Don’t leave home without them

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 can be the height of frustration at an opportunity missed.

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.

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

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 reliable 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 least we got the exposure.”

Well, in this case my painting didn’t sell and whatever “exposure” I may have received, wasn’t worth it because 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? It was 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 an uncooperative organizer, 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. It may not always be worth it.

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

When is sharp sharp enough?

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 between trips to the sharpener.

I recommend a sharpener like the one in the illustration below. It not only sharpens traditional wooden pencils but is able to accommodate propelling pencils 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 about a half inch of graphite. This too is fine, even if unnecessary and a bit tricky. After all, it’s more about the sharp point and less about how you achieve it.

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.

Remembering Pandora Sellars

It has been a little over three 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 because 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 concentrated on a career in teaching 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, particularly 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?”

I don’t believe that anything more needs to be added other than to steal this glimpse of Pandora in her studio where so much brilliance was given expression . . .

© Margaret Best