The next interview of our series supporting our current competition, ‘Plant Life: Botanical Illustration’ is with Lizzie Harper! Lizzie is an exceptional watercolourist who has been commissioned by a staggering list of international clients, including the National Geographic Magazine, London Zoo, London Aquarium, Cambridge University Press and many others. We spoke to her to find out more about her processes of making work and to discuss her definition of Botanical Illustration.
Debbie Chessell: What’s your definition of botanical illustration?
Lizzie Harper: For me, a botanical illustration is an illustration of the plant where the anatomy and form of the plant takes precedence over how attractive it may be. It needs to provide enough correct biological information for anyone to be able to identify the plant you’ve illustrated to species level when they encounter it. This means you need to include accurate details of flowers, fruit, leaf margins, and how the plant looks as it grows (its “habit”). Often, I need botanists to point me in the right direction with some of these components, and I love liaising with the botanical community.
Part of the joy of botanical illustration is also to try and make an appealing illustration where the composition on the page satisfies the eye, and the amazing beauty of my botanical subjects is, in some small way, reflected in my work.
It should also be pointed out that “botanical illustration” is rather a nebulous term, and I’m inclined to think there are almost as many definitions of it as there are practitioners, and I’m happy with that.
What inspired you to begin making work about botany?
I started painting botanical subjects when I launched my career as a natural history illustrator, painting animals and plants. A client would give me a list of species to draw, and there would always be a mix of plants and animals.
Early on, I’d be a bit scared of the plants as some are quite tricky to tell apart, and my botanical skills weren’t great; over the years I’ve learnt loads more from the jobs I’ve done and the clients I work with, and along with this knowledge comes a greater confidence and associated passion and respect for these botanical subjects.
My interest in nature, and subsequent specialisation within the field of illustration, is down to being primarily a biologist – I did a Zoology degree before deciding to head into illustration, and wanted to combine the skills and knowledge from both disciplines into career.
And before that? I have loved the natural world with a vigour and a passion since childhood, going through compost heaps looking for insects, collecting conkers and seeds, pressing garden flowers, raising caterpillars and maggots…. All these things, and the awe at the diversity and brilliance of nature, continue to inspire me today.
How do you chose the subjects you’re going to paint? Are there specific qualities that make some plants more interesting to paint than others?
Mostly I’m not the one choosing the subjects! I tend to get a species list from clients and then work through it. The tricky bit is trying to find every species on it as it’s SO much easier to paint and draw from life than it is to use photos, you can’t slightly change the angle of a photo to see how the seed capsule attaches to the stem, or what the tip of a leaf does etc.
When I do choose my own subjects I favour plants I love. My sketchbook study of the fox and Cubs is a good example, I think it’s such a gorgeous little wild flower, with the fierce burning oranges and reds of the flower, and I had been wanting to do a study of it for 3 years before I got a spare couple of hours whilst it was flowering.
Every plant will have somthing about it that can be surprising, beautiful, or inspiring. Even tiny weeds with seemingly insignificant flowers can prove to be amazing when you spend time drawing and learning them. The same is true of the mosses, I had to paint 13 species this spring. I was terrified I’d be bored stiff, but it proved to be one of the most wonderful commissions I’ve had in years, so much minute detail and such perfect forms; and the tiny differences in colour and structure just blew me away.
There are some subjects I don’t love doing – I own up to an antipathy to illustrating members of the cow parsley family (Umbelliferae). This is because of the complexity of their leaves, getting the lights and darks correct, and the angles of growth from the stem can be a real headache! But even these have such cool details, just look at the difference of structure in the flowers on the outside of a flowering head of Cow parsley and the tiny flowers right at the centre. Amazing.
Do you prefer to draw from life or from a photograph? Do you think there’s a distinction between the two states?
This ties in with what I was saying in the last question, and is interesting; I wrote a blog about this very subject a while ago. I don’t think either is “good” or “bad”, and am fierce in my belief that there’s no such thing as “cheating” when it comes to art. If you want to work from a photo, that’s fine. Some people find working from a 2D subject onto a 2D drawing simplifies the process, so that’s great. I work from photos when the plant I’m drawing is out of season, not native, or really rare. The Desert Rose (below) is an example of this.
What I would say, is if you’re working from photos, the more photos you have (which cover variety of form and colour) the easier it’ll be. Remember, each plant is an individual, so to get the feel for the species as a whole you need to look at lots of different specimens (this is true of live specimens too, to be fair). Also, you must never copy a photo directly as this infringes the copyright of whatever long-suffering photographer took the photo in the first place.
Another place I find reference is in the botanical illustrations of the past, the pen and ink line drawings of luminaries such as Stella Ross-Craig, and even ancient works such as Durer’s Patch of Turf can be invaluable, and more helpful than a photo.
Personally, I find it much easier to work with the plant in front of you, so you can examine it, turn it around, look at it from different angles, and eventually take it apart to learn how it works. (Several sprigs of the same plant can be handy!) You can’t always get the feel of a plant from photographs, you don’t get to see how bushy it is, or how elegantly it curves.
I also know exactly what information I need from a plant in order to complete a competent botanical illustration of it, and tend to keep sketchbooks which I prefer to use instead of photos.
I love the scans of your sketchbooks! How do you use them within your practice?
Again, what a perfect question to follow on with! My sketchbooks are vital tools to me, and it always surprises me that people seem to like them so much.
If I’m between jobs, or see a plant I know I need to gather information about, I’ll use my sketchbook as a place to record and draw. The theory is (and it’s been proved right repeatedly) that if I do a good enough job collecting information in my sketchbook, then if a commission comes in when a plant is only in vegetative state, or not anywhere at all, then I’ll be able to reconstruct a complete and accurate botanical illustration of it.
Details I include are a habit drawing (how it grows), often just a pencil line drawing; a couple of tonal studies to show how the light falls on the leaf (I tend to do one in pencil and one in watercolor); one leaf in complete detail, including as much information as possible on the structure of the veins, margins, and how it attached to the stem; a colour leaf with notes of what colours I used to mix that hue; a couple of flowers or racemes (several different angles is useful here) with at least one in full colour (again, including colour mixing notes). Then I dissect out a flower to see what’s happening inside, what one petal looks like, how many stamens and anthers there are and take visual notes. I do the same with fruits and seeds. It’s important to remember to take notes on the sizes of different parts of the plant, and the date and location you illustrated it.
Recently, I’ve realised I can apply the same criteria for animals. I often get brought road-kill by kindly friends who know I store it in my freezer for reference, making notes on feathers and fur in my sketchbooks is proving to be as useful as the botanical studies.
With the appeal of sketchbook illustrations, I think people love seeing the process broken down into accessible steps, it gives you a visual journey of how a painting evolves (I love other people’s sketchbooks!). Sketchbook studies also have an immediacy that can be lost in a final piece.
I’ve been really lucky with my sketchbooks as they’ve been used to illustrate “The Hedgerow Handbook” and “The Garden Forager” written Adele Nozedar and published by Penguin Books, and people who’ve bought the book often say the illustrations are good for identifying the right plant as well as being pretty. This feels wonderful, as you can imagine.
What mediums do you like to work in?
I love watercolour, it allows you to be accurate, but also gives the flexibility for looser areas. The fact that one medium can give you a massive blue sky, or the smallest of hairs on a stem or sepal delights me. Once you’ve learned your watercolour box it’s like a firm friend, you know where the colours are, how the mixes will behave, and what results to expect. I always use Winsor and Newton series 7 brushes (normally a no. 1 and a no.000) – although they’re expensive they’re the only ones which seem to hold paint and their tiny points. I get through 2 or 3 of each per month.
I love graphite too, a really tight pencil tonal study can be a thing of great beauty, and is wonderful to work on. Graphite is an underused medium, probably because it’s notoriously hard to reproduce. I always use mechanical pencils, the Pentel P205 being a firm favourite.
I also love working in pen and ink, with or without watercolour washes on top. I use disposable permanent ink pens, and don’t really favour one brand. A thickness of 0.1 or 0.2 for line work is good, but a 0.05 is vital for detailed work. In fact, that reminds me, I’m about to start work on a whole book of botanical illustrations in pen and ink, I need to order in new stock of ink pens!
I can work in acrylic too, but I’m not very good at it and I don’t much like the smooth plastic-like effect of my finished illustrations. Mostly I just use acrylic paints to do things like paint tropical fish on the side of my bath, or wild flowers going up the stairs.
On your instagram I’ve seen that you also make works about animals, such as your painting of a Bank Vole. What is your process for making these kinds of images?
Animals are somewhat different to botanical illustration, although the need to convey correct biological information so a creature can be correctly identified to species level remains a constant.
Again, if I have specimens I will work directly from these (this is particularly true of insects who don’t tend to look as lifeless as birds or mammals when dead, and whose wing venation and colour is identical in both states). Feathers and fur colours, along with how these structure lie on top of the body, can all be gleaned from dead specimens.
However, in many cases this is impractical, and a freezer specimen will never look alive. This is where you need to work with photo reference, from as many sources as possible to ensure getting details correct.
I’m lucky enough to have several really fabulous wildlife photographers as friends online, and they are ever so generous with allowing me to work with their amazing photos. With copyright infringement in mind, again I’d stress the importance of not using a photo until you’ve cleared it with the photographer.
Combining different references, I work up a pencil line drawing of the animal before “colouring it in” with layers of tiny brush strokes that look like fur, feathers, or butterfly scales.
Is running your Instagram account an important part of your practice? The discussions on your Bank Vole painting were fascinating!
Yes. I do quite a bit on social media platforms, and Instagram and Twitter are my favourites. Instagram is such a visual way to reach out to the world at large, and twitter gives me access to a whole gamut of experts in the scientific community.
I think Instagram followers like seeing all the aspects of what I do, from working drawings to sketchbook studies, to final pieces. I also pop up the works in their eventual context too sometimes (identification charts, postage stamps, books) and although they tend to get less interest, they are all part of the story.
Generous comments about liking the work are always welcome (and very flattering) but I particularly love it when a discussion is sparked, or the flower I’ve just illustrated triggers a cherished childhood memory. You can learn a great deal about materials, techniques, and your followers from these interactions and I think they are an important part of my business. You also get to see what others in your field are up to, and have the pleasure of being inspired by their work.
Social media is also free advertising, and a good presence across the platforms helps with search engine rankings. Dull, but true!
To me, your illustrations ‘Fire Salamander’ and ‘Meerkat Mother with Litter’ feel like they’re capturing ideas of movement and the subjects’ relationship with their immediate environment rather than focusing purely on their exact anatomy. Would you say these paintings have more of a sense of narrative? Do you define them as botanical (or biological) illustrations or do they fall under something else?
Interesting. I hadn’t thought about it before, but I do indeed often contextualise my zoological illustrations. Sometimes this is because the illustrations might look peculiar as cut-to-white images, sometimes it just “feels” better.
The salamander is amongst leaves because, when I saw a fire salamander, that’s the habitat the creature was crawling about in. It’s a way of including biological information that, from personal experience I know to be true. With bird illustrations, it’s important to paint birds doing their thing, so inevitably a nuthatch is upside down, a stonechat will be singing from a sprig of gorse.
The meerkat mother was for a sign at London Zoo, and was based on sketches and photos I took in situ. So yes, the illustration reflects the actual behaviour of the animal.
I don’t intend for my zoology and animal paintings to have a narrative, but I think inevitably as humans, we ascribe stories to any image of an animal in a way we don’t with plants. I think it relates to the human brain’s empathy with other animals, and our innate tendency to make up stories about living creatures in the world around us. I enjoy the fact that they give this added dimension, and as I say it’s a new idea to me.
I try to keep these images as biologically and species accurate as the plants, and they serve the same nominal purpose (species identification). They fall under the category of “natural history illustration”, “natural science illustration” “Sciart”, or “animal painting” (although the latter tends to evoke large oils of the big cat families on the savannah).
“Botanical illustration” needs by definition to be plant-based. For me, sometimes the plant illustrations have a narrative too, especially if there’s a detail of something mobile such as a seed capsule that’s just exploded, or insect damage to a leaf.
I saw that you’ve been working on your lesson plans for your upcoming botanical course at Cambridge Botanic Garden – please may you tell us a little more about that?
Yes, I do a fair amount of teaching, both there and locally. My personal view is that if you can form the letters of your name you can draw, what’s missing is practice and self confidence. In all my courses I try to hammer these two messages home.
I’ve just taught a wonderful 2 day course at Cambridge University Botanic Gardens, we were drawing and painting autumn leaves, fruits, and berries. As always, I was blown away by how hard the students worked, and with how well they did, especially as they claimed to be beginners. It’s a privilege to work with them, and you learn so much from the way other people view and draw the world!
So my upcoming courses at CUBG are a 2 day course for beginners in february, Drawing from Nature: Winter; and two courses in June about illustrating insects and plants (combining entomological illustration with botanical illustration). One is for beginners, the second for those with intermediate skills. I can’t wait!
Please keep an eye on my social media feeds for details of these when the programme is published, or check on the Botanic Garden’s Education site in mid November for details and to book a place.
Whats an ideal day in the studio for you?
The best of best days is one where I don’t even have to turn on the computer!
If I have a list of plants needing illustrating, and I know where they’re all growing, and the deadline isn’t impossible…that’s heaven. I’ll go and gather the plants first thing, then spend the whole day drawing them up, drinking tea, listening to BBC 6Music, getting colour down. If I can get several completed in one working day, that feels even better.
Do you have any projects coming up? Is there anywhere, either digitally or in the flesh, that we can see more of your work?
There’s lots on right now. I’ve just finished a whole series of illustrations for a book on Japanese Knotweed, and I’m working on a book about Foraging with Kids alongside Adele Nozedar – I’m due to start drawing up roughs of the 50 + species involved on Monday.
There’s also a map of a nature reserve in the pipeline, an art demo in Hereford, teaching kids to paint skulls at Weobley high school, Hereford Art Week (winter) on the last weekend of November, a list of species needing illustrating for a nature reserve in Gloucestershire, and I’ve just completed the artwork for a honey producer. Individual commissions awaiting me include a cowslip study, and a brimstone butterfly.
I also need to do tests and produce a YouTube film and a blog about the latest batch of hot press watercolour papers I’m testing as potential replacements for the sadly altered Fabriano Brand, and I need to make several handouts and teaching aids for upcoming courses.
I also run a fortnightly drop-in botanical illustration workshop in Hay on Wye where students turn up, I give support, provide plants to paint, and offer help if anyone needs it; and we can share a glass of wine as we draw and paint. Email me for more information!
The best places to see what I’m up to are my social media feeds, (take your pick!) and my fortnightly blogs which include step by step tutorials, information on recent commissions, summaries of courses I’ve taught, botanical definitions, and artistic techniques: http://www.lizzieharper.co.uk/index.news.php
Your best bet for coming and saying hi is probably Hereford Art Week, the weekend of November 26th/27th. I’ll be sharing studio space with Lea, a local flower painter, and selling work, cards, doing sketchbook studies and meeting folks. Postcode HR3 5TA (follow the pink signs!)
For more examples of my work, visit my website on www.lizzieharper.co.uk. If you want to commission an illustration, go on a course, buy a fine art print, or just ask me a question then don’t hesitate to get in touch. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org.