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.

Remembering Pandora Sellars

May 2021

It has been four years since Tuesday, 9th May 2017, a sad day in the long history of botanical art. For it was on that day that Pandora Sellars passed away. 

In 2011, I posted the article below, Spotlight on Pandora Sellars. At the time I quoted from the catalogue of her exhibition at Kew in 1990. I couldn’t think of a better way to describe her. I still can’t. So here, in remembrance of a most remarkable botanical artist and person, and my mentor, is that post again . . . 

Spotlight on Pandora Sellars

© Margaret Best

Pandora Sellars teaching a workshop for a lucky few of us in a 18th century coaching inn in Alderminster, Warwickshire.

Where to begin to tell the story about this icon of contemporary botanical art? The lists of exhibitions in which she has participated, the publications in which she has appeared and the recognition that she has enjoyed, could on their own fill the body of this article.

Pandora’s initial enthusiasm for drawing and painting plants has been ascribed to her rural childhood in the Welsh Marches in Herefordshire, England. Her home was close to the Wye Valley and the Black Mountains where she had access to a diverse and fascinating array of flora. At art school she designed printed fabrics and taught but all the time kept on painting plants. When her late husband built a heated greenhouse, the exotic plants that he collected became Pandora’s inspiration. She had a particular interest in painting the orchids for which she is now so well known.

It is difficult to describe my mentor in a way that does this hugely talented, delightfully gentle person justice. The closest I can come is by quoting the introduction that was published in the catalogue of her exhibition, Pandora Sellars botanical painting 1974 – 1990 at the Kew Gardens Gallery in 1990…

“For many years, Pandora Sellars was, to me, a somewhat mysterious figure whose name was mentioned with great reverence by my colleagues in the Botanical World who would regularly use ‘spectacular’, ‘incredibly accurate’, ’amazing detail’ and similar expressions to describe work of hers which they had seen. Showing my usual level of respect for scientists’ views on artistic matters I ignored those comments until I saw a copy of Frances le Sueur’s Flora of Jersey, which was illustrated by Pandora Sellars, and also an original painting of hers on the wall of a friend’s house in Suffolk. My conversion was immediate and, once I had looked in some detail at the paintings she had been doing for publication in the Botanical Magazine from 1982 onwards, I joined the ever-growing band of those using highly complimentary words when referring to her paintings.

Soon after joining the staff of Kew in 1986 I met Pandora for the first time, saw more of her outstanding work and resolved that Kew, one day, must give her an exhibition. At that time the Kew Gardens Gallery was no more than a nice idea five years from fulfillment. In fact we opened the Gallery in November 1988 and, at the same time, began discussions with Pandora about an exhibition at Kew. Her schedule of commissions prevented her from exhibiting in our first year but we were delighted to work towards our spring exhibition in 1990.

When, in the middle of last summer, she arrived with her first paintings for the exhibition, I was stunned by what she had produced. It was not that area of paper that she had covered nor the number of paintings which impressed me – for her style is detailed, painstaking and consequently slow – but it was the sheer overwhelming quality of her work and her remarkable ability to incorporate a number of plants in a set piece which looked like a ‘corner of nature’ which took me by surprise. These set pieces were real botanical theatre with living subjects which seemed a million miles away from the traditional association between flower painting and what is called English still life.

Her pictures have come in steadily over the past twelve months, each consignment as eagerly awaited as the last and each building on the last in virtuosity. None disappointed.

Looking over the twenty or so works painted specially for this exhibition one is immediately aware of being in the presence of a consistent and superior talent in the delineation of plants: the fidelity to nature is absolute; the quality of draughtsmanship unwavering; the use of colour impeccable and the representation of texture without equal. Just as many of us first respond musically to large-scale works such as symphonies, so it is the large-scale ‘plant symphonies’ which instantly attract and are most accessible. Chamber works often appeal later as knowledge and appreciation matures. Similarly one moves from admiration for the large complex paintings to a deep respect for the elegant but simple plant portraits which have formed the main body of her work for over ten years.

As must be obvious from this short introduction I have the highest possible admiration for her work and I remain to be convinced that the world has ever known a botanical painter with a greater talent than Pandora Sellars. Ehret, Redouté, Turpin, Lilian Snelling come close. Fitch, prolific, liberated and wonderful in his way approaches, and several living artists come even closer but for me, only the brothers Bauer occupy, with her, the corner of the botanical world in which one can truly say that no one has ever done it better. But, were the Bauers so good at painting leaves?”

Nothing more needs to be added other than to steal this glimpse of Pandora in her studio. This was where so much brilliance was given expression . . .

Pandora Sellars in her studio
Pandora Sellars in her studio
Photo credit: Margaret Best