Plant portraiture comes of age | The Open College of the Arts
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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’.

Vicky Mappin - Clematis Josephine

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.”

Vicky Mappin - Artichoke & Beetroot

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

Posted by author: Julia
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5 thoughts on “Plant portraiture comes of age

  • I have a defiinite liking for botanical art, not just because some of my interests in art and plants meet up there. At the one end of its history I love the work of Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues (and with that for a surname, you don’t forget him): And at the other I love the work now of Fay Ballard: I’m sure that there must be other botanical-art-trained artists like her who are not only working with plants as their subject matter. I have the feeling that even though botany might have been out of fashion as a major focus in art for a while, there’s been a steady continuation and development from those early images right up to the present. It’s a blinkered approach in art that doesn’t see a lot of what’s going on at any one time, I think. Though maybe it all depends – I’ve just thought of the price that any Van Gogh or Impressionist plant and garden paintings are guaranteed to reach! The art world’s a strange place.

  • Today I went to the John Ruskin exhibition at the portrait gallery in Edinburgh. There were a few self portraits, but most were ‘portraits’ of buildings, mountains and plants. He was very interested in nature, especially Geology and studied it intently. There were some exquisite watercolour and gouache plants. Some of them had touches of influence from his hero, Turner. What I liked about them was the feeling behind them. They didn’t look like cold, scientific studies, but spoke of character and, I suppose, the human condition.

    • Yes, ditto = I just returned from Edinburgh as I had to see this Ruskin exhibition… the link is totally valid as botanical drawing teaches real life observation and love for detail, and that is very much what Ruskin preaches in the Elements of Drawing. At times, some botanical artists now get a little stuck in conventions which seems a shame – for me Ruskin did innovate the genre in his own time, and of course now we have wonderful botanical artists like Sarah Simblett who is quite energetic in her line. Or how about Michael Landy’s wonderful series of ‘weeds’?

  • I followed the link to the film of Rory McEwen and was deeply moved – what a man. Both I & my husband saw him perform over half a century ago – he in a pub at Tarbert Loch Fyne & I at a harvest-supper-cum-folk concert at a Methodist church in east Hertfordshire! Rory McEwen made a big impression on my 16yr-old self – not only was the performance electrifying but I thought he was gorgeous.
    His work has an amazing sensitivity & intensity – it has an expressiveness I would never have thought possible. I did try botanical illustration once – discovered it was not for me but it’s very pleasing that McEwen has influenced other artists who can make new discoveries.
    Thank you Julia, for this post

  • Those are very fresh and alive as images.I agree that when we are bombarded with all that is trend based and cool the quality of good observation and intelligent visual decision making can provide a welcome reminder of how powerful such pieces can be.

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