Prunus spinosa – Blackthorn
As Archie Miles in his book ‘Silva’ writes; “In much the same fashion as other small and shrubby trees of the hedgerow, blackthorn is frequently present but seldom noticed.” However in March and April it dominates the English countryside with its dense clouds of pure white blossom. I wanted to celebrate this undervalued but beautiful plant and try to convey some of its characteristics in my painting. I rendered the blossom in pencil to more clearly demonstrate the purity of the flowers, as well as the dark spininess of its branches. However the fruit are such a luscious shade of blue-purple that they had to be depicted in colour. I thought this method also served to point to the contrast between the cold ‘blackthorn winter’ which always seems to accompany the appearance of the flowers, and the rich and fruitful autumn season when the sloes are ripening.
This is a photo of a blackthorn hedge in full flower – how gorgeous!
I had a little difficulty in finding a specimen that I knew would reliably fruit later on in the year, but in April 2017 I visited a nearby field where I’d collected fruit in earlier years to make Sloe Gin, and harvested several flower spikes. It was hard to find the perfect branch because I wanted one where some of the flowers were still in bud, but finally I managed to combine several branches into one ‘ideal’ which I sketched back in the studio.
I am not very good at drawing so I usually work by making several rough sketches of various parts of my chosen subject and then amalgamating them onto a large sheet of tracing paper to create the ‘perfect’ composition, before transferring that drawing onto my paper. It is a little time-consuming but once that drawing is complete I usually feel very happy and confident that I’ve captured my subject as best as I can. I have been using Fabriano Artistico paper for years but something was very wrong with my last batch, so I have now (after much experimentation) changed to Canson Moulin du Roy.
Here are some photographs of various elements of the blackthorn, most of which ended up as part of my final painting…
I use my ruler in nearly all my photos so that I automatically have some sense of scale, which is very important if I’m not able to finish a drawing before the plant fades. I also take copious colour notes at the same time, mainly mixing the right greens and experimenting next to the actual plant.
Here below is a photo of the same specimen taken on 15th September 2017. It is a complete coincidence that both the flowers and the fruit were photographed on a sunny morning! Now the flowers are long gone, but so are most of the leaves! I found that nearby plants without fruit had plenty of leaves, but those which had fruited most generously had few or no leaves. Luckily “my” specimen still had a few scattered leaves attached, and with a bit of fiddling I was able to combine a heavily fruiting branch with the right number of leaves to make a pleasing composition.
The size of the leaves varies substantially, as can be seen from the page in my sketchbook above, where I have used some sellotape to stick down a selection for later comparison. This saves me much time and also allows me to colour match very quickly, right next to the leaves in question.
I used to quite like fading stems away to nothing when I was illustrating a small branch or section of a specimen, but I now think this is a bit of a cop-out. Also I think I was missing a chance to show another aspect of the plant, ie the colour and construction of the inside of the stem. In this photo you can see that I’ve snapped two of my samples rather roughly in half. Both ends are now incorporated in my finished painting.
The most preparatory work I put in on this piece was on getting the colours and bloom of the sloes right. I tried various combinations of washes and liked the bottom right fruit best. Deciding on whether to incorporate reflected light is always a dilemma for me but in this case the bloom on the fruit decided for me. Without that little strip of paler colour at the edge of the shaded side, the fruit didn’t look properly ‘round’ and the bloom was less than convincing. Having said that, I’ve discovered that it’s really important not to treat all the fruit in exactly the same way in one painting. In this finished work, some of the sloes show more reflected light than others, which somehow makes the composition look more natural to my eye.