Blog 6 – Conquering the Conker!…

I’m sad to say that some of our native trees are being attacked and damaged by moths and beetles as well as the fungal diseases they already suffer from. For this reason I’ve chosen to keep a painted record of them. The first tree I’ve chosen is the Horse Chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum).

The Horse Chestnut tree was introduced to the UK in the 1600s and gets it’s name from the horseshoe nail pattern left behind when a leaf falls of a twig. The conker fruits were also ground up and given to horses as a cure for a cough. Here is a diagram showing the details of the leaves.
This majestic tree is a rich source of pollen in the Spring when it it is covered in upright conical clusters of white, pink, or red flowers. The Horse Chestnut tree is a favourite of the Leaf Miner Moth (Cameraria ohridella) which lays it’s egg inside the leaves. The larva bore through the flesh of the leaves and eat it away from inside, creating brown streaks where parts of the leaf die. In recent years there have been huge numbers of them and our Horse Chestnut tree is now suffering and dropping it’s leaves early. You’ve most likely seen the effect which seems particularly bad this year. Incredible to think that such a small creature, only 5mm in size, can cause such devastation!

We all love and know the ‘Conker Tree’. I remember as a child making what I called fish bones out of the leaves too, by tearing out the green parts between the veins and of course, we all have fond memories of playing the game ‘conkers’ on a string!

I’ve spent the last week finishing my Horse Chestnut painting which has taken me over 4 weeks from start to finish. It’s been a real journey of extremely detailed painting. It really makes you look deeply at your subject matter discovering the world within!  Unfortunately, towards the end of my painting I came into paper problems and had to do some repairs at the last minute. I almost thought I would have to paint the last section all over again but in the end I managed to ‘conquer the conker’!

I started to play with composition and after a few hours decided to make this a 3 part study, triptych painting, of close up detailed parts of the leaves and fruits. The paintings are more or less actual size so it’s been a real challenge!

For the first painting I wanted to do the leaves. Due to the Leaf Miner moth, the leaves have browny golden patches all over them but this creates some very interesting and beautiful colours to paint, even though it’s not good for the Horse Chestnut Tree!

I went out to pick some horse chestnut leaves and fruits for the first two paintings. I left the fruits to one side and got on with drawing up the leaf section focussing on the part where the leaves fan out from the petiole. For the second drawing I decided to draw up some of the varying sized fruits and then cut one open to show the inside. The conkers inside were white and I realised then that I would have to go back in a few weeks to get ripe conkers for my last painting. Strangely after a few hours the white conkers started to turn brown in places, creating a patch effect. It seems exposure to the air makes them turn shiny and brown! By the next day the cut shell had started to dry out and developed a beautiful patterning which delighted me as it made it more interesting to paint.

Mixing my colours…

I began to mix my colours up ready to start painting the leaf. I’ve noted here my ‘short forms’ after each colour so that you can hopefully understand my swatch book photos below. I used Indanthrene Blue (Ind. B), Quinacridone Gold (QG), Winsor Lemon (WL), Permanent Rose(PR), Transparent Yellow (TY) for the green areas and Burnt Sienna (BS), Burnt Umber (BU), Quinacriodone Gold (QG), Winsor Violet (V), Trans Yellow (TY), Winsor Lemon (WL) and Indanthrene Blue (Ind.B) to mix the array of beige, golden, nutty brown colours on the damaged areas. The Transparent yellow was also used as an overlay to enhance the green and brown areas. A thinly mixed fine wash can really bring up the colour brightness. Quinacridone Gold can be used in the same way if you want a warmer more muting tone.

I used my usual brushes for this detailed work, a No.2 & 6 Billy Showell brushes, Renaissance Sable Rigger size 0 (for the finest veins), Jacksons’s Icon Flat 1/8” Series 702 (eraser brush) and the Blue handled brush is a cheaper synthetic brush which is used for mixing paint only. You should never use your painting brushes to mix paint as it ruins the tips!

Painting the Leaves

To paint the leaves I concentrated on each section between the lateral veins separately after laying down a couple of pale wash layers. I did not use wet-in-wet for the leaves as the green/brown areas were quite small. For the midrib and some of the lateral veins I managed to leave the white paper showing through without masking by carefully painting the washes alongside each of them. For the small tiny veins I use white gouache mixed with a little yellow or green depending on their appearance. To accentuate the highlights on the leaves and veins I carefully used my eraser brush at the end. This allows you to exaggerate the peaks and troughs of the leaf between the veins. If you’re unsure how to do this then please ask me. One of the videos later in this blog shows you how to do this. More recently (2019) I have discovered the Billy Showell Eradicator brush which is far better than the one I was using. It is a stiffer synthetic brush and has a tapered end which is excellent for erasing small areas. Scroll through the images below to see progress shots.

Painting the conker shells

For the second part of my painting I composed a drawing of the green conker shells and a cut one in half. The inside of shell had formed an intricate patterned and to represent this I used a lot of dots! I used the tip of the Billy Showell no. 2 brush to do this. Dots in various tones of colour and subtle shadows using a very pale shade of warm grey for the shadow area. On the large green shell I added two washes leaving areas free of paint where the small prickles were. Again I used fine dark dots to indicate the pattern on the surface of the shell. There were also hints of beige here and there on the surface. A little shading with a green/grey mix helped give the shells a rounder shape. Finally, I accentuated the tips of the prickles around the outer edge with very pale yellow fading it up to the tip from the green below. The tips of these spikes were painted a reddish brown merging into very dark brown at the point. This stage really finishes the job off! Scroll the images for progress shots.

Now with two paintings completed it was time to paint the conkers! Here is the painting so far.

Painting the conkers

For the third painting I decided to paint dried conkers. I selected lots of conkers first and arranged them to fill this section but I wasn’t convinced by this composition so it was changed later on. Some time went by and my collection of conkers started to lose their shine and shrivel up. During the next week I noticed that the green fruits on my desk had dried naturally. Much to my pleasure they had turned a lovely deep reddish brown and split open to reveal shiny conkers! I decided to paint the conkers first before the lovely dried shells.  ….and this is why the last painting included the shells too, much more interesting to paint than just conkers!

Once I had drawn these up I mixed up my colours. I used a vast array of tones and shades for this part of my painting. Winsor Violet was used as a first on the deeper shadows of the conkers to enhance the deep shadows. This is a great way to get richer deep tones on strongly coloured subjects. Again I painted a great deal of dots on the textured area of the outer shells using different colours and shades. To achieve the shading at the edges I used darker dots and a little wash of pale grey.

Here are some pictures of the stages I went through to paint the conker shells and conkers. In the last three you can see how the Winsor Violet creates a dark shadow from under the conker red/brown mixes. Scroll to see seven images.

I’ve made a few videos which explain how I painted the final conker. I used an extra colour here, Sennelier Rose Madder Lake (S.RML – you could use Permanent Rose instead), to enhance the rich colour of the conkers. It works a treat when added to Burnt Sienna and Quinacridone Gold. My conker shades also include a tiny little extra Indanthrene Blue to darken them. My last conker went horribly wrong due to a paper problem and I spent a long time the next day trying to rectify it. I will explain how I did this after you’ve watched the videos.


When it came to the last few layers of the conker on the bottom half of my painting, I found the wet-in-wet layers were merging into my highlights and the whole area looking messy instead of smooth and shiny! It’s not so obvious here in the photo as in real life but this part of my sheet must have been too porous or lacking sizing.

I ran my finger across the paper and discovered it to be very rough. It seems the paper was inferior on just this section of the sheet! I burnished my paper for about half an hour that evening in the hope that I could paint on it the next day. I used a smooth pebble and kitchen roll to do this. To burnish paper put kitchen roll over the painting and rub over the area quite firmly in circles. Make sure you keep changing the place on the kitchen which you are rubbing or it may form a hole and you’ll ruin your painting! It took many hours the following day erasing with my brush and magic eraser followed by some dry brushing to achieve a half decent looking conker.

These are the tools I used to repair my conker

Whilst waiting for each new area on the bad conker to dry, I carried on with the conker shell behind. This was tricky as it was not just convex but had a rise in it too.  It needed to be shaded carefully to achieve form. Once I had painted this, I used the eraser brush to bring out the highlight at the top  of the higher area and this made it work. I had the same situation with the two half shells on this painting two, shadows were important to make them look concave. Sometimes the eye see things differently. You can be looking at a concave object and it will look convex unless you keep staring at it. It’s crucial to get the shadows in the right places and having a very good light source helps with this. M C Esher made many paintings which confuse the eye, optical illusions! Anyway, I achieved the right look with careful shading and highlights.

Finally I finished off the spikes around the edge by painting them in varying tones of brown, golden yellow and pale yellow at the tips. To the shadow side of each point I added a fine line of shadow grey/beige to accentuate each tip and give a more rounded effect.

Hey presto! ……conker painting finished. I hope you enjoyed this blog and if there is anything you’d like to ask please don’t hesitate to contact me here or on FB.

Thank you for reading and I’ll be back soon!

*All photos, content, text and videos are subject to copyright – Jackie Isard Botanicals 2017

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