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


  1. so true about plant leaves and how they're grown.....my peppers in the pot have upright leaves...but in the ground they spred

    1. Yep it's amazing Vi, when you think about it. So many things to consider !


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