It is snug in the studio. The oil stove shows a calm blue flame, the coffee mug steams hot at my elbow; the familiar clutter closes me in like a circle of friends. Even the radio has obliged with some favourite music. Outside, the cat, finding a patch of autumn sunlight, has decided to forget all else. Outside; what of outside?
It would be easy to sit for ever in this cocoon, drawing a few flowers in a jar, safe from wind, cold, sun-glare, flies, earwigs and all such perils. But recently I have made an effort, and consequently I have made a discovery. I have discovered what it means to sit in a garden drawing the flowers as they grow, not a quick half-hour sketch followed by a hasty retreat, but a full-page study lasting one, two or even three whole mornings or afternoons. It is an effort to pack up all that is necessary for taking off into the unknown, and not so ridiculous as it may sound to refer to the garden as the unknown, be it yours or another. I have been lucky enough to be invited to paint in some very beautiful gardens, where, completely detached from domestic ties or the sound of the telephone, the best work is made.
Compared to sitting securely at the studio table, taking your paints outside is a real adventure. At first it feels very strange out there, mainly because unless the day is exceptionally still, everything is moving. This, surely, is the basic difference, not only movement from the wind but the gradual turning of flower heads as they follow the sun, lifting to it at midday, then bending and closing at dusk. Of course some plants move less than others – an iris, once open, is fairly safe. But sitting in front of a clump of sharp yellow alpine anemones one afternoon, I watched the heads lift, gradually turn and the whole plant finally settle down, as a sitting bird might stretch herself, ruffle her feathers and sink down again on the nest, facing a different direction.
Alpine Anemones, pencil and wash, (19½” x 13½”)
My way of coping with all this is to use a different method of working from when I am indoors, the most radical change being to dispense with my bottle of ink. Instead, I use pencil and wash, trying to make free, relaxed studies of several plants or of one plant in its setting. And here is the excitement of the adventure, particularly in an imaginatively planned garden, not (dare I say it?) too free of weeds. A strand of grass falling across a petal, a twist of bindweed curling up a stem or a violet wedged between two iris leaves, gives drama and romance to a drawing, bringing awareness of that world of which we will never be quite in control, and certainly would not see sticking out of a jam jar on the table.
Welsh poppy and Campanula, pen and wash, (15½” x 11½”)
Perhaps awareness is the keynote of this article. Sitting in the garden you will be positively forced into awareness of growth, life and decay, again provided that the garden in question is not tidied almost out of existence. Undreamed of compositions and patterns will be spread out for your taking, plants against a back-drop of plants, buds of one jutting through fading leaves of another. In my painting of Welsh poppies with white campanula (above), I was struck by the contrast in form and foliage as well as colour. The poppies seemed to be sheltering amongst the foliage of the stronger plant. My study of orange Mediterranean poppies with another, bright mauve, campanula growing behind, was made partly for the colours and partly for the sheer joy of staring at those crinkly, sun-worshipping faces.
Mediterranean poppies and campanula, pencil and wash, (19½” x 14”)
The only possible snag I can find in my travels outside is that I start to question the validity of making an indoor study on what I have heard described as an anonymous sheet of white paper. But of course, careful, searching drawings have their place, and having settled into the habit of working in both ways, I find that the outside work helps the inside, giving greater understanding.
As I have said, my first step to overcoming the problems of working out of doors is to leave my bottle of ink indoors. Ink will dry while still on the pen on a hot day and never dry at all on a damp one. You may spill it and without doubt a fly will fall into it. Pencils then – a Rowney “Black Prince” is bold but sympathetic, its thick roundness somehow satisfying to hold. It is easily smudged when not covered with a wash, so beware of a trailing sleeve or straying finger. I keep a normal B handy for certain details, but anything harder seems out of place. Take a knife or pencil sharpener – there is nothing so uninspiring as a worn-down point. No inhibitions about rubbers being not quite the thing. Put one in your pocket if it helps, but use it sparingly.
I paint with my usual half-pan watercolour box outside, but gouache would be a good choice, although bringing the added distraction of taking off tops and remembering to replace them. Brushes are bigger than for inside work. A No. 5 is good; add a No. 4 just in case of need, and a long-handled brush can give suitable boldness and flourish, preventing any tendency to become finicky. A large piece of cotton rag is essential. Stretched paper on a board gives a firm, pleasant surface, but if you do not go to this length, be sure to take four clips, drawing pins or even a roll of Sellotape. A flapping page can fray both drawing and temper. Remember a water pot with lid, or even two – the tap may be far away.
Keep the list of materials as short as possible, but do not stint on aids to comfort! Not one stool, but two, or one stool and an old box (cardboard is firm enough) to form a low table. It is not fun at all grovelling at ground level each time you need to dip your brush. Add a spare pullover (it is never as warm as you think), wear a long-sleeved shirt (it just might be hotter than you think and flicking flies off bare arms is not conducive to concentration), sun hat (there can be glare if not bright sun), and a cushion in case sitting on the ground gives a more exciting view, as it did with my Forest of Poppies (below).
Forest of Poppies, pencil and wash, (19½” x 15”)
So here you are, bag of paints slung over one shoulder, stool in hand and sun hat set defiantly on the back of your head – a wanderer in the land of plants. The rush of elation at your break from the clutches of routine can be almost too much. Keep calm! Saunter about for a while, drinking in the atmosphere and getting the feel of the place. Let groups of plants catch your eye as they will. Gradually narrow down the possibilities to two or three, then toss a mental coin and set down your stool without a backward glance. The plants you reject this time will be there, more or less, for another. But do not necessarily expect to achieve a drawing which pleases you the first time you go out. You are free, so feel free to make as much mess as you like on the paper. Even if it finishes up in the waste paper basket you will have discovered something about plants – plants growing together. And when you make the final gesture of throwing the painty water out on the grass, pack up your things and make your way back to normality and, for me at least, the more exacting indoor work, something will go with you, a certain calmness and strength gained by listening for a while to the teeming silence of the garden jungle.