How to draw a grassland – Part One

Black box trees (Eucalyptus largiflorens) small
Black box trees (Eucalyptus largiflorens)

Matt Cameron from the New South Wales Office of Environment has commissioned me to create a colouring book about the Riverina Grasslands, which are found in south central New South Wales and northern Victoria, and are home to many specialised plant and animal species. In February this year I travelled to Oolambeyan National Park, on the Hay Plain, to observe and draw the wildlife of this ecosystem. My reaction to the old Oolambeyan Homestead is described in a previous post. Today’s post tells of how I went about ‘getting to know’ the grasslands so that I could create a series of drawings for the colouring book.

Early morning, Oolambeyan National Park. 25th February 2016.

Everyone seems lighter, relieved. Released. The heavy heat of the last few days has lifted. Even the hot relentless summer sun is veiled by clouds. The birds are more active (or are we just more active in watching them?). I walk out of the homestead, and down the track past the old shearing shed, across the low sandhills and towards the grasslands.

Black box trees spread their arms wide, dead claws arching over and reaching down to the dry yellow pasture below. Sombre pale-green leaves hang, barely moving in a breeze that is the coolest felt for days. A crested pigeon whoos from somewhere. Red-rumped parrots make high-pitched squiggles with their voices. Noisy miners argue about something.

Choughs are a sudden inky-black in this otherwise soft-hued landscape: a squadron of slightly goofy, black assassins, who run about in conspiring groups like teenage girls. Then lift off on venetian-blind-white/black wings, with sad cries.

choughs
White-winged chough sketch

A small section of rainbow is smeared against the bank of clouds to the south. Despite the cool breeze and the cloud, it’s still forecast to reach 41 degrees today. The flies are becoming friendly. As I clear the black boxes the horizon unfurls and I see the twin smear of the rainbow descending to the northwest. Anymore efforts to rainbow-ness (i.e. the filling of that generous arc) are likely to be sabotaged by the insubstantial, scrappy clouds and the wide dry land below. It’s getting hotter, and the flies are buzzing around my face and crawling on the page as I write.

Black box and myall
Sketch of black box and western myall (Acacia pendula). With galahs!

Beyond the trees I walk out onto the ‘red’ clay soil, which is actually a very pale terracotta hue. This is where the grasslands come into their own. Except for the almost comical mop-top shapes of a few young western myall trees. For most trees cannot survive on clay soils in areas where rainfall is low.¹

Some find grasslands confronting in the way that a black hole is fathomless. The eyes cast around for a point of interest, a point of relief. And instead there is the almost perfectly horizontal line of the horizon and a huge sky taking up most of the view.

grassland vista
Red-clay grassland on the Hay Plain.

Below me on the ground are a whole lot of low-growing, poorly leaved, straggly plants. Most are prickly. All are small. They barely cover any ground (especially now, in late summer). The bare dirt flaunts its nakedness, in open scorn to these pathetic plants. Lifting my eyes I see these embarrassing excuses for fodder repeat their drab patterns until the greens and pale blue-greens and grey-yellows of the dry dead ones merge into similar-coloured smudges across a vast plain that ends with a dark lumpy blur of myall trees on the far horizon.

 

red clay grassland

But then, I look closer. Each plant is gamely surviving out here in the 40+ degree heat of summer. Each plant is spikey and plucky and tough and ballsy and ruggedly tenacious, in its own way.

scrappy plants 2
Looking closer

scrappy plants

(Sunlit-pink galahs fly over, calling, against a dark-grey-cloud sky).

Yes, there are spikes and prickles (3-corner jacks, bindi-eyes, copperburrs, etc.) in a wide range of shapes and designs. In situ, on the plant, they are magnificent defences against the appetites of sheep, rabbit and kangaroo. Some leaves are furry, some leaves are folded now, many have a white cast of specialised hairs to protect against water loss, against UV radiation.

Maireana
Rosettes of saltbush fruits (or are they flowers?) on Maireana decalvans.

As I walk, I see changes in the pattern and composition of the plants. My mind’s eye is reconstructing what this would have looked like – when in full-flower, last spring – from the dried husks of the plants remaining. Here’s a field of pink Ptilotus lamb’s tails, interspersed with golden Chrysocephalum paper daisies. Then, in this patch, the golden paper-daisies dominate, and were mingled with white-petalled Rhodanthe daisies, white flowers of the grey germander, and all around the soft blues of the various saltbushes and copperburrs. Grasses would have been growing up and all around: light green with fresh growth; seed heads poking up and waving over. Tiny crinkled rosettes of the saltbush seeds are still plastered on some Maireana stems, like miniscule satellite dishes, miniature hollyhock towers. Absent now (hidden as seeds and bulbs in the soil) – but no doubt beautiful last spring – would have been the nodding heads of pink and purple pea-flowers, the slight, erect garlands of vanilla-lilies and Early Nancies, and the white-pink open faces of Convulvulus, the bindweed, on scrambling stems.

straggly grassland plants
Straggly grassland plants at the end of summer.

And then – with naming – the pitiful, samey, straggly plants diversify, expand, into a fascinating cast of characters. Coming on and off stage as I walk slowly through this vast plain. I start seeing the patterns: these ones more likely in the soaks, these ones everywhere, these ones only in patches. I meet them and recognise them. And each story expands and unfolds until there is a drama raging beneath my feet bigger than the sky and somehow more accessible because it is earthy and alive and struggling like us weak humans to eke out an existence. Despite the searing engulfing summer heat and cruel droughts, the relentless bite of sheep, roo and rabbit and the frigid winters. They are here. They have probably been here for thousands of years. They persist.

Grassland scene with songlark as doc small
A page from the upcoming colouring book ‘Riverina Grassland Ramblings’. Can you find: 3 galahs, 2 magpies, a kelpie, brown songlark, Australian pipit, 2 little button-quails, western myall trees, one black box, a windmill, Maireana decalvans, Chrysocephalum apiculatum, Salsola kali, Austrostipa scabra, Teucrium racemosum, Swainsona murrayana, Hyalosperma glutinosum, Rhodanthe corymbiflora, Chloris sp., Austrodanthonia caespitosa and Ptilotus nobilis subspecies semilanatus ?

 

  1. An excellent paper has recently been published by Rod Fensham, Don Butler and Jenny Foley which explores the factors behind this important vegetation dynamic : Fensham et al (2015) How does clay constrain woody biomass in drylands? Global Ecology and Biogeography

The story of how I created the Riverina Grassland colouring book is continued in How to draw a grassland, Part two: Ecology in pictures.

17 Responses

  1. Lovely drawings and writing. You could create a book.

    • Paula Peeters

      Hey thanks Sherry – the book is slowly emerging…

  2. Tanya Milne

    I can tell I’m going to be a big fan of this next colouring book!

    • Paula Peeters

      Thanks Tanya. Yes I suspect you probably enjoy frolicking in the odd native grassland when you get a chance!

  3. Congrats on getting another book commissioned! How wonderful to be able to share your art in a way that other people can enjoy, not just by looking but by actively colouring in as well. Thanks for another great post full of interesting information and great tips, Paula. 🙂

    • Paula Peeters

      Hey Jane thanks for being such a faithful reader and contributor. I really appreciate your support! 🙂

  4. Paula Schetters

    That’s just ‘magic’. Love your work, Paula!

  5. Sue Southwood

    What an interesting life you lead…full of wonder and joy in the most unlikely places! Love it!

  6. Sue Southwood

    I saw some of those ‘miniature hollyhocks out at Lightning Ridge in February…most plants seem to have burrs or prickles! Also found a Native Daffodil and crinnum growing in a swampy area. It was quite wet at the time of my visit.

    • Paula Peeters

      Hey it sounds like you’re getting out and about too Sue – great to hear. And I’m glad you noticed those mini-hollyhocks – I think they are so beautiful. But a native daffodil? That’s a new one on me, love the name though. We try to grow Crinum lilies in our garden but just when they are looking really lush the caterpillars find them and reduce them to mush .

  7. A beautiful post Paula with evocative descriptions and stunning photos. I really enjoyed how you led me from the surface appearance to the detail of what’s actually there. It takes time to really see, and as artists – in words and in pictures – that’s what makes the difference. I heard an interview with author Iain McEwan recently and he said one of the most important things he needs for writing is ‘the privilege of solitude’.

    Thanks for a great read and congratulations on being commissioned to produce another wonderful colouring book!

    • Paula Peeters

      Thanks for the lovely comment Gail! It certainly takes a little time to see, and maybe also imagination, to dodge my own preconceptions and observe what’s really there before me. And to do this I need to ‘turn down the volume’ of all the noise of everyday life, and solitude is an important part of this. Some of my happiest moments are when I’m alone in a natural place (or at my desk with a cup of tea) and I can just lose myself in the drawing or writing or simply letting the ideas unravel. Thanks again for reading! Cheers, Paula

  8. Hi Paula, Being someone who has been painting and drawing grasslands for years, I think that you have hit the nail on the head about a few things. All of the questions about “where to put the horizon” and “how to deal with the question of scale” are true, but to me the greatest problem is dealing with peoples perceptions. Grasslands are seen as a “blank”- an absence rather than a presence – which you touch on with your “black hole” comment. However the delight in capturing the shimmering light on the grass – and equal delight in being “botanically accurate” make it worthwhile. Good on you for tackling a difficult subject with aplomb.

    • Paula Peeters

      Hi Robert, How lovely to find someone who paints native grasslands! I checked out your website and love your paintings (and the name of your band ). Yes I think one of our big challenges today is getting people to pay attention to the natural treasures all around. It doesn’t necessarily matter if it’s a grassland or rainforest or wetland, the modern tendency of most folks is rush past everything, often while staring at a mobile device, or listening to one through earphones. Good on you for closely observing and embracing nature in your work, and celebrating its beauty and wonder. Cheers, Paula

  9. […] But even though I could guess at what beasts made the burrows, I was still left wondering what the burrows were like inside. Big, small, deep, shallow? A number of chambers or just one? And wouldn’t it be great to illustrate this hidden world in the Riverina Grasslands colouring book? […]