Come with me behind the scenes of my latest watercolour doodle "Strangely Succulent" and take a trip down memory lane to find out why I was so taken by these treasures!
My love for strange and peculiar things started young, and one lifelong obsession is weird plants. I've been a cacti and other succulent collector since I was about 7, when my Nana gave me cuttings from her collection. By about age 11, I was a member of the local Cacti & Succulent Society in Hawke's Bay. I always assumed I was the only weird and nerdy cactus-loving kid until my varsity flatmate Shanny also fessed up to being a member as a kid too. She's super-cool, so I realized then it was just that everyone else was weird and nerdy 😂. All our windowsills were filled with cacti! (And I'll always appreciate her covering for me when I blocked the kitchen sink with dirt after a repotting exercise that went wrong!)
By the time I was doing my PhD, my collection had grown enormous after acquiring some huge specimens from my supervisor John Whitmore (kindred spirit for the weird and wonderful, though I never managed his fascination with snakes). My tiny teaching assistant's office was filled to the gunnels. I hope no-one discovered it was me that made the strange smell on the third floor of Easterfield that lingered for weeks, after I treated a mealybug infestation with stinky malathion. Every cactus had to go, though, when I moved to the USA.
Having moved so often over the years, I've had to restart my collection multiple times, and nowadays I just have a handful of easy-growing favourites. I do love seeking out cactus gardens though, and recently, we took a walk in the Succulent Garden of Wellington Botanic Gardens. This observational watercolour doodle was inspired by this visit, along with favourites from my windowsill. (If you recall, the game is to observe 9 related things, create 3x3 watercolour swatches with a limited palette, then paint the things using tiny brushes).
Today, there is still one succulent left from my Nana's starts - a huge old euphorbia - now nearly 50 years old. Mum and Dad have lovingly lugged it around the North Island through all their moves - I think we all feel a bit sentimental about it.
I hope you enjoy the additional photos from my childhood.
In "Strangely Succulent," you'll find from top to bottom, left to right:
- Opuntia (prickly pear) pads and fruit. I couldn't resist a touch of gold to bring out the prickles arising from the bristly glochids.
- Agave with the loveliest fringe of contrasting spines. Each leaf is embedded with a shadow of the prickles from the leaf above.
- Crassula Aeonium atropurpureum with its stunning bright yellow inflorescence contrasting against its purple leaves.
- Sedum morganianum or Donkey tail.
- A close-up of the Opuntia fruits, also touched with gold.
- "Chain of hearts" Ceropegia woodii is another favourite from my childhood, with its heart-shaped leaves and curious tuberous growths along the vine.
- I try to include a bird in these studies, and we were fortunate to see a Korimako/Bellbird feasting on orange aloe flowers. The bright winter's light brought out the usually-subtle purple undertones around his face. The flowers are enhanced with a touch of pearlescent orange paint too.
- "String of Pearls" Senecio rowleyanus, like perfect peas cascading down the wall. Nana had this growing in her kitchen.
- "Chain of hearts" Ceropegia woodii close-up of a single flower - tiny but exquisite with such fine detail.
I used a few more pigments than I usually would in one of these studies, but my main focus was on sultry perylene violet and perylene green, which are the perfect colour match for so many botanical subjects, and they mix to a lovely grey. I also used my favourite serpentine, along with rich green gold, quinacridone rose, pyrrol orange, and some secret sauce of dioxazine violet.
Do you have fond childhood memories too of a loving grandparent feeding your obsessions?