We occasionally invite guest artists to talk about their work, techniques and materials on the blog. I hope that one artist explaining how they solved a problem or their approach to art will help other artists. I would love to see a community evolve where artists will assist each other with their artistic dilemmas, share ideas and technical information as well as make connections and give each other friendly support.
To join the conversation please add your comment below. It will be great to have some interaction!
Here today to share her art with us is Polly O’Leary, who paints in Wales. Thanks Polly!
Jackson’s Art: Please tell us a little about yourself.
Polly O’Leary: I’ve been drawing and painting flora and fauna since I could first hold a pencil. I couldn’t take up the offer of a place in art college when I was younger, but I carried on drawing and painting, using both soft pastels and watercolours. Then, a couple of years ago I had the opportunity to think about a course to hone my skills. The most relevant courses were full time and/or based in London, neither of which were suitable to someone living in Wales with family commitments. It seemed distance learning was my best option. I did a few short courses in Botanical Painting at the National Botanic Garden of Wales, and found I loved the discipline. Then, whilst searching on-line, I discovered the Society of Botanical Artists Distance Learning Diploma Course and decided to apply. I was elated when I was accepted; it was just what I needed to help me push my work to the next level.
Jackson’s Art: What materials and techniques did you use in making the art work you are showing here?
Polly O’Leary: I use Artist’s Watercolours on Fabriano Hot Press watercolour paper, usually extra white as I like the vibrancy it imparts to the paintings, but for the Phalaenopsis Botanical Illustration I’ve used Fabriano HP Traditional. I felt it worked better for depicting a white flower on a white background.
I make sketches and compositional studies to explore the possibilities and decide on a final composition. Then all the measurements are checked, to ensure that the drawing is true to life and it’s transferred to the watercolour paper. I also paint small test pieces on the same watercolour paper, selecting the colours I’ll need for my subject. I use a fairly limited palette for each painting, but have a huge range of tubes and pans to choose from – I’m a bit of a colour junkie really and love buying new tubes of colour to experiment with.
Once the pencil outline is complete, I start with wet-in-wet, often several layers – allowing the paper to dry after each layer, then progress to dry brushwork for the fine details.
Jackson’s Art: What challenges (if any) did you face in making this work and can you give other artists any tips for solving similar problems?
Polly O’Leary: The biggest challenge for me, when painting Botanicals, is to keep the background pristine! I have carpel tunnel syndrome, and although surgery has mostly been successful, I still find that I drop my pencils and brushes with alarming regularity. A loaded brush flying across that white background does a lot of damage and usually it’s a staining colour, so I keep a piece of drafting paper over the bits I’m not working on. The trick is to keep checking the rest of the work to ensure that it is harmonious.
Plants continue to grow, even after being cut and will often lean towards the light. Drawings need to be measured and completed before the plant has time to change its aspect completely. The plants I work on need to be kept cool and fresh and need regular spells in the fridge, to ensure they last long enough to paint them. Even so, buds will open and some flowers will drop their petals or wither before the painting is completed. It’s important to begin work on the parts that will change most quickly, leaving the more durable parts to be completed later.
I painted the Clematis twice, as the central bud unexpectedly started to open and I wanted to include it in the composition. I had to work very quickly as it was opening fast, but as a cut flower, was unlikely to last. This is where watercolours are really useful, I simply grabbed an off-cut of the paper and recorded it with the same paints.
Jackson’s Art: Please tell us something about the idea behind the work you are showing here.
Polly O’Leary: Botanical paintings and illustrations satisfy my interest in art and science. They demand a high level of observation, of scientific details and the form and colour of the plant, so that it can be realistically portrayed. The painting should be scientifically accurate, so that it can be used to identify the specific plant, but it also needs to be visually pleasing. The lack of background allows the eye to concentrate on the details of the plant portrayed.
Jackson’s Art: How does this work relate to your artistic practice, how you approach art over-all?
Polly O’Leary: I’ve always been one for studying things, almost as if I was born with a magnifying glass in my hand, so my paintings have reflected this. I think painting is part of my reaction to nature, and my instinct to say ‘look at this, isn’t it amazing!’
Jackson’s Art: What drives you to make work?
Polly O’Leary: Initially I’ll be inspired by a plant, vegetable or fruit, it may be the form or the colour that inspires me, or the way it reflects the light, or the textures – usually it’s a combination. I get inspired by the fruit and vegetables in the market when shopping, or by a plant when walking the dogs. I’m not looking for perfection; imperfections bring realism to the painting. But I’m also conscious of how ephemeral these things are. That beautiful bloom might be gone in a week, a day or two, or even a few hours.
Jackson’s Art: Do you have any art advice you would like to share?
Polly O’Leary: If you’re feeling ‘blocked’ or want to paint but can’t settle on a subject, try some colour mixing and keep notes – I have made charts for mixing all the main colours, but I also have pages of mixes – flesh tones, greys, and really bright colours. If you have colour notes to refer to, matching colours to those seen in your subject becomes easier as you have the formulas at hand.
Jackson’s Art: What is your favourite art material?
Polly O’Leary: Jackson’s Artist Watercolours are my favourite materials, followed by Sennelier, but I have a range of tubes and pans from other brands too, sometimes a particular colour or pigment is only available from one manufacturer. I love working in watercolour, it’s demanding and not very forgiving, but the way the paints work with the water and paper is almost magical. It takes great self control to drop colour into the water glaze and just wait… any brushing or trying to control the colour at that stage, can result in lost highlights and dulled colours.
Not an art material as such, but my Da Vinci Maestro brushes are gorgeous to work with and allow me to get the really fine details and control that I need for Botanical Painting.
Jackson’s Art: What is coming up next for you?
Polly O’Leary: I have about seven months left before I graduate from the SBA Diploma Course. Then? Watch this space!
All images are copyright of the artist.