Out of the Woods: Celebrating Trees in Public Gardens
The Third New York Botanical Garden Triennial

Yellow Magnolia

Magnolia ‘Elizabeth’
New York Botanical Garden, Bronx, New York

Magnolias are standout trees, and their floral impact is undeniable. Found throughout the Americas and in Asia, they are of great importance here in North America. From the statuesque eastern woodland M. acuminata to the dramatic southern M. grandiflora’s stunning summer bloom, magnolias have become a garden focus around the world. Over several generations they have been hybridized to produce flowers ranging from pale yellow, like this one, to deep magenta red.


Magnolia ‘Elizabeth’ was the first yellow Magnolia to be hybridized. Since then quite a few yellow magnolias have been introduced, many of a very deep yellow and some with rosy flares on the tepal bases.


The day I made the study of this Magnolia at the New York Botanical Garden was a bright sunny day with intermittent showers. It was early in their flowering, and it seemed the flowers were opening while I was drawing. The sun was so intense it was difficult to see some of the floral details with the brilliant sunlit tepals. One thing I do know, the bracts were falling off as I was working, tumbling down in their furry, gold/green splendor. It was hard to keep track of which flower I was working on they were changing so quickly.


First I made drawings in graphite of several flowers and buds in various stages, along with the stems that held them. Then I added color to the study drawings, carefully trying to capture the nuances of yellow, green, gold, sienna, and blue. Studies are a way to memorize one’s subject; as you work through them you are understanding micro and macro things about the subject.


Painting a magnolia is almost like painting a rose – part of the difficulty lies not so much in the flowers themselves, although they do bear their challenges. It’s mostly because viewers have their own experiences relating to looking at them, they love these trees and their flowers, and they know in their own hearts how they “should” look. So meeting up with those expectations adds to the challenge of meeting up with your own memory of those blooms.


I wanted to capture the lift and spring of the branches, the falling of the bracts, and the freshness of that spring day. In Andrew Wyeth’s words, “It’s a moment that I’m after, a fleeting moment, but not a frozen moment.” Winter has been left behind. Branches are anchored on the left, and the flowers are held upright. Flowers have just opened, and there are more to come in the promise of the unfurling buds. As the tepals expand they will grow longer and increasingly creamy. Leaves will soon take over to feed the tree through the summer and prepare it for the next winter. This is painted on a piece of Rory McEwen’s vellum, and you can see his strokes in the coating he brushed on the vellum, as well as sandpaper scratches. It’s humbling to be laying brushstrokes over Rory’s!

Read more about this artist’s work: 20th Annual International
  • © 2017 Carol Woodin
    Yellow Magnolia
    Magnolia ‘Elizabeth’
    Watercolor on vellum
    12-1/2" x 15"