For the month of April, I have made a botanical painting with swallowtail butterflies. The two lovely butterflies in my new painting look like completely different species, but they are in fact both Papilio lowis (Asian Swallowtails). The great difference in appearance is present in the male and the female of this species, which is called sexual dimorphism. Often the male has brighter colors to attract the females’ attention, like this dark butterfly with iridescent blue/green scales; the males are also smaller.
Scientists attribute this to differing pressures on the sexes, but the reasons for dimorphism seem to be as diverse as the species themselves! In the case of this pair, the females mimic a type of poisonous butterfly, discouraging predators. The males meanwhile kept their brilliant iridescent colors, which apparently the females find quite attractive.
Inspiration from Art History
The inspiration for the composition on my botanical painting and the background goes back to my 14 years installing artwork for the Seattle Art Museum. I installed countless Chinese and Japanese scroll paintings, and even went to Japan a few times as a courier to oversee the installation of various asian masterpieces for the exhibition, “Luminous Jewels”. One of my favorite scroll paintings in that exhibition was, “Sixty-Four Butterflies and Moths”. The mass of insects flutter evenly throughout the painting, each with its own label. While this painting didn’t directly influence the composition for my painting, the delicate rendering of the butterflies always stuck with me. Thinking of this painting helped set the direction of how this painting would develop.
I hope you’re enjoy this month’s painting, and I hope you’re beginning to enjoy some warmer weather. I’m looking forward to the season when I see more butterflies outside the studio than inside it! Follow my newsletter to see the new monthly miniature and for exhibition updates.
The inspiration for this month’s floral oil painting took me on a twisting but fruitful path. It all started with a recent class I took at the Kirkland Arts Center, Acid-Free Intaglio. I’ve been wanting to take an etching class for years, and I was thrilled to see that it was finally offered in a location near me. And even better, the instructor, Brad Taylor, teaches a way to etch with electricity instead of toxic acids (I highly recommend this class!).
Once I signed up for the class, I had to figure out what I wanted to make! And as I often do, I turned to art history for inspiration. I stumbled upon a plethora of woodblock prints made by Japanese artist Keika Hyakugiku, “100 Chrysanthemums from Keika”. You can see a few of them on the Smithsonian Libraries and Archives page. I love the contrast between the simple compositions and the complicated forms.
Letting Inspiration Lead You
I immediately began making sketches, one of which became this months painting. Three others, I plan to I plan to make paintings from in future (two larger works and another miniature). Funnily enough, none of these sketches was destined to become an etching!
To let inspiration take its own winding path means I have to let go of some amount of control. Part of creating art is to always be receptive to new ideas and accept that, like most things in life, ideas can change. I’m really excited about this new painting. I feel like I’m finally getting the hang of painting flowers! I hope you enjoy it, too.
The swallowtail in this month’s oil painting is a Common Rose. This red-bodied butterfly inhabits much of Asia, including Japan. Happily, this species is extremely abundant. The bright colouration and pattern of the wings are meant to indicate to predators (birds and lizards) that this butterfly is inedible. As a larvae, they feed on creepers and climbers of the genus “Aristolochia”, and they retain the toxic acids they get from these plants in their butterfly form. The colors are a symbol of danger to some creatures, but they’re dazzling to my eyes!
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The most studied of all swallowtails, this iconic butterfly was the first to be given the name, “swallowtail.” It is the only swallowtail in most of Europe, and I’m guessing that’s where it gets one of its two most-used common names, “Old World swallowtail” (the other, simply “swallowtail”). But its actual habitat is widespread and extends across much of the Northern Hemisphere, including North America.
The painting includes both a male and female, the male with his wings folded, and the female with hers open.
This species feeds mostly on plants of family Umbelliferae. The giant cluster of tiny flowers were a bit intimidating to paint, but it was worth pushing through. I love the contrast between the cloud of flowers and the black background.
Though these flowers are not currently blooming, spring is just around the corner, so it won’t be long now. Stay warm if you’re in the middle of a snow storm! And cool if you’re in the middle of a heatwave! The weather’s been crazy this past week.
The main subject for this years series of monthly miniatures will be my favorite kind of butterfly, the swallowtail. With over 550 different species, they appear in a vast array of colors, shapes and sizes and I will have no shortage of inspiration. For this painting, I chose the Pipeline Swallowtail. This butterfly is found in extensive areas of North America; in the United States, it’s mainly found in the south and southeast, plus an isolated pocket in central California.
I paired my swallowtail with thistle flowers, which are a favorite (of mine and of the butterfly). The flowers on a thistle stalk don’t usually bloom all at once, but I’ve taken some liberties. I was inspired by the compositions of the Dutch still life painter Jan van Kessel. Van Kessel worked in the mid 17th century, at the height of the golden age of Dutch still life painting. It was common practice during this time to create paintings that were seasonal impossibilities, pairing blooms that appear months apart in nature, or all of a plant’s blooms open at once, as I’ve done here. I wanted to create this simple moment, full of plenty for my butterfly. I love the contrast of a vibrant thistle in bloom. Thistles have the perfect pairing of soft flowers and spikey leaves and stems.
Some of you are squeamish about insects, and I hope you’ll indulge my love of these delicate creatures. Rest assured, I will be creating work for the gallery in the upcoming year, both with and without insects. 😉
After my crazy, overloaded 2022, I can’t tell you how happy I am to have this painting finished by the first week of January! I wish you a Happy New Year, full of deadlines met ahead of schedule.
My newest miniature is a botanical daffocil painting. Daffodils are my favorite herald of the arrival of Spring.
It’s interesting how each painting I make inspires the next work. This miniature originally had five companions to acknowledge my March baby’s sixth birthday. I was so sure that this would work! But much like my six year old, it was wild and chaotic, and it didn’t say “simplify” like I’m going for with this series. Instead of rejecting the idea completely, I ran with the wildness in an even more complicated composition. But that is a work for another day, and it will be a far cry from “miniature” or “simplified”.
With that mockup resolved, I took my favorite bloom from the bunch back to the drawing board. I embraced the spirit of springtime and growing days of sunshine. The bee heads toward the glowing flower like we are headed into a beautiful and glorious summer! I can vividly picture him landing and wiggling into the warm and welcoming bloom.
This painting is for me a lesson that constantly needs to be relearned. Things don’t always work out how you think they will, but by staying flexible and letting some ideas go, things can turn out even better than expected. It’s almost the end of daffodil season, but I hope you are able to take some time to enjoy the world in bloom around you.
For this latest monthly miniature, I knew I wanted to make a camellia painting. One of the few blooms you can find here in the PNW in winter months, their stunning color helps brighten my mood with our grey winter skies.
Over the course of the last few years, I’ve studied hundreds of still life paintings made in Northern Europe from the mid 1500’s through the late 1800’s. It’s fascinating to see how one artist influenced the work of another, and then another, often from parent to child.
Inspiration by female artists from the Past
German artist Maria Sibylla Merian is one of my favorites. She was trained by her step-father Jacob Marrel; the influence he left on her work is apparent, but it was merely a springboard for the work she accomplished in her lifetime. When thinking through the composition for this camellia painting, I immediately thought of her work and that of another female artist, Barbara Regina Dietzsch.
These two women were born almost almost 60 years apart, but I suspect something in the work of Merian informed the work of Dietzsch. Merian is known for her etching and engraving, while Dietzsch composed her work similarly but used gouache and watercolor. In this way, Dietzsch created dark and rich backgrounds that lift the subject off the page.
Now here I am, hundreds of years later, looking at their works and trying to learn as much as I can about technique and composition. But I am also trying to get a grasp on just what it is that fascinates me in this work, and how it can inform my own work, just as the long chain of artists before me have done.
I hope you enjoy this new painting, and if you’re a fan of scientific illustrations, you should take a peek at Maria Sibylla Merian’s book, Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium. The book was originally published in 1705 and it’s been beautifully reprinted recently.
The theme for my new still life series will be the idea of “Simplify”. I’ve been thinking a lot about simplifying my life and trying to learn how to set aside much-needed time for relaxation and contemplation. I’ve titled my series for this year “Simplify” and I’m hoping to bring that idea into my life in the coming year. Contemplating the idea in how I’m composing my work seemed like the perfect way to start (but it’s harder than you might think!).
Oranges are in season now, at their peak of flavor during these cold winter months. Beyond being delicious to eat and beautiful to look at, for me oranges have become a personal metaphor for pushing through and staying alert.
Years ago, I worked full time as a mount-maker for the Seattle Art Museum while also painting full time. I was also an avid hiker and practiced ballet and Iaido (a Japanese martial art). Each day was packed full. And each day around three o’clock my body would protest and demand that I take a nap. After trial and error with way too much coffee and chocolate, I found that oranges not only tasted refreshing but made my whole body feel refreshed. Oranges perked me up perfectly and gave me the second wind I needed to get me through until I could take a nice, long nap on the bus ride home. “Orange time” soon caught on with my coworkers and became a daily ritual.
I hope you enjoy the first painting of this new series! Sign up for my Newsletter if you’d like to see the series as it unfolds.
Happy holidays! I give you a portrait of a chocolate cake and propose a toast to the hearth, a place of warmth and closeness and to all things chocolate. Let us find cheer in our creature comforts and appreciate the time we can spend together.
For this painting, I’ve pulled together different things that make the time of year special to me. The holidays are a little different for me because of all the December birthdays in my family, and chocolate cake is a birthday tradition for me. This portrait of a chocolate cake summs up my perfect birthday. The three glasses of port are a tribute to dear friends.
My sister recently moved into an old farmhouse, among its charming features are several large hearths. My fireplace is humbler, but when my son and I gather around it to sing songs, it feels perfect.
As the year concludes, I remember how hopeful I was at the end of 2020 for a year with vaccinations and the return of a more normal way of life. But the world is still in flux, and our plans with it. We have to adjust, to find a way to stay warm and find cheer through the long winter.
Please enjoy the last painting of my Creature Comforts series of Monthly Miniatures, and I hope it helps you find your own sense of warmth and cheer.
I framed this painting in a handmade Dutch Ripple frame with a unique wavy ripple. Tom Matthews created 12 custom frames for this series and each one had a unique combination of ripples. I love this wave pattern – it reminds me of icing. 🙂
September has been a crazy month. As you may have noticed, my little garden gives me a lot of produce, and I’m a bit obsessed with not letting it go to waste. I feel like I jumped from a plum roller coaster right into an ocean of pears! I’ve canned 50 jars of pears (underestimate), eaten a million pears (overestimate) and baked a decadent French Pear Tart.
My mom gave me my pear tree 12 years ago, and it’s getting really big. Since our cherry tree came down, the pear is the new favorite for the birds. Our resident Steller’s Jays like to nip at the fruit on the top of the tree, so it felt perfectly natural to invite this Jay to the French Tart party.
Speaking of a crazy month, my own little bird (five your old son) started kindergarten, and talk about roller coasters. My emotions keep going up and down with excitement and fear. Except for a few school bus mishaps in the beginning, it’s been a pretty smooth transition. He is such a sweet little guy, and he really appreciates special homemade treats like this. He loved the tart, but he REALLY loves the canned pears. I have every faith that we’ll go through those 50 jars! The tart was incredible, but with a 21 step recipe, it’s a once-a-year occurrence.
I haven’t quite accepted that fall is already upon us and plan on staying in denial for as long as possible. I hope you enjoy the sunshine and warmth while it lasts and take some time to enjoy a special treat too.
Thank goodness I love plums. I have a Shiro Japanese plum tree in my backyard that gives me 2,000 plums most years. I work really hard to use as many as I can, and my refrigerator is comically filled with around 1,000 plums. If you need a plum recipe for anything you can possibly imagine, let me know—I’ve probably tried it! Better yet, stop by if you’re in the neighborhood and I’ll give you some fresh plums or some homemade jam.
I paired the plums with my favorite kind of butterfly, the Tiger Swallowtail, which is a frequent visitor to my garden. I also referenced an image of one of my favorite porcelain bowls in the Seattle Art Museum collection.
It’s surprising to me how happy it makes me to look at these plums, given the countless hours I spend peeling and pitting them. They really are delicious, but it’s also the beauty of the plums themselves. They’re just bursting with life, and the difference in color between the white, powdery bloom and my bright yellow fingerprints just dazzles me.
These little joys are more important than ever right now. Little obstacles and conflicts that used to be so easy to brush off now have a way of feeling insurmountable. Our son is five and is supposed to start Kindergarten on September 7th. We’re worried about the new Delta strain that is more likely to harm children than previous variants of COVID, and we just don’t know what to do. It’s not always possible, but I’ll give you the advice I’m trying to give myself: give yourself some slack and some time to just relax and breathe.
I hope this painting inspires you to go outside, close your eyes to all your troubles and enjoy a bite of summer.