Copyright Notice

All images and text within this blog are copyright protected and may only be reproduced with prior permission



Thursday, February 06, 2014

Botanical Art in the 21st Century

Royal Botanic Gardens Kew

8th February - 10th August 2014


                                 Iris germanica 'Superstition'                       
                                 detail of the inflorescence 
                                 (the original artwork depicts the complete plant)
                                 watercolour on paper
                                    101.6 x 152.4cm /40 x 60ins

                                  Coral Guest 2005
                                  Shirley Sherwood Collection
The latest exhibition at the Shirley Sherwood Gallery, at the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, explores the most recent developments in Botanical Art. Works on display are specifically by artists who have pioneered the use of artistic techniques and materials that were not available to previous generations, or not considered appropriate by them. The development of new artistic methods and techniques has tended to run in parallel with the manufacturing of new materials, because the makers of art materials have always responded to the quest of the artist.

I have been asked why it is that so many of the artists in this show (including myself) were born in the 1950's. It is because we initiated key new developments through an exceptionally thorough understanding not only of materials, but of the history of the various genres that exist under the banner of Botanical Art.  The work then moved forward into the 21st century, developing as an art form but remaining connected to science, conservation, and the work of the naturalist. The very idea of moving Botanical Art forward as an art movement was itself a very  new conception. It is now accepted that Botanical Art is in fact an art movement because of the new innovations that have been made by these forward thinking artists.

Its an interesting process and any new art historian interested in this field of study can find an invaluable resource of information through the many catalogues from the exhibitions of works from the Shirley Sherwood Contemporary Botanical Art Collection. This Collection contains paintings, drawings, and prints by many international artists, and one of the outstanding achievements of this body of innovative work is its absolute lack of bias towards nationality. The focus is singularly upon the promotion of excellence in this world-wide phenomenon of the renaissance of Botanical Art.

In the 1980's, there was a risk attached to putting this kind of work into the general art collective because of the lack of understanding towards it. The difficulty most art historians and critics have with the work is the use of a white background, which traditionally defines it as illustration and not as art. So the path to redefine the white background and bring it into acceptance has been a long one.

When Dr Shirley Sherwood set forth on her mission as a collector, many individual artists were not aware that the others were there in other parts of the world forging the same pathway. Now with the many exhibitions on display worldwide, a young artist can view Botanical Art, connect with it, and take up a recognised career path. 

Towards the end of the 20th century many foundations were laid by practicing Botanical Artists to support the future of Botanical Art in the form of lectures and the teaching of techniques, the publishing of books, the setting up of societies, and regular exhibitions of individual work. The RHS system of Botanical Art Shows has grown tremendously in the last twenty years, and their program of awards remains a recognised standard. A new Botanical Artist now has an entire structure to support their life time quest.

The exhibition of Botanical Art in the 21st Century is essentially composed of the works shown in the Botanical Art into the Third Millennium exhibition that was exhibited at the Museo della Graphica in Pisa in 2013, with the addition of some exciting new acquisitions.

Two of my large works that belong to the collection namely the large Iris 'Superstition', and it's partner Lilium regale, are being exhibited for the first time in the large main gallery at Kew, where there is space to stand back and see the images from a distance. These two works have been displayed many times around the world, and one reason for this is the interest they receive from visitors on finding large format paintings showing life size depiction of the inflorescence, stem, foliage and root storage system. My previous post describes a problematic technical issue that was overcome when painting these large works. 

The aim for these works was to create large scale pieces that were painted life-size, in the naturalistic style, with an intense depth of tone and colour that will allow the work to be viewed at a distance as well as at close range. The idea is to depict the statuesque power of plants as well as their delicacy and their detail. Simply because this is how they do exist. The work is observational and aims to show natural beauty in natural light, in the tradition of Da Vinci and Dűrer.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Burnishing Watercolour Paper

                                         Paeonia lactiflora 'Adolphe Rousseau'
                                         Coral Guest 2013
                                         private collection

The use of paper and its historic development is a subject that has always been of great interest to me. Large sheets of watercolour paper made by Fabriano and T H Saunders have allowed me to paint tall herbaceous perennials life size. I sometimes wonder how Albrecht Dűrer would have reacted to these large sheets of paper had they been available to him in the 16th century. This paper would have enabled him to paint his Irises without having to glue two pieces of paper together to obtain a large enough surface area. I have been asked to reveal how I used some Not surface paper for the often seen Iris 'Superstition' and Lilium regale. So here is the official explanation:

The paper used is:
T H Saunders Watercolour Paper
Not Surface
640gms weight
Paper Dimensions: 101.6 x 152.4cm / 40 x 60ins

I chose this paper because of its size and its very heavy weight, which creates an extremely stable artwork. The size of the paper allows the depiction of a life size image of the whole of a tall flowering plant, including the inflorescence, stem, foliage, and root storage - on the one single sheet of paper.

However, this paper is not available in a Hot Pressed surface. The surface of Watercolour Paper can be either Rough, Not, or Hot Pressed. Hot Pressed paper is the smoothest surface of paper and the type required for detailed work in watercolour. I chose the large sheets of T H Saunders paper because it is the only one currently available in this size and weight. However, the lack of a smooth surface posed a problem, and there is no paper available that possesses all three qualities of size, weight, and smoothness. 

I initially experimented with this paper without success. I was not able to paint fine details because the surface was not smooth enough. After several months of trial and error, I went into my studio one morning and the months of failure dissolved into inspiration - I picked up an etching burnishing tool and burnished a piece of the paper. As a result the paper was rendered smooth enough to allow detail to be painted onto it. 

The above image is a much enlarged detail of a watercolour of a peony, painted on burnished paper. The unpainted area to the right is not burnished. I simply burnish the area to be painted after it is drawn out in pencil.

Lighter weights of 300gms paper with a Hot Pressed surface have long been available on rolls. I have found them to be occasionally inclined to buckle when used with watercolour on a very large piece that is too large to be stretched. 

Set-up costs for paper production are an expensive investment, but it is my hope that T H Saunders will one day produce this large size and weight of paper in a Hot Pressed surface, and in the mean time I shall continue with the burnishing.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Tranquility of Drawing

Drawing is literally a process of mark making on a surface, although esoterically it is much, much more. In the 2013 series of Little Flower Drawings each mark made has been a statement of intent - long or short, ordered or chaotic - they offer a visual rhyme made up of many energetic pulses. These momentary pulses that are manifest in each mark then culminate to give the drawing a life of its own and create an elusive something. This elusive something happens in the work when both mind and heart yield and tranquility is experienced in a mental space allowing the drawing to become fused with the irradiation of silence.

This post comes with Seasonal Greetings to all the readers of this Blog on our global map from North to South and East to West, wishing you a holiday time filled with joy and peace.

Thursday, October 03, 2013

Techniques and Tradition, Colleges and Schools

For all contemporary Botanical Artists, the path to a result is through practice and training in techniques and methods and the development of their personal will. The use of themes is fairly well established in Botanical Art as they herald from the tradition of the herbal and the monograph and connect to scientific understanding and the needs of conservation. So what about ideas? How do ideas convert into Botanical Art, and how does a Botanical Artist use an idea as a criteria for their work?

Traditionally Botanical Illustrators work with a brief which has a specific purpose, and their work is used to support the areas of botany and conservation with which they are associated. However, many of the historic heroes of Botanical Art in general, such as Durer and Van Eyck, were not illustrators but instead worked with images of nature with the need to be true to nature was a part of the bigger picture of the development of art and its history, which is something subtly different to the development of Botanical Illustration. This subtle difference now runs as a vein through Contemporary Botanical Art and in so doing it pushes it into unknown territory and newness, as ideas and concepts are spontaneously brought into the arena by free thinking artists who have a purpose that is not only about techniques and methods, but is also about the ideas they want to persue and express about the subject they are painting. This is the point where Contemporary Botanical Art breaks away from Botanical Illustration and forges its own path way. If the artist does not have a strong notion, their work operates in the field of decoration. I use the word decoration with care, rather than the term aesthetics, because aesthetics are a deep and complex area of study.

Artistic school leavers, surveying the probabilities of a career path, often ask my opinion about what kind of education they should apply themselves to as an initial career step to becoming a professional Botanical Artist. Every artist has a place and when it comes to studying for an art qualification there is always the right place for the right person. In accordance with my background, I am generally biased towards suggesting that the young aspiring artist take the step to study at degree level in Fine Art, Illustration or Design, at an established Art College, because this offers an all round art education that is very eclectic and catholic in its nature. This can operate through observational drawing from the human figure as a basis for training in how to see and how to look, through to an awareness in contemporary art and art history in general. With a background in Fine Art and/or Design at degree level, an artist may then specialise by taking additional courses in Botanical Art or Illustration, if they should find it to be necessary. Busy people with already established careers and responsibilities can pick and choose from a kaleidoscope of workshops, courses, and diplomas from which to forge a new or secondary career if they wish to study part time. An alterbative route to becoming a proffessional Botanical Artist is via botany itself. Perhaps not surprisingly, some of the most interesting Contemporary Botanical Artists come from a background of training in various forms of Botany. These practicioners are a kind of exception, something unique, because their knowledge brings them insight and awareness that goes beyond the realms of observation. This prompts the wish, that the two sides will one day meet in an established Art College. This could take the form of a BA and/or Ma in Fine Art (Botanical Painting), in which Painting and Botany may be combined and studied full time, on an academic level.

I suspect the above comment may invoke a controversial response, so please do bear in mind that it is not my aim to be an agent provocateur but to reccomend the development of a strong artistic background before specialising. This in the long term enables development and a free thinking inquiring attitude. Many successful Botanical Artists come from a degree level background in Fine Art, Fashion, Textiles, and Jewellery Design. This has laid down for them a bedrock of understanding and ways of seeing and looking, as well as the ability to apply techniques.

At the time I studied Fine Art at Chelsea College of Art, it was located just off the Kings Road in Chelsea, and is now situated in John Islip Street in London SW1
Traditionally Chelsea College is referred to by its alumni as Chelsea School of Art.
From 2014 the well established English Gardening School at the Chelsea Physic Garden  will offer its diploma course in Botanical Illustration under the new name of The Chelsea School of Botanical Art. I mention this to eliminate any confusion and to clarify that this school has no connection to the aforementioned Chelsea College of Art and Design, where I studied. These two schools have no affiliation and are entirely separate institutions with different histories.

Many professional Contemporary Botanical Artists are self taught, but this is invariably the result of studying the original works by already established Botanical Artists and the many worthy teaching books. A self taught artist remains individually responsible for honouring, by means of an acknowledgement, the legacy they choose to inherit from the artists they have been inspired by. Acknowledgement of influence is a normal practice in fine art in general. In the newly established field of Botanical Art, the Legacy exhibition at the Shirley Sherwood Gallery at Kew establishes a bench mark for how this kind of honourable influence may be understood in a broader context.

The reality is that no one is without influence or legacy and no one learns entirely in isolation or is entirely self taught. Influence and legacy are some of the essential ingredients for young artists to work with, for without this they have nothing on which to cut their teeth or to use as a spring board for something new and innovatory. Plagiarism is not the same as influence, plagiarism is claiming ownership over what is not one's personal individual endeavour. Influence when acknowledged is conversely educational, and is truthful in the same sense that observational drawing is truthful.

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

What is Contemporary Botanical Art?


The title of this post is a question that of late I have been asked on many occasions by Art Collectors who want to understand what is occurring in the world of Contemporary Botanical Art.  The main concern they have is definition, and so regularly inquire if Botanical Art is Botanical Illustration, or if it is Fine Art. For an Art Collector there are always variable reasons for building an art collection and a serious Collector understandably wants to have clarification.

My answer is my personal opinion based on observation:

The definition is simple - Botanical Art is an umbrella term under which many types of artist working with plant imagery co-exist. Broadly speaking, this group of artists range from the highly technical Botanical Illustrators (including Digital Botanical Illustrators), Naturalistic Flower Painters (I place myself here), to the Floral Painters, and the free style Watercolourists. Across the board it includes artists who work with all techniques and all mediums, including print making. I say this without bias, with no sub textural belief that one is better than the other. I define Contemporary Botanical Art in this way because the over riding interest of all participating artists is a concern for the plant kingdom, which is a reason for us to reflect unity of purpose.

The title 'Contemporary Botanical Art' belongs to everyone involved. No one claims ownership over it at the expense of another artist's endeavour. I view this title as an art history term, and consequently I describe myself as a simply a Naturalistic Flower Painter who is a part of the Contemporary Botanical Art Movement. I guess this is comparable, for example, to describing a Cubist Painter as such, whilst also acknowledging them as a part of the Modernist Movement. 

How artists in this genre entitle themselves is a key to understanding who they are and what they do specifically. It would be interesting to know statistically how many artists become full time professionals after training, and what percentage pursue the subject as a serious amateur.

My work as an ordinary Naturalistic Flower Painter is fuelled by a love of the plant kingdom, and the expression of observable truth, which to me is the end game of Beauty. This is my intent artistically and how I define myself under the banner of Contemporary Botanical Art. I also delight in seeing the whole of the Contemporary Botanical Art Movement blossom, flourish, and evolve with ongoing uniqueness and originality, via each artist's passion for the world of plants.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Botanical Art Into the Third Millenium

Museo della Grafica

Lilium regale - detail

From 20th April to 15th July 2013, the Italian Museo della Graphica in Pisa, is showing an exhibition entitled Botanical Art into the Third Millennium. In this context is a selection of mixed 20th and 21st century works heralding from the Shirley Sherwood Collection. Included is the life size work of Lilium regale, which is nearly five feet in height, and includes inflorescence, stem, and root system. This piece forms a part of the second room in the exhibition that is showing contemporary drawings by 21st Century Botanical Artists. The show is co-edited by the most eminent Lucia Tongiorgi Tomasi with the assistance of Allesandro Tosi, who are together the museum's Curators. This elegant and highly informative show has been created with the collaboration of Dr Shirley Sherwood. This unique Italian museum, located in the Palazzo Lanfranchi in Pisa, is a beautiful and elegant setting for a wonderful exhibition. 
(scroll down this page to read the English transcription) 

Please see the 2008 posts for further details and information on the creation of the Lilium regale work.

About Me

Contemporary Practioner of Drawing and Painting in the World of Plants