An update: life and botanical art

Empetrum nigrum & tracing to vellum

I have been working on four of my six or seven pictures to go to an RHS exhibition in London. This has been a very long-going saga as the process has been interrupted several times since I decided to do it.

Mountain area – home to the plant series.

After the last time I took part in the RHS exhibition in 2014 I decided that I was going to do a series of plants called ‘Foraging in the Norwegian Mountains’. Anyone who has read my blog, which more recently has been rather sporadic, will have heard me talk about the series on numerous occasions.

Whilst living on the South coast of England I travelled to Norway for two weeks each year to sketch the plants I had chosen. This was the only time I had them accessible although I had some similar plants in my garden in Bosham. I have to say that they didn’t flourish there – too warm.

But then other things got in the way;

Invitation to the England part of the Botanical Art Worldwide exhibition

2016-2018, I started up the Association of British Botanical Artists (ABBA) and managed the England entry to the Worldwide Exhibition in 2018.

2018. As founder and president, changed ABBA to a membership organisation

Support from Dr Shirley Sherwood who became the ABBA Patron
ABBA logo from 2019
ABBA logo 2016-2018

2019. By the middle of this year ABBA was well on its way as a recognised botanical art organisation and Elaine Allison took over managing the ABBA project completely. I thought, at last I would have time to paint. I had done some, but not as much as I would have liked and working on the Norwegian plants project had been limited to two weeks each year.

December 2019, Covid hit us all.

Before – Bosham in May – South coast England

Mid 2020. My daughter, living in Norway, expressed her anxiety for us if anything happened. What she actually said was that we were too old to live in England by ourselves and that it was about time we moved back to Norway. Robin, who had never lived in Norway, promised to learn the language and his son (who had just moved back to England) gave his blessing. The rest of 2020 became filled with house selling, packing, moving, home searching and buying – my daughter even coped with us living with her!!

After – Skoppum in May – Eastern Norway

Robin started to learn the language, but all the legal stuff in relation to officialdom and applying for residency in an EEC country, plus details in relation to house buying, fell to me. I managed to paint the Fly agaric – Amanita muscaria and a couple of sketches in my perpetual diary (painting cup half-full), plus continued to advise and mark assignments for my Botanical art online course students.

Long shadows at midday, a month after the sun turned.

January 2021 – we moved into our new home with a view of the Oslo fjord in the distance. The year was used to make the house into our home, although we had a lot to learn about what works here and what doesn’t. The garden is mostly rock, so planting is very much an ongoing trial as we battle with little earth and a temperatures that vary between -20˚C to +35˚C (warming climate). Botanical art is not as well thought of as in the UK, but once the lock-downs are over I already have quite a list of people wanting to do a botanical art workshop.

Icy walking is only safe with studs – but the kitten doesn’t care as long as there are laces!

Now I have to plan my botanical art work a little differently living in Norway. We have had snow since November last year but it hasn’t been quite as cold as last winter, although that can change. With recent thaws during the day and minus degrees at night, the snow turns to thick ice. This means I don’t have access to my plants during the winter so I had to change my working process.

‘Foraging in the Norwegian Mountains’ botanical art series on vellum.

NB; I won’t be showing you the finished compositions until they are shown at the RHS exhibition – probably 2023, but will show parts of them.

After all these time delays for the series, all I had was sketches and colour samples in my sketch book, plus some small studies on the vellum I would be using. I had heard the phrase ‘productive procrastination’ and thought I now knew what it meant!

Cloudberry – Multe- Rubus chamaemorus sample on vellum
Sketchbook drawing Crowberry – Krekling – Empetrum nigrum

I had worked out the composition of all of my pictures and how they would be hung as a group at the exhibition. Each picture will be on mounted vellum and shows the plants both enlarged in colour and actual size in graphite. Last summer I painted the colour part of four pictures so that I would have the actual plants and could match colour at the same time. I planned to do the graphite on those four paintings during this winter and so far have completed three of them – except for scale bars.

Graphite on vellum is not easy and depends upon the vellum, which, as a living material can change from one part to another. In some areas I have been able to use pencils, but in others a brush. My last two paintings have very tiny leaves and the last one, Empetrum nigrum which I will show part of here, has been a bit of headache!

Graphite drawing on vellum

With Empetrum nigrum the leaves actual size are about 2mm long and the unripe fruit is about 4mm. I have had to vary the hardness of the pencil used so that I get clean lines, rather than gritty ones. It doesn’t seem to matter if I use my most expensive pencils or not as it is the surface of the vellum that decides. Sometimes I use the pencil first, if too pale I paint a layer of water-soluble graphite on top, then finish off with another layer of pencil, finally lifting off loose graphite and ’fixing’ it with water. It certainly is not as straight forward as using graphite on paper.

This winter, only one more vellum picture to finish off with the graphite drawing. Spring is on its way, although the sun is still low on the horizon; plants will wake up after their winter rest; trips into the mountains to look forward to and planning for the colour part of the final three pictures.

When I wasn’t walking in Norway …

…..I was either hunting for plants or painting.

I had a list of plant detail that I had worked out I needed to complete the composition planning for my series of pictures. My vellum size for each piece is 25 x 31 cm – which I suppose relatively speaking is quite small. But all but one of my plants is very small with leaves varying from 2-6mm long on the Vaccinium microcarpum, to the Rubus chamaemorus where the leaves vary hugely in size.

Vaccinium microcarpum – Small Cranberry – Leaves 2-6mm long.

Impetrum niger ssp. Hermaphroditum – Crowberry – Leaves 3-6 mm long

Rubus chaaemorus – Cloudberry (image is 13cm high)

I decided that rather than work on all seven pictures at once as I have done so far, I would work on half this year and the rest next year. For all of them I needed to do some colour matching on vellum as this will be different to the colours I have used on paper. You have already seen the small piece I did on the Cranberry a couple of blogs ago. You may also have noticed the difference to the actual flower size (tiny) and the painting  which I did at twice the size.

Luckily enough although there is a slight difference in the terrain from which each of the plants come from, we have found each species within walking distance of the cottage in which we have been staying. The Cloudberry and the Cranberry can be found intertwined with each other in the soggy sphagnum moss – but not always. The Bog Blueberry (Vaccinium uliginosum) comes from a similar area, but I have seen it reaching up the side of rugged outcrops. The Crowberry can be found all over the mountains although the Ssp Hermaphroditum can only be found at higher altitudes. The Bilberry can also be found pretty well most places, but doesn’t seem to be above the tree-line and doesn’t seem to like really boggy areas. The Cowberry – Lignonberry (Vaccinium vitas-idaea) is spread on ant mounds and rocky outcrops.  Common Bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) likes much drier conditions and is often found in pine woods. But we did find an example not far from the cottage. Last year Robin drove about 150km to find a spot that I knew about!

Below is the colour sample of the Bog blueberry done this year. The very new new leaves start out quite red and as they get older they become bluer and stiffer. Sorry the photo is a little dark.

Vaccinium uliginosum – Bog blueberry – Watercolour on vellum 5×7″, painted twice natural size.

How the weather and the plants change in the mountains.

The other side of the valley looking down to the cottage

Robin, ant directing!

You might not be able to make out too much detail in this picture, but we were on the other side of the valley from the cottage in which we stayed. To get there we went down to 806 metres and the highest part was 1104 metres. We only walked about 10 km – in 5hours and finished it off with a waffle and sour cream. Delicious!

This time the day was fantastic. The wind had dropped and it was actually warm-ish – about 16º C. In some areas we even took off our fleeces.

On our journey we found female Cloudberries, Pedicularis sceptrum – Moor King, ants struggling down a little river (so we provided some with a life raft and others with a bridge).

Usnea Lichen

We also found a birch wood with a lot of fresh Usnea lichen hanging off the trees.

Birch skog.


I have always found that the colours in Norway at this time of year really sparkle. The green of the grass seems so new and the blue of the sky is also amazing. Of course you can see for miles and miles.

Waiting

We still had a way to go and my poor daughter stretching ahead, sometimes had to wait for us old fogeys. I think she is almost at the highest point of our walk at this stage, just about to trek downhill.

Trailing azalea – Loiseleuria procumbens

Unripe Cloudberry – Rubous chamaemorus

We continued to see some amazing flora including the Trailing azalea and large patches of female cloudberries.

Seeing so much cloudberries meant of course that we were walking through areas of quite boggy ground. But I can’t tell you exactly where, because for a Norwegian, the site of ripe Cloudberries is a trade secret and never divulged to anyone!

When you see the final pictures of Norwegian mountain foraging plants in a couple of years time, you will know what lengths have been gone to to get subject matter!

Summer snow in the Norwegian mountains

Whilst everyone else is suffering extremely high temperatures in Europe, we are experiencing +4 high in the mountains of southern Norway! I believe it is warmer at the North Cape.

However, as there is now no longer a direct ferry from the UK to Norway, we drive here over several days, with our cargo of painting equipment. A necessity for the job I am going to do whilst here.

On the way we stopped off in Amsterdam to visit my son and partner and had a cycle ride to the coast in 37 degrees. It was almost a relief to eventually get to a cooler climate, although the day we arrived it was in the high twenties lower down in the valley.

Today’s view from our rented cottage.

Since then, the temperature has gradually sunk even lower. Today we are awaiting my daughter who lives on the Norwegian coast, advising her to bring  winter woollies. I didn’t dare tell her that it has been snowing today – although it hasn’t settled.

So why am I subjecting my sun loving and warmth seeking husband to todays chill in the Norwegian mountains? It’s the plants of course. I am now back to getting all the plant information to paint my pictures for my next RHS exhibit. I know I have spoken about this for a couple of years or so, but my involvement in the Worldwide Botanical art exhibition last year and continuance with setting up the Association of British Botanical Artists (ABBA), rather delayed things.

Because of the delay, I also lost my right to exhibit at the RHS – this year being five years since I last exhibited. I therefore had to apply again. Luckily, my work in general was again accepted as potentially worthy of a medal place, so now I am going to work through my subjects properly and, rather than rushing it, plan to exhibit in 2021.

Små Tranebær is Small Cranberry in Norwegian. The practice piece is twice natural size (the actual flower top right) is on vellum – as the final work will be.

This year I am focusing on three of the plants I have chosen and plan to get information I feel is lacking to complete a picture. My first is Vaccinium microcarpum – or Small cranberry. Last year I was able to find ripe fruit and was able to get all the information from that. Previously I had only drawn one flower, so I am concentrating on these now.

I thought you might be interested in my already messy workplace setup at 910 metres over sea level!

If Denise Walser-Kolar sees this blog, I hope she will notice I have taken on board her teaching. As long as I practice what she taught in Vienna, painting on vellum is going much better – even with the tiny leaves! Thank you Denise.

The other two plants I hope to get some more information on is the Vaccinium uliginosum (Bog Blueberry) and a little from the Rubus chamaemorus (Cloudberry). In both instances, it is only small details I need. I have already noticed that the leaf colour of the Bog blueberry seems to change in the sun. New leaves have a red tinge to the edge of the leaves, older leaves don’t, but in the sun they become red to almost a Perylene Violet (for watercolour artists) colour. I didn’t realise that before.

The Cloudberry fruit is only to be found on female plants. Each plant can be quite huge and spread many metres. Around the cottage I have only seen the male flowers of the Cloudberry – no female ones at all. it might be because it hasn’t warmed up very much yet where we are. The temperatures are set to improve, but I doubt we will be here long enough to benefit from it.

Please don’t get the wrong impression of Norway. The summers can be hot and the winters cold. It is a fantastically beautiful country and every area has its own attraction. I like it in the area we are staying as I lived in the valley for several years. Lastly, a picture of the sun rise a couple of days ago. It doesn’t get totally black at night at this time of year, but this was taken at 03:30.

A website that works and some amazing students!

I absolutely love what I do. I can’t believe that I am doing what I have always wanted to do.

After several days work and a terrible broadband reception after 15:00 each day during Easter, my website: gaynorsflora.com now works properly. Thank goodness. I suppose that because the people who sold the ‘take-away-site’ to me, made such a mistake and cut me off, they probably did me a favour. I went through everything on the website and hopefully now everything functions as it should.

So, I am still catching up. I have had a class today, sorted out some paperwork, wrote feedback for an assignment for London Art College where I am the botanical art tutor and took some new assignments off the website in preparation for marking at the weekend. It is these assignments that I am so exhilarated about. The one I did today was really good and with a short glimpse of the new ones, I can’t believe my luck. They too are very good. People who are so interested in botanical art, are learning so much and who I am sure you will know about before too long. Obviously I can’t mention names but I wish I could. One day…..

Tomorrow I am going to put aside all paperwork and paint for the first time in a while. At least I will during the afternoon and evening while my husband is at his art class.

My face is healing. The blue-black colour that it has been from eye to under my chin is now a mauvish-grey with a little jaundiced yellow in between. The high cheekbone is still a solid lump, but I am sure that will reduce eventually. My pulled muscles and tendons prevents strenuous exercise just yet, but then I can paint. Tomorrow is the day! I will show you some of it at the end of the day – I hope.

But, I still have some pictures that I got permission to put on this blog. This time its Sharon Tingey. She was on the other side of the stand to me at the RHS. Sharon’s work was Helianthus – Sunflowers and it won a Gold. It was really beautiful work and she had actively used her knowledge of the Fibonacci sequence to paint it.

By the way, I had a student today with whom I was discussing the spiral and she referred to it as the ‘Liberace spiral’! Luckily she really understood the funny side of this and has allowed me to mention it.

Do enjoy Sharon’s work and let her know that you have done so.

Sharon Tingey - Helianthus exhibit
Sharon Tingey – Helianthus exhibit

Sharon Tingey - Helianthus exhibit part 3
Sharon Tingey – Helianthus exhibit part 3

Sharon Tingey - Helianthus exhibit part 2
Sharon Tingey – Helianthus exhibit part 2

Sharon Tingey - Helianthus exhibit part 1
Sharon Tingey – Helianthus exhibit part 1

Botanical Art workshop

Now I am back into the swing of things with a two- day botanical art workshop. The title was based on pictures I took at this time last year; spring bulbs! Bad mistake. Most spring bulbs are finished now.

I trawled through the local garden centre and found some worn out tulips, fading well in their pots, and some Fritillary. I therefore bought the latter, and some Osteospermum. One student found some Lily of the Valley and another brought some more Fritillary from the garden. Challenges galore.

I think that the greatest challenge was the pattern on the Fritillary and this was tried both in watercolour and coloured pencil. Thank goodness for a little knowledge about Fibonacci. It certainly helps in knowing about the spiral when planning the pattern.

For those who might not know, Fibonacci was an Italian mathematician and he worked out the mathematical process behind the spiral which we basically find in nature and in good design. For example, the spiral of segments in a pineapple and it’s leaves, a pine cone, the centre of a sunflower – and of course the pattern on a Fritillary petal.

Hopefully I will be back with some pictures from the workshop tomorrow. Things look promising, but I have students who have not painted since they were at school, and those who are very experienced. Believe it or not, it is those with experience who feel most challenged as it is generally very specific problems that they want to overcome.

I think it fitting that I show you Diane Sutherland’s exhibit for the RHS. She painted these Fritillary on vellum. In fact, the largest piece of vellum in this series is from Rory McEwen’s vellum left to the Hunt Institute of Botanical Art in Pittsburgh.

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Monday after the RHS botanical art exhibition

I expect that my day has been very similar to the other artists who took part in the RHS exhibition. Beginning to clear up after our last massive input into the exhibition.

For me, I have a lot of paperwork to clear up and finish off. But the shed looks an absolute mess. And, tomorrow I am starting a two- day workshop. I know that some will be using watercolour and some coloured pencils. It will be lovely to get into it again.

We have re-arranged the conservatory cum sitting room so that the work table is as big as possible. Two extra tables are brought up to the house from the shed and everything is in place for arrivals tomorrow. We also ordered good weather with good light, so what more do we want? Good humour!

What you really want to see are some more pictures from the exhibition. I know that some of the same or similar ones will be found in other places on the net too, but I don’t think you will see one of these. It is of all the artists who took part in the RHS exhibition this year. As I have already said , they are. Lovely lot of people.

The second picture is of Isik Guner. She is a fantastic botanical artist and also a very bubbly person. The picture she is standing beside is the one that was best in show. But each of her pictures were very beautifully done.

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Last day of RHS botanical art exhibition in London

This is a very short blog as I am finished. I intend to write a little more tomorrow.

Normally at the end of an exhibition you are tired but exhilarated. I am exhausted and although it is a happy culmination of three years work, as you who have read my recent blogs will know, it has been eventful for me.

I met so many people today. Many who were so immersed in the paintings that they didn’t notice my face, others who were embarrassed and didn’t know what to say, and a few who either asked outright or commented that I had Been clever at matching my jacket to the colour of my face. It didn’t look good. In fact the bruising is now even under my chin. But my face only looks bad unless I touch it. My arm feels bad.

It was so good to meet so many interested people today at the RHS exhibition. It really helped to take my mind off things for a while. Quite a few people were very surprised to find out that my Crab apple pictures were in coloured pencil and not watercolour. Hopefully I can encourage more people to start using it as a serious medium.

It was lovely having the opportunity to meet so many other botanical artists from all over the world. The whole botanical art environment seems like one big family. People I met at the RHS when I exhibited in 2011, I met up with again in Pittsburgh at the opening of the Hunt Institute exhibition; who in turn introduced me to new faces (British and American) that I met again here at the RHS in the last few days. I had been introduced to the idea of the Hunt(Pittsburgh, USA) by an Italian artist when I exhibited in Lucca, Italy.

It is a very small world and I am very lucky – and happy.

This picture was sent to me by Alena Lang Phillips, who I met for the first time today – but have corresponded with via this blog. Thank you Alena. You have done a good job of making me look almost normal!

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RHS Botanical art exhibition in London today.

Apart from my news about an unusual and unforeseen start to a day, that should have been the culmination and relaxation after 2 1/2 years of preparation work, I have little to report.

I had intended spending all the day with my pictures to answer any questions people might have. I’m afraid that this afternoon after my return from hospital, I wasn’t very focused and kept on wandering away to view other peoples work.

I got to see what awards had been won and I would have liked to show them here, but the pictures I actually took were too late in the day to ask for permission to put on this blog. So sorry, there will be nothing to liven up this bit of writing!

Although we were told as a group that the pictures this year were of an unusually high standard, there were few golds. I understand that they did this on purpose as an adjustment because the standard has gradually increased from year to year. They were certainly more strict than I have seen them previously.

Regarding the feedback I got, I was happy with their comments as these coincided with my own thoughts on the pictures. I learnt one new and important thing, the botanists were not happy with the elements ( normally stamens) where I had drawn a scale at an angle. It must be either vertical or horizontal.

Otherwise, I understand they were very happy with my painting. One thing though, no-one realised until they were giving me feedback and read my labels, that it was in coloured pencil. They thought it was in watercolour. I asked if they would gave given me more marks if they had noticed this before – but no such luck.

Tomorrow is another day and the last one at the RHS this time around. Of course as I didn’t get my gold I will have to try again. Dogged determination.