For the second interview of our series ‘The Boundaries of Botanical Art’ supporting our competition, ‘Plant Life: Botanical Illustration’ Jackson’s caught up with Dianne Sutherland! Dianne first learned to paint intricate floral patterns on china in the 1980s when she trained as a technician with the Royal Doulton, Staffordshire. Since then she moved to Scotland and established herself as as artist, illustrator and tutor specialising in Botanical subjects; her career has included some impressive feats such as being accepted, exhibited and awarded four medals by the Royal Horticultural Society Picture Committee, being elected as a full member of the Society of Botanical Artists and being invited to join the Sydney Royal Botanic Garden Florilegium.
Debbie Chessell: What’s your definition of Botanical illustration?
Dianne Sutherland: First of all it’s probably worth drawing a distinction, as far as possible, between botanical illustration, botanical art and flower painting because for many of today’s artists the lines are somewhat blurred between the 3 different approaches.
To me, botanical illustration is a visual interpretation of a plant specimen that is both a scientifically accurate and aesthetically pleasing. This type of illustration is created primarily for the purpose of plant identification and documentation. Such illustrations usually represent numerous aspects of a plant, including the reproductive anatomy and other important features. Work can be either life size or scaled with given ratios. A variety of media can be used and the background is generally white.
Botanical art is a little more relaxed and focuses more on the aesthetics but should still be accurate in size, and although it’s not necessary to represent so many aspects of a plant, this work can still be used for documentation of a plant, as found in florilegiums. This is the type of work most commonly seen these days – probably because we no longer have the need to document plants in the same way as in the past.
As for floral art, well pretty much anything goes here! As long as it has flowers in it as predominant feature, it can include dead flowers incomplete plants, backgrounds, larger than life but without scale etc. I consider my own work to sit between botanical Illustration and botanical art.
Congratulations on your BSc in Biology and Diploma in Botanical Art! Did you find that your Biology degree influenced your artistic practice?
I had wanted to inform my practice as an botanical artist for some time and have to say that studying plant biology really taught me to think differently with regard to researching and understanding my subject material in more detail. As part of my degree I studied floral morphology and the impact on reproductive success in relation to false food signals in flowers. This sounds fancy but it was simply looking at the visual signals that flowers give out to pollinators, such as markings on petals that look like pollen, which can serve to attract insects. It’s a shame that there is no option in the UK to study an academic course that crosses the boundary between botanical illustration and science and I hope one day such a course will exist. Much of what is taught today is subjective with most courses leaning towards botanical art and flower painting rather than illustration and none offer any formal qualification. I know that qualifications are not necessarily important, but any academic study tends to be more rigorous, so I believe that there is a perhaps a place for such a course. Studying biology definitely opened my eyes to the life of plants in a much wider context through the study of plant ecology, reproductive biology in relation to morphology as well as the interaction between plants and animals.
Are there any kinds of subjects that you prefer painting?
British native plants were always my passion and I do still enjoy painting them but in recent years, I’ve traveled a lot and developed an interest in plants from around the world, particularly in Asia and Australia. I’m also attracted to plants with interesting curves, such as the climbers and lianas. Sometimes I spend many hours redrafting a composition to get the shapes and spatial relationships right. I’m always on the lookout for that special subject though, the one that just grabs my interest for whatever reason – it’s not something that’s easy to explain but when you find a good subject, you just know it!
What tools and materials do you use to create your work? How long does a piece take?
Watercolour and graphite are my preferred mediums, and I work on hot press (HP) watercolour paper and also on vellum. For the graphite, I use Faber Castell 9000 pencils on Arches HP satine 140lb. Recently I’ve been trying out some other papers for watercolour, including Canson, Moulin de Roy and Heritage but have yet to settle on a particular favourite for watercolour, so, instead I now try to work with the most appropriate paper for the job and would urge artists to try a selection of papers to identify which suits their style best. I’ve also revisited a few old favourites such as Schoellershammer and Sennelier, all are Hot press papers and that’s the surface I find most suited to Botanical work because it allows fine detail and dry brush work. I just tried out the Fluid 100 paper in the USA and it seems a lot of botanical artists like this paper because of the smooth surface, so maybe it will be available in the UK soon. I use Winsor & Newton Artist Quality Watercolour Pans because they are most suited to the dryer style of painting associated with Botanical Illustration, they have a higher pigment content and being with less binder and gum Arabic. I do have other paints which I use from time to time but W&N are my preferred choice. I use their Series 7 Miniature Brushes, in a range of sizes from 1-4 and the larger wash brushes size 5-7. I also like to keep a sketchbook and the Stillman & Birn Zeta series is perfect for botanical work.
I’m often asked about how long a painting takes and it’s difficult to quantify, there’s a lot of preparatory work involved, including research and sketching. With more complex subjects, I paint them over two or three growing seasons, as an example, I’d say the Primula vulgaris took around 80 – 100 hours. I teach botanical painting and one of the most common problems that I find is the urgency to complete work, I think it simply ‘takes the time that it takes’, so I don’t worry about being slow!
Do you prefer to draw from life or from a photograph? Do you think there’s a distinction between the two states?
In an ideal world I’d always choose make observational drawings and paintings from life, for the simple reason that I can get a feel for 3 dimensional form of a plant, I can handle it, turn it around and take it apart. In contrast, working from a photograph means that I have to work from a snapshot in time, a static 2D image with all its distortions. Sometimes using photographs is unavoidable but unless I’m very familiar with a plant, I avoid working from photographs. Having said that plants are pretty temperamental and photographs can supplement the working process by providing vital back up if the plant wilts and dies. It’s usually obvious when works are painted entirely from photographs, the cast shadows and distortion at the outer parameters of the work are tell-tale signs. If photographs are used without an understanding of the plant, it can result in errors that would otherwise be avoided, such as misaligned plant parts or incorrect colour. We also have to remember that monitors and screens can look very different from one computer or device to the next, they need to be calibrated for accuracy, so onscreen photographs can be quite misleading. So yes, there is a clear distinction between working from photographs and from life. I can think of one really good use for photographs though, and it’s the ability to turn images to black and white, which can help me to understand tonal values across the subject.
I love the photographs of your sketchbooks – they’re so busy yet have such stunning drawings in them! How does making sketchbooks help your practice?
It’s quite a recent development for me to work in a sketchbook, I probably started around 2009 but now I wouldn’t entertain being without one! I find the sketchbook a great place to start with researching any new subject that I intend to paint but it also allows me to make quick studies of plants without any specific purpose, other than the fact that they appeal to me visually or botanically – it doesn’t actually matter whether it turns out good or not and that’s quite a liberating experience. I think that’s pretty important and a good way of familiarising myself with lots of different subjects without the pressure of having to complete a finished painting. Sketchbook studies also provide a great reference library too, should I decide to paint the plants in the future.
What does an ideal day in the studio look like for you?
An ideal day in the studio is a bright day with good natural light. I like to start shortly after sunrise because that’s the most productive time of day for me. Having no distractions is all important too, this allows me to work for sustained periods on a piece as I find it difficult to pick up odd hours here and there, which can also be a disjointed way of working. I tend to work in silence and fortunately it’s pretty quiet where I live, silence helps me to concentrate, that seems pretty obvious but it’s not for everybody. Over the past few years I’ve started to take more regular breaks throughout the day, which helps me to avoid any repetitive strain type injuries that can occur from painting or drawing for too long. After 30 plus years as an artist it’s something that I wish I’d been more careful about when I was younger, but what I discovered is that these breaks are incredibly useful because the serve the purpose allowing me to review my work from a distance.
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 curriculums you’ve designed?
I decided to write my own courses, after I’d found it difficult to access affordable botanical art tuition in the 1990’s and finally launched my own courses around 2010. My own experience had been quite frustrating, at that time there wasn’t anything much available by way of online learning, attending classes in person wasn’t an option for me, so finding an alternative way of delivering affordable online education was always important to me, whether the barriers are geographical, financial or otherwise, I wanted people to be able to find alternatives.
I had cut my teeth on botanical work in the design studio at Royal Doulton in the 1980’s, and after working as an artist and education consultant many years later it seemed like a natural progression.
Next year I’m expanding the programme to incorporate a range of courses that spans from beginners, intermediate and advanced botanical Illustration courses as well as developing the existing Vellum and Painting Leaves course. I’m pretty excited about this because I might well have some students with me right from the beginning. The courses have evolved a good bit since first starting and I like to think I provide good feedback and support to cater for a variety of learners. I also make extensive use of social media in some of the courses to reduce the isolation of online learning, and it seems to work!
Is there anywhere we can see more of your work, either in the flesh or online? Do you have any projects coming up?
You can view work on my website and blog but in terms of exhibiting and new projects, I’m currently planning travel to Australia and Indonesia late next year to study plants for the next Sydney Royal Botanic Garden Florilegium Project, I previously exhibited with them during 2016, with the jade Vine painting, and currently have work in the collection there.
I also hope to paint and run a course in Bali next year and I’m working on a body of work for a future show but I’m not focusing on when and where that might be at the moment but prefer to take the approach that when I’m happy that I’ve produced, I’ll see what opportunity to exhibit arises. I’m also involved with the planning of the Association of British Botanical Artists, abbreviated to ABBA! This is a new initiative, a collective of British artists that was born out of the American Society of Botanical Artists worldwide initiative. This will culminate in an exhibition of native plants at the Ruskin Centre at Lancaster University in May 2018, I hope to have one of my paintings in the exhibition but as always will have to wait to hear whether or not it’s been accepted.