I was thinking of one painting in particular last week, the Portinari Tritych (1476-79) by Hugo van der Goes, when, on a brief trip to get spring flowers for our tiny balcony garden, I spotted a beautiful columbine plant. I brought it home and immediately set it up in our studio so I could paint it that afternoon. My experience painting fresh flowers taught me that they behave like beautiful, but unruly, models, who continually change their poses as one works. They have a peculiar habit of continually opening and closing, not to mention rotating toward the sunlight. So, I knew time was of the essence in capturing their likenesses.
Van der Goes's painted columbine is a small, but striking element within his 8 foot high by 19 foot wide altarpiece. Painted on three wood panels, the middle image shows the Nativity scene with a small still life of flowers at the bottom center.
What makes this so memorable—Helen and I saw the work on a trip to Florence a number of years ago—is both its amazingly life-like quality, and the way the flowers echo the attitude of the Virgin Mary. The number of open blossoms (7) is itself a clue to the narrative of the work. According to A Handbook of Symbols in Christian Art, by Gertrude Grace Sill, the columbine
is a symbol of sorrow, because of its deep blue-purple color. A bunch of seven columbines refers to the Seven Sorrows of Mary. Its name come from a word meaning dovelike, because of its wing-shaped flower, and thuse it becomes a botanical emblem of the Holy Ghost.
The entire triptych can be seen here: Portinari Triptych
I then set to work. I took a sheet of heavy acid-free paper which I had previously sized twice with animal glue, so that the natural color of the paper was unchanged. The glue, besides being invisible, seals the paper beautifully and allows one to draw and paint on it easily. I taped the paper to a sheet of gatorboard and placed it on an easel beside the plant, so I could render the plant actual size.
I first made a quick, accurate drawing of the stems and flowers, first on tracing paper, planning to transfer the sketch, but realized that, since the blossoms would move, and I wanted to adjust the spacing of a few of the blossoms, because of some awkward overlapping, changed my mind and simply penciled in each flower directly on the sized paper just prior to painting it. This allowed me to begin painting right away and focus on each petal as I tried to keep up a brisk pace, well aware of the limited daylight and the plant's proclivity to drift.
Below are a series of snapshots I took as I worked.
|Pencil sketch on tracing paper|
|Oil sketch in progress|
Helen reminded me that a group of seven would be a nice connection with the symbolism, so I tried to design the sketch as I went along, working from the top down, drawing, then painting as I went. After the first day, I completed five of the flowers. The following day I added the rest. so I had seven, plus an extra, dessicated blossom near the bottom (the color of a dying flower turns an intense Prussian blue which I found irresistible to attempt to capture).
Here is the final sketch:
Below are some details. I tried to apply my paint mixtures to the paper with a minimum of blending, in order to capture the delicacy and freshness of the flowers. I knew that I would have to sacrifice some form in this way, but felt it was worth it, given the time constraints.
After painting the columbine, I have a renewed respect for the work of van der Goes, whose image of this flower remains an inspiring memory. I hope one day to visit the altarpiece again, and view his masterful approach to painting this most elegant of spring flowers.