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When botanical art becomes part of your life, you see botanicals everywhere — on fabric, on plates, on pencils, on wallpaper, on tea cozies, you name it. The history of botanical art and the lives of early botanical artists become topics of interest. Eventually, you become intrigued by collectors of botanical art, the galleries they visit and what they like to buy.

The world of galleries and collectors can seem a bit mysterious. It’s a bit outside the daily routine of groceries, laundry, kids and life’s other curve balls. There usually isn’t time to immerse oneself in these topics, however, I recently had the opportunity to attend a lecture about collecting botanical art that was given by Susan Frei Nathan, one of the few dealers specializing in this art form.

Susan Frei Nathan is a dealer of botanical art and the proprietor of Susan Frei Nathan Fine Works on Paper. Susan’s interest in botanical art was established while working at two international galleries specializing in antique natural history works on paper. These galleries showed work by artists such as Maria Sibylla Merian and Pierre Joseph Redouté. Her interest and passion for botanical art developed naturally and in 2002, she launched Susan Frei Nathan Fine Works on Paper to promote watercolor works on paper and vellum. Susan only sells original artwork. She made the conscious decision to do so because she wants to celebrate artists and the time they spent learning about a specimen, capturing it exquisitely on paper, and relaying information to the viewer. She does not sell prints because she feels prints have over-commercialized botanical art. Susan currently represents 13 artists.


The Value of Botanical Art

A painting’s value depends on the quality of the artist’s technique, the subject matter and how they work together to captivate the viewer.

- Susan Frei Nathan

What type of botanical paintings do collectors buy?

On the East Coast, Susan says the most popular botanical paintings contain garden variety flowers. Susan says “customers are drawn to these varieties because it is what they know. They are not threatened by it.” She adds that few people will take the time to learn about an unfamiliar plant unless they are an avid gardener.

So to get an idea of what collectors in your area will buy, look around you. What sells varies by region, by state and by continent. The key factor is the level of familiarity a collector has with the subject of a painting or drawing. To illustrate her point, Susan refers to bromeliads saying she couldn’t give away a painting of a bromeliad on the East Coast.

Subject matter, however, is only one reason collectors buy art. Another reason has to do with the emotional connection a piece establishes with the viewer. This emotional connection is created through the artist’s choices in composition and in detail. Susan says collectors are moved by the drama of an artist’s presentation.


The Most Prized Medium

I would put (each medium) on the same line if equal in quality.

In the art world, some art forms are valued more than others. Susan likes to create a “pyramid of art” to explain this. In her pyramid, each layer represents a specific art form. Among art connoisseurs, paintings are the most valued art form, followed by sculptures, drawings, and then prints. I asked Susan if such a pyramid existed for botanical art.

Susan says there isn’t really a “pyramid” for botanical art. If expertly done, watercolor on vellum and paper would be the most valued, followed by prints. The “print” category includes handmade etchings, engravings and aquatints. Digital prints would come in last. Susan says the inherent translucency of vellum and the level of light it can add to a painting really puts vellum in a class all by itself. When asked to rank specific media, Susan says the top spot goes to watercolor. While graphite work (and drawings) have appeal, they are less widely collected in this field.


Collecting Botanical Art

Buy what you love.

If collecting botanical art interests you, Susan recommends you begin by going to garden shows hosting botanical art exhibitions. She also recommends seeking out dealers of high-end botanicals. As you begin your search for a reputable dealer, Susan recommends compiling a list of dealers who specialize in representing the subjects that interest you. Be aware that finding a reputable dealer does not happen overnight. It takes time to learn who-does-what and what they collect.

Searching for artwork that resonates with you also takes a lot of time. Research artists and their work. Well-known artists are easier to research than regional artists because you can search for them on the Internet. When you find artwork worthy of purchasing, ask for advice from people you trust. Be careful with prices and make sure you research prices too. Susan says you should check past catalogs and price lists of exhibitions hosted by the American Society of Botanical Artists, as well as other botanical art organizations. Most importantly, though, is to buy what you love.

But only if you buy from a reputable dealer.

When asked to identify some red flags novice collectors should watch for, Susan replied that there is one big red flag new collectors need to recognize. Susan says anyone new to collecting should be careful with dealers selling work outside the realm of what they normally sell. The dealer may really like the work he/she sells, but because it isn’t within the realm of what they normally deal in, chances are very good they lack knowledge about the art and the history behind it.


Creating Botanical Art

Think before you paint.

Do you want to sell your art? If you do, Susan has a couple of tips she would like to share with you. They are:

Paint only what moves you
If you’re new to botanical art, Susan recommends painting small works first. Master the creation of artwork that is 5” x 6”. She recommends you hone your skills on a leaf, a twig, a seed pod, etc. Instead of thinking that you need to create one large-scale painting, Susan wants up-and-coming botanical artists to dedicate themselves to painting expertly on a small scale. She wants to see them create a body of work around a theme. Forget the “masterpiece” mentality.

Take a lot of classes
Take many classes and take only what you need from each class. Don’t feel you need to apply an instructor’s methods exactly. When viewing botanical art, Susan says she wants to see artwork that functions as an artist’s “self-portrait” while maintaining the integrity of the plant they are depicting. Susan says what worries her about contemporary botanical artists is that they are very impressionable and stick with traditional portraiture. She says, “I see safety, not risk-taking.” Susan likes to encourage botanical artists to take risks on small pieces.


Learn More

Susan has much more valuable advice for artists interested in collecting and selling botanical art. Susan will give a brief lecture at the annual meeting and conference of the American Society of Botanical Artists when it is held in Boston on October 27-29, 2011. This brief presentation will be followed by portfolio critiques where registered participants will have the opportunity to meet with Susan individually.

When the conference website launches in June, look for Susan’s presentation titled, Is My Work Salable? Collecting Botanical Art.

Until then, catch the conference buzz at Boston ASBA 2011.

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