Heidi Willis is an entirely self-taught Natural History watercolour and acrylic artist who has been painting since 2003. Her work consists of intricate illustrations of Australia’s native and exotic plants, flowers, fruits and seed capsules; she makes both traditional botanical illustrations and distinctive bird life portraits that offers viewers an insight to the world as she experiences it. Featured in many prominent national and international exhibitions, magazines and collections over her career, she has also been shortlisted in many prestigious international botanical competitions such as ‘The Waterhouse National History Art Prize’ and ‘Botanica’. In the run-up to our own competition ‘Plant Life: Botanical Illustration’, Jackson’s interviewed Heidi to give our audience an opportunity to read about Botanical Painting from one of the world’s leading specialists.
Debbie Chessell: Hello Heidi, thank you for talking to us! I’m going to jump straight in the deep end – what’s your definition of botanical illustration?
Heidi Willis: My definition of botanical illustration is a wonderful, accurate and relevant record keeping of plant studies that hold scientific meaning and beauty in a painted form. It is a wondrous merging of science and art with a purpose that has a fascinatingly endless bar of excellence to chase.
For me personally, I love the challenge of Botanical Illustration but I also love the softened drift between this and Natural History Illustration, and you can see this in my work… An artist who truly falls nature can never be uninspired!
What inspired you to start painting botany and bird life?
What inspired me to paint botany and birds is quite simply botany and birds! As subjects they are just so beautiful and diverse, and the more you look the more you see. It’s a subject that only continues to inspire and sustain you, and to paint it as beautifully as it is remains a bottomless pit of thrilling challenge. For me it’s about the intricate colours, wonderful textures, the mesmerising way light changes everything it touches, and the intricate relationships between all of these things that sustains me.
I love how nature allows me to capture the personality and true essence of my subjects and their story, a moment captured in time. Exploring its beauty, emotion and the re-connection of our own profound human connection, often lost, to the natural world is endlessly satisfying. Of course there is the scientific side of my work too, representing, recording and reminding us of the importance of our natural world and appreciation of it. Finally, I love to create beautiful things that uplift and inspire my life and the lives of others along the way. I simply paint what I love with love, and others can feel that in my work too.
Are there any kinds of subjects that you prefer painting?
In my early days I worked from whatever captured my attention and interest, and although this is still the case, I am finding myself working on much more involved, technically challenging and significant works in more recent times. This continues to challenge my own limits, perseverance and boundaries as an artist.
With so many behind me in my work now, I have more and more opportunities to access rare and endangered species, both plants and birds, and most of my major works are shifting to illustrate subjects with some element of rarity to them as a result. These are especially significant paintings and my truest work. Of course my greatest thrill is to paint flowering trees, so this combination is a clear and growing preference for me as I continue my career.
I can see from your website that you use pencil, watercolour and acrylic – do you use any other mediums too? Why do you use each medium?
Yes I am, for the most part, a watercolourist and it’s a love affair that will never end for me. This is the medium I have always worked in, my greatest love and connection, and the medium I am known best for working in. Although growth and development is critical to me on my painting journey on many many levels, I doubt this love and core preference as an artist will ever change.
I began exploring acrylics only in recent months as the demand increased for my work in commercial applications that required my look and feel with a different medium. It was an opportunity I’ve been bursting to have, and I was finally able to spend time to know this new territory at last.
My aim with acrylics is to maintain the look, style and feel of my existing work but to diversify my knowledge and skills as an artist as much as possible. Acrylics are durable, versatile and forgiving, and is suited to many kinds of applications and surfaces.
Graphite is my most personal and simple medium, and is mostly used to reflect my simplest thoughts, emotions and experiences. I rarely have time to indulge in graphite, usually used when I travel and play with my work just for me.
Every medium has its own benefits and qualities, it’s a matter of the right one for the place and purpose, as well as the language you wish to speak for any particular story. Watercolour is beautiful, delicate, romantic, intimate and profoundly alive to me… it is fluid, vibrant and alive! For me, is the closest medium or story, to my own inner language and experience, and the story that I wish to tell.
Do you have a general process for making a work?
Yes of course, my finished work is precise, considered and meticulous as a result of a continuously refined and well practised work process. I am a well oiled machine of immaculate strategy balanced with a constant hunger and open mind for exploration and improvement.
Do you prefer to draw from life or from a photograph? Do you think there’s a distinction between the two states?
Yes there’s definitely a distinction between both states, but it’s simply a case of working with what you prefer or have access to. One is not necessary better than the other, and each certainly have their pros and cons to overcome. I personally work from photography however it’s not a black and white area. I work with whatever and however I can with everything available to me for the best possible outcome. I like photography because of its adaptability, clarity, practicalities and of course, logistics of time and place. I also like to observe my subjects in natural light and form, and to honour the integrity of a subject by leaving it undisturbed wherever possible.
How we work comes down to personal preference and values, practicalities, objectives, opportunities and very often, our limitations.
It sounds like you travel quite a lot – we’re very grateful that you still agreed to be interviewed despite currently trekking round Brazil! Do you find travelling helps your practice develop?
You’re very welcome, thanks for asking me, and for accepting my phone written responses, in parts between all things on the run!
Yes travelling is a major part of my life and work, which only continues to increase with time and recognition. More and more my horizons grow as my work does. Naturally opportunity, connections, exposure and support expands globally with me in turn… Momentum always finds momentum. Of course exposure to the world only expands my own world, perspectives, knowledge and ideas, and as my work is a direct reflection of me, this inevitably plays a critical role in the ongoing development, maturity, richness, uniqueness and expansion of my work.
What does an ideal day in the studio look like for you?
My world is my studio, and the sacrifices are many and very real to keep up with my own pace. I often say, ‘if I’m awake, I’m working’ and this is true bar perhaps a handful of days a year. My day begins as soon as my eyes open, reaching for my laptop before they are even open many morning to start replying to emails, social media, administration work, website management and the likes… the business of art stuff (yes that’s all part of it too).
As soon as my eyes wake up I begin on the painting side of things, which also includes layouts, design, photography, videography, programming for workshops etc, depending on what projects I’m working on at the time. I’m usually painting by 7am and once I begin, I don’t stop. It’s not unusual for me to paint for 12-18 hours straight day in, day out, every day, especially if I’m working on a major piece.
I stop briefly to do things like boil the kettle, for very occasional food, and to stretch a few times through the day too… but it’s an almost unbroken focus here in my world with only the essentials putting me on a brief pause from painting.
I read on your website that you have developed your own courses to educate people in Botanical Illustration. Could you tell us a little more about the various courses you’ve designed?
Yes that’s right, I have a series of botanical illustration courses available online that cover my own personal work practices, materials and processes. I currently have around 3500 students in over 70 countries, and I won the 2016 global breakout instructor award for the year as a tutor.
The first course ‘Studio Basics’ came as a direct response to the many emails and questions I receive daily about my work and practices from people interested in my work, style, techniques and in learning how to paint themselves. It helps people understand my methods and approaches, and to give students sound advice on materials needed for work like I create. It may seem simple in itself, but its the basics of all I do in my work today.
‘Chasing Autumn’ comes next and is an ideal introduction to watercolour painting, botanical illustration and applying what i cover in Studio Basics in a practical hands on, manageable way. Looking at washes, glazes and dry brushing, it’s an ideal progressive step forwards exploring my techniques, materials and approaches in a fun, forgiving and beautiful subject. It is also some great preparation for the next course, Magnolias.
‘Magnolias’ takes what we’ve already covered and explores many things a little more in depth. With a particular focus on creating texture with watercolour. It’s a new level of challenge and understanding on this beautiful medium and genre
I create the courses around my own hectic schedule as I’m able, trying to share my knowledge with others and to inspire all of us to something uplifting and positive.
Is there anywhere we can see more of your work, either in the flesh or online? Do you have any projects coming up?
This is a difficult thing as my work has been running at, or very close to a sell out for some years now with commissions sitting at a 12 month wait for the past year. You can see originals in the flesh when I participate in major prestigious exhibitions such as Waterhouse in the South Australian Museum, but it’s rare they are in public now.
Some people visit my studio, but I only have the painting i’m working on at the time available for viewing. My website heidiwillis.com.au is great for viewing my work and for reading more on the latest news through my blog. My Facebook page Heidi Willis ~ Artist is the best for more in depth coverage of current work unfolding and Instagram, heidiwillisart is fun too, all covering new and current work and news.
Yes I definitely have a current project, and it’s one I hope will be ongoing for the remainder of my career. For many years I have had a love and particular interest in South American flowering trees, and in the natural history of this part of the world in general. This marries with a recurring dream I would have as a child about a body of work or paintings that hung in a large white room where I’d walk as a small child, barefoot. For many years i didn’t see that the dreams were premonitions of my own work, but I made a clear start on realising this vision 2 years ago with the first in this collection.
St Vincent’s Amazons and Cannonball Tree was the first major work in my ‘White Room’ collection from around the world. Starting with South America, these paintings large are based on flowering trees and birds, most having an element of rarity and endangerment to them. They are about the complete beauty that surrounds us, valuing our natural world and reconnecting ourselves to earth, and are my truest works and the most significant paintings of my career.
Testing the waters on this project and idea, St Vincent’s Amazons and Cannonball Tree went on to win a prize at Waterhouse, then on a national tour which included the South Australian Museum and the National Archives of Australia, then to the front cover of International Artist Magazine before going to its new home in a private collection in the USA.
This success gave me the confidence to continue developing this collection and idea, it opened doors up for me all over the world and with this tremendous support from so many remarkable people, my recent travels to South America became a reality and the next step in my project and ventures became real.
From this I was able to access extraordinary places, flora, fauna and to tap into a wealth of knowledge from those around and in support of me. I have come home to Australia richer in heart, mind, spirit and even stronger determination to continue my work, all based on the sheer beauty and terrible rarity South American natural history in this chapter.
So referencing and research, for which there is a great deal, has begun. Composition and refinement is underway and a new and completely stunning major work will begin in the coming days. Although all works so far have sold already and these paintings may never be hung in my white room like my vision, I am extremely excited to see this collection coming to fruition… I have much work ahead!