Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Gardens in Art: Pastel paintings of gardens in Spain

The Pomegranate Tree, Casa de Pilatos, Seville (1996)
pastel, 20" x 16"
copyright Katherine Tyrrell

This post is about some pastel paintings of gardens that I did as a result of a visit to Andalucia in Spain in September 1995.

The gardens I visited and drew are:
(1) The gardens of the royal palace - the Jardines de los Reales Alcázares - which are both extensive and landscaped
(2) Casa de Pilatos, also in Seville
and (3) the garden of the Palacio de Mondragon in Ronda.

I'm going to comment on the nature and challenges presented by the gardens. Bear in mind that I was still relatively new to pastel painting and that it's now obvious to me that I hadn't quite appreciated the extent to which I've got a weakness for leaning verticals!

If you're interested in knowing more about what the gardens look like, you might want to check out photographs on Flickr (taken by other people) of all the gardens which I've included as links at the end of this post.

Influences on the gardens of Seville and Andalucia

As readers of this blog may have guessed, it's important to me to know something about what I am painting before I try to capture it. Consequently, both during my stay in Spain and when I returned home I tried to find out more about artistic and cultural heritage of Seville and Andalucia.
Seville was ruled by the Moors from 711 to 1248. After the Christian reconquest, their influence, and their craftsmen, created what became known as the Mudejar style (from an Arabic word meaning ‘allowed to remain’). Gardens Guide Jardines de los Reales Alcazares
Seville is now the artistic, cultural, and financial capital of both Andalucia and southern Spain. It has been subject to Moorish occupation in the past (712 - 1248) which has left it with a very fine heritage of both architecture and gardens. Prior to this it has been under the control of the Romans. Spain was invaded by Muslims from North Africa at the beginning of the eighth century but it wasn't until some 200 hundred years later that a caliphate was established and Muslims began to occupy the area on a serious basis. Cordoba was then the capital. The architecture and gardens were a strong symbol of the occupation and have strong arabic influences as a result.

The challenges

On Monday I wrote about taking your time to get used to a place, to looking and to getting used to the colours. In Seville I had a hard time accustoming my eyes to the lack of what I felt was a conventional garden as I wasn't used to looking at the culture and architecture of Moorish Spain.

I found the Mudejar style of architecture to be a very dominant feature in and around any of the gardens I visited. In Mudejar Spain grass does not feature much due to the dry climate, instead there are lots of tiles and hard surfaces and 'water features' such as pools and fountains. The emphasis on architecture seems to be reflected in some of the plants chosen for gardens and some of the very architectural ways in which they are grown. There are lots of trees which are placed carefully within the overal formal design of the garden. The design tends to be strongly geometric - space and spacings are very important as one might expect from a culture which prized learning from mathematics. There is also a strong sense of the garden being an outdoor room with patios and covered areas with arches.

For me this meant that something of the sense of the architectural, the geometry and the mathematics needed to be set alongside the natural forms of the vegetation.

From a practical perspective I found that one of the most difficult things was finding somewhere to sit - and I walked round and round and round trying to work out how to frame a view. In one respect this was because classic views were eliminated due to the public nature of the garden and the obstruction I would cause. In another sense, problems arose because there was a view every which way you looked - and the issue then became how to limit the image through cropping. Finally, the sun was often very hot and sitting in shadow was very much the preferred option. Altogether a bit of a set-up and compositional nightmare!

Jardines de los Reales Alazares

The garden is 40 acres and it is reputedly a paradise garden located in the middle of this busy city. It includes several patios and courtyards some of which are enclosed. There are 18 gardens all together. At the end of the summer I found that some parts were looking a little tired and dry but I'd imagine it would be a completely different experience in the Spring and early summer.
The palace of the Kings of Seville has the largest late-medieval garden in Europe. .....Peter I ruled from 1350-69. His Alcazar (fortress) garden was built upon Moorish remains and has typically eastern courtyards bounded by arcades and sequestered behind high walls. The oldest spaces are in and around the palace. We find small courtyards with glittering pools, fountains, and recessed seats. As in ancient Egypt, they give protection from the harshness of the outside world. Decorative grilles enhance lush views. There is a tank garden. The planting is of palm, cypress, myrtle, mulberries, magnolia, orange and lemon trees. Gardens Guide Jardines de los Reales Alcazares
Lime trees, Jardines de los Reales Alcázares, Seville (1995) NFS
Pastel 25.5" x 19.5"

copyright Katherine Tyrrell

This painting was done late morning and I have to tell you that this view was mainly dictated by the need to get under cover and out of the sun which was blisteringly hot. Mind you, I did trot round checking out the views from various places where I could get out of the sun.

I particularly liked the backlighting on the trees and the juxtaposition of their leaves and 'birdie holes' with the very precise forms of the arches and the geometrical designs on the tiles. Just a pity my verticals weren't quite up to the job!

I recall that this one had me focusing a lot on negative space to get the positioning of different parts right. It was virtually all done on site, although I did finish off the tiles and had to correct one of the arches when I got home. I also remember thinking that what I was trying to paint with my pastels was light and heat - and I'm not sure I pulled it off. The colours somehow don't look right.

Mudejar Fountain, Jardines de los Reales Alcázares (1995) NFS
pastel, 13.5" x 9.5"
copyright Katherine Tyrrell

The fountains and pools seemed to be such a feature of the Mudejar garden that I knew at least one of the works needed to be include a 'water feature'. I loved the design of this one, and faced with the complexity of the views on offer, I'd begun to learn the lesson about 'just pick something small and simple'! Again, in the late afternoon, I was sat in an area of shade looking out at the garden.

This second pastel painting was actually started on site but didn't work. However I tried again when I got home and and finished it really fast. However, I now feel a strong need to correct the vegetation and leave it as is as a reminder to use less white! It always amazes me how complete foul-ups "en plein air" need not be such a failure when you try again. Read the story relating to the last image for confirmation of this.

I found that the shadow colours were a constant challenge and it was always necessary to observe them carefully in order to work out how much complementary colour and how much was reflected colour.

Casa de Pilatos, Seville

The palace is situated in a very quiet backwater of Seville which I walked to from the centre and dates back to the 15th-16th centuries. Although it has some features which are Andalucian, it also reflects the Italian Renaissance.

The garden is 2.5 acres and a number of compartments and a mass of trailing and climbing plants such as bougainvillea, wisteria and jasmine. It also contains a number of mature trees, including palms, figs, orange trees and the pomegranate tree which features in the pastel work at the top of this post.

The best thing about the garden from an artist's perspective is that it so quiet compared to the Alazares. The worst thing about it was the contant temptation to try and include too much!

Palacio deMondragon, Ronda

Afternoon Light, Palacio de Mondragon, Ronda
(1995) SOLD
pastel, 23.5" x 15.5"
copyright Katherine Tyrrell

This painting now resides somewhere in the USA having been sold by a fellow painter on the trip who had a gallery in Florida. It's one my favourites in terms of the lighting effect. I guess we all pretty much like what Edward Hopper aspired to do.
"What I wanted to do was paint sunlight on the side of a house"
Edward Hopper

The gardens of the this 14th century Moorish Palace in Ronda are tiny by comparison with those above - only a tenth of an acre. They have stunning view from the terrace to the countryside and would be an excellent place to locate to paint a landscape of the area around Ronda.

I've written about this one before - in August last year in this post Palacio de Mondragon, Ronda. - so I won't repeat it here save to say this explains how I tackled the subject - working from artwork completed on site plus photos and using a grid to get the detailed architecture right. It has a story which all artists will appreciate - of how it all went wrong at the beginning, was retrieved and came out all right in the end.

I hope you've found this review of my paintings of gardens in a different culture as informative as I've found in writing it all down. It's amazing how writing it all down in an ordered way crystallises a process in your head.



  1. Katherine, these are WOWers! Are you still doing pastels like these?

  2. Not so much - I find coloured pencils so much less messy these days plus it's very easy to pick up and put down. Working with pastels is a bit of a performance art!

    Mind you after I published the thread I was asking myself why I wasn't doing pastels like this!!!

  3. Katherine, the pastels are so fantastic. I know what you mean about them being a perfomance. Plus, they take alot of energy, but one can really see that in your pastels. I love "The Lemon Tree House" from a couple of posts ago. Even though it's messy and hard on the hands and lung . You should go for it. They are alive, energetic and really show the hand of the artist in them.

  4. I love these pastels Katherine! Oh yes, do more, do more!!

  5. These paintings are absolutely gorgeous! - I love how you captured the light of Spain, the shadows are great, the compositions spot on... I couldn't decide on a favorite! - please do some more pastels!

  6. Wow! Seems like I need to do some more pastels. ;)

    Thank you folks for all your kind comments - I was going to start going out again on a regular basis to do plein air pastelling - and then we had the awful weather and THE RAIN. Which is a bit of a problem for me because the surface I like using best sheds its tooth with the first rain spot. Hence why I'm very happy with pastels in hot sunny countries and rather less happy in the UK.

    Given your comments, I shall need to give it some more serious thought. Maybe think about using them more to work up plein air sketches at home maybe? Now where did I put my pastel apron.........

  7. These works are beautiful Katherine!!! Strangely enough I was only thinking a couple of days ago about the information that you have put together about pastel in the past on your blog and Lens and wondered why you didn't use them to the degree that you do coloured pencils. You have now answered that question. :D

  8. I think I had a particular spate of ruining clothes and wanted a cleaner alternative - but I really should get going on using more of the alternative abrasive pastel boards outside. There are some which don't have the same problem that Rembrandt has.

  9. These are all gorgeous but the sold painting is one of the nicest modern pastels I've seen. The composition is so sophisticated and bold and really unique, with its sort of spiral design that seems to pivot around the little pot in the middle. (P.S. I wish Blogger displayed the artwork on the comments page so it was easier to look and comment at the same time.)

  10. Jana - that one probably took the most time in terms of working out where to sit. The garden was so small and the options so limited but in the end I got the result because the light started to move and then came through and hit the wall - it was magic!

    The colour study I did in the time I had left though was the biggest mess you've ever seen in terms of perspective - hence the very careful prep. drawings which you can see in the other post.

    And I too wish I could see the images in Blogger when commenting - it's very frustrating.


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