Friday, 8 October 2021

Cup and Saucer Plant Project: Cobaea scandens Study Page

As with many larger painting projects this Cobaea scandens is being painted over a two year growing period. I first grew it from seed, in March 2020 and now into the second year, so hope to finish before the end of 2021. C. scandens is a plant that's remarkably easy to grow from seed, it germinates quickly and grows rapidly and flowers for a long time, from August and into late December, although this year it's only recently flowered.  This is the story of my progress with the painting to date with the study page and initial's a fairly lengthy process from start to finish with such a complex plant.

Details from the study page

The A2 study page completed 2020. I was able to take many large cuttings from the plant

Cobaea scandens
, is a member of the Phlox family Polemoniaceae, commonly known as the Cup and Saucer Vine, Canterbury Bells or Mexican Ivy, originally from South America it does well in many locations around the globe.  The Latin 'scandens' means climber, Charles Darwin studied a number of climbers and his observations were published in 1875 in ' The Movements and Habits of Climbing Plants'  which had been made available by the Gutenberg project. Darwin made special note of the vigour of C. scandens, which he said revolved more rapidly and vigorously than any other tendril bearer he had seen, with the exception of one species of passiflora. He wrote: 

The long, straight, tapering main stem of the tendril of the Cobaea bears alternate branches; and each branch is several times divided, with the finer branches as thin as very thin bristles and extremely flexible, so that they are blown about by a breath of air; yet they are strong and highly elastic. The extremity of each branch is a little flattened, and terminates in a minute double (though sometimes single) hook, formed of a hard, translucent, woody substance, and as sharp as the finest needle. On a tendril which was eleven inches long I counted ninety-four of these beautifully constructed little hooks. They readily catch soft wood, or gloves, or the skin of the naked hand. With the exception of these hardened hooks, and of the basal part of the central stem, every part of every branchlet is highly sensitive on all sides to a slight touch, and bends in a few minutes towards the touched side. By lightly rubbing several sub-branches on opposite sides, the whole tendril rapidly assumed an extraordinarily crooked shape. These movements from contact do not interfere with the ordinary revolving movement. The branches, after becoming greatly curved from being touched, straighten themselves at a quicker rate than in almost any other tendril seen by me, namely, in between half an hour and an hour.


The long twisting tendrils described by Darwin, you can see how they branch with their small hooks...grabbing anything and everything in their path

Keeping sections of plant in florist tubes to keep them fresh
The compound leaves with tendril

 My observations start as always with research and a study page, I used a large sheet of A2 Stonehenge Aqua HP 300 gsm paper. The first interesting point to note is the change in the flower colour, which are pale green to creamy white upon opening and gradually turn to a rich purple, as colour spreads from a small spot. I thought there must be some purpose for this and after a little research learned that the pale flower has a fairly unpleasant odour, which attracts bats, many bat pollinated flowers are white so that makes sense, thereafter the scent becomes sweeter as the colour changes and bees are attracted. I made some studies on colour paper as I am still trying to decide on the final substrate for this work,  Initially I thought of Kelmscott vellum but may opt for the dark veiny vellum.

Studies of the newly opened flowers on coloured paper, pale subjects always look good on a colour background 

Study on dark veiny vellum 

Study on deer skin 

I made measured studies of all parts with colour notes, mature leaves, new leaves, stems, tendrils, flowers in various stages from bud phase to post pollination, dissection, suit and finally seed. This took a while as I had to wait for each stage to develop. Below you can see the development of the flower colour, note also the sequential opening of anthers, the male phase begins shortly after the flower opens, within 24 hours and then releases pollen sequentially, this maximises the time for cross pollination, once the pollen is released, the female style grows and the stigma becomes receptive, this reduces the risk of self pollination. Cross pollination is always favourable to plants because it increases genetic diversity, although I'm not sure if Cobaea is self compatible.

Each part is carefully measured and documented and a dissection is made, the beauty of growing your own plants is that there is plenty of plant material. 

Dissection of the flower, I also painted the individual male and female parts

Once the study page was complete I started on the composition, making very rough drawings and having large sections of the plant suspended on my easel. The aim is to show the various stages of the plant and its growth habit, its difficult with a plant like this as there are many stages, the bud, flower stages, fruit development and seed pod, plus dissection, also leaves, leaflets, tendrils, stems. Much overlapping is required but repetition should be avoided as far as possible and hopefully the final painting should aim to be aesthetically pleasing. It's a lot to think about but I believe that this study page process makes it easier and more accurate. 
Rough compositional sketches underway

The study has given me a good understanding of the plant, the next stage of the process is to think about overall light and shade and the tonal values. This is particularly important in complex plants when many parts overlap, separation between parts becomes important, and, if all parts are equal in saturation things can become confused. A common strategy is to make further away parts paler and closer parts more saturated and stronger, this is known as aerial or atmospheric perspective, a strategy traditionally used in  landscape painting, where further away parts in the landscape are paler and more blue due to the effect of atmospheric light. In a painting this approach creates the illusion of depth or recession and is also useful in creating the separation between overlapping parts- so that parts are clear. The same strategy can be used in botanical painting to but it should be subtle. 
Also, the tonal values between parts needs to be carefully observed, i.e. which parts are lighter and which are darker. Finally, light direction should be clear and consistent, cast shadows within the subject can also be used to create separation.

I find the best way of dealing with this is to make a painted tonal study using black paint, this helps me to make sense of all of the potential issues with overlaps, tonal values and lighting. It's also useful in cross checking whether or not the composition is working or not and is also a last chance to make alterations. 

Beginning the tonal study 

In the next post I will share the tonal study, transfer to the substrate and development of the final painting. 

Monday, 13 September 2021

The Botanical Artist: The Art of Earning a Living

This isn't my typical blog post but I think it's important to talk about the business of being a botanical artist. It's not an easy choice to work as a full time artist and Illustrator - I made the decision and took the plunge in 1989 and relocated in Scotland - being an artist meant that work location was flexible and what better place for inspiration! Prior to this, just one year was spent at art school before leaving to work at the Royal Doulton design studio, which was good but I wanted to be an artist. So I started painting, researched the 1980's art market and wrote a half-baked business plan with advice from someone who had even less idea than myself. I successfully applied for a business start up grant for under 25's from the Princes Trust, .... and so it began.  

Teaching is a great way of diversifying for an artists I've learned so much from it, travelled to amazing places and met some wonderful people. Photo from RBGE 2017.

For over 20 years I worked exhibiting, undertaking commissions and doing commercial work, the latter was high pressure, it became a painting treadmill and was burning me out  -although I felt very fortunate in many ways. My focus shifted and whilst still working as an artist, I decided to broaden my training and studied for a degree in plant biology. I did this to inform my practice as a botanical artist - and wanted to be a specialist rather than a generalist, and a plant educator needs to understand their subject. Following that period, I worked in the arts education sector employing artists, with local government funding and external funders, such as the Arts Council and Lottery Fund. This experience gave me an insight from a different perspective, I became very aware of the monetary aspect for artists and started to question advice I'd seen on pricing.  As artists we have the ideas and the create the artwork, which is the exciting part of the job - this is just the beginning though, there is much multitasking involved in being an artist, marketing and selling works can be hard to pitch, this is where information becomes scant. Even if you don't want to be a full time artist, it's important to be paid fairly for your work,  it has to be sustainable and should be enjoyable. 

If you're thinking of going down this work route you may come across doubters, yet it is possible to make a worthwhile career out of being a botanical artist.  You have to be practical, realistic, tenacious and will need to work hard, producing a steady stream of work and marketing it well (but not over promoting to the point where it's annoying). You will need to keep on top of the ever changing market and have good ideas. The market has changed dramatically in the last 20 years through the internet and more recently via social media, for me this has been a great development and has opened up the world of botanical art, it's increased competition and pushes botanical artists to achieve more with their work. Some diversification is usually required to be completely self sufficient, especially if you're slow with your creative practice. I had found good training in botanical art difficult to access at the time and decided to develop the teaching side of my practice, which I've been doing for over 10 years. Many mistakes have been made over the years and I learned from trial and error. Aside from original artwork and teaching there are several other options, such as commissions, commercial illustration work, licensing artwork, publishing, prints and merchandise -  I've done bits of all of them and will cover some of these in future blog posts. Currently, I would say I spend around 40% of my time creating artwork, 40% of time teaching and 20% on commercial work. 

I was prompted to write this post having seen too many artists' selling work for too little,  you just know that the artist is probably making a loss and certainly not making a living, it's almost doomed to failure because it's not sustainable. I also see societies with low minimum prices - this is meant as a starting point,  it's great from a buyers perspective but often the artist ends up with less than minimum wage because the don't value their work and pitch at the bottom end due to lack of confidence.  On the other hand there is no point in being over confident and charging too much and not selling.  Undercharging in a desperate attempt to sell work, drags the business down, as a result the budding artists can become stressed by the feeling that they are spending many hours working for very little reward. We all have to start somewhere but we need to live, so we deserve fair rates of pay for our efforts. If you're a slow worker this means that you will probably need to maximise on your areas of diversification, supplementing income with prints and teaching but it's important to keep a balance and remember that primarily you are an artist.  

Money Matters

Most of us know the feeling of being asked to quote for a commission, maybe you've been asked to give a talk or class or want to enter an open exhibition, but then the dreaded feeling of what to charge rears its head and little help or advice is available.  Pricing varies based on qualification and experience, so you have to decide what your input is worth, that can be a tough call. The first rule is, never pluck figures out of thin air without considering what's actually required in terms of preparation, expenses and taxes. For commercial work make sure there's a contract (more about that in another post). Whatever you do, whether it's a commission, teaching or exhibition make sure that everybody is clear about what's being asked of you and what your client expects, don't be embarrassed to ask what the budget is or to discuss the money - be clear and ask for a deposit if it keeps the cash flow in order. Discussion saves problems in the long term.

When I started out I was looking in all of the wrong places for information and advice, eventually through my work in education I found the best place was the Arts Council and the Artists' Unions, rather than arts societies. One of the leaders in supporting artists is the Scottish Artists Union (SAU), which I was a member of, since moving back to England I joined the relatively new Artists Union England, which is now following a similar route. They give clear guidance on what artists should be paid, you don't even have to be a member to access guidance on pricing. Mostly the information is for art graduates with a university degree. Unfortunately there is currently no formal qualification in Botanical Art but there is training and experience which can be viewed as equivalent. 

Link to SAU

Link to AUE

Anyway I thought it would be useful to share my background, thoughts and sources of information on hourly rates, of course it's up to each individual to decide for themselves, this is just what I do based on advice by the Unions. The English Union are currently preparing new advice on exhibiting, so this is something to look out for. I've rounded their figures and put in my own thoughts. Im just focusing on hourly rates and workshops in this post and will cover others later. You can convert the currency to your own if outside the UK. 

NOTE: Rates exclude artist’s expenses for a specific project, tax and VAT where relevant. Think carefully about other expenses and make sure they are covered. 

Variations in rates relate to qualifications and experience, defined by ‘years as a working artist’, and would be evidenced by a professional CV, indicating the artist’s track record, additional qualifications and achievements, such as Botanical Art Diplomas/ Certificates, awards such as RHS medals, Society membership, exhibition track record, work in collections or publications etc. You should always have a CV and Biography that's up to date. 

I find the only reliable method for pricing is an hourly or day rate and then adjust where necessary based on the market, expenses and commission. However, some artists are slow and this isn't practical so they need to consider how to make it viable, such as prints. You have to start with some benchmark for pricing and this is a good as any - and is supported by the Arts Council and Unions.

Hourly working rates based on Union rates but rounded: 

£23.00 /hr new graduate artist 

£30.00 /hr with 3 yrs + experience 

£38.00 /hr upwards with 5 yrs + experience 

Original Artwork in Exhibitions

When pricing paintings for exhibiting it is important to calculate everything or you may find yourself out of pocket. The starting point which should be the hours worked and experience of the artist (some people use size as a way of pricing but I don't find this so helpful). You should work from your costs rather than stipulating an ‘on the wall price’ it saves you from the shock of the small cheque after the sale and feeling like you gave it away. Remember that commission can be vary from between 20% - 60%. Bear in mind that VAT may be added on top and if exhibiting in other countries there can be significant additional costs, which can be high, so you will need to find out about these in advance and weigh up the cost:benefit. 

Example, using the hourly rate:

Graduate level work for an exhibition or gallery. 

15 hours working time @ £23 per hour = £345


Presentation and framing e.g. £ 75 

Delivery e.g. £ 30 (highly variable depending on where the work is going, calculate as appropriate with courier or travel. If you are delivering it personally you need to consider your time, its better  to use a courier)

Also any insurance costs should be added to this

Hanging fee if appropriate e.g. £20 (varies) 

That's a total of  £125 

£345 + £125  = £470 but should this be your 'on the wall' price? 

Commission and Consistent Pricing

The simple answer to the above is no, it should not be the 'on the wall' price. You have to consider the commission that will be charged, the  20% - 60% variation makes this seem more complicated. It doesn't matter what commission is, the 'on the wall price' should be fairly consistent, otherwise buyers might be upset if they feel they paid more and see similar work at a lower price because commission is lower or drastically lower online prices may  upset the galley that you sell through. Pricing should be consistent.

Think about this: from the £ 470 selling price, say the gallery commission of 40% is £188 to be deducted and the expenses were £125, which leaves you with approx £157, which isn't very much for your efforts, it works out at about £10 per hour, then there is tax, depending on your earnings and all the other day to day business expenses. You will need to churn out work at this rate and won't have time to do anything else, so I suggest factoring in a proportion (about half or so) of the commission price to the 'on the wall' price. This will even out for you over time because sometimes you will sell direct, and others you will pay more or less commission.

Teaching Workshops Union Rates

£190 /8hr day  new graduate artist 

£245 p/day with 3 yrs experience

£302 p/day with 5yrs+ experience 

Workshop Additional Costs These rates from the Unions are useful but you must factor in the preparatory time (e.g. a half day), travel costs, materials, insurance etc. If you're asked to do just a few hours have a minimum charge because of set up time, it's unlikely you'll get much else done that day! Also be clear about who is marketing and selling the workshop, what else are you expected to do? 

Why Personal Development is Important

Aside from the above, it's important to have time for other projects to develop your practice, if you are caught in the cycle of churning out work to survive it will be impossible. Sometimes I do Florilegium projects and also spend time on my sketchbook, whilst these have no direct financial benefit they are good for my development and create a legacy of work, as well as being beneficial for the education of others about plants, which is what its' all about for me. These projects may yield other benefits and create exposure often being included in publications, so don't write off work that doesn't pay directly, whilst this may seem contradictory, consider wider benefits and choose wisely. 

Exhibiting work from the Sydney Florilegium at the Shirley Sherwood Gallery, Kew in 2018 

I hope this helps, will write more time permitting. I wouldn't change anything even though it's an ongoing learning curve. 

Friday, 16 July 2021

Dandelion Sketches

I have decided to write the occasional post about some of the plants featured in my sketchbooks. It seems a shame to present a painting without all of the 'other stuff' or back stories, such as the description, history, process of painting or whatever, it's one of the many reasons why keeping a sketchbook is so appealing to me. Of course a finished painting is a stand -alone piece and takes a lot of time, but the process of learning about a plant in a sketchbook study is much more than the visual sum of its parts, and recording in a broader context interests me more and more as I get older. Most of these studies will probably never make it to finished paintings due to time constraints but all contribute to my understanding of both plants and painting. The first plant to feature is the humble dandelion, Taraxacum officinale, or the Common Dandelion.

Above: Sketchbook pages of Taraxacum officinale, painted from my garden, April 2021. This sketchbook is a project that I've been working on since early this year - with fellow artist Debbie Crawford, we paint a plant of our choice each week, mine are from the locality where I live - in Staffordshire and Debbie's are from her garden in New Jersey. It's certainly helped with motivation and focus during the lockdowns, I even made the sketchbook myself! Here the Dandelion is illustrated  from above,  because that's often how we come across it. Also, notes and colour swatches are shown, which I record for reference,  they also tie everything together visually. Note that the painting is unfinished and sketchy - the aim is to record rather than produce finished works. This was my second entry for the dandelion in the book. 

Initial Observation and Thoughts: Dandelion Friend or Foe

As a child I recall my grandmother complaining about stubborn dandelion 'weeds' in the lawn, path and elsewhere. We were forbidden to take these flowers indoors, I think because of association with it as a diuretic, hence its other common name 'Piss-in-the-Beds', in fact there was a pretty negative association with dandelions but most children still loved to blow the seeds of the dandelion clock.... helping to spread them even more. The poor dandelions had a lot of bad press at one time, mostly because of human obsession with neat lawns. Today the dandelion has a lot more respect for providing pollinators with food, most of us have fond memories of dandelions but in some circles feelings are still mixed. 

My grandson preparing to blow the seeds of the dandelion 'clock',  a fond memory for many of us.

I've never illustrated a dandelion before and only knew a limited amount from my plant biology days but that was more to do with allelopathy, a process whereby plants release chemicals that inhibit the growth of other plants - it's something that dandelions do well, which is why they take over in the garden and elsewhere. This can be a real problem in agriculture because the chemicals released from the roots can  inhibit the germination in grasses.  On the flip side those long dandelion tap roots can access soil nutrients for some shorter rooted plants, so can help other species. In some countries, T. officinale was introduced as a crop but became an invasive species, research has shown that it may inhibit the the germination of native wildflowers through interspecific pollen transfer, when pollen is lost to other species or when the stigma of flowers becomes clogged with the alien dandelion pollen, but we have to consider how or who enabled them to arrive in these places. 

Bombus ruderarius on Taraxacum officinale copyright Wikimedia Commons

Despite these negatives, dandelions are an important early food source for pollinators most notably the bumblebees and T. officinale provides both pollen and nectar food sources. Nectar is a rich carbohydrate but pollen is needed by bumblebees at some stages of life - the female bumblebee needs the pollen protein to raise her young. That said, dandelion pollen is not the most nutritious compared to other pollen sources, in fact some research even suggests that bees become trained to the dandelion pollen and neglect other more important food sources, such as pollen from fruit trees. A field or garden full of dandelions are visually appealing to bees and they are very easy easy to alight with their flat topped landing sites. Although the study is interesting it's likely that generalist bees feed on different pollen at different times of day, because plants have varying optimum times for releasing pollen and bees benefit from a variety of pollen. For pollinators though, it does seem like the dandelions are the fast food of the bee world! whatever you think about dandelions, there can be little doubt that a lawn full of dandelions is better than manicured grass lawn. 

Whilst all this is fascinating it doesn't really help so much with my illustration, but it's interesting how a plant is valued, some people love them for the pollinators, whilst others praise the herbal benefits, lots of people hate them because they can dominate and destroy grasslands and gardens. ....There is always so much to consider with every plant and maybe we need to think beyond plants as human resources - the story isn't ever clear cut. In the end I suppose it's all about balance, my garden is pretty full of dandelions, I like them and so do the insects, I definitely see them as a friend and not a foe.

 I wanted to know as much as possible and begin by looking around the field of dandelions next to the house, the first thing that strikes me is the sheer number and then variability, in size, colour and leaf shape. My garden is an extension of the field, so no shortage of plant material with this one, also I had the luxury of using one that had decided to grown in an old plant pot, dandelions are good at that, they pop up just about everywhere.

A garden full of dandelions makes a great study subject, the more accessible plant material is - the better. Common plants are just as interesting as rare ones and much easier to study. 

The luxury of a plant with roots  

 This year there seems to be many more or maybe I was just paying attention because of the painting. Drawing and painting definitely enhances the powers of observation. 

Using Secondary Reference Material 

After deciding to paint the dandelion and carrying out some additional observations of the habitat, I undertake some further reading. Firstly understanding the plant name can reveal a lot with both common and Latin names. The origin of the common name, 'Dandelion' is a corruption of the French name,  'Dent-de-Lion' which you will see in older books,  it means 'lions tooth' and refers to those toothed leaves.  The Genus name Taraxacum is derived from the Greek 'taraxos' which means 'disorder' and 'akos' which means remedy. The specific epithet (second part of the Latin name) 'officinale' is derived from Latin 'officina' meaning 'pharmacy', referring to plant use in medicine, today the dandelion continues to be used in many remedies, as diuretic (remember the 'Piss-in-the-beds). All parts are edible and you can put them in salads although they are rather bitter, make wine or feed to the guinea pigs, which is what I do. 

Carrying out research can seem like a lot of extra work when you just want to paint but it doesn't actually take long, I tend to read in the evenings and digest the info before painting, preferring to paint in the early morning daylight, then dipping back into research when I want to know more. This really helps me to understand the plant, especially if I decide to make a final painting. The most important research initially is the plant description, a quick look at Wikipedia can actually give an overview but content can be variable, depending on how well researched it is, there is usually so much more to learn from other resources, that said, some Wikipedia entries are pretty good and that's the case with the dandelion. If you're not sure how to find other information, good descriptions can be found in any good flora book and there is much available online. For British species Stace's New Flora of the British Isles, is the standard but it is quite an expensive book and to be honest its a bit dry and complicated, so if you don't know much botany it's going to be a tough one - you can pick up previous editions for very little if you intend to go into depth but will need to cross check for updated information.  A beautiful and brilliant book that's much more accessible is William Keble Martins The Concise British Flora in Colour (1965), which took over 60 years to complete,  that isn't so surprising because it has 1486 illustrated species, I love the way this book is constructed with some lovely dissections too. I picked up a copy for just a few pounds but a first edition will cost, my botany tutor at University always referred to Keble Martin's book, but the descriptions are pretty limited for many plants and you may need to look for more in-depth descriptions. Illustrator Marjorie Blamey and Kew author Christopher Grey-Wilson's, The Illustrated Flora of Britain and Northern Europe, is a great book with 2,400 species listed, I've had this book since it came out in 1989 and still use it today, you can pick it up for around £20 upwards.  Same issues with out of date info but its usually not that difficult to find access up-to-date cross references. 

From Keble Martin's Concise British Flora in Colour (1965)

From Marjorie Blamey and Christopher Grey-Wilson's Illustrated Flora of Britain and Northern Europe. pp 436-437 (1989) 

For cross checking there are some brilliant online resources, too many to name here, but the Botanical Society of the British Isles is excellent and up-to-date resource.  Here's their entry on T. officinale.  Also World Flora online is a global resource for plant names. 

Then there are some very old books, such as George Bentham's Handbook of British Flora (1859), which was illustrated by Walter Fitch, I'm pretty fond of the old floras most have a lot of incorrect information because plants have been reclassified as new discoveries are made, however old floras and editions are interesting from an historical perspective, Bentham's book was met with mixed reception, he described it as for 'Beginners and Amateurs' but failed to use particularly accessible language, he also wrote a book on Australian Flora, called Flora Australiesis (1863) as part of Kew's series of colonial floras. There are many floras for different parts of the world, if you do a little research you can find them from booksellers like Abe Books. 

If you want to learn about plants, the plant family is an important starting point, as a botanical artist, we should always know what family a plant it belongs to and be able to give some of the key features. It's hard though because there are so many but remember that you don't have to learn all!  - I work on a 'learn as you go' or 'need to know' basis and build knowledge over time. I'm not trying to be a botanist but need to know about what it is and how it fits together. Botanists have identified 452 flowering plant families across the world. In 1883 just 197 families were recognised and in 2016, the most resent assessment, 416 families, so this is an ongoing process of recording and clarifying/ reclassifying and also the reason why those old floras might be less useful. In total there are in the region of 300 thousand flowering species, that's a lot of plants! not to mention the non flowering (www.stateoftheworldsplants). Cultivars is a whole different area but still learning feature of plant families is just as relevant.

From Bentham's Handbook of the British Flora (1859), Illustrated by Walter Fitch. It's always useful to look at how botanical illustrators recorded plants in these plates -  illustrators had such limited size and shapes to fit the plant into. They had to bear in mind the small size of the publication too, so clarity in this style of illustration is key. It requires extremely skilful composition to get all parts of different shaped plants into the same template. Sometimes people say how do I work within the confines of the sketchbook but my sketchbook offers considerable freedom and I can use a single page or double page spread in any orientation. 

Benthams book met with some controversy, 'For the use of amateurs and beginners'  

In the sketchbook I begin by noting the date of the entry first, then the correct Latin name (genus and specific epithet) and the plant family. Taraxacum officinale is an easy one to identify, we all know it and it's a member of one of  the largest plant families, Asteraceae, (formerly Compositae, i.e. having composite flowerhead comprising many small flowers). There are more than 1,900 genera and 32, 000 species in Asteraceae - aster, daisies, sunflowers are all members. 

The Genus Taraxacum,  from Blamey and Grey-Wilson (1989) is described as follows:  perennial herbs, with milky latex, rosettes of basal leaves sprouting from a tap root. Leaves lobed or unlobed. Flowerheads yellow or white, solitary, borne on hollow scapes, flat topped when open, florets all rayed, the inner shorter than the outer; flower bracts in two rows, the outer shorter and often recurved. Fruit a large and conspicuous 'clock. A large and extremely complicated genus; some 200 micro species are recognised in Britain alone. 

There are hundreds of species in the Taraxacum genus, so it's important to add the species. 

Taraxacum officinale description: This is an extract for the specific epithet information from Blamey and Grey-Wilson (1989) Very variable, low to medium plant, 5-40cm, often  robust, leaves lobed to unlobed, coarse, never spotted, with broad winged, lobed stalks. Flowerheads mid-yellow, 25-50mm, often convex above, the rays usually with a brown or grey violet strip beneath, borne on stout scapes; flower bracts usually dark blueish-green, the outer recurved, not horned...

If you consult several resources you can find much more information. The plant has 1-10 stems which can be green or tinted red/purple. Basal leaves are 5-45 cm longhand 1-10 cm wide, oblanceolate, oblong or obovate, have narrowing petioles that can be winged or unwigned, lobed to deeply lobed with sharp or dull teeth. Florets number 40 to over 100.... and so on. 

Viewing Works on the Same Subject

I already mentioned that the botanical illustrations in the old floras are useful but as an artist I also want to look at work on the same subject by other artists. A Google search of the 'species name and illustrations' will yield a good range of images but also the website  is a fantastic resource. Type in the species/specific epithet or vernacular name into the box to view old illustrations. Here's a little screenshot of what comes up. There are only so many ways of arranging the elements on the page and it's always useful to see what went before - to decide what works and doesn't work, and occasionally what hasn't been done before. The idea here isn't to replicate but to look at approaches, much can be learned.

Screenshot from

Making Initial Studies: My Primary Research and Colour Studies 

I begin with measured drawings of all of the individual parts and work out the colours as I develop the pages, cross checking at all stages with the secondary research already consulted. Usually beginning with the flower in a prominent position on the page. I don't have a specific system but generally go with natural order of parts (higher and lower on the plant) or where they best fit on the page. At an early stage I decided that this plant deserved more than one page, so would follow up with the full plant and maybe the seed-head, with a view from above of the whole plant - this puts the individual parts into context. It's a fairly organic process which I don't want to constrain it by having too many 'rules, there are no rules in a sketchbook but it makes sense to complete flowers first because they will change and die first. Illustrating the plant parts in a study like this gives me a good feel for the plant, and I can I then move on to the next parts of the study. Want to include as many phases and stages as possible but need to avoid repetition. 

Initial sketches and colours chosen, these can be changed or adjusted as the work progresses. The whole process is to experiment and to include the different parts and stages.

The good thing about dandelions is that you can have all stages at hand and lots of plant material. I start with some views of the main flower, there is no front facing view here but I had decided to make a second study from above. 

The leaves are highly variable, with the extent of the toothed margin. The tap root on this one is relatively young compared to some that I've seen. 

The full two page spread with colour swatches, I use a primary palette and number the colours with notes re the mixes for reference, this is useful for painting of the plant at a later date. My palette is on my website but use whichever brand and colours you prefer, sometimes I use a few other colours, simply because I've accumulated so many over the years and don't want to be wasteful but I find can paint everything with this range of colours from Winsor & Newton Artist quality range. There are many ways of getting to the same place with watercolour - having the exact same colours is not that important. Also, consider the substrate, don't copy someone else's colours, there are many variations in plants which can also vary depending  on the light. The paper also affects the colour, I think it's vital to understand and work out your own colours, although many basic hues will be the same, the variations within them can be different.  the aim should be to create a typical specimen but with dandelions there is much variability.

Moving on to the Next Study

As an artist, we have the freedom to represent the plant as we see fit, as a botanical artist we want to represent the plant with scientific accuracy, so the two need to be balanced. Judgements are taken and a sketchbook is a great way of experimenting with approaches. In the second study it seemed a natural progression to go for the whole plant approach from above, because of the rosette arrangement when viewed from above, i.e. more than the sum of parts approach, this is a key feature of the plant so is important.  I felt pretty familiar after my first studies and sketched out the plant directly, it's drawn life size. Smaller parts, such as the seed is scaled up in size and the scale is written. 

A rough sketch of the view from above was made, in probably less than an hour, it's so much easier to do this after the initial observations and studies, which build familiarity with how it fits together. If I hadn't done the previous work, this drawing would have been so much more confusing and time consuming, so all the work pays off and reduces and areas of doubt.

Experimenting with approach, adding parts here and there to see what works best can be invaluable if a final painting is going to be completed.  

I stop short of finishing because there's really no need to, I figure at this point I understand both the subject and approach. There are many things I learned, including what not to do.

One More

The idea of adding a third page in the sketchbook, focusing on the seed stage was there, I wanted to include the famous 'dandelion clocks' and had done in part in the previous pages, but to be honest the will to do more was gone.  I was getting bored with dandelions at this point and don't like to feel that way with the sketchbook because its a quick turnover and need to feel sufficiently motivated.  So moved on with the idea that I could add more at a later date given that they are still throwing out the odd flower rand seed-head into August. In June I was enthused again and added a further study but this time in a different sketchbook, on the black paper in the Stillman & Birn Nova book, this move was for no particular reason other than I felt like it. It needs more work but there is still time. 

The cycle starts again with the many seeds, up to 5000 seeds a year can be produced by one plant (54 - 172 per head) they can be blown by the wind for several hundred meters. The fruit is called cypselae are oblong and narrowing and have sharp edged ribs, the white silky pappi act like a parachute to carry them on the wind.


Thats about it for the dandelion, it was good to finally paint it, I probably wouldn't have if it wasn't for the sketchbook project and that's the case with many of my entries. 

Monday, 28 June 2021

White Flower Sketchbook

A blank sheet of paper can be a daunting prospect but not so much when it's in a sketchbook, I know others might find the opposite is true but I want to explain why keeping a sketchbook can be such a rewarding experience. I'm currently involved in two sketchbook projects, one is a wonderful joint endeavour with fellow artist and friend Debbie Crawford - I'll write about that one later. The one discussed in this post is a sketchbook dedicated to white flowers. 

The project began in 2020  I didn't really have a reason for it other than the following: 

1. Being in lockdown 

2. Having a Stillman & Birn Nova Trio book 

 3. A large number of white flowers in the garden, so no big idea, it just started and hasn't stopped. 

Work in progress, Anemone 'White Swan' I began this in June 2020  but it stopped flowering, to be honest I though it was dead! but up it came this year, so I'm in the process of finishing it. 

The Sketchbook

The Nova trio sketchbook from Stillman & Birn has three different coloured papers, grey, black and beige. The format is square 19 x 19cm (7.5 inches). The paper isn't very heavy at 150 gsm but I like to paint on lighter weight paper because it's always a good lesson in water management - I paint pretty dry anyway and using too much water is often detrimental in botanical work.  The surface is described on the S & B website as medium grain but I's say it's pretty smooth. There are  92 pages....yes that's a lot to fill! You can also buy different sized books in any of the single colours. 

Lilium regale on the beige paper. I chose this colour for the substrate as I'm planning a painting of this gorgeous plant on dark vellum skin and it's the nearest colour to the vellum, this gives me an idea of how it might look. 

The Inspiration 

I'd always admired Ruskin's sketches, Antoine Berjon's floral studies and Lilian Snelling's botanical illustrations on grey paper but having never really worked on coloured paper before this was new territory for me. My feeling was that this book would be perfect to capture flowers and plants that are predominantly white, using watercolour and gouache. I've always loved the purity of white flowers and have planted many in the garden since moving to my home in Summer 2019.  The plan is now to capture as many white flowers as possible, working on creating form using watercolour and body colour with this sketching approach and a fairly limited palette.  Lighting is very important to me and where possible natural sunlight is best as it shines through the petals making dramatic shadows, the morning sunlight is truly inspirational, if the sun is out I dive out of bed to see how the sun is playing with the flowers.  As with any sketchbook, it doesn't matter if everything works out, it's merely experimentation, if it goes wrong it can be abandoned but I found that I really enjoyed this approach to painting white flowers and continue to seek new inspiring subjects. 

Antoine Berjon Floral Design in Chalk. Copyright Wikimedia Commons 

One of my favourite flowers, Fritillaria meleagris 'alba'- this appeared from nowhere in the garden in Spring this year. 

The Process 

I call this type of painting a 'process' rather than a technique because it feels more relaxed and organic than a specific technique, in fact I use multiple techniques as required by the subject, so calling this a technique feels reductionist and restrictive as an explanation. 

This was my first entry in the book, bindweed on grey paper...a gardeners nuisance but still a beautiful plant.  I always start with he focal point (that's the star of the show) and build from there and never worry about finishing the pages, stopping when I've had enough and feel that it's done. 

The form is created first with pale blues and violets for the shadows, the white goes on top but some areas of the grey paper are maintained for the mid tones. 

The paint goes onto the paper very smoothly and you really don't need a lot of it, you have to remember that this paper is thin and too much water or any scrubbing will make a big mess. I lay down the basic form first and often use violets and blues for this, the colour is applied selectively in the shadows, Cobalt and Quin Magenta are favourites but I also dug out a few opaques, such as Daniel smith Lavender and Wisteria, two odd colours that I never thought I'd use and don't even recall why I had them! also Lemon Yellow Nickel Titanate is used a fair bit in those glowing centres which are found in many white flowers. I use a mix of different opacities from transparent to opaque but if used thinly enough all paints are transparent. The white goes over the initial form painting, first with a W & Newton Series 7 miniature (size 2 or 4 depending on the size of the subject)  I apply white with different viscosities and find this is the best word to describe the thickness of the paint,  viscosity relates to resistance, thus a watery mix has little resistance on the paper whereas at the other end of the scale the dry brush method has a lot of resistance. The watery layers come first and the viscosity increases with each application, the driest application can create a lovely white shimmering appearance as it resists the surface and skips across it like a pencil it leaving little gaps, this shimmer is seen in many white flowers. Sharper highlights at the edges are applied with a little more water and usually a longer haired brush,  a da Vinci size 1 is good or any brush with a decent point. 

Not a flower but how could I leave the dandelion clock out! 

I was surprised how quickly I can capture a subject using toned paper, probably because it fills in a lot of the mid tones for me, it's a great exercise in interpreting tonal values with a minimal palette. 

More recently I've started using graphite and gouache in the book, which is also very effective. This is one of the things I love about sketchbooks,  they seems to nurture new ideas in approach, subject and composition. The confined space of this book could be interpreted as restrictive but it's a sketchbook, so I just paint what fits and if it falls off the edge, who cares, I certainly don't.  It's a place to experiment or play, some things work better than others and that's ok too. The fast succession of work means I can experiment and learn about plants that I don't normally have time to paint in full. 

Papaver study: This is the first time graphite and gouache was used to complement the colour study

The paper that was most perplexed about using was black, I'd never painted botanicals on black before so it was a little daunting. I experimented with photographing white subjects in very strong sunlight first, and taking the contrast up on my iPhone - it's amazing what you can do with a smartphone camera - this gave me a good insight to how subjects might look on black and was an interesting experiment, it definitely made the black seem less daunting.  Below you can see the stages of a white daffodil. 

High contrast photographs in natural sunlight really helped me to understand the approach to working on a black surface.

Sequence of images showing progress, less paint is applied at each successive stage 

What's Next

I continue to add to the book on a regular basis, this is a small selection of the images and I hope to end up with 50 to 60 pages. Currently the task of writing text to accompany each flower is underway, and hope to publish it sometime next year, not for any particular reason other than I think it would make a nice book and for me it is a small legacy of this unusual time, hopefully it might be of interest to others too. Each entry provokes a memory for me, even though I've been home for all of them, I can recall making every single one....its' given me a focus and a project is always good to keep motivated. It's also inspired a few paintings for the future, so everything is good about this...I can highly recommend such a project because it feels good.

Waratah, a reminder of my time in Australia before travel was curbed, created from my sketches and photographs from a previous trip. 

Today, much of the subject material comes directly from my garden, such as this white Foxglove flower, also some from and local walks - Many new bulbs and plants are planned for next spring, when I hope to complete the project. 

Early morning sketchbook time in the garden - my favourite time of day