Friday, 19 November 2021

The Value of a Sketchbook: Botanical and Nature Journal Insights

In late January 2021 fellow artist and friend from the US, Debbie Crawford, invited me to join her in a weekly botanical sketchbook project. The idea of a weekly painting seemed ambitious initially but here we are at week 39 and still going strong... we may be almost 3,500 miles apart but we keep in contact every week, most days in fact - to discuss our subjects, life, art and how we are getting along, this is a zero pressure activity yet it challenges us in a good way. The project and friendship became much more important as time passed through various pandemic lockdowns, we called it #botanicalsketchdates. It's filled the year with colour and learning and given me so many new insights into my own working practices with time to appreciate the seasonal nature of my surroundings with a good friend.

Arbutus undo watercolour painting
Figure 1. Week 38 The most recent entry Arbutus unedo, the Strawberry Tree. Not a native in England, but is found in southwest Ireland and the Mediterranean. An introduced species here it grows in my garden and is doing very well, most importantly it's beautiful and interesting.  No strict rules exist about what can and can't be included in the sketchbook. Too many rules can make the process restrictive and it can stall. As a result not entries are not native plants, others and are not botanical, fungi are included as part of the wider nature for their interaction with plants. Most entries are made from my wanderings of the local area where I live, others are further afield. 
The Art of Deconstruction 
Keeping sketchbooks is something that's preoccupied me for several years and reflecting upon my wider sketch page history, I hadn't realised quite how important sketchbooks are in my practice. Being science trained definitely made me more curious about plants with a desire to understand how things work but I've always had an element of curiosity, it was just less organised.... as a child I used to dismantle (i.e. break) toys, in particular dolls - to see how they fit together, a sketchbook is just my way of dismantling plants, making sense and understanding the features in relation to other factors such as environment, documenting, then working out how to put it back together together on a page etc. 

This deconstruction approach isn't for everybody, some people are more spontaneous, which is great, sometimes I am too and paint out of sheer desire to do so, there's no rule that a sketch page must be made for every painting - but the part I love most about plants is learning about them, and, if I'm going to make a finished painting it needs to be well informed - I guess it's a mechanism to remove the element of uncertainty and to get to know the subject up close - just as the portrait painter does. This is why study pages and sketchbooks feature so heavily in my teaching, it's a process of learning about the plant, its habit, environment and then how to approach it in a painting, it certainly makes it more interesting. I've recently been putting together my sketchbooks, study pages and finished paintings to show how I use them as  research in my process. Of course most of these sketchbook entries never make it to a final painting, but all are important reference and some do. 

Figure 2. Above: Calotropis gigantea, Giant Milkweed, sketchbook and finished painting (2018). I made these sketches in Indonesia, under difficult sticky hot conditions but it was essential to gather as much materials as possible because the painting was to be finished at home. I've been posting these 'Sketchbook to Painting' posts on my Dianne Sutherland Artist Facebook page if you would like to see more. I believe that I've understood a plant well enough when I can make a rough diagram from memory showing the following: floral morphology, basic reproductive strategy and parts, the leaf shape, venation and arrangement on the stem - only then do I feel like I'm in a good position to paint the plant. I decided this was a good approach after reading that it was a requirement that was employed in an examination by Ernest E Clarke, to draw a plant from memory! Clarke wrote the Handbook of Plant Form in the early 1900's. 

Always Something New to Learn 
The excitement of learning something new about a plant - one that I never studied or painted before is unrivalled for me, last week for example, when adding Arbutus undo to the sketchbook (figure 1), I cut open the bell shaped flower to find the these devilish little red anthers inside, then to make the connection - it's a member of the Ericaceae family, it has poricidal anthers with 'awns' which feature in other species this plant family. If you don't know what poricidal anthers are, they have a pouch type structure with a pore where the pollen comes out, pollen is only readily available available to pollinators that are capable of vibrating the anthers to release that pollen....  that's a whole subject in itself so I'll move on. They were worthy of getting the microscope out to investigate further and I was compelled to feature them in the sketchbook. I learned something new about a plant that pass everyday, that information is now fixed to memory. 

Figure 3. Arbutus unedo poricidal stamen, the strange appendages or 'awns' the whole thing looks devil or ant like. You can see the pollen grains scattered beneath as they spilled out of the pores at the top of the anther. These parts are are pretty small, a long arm binocular microscope was used - it's actually for inspecting circuit boards rather than using a traditional dissection microscope. It's low magnification and I fit a camera in the other lens socket. To be honest I don't use it all that much but its handy when I want to photograph and can't quite see enough with a hand lens.  

Figure 4. The reproductive parts inside the flower, once measured and drawn a better understanding is achieved

Figure 5. Adding the anthers and dissections to the page

Recording and Legacy 
The other side of sketchbooks is the importance in documenting or recording plants from an environmental perspective. For the botanicalsketchdates project I've documented many native plants in my locality, in the future such sketchbooks could provide important insights on species distribution, flowering time and habitats and plant communities, especially when accompanied by notes and location, comments about weather and of course dates. I always encourage my students to keep a sketchbook.  For me it's not all about making perfect finished paintings but about process, recording and understanding - although I also learn a lot about composition and painting painting of a weekly subject. I often go back to an entry adding mature fruits or additional comments about something that Iv'e noticed, it's important to note the date next to any additions, it will be interesting to observe the same plants over the years. I try to be mindful about what I'd want to know if I was looking at such a book in the future. 

Figure 6. Making later additions, in August fruit is added to the earlier honeysuckle entry, made in early July 

Figure 7. Lonicera periclymenum, from Down Banks, Barlaston, Staffordshire 

I leave space if there's something that I want to add later - even though it can leave an uncomfortable space on the page, I know its going to be filled later, the space has a purpose. 

Figure 8. Virburnum opulus Guelder Rose. A large white space is left top right but with the intention to return and add flowers next year. 

More About #botanicalsketchdates
This part was written several weeks ago but never finished or published - it's got some practical information on making a sketchbook and tells the botanicalsketchdates story up to week 34. Theres a little video walk through of the book and some fitting music for the passing seasons from Gavin Sutherland and Irmi Wolvin. 

       Video walk through up to week 34, with music from Gavin Sutherland and Irmi Wolvin

Prior to the pandemic travel had figured heavily for me.... probably too much and to be honest I was feeling tired, then out of the blue I was home...for a long time, this was the opportunity to explore my surroundings, taking walks, learning and recording the plants near to home - by March no one here in the UK could venture very far under lockdown - this project turned out to be the perfect antidote to isolation. Later on I was able to venture a further afield to paint and even made a return journey to Scotland. Before the pandemic I'd not spent a full Autumn at home for several years, so have really enjoyed this time of year again. 

Making a Sketchbook 
To begin, I set about making my own sketchbook, watched a few YouTube videos on different methods, gathered all the materials, a basic bookmaking kit from Amazon was under £10, and set to work. There are a few important points to bear in mind and the two excellent resources from Sea Lemon and Will J Bailey, are a great way to start, much thanks go to the people who take the time to share information in this way. My heuristic approach seemed to work out ok and the sketchbook, although far from perfect, was very usable with the best quality paper for watercolour. I also use Stillman & Birn books but felt that I wanted to use my usual watercolour paper for this project. 

I only had one block of Saunders Waterford HP High White that was the correct size (9 x 12 inches) and couldn't be bothered cutting paper because of all the issues with paper grain direction etc. and likely error on my part making mistakes when cutting. So I decided to work with what was at hand rather than buying more stuff, I figured that more stuff doesn't make anything better but this limited the number of pages, so I ended up with two volumes. I used the cardboard from the back of the watercolour block to make the hard cover, glued fabric to it from an old pillow case and covered it with some William Morris wrapping paper! to be honest it wasn't terribly well made but it worked and subsequent books are much better in construction, but it served a purpose.  SW paper isn't always the easiest for fine detail but I like it and it's tough stuff and good quality - the beauty of this is that you can choose your own paper.  For the second volume I switched to Stonehenge Aqua, my other favourite paper, which I find facilitates better fine detail (in my opinion). 

Figure 9. This is my most recent book with 52 double page spreads. I used the 4 needle Japanese stitch (you can find this on Sea Lemon's You Tube), it sits pretty flat,  a hardback cover was added and the spine was glued with linen, so represents a step up for me from my first book which has some big gaps between some pages, I don't mind the gaps but I do like to work across the centrefold so wanted to remove and any gaps this time - it's still far from perfect but I'm learning. It takes about a half day to make this book but if gluing the spine it will need to be left overnight to dry under heavy books. 

Figure 10. Finished book ready for 2022

Choosing Subjects 
Some times I'm not so happy with my choice but always stick with it - other times I am, that's just the nature of painting plants. However,  I always enjoy the process of choosing the subject, some subjects fill me with enthusiasm, other seem inviting but then don't turn out as I thought and then there are those that I never expected to paint but stumbled across and really enjoyed, this can actually change our direction in interests and facilitate a whole new area of work. My choices are not planned much in advance and are often opportunistic finds. One such subject was a fungi, which isn't even botanical but whilst out walking I came across this fly agaric in the strangest way - setting off for a daily walk and for no reason at all, I was thinking that I hadn't seen fly agaric for years, maybe 15 years or more. For some reason wandered left into the trees, which I seldom do and there it was! under nearly every birch tree, so it had to be included and fungi has such an association with plants and the environment that I felt it deserved a place. Such was the excitement that I've since added Ink caps and my week 39 is wax caps. It seems to be a bumper year for fungi here  - that goes back to the possible historic importance of recording what we observe in nature.  

Figure 11. A chance finding Amanita muscari

Figure 12. An absolute pleasure to paint, Fly Agaric. If it appears next year its going on vellum 

The Rule of no Rules 
Sometimes I'm asked about 'rules' for creating sketch pages, there are no rules that I'm aware of, I just begin by putting down the main focal point, i.e. the part of the plant or subject that anchors the illustration to the page. I don't really give it much thought, it's intuitive and I let the plant lead the way in an organic way, for example, a long curved flowing stem, such as honeysuckle (Figure 7.) is asking to crawl across two pages, with the flowers in a key position making the focal point for the viewer. It's kind of common sense, like where you put furniture in a house, then just add the bits around it, most important is to observe and learn about every plant, return later for the fruits and leave a gap for them. You can't analyse it because every plant or entry is different but there are some common features. Sometimes I do the whole dissection/deconstruction and other times I don't, it depends on the direction that the plant leads me into. 

Every Subject is Different 
I have a number of approaches but it's dictated by the plant. Sometimes using a combination of watercolour and graphite to create depth and separation enables me to create a jumbled growth habit, shown in the bramble, figure 15. This also speeds up the process of completing something that would otherwise take too long - I try not to spend more than one day on each entry, I grab a bit of time when I can often first thing in the morning but also spend time looking at the subject and reading about it or asking myself questions and have to make decisions dependent on available time for each plant, some can be completed quite quickly whereas others are more complex.

 For small graveyard plants in figure 12,  I painted three little habitat clumps as micro habitats over three weeks. The dandelion I made studies in figure 14  of but felt I had to paint it from above because that's the way I generally encounter it, seen in figure 13. All are different.

Figure 12. Three little habitat clumps Viola, Oxalis and Daisy from the graveyard

Figure 13. I made two Dandelion entries for this the first was a deconstruction (below), the second was the usual habitat view 

Figure 14. The Taraxacum officinale deconstruction 

Figure 15. Using graphite to create more complexity a Bramble another two page spread  

Figure 16. A mixed composition of wildflowers made in Scotland. I think this was may favourite to do - probably because of my associations with Scotland, and the lovely road trip exploring, which was a treat after being home for so long. Its a memory page!

To Conclude: Anyone can keep a sketchbook! 
The main take home point with a sketchbook is to never be afraid of a blank sheet of paper - fear only prevents things from happening, just enjoy the process and learn about nature. After each entry I wipe the decks clean and forget last week and start making the mess again. Some entries are painted outdoors, at least in part, and others are painted at my desk looking over the fields from my window, the strawberry tree, dandelions, harthown, hips and many others conveniently grow in or next to the garden. I grab an hour early in the morning or late at night if I'm short of time. Of course it depends what's available with plant material and how much time you have but anyone can keep a sketchbook and there's always something to draw or paint... the plants will lead the way.

Early morning painting 

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