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My botanical art: How I started

Updated: Sep 25, 2019

When people look at my work, they say that they wish they were given the genes, or that they had the gift! Now I know full well that I had neither. I am convinced that the work I do is because ‘I want to do it’. That can work against me too as everything I do, I have to get right.


I will explain. I expect you are wondering why there is a sketch of Cinderella to the right of the page. But this is where my so-called drawing skills began. I obviously don’t have my first drawings and did this on my ipad app! Rather different to just after the war when there were limited supplies of paper in our house, but plenty of newspapers.

I was allowed to draw on the newspaper when people had read them. I used to have friends round to play and they often drew lovely pictures of ladies in fine dresses. They had paper models which they could dress up with lay-on-able changes of dress. I suppose this was a forerunner of the Barbie doll. They drew their own changes of wardrobe but I was hopeless and really envied their skills so when they went home, I practiced and practiced on the newspaper.

At school I loved art as long as I could draw with graphite. As soon as colour or imagination was introduced, I was hopeless. I wasn’t allowed to go to art school and had to do a ‘sensible’ job; nursing called.

Until I had children, I didn’t do any drawing or painting. In fact I didn’t start using colour until I was about 30. I started painting birds after one of my small children asked me to draw a chicken. Guess how many legs it had? You have it – four! Obviously, my observational skills were not the best.

I was so ashamed of myself that for many years I specialised in studying and painting birds. I noticed that if challenged by something like this, it often became something that I had to get right and, in the practicing, got hooked on the subject. In this way I realised that I did not have an innate ability, but just ‘wanting’ to do something became the enabler. This has always been at the forefront of any teaching. By the way, I taught myself to do this by initially copying other people’s work and I have taught others different art techniques since about 1976 whilst continuing with my ‘sensible’ job. I thought that one day I wouldn’t have to be quite so sensible!

A pair of Mallards - One of my natural history images from around 1990.

The picture to the left is of two Mallards, dated 1990, but unfortunately is taken through the glass frame.

Like many people, life got in the way of my art. I went to university to do a master’s degree in a totally different subject and all-in-all, didn’t do any painting for about eight years. But in about 1998 I picked up a brush while convalescing from an operation.

Virginia creeper

My art has always been about the detail and I thought that because I had spent so much time on this previously, I would be able to carry on from where I left off. But the result was not as anticipated. See the loose painting of the Virginia creeper. In some ways it is OK-ish, but nothing as intended. Because I was unable to paint as well as previously, I thought I had lost the knack and put the brushes away again. The ‘wanting to’ stayed in the draw with my equipment.

In about 2003 my husband and daughter ganged up on me, buying me some colour pencils. They thought they could open the locked drawer.

I am not too sure what this painting is below but looking at the shape of the buds it may be a Camellia. I do know that we did have a beautiful Camellia tree just outside our kitchen window and this might have been from that. It is rather different to the two Mallards I had painted many years before, isn’t it? Just bear in mind that as these are reduced in size, you cannot see the detail (or lack of) in this article.

Camellia - Painted around 2003?

For me, this too was a disappointing result, but at least I could partially blame it on a limited knowledge of the medium.

Gradually the drawer containing the ‘wanting to’ started to open. I started to do some small things to get my hand/eye coordination working again.

I had lived in Norway for 25 years, but where I was now living back in the UK, I didn’t have my old contacts to obtain bird skins for painting the bird plumage detail. I therefore tried my hand at painting the plants in garden. After all, flowers weren’t difficult to draw and paint and anyone could do this – couldn’t they?

The clematis to the below was done in about 2005. I was not happy with it and I don’t think anyone has ever seen a Montana with a ‘sunray’ of stamens framing a petal!

It was this picture that made me understand that painting plants correctly is not easy. Suddenly I was hooked and I really ‘wanted to’ learn to paint in a botanical art style and not do flower painting.

Clematis - Painted around 2005

The difference between botanical art and flower painting can be very subtle, but also quite huge. Flower painting varies between almost abstract images of flowers to loose paintings of plants. Botanical art shows the connections from one part of the plant to another completely correctly. Essentially, it is art depicting a viable plant; its origins lie in plant identification.

I knew that the Clematis painting did not show a viable plant and I wanted to learn how to do this.

Next time – How I got from then – to now.

Gaynor Dickeson


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I love these stories... It's very inspiring to read about people's botanical illustration journey or in fact into any journey of aspiration.



It’s funny how we all of us got started isn’t it? When I was writing this, I could see me sitting on the lounge floor trying to emulate my friend’s artistic handiwork. It also reminded me that families with limited funds had to make their own toys, which in actual fact was beneficial in the long run. and it seems you too benefited from those times. How clever your mother was to keep those ‘dolls’.


Jose Broadwell
Jose Broadwell

Gaynor I love your story about how botanical illustration came into your life and look forward to the next installment. As a child I too drew clothes for paper dressing up dolls. I was very lucky to have an alphabet set of dolls from A to Z inhetited from my Mum. Some were missing so I first had to make the missing letter dolls from card and then I made sure that every doll had a full set of school uniform and also play clothes. I am sure this is how I got to grips with coloured pencil. I later discovered that the different ways I used the pencils were called techniques which made me feel like a sophisticated professional.

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