…the best way to know a flower is to paint it. Wandering round our gardens, admiring the borders, we do not scrutinize our flowers in close-up. We think we know them, we could immediately describe their height and colours. But if asked how many petals a tulip has, we might falter. And what about the petals of the lily? The fritillary? The amaryllis?
–“The Artist and the Flowers”, Irises and Other Flowers, Watercolours by Elizabeth Blackadder, Commentary by Deborah Kellaway
My mother’s favourite flower was the iris and she filled her gardens with them, especially after she moved to the Pacific Northwest. I’ve followed her example, growing irises in every garden I’ve had, but for many years I was only familiar with bearded irises with their impressive height and showy standards and falls.
About five years ago, a friend introduced me to Iris reticulata. Although the flowers are similar in shape and colour to bearded irises, the reticulatas are tiny, only 10 to 15 cm (4 to 6 inches) in height. They flower very early here on Vancouver Island, at about the same time as snowdrops, and provide a much needed splash of colour at the end of winter. I grow them in pots and had a good display this year. Unfortunately, all of the photos I took of them were lost in a computer crash about three weeks ago. I have been given permission by the author of ontheedgegardening.wordpress.com to link to a post on Iris reticulata “Cantab”, where you can see a fine close up photograph of this flower. This post also points out the interesting fact that this “dwarf iris species is called reticulata as the bulb is covered with a fibrous net.” The Latin word “reticulatus” (netted) is also the source of “reticule”: an old-fashioned word for a small handbag, originally made from netted fabric.
Irises are named for the Greek goddess Iris, who was associated with communication, messages, the rainbow and new endeavors. Following on from this, the meaning of “Iris” in the language of flowers is “message” or “I have a message for you”.
Prior to the computer crash, I had completed a detailed drawing of my own tiny irises, so all was not lost. To return to the thought expressed in the quotation at the beginning of this post, normally “we do not scrutinize our flowers in close-up”. Looking closely at Iris reticulata in order to make a drawing (and then a painting), I was amazed by the intricacy of the yellow and white markings on the blue-violet flowers.
I had determined the composition of the painting in the drawing, but had only indicated areas of texture or pattern with scribbles, leaving the selection of specific pattern and areas of colour to the painting process itself. When it came time to make these choices, I found I needed to experiment a bit, without committing my choices to paint. I traced out an area of the painting and copied this shape several times onto a piece of watercolour paper. Then, I painted my test shapes in different patterns and colours, cut them out and placed each of the cutout shapes in turn onto the unfinished painting. This was a great help to me in making the choices necessary to the completion of the painting.