The Softer Side of the Rock

By: Mary L Harden J Charmain Giuliani

Mary L Harden is a botanical illustrator, an avid gardener, and a dedicated educator for thirty-five years, currently teaching at…

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J Charmain Giuliani, noted horticulturist and landscape designer, has been an instructor for over twenty years, currently teaching at both…

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Cape tulip (Homeria breyniana). Original artwork by Mary L Harden

Cape tulip (Homeria breyniana). Original artwork by Mary L Harden

Five hundred years ago, the landscape of Alcatraz encompassed just a few sparse grasses, bare sandstone, and a thick layer of guano. Most of the plants seen on the island today were brought for landscaping purposes, erosion control, or formal gardens. Over the past few years, plant surveys have revealed more than 140 kinds of plants that have survived despite long periods of neglect; many have actually naturalized on the island. That so many plants have survived is astounding; the full marine exposure of this island in the middle of San Francisco Bay would be challenging enough, even with regular care and irrigation.

One of the adaptations to an island environment that plants express is a diminished height and overall size, as well as a reduction in leaf size. Leaf margins of many plants are red or bronzy. Inflorescences on Alcatraz plants are often smaller and denser. Wind shaping actually accentuates the character of some plants on the island, such as the several century-old specimens of Australian tea tree (Leptospermum laevigatum).

Invited to paint these hardy survivors were the members of the Master Class in botanical illustration at San Francisco Botanical Garden Society, a dedicated group of students who have honed their skills through several courses that we have co-taught at the gardens. We have learned that the observation of plants through the seasons is one of the benefits of botanical illustration open to those who take these classes. Keen observation is also a thread leading to fine draftsmanship, but it is the practice of techniques in a supportive environment, the focused quiet drawing and painting, and the group motivation that provide superior results. Plant lovers and gardeners have been drawn to this study program, as it builds upon their skillful observation of the subtle changes in daily plant growth.

Bearded iris (Iris sp). Original artwork by J Charmain Giuliani

Bearded iris (Iris sp). Original artwork by J Charmain Giuliani

Serendipity Sparks a Project

Holiday cocktail parties are often a setting for serendipitous meetings. It was at such a soiree, hosted by the San Francisco Botanical Garden Society at Strybing Arboretum, that botanical illustrator Mary Harden and horticulturist Charmain Giuliani were introduced to Ranger Ricardo Perez, from Alcatraz. The result was The Softer Side of the Rock: Botanical Illustrations from the Historic Gardens of Alcatraz, an impressive exhibition of thirty-eight watercolors, by nineteen artists, that was hung last summer on the island.

We jumped at the opportunity to develop this project to document and illustrate spring flowers on Alcatraz. It would be a unique opportunity for us and for the Master Class. Most projects on the island are the result of collaborations, and several meetings with different support groups transpired before we hatched a plan and set some dates. Our goal was to paint the plants of Alcatraz, on Alcatraz.

Bright and early one morning last March, we trundled aboard the last staff ferry, with portfolios of paper, art satchels, and lunch bags. We watched as the City receded, dreamlike on the shore, while another amazing vision materialized before us— Alcatraz, a sparkling island in the Bay straight ahead.

A Day on the Rock

We were welcomed on shore with a brief history from Shelagh Fritz, gardener for the Garden Conservancy, and Ricardo Perez, head ranger for the National Park Service. They escorted us on a tour around the island to view the five areas identified for renovation by the Garden Conservancy, terminating the walk at The Cellblock. For most of the 1.3 million visitors each year, the primary attraction of visiting Alcatraz is the prison’s main cellblock. And so it would be for our group, as well, on this full day devoted to painting Alcatraz’s spring flowers.

A bright room with a kitchenette, only a solid wall away from the cells of the former prison residents, would function as our studio. After some quick adjustments to the tables, we began discussing the choice and collection of the plants we would be illustrating in watercolor. With Charmain’s help, we sought out plant specimens that spoke to us. We wanted each class member to “fall in love” with a plant that would be the subject of the day’s work, to facilitate capturing a three dimensional object on a two dimensional piece of paper.

After the students made their selections, Charmain collected the plants, identified them with correct botanical names and family classifications, and assisted with dissection, examination, and explanation of the individual plant parts, using a hand lens, to help everyone fully understand the intricacy of each of the plants to be painted. She then joined the rest of the group as one of the students.

Using a jig to hold the specimens, Mary helped each artist decide on a layout to present the plant’s form with drama, pizzazz, and clarity. Many hours of prior classroom study paid off here in the field, as the group began the task of combining their skills for accuracy with their own unique artistic vision.

Reminding the students that “you are not a camera,” Mary encouraged them to express themselves freely. Soon illustrations began to emerge from the paper, each artist deep in the creative zone. Faint but flowing pencil outlines swept across sheets of hot press cotton paper. Mary checked to see that layouts revealed the life cycle of the plant, that a focus was established, and that there was a vitality to the line work.

Next, we created a common palette of twenty-one vibrant, non-staining watercolors. We mixed, blended, and allowed the colors to move in the water. We employed our skills of puddling, glazing, layering, and dry detailing to build a complex painting. Critiquing and analyzing our work at various junctures allowed us all to benefit, leading to corrections, adjustments, and new methods for bringing more clarity and accuracy to our subjects, as well as light and vibrancy to our colors. We examined our work together, turning the paintings upside down, looking at them reversed in a mirror, and taking a long distance view—all in search of contrasts in tone, color, and form, a focus for scientific accuracy, and an accurate replication of the beauty of each individual plant.

Bluebells (Endymion hispanicus). Original artwork by Linda Croswhite Cavanaugh

Bluebells (Endymion hispanicus). Original artwork by Linda Croswhite Cavanaugh

Drawing and painting the “truth” of a plant requires more than a commitment to accuracy. Each of us adds our own measure of admiration for the plant’s structure, coloration, and function. Understanding this life force gives a painting vitality, and keeps both artist and viewer interested beyond the first blush of attraction.

Botanical illustration, today, must speak to the modern viewers with a language that is both timeless and contemporary. Understanding the plant and its place in nature provides this necessary freshness. As we experienced the ongoing life on The Rock, 18 /Pacific Horticulture Jan/Feb/Mar 2008 we all developed a deep admiration for the perseverance of the island’s plants—beyond the beauty of the abundant flowers we had initially observed.

The Botanical Illustration Program

For more information about this series of botanical illustration classes offered by San Francisco Botanical Garden Society at Strybing Arboretum, visit their website ( or call 415/661-1316 for a calendar of classes. Most of the classes are taught at the gardens, and involve a bit of botany along with the art instruction.