Crossing Rhododendrons and Art
Lyman Clark, Newtown, Pennsylvania
FIG.15. Painting of 'Atroflo'; Gable hybrid;
of the species R. floccigerum and an
catawbiense hybrid with only one
known parent, 'Astrosanguinium'.
Artist: Mary Clark
Fig.16. Painting of 'Brookville': hybrid of
of Westbury, Long Island; cross of
seedling (Westbury) with 'Meadow-
C. S. Sargent and Everestianum);
this same cross produced 'Wheatley'.
Artist: Mary Clark
Mary Clark, my wife, is an artist. Her hero is Matisse,
which suggests she very probably isn't a realistic painter, and in recent years
she has painted little or nothing, certainly not flower pictures.
And it was a surprise, to say the least, when she agreed to
paint some small rhododendron pictures to be imbedded in plastic and used for
Princeton Chapter show prizes. The pictures in deep plastic had a jewel-like
quality. There were flattering words and no one seems to abhor compliments.
This could be the end of the story but it's the beginning.
Out of the blue Mary said, 'There's always fire and flood and blight and bug;
and things don't last forever; maybe you won't
always want to tend your beds and borders; you never know
for sure; how'd you like me to paint pictures of your rhododendrons?"
We have photographs all over the place, but I certainly
wanted those paintings.
Transparencies are for real; they keep alive what happened
from year to year; they record growth and development and plant variation;
they've rescued many a talk from boredom; but they don't have the permanence,
the decorative qualities of paintings; you can't turn a room into a year round
flower show with them. There's something to be said for paintings.
How do you paint rhododendrons, and what with? My wife used
water colors because she can get either a transparent or an opaque quality with
them; she used heavy d'Arches paper, twelve by sixteen inches, to get truss or
spray life-size and a good proportion in the space.
First, we went daily through the beds to select subjects. I
was fussy about the size and shape of the truss or spray; Mary was fussy about
getting a composition that suited her, one that had some variety compared to the
previous picture she'd painted (variety isn't easy where over and over the
subject is a flower head and a whorl of leaves). It took approximately two days
to paint each picture, and rhododendrons though rooted to the ground don't stand
still. If the sun's bright, there's too much contrast; the light is different in
the morning and in the afternoon; a bloom changes shape all the time; it keeps
opening; it begins to go lax; the color varies on overcast and rainy days; cut
the truss and bring it inside and there's another light problem and the material
changes still faster.
Eventually you learn to hang onto the original flower (or
flowers) for general composition and refer to other flowers of the same shrub
for color correction; you sometimes work outside and sometimes in. Mary managed
to complete twenty-one pictures last spring and hopes to do that many more the
coming season - get the ones that got away while others were being painted.
There was anticipation and excitement, too, and we both enjoyed the project.
There's always something to be learned about rhododendrons,
even when you're just drawing them. At first there seem to be myriad colors and
shapes. In fact, there are and there aren't; there's sameness as well as
variety. Mary found one color, cerise, was needed in varying amounts in a
majority of the blossoms. Of the twenty-one blooms painted, sixteen have some
cerise in them, often very dilute, but there. The ones with cerise in some
amount are: 'Tom Everett', 'Powder Puff', 'Atroflo', 'Ignatius Sargent', 'David
Gable', 'Todmorden', 'John Wister', 'Brookville', 'Champagne',
'Robert Allison', the species R. racemosum, and the deciduous azaleas
R. atlanticum, arborescens, schlippenbachii, and
You wouldn't expect to find cerise in 'Champagne' but a small, dilute amount of it is there.
The ones Mary painted without dipping into cerise are
'County of York', 'Avondale', 'Black Cherry', the species R. keiskei, and the azalea
Leaves when you get to painting them, Mary found, are not
just leaves. They vary all over the place; maybe even more than the flowers - in
size, shape, substance, and on and on. These three Dexters, for example: 'Tom
Everett' leaves are very large, yellow-green, and dull or matte finish; 'Todmorden'
leaves have waves like the sea; 'Brookville' leaves have a patent
leather shine. And in the Gable plant 'County of York', the
leaves tend to fold lengthwise, are long, have a hump in the middle, and hang downward.
There were side effects from the painting project. We
looked at our rhododendrons more. We noticed the stamens with their anthers, the
styles capped with stigmas, the frilled margins of some blossoms, the many
perfumes. The house was filled with trusses, like a flower show. (I wish I knew
why some blooms quickly droop and some last and last; it would help at show time.)
We found the back of the pictures Mary painted a good place
to record the pedigrees of the rhododendrons. Example: the reverse side of
'Black Cherry' says, Dexter seedling tested, named and introduced by Mr. and
Mrs. John F. Knippenberg of Wayne, N. J.
I hope we've added the painting project permanently, and
others will pick it up (if you don't have a painter in the family, the fruits of
hobbies can be traded; that is, trade plants for pictures). There are not many
rhododendron paintings around; a few good ones reproduced in English books, and
a few in flower books here.