I WANTED to draw something in the garden but nothing too fussy so at this time of year an obvious subject is the newly unfurled leaves of Rhubarb. Some are still looking crinkly from recently unpacking themselves from the folded-up form that emerged from the bud.
The glossy elephant’s ears leaves bring a touch of the luxuriantly exotic to the vegetable garden, flouncing around by the hedge with the kind of grand, swaggering gestures that you’d find in Baroque theatre or Elizabethan costume.
The pattern of veins with sections of puckered leaf surface between reminded me of the river valleys and hills of Europe that I’d been sketching from the plane a couple of weeks ago.
I was intending to stick purely to line and I didn’t want to add watercolour but by the time I’d finished a few leaves my drawing was looking like a map so I added cross hatching in the gaps between the leaf margins and indicated some of the shadows from the afternoon sun to give some clues to the way the leaves are arranged relative to each other in space.
Being right-handed I started in the top left corner and worked my way across. Theoretically I could have continued in this fashion, piecing my subject together from interlocking shapes like a jigsaw but my attention soon wavered and by the time I got to the large leaf in the centre of the top row I went drastically wrong in scale. I’ve left my mistake in the drawing so that you can see that at my first attempt I drew the main leaf vein about two thirds of the size it should be and 2 centimetres to the left of where it should have been on the page.
I realised that however relaxing this drawing was supposed to be I needed a strategy to tackle such a convoluted subject so I started by indicating the main veins before getting involved in the subsidiary details.
It sounds like a controlled process but the outlines and veins make what might appear to be a still life feel as if it’s animated. I felt as I imagine a novice skier must feel if they attempt to go straight from the nursery slopes onto the red routes. A feeling of controlled chaos.
The lighting was consistent and there was little breeze and little to distract me other than a sparrow chirping in the hedge above the rhubarb.
Imitate the Action of a Tiger
Thinking about the need for a degree of determination even when you’re doing something that is supposedly relaxing, after I drew this I was listening to a short talk on Radio 3 by choral music conductor Gareth Malone who said that when he had a big performance to conduct on the way to the concert hall he would read the ‘Once more unto the breach dear friends!’ speech from Shakespeare’s Henry V on his mobile phone. Not that singing is like fighting but he feels that he needs to instill in his choir some spirit and determination.
Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead.
In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favour’d rage;
Then lend the eye a terrible aspect;
Let pry through the portage of the head
Like the brass cannon . . .
For there is none of you so mean and base,
That hath not noble lustre in your eyes.
I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game’s afoot:
Follow your spirit, and upon this charge
Cry ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George!’
I know what he means because you need something of that sense of attack when tackling a drawing. You’ve somehow got to keep that ‘stillness and humility’ but also harness the controlled energy suggested in the line about ‘greyhounds in the slips, straining upon the start’. Relaxed concentration is what I usually call it, but that’s what the ‘action of the tiger’ appears to be when you see one hunting in a wildlife documentary; fluid movement and observant determination.
I used a Pilot Drawing Pen with an 08 nib for the rhubarb drawing which contains waterproof, light resistant brown DR pigment ink. When drawing botanical details I’d normally go for the finer 01 size nib but I wanted a more expressive and relaxed line here.
For me this 08 nib might be the nearest that I’ll get to the feel of a fountain pen when using a fibre tip. I tend to wear down the fibre tips before the ink in the pen runs out, perhaps because I’m using too much pressure or because I’m drawing on slightly toothed acid free cartridge paper. I soon find that I have to hold the pen vertically to get a consistent line out of it. I’m hoping that the larger tip size will enable me to draw at an angle for longer. Perhaps a proportionally larger tip in relation to the size of the ink reservoir helps give a smoother flow.