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.