Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Rosebud Orchid (Cleistes/Cleistesiopsis bifaria) watercolor

The Rosebud Orchid, Cleistesiopsis (Cleistes) bifaria, is perhaps my favorite Florida terrestrial orchid (the Ghost Orchid, Dendrophylax lindenii, is my favorite epiphyte).  

I remember back when I was 13-14, living on the outskirts of Tallahassee in a semi-rural area with a state forest on one side and the Apalachicola National Forest on the other.  The previous year, an arson-derived wildfire took out a number of acres of mature pine forest, leaving a long swathe of moist prairie in its wake.  The forest service planted a number of seedling pines (which are now a near-mature forest again) in the area, but they were many years from maturing at this point.  Because of this new open area, we were able to hike in easily and observe the local flora - blue-eyed grasses, yellow star lilies, sundews, butterworts (big yellow and little blue), hat-pins, and bachelor's-buttons all grew in abundance in the area.  

One day, I came home from school to my mom inviting us to go out on a hike with her to see something "interesting" she saw earlier that day while hiking in the forest.  She suggested grabbing a pair of binoculars as we headed out of the door.  We followed the western edge of the prairie to a patch of forest close by that was mercifully spared from the fire.  

As we approached the area, I saw a few of the familiar white spirals of Grass-Leaved Ladies' Tresses (Spiranthes praecox) that we had also seen previously further out in the prairie.  As we hiked further along the remains of an old firebrake, we saw nearby some familiar fetterbushes with several leaves that had become swollen, thick and bright pink - our best guess is some sort of gall disease.  Further back toward the edge of some deeper woods, I thought I spied some more of these pinkened leaves.  "What do you see back there?" my mom asked me.  "Some more of those pink leaf galls", I replied.  

"Take your binoculars and look again."  I obeyed, expecting to see more of the same pink galls.  Instead, what I saw through the binoculars were two pink petals and a veined lip with contrasting brown-green sepals arching behind them and curving gracefully backward.  "Rosebud Orchids!" I exclaimed as I scampered toward them to observe them more closely.  All the literature I had read on them up to that point indicated that they were exceedingly rare, so I was not expecting to see these in the wild without a lot of searching, and certainly not within walking distance of my home!  I was elated.

I took to studying this species relentlessly, reading any information I could find about them in our wildflower books and later in Carl Luer's The Native Orchids of Florida (a 14-year birthday present).  It turns out that in the ANF and other portions of the Florida panhandle, this is a reasonably common orchid, but it does become rarer as you head into states north of Florida.  Ironically enough, the closely related Rose Pogonia (Pogonia ophioglossoides), which is listed as more common in the literature, seem to be much harder to find than the Rosebud in the ANF.

The plants are very stately, bearing a single vanilla-scented flower almost two inches in diameter on a tall solitary stem.  One leaf grows midway up the stem and another bract grows beneath the flower.  The entire plant is coated with a fine, plum-like frosting that makes it relatively easy to see plants out of bloom.  Only the tall meadow-beauties in the same area have a similarly frosted leaf, but the plants are so different, they can be easily distinguished.  The flower itself consists of a set of brown-to-green sepals that arch upward from the flower.  Sometimes the sepals are straight, other times they are curled at the end.  Occasionally, one finds sepals that curl completely on themselves like an emerging brown fern fiddlehead. The tube-like corolla (the petals and lip) is tilted slightly downward, surrounding a bright green column (gynostemium).  The two petals are similar and range in color from white to a light rose-pink, ending with a slight curl at their tips.  The lip is more darkly colored, bearing a plateau-like crest edged in rose and spotted on its upper surface and a slightly ragged edge.  Rose, green, and brown colored veins snake throughout the lip, giving it a most exotic and handsome appearance.

What I found most intriguing about this species is that such beauty could be found in a native American plant.  One would expect exotic orchids from the tropics of Brazil or Peru or Madagascar to bear such beauty, but an orchid growing just a few thousand feet from my home?  I took to sketching and doodling this orchid over and over in the margins of my homework notebooks, sketching it idly whenever I had a chance.  The shape became quite familiar to my mind's eye and I could easily draw an entire plant from memory.

Many years later, I can still easily sketch one of these without any visual aid.

If you want to read more about this species, follow the link below:

http://www.flnativeorchids.com/natives_gallery/cleistes_bifaria.htm

Quite recently, I have taken to experimenting with watercolor pencils, which are a most intriguing medium to work with.  You essentially color-pencil in your artwork on your paper and then use a wet paintbrush to turn it into a watercolor painting.  This gives me very fine control of the placement of the color, although the limited color palette of my basic set makes picking a proper blend of the colors challenging at times (I will try to upgrade to a more "professional" set some time soon). My first experiment in the medium was my Ghost Orchid painting, seen in an earlier blog entry and recently "digitally remastered" in Photoshop to smooth out the background to what you see below:


Ghost Orchid Watercolor Painting (Dendrophylax lindenii)

I figured it was high time to render my favorite terrestrial orchid in full watercolor treatment as well.  My main problem with the ghost orchid painting that I had done previously was the fact that I didn't try to use anything to mask the foreground while painting the background.  Hence, I had to try to fill in the background into some exceedingly small areas.  I also tried to use the watercolor pencils to color in the background and then wash over them.  This was very hard to smooth out to what I wanted for a background.  Hence, the digital makeover to fix this painting a bit.

This time, I used rubber cement for a masking compound, painting over the sketch I made of the Rosebud Orchid, based on this photo:

Cleistes bifaria (Rosebud Orchid)

The rubber cement worked like a charm for masking, allowing me to wash over the paper with impunity to create a much smoother background, but being transparent, it was hard to judge how it was working right at the edges. Hence, once the paper was dried and the mask removed, I had to try to touch up the somewhat ragged edges, which made it a little more difficult to keep the color entirely even.  It is my understanding that "professional" (read: expensive) masking compounds add a bit of color, making it easier to see where you are going with it.  I may try one of these the next time around.

Once the mask was removed and the edges touched up as well as possible, I began the task of painting the flower. I was most concerned about properly conveying the sense that the light was penetrating the upward-arching sepals and washing into the shadow at the base of the petals and getting the intricate coloring of the lip as correct as possible.  After a lot of painstaking application of layers of color - olive, clay yellow, brown, deep yellow, cherry red, carmine, lavender and forest green; I am pretty happy with the results.

So, without further ado, I give to you my Rosebud Orchid rendering in watercolor and watercolor pencil:

Rosebud Orchid (Cleistes bifaria) watercolor painting

And here is a closer shot of the flower to see the detail:

Rosebud Orchid (Cleistes bifaria) watercolor painting

I hope you enjoy this at least a fraction as much as I enjoyed creating it.

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