The Story Behind The Painting: Peonies from Wisley Garden

The Story Behind The Painting: Peonies from Wisley Garden

This painting - Peonies from Wisley Garden - continues the art project experiment of ink, pigments, chalk paint, wax, and oil on wood panels. 

I want to fuse Oriental Elegance with English romance by mixing different media, and by using two different techniques: 1) in the foreground I will paint with oil and 2) in the background I will paint in a flat oriental style.

This is the fourth in a series of paintings within this art project. The earlier paintings are: Melody of Tranquility (Sold), Sunset Rest, and Outside the Vase (Sold). In each painting, the flowers were painted with the traditional Chinese method, and sealed with wax. I then painted oil on top - the piano (Melody of Tranquility), the chair (Sunset Rest), and the vase and table (Outside the Vase). This method helps to bring out the three-dimensional effect.

In this fourth painting, I wanted to explore how this technique would work if all of the peonies in the background are painted in the Chinese Gongbi method whilst using the western oil technique in the foreground.

To begin, I primed my board with Annie Sloan Chalk Paint (“Provence”).

Annie Sloan Chalk Paint - Provence

I set out to create a painting within a painting. The two golden peonies (tree peony) on the velvety red are two wall paintings hung closely together. The ‘wall painting’ was outlined with a very fine brush in ink, and then the coloured pigments were added in layers. I chose Chinese brushes made of wool as only this type of brush that is soft enough to make the petals as smooth and intricate as is necessary.

Work in progress - Chinese Gongbi Peony

The Chinese pigments are rather pale and translucent, so to get the desired colour and vibrancy, I usually have to add at least 6 - 7 layers of the pigments on paper or silk. In this painting, the translucent water-based pigments sink into the chalk paint, and as I used a vibrant turquoise blue colour to prime the board, it was a challenge to get the golden orange of the flowers. So I added a bit of “English Yellow” (Chalk Paint) with “Rattan Yellow” (Chinese pigment) for the flowers and two coats of “Emperor Silk” (Chalk Paint) for the red background. 

Annie Sloan Chalk Paint - English Yellow

Outside the “Wall painting” of two golden tree peonies, I used five coats of cyan (Chinese pigment) for the actual background of this painting. I had so much fun applying cyan with a wide wool brush specially made by combining 11 medium wool brushes. 

Work in progress - Peonies from Wisley Garden

On the foreground, those peonies are herbaceous and intersectional peonies, including “Sarah Bernhardt”, “Hermione”, “Coral Supreme”, “Fairy Princess”, and “Mother’s Choice”. They represent the wonderful memories of meeting Billy (Binny Plants) at the Peony Trial at Wisley Garden in 2018. 

Billy subsequently invited me to exhibit my fine art at his stand at RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2019, where I was very fortunate to meet Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II. Given that this year both RHS Chelsea Flower Show and RHS Wisley Garden Flower Show have had  to be cancelled due to Covid-19, I decided to create this painting of peonies to mark these significant summer events that are sadly missing from the British Summer Social Season. 

I sketched the flowers first in pencil. I then sealed the painting and the pencil sketches in dark wax before applying oil to the flowers in the foreground.

My favourite painting colour is Paynes Grey (a Western colour that does not exist in a ready-made palette in the Chinese pigments).

Winsor & Newton Artist Oil Paint - Paynes Grey

I like it because it’s so versatile and lets me create shadows without blocking the original colour. As you know, ‘playing’ with the light is so important for any painter. For example, to create the deep red shadow of the red “Fairy Princess”, I mixed purple and Payne’s Grey together to form the base, before adding Crimson and Bright Red on top. To get the deep red shadow I wanted, I kept adding Payne’s Grey, Crimson and Bright Red. 

Deep red with shadows - Peonies from Wisley Garden

I did the same with the pink flowers. This time, instead of mixing Payne’s Grey with purple, I added it to Permanent Rose with different amounts of Titanium White for the different pink flowers.

It’s quite interesting that I cannot create shadows in a Chinese gongbi painting using the same technique in an oil painting (or acrylic painting).

As demonstrated above, I mixed Payne’s Grey with different colours to create shadows. However, one never mixes dark pigments with the lighter ones in a Chinese gongbi painting (well, early in my career I tried to and the results were bad and a master gongbi painter told me the same!), because when mixing two pigments together, it results in a new tone, insead of changing the value of the hues as required. And as a result, the painting will look muddy. Since shadows are a darker tone of the same colour, before I add any colours to my painting, I use light ink to mark out all the shadows in the painting. When it’s dry, I then add layers of colours on top of the ink layer. If I want the shadow to be darker. I wait until the coloured layers are dry before adding another layer of light ink, so on and so forth, until I achieve what I want.

If you are interested in learning and practising Chinese Gongbi techniques, you can sign up for one of my online workshops here.

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