Sunday, 5 June 2016

Entering Botanical Exhibitions and Society Membership

Last week I wrote about my painting, Fritillaria imperialis 'Rubra' being accepted for the ASBA 19th Annual International. This got me to thinking about the process of entering exhibitions and applying to Botanical Societies for Membership. I know that I've made some mistakes over the years but I've also been accepted into a few good shows and Societies, such as the Hunt and the Sydney Florilegium as well as being being a SBA member and exhibitor with the RHS. So I thought I'd write down my thoughts in the form of my top 10 suggestions regarding what 'I think' is important in making a good submission along with the practical points to consider.

Gloxinia image of painting printed in the Hunt catalogue
Gloxinia, in the Hunt 12th International catalogue: I was first invited to submit to the Hunt Institute of Botanical Documentation in 2004, by the late James White. To be honest I was fairly new to botanical art and had never even heard of the Hunt! Bear in mind there were no Facebook groups etc. and we worked away in isolation little or no communication with other artists....basically I was completely ignorant! So after many emails I eventually agreed to submit 3 slides ( yes the old days!). The simple composition of a Fritillaria meleagris was not accepted but to my surprise this one was. It's a fairly large painting of a life size Gloxinia species, which took about 5 months to complete, it was incredibly troublesome to achieve the velvety fleshy flowers and hairy leaves with their soft sheen but I enjoyed the challenge. I think it was the level of complexity in the painting rather than anything else that made it acceptable to the Hunt and James White had said that they were interested in 'substantial' works...interpret that how you like but I guess this was it. I can't say if it's still the same re submissions because the Hunt is a once only opportunity. If you are going to enter work, it's definitely worth taking your time on this one as it's a pretty important show, if the worst happens and you are rejected it's another 3 years until the next exhibition so start planning immediately and take on any advice given by the Hunt.
My Top 10
 1. Read the Rules Carefully
Obviously most important is the fact that you need to produce a good piece of work. This might sound obvious but you'd be surprised how easy it is to get carried away with or submit the wrong thing! check size limitations and subject matter specifications. Often there aren't any, other than the subject being botanical but sometimes there are.

2. Research
Do your homework if you want to be accepted. Look at previous successful entries ASBA, and Hunt catalogues are all available at a reasonable cost many are beautiful books and other exhibitions have work online, such as the SBA. You can also check out the prizewinners on the websites, there's a lot of information out there. The first question has to be 'do you consider your work to be suitable for a particular show or society?'

3. Make a good plant choice
This is really important so plan well! Make sure you know exactly what you are painting and of course that the Latin name is correct. It must be botanically accurate, simple stuff really: the correct number of petals, stamens, leaf arrangement, colour and scaled parts labelled etc. Work primarily from life and only use your photos for reference. Remember that if you pick very common subjects, it's likely that others will do the same, therefore the more entries of a particular plant the stiffer the competition will be. Select interesting species, hybrids or cultivars, not just any old cultivar from the garden centre or supermarket. Better still work with a Botanical Gardens or specialist grower to get the best plants and be guaranteed accurate names - surprisingly garden centres often mis-label plants. It helps if you have more than one plant to work from. If you've been asked to paint from a plant list, source the plant as soon as possible.

Strongylodon macrobotrys in 'The Florilegium' the Sydney Royal Botanic Garden publication, 2015. I was invited to join the Florilegium project around 2012 or 13 in preparation for the exhibition and publication in 2015. I was given a plant list to choose from and had always been fascinated by the Jade Vine. So I set about sourcing the plant, viewing it and sketching at several botanical gardens, including Kew and Durham. I painted a plant from each garden and in the end went with the Durham version. The reason: I'd forgotten the specifications and painted the Kew plant too large! But will submit that one elsewhere no doubt! The other specifications were that only 100% cotton paper and paints that are ASTM I or II lightfast.
The Florilegium publication is available in hard and softback

4. Take your time! 
It's no use allocating only a short amount of time for an important painting. You need to put in the work in and plan, sometimes you might be lucky but generally it shows if you did a rush job. I find that I've been most successful when I plan at least a year in advance and with work that was completed over many months. Use time wisely to think and review in order to get it right - I always paint or draw a subject twice and complete study pages as wells as sketchbook work.

A study page of 'Olivia Rose Austin' completed in 2015 for a work I'll be completing in 2016, when it flowers again

5. Use the best materials
Goes without saying really but always use archival paper that's 100% cotton and paints that are light fast, ASTM 1 or II. Some florilegiums won't accept work the doesn't meet this criteria. Even if you think Opera rose is OK because it's been on your windowsill for 10 years, some societies do not! 10 years isn't very long in the life of a painting. They idea behind documenting plant collections is that these works will stand the test of time, so avoid papers with brighteners or pulp content and fugitive paints. Check my previous post on paints and paper choice. But keep in mind the ongoing Fabriano problem ( there's a post on that too) .....there are lots of alternative papers though.

6. Demonstrate a Good Skill set and Complexity
This means include leaves, flowers and fruit etc., where appropriate and to give a good representation of the species. I'm not saying that you can't submit a painting of a simple leaf or flower, you can! but bear in mind that it will probably need to be exceptionally good to be accepted, works of this nature have a different type of complexity with is in the technique and detail. Simple flower or leaf portraits probably won't be suitable for florilegiums but may be suitable for the SBA and floral societies.

When I was going through the SBA membership process I tried to include subjects that showed a 'full skill set' again this comes back to reading the advice that you're given. So what's a full skill set? i.e. full plant, with leaves and flowers, such as this Primula vulgaris which was highly commended in the Joyce Cumming award, and which sold at the exhibition in 2012 along with two other native plant studies. For SBA membership you must submit 5 paintings in 2 consecutive years in order to become an Associate Member and then in the third year another 5 must be accepted, however the full membership is discretionary and not automatically granted upon acceptance.

Digitalis purpurea: SBA submission, a pretty traditional painting but doesn't necessarily need to be so for the SBA as they accept a broader scope of work, which includes slightly more relaxed floral art. But hopefully you can see a consistent style with this work and the primula, both also being native British plants and both on vellum.

7. Consistency and Style
If you are submitting a few works, whether for exhibiting or Society membership, make sure that you have a 'style' and not a mix of different mediums and subject matter, the work should be recognisable as yours.... and a theme can be good too! such as plants from a particular Genus, or from a geographic area, a collection or botanic garden.

 8. For digital submissions get a professional to photograph or scan your work
It's no use producing a good piece of work and then submitting a poor quality scan or photographic image. Get a good photographer who specializes in this type of work. It doesn't cost all that much. Forget home scanners they are generally 'lossy' at the top and bottom end. The work has to look as close as possible to the original and be suitable for viewing on screen rather than for print. Again check that you have the correct dpi and dimensions as specified on the submission form. 

9. Have a CV ( Resume) prepared and a short Biography
This should always be at hand and will most likely be needed, if you don't have one look at other artists and there are lots of resources available to help you. Keep to relevant material and a reasonable word count for the biography, this can be between 100 and 200 words so maybe have a short and a long version. Keep to the point and brief with your background training, subject material and interests, medium and notable work, such as awards and collections. Provide an interesting summary of these though because you'll no doubt be asked to send a CV or Resume too. 

10.Finally: Pricing don't undersell yourself! 
It sometimes horrifies me when I see the prices on some botanical pieces! and all too often for beautiful works that obviously took a considerable amount of time are priced very low. If you sell too low you don't do any artists a favour and undervalue botanical art in general, that makes it hard for all of us and gives the impression that it's a hobby rather than a profession. Conversely don't charge silly prices, look at comparisons based on experience and genres. Arriving at a price is always a difficult question and depends on a number of factors, hours worked, experience and cost incurred, such as framing transport, commission and VAT. At very least do your sums, commission varies but usually anywhere between 30% and 50%. Again there are lots of resources on the web such as this one from Saatchi and the Scottish Artists Union also offers very good advice on rates of pay for artists, whether for original work, residencies and workshops

That's about it, I'm sure there's lots more that I could add but wanted to keep it brief.

Keep in mind that it doesn't always go your way and you have to keep trying
I believe it's important for an artist to have new goals in their career, which included striving for inclusion in new exhibitions as well as becoming a member of various Botanical societies but these goals shouldn't dominate your work and the work should come first. A few years ago I decided to focus on trying for some new goals but life got in the way for as short while and I made a few of mistakes, my biggest error was not spending enough time on work and this was the case when I did the RHS London Orchid show and was awarded a silver medal in 2013 but I've also done this before, so should know better. Having first been accepted by the RHS in 2004 I still haven't done any better than a silver medal and the criticism is always the same. So last time I took the excellent advice of judge Gillian Barlow about making more substantial works ( yes that's exactly what James White said too) I've decided to take my time to work on more complex pieces rather than simple small studies. I can make all sorts of excuses, such as getting divorced and having to prioritise illustration paid work but have to take RHS criticisms on the chin and try harder! So I'm planning to take the maximum amount of time before applying to exhibit again with the RHS and working on a series of Stachyurus species, which I've sourced from a really good grower. It's a long haul but worth it when you find the right plants. However will only apply when and if  I have work which I believe is good enough to warrant entry.
RHS 2013, my submissions were too simplistic for anything other than a silver at RHS. That was the feedback from judge Gillian Barlow. She said I should have had paintings as complex as the top centre image. Basically it wasn't enough but no excuses and I rushed this exhibit ( doesn't matter what the reason is) also I  didn't present it well but  on the upside I've sold 3 of these works and later got commended in the Strathmore paper award at the SBA. So not all bad.

 This brings me to my final point, personally I don't  paint with a specific aim unless I'm painting from a species list, and then I only choose what I feel is right for me. I have found what little success I've had success comes with paintings for the love of it and where a plant really grabs my attention! rather than forcing myself to paint plants I don't really like. Also taking a considerable amount of time to plan and complete, often over two or more seasons by making several studies is vital as was the case with the Fritillaria below.

Finally, the Fritillaria imperialis 'Rubra' on vellum, which has just been accepted into the ASBA 19th Annual International. Sorry for posting again. I spent about 6 weeks working on this piece but had painted it the previous year and have several plants growing in pots as reference material. In fact I paint or draw most subject twice before I'm happy with them.  This one was on vellum but I had previously painted it on paper and vellum.
A previous smaller version on vellum painted the same year

My first study on paper painted the previous year....preparation and time are all important!

Here are just a few useful Links:
RHS submissions process before exhibiting
RHS Find out how to exhibit
Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney Florilegium and related awards
Chelsea Physic Garden Florilegium About and how t become a member 
SBA submission and membership information not cuurrently available as the website is being undated but bookmark the site for information
ASBA calls for entries and past exhibitions
Includes the Hunt International ( every 3 years) and many other opportunities 


  1. Hello Dianne
    Thank you very much for your kindness, the blog post is excellent and helpful !
    Congratulations on your wok!!

  2. Hi Diane,
    Thank you for this. Do you know where I could get a copy of the Florilegium book?
    Linda Warner Constantino

    1. Hi Linda, will try to find out, the only contact I have is at the Botanic garden distributor for the publication. Gil Teague, Florilegium Garden Bookshop,

  3. Diane, I always look forward to seeing what you are working on. And I do so appreciate all the tips and techniques that you share with us. This is a great article. I too would love to have a copy of The Florilegium and wonder if it is available in the USA. Thank you for everything. Linda

    1. Hi Linda, thank you! the contact I have is the florilegium bookshops who will ship

  4. Wonderful article Dianne, many thanks for your generous words of wisdom.

  5. Wonderful article Dianne, many thanks for your generous words of wisdom.

  6. This is great Dianne, thank you for admitting your mistakes and sharing them so that we can learn. So generous! Cheryl