Infusing truth into a botanical drawing

November 2021

Infusing truth into a botanical drawing by drawing from a live specimen

Drawing from a live specimen infuses truth into a botanical piece. To know me is to know that this is not news. I have always strongly believed in drawing from a live specimen. You will find me emphasizing this throughout my workshops and e-booklets. It will also be evident from a visit to my portfolio website. This is why I was thrilled by one passage in particular in Diana Beresford-Kroeger’s book, To Speak for the Trees.

As a young woman in Ireland, she painted plants. She would take her watercolour paints and a jam jar of water and venture out into the countryside . . .

“I always started with the plant itself. I would examine it first with my artist’s eye, searching out and noting the crucial and unique features that would infuse its truth into a botanical drawing.”

You must treat yourself to this book or its audio version.

Climate change — can the boreal forest save us?

November 2021

Irish-Canadian author and botanist, Diana Beresford-Kroeger, makes a compelling case that the boreal forest can help save us from the human impact on climate change. She certainly convinced me it’s possible in her riveting book, To Speak for the Trees. And, as she points out, we’re up against the clock; time is running out.

The audio book read in her gentle and charming Irish accent hold me spellbound. But, more critically, her vast plant knowledge and amazing life story motivated me to expand my painting of forest subjects. I too want to help spread the message about climate change and the boreal forest. I have long believed that botanical art can educate through informative art works. You will see on this my portfolio website, but I’m determined to do more.

Coincidentally, while listening to Beresford-Kroeger, I was painting an acorn from our large red oak Quercus rubra, an important deciduous tree species of the boreal forest. The acorn in question was part of my preparation for a step-by-step tutorial for an upcoming DVSA online workshop and the e-booklet, Botanical Palette for Watercolour – Warm Hues & Fall Subjects about blending exercises with analogous colours in vibrant yellow, orange, red and brown, and the final dry brush-work details.

Thanks to fellow artist and teacher Deborah Lambkin for the book tip. It’s now on my top five books list. I have it right up there with Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson and Margaret Mee’s Amazon.

I recommend that you read To Speak for the Trees or listen to the audio version as you paint.

The personal aspect of colour interpretation

October 2021

Iris. ©Jean Emmons    

I was planning to offer more commentary about botanical art colours in my next post, though I was still pondering the topic. But that was before Jean Emmons’s presentation at the ASBA’s 27th Annual Meeting and Conference, Online in October.

It was a truly profound presentation—one of the best I have ever watched! It was brilliant. The ASBA is going to make available recordings of the presentations at this conference; for any serious student of botanical art, Jean’s is a must-see.   

I’ve often featured her paintings and her hallmark approach to colour in my teaching. They show how one can gently bend what some assume to be the so-called “rules” of colour. It’s subtle, and clever, and it makes me smile. This is particularly true of her handling of highlights and reflected light.

I recall a special moment with Pandora Sellars in her backyard years ago after she questioned the blue colour I had inserted into a highlight on a shiny leaf. I had Jean in mind when I took that somewhat daring step. We went out to Pandora’s old pear tree where the leaves were glimmering in the bright sunlight. Pointing to a leaf, I said, “There you are . . .  there’s the blue I see.” She reluctantly conceded that, indeed, she saw it too— the reflection of the sky. Pandora always preferred warmer colours in leaves. I knew that but put the blue there anyway because I was seeing and enjoying it. 

We agreed that it was important to respect differences of opinion about botanical art colours. And that is part of what Jean emphasized today—colour interpretation is a very personal matter. The fact is that seldom will you find two successful artists with the same preferred palette.

But what pleased me most of all today, was that despite her playful approach to colour, she believes (as I do), that newcomers to this art form need to engage in some colour theory to broaden their understanding and that nobody is going to be harmed by making colour charts and exploring colour blending. It has been years since I last produced a colour chart, however, I do promote exploration and testing of pigment in order to make informed colour choices. And unlike Jean’s latest venturing into opaque colours on vellum, I use nothing but transparent colours and I do not paint on vellum. But I respect the fact that she creates extraordinary results on this surface with her own masterful style.

After the ASBA’s 2020 conference, Jean wrote me a kind note about my presentation. She told me that what I’d said about the importance of value contrasts and value range, really resonated with her. To use an informal but descriptive British term, I was really chuffed that she had taken the time to let me know that her thoughts were completely in sync with mine regarding what had been a core element of my teaching for years. And today, her presentation made me realize to what extent we are on precisely the same page when it comes to the topic of colour value. She explained it eloquently.

So, it’s thanks to Jean Emmons for memorable moments both this year and last. And it’s thanks too for the permission to allow her beautiful iris to illustrate the personal aspect of colour interpretation.  

Why the source of the plant’s colour matters

September 2021

The source of the plant's colour matters.
Different colour interpretations. The source of the plant’s colour matters.

There are many reasons why contemporary botanical artists like me do not paint from digital images or photographs. We paint from live specimens. We respect the traditions and the history of the genre. But, in addition to that, there are practical reasons for painting from live specimens.

One of those reasons is colour accuracy. There’s no question that the colour of a live specimen cannot be anything but what you see. You’re not seeing an interpretation of the colour of the specimen, it is the colour of the specimen.

On the other hand, when you see the colour of a specimen on a digital device, it is an interpretation of the real colour by the camera and the display of the device in question. And different devices interpret colour with varying degrees of accuracy. If you have any doubts about this, just see the image above. But if you need further confirmation of this phenomenon, simply photograph the same specimen in the same conditions (same light, same magnification, same angle etc.) with four or five different devices. Put them side by side, and you’ll have four or five different colour interpretations.

In the case of a photograph, the interpretation is affected further by the printer. Different printers will print the same photograph differently.  

In other words, if you paint from a digital image or a photograph, your interpretation of the colour of the specimen is an interpretation of the camera’s interpretation of the colour of the specimen.

Interpreting and capturing the colours of a live specimen accurately (we strive for accuracy, remember), is hard enough. You only make it harder when you start out with an already distorted colour interpretation.  

My view that the source of the plant’s colour matters, is a common theme throughout the e-booklets in the Bookstore page of this website.

Colour memory is important

August 2021

Some of what you’ll see about botanical art on social media can be misleading or confusing. Most of the time I ignore it. Recently, however, a post about colour crossed a line. It was time to correct a few misconceptions and share some important colour information.

I was astonished at how much interest and how many supportive comments my post on Instagram drew. I decided that I had to repeat it here, albeit slightly shortened and edited.

Time to SHARE a few things and correct some inaccurate perceptions. I am not known for brevity so will break this up over a few IG postings.

Let me start by asking if you have colour memory?  Is it important for a botanical artist to have colour memory? I believe it is and therefore it’s a core element in what I teach about colour. The great Ferdinand Bauer(and his brother Franz) had finely-tuned colour memory and, contrary to many recent theories, did not work with colour charts past their early learning years with Father Boccius. The full story is a topic for a post of its own though.

Do I require artists who study with me to paint colour charts? Heck no . . . I find them seriously boring personally but I fully respect the choice of many teachers who do choose to use them when teaching beginners how to blend different pigments. There are also multiple other ways to help beginners and even intermediate artists understand colour better. And indeed there are no books of rules for colour instruction . . . well none that I know about.

One of the main reasons I do not use colour charts is because they are laborious and typically show the blending of two (or more pigments) in a single wash. In botanical art very little is expressed in a single painted layer—brilliance of colour as well as subtle value transition always involve more than one wash.

 So what are these circles of colour I often share on social media? Well for a start they are not colour-in or stay-inside-the-lines-exercises as suggested by some, though perhaps they could be useful for exercises in tighter brush control for newcomers. Instead, they are in fact my own personal method developed for testing watercolour pigment and helping artists develop their own working palette.  (I never impose my own palette).

And yes, I do use these colour tests to help an artist develop colour memory; acquiring colour memory is incredibly useful and empowering for those new to the world of art and colour. I have proven over and over for more than thirty years that (excluding victims of colour blindness) anybody can reach a point of utilizing colour memory effectively.

Colour memory is important for facilitating colour matching

Shown here is my oak leaf some of you will recognize from the ASBA tutorial book Botanical Art Techniques. I did not mean this leaf to be a framed piece of art, although some students have offered to buy it. Instead, I used it in my teaching in a series of workshops on the colour GREEN and painting leaves.

I enjoy demonstrating how to closely match a natural green using at least three completely different pigment combinations. Of course the usual blue and yellow options and yes—gasp!—green pigment too! I know many superb and acclaimed artists who use “convenient” green paints and have never suffered reputation loss because of it. But knowing how to “tame” a transparent permanent green paint into a natural range is very important. 

I am also including the ivy leaf painted by the wonderful artist, Florence Gendre, at the workshop I taught in France to a great group of artists hosted by Agathe Haevermans.

Colour memory is important for speeding up colour matching

By the way, I do love both the visual beauty and the learning opportunity provided by a single flat leaf. It seems that the great Rory McEwen did too, as does Asuka Hiskihiki. I love her salad leaves!”

Committing to a leaf a day

August 2021

Committing to a leaf a day in your sketchbook.
Carol Doughty copyright 2020.

Here’s an idea, particularly for new botanical artists to rapidly develop accurate drawing skills, committing to a leaf a day. I’m suggesting a daily regime of sketching at least one leaf a day.

While normal daily commitments can rob us of time to paint, it’s not difficult to find a few minutes to sketch a leaf. You can do it early in the morning before things become hectic. The middle of the day during a lunch break is another option. And If you’re not too exhausted in the evenings when calm returns, that can be a good time too.

If your climate ensures an abundance of leaves year round, you’ll have no trouble committing to a leaf a day. But even those of us in snowy climates have access to leaves in the depths of winter. Indoor plants are a possibility. Even outside you’re likely to find dead leaves still clinging to mostly bare trees. Then there are those hiding on the ground in spots not covered by snow.

And aside from developing your drawing skills, there’s the therapeutic aspect of blocking out everything else and just focusing on your sketch, even if it’s just for a short while each day.

In botanical art, like everything else, practice is is the key to improvement. You will find me urging continual practice in every one of my e-booklets.

An artist’s worst nightmare—a painting lost in transit

August 2021

Cydonia oblongata “Portuguese” — Disappeared

Every time I hand a painting to a courier I do so with trepidation. This week my trepidation was justified.

I shipped my painting for the ASBA’s Abundant Future exhibition with FedEx Express. En route from my home in Chester Basin, Nova Scotia to The New York Botanical Gardens, it disappeared. I am horrified at the realization that my painting was lost in transit and that I’ll never see it again.

The runaround begins

First a representative told us that upon arrival at the FedEx hub in Memphis, they X-rayed the package and found that it “had no contents”. Consequently, they sent it to the “Overgoods” department. Then later they told us that the package was missing. Still later, another FedEx representative confirmed that they had found the package in the “Overgoods” department. But the painting was not in it. The latest is that the entire package is missing and that we should file a claim. It seemed definite at this point that my painting was lost in transit.

I don’t have enough room here to detail the telephone conversations and emails that we have exchanged with FedEx so far. I can tell you though that it has involved about a dozen FedEx representatives. We’ve been all over the map, from Jimmy in Guatemala to a manager in Vancouver.

I don’t expect to ever know precisely when or where my painting disappeared. But it had to be on the 26th or 27th of July somewhere along it’s torturous journey that started in Chester Basin. Before arriving in Memphis, it went through Dartmouth, Goffs, Dieppe, Mirabel, and Mississauga.

We’ve had well over twenty years of experience shipping with FedEx and other couriers so Michael couldn’t have packed the painting any better. He packed it in a cardboard portfolio which he wrapped in a water-tight plastic sleeve and sealed in heavy brown wrapping paper with parcel tape. He labeled it properly and accurately and provided complete documentation. In short, everything one does to facilitate an incident-free delivery, was done.. What one doesn’t expect to have to guard against is the mysterious disappearance of the contents of a package. Particularly while it is in the custody of a major courier. And, more particularly, one that claims to offer “speed, precision, and reliability.”

Adding insult to injury

And then as if to add insult to injury, the latest email communication declined to answer questions and advised instead that I should file a claim. It concluded with this infuriating statement probably cut and pasted from a manual of cold, impersonal and indifferent standard responses: “Thank you for your feedback concerning this service issue. We appreciate your business and look forward to serving your future shipping needs.”

Look forward to serving my future shipping needs? You mean ship my artist’s proof to hang in place of the original you lost? 

Hello, DHL?  


Management staff at FedEx Canada have become involved and are conducting a detailed investigation. They say that they are trying to determine where and who opened the package en route. It has been 21 days since we filed a claim with FedEx but we’re now fourteen days beyond the promised time of a “response within seven days”. Meanwhile, DHL delivered the artist’s proof to the Bronx. But even then the service was somewhat lacking. They picked it up a day late and delivered it four days later than scheduled.

So what to do next time? Hello UPS?

Second update

Persistence on our part has finally led to the intervention of senior management. Today, some 30+ days after they reported that the painting was missing, we agreed compensation (more about this in a later post). And apparently FedEx has launched an internal security investigation. To be fair, a few of the representatives tried to help but were seemingly constrained by a lack of authority and probably the obstacles inherent in all large bureaucracies. The senior manager in the latest conversation in particular was polite, concerned, sincere, and admitted to the failure without trying to sugar coat it. He also provided all his contact information. One has to respect that.

Third (and final) update

Apparently the internal investigation has yielded nothing. It’s now definite—my painting was lost in transit. And today, just over 60 days since this saga started, FedEx delivered a compensation cheque. Interestingly, not by FedEx overnight courier, but by mail. Oh well, as that bold expression goes, it’s better than a poke in the eye with a pointed stick.

Case closed, I guess.

Fortunately, I have a good scan of Cydonia oblongata “Portuguese” and am therefore able to us it as an illustration in my e-booklets.

Don’t leave home without them

August 2021

A small sketchbook a pencil and an eraser

A small sketch book, mechanical pencil, and eraser. These are essential travelling or out-and-about companions for any botanical artist.

You know what’s going to happen on that one occasion that you don’t have them handy—you’ll come across that unusual flower, interesting leaf, or never-before-seen mushroom. Not being able to record a find can be the height of frustration.

With a small sketch book, mechanical pencil, and eraser you can sketch the subject. And don’t forget to make observational notes, including it’s location before returning to your studio to identify and name it. Who knows? It could be the beginning of a great painting.

And when you are ready to start that great painting you’ll guidance in my e-booklet bookstore. Tour my portfolio website and those of other artists to be inspired and see what’s possible. You can do it. It all starts with a sketch.

Exhibiting abroad—a story about why you should do your homework!

August 2021

The Echinacea piece that took an extended trip to Italy and back.

The invitation

I received an invitation to exhibit in an international botanical art exhibition. I felt flattered. And I readily agreed to participate. Exhibiting abroad is an enticing proposition.

I’d exhibited outside Canada before in Bermuda, the US, the UK, Australia, and South Africa, but never in Italy, which is where the invitation in question came from. As usual, I did my homework. I discovered that the organizers invited some well-known and highly-respected international botanical artists. Furthermore, the exhibition was going to be at a prestigious gallery in Florence. I didn’t need any more convincing.

The optimism

At this point, if you’ve never exhibited abroad before, I should mention that it’s not an inexpensive undertaking. You’ll need special packaging (a sturdy cardboard container with appropriate cushioning material designed for the purpose of shipping art, is best). And you’ll probably have to ship by FedEx or DHL or one of the other international carriers. The costs soon mount up. But we do this because we hope to sell the painting or, failing that, for the “exposure”, don’t we? At least, that’s what we tell ourselves if the painting doesn’t sell, “Too bad, but at least we got the exposure.”

The reality

There was an important element I didn’t cover in my homework—getting my painting back out of Italy. I would never have guessed that the Italians have stringent regulations in place for shipping art out of Italy. They Italian authorities apparently put the regulations in place to protect their national treasures. They do not want them taken out of the country. It didn’t matter to them that I shipped my painting from Canada and was merely returning it. The bureaucratic quagmire of paperwork and red tape applied regardless.

I don’t have the space here to tell every detail of the sordid tale. It’s a tale about uninformed organizers, identity document copies, endless forms, an unhurried Italian bureaucracy, and the three months it took to get my painting back. Just take my hard-earned advice and do your homework thoroughly if you’re invited to exhibit abroad. Sometimes exhibiting abroad might not be all it’s cracked up to be.

When is sharp sharp enough?

August 2021

When I teach graphite drawing I emphasize the importance of a sharp point on the pencil.

The sharp materials you need for a graphite drawing
From left to right: sandpaper block from Faber-Castell; wooden pencil sharpened in the regular way; sharpened mechanical pencil; pencil sharpener; wooden pencil with half inch of graphite exposed; Exacto knife for shaving the wood off the pencil.

When I’m working in graphite, my pencil sharpener is always close at hand. But not only that, I also have a sheet of fine sandpaper upon which to sharpen the point rather than using the pencil-eating sharpener every time. You’ll find that in most of the e-booklets in my bookstore on this site I discuss these and other materials in detail.

I recommend a sharpener like the one in the illustration below. It not only sharpens traditional wooden pencils but is able to accommodate mechanical pencil graphite as well through a small opening on the side.

These simple measures ensure sharp graphite pencils for the fine detail we need to produce in botanical drawings. But you will find that different artists have different preferences for ensuring sharp pencil points. For instance, I’ve seen one artist advocate shaving away the wood and exposing at least a half inch of graphite. This too is fine, even if unnecessary and a bit tricky using a sharp blade. After all, it’s more about the sharp graphite pencils and less about how you achieve it.