Literary Memories as Inspiration: The Lupine Lady

My two favourite things are reading and painting. Both literature and the visual arts hold the possibility of opening up new worlds and changing how we view or experience the world around us. Recently, the paintings I was working on reignited long forgotten memories of one of my favourite children’s books: Miss Rumphius, written and illustrated by Barbara Cooney (1982). In revisiting the feelings I experienced as a child reading the story and looking at the illustrations, I see parallels between the power of this book’s themes and what I appreciate most about the practice of making art, that is, spreading joy.

Miss Rumphius follows the life of a fictional character named Alice Rumphius. It is inspired by the real Miss Rumphius, Hilda Edwards Hamlin, known as “the Lupine Lady”, who scattered lupine seeds around the coast of Maine in the first half of the twentieth century. In the book, Alice’s grandfather inspires little Alice to travel the world when she grows up and to find some way to spread joy. Miss Rumphius, like Mrs. Hamlin, does travel to far off places and when she returns home, decides to colour the coast of Maine with the flowers that bring her joy. As a child, I was drawn to the book’s beautiful and delicate illustrations and the story itself of the wish and goal of spreading joy and beauty in the world.

When I was recently asked if I could make a watercolour painting of lupines, the feeling of reading this book as a kid immediately came back to me. When I think of Miss Rumphius, I think of adventure, imagination, family lineages, a sense of home, and the power to add something positive to the world. Then, as now, the book inspires a sense of possibility: Alice takes up the task her grandfather gives her of spreading joy in the world. She is free to choose how to do so but honours this mission.

When I think of Miss Rumphius, I think of adventure, imagination, family lineages, a sense of home, and the power to add something positive to the world.

There is a lot I relate to in this book. As someone who dreamed of travelling when I was little, I relate to wanting to see the world. Now as an adult, living in a country that is not where I grew up, I appreciate the book’s message that both far off places and our homes can be equally special and important in one’s life. The themes of this book, including one’s own agency to bring positivity to the world is what painting does for me and what I wish to do with my own paintings.

Beyond the book, lupines bloom in my home province of New Brunswick and have thus been part of the landscape of my own early life. They bloom in summer and come out in abundance, changing a green landscape into hues of blues, violets, pinks, and whites.

Since it is winter, I am relying on photographs of lupines for my studies. I decided I wanted to make a series of small (5 x 7 inch) watercolour paintings of lupines to explore the shapes and colours of the plant and the techniques I could use to render them. I began by looking at many pictures of lupines and making pencil drawing studies of how the buds develop and flower.

Sketch of lupines

Next, I drew a very light sketch on my watercolour paper to get my composition down. For the first painting, I wanted to focus rendering the details of the flower’s buds. I used various hues of blue and red to get a range of tones including pinks and violets. Here is the finished product:

Lupines I, watercolour, 5 x 7 in., matted.

The next two paintings I have explored different techniques of watercolour. Especially for the leaves, I painted quite wet and let different greens and yellow flow and interact. I wanted to create the suggestion of leaves without too much detail. Likewise, for the buds on the lilacs, I wanted a combination between patches of colour to suggest shapes as well as more more details to describe the contours and different part of individual buds. Here are Lupines II and III:

I will continue to make small watercolours of lupines and play with colour combinations, composition, and painting techniques. I look forward to sharing more as this new collection grows!  

Thanks for reading!

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