Blog 30 : Painting for climate change

Jackie Isard BA (Hons) SBA Fellow CBM ASBA

The PNBA (Pacific Northwest Botanical Artists) asked me to write an article for their newsletter and I thought I would share this as a blog with you too. I hope you enjoy it.

The reason

This Autumn COP26, the United Nations Climate Change Conference, was held in Glasgow Scotland. It brought together the nations of the world for one of the most important international meetings about the future of our planet. The conference had six major themes and the theme that was relevant to the ABBA (Association of British Botanical Artists) ReflectionS exhibition was:

Nature – to safeguard and restore natural habitats and ecosystems to preserve the planet’s biodiversity

Inspired by COP26, ABBA has released an exhibition focused on the crucial role that plants play in preserving the planet’s health and biodiversity. ABBA’s slogan for the exhibition is  ‘No plants – no planet’.

Thirty-five juried artists’ submissions are being exhibited in digital form in the prestigious Shirley Sherwood Gallery (Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew). The exhibition is also online until March 2022 which includes all sixty-six artists’ entries, http://www.britishbotanicalartists.com/reflections-1. At present the Shirley Sherwood Gallery is featuring an exhibition by Sculptor Zadok Ben-David called ‘Natural Reserve’ and the ReflectionS digital exhibition can be viewed on a large screen within the same building.

I am very privileged to have had my work selected by the judges to be shown at the Shirley Sherwood Gallery. This blog is about the painting I made and why I felt it was important to show. The Southern Marsh Orchid (Dactylorhiza praetissima) is a British wet meadow wild orchid. This orchid was restricted to southern UK but due to climate change, recent records now find it as far north as Newcastle upon Tyne. A warmer climate may result in this orchid declining or disappearing from southern UK altogether. Wetland is one of our essential habitats for small mammals, insects, birds and wildflower species. 

My working method

I like to find wild plants in their own habitat to make an accurate drawing and study the plant botany first. Working in this way allows you to understand everything about the plant before you start to draw. If I am able to, I will pull a plant apart and examine each individual bit before I start my composition. I make study drawings of all these parts and note measurements too. With a head full of information and notes I will start to plan out the composition. For this wild orchid, I wanted to show part of its living habitat too, which is why I included some grasses and insects in the composition. These were Grass Vetchling – growing nearby, a common blue damselfly – an insect flying around in the area and a solitary mason bee – a bee which pollinates early flowering wildflowers. I feel by including these details the plant and its story are being told.

My workspace whilst working on Geum rivale (Water Avens) for my RHS project

The journey 

I was having great trouble locating this orchid locally when the University Bristol Botanic Garden called me one day to say they thought they had a specimen growing that I could borrow. I was delighted! Having a specimen right next to you on your desk is such a benefit when drawing and painting. However, the specimen was not a true Southern Marsh Orchid but a very similar hybrid and so my hunt went on. I have a lot of experience in hunting down wildflower species as I have had to do this for all the plants which feature in my RHS (Royal Horticultural Society) botanical exhibition work. It isn’t easy sometimes and involves a lot of research, driving around and walking! 

This is the plant that was very kindly loaned to me by the University Bristol Botanic Gardens,
growing in a pot with another shrub!

I was disappointed but kept on with my research in the hope that I could find one before it was too late. There was a tight deadline! By chance whilst chatting to a local walking friend (Simon Harding), who works in the area recording wild orchid and flower species, I was told that he knew exactly where I could find plenty of specimens to study in the field. Excited and so very grateful, I followed his map to a place about 20 minutes from my home, see image.

There I found hundreds of Southern Marsh Orchids living quietly in a damp field on the nature reserve. I measured, made colour studies, sketched and also made a note of what other plants were growing nearby. I also noted insects visiting the area too. This was a typical wet meadow environment, the type I love, as all my RHS exhibition species are wet meadow plants too. My initial sketches were raw and I found the inflorescence very tricky! 

Some of my rough sketching

Research and botany

I was allowed to take a few individual flowers from an inflorescence to help me with my dissection illustrations. Orchids are difficult to dissect and understand but with the help of a botanist friend, I managed to make a perfect dissection drawing. I also painted an enlarged pollinium; a body of pollen grains forming a mass and attached to a sticky pad. There are two of them per flower on this plant. This reproductive part attaches to an insects head as it enters the flower. It is then taken by the insect to another orchid flower or plant and pollination happens. To see all the detail of these flowers I used a microscope. The front-facing orchid flower reminded me of an alien face and the side view of a baby in a bonnet! Below are images of my studies and microscope photos.

Microscope images of the reproductive area
A pollinium enlarged
The dissection and front-facing flower illustrations

Preparing to paint

The colour on this orchid was quite tricky to match. It has a lovely pink/lilac flower, burgundy/brown tinges on green bracts and the stem and foliage are quite a bright green. I tested my mixes using live pieces that had been carefully removed from plants in the field. I also took many reference photos to help me with the final drawing and colouring. Not an easy task, as photos make this plant look so different where colour is concerned, but then, photos generally do!

I decided to make this a long thin painting as the subject was tall and its foliage quite upright. I completed the drawing in outline and left the habitat part at the bottom to finish later. I really needed to start painting!

My original inflorescence sketch was too large so I outlined it in black fine liner and reduced it on my laptop, then printed it out at the correct size. It was tidied up later and drawn neatly before I transferred it to watercolour paper.

Testing colour mixes for the flowers, stem and leaves on a small practice piece

I particularly enjoyed painting the insects. This is the start of the bright blue damselfly. No black paint was used, this black is a mix of Indanthrene Blue, Permanent Carmine and New Gamboge. I prefer to mix my own black as there are many versions of black too, warm and cool! This is a warm black mix that compliments the bright vivid cool blue.

This painting was a mammoth task with such a short time to complete. I really wanted to be involved in this exhibition as the theme is very close to my heart. Protecting all our ecosystems is crucial to human survival and these environments are becoming so rare. In the UK 97% of all meadow grassland has been lost since the 1950s due to modern intensive farming, housing and draining of wetlands. Then there are pesticides that are killing the pollinators of our food plants. Something needs to change….

Extra research

I went back to the nature reserve later on to see the seeding inflorescences. I did this so that if I had time to include this plant in my RHS entry, I would have more information available about its lifecycle. It would be a different style composition to this painting here as I have done my RHS paintings in a more scientific way. I do now have all the necessary information and research to hand though, just in case! The seeds are very small, fine and delicate, almost like dust. see microscope image below.

The finished painting

Dactylorhiza praetissima (Southern Marsh Orchid) with Lathyrus nissolia (Grass Vetchling), Osmia bicornis (solitary mason Bee) and Enallagma cyathigerum (Common blue damselfly)

I was pleased with the result and thrilled that it was chosen to be shown in the Shirley Sherwood Gallery by ABBA judges. It is probably the fasted detailed painting I have ever done!

I hope you enjoyed my painting journey for the Southern Marsh Orchid.

I wish you all a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, it’s very close now!

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