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Rory McEwen – The Colours of Reality

Exhibition at the Shirley Sherwood Gallery, Kew Gardens, London.

11 May to 22 September 2013


This was an exhibition that turned out to be every bit as exciting as could be hoped for; a sparkling array of works kindly lent by their owners and expertly laid out by the world-class team at Kew for us all to stand and be astonished. However, once my brain recovered from being dazzled by such spectacularly good painting, there was a lot to learn – so that’s what I wrote about.



One of the first things I wanted to know was how he put the paint on the vellum – let’s face it, technique is what we all want to know first as artists.  Unfortunately, the ‘True Facts from Nature’ series are virtually impenetrable – they look like they were always like that, as if they had miraculously appeared, with no hint as to how they were created.  It was something I was expecting somehow, with all the talk about tiny brushes and surgeon’s spectacles, and then there’s something about vellum that almost encourages you to believe that those who work on such things are somehow magical.  It wasn’t until I started looking at the display cabinets that I found a way into understanding how the paintings were created.  In one there was a day diary from 1981 on which Rory McEwen had written how long he had worked on each painting during the day.  When he finished a painting he totted up the hours it had taken, which he then wrote alongside a tiny thumbnail of the piece (part of which is reproduced on the inside of the back cover of the hardback book).  ‘Central Park Leaf’ had taken 47 hours and 30 minutes, about what you would expect, but imagine how surprising it was to come across “Border Carnation #1, 4 hrs 15 mins “.  This painting wasn’t in the exhibition but you can find it in the book that accompanies the exhibition (p199).  Take a good look and then think to yourself 4 hours 15 minutes.  And then the adjacent picture (p198) 7 hours 45 minutes...that’s one day’s work.  One day.  One. Day. I know about tiny brushes - I abandoned them years ago when the tiny amount of paint they pick up kept drying as I moved my hand between the palette and the paper - and there is no way you can create a painting like that with such little brushes in so short a time.


Now obviously by this point in his career, Rory McEwen had been painting on vellum for twenty years and creating a painting quickly is as much a result of being able to choose and mix the right colour as it is to apply it accurately and cleanly on the painting surface, so we shouldn’t be too surprised at his speed – but surely it was done with broader washes in there somewhere and not all tiny brush-strokes.  So I went back to the later paintings from 1981 armed with a magnifying glass.


Probably the easiest painting to see how he worked is the large gentian (which you can find on p204 in the book). Look at the petal on the top right.   There appears to be a single base layer of blue, several dark blocks of a darker blue painted on top, and then on the left some fine hatching all in the same colour and on the right some cross hatching in a slightly darker colour.  This is quick work – that base layer of blue must have gone on as one layer (multiple layers ‘building up the colour’ doesn’t work on vellum) and neither were the edges of the brush strokes smoothed, yet it still worked superbly.  I think that seeing botanical art finished in the minutest detail can be off-putting if you are just starting as a botanical artist or perhaps someone that really can’t be ‘faffed’ with spending so long on a single painting, and so here is a way in which a painting can be created quickly and effectively, at the highest level, without all that intricate finishing off.  I think it’s possible to see also how it is only a short step from that painting to imagining how it is possible to fill in the gaps between the hatching to get the flawless finish of the earlier works like the ’True Facts from Nature’ series. Elsewhere he also used hatching to create shadowing and the odd blob of either china white or white gouache when presumably he couldn’t wash or scrape off errant patches of paint. Apparently scraping paint off Kelmscott vellum, which he used, is an easy way to removes mistakes.


Following on from that art revelation, the exhibition gave examples of the breadth of Rory McEwen’s artistic interests: there is a huge tulip petal painted in oil about six foot high, a Perspex sculpture, etchings, a blocky watercolour landscape, and nearby, fascinating looser watercolours of plants looking like modern versions of Dürer’s large piece of turf (Das große Rasenstück).   I looked briefly at this before moving on to other things, but came back for a closer look later when I was pondering Rory McEwen’s change in painting style over the years.


I think his big breakthrough in terms of botanical painting style happened around the time of the tulips in 1975.  I wrote about this in the Chelsea Physic Garden Florilegium Society newsletter 21 (January 2006) when I was looking for past evidence of artists using lens-based devices as a tool to help create their paintings.  Basically, there is a big change in the way he depicts the light hitting his plant subjects; it goes from a generalized light which has soft highlights and shadows (and is typical of how we all paint from life when using a modelling pattern from our heads to make a plant look three-dimensional), to a specific lighting which has a greater range of light to dark and also has cast shadows.  This is made very clear when you compare two rose paintings that were conveniently located near each other in the exhibition and are next to each other on pages 76 and 77 in the book.  The earlier painting dated 1971-72 is of extremely high quality, but the later from 1976-78 positively dazzles with its use of light; the highlights are brighter, the shadows are darker and there is even light glowing through part of one leaflet. Note also the much wider range of greens within the leaves and how not every leaf vein is perfectly illustrated which leads to a more life-like image. Compare also the tulips from 1974 (e.g. p130, 131) with those from 1976 (e.g. p136-9).


This precision in lighting within a painting - light acting on plant material at a specific moment in time – and wider variations in colour, always makes me think of photographs.  We know Rory McEwen used photographs in his work, for in the commentary within the book Martyn Rix tells us that “... [he] also used still macro-photography to record the details which he had not time to paint before the death of his model specimen.” and indeed it is difficult to imagine how it is possible to produce so many tulip paintings in the same year (1976) and of such precision without them, however quickly he painted.


In one of the display cases is a lovely selection of notes on the colour for a feathered tulip, which made me wonder if he took his colour notes from the live flower and then created the painting from photographs using his colour note information.  In another display case there is a colour swatch for a single petal with his written notes “This colour overall”, “v. uniform” and “NB. add touch of yellow”.  So I started to wonder again about the influence of photographs and when it really came to show in his work – what evidence could I find?  This leads me back to those looser plant watercolours in edgy Perspex frames (the modern Dürers)that I mentioned earlier .  You can see one of these on p141 of the book – 30 rectangles of colour with grasses and vetches drawn within each rectangle.  Look carefully and you will see that each rectangle has a repeat of part of the vegetation in the adjacent rectangle – the easiest place to see this is at the top – look at the distinctive curves of the two stems of vetch in the third (blue) rectangle and notice it again in the rectangle to the right (orange).  Now look at the rest of the rectangles and you will see little repeats like that throughout the work. 


And do you know, it reminded me of David Hockney’s photomontage work.  This was where Hockney took many Polaroid photos of one thing from very slightly differing angles and then placed them together to create his finished work.  Hockney’s website (www.hockneypictures.com) informs me that Hockney started these works in 1970, and James Fox mentions in his essay in the book that Rory was friends with David Hockney (p26) and I just wonder if this is Rory McEwen’s response to those images, in watercolour and with plants.  Perhaps he arrived at the same idea at a similar time – who knows, but I think he may have used photographs on this, as the drawing of the vetch in particular is so very accurate (traced?).  An adjacent painting here (see p 142) reinforces this idea.  Six versions of the same piece of vegetation with a different sky background, but also with different focal planes; compare the vetch top right in all the images and notice how it fades in some but is sharp in others.  And then on page 143 ‘Grasses September 9 1974’ is the part of the same image of vetches and grasses seen on page 142, just reversed. This seems to be typical of the innovation that he brought to how plants are depicted in art – not being scared of photography but absorbing its influence and then responding to the zeitgeist of the contemporary art world.  


So having looked at the technical aspects of how he applied paint and to the influence of photography on his work, I thought I would finish on composition.


Although early works were rather stiff, there begins a search for placement on the page with the carnations series where he was looking to make each of the compositions different; this succeeds so well that when you consider he was working on vellum and still at university whilst painting these, the odd awkward crossing stem every now and then is virtually irrelevant.  Again with the Auricula series he manages to always have variation in those things he can, in this case the leaves, without compromising the habit of the plant.  I wonder if it was doing these two series early on in his career that helped focus his mind on the importance of composition because when you look at the skill in which he creates ‘wall appeal’ by shifting his plant material around on the vellum, they all seem to have more character somehow than seems reasonable from the subject alone.  This was clear looking at the ‘True Facts from Nature’ series where the most ordinary of subjects, all in shades of brown, suddenly become fascinating.  The line of tulips along one wall of the exhibition is not only a master class in technical skill but a bravura display of ‘how to make a tulip look interesting’ again and again, seemingly without making it look in any way contrived.  Extraordinary. The same applies to the leaf series, about which he wrote that he was “Just slogging along, up at 8, then 8 hours a day, grinding away at the leaves trying to catch up on time I’ve lost. I feel quite happy with the images in themselves but I can’t pretend that they are daring, or that they make my blood run faster.”


That’s the funny thing about making art – however you may feel about making it in no way relates to how other people perceive it.  I’d say it was daring and contemporary to make fine art out of something anyone could pick up off the floor – create something amazing out of something ignored - how many artists do that?


I think I should add at the end of this article that my comments on Rory McEwen’s painting technique and his use of photographs are just my opinion based upon what I saw in the exhibition and what I have read in the various notes about his work by other people and not necessarily what actually happened, or what he did.  It doesn’t really matter if I am correct in my guesses or not, what is important is that we don’t, as artists, just stop and stare at the paintings, think that they are marvellous so there is no point in continuing painting because it’s all been done. The questions we ask of other people’s work help us create our own art in our own way... “I see what he’s done there, but actually now I think I would have...” and off we go into our own world of creativity.

Martin Allen



This is a revised version of an article that first appeared in the Chelsea Physic Garden Florilegium Society newsletter in January 2014. Page numbers and ‘the book’ all relate to the first hardback edition of ‘Rory McEwen The Colours of Reality’ published in 2013 by Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.