“Dangerous Dance” / Observing Your Subject

Here it is: Another ambitious undertaking, the subject more fantastical than I’m able to even fully capture. Though it looks tropical, it grows happily right here in the Missouri Ozarks.

The passionvine is a vigorous fruiting vine capable of growing 20 feet in a year. My latest oil pastel painting highlights an exuberant 2-inch bloom of one of my very own vines.

The striking petals are arranged as though they were part of a tiny carousel of color. Sweet honeydew produced by the passionflower attracts tiny ants, who prey on the plants’ pests in exchange for a sugary meal.
This ballet of symbiosis is complicated by the appearance of an unexpected player: a hungry crab spider. It believes that its small yellow body is hidden beneath the thin purple petals. Can you see him? The insect below doesn’t seem to.

This piece began with an 11×17″ sketch, traced from my reference photo print directly onto my cotton canvas. The flower has countless intricate petals. I’ve drawn about 100 of them (yes, I counted!). Everything about this vine from the alien-like center to the outlandish colors, is almost otherworldly.

When I start adding color, I need to fill in the background between each of the impossibly slender “petals” of the flower. The photo is a clear capture at high resolution, but there appear to be more petals than I’m seeing. The only way to know is to go see the flower in person.

When I look at a bloom in my garden–Ah! It makes sense now.
I can see that there are multiple layers of petals hidden beneath each other. And I understand the odd angle of the flower when I can see how it is attached to the vine. Even if I’m just painting one part of the subject, knowing what surrounds that part makes me paint it more accurately.

They come in white too!!

Reference photos are very helpful, but they aren’t the same as touch memory and three dimensional observations. Personally observing the subject of my art helps me better understand:

  • Color variations and textures that a reference photo may not capture.
  • The anatomy and structure of the subject in 3-D (photos are flattened and show only one angle).
  • The nature of light and shadow and how it effects the subject. Time of day, surroundings, and other objects casting shadows all come into play.

This is one reason I don’t usually paint things like tigers or Grecian ruins. (I also can’t afford Greece right now!).
Right outside my door are flowers, toads, mushrooms that I can see and photograph–and so interpret them with detail and surety. Sure, I could make a picture of a tiger from several internet photos. But I would really know and appreciate my subject better if I went to a zoo and watched the tigers there, taking my own photos.
In-person observation is what will make my piece more accurate in the end, giving me confidence to use bold, sure strokes in my work, rather than guessing and erasing.

So…back to the work at hand. I’ve gotten the beginning of the background filled in, and the center is nearly complete.

Half-done piece with tools, colors used and storage tin. I made my own mini green pastel out of my giant one, using wax paper and tape as a wrapper!

Halfway through, I’m realizing that the flower is beginning to look how I want, and the background…well, does not. The neon green seems to be competing with the purples and lemons of the flower. The best way to determine if the piece is properly balanced, is to remove the distraction of color. This is easy to do with a phone app or a free online editing tool: https://grayscale.imageonline.co/

Greyscale image. Background is roughed in and halfway done.

I can see that the values (lights/darks/mid-tones) are defined so far. However, when I look at it in color again, I definitely need to bring the green down a notch to really highlight the gorgeous purples of this bloom. Adding some deep grey subdues the green a bit, making the purple stand out more, but I’m not satisfied with it just yet.

I replace the larger flying insect in my photo with a tiny ant, looking tentatively up at the danger lurking above him. He measures just 3/4″ long on my canvas.

Though I’ve put the finishing touches on the piece and peeled the masking tape off, I don’t feel that sense of completion I usually do. For something that’s practically neon, it’s kind of…”blah”. It’s missing something. But what?

As I watch a video from an artist I’m following, she mentions something helpful that makes it click into place. I layer a translucent tone of purple over the darkest shades on each petal.
Immediately, there is a new level of depth that makes the picture really pop. I definitely need to remember to use translucent-toned pastels for greater depth. Opaque colors are duller and let less light through.

“Dangerous Dance”, 12×16″, oil pastel on cotton canvas. Copyright VLeigh Artworks, 2020

I’m glad to have had the opportunity to portray the passionflower. It certainly is a magical sort of plant–its sedative properties treat anxiety and insomnia, and it produces an egg-shaped edible fruit also known as a “maypop”. The name, “Passiflora Incarnata“, was coined by missionaries visiting South America, who saw the structures of the flower as representative of aspects of Christ’s crucifixion.

Closeup on the little yellow crab spider

Though I will be expanding to other themes soon, I am enjoying these “glamour portraits” of Ozarks-local flora and fauna. These ordinary little things can be as interesting as Greek ruins or a tiger, when you get your nose up in them. I hope to inspire other people to discover these things worthy of appreciation and observation.

Next time you step outside, what little wonder might you notice that you haven’t before?Share your discoveries in a comment below!

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