Five things I have learnt from being an aspiring botanical artist

I discovered botanical water colour art, with its exact, detailed depiction of plants, true to nature, at the age of 40. In this art form, each image looks so real you have to look carefully whether it is a painting or a photo, yet no two artists will paint the same plant in the same way. We have over 20 pieces in our home, not necessarily well-known artists, but all giving us immense pleasure.

In 2011, I took up a quest to become a botanical artist myself. It was a humbling experience to take up a new hobby as an adult, and it taught me some lessons in the process.

#1 – It is OK to be a beginner again

When you reach a certain age in life (it seems to come at different times for different people), you realize that you are an adult. You understand how the world works, that it contains cruel and unjust, as well as beautiful and kind, and you can confidently navigate your way to where you want to be.

You decide to take up a challenging new hobby. In an instant, you are a baby again, who falls down constantly, pulls things off tables as you learn to navigate and is never sure whether to sit and bawl or get up and crawl. It is hard, to go from being proficient at most things to starting out again.

Humbling. Especially when you look at the work of others and start doubting that you will ever get there. Gratifying, when something on the journey suddenly makes sense. Worth celebrating, when the objects in your painting start resembling the objects you were looking at.

#2 – Just because it looks easy, does not mean it is easy

An important part of the process of learning a new skill, is to observe how others do it. How the teacher does it. To observe, break it down for yourself into the different layers and sequence, and copy. And copy, And copy. Until yours start looking vaguely like the one the teacher demonstrated. Take heart from that, and practice some more.

That concept of 10 000 hours of practice making a master, regardless of talent? I think I am on my way to proving it wrong. Or so it feels, anyway.

#3 – By learning a new skill, you see the world in a different way

When you learn to paint and draw, you very soon realize you are not drawing the object in front of you. You are drawing the way the light falls on the object in front of you. Once that has really sunk into your (aging) brain, you start seeing light differently. And objects differently.

That contorted, dried autumn leaf blowing around? It becomes a thing of beauty, with the highlights of light and the contrast of deep shadow in the folds. The dried out remains of a strelitzia flower, leached of all colour? Again, the highlight of sunshine, the darkness of shadow, changes how you observe it.

We were watching the Tour de France when I suddenly understood why my art teacher says we mix shades of green differently in South Africa than in Europe – their plants have a deeper blue tone than the blue we use here to mix with yellow in order to paint green. I got excited about this new insight. Malcolm chuckled, and told me to watch the cycle race.

#4 – Sit with it, and it will reveal itself

One of the things we were taught is to pick your specimen flower or plant carefully. Pick a branch that looks like all the others, not the one that is uniquely misshapen by an outside influence. Once you have your specimen, sit and look at it. Turn it 10 degrees, and look. Study it, observe how the petals make shadows, the stem twists, the leaves form patterns. Look at the different shades you see, where it changes to be a little lighter, a tone or two deeper.

By looking at something for a while, and turning it and looking again, you not only notice the finer detail, like changes in shape and colour, but also you start “knowing” your subject. You not only find the best angle for your composition; you find the angle that pleases your eye. And that object starts being YOUR object, part of you.

Great advice, whenever you have to make a tough decision. Sit with it, sit with it, sit with it. Study it, think about the various outcomes, think about the decision again. Sit with it, and it will reveal itself.

#5 – Infinite possibilities

When you first put brush to paper, it is helpful to have a limited palette, especially in water colour. You already have the water and the paper and the interaction between those two to contend with, as well as letting the white of the paper play into the picture you are creating. I was taught to start with six colours – three “cool” primary colours (red, yellow, blue), and three “warm” primaries.

The colours themselves have beautiful names – permanent rose, scarlet lake, lemon yellow, French ultramarine. With your six colours, water and paper, you can mix and paint in any colour under the sun. One of your first exercises are to paint colour charts, where you mix just two colours together and create a spectrum of at least 10 shades, with the addition of water and paper. The combinations and possibilities are endless.

You paint your masterpiece, and compare it to the object you painted, and with time you learn where you strayed from reality, where you embroidered a little to make it better. A curve that you exaggerate, a shade that you take a tone deeper. And that becomes your style as an artist, your unique signature.

The world is full of infinite possibilities, for you to make your mark.

(The image above was one of my first attempts that I was happy with. If you like the article (or image!) please feel free to comment, clap or like. All feedback is welcomed.)

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