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Painting Palms

You may remember Martin's previous article, 'Palms in Portugal'. Here Martin talks about his passion to paint them, and we print a wonderful example of his work.
Martin Salisbury, 114 Argyle Street, Cambridge, CB1 3L5, U.K.
Chamaerops No. 14, published online 23-08-2002

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Butia capitata, painted by Martin Salisbury

Having been described (to my horror) by Martin Gibbons as 'businessman Martin Salisbury' in his editorial notes about my article 'Palms in Portugal' (Chamaerops July '91), I have been meaning ever since to put the record straight by writing a few words about what I actually do, and how it relates to the subject of Palms.

I am an illustrator, working on various commissions, but usually books, especially childrens' books. In my other life as an associate lecturer in illustration at Anglia University here in Cambridge, I have frequently taken groups of students to my beloved Portugal on field trips to draw and paint a different culture, and where the students have to keep reminding me to stop talking about palms when I should be talking about complimentary colours and perspective.

My interest in palms began in a similar way to that of the other Martin, that is, the gift of a dear little Parlour Palm many years ago, an interest that subsequently has got totally out of hand and has led to my joining those ranks of sad men who spend winter evenings putting large polythene things over a garden full of Butias, Chamaerops, Sabal & Washingtonia (the Jubaea died).

The appeal of palms however, has for me always been much more of an aesthetic one than a botanical one and, although I have become reasonably knowledgeable, at least about sub-tropical palms, it is the sheer beauty of the individual trees and their visual relationship to the architecture of their surroundings that excites me. The sight of cool shadows of palm fronds dancing gently against the warm colours of crumbling stuccoed walls is guaranteed to set my pulses racing.

Having irritated various art-editors of various publishing houses by frequently sneaking palm trees into illustrations when they had no right to be there, I have had to find other ways of getting it out of my system. This has meant finding more time to devote to painting purely for pleasure and so, in recent years, I have built up quite a large portfolio of watercolours, worked on between commissions. Some have been sold in places like the Mall Galleries in London, but most lie in my plans-chest waiting for the perhaps never-to-happen exhibition or book.

There is a rich heritage of water-colour painters of palms, particularly the Americans such as Winslow Homer and John Singer Sargent, Homer making many beautiful images of storm-swept palms in the tropics, and Sargent, better-known for his sunlit 'Palmettoes' in Florida.

I work from a mixture of 'on-the-spot' sketches and photographs, sometimes combining different reference sources to make one picture. Much of my inspiration comes from Portugal, where the combination of unspoilt architectural detail along with abundant and varied palms has continued to feed my pictures. I have also spent a lot of time in Italy, especially the south Naples, Capri, Sicily, where the palms are seen at their best alongside the beauty of the decaying buildings and distressed surfaces.

The medium of watercolour is ideal for the depiction of the recurrent themes of architecture, sunlight, foliage. I have completed paintings which include the species Butia, Phoenix, Washingtonia, Chamaerops, and I am about to start work, when I can fit it in, of a Syagrus romanzoffiana residing on the edge of an old square in Oporto - a truly magnificent beast with gnarled grey trunk and those lovely elegant feathery leaves. I don't know whether the native Oportans are particularly palm-conscious but I have noticed in recent years some increasingly imaginative palm plantings around some of the new buildings - offices and hotels. The aforementioned Syagrus being particularly popular, so in years to come when they are mature and the buildings are beginning to crumble perhaps some other artist will be moved to reach for the brushes.

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