There is something quite exhilarating about finding an indigenous orchid growing wildly where Nature has chosen to sow its seeds. The discovery itself has such potential to inspire great images, to conjure up visualisations that can ignite an urgency to set to work. The first time I encountered Eulophia cucullata was in a lush grassland close to Kabwe, Zambia. A leisurely stroll one high summer afternoon took an unexpected turn when I started noticing pink heads popping out from the surrounding vegetation. They were speckling the landscape by the dozens, in all shades of dirty pinks, powdery purples and rusty blushes. The pigmentation was intense and flaunted about in all directions by their beautifully wavy petals. I could kick myself for not having packed my brushes and paint on the trip, regretting not being able to immediately capture the precious find, but there was no use lamenting an otherwise awe-inspiring outing.
It is only about two years later that I was invited to go see a specimen of the same orchid located in the mist belt of Kwazulu-Natal. Inconspicuously it was growing alongside two other lone plants, in an environment where urbanization has made them strangers in a once well-populated environment. I wasn’t going to let the opportunity pass again, and immediately set out to sketching the orchid, right there in the moist grass.
This initial and fleeting pre-sketching is crucial in the creative process – it is fast, almost instinctive, simply capturing that first impression and pure perception of the orchid’s form and its shapes. In a way it feels like capturing its ‘soul’, its essence. And usually this rough sketch remains the primary reference on which the final artwork is fashioned.
More than just sketching, the purpose of spending some quality time with the orchid is to get to know its character, to partake in the experience of its immediate environment, and to observe its world. So much is learned from simply noticing how the weight of the flowers sway to the gentle breeze, or watching the glistening dewdrops trickle over the curves as soft rays lift the morning mist. And then becoming aware of a quiet network of rustling interactions. A big fat ant with a hairy chin was inquisitively crawling over the orchid, inspecting its cavities and tracing its stem, while a furry bagworm went about its own business camouflaged under a neatly compiled armour of twigs. A glossy ladybird flew in only to linger over the petals’ pastel hues – and even though I rarely include insects in my compositions, unless they are of immediate relevance, I always knew that this little ladybird has charmed its way into the painting.
Despite never having seen the actual pollinator in the two days spent beside the orchid, I was privileged to have been able to use a real specimen as reference, one that has been collected in a past pollination study. The carpenter bee (Xylocopa flavicollis) became quite the star of the show, taking on a foreground position and consequently drawing attention to essential information with regards to the survival of the orchid. A highlight was painting the little pollinarium stuck to its back. And even though I am blessed with very sharp vision, I wished for magnifying spectacles as I got intrigued with the detail to be found in the bee’s eye!
So, apart from the main stem with all its flowers, that got painted over the next two/three days – mostly from a single fresh flower sample as colour reference – the rest of the scene was completely unplanned and only evolved over the next few weeks and months. I like to let the background organically develop, almost allowing it to ‘grow’ over the paper, as, slowly, little bits of vegetation get painted on, one strand at a time. It is a patient process of immergence into the memory of that initial experience, accompanied by the use of my own photographic material as reference. It so happened that, as I was scrolling over the many photos capturing the scene from all angles, I kept on noticing a curious little grasshopper that bounced its way into the picture frame. Never in that initial site visit have I ever noticed him, but there he was in so many of the photos – now seen from the side, then from the back, hopping its way around us in its own inquisitive exploration of me, the stranger, entering their little world. The discovery of its presence was simply irresistible, and this tiny fellow was the motivation that had me end up painting a record breaking 5 creatures in one scene! And thus, the illustration became a pollination scene, a patch of vegetation bursting with the signs of a healthy ecology.
On completion, and in conclusion, the painting becomes a portrayal of my experience in nature. It is witness of my exploration of the subtleties of brush to water, to pigment, to paper. More than capturing a plant as proof of its existence, it is recreating an intimate environment in which the orchid, now in painted form, can once again familiarise itself with known elements and be nestled into a new existence, one in the world of art.