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.