When Sandra Wall Armitage, President of the Society of Botanical Artists, awarded Vivienne Rew’s ‘Fading Beauty’ the top prize in our recent Botanical Illustration Competition, she described it as “A well observed and vibrant piece with exquisite detail showing how a plant has a natural beauty to the end and possessing great wall appeal.” The painstaking detail and delicacy of the brushwork is a true celebration of plant life. I interviewed Vivienne Rew to find out more about her work – each painting an exquisite example of some of the very finest botanical painting being made today.
Lisa: A lot of your work seems to show a more animated view of plants – like Fading Beauty, where you depict the falling away of the petals of a Papaver orientale – or the cross section of a bud about to flower…it must be hard to capture these specimens when they’re in the process of deterioration, or a transition to a new state. How do you manage to capture these specimens in such detail?
Vivienne: When I’m painting subjects that are changing quickly I mainly work from photographs. For the painting of ‘Fading Beauty’ I had 4 or 5 poppies set up in the studio and spent a while deciding which flower had the most interesting petals and colours, and then worked out what angle to photograph from and how best to light it. I try to light subjects so that they still look 3 dimensional so the light comes in from one direction.
I’ll take around 80 frames of different details , especially areas that will deteriorate first; in this case the petals. Once I’m happy with an image, I’ll print it out and look to see if there are any areas where the photo is confusing or missing detail, I then do a quick drawing as a reminder for later when painting these bits.
Whilst the plant is still alive I try to make as many notes and sketches as I can of colours and texture.
Lisa: When did you first start to paint botanical illustrations and what is your artistic background?
Vivienne: I did A-level art at school and have a degree in Graphic Design, and work as a freelance designer. I started Botanical Painting 10 years ago. I joined a local group tutored by Jeni Neale and although I’d never worked with watercolours or tried botanical, I enjoyed the attention to detail and precision required. I also had private tuition from Rosie Martin, who gave me the confidence to progress and enter my work for the RHS Botanical show in 2017; I was awarded a Silver Gilt medal for my series of 6 paintings titled Metamorphosis – life cycle of Papaver Orientale. Fading Beauty is number 5 in the series.
Lisa: Do you think botanical illustrations can still have a scientific purpose as well as an artistic one? Do you think your paintings tell us things about plant life that a photograph may fail to tell us about?
Vivienne: Yes I do, although I consider myself to be a Botanical artist, not a Botanical illustrator. I’m quoting from botanicalartandartists.com blog here, as it puts the definition into words much better than I can:
“ In Botanical Illustration the emphasis is on the scientific record and botanical accuracy to enable the identification of plants. In Botanical Art the emphasis is on the plant or flower without the requirement for ALL the information required by botanists. There’s more of an emphasis on the aesthetic value to be found in the plant or flower.”
A lot of Botanical artists and illustrators have done courses in Botany, I haven’t got this training, I started as a Botanical artist because I found that I really enjoyed the medium of watercolour and the detail I found in plants as a subject. I do think my paintings are scientifically accurate but I’m more interested in the shapes, colours and texture and producing a visually exciting image; my favourite subjects are dead and dying plants rather than the perfect bloom. The series of poppies I exhibited at The RHS contained a couple of paintings that I wouldn’t have done otherwise, in particular the cross-section of a bud; this has much more emphasis on science than subjects I’d usually choose to paint – it’s my least favourite and the judges favourite! I did work from a photograph of a poppy I’d dissected but had to do quite a lot of research and dissect a lot more buds to get enough information on how the structure worked.
In a painting as opposed to a photograph I can choose which parts of the subject I give most emphasis to, I can also combine elements from a couple of plants to create a more pleasing image. When painting ‘Fading Beauty’ I had one poppy that showed the seed head and anthers well and one that I liked the wilted petals on so I combined the two to be able to show all the elements of the plant well. I couldn’t have achieved this with a photograph.
Lisa: Can you tell us how you manage to get the colours just right for your paintings?
Vivienne: Where possible I colour match to the plant, even if I’m working from a photograph for the finished painting. I have tonal swatches of all my paints and worksheets of mixed colours so I use these as a starting point and take the mixes closest to the plant and then fine tune the colour.
Lisa: Other than the botanical, are there any other subjects that you enjoy painting?
Vivienne: I don’t have much time to paint other subjects but I do have a collection of animal skull, shells and other finds that I keep in my studio and want to paint sometime. I really admire David Poxon’s work and I’d like to try and paint something along those lines, we have a rusty old tractor in the field that I find interesting.
Lisa: How would you spend a regular day in your studio? Presumably there are lots of breaks when you must have to have very intense periods of concentration…?
Vivienne: I work in blocks of around 2 hours before taking a break even if it’s only to have a cup of tea or throwing a ball for my dog in the garden. Before starting again I change my water and clean my palette if it’s getting muddy, I stand the painting on an easel so I can look at if from a distance, after a break I usually see areas that need working on, it’s good to look with fresh eyes and to have a clear starting point.
If I’m starting on a new section of a large painting I have a practice sheet and try out colours and textures on there to avoid making mistakes on the final painting…that’s the theory; I have started some paintings from scratch if I’m not happy with the way it’s going. I try and be disciplined and do 8 hour days when possible but I don’t like painting with artificial light so less in Winter.
Lisa: You say you sometimes start again from scratch if you don’t like the way a painting is going. What sort of things would cause you to start again, and how easy/difficult can it be to alter a composition while it’s a work in progress?
Vivienne: Watercolour isn’t very forgiving and it’s really difficult to undo mistakes. I’ll usually start again if I feel that I’ve lost the light in a painting and the colours have gone muddy and flat. It usually happens if I’ve been rushing and don’t let the paint dry properly between layers, having a practise sheet helps but sometimes I get a bit over confident and something that I thought would be easy goes horribly wrong!
Lisa: Do you have any favourite brands of paint/paper that you most like to work with? If so what are the qualities that you value most highly in your art materials?
Vivienne: I mainly use Winsor and Newton watercolours and have a few other favourites including Schmincke Translucent Orange and a couple of Holbein colours; Bright Violet and Bright Rose. I did go through a bit of a phase of buying lots of colours but now I’m trying to restrict my palette using mainly transparent colours. I was using Fabriano Artistico Extra white HP 640gsm paper but there has been a well documented change in the manufacture. I’ve tried other papers but haven’t really found anything I like as a replacement so for now I’m persevering with the stock I have but it doesn’t take washes or lift in the same way and it’s quite frustrating; I don’t feel as happy with the results I’m getting. Fluid 100 HP paper has been getting good reviews but I haven’t found a stockist that sells large sheets or rolls and it only seems to be available in 300gsm. I prefer heavier weight paper so I don’t need to stretch it.
Lisa: What are you working on at the moment?
Vivienne: I’m working on a painting of Sweet Chestnuts, it’s a large painting around the same size of the poppies, so 50cm high and 70cm wide. The chestnut shell has gone past the green stage as I prefer the colours in the brown stage, there are some lovely golds, blues and greys in there. I really enjoy things with a lot of texture and this is fabulous as the spiky shell has a furry lining and the shiny chestnuts are a real contrast. I’ve just treated myself to a huge new drawing board so I’m hoping to go even bigger after this.
Lisa: Where online or in the flesh can we view more of your work?
Vivienne: I’m a member of Peak District Artisans, who are a group of fine artists, designers and contemporary artisans based in and around the Derbyshire Peak District. I exhibit with them at our annual Great Dome Art Fair in Buxton and will be taking part in The Winter Fair at Banks Mill in Derby 24-26 November. There are also events planned at Chatsworth, local art trails and open studio events.
You can also see my work online and contact me at
I have originals, limited edition giclee prints and cards for sale.