Memories – Irises and Bees


Test Piece

Paint: Acrylic – yellow ochre, titanium white, cadmium yellow, cobalt blue, process cyan, cadmium red
Brushes: Daler-Rowney System 3 1½” flat, SY21 – ¾” long flat,
Support: Fredrix canvas pad
Size: 30.5 x 40.6 cm (12” x 16”)

Larger Canvas

Paint: Acrylic – Acrylic – yellow ochre, titanium white, cadmium yellow, cobalt blue, process cyan, cadmium red
Brushes: Daler-Rowney System 3 – 1½” flat, SY21 – ¾” long flat, SY85 – No 6 round
Support: Winsor and Newton cotton canvas
Size: 40.6 x 55 cm (16” x 22”)


This is a more developed piece of work in response to comments from my tutor related to two exercises, Practical Exercise 1 – Artwork -Bees and Practical Exercise 1.1 – Artwork – Bees in the previous part of the course.

The exercises were inspired by a sketch in a childhood sketchbook of a bee and insects among the grass. Working with the sketch brought back other memories including standing among irises down beside the burn. My memory of this is how tall they seemed and it was like being in your own hidden world, with just a hint of foreboding at being surrounded by these tall stems.

My tutor had a number of comments in relation to the exercises:

  • She had a sense of being a small animal among foliage but that the putto was potentially confusing to viewer. The cherub, based on memories of Victorian-style scraps, was something which had come into my mind when thinking about my childhood so may be misplaced here though I would l like to work with the idea of the scraps in some way.
  • We discussed the way in which Joan Eardley leaves areas for imagination and there is an incompleteness about them that is engaging.
  • Feels this exercise doesn’t allow areas where work, and viewer, can breathe, there is too much happening. Earlier version of the exercise where I blocked in colour is more exciting.
  • Think of work as a haiku rather than extended poem. May be enough at this stage to add in a few gestures and not overwork.
  • Memory is transient, not fixed or necessarily full colour so play with this in painting. Think about representing individual components without overworking.

Initial Work

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With this in mind I reviewed previous work and looked for more examples that could help me to avoid overworking the painting. I liked the comment from the tutor on thinking of the work as haiku rather than an extended poem so did some research into haiga art which is associated with haiku, particularly the work of Matsuo Bashō and Yosa Buson.

Based on this I considered options for the composition and revisited work by Joan Eardley as well as looking at other examples from Claude Monet, John Henry Twachtman, and Yeonjoo Choo. These are listed at the end of this post.

The works I looked at had different approaches to the idea of less is more:

  • Layering – In the examples Eardley uses layers of paint from loose washes to bolder blocks of colour. Detail of grasses and foliage is added over the layers but is kept to a minimum.
  • Viewpoint – A painting by Monet of Yellow Irises had a viewpoint from beneath the irises which conveyed that sense of being hidden.
  • Simplicity – two works by Yeojoo Cho at the Glasgow School of Art degree show resonated with me. These were small canvases painted on coloured ground of female figures but only the faintest features were left, almost as if they were merging into the canvas. Similarly, the example by Twachtman used minimal gestures and shapes.

Test Piece

Test piece - initial layers

Test piece – initial layers

I decided to work on a test piece to try out a number of these approaches and move myself away from overworking the different elements. Over an initial layer of yellow ochre and titanium white I used a loose wash of process cyan letting the paint run over the canvas.

Additional layers for sky and foliage

Additional layers for sky and foliage

For the next session I used layers of cadmium red and ultramarine over the process cyan. Again, I allowed these to run across the canvas with limited intervention on my part beyond occasionally tilting the support.

Development of sky and grasses

Development of sky and grasses

For the third session I added in the sun using Naples yellow and began to add in the irises and some of the grasses and foliage. I was playing with having a ghostlier image to convey the idea of memories fading and becoming elusive over time. With this in mind I rubbed out paint previously applied to create a stained effect.

Development of sky and addition of gouache to grasses

Development of sky and addition of gouache to grasses

I was trying to be careful about overworking the piece but thought that some areas needed more definition. I added a loose layer of cobalt blue and titanium white to the sky, allowing the paint to run and merge, as I felt that there was too much of a contrast in the treatment of the sky and the grasses. Thinking of Eardley, I used a mix of ultramarine and lemon-yellow gouache and applied this loosely to suggest the stems and leaves of the irises.

I like the idea of the ghostlier, faded images of the irises but I don’t know if it has worked that well here. I think I have overdone the foliage though it is loosely applied and I like the tendril-like quality of the stems. The chalky finish of the stems also provides contrast with the darker underlayers.

Overall it is veering into the overworked zone. For the larger piece I would like to try to build up the layers by responding to what the paint does on the canvas and playing more with the idea of almost staining the canvas and only suggesting the main elements.

Larger Canvas

Session 1

Larger canvas - initial layers

Larger canvas – initial layers

For the larger piece I started with a layer of yellow ochre and titanium white loosely applied with a 1½” flat brush. When this was dry I used a loose wash of process cyan letting it run off the edge of the canvas.

Session 2

Development of grasses - additional washes of colour

Development of grasses – additional washes of colour

Reviewing the canvas the next day I liked the shapes made by the layer of process cyan. It gave a sense of the stems of the plants running from the top edge of the canvas to the bottom and I felt that this could be a better way to convey being completely enclosed within the foliage, with only a glimpse of the sky.

I applied pure colours, cadmium red, ultramarine and process cyan, separately, allowing them to run their course across the canvas.

Once the paint had dried I used a mix of cobalt blue and cadmium yellow letting this run over areas where paint had been previously applied and beginning to create more definition of the stems of the plants. There was some element of control in this as the paint tended to follow the path of the previous layer, at least to some extent.

For this session I continued working in a way that the paint was taking the initiative while I watched what happened and decided upon adding more water if required or lifting out areas of the paint.

Session 3

Work on shadows

Work on shadows

I continued with picking out some of the detail of the stems. I wanted to have the lower half of the canvas, in the centre, in shadow but not overwork it. I was trying to let the shapes from previous layers lead the way. I added a mix of ultramarine and cadmium red as a loose wash between some of the stems. Ghostly shapes of stems from previous layers were showing through and I didn’t want to lose these.

I wasn’t sure if the washes of a darker colour between the stems was working as my aim was to try to create more definition. I added a thicker layer of ultramarine and cadmium red and left this to dry for a short period of time before gently lifting off with a cotton pad. To balance the colour across the canvas I added a layer of cadmium red moving the brush from left to right to create more texture. This wasn’t working so I removed some areas of this leaving small highlights of colour.

Session 4

Further development of grasses and flowers including iris

Further development of grasses and flowers including iris

On reviewing the painting, I felt that the shadow area was overworked so tried to lift out some of the colour but was concerned that it was becoming too muddied. I began to work on the stems again trying thicker layers of paint for definition and being careful to work with the shapes from underlying layers to suggest foliage. In the upper left-hand corner, I created a suggestion of an iris, thinking back to the test piece and the idea of treating elements in a more gestural way.

Details from painting

Detail of shadowed area

Detail of shadowed area

Detail of grasses and stems

Detail of grasses and stems

There is an idea here of layers of the paint reflecting layers of memory but at this stage I feel I’m at a tipping point. Some things have worked, at least to an extent.

  • There are areas where the shapes from previous layers show through giving not just the effect of foliage but the ghostly, faded idea I was aiming for.
  • I think the idea of the stems filling the canvas with only glimpses of the world beyond has worked.
  • I’m not sure where to go with the background, being mindful of not wanting to overwork the image.


Technical and visual skills – Development work in the sketchbook made me begin to think about the idea of memory as layers and as something elusive. This reminded me of work in the earlier parts of the course on stains and also working with egg tempera where the traditional technique involves building up layers with the tonal values from previous layers creating the structure of the final piece. I didn’t work in such a formal way with this larger canvas but played with the idea of the layers below creating the framework for subsequent layers.

Quality of outcome – I have been more conscious of not getting ahead of myself and have tried to work through my ideas at an earlier stage in the sketchbook and with test pieces. This has helped as some ideas I may have previously jumped to on a larger scale have been ruled out by working on thumbnail compositions and experimenting on a smaller scale. That said, I need to work on this part of the process more fully as there is room for improvement.

Demonstration of creativity – With this piece I have tried to work in a more experimental way and let the paint dictate, to a large extent, the direction that I would go in. I think this has worked to some degree or certainly has potential. I think trying out more test pieces would help, firstly to think more carefully about the different layers and the impact on the layers above and also trying a more limited palette which may help to highlight the different shapes.

Context – I feel that I have focused on research for the specific pieces of work for this assignment but not done as well with wider, contextual research. This has been down to pressure with time but I am learning to be alert to the opportunities afforded by smaller chunks of time and using these to read and make notes which feed into more focused periods of study.

Images [External links – open in new tabs]

Bashō, M. (s.d.) Yellow Rose Petals [Painting] At: (Accessed on 17.09.18)

Buson, Y. (s.d) A little cuckoo across a hydrangea [Haiga] (Accessed on 11.09.18)

Cho, Y. (2017) She [Painting] (Accessed on 17.09.18)

Eardley, J. (c. 1962-63) Hedgerow with grasses and flowers [Painting] At: (Accessed on 14.06.18)

Monet, C. (1914-1917) Yellow Irises [Painting] (Accessed on 10.09.18)

Twachtman, J. (c. 1894-1896) Irises [Pastel] (Accessed on 10.09.18)

Related posts

Practical Exercise 1 – Artwork – Bees –

Practical Exercise 1.1 – Artwork – Bees –