What makes one of Gerda’s designs so immediately recognizable? Leaving the patterns themselves aside, what are the elements of her style?
Look at this little wild pansy. It’s a good example. The leaves are usually shown flat, not folded, and mostly with no overlap. No shiny highlights or shadows, but sometimes the midrib is lighter or darker, or the blade itself is two-toned. All the variety and liveliness is provided by the use of multiple colors of green. The flowers, however, are more three-dimensional. At least one is drawn face-on, unless the flowers are tubular, in which case they may all be shown in profile.
In her more complex designs, such as this nightshade, there may be more stems, and more of the leaves and stems may overlap. Some of the leaves have some of the underside turned up. The flowers are still shown clearly, though. The fruits get the most three-dimensional treatment. She always put in a little highlight and called for shading such that they really do look round in cross-section.
For years I struggled to characterize this, and figure out why it appealed to me so strongly. I could smack myself that I didn’t realize what I was looking at. When I read Gerda’s own description of her design process, she spelled it out plainly. She always worked with fresh material wherever possible, and to keep a sample as long as possible she often worked from pressed material as well.
A Gerda Bengtsson design is essentially a picture of an herbarium specimen.
How many hours have I spent pressing botanical specimens? Making sure the leaves are nice and flat, that overlap is kept to a minimum, that extraneous material has been carefully removed without altering what the plant says about itself? Fiddling so that the flowers are displayed to best advantage? Using padding to make sure the fruits are not squashed?
Now I get it.
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