Another Stab At It

I spent a lot of my day trying to conquer the shadings of green of the unknown succulent (hereafter known as U.S.).

I applied the principles of shading I read about in John Ruskin’s book, Elements of Drawing, by drawing straight lines rapidly and at varying angles to each other, to create a cross hatching. The greater the density of lines, the darker the shade. The problem was that the areas to be shaded were surrounded by white borders of the leaves. Therefore I had to be very careful with, not only where I started and stopped my rapidly drawn lines, but also the gradations of shading within the small areas. Here is a record of my efforts:

Pen and Ink: Succulent Leaves Exercise

Succulent Leaves Exercise, Pen and Ink
5.5″x8.5″ 140# Cold Pressed Watercolor Paper

Today’s watercolor exercise:

I used a smaller format paper today (9″x12″) and chose a top view of the U.S. to depict. This aspect displayed some degree of symmetry. Here is a cropped photograph of my subject:

Photograph: Top View, Unknown Succulent

Top View of Unknown Succulent

After sketching the leaves with an HB pencil, I painted the highlights with lemon yellow:

Watercolor: Unknown Succulent Top View Stage 1 - Lemon Yellow

Unknown Succulent Top View, Stage 1 – Lemon Yellow

I tried to match the darker green colors in the shadows with the paints I had in my box. I decided that viridian green and terra verte were a good fit.

Here is a completed underpainting using viridian green to color the bodies of the leaves:

Watercolor: Unknown Succulent Top View Stage 2 - Lemon Yellow + Viridian Green

Unknown Succulent Top View Stage 2 – Lemon Yellow + Viridian Green

I don’t know if terra verte is by nature a less saturated pigment or if the brand I have uses less pigment than normal, but even with globs of paint on my brush, I just couldn’t get a dark enough application to achieve the tone I wanted. I wrote about this before (Terra Verte and the Earth Tone Sunset).

Since terra verte didn’t give me what I needed, I resorted to my old standby, Hooker’s green. This is a dark pigment that I thought would give me the dark shades I had in mind.

The highlights that I painted as lemon yellow could not remain yellow. However I was not satisfied when I added phthalo blue, which normally gives me a very pleasing result. It was too dark. I blotted up this combination and found that a touch of the Hooker’s green gave the yellow the light green that was almost what I was looking for.

Here is my final composition:

Watercolor: Unknown Succulent Top View - Final

Unknown Succulent Top View
9″x12″ 140# Cold Pressed Watercolor Block


Once again, I did not seem to capture either the glowing greens of the highlights or the deepness of greens in the shadow. The composition seems to be held together by the preservation of the white spaces of the edges of the leaves. But this is an approximation as well. In the photograph, one can see that the edges of the leaves are not a solid white, but a grayish fuzzy line indicating an almost serrated edge.

While the coloration in the photograph indicates depth, the colors in my composition are, for the most part, flat.  I’m not sure how to proceed to be able to correct this. Closer observation? Color shading exercises? With work, I hope I’ll figure it out.

Unknown Succulent

This succulent actually does have a name, but I lost the label. It was curling off the pot (as you can see below), so I took it off and put it in the proverbial ‘safe place’. So now it is the unknown succulent, since I can’t find the label.

Today’s watercolor experiment:

I have been hesitant to attempt to portray this succulent. It is virtually one color – green. However there are flourishes to the overall green cast. There is the glowy green, where the leaves are backlit by the lamp overhead; whitish green along the edges; the reddish green at the points of the triangular leaves; and dark green near the base. Here is the photo:

Photograph: Unknown Succulent - Photo

Unknown Succulent – Pending Label Retrieval


I love the larger format watercolor paper. To an oil or acrylic painter, my 12″x16″ paper might not seem large, but to me it is a vast expanse.

With an HB pencil, I sketched the general outline of the plant and tried to place the inner leaves within this outline. This is always a challenge. Sometimes my eyes misalign a leaf and I end up sketching the same one in two different places.

I painted the glowy parts of the foliage with lemon yellow first, making sure to leave spaces of white between. I used the darker Hooker’s green for the base of the outer leaves and the entirety of the leaves in shadow. I added Peacock blue (aka phthalo blue) to the yellow, which should have yielded the green glow.

Watercolor: Succulent with Green Triangular-Shaped Leaves

Unknown Succulent
12″x16″ 140# Cold Pressed Watercolor Block


I didn’t quite get the color transitions. I think I got all the colors, but not the transitions. The one element that makes this composition is…. the white spaces.  It might serve me well to use the whole area of a 12X16 sheet of watercolor paper to paint the green color transitions and variations of one leaf.

Introductory Neuroanatomy – Preface

As we get closer to the publication of our introductory volume of neuroanatomy, my colleague and principle author, Andrew Lautin, MD and I will be sharing our work on this blog. Here is the preface to our Introduction to Neuroanatomy.


Various strategies are available to study neuroanatomy. One strategy encourages the student to privilege a heroic initiator, (perhaps a genius) and an initiation date: Stephen Gould suggests how and why this might work:

“Our human passion for order and clean distinctions leads us to designate certain moments or events as ‘official beginnings’ for something new and discrete. Thus the signatures on a document define the birth of a nation on July 4th 1776, and the easily remembered 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month (11/11/18) marks the armistice of a horrible war to end all wars”

Most introductory books on neuroanatomy contain some heroes, geniuses, and initiation dates: the historical time frame in which the hero brought forth the critical insight, the saltation in understanding. This is indeed the case in neuroscience where a plenum of heroic figures and initiation dates would fill a volume of its own.

However, on the other side of the compass, textbook treatments (science or otherwise) can and do pursue a strategy which emphasizes the accumulation of knowledge over time by many known and unknown figures; and no one genius or period is so highly privileged.

This later strategy memorialized (somewhat ironically) by Newton in his statement, ‘If I have seen further than others, it is standing on their shoulders…”

We write this preface to alert the reader that our textbook comes down on the side of a heroic initiator, Wilhelm His, and a heroic initiation date – the publication of his paper on a mechanical theory of neurodevelopment in 1874.

Great Man Theory – a 19th century idea according to which the impact on history can be attributed to a great man, or hero, their personality and ideas, first formulated by Thomas Carlisle, the Scottish writer, in the 1840s. The counter argument, proposed by Herbert Spencer was that the great man was a product of their society and the contributions of others.

We write this book to revivify His’s vision because it simply and powerfully describes the formation of the CNS in a manner similar to blowing up a rubber tube balloon. By examining and deploying His’s model, we will enable our reader to gain a substantive purchase of ownership of basic neuroanatomy.

Abstractish Succulent

Today’s watercolor experiment:

Yesterday I experimented by painting a close up of a portion of one of the succulent plants I have (Hockey Brush). I used mixed media paper (a smooth, Bristol-like finish) and a 1″ hake brush. I originally said the brush was 1/2″, that was incorrect. I liked the composition, but the colors all lay on the surface of the paper.

Today I used the same model as with yesterday’s composition, but used 12″x16″ watercolor paper. I used the 1″ hake brush directly on the paper, without a preliminary sketch.  As with the previous composition, I began outside (plein air, I believe is the term) to get the first splotches of leaves in place. It was warm and the paint dried very quickly.

I continued indoors (after my eyes adjusted to the light) when I had the initial composition complete. I resorted to smaller brushes (#12 and #16 rounds) for shading. Even though I didn’t intend for this study to be representational, I did want to have some differentiation among the patches.

I used a range of oranges as before (cadmium and perinone), reds (cadmium and alizarine crimson) and yellows (lemon, English, aureolin), to get the same range of  shading as in the subject plant. Hooker green mixed with cadmium red provided the tint for the broad leaves. Neutral tint together with Van Dyke brown surrounds the orange petals and leaves at the bottom of the  frame.

Watercolor: Abstract Close Up of Succulent

Abstractish  Succulent
12″x16″ 140# Cold Pressed Watercolor Block

I’m not as happy with this study as I am with yesterdays. It is unfortunate that a couple of the flowers have a goofy, cartoon-face look. It gives lie to my (ahem) serious art.

Tomorrow is another day.

Malpighi – Neural Development

Change of pace, today.

Many of my posts lately have been devoted to creativity and the visual arts. I am also working on an introductory volume of neuroanatomy with my colleague, Andrew Lautin, MD. Today’s post is about one of the early contributors to neuroanatomy.

Marcello Malpighi (1628 – 1694), was a 17th century Italian physician. Among his accomplishments were appointment to serve as personal physician to the Pope, honorary member of the Royal Society of London and many discoveries about living organisms through the use of the newly invented microscope.*

He is considered by many, the greatest embryologist since the time of Aristotle. Using a simple compound microscope, he was able to illustrate three stages of the development of the chick embryo. In 1673, he published three drawings of the early developmental stages of the nervous system.

Diagram: Three Chick Embryos circa 1673

The left figure shows the neural plate stage with prospective brain labeled D and the prospective brain stem, which will support the brain, labeled B. The prospective spinal cord is just below B ranging all the way to C. Below B the square shaped segments of tissue bordering the nascent spinal cord are somites, tissue clumps which provide muscle and connective tissue.

The middle drawing shows the single vessel from the left hand diagram, transformed into a three vesicle stage of the neural tube. These three vesicles or ventricles reveal the original continuity of the hollow ventricular system. In the middle picture are two outpocketings labeled (A) which will become the eyes.

The far right figure shows the five vesicles (ventricles). The maximum number of ventricles obtained is five: the endbrain ventricle is labeled E, consisting of two connected bulbs, one showing and the other hidden behind it; the interbrain vesicle is labeled D; one of the optic evaginations that becomes the optic cups is labeled F, with the second one hidden behind it as in E; the midbrain vesicle is labeled A; and the hindbrain vesicle is represented by B and C, known as the pons and medulla respectively.**

* Ellyard, D, Wood, A. Who Discovered What When New Holland Publishers 2006

** Figure legend adapted from Swanson, Brain Architecture (Understanding the Basic Plan, 1st edition, Oxford, 2003).

Hockey Brush?

Today’s watercolor experiment:

There was a sale on watercolor brushes. I have so many already, but I couldn’t resist these. They are called hake (rhymes with hockey) brushes. I have two of them. One is 3.5 inches wide and the other is 2 inches wide.  I purchased a 1 inch and a half inch brush. Today I tried out the half inch brush.

I may have been a bit tired of line shading, so I brought my new hake brush outside, looked around for a subject and found the perfect one. My trusty Crassula Purpureum (other succulent portraits may be found here: Another SucculentKalanchoe Succulent, Graptosedum Succulent, Succulent Update). I have an unresolved issues with that succulent: its lack of symmetry in the flower and the seemingly haphazard arrangement of flower petals.

I did notice that one leaf seems to be in the foreground with two adjacent leaves poking out at a narrow angle from behind.

A hake brush has bristles that sometimes are unruly; it was a challenge to use it to make the triangular shapes of the orange colored petals. The paper I used was large (11″x14″) and not that absorbent (mixed media paper), so I had a lot of room.  I wouldn’t say that I painted the flower petals as much as I ‘blotted’ them. I tried to leave white space around the petals to come back later and fill in with a darker color.

This reference photograph is a bit oversaturated. It is difficult to identify the area I chose to portray in my composition.

Photograph: Orange Succulent, Closeup

Oversaturated Photo of Succuient

I used a combination of oranges (perinone and cadmium) as well as cadmium reds, for the flower petals. Van Dyke brown colored the dirt of the pot and a combination of Hooker’s green, permanent mauve, cadmium red and titanium white for the leaves. I used neutral tint to darken the dark areas and demark the edges of the petals.  As a final flourish, I used yellow ink, applied by brush to accent the edges of the petals.

Watercolor: Close up of Succulent

Close up of Succulent
11″x14″ 140# Mixed Media Paper


I like this composition. The smooth texture and nonabsorbent nature of the mixed media paper contributed to the abstract look of this painting. It has a circular symmetry and an appropriate range of tonal values from dark to light. The veined leaves and obvious flower shapes pull the composition back from total abstraction. It would be interesting to see if I can simplify the design a little more for a more abstract study.

Shading Practice

After yesterday’s less-than-stellar pencil drawing of the back yard, I took some advice from John Ruskin, 19th century artist, through his book Elements of Drawing. In the first few pages of ‘Elements’ there are some basic exercises intended to instruct a beginner in uniform shading of and area, and shading from dark to light with a pen or a pencil.

Today’s experiment: Shading

Pen and Ink: Shading Practice Using Pen and Pencil

Shading Practice
11″x14″ 140# Mixed Media Paper

In the first exercise, Ruskin asked the student to draw a square box and, using lines that are drawn swiftly, in different directions, completely fill the box. The end result should be a uniform tone that looks like a patch of fabric.

In the figure above, I used a 005 Prisma Color pen to shade the two squares on the left. The nib of this pen is very fine. For the other squares, I used a Micron .5mm pen, much thicker than the first. Most of the patches are uniform in shading. Ruskin suggested that if the patches are not uniform, the student was to use the pen to correct the error. This sounds much easier than it actually is.

In the next exercise, (skipping Ruskin’s exercise II) I drew two long rectangles and started using dots to shade from light to dark. For the light areas I spaced the dots far apart, making them closer together to obtain darker shades.

In the topmost strip, I used the fine nib; the .5mm pen tip dots filled the strip immediately beneath.

Underneath the two strips, I innovated. I spaced parallel lines with wide spacing at the top, gradually narrowing the distance. The idea was the same as in the dot exercise: to gradually shade from light to dark. Based on the results, I need more practice with long parallel lines.

Below this, I did the dot exercises with pencils of different hardnesses: HB, 2B and 4B (unfinished).

Shading exercise in practice:

When I finished the shading exercises (after icing my throbbing hand), I desperately searched for a subject on which to put my sharpened skills to use. The ink box caught my eye.

Photograph: Box with Ink Bottles Inside

Box of Ink – Reference Photo

I used lines and dots to try getting the appropriate dark and light patches onto my paper.

Pen and Ink: Box of Ink Bottles

Box of Ink
6″x9″ 140# Cold Pressed Watercolor Block

Aside from the dodgy perspective and some errors in tonal values, I am fairly satisfied with this study. I do think it wise for me to continue practicing, however.


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