I started Botanical drawing when I retired from many years as an academic where much of my educational activities involved drawing diagrams as a teaching tool. As a result, when I retired and saw an advertisement for “Botanical drawing,” I thought that this would be a great way to pass some gentle hours doing something that I felt I could do easily. I was wrong.
First, I had to learn the difference between a diagram and a descriptive picture. A diagram has clear lines giving a two dimensional “map” of the subject at hand. It is actually a symbol, which must be as clear as writing to whoever “reads” it. A picture must also be clear, but the lines need texture and variations depending on the light, and the spaces inside the lines need the ebb and flow of contour and detail.
Still, I struggled along and was just starting to feel that I was actually getting to grips with it when our Botanical Art teacher, Barbara Goldin, threw a curve ball: Why not start painting instead of just drawing?
We started with a palette of 6 colours, which the conventional wisdom of the art world says can be mixed to make any other colour. I learnt that to make a pale colour you add water (not white), that you layer colours over the top of each other rather than mixing the “right” colour in the first place and that you leave highlights out instead of adding them in white afterwards (very difficult at first). In fact, painting with watercolours was quite different from any of the painting I had ever done before.
The six-colour theory is a great and widespread theory but unfortunately it turned out to require a little help. Along the years I needed, and acquired, many more tubes of different colours, learnt to distinguish between transparent colours and opaque ones, and began to get a glimmering of where and how to start a painting.
I also found that my ‘models’ (the plants themselves) tended to change by either wilting or developing during the time needed to draw an accurate representation of them, and make a colour swatch. And I learnt that trying to do the whole thing from a photograph doesn’t work either! There are always details that don’t show as clearly as you want, even with several photographs from different views.
I have had the privilege of attending workshops run by Beverly Alan in the Botanic Gardens, Elaine Musgrave in Kurrajong and Barbara Duckworth in Bathurst. From these wonderful teachers, as well as from Barbara Goldin and from the people in my classes, I constantly learn new techniques, new skills and new applications.
I find Botanical painting difficult, frustrating and, at times, exasperating. But I also find it wonderfully exhilarating and enormously enjoyable.