I headed out to the Sydney Botanic Gardens for the last day of my watercolour pencil project. The plan was to spend some time drawing tree trunks, particularly Moreton Bay fig trees. For those who are unfamiliar with them these trees have wonderful undulating folds that make up the entirety of their trunk, like heavy drapery gathered together and continues down into the roots. The older the tree the bigger and deeper the folds.
Unfortunately my timing was a little off as we’ve had non-stop rain for the last few weeks so drawing outdoors was going to be precarious. Luckily their was an undercover exhibition on carnivorous plants at the Calyx – a modern exhibition space that doubles as a greenhouse. So while the weather fluctuated from sunshine to downpour my friend and I set up in here
When presented with a scene that feels hard to frame I take a few minutes to review what it is I actually want to communicate before I begin to draw. After all, a picture paints a thousand words! It doesn’t have to be deep and meaningful but there should be at least some personal expression of what made this subject so compelling in the first place to make you want to draw it.
The flower was obviously the most interesting aspect but the leaves had a wonderful leathery quality to them as well. My problem was if I included all the leaves I would have to make the flower much smaller on the page. Therefore the leaves I choose had to best complement my composition.
There was a lot more pencil work than I anticipated which gave me some anxiety when it came to adding the water. The pencil work as it stood was a finished piece so it was difficult to work out how wetting it was going to improve it.
As I began to blend the leaves I found my brushwork was barely noticeble. It was only when I applied the water in a rougher manner, ie going outside the lines and with a dry brush that it started to show some personality.
Some sections were left untouched while on the flower itself was treated several times to get that voluminous shape. I also sprinkled and wetted colour shavings on certain areas to try and achieve that flecky pattern.
Having warmed up, literally and figuratively (that greenhouse was hot!) my style became a lot looser. As the three plants had an explosive shape I found it challenging to connect all three as one unified picture. Something was needed to tie them all together.
Although the same colours were used throughout that didn’t seem enough. It needed anchoring, to be weighted down so your eye could start at the top and smoothly flow down to the base.
I didn’t want to introduce another colour but it needed some tonal contrast and knowing that these pencils dilute in intensity when wet was going to prove a challenge. On other occasions I had noticed when drawing over wet sections the pencil colour would always be darker and richer in texture. That’s when I hit on the idea of dipping the pencils straight into my water jar.
The end result was a nice, dark, gritty texture similar to an oil pastel or chinagraph and this seemed enough to add that much needed contrast.
The worst of the weather seemed over for the day and after a late lunch we set up outside. No sooner had I finished all the pencil work on my tree when the rain came bucketting down.
We found marginal shelter under another tree but by then my picture had been completely peppered by the rain. All my linework was disappearing before my eyes and transforming it into something else. I didn’t even get a chance to photograph it at the pencil stage!
Like watching a scientific experiment unfold we watched as the diluted colour ran into other droplet pools or were stopped in their tracks by a rare dry patch.
As I balanced my artboard home like a pizza tray we debated what I could do, once it dried, to bring the tree back to life. Thoughts of another layer of colour could work or a dip pen with sepia ink might do the trick, but I was concerned that I could easily overwork it and obscure all the rain effected areas.
There are some lovely, subtle sections where the water stains look like sunlit-filtered foliage and a kind of vintage engraving print feel to it that really appeals to my taste.
Despite all options presented I decided to leave it as a happy accident as it also led to further thoughts of what else could come from leaving work out in the rain!
Moreton Bay – Take Two
Feeling like I hadn’t gotten complete closure with using watercolour pencils on location I had a second chance with a Sydney Sketch Club meet up at Observatory Hill. While most people were setting up to draw the Sydney Harbour Bridge, for me trees will always trump architecture.
Despite there being no rain cloud in sight I still kept it simple by sticking to one colour. Even after everything I’ve learnt I still got caught out as to how and where to wet the picture. With no thought process I just went in full boar over the trunk and regretted it as soon as I started. Which is why its so blotchy.
One thing I always find difficult to manage when drawing tree trunks are the leaves, especially on a tightly cropped picture that doesn’t include the whole canopy. They can look awkward and make the picture seem unfinished.
You can see my pencil work including a few boughs but in the end I left the out and just dabbed them in with excess colour from my brush. This worked so much better as it gave the picture depth of field which highlighted the magnitude of the tree’s physicality.
My next choice was a younger Moreton Bay with its thin weaving roots just above the surface. This time I was more restrained with brushing on water and happier with the result.
The Creative Plan – Day 4 Watercolour Pencil