Studies in watercolour

I would rather teach drawing that my pupils may learn to love nature, than teach the looking at nature that they may learn to draw. ~ John Ruskin

After 15 years abroad, I returned home to Hobart on a grey July afternoon. As the plane made its final approach, I gazed out at the familiar, rain-soaked paddocks, and the unmistakable blue-green haze of the mountains. An endless, shifting, tonal palette of browns, greys and ochres ran together in the rain. 

Outside the airport, the sharp breath of eucalyptus cleansed my lungs of the last gritty particles of Los Angeles, bringing a rush of memories with it. I stood under a blue gum (Eucalyptus globulus) by the side of the road and ran my hand over the stippled pinks, blues and yellows where last year’s bark had sloughed away. Long, slender leaves shimmered overhead, shading but not obscuring the sky. 

Heading south along the Channel Highway, I understood what the Colonial artist John Glover meant when he observed, “A remarkable peculiarity in the trees in this country; however numerous, they rarely prevent your tracing through them the whole distant country.” 

For another great painter of Australian landscape, Hans Heysen, the aesthetic appeal of the gum tree was “its combination of mightiness and delicacy – mighty in its strength of limb and delicate in the colouring of its covering”. He loved how the creamy trunks of river red gums exuded “a pinky mauve, a lilac, and … a warm amber” in the sunlight. For their tufted canopies, he mixed prussian and ultramarine blue (for the lights), and burnt and raw sienna (for the shadows), a fugitive colour scheme “not so obvious as the greenness of England, but … infinitely more varied and more delicate in tone”. 

Heysen devoted his life to studying the luminous light of the Australian bush, and his heroic, almost humanised arboreal portraits made the gum tree a national symbol of resilience, grandeur and endurance in the years following World War I. Yet in his more subdued watercolour studies like Gums Under Mist (1920), these same trees appear creaturely, wild, feral, unknowable. Sinuous limbs loom out of a primeval haze that human eyes are not equipped to fathom. 

The ancient Greeks believed water to be the primary element from which all matter derived, including the bodily humours that governed our physical and emotional lives. No wonder then that artists like Vincent van Gogh chose the medium of watercolour to convey the most delicate and insubstantial effects of light and air. “What a splendid thing watercolour is to express atmosphere and distance, so that the figure is surrounded by air and can breathe in it,” he said. 

Watercolour is inherently unpredictable, requiring an acceptance of the flows of chance and change in life.

Even a writer like Robert Louis Stevenson recognised the soulful benefits of a chance encounter between paper and brush. “A little amateur painting in water-color shows the innocent and quiet mind,” he said. 

Watercolour possesses alchemical power, collapsing complexities into shades of light and dark, distilling and revealing the essence of things. 

. . .

It was now November, and my feet crunched through a tinder-dry accumulation of aromatic bark and gumnuts as I walked down a dirt track towards Katherine Perrott’s house. Originally from Melbourne, Perrott moved to Tasmania in 2014 with her partner and son to take up an artist’s residency at the Salamanca Art Centre, but like so many mainlanders before her, she fell in love with the rolling green hills and village atmosphere of the Huon Valley and decided to stay. 
Now in her mid-50s, with an athletic build and bright, observant eyes, Perrott runs botanical watercolour classes from her studio just outside Cygnet for anyone willing to learn. 

Perrott greeted me with a warm handshake and an elfin smile, and led me past a large veggie patch, around the back of a rustic, meandering house hewn from local timbers, and into a small, light-filled studio overlooking Glaziers Bay. 

Two other students were busy laying out their paints and paper at a long table in the center of the room. At one end, a teenaged boy smiled shyly before resuming his detailed sketch of a sinuous gum leaf; at the other end, a Danish woman in her 50s leapt up to show me her cover designs for a self-published book of poems she had written about the Tarkine. 

Around the room hung canvases of different sizes, works in progress for an exhibition Perrott was preparing for the Colville Gallery in Hobart. Each painting featured fragments of eucalypts – a sprig of gumnuts suspended in a translucent glass vase, or a bowl floating in front of a dark curtain of gum leaves. 

“The tension between domesticity and wilderness has always fascinated me – that gap between what is familiar and what is unknown,” she said. 

Perrott showed me her specimen table, scattered with gum leaves of different shapes, textures and colours, and bouquets of brown gumnuts and banksia cones arranged in glass jars, and invited me to choose an item I’d like to paint. Since this was my first attempt at watercolour, I decided to start with something easy. I picked up a small, pink, tattered gum leaf. 

“I think I’ll try ... this one!” I declared, pleased with my humble choice. Perrott smiled and nodded, offered me a cup of tea, and led me to my place at the table. 

. . .

The first European to paint a gum leaf in watercolour was Dutch botanical artist Pierre Joseph Redouté, the “Raphael of Flowers”, in 1788. He used a desiccated specimen of messmate stringybark (Eucalyptus obliqua) collected from Bruny Island by botanist David Nelson on board Cook’s third voyage to the Pacific, and preserved in Joseph Banks’ herbarium. Despite never having seen a living eucalypt, Redouté’s gum leaves dance and curl on their asymmetrical axis (hence “obliqua”), their crimson veins pulsing with energy, each stage of inflorescence dutifully reproduced. 

One might think that digital photography would have made botanical art redundant, Perrott said, but actually it was making a resurgence in scientific circles. To paint something requires acute observation, combined with technical skill and an understanding of natural design, which even the best computer modeling can’t match.

Having carefully sketched the outline of my leaf with a light pencil, Perrott showed me how to find the right shade of pigment – mixing crimson with a little white, a dash of burnt sienna – and handed me the brush. Cautiously, I soaked up a few drops of colour from the plate, breathed in, felt the fine hairs touch the paper ... and watched in dismay as my perfect outline dissolved into a puddle of pink. 

“We find out methods by experiment and failure,” Norman Lindsay wrote, “and no-one can lay down precise principles for a medium so fluid and accidental as watercolour. To this day I never sit down to a watercolour without enduring the suspense of an experiment designed to go wrong.” 

Noticing my distress, Perrott explained in reassuring tones how to soak up excess water with a scrap of paper towel, and how to “push” colours where I wanted them to go with the tip of my brush. But the stain of my fumbled beginning stared back at me, impossible to erase. 

“With watercolour, you can’t cover up the marks,” David Hockney once mused. “There’s the story of the construction of the picture, and then the picture might tell another story as well.” 

I tried again, determined to keep the flow of pigment inside the lines. My strokes became neater and more even, but with each wash of colour the thing on the page looked less like the little leaf beside me, and more like a pink, crooked smile. 

“An even tint is not in nature,” William Blake counselled. “It produces heaviness. Nature’s shadows are ever varying … its spots are its beauties.”

I lay down my brush and looked closer at my little leaf. The surface was flecked with tiny, almost invisible blemishes. Spidery, hair-like veins radiated outwards from the central stem. A subtle bruising had formed around the tiny holes where mites had burrowed through when the leaf was green and healthy. A world was written in this leaf. I realised I could be here a long time. 

Perrott leaned over my shoulder, made encouraging noises, and showed me how to create a stippling effect by flicking the tip of my brush, adding texture to the finish. My painted specimen now looked more leaf-like, more organic, but still nothing like the leaf before me. 

“My business is to paint what I see,” grumbled J. M. W. Turner, “not what I know is there.” 

After two hours of intense concentration, I hadn’t even come close to capturing the essence of my little leaf. But after all that time spent studying its contours, learning its landscape, its whorls of shifting pigmentation, its subtle hues and delicate tears, love was not too strong a word for how I felt about it.  

I went home and took up a blank piece of paper, woven from the fibres of Eucalyptus globulus, and a drop of colour bloomed across the page like thought. 

. . .

Rayne Allinson is a writer and teacher with a PhD in History from the University of Oxford. She has worked and travelled in many parts of the northern hemisphere, and is now based in southern Tasmania. 

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