Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Dreams of Magma

Last night I dreamt I was painting molten magma... I remember getting rather flustered. This wasn't because I was standing on a hot volcano, but more because the stuff kept moving. It was very irritating. The movement was indeed slow, but nonetheless it moved and with my technique being of equal slow speed my paintings inevitably became very fluid in order to catch up with the rhythm. There is probably some Freudian symbolism going on, but the dream is more likely the product of 'much-intense-staring' at a decaying Judas Tree leaf... It's colours are amazing - more pink than yellow or orange and there are all these little black blemishes. I started this A1 painting on the 2nd of February and 8 days later we find ourselves here (below):

Botanical Art Autumnal Leaf
Judas Tree Leaf (10th February 2016)
Work in progress on 76 x 56cm Saunders Waterford 640gsm paper
It still isn't finished but I am very happy with the current painting pace. Unlike before where I used to paint for roughly 10 hours a day, I am now only clocking 7 hour working days (it's actually 9 but with two one hour breaks). This is obviously much healthier. I am able to do this because my pace is getting faster. This must be the result of practice and the fact that I am getting more rest by doing shorter days. I feel it is good to experiment with day length. I know for certain that I haven't found the optimum painting to break ratio, but I am getting close. Of course, this is a winter pace, come summer this mathematical sum will go flying out of the window as I adopt summer hours... There certainly is never a dull moment in the higher latitudes!

Botanical Art Studio
Here's a photograph to give some sense of scale and the appalling light levels I am working in today.
My eyes have certainly got used to the Spanish sun.
It is a particularly gloomy day today and I just can't see a darn thing.

 Colours...

This is a very unusual palette for me. I find focusing on yellows very, very difficult. Yesterday, however, something started to click and I am beginning to understand this part of the spectrum  more. I am also understanding the importance of light washes and how to build layers. With this leaf, even in the same area, the colour of one layer of paint will be very different to another layer and the uppermost layers are often the 'brighter' colours, such as Permanent Rose and New Gamhodge. This is odd, as I always thought you should do it the other way around, adding the darker hues last so not to muddy the yellow. Oh well... For those who want to know, the colours I am using are:

W&N Olive Green (you'd be surprised at how much - often an upper layer)
W&N New Gamhodge (bottom and uppermost layers and in mixes. I have also only just worked this out by looking at the bottom of the pan -  I thought I was using transparent yellow!)
W&N Permanent Rose
W&N Perylene Maroon (I love this colour)
W&N Permanent Magenta (teeny bit)
W&N Hookers Green (hardly any)
DR Cobalt Blue (because I love it. I am using this in mixes and in it's unadulterated raw form)

Brushes...

I am using loads of brushes for this one. I start with a biggy and go smaller as I work in the detail last. For the detail level I have a very slender rigger for the veins, a scruffy hard spotter for removing paint in the shadows to reveal veins and a big oil painting brush for scruffing/buffing the paper up (its ok - I burnish afterwards). I have three series 22 (Rosemary and Co) brushes, two at size 2 and one at size 3, one series 44 (size 2 or 3 can't remember). I think I might even have a series 441 in the mix too. So what's that? Eight brushes, yes that is about right. They are all on their last legs, so I am having to use loads for the job. Not ideal. Plus, with all the washes being of various colours, I have three of the series 22 on the go rather than just one to avoid wastage and contamination.

Botanical art up close
Close up on the right side...

 Over time...

I thought I'd put a little snapshot of this leaf day-by-day so you can see the progression - I haven't done this in a while. I used to do it all of the time! 

Botanical illustration of a leaf
Botanical illustration of a Judas Tree (Cercis siliquastrum) leaf (3rd February 2016) 

Botanical illustration of a leaf
Botanical illustration of a Judas Tree (Cercis siliquastrum) leaf (4th February 2016)
Botanical illustration of a leaf
Botanical illustration of a Judas Tree (Cercis siliquastrum) leaf (5th February 2016)
Botanical illustration of a leaf
Botanical illustration of a Judas Tree (Cercis siliquastrum) leaf (6th February 2016)
Botanical illustration of a leaf
Botanical illustration of a Judas Tree (Cercis siliquastrum) leaf (7th February 2016)
Botanical illustration of a leaf
Botanical illustration of a Judas Tree (Cercis siliquastrum) leaf (8th February 2016)
Botanical illustration of a leaf
Botanical illustration of a Judas Tree (Cercis siliquastrum) leaf (9th February 2016)

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Indiana and the Temple of Leaf

Botanical art
Botanical illustration of 'Indiana' (Catalpa bignonioides)
work in progress - 76 x 56cm - watercolour on paper

Its been a month.. I won't apologise as I had nothing of importance to say and dislike publishing drivel. It certainly has been a odd time, I know it usually is in my world, but there has been a lot of too-ing and fro-ing in space and time. I am basically doing more 'time travel' than usual and it still goes on. At first it took me by surprise as I entered what I call the 12th house* back in December. As you already know, it took me to some dark places (the maze), but now its taking me to some wonderful places and since January I have decided to just let go and ride this Wonker-like roller-coaster.

Polar Bear, the steam engine I used to work on as a 
child at Amberley Museum - my very own roller-coaster

This morning I find myself going through some receipts I found from my trip to California back 2013 and this is what I mean by time travel. It can take on all sorts of forms. Last night while I was trying to get to sleep, I found myself in the dens of my childhood, riding steam engines and eating picnics. What is peculiar about these experiences is that they aren't just memories or spells of reminiscence - I am actually THERE. I can smell the smoke and hear the birds, feel the clay dust, the soot and the dampness of the woodlands of Amberley Museum where I was 'brought up'. I can hear the wurring of the heater under my feet in the gift shop and navigate my way through all the offices at different stages of their own evolution. I can jump from one theatre bench to another and cast shadow puppets on the wall where the projector casts its light. I can see all the hundreds of museum keys mounted on another wall, all splattered in oil and grime from dirty hands and engines. I spot the cat and enter the mess room. I trace every line on every worn out face and collect years of experience from their tired eyes. Stained tea cups, coffee grounds, chalk footprints. The clank, clank, clank of the blacksmith going about his work, the toot from the train and the ding of the cow bell on the pottery bicycle. This is so real, it is like I am on drugs. Is this full blown nostalgia I wonder? I don’t think it is, as there is no sense of longing, its just I am there like ghost, like a time traveller. I can even watch myself. It is poignant, the entire vision isn't nostalgia it is a garment of clothing that covers my skin and makes me, me.

It has been rather beautiful this January... still no rain and lots of sunshine.
The farmers are a bit worried about the lack of rain, but life goes on.

GIANT BEANS...

As I find myself there again, in the wonderland of my childhood, I come to remember I giant ceramic bean that my mother made for an event at the museum, I must have been 11 or 12 years old at the time. It was a carefully planned operation by my mother. She made this enormous deep red bean which was glazed in cadmium red and gold ready for a special day where all the children would come into the site, see the enormous bean (which was about as big as 2 year old) and help to dig a hole to bury it. Then, come Christmas, it would have grown into a giant bean stalk ready for Santa's grotto. I helped with the installation... painting massive bean leaves against a cloudy blue sky in the freezing cold December air in a pair of dungarees. Things like this have made me who I am, nothing has changed, I am still painting big leaves.

Botanical art
The beginnings of the Judas Leaf - started yesterday

AND GINGER MUMMIES...

I watched the 'Immortal Egyptians' on the BBC last week (recommend it!)... again, I found myself leaving my present state of being. I was not in Spain, I was not 31 years old, I was 8 years old, in the British Museum on my first school trip, staring down at a petrified (naturally mummified) corpse called 'Ginger'. Time stopped when I was 8 just like it did last last week, but when I was 8 years old I was travelling even further back. I was picturing him laying in the desert. That moment was so important to me that I actually decided to start this blog back in 2009 using the poem I wrote about the experience in 1992. Museums... they seem to have pretty much dictated my evolution.


AND THE TEMPLE OF LEAF...

Botanical art
Leaftastic

The leaves continue to evolve and grow and I think I have a title for the show, although it isn't set in stone yet: 'The Botanical Menagerie'. It's either this or 'Leafscapes'. The first is an attempt to try and describe the fact that these are leaves in 'cages' on display - like a menagerie, or a zoo. The second has a double meaning on the fact that the paintings are like landscapes or maps, but it is also a bit of a pun as the leaves are trying to 'escape'. Anyway - I welcome your thoughts on these titles. It might be that the whole double show is the 'menagerie' and then under this title come the leafscapes and the RHS. 

So, news front - my studio has turned into a forest of leaves as I keep starting new works, getting the skeletons in and then moving onto the next one. I am not sure why I am working like this. It is rather frenzied and not my usual style. I feel that there is a subconscious tactic to this approach - it's almost like I am trying to see what a bunch of enormous leaves look like together and if this is actually going to work before investing too much time on each individual piece, whilst also ensuring that they are all finished 'together' at the same skill level. I am finding that with all this practice my painting is most certainly improving and this could mean that the leaves I do right this minute might end up looking very different to the leaves I finish in December 2016. As with all shows, I feel that there needs to be a level of consistency, so to juggle them around in this way is helping to achieve this. Come summer, when I am working from live specimens, I won't be able to do this as well, but these dried petrified leaves seem to be helping me with this process.

Botanical art
Indiana, Indie and Pop1. 

I nipped into London this month to see the Julia Cameron exhibition and the Bauer Brothers, both of which were lovely, intimate shows. I like intimate, bite sized exhibitions - they are so much easier to digest and usually less busy. The Bauer brothers was so small that no one in the Natural History Museum knew what I was talking about when I asked where it was or where the book was in the gift shop. It was a secret show! Anyway, I am already looking forward to going back to London for the Georgia O'Keefe show at Tate in the Autumn. Can't wait!


Botanical art studio
And here they all are (bar one)... 

*Astrological terminology for the 12th house that is often associated with dreams and illusions - the room within a room.

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

El Día de Reyes Magos

As I kneel on the stripy rug in our sitting room individually wrapping our 1930s glass baubles, I am reminded of a former time when I used to wrap 18th century minerals in museum in a similar way. Funny how life can randomly take you to places without you having to move an inch. I look at the gridded cardboard box which is filled to the brim with a mixture of kitchen roll and tissue paper. Each poorly scrunched up ball of white revealing a glimmer of jewel like bauble.  "Beautiful" I say to myself, like I do every year and I remind myself that next year I will take a picture of them in their box. 2016's Christmas will no doubt come and I'll probably forget again. There is always this sense of urgency when it comes to the Christmas decorations for me. I am either desperate to get them on the tree or desperate to file them away and get on with life by the time twelfth night arrives. 


We drove to Fornes this afternoon in a car full of my mothers pots - its time for the first firing for her latest collection which will be on show in London this April. Strapped in the back I had some plates, my mum had the big beetle jar, Andrew was driving. We cruised through the mountains and farms under a bruised sky. It kept changing colour, from yellow to peach to blue to purple and the fields below seemed to reflect the marbling back. I felt like I was privy to a secret conversation between the land and the sky. The olive trees have changed shape - their branches now sag with their heavy loads of fruit and no longer search for the sky with so much passion. Their leaves shone silver against a blackened sky and at their roots the soil had turned into embers of burnt sienna. Yellow fields of feathery asparagus glowed in the random shards of sunlight that escaped the inky air like amber. It was certainly a feast for the eyes. 


Mum's Beetle Jar - a work in progress.
Work by Kitty Shepherd, Facebook page here.
The landscape here in Spain has changed over the past seven days, changing from anaemic yellow to lush green after three days of much needed rain. It really is a welcome break from the never ending sunshine for the farmers and at last the mountain is dusted in icing sugar like the pale pink flowers which are now erupting from the dark skeletons of Almond trees. Being in the campo today was dramatic, romantic and deeply nourishing.



So my back is still not great and I cannot for the life of me work out quite what I have done, but I think it is a combination of carrying too much luggage when in London last October (as its been bad since then), raking too vigorously in November and painting, (but the latter hasn't caused it, just prevented it from healing). So work has slowed down quite a bit... At first this drove me nuts, but I have now let go and am just rolling with it. 



Ann-Marie Evans, a train and the colour green

What a morning it has been! I have not stopped... First I enter a discussion with NASA after I ask Tim Peakes what he is growing in his Space Station Greenhouse - apparently it is Zinnia flowers. Then there's a chat with Emelia Fox about her role as Marianne North - thanks for that one Jarnie. Then I am in communication with a kindred spirit about mural painting (hoping to paint a massive mural this summer) and then I am the luckiest girl in the world as I get a copy of one of Rory's letters. Pinching myself that this morning really did happen, I then spot that Ann-Marie Evans got an MBE - thanks Katherine for notifying me of this one!  

Ann-Marie Evans
Her's and my paths have crossed twice so far in our lives. This is a good story, one of those magical time loops, so if you have the time, do read on it isn't long. It all started on a cold Autumnal day in October when my dear friend and expert botanist, Alex Prendergast and I met up in London. He was on his way to Plymouth from Norwich to see me. We had sceduled a weekend to plant Plymouth Strawberries together and I decided to meet him half way in London (his blog post on the day is here). We usually hit the museums or a garden when we are in the Big Smoke and I remember that usually this time the two of us didn't know what to do because I wanted to see the Mary Delany exhibition in the city centre and he wanted to go to Kew (he always does). In the end I backed down on the condition that we would pop into the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art as it has just opened and I hadn't been before. A massive fan of botanical art, and an artist himself, he agreed. 

SBA coursework Plymouth Strawberry - work in progress shot
As the clouds started to hide the tired sun we made a move to Paddington and hopped onto a noisy train to Plymouth. To my relief it was warm inside. Alex then started reading something on botany and I got my embroidery out. After about 30 minutes into the journey I found myself eavesdropping on a conservation ahead of us further into the carriage. There were three ladies gathered around a table - two with their back to me and one facing me. I recognised the lady facing me instantly, but couldn't for the life of me work out why. She had a book from the Mary Delany exhibition with her and was talking about the artwork - she certainly knew her stuff. I was instantly struck with intrigue and began to wish I had forced Alex to go to the exhibition. I continued to listen in and nudged Alex, saying 'you see that lady - who is she'?! Disgruntled that I had interrupted his reading flow with something as trivial as this, creases starting forming in his brow. I wasn't sure if they were there from the thoughts of working out who this lady was or from anger at me or both. He then looked at me like I had lost the plot and went back to scanning the pages of his book to find his place. Annoyed at this treatment, I then nudged him again and instructed him to get his i-phone out and Google her. Realising that I wasn't going to let this go until I had an answer, he dutifully did want he was told. I then went to the loo and on the way back say that one of the ladies with her back to me was knitting and the other crocheting. I was now completely entranced by this group of ladies and wanted to join them, but shyness got the better of me and I sat back in my place next to Alex.

Mrs Delany's paper cut outs
Then the knitter got up and went to the loo and on her way back, saw that I was sewing and commented. Within minutes we were all having a jolly between the chairs, but the lady facing me didn't move or speak to me. Alex was still Goggling her, she probably knew. At last I heard a name and when the conversation died down I said Alex - "Google 'Ann-Marie' with the word 'illustrator' as that must be how I recognise her and she knows her stuff about botanical art". Sure enough, it was her. I was stunned and took it as an omen. I was stunned because I didn't ever remember having seen or heard of her before. I didn't know what I recognised and took it that I recognised a kindred spirit.  A few weeks before all this I had decided to start taking botanical art more seriously and felt that if I couldn't get a contract after my job at Plymouth Museum had ended, that I would just paint full time and be saved by the grace of adopting such faith in my art. I signed up to the SBA after seeing Ann Marie (I never introduced myself), and embarked on the course. I then left Plymouth when my time had come to an end, broke my right index finger, met Henry and got a job in the very gallery I saw on that fateful day. 


Four years had passed and on a unusually warm Spring day a very well dressed, small grey haired lady walked into the gallery - we clocked each other straight away at the entrance and she walked in. After an hour my colleague went up for lunch and I was left alone. The lady came over to write in the comments book and I said finally felt after all this time that I could say "hello", so I did, and went on to explain about the fateful train journey. She seemed very kind and talked about the colour green for about 20 minutes. Apparently, according to Ann-Marie, no one has got it right. It was after this moment in time when I made it my mission to capture the colour green and, two years on I am still trying...

Saturday, 2 January 2016

Cacophony of Green

As a botanical artist I feel it is important that we think about what we are doing with our art. It is lovely to be able to sit back and paint a flower just as it is like an Edwardian Lady, and that is absolutely fine, but I feel very passionate about trying to develop on this hobbiest approach to our work to give it some gravitas. I know I am not alone - there are many botanical artists who think very deeply about the meaning of their work and its evolution and this is superb as it benefits not only the art form, but all of us - from painter to observer.

Making pictures with soundwaves
Not long ago I was asked by someone how I would paint our Lord, Jesus Christ. Firstly, I thought - this is a very good question as I am now completely stumped. Unusually for me I couldn't find an answer and was left speechless. At the time I was with several other people and I could feel their eyes and hearts desperately trying to pull an answer out of me. I felt the weight of responsibility crushing down on my shoulders. With the knowledge that I could not just stand there in silence I was becoming aware that whatever answer came out of my mouth it had to delivered in an honest, heart felt and nourishing way. After what seemed like a lifetime of silence (but was probably only 30 seconds) I realised that the reason I couldn't answer was because there was no answer (this is a difficult concept again for me to realise as, like my father would say, I have an answer for EVERYTHING).

A Grid of Audio Speakers That Shoots Fleeting Patterns of Fog by Daniel Schulze 

I found myself merging a thousand catholic-based images of him dressed in linen robes or nailed on a cross with his wispy hair and sorrowful eyes. Then I was seeing him as white light and thought - yes a circle of white I would do that, but then I found myself revisiting all this stuff I have been considering about space, white and black, light and shadow, and realised that white wouldn't do. In the end, around a table where you could hear a pin drop, I found myself saying "I cannot depict him. I thought that it would be possible to draw him as a circle of white light, but that wouldn't work, because he can be there in the darkness. With this in mind I would have to describe him in sound - like a constant hum". To me, like the souls of all living things, he belongs to that part of the electromagnetic spectrum. It's the subtle hum of life that is observed only through dedicated listening.


A Closer Winter Tunnel, February - March, 2006
 "I heard myself close my eyes, then open them"
Loys Masson, Icare ou le voyageur

Sound in botanical art

Since that chilly autumnal evening in Chichester I have not stopped thinking about this conundrum and how I ended up, quite unexpectedly, communicating something this profound! I came to realise that at the time I must have felt that did not have the skill to make such an image that could capture something so broad and satisfy so many needs, but  I know that some artists can. I realise everyone has a different take on spiritual matters and so I am not going to go into that, but what I am interested in is if pictures can communicate sound or something beyond the image. For example, when you see a Monet, can you hear a sound? Obviously, not a real sound, but one in your 'being'. It could be a single frequency, or it could be a cacophony but something internal. What do you feel in sensory terms and is what you feel beyond touch, smell and taste? I am particularly interested in this from a botanical art point of view as for me, when a botanical painting is executed incredibly well, I can, on a spiritual level, 'hear' it. The plants sing, there is movement, there is time beyond our sense of it. For example, I am sure many of us would agree that Rory's pictures sing, you might not have noticed it, but there's a frequency there, it is beyond the audible.


Van Gogh Sunflowers - National Portrait Gallery

"Her secret was
Listening to flowers
Wear out their colour"
Noel Bureau, Les mains tendues

In science, we attempt to explain the universe objectively, that is, without a viewer, and therefore in my mind, science fails to explain art or the unique effects artists can synthesise from it. As a scientist, this has always fascinated me because in this day and age this is fundamentally where the pseudo-dichotomy between the two hemispheres begins. During my training I always found science too impersonal and felt that this unnatural treatment of observation was, and will remain to be, its greatest stumbling blocks. However, like in all things there are exceptions to this, for example, Quantum physics is one branch of the sciences where great discoveries are being made. I feel that this is because it focuses on the power of our observation - it is personal. Other pure sciences are more clinical in their approach. In every truly creative idea or discovery it should be noted that there is usually some form of fundamental discontinuity. For great art or science to happen, the methods in which the projection of images and sounds enter an observer need to involve more than basic logic or synergy. 


"You can hear the prattle of the flowers on the screen"
Rene-Guy Cadou, Helene ou le regne vegetal. 

So as botanical illustrators/artists, sitting all over the place on the spectrum of 'science art', from the representationalists right through the stylists, it is important for us to consider our imaginations and how they can always form something that is beyond reason to transport our audiences. We need to remember that our existence and our reactions to it cannot be explained in simple quantitative terms - something I think many of us forget as we try to capture 'form' (see previous blog post where I discuss 'emotion' in botanical art). I believe that it is in understanding this phenomenon that will make our art, in all of its forms, great.                                                    

"I live in the tranquillity of flowers, summer is growing"
Thoreau, Walden.

In her 'background coloured in' pieces, I believe that Margaret Mee was another one of those botanical artists who knew how to paint something could transcend itself by getting us to use our imaginations - playing on our senses to enter something quite primal in our being.

Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Personification of Leaves

I find myself lying in bed with a bad back/right arm combo. As I don't own a laptop I have dragged my bed across the floor towards my desktop and have pulled my keyboard out to full extension so that I can type whilst sitting in bed. This has suddenly become a very dark day (AGAIN). I have no idea what is going on right now only that I appear to be struggling with everything, which is ridiculous as I don't really have pressures in life at the moment. It just go to show you that you can't escape yourself. 

Me with plants painted by Piers Ottey 2004
Whilst laying in bed and writing in all of my diaries something extraordinary manifests in my thoughts - a realisation: I am my leaves, the leaves are me. Every leafscape is not only a portrayal of a dystopian ecology, every one of them is also a reflection of me. Stuck on the margin on the paper, unable to claim their space, full of life or slowly decaying, spiky or soft, they are all facets me. 

I mentioned my dreams of giant leaves and tree trunks in my last post. When reflecting on my plant-based dreams, one in particular still plays on my mind. It must have been dreamt back in 2012 when I was still living in Kew. In it I found my old bedroom in a house of many houses. It was covered in dust, and shafts of life erupted from the furniture and climbed towards the shuttered window. Disrupted layers of dust whirled around the stagnant, stratified air. Toys I had forgotten ever owning were left out, half drunk cups of tea, university papers, school journals - you name it, everything was inside this hexagonal room. The room held all the items every one of my rooms has ever held, it was a capsule of my space and identity. Stunned I had come across such treasure my eyes went back to the thing they noticed first - the bed, from out which grew a coffee tree. It was Caroline and she was in bloom, but her flowers were that of a Gardenia- big, white and showy. Her roots covered the bed and her branches, which were full of singing, electric green birds, spread out like an awning in their desperate search for light. She was incredibly stunted but able to function nonetheless and the entire room had developed its own ecosystem.


On remembering this dream I remember all the others I had during that year of trees growing in houses and churches, halls, bedrooms, cellars and attics. There were dozens of them, all different species and all dwarfed by their environment. I now see a theme developing... took a while for me to remember and piece it together, but the brain is an amazing muscle that always requires time (and space). So with that in mind I am left feeling rather stunned and a teeny bit sad, trying to work out what I need to do in order to move away from the margin and into that white space. That is, if I want to. I think I do, but the subconscious is a strange thing and maybe, just maybe there is something inside of me that prefers the margin. 

Sunday, 27 December 2015

Giants in thimbles

Building  a collection

I got a head start, I managed to squeeze out three and a half paintings before the end of 2015, but for Inky Leaves the countdown has now begun. I have to plan it out and be disciplined if we are to have enough work for two shows. Collections are important - to me they have to achieve something beyond what the art works communicate as individual pieces. In a collection, all the paintings should further the space they occupy to form an extended space where all the narratives join together to tell a bigger story. 

Stories within stories within stories, the success that was
The Colours of Reality exhibition at Kew Gardens, 2013
In my night dreams, plants feature prominently and when they do they dwarf me; they are always big - bigger than they should be in real life. As a child I was obsessed with scale, but I was more captivated by the miniature world. I collected dolls house furniture even though I had no house to put them in. I liked Polly in my Pocket and dreamt about Borrowers and Fairies. I guess when a child, one fears the gigantic and inside a miniature world one might feel more or less in control. “In a miniature world we stand outside looking in, but the gigantic envelops us. We know bigness only partially. We move through the landscape, it doesn't move through us” (Stewart, 1992). Bachelard further expands on this concept noting that the "miniature is an exercise that has metaphysical freshness; it allows us to be world concious at slight risk" (Bachelard, 1994).

What fascinates me as a botanical artist is the paradox we generate when we choose to manipulate our sense of scale when painting something that is natural. This is because scale is a cultural phenomenon (objects are related to our own bodies and experiences). In nature there is no 'sense' of scale, scale does not exist. When seeing a piece of botanical art where the magnification has been altered on a plant portrait, the viewer is often shamefully made aware that whatever has been changed has so in order to fulfil their needs. That thing of beauty has been messed around with, and has become unnatural. This mostly manifests in scientific journals, where small items, such as a pistil, are portrayed at a magnified scale and large items, such as palm leaves, at a smaller scale. However, more often we are now experiencing something rather different, where parts of plants that do not require magnification for our eyes, are being enlarged regardless. We are shifting towards the land of the giant peach and the enormous pip. How very Lewis Carroll.

Rory's giant Tulip petal in the Colours of Reality exhibition
at the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art, Kew Gardens
For me, enlarged plants that do not require enlargement generate a whole other spectrum of feelings. In order for me to fully understand these I often revisit my dreams, where I climb grapes like I would Everest and peel back leaves the size of theatre curtains. Here I am afraid, but I am equally filled with a fantastic sense of wonder and freedom. The veil of responsibility is lifted, for I am small and insignificant and no one can see me in this forest of the colossal. There is no sense of shame either, for that is a condition attached to a sense of responsibility and as established, that burden for me has been taken away. Unlike a scientific plate, there is a comical side to this sort of absurd enlargement - it's fun and playful. Feeling small and full of wonder, onlookers are brought back to their childhoods where the vastness of imagination takes over. Reality is left behind. Such a release is something many of us long for. The land of giant balls of pollen and mushrooms for stools are part of a magical place we secretly yearn for or have long forgotten.

"¡¡Cuidado Veneno Peligroso!!" 
(Artichoke - Cynara cardunculus var. scolymus) (76 x 56cm). 
Found on one of my walks after they had sprayed the fields.
J R Shepherd 2015
Further examining the role of the monumental kumquat or the colossal conker we are also reminded that size can indicate power. By playing on our own sense of scale, artists can make the insignificant, significant. This is something that really speaks to me as a botanical artist trying to give plants a voice. Artist Mona Caron takes this theme of immensity to the extreme, by portraying the most insignificant of plants - weeds - as massive murals. Mona's use of space is two fold, as the idea behind the mural is not just to make these specimens huge, but to also embed their portraits in the very streets where they are ignored, confronting our impression of reality. 

Dandelion by Mona Canon

Taking Root by Mona Canon

He lay down behind the blade of grass
To enlarge the sky

(Bureau, 1950)

I am aware that I haven’t really touched on what it is to paint miniatures in my own art. I feel I lack experience in this domain and have chosen not to write about it at length, but I feel that to paint something much, much smaller than it really is generates an equally captivating sense of wonder. They are, after all, like treasure. Only I feel that a sense of responsibility would still remain for the viewer, because of ones own sense of little and large and what that means culturally. We own the little - the big need to look after the small. This is often true in real terms, such as communities looking after the individuals of that community, but we cannot use this standard all of the time otherwise it becomes absurd. For example, such a notion is probably is what has led us into the environmental mess we now find ourselves in – maybe we feel that because the landscape is bigger than us that it is the responsibility of the landscape to look after us?

In The Poetics of Space, Bachelard discusses the importance of the miniature world to botanists in particular. "Botanists delight in the miniature of being exemplified by a flower, and they even ingenuously use words that correspond to thing of ordinary size to describe the intimacy of flower" (Bachelard, 1994). For example, "It wears a typically northern costume with four little stamens that are like little yellow brushes" (Herbs, 1851). What one can discover under a lens is a whole new world. To have a magnifying glass is to enter the world of the miniature - it is youth recaptured. We once again begin to play with the fantastical, whilst also seeing things for the very first time like a new born. Magnifying glasses give us an enlarging gaze that turns miniatures into giants, seeing the intimate detail of something very small suddenly increases the objects presence relative to ourselves. 


"Miniature is one of the refuges of greatness"
(Bachelard, 1994)

"Scale is established by means of a set of correspondents to the familiar, and a significance of space and scale refers to a significance in time" (Stewart, 1992). As botanical artists, we need to consider all the states of being in order to depict an authentic reality. Whenever I think about space I always look to Rory McEwen and his compositions. To me, the way he left so much negative space managed to distort time and brought me closer to the vastness of the infinite. His paintings captured a moment in time, but that time was infinite. Such an impossibility remains to be deeply moving – he managed to encapsulate that thing we secretly long for - transcendence whilst still existing.  


Lots of space around an onion, The colours of Reality exhibition in 2013
at the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art, Kew
By exaggerating the space around his specimens and expanding their intimate space, Rory managed to bestow his leaves and flowers with poetic space. The consequence of this graceful extension effects the actual subject matter, giving them a elevated state of importance and being. They claim their space like royalty and the space that is around them is concentrated inside of them, they become dense - papery leaves become heavy. Some viewers experience Rory's work as immensely uplifting and 'light', and if one looks at the moment of time portrayed as a vacuum of stillness, it is. However, personally I feel that this is only the first layer of Rory's onion because infinity is not weightless. Space is heavy and by condensing that space into his leaves, Rory personifies the subject matter - the leaves carry the weight of life on their skeletons. Through witnessing the poetic space we enter a moment of heavy, exaggerated intimacy. 


"Darth", cabbage leaf, (76 x 56cm), drawn during black dog
J R Shepherd 2015
A while ago I experimented with the colour black in order to replicate Rory's magic trick on white. I suppose I was secretly asking myself, is black more vast than white? In honesty, I lost my way a little as this was new territory. The composition was not suitable to achieve the effect I desired, but it was most certainly close. The piece was never finished, but I was reminded about it after reading Coral Guest's blog post on black called 'Space like Black Velvet' where she reveals how black can represent both background and space. "When the subject suspended in the black is affected tonally by that black, the black is more apparent as space" (Guest, 2015). I guess the same is true of white - its about space touching a subject. As a life grows into its space it claims its soul and becomes.

If I ever finish the giant cabbage leaf, the right edge of it will disappear into the background completely so there is no line. The idea is to make the background invisibly powerful, to the point that it makes the leaf look scary, which in itself is an absurdity - there is nothing scary about a cabbage leaf.  The reason the leaf gets the flack it is the leaf that the viewer looks at and not the space, even though the whole thing is one and seamlessly joined. I feel that people often forget space - how to see it and use it. There is a philosophical element to space too, all environments alter their subjects physically, spiritually, mentally and emotionally and of course, we are forgetting the elephant in the room here (couldn't resist the scale pun), that the big, scary cabbage leaf, although big, is still not as big as the space around it. 

Giants in Thimbles

So, with all of this in mind I am brought back to look at my current work and ask myself some questions, such as why am I painting these leaves so big that they don’t fit into the ‘box’ they've been put in and where are their edges?

Catalpa Leaf (76 x 56cm), found on the lawn behind our house in Granada whilst I was raking. 
J R Shepherd 2015
To cut a long story short, I consider the edges to be very important in this collection (and in everything I see). They are the interface between this world and the next, the beginning and the end. In this assortment I have made it so that the edges of my mounts can’t contain. Rory McEwen did this a little bit with his decaying leaves, but in Rory’s work, as the subject disappeared to the edge the picture, it began to softly vanish, playing on themes of transcendence and fantasy.

My works do not do this. There are no ghosts, it is just that the paper is inadequate for the subject. The subject will not be contained, it is too magnific. After all, who are we to think we can contain the giant that is mother nature? 

Personally I feel that Rory's compositions also generate an air of apprehension over our measures of space, time and decay. The viewer finds themselves having to let go, or grapple with holding on. His edge is a natural ragged cliff edge, but mine is a man made boundary. Both works are a reminder that we cannot control, but my work is getting bigger and is travelling towards you, Rory's is getting smaller and further away. His leaves don't appear to threaten in the same way as mine. His leaves are shifting into invisibleness, mine too, but not through a visible death, my collection is experiencing a deathless death. The death of life being able to roam freely. 


"¡¡Cuidado Veneno Peligroso!!" 
(Artichoke - Cynara cardunculus var. scolymus) (76 x 56cm). 
Found on one of my walks after they had sprayed the fields.
J R Shepherd 2015
My collection is slowly evolving to tell a story about a dystopian ecology that is trapped and morphed by us. Manipulation at its most extreme. A trapped world that cannot grow. As I look around my studio at all the leaves hanging off rafters and walls they look like birds in cages. Trapped they are restricted by the pressures of a materialistic world and cannot reach beyond. Rory's touched way beyond. He turned botanical reality into a fantasy, but mine can't reach that utopia, they are chained on the parameter of the paper. To me, they are the living evidence of the struggle that is life, conforming to an unmarked standard. They override their man-made niches, unable to conform to our world. Giants in thimbles, their desires and needs out-do supply. They are over-reaching, but again who are we to judge? They are only too big according to our own measures and sense of scale. They are boxed up because these leaves live in our reality and our own measures of it.

Disappearing Catalpa Leaf (76 x 56cm) found on Brick Lane in the last days of my relationship with Henry.
J R Shepherd 2015
This is a tragedy and like all tragedy's there is something moving and beautiful.  The beauty I see in any tragedy is the way it poetically describes the flaws of humanity whilst at the same highlighting our positive nature of wanting to nurture and knowing right from wrong. How we react to this tragedy is something that will never be held or measured, and we will never fully grasp nature in its boundlessness. We cannot contain its beauty, for if we try to, that beauty disappears because the context of the extraction has been lost. 


The Day Dreaming Leaf

"Immensity is within ourselves. It is attached to a sort of expansion of being that life curbs and caution arrests, but which starts again when we are alone" (Bachelard, 1994). Plants are immense and can create silencing black holes of vastness when growing together. Maybe this is where my night dreams of 'forests of the colossal' manifest from? The feelings one channels when present inside both a dream and a forest occupy the same sense of vastness. Bachelard said that forests "accumulate infinity within their own boundaries". With this, one revisits the concepts surrounding edges and boundaries and my recent blog posts on leafscapes and mapping. These giant leaves are so magnified that they reveal a whole new landscape of a miniature world within their boundary. They are vast pictures of the miniature. "These trees are magnificent, but even more magnificent is the sublime and moving space between them, as though with their growth it too increased" (Bosco, 1952). Edges define the dimensions of being. What is beyond the edge of the paper, what was there and what was not included in the composition no one but the artist will know. We have to imagine what was there, entering the vast space in the mind that has no boundaries. 

Seizing the Hourglass

Now it is time to briefly touch on 'time' as space and sum up 2016s work. I'll be quick. These leaves will be barcoded by time, not only in the way they look in the moment of portrayal, but in other ways. There will be numbers involved and these will conform to a pattern. It's up to my followers to work out the pattern if they choose to. Each piece will also contain a story written on the back. This is a new form of expression, which I hope to continue on all non-commissioned pieces. 

Close up on Darth
In the end, what I hope to make is a collection that documents both natural and cultural measures of time and space in a captivating, disconcerting and beautiful way. With hope, the Botanical Kingdom will be looked at differently and bridges will be built crossing the gap between 'us' and 'them'.



Stewart, S., (1991), On Longing, Duke University Press Books
Buchard, G., (1994), The Poetics of Space, Beacon Press

Herbs, (1851), Dictionnarie de botanique chrétienne inside Nouvelle Encyclopédie théologique 
Bureau, N., (1950), Le mains tendues, Ed. de la Girafe
Bosco, H., (1952), Antonin, Gallimard, Paris
Guest, C., (2015), 'Space like Black Velvet'