'The Forest Family II' by Meena Subramaniam
'The Forest Family II' by Meena Subramaniam

Painting the Forest

My love for nature was mostly guided by my mother. Childhood holidays were mostly travel to wildlife sanctuaries. I moved to Kodaikanal and the Palani Hills in 1987. The hills were pristine and untouched in most parts. A self-taught artist who came from an urbanized city, Bangalore,  I found my eyes opened to the botanical and natural wonders she is clothed in.

As my primary passion is gardening, I often visited Father KM Mathew, the Indian Jesuit botanist who founded the Palani Hills Conservation Council in 1985, to learn the names of curious-looking wild plants I discovered in the sholas and in coffee gardens. He inspired me to start drawing and recording them. Sadly, in those days, botanical art was unknown to most and even called ‘grandma’s art’ by some. As I collected various ferns and plants, however, I started to sketch and paint  them, though poorly.

There were no books I could access on the finer aspects of watercolour wash and technique, and no YouTube videos to guide me. But the remarkable local artist Edwin Joseph, who lives in Vattakanal and has painted much of the landscapes of the Palani Hills, guided me with simple words on the importance of light in compositions. Over the years, and later, with the advent of the Internet, I started to follow the work of the great Victorian artist, Marianne North. She painted boldly and fearlessly, depicting all the natural wonders from her travels and mostly plein air (the act of painting outdoors). 

Over time, I started to work out my own style, in acrylic, on canvas. With growing confidence in the manipulation of shade and light and several trips to see the birds and flora of the Northeast, I began to understand that there were a few things that really interested me: to see tropical forest birds in their natural habitat, and to somehow paint them interspersed with flora and fauna from those areas they were found in. I had also discovered my own style, which meant I would never copy directly from photographs; I would only use them as referential tools. Over time, I studied how tromp de l’oeil techniques were used, and how to add dimension, as well as the power of wash and highlights. 

My first paintings were sold immediately, and I never looked back. Creating art is immense suffering and joy. As an artist, imagination flies, and to pin the vision one envisages into a medium, be it canvas or sculpture, takes a lot of courage. 

All the time, I recalled Edwin Joseph ‘s words on shade and light: ‘Where there is light, there will be shadow’. A lot like life.

'The Grove' by Meena Subramaniam

The compositions are a blend of my own exaggerated fantasies of the landscapes I have experienced, with real subjects from in and around a particular locale. These include birds, mammals, butterflies, rare balsams, orchids and ferns.

'The Forest Family II' by Meena Subramaniam

I draw attention to these particular landscapes inviting the viewer’s empathy and awe. I often attempt trompe l’oeil, especially with larger canvasses. The medium is mostly acrylic on canvas as it facilitates the kind of texture I apply on my canvasses.

'The Source' by Meena Subramaniam

I concern myself with shaping a world, both fantastical and mystical to evoke a sense of wonderment for the viewer.

Meena Subramaniam

Meena Subramaniam is an artist and conservationist who lives near Thekkady, Kerala. She was awarded the TN Khoshoo Memorial Award for pioneering work in ecological art, in 2018.

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