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My Botanical Art Journey

As a novice Botanical Artist I feel an immense frisson of fear at having to write how I became immersed in this art form for a wider audience to read. If it is helpful to promote the ABBA cause through contributing to the blog, and encourage others, then here goes.

I always loved to draw, and remember drawing ‘ladies’ at primary school with friends. There were rules - they had to have a ball gown a necklace, pointy shoes and curly hair. We competed to add novel details like bows and buttons. Some were rejected by my peers but I was never sure why they were unacceptable. I have no idea why we drew females in ball gowns as none of us would have seen any in the war torn Belfast were I grew up. Sadly I have never gotten to dress like this as an adult (as I had fully expected I would).

My father used to bring used reams of paper from computers at his work and it was hugely exciting to sit in front of the big blank sheets and imagine all the possibilities of drawing. I went to Art College when I left school and taught art part time (children and teenagers) for a couple of years after this. My interest was in landscape painting, although my favourite paintings at college had been botanical- a cabbage leaf, an orange, a red pepper.(In retrospect I think -Doh!). I had never seen a botanical illustration within my training and education at any level, nor have I ever seen an art history theory or discussion relating to this genre within mainstream education.

One of my early tonal landscape drawings.

However, when I was a teenager I was asked by a local priest to paint a mural in the local youth club. He wanted ‘mickey mouse and graffiti’ in his own words, this being the era of Blondie, Talking Heads and New York punk. I painted a hedgerow. I had a quiet fascination with all things botanical- seed heads and flower parts and different rooting systems and leaf shapes.

Little leaf sketch in watercolour

I worked with children with special needs in Surrey, and had an enduring interest in the therapeutic qualities of art. To sit and paint or draw is of immediate therapeutic benefit as most artists know. Art also has physical, cognitive and developmental benefits. I was fortunate to be able to develop my interest in these benefits within my work.

I applied successfully for a place at Goldsmiths to study Art Psychotherapy, but came to believe that the therapeutic uses of art not should always have a psychotherapy underpinning. Therefore, I did not take it up. Just to sit and relax with paint and paper can be sufficient.

My career progressed to working in Children’s Services and I acquired degrees in psychology and social work. I also set up children’s art classes in an art centre on the South Coast in the nineties. There was no time or space to paint or draw.

Creative abilities can atrophy if not used and I became deskilled at painting and drawing as I was not practising art sufficiently.

Tulip tracing ready to transfer.

Some years ago I took a studio, frustrated at not being able to create. I spent time exploring what I wanted to paint and draw. Plants became my focus. I did a little sketch of a leaf, (see leaf sketches above) quite loose and washy. Note that I do not claim these to be in any way botanical drawings! But the subject and its structure and form caught my imagination and I did lots more, recognising my low levels of skill and wanting more instruction. By this stage images of botanical illustrations were more widely disseminated in the press and online and I had several inspiring copies on the studio walls.

I went to a weekend course at the Eden Project - Botanical Illustration in 3 days and found it a great introduction to Botanical Art (see my tulip tracing -ready to transfer!). The rules and precepts of this art form fascinated me, the cross over between botany that fascinated me and fine art and design.

I recognised some facets that possibly arose from atelier painting, as well as those stemming from the needs of botanists for accurate plant depictions, and the complex rules of watercolour paints. Botanical Art, it seemed, was a melting pot of technical ability, the science of plants and their structures, art theories of colour, knowledge of the physical properties of paints, paper and water, and the myriad information required to construct a 3 dimensional image on a flat surface. Composition, line, form, colour, space, tonal values, hue, spaces between. And good common sense. Heaven!

I took up further classes with an artist/ tutor called Ros Franklin who had presented the Eden Project course, and learned even more.

In 2017 I undertook the Chelsea School of Botanical Art Diploma. This was amazing. Thirty weeks- one day a week- of blissful education in botanical art by the most gifted practitioners. I am still completing the portfolio of work to complete my involvement with this wonderful course. I had a lot to learn. The image below is the first pear that I painted, an unfortunate rendering of the worst that can be carried out in the name of art against pears. It made the tutors laugh on presentation, so had some value…! (I saw their shoulders shake…)

Pear - First attempt.

I learned so much from painting this poor fruit. First- relax. Second, paint for yourself. It is not performance. Third, move the brush up and down in opposite directions- simple but essential. It is otherwise impossible to exploit the full range of tonal control required to give a rounded three dimensional appearance to spherical objects. (I had been using tempera paints and became used to applying paint in dabs, in one direction). Fourth, limit the layers and number of pigments to maintain colour clarity.

And finally, never take it too seriously!

The second pear was painted shortly after this first one. I was rather pleased with this rendition.

Pear - second attempt.

There is always something to draw, paint and explore. I learn something new every day, whether it be about botany or art or materials. To me, how flowers are constructed through evolution is fascinating.

Botanical artists with science backgrounds have told me they focus on the botanical representation of plants. However I believe regardless of background, the initial response of any viewer to a well drawn botanical image is always one of aesthetic appreciation. Botanical images evoke emotional responses. They can provide information as well as making people happy.

Just a foot note- the practice of Botanical Art/Illustration in the classical sense has less therapeutic value in my opinion that other art forms- indeed it can be quite stressful due to the discipline required.

Sheelagh Keane

October 2019

461 views2 comments


Very interesting to see that other people like myself have started with very little knowledge at the beginning and with perseverance have been able to achieve something of which I can say I am proud of.


Jose Broadwell
Jose Broadwell
Oct 14, 2019

Yes it can be stressful but when you complete something there is a great sense of achievement.

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