It’s a while since I wrote anything about the Beckler’s Botanical Bounty Project that I am involved with.
Very briefly…..I am part of a group of botanic artists who, since 2010 have gone annually to Menindee, a small town in outback new South Wales. We are collecting and then painting the specimens collected by Hermann Beckler, the doctor on the Burke and Wills Expedition, in 1860. Our website will give you a good overview while you can read more about my personal experiences on these posts.
As well as collecting and painting all 120 plants on his list, we have always had the dream of having an exhibition of the Project. Last year (or was it 2016?) we were accepted by the Art Gallery of Ballarat!
Since then we, with a big input from the fabulous staff at the Gallery, have been busy with the tasks needed to get the Exhibition up.
40 paintings have been selected, scanned, mounted and framed
4 cabinets with objects showing our themes of Art, Science, History and Country have been organised
Essays have been written for the catalogue, along with artist bios and statements about their plants
A slide show and narration (including bird song from the area!) has been produced. It will show in the smaller room off the main room.
Our Opening has been organised
Publicity is well underway
Now, we are about 5 weeks away from the Opening!!!!
So, if you are in Victoria (Ballarat is only an hour’s train ride from Melbourne 😉 ) organise some friends to come to see the Exhibition. And if you can’t make it tell a friend who lives a little closer. The cafe in the Gallery is very good too!
I always find it interesting to reflect that when I began botanic art workshops I didn’t really like botanic art all that much! I am not sure what drew me to the classes, but something did, and here I stayed. 🙂
I think that explains why I love contemporary botanic art, the sort that pushes the boundaries of the genre, as this exhibition does. It is Vignettes, showing the work of four artists — Amanda Ahmed, Mali Moir, John Pastoriza~Pinol and Sandra Severgnini — and is onat the Ballarat Art Gallery, a gallery that has a strong interest in botanic art.
Vignette, according to the catalogue, has three meanings
1. a decorative design or small illustration
2. a decorative design representing branches, leaves, grapes or the like, as in a manuscript
3. any small, pleasing view
These definitions fit the exhibition so well. Each artist has 12 works and each is 12.5 by 12.5 cms and each image is a small jewel. The artists are all firmly grounded in the botanic art tradition but, as the gallery website says, they
have drawn on their studies in botanical art to create new work that reflects on human frailties and transient concerns.
These artists make reference to the great botanical/natural history painters of the eighteenth century. The exhibition will be an opportunity to marvel that objects from the natural world can be observed with such minute precision, while suggesting themes of a universal nature.
I first met Amanda Ahmed in class. I was fascinated by a project she was working on that was revisiting the plants that Ferdinand Bauer had painted on an expedition with Matthew Flinders. Bauer is one of the greats of botanic art. One of his images is here, while Amanda’s reinterpretations are here.
Most of her images in the exhibition are single dried, twisted leaves, created in graphite pencil. They float down and across the paper creating a sense of movement. Her initial impetus for the work was a book belonging to her great-great-grandfather, Proverbial Philosophy. She took its musings and illustrations as a way to reinterpret botanic art, coming up with her belief that:
botanical illustration occupies a unique postion in terms of visual representation because of its capacity to blur the boundaries between objective recorded information and subjective interpretation.
Mali Moir was my tutor and is now a friend. She is the inspiration for our Beckler’s Botanical Bounty Project. Her background is at the scientific end of botanic art and her work on plants for publication in various flora had to be detailed and very precise. She has been the artist in residence on two bio-diversity surveys, one to Wilson Prom and the other to Papua New Guinea. You can read more about both, including photos, on her website. Mali has painted specimens from those expeditions for this exhibition. There are squids and barnacles (who knew how beautiful they are?!) and bird skulls, delicate transparent sea anemones and fantastically detailed but tiny crabs. She has taken the traditions of scientific illustration — exact scale, minute observation of detail, truthful colour — but has gone beyond, in ways such as sometimes leaving her pencil guidelines and notes. All her works are watercolour painted on vellum (animal skin).
Vellum has been used for hundreds of years, just think of the exquisite Medieval illuminated manuscripts. The delight of watercolour paint is that it allows light to move through it. It is why watercolour paintings can have such translucence. Paper is the usual medium for watercolour as the white paper allows the light to reflect back through the paint. However some of the paint is absorbed into the fibres of the paper. Instead of being absorbed into the vellum the paint stays on the surface of the skin. Imagine how this allows the light to bounce back from the surface through the paint, creating vibrant and luminous paintings. (Apparently it also means that you can easily wash off mistakes!)
John has deliberately used vellum for his work and not only for the painterly effect. His subjects are the harbingers of autumn — a chestnut, a maple leaf, acorns, rose hips — and are presented as a timeline from late summer to late autumn. He deliberately chose the vellum skins according to their thickness, with the thinner ones showing youthfulness and the thicker ones showing growing older and ageing. Because as well as his subjects from the natural world he has included tattoos. Look at the image from the Gallery’s website to see how beautifully this unusual combination works.
Sandra Severgnini was the only artist who I had not seen before. I would certainly love to see more of her botanic work. Even though she was working in the small 12 x 12 cm format her work was beautifully composed. One work was the flower bud of a bromeliad, another only part of the large strelitzia flower. The conventional way of painting a pinecone is to put it in the centre of the page or maybe include a section of branch. Sandra did two pinecone paintings. One an immature cone, the other an open, mature one, and both were painted right on the edge of the paper. Another showed a fern frond just beginning to uncurl from the bottom corner of the picture. Her work was like looking through a small window, where you were made to see the patterns and colours and complexity of the subject.
Vignettes is on until Sunday March 15. The Gallery is open each day from 100:00 to 5:00. Entry is free.
Art Gallery of Ballarat
40 Lydiard St Nth
Ballarat VIC 3350
It is very close to the train station, so easy to get to from Melbourne. And Ballarat is a lovely regional city, with beautiful botanic gardens. Worth a visit to see this stunning exhibition and have a day out as well. 🙂
The Botanic Gardens in Ballarat — just to entice you even more!
The Botanic Gardens in Ballarat — just to entice you even more!
Unfortunately the Art of Botanical Illustration Exhibition, organised by the friends of the Royal Botanical Gardens, Melbourne, is finished. Also, again unfortunately, I have no photos to show you. Photography was not allowed. Even if it was I would not show photos of the works of others without their permission. They are not mine to show. However follow this link to the Friends website to see the digital catalogue. Other links through the post will take you to menu of the catalogue and from there you can select the name of the artist I am referring to.
Botanic art is not still life or floral art [perfectly valid art forms], but rather a scientific depiction of a plant. That sounds rather dry until you recognise that there is a spectrum, from the pure scientific drawings that you would see in an encyclopaedia of plants, drawings that have to be accurate to exact length of the hairs on the stem, through to paintings that might be ‘portraits’ of the plant, almost floral art. Within that range there is scope for all sorts of works.
There were paintings in the exhibition that some might have been taken aback to see — orange segments, single autumn leaves, walnuts and seaweed. For me, each work displayed showed the amazing diversity, complexity and fragility of the our world.
It is the artist’s job to tell the story of the plant, flowers and seed, habit and form; to convey the complexity of the plant. We have to make artistic decisions about how to do that. What medium is best suited to the plant? What composition will tell the story best? I am always amazed at the quality of the works in exhibitions, and feel lucky to be able to learn from these wonderful artists.
Watercolour is the traditional medium for botanic artists. It has a transparency that allows the light to shine through. If you get it right it is perfect for plants like roses and poppies or plants that have very fine detail. Jennifer Wilkinson‘s Iceland poppy shows how subtle and delicate watercolour can be.
A number of artists chose other mediums because they were better suited to their plant. Have a look at Simon Deere‘s wonderful, controlled works in graphite [pencil]. Other artists, like Sandra Johnston, selected coloured pencils. The bark on Sandra’s eucalyptus work is amazing. For others the best solution was a mix of media. Two of my favourites used watercolour and graphite.
Joanna Hyunsuk Kim exhibited a couple of Strelizias, and both were gorgeous. However it was the S. nicolai that demanded that I stop and look. It was a dried flower head. The detail of the husk was captured beautifully in graphite, while the petals were watercolour. What really made it for me were the seeds. They had been painted in bright orange and popped off the page when compared to the muted tones of the rest.
Another perfect mix of media was Anne Hayes‘ Banksia serrata. The image on the website is lovely, but it doesn’t show the texture of the original. If you have ever touched the leaves of a banksia you will know that they have an interesting combination of a fuzzy surface with tough, prickly structure. Anne has captured that beautifully. And the control of the pattern of the seed head……oh my.
I was also taking note of composition, looking to see how others tell the story of the plant. I was lucky that on my plant, Cullen palladium, the seeds, mature flowers and buds are all on the one spray. Other specimens are not so accommodating!
Fiona McKinnon solved the problem by having the different stages of the plant on different stalks that intertwined over the page. Kate Nolan’s composition for her Spinifex sericeus combined a couple of strand of the plant. This was another wonderful example of mixing media. Who knew that the humble beach grass could be so ethereal?
These are just a small number of the works. If you saw the exhibition, I hoped you liked it. Tell us, in the comments, which was your favourite. If you missed it, there will be another in two years, with another stunning selection of delights for you.