Archive for category Author: Billy Showell

Watercolour Flower Portraits || Billy Showell

This worthwhile guide, which was originally published in 2006, has been reissued as a paperback. You can read the original review here.

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Billy Showell’s Botanical Painting in Watercolour

Exquisitely presented and beautifully painted, if you ever wanted something to encourage you to start botanical painting, this would be it.

For such a specialist, technical subject there’s a surprising number of books on botanical art. I’m not talking about flower painting in general – there are even more of those! – but ones that specifically identify themselves as belonging to the genus of scientific representation. We could quibble over how many are actually that deeply technical. In its pure form, botanical illustration is used to aid identification and has very specific requirements. For a start, you don’t paint a single example, but rather include specific characteristics that a worker in the field would look for. This may then be used to identify an existing species in an unknown location, or maybe a new one altogether.

I’ve always divided botanical art into three genres. We start with flower painting, where the purpose is to produce something that looks like what it’s meant to represent without necessarily getting every petal perfect, and where the flower itself may not be the main subject. Then there’s the flower portrait (Billy Showell’s previous speciality), where detail becomes more important and the subject may be a single stem. Finally, there’s botanical illustration, which we dealt with above.

This book adds, I think, a new dimension: botanical art that goes into considerable detail, but isn’t obsessed with total scientific accuracy and can be a record of the single example you have in front of you. As such, it’s ideally suited to the artist who isn’t a scientist but nevertheless enjoys at least some of the perfectionism that goes with full-on illustration.

The book is a joy to handle and very thoroughly illustrated, going into plenty of detail regarding the stages of completing a painting. This includes not only step-by-steps, but also examples and technical exercises that deal with things like water droplets – which are well outside scientific work. It’s inspiring, enjoyable and very thorough.

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A-Z of Flower Portraits || Billy Showell

The flower portrait lies somewhere between the loose watercolour study and the more formal and detailed world of botanical illustration. As such, it’s ideal for the artist who wants to paint flowers that look realistic, but without getting bogged down in a lot of technical detail.

This is Billy Showell’s third book and the burning question has to be: has she got anything new to say? Actually, it’s an unfair question because a lot of artists have been writing about a lot of flowers for a lot of years, and a lot of people have been buying the books. More pertinent, perhaps is: has she found a new approach that justifies your parting with eighteen of your hard earned pounds?

On balance, I’d say that she has. It’s a difficult question because, for the most part, artists don’t significantly change their style and it’s familiarity, as much as anything else, that attracts us to them. You pick your favourites and stick with them. Whereas Billy’s first book provided a lot of information on general flower painting techniques (and I’d recommend it as an introduction to this style of painting), this one confines all that to the short but well thought-out introductory section.

The rest of the book is devoted to 40 fairly concise demonstrations of flower types from the Anemone to the Zantedeschia, or Wild Arum Lily (but Wild Arum Lily doesn’t begin with a Z. Zinnia does, though). Each of these is presented on a double page spread, so you can see the whole thing at a glance. There are no real step-by-step demonstrations, the illustrations being confined to the finished painting and a few detail paintings and the basic drawing. The stages required to complete each picture come in some 20 quite short paragraphs. There’s also a colour chart for each painting and this is something of a triumph, because Billy shows you not just basic colours but mixes and tints. More artists should do this because it’s quite possibly the book’s most useful feature (and I really don’t mean to damn it with faint praise – it’s the first time I’ve seen this done).

The first impression of this approach is quite likely to be, “Is that it?” because we’ve got used to sometimes laborious plod-by-plod photographic strips that all too easily leave you devoid of the will to live. You should see the stuff I used to review in the 1970’s. One dodgy black and white photo – and that’s if you were good and ate up all your greens (not the heavy-metal based ones, obviously).

Anyway, I’ve taken my medication, so back to the matter in hand. Once you’ve got over the rather spare appearance of the instructions, you realise that it’s all there and, as long as you’re a reasonably competent painter, you’ll be able to achieve results like Billy’s quite easily. And, if you’re mainly using this as a guide to specific flower types, you’ll be thankful for the total lack of waffle. This isn’t a book for the beginner, by any stretch of the imagination. Indeed, I’ve already hinted that Watercolour Flower Portraits, Billy’s first book, is probably the better buy if you’re new to flower painting. But, when you’ve mastered that, it’s practically guaranteed you’ll come back to snap this one up.

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Watercolour Fruit & Vegetable Portraits || Billy Showell

On the face of it, this seems a pretty unlikely idea for a book. I mean, I can see the attraction of flower portraits, obviously, but the ingredients for soup? On the other hand, when you see the really rather beautiful results that Billy gets, it’s ten to one you’re going to want to have a go yourself. However, if it wasn’t done as well as it is here, I still contend that you’d lower your gaze and hurry on by.

But no matter. The greengrocer’s stock in trade provides a wealth of colour and texture and something you, as an artist, can really get your teeth into (yes, yes, I know, but you should see the ones that got edited out!) and there are some really serious exercises in watercolour virtuosity here. Clearly, this is not a book aimed at the beginner and all of the introductory material is written for the experienced artist who just needs a little guidance in what’s required for this specific subject matter – there’s none of the elementary how-to-paint stuff that plagues so many books. It’s nice to be treated as a grown-up for once and this is undoubtedly going to make you well-disposed towards the author before you even get started and that can’t be a bad thing. After that, it’s straight into the subject matter with a nicely varied chapter on drawing a wide range of different shaped vegetables and fruit. From here, it’s on to composition though, as this is a book of portraits (that is to say, the bare subject without any real context) this tends toward some sometimes slightly bizarre arrangements, the value of which I’m not totally sure of. However, this is a bit of a quibble, because the next chapter is about colour and this is really valuable as it deals with shades you may well not have encountered before and Billy offers some excellently clear advice that’s likely to be useful in all your work, not just this specialised area. There’s a lot more on light and shade, dealing with white vegetables, flowers and details before a set of projects where Billy demonstrates four subjects in some detail.

If you’re tired of the same old subjects and you fancy something that’s really going to challenge your abilities as a painter, then this is undoubtedly the book for you. I don’t think it’s going to turn you into a fruit and veg specialist and you may well feel that, when you’ve tried it, that’s quite enough, thank you, but I don’t think you’ll feel it was an exercise that wasn’t worthwhile.

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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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