If you look down on it you won’t have to worry about perspective, Helen, the art tutor, suggests.
I rearrange the single maple leaf on my desk and prepare to put HB pencil to paper. As a complete novice, I have yet to master the art of drawing a three dimensional object, so the prospect of a nice, flat leaf is appealing. It’s a thing of beauty. Its lobes are traced with dozens of delicate veins and it radiates sunset-orange in the sunshine which streams in through the studio skylights. It brings back memories of time in Vermont, where sugaring season in the New England woods results in delicious maple syrup to drizzle on buttermilk pancakes. Doing artistic justice to something so simple, yet so perfect, is a challenge. But the process is enjoyably mindful; two hours to forget about everyday preoccupations and concentrate on observing, and attempting to replicate, a natural wonder.
But how will I feel about leaves in a month’s time? It’s all very well having the odd leaf drift to the ground to be scooped up for some still-life sketching, but what about when the lawn, paths and driveway are littered with them? Trees provide shade on a hot day, shelter for birds and animals, and are a vital part of the eco-system, but many of us will be cursing them after days of back-aching work with rakes and wheelbarrows.
Helen has brought in a bucket of natural treasures gathered from the hedgerow as subjects for our still-life endeavours – spiky twigs covered in blackberries, a clutch of rosehips and trailing tendrils of ivy. I have mixed feelings about blackberries. Great with apple in a crumble with custard; not so great on the thick, bramble stems which invade the garden and lacerate bare arms when you’re weeding. The blackbirds love them, and pollinators are attracted to the ripe fruit in droves. Free food for everyone, but a total pain for the gardener.
Stealthy ivy prises apart a stone wall, the painstaking work of a former resident, and which is now in danger of collapse; but ivy is a vital food source for bees during the winter, so I should let it be (or at least restrict my tidying to a minor trim).
Helen gingerly offers me a sprig of rose as my next drawing project. The blooms have long gone, but almost better, and far more robust, are the rose hips, or haws, which have taken their place. This is what you get if you forget to deadhead your roses; the petals fall away leaving the seed pods. Those dog roses in my garden, which lurk at the back of a border and have pierced my hands with their thorns, even through thick gloves, have made up for it with an autumnal feast for finches, blackbirds and thrushes. Leave them to ripen for a bit and they can produce wonderful jellies and vinegars, with a big hit of vitamin C. Rosehips range from orangey red to purplish black depending on the species, and they make an even more striking picture in late autumn when they’re coated with frost.
There are no snippings of hawthorn in Helen’s bucket, but the hedgerows are full of these prickly native shrubs. From September they’re bursting with scarlet berries, food for tiny wrens and boisterous starlings alike. Like the rosehips, hawthorn berries are essential winter provisions for birds and insects.
My still-life is finished, and it’s recognisable as a maple leaf. Not too bad for a first attempt. In the weeks to come, when leaves fall on the garden in torrents, and I’m hacking my way through brambles and dog roses, I’ll try to remember that Nature is not designed for my convenience! It’s all a matter of perspective.