At the end of February this year I decided that at last the situation in Norway was such that it was reasonably safe to have a workshop for the first time since the start of the pandemic early 2020. I therefore put together an email with very short deadline – one month.
I sent the email to everyone who had been in touch with me with a query about botanical art workshops in Norway. I was surprised to see that there were quite a few on the list, but as this was the first workshop since moving back to Norway, I decided that I didn’t want too many people first time around.
Yes I had taught in Norway previously whilst I lived here 25 years ago, but I knew that I would need to rebuild my reputation for teaching here again. I needed to find out if anything had changed and if expectations were different from that time, or from my experience in the UK and the USA in the interim.
Three people got back in touch with me immediately and signed up for the workshop. They arrived on Friday late afternoon, and came back raring to go both on Saturday and Sunday. I think that the smell of newly made coffee and home made cakes just out the the oven helped to relax everyone from day one.
This was the first time I had met any of them although one was a student from my online course. All of them were fairly / very new to botanical art and from the atmosphere, I think that each of them became just as thrilled at discovering what nature has to offer as I have become over the years.
The subjects chosen: The ground is still fairly frozen here with several minus degrees at night, although the sun is beginning to warm well during the day. The are some new shoots in the verges and woods starting with Coltsfoot. But all of the plants chosen this time were from the local garden centres; tulips, fritillary, daffodils and narcissus. The temptation to choose something very exciting looking such as a rose or filled narcissus, is huge. But when starting out, looking at something simple and how it is put together so that that you know what to look for, is very important.
I am glad to say that in the end, each chose plants suitable in relation to their experience in painting botanically. And, each commented on the joy of being able to ‘see’.
Everyone chose to paint using watercolour. Norway doesn’t seem to have many botanical artists at all, so hopefully their enthusiasm will help to change this situation. But just as botanical art in itself is unusual, so is the use of coloured pencil. Hopefully this too will expand with time.
I am thrilled to say that I now have several new Norwegian botanical art friends and look forward to making more with further workshops planned.
I love painting small plants; plants that seem insignificant but are beautiful and worth noticing.
I love the challenge of painting the detail of these small plants so that everyone gets a chance to admire them and perhaps look out for them whilst out and about.
One day I was walking near the station in Tønsberg, Norway and saw some shrivelled Rosa rugosa hips in the snow. I picked one little branch thinking I might paint it on vellum. However my daughter thought I should accept a challenge outside my normal comfort zone; She felt I should portray it much enlarged on paper.
The thought of doing this felt very uncomfortable as I have noticed that some artists who suddenly go large do not increase the amount of detail and the picture doesn’t do the plant justice. I have drawn and painted parts of some compositions scaled up so that the viewer can actually see the detail, but have never done a whole painting like this. Was this going to work for me?
I started sketching the hips into my sketchbook, then once I had a good line drawing I transferred this to my Fabriano paper; Luckily I have quite a lot of the ‘old’ batches of both Artistico and Fab 5. This is done on Artistico Extra white.
You can see here that I really look after my paper whilst painting. It is so easy to get splashes or ‘dropped brush’ marks if one isn’t careful.
I normally cover the art paper with layout paper hung from the top. Then I cut it into about three strips so that I only have the part I’m painting, uncovered. On the lower part I tape clear acetate.
I always lift out the graphite tracing before I start the first layer of paint and lay the clearest colours first. However, in this picture I decided to lay a neutral tint wash(made of three primaries) under my colours to indicate the direction of light and form.
For the next rose-hip in the bunch of four, I decided to replace the graphite outline with a watercolour pencil. I sometimes do this if I am a little unsure of where I am going in the painting, but I use only a pale colour. I lift off the excess pigment with a putty rubber and using a slightly dampened brush I soften the watercolour pencil edge making sure no water goes outside the line of my subject.
… And so the third rose-hip….
I wanted to do some of the picture in graphite, leading into the main part with the hips. Sometimes using graphite towards the background can reduce the heaviness of a picture. The stem of the Rose-hip is very prickly and therefore doing some of it with various graphite pencils made sense. I used graphite along the whole length of main stem and then colour washed part of it.
I did this picture five times life-size and it comfortably fits an A3 sheet of paper. Does it succeed?
One final comment; Rosa Rugosa grows everywhere in southern Norway and it is not a native species, therefore they are being removed wherever possible. This is because they take over the habitat from other species that belong here. I remember with shame that I was one of those people in the early seventies who planted a Rosa Rugosa hedge in the front garden – across the fjord from where I live now. My children were small at the time and I knew that the hips provided a lot of Vitamin C. But I know now that it is not a good enough reason to introduce a foreign species.
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.
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;
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
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.
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!!
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
No, this is not the Bog rosemary, I will get on to that shortly. It says it is an Echinopsis mammillosa, but as ‘they’ had spelt the 2nd name wrongly, I thought I would check it out. Trouble is the only thing I can find is that it is not what it says it is on the box! If it had been, the flowers would have been on outgrowths from round the side of the barrel. The flowers are all on the top and almost without stems. Can anyone tell me what it is please?
We do have a lot of cacti and it isn’t me that collects them! But I have found them surprisingly intriguing. They were removed from the south facing porch and put on the edge of the pond about three weeks ago. Many have put on a show of beautiful flowers and grown hugely since then. How they will survive this weeks sudden drop in temperature from 25℃ to 0℃, I have no idea. Time will tell.
But, the reason I am showing this plant at all is because I am unable to go on walks at the moment and I am keeping a Perpetual Journal, doing a quick botanical sketch once a week. I saw the above cactus flowering in the sun and decided it would be this week’s topic. As soon as I started sketching, the sun went in and the flowers closed. They have remained closed since due to very little sun. But I did sketch some of the barrel. All I want is just one open flower to show its colour.
I’m sorry I am branching into other topics at the moment due to my incapacity, but the reason for the blog is development of the Andromeda polifolia.
For the last couple of years I have been attracted to very small plants with tiny flowers and/or leaves. But I am convinced that one of the reasons I was attracted to botanical art in the first place was my ability to open up these plants for everyone to see who viewed my work.
One might think that because the plant is smaller and often also the picture, it takes a lot less time to paint and therefore is cheaper. Unfortunately the opposite is true. The smaller the plant, the more difficult it is to portray. As you can imagine, my paintings are not sold by the square metre.
So far I have shown you the parts of my painting that are magnified so that you can see them in detail. But in doing this I also need to give you an idea as to how it looks real size; a ‘habit’ drawing. I wouldn’t want you to go hunting around for a plant with flowers the size depicted in the first blog – you would never find it.
You saw my composition in the first blog and know that I have planned the habit section to be in the centre, drawing all the elements together. When you see the final picture in the next blog, it will be up to you to decide if I have suceeded.
A little of the traced image remains. I further lighten every section with a putty rubber so that every final visible stroke laid is intended.
The leaves are long (relatively speaking) and narrow, leathery and curled under along the edge. I am carefully showing this first. The upper surface is veined and the colour varies from a pinky hue to a blue-green; the underside is a pale greeney-blue. But of course this doesn’t show in the graphite drawing.
By the time I get this far into the painting, the original leaves may have changed or no longer exist. However, I do have my drawing and loads of photos for reference, but I also have some of the live sprig given to me by Chelsea Physic Garden. I draw from the plant, but check the direction of each leaf with my line drawing and photos. Sometimes, I might find a more interesting leaf and use that instead, always checking placement and attachment to the stem.
The branch going off to the right is slightly further back than the middle one, therefore has a little less detail. I increased the amount of detail for the middle branch so that you get a better idea of the leaf texture and veins. Note the actual size of the flowers at the top of the middle stem.
Next time I will show you the finished artwork and describe how I do the scaling.
I have to say first of all that we are so lucky when so many people are struggling with Covid19. We have room to move and we can get out at the same time as recognising we have to leave two metres between us and anyone we might meet. The idea is to prevent the spread of the virus as much as possible and save the NHS.
That gets me clearly to my next point as I am a sinner in relation to the NHS – I had to go to A&E after a walk whilst keeping fit a couple of days ago! We had a lovely long walk over heathland and I was looking for a spot where I knew Vaccinium myrtillus – Bilberry grew. This is one of the plants I have been studying and preparing for my next RHS exhibit. All of a sudden, my knee gave a great ‘snap’ mid-stride. So now I am extra grateful to the NHS for their treatment and advice.
I am now not only having an enforced lockdown because of the virus, but also enforced rest with my leg up. I hope that the tear will mend soon so the powers that be can determine if more treatment is necessary.
This means that for a few days I won’t be able to respond to the call from my shed to paint!
So imagine, Friday was VE day – 75 years since the end of World War 2. We had afternoon tea with our immediate neighbours, distancing from each other in our front garden. I am now paying the price and sitting with legs up on the settee, with crutches at the ready. But, I am enjoying the peace and quiet to sit and write this blog.
My previous blog finished with the flower spike of my Andromeda polifolia botanical illustration completed. I didn’t tell you that at natural size the flower and leaves are quite small; the flower is ca. 8mm long and the leaves ca. 2cm long. In my painting the flower spike is done at three times its natural size so the detail of the plant can easily be seen and admired. I have planned to talk about how I did the scaling in the last blog about this plant.
The next two parts are the stages of painting the pedicel and receptacle. You can see that the ovary is most likely fertilised and swelling just slightly. Also there are still a couple of stamens hanging on for dear life.
To the right a stamen is enlarged just a bit more. I was so intrigued seeing the horn-like appendages to the anther and it was incredible to think that all this was packed so beautifully into that tiny flower. The stamens were just over 2mm long and very colourful.
So the packaging; I carefully did a longitudinal dissection of the flower. See the previous blog to view the shape of the flowers. The petals are 5-lobed and fused so I needed to cut two and a half petals carefully away to show what was underneath. I then shaved back the single carpel so that you can see the ovary inside, leaving the style and stigma whole. Again I am including the dissection painting in two stages so that you can see how I have built up the colour.
It is hairy inside the flower and I used a little masking fluid after I had done the first layer. If I do this again I might put in the masking fluid on the white of the paper or not use masking and paint around it. The final result is fine, but I personally feel I could have done it better.
You can see how the enlargements follow on from each other. The flowers on the flower spike are the same enlargement as the pedicel and receptacle; that is equal to x 3. I then enlarged the stamen further to make the detail even clearer and this time you see it at x 10, the same size as the longitudinal dissection.
From these photos of my work it is impossible for you to work out the actual sizes on the painting, or even the actual size of the plant. I am trying to make a point here because many people still write a magnification on their artwork, then post it online or even print it. You might be reading this on your phone, tablet, laptop or desk top computer; All are different sizes, so if you give the magnification as I have done here, you have no way of knowing what the real size is. I will be showing how to do scaling in a later blog.
Finally, I want to mention paper – OLD Fabriano hot-pressed. I have both Fabriano extra white and 5. I have come to the realisation that I will not need all this paper to last out my years of painting and teaching. If anyone is interested and will be able to come and buy some (Bosham, West Sussex) after the restrictions are lifted, please get in touch with me.
Its been a while since I last did a blog about my process, but as I am getting into a new piece I thought I would share it with you as I go along. First of all let me tell you the story behind the plant.
The plant is Andromeda polifolia or bog rosemary and I first saw it in wet boggy areas high up in the Norwegian mountains.
I am painting a series of plants with edible fruit from this area but found this beautiful little flower and decided to investigate it. The fruit is not edible and may in fact, cause some uncomfortable side effects, therefore not suitable for my series.
The plant was named by Linnaeus, comparing the plant to Andromeda. The plant is indeed beautiful in its native boggy setting.
I am a member of the Chelsea Physic Garden Florilegium Society (CPGFS) and one of the plants in the garden is an Andromeda polifolia, although at lower altitudes it seems to be a much sturdier plant, taller and with more leaves. Being part of a Florilegium means that on a yearly basis one has to paint one of the gardens plants as part of its documentation process. With the beautiful little mountain plant I had in mind from Norway, I thought this a fantastic opportunity to study and paint it properly for the CPGFS. By the way, although I am painting it for the CPGFS, it doesn’t mean that it will be accepted. A rigorous process is gone through before artwork is accepted into their collection – this I won’t know until February 2021.
As I normally do, I studied the plant carefully, researched it and drew detailed sketches in my sketchbook. I also dissected the flower as I thought this told a story in its own right. The anthers have appendages which is typical of plants in the Ericaceae (Heather) family. Also, the petals (5) are fused into a tube. I am not a botanist, but the more I study the plants I paint or draw, I feel I always want to know more about them!
Once I felt I had enough information I planned my composition. This is not always easy and although we have lots of ‘rules’ etc to guide us, in the end it is what you feel looks best that is the decider. Here are two plans that I made to choose from.
Which one do you prefer?
In the end I chose the composition to the right as I felt this was more likely to guide the eye around the composition.
I did both of these compositions digitally, using the sketches from my sketchbook.
The following pictures are are photos taken at different stages, but as the painting is not finished I will need to come back with additional blogs to show you the rest of the process. By the way, the graphite line drawing in the centre is a habitat drawing showing the plant at its natural size.
This blog is about all the mistakes I made whilst painting the Autumn Blackberry Branch on vellum. Above is the finished piece.
Since I started working on vellum I realised that there is a huge difference when working on the different types. This applies both to painting on the vellum and the ability to take things out.
From watching some artists who paint on vellum, they always seemed to use pumice to prepare the vellum. But each time I used this and however gently, I found it more difficult to paint on the surface afterwards and therefore to get a nice smooth result. Even when cleaning up after a mistake, I found it very difficult, but thought this was me!
Early in the year I did a workshop with Denise Walser-Kolar and the first thing she said was that vellum bought from Cowley’s in the UK, is so well prepared that it doesn’t need any preparation; i.e. no need to go over it with pumice.
The biggest difficulty is conveying grease from your hands if you handle it too much. But think about it; one doesn’t handle art paper either if one wants a good result, so why would one need to handle the vellum any more?
Just this little bit of advice has made all the difference to me. Not only do I try to avoid mistakes(!!), but if I do make one I am as gentle as possible with moving the offending pigment.
I will be painting on natural vellum when I do my RHS series and it is definitely more difficult to remove some pigments from this, than to remove from Kelmscott vellum. The blackberry is on Kelmscott vellum and I had absolutely no problems lifting any of the pigments from this. But I had to be very careful and not use more water than necessary. Even being careful, I could still ‘feel’ a slight difference when re-painting these areas.
I found that the mistakes I made were in relation to overdoing it or painting with too thick a layer because I wanted to darken something. In each instance, when I got to the stage I felt I had overdone, I took out the offending part with dampened cottonwool buds. I then painted the whole section again being very mindful of why I was doing so. All the time I said to myself, ‘gently does it’ and ‘the more thin layers, the better’.
These are the before and after sections. With some, you may think there is no or little difference, however a photo may not always show what I can see with the naked eye (and glasses!).
Hopefully this will be useful and an encouragement to those starting out on vellum.
I am told that often people hate painting leaves. But the leaves on the Blackberry are really exciting to paint.
The original set-up for this picture had green leaves, although partly eaten up by various bugs. As it has been a few weeks since I started this picture, I needed to find some replacement leaves, which I found from the same plant; they were really beautiful. This picture is one of the new leaflets showing the colouration I introduced into the leaf set I had already drawn. The other two leaflets remained predominantly green.
When painting on vellum, one of the things I was taught was to keep the first layers of colour as pure as possible. The reason for this is somehow obvious, although I often forget in my haste; it is easy to dull colours, but it is not easy to restore them to their original brilliance.
But it’s not just about colour; for best results the brush needs to be as dry as possible so that the pigment is laid finely with the very tip of the brush.
The technique for painting on vellum is similar to the purely dry technique (as opposed to wet-on-wet or dry-on-wet) used when painting watercolour on paper. Even better, the paint is laid using a cross-hatch stroke in many layers when painting on vellum. This is a necessity if wanting to achieve a depth of colour (particularly dark colours) without getting a thick layer of paint that is visible when viewing the picture at different angles.
By the way, I use a brush with plenty of body to hold the pigment and an exceptionally good point; normally a Rafael 8408 size 4. But Rosemary brushes series 8 also work well, this time no smaller than a size 2 even for the finest detail.
Below you can see the steps I took when painting the leaves.
Next time, I intend to show you the mistakes and take-outs I made. Making mistakes is where one learns. Learning to deal with them is as important as realising you have made them. The ideal is of course not to make them in the first place; but that comes with time!
My next workshop in Bosham is ‘Hedgerow Colour’ 27-28 September. Get in touch via the contact form below quickly if you would like to join us. If you would like to follow my blogs, put your email address in the ‘Follow’ section on the right hand side of this page.
This is not a pretty sight; It is my desk easel at this stage of the painting.
I haven’t disposed of the original stem or leaves, nor the the additional berries used underway. As I said before, once part of the subject is past caring, I replace it with a fresh sample. There have been many fresh samples so far, therefore, although the set-up looks similar, the details are not. You will see even more when I get to the leaves!
But why have I kept onto the old berries? Because, every one is different. The arrangement of the drupelets is different even though they follow the Fibonacci pattern. They also contain different numbers in each berry. I might want that information at a later stage, even though the berries have dried out.
The picture also shows how I check the connections on my plant. Under the magnifying glass is the connection between a branch, a new stem and the adjoining leaf. The sample is in the opposite direction to my drawing, so I need to transpose the information as I paint. It’s no good me turning the stem over as the information is different on the other side.
You can see the developing painting on the right and my refreshed colour palette as well.
This time I will finish the blackberries and make a start on the leaves.
If I had been doing this on paper, I would have used graphite for the leaf right in the background, but it doesn’t look so good on vellum. Its a useful exercise as I will be using something similar when I do my Norwegian plant pictures for my RHS exhibit.
I have been trialling different methods and different pigments. For once I realised that graphite was not good enough for what I needed, I knew I would have find a pigment I felt I could use in a controlled manner. So which pigment should I use? I tried Daniel Smith’s ‘Graphite Grey’ and several natural earth pigments by several manufacturers, but each time the pigment felt too sticky for what I wanted to do with it. I needed to get a consistent fine line and be able to do delicate monotone shading. In the end I reverted to my own neutral grey that I often make using Perylene Violet and Maimeri’s Cyan; the latter is the same pigment as W&N Blue, green shade and works well for me. I can vary the grey from cold to warm and very pale to dark. By the way, the earth colours didn’t look quite right and didn’t recede enough in the background for my liking.
Now the berries. These are the remaining berries that are gradually ripening through red. I love the variation in colours here, but this is one of the areas in which I experienced problems. I will write an additional blog about my mishaps! Suffice it to say that each drupelet is a different colour. I always started off fine, keeping the colour fairly pure to begin with. But then I invariably overworked it to show the different colours. You won’t (I hope) see that on the final version of what you see here, but it is certainly something to bear in mind.