Painting the essence of a flower is not easy. Trying to capture its personality is a major challenge. Yet Idoline Duke manages to do just that. Her watercolors are not botanically correct nor photo-realistic, nor does she strive for those ideals as a painter of nature. She wants to go inside nature to find its allusive quality. She amps up the color, distorts the form, plays with its liveliness, and in the end, her paintings show a deep reverence for the powerful beauty of nature.
Idoline Duke’s maple leaves are unmistakably maple leaves. Her flowers, such as bee balm, are unquestionable. Although not photographic, her portrayals are indeed painterly, using saturated colors; watery yet bold. Her shapes are alive, vibrating, standing alone. There is no background landscape to anchor her paintings. Each flower or leaf, fruit or seaweed hang suspended in space, giving them a joyful, singular existence.
Watercolor, being a water-soluble paint, is a challenging medium. Too much water and you’ve got washes of thin colored water, running amok on the paper. Watercolor paint needs a binder, so from 1500 to 1700, watercolor binders were sugars mixed with hide glues. Since the 1800’s, the binders used tend to be gum arabic, made from the hardened sap of the acacia tree, mixed with glycerin or honey, sometimes both. These additives improve the plasticity and solubility of the binder (modern acrylic paints uses water-soluble acrylic resin as a binder).
The challenge for Duke with watercolor is to stay loose and to not rework or fuss too much. “I have to have faith that the paint will dry with nice watermarks, with the kind of hue variations that make the watercolors sing. Trust is key with watercolors,” she said.
Every artist has a unique process of working. For Duke with her leaf paintings, for instance, she first finds a real leaf in nature for reference. She looks for an interesting shape, a color variation or some level of decay. She brings the leaf back to her studio and allows it to dry and curl up, preventing her from trying to replicate it too exactly. After drawing the form lightly on a big sheet of paper, she paints the skeleton with India ink and then puts the first layer of paint down with a big brush and water. “I go back into the painting as the paint dries, careful not to get too much detail in yet, and maybe add more pigment or pull the paint around a bit with a smaller brush. After it dries entirely, I work in the details,” she said.
For Duke, the process of painting is a meditation. She uses her studio work to retreat from, “… the mostly horrible news, the myriad distractions of daily life, and from technology. It’s literally the best therapy I know, and the best way to focus on what’s beautiful and innocent in the world,” she says. Her studio was an architect’s office, with large windows facing east and everything painted white. Usually she stands and works at a tall table, but she sometimes also uses a low project table while working on small pieces.
Self-discipline is always a big challenge for any artist. Having the deadline of an upcoming show helps Duke focus. “I’m pretty easily distracted. Good weather and fun outside distract me constantly.” Another challenge is the solitude of working in a vacuum. “Sometimes I am so in my own head I lose perspective about what is good art. That’s when it’s time to leave my studio and go to a museum!”
Duke’s theory of art making is simple – she works from the heart. She focuses on the beauty of nature, stays in the moment and paints. “I’m a big believer in manifesting,” she says. “I visualize something specific, something wonderful. Then I stay open to all possibilities as the painting evolves.” On paper or panel, the results are clear. Idoline Duke’s watercolors of the forms of nature are unique and filled with life; colorful, exuberant and beautiful.