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When learning botanical illustration, my first (and main) port of call is researching the works of other illustrators and attempting to emulate the detail and precision that they achieve in their works. This is a very different way of studying artworks to what I am used to – as I am usually in an analytical state of mind – looking to analyse meaning and contextual influences to a work, artist or movement – but as a botanical illustration of a flower/plant is just as it ‘says on the tin’ (an illustration of a plant/flower in scientific detail), I must instead analyse the way in which the piece was created – the materials, processes and level of detail.

One of the first artists I found when researching botanical illustration was Lucy T Smith – an artist employed by Kew as one of their botanical illustrators ‘in-house’. Like myself (and I think this is one of the things that draws me to her practice particularly), Smith creates watercolour and pen-and-ink illustrations which, while having very different properties, are both used for scientific purposes. I am choosing to focus on her watercolour paintings here however.

The above watercolour is of Nepenthes attenboroughii completed in 2016, and the level of detail achieved is just astounding. For me, the most life-like areas are the leaves, which although clear that it is an illustration, also have the very clear structure and three-dimensionality that can only be achieved by a real, 3D object. Although I am used to shading and creating the illusion of three-dimensionality in my work (portraiture requires that you create the illusion of the human form on a flat page), doing so without overwhelming the overall work with colour will be challenging. I fear that the biggest challenge will be learning (as I did with pen and ink illustration) that less is more with shading – although the multitude of colours will no doubt aid the portrayal of structure on the page. It is very clear to see how the colour has been built up in ever darker layers – this allows you to build up the areas of light and dark very carefully and deliberately – slowly building the shadows and detail of the structure over time, and not overwhelming the painting the vibrant colours instantly. The head of the flower is also a key example of this – as the structures here are tiny – with each tiny flower having to be recorded and their structure and three-dimensionality conveyed to the audience – without it being a clouded and bland mess. This could only be achieved through the application of several, progressively less dilute, layers of paint – allowing areas of light (the ‘base’, flat areas where the structures of the flowers are not) to remain pale, while the flowers themselves having colour slowly built around them – delineating their structure and allowing the viewer to take in every single one, if they so desired.

The brush work and brush-strokes here are also exquisite – the minute details are recorded accurately and without mistake on the page – and where you are able to see the brush strokes (as they explain the shape, texture and structure of an element of the plant – for instance the surface of the leaves), they are absolutely tiny and do not confuse the surface – rather are placed with absolute precision. This is also a key area for me to work on – to start with, purchasing new, much smaller and finer brushes, but to practice painting the minutia with absolute precision, and being able to convey texture and shape with my brush strokes much more effectively. In my work currently, I am attempting to achieve this, but it unfortunately looks a little heavy-handed, due to the size of the brush and my inexperience.

It is important to note that this painting was a commission and to used for scientific purposes – as this allowed Smith more licence with the background detail (the imagery in the background would never be included in a scientific illustration as it confuses the clarity of the illustration – although I like that you are able to see where the plant comes from in the painting – it allows the viewer greater understanding of the plant than could be achieved without).

So, in summary – my two main take-aways of technique from this painting are:

  1. Shading and building structure with colour – this is something that will come with practice, as building layers of dilute colour is not a watercolour technique that I am used to using (in the past, when using watercolour, I have always just added the colour and vibrancy that I wanted to the page, and then added smaller details in darker colours – as can be seen in the two images below), but is one that I will have to get to grips with in order to be a successful botanical illustrator.
  2. Brushes and brush technique – I desperately need to purchase smaller and finer brushes, that I am able to control with greater accuracy and create much finer detail with in my work – in order to accurately and faithfully record the minutia of detail in an endangered plant.

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