Saturday, 24 September 2016

Returning with a Botanical Harvest

Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.   Albert Camus

Regular visitors to the blog would have noticed the change to the banner image above as my favourite season is here.  

Why favourite ?  It is a season that moves me, it stirs something up inside me, from the first glance of the red jewel like rose hips in a hedgerow, to the skeletal seedpods and umbellifer remains at the end of the season.

The pencils and paintbrushes have been busy and the subject matter varied and work is evolving, the majority of which has been painted on vellum.  I have started a series that I am going to call 'Dispersal'.  The montage approach works well for these subjects and shows examples of dispersal at this time of year.

'Dispersal (i)' Honesty seedpods.  One more will be added and also an escaped seed from one of the pods.  These have been painted on Kelmscott vellum.
To see more about how I drew and painted these, I have created a tutorial treat for you - my latest video can be found at the bottom of this page.

Apologies for not such a good photo.  Work in progress on 'Dispersal (ii)'

The county of Hampshire where I live is not known for many orchards.  Orchards are an important habitat which are in great decline across the country.  Smaller ones on private land can easily deterioate if neglected too.

Two commercial orchards fairly near to where we live have 'Apple Days' coming up and we are hoping to visit one of them and buy some of the produce.  Hill Farm Orchards have Applefest on Saturday 1st October and the Blackmoor Estate have their Apple Tasting Day on Sunday 9th October.

To top it all with more apple activities, I will be demonstrating botanical art (drawing and painting apples !) at King John's House and Heritage Centre in Romsey on the 15th October.  Come along and say hello and take part in apple themed activities for all ages.  See below for more information.

Devon Crab Apples - watercolour

Other news

My new online course will now be launching in the New Year 2017.  As my health hasn't been great, I have not been able to devote as much time to it's final preparation, so I have delayed the starting time.

News of 2017 courses will be available on the website soon.  I am just finalising details with both venues, then all will be revealed.

Look out for my 'Tutorial Treats' on the Natures Details Facebook page.  These take place every few weeks using Facebook Live which means you can join me and see me working live and ask questions too, by typing them in the comments section.  I look forward to meeting you !

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Project Skills for Botanical Artists (iii) - grow your own

I suspect that a lot of botanical artists are keen gardeners too, or perhaps the botanical art has led them to gardening ?

I've always had an interest in gardening as well as the natural world, but it was not really until I had my own home that I could be 'let loose' !

Combining two of my passions is a real benefit.  The garden provides a place of contemplation and one where I can work out my frustrations, perhaps with a bit of weeding, when I am struggling with a painting.  One fantastic benefit is that I can grow my own subject matter for paintings.

Part of our small garden - crammed full of plants and pots

Over the years I have grown several selections of plants for botanical art projects. Although grown inside there were orchids, then there were a whole variety of Fritillaria.  The latter were grown in a cold frame type stand outside, but alas didn't all survive.  A winter storm and high winds blew the frame over and most of the pot's contents got emptied and completely muddled up !  Being a novice and before I really used the internet to any extent, I wasn't confident enough to name the bulbs without any evidence of flowers.

Now this year, I am growing some plants to continue my series 'A View Inside', of which the Echinacea purpurea below was the first painting.  This time I am painting the dissected flowers on natural calfskin vellum and a Cirsium is the latest one in progress.

'A View Inside - Echinacea purpurea'

Cirsium  - work in progress on calfskin vellum

For the last two years we have also grown a 'mini-meadow' which we planted with wildlflower seed and this year further annuals, such as Cornflower and Borage have been included.  Some of these flowers have been used as subject matter on courses, but not as a personal painting project - yet.

Our mini-meadow this Spring

This is the mini-meadow a couple of weeks ago

If you are wanting to grow some wildflower species at home for a botanical art project, there are several things to consider:

  • Wildflowers do not necessarily like a fertile soil. If you think of a downland type soil its fertility is minimal.
  • If using a variety seed mix, be aware that it will include grasses which can become too dominant and stifle the growth of the wildflowers.
  • Buy seeds that originate from your own country or even your local area if you can and make sure that they have been harvested responsibly.
  • If wanting to grow individual plants in pots, so that you have the flexibility of moving them around, one option is to buy plug plants.  These are normally plants in the early stage of growth that you can then nurture over a period of time.
    • If you buy these plants from a specialist supplier, you may have the option of asking about the substrate that they are growing in.  This can then be replicated as you plant on into a larger pot.
    • Using fine gravel in the soil is a good option too, to allow drainage and also reduce fertility levels.
  • If growing from seed, either as a mix or individually, Autumn sowing is usually more successful.
Several of the above points can apply to cultivated varieties of plants too, and here are some others to consider:
  • Some plants once transferred into large pots can bolt, or in other words have a growth spurt in a short period of time.  This happened to my Cirsium, when compared to the plants that I planted in the garden borders.  You have to watch that this does not affect the normal visual character of the plant, especially if you are going to paint the whole stem within a composition.  Have several plants available that you can refer to and do your research too.
  • Pot grown plants can have less of a plant spread.  This could be evident in the position of the leaves.  A plant expert once told me that he could often tell how the subject of a painting had been grown by how the leaves were portrayed.  One painting he viewed had the leaves of the plant too upright and a natural characteristic was for the leaves to grow in a more lateral position.
  • Try and get your nutrient levels right for individual pot grown plants as well as taking note of the other requirements - drainage, light levels.  Discolouration of the foliage and detrioation of the buds and blooms can often be due to too much watering, not enough, or the wrong soil type in the container.

There are so many things to consider, whatever level of experience you have in gardening, but there is a no better feeling than growing a plant from seed to flower and incorporating it into one of your own paintings.

Well, what's on the agenda for me ?  I have a couple of paintings that are waiting to be finished and on the 1st August I will have a week teaching a course at the Kingcombe Centre - Illustrating Butterflies and Moths.
As well as the above the new online course is being written and I am really excited about what I will be able to include in it.  So if you have made enquiries, don't worry, further news will follow towards the end of the summer.

Happy painting !

The beautiful seedhead of the Cirsium

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Project Skills for Botanical Artists (ii) - considering the habitat

Apologies that there has been a bit of a gap between my last blog post and this one.

The first blogpost in the series certainly went a bit mad in terms of viewing figures, so I hope that this is a sign that it has proved useful to botanical artists embarking on a botanical art project with wild flowers and plants in mind.

In case you didn't get to read it, here is the link:  Project Skills for Botanical Artists (i) - Identifying Wild Flowers and Plants

This blog post will focus on the bigger picture and one aspect in particular that we may need to consider when immersed in a project - the habitat

When we are focused on a specific plant or  genus of plants as part of a project, we can often forget the habitat and the significance of it.  If looking at a particular suite of species, it can be due to the habitat and associated factors alone, for the reason that plant species is growing there.

As an art project versus a scientific project you may wonder why we need to consider the habitat so much, but if we have the background information at the beginning it can really help to expand our knowledge and inform our thinking, as well as practical tasks associated with the project eg. are you allowed to collect specimens, do I need to get permission as it is a designated site, is there further information available from who manages the site ??

An example of a group exhibit at the Royal Horticultural Society Botanical Art Show in 2016.
Iceni Botanical Artists depicted plants that came from the fragile and declining habitat of the Brecks found in the east of England in Suffolk and Norfolk.

Researching about the habitat and how it influences the plants would have been an important part for each botanical artist when illustrating their chosen plant.

Should I focus on one site or two ?
  • it depends on the focus of your project.
  • if focusing on one species of plant or a suite of species, you may still want to see how it looks over different sites and habitats, to help you determine its main and most familiar characteristics.  It's amazing how the look of plant can differ dependant on its growing conditions and the affect of hydrology and soil type, as well as management, such as grazing regimes.
  • if focusing on a group of plants from different plant families eg. meadow plants, they may not all be available in one site.  'Meadow plants' is also quite a general title, so consider if the plants you want to illustrate are from a particular type of meadow/grassland.  This may then be limited to one site or may be spread over a wider area.
How can I find out information about a site ?
Unfortunately, I am only able to comment on resources available within the UK.
  • MAGIC  - What is MAGIC?  'The MAGIC website provides authoritative geographic information about the natural environment from across government.  The information covers rural, urban, coastal and marine environments across Great Britain.  It is presented in an interactive map which can be explored using various mapping tools that are included.  Natural England manages the service under the direction of a Steering Group'. 
  • I have used the MAGIC website for many years, first when working as an Ecologist and latterly when working on botanical art projects and such like.  It provides a good starting point to determining the habitat type of a particular area.  To help you understand how it can be of help have a look at the following images:
When you first visit the website, you see a page showing a map of the British Isles.  You can then zoom into a specific area.  The example above shows Farley Mount Country Park, near Winchester, which is adjacent to and includes Crab Wood.

On the left you can see the orange box where you can tick what you want to see.  Firstly, you can choose what type of mapping you want.  So above it shows background mapping and Ordnance Survey black and white mapping.

The image above shows where I have chosen to see the Site of Special Scientific Interests and the specific detail about what condition they are in (bright green).

This is where the mapping tool can really give you the information that will prove useful - the habitat types.  Here, I have chosen the woodland option on the left and it shows me the different types of woodland on the site - Ancient and semi-natural woodland and ancient replanted woodland.

  • Other sources of information include your County Wildlife Trust - they may be able to provide you with further habitat about a site they manage.  Also, there are Biological Record Centres in some regions, that may provide information about habitats, and species too, but there may be a small charge for this service.

I hope this overview has been of help.  The next blogpost in the series will be about growing plants for a botanical art project.

Happy painting !

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Project Skills for Botanical Artists (i) - Identifying wild flowers & plants

Yes, I'm back !  Gosh what a busy time it has been, exhibitions, teaching and producing new art work.

I've neglected the blog for a while, but I am back up and running with a new series of posts that will hopefully help those botanical artists who are planning and completing projects over the summer months.  These projects may be the start of producing work to exhibit with the RHS (Royal Horticultural Society), or it may be a self-guided project that will help you become familiar with a particular family or genus of plants or plants within a specific habitat.  Either way, working in a structured way is a a huge benefit and to become absorbed and teach your self new skills, although I guess it may not suit everyone.

Preparatory work as part of a project © 2016 Claire Ward - Drawn to Paint Nature

If wanting to work in this way, do chose a plant family or a place/habitat that you are really interested in and feel passionate about.  This interest and passion needs to be continuous if you are working towards the RHS, although because we are human, there will always be times where we feel challenged.

The one key thing, whatever approach you take is to be able to identify plants, and this could potentially include grasses, sedges, rushes and ferns too.

 Learning to identify plants and their characteristics goes hand in hand with producing accurate botanical illustrations and portraits - you cannot do the latter without the other.

Within the world of the internet, especially social media, it is easy to ask others for identification of a plant from a photographic image.  This is fine if you have already tried to identify it or if it is a particularly challenging species, but when starting out try to move forward  yourself by using a variety of resources.

'Where do I start?' I hear you ask ..... 
  • To make a gentle start have a pocket guide to wild flowers or a fold out chart.  These are unlikely to include all species but may give you a starting point to a plant family or genus.  They will also fit well into your pocket or back pack.
  • Once you are starting to feel more confident it is time to buy a more complex flora.  This does not have to be a large volume, but it is likely to be slightly heavier than a pocket guide !
  • There are some wonderful 'older' floras out there, but do make sure that you have an up to date edition, as plant names can be revised and sometimes even be re-classified.
  • When buying this stage of flora do make sure it contains a key.  A key is a step by step approach to identifying a plant species by noting, counting and recording specific characteristics that move you on to the next step.  Keys really help when dealing with sub-species and more complex plant families.
Other tips  
  • Other useful items to carry with you are a hand lens x10 is fine and a x20 is useful to have in addition.  
  • Identify plants in the field where at all possible.
  • Usually specimens can survive for a short while, if you cannot identify them in the field.  Once you are back at home you can combine the resources you have to aid identification - additional books, the internet and also the option of using dissection.
  • Don't rely on just using photographs to identify plants, but they are great to use in combination with specimens.  Photographs are one of the only options for rare and protected species, in addition sketches and notes are very important too.  Why not consider using the video function on your mobile phone ?  That way you can view and film all aspects of a plant.
  • If you are studying a particular plant family or genus, also make a note of other plants present in the same habitat.

Books & other identification resources   
  • Fold out identification charts from the Field Studies Council.  These are great for starting off and are light enough to carry a few together in a bag.  They cover a wide range of themes, with very good illustrations on one side and text on the other.  Good to be used in combination with a pocket ID book.
FSC fold out identification charts
  • The next step on is to use a flora with a key.  I have always used The Wild Flower Key by Francis Rose, which has been revised and updated by Clare O'Reilly.  My original copy is in pieces due to wear and tear, but is still kept for sentimental reasons !  For more in depth clarification I then use Stace's New Flora for the British Isles , quite often when I get home as it is a hefty volume !
  • There are also books available that cover specific subjects, and these generally include keys too.  An example is: The Vegetative Key to the British Flora by John Poland and Eric Clement, with others available about trees in winter, grasses, sedges and ferns, and orchids too.

  • On social media such as Facebook and Twitter you may find groups that help with plant identification.  This can be a great help, but you need to be sure that the identification is correct.  One particular group that I find extremely interesting on Facebook is 'Botanical Keys and how to use them'.

Want to learn more and gain experience ?  
  • Why not volunteer at a local nature reserve and become familiar with the plants throughout all of the seasons.
  • Join the Flora Group for your County.  They will generally have regular meetings or outings to specific sites.  They may also provide some training and the opportunity to help with surveys.
  • The Wildlife Trusts and other conservation organisations usually have a course/workshop programme that will often provide workshops for learning plant identification and other interest areas.
  • For slightly longer courses and those those that focus on specific botanical subjects, the Field Studies Council run courses at various centres around the UK. Examples are Using a Flora and Discovering and Identifying Wild Flowers. To view the full range of plant related courses click here.  
  • Another learning option is to take an online plant identification course.  The online plant identification course for beginners course provides a foundation in classification, terminology, the use of keys and the features of the most important plant families. Participants have to find common plant species and answer questions about them. Their answers are checked, and advice given, by a tutor. Further information, including a course sample, can be found on the website:
  • The wild plant charity Plantlife also provides learning opportunities and the option to take part in surveys in your area as part of the 'Wild About Plants' initiative.  There is also an e-learning community with updates throughout the year.

Friday, 1 April 2016

Sketching from the Strandline

I had intended to write a post about illustrating birds of prey, but perhaps I will do that once I have finished my owl drawing.

Instead, I will introduce you to a few mysteries of the strandline, that area on a beach where natural and man-made debris gathers after the tide has gone out.  The position of the strandline on the beach can vary according to what type of tide there has been.

You may wonder what mysteries I am referring to, especially as it is April 1st !

I visited our local beach at Meon shore which overlooks the Solent between the mainland of the south coast of England across to the Isle of Wight.  I never tire of visiting here, as one side of the road is the shore and the other side is where Titchfield Haven Nature Reserve is located.  Regular readers of the blog have no doubt heard me mention this place before.

The tide going out revealing the shingle spit and looking across the Solent to Fawley Power Station.
Can you spot the Turnstones ?

The sun shone brightly to reveal the beautiful shades of green on the Spiral wrack seaweed.

An area of the strandline revealing its contents

 Now for the first of the mysteries .....

As I wandered through the tidal pools out on the shingle spit, I always walk along head down looking out for Snakeslock sea anemones, but no luck today.  What I did notice was several small gelatinous blobs bobbing around in the water.  A photo wasn't possible but I managed to illustrate one in my sketchbook (bottom left above).  Apparently they were the egg masses of the Green leaf worm, which is common on British coasts in a variety of habitats.

The biggest mystery of all was this ......

I had spotted a mass like this several times as I walked along the strandline.  They were generally attached to remnants of shells.  When I got home I did a bit of research and discovered it is a Sea squirt called a Baked bean sea squirt Dendrodoa grossularia !!!!  No I am not kidding !

It is most common along the south and west coasts and occurs at low tides and at depth as solitary individuals or in clusters.  The dots on top are the siphons and as in many of the sea squirts the fertilised eggs are held in the atrium, from which the larvae are released.

Other things seen ......

Sea wash ball - the egg capsules of the Common whelk.
Each of the capsules forming the mass may contain up to 10 or more eggs, but most will be eaten by the single one which develops into a juvenile whelk.

Left - Sand masons protruding from the sand as the tide goes out.  These are segmented worms and when the tide is high the tentacles extend to feed on passing organic matter.
Right - I just loved the colour and pattern of the seaweed holdfast.

Lots of lovely treasures collected up and will be used later for the Natures Details Seashore Palette course.  As an important aside, I always check shells and other objects just to make sure that nothing living is inside them, if there is it goes straight back to where it came from.

Starting a sketchbook ......

I always like to provide interesting learning resources for my students.  So for each of the courses this year I am going to create a concertina sketchbook with examples of subject matter and colour notes.
There are only 4 pages in each and I have used watercolour paper, so it will tolerate the moisture from the paint.

The left hand page consists of  seashore treasures collected off of the coast of California, sent to me by a very kind friend.  There are still a few more items to include. 

Painting the items collected from Meon shore.  Left to right - Oyster shell, Sea wash ball, Cuttlefish bone, Mermaid's purse, Mussel shell and a Grooved razor shell.

If you would like to find out more about the strandline, there has been a brilliant programme on Radio 4 this week at lunchtime, A Guide to Coastal Wildlife.  Each day Brett Westwood, Phil Gates and other wildlife experts explore different areas and habitats of our coast.

The Natures Details Course - The Seashore Palette-Colours and Details of the Seashore is taking place on the 19th and 20th August.  There are still a few places left, but if you are interested I would book up soon, it's proving to be a popular subject !

Sunday, 13 March 2016

Illustrating plants out of season - a tricky dilemma !

After a few days of respite following on from the RHS and going straight back to teaching, it was all go again with news of an exciting commission.

Exciting because it meant that I could continue working in pen and ink, a medium that I really enjoyed using for the twig drawings in my RHS exhibit.

The only problem, or should I say more of a challenge, is that part of the commission involved illustrating five plants that are completely out of season, in that they are not flowering.  In addition there was also a ladybird, grasshopper and bumblebee to illustrate, and wait for it - a timescale of just 3-4 days !!

The first step - research is the key and knowing where to look.  The internet is great, but be careful if you use images and ensure that you have permission to use them and/or they are copyright free.  The same applies in using illustrations in books.
With a challenge such as this, the key thing is to really know your plant and start to bring the elements together from various sources to produce a viable and realistic plant portrait.

I was somewhat lucky with this commission, as the brief was to produce sketch like ink drawings, this helped in two ways, I could potentially work a little faster, which helps with the tight timescale, and secondly I could be a little freer with my drawing style, but still create an accurate portrayal.

A selection of reference books on my desk.  My collection of Stella Ross Craig books proved invaluable with a project such as this.
My Francis Rose key is my go to book for checking accurate identification details.  This is my second copy as my first is in pieces, and a very treasured possession, after years of use in the field.

The above dried grass samples were not used for this project, but keeping dried or pressed specimens is an excellent way to help with future drawings.
I collected grasses, sedges and rushes in particular as they can be quite tricky to identify.

Even though time was tight, I made sure that my sketchbook was used for the initial studies and to make sure I was interpreting correctly what I was seeing.

The drawing of Yarrow taking shape.

The next stage was to trace the design from my sketchbook onto tracing paper using my Rotring Isograph ink pen with a 0.10 nib and my lightbox.

Once the design was on tracing paper, the Fabriano Artistico HP paper was placed over the tracing and to save time the last drawing was made directly with the ink pen.
This was quite risky, but it saved on time and also having my sketchbook at the side made sure that I could refer to that for any detail that was difficult to see.

The finer details and areas of tonal work were completed once the main outline was in place.

A selection of my ink pens.
Left to right:  Zig Zag 'throw away' technical drawing pen; Rotring Isograph pens; far right, an old Rotring pen, the equivalent of the modern Isograph.

Now for the completed work:

Bombus terrestris

Meadow grasshopper

Seven-spot ladybird



Red campion

Red clover


Well, 'what now?' you may say, no respite I'm afraid.  

My botanical art courses at Peter Symonds College AHED in Winchester are nearing the end of term and the Natures Details Courses start at the end of this week.

This year we are opening with the 'Sketching the Beauty of Owls' course and Beebo and Eddi will be returning.  Further courses include Spring flowers, Summer Flowers, Butterflies and Moths, the Seashore Palette and Painting on Vellum.

Further details can be found on the website.

Have a good week everyone !