QBARS - v28n1 Crossing Rhododendrons and Art

Crossing Rhododendrons and Art
Lyman Clark, Newtown, Pennsylvania

R. 'Atroflo'
FIG.15. Painting of 'Atroflo'; Gable hybrid;
cross of the species R. floccigerum and an
H. Waterer catawbiense hybrid with only one
known parent, 'Astrosanguinium'.
Artist: Mary Clark
R. 'Brookville'
Fig.16. Painting of 'Brookville': hybrid of
Phipps of Westbury, Long Island; cross of
a Dexter seedling (Westbury) with 'Meadow-
brook' (Mrs. 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 albrechtii .
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 R. calendulaceum .
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.