Fading Cranefly Orchid's Last Dance on view in The ASBA 23rd Annual International Exhibition
September 5 - December 6, 2020
Wave Hill (Glendora Gallery), Bronx, NY
Fading Cranefly Orchids’ Last Dance (Tipularia discolor with mycorrhizal fungi)
ABOUT THE ART
Literally beneath the forest floor is where I was looking in search of a new subject to paint, hoping to begin a new body of work focusing on what goes on ‘behind the scenes’, or in this case, underground. The challenge became how to present an interesting composition while concentrating on the intricacies of the plant’s root system. Along a small woodland trail on our property grows the diminutive cranefly orchid I decided to use for this painting. While threatened in the Northeast, it is prevalent in the North Carolina piedmont region where I live. It is often either overlooked or just hidden in plain sight among the forest leaf litter. Bending down to have a closer look in winter, this plant looks rather shy peaking its single green leaf up through the decaying leaves. Flip the leaf over and surprise, its flamboyant purple underside is revealed. The plant fades and disappears completely after winter, only to return months later without the leaf to flower. Interestingly, the drab cranefly looking flowers are pollinated by noctuid moths, which carry the pollinaria attached to, (of all places), their eyes, which sounds very uncomfortable.
Digging up a couple of specimens that had the misfortune of existing in the middle of a heavily used trail, exposed a chain of underground corms with thick fleshy roots. This in itself would be fascinating and interesting to depict, but like other orchids, this one has a beneficial relationship with the mycorrhizal fungi from the surrounding decaying wood where the orchid grows. So, my goal was to focus on this root structure and depict it in a way that portrayed movement and grace. Instead of remaining still beneath the surface, I envisioned the delicate pale colored corms and roots wrapped in fungi and swirling around in the debris of their dark subterranean realm.
As I worked along on the painting this pair of tiny plants became more like a pair of potato bug-like creatures dancing happily with each other. The leaf of one is bug eaten and just starting to fade, while the other has completely faded to a warm russet color, usually seen before the plant disappears. To me it seems, these two are doing their last dance and kicking up their roots before slumbering away again.
The process I follow in my watercolor paintings is to work from life as much as possible, usually using several specimens to make one portrait. Not knowing how the leaves would hold up, I started by creating a detailed pencil tonal study. I then painted the leaves first, applying washes, then layers of alternating dry brush and thin color glazes. The corms, roots and fungi were painted later in a manner where slight color shifts were used to differentiate the various overlapping parts. Relying on optical color mixing by adding thinly disguised contrasting colors along the edges of the roots helped to add weight to these extremely pale elements. As I work, I tend to shift colors multiple times while building up the form, mixing color both on the palette and on the paper.