"Of Paints That Run Out" an Essay,
Translated by Gene Png
Soyoung Lee is a South Korean botanical illustrator and writer. After graduating from Korea University with a Master’s in horticulture, she worked at Korea National Arboretum as a botanical illustrator.
Gene Png is a literary translator and illustrator based in Seoul. She was awarded the Grand Prize in Poetry at the 53rd Modern Korean Literature Translation Awards. She tweets at @robinbythedoor.
I remember the first time I bought art supplies to draw plants. It was for dendrology class in my junior year. We were tasked to draw the trees on campus, and put together a booklet of illustrations. After class, I went to a giant art store in the city, and bought a set of seventy color pencils and watercolors. Thus began my journey of botanical illustration. During my free periods, I’d leave my friends to roam the campus alone. Studying the trees, my eyes were always fixed toward the sky. From the gingko trees at the main gate, to the jindallae and forsythias lining the streets, to my graduation day, and finally, to the arboretum where I started documenting wild plants of Korea, the pencils and paints I bought that day have never left my side. While it aches me to see them dwindle and disappear as they turn into plants on a page, I replace them with new ones, time and time again. The greens are always the quickest to go, perhaps because leaves are the broadest part of any plant. In any case, I always have a ready stock of drawing supplies in various greens. Even if they’re of the same color, each plant contains a range of hues. The light green of a willow’s leaves differs from the deep green of a meadow-rue’s. Meanwhile, katsura leaves can look very different when they first sprout in May and at the peak of summer. To realize each hue, I experiment by diluting my paint with clean water or adding black, white, blue, or red paint to it. These endless color combinations speak to just how calculated and meticulous nature is; how it has no absolutes. The next color to run out the quickest is that of branches and bark, brown. Then follow yellow, red, pink, and purple—common colors of flowers and fruits. On the other hand, I rarely run out of blues. My sky blue and greenish mint paints and pencils remain just the same as they were ten years ago. Whenever I look at my blue paint, good-as-new and wedged between crumpled tubes, I can’t help but wonder if I’ve neglected the hydrangeas and pincushions of late-summer and early-autumn. Though it’s true that there are fewer genus of blue flowers than yellow ones, I do regret not going out to observe the former more often, especially when they bloom so diligently between summer and autumn. A flower’s color is essentially its petals’, and their job is to draw the attention of animals that assist in pollination. In a forest where there is a plethora of plants but only so many animals and insects, flowers have to compete among themselves by boasting appealing colors or scents. Sunflowers are bright yellow, peonies bloom red, while alliums flaunt purple petals. Moths and beetles are drawn to white, while birds prefer red. Meanwhile, butterflies and bees fancy themselves an entire spectrum of colors. Yellow flowers make me think of butterflies and bees, while red flowers remind me of birds. Then we have humans, a species that adore all things novel and unique, so much so that even in plants, we pursue newness. Two years ago, I saw the most extraordinary tulips at the Keukenhof Market, the world’s largest festival of bulbous plants. As one can expect from the cradle of tulip mania, there were tulips specially bred to produce black, gray, and even striped blooms. I wandered among tulips of every imaginable color, and just as I was wondering if there was any color left for us to breed, I found myself standing before green tulips. Everyone else, too, stood in quiet admiration as they took pictures. I suppose we were so used to fancy blooms that seeing green petals resembling leaves was a refreshing change of pace. Scholars have in fact proposed that the first flowers were green. But as more genus appeared over time, flowers evolved and bore colorful blooms to attract pollinators. But of course, this only pertains to wild plants. The colors of garden plants are selected according to the desire of human beings. Whether it’s the flowers in our garden, our potted house plants, or the cut flowers decorating our weddings and graduation ceremonies, these colors exist because we’ve chosen to grow and spread them. Whenever I come across the pansies of early spring, I marvel at how every man-made color can be found in their petals. It’s as if through them, we’re allowed a sneak peek of next season’s beauty. Like dahlias, pansies are one of the most popular flowering plants that are bred for new colors; there are perhaps enough to form their own color wheel. And not to mention, each of their five petals can sport a different color or hue. When I draw them, I find myself reaching for all sorts of colors—from gray, which I use to shade white petals, to red, yellow, blue, purple, and black. Looking at pansies makes me wonder what peculiar color we’ll discover next. While some may find the fuchsia of an azalea gaudy, the flower embraces its radiance to draw in pollinators. And the pansies sitting in the corner of a florist’s exist because we had created them, for we desired their gorgeous colors. When I think about it like that, every single color of the spring flowers starting to sprout in this drab, hectic city becomes so much dearer to me.