Can a botanical painting look more real than the real thing? If it is painted by Asuka Hishiki the answer is Yes! Below is a review the new book, Botaniphoria, by Asuka Hishiki.
Review by Mary Crabtree - botanical artist and ABA Education Team member.
I first heard of Asuka Hishiki in 2018 when she was an Artist in Residence at the Denver Botanic Gardens School of Botanical Art and Illustration and I was a beginner student. When I saw her artwork I was truly amazed. And I was thrilled to recently view her work in person at the RHS Botanical Art and Photography Show at the Saatchi Gallery in London where she was awarded a Gold Medal. To describe her work to those who have not seen it I usually say that she is somehow able to make her subjects look more real than the real thing! It is as though she manages to turn up the focus so we experience the subjects rather than just seeing them.
In her newly published book, Botaniphoria (2023, Two Rivers Press), Asuka shares not only many of her artworks, but also a peek inside who she is as an artist and what inspires her. Reading her words is as inspiring as seeing her paintings. She describes the feeling of finding and painting her subjects and says ‘Instead of telling you how beautiful the treasure I find is, I paint how beautiful it is. Painting is my language.’
At 85 pages, this small book gives the reader an up-close view of Asuka’s paintings, along with her explanations of why her subjects were chosen. The images are excellent enough that you could take a magnifying glass to see deeper into the details of each painting (yes, I did!). The text is relaxed and conversational, and presented in such a humble and endearing way that I felt I was on the journey with her to discover the heart of each plant, fruit, and vegetable. Asuka often chooses unusual things to illustrate, such as her many paintings of tomatoes with a unique form or damage that tells the story of the life it has lived.
In the section entitled ‘Messy business’ we see examples of some of the challenges Asuka has overcome to illustrate ‘Badly scarred, desperately tangled, and horribly bushy’ subjects. Her well-known wasabi root painting is nothing short of amazing! How she managed to depict the incredible mass of jumbled roots is beyond my imagination, and even she says she does ‘not remember how I managed to capture the whole root.’
Asuka has included bugs of many types in her paintings and in the section ‘Bugs and me’, she talks about her fascination with bugs and their interactions with plants. She admits that she has a ‘love-hate relationship’ with them and is ‘not good at handling them’ and describes how she finds them enchanting and at the same time a bit creepy as in this painting of a carrot covered in caterpillars.
You may have guessed by now that this is not a ‘how-to’ book. While the reader is offered insight into Asuka’s approach to painting, she does not include tutorials. We are, however, given a peek into her studio to see what’s on her desk, and she provides information about materials and supplies she favors, including brushes and paper, and talks briefly about her process for color mixing.
The final sections of the book include Asuka’s description of how she strives to depict not a photographic representation of her subjects, but rather how her subjects make her feel. As an admirer of her work I’d say she is very successful at this; there is feeling in her paintings that many botanical artists endeavour to achieve in their own work. At the end of the book, there is a section about her collections. Many of us have cabinets of curiosities, and Asuka is no different. She has illustrated some of these collections, particularly when she is doing residencies at renowned botanical gardens. My favorite, of course, is the one she includes from her time at the Denver Botanic Gardens in 2018. These paintings show us glimpses of her experiences in different places and what caught her eye and her imagination while she was there.
If you enjoy being able to look closely at an artist’s work and revisiting it again and again, then you should have this book on your bookshelf so that, as Asuka says, ‘in the middle of a sleepless night, instead of switching on your phone, you will open this book and ponder over it.’
Asuka Hishiki holds a Master of Fine Arts degree from Kyoto City University of Arts in Japan where she studied oil painting. She has exhibited worldwide in shows too numerous to list. She has undertaken many artist residencies, teaches workshops, and participates in the Florilegium Society Program, National Tropical Botanical Garden, Hawaii, USA. Her work is held in numerous collections including the Hunt Institute and the Shirley Sherwood Collection. She has been the recipient of many awards, including the ASBA’s Dianne Bouchier Artist Award for Excellence in Botanical Art in 2018, and most recently was awarded a gold medal for her exhibition at the 2023 RHS Botanical Art and Photography Show in London. She lives and works in Japan.
To purchase this book: https://tworiverspress.com/product-category/botanical-art/, also available internationally online and in bookshops