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"Getting Better" - A New Year Resolution for 2020

Updated: Jan 2, 2020

Happy New Year

In this article one of our founding members, Martin Allen, gives some top tips on improving your botanical art. We wish you a very Happy New Year and we hope you enjoy this new decade of creativity.

The ABBA Team

"Getting Better"

Once you start becoming interested in drawing and painting botanical images the next step is usually to ask “How do I get better?” and getting better means different things to different people.

For some it may be ‘how do I get better at enjoying myself whilst I paint?’ rather than worrying all the time about getting it ‘wrong’; we botanical artists worry a lot – initially about whether every brush-stroke is the perfect one and then latterly about whether you will get the wretched thing finished before the deadline because you started it too late and it is taking far, far, longer than you thought it would.

For others, ‘getting better’ may be about physically doing more actual painting or drawing and that might simply be about organising your time better. One way to go about this is making your art an appointment in your diary that you must get to on time and that way nobody/pet/social media can interrupt your time. And don’t forget, sometimes it’s fine for your diary appointments to over-run, especially when you are enjoying yourself.

Most of the time ‘getting better’ is finding out new information about techniques or paint or paper but retaining it all is not easy. Commonly what happens is you try and learn something and whilst learning at a class ‘in the moment’ you retain the information – you are amazed (younger readers will be ‘mind-blown’) at the new knowledge and feel it will change the way you paint for ever; the next day (out of class) you can remember a couple of things, you misremember a couple more, and then who knows what the rest of the stuff was *shrug emoji*. Your painting skills are improved a bit, but nothing like as much as you thought they should be. That’s all perfectly normal. Mastering many of the technical skills of botanical art has all the excitement of achieving a big change followed by the gloom of finding you’ve hit a plateau, then working out how to overcome that plateau before climbing up to find … wait for it … yet another plateau. And practise, always ‘and practise’.

There are broad stages to the process of getting better.

When first starting out, the issue is generally a matter of learning to observe the plant material properly and then to actually draw what you can see – a lot harder than it sounds. That moment when someone questions what you have drawn and you say “that’s what it looks like to me” only to find that when you look again at the plant it suddenly doesn’t look like what you’ve drawn, leaving you to the awkward realisation that plants can’t suddenly change their morphology in two seconds. We all go through that one.

Next up is getting the colour correct or ‘do I need to buy all the paints in the shop as a procrastination exercise or just spend more time learning to mix accurately?’. We all go through that one too.

And once the colour is right then it is about tackling the issue of how neatly or accurately the paint can be applied and that generally involves learning that good brushes can be expensive, new brushes have a sharper point, brushes get blunter the more you use them and faster than you would expect, and yes the type of paper does make a big difference.

When you have covered those points (Yes!!! Go you!!!) you are now ready to learn the startling truth that all those rules you thought you must follow in order to produce a good painting and that you have since carefully and studiously learnt, sometimes don’t actually apply (Wait! What?). When you get to that point you are on your own, because it means you’ve got better and it’s now time to be an artist.

Martin Allen

January 2020

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