Botanical art colours and controversy

March 2022

matching colours accurately is a key component of botanical art, so why is it controversial?
Matching colours accurately is a key component of botanical art, so why is it controversial?

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.

Resurrecting a pre-pandemic 2019 new year message.

January 2022

A New Year message for botanical artists with berries
A New Year message

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.

Karen Hooper explores composition concepts with Schöner aus Herrnhut

December 2021

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 Concepts workshop 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).

This sequence of images tells the story . . .

Examining the specimen for composition.
Examining the specimen
The specimen set up for the desired composition
Posed for drawing
Sketching the composition.
The final stages demonstrating composition in botanical art
In the final stages

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.