The artist does not do what he sees, but what he makes others see.
– Edgar Degas
Today we have the incredible opportunity to learn from Anne-Marie Evans, a popular botanical art instructor and the author of An Approach to Botanical Painting, now out of print. The book, which she wrote along with her husband, is without a doubt the most sought-after instructional book in botanical art of the past ten years. If you are searching for this title, you know I am not exaggerating. This book is extremely difficult to find. On occasion one might find a used copy on websites selling used books. This book is a hot item and used copies begin at $500. A near fine copy can cost $1,500.
I had the good fortune to meet briefly with Anne-Marie during her recent trip to teach in the Los Angeles area.
Anne-Marie attended art school and earned a Distinction in Fine Art, then studied for a Masters in Fashion, also graduating with a Distinction. After some years painting large canvasses, she felt somewhat unfulfilled. A trip to the British Museum, where she saw an exhibition entitled Flowers of East & West, made her change the direction of her art. She was enraptured by the botanical art she encountered.
From this time on, Anne-Marie became interested in botanical painting as an art form in its own right. Although botanical illustration and flower painting had been around for a while, the discipline of botanical painting had not as yet been identified in the same way as fine art had been over the centuries. She became eager to learn herself and to develop this particular form of art. With that purpose in mind, she sought to analyze paintings and the process involved in the creation of botanical paintings (courses in botanical art were not available at this time). Accordingly, she began to visit museums, art libraries, private collections and botanical institutions to study their respective collections of botanical art.
She became increasingly engrossed in the process of teaching this particular form of art, fascinated by the pairing of science and art.
Wishing to make the painting experience easier for her students, she attempted to break down the process and to identify and isolate those skills essential to the process, thus establishing her 5-Step Method which is now widely adopted.
Anne-Marie teaches her 5-Step Method at various locations in the US, Australia, South Africa, Japan, France, Holland, and the UK. She has received an award for excellence in the service of botanical art from the American Society of Botanical Artists. In 2005, she received the Veitch Memorial Medal by HRH Prince Edward for the Royal Horticultural Society in honor of the role she plays in the “resurgence of interest in and greater understanding of the depiction of plants.”
How It All Began
Anne-Marie established the very first botanical art diploma course in the UK and taught this course at the Chelsea Physic Garden in London for 12 years. This program was the first of its kind. Students in the first graduating class created the florilegium of the Chelsea Physic Garden. Their work was published in a book and the florilegium is still an ongoing project. Anne Marie’s students are currently involved in the creation of other florilegia, such as the Hampton Court Florilegium and Prince Charles’ Highgrove Florilegium.
How The Book Came To Be
One day a publisher approached Anne-Marie and commissioned her to write a book about botanical art. She only had three months to write An Approach to Botanical Painting. Anne-Marie met her three-month deadline, however the publisher let the book sit for another 1.5 years. Her instructional manual about botanical art, the first book of its kind, was left to collect dust. During this time, Botanical Illustration in Watercolor by Eleanor Wunderlich was published. Anne Marie took her book back from the publisher, repaid her advance, and set off to have her book published another way.
Anne-Marie’s son-in-law offered to publish the book, but sending it to a designer would have cost thousands of pounds. So he advised Anne-Marie to buy a computer and design it herself. Anne-Marie followed his advice and bought a computer even though she had never seen one or used one. She spent three weeks in her night-dress laying out the book in PageMaker. Anne-Marie was so unfamiliar with how computers worked, that she did not know about the Tab button and what it did. As a result, she spent a lot of time counting out spaces throughout the entire document. When Anne Marie finished laying out her book, she sent her self-designed manuscript to the printer.
This now-classic book in botanical art was never advertised. It sold purely by word-of-mouth. Anne-Marie eventually shipped her book to Australia, Asia, Africa, America, and Europe. When it was released, Anne-Marie’s book was a unique resource because certificate programs in botanical art did not exist at the time. Her book was published before Shirley Sherwood’s collection of contemporary botanical art became well-known and credited as sparking the current renaissance in botanical art.
A Conversation About Drawing, Learning, & Botanical Art
ARTPLANTAE: What makes drawing such an invaluable learning tool?
ANNE-MARIE: Drawing specimens helps to acquire a keen sense of observation which may eventually be transferable to other disciplines and life generally. Botanical observation and drawing does not merely consist of copying what is seen, but explaining what is there. The artist has to exercise his or her judgment on what is to be described, extracting those diagnostic features which characterize the species of the plant pictured. This is the reason drawing still surpasses photography in the field.
I do feel that this particular form of drawing and painting should be included in the school curriculum, involving as it does the combination of brain and manual skill. It is interesting that observational drawing was a mandatory subject in military academies until the first World War.
Furthermore, botanical painting bridges many disciplines such as history, art, the sciences, etc.
AP: I have had conversations with people who think botanical art is nothing more than a hobby. Botanical art’s history of plant documentation, plant exploration, and the rest of it does not seem to matter as much to them as it does to us. Have you ever found yourself in a position to defend the discipline and the work of botanical artists?
AM: Yes I have, often. It is relevant that in The Dictionary of Artists, not one botanical artist is mentioned. I think this has to do with the fact that, historically, most botanical painters have been amateurs who had not learned the academic disciplines of drawing and painting. Consequently, much of the work was charming, decorative and sometimes lacking in depth, or it was solely scientific with little regard for aesthetic qualities.
In my view, I do not think botanical art has surpassed that of the late 18th- and early 19-century masters such as Bauer, Turpin, Redouté, etc. Such artists were aware of the three-dimensional aspect of painting and the resulting use of a wide range of tonal values to express form, thus making their work exquisitely refined, as well as more true.
Botanical art has to describe both scientifically and aesthetically what is observed. This involves skills and brain activity. Serious stuff and surely not merely a hobby!
Today, the emphasis appears to lean mainly towards color and, to a degree, self-expression and novelty rather than veracity, occasionally approaching the gimmick (mainly in composition). In the 1880’s there was a shift from academic disciplines where students had to draw from plaster casts to learn to express the three dimensions convincingly in their paintings. Rendering and translating successfully the illusion of the three dimensions onto a flat surface had to be learned. The botanical art of today shows little regard for this aspect of painting.
AP: What should teachers do first when teaching individuals who are new to botanical art?
AM: It is important to let students know that they can attain a competent standard if they are prepared. It is, after all, a skill which everybody can reach, but it takes time and effort and sometimes a little pain in order to acquire it. It is like ballet or tennis — one has to work at it to obtain excellence.
AP: How many students have you taught?
AM: Thousands. I like to think they are all still painting.
AP: What would you like to see the field of botanical art accomplish? What isn’t the field doing that you think it should be doing?
AM: I think the field is in danger of becoming superficial. Botanical art deserves to be treated as a serious subject. I would like it to retain this aspect.
I would like it to reach more people so they can enjoy it too. However, I would prefer not to sacrifice quality for the sake of popularity. There is a tendency now to paint clichéd images pandering to current trends.
I would also like the judging of botanical art to show some commonly agreed criteria. The process is ofter far too loose leaving too much subjective judgment to individuals who seem to show different priorities in their evaluation process. A system should be established, indeed as it is in academia and athletics, with points for specific areas. People would then know exactly how they are being judged wherever they happen to be. How many times have I heard comments from a judge such as, “it’s a good composition” or “she has good color sense.” These are unqualified statements of subjective opinion rather than specific criticisms.
AP: How long have you been teaching the 5-Step Method?
AM: I have been teaching my method since 1985. It has been refined over the years. I am told by former students that the 5-Step Method provides them with a sound and comforting foundation.
AP: What should a good foundation course in botanical art look like?
AM: A course should contain elements of botany, art, history of botanical art, and an apprenticeship in the skills of depiction.
AP: Thank you so much for your time and for the opportunity to introduce you to ArtPlantae readers. And thank you for allowing me to include the Degas quote with which you begin your courses.
You May Also Enjoy…