Hazel West-Sherring’s enthusiasm for botanical art runs deep.
Her fervor for teaching others about plants and botanical art leaps out at you through the Internet. It is no wonder she has been awarded medals by the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS), has had her work shown in the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art at Kew, and has work in the permanent collections of the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation, the RHS Lindley Library, Royal Botanical Gardens Kew and the Highgrove Florilegium. Hazel is currently working on the Flora of Sissinghurst, a special solo project documenting 50 iconic plants representing the historically important gardens at Sissinghurst Castle, the ruin of an Elizabethan house. The project satisfying and entwining her two loves of gardens and plant portraiture.
Please welcome November feature artist, Hazel West-Sherring!
ArtPlantae: Hazel, you mentioned that you strive to provide a “real botanical experience” for your students, one that extends far beyond the studio. How do you approach teaching botanical art?
Hazel West-Sherring: Historically the botanical artist was an illustrator following the science-based traditions of plant hunting, plant identification and plant recording. Botanical artists today enjoy a wealth of plant accessibility and choice, their interests born primarily from an innate love of their own gardens and plants, or those encountered on their travels. Crucially for me, it is native plants and their habits, through the changing seasons.
To enjoy the “real botanical experience”, my classes work around the gardening year, embracing the seasonal changes to growth and habit of a plant in bud, flower or fruit. Concentrating on classic English garden plants, fruits and vegetables, I start with encouraging familiarisation of the chosen plant family. Understanding where and how the plant grows, is to really experience its character. (It is enormous fun sourcing and growing plants, and I usually have a nursery bed of raised seed, or bulbs, planted out in preparation for future courses!) Then a good deal of inspiring reference material is made available (selected images, books and prints), to review examples of what I and others have achieved in portraying similar plant specimens.
Essential familiarity and understanding of the botany of the plant, through microscope or simple dissection, aids good observational drawing and underpins a successful painting. Sketching the parts of a plant separately on a worksheet, looking at the leaf junctions, the reverse of a leaf or the flower in bud and mature form, promotes understanding. Observance of colour should be actively and enthusiastically explored, and the student is often challenged by introduction to a palette of colour perhaps previously overlooked. The extreme pleasure of recognising colours once seen, and capturing them in pigment, is another crucial part of the real botanical experience!
My passion for 18th century English landscape gardens, and the creation of our own small formal plot, inspires and underlines my own classic approach to plant portraiture. I enthusiastically encourage and support a student’s individual approach in portraying their chosen specimen, and guide them through good observational drawing practices and watercolour techniques. Welcoming and embracing students’ individual response to colour, habit, texture, or shape, through personal expression yet sound botanical observation, is key to my ultimate reward as a teacher.
I favour small groups and happily mix student abilities in my classes. I feel strongly that the botanical experience is open to all, and that students benefit greatly from sharing their individual achievements and by learning from others.
AP: You are a prolific painter! Your dedication to botanical art shows through your paintings, which I am sure is the result of thousands of hours of work. How do you establish balance between being a prolific painter and an attentive teacher?
HWS: I have been painting now for several years and a body of work has inevitably built, but slowly! Yes, the paintings do require much commitment of time to reach completion. Before the painting begins, I go through the stages described above. Many hours of plant sourcing and researching, perhaps several growing seasons, hours of study, preparatory drawing and colour referencing, and then final drawing, composition and painting. It is a slow process!
There is certainly a delicate balancing act to consider when programming my teaching courses through the year, and attempting to complete a collection of paintings, or a work to commission. I enthusiastically manage and share my combined passions since each aspect happily influences the other. Often on courses run from my studio, students’ presence during the development of a painting can be beneficial to both parties. I welcome their thoughts and comments, and they scrutinise the techniques I have employed! The combined passions for plants and gardens, and for painting and teaching good botanical art, culminate in the real botanical experience that I want to share.
AP: Do you keep a sketchbook for casual thoughts and doodles?
HWS: With reference to my finished paintings, there has always been a certain amount of preparatory drawing and colour work done on “worksheets”. Although rather time-consuming, these sheets contain as much information as possible to allow me to complete a painting confidently when the plant has long since withered. They are the nearest equivalent to a sketchbook, since they contain many experiments and colour trials, as well as rapidly observed plant features I want to include in a final drawing.
AP: On your website, you describe the skills botanical watercolorists must possess to be successful. Describe what “meticulous brushwork” looks like.
HWS: Yes, I do describe skills that would be beneficial to a budding botanical watercolourist, not to put them off necessarily, but to prepare them! I talk about some botanical knowledge being helpful, and a genuine interest in the colours and forms of nature. Since good observational drawing is required to underpin a painting, patience is essential. Watercolour techniques can be learnt with practice. Meticulous brushwork is the combination of right technique in the right place, resistance to over-painting, and seamless transitions of colour interchange or light and shade. Even with much practice and some degree of satisfaction in a finished painting, there might only be one small area of a painting that truly satisfies the quest for “meticulous brushwork”…..but it is what we strive to achieve in each of our paintings.
AP: Also, what thought processes or actions are behind “clever color mixing”?
HWS: Colour can be such a very personal thing…I argue constantly with my husband about the sea being green not blue! But understanding how pigments work is crucial…..whether a colour is cool or warm, transparent or opaque, the properties of single pigment against a mixed colour which may granulate and misbehave. Watercolour colour mixing need not be restricted to the palette either, since the effect of layering different colour washes can be stunning, and unexpected.
For my students to really enjoy watercolour in the fullest sense, I try to break down colour prejudices or pre-conceived ideas, encouraging them to see a fuller colour palette within the specimen. A simple example would be a lemon, which on closer inspection and reference to a colour chart, may be very much warmer in hue than presupposed. It may carry green or orange bias, with the possibility of turquoise or pale violet shadows.
When painting in watercolour, I always recommend that before the onset of the actual painting, a colour palette is considered and that single pigment and mixed colour swatches are made. If possible maintain the same yellows, reds or blues from mixed colours, that may appear elsewhere as single pigment. It brings a colour unity through the painting, and allows “spot” colours to really glow!
AP: What’s in your palette?
HWS: I unashamedly admit to a wide palette, mostly Winsor and Newton, with some very brazen colours. For example, because I adore the “wateriness” of watercolour, and favour layering of washes, I might suggest an initial underwash of quite an unexpected colour. Opera rose is a good example of a brazen colour, fabulously luminous under subsequent deep violet washes for a velvety deep blue iris. I favour pans, and the ones most used and with the holes in, are gamboge, prussian and burnt sienna!
AP: What’s in your pencil box?
HWS: My pencil box is very limited! My dividers, mechanical pencil and pen, grey putty rubber and an old glass handheld magnifier. My brushes are very limited too, miniature sables and the all important prolene mixing brush and separate flat lifting and blending brush.
AP: As you know, readers are invited to ask featured guests questions. This time, let’s have the guest lead the conversation. What would you like to discuss with readers?
HWS: I would like to discuss the enjoyment of botanical art in the round….the “real botanical experience”. I really do believe anyone can be helped through the drawing and painting experience to a worthy outcome. Perfection of the image is not necessarily the aim, thinking more broadly, it is the knowledge and experience shared in getting to know that particular plant. Students never look at their subject in the same way again, and once the wider world of colour has been recognised, the fun really starts!
Readers, what do you enjoy about botanical art?
- If you draw &/or paint, why do you do it?
- How has botanical art changed how you think about plants?
- If you are an admirer of botanical art and do not draw or paint, what about botanical art appeals to you? Why are you drawn to this art form?
You are invited to share your thoughts and to ask Hazel questions about teaching and her art. Hazel will respond to all questions at one time.
Please send your questions or comments to Hazel before Friday, November 11, 2011 by sending them to firstname.lastname@example.org or by using the comment box below. Your anonymous questions/comments will be forwarded to Hazel. Hazel’s replies will be posted on November 21, 2011.