Painting, Planning, and the Process

By Staff
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Painting, Planning, and the Process

Group editor, Jean Denney, discusses her plans for getting through the winter and finding inspiration for a spring garden.

By Jean Denney
Winter 2018

I’m a plein air painter, which means I paint outdoors, directly in nature. Painting this way means I have to work quickly because light often changes faster than I can set up my paper and palette. It’s frustrating and rewarding. When the landscape proves too challenging, I’ll turn my attention to minutia; a sprig of something close at hand or a small clump of wildflowers.

Watercolor painting in nature, like gardening, requires patience and planning, but at its most successful, it requires flexibility. Both processes can be a bit counterintuitive. Painting requires that you think ahead, leaving space for light colors and highlights – the touches that make objects take on three dimensions. Once you add a dark, it’s difficult to remove it. It’s a process of add and subtract, plan and improvise, make and unmake. For me, it’s just like garden planning and growing.

Irises by Vincent Van Gogh.

Why do this when I could just as easily capture the beauty that surrounds me with a camera, especially when so many fantastic images have already been rendered—particularly botanical illustrations? I’m in it for the process, the experiment, the excitement. Failures can produce our best work, and while I can be disappointed if I’ve ruined a perfectly good pack of seeds, I know I’ve learned something invaluable for my next attempt.

Speaking of paper and planting, it’s seed catalog time. I fall in love with the photographs in seed catalogs: a fruit’s color, a vegetable’s intriguing shape, or a flower’s geometric precision. While my garden and box of paints are recuperating, I plan on fueling my imagination by designing dozens of gardens using the catalogs in my lap. Each will be dog-eared and my notebook full of ideas come spring.

Eventually pragmatism will win out. I will whittle down my fantasy gardens to include one or two new cultivars, one new staple crop for spring and fall, one new medicinal herb, and one new flower. These will be my experiments. For now, I will let the images of potential veggies, herbs, and flowers lure me into my annual winter reverie and harvest my enthusiasm into practical planning soon enough. I just might make it outside to paint the clear cold landscape this winter and marvel at my own garden’s latent energy.

I’d love to learn which illustrators and artists inspire you. Please send me an email at, and we can share our inspirations.

Mother Earth Gardener
Mother Earth Gardener
Expert advice on all aspects of growing.