Plant portraiture comes of age
Once dismissed by art colleges and branded a hard sell (thanks in part to its unfashionable commitment to artistic realism), botanical art is undergoing a modern resurgence. As the increased and widespread interest in conservation and horticulture helps breathe new life into an old genre, I spoke to established botanical painter and member of the Society of Botanical Artists, Vicky Mappin, about what it means to practice the art of botanical painting in this age of digital revolution and enhanced photographic technology.
From her studio in the village of Rodmell in the south downs (famous as the home of Virginia and Leonard Woolf) Vicky, who paints frequently at, and for, Glyndebourne Opera House, and whose work has been commissioned for murals, illustrations and magazines, describes how despite having no formal art school training, she has developed a distinctive style for her ‘plant portraits’.
Among her early influences Vicky cites the ground-breaking botanical artist and influential musician Rory McEwen: “I really loved his work…he was one of the first botanical painters to portray the natural world with the mind of a modern artist”. With his vivid watercolours on vellum, McEwen opened the door to a more experimental approach to the depiction of plants, formulating hyper-real textures that evoke photo-realist painting and certain kinds of pop art. As part of the process of imbuing her own images with this kind of extraordinary intensity, Vicky began experimenting with different media. “I started off in gouache, as I just responded instinctively to the colours – they seemed so bright, but I couldn’t really get the transparency I was aiming for, so I started using watercolours. This choice afforded me new ways to explore and manipulate line, shape and colour in my work. I love to build up the layers of my compositions with washes, going from light to dark to achieve a palpable transition.”
With their remarkable combination of aesthetic vibrancy and technical accuracy, refined imagery and dazzling use of colour effects, Vicky’s luminous compositions reveal her sensitivity to nature and eye for minute detail. You can almost pluck an iris and touch the satin quality of its petals. As Vicky admits, “subjects tend to choose me…I’ll just see something in a plant, whether it be the tiniest gradation of colour or an unusual shape, and I will have to paint it.”
It is this ability to focus on salient elements and capture the essence of forms that has led artists and critics alike to reassess the future of botanical art, with many now arguing that it is the painter who has the edge over the camera (often with its limited focal length for close-ups) when it comes to conveying detailed information. The continuation of traditional botanical art in a digital future lies with artists like Vicky, who are seeking fresh approaches to the idea of what botanical art is about.
Formal conventions such as the placing of subjects on the page to bring them into three-dimensional existence, or the balancing of the abstract and the naturalistic in the pattern-making, coalesce with Vicky’s ambition to convey the perceived beauty of order in plants – “I want to make my subject matter look exquisite.”
Botanical art is a big growth area and, for those starting out, Vicky argues it is important “not to be afraid of putting yourself forward”. “In the early stages of your artistic career, it can be very hard” she says, “often, you don’t think your work is good enough, but it pays to be proactive…by building up both your portfolio and your confidence in articulating and marketing your work, you can follow through your ideas in a commercially successful way”.
Botanical art may not be at the epicentre of contemporary ‘cool’ just yet, but it seems that after almost a century on the wane, ‘plant portraitists’ are now proving with characteristically elegant understatement, that portraying something natural does not mean you cannot be accepted as modern.
All images courtesy of Vicky Mappin