The tang of mint, the fragility of a lily - botanical drawing teaches about so many aspects of plants. Yet it is interesting to measure that as I have evolved as an artist, those earlier drawings have led me on to learning so much more about trees, rocks, environments, places. Seeing two exhibitions of my botanical metalpoint drawings up now in Berkeley and Oakland at the same time is both a celebration and a realisation of how the world can teach us artists so much more, all the time.Read More
Medieval and Renaissance tiles from the Champagne-Aube regions of France tell a great deal about early French society. The wonderful tile collection at the Musée des beaux-arts or the Musée Saint Loup, in Troyes allows one to peep into earlier worlds. Even though this world was underfoot!Read More
Delights of art abound - the trick is being open to their beauty and magic.Read More
I have always been interested to listen to the "intonations" with which people speak or write about flower paintings. Floral art has often had a difficult time ascending high on the ladder of art appreciation, in circles of art officialdom.
Despite flower painting having illustrious beginnings from the 16th century onwards, with Northern Renaissance Dutch and Flemish artists, flower painting has historically been associated with amateur lady painters who pursued art as a pleasant, genteel past time. Very few male artists have painted flowers as their main subjects - Manet, Renoir, Monet, Van Gogh and other 19th century artists did some wonderful paintings of flowers, very much as still life. This painting done in 1883 by Edouard Manet is a perfect example.
Henri Fatin-Latourwas one of the most amazingly passionate painter of flowers, again as still life. These artists did however observe the flowers carefully and closely, and knew how these plants grew.
Other later male artists, from Picasso to Matisse and beyond, occasionally painted or drew flowers, but often, the results were more generic.
Meanwhile, women artists were creating beautiful "portraits" of plants and flowers, many using the botanical approach as their springboard.
Ellis Rowan was travelling through Australia and South East Asia in her quest to paint brilliant and exotic flora. Perhaps the conscious or unconscious links between gardening and flower paintings in British circles helped foster the interest in such art in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa as well as Great Britain.
Despite all these - and many, many other - instances of superb floral paintings, I cannot help being aware of a certain tone when such art is talked to in today's art world. Almost a sneer, not quite? As if paintings about flowers are, really, not quite "up to snuff". Despite a huge renaissance of botanical art (mostly done, need I say, by women artists), despite the trail blazed so memorably by Georgia O'Keeffe with her sensual, strong interpretations of flowers, there is still a je ne sais quoi in the air on the subject of floral art.
This attitude fascinates me because, as I struggle to draw or paint flowers, I realise, repeatedly, that tackling flowers as a subject is very complex. In fact, just as challenging a subject as nudes, landscapes or anything else that are considered more "serious". By the time that an artist has mastered the intricacies of plants, their flowers and leaves, he or she is pretty capable of tackling any other type of art subject imaginable, and in any medium..
Maybe the decades when drawing was considered unnecessary contributed to the dismissal of flower-based art. Perhaps today's emphasis on conceptual art also is a factor, with the overtones of floral paintings lacking "gravitas" and deeper meanings. It is however ironic that part of the art world is so dismissive of floral painting, because another, large part of the art-loving world is very happy to embrace it.
Just as well, I conclude. Think what complexities and delights artists would miss if they never looked closely at a flower!.
Some while ago, I was fortunate enough to inherit a painting I had always loved in my family home. A coastal scene with a wonderful foreground frieze of golden gorse, it had always delighted me with its luminously expansive feel. I had been told that it was painted from the veranda of my family's home in Albany, Western Australia, but that was all I knew.
One day, I decided to start investigating to see what I could learn about the work. I copied onto paper the almost illegible signature, and eventually started working on Google, trying out whatever I could decipher. Google came up trumps - which, in a way, is less and less of a surprise as time and the reach of Google have taught us all. The signature was of an Australian woman artist, Ellis Rowan,who was active, and prominent, in the late 19th and early 20th century. As I learned a little more about her intriguing, adventurous life, and her skills at self promotion as she developed her career as a "flower painter", I was filled with admiration. I was also delighted to find that she had connections with my redoutable great grandmother, Ethel Clifton Hassell - another very strong character by all accounts. Pushing all sorts of boundaries as a woman, Marian Ellis Rowan seemed to make no concessions in her pursuit of flowers to paint and places that might be of interest.
Ellis Rowan travelled several times to Western Australia, following in the footsteps of her much admired flower painter role model, Marianne North, who travelled the world to paint flower species during the 19th century, finally endowing Kew Gardens with a gallery for her wonderful works. It was thus natural for Ellis Rowan to meet my great grandmother, a community leader in Western Australia and a flower lover. They possibly got on well and I can imagine the scene of Ellis Rowan settling down on the veranda at Hillside, the Hassell home in Albany, to paint the view out to King George Sound. Her skill in painting was considerable, especially given that she often used gouache, which is quick drying and often difficult as a medium. She also used watercolours and oils.
Birds and flowers, of preference tropical, colourful and exotic, were Ellis Rowan's favourite subject matter, and many of her paintings in the National Library in Australia show her skills. She was prolific, and consequently, there is a marvellous diversity in her work. These are but a tiny sample of her flower paintings.
It has been a week of dealing with consumer goods - to put it generically - that all seem to be falling apart in very short order after they are bought and installed. The antithesis of the natural world, these are man made objects that horrify by the implications of their impact on the planet's future health, during their manufacture and also during their disposal. Alas, they all seem to be necessary in our life - things like refrigerators, computers, even plastic nuts for bolts.
A welcome break from these concerns came today when I was present during a visit to my Darien exhibition by a group of charming ladies from a St Simons Island Garden Club. This exhibition, At the Edge of the Marsh, continues at the McIntosh Art Association Gallery until 27th May.
As I stood in the gallery, explaining to these visitors about silverpoint and how you create these silver drawings, I was forcibly reminded of a remark I read some while ago. Julie Lohmann, a German designer, said, "There is a paradox at work. On one hand we are distancing ourselves from nature as far as humanly possible, creating our own artificial world, but the more we do that, the more we long to be a part of nature and bring it back into our lives." (my emphasis).
The reaction of many of the visitors to my art today showed how eagerly they related to the depictions of flowers, of marsh scenes – in other words, of nature. It was as though I was drawing and painting a world with which they felt very comfortable, a world that they welcomed in their lives as a very important ingredient of well-being. Their comments made me feel that there is a very necessary counter-balance to our consumer-driven society: nature and the magical, infinite manifestations of its diversity.
Before the glory of Christmas cactus flowers fades on my different Schlumbergera, I have been drawing them in silverpoint, especially the delicate white-flowered ones.
As I gazed at the elegant cactus flowers, I could not help remembering a quote I found some time ago by Monet.
He said, "To see, we must forget the name of the thing we are looking at." It is almost as if I needed to blank out my conscious mind and just let the rhythms and undulations of the petals and the strange leaves tell me where to go and how to compose a drawing. It is absolutely academic what it is that is the subject of the drawing - only the aspects of it that resonate and excite one are the ones that drive the mark-making. In fact, as soon as the left hand side of the brain begins to get active, defining or thinking consciously, that is when one gets into trouble with the drawing. And in silverpoint, that is a bad place to reach, given you don't erase the marks made in silver.
Claude Monet knew well about the need to view things in a different fashion. His wonderful use of colour and Impressionistic techniques are testimony to this philosophy. When you think of his extraordinary series of paintings of Rouen Cathedral, for example, his was a very creative view of this wonderful structure. Given the very complicated act of painting this immense building, with the light that was ever-fleeting and the unreliable weather of this maritime city, Monet was amazing in his ability speedily to record light, darks, abstract shapes, atmosphere – as in this painting done between 1892 and 1894, entitled Rouen Cathedral Facade (Morning Effect).
There is another interesting optic on creating a piece of art, whether recording a cathedral's glory or drawing a Christmas cactus flower.
William S. Burroughs observed that "Nothing exists until or unless it is observed. An artist is making something exist by observing it. And his (or her!) hopes for other people are that they will also make it exist by observing it." A perfect description of "creative viewing"on the part of artist and then the public. I am sure that most of the French who walked past their looming cathedral did not see it in any way similar to Monet; they probably did not often raise their heads to its soaring facades as they went about their daily lives. Yet after Monet painted his series on Rouen Cathedral, certainly many more people became aware of its massive structure and the extraordinary play of light on it as the seasons turned.
Monet has made the Cathedral "exist" for art lovers ever since he began his series of paintings there in the 1890s. They, in turn, validate Monet by observing his paintings and completing the circle of creative existence.
In the same way, an artist who embarks on a painting, drawing or other form of depiction of something "real" is, in essence, bringing that thing to life, creating it according to his or her artistic eye. This gives one wide licence to create, to bring into existence, but it also implies an often revealing personal involvement - assuming that the art is being created with passion. Sobering thoughts, but mercifully, during the painting or drawing, as Monet wisely observed, we need first to turn off our brains.
Now that the weather has cooled a little and rain has revived the garden, it is time to start thinking of planning and planting the garden once more. Inspired by a recent wonderful Coastal Wildscapes symposium on planting native species to restore biodiversity in one's surroundings and gardens, I have been doing a lot of "mental placement" of perennials and shrubs that I purchased.
My garden has been an extension of my art and a source of my art ever since I created the garden over 25 years ago. After we built our house and learned about the aspects of living on ancient sand dunes in a sub-tropical climate, I planned out - on graph paper no less! - what plants to put where. I tried to combine the principles of garden composition and visual pleasures with the practical aspects of a huge amount of shade, sandy soil and a number of old shrubs that had been planted on the site when it was an oyster cannery. Oh - and speaking of which, I learned that planting in soil that is probably 90% oyster shells can be challenging!
Needless to say, over the years, the garden has evolved and matured, with the plants very much choosing where and how they wish to grow. For the most part, I have let nature dictate, for the results have in some ways been more harmonious than if I had adhered more to the carefully manicured look of my British gardening heritage. As a source of art, I tend to concentrate on single flowers or plants, rather than landscapes of the garden itself. Watercolours - I find - are not the easiest medium by which to convey masses of foliage and flowers. Drawings are more interesting to do.
Perhaps the most important element of the garden for my art is the actual peaceful environment it affords - a backdrop to my daily life and thus to my art-making. The constant visual stimulation and interest combine with my emotional attachment to this garden I created single-handedly. It is also the foreground frame to the marshes and saltwater creeks beyond. Together, these spaces offer tranquillity and the orderliness (most of the time!) of nature, the antidote to our ever-increasingly urbanised society.
Artists have long had deep attachments to gardens. Think of the wonderful details of flowers and animals on the frescoes in Egyptian tombs. Remember the jewel-like flowers and insects adorning monastic manuscripts from the 8th century onwards, like this 1470s Hastings Book of Hours. Artists over the centuries have travelled from medieval depictions of gardens as paradise to careful scientific examinations in modern times. Rubens was well aware of gardens as erotic playgrounds.
But it was the 19th century artists who not only drew on gardens for inspiration in their art, but also themselves created their own very artistic gardens. Monet (whose 1900 painting The Garden in Flower is illustrated) is the most famous of these gardeners, with Giverny. (He had earlier been inspired and delighted when he visited glowing Mediterranean gardens, especially at Bordigher.)
Cézanne also painted and tended his Southern French garden, while Van Gogn celebrated gardens and what grew in them from his days in Holland onwards. Many of his drawings in the south of France, particularly those done during his period at St Rémy, are quite remarkable. So too are his paintings, such as this one, done in 1889,
As the resurgence of plein air art continues, many of the artists are also celebrating gardens in their art. It is important, for as the world continues to lose natural habitats at an ever-increasing rate, we artists can play an important role in showing how beautiful, intricate and serene-making gardens and nature can be.
Botanical art is enjoying a great resurgence in popularity and appreciation. The British, Australians and some Europeans had continued always to favour this form of art, partly, perhaps, because of the strong horticultural and plant collection/husbandry tradition. Kew Gardens and other important botanical gardens round the world had kept alive the tradition of fine art married to botany. However, with the founding of the American Society of Botanical Artists in 1995, this art form took off. Another decisive factor in this renaissance has been the enthusiastic and hugely influential support of Dr.Shirley Sherwood. Not only has she collected botanical art all over the world and helped artists most generously, but she has now enabled Kew Gardens to have the world's first gallery devoted to botanical art, the Shirley Sherwood Gallery. (I am proud to say that she owns one of my silverpoint drawings.)
With increasing interest in botanical art, the ASBA has been organising important exhibitions around the United States. The Society, to which I have belonged for many years, has become more and more imaginative in exhibit themes and attuned to today's environmental concerns. A show which has just opened at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, demonstrates this: "Losing Paradise? Endangered Plants Here and Around the World" shows art done by forty-one artists from the five continents. The exhibit has already travelled to the Missouri Botanic Garden, the Chicago Botanic Garden and the New York Botanical Garden.
Using the simplest of media - graphite pencils, pen and ink, coloured pencils and paint - the artists not only captured the essence of the plant but they document its structure, habit of growth, colouration and general characteristics in exquisite, accurate detail. Again, as with so many works of art done from real life, as opposed to photographs, each artist creates an individualistic interpretation of the subject matter, combining artistic skill with the energy and passion inspired by that plant. In the case of this particular exhibition, there was an additional energy. The Society posted the call for this exhibition about three years previously, so that artists all around the world could seek out endangered plants and help draw attention to their plight by the art created. What more enlightened role could art play!
Every artist who works from real life intuitively knows that familiarity with a subject brings rewards. A wonderful plein air artist from California, Marcia Burtt, written about in a June 2010 American Artist article, made a remark which really resonated with me about this. When talking about working on location, she said, "choosing a location is based on many variables. If I haven't been painting much, I can spend whole days driving around looking for a subject. If I've been painting regularly, everything looks beautiful. That's the reward for spending hours intensely observing nature - you start seeing beauty everywhere." (my emphasis)
There is a quiet and insistent alchemy at work when one is involved in depicting natural objects in the studio or painting plein air. The more one observes, the more one sees. The light changes the forms, the colours, the sense of space. The world seems to become quieter, more intense. And the more you paint or draw, it is true, beauty appears at every turn. It is as if nature becomes generous with her bounty, allowing the artist to slip on another set of eyes that are keener in perceiving beauty in all its definitions. Perhaps we know the subject matter better in all its complexities after working intensely, but it does often seem that such familiarity allows the brain to relax and see beauty more and more.
I found this generosity of nature at work recently as I started painting and drawing the wonderful Southern Azaleas (A. indica) that have been blooming on our area. I started by a large watercolour triptych, but then found the azaleas' beautiful shapes and purity kept "talking" to me. So I did another smaller watercolour. Finally, before the azaleas disappeared for the season after their brief burst of glory, I turned to silverpoint to depict their beauty again, combining it with other issues I wanted to address.
It was as if the azaleas were rewarding me for my close attention to them, as I studied the intricacies of their flower forms, the play of light that described each petal, the individual quirks of each flower and leaf.
This generosity of nature is consistently available to every artist, I believe. If we can spend enough time becoming immersed in nature, in whatever way we chose to depict its aspects, the rewards of beauty and inspiration, of delight and fascination, of awe and a sense of the marvellous are all there for us if we wish. Our role, our quid pro quo with nature, is to share with others this beauty through our art, to become ambassadors and passionate advocates on behalf of nature. Not such a bad exchange!