Watercolour Flower Portraits || Billy Showell

There’s a hierarchy in flower painting. At the top, there’s botanical illustration which, in its more rarefied form, is used as the definitive plant identification guide. This is also often diluted for the more general painter who wants to be able to paint accurate and realistic flowers, but without the obsessive attention to detail and the almost agonised selection of example that goes with the professional style.

At the other end of the spectrum is general flower painting, where the intention is to produce an impression of flowers, often in a group and as an element of a larger picture. What this comes down to, as often as not, is painting gardens. However, it’s always been difficult to sell books with this as their title because readers tend to say, “I don’t paint gardens, I paint flowers”. Well, yes, up to a point, Lord Copper. Book titles are a funny thing: most of the time they don’t really matter, and sometimes they matter like hell. The person who works out what matters when will make a fortune!

Firmly in the middle, between these two opposites, is the flower portrait. It’s not a definition you’ll find in any dictionary, scholarly tomes haven’t been devoted to its place in history and yet it’s quite a precise way of describing a certain approach. You’ll know one when you see one. The answer, I think, is that it’s a representation of an individual flower that tells you about the flower and appears to live on the page. Oh, heck, come on, let’s not be shy: it’s a portrait of a flower. I worked for hours on that. No, seriously. There are pictures of people that sum them up absolutely without getting bogged down in detail and there are portraits: detailed depictions . . . you know the rest.

Well, that’s what this book is. What you have here are flowers without visible means of support, by which I mean that they don’t have roots or pots or vases, only stems and heads. They aren’t in an arrangement on a sideboard, the backgrounds are plain, the subject is an individual plant and nothing else. Rather sensibly, many of the illustrations show the whole picture, the paper as well as the flower itself, emphasising the fact that these are pictures of flowers in a very specific way – what you see on the page is the complete painting, not just the subject. I’m losing you, aren’t I? Sorry, but read the book and you’ll see immediately what I mean. The best way to sum up the approach is to say that that this is very much a book about painting, not a book about flowers.

To this end, as well as lots and lots of pictures of flowers and plants, there’s also a wealth of information about how to paint them. But, let’s be clear, this is not an introduction to flower painting, it’s far more than that. In fact, it’s one of the first books I’ve seen, especially on this subject, that assumes quite a bit of previous experience. However, if you’re serious about painting flowers, then Billy Showell has a huge amount to tell you. She talks about general painting methods and techniques, painting specific flower elements – petals, leaves and so on – and also how to handle various types of flowers, as well as some very detailed step-by-step demonstrations of specific examples.

Although there is a structure to the book, it’s not one you’re going to work through like a course. Probably the best approach would be to familiarise yourself with the layout, get the hang of what Billy has to say, and then start to tackle the sections that most interest you. I think that would work. There’s a lot to absorb and you get a lot for your money, too.

Year published: 2006
List Price: £17.99

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