Saturday, August 11, 2018

The Artist Gardener

By writing this preliminary short post, I am aiming to respond to the 22 people who have recently asked to read my essay that accompanies the Lilium regale painting, which is part of the Royal Horticultural Society’s Contemporary Botanical Art collection.

Many thanks to the artists, collectors and gardeners who make up the 22 people who have made this request. 

I am very pleased to announce that the RHS Lindley Library has generously allowed the essay to be published on this blog.

Please do watch this space, as its coming soon.

Those who follow my work are aware that as an observational Flower Painter, I occupy the fine art aspect of the Botanical Art genre, and within this aspect I have lived the quiet life of the Artist Gardener. 

The Artist Gardener also occupies a very historic and special place in European history, which finds its early roots in the life of the renaissance painter Albrecht Dὒrer (1471-1528).

Many of you will know that my background and relationship to plant life has come to me from a family history of domestic horticulture. This has been combined with my academic training in classical drawing and painting, colour and art theory, abstraction, and the history of art and aesthetics. 

Unlike many botanical painters, I do not herald from a combination of illustration and botany. Rather, I have a serious, if perhaps eccentric, and definitely curious, mix of education and training.

I have always hoped and intended my work to hold a complimentary position to Scientific Botanical Illustration. I remain true to an evolving and historical tradition of Flower Painting, which is separate from the still life genre. It is simply the art of naturalism, which is based on accurate observation of natural beauty in natural light. This is supported by a philosophical intent that is contemporary in its notion.

Part of my work, over the past 40 years, has been to reclaim the Flower Painting from the Still Life genre and return it to its botanical and naturalistic focus. This particular approach holds a new content that is an aspect of our contemporary connection to plant life and is intentionally absent of the rhetoric and symbolism of the earlier Flower Piece.

My involvement with the cultivation of garden plants, which I have grown through out my career - specifically as subject matter for paintings and drawings - culminated in my studies on Phenology. 

This took place during the flowering season of cultivated peonies, over an eight year time line from 2006 -14.  

One large piece of the resulting artwork is now a part of the Shirley Sherwood Collection of Botanical Art.

This particular Phenological Project, involved data collection and visual studies of a group of cultivars of Paeonia lactiflora that originated in 18th century France, and which I grew in my garden in England.

Further Reading on the botanic website 

For details on the Phenology Project

For the website CV 

For the website Biographical Chronos

Paeonia lactiflora 'Francois Ortegat'
Garden Study
acrylic on canvas
Coral G Guest

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Go Well This Summer

Some Thoughts on Travelling with a Sketchbook

Our Planet is the oyster of the Naturalistic Painter, and now is the time that many of us are beckoned by beauty to venture forth into the wilderness to paint and draw in situ.

Wherever you decide to go, this post is a gentle reminder to be safe and to observe the rules of travelling to paint en plein air.

Remember that the coastal areas can be as treacherous as inland mountains. Deserts and moors may have sudden weather changes. Countryside paths are often open to the elements and may induce exposure over long distances in cold wet weather. Only travel alone if you are unquestionably sure you know enough about the area and have enough experience with drawing and painting in the field. Ensure that your materials are light and transportable. A heavy rucksack becomes all the more heavier when one is tired and cold. Never stay out longer than you know is good for you.

Do inform others of where and when you are venturing out.  I take a scale OS map - having learnt how to read it correctly - plus a water supply, protective gear, and good boots. It’s easy to get lost, especially at night, so I look at the times of sunrise and sunset and the time of the tides. It may be necessary to travel with a local guide.

Researching an area before visiting reminds us to respect the plant life and the wild life, as well as caring for ourselves by being aware that safety always comes first.

Above is a watercolour study painted in Iceland on a summer's night at 11pm. 

This is from my sketch book selected by the elegant Rabley Drawing Centre for their wonderful SKETCH open drawing prize exhibition in 2017.

This image can be seen on page 47 of the 2017 exhibition catalogue of the Sketch Open Drawing Prize. 

The above study was painted at one of the recognised black beaches in the south of Iceland, on the Atlantic coast.

Having ventured onto the beach with a guide, I observed one of the rogue waves of the type that have taken many an unexpected tourist who did not live to regret the experience.  The reality of this great wave is alarming and unlike anything I have previously witnessed. This kind of unexpected happening reminds us never to forget that nature, although sublime and magical, can be terrible and disturbing and has to be respected.

So, when travelling beyond, to paint and draw, please be safe and do bear in mind that knowledge is wiser than curiosity.

The website for Ramblers in the UK has a great deal to offer in terms of preparation and has a dedicated Advice page with FAQs and don’t forget the local Information Centre for the areas that you are travelling within, and towards.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

The Spirit of the Artist, the Making of the Painting, and the Balance of Common Sense

Below is a post from this Blog archive. 
It was written on 30th October 2014 at 4.42 am. 
Six Botanical Artists have recently written asking me to publish it again. 

Thank you for asking, and so here we go....

Paeonia lactiflora 'Armandine Mechin'

1:1 carbon and wash on chalk gesso
Coral G Guest

When a Botanical Artist transits into a life as a full time professional painter they stand on the edge of what they hope will be a long and productive career. At this point each one of us has the choice to lay down a foundation of positive and beneficial working patterns that will serve us well throughout our time of painting flowers, enabling us to manage our energy as we work each day.

In the studio I begin the day with breathing exercises that are yogic in nature - namely pranayama and kryia. I began practicing kriya in 1991, and have used these exercises to bring physical, emotional, and mental balance at the start of the working day. These kinds of simple practical exercises are used in most yoga schools. I have a common sense approach to the work, aiming to make it all more simple rather than more complex.

My easel stands upright in my studio, the materials are laid out. I bless and dedicate my tools and materials because they are loved and I feel it is a privilege to have them. I begin work standing at the easel, walking forward toward the work and then away to see it from a distance. The plant subject sits to my left on its own table. I work from observation, in natural light, sometimes stopping to stretch. The studio is well ventilated.

In 1978, at the age of 22, and in receipt of a travel scholarship from the Painting department of Chelsea College of Art and Design, I travelled to Japan to study Calligraphy in a Temple, in Yamanashi Prefecture.  Here, I began to learn the ritual of managing my energy by managing my breathing process.

Energised and consistent breathing allows the artist to fuse power into their work. It also enables and facilitates the balanced physical, emotional, and mental wellness that a painter needs to work many hours each day, for a whole life time. The ability to connect with the breath creates a rhythm where energy is generated.  The in-breath can be used to reset and accumulate intent. The out-breath, when synchronised with a brush stroke, energises the art work and allows focus to be maintained and concentration to be applied to the process of painting. 

Stress is a very real factor for the Botanical Artist. In my classes at Kew and the Master Classes for Dr Sherwood, I saw that many students held their breath when working.  Stress is part of the equation for a Botanical Artist because they deal with live plant matter that is necessarily transient. This pressure is greatly alleviated when an artist works from photographs. However, the pressure of spending many hours each day painting in great detail with small brushes, and working to a deadline for an exhibition, is always there. Over the years this stress and pressure can build, and so finding ways to keep working and not accumulate the negative effects of pressure is something I have always considered to be essential for long term artistic productivity. 

Choices, choices, is it better to begin the day at the easel with no breakfast or a bacon sandwich, or would a bowl of porridge work better? One thing is certain, what you eat will affect your work. Excessive sweet foods and very salty foods are more likely to cause a lapse in focus that comes about through body chemistry. Intense concentration and effort during painting time forces the body to burn up minerals. Fasting is always best done on rest days rather than work days, as fasting when working leads to depletion of those minerals that the body does not easily store.  The right foods, when taken little and often, will always outperform the extremes of fasting or over indulgence and this builds the good foundation for the following day’s work. It’s simple common sense.

Working each day in the studio with a happy body brings a gentle and vibrant state of mind that will always bear fruit in the work. It may sound a little boring, but it works. A quiet mind engenders quiet regular breathing and this in turn generates a stress free mind and body system. Long hours of focused painting work are enabled by regular and deep breathing. 

When the painter feels balanced the long hours don’t actually seem that way, they seem more as a flow. Long hours of work can have a peaceful effect, like standing on the shore of an ocean watching the waves come and go.

I have never suffered any strain on my neck or arms because painting and drawing is a natural process for me. Working with natural light in the studio is beautiful and advantageous in relation to artificial light, particularly in the winter. I stretch throughout the day when I remember to, and I take a walk each day - as Turner and Hokusai did - because if we do have choices we can make the best choices. 

We can never guarantee that we will not make errors through tiredness. I have done so, and lived to be sorry for working when over-tired. But the learning curve this offers is useful. How ever successful one becomes, there is never any unfair advantage and neither should we expect one.

The above has served me well over the years to enable a clarity with the work, even at times when I was teaching at night after painting in the studio during the day. I found the benefits of the above practice to be profound long term, psychologically as well as physically.

From the early days, I have always asked my students to find and use their innate common sense and run with it as a priority.

Psychologically, I have never felt the need to publicise my emotional pain when things did not go my way. Common sense tends to drown the need to seek attention, just as emotional discontentment evaporates when one is focused and concentrated. 

No need to wait for the muse, for the muse makes rare appearances and can be celebrated for its ephemeral nature. Far better to be professional, for the professional puts the work first and simply keeps renewing their focus through each moment in each day. 


Friday, May 11, 2018

RHS Lindley Library and World Wide Botanical Art Day

The Upper Reading Room of the RHS Lindley Library
image: RHS         


The RHS Lindley Library

Living in what is now described as a post-truth age, where facts are less influential in shaping cultural life than the selective use of data that supports personal belief, I am currently reflecting upon the established societies and institutions that have become somehow timeless in their role of collecting artworks that depict and represent observable truth.

One such place is the Royal Horticultural Society Lindley Library.

There is so much to be amazed and delighted by in the impressive and outstanding collection held in this library. What could offer more cultural joy than a scholarly and extensive gathering of rare and modern books, an archive of intriguing articles and papers on horticulture and garden history, and a unique collection of botanical prints and original botanical art.

In recent years the Lindley Library, London has undergone renovation works as a part of an RHS - wide £100m investment program across all its gardens:

‘The aim of this project is to enable the Lindley Library to develop as a stimulating and accessible centre for the study and research of gardens, garden history and botanical art. The project has equipped us to safeguard, share and showcase its fabulous and unique heritage collections’

From the RHS Website

The RHS Lindley Library Collection of 
Contemporary Botanical Art

The Lindley Library collection of Contemporary Botanical Art represents imagery that serves horticultural and scientific knowledge. Works held in the collection display the multi-disciplinary techniques of illustration and fine art that are devoted to the identification of plant life through accurate observation.

The collection has been quietly and steadily accumulated to become a myriad of dazzling and jewel-like paintings and drawings. It is a now a veritable treasure trove of creative excellence. Works are collected or commissioned from artists who have previously been awarded the Royal Horticultural Society Gold Medal.

In 2000, I was one of the first contemporary artists to be commissioned by the Lindley Library to create an artwork for the collection.  This particular piece is a life-size painting of Lilium regale, which is archived with the preliminary colour studies of the lily bulb and the inflorescence. 

Lilium regale 
watercolour on paper
Coral G Guest

Lilium regale 
Colour Study of Bud and Bloom
watercolour on paper
Coral G Guest

Lilium regale 

Colour Study of Bulb in Situ
watercolour on paper
Coral G Guest

Works in the collection can be viewed by appointment with the Library. One does not need to be a RHS member to view the work or to carry out research within the library.

The RHS Lindley Library 
and World Wide Botanical Art Day on May 18th 2018

‘Botanical Art is being celebrated worldwide in a collaborative project. World Wide Botanical Art Day sees botanical artists and organisations from 25 different countries submit their best pieces of botanical artwork depicting Native Flora. These artworks will be exhibited around the world on Friday 18 May to create a global event.

As part of this project, artists from England and Wales have contributed to an exhibition of 40 botanical artworks which be on display in the Ruskin Library at the University of Lancaster. The exhibition, In Ruskin’s Footsteps, has been organised by the newly formed Association of British Botanical Artists (ABBA).

To coincide with this event, the RHS Lindley Library will be presenting a slide show of 1,000 images from Botanical Art Worldwide, including the 40 images from In Ruskin’s Footsteps., running throughout the day. There will also be an opportunity to join a curated tour of artworks from the RHS Lindley Library Art Collection on this day (the tours have now SOLD OUT, waiting list only).This will include the unique opportunity to see Lindley Library’s most recent acquisition, Dahlia 'Twynings After Eight'. For the first time at the RHS, this watercolour painting by Heidi Venamore will be on display alongside the preliminary sketches for this piece’

From the RHS Website


Thursday, May 03, 2018

The Flower Painter as Gardener

Crinum x powellii 1984 
Colour Study
Coral G Guest

As our National Gardening Week finds a warm and sunny Thursday here in the south east of England, I have returned from my travels to observe how the flowers are growing in the garden. Inclement weather has led me to return to our domestic enclave, taking refuge from the untamed denudation of landscape.
The quiet preoccupation of the naturalistic Flower Painter exists in contrast to the artist travelling through the wilderness. At home, I work in a studio that overlooks the garden. The work is observational and it seeks accuracy through the careful drawing and painting of plant subjects that I often grow myself.

Flower Painting has a curious and long historic connection to the occupation of gardening and horticulture. Flower Painting as a genre is a long held tradition. As a named way of working, it superseded the 'Botanical Art' label that we use today.

The flower painter’s correlation with gardening is endemic and has been documented literally as far back as the Romans and perhaps earlier. It follows a path to Medieval Europe in the form of the illuminated Books of Hours, the paintings of the Van Eyck brothers, then on to the landmark Renaissance art of Albrecht Dὒrer through the process of what came to be known historically as Naturalism.

Chapter three on the Rebirth of Naturalism within the classic text of The Art of Botanical Illustration by Wilfrid Blunt and William T. Stearn, offers an enchanting potted early history of the genre, in a nutshell. This chapter gently labels the watercolours of flowers by Drer as 'Flower Painting(s)'. 

The contemporary Flower Painter who follows this tradition in its ever evolving form, holds the fine art polarity that aims to complement the work of the Scientific Botanical Illustrator and the Botanical Illustrator who are securely connected to botanical science through devoted and exceptional service to scientific work and to plant identification. 

I am characteristically, first and foremost a painter and draughtswoman because my love of the natural world is expressed through observation that is creative rather than scientific. But strangely, this is somehow academic, because science is so often creative and drawing and painting are often measured, so there are points in time and history, where the two practices meet.

For me, the Flower Painter lives within a stream of awareness that is romantic in essence and follows an interest in art theory and the compelling artistic wish to understand truth that is philosophical in nature. As this cannot be proven it remains a reality in the consciousness of the artist and all who have an interest in this art.

It has been my deliberate and passionate intent throughout my work as a Flower Painter to personally free the genre from its connection to the still-life painting as it existed in post war Britain. This would be no disrespect to the genuine and most sincere art of the Floral Artists, as they were once known. Rather it is simply my way of running with what is purposeful to me.

By so doing, my hope has been to revive and breathe new life into the fine art of the Flower Painter by being true to its roots in naturalism that evolved through Albrecht Drer. 

This area of Flower Painting as a genre exists as separate from the work of modern flower painters such as Monet and Georgia O'Keeffe, both of whom were gardeners who expressed differing intents. The interest in aesthetics for both Monet and O'Keeffe are intellectual and not decorative. Such work was never created with the need to produce art that is aesthetically pleasing, but when it is not understood it may easily be misinterpreted and reduced to being aesthetically pleasing.

Drer was an art theorist as well as a gardener. He had an interest in early science but he was not an early scientist but rather someone who studied geometry and the art of proportion. 

Beyond this initial background interest connected with the observation of plant life, I have aimed to bring in other aspects of technique from 17th and 18th century landscape painting and contemporary colour mixing theory. This is all held in space and light through the developed understanding accrued from my training in large brush calligraphy in Japan.

Drer's art is described as ‘naturalistic’ rather than ‘scientific’ because his approach and thinking encapsulates a quest for the understanding of the truth of beauty through the depiction of flowering plants and other aspects of the natural world. Light was ever important to Drer as a painter. His art is all existent and connected under the aegis and the power of natural light, which enables imagery to be represented as real form, rather than as diagrammatic.

His work is not primarily about the attempt to understand the function of the plant scientifically. His drawings and paintings are an early representation of Fine Art in the true sense of the word, and represent his quest to be true to nature in a way that is both observational and ephemeral. 

In this evolving tradition, the naturalistic Flower Painter sees themselves as connected to the world on a series of levels that are physical, emotional, mental and spiritual.  I see these connections as profound and as something that is explored through the work at the same time as being fused into it.

The pursuit of truth through science takes a different route that is one of material facts, such as that of the later scientific work of the Bauer Brothers  who focused their artistic investigation towards the function and workings of the plant kingdom through the depiction of dissection and the need to develop botanical knowledge. 

Back to the activity of gardening: last week on Gardener’s World, Monty Don was talking about the curious and exotic Crinum x powellii and was filmed holding up a large and ugly looking bulb, which he thus planted in his garden. This inspired me to show you the above image of this plant that I grew and painted in 1984.

The bulb was obtained from the RHS nursery in Wisley. I travelled to Surrey on an overland bus from Victoria Station and bought the plant out of curiosity, having received good advice that it should be grown in a submerged pot against a sunny wall. This was an attempt to create similar temperatures of the kind it received in its natural habitat in South Africa. The first year it produced only leaves, in the sooty soil of a London garden. In the second year, in late summer, it gave an umbel of trumpet shaped flowers characteristic of its family Amaryllidaceae. The pot was excavated and brought into the studio and the plant was drawn and painted as a life size Colour Study. The power of gardening to inspire the artist is one often told by artists from Claude Monet to Cedric Morris and beyond to current contemporary painters.

When very young and financially struggling, I enjoyed a much-reduced garden. This amounted to a small collection of pots grown on a window ledge. Somehow it was always possible to cultivate a pot grown bulb, or tomatoes, or a lettuce in a window box. Gardeners are a global community, and if someone needs a seedling another gardener somehow always knows and will gift one. A garden can be tiny and yet live as very vast in the heart of the gardener whose passion is never reduced by the lack of wealth.  Gardening is a leveller in this sense.

Gardening to the Flower Painter is fundamentally the same as it is for all gardeners. It cultivates well-being alongside the flowers, it acts as a salve and generates food for thought as well as home grown edibles.

What more could a Flower Painter want than to have this very real connection to plant life through the actuality of gardening. Gardening needs no justification, no provenance, it only requires a little knowledge and a natural passion to bring the light sparkle of happiness back into the lives of we humans following the inward and dark days of wintertime.

Perhaps amazingly, almost bewilderingly, the coming weekend Bank Holiday has a forecast of fine weather. Happy gardening.


Wednesday, April 04, 2018

SPACE - The Final Frontier

Daisy Arc in Outer Dark 
Watercolour and Carbon on Paper
130x130 cm
Coral Guest
Private Collection

Studying large brush calligraphy in Japan was a major influence upon me as a young artist. This enabled me to bring the idea of space into my work. It is only through the practice and understanding of this particular art, and through combining it with the process of classical perspective, that I came to understand the nature of space around natural form.

After this awareness became my reality I wrote about it and taught this idea to others. Without this factor, the genre would perhaps still be in the old state of just using a neutral area of either white or black around the botanical form. Traditionally, the background has no meaning other than as a flat background.

Instead, we can observe space and hold it as a profound reality in our work, because it has been pointed out and understood and explained.

Being able to draw a plant in perspective directly from life with an awareness of real space, is a skill that brings an art work great authenticity. My early years as a professional artist were spent on achieving this capacity to do. Once achieved, the knowledge was imparted quickly to others, bringing enlightened moments to other practising artists.

I would not give my self the title of 'leading botanical artist', but I do regard myself as a pioneer artist in the Botanical Art field. I am often referred to as renown, or as an innovator, or as well known. Various artists who have been practicing as a professional botanical artist for less than five years are currently claiming the status of being a leading Botanical Artist.  They may not be aware that by claiming this status they have probably assumed the automatic responsibility of taking the genre forward. This is perhaps quite a vast responsibility.

I currently remain in my observers esoteric space to offer an explanation of my understanding when requested to do so. This is simply because so many have asked, and because I am able to explain what has been done and why it was done.

I sometimes wonder why we don't have at least one articulate academic historian in the contemporary Botanical Art field who can determine what was achieved and when. A good historian who can research as a scholar would be so welcome. Surely, there is somewhere a young art historian who would like to have this kind of career within botanical art?

And so on we go. Forthcoming and interesting posts are waiting in the files, so watch this space dear readers.

Monday, April 02, 2018

The Botanical Art and Artists Book List

Paeonia lactiflora 'Bowl of Beauty'
Rapid Colour Study 2000 
Watercolour on Paper (Private Collection)
Coral G Guest

As the days in the UK somehow struggle to become brighter and warmer, spring is somewhere in the air. We who paint from life and in natural light wait for the flourish of springtime plants to arrive.

Whilst travelling, I am catching up on my online reading.

This is just to say a big thank you to the erudite Writer, Curator, and Artist, Katherine Tyrrell, for including my ancient book Painting Flowers in Watercolour - A Naturalistic Approach on her Botanical Art and Artist website. 

Its all the more appreciated for the fact that Katherine understands and describes the book's perspective. Her book list contains very thorough and comprehensive selection of books that are both well chosen for their speciality and their worthiness. Do have a look.

Katherine's website and Facebook page continue to grow and gain interest not only from artists but curators and collectors as well as all lovers of Botanical Art. She is much applauded for her commitment to bringing this blossoming art into the lives of many people and continues to achieve so much for Botanical Artists worldwide. Thank you Katherine!