[Aleta Karstad]

Plein air painting leaves the artist long periods to reflect on her methods, between the infrequent visits of Shrews in the leaf-litter and husbands with thermoses of tea.

This is Aleta's account of a Nov 2005 painting for the Wild Fruits show along one of the forest tracks of Limerick Forest the Leeds & Grenville Counties' community forest.

She needed Wild Fruits, and this stand of our native Bittersweet Celastrus scandens, seemed a likely prospect. We'd first noticed it on 19 October 2002, on a Limerick Forest Open House festival tour. Fred had been pointing out the bright red berries of Ilex verticillata, Winterberry Holly, and the unberried green leaves of the male bushes, but suddenly the berries were bigger and orange -- like cherries in the green bushes along the trail.

This is a single 40 metre stretch of the track where the swamp-side bushes are sparsely infiltrated by Bittersweet, twisting itself a few metres up stems of the bushes, and conspicuous only as isolated clusters of bright fruit. Within a week, the hulls had burst, revealing the soft round red arils in the same stage that we saw when we came back in November of 2005.

This species twines up the verticals of Page wire fences, or sprawls around snake fences, but it's never abundant, and never climbs very high.

South from New York State, jungles of an invasive Asiatic Bittersweet, Celastrus orbiculatus, blankets roadsides, fence rows, and forest edges, and crowds beaches and salt marshes.Trees and shrubs, constricted and girdled by the twisting growth, are weakened and vulnerable to wind damage.

This invasive is distinguished from the native species by fruit borne in clusters in the axils of leaves along the side branches, while in C. scandens the fruit are in clusters at the end of the side branches -- the two species are so closely related that they have been known to hybridize, see Glenn D. Dreyer, 1994. Nature Conservancy Element Stewardship Abstract For Celastrus orbiculatus Thunb. (C. articulatus)

Celastrus orbiculatus is already established in southern Ontario forest edges and Toronto parks, so we're watching out for it here, since invaders inevitably spread, and warming climates will encourage the growth of vines in Eastern Ontario.


Aleta Karstad
Wild Fruits

Painting Bittersweet in Limerick Forest

Limerick Bittersweet. Celastrus scandens, growing on Rhamnus frangula, Salix, and Cornus stolonifera thickets along the trail, up to 5 m tall, but never dense. The arils are ripply-smooth orange-red, initially nearly the same hue as the crisp hulls they've broken away from. The twigs are wire-tough, and the sucker shoots almost unbreakable by hand, twining intimately up stems rather than looping as tendril-vines do. (21 & 23 Nov 2005. Ontario: Grenville County: Oxford-on-Rideau: Limerick Forest HQ Loop Trail 44.88751N 75.65252W) -- oil on canvas 41 x 51 cm.

Sunshine, and a constellation of gleaming red berries with golden wings sprinkled sparingly in a half halo against clear blue sky.

[Aleta starting the Limerick Bittersweet painting ]

Without the sun shining directly on the berries they would hardly have been noticeable, high on thin wiry vines writhing up young trees not much thicker than the vines themselves.

I began with the sky, sweeping in a bowl-shape from pale manganese at the bottom to rich winter blue, a blend of manganese and ultramarine at the top, in a reverse direction from the arch of berries in the top half of the canvas, so that the movement of the eye would sweep around following the pale sky and then the pattern of berries across the deeper blue.

[the sky as an underpainting]

It took over an hour to paint the sky, and then longer than that to plot the lines of the thin trunks, branches and vines, first with a clean brush, marking hardly visible strokes across the grain of the sky. Working with a fine flat brush I then painted branches & vines as much as possible with single strokes of various shades of brown and grey and gold, lightly across the soft wet sky so that the blue showed through, making sure that the vines and the sky were affected by the same colour of light, blending them into the same world so that I had to struggle with the wet on wet paint to differentiate the elements. My partial success at this anchors the subject in the same world as everything else in the painting - by finishing the painting while the underpainting is still wet, every object is more or less affected by the underpainted colour. On some canvasses the underpainting is the colour of the soil. On some it it is the colour of the shadows, and on others I underpaint a warm, glowing mid-tone - the colour of inner bark, or the insides of mushrooms, or creek bottom. In this case, it was the overwhelmingly blue sky, and I was pleased with how the sky that I had painted first became part of the vines I painted next.

[before the berries could be added]

Then the sun gleamed golden on angle and curve, and on the thin whisps of yellow berry-stems, all set in place before any berries were painted on them. I took a photo home to paint the clusters of berries from, in the evening, but it was impossible to discern from the two-dimensional image which twigs supported which berries - so I returned to Limerick two days later, which was luckily still sunny, although snowy, colder, and breezy - the better to triangulate on those berries, to follow with eye and pointing finger the sweep of each stem and branch and count the twigs on each to place the berries.

[detail of the berries]

Very little sky shows through the paint of those tiny berries, fluttering with popped golden hulls, crimson arils glinting with sunny highlights - they are part of the sun which is behind you when you look up into the Bittersweet sky.

[the finished painting]

a larger view of the whole painting:

[the finished painting]

30 Main St., Bishops Mills

on the Smiths Falls Limestone Plain 44* 52'N 75* 42'W
RR#2, Oxford Station, Ont. K0G 1T0 Canada

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Aleta Karstad