To know me is to know how strongly I feel about a botanical artist developing an intimate familiarity with every aspect and detail of a live specimen. This is why I was thrilled by one passage in particular in Diana Beresford-Kroeger’s book, To Speak for the Trees – My Life’s Journey from Ancient Celtic Wisdom to a Healing Vision of the Forest.
The passage quoted below follows a description of how, as a young woman in Ireland, she would take her watercolour paints and a jam jar of water and venture out into the countryside for a day of painting plants . . .
“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:
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.
Not only did her audio book read in her gentle and charming Irish accent hold me spellbound, but her vast plant knowledge and amazing life story motivated me to expand my painting of forest subjects to help spread the message. I have long believed that botanical art can educate through informative art works.
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 right up there with Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson and Margaret Mee’s Amazon – Diaries of an Artist Explorer compiled by Kew.
I recommend that you read To Speak for the Trees or listen to the audio version as you paint.
I was planning to offer more commentary about colour 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 to show how one can gently bend what some assume to be the “rules” of colour (rules you won’t find written anywhere). 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 colour interpretation. 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.
There are many reasons why contemporary botanical artists like me paint from real live specimens and not from digital images or photographs. There are of course the traditions and the history of the genre to be respected 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 below. 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 in botanical art, remember), is hard enough without starting out with an already distorted colour interpretation.
Some of what you’ll see about botanical art on social media can be misleading or confusing. Most of the time I ignore it, but recently a post about colour crossed a line and it was time to correct a few misconceptions and share some important colour information.
I was so astonished at how much interest and how many supportive comments my post on Instagram drew that I decide to repeat it here, 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.
Shown here is my oak leaf some of you will recognize from the ASBA tutorial book Botanical Art Techniques. The leaf is not meant to be a framed piece of art, although some students have offered to buy it. Instead, it was used 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.
Included here too is the ivy leaf painted by the wonderful artist, Florence Gendre, from France at the workshop I taught to a great group of artists hosted by Agathe Haevermans.
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!
Here’s a tip particularly for new botanical artists to rapidly develop accurate drawing skills—commit to 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. This could be early in the morning before things become hectic, in the middle of the day during a lunch break, or later in the evening when calm returns.
If you live in a place with a climate that ensures an abundance of leaves year round, you’ll have no trouble finding subjects. But even those of us in snowy climates have access to leaves in the depths of winter; there are indoor plants or those dead leaves still clinging to mostly bare trees or hiding 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.
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 from my home in Chester Basin, Nova Scotia to The New York Botanical Gardens. It apparently disappeared en route.
First we were told that upon arrival at the FedEx hub in Memphis, the package was X-rayed and found to “have no contents” and was hence sent to the “Overgoods” department. Then later we were told that the package was missing. Still later another FedEx representative confirmed that the package had been found in the “Overgoods” department but that the painting was missing. The latest is that the entire package is missing and that we should file a claim.
I don’t have enough room here to detail the telephone conversations and emails that have been exchanged so far but I can tell you that it has involved about a dozen FedEx representatives all over the map from Jimmy in Guatemala to a manager in Vancouver.
I’ll probably never know precisely when or where my painting was removed from the package. But it had to be on the 26th or 27th of July somewhere along it’s torturous journey that started in Chester Basin, ended in Memphis, and included 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 than in a cardboard portfolio wrapped in a water-tight plastic sleeve and sealed in heavy brown wrapping paper with parcel tape, labeled the package any better, or provided more accurate documentation—everything one does to facilitate an incident-free delivery. What one doesn’t expect to have to guard against is the mysterious disappearance of the contents of a package while in the custody of a courier that claims to offer “speed, precision, and reliability.”
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?
Management staff at FedEx Canada have become involved and are conducting a detailed investigation to try to determine where and when the package was apparently opened 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?
Persistence on our part has finally led to the intervention of senior management. Today, some 30+ days after the painting was reported missing, compensation has been agreed (more about this in a later post) and apparently an internal security investigation has been launched. 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. And today, just over 60 days since the painting went missing and just over 30 days since the admission that the painting was “probably” stolen, a compensation cheque finally arrived from FedEx (interestingly, not by FedEx overnight courier, but by mail). Oh well, as one of our family’s expressions goes, it’s better than a poke in the eye with a pointed stick.
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, make observational notes, note it’s location and then return to your studio to identify and name it. Who knows? It could be the beginning of great painting.
Who among us wouldn’t be flattered to be invited to exhibit in an international botanical art exhibition? I certainly was. And I readily agreed to participate.
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 and was encouraged to find that some well-known and highly-respected international botanical artists had been invited and that the exhibition was going to be at a prestigious gallery in Florence.
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.”
There was an important element I didn’t cover in my homework—getting my painting back out of Italy. Who would have guessed that the Italians have stringent regulations in place for any art being shipped out of Italy? They were apparently put in place to protect their national treasures from being taken out of the country. It didn’t matter that my painting had been shipped in from Canada and was merely being returned. The bureaucratic quagmire of paperwork and red tape applied regardless.
To tell every detail of the sordid tale about uninformed organizers, the identity document copies that had to be submitted, the forms that had to be completed, the unhurried Italian bureaucracy, and the three months it took to get my painting back, would take up more space than I have here. Just take my hard-earned advice and do your homework thoroughly if you’re invited to exhibit abroad.
When I teach graphite drawing I emphasize the importance of a sharp point on 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.
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 a sharp enough point all the time 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 point and less about how you achieve it.