Archive for category Author: Meriel Thurstan
This was originally published in 2009 as Natural History Painting With The Eden Project and has now been reissued in paperback.
You can read my original review here.
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Here’s something completely different from Meriel & Rosie. After their really quite advanced books on painting flowers and natural subjects, this is altogether simpler. Simpler, in fact, than the title implies – I’m really not sure how the word “masterclass” got in there and I’m concerned it might frighten a few people off. Colour has a reputation for being difficult, you see. In many ways, the subtitle defines it better: “a colouring workbook of techniques and inspiration”.
The premise is simple enough. There are outlines that you can colour in – you could do it right there on the printed page if you want – with instructions that’ll show you how to build up tints and shading quickly and reliably. The authors suggest that you can use coloured pencils, watercolour pencils, watercolour paint or felt tips, which gives you a good choice of materials. As a primer on how colours work in an image, this is really easy to follow – to the extent that I really do think you could master it from this book alone (which doesn’t quite make a masterclass, he quibbled!)
The subjects are, as you’d probably expect, flowers and plants, and the page size is generous so that you get images that you can see and work with. It’s rather clever, too, in catching on to the popularity of adult colouring books, but teaching at the same time. Yes, it’s instructional, but fun too.
Meriel & Rosie have a reputation for hitting the nail on the head, and this won’t dent it at all.
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If your first reaction to seeing the title of this is “no it isn’t”, please bear with me, because I want to convince you it’s something that you can approach with a reasonable amount of skill, experience and determination.
No, you’re right, it’s not something you should attempt as your first foray into flower painting. Yes, no less an institution than Kew runs a prestigious course for something that many exponents will tell you is a lifetime’s study. A few years back, you could also have headed off to Cornwall’s Eden Project and enrol in its diploma course, where you’d have met the authors of this innovative and intriguing book.
Meriel and Rosie have an impeccable track record of explaining what can at first seem (and can easily be) tricky subjects. They also have the teaching experience to know where students’ blocks are and how to get over that initial hurdle of simply getting started.
Botanical Illustration in its purest form is a complex and highly technical subject. It’s used in preference to photography for producing example images that aid identification, picturing a typical plant or flower rather than a specific example and sometimes emphasising particular characteristics in a way that may not been seen in nature, but which guide the viewer towards what to look for. It requires a detailed knowledge both of the subject and of painting in general and the medium (usually watercolour) in particular. As I implied, at this level, it’s not something you can learn just from a book.
And yet. Here we have a beginner’s step-by-step guide. And it works. The trick is that this isn’t a book for the aspiring professional, but for the amateur who wants something a bit more specific than the slightly less formal flower portrait. What it has up its sleeve is to keep you working all the time on demonstrations and projects, rather than technical exercises. This is important because, in something as painstaking as this, it’s important to keep the reader’s interest engaged and there’s nothing like a steady stream of results to do that. Each stage builds on what has gone before and you’re learning and building skills as you go, almost without noticing it. No, it’s neither easy nor completely painless and you will have to put a lot of work in, but you didn’t expect anything less (did you?).
Every time Meriel and Rosie produce another book, I say it’s their best. I’m running out of superlatives. This one is maybe slightly niche but, my goodness, they’ve nailed a tricky subject.
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You could be forgiven for thinking that this franchise might be nearing the end of its shelf life and that the authors must be struggling for something new to say. However, this latest volume (the fourth, if you include Natural History Painting as part of the canon) is as fresh as ever and, in many ways, could be regarded as the best yet.
The first thing you’re likely to think is, “Hmm, exotic plants, how likely am I to come across those?” and the answer is: not much. However, open the book almost anywhere and the surprise is just how familiar the subjects are. It’s probably all down to television, the armchair explorer. Orchids, check. Carnivorous plants, check. Pak Choi and Globe Artichokes, check. Pumpkins and maize – hang on, how exotic are they? But that’s the point, you don’t have to be a Joseph Banks to be at least aware of practically everything here. And then, when you delve deeper, the book turns out not to be half so much how to paint all the things that didn’t appear in the earlier books as how to paint plants full stop.
There’s a huge amount here about how to draw (pencils and coloured pencils come into it quite a lot) and paint plants, from the use of colour (including “difficult colours”) to capturing textures and sheens. The subjects may not be completely common or garden, but this is one of the best technical manuals I’ve seen, simply because it’s not actually aiming to be one. What Rosie and Meriel are trying to do is show you, in as practical a way as possible, how to capture your subjects. I think they’ve actually sublimated the technical stuff and, as a result, explained it extraordinarily well just because they’re not trying to.
Oh, and the book is just a joy to look at as well.
Many, many congratulations to the authors (and their editor) for not over-egging a successful formula and producing Yet More Flower Painting with the EP. And much, much respect to them for proving that they’re much more than (very good) flower painters.
In fact, the subject matter of their third book is a surprise on every page, partly because you just don’t see this sort of thing in painting books but also because they’ve managed to turn what are frequently unconsidered trifles into sublime little works of art. There are birds, fish, shells, pebbles, feathers, bark, beetles, rocks, crystals – the contents of a compendium of country walks, in fact and they all have the kind of beauty you’re often encouraged to look for but somehow all too often fail to see. I don’t care if you tell me you’d never want to paint these yourself, just buy the book and marvel at what Rosie and Meriel have found (and then tell me you won’t maybe just have a bit of a go, y’know, just because).
At a practical level, because that’s what’s being pitched here, this is a book about colours and textures and also about finding subjects in the unlikeliest of places. It’s about looking, seeing and interpreting and what you can do if you just keep your eyes and your mind open. It’s a revelation.
This is the successor to Rosie and Meriel’s deservedly popular Botanical Illustration Course with the Eden Project, which appeared a couple of years ago. Rather than simply give us more of the same, this time the pair have concentrated on a wider variety of plant material and also foliage and have also extended their reach to some of the colours that students of the previous book reported that they had trouble with. Thus we get subtle shades of blue and pink, the huge variety of greens and even that forbidden territory: black.
Although the intention here, as before, is to make the book accessible to the more general painter, there is no compromise on the quality of the artwork and the authors are fortunate in having access to some fine contemporary botanical artists (hence the title), who provide excellent examples of both their subject matter and what can be done in the medium. Although the progress of the book is not step-by-step as such, there are several places where stage illustrations are used and there are frequent analyses of colour and palette that manage successfully to get to the heart of the matter.
This is very much a book for the serious and more experienced flower painter. Where the previous book provided an introduction for those who already had some facility, it would be a good idea to have studied at least one other manual before attempting this one. Let’s face it, there is a great number of books out there and you’re spoiled for choice and suitability! Given that, it’s quite an achievement to produce something that adds to the canon without duplicating what’s already there.
Books on flower painting fall into roughly three categories: flowers as part of a larger painting, flower and plant portraits and botanical illustration. Each one gets progressively more detailed and more obsessed with absolute botanical accuracy. At its very highest level, a single painting of a flower will be used to stand for a whole species and will define it for identification purposes in a way that a photograph (which will always be specific to an individual specimen) cannot.
For the general painter, this level of detail is unnecessary. The main thing is that a flower should look like a flower. If someone comes in and sees you painting, what you’d like them to say is “that’s a nice daffodil” not, “that’s nice, what is it?”. So, when you’re looking for a book on flower painting, for the most part, the flower portrait level is what you need. If you want a botanically purist approach, then Coral Guest’s Painting Flowers in Watercolour, published by A & C Black, has Kew’s imprimatur.
However, if you want a little less than obsessive detail, then this book will fit the bill very nicely. Coming with the authority of the world-famous Eden Project, it’s a bit more than just flower portraits, but does allow the possibility of slightly softer paintings which, by that means, tend to look more like living plants than museum specimens. Of its type, it’s probably the best of the current crop of flower painting books.
The word “course” can conjure up the image of something very dry that makes you work through endless exercises before you’re actually allowed to do anything pictorial. While there is a lot of information on drawing, mark-making, shapes, colours, tones and shadows, the authors actually do a lot of the work for you. That doesn’t mean to say that you can just flick through the book and be a flower painter (of course), but it does make for a colourful production and one which leads by example. All those little sketches, colour grids and practice images are going to get you wanting to try it for yourself; you’re going to be thinking “can you really make it do that?”.
Just looking through the book, the sense is of a wealth of information that can’t be taken in at one sitting and this is borne out in practice. Although this is a book you can open almost at random and pick up ideas from, it’s also very carefully and rather cleverly structured. Although every chapter results in and illustrates finished work, it’s actually progressive and you’ll find that you can build up skills by also working through it from beginning to end.
Year published: 2006
List price: £18.99
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