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Botanical Art Worldwide: America's Flora

Desert Bluebells

Phacelia campanularia

The garden of my home in the Sonoran Desert fills with wildflowers each spring. Everyone does not appreciate these beautiful wildflowers that attract native bees and other insects. My neighbor and I sowed our first wildflower seeds several years ago only to be dismayed by letters from the City of Phoenix saying someone had filed a complaint about weeds in our yards. My neighbor, a biology professor, soon convinced the City of Phoenix representative that native wildflowers are not weeds and are very beneficial for the environment. Our wildflowers won a reprieve. Other neighbors now let wildflowers flourish. People walking past my house offer compliments on the stunning display.  

One of my greatest joys in March is to be outside in the warm sun watching as the flowers nod and sway in the gentle desert breeze. Each spring, my desire is to capture this moment in a painting.

Wildflowers are challenging for me to portray, however, because they don’t last long once they are picked. A sturdy, slow-growing cactus is much easier. When I place them in a jar of water, wildflowers change and move about in surprising ways. I must draw quickly – not a simple task when I measure every stem, every petal, and every other part. For desert bluebells, I took some photographs to help me with the form of my subject, but I modeled the composition on one specimen. Then, I relied on several specimens to check the colors as I painted.

I chose desert bluebells because many grew in my garden and I had plenty of specimens. I am attracted to the way the plant branches over its blooming period. Stems curve this way and that. And I love the bobbing little bell-shaped blooms. The gentle flowers remind me of a mythical fairyland. At the same time, they are striking, peeking out among the golden poppies, as if saying, “hey, notice us.” The flowers’ intense colors – various shades of blue and violet – are conspicuous in a spring desert palette of yellows, oranges, and greens. The delicate papery petals contrast with strong stems and leaves.

I knew I wanted to paint on vellum. Used for centuries, it connects me to botanical artists of long ago. I prefer deer vellum, from a deer that has lived its life in the woodland’s fresh air before it was hunted for meat. The vellum’s color provides an appealing background for a plant. Vellum gives a painting a special luminous quality and is perfect for my drybrush, stippling technique. I build up layers and layers of paint in different colors and rarely mix and test “just the right color” before applying it to the vellum. “Experimenting” with color on my actual painting is risky, but can result in some distinctive effects.

I focus on painting plants of the desert southwest, including cactus, and my goal is to paint all the plants in my garden. I hope whoever appreciates my depictions of native wildflowers will be encouraged to grow the appropriate wildflowers in their own gardens, and gain as much pleasure as I do from the plants’ seasonal displays and the pollinating insects they attract.


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Read more about this artist’s work: 17th Annual


Phacelia campanularia

Desert Bluebells

Watercolor on vellum

10 x 8

©2016 Gillian Rice

2024 ASBA - All rights reserved

All artwork copyrighted by the artist. Copying, saving, reposting, or republishing of artwork prohibited without express permission of the artist.

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