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


Magnolia Fruit Progression 

Magnolia ‘Big Dude’
Sir Harold Hillier Gardens, Romsey, Hampshire, England, United Kingdom

I am often attracted to seedpods and characterful botanical structures. These are usually discovered in the fall and winter when the majority of the vegetation is bare of greenery. As a result, I have never been at a loss for painting subjects at any time of year.

The subject for this painting was found at the end of September 2016 at the Sir Harold Hillier Gardens, in the county of Hampshire, in the south of the United Kingdom. The gardens and arboretum were established by Sir Harold Hillier, a distinguished plantsman in 1953.  His aim was to bring together the most comprehensive and unrivalled collection of trees, shrubs and hardy plants in the UK.

Now the gardens are run as a charity under the trusteeship of Hampshire County Council and provide a valuable resource for horticulture, education and lifelong learning, conservation and recreation.

I never need much of an excuse to visit the gardens at any time of year and I am lucky that it is a relatively short journey from my home.

Walking along the centenary border that day in September, I was admiring the flowering perennials that were still showing some color and the variety of trees that surround this area.  My eye was drawn to a large and impressive Magnolia (Magnolia ‘Big Dude’) and as I wandered over to peer up through its canopy I noticed the strange pod shapes hanging from the branches, with some having already fallen below.  They were mostly green with some subtle color changes, which included a flush of pink as the pods were starting to mature. They almost looked like ornately carved waxy tree decorations, with some hanging down straight and others curling.

I soon realised that my creative juices were starting to flow and I was thinking about the process of how to portray these magnificent structures.  I needed to not just think about the drawing and painting process but how the pod evolves from being tightly closed to open and reveals the jewel-like orange seeds. 

As I was there early on in the fall none of the pods had reached maturity.  I searched among the few fallen pods and came across one that was an attractive shape and that became my subject.  I kept it in a plastic sealed container in the fridge, with damp kitchen paper in the bottom, which was replaced regularly. It stayed fresh and the maturing process was slowed, which allowed me to draw the pod at each stage and make color notes.

I chose three stages of the maturing pod and transferred the composition to natural calfskin vellum. I had the perfect piece of vellum to use, a pale honey colour with subtle veining.  Perhaps unusually, I decided to paint the last stage first. This was the most complex and also, I felt that I had got to know my subject extremely well and wanted to do it justice.  

The orange seeds drew me in and the first layers of colour were applied to these on the second and third pods [photo left].  I use mostly Daniel Smith watercolor paints when painting on vellum, ensuring that these are transparent or semi-transparent and not opaque.  I use Rosemary & Co brushes and favor the Series 323 spotter size 2 and the Series 66 filbert size 0.  The latter is called a "cat's tongue" and is a flat pointed brush.  I find that I can achieve the finest details with it when using it on its side.



What was most engaging for me as the painting developed, was how to ensure the continuity of color balance and harmony across the piece.  One way that this was achieved was by using some of the colors from the pod casing in the seeds.  I had not realised how difficult it can be to achieve a dark orange and the eureka moment came when I used some pink to create the darker tonal values in the seeds, using a combination of Quinacridone rose and Rose of ultramarine.  This retained the freshness of the orange and, as mentioned before, helped with the color balance across the whole composition. 

It is moments like these that you cannot always plan for and what makes botanical drawing and painting so exciting, with the added challenge of painting on vellum.

Observing colour balance and harmony in a painting
  • © 2016 Sarah Morrish
    Magnolia Fruit Progression
    Magnolia ‘Big Dude’
    Watercolor on vellum
    8.25" x 12"