If you have ever walked in a forest, it’s hard to miss the verdant greens, the reds and yellows of the tender leaves in the tree canopy. They surround you. But have you tried looking at the forest floor, beneath the undergrowth? Thick, spongy and ultra-rich
One day, while walking back to my field station after a long day of work (I had just spent hours following and recording butterfly diversity in Chorla Ghats, Goa), something on the forest floor caught my eye. It was a mundane leaf. But on taking a closer look, it was not quite as mundane as I first thought. The leaf, fallen from a nearby tree, was scarlet red, with hints of orange. It stood out starkly in the dull brown leaf litter beneath my feet. I picked it up and thought, “Can the beautiful colours of this dying leaf somehow be captured and immortalised?” The dabbling artist in me said, “Paint it!” And I couldn’t resist. The challenge was accepted.
From that day on, I would bring a leaf back from the forest every day and would try to make a life-size painting of the leaf as accurately as possible. Soon, painting leaves became my favourite pastime. I started to look out for unique leaves, sometimes leaves belonging to particular species. I would often search for endemic plants – the idea of filling colours in a leaf that is found only in the Western Ghats and nowhere else in the world is very exciting to me. Colouring these leaves also gave me a chance to bridge the gap between art and science and draw attention to the beauty of plants, the venation of leaves and the various leaf shapes that we see (and so often overlook) in nature. This painting exercise was also an attempt to highlight the diversity of plant species in the area. The Western Ghats has around 4,000 species of plants and that meant I would never run out of leaves to sketch and paint.
I worked with colour pencils to get those quick and vibrant results but also used classic watercolours. It was a tough task to choose and pin down the colours of the leaf I was painting. The challenge was not only to get the colours right but to work as fast as I could, as the leaves keep changing colour. When you are working so closely on the subject, you can see the colours change even after a few minutes. As they decompose further, they go from yellow or orange to brown or black. I couldn’t preserve the leaves, so the only way I preserved them is through my sketches.
Usually, it would take me anything from one hour to three hours to complete each artwork. In fact, I soon realised that a few hours to complete a painting is a luxury. But the ticking clock, the variations in shape and texture and hue, is what makes it fun for me to paint these leaves and capture their colours on paper for posterity.
Since then, I’ve painted some twenty odd leaves belonging to different species, and even managed to sell a few of them to nature enthusiasts and art collectors. Below, I describe some of the leaves I found that made particularly interesting sketches.
Locally known as Jamun, Syzygium
Another broad, big leaf is Macaranga
While sketching this leaf, I wondered how and where all these colours come from. Why do we only see them in the wilting leaves, which have colours ranging from pale green to yellow, to pinks and purples and sometimes black? The green colour in the leaves is, of course, due to chlorophyll, but leaves also contain other chemicals such as carotenoids – the same pigment that gives carrots their orange colour. These oranges and yellows are usually masked by chlorophyll. When chlorophyll breaks down as the leaf ages, the carotenoid pigments are revealed. Some plants also have another set of chemicals called anthocyanins. In plants where anthocyanin coexists with chlorophyll, the leaf colour may run to bronze or sometimes purple. Blackberries and blueberries have high concentrations of anthocyanins – that’s why they appear bluish purple.
I hope these leaf sketches – my tribute to the hidden colours on the forest floor – inspire you to look down the next time you are on a forest trail, and see the beauty hidden in the leaf litter. It’s not just wilted leaves; there is far more beneath your feet: insects, mushrooms, beautiful flowers... so go on, explore the jungles yourself!