Yellow is the most problematic primary pigment. So much so that many botanical artists avoid painting yellow subjects entirely.
It’s problematic for a number of reasons. It’s tough to get yellow to look just right in the layering process because the full colour intensity builds so rapidly that it’s easy to overwork its application. And yellow has such a low value potential that it’s a challenge to pick a partner colour for subtle shadows that do not end up as a dirty mess.
It has always been this way. The impermanency of this pigment has spoiled significant paintings by significant artists by either fading away altogether or turning an ugly brownish version of its former self. For example, the image at the foot of this post tells the tale of Vincent Van Gogh’s sunflowers falling victim to fugitive yellow pigment. See the stark contrast of the browning of the yellow flowers with what they would have looked like right after he painted them.
As most botanical artists take advantage of the benefits of transparent pigments, the selection of a yellow primary option becomes a matter of double trouble. A cool yellow pigment that is both completely transparent and completely permanent is not available.
In my latest e-booklet, Picking a Palette, I address the matter of deceptive use of the ASTM coding relative to lightfastness. The only way artists can be absolutely sure of the lightfastness of a yellow pigment is to do their own testing. For example, I do not use PY40 (often called Aureolin) that some manufacturer’s tubes rate as a ll. Independent testing challenges this rating and considers it to be a lll (Fair) at best. Neither do I use PY150 which is considered lightfast but is a deep ochre in masstone and tends to lean towards a brownish finish in multiple layering.
And so the perfect cool or middle yellow saga rages on. But in the case of a warm yellow I am completely happy with a PY110 pigment often labeled, Indian Yellow.
For decades I’ve taught accurate colour matching, first in an industrial setting to the staff of printing companies and, more recently in the past almost twenty years, to botanical artists. And in all these colour-focused years I’ve learned a key truth about people and colour; colour is always subjective and often controversial. In many cases, intensely so!
And the subjective aspect is fine and to be expected. Colour readily evokes energy and emotion in all of us. After all, we have our colour favorites in our clothes, our possessions, and even our cars. And therefore, not surprisingly, in what we choose to use as botanical artists.
The first thing I tell both aspiring and experienced botanical artists is that there are no “rules”. There are however plenty of theories. In this regard you can start with Sir Isaac Newton’s colour spectrum and continue all the way to contemporary times heavily influenced by the digital era. So where do you turn to for guidance in botanical art colours?
My answer is always to start by looking inward to decide for yourself what works for you in your own unique environment. Refine and limit your choices to a working, though not overly-restrictive palette, after understanding some basic technical facts. You need to know about the pigment content, the degree of opacity and transparency, colour shifts, and toxicity, to name just a few.
Seek these facts from reliable sources—not from the personal choices of other artists or artists-turned-teachers. These vary from artist to artist and even from teacher to teacher. Stop buying colours just because well-known artists use them. I suggest that you review your colour palette with you in mind. One artist who followed my suggestion found that she had 65 tubes of different colours collected over years of attending classes and conferences! By way of comparison, I have about 15 in my palette.
When you’ve decided on a palette that works for you, develop a working colour memory that removes colour choice confusion. Gain success through clarity, your way. You are as entitled to be subjective about your botanical art colour choices as the next artist. But expect to review and refine your colour choices from time to time as colour technology evolves.
Are the technical facts I mentioned above readily available? Yes indeed. You need to know how and where to find them. It’s not hard in this digital era. I like to offer artists reliable references without my own personal choices getting in the way. In spite of that though, artists often ask for my palette preferences. To that end I readily share in workshops and e-booklets what I use in my own practice. However, I always caution that my personal palette will be provided with a date as colour technology continues to evolve.
That brings me to the controversial aspect of botanical art colour choices. When it comes to choosing a palette for watercolour, things can become surprisingly heated. It’s not difficult to raise the hackles of some teachers and artists about the colour choices and theories they choose to adopt. I know it sounds silly, but it’s real. It’s so real that I have been blocked by some well-known botanical artists on social media over this very topic! One artist has gone so far as to block me from viewing her website. Until very recently I didn’t even know that this was possible! I’m more surprised and amused than bothered. As I noted at the beginning, some artists are intensely protective of their colour choices—some apparently to the point of paranoia.
My next e-booklet, Picking a Palette, will soon be in the bookstore on this site. It aims to remove some of the crazy myths and misinformation about botanical art colours. It will present you with facts, options, and ways to test pigment. I want to make sure that you go down a path that will take you to good choices for you.
Digital devices in botanical art is a somewhat controversial topic nowadays. Some won’t touch it with a ten-foot barge pole. I will; I feel strongly about it.
Recently, an artist posted on social media to say that he had purchased all of my coloured pencil e-booklets. He wrote that he had found them very useful. He also kindly added: “I recommend all of them”.
But then, quite innocently it seems, he stumbled into the use-of-digital-images-in-botanical-art controversy. He included images of him tracing one of his own digital images of leaves apparently right off a computer monitor. By way of explanation, he pointed out that he only uses his own images. That is commendable and unlike many would-be artists who, without conscience and ignoring copyright protections, plagiarize the images of other photographers. But it’s still not okay.
I applaud his transparency which is in sharp contrast to, for instance, workshop participants who do the same thing but pretend that their tracings are of their own drawings of live subjects. This is of course silly because an experienced instructor can easily detect a traced photograph or digital image. The same applies to a painting sourced entirely from a digital device. A discerning eye can immediately see that the colours, particularly the greens, are saturated and unnatural.
Some of these artists attempt to explain away the use of digital devices instead of actual specimens as “contemporary”. However, I believe that it’s most often due to inadequate drawing skills. And in some cases, an inability to colour match accurately to an actual specimen. Furthermore, in an art context, this is an inaccurate use of “contemporary.” “Contemporary” refers to the art of today, produced in the second half of the 20th century or in the 21st century.
We do have contemporary devices such as smart phones with cameras that provide us with great reference material after the plant has expired. As we all know, the time taken to create a botanical art piece typically exceeds the lifespan of a plant specimen, particularly if it is separated from the subject plant. Under these circumstances a digital reference is very useful. But note, reference, not source. This is not an invitation to carte blanche use of digital devices in botanical art.
So clearly, the practice of tracing from a digital source cannot be called “contemporary” botanical art. You can call it contemporary plant art, or nature art, but it is not botanical art in the time-honoured spirit of the genre. Botanical art has a long history and deep-rooted association with botany, and aesthetics, and of always depicting the plant scientifically accurately as sourced from specimen material.
And likewise, substituting “modern” for “contemporary” doesn’t work either. In art terms “modern” refers to original works created roughly between 1860 and 1970. It has nothing to do with a style or a genre.
We won’t maintain this genre’s high standard and unique and distinctive history by lowering of the bar. That’s deluding ourselves. We’ll only do it by practicing until we can clear the bar, and that includes learning to draw and colour match from live specimens.
I was recently reminded of an email I sent as a New Year message for botanical artists in 2019. The person who mentioned it said that she had come across it in her files and found it to be as inspiring now as it was then.
This made me dig into my old email files and retrieve it. And I must say that my New Year message for botanical artists is no different now in 2022 than it was in 2019. And while the pandemic has changed many things since 2019, my message is the same. So, here it is, my new Year message for botanical artists . . .
Five wishes for 2022 (edited slightly from the 2019 original)
1. Connect with nature as often as you are able. It feeds your inner wellbeing.
I say this confidently out of knowledge and experience. Michael and I moved right across Canada from an inner city neighbourhood in Calgary to rural Nova Scotia. I worried about the transition—it seemed such a drastic change. I am not sure why though—the list of rewards are definitely too numerous to be included here. And as if launching my e-book bookstore isn’t enough, I am also now in a state of inspiration overload—a ‘condition’ I wish for all of you too.
2. Make time for art and draw, draw, draw (even in winter)
One of the procrastinating excuses botanical artists offer themselves is that just setting up to do a botanical study takes time and the art form is not a stop-start activity. This contention feeds inertia. It may be true of full-scale studies in whatever medium you prefer, but not true for sketching and drawing. Drawings hold such potential for great works later—it gets you going and it keeps you going. To cope with inspiration overload I gathered specimens (admittedly, too many) in the summer and I now have numerous drawings and colour matching completed. This is going to keep me busy for the entire winter and probably way beyond that. So stop listening to that inner voice that fuels procrastination and “Just do it!”
3. Connect with your art community and share your art with others
Join ASBA for all their incredible opportunities and connections. I have been a member since 2001 and have treasured relationships with artists around the globe as a result. Every year artists tell me that exhibitions are very stressful. Organizing them . . . well, um, yes, indeed … but participating is motivational. It offers you a direction and a goal, and seeing your painting hanging in a group exhibition with your fellow artists is incredibly rewarding. Be part of every open exhibition you can find. If your work is rejected for a juried exhibition, seek informed opinions to find out why. I did, and I learned in a hurry what I needed to do. I refused to drown myself in the silly head stuff. Replace the ego bruising with a positive “I can do this!.” Keep calm and carry on!
4. Finish some of those abandoned “in progress” pieces
We all have them. Artists tell me about them all the time as if this were a negative by-product of workshops. Stalling at the ‘ugly duckling stage’ just breeds pointless doubt and further inertia. ‘Ugly ducklings’ can turn into swans, so what’s the risk in taking further steps to finish? A fantastic book (by Walter Isaacson) on the life of one of my personal icons, Leonardo Da Vinci, offers an incredible insight into the artist’s mind. Leonardo’s genius was profound but he suffered from serious inertia; he had many abandoned commissions and incomplete works. It makes me sad to think about the resultant losses. But thank goodness for his vast legacy of drawings that document his progression. So please don’t let inertia rule you. Dig those unfinished works out and finish at least some of them.
5. Research and discover plants to paint that can promote preservation awareness
Embrace the information aspects of your beloved art form. Portray the endangered species to help the cause of badly-needed public awareness. My research into the topic has taken me to some interesting places and helped acquire a host of new contacts. For just one instance, I was ecstatic to hear that a rare and endangered lichen has been found to be increasing here in Nova Scotia. As lichens are barometers of air quality this is great news. We have an important role to play with our art form.
Schöner aus Herrnhut recently helped Karen Hooper explore composition in botanical art. Schöner aus Herrnhut is a German heirloom apple dating back to 1880. Apparently, someone found a single seedling in the Saxony town of Herrnhut. So explains former ER doctor and now heirloom apple expert, David Maxwell. Schöner aus Herrnhutin lives in his orchard overlooking the LaHave river in Middle LaHave, Nova Scotia.
Karen Hooper selected Schöner aus Herrnhut to be her subject for our November Composition Conceptsworkshop in Mahone Bay. Impressively, Karen, who started doing botanical art a little over a year ago, produced a superb coloured pencil piece. How? Innate talent and following the time-honoured classic live-specimen botanical painting process.
Schöner aus Herrnhut’s history inspired Karen before she became further inspired when handling and examining the apple closely from all angles. Next, she took her time setting up the apple in a suitable pose with appropriate lighting to achieve the desired composition—the all-important composition in botanical art.
Once that was accomplished, Karen commenced with subject sketches followed by construction of a final composition. As you can see, the result speaks well of the process that began with an actual specimen (rather than a digital image).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!”