Ever So Pretty In Pink: Cyclamen

Some flowers have a personality all of their own.

This little cyclamen looks to me as if it (she?) is all dressed up for a party in ‘her’ best dress – in frills, flounces and soft pleats of magenta silk. She’s a real show-off, dancing around with her skirt swishing and swirling around her.

Even the details of this glamorous bloom are exquisite. The cap behind the petals has the appearance a soft fabric, contrasting with the silky smoothness of the petals. I can just imagine this as an embroidered velvet, with perhaps some tiny seed beads added into the stitch-work. (Can you tell that I’m interested in textile art?)

By the way, I just had to go and look at a botany book to find that the ‘cap’ is actually the calyx, made up of leaf-like sepals.

Close-up of calyx and petals of pink Cyclamen persicum cultivar
The velvety-looking calyx surrounded by silky, swirling petals

It seems odd then, that earlier relatives of this flower had the distinctly earthy common name of ‘sowbread’. This was because the root of the plant, despite being poisonous to both man and most animals, was believed to be a favourite food of wild boar. (I don’t know about that, but I have seen a grey squirrel run across my garden with a nice fat cyclamen tuber in its mouth.)

The name ‘cyclamen’ also comes from the plant’s root (a disc-shaped tuber). It is derived from the Greek word ‘kyklos’ (circle).

The ancient Greeks, according to Hippocrates, used cyclamen in their medicine. Over the centuries its uses have been very varied. It was used for dressing wounds and was also thought to help ease childbirth but feared as a danger to pregnant women. In medieval times, the tuber was believed so powerful that if it was worn around the neck, or its juice smeared on the belly, that it could trigger a miscarriage.

Other uses for cyclamen root have been as diverse as using it to make soap (the tuber contains saponins) and fishermen using it to stun fish. (The fishermen would grate the toxic root and sprinkle it over water where there were fish. They would then gather the stunned fish that floated to the surface. Makes me wonder if the fish became at all toxic to eat…)

Today cyclamen is, despite its toxicity, still used in homeopathy. But it is far more likely that you’ll come across one of the many cultivars as either a beautiful (but tender) houseplant or as a hardy autumn or spring-flowering plant for your garden. Whichever they are, they’re little beauties!

Pink Cyclamen persicum
The swirling petals almost appear to be moving…

Variations on a Theme

One of the good things about photographing flowers is that it’s fairly easy to come up with different images of your subject. (Much easier than having to hike miles around a landscape to find a different viewpoint.)

Variations of the image can be created while photographing or afterwards in the computer, using an image-editing program.

The top image (a version of the photograph below) has had textures added to it in Photoshop to give a softer, more romantic feel.

White Japanese anemones
The photograph as originally shot.

These ‘textures’ are simply photographs of a textured surface, usually with just one all-over colour but perhaps with a darkened edge and corners to give a vignette effect.

Photoshop makes it possible to stack the textured images above the original photograph and then to alter the opacity of the textured images. (Imagine looking through a stack of images printed on clear plastic – that gives some idea of how it works.) Controlling the opacity of the layers means that you can decide exactly how much of the textured layers show in your final image.

In this case, the textures I used were an image of a canvas weave and another of a lightly scratched surface. The opacity of the scratched surface was set very low, so that it hardly showed, while the canvas texture was set higher and made more visible.

If you decide to try out this ‘textures’ technique, there is another Photoshop tool that you’ll want to use – ‘Blend Modes’.

Blend Modes give control over how the different layers interact with each other. This tool can produce very subtle effects but it can also create something decidedly weird. Trying out the different settings is the best way to find out what they do. (And time can all too easily disappear as you play with all the possibilities…)

To prevent the details of the main flower from being obscured, I kept the textures off this area. This also removed the colour of the textures from the flower, so I added a plain pale yellow layer to unify the flower with the rest of the image.

(It would probably be simpler to just blur the textured area over the flower. This would remove the detail of the textures but allow the colour of the textured area to remain.)

After taking the first photograph, I decided to try something a bit bolder. This time I chose a very dark green background. Because very little light was hitting the background, it looks almost black and creates a strong contrast with the flowers.

White Japanese anemones against a dark background.
Same flowers (Japanese anemones), but a much more dramatic image.

For the second photograph, I changed the lighting to add to the contrast. (Both were lit with studio flash.)

The first photograph had been taken with a soft, well-diffused light (a softbox brought close to the flowers and a large reflector to the side). The result was to give a very even light with the reflector bouncing light back into the areas that would otherwise have been in shadow. This allowed the details in the petals to show and helped to give a gentle, delicate feel to the photograph.

To create the more contrasty lighting for the second photograph, I simply moved the light further away (and, of course, turned up the light output to make up for the increased distance). Moving a studio light further away creates a ‘harder’ light with stronger highlights and shadows. (Just think of how the sun creates such harsh shadows – it’s a very distant light source.)

Taking the reflector away also increased the contrast by removing the light that it would have bounced into the shadows. I think the end result is probably as far as I could push the contrast before I started to lose too much detail in the petals.

As with the first photograph, I decided to play around with textured layers to see what the effect would be. The result is much softer than the original photo and goes to show how different the image can become once you start experimenting with the different possibilities. I think there’s plenty to keep me busy for quite a while!

White Japanese anemones against teal background
The textured background creates a softer feel.

Red Hot

After such high temperatures recently, it seems appropriate to post some pictures that suggest summer heat.

It’s not often that I get the chance to photograph bright red or orange flowers. That’s a shame. really, because there’s nothing quite so bold and brilliant or downright fiery.

Red and yellow dahlia
Dahlia on fire – red and yellow petals look like little dancing flames.

Red is a colour that I’ve been a bit over-cautious with in the garden. There are some dark reds –  penstemons, clematis, and a scabious that likes to pop up everywhere. And there’s a nice little red potentilla too, but that hasn’t done very well this year.

An exception is the one very bright orangey-red oriental poppy that leans over the path to the greenhouse and all but grabs you by the ankle as you pass. There’s absolutely no ignoring it when it’s in flower but by August it feels like a distant memory.

There’s even less orange in the garden. (Though I now have a lovely clump of crocosmias that were given to me by a friend.)

Hot orange rose
A radiant rose, glowing in the summer sun.

The reason for the lack of hot colours here is that we had planted the garden up in softer colours to create a calm, peaceful atmosphere. (Or maybe just a place to have a sneaky snooze in the shade…)

Now it’s time to wake things up a bit with a touch of heat. Time to be a bit more adventurous. (And I’d really like the opportunity to photograph more bold, zingy, hot-summer flowers….of course I would!)

What are your favourite bold flowers? Any red or orange ones that you especially like? Planting ideas and suggestions are very welcome in the comments. (And I love an excuse to go to a garden centre!)

Red alstroemeria
You can almost feel the heat from this alstroemeria.

Discovering Drypoint

I’ve mentioned before that over recent years I’ve been learning printmaking techniques. My newest little adventure is to learn drypoint.

This is a process that appeals to me because it is very simple and direct. Basically, an image is scratched into a printing plate (metal, plastic or special card) with a sharp point.

The plate is printed in the same way as an etching plate but the drypoint print has a softer-looking line. (A result of the ink being held not just by the incised line but also by the raised burr pushed up by the sharp point.)

For my first attempt at drypoint, I’ve used a drawing based on this photograph:

Photograph of a passionflower
The original passionflower photograph

This is the same image that I used for the intaglio print/photography combination that I wrote about here.

The plate I used for this print was clear plastic. (You can see it in the photo below.) This has a huge advantage over metal – you can just lay it over a drawing or photograph and use that as a guide for inscribing the lines of the image. To scratch the lines into the plate, I used an engineers’ scriber. (You can find these for around £5 in D.I.Y. stores.) Anything sharp enough to mark the plate is worth trying but there are specific drypoint needles with different sizes of tips available too. I’ve recently bought a couple of these – shown in the photo. (Above the engineers’ scriber.)

Drypoint plate and needles
Drypoint plate, scriber and needles

The printing plate is inked and wiped in the same way as an etching plate. (But treated more gently, to preserve the burr along the edges of the lines – this helps to give the characteristic fuzzy look to the printed lines.)

As you can see from this description, the drypoint process is very straightforward. It’s also pretty inexpensive to try out. Even better – there are no chemicals involved. (Hooray! Great!! I’m very happy to be able to avoid using the nastier printmaking chemicals – some are very toxic!)

Making the drypoint print was a process that I really enjoyed. I found something very satisfying about scratching the lines into the plastic plate. And it’s also very pleasing to be able to use my photographs as a starting point for a printed image that will look quite different. I’m planning to make more prints soon and (if you’re interested in printmaking) I hope that I may have encouraged you to give drypoint a try.

Drypoint print of a passionflower
My first attempt at drypoint printing