I was a quiet child in a large, noisy family, so I suppose it was inevitable that I would sometimes want to lose myself in a private occupation. There was no TV or computer in those days to tempt me, so I chose drawing. My subjects were the objects on the kitchen table: pots of jam, tins of syrup and bananas; those things near to a child’s heart.
Many years later, when my own children were grown up and my full-time career nearly over, I began drawing again, then painting flowers in watercolour. In time I exhibited at the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) in Westminster, most recently being awarded a Silver Medal for illustrations of clematis.
I had learned a great deal about botanical painting from Anne-Marie Evans, including the value of counterchange (light against dark, dark against light), of tone, of delicacy with crispness of detail. Above all I learned to be ambitious for myself, never to be totally satisfied, but to try to go that bit further.
So I went further, geographically as well as professionally, from Sussex to Birmingham University every month to be exact, to complete a two-year course that led to a Higher Certificate in Botanical Illustration. For the coursework I was required to digress from my usual floral subjects, so I went back, as it were, to the kitchen table I had left as a child, to illustrate fruit, vegetables and fungi. Their great variety of shape, colour and size took me by surprise. I discovered that there were just as many vibrant colours, dramatic highlights and subtle folds as there had been in the flowers I had painted. I became quite enthusiastic and my consumption of vegetables must have doubled. When my daughter asked for some fruit and vegetable paintings for her new kitchen wall as a birthday present, I knew that my enthusiasm could be shared. I am now employed by my local college to teach botanical painting and I try to pass on this same enthusiasm to my students.
Conference Pears. Watercolour 6” x 6” (15cm x 15cm)
From the start I planned this as a ‘closed’ composition which, when mounted, would show little of the white paper. It seemed to work – although the back pear should have been a bit darker.
Choosing the subject
The Damsons. Watercolour 7” x 8½” (18cm x 21cm)
This branch of damsons was painted at Wisley. There were eight fruits when it was cut from the orchard. As I carried it to the studio a few fell off. Every breath of wind removed one more until there were just three. When I had finished there was only one. I had to wait several months for the flowers to appear. I was particularly pleased with the bloom on the fruits, which was done with fairly dry white paint when the rest of the painting was finished.
Before deciding on a subject to paint I must first be attracted by the colour and shape of what I see. I want to be able to find rhythm in the structure, curls and twists in the stems and leaves, pattern and variation in the form. These exist in all living things, but because I was used to choosing fruit and vegetables for their edible value rather than for their aesthetic appeal, I tended not to notice them. Flowers had always demanded my attention; their beauty had stopped me short. But when I started to paint them I saw how fleeting that beauty was. Capricious to a degree, they change, wither and die, often before the work is done. Yet if I set a couple of pears in front of me I know they will stay put for a while. If I have allowed myself two or three days clear of major commitments, as I do before I begin a new work, the fruit and vegetables are likely to be in the same condition when I finish as when I began, so I can be more relaxed in my painting of them.
Of course, few rules are hard and fast. My expectation that there would be no movement from the fungus I was painting one day was shattered when a maggot slowly crawled out of the earth-ball (Scleroderma citrinum) where it had been living.
Fungi. Watercolour 6” x 13½” (15cm x 34cm)
I went on a fungus foray for these. My purpose was to paint, so I was happy to be allowed to take home the inedible ones. The poisonous earthball in the middle was residence for a maggot, which slowly crawled out as I painted. It was confirmation, if any were needed, that it is not right to assume that what an animal can enjoy is safe for us too.
When I look back at some of my early work it seems quite crude. In those days I bought watercolour paper at random, usually in pads, and most of this was too coarsely grained – brilliant for landscapes, but lacking the smoothness that is so essential for botanical detail. I loaded my brush too heavily with pigment, which killed the delicacy of the work. I treated my brushes casually with the result that I could never get a fine line or a crisp edge. As to my many drawing mistakes, which I vigorously rubbed out, I had yet to learn to dab lightly – just enough to remove the graphite but not destroy the paper’s delicate surface.
Kohlrabi. Watercolour 10” x 5¾” (25.5cm x 15cm).
I loved the explosion of colour on this vegetable, but it took a lot of thin washes of paint to achieve that richness and still maintain the highlights. I used alternate layers of permanent rose, ultramarine and Winsor violet. The split openings could have been slightly darker on the right, shadowed side of the fruit.
Nothing works like experience. It allows time to make all the mistakes, and teaches the courage to risk making new ones when trying something different. If all this is not discouraging, but rather makes you want to start botanical painting for yourself, take a fresh approach when you next go shopping. Go where you can see a wide variety of fruit and vegetables, and examine their many colours and shapes. Strawberries, pineapples and bananas could not be more different. Compare a fennel with a cauliflower, a pod of peas, or a kohlrabi. The variations are endless. Or stay at home and peel the soft pink and purple layers of a garlic. Take out a clove, let it lie where it falls. Then get out your brushes and paint it so that your guests can almost smell it when you frame it and put it on your wall.
Garlic. Watercolour 3½” x 4” (9cm x 10cm)
I did the drawing with very diluted coloured inks, then painted over it with thin washes of watercolour.