Drawing on nature

The cold holds the gardens as if under a spell. Mist hangs over the walks where the weak sun breaks through. Each blade of grass across the lawns is rimed with frost. And along each bare tree branch there’s a tracery of ice. It’s so different from the familiar bustle of Kew with pensioners, babies in prams and toddlers all out for an airing. IMG_3785

I walk towards the pond in front of the Palm House and it is frozen: not quite solid but the ducks and seagulls skitter across the hard bright surface. The only sound, the seagulls’ bickering, the only colour the bright red and orange dogwood, and the sudden spicy scent from the bushes of wintersweet.

Walking deeper into the gardens, I feel I am disturbing their sleep. The beds are all dormant, none of the dramatic colour of summer, just muted browns, greys and greens. But the trees look majestic without their leaves, their graceful skeletons caught in the low angled sun. Buds are already forming along the branches but spring feels very far away. This is the time to rest, to recuperate, not to force growth.

I head for the warmth of the classroom and exchange the silence of the garden for the silence of the drawing class. Some of my companions look as if they have not been home, they are already so focussed on their sketches. I needed the change of perspective, and now I can see how poorly my drawing catches the shape of the skimmia cutting.

It is a beginner’s class, and I am a beginner, so that’s to be expected. The art of drawing a foreshortened leaf and capturing negative space with shade and tone take time and practice to master. But at least I am looking more closely now, and noting where the light falls, and where the leaf starts from, seeing it does not spring from the same stem as the berries. Our teacher Lucy says after 20 years of botanical drawing, she can’t look at a plant and simply enjoy its beauty, she has to study how it works. Observing more acutely makes me appreciate the complexity of what I had thought simple.

I work away with my well sharpened pencil (sharpening was included in the first day’s lessons). The leaf on my page still looks little like the leaf pegged to my drawing board. Frustrated, I start on another one. I note my colleagues’ concentration, they are still working on the same single drawing. Perhaps they see more than me. Or they are more patient than me.

By the time we get to day three, I’ve struggled with the slow discipline of stippling with an ink pen and I am just itching to try out some colour. I dash off a version of the skimmia cutting, with bright greens and red berries. I’m pleased with my mix of cadmium red and alizarin crimson, but the berries look flat. Lucy kindly shakes her head and shows us all a simple technique of highlights that creates the illusion of a round berry. It’s why I signed up for the course, to learn skills I never learned or haven’t used since school art class.

I am not the only person finding this hard. My right hand neighbour, another true beginner, finds her paint washes build up too dark and soak into the paper. I realise she is close to tears and she heads out into the frozen garden at lunchtime to recover her equilibrium. Even my left hand neighbour, who seems so much more patient than me, is ready to tear up her watercolour of a cyclamen leaf in frustration before going home that evening. Fortunately, she doesn’t, as when I see it the next day, it is beautiful.

When we are all focussed on our work, the silence is so intense it is like a meditation class, or how I imagine monks working in a scriptorium. Some of the work might be worthy of a monastery, I see at the end of the course when Lucy asks us all to bring our work to the front. I am amazed by the detail and the delicacy those who are not beginners have achieved. My efforts are crude in comparison, but I compare my first attempts to my last, and I can see the difference.

I keep getting the same message, here and everywhere, to slow down, to take more time, and not to rush things. The discipline of drawing demands patient deliberation, and it is the opposite of the reactive world outside the classroom where we feel pushed and pulled and powerless. I recall Voltaire’s conclusion at the end of his chaotic satire, Candide, “il faut cultiver notre jardin”. I shall take time to walk out in the gardens and notice nature’s gifts, a consolation, if not a solution for what this year may bring.

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