed in this process.

The art of decorating eggs may be the oldest art form. A recent find in South Africa of colored and etched ostrich shells dating back 60,000 years has scientists speculating on their meaning. Having made pysanky for years, I recognize them as ritual eggs, and the designs chosen as those that are easiest for beginning egg artists to create.

These eggs are magic talismans.
Eggs are  symbols of spring, found in cultures and ritual meals all over the world. Some of the most beautiful decorated eggs come from the Ukraine where they are called PysankyPysanky feature elaborate designs made with beeswax resist and are always raw. These eggs are magic talismans. The designs on the sides are messages (pysanky comes from a root word meaning “to write”) invoking fertility, long life, luck, protection and hope. Eggs with wheat and fruit designs might be buried in the fields to encourage the crops. Eggs with blue and green meander designs were kept in homes and carried around a fire to contain it.

I learned how to make pysanky from a book called Ukrainian Easter Eggs written by Anne Kmit, the Luciow sisters and Luba Perchyshyn. They have written many books on this topic but also sell tools and provide instructions on their web site: Ukrainian Gift Shop. Pysanky were always made by groups of women working together, late at night, during the week before Easter. The children were in bed; the men were not invited; the eggs were always fertile eggs. The women asked for specific blessings for each egg they made and sang traditional songs as they worked.

The eggs were distributed in a ritual manner. One or two eggs were given to the priest. Eggs were placed on the graves of family members. Eggs were given to all the children and godchildren. Unmarried girls exchanged eggs with the eligible young men in the community. A few eggs were placed in coffins to be ready in case someone died. Several were kept in the home to protect from fire and storms. Two or three were placed in the trough or the stables so the animals would have many young. One egg was placed under each beehive and one was saved for each grazing animal to be taken out to the fields with the shepherds in the spring. An egg with wheat symbols was placed at the start of the first furrow plowed and another at the end of the last. A bride would take an egg to her marriage ceremony in her skirt and on returning home, drop it saying. “Let me bear the child as easily as the egg falls.” If that didn’t work, the husband might receive an egg with a rooster on it or an oak leaf.

Every aspect of making the egg was important from the colors chosen to the designs. The most ancient and widely used symbol was the sun. Certain eggs, covered with symbols of water, flowers, growing plants and little wings, were used to “call spring.” Other eggs, called “noise insect eggs” depicted birds singing, crickets and the chirping noise of the forest to invoke the sounds of spring.

Here’s a list of some symbols.

Star: Success

Birds:  Spring, good harvest & pushing away evil

Hearts: Love

Fruits, vegetables, wheat: Good harvest

Flowers:  Beauty and children

Spiders:  Healing powers and good luck

Animals, especially deer:  Prosperity and wealth

Ladders (given to older people):  Moving to a new level of existence

40 triangles (a traditional pattern):  Wishes for the many facets of family life

Circle: Protection

Thirteen years ago I finally purchased the appropriate tool for making Ukrainian eggs, a kistka (I got mine in the art department of my local university bookstore). Ever since then, I’ve been hosting egg-decorating parties for me and my women friends. Each woman brings some eggs (either raw or hard-boiled). Meanwhile I set up several tables with kistkas, blocks of beeswax, a candle for each woman and some way of holding the egg steady (paper towels are the simplest—we also use the little plastic tables that come with your delivered pizza). The same stores that sell kistkas and special beeswax (dyed a darker color so it’s easier to see) also sell lathes on which you can turn your eggs so you can achieve perfectly even lines. We’ve never used one of these. The same stores also sell electric kistkas but I’ve scorned these as too modern. I like the simple ancient process.

I love the delicacy of the designs, the smell of the wax and the flickering light of the candle, which combine to create a trance-like state.

However, I do buy the packets of Ukrainian dyes—most of which are highly toxic—because they produce brilliant colors—turquoise, black and maroon, among others–you can’t find in ordinary Easter egg dyes. These are made with boiling water so mix them ahead of time so they can cool. I also use the regular Easter egg dyes you buy in kits at the store, particularly because I like the little wire dippers that come in these kits, handy for putting eggs in and out of the jars (I use wide-mouthed canning jars). We also use spoons for this task. I leave my dyes out, often for two or three weeks, so I can continue working on eggs. I love the way they look: the gleaming jars and the brilliant colors.

To make the design, you put a little bit of beeswax in the funnel of the kistka, then melt it over a candle flame and draw on the eggshell with the molten beeswax. Begin with a white egg and put wax on all the areas you want to stay white, then dye the egg yellow, and cover all the areas with wax which you want to remain yellow, and so forth through orange, red and a dark color (brown, black or purple). When the egg is done, place it in a low-temperature oven for a few minutes to melt the wax, which is then rubbed off to reveal the intricate designs and glowing colors of your egg. I love the delicacy of the designs, the smell of the wax and the flickering light of the candle, which combine to create a trance-like state.

If you don’t have a kistka, you can decorate eggs using a pin. Simply dip it into melted wax and drag it across the surface of the egg. It will leave a little comet-like trail. When done in concentric circles, you will have created sunbursts. The eggs, even though they are not cooked, can be kept for many years if they are stored so the air can move around them freely. I store mine in egg cartons in the basement but I have had an occasional egg go bad. Last year, I put varnish on all the eggs, hoping this would help preserve them. It’s a messy process (since there’s no way to hold an egg without getting varnish all over your own fingers) but it seems to have helped and it certainly brought out their colors. You can also blow the inside out of the eggs after they’ve been painted.

For more information on making Ukrainian eggs, you might enjoy this website created by Artist Ann Morash. For inspiration, or just amazement, check out the stunning examples of pysanky from Kolomiya Museum of Hutsul Folk Art. This web site featuring the work of Sofia Zielyk shows the way an artist might interpret this traditional craft. And then there’s Martha Stewart. She features 56 different ways to decorate eggs on her web site including marbled eggs, glittered eggs (very classy), gilded eggs, eggs dyed with natural materials, silk-dyed eggs, lace eggs, stenciled eggs and many more.

First published Mar 12, 2010

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Portraits of Plants #1

 

From A Curious Herbal, published in Nuremburg in 1757

The way of seeing is a way of knowing.
Frederick Franck, The Zen of Seeing

I found identifying plants difficult until I began drawing them. When I first chose a conifer to identify, a scrubby evergreen at the corner of my block, I spent weeks puzzling over it. I cut off a sprig and studied it, comparing it to the illustrations in my tree identification book. I took photographs with my new digital camera but they didn’t capture the details that seemed so relevant to me: the milky color of the swelling bud tips, the nascent cones, jutting forth on the stems, clotted with fresh scales. It was a spruce, I thought, but the tree book contained at least 22 varieties of spruce, none of which resembled my specimen.

Finally I sit down and sketch it in my notebook. Here a packet of needles, unpacked. I learn there are two in each bundle. There an attempt to draw those phallic bud tips. A more mature cone dissembles into scales, each a diamond with an impressed oval at its highest point. When I turn the cone upside down I see the scales are actually rectangles, fanning out from a central point like blades in a fan. The growing cone resembles a miniature pineapple, with a flush of chartreuse green beneath the brown scales. By the time I am done, my fingers are covered with sap. A little bug crawls out of the cone and onto my page. I whisk it outside. The scent of pine fills the room, evoking Christmas.

Nothing gets you up close and personal as quickly as sketching a plant. You take it apart like the pieces of a puzzle, poring over each fragment, sniffing out its mysteries. So many ways to look at it. Prying open the petals to count the pistils and stamens. Twirling the stem in your fingers. Outlining it with a pen, while pinning the plant in place with a fingertip. Tracing the network of veins on the leaves. Shading in the shadows on the folds of the petals. Noticing the tiny star on the base of the berry.

As I handle the plant, turning it upside down, flattening it, pressing back the petals, fondling the leaves, details emerge that surprise and delight me. It’s like exploring a lover’s body during those lazy hours you spend in bed at the start of a relationship. A snowdrop has never been the same since I peeled back its petals and found, to my surprise, striped green sepals inside.

I learned my favorite drawing technique—contour drawing–years ago in a high school art class. Betty Edward also describes it in her seminal book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. The instructions are simple. Look at your subject. Put your pen down on the page. Outline the contours of the object with your pen. Do not look at your paper. Do not take your pen off the page. Resist the temptation to peek at your drawing as you proceed. This often turns a lively sketch into something stiff and stilted (though perhaps more accurate).

Why does this technique work better than conscious imitation? What we believe we see is not what we really see. Try drawing a cup while looking at the cup. Then draw it again using contour drawing. I think you will be surprised by how much more the second version actually resembles a cup. We have a notion of a cup shaped by our three-dimensional experience with it but it’s not the cup our eye sees.

I used contour drawing throughout high school and college classes to capture portraits of my teachers, other students, my shoes and my own hand drawing. Sometimes you get an undecipherable tangle of squiggles. But other times you end up with a lovely sketch that really captures the essence of the person.

Spirit drawing takes contour drawing to another level. Jude Siegel in A Pacific Northwest Nature Sketchbook says it’s as if “what the eyes sees then travels through the heart (the emotional heart, which can recognize the spirit or essence of an object—something the mind cannot do), then continues down the arm and fingers, and finally through the pen or other tool and is then recorded onto the paper.”

Before beginning to draw, spend time simply taking in the subject as much as possible.

Then take your pen (Siegel encourages the use of a pen, as it will force you to commit), choose a spot on the subject, and focus your eyes and attention there. Begin drawing, traveling along the lines of the object. If you are drawing a flower, pretend you are a tiny bug traversing the edges of each petal. Or you can imagine tracing the edges of the subject with your fingertip, the gentle caress of a lover. After tracing the outline, you can begin to trace some of the interior edges.

Siegel uses spirit drawing as a warm-up before a more studied attempt and I’ve used it this way as well. I have to admit that the first sketches are often more lively than the sketches I labor over. As the name implies, they capture more of the spirit of the plant.

For instance, here’s an attempt to analyze the way a plantain plant looks as it bursts into blossom.

And here is a spirit drawing I did of the same plant as it withered and shrunk. I think it has more life (though it’s clearly ebbing away).

 

 

 

Although I’ve been practicing spirit drawing on flowers, I’ve also started using it to capture glimpses of my everyday life. I have to admit these are my favorites. For instance, this picture of a dog I saw at my favorite café, Pettirosso, one afternoon. It might be hard for you to tell what this is supposed to represent, but for me it vividly recalls that moment when the dog woke up to look at a customer.

Assignment for April, Week 1

Try doing a contour drawing of a plant this week. Don’t despair if your first version is a bunch of squiggles. Try again. Do a drawing a day. If you start to feel comfortable with the contour drawings, try a spirit drawing. Then write up a report on how it went.

If you’d like to share your sketches, you could post them on Facebook, either in the private group for A Year in Flowers 2017 (you need to “friend” me on Facebook and I can invite you) or on the Living in Season page.

For lesson 2 of Portraits of Plants and a new assignment, go here.

 

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Food for Nowruz

It’s spring, flowers full and happiness in the green-grass vine
All the blossoms are blooming except mine
Lose not heart, free spirit, on New Year’s day
I heard from the lips of a lily today
Do not sing the seven illusions this New Year’s eve I beg thee:
Complaint, curse, corruption, cacophony, clumsiness, chaos & cruelty.
The seven symbols make, of serene greenery, scented hyacinth and sweet apple
Senged, samanou, salway and song spell.
Send the seven symbols to the table of a lover.
Throw the seven illusions to the door of an ill wisher.
It?s New Year’s eve: rid the heart of darkness
Eventually this black night will turn to light and brightness
Carry out the New Year tradition and God willing
Bring back the feeling to that of the excellent beginning.
— Bahar

When I first learned about Persian New Year, all I knew was that it was customary to eat seven foods whose names started with S. Since I didn’t know the Farsi words for the foods, my daughter and I celebrated for years by eating spaghetti squash, spinach salad with sunflower seeds, smoked salmon and strawberries and shortbread for dessert.

In recent years, thanks to the internet, we’ve enjoyed traditional recipes like kookoo sabzi (an herb frittata recipe I’ve included in the Eostre packet) and a yogurt and spinach dip (the white and green colors symbolize spring). This year, also thanks to the internet, I was able to find a book about Persian cooking, Food of Life, by Najmieh Batmanglij, which provided me with the poem above, and some new information for Nowruz.

According to Batmanglij, meals are traditionally served on a sofreh, a cotton tablecloth embroidered with poems and prayers, of course, in the beautiful calligraphy of the Iranian language. This idea fascinates me as I wonder how I could create a sacred cloth that would embody prayers and poems. English words are not quite as visually gorgeous. Perhaps I could make a tablecloth embroidered with spring flowers to use every Nowruz.

As with the Easter and the Passover table, setting the table for Nawruz is part of the ceremony. Each item has its symbolism. Batmanglij says the seven S’s — sabzeh (sprouts) samanou (a dish of wheat germ or lentils), sib (apples), sonbol (hyacinth), senjed (jujube), seer (garlic) and somagh (sumac) — represent the seven good angels, heralds of life and rebirth, health, happiness, prosperity, joy and beauty.

Whenever I see the buds appear on my neighbor’s contorted filbert, I know that Nowruz is approaching as that is the gnarled branch I always pick to put on my table to represent the twisting paths of life. Batmanglij says I should have seven branches from gnarled trees (olive and pomegranate) on my table.

According to Batmanglij, Iranians always eat noodles at the start of anything new. They represent the choice of paths that life offers us. Picking your way through the tangled strands symbolized picking out the best paths in life. So noodles are eaten on Nowruz, the New Year, and also on the third day after friends or relatives have left on a trip (to help them find their way. Eating this soup on the eve of Nowruz will make a wish come true. The traditional noodle soup is called Ash-e Reshteh. You can find a recipe for it here.

Another dish served on the eve of Nowruz is Ajeel-e Moshgel Goshah (which means unraveller of difficulties), a mix of seven dried fruits and nuts: pistachio, walnut, hazelnut, pumpkin seed, peach raisin and fig.

Fish is another traditional dish served on Nawruz because it brings good luck. Batmanglij provides a recipe for a dish called Sabzi Polo Ba Mahi, or Rice with Fresh Herbs and Fish.

3 cups of long-grain (preferably basmati) rice
1/2 cup chopped chives or scallions
1-1/2 cups coarsely chopped parsley
1-1/2 cups chopped fresh dill
2/3 cup butter
1/2 tsp ground saffron, dissolved in 2 T hot water
3 whole cloves garlic, unpeeled
2 whole leeks, thoroughly washed
1 large white-fleshed fish, about 3 pounds
1/2 cup flour for dredging
4 T oil
Juice of 2 bitter oranges, or 2 lemons

Cook the rice. In a pot, heat half the butter with a drop of the dissolved saffron. Add 2 spatulas of rice and 1 spatula of the herbs, garlic cloves and leeks. Repeat, arranging the rice in the shape of a pyramid. Pour over it the remaining butter, and half the saffron and hot water. Place a clean dishtowel or paper towel over the pot and cover with a lid. Cook 10 minutes over medium heat and then 50 minutes over low heat. While the rice is cooking, clean the fish (if necessary) and cut into six pieces. Wash and pat dry. Dredge in a mixture of flour and salt. Brown fish in the oil in a skillet, over a low heat. Remove the saucepan of rice from the heat and allow to cool for five minutes. Open the pot and remove 2 T of the saffron-flavored rice and set it aside for a garnish. Using a spatula, gently remove the rest of the rice and set it on a platter, without disturbing the crust at the bottom of the pan. This golden crust is a prized part of the meal and is set on a separate platter. Arrange the fish on a serving platter and garnish it with the bitter-orange or lemon juice and the remaining saffron.

Sweets are also an important part of Nawruz, as decorations on the table and a way of invoking sweetness for the coming year, so baklava would make a great dessert. Here’s a recipe from Batmanglij (she mentions in her book, but not this recipe, that you can use purchased filo pastry dough instead of making your own).

Here’s a great article (complete with recipes) which tells more about the traditional foods eaten on Persian New Year.

References:
Batmanglij, Najmieh, Food of Life, Mage Publishers 1986

First published march 12, 2012

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Nowruz: Persian New Year

The Persians have always celebrated the new year at Spring Equinox with the wonderful holiday of Nowruz (pronounced NO-ROOZ). And in some way, you might say, Nowruz was the start of my career as a calendar priestess.

It was the first new holiday I adopted and made my own, back when I was a college student. I found a brief (two-sentence description) of it in an almanac and began celebrating it with my college roommates. We would put a candle in the middle of the living room and jump over it on Red Wednesday, to get rid of all the things we didn’t want to bring forward into the new year. Once my daughter was born, it became a family tradition.

The Persians call the Spring Equinox Nowruz or Nourooz which means New Day. The Nourooz greeting is “Har Roozat Nourooz Va Nouroozat Pirouz” which means “May your every day be the new day and each new day be a successful one.”

According to Anneli Rufus, the festival is preceded, like Easter and Passover, with a thorough house-cleaning. The evening before, Iranians serve an omelet heavy with spinach, dill and parsley and also munch on bowls of ajeel-e moshgel goshah, “unraveller of difficulties,” a mixture of pistachios, walnuts, hazelnuts, pumpkin seeds, dried figs, peaches and raisins. Note that most of these are seeds as befits a spring feast.

The evening meal on the day of Nowruz, is a grand feast, on the scale of Passover and Easter, and both the decoration of the table and the sorts of food served have symbolic significance. I’ve been celebrating Nowruz for years, using a set of directions from that long ago almanac page. I set my table with a leaf floating in a bowl of water, a mirror, yogurt, colored eggs, sweets, a holy book, rose water and a candle for every child in the house.

Rufus’ directions for decorating the table are similar but slightly different and equally intriguing: Gnarled branches which represent the twisting path of life. An orange floating in a bowl of water, to represent the world floating in space-time. A goldfish swimming in a bowl (also featured in feasts honoring St Joseph on March 19 and Maimuna, the day following the eight days of Passover). Plus tinted eggs, milk, rose water, candies, fruit, incense, narcissi, pastries, candles, coins and a mirror for every member of the household.

Whatever the decorations, the menu always consists of seven items that begin with the letter S. Rufus provides a list of the haft-sin, the Zoroastrian seven S’s: apples (sib), hyacinth (sonbol), garlic (seer), sumac (somagh), jujube fruit (senjed), sprouted seeds (sabzeh) and a wheat germ dish called samanon. Another 7 items that begin with SH are often served: wine (sharab), sugar (shakar), milk (shir), syrup (shireh), honey (shahd), candy (shirini) and rice-pudding (shir-berenj).

However, if these foods are not readily available in your area, you might consider doing what I have done for years, since I didn’t know the Farsi names of the dishes until recently. We eat seven foods that begin with S in English. Our usual menu includes smoked salmon, spinach salad with sunflower seeds and sprouts, spaghetti sauce, served over spaghetti squash, and strawberries and shortbread for dessert, and a glass of syrah (or sparkling soda) to sip.

Like most New Year’s meals, the food eaten at the Nowruz dinner has symbolic importance. The theme is the green of spring and most dishes feature either vegetables or the color green. One exception is a dish of mahi safid dudi, smoked white fish. Another dish usually found on the Nawruz table is kuku, a souffle-like vegetable and herb pie, in which the eggs represent fertility and happiness. Bread is dipped into a special yogurt and spinach dip: the white is for purity, the green for spring. Recipes for these two dishes can be found here. Other traditional dishes include sabzi polow, basmati rice with seven vegetables, and panir va sabzi, a salad of fresh raw vegetables, basil, tarragon, scallions, red radishes, and mint with feta cheese. For recipes, go here.

In the twelve days that follow Nowruz, Persians visit friends and families, share meals and give gifts. The holiday season ends with a picnic on the Thirteenth Outside (this year on April 3rd).

I realized after reading this recent New York Times article that calling this holiday Persian New Year has political implications.  I call it that because that’s how I was first introduced to it over 25 years ago and also because the holiday was first recorded in historical time when it was celebrated by Darius the Great at his new palace in Persepolis in 587 B.C.E. The holiday is now celebrated in Central Asia, Caucasus, South Asia, Northwestern China, the Crimea and some groups in the Balkans. Under some Muslim regimes, celebrating Nowruz was discouraged as it was seen as a frivolous, pagan festival.

It seems a living example of a process that happens over and over again, where a conquering people or religion tries to eradicate the ceremonies of the native people, like the Christians with the pagan holidays of Europe or the Puritans with May Day. However, like those efforts which were unsuccessful, the celebration of Nawruz has not been squashed. In fact, the UN put it on the List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2009.

Rufus, Anneli, The World Holiday Book, Harper San Francisco 1994

Wikipedia article

Photo by Cathy Moore of her Nowruz table.

first published March 12, 2012

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A Poem for St David’s Day

FebruarySince March 1st is the feast day of St. David, the patron saint of Wales, I thought I would share a Welsh poem with you. And since March 1 is famously the start of a windy month (March either comes in like a lamb or like a lion, reversing its nature at the end of the month), I wanted to share a poem (see the YouTube video below) about the Wind by Dafydd ap Gwilym (who is named after the saint as Dafydd is the Welsh spelling of David).

Dafydd ap Gwilym is one of my favorites of the Welsh poets. He wrote in the fourteenth century and his poetry is clearly influenced by the troubadour tradition. His favorite topics were nature and romance and he combines them beautifully in poems about trysting with the woman he loves in a grove of birch trees. In this particular poem, the poet addresses the wind and asks him to carry a message to his beloved.

If you would like to hear the Welsh version of this, you can listen to it here.

For a really interesting (but somewhat academic) article on the meter of Welsh poetry and why Wales has produced so many great poets, check out this article on “Extreme Welsh Meter” by Gwyneth Lewis from Poetry magazine: I’ve tried writing poetry using Welsh meters myself while I was in Wales and it is both incredibly difficult and incredibly rewarding. Can still recite whole verses form the poems I wrote because the rhyming and meter schemes made it so memorable.

The photo of the bird flying over the ocean was used to illustrate the month of Windy in my French Republican Calendar in 2013 and was taken by Melissa Gayle West. The French Republican Calendar for 2016 is still available and Melissa’s wonderful photo of sprouting moss decorates March (the month of Germinal, Sprouting).

First published February 28, 2015.

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