Archive for category Subject: Botanical Illustration

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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The Kew Book of Botanical Illustration || Christabel King

This, as far as botanical illustration is concerned, is pretty much the tablets of stone, the Authorised Version. Kew do not hand out their imprimatur lightly and want to approve every stage of the production. If they sign off, it’s a guarantee that everything is absolutely right. Having a book like this, and having Kew in the title, is therefore quite a coup, especially for an independent publisher.

On top of that, Christabel King is one of a very select band of illustrators who works at Kew itself and can therefore be regarded as absolutely top flight. I really can’t emphasise too much how good this is getting. Botanical illustration at this level is respected and used by botanists around the world for identification purposes. The work produced is better than photography as, rather than show an individual example of a specimen, it can create a typical one, with all the likely characteristics included. As well as a section on using a microscope, there is also advice on preserving specimens and showing spots and markings. At this level, detail is everything and it gets very minute indeed.

For all this technicality, the book is surprisingly accessible. I don’t mean for a moment that the casual reader will become a fully-fledged professional as soon as they’ve read it but, if this kind of work interests you, you won’t feel swamped. There’s a nice sense of progression to the chapters and Christabel explains everything clearly and, above all, with worked examples. If you do get serious, the chapter on Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, with sample pages and a template for laying out a plate, will give you an idea of what to aim for.

Despite the weight of its authority, this is not a book solely for the expert, but is accessible to anyone who is reasonably serious about flower painting. You may never reach its dizzy heights, but you’ll enjoy the journey and the attempt.

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Botanical Illustration for Beginners || Meriel Thurstan & Rosie Martin

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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Plant Portraits by Post || Julia Trickey

This rather beautiful little book tells the story of the creation of a series of botanical illustrations that were used on Royal Mail’s self-service Post and Go stamps.

Although it stands alone as a guide to the development of clear botanical images, and can be read as a useful guide to that in itself, the fact that the results were to be reproduced at relatively low resolution and small size adds an extra dimension. What you see here as full-page images would be seen by the public at postage-stamp size. Detail therefore needs to be clear and kept to a minimum without compromising the quality of the picture or obscuring the nature of the subject.

The results are beautiful and subtle and the accompanying narrative, which describes both the plants and the painting process, is both instructive and absorbing. On the basis of this, I hope someone will sign Julia up for a larger book.

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Botanical Illustration – the first ten lessons || Valerie C Price

Opening this book at random, I was rather surprised to discover that Lesson 7 is “A Flower”! However, it turns out that the approach really is as basic as that and the previous lessons have included a mushroom, an apple and a leaf.

This is by no means a bad thing, although if you were expecting a guide to the rather technical style of botanical illustration, you’d be disappointed. It’s a quibble, but I can’t help feeling that Botanical Painting would have been a better title. Anyway, having got that out of the way and established what the book is about, is it any good? Well, if you want to start painting botanical subjects (and not just flowers, either), Valerie really will start you from the beginning. I don’t think I’ve seen such a basic primer as this and certainly not one that works in so much detail. If you’re struggling with the subject and need your hand held, it’ll be held firmly here and you won’t feel that you’re being pushed along faster than you can or want to go.

Each lesson is basically a demonstration, but there are slightly more words here than is sometimes the case and Valerie explains everything very carefully. Each lesson ends with a Critical Assessment which analyses what might have gone wrong along the way. A teacher who was there in person would be able to look at your work and this is a creditable attempt to do the same thing off the printed page.

The final lesson, A Botanical Plate, is longer and more detailed and brings together everything you’ve learnt so far. I think the plate referred to is the illustrative style I referred to at the beginning, though I have to confess I’m not sure. The subject is a plant, with flowers, leaves and stem, in a pot and, again, I rather think something like “the whole thing” might have been a better heading.

Quibbles aside, this is an excellent attempt at a guide to paint plants for the complete beginner that achieves most of what it sets out to do and which, if that’s what you’re looking for, should fit the bill admirably.


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A-Z of Botanical Flowers in Watercolour || Michael Lakin

I wish someone would call a halt to this A-Z thing with flowers. No one seems to do it with other subjects and, if there weren’t things called Zantedeschia or Zinnia, they wouldn’t do it here either. I know that books need some sort of ordering and that this is the simple way, but it’s also becoming lazy, and leading to a template-style approach, too.

Don’t get me wrong, this is a beautiful book and, if the single-stem, detailed way with flower painting is what you want, this is an excellent way into it, being much simpler than other books, which tend to go into a lot more detail and maybe overwhelm.

The approach that Michael Lakin adopts is to complete each demonstration in two spreads. This is a concise way of doing it, and also gives you a consistent set of demonstrations, meaning that, once you have the hang of the layout, it will hold for everything else. It does, though, mean that you will have to fill in quite a lot of the gaps for yourself. The first two pages will show you the main details of the flower in question together with the drawings and the colour palette. Turn the page and you get a set of instructions for the painting, and an illustration of the finished result. There are no step-by-steps and whether you think the book is for you will very much depend on whether you think this is a good or a bad thing. There is a lot of information in the introductory sections and it should be said that these avoid repetition of the basic stuff later on, though, even if they are general rather than subject-specific.

Botanical illustration is a complex and highly technical subject for which it is difficult to write an introduction, so much having to be learnt all at once. Michael, however, makes a good stab at keeping things as simple as possible.

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Botanical Flowers in Watercolour (Ready to Paint) || Michael Lakin

I think you could say that, with this really rather surprising addition, this imaginative series has come of age. Botanical illustration isn’t normally regarded as something for the beginner, and yet these books, with their pre-printed tracings, are surely firmly in that camp. Aren’t they? And yet this works, completely. The answer, I think is that there’s a degree of flexibility in the format and here it bridges the gap between the beginner and the intermediate painter and makes accessible something that can be tricky to get started with.

Once again, by freeing you from the problem of getting the draughtsmanship right in the first place, Michael Lakin is able to concentrate on demonstrating the use of brushwork, colour and shading for producing detailed flower portraits. There’s still a lot to learn, of course, and six demonstrations, detailed as they are, won’t teach you everything you need to know, but by the end you’ll be able to decide whether it’s worth progressing and buying one of the many larger books on the subject.

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