When Elaine Searle was enrolled in Anne-Marie Evans’ class by a friend, she did not know a thing about botanical art. That was in 2002.
Today in 2011, Elaine has work in the permanent collection at The Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation and is a contributing artist to The Highgrove Florilegium, a collection of paintings documenting the plants grown in the Garden at Highgrove, the estate of HRH, The Prince of Wales.
How It All Began
Elaine received conventional art school training. After an initial year’s foundation program which included life drawing, ceramics, graphic design, etching and silkscreen printing, she chose graphics as a specialization before commencing a three-year Bachelor of Arts Degree. This decision shaped her first business career.
Graduating with an interest in Package Design, Elaine’s early career in the retail industry saw her build and manage teams of designers working on some of the most successful store concepts of the 1980-90’s. For the next 10 years, she ran a design partnership offering retail and print design to clients in the UK and Spain. This meant lots of business travel and a 24/7 schedule became the norm.
Elaine lived in an apartment in London during this time, with no garden and certainly no time to garden. Plants were not even a part of her life. Over time, Elaine became stressed with her business and a good friend told her she needed a hobby because all she did was work. The friend suggested that Elaine take a class in botanical art, something which she herself had recently done. Elaine’s reaction was, “What’s botanical art?”
Three months later, this concerned friend reserved a spot in Anne Marie Evans’ class for both of them. She told Elaine all she needed to do was show up.
Elaine showed up that first day. She returned on the second day too. However at the end of the second day, Elaine was strongly tempted not to continue.
Having used computers all of her professional life as a graphic designer, she had lost her drawing skills. She glanced rather than really looked and, in addition, didn’t even know the stamen in a flower were called stamen – referring to them as “the little bits in the middle.” She felt out of her depth. Coaxed by her very supportive husband, however, Elaine decided to return for Day Three.
That day proved to be a turning point. Anne-Marie’s teaching worked its magic and Elaine began to relax. During Days 3-5, Elaine’s experience with botanical art transformed from one of apprehension to intrigue to enthusiasm. She finished the five-day course in a much better place than when she started. After completing the course, Elaine returned to her full-time graphics business.
The experience of Anne-Marie’s class remained at the forefront of Elaine’s mind. She sought out botanical art books, traveled to exhibitions, and enrolled in more short classes. Her new obsession took on a life of its own. She contemplated joining the diploma program at the English Gardening School at Chelsea, where Anne-Marie was course director, and talked it over with her husband. Was it feasible that she could continue to run her design business, attend classes and keep up with the heavy schedule of homework? Well, her heart won over her head and she decided to enroll, financing the program with a bank loan. She structured her life so she could keep up with both her graphics business and the diploma course. Wherever possible, she made pragmatic choices – such as selecting specimens for her final project that did not move or change too much (succulents). After a hectic but very enjoyable two years, she graduated with a Distinction. Botanical art had become her passion, but financial realities meant that Elaine needed to resume her graphics business full-time.
Botanical art continued to lure Elaine. Whenever she met Anne Marie, her teacher would encourage Elaine to take her art further. Anne-Marie suggested she set her sights on the juried exhibitions hosted by the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) in London.
Artists submitting work to the RHS exhibition are required to submit eight drawings or paintings related by a theme. Not having time to create a collection of new work, Elaine used the six succulent paintings which had formed her final project for the diploma course, painted two more, exhibited her work in January 2008, and was awarded a Silver gilt medal.
Then Anne-Marie suggested she submit work to The Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation. Lacking the time to begin a project from scratch, Elaine sent two of those same succulents to The Hunt for their 12th Annual Exhibition, and now one of them is in the permanent collection. The exhibition gave Elaine her chance to attend her first American Society of Botanical Artists conference (which, incidentally, was also her first visit to the USA).
Elaine was surprised and honored by an invitation to paint for The Highgrove Florilegium. Elaine’s painting of Crocosmia ‘Emily McKenzie’ was accepted for inclusion in Volume I of the historic work. You can view this painting here on Elaine’s website.
While working on the Highgrove project, Elaine began to entertain the idea of teaching botanical art. She began by holding small classes locally. Wanting to see how things would go, she kept this new project low-key until she was more sure that it worked for her and her students. When she was given the opportunity to become a visiting instructor for the very diploma program she had attended in Chelsea, she gained additional and invaluable experience.
Well, word got out that Elaine was teaching, and she was invited to demonstrate at the 2008 ASBA conference and to teach at the 2009 conference. Elaine will teach again at the 2011 conference in Boston this Fall.
Elaine teaches in the UK, USA and Europe and plans and leads experiences in botanical art at vacation destinations such as Portugal and Italy. She recently launched a thoughtful and well-structured distance learning program for both beginning and experienced botanical artists.
A Conversation with Elaine Searle
ARTPLANTAE: Your paintings are not simple plant portraits. They have a presence on the paper. How do you decide on the statement your plant will make on the paper? What type of factors come into play — A plant’s physical features? Your first impression? Your past experiences with that type of plant? All of the above?
ELAINE SEARLE: Each plant has a personality. Sometimes It isn’t what you would first think of. For example, I recently painted a blue hydrangea. With its enormous “mop head” blooms and strong leaves I saw it as a “thug” in the garden. It demands your attention not because it is beautiful or brightly colored, but because of its architectural strength. I am drawn to plants that demand attention. I rarely paint herbs or wildflowers. Perhaps it’s time I did! I should find a way to give voice to their understated beauty.
AP: What is your teaching philosophy?
ES: I believe people learn best in a safe and supportive environment. I try to take the fear out of the room. I want people to relax and to open their minds to what personally they might achieve. I like to share some of the mistakes I’ve made along the way. My teaching demonstrates that botanical art is a series of steps, which when broken down, are not difficult to learn. I don’t want to get too intense. The basic skills of watercolor painting are not complex, but to master them requires focus, determination and lots of practice. I always try to establish realistic expectations of what can be achieved within a short class. I think we often learn by making mistakes, and I think my teaching style is nurturing. I try to build confidence and discourage competitiveness.
AP: How do you think students new to botanical art learn drawing best?
ES: I think they learn drawing with the fundamentals. By first learning to look, then to analyze, and then achieve sufficient control of the medium to be able to explain what they see. If they learn an approach based on breaking complex botanical forms down into simpler shapes and then build their drawings adding layers of refinement and detail, it reduces fear.
AP: How do you think students new to botanical art learn painting best?
ES: By initially being introduced to a series of exercises that are not about painting botanical forms. They should be taught the correct brush hold and how to paint simple flat and graded washes. You can’t really tell someone the ratio of pigment-to-water they need. They need to practice making the paint do what they want it to do before they think about making flower or leaf shapes. Even now I still make squares of practice washes to loosen up or to try new pigments.
AP: How do you think students with experience in botanical art learn best?
ES: They need to critique and to be critiqued without taking it personally. Learning how to critique is a valuable tool. The more experienced student needs to seek feedback from other more experienced artists whose work they admire and whose professional opinion they trust. Once they gain insight to where their strengths and weaknesses may lie, they can seek the specific tuition they need. Generally, the botanical community is a supportive one, so there are people willing to help them and share their knowledge either in the context of a masterclass or informally through discussion at an exhibition or conference. The more they are prepared to study the work of both historical and contemporary botanical masters, the more they will grow as artists.
AP: You have developed a thoughtful and interactive distance learning program. Tell us about it.
ES: The idea for this program came out of a number of direct requests. To develop and launch such a program was not an easy decision. My own very positive experience of excellent classroom tuition made me aware that it’s very difficult for a distance learning program to match a classroom’s environment and benefits. Yet, there were clearly those who sought botanical art tuition, but were prevented from pursuing traditional routes to learning, and I wanted to develop a program that would work for those people. And, perhaps to act as an additional resource for those already taking periodic classes seeking a more structured and self-paced approach.
Researching other botanical art distance learning programs, I saw that there were basically two types. First, those which are small and very focused on a particular artist’s approach/techniques; or, second, those which were large, rather impersonal, and structured around “How to” manuals. I didn’t find that either embraced the capacity of the emerging technology of interactive learning via the Web in order to offer a more personal and nurturing environment.
Many questions arose. How could I translate the best of the classroom experience into home learning? How could I offer a structure, yet still tailor the program to some extent, to allow for differing starting levels of experience? How would I ensure that students felt motivated and supported throughout so that “distance” learning felt “up close and personal”?
The program launched in January 2011 is comprised of six modules introducing the student to the basics of observation, drawing and watercolor painting of botanical subjects. The later modules cover perceived problem colors, composition, creating textures, detail and depth.
A small group of students in the UK, USA and Japan have so far enrolled. Some are absolute beginners, others already take classes but like the idea of supplementing these with online learning. This is an evolving project and I have plans to add improved levels of interactivity, utilize video conferencing, etc. Watch my website – www.paintbotanical.com – for more news.
Office Hours with Elaine Searle
Now is your chance to ask Elaine questions about botanical art, her classes, and her new distance learning program. Elaine will hold office hours through the month of May. You are invited to submit questions to Elaine through the Comment form. Elaine will watch for your questions and will respond to all questions below.