A touch of red–the Indian Paintbrush

As children, my sisters and I spent a lot of time playing in the fields and meadows surrounding our farm in the Robson valley. Our ‘natural environment’ was regularly incorporated into our play: pussy willows adorned mud pies, daisy chains adorned dolls, and smooth pebbles from the creek became currency. A favorite wild flower to gather for our tea tables was the Indian paintbrush (Castilleja parviflora).


Several floral heads of Indian Paintbrush rise from one root cluster.


The Paintbrush flashes brightly among other meadow flowers; the color must compensate for its lack of scent.

Last month I watched fellow CBP artist John Hart demonstrate his approach to floral painting. He uses vibrant colors double-loaded on a large soft orchid brush and ‘drop-places’ petal after petal, leaf after leaf into artful arrangements. Don’t worry about realistic creations, he says, paint them as YOU see them. He seems to have truly absorbed some aspects to the traditional philosophies behind CBP. His creations emerge full-spirited and gracefully sprawling across the paper.  Here are some close-ups of his brushwork:

IMG_3430 IMG_3432

Watching him, I was reminded of those long ago ‘paintbrushes’ we picked and jammed into pickle jars for our many afternoon tea parties. Their bright orange-red heads were easy to spy among the clover, daisies and buttercups. And there was a bonus—you could pull the several greenish, tube-like projections that hid among the  petals and suck sweet nectar from the ends. Pure heaven.


Light green spikes project slightly above the bright red colored petals.



With John’s workshop inspirations and my childhood memory of blotches of red flowers in mountain meadows, I returned to my art room. While I had some knowledge of how the flower got its name—the floral head does look like a mop-head or ‘brush’ that’s been dipped in paint and it’s easy to project that early North American naturalists learned common names from the indigenous people, then called Indians—I had no idea there were so many natural variants of the species. Those of my youth had roundish blossom ends that looked more red than orange, pink or cream. The range of colors as well as petals extending further down stems all occur in variants, I quickly learn online. And I discover it is the state flower for Wyoming.

Mountain meadows are indeed its natural habitat and we are not alone in having nibbled on floral parts. It is described as edible. The online encyclopedia says the flower consists of ‘spikey bracts, with hairy covering and sweet nectar at the base of green tube-like parts’. The flower provides no natural perch so it requires hovering insects or birds for pollination. (That explains why the cover image on a Christmas gift calendar by artist Sue Coleman shows hummingbirds surrounding a clutch of the Giant or Common Indian Paintbrush, Castilleja miniata.) Wyoming’s state bird is a western meadowlark, so I conclude that would be another logical ‘guest’ to add to a composition of paintbrush flowers. Here’s one artist’s concept of such a composition from the state’s website.


Further research revealed more about the flower’s range:

 The most common paintbrush in the Northwest is the Common Red Paintbrush, aka Giant Red Paintbrush (Castilleja miniata). Its upper leaves are mostly whole (i.e. not lobed). Closely related to the Red Paintbrush are a variety of niche paintbrushes that are similar to the common paintbrush (e.g. Seashore Paintbrush and Alpine Paintbrush). Another showy variation is the Small-flowered Paintbrush (Castilleja parviflora), found at alpine and sub-alpine meadows. C. parviflora is characterized by its upper leaves, which are divided into 3-5 lobes; the whole plant stands no more than a foot tall. In the North Cascades, the C. parviflora’s bracts can even be white.

And I uncovered a delightful tale for the flower’s name acquisition:

 A Native American legend holds that a young brave tried to paint the sunset with his war paints. Frustrated that he could not match the brilliance of nature, he asked for guidance from the Great Spirit. The Great Spirit gave him paintbrushes laden with the colors he so desired. With these, he painted his masterpiece and left the spent brushes in fields across the landscape. These brushes sprouted the flowers we now so wonderfully love!

 I also found a reflective poem aptly titled The Wyoming Indian Paint Brush:

A strange little flower

With a Sunkist nose

Without any perfume

Yet red as a rose


Did some Indian maid

Plant you here

In the footprint left

By the hoof of a deer


Or are you a symbol

Of blood that was shed

In the feud of the White Man

And the Red!

 –by A.V. Hudson

Painting the paintbrush:

Armed with more knowledge of my subject (and the other entertaining bits) I sat down to try John’s floral painting method with my chosen flower.

In CBP most flowers are started from the center or with key petal shapes. My subject has long reddish petals atop grassy green stems, many lance-like leaves protruding from those stems, and the upright nondescript stems emerge in clusters among other meadow grasses. One helpful photograph found online showed three floral stages:


John’s basic petal stroke (double load color with water, or another color) is a ‘pull and plant’ placed and directed in the manner of the flower’s appearance.  I tried red dipped in a grassy green for petals and experimented with creating ‘mop heads’ or floral clusters.


I practiced dipping green into yellow to try to create the spikey bracts.


I soon realized I was pulling my brush much more than John had shown in his workshop; he touched brush tip to paper and then ‘planted’ the intense color in place for roses, but pulled the strokes when conveying peony petals. I tried pulling strokes into the centre and also away from the centre, comparing the results.

PBStudy1 DipRinGr2

Both efforts led to a muddy paint dish; a spritzer came in handy for the clean-up.

DipMud CleanGr

I pushed on, creating stems, leaves, and blossoms at earlier stages, and enhanced some edges with a detail brush dipped in ink.


The single flower on the right is painted in color only and has a softer effect. The ink detailing on the left cluster helps define the leaves.

At the end of my afternoon playing with red and green colors and trying to emulate John’s floral painting technique, I reached a few conclusions:  1. I will need to order more color chips as the method seems to consume a lot more paint than anticipated. 2.  I will need to hunt for images of the Western Meadowlark and review bird painting. 3.  This is just the beginning to more floral studies.   Thank you, John for your inspiration and encouragement!




This entry was posted in Chinese Brush Painting, flowers. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s