DESERT CANDLE | FALL 2004 | The Desert-Mountain Institute, Inc, Alpine, Texas

Drawing Wildflowers in the Chihuahuan Desert

By Donald Davidson

When I think of the Big Bend back in ‘99, what beckons forth is the noisy, yet sweet rush of the constant winds rolling across Santa Elena Canyon during what became a ritual of regular afternoon siestas, lying hot and exhausted after returning from the morning’s hike. Sometimes the wildflower I sought to capture on paper would be several miles down a trail; sometimes it was right along the road. I was a new to being a Volunteer-in-the-Park, new to being in southwest Texas, new to the Southwest. After a long career as a figurative expressionist painter, I was still quite raw as a wildflower artist. I would frequently ask a ranger or another volunteer where I might find native plants in bloom that were particularly colorful or unique. Years later I was to learn to describe the more showy plants, the ones park visitors asked the most questions about, as charismatic.

Twice I met-up with a lone horseman, near a stand of Tree Tobacco (Nicotiana glauca). He had come over from the other side of the Rio Grande in search of his wayward cattle. The first time, I pointed to the long, slender corollas with their bowl shaped outer lobes hanging downward in many small clusters all about us. Donde estan las floras naturales que se gustan usted? or Como se llama usted este flora amarillo particular? Como se dice? So, despite the hours-long job of finding, then drawing and identifying or keying a flowering native plant, each outing was to become an adventure and a blessing.

Most days, I would have been awake since an hour before dawn. I would pack a bite to eat, two quarts of ice water, and leave my quarters in Castalon heading down into the floodplain towards the river crossing to the village of Santa Elena, weaving through the stands of Tamarisks so tightly packed that they were as obstructive to the otherwise spectacular view as they were crowding out the region’s native species. When clearings appeared I would often find short barrel cacti, most of who seemed to prefer growing in the shadows of shrubs. Further on, I had just entered an abandoned corral when the sun appeared, rising over the Chisos Mountains when suddenly at my feet the lavender rays of a Tahoka Daisy or Tanseyleaf Aster (Machaeranthera tanacetifolia) appeared. Known as a member of either the Aster, Sunflower or Composite family (Asteraceae), depending on how current one is on one’s knowledge of taxonomy, it was much easier to draw than the Columbine. I laid down on my stomach in the cool gypsum sand and propped myself up on my elbows so that I could see the finer details of the Tahoka Daisy’s golden disk flowers.

The tender, pale-pink petals Chisos Prickly Poppy (Argemone chisoensis) proved quite a challenge. Right across from where Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive turns into Old Maverick Road, it was the first prickly poppy of any sort I saw. I imagined it was some sort of bizarre thistle! The heavily spiked leaf lobes were a strange contrast to the delicacy and seeming elusiveness of the blossom. I had barely finished outlining the intricacies of those spines when the breeze picked up and each my specimen’s four flower petals tore away, one at a time. Of course there was no way to stop. Feeling a deep sense of loss, I had no idea that this species was to be found throughout the park in large quantity. For that one dreadful moment, the picture before my eyes resembled an extended sneeze siphoning off the dregs of the last tissue box on earth! The next time I made such an attempt I made sure to render the flower first. Yet again, gusts of air did their worst (I have never seen a prickly poppy in full glory for more than a few hours). This time I started to notice an ever so slight difference of just how much tug was exerted on each petal. At last I managed to predict which of those would fly off first so that I could complete the whole watercolor.

Sometimes several stages of the bloom were present all at once. This challenge was presented when illustrating an Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens), which grows throughout the Chihuahuan Desert. As the heat of the day progressed, this Ocotillo’s pointed red buds, which in some locales are referred to as “Lady’s Fingers”, I assumed for its shellacked continence, began to open. When an artist is in that position, he or she must move on the problem at hand quickly: Which bud in the flower cluster was most predictable to stay closed until I could at least outline it? Had I left just the right amount of room in the right place on the page for the adjacent flower which just might be opening when I was to be ready to include it in the composition? How would the full blossoms present themselves two hours hence?

Typically, after lunch and a long rest, I would head out once again. It was in these late afternoons that my wife, Rosie, would accompany me. I might take her to see where I had been earlier in the day or we drive to a new location. If I discovered a flowering plant to draw, Rosie would either sit nearby and read while sunning herself or travel further up the trail on her own. It was not unusual for her run back in order to insist that I hike on with her to where she found a better specimen for me to work with.

On one such outing Rosie led our way to a community of Aquilegia longissima or Longspur Columbine at the base of Cattail Falls. Coming as it did at the end of mostly uphill trail with little relief from the sunlight; the deep lemon-yellow flowers known for their extraordinarily long spurs were a bright contrast to the welcome shaded pools of water.

Working as a National Park volunteer required that I meet with my supervisor at least once a week. Driving the twenty-five miles from my station to hers meant that I had ample opportunity to be inspired by plenty of roadside flowers. The Big Bend Bluebonnet, also known as the Big Bend Lupine (Lupinus havardii), first appeared in late March that year. While only a week later the last blossoms of the Redeye Prickly Pear Cactus (Opuntia violacea ssp. macrocentra) which had been in such a great profusion faded and shriveled.

It was also while driving that I saw the first of many species of Paintbrush that I would come to instantly recognize all the way from the lower Southwest on up into the Colorado Plateau and from the Mojave Desert across to the Great Plains. These parasitic members of the Fig or Snapdragon Family (Scrophulariaceae) come in a variety purples, reds, greens and yellows. Besides their need to grow off the roots of other plants, they are distinguished by the specialized bracts that mimic the shapes and intense colors more typical of flower petals. At Big Bend I made a quick watercolor of the tri-lobed flowered Woolly Paintbrush (Castilleja lanata).

My approach to the botanical form has been to rejuvenate the traditional models. Depictions of dead flowers pulled up by the roots, dessicated, lifeless, do not interest me. The very best still-life is still a depiction of something either dead or on soon its way. Nor do I wish to follow the strict symmetries of the schematic drawings found in many guide books and botanical texts. Get out of the library once in a while. Leave the lab, now.

Life is by its very nature a system of asymmetrical balance; a large pile of smaller elements here juxtaposed against one or more larger objects there. Therefore, native plants should be illustrated just as they are found in nature. Put away the camera. A flower upon its stalk might be dancing about in a breeze, with one leaf less fully developed than another. As likely as not there would be insect damage in evidence. Hit the trail.

Coming as an artist and not a scientist, the challenge remains to make renditions of native flora that are as readily identifiable to the botanist as they might be of aesthetic and interpretive interest to the general public. I am not drawing for identification only. I am trying to capture the liveliness of the form as it occurs in its habitat, to create an artistic interpretation that is none the less accurate. Forget pencils and erasers. Take your favorite pen.

It was not unusual to spend many minutes just trying to figure out what view was best and just how much of any given plant I wished to depict. Which of the blooms looked best? How would I match the colors in my palette to subject? Could I finish this before it got too hot? Once I settled in, I relaxed. I would outline the whole portion of the plant that would be shown first, drawing it much like it grew, from the bottom up and then out. Looking at the stem; was it hairy? Heavily so, slightly or not at all? Leaves opposite, alternate or whorled? Leaves toothed or smooth-edged (entire) and how much? I had to direct my fingers to the page while my eyes did the touching for them. Perhaps each of those sensory organs could have asked the other, “Where does one form become subsumed and another emerges?”

Back to the Traveling Artist Wildflowers Project.

Comments, suggestions, and questions about the website should be directed to the webmaster.
Last updated: 3 February 2005