A watercolor dialogue

There is, as any gardener or wildflower enthusiast knows, a great deal more to carnations than the red or white ruffle stuck in the matrimonial buttonhole. Different members of the ''Dianthus'' tribe, generously smothering themselves with single or double flowers, vividly pink or white, bring to the domesticated cosiness of a garden the memory of alpine passes, or limestone cliffs, or dry grasslands. Or they just add comfortably to a long tradition of cottage intimacy and old world charm as they pervade the warmth of summer evenings with a perfume of extreme sweetness. Carnations, or ''pinks,'' were sometimes used in seventeenth-century paintings to represent the ''sense of smell'' - and no wonder: they are no less profuse with their fragrance than they are with their blooms.

Apart from the hybridizing which has reduced the wedding carnation to an affair so prosaic and cliched, and so completely lacking in scent that it might as well be made of tissue paper, the willing dianthus has proved itself happily adaptable to the fun-and-games of horticulturists. ''New'' varieties have not lost the essential character of the original species. They still have its slender, articulted stems, its grey-green leaves, narrow and pointed, and, above all, the fringes and tatters of its petals. They can be enchantingly open and simple in the bloom or - in the doubles - full and bursting out of the top of the bud like a magician's fancy flower produced suddenly from nowhere, a kind of exuberant little explosion of frills and furbelows. But for all such apparent showiness, even the most elaborate garden pinks or carnations that man's interference has come up with, still have the lightness and slightly unkempt delicacy of the wild plant.

It is this quality that the Scottish painter Elizabeth Blackadder has captured so beautifully in her work, ''Carnations.'' The initial impression of a collection of botanical specimens elegantly, if a little casually, arranged on a page like an illustration for a book on wildflowers, is perfectly deceptive. Blackadder's purpose, on closer scrutiny and appreciation, is not to identify, or make possible for others to identify, a particular species. In the wider context of her art, this watercolor is what William Packer has called an ''exquisite inventory.'' He was referring to her still life watercolors in which she depicts or celebrates delight in the various objects that sit on her studio table, ''souvenirs, boxes, bags, jars and pots, toys and amusements, that one way or another she has picked up over the years. . . .'' The picking of flowers from her large garden (and these carnations are garden flowers, not wild ones) and the bringing of them indoors, quite obviously gives her a similar delight - and provides an immediate stimulus for painting.

One feels that it is the realization of a parallel between certain observed phenomena and the potential of her medium, almost amounting to a dialogue, that is the essence of such work. Colors - in this case pinks and magentas, cerise, the subtlest creamy white, and the faintest blush - are alive in flowers as they are in few other things (even birds or insects). The vital lucidity of watercolor, the way in which pigment can float or run, fade or intensify, become transparently gentle or precisely bright, can be held or freed, in this medium, is as much the subject and exploration of ''Carnations'' as is the study of a particular flower. At the same time, the artist has used the device of the collector or the scientific observer to bring her attention directly to bear on her subject in terms of selected details. She anatomizes these flowers sufficiently to evaluate their form and color individually without distraction.

As a whole this picture exploits two distinct pictorial conventions simultaneously, with fresh and original results: one is the traditional still life of flowers in a vase or glass; the other is the kind of presentation on plain paper of separate flowers which is a tradition reaching back as far as the medieval herbal. Combining these two approaches in this way is strangely elating. It gives them both new life.

Elizabeth Blackadder has allowed herself to be challenged and exercised to the utmost by her carnations. Every twist or curve of leaf, every grassy, angled stem, every fold-back of petal, every edge and outline, has received its scrupulously considered equivalent in watercolor on paper: and in the end there is not the slightest hint of hard labor, or exhaustive invention, or deliberate choice. From opening bud to full bloom to fading flower, every ''specimen'' seems as natural and uncontrived in paint as it does in fact: and it is true to its new medium and context. It is art at the service of an artist's sense of wonder - wonder at the way in which nature can be varied in repetition, simple in complexity, fragile yet definite; and wonder (which is not egotism or showmanship) in her own capacity of hand and eye; and wonder in the magical potential of watercolor.

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