Skulls have been a theme for me lately

It’s partly just co-incidence but I have seen a few skulls lately. Let me be quick to reassure you…not real ones! Artistic ones.

Firstly I was at Victoria’s premier gallery, the NGV, to participate in a drawing session. More of that another time. Towards the end of the session I wandered into the next room where enormous skulls were heaped up. Ron Mueck has created 100 large scale sculptures of the human skull.

The Gallery’s brochure says:

…the work can be read as a study of mortality, recalling the Paris catacombs as well as the mass graves resulting from human atrocities in Cambodia, Rwanda, Srebrenica and Iraq.

They are part of the Gallery’s Triennial exhibition, a truely amazing experience. And a very successful one. The Gallery has been packed with people all the holidays.

My second experience with skulls was at the Art Gallery of Ballarat, another of Victoria’s top galleries. I was up there to have the meeting about our exhibition, “Beckler’s Botanical Bounty: The flora of Menindee” opening late February until late May (shameless plug!). After the meeting I went into “Romancing the Skull”. No prizes for guessing it was an exhibition devoted to skulls in art.

The exhibition explores a range of themes including the skull as a reminder of our mortality, the use of the skull in addressing social and political issues, and the skull and crossbones as a symbol of piracy and rebellion.

If you are quick, you can see the exhibition before it closes on this Sunday 28th.

The variety of pieces was astonishing. I now have a little understanding of the what it takes to put on an exhibition, and I am flabbergasted at the work that must have gone on to pull all these works into one coherent display. These were some of my favourites….

Sam Jinks: Divide (Self-portrait)

I am not sure who created these glass coffins, but my friend Mali Moir and John Pastoriza Pinol created the beautiful, botanic skulls below by painting on vellum. (They are sitting in glass domes.)


And Louise Saxon’s amazing work, Vanitas #2 ~ The Twitcher. I have written before about another exhibition of her work. She constructs her pieces from textiles and pins them into place.

And lastly, the one above is Dale Cox’s work Deadlock.

Well, not quite lastly, because here is one for the quilters amongst us….


It is Lucas Grogan’s The Shroud, and is, according to the wall label, a diary of his travels through Europe, inscribed with his personal impressions and experiences. Curious!

So many different ways to interpret our mortality. Thought provoking, but also beautiful works, and at times quite humorous. Would you have gone to an exhibition featuring skulls?


On a lighter note, a reminder about my fortnightly newsletter. I have begun to send it out again this year, and the first one for 2018 had special offers only available through the newsletter. So if you would like to find out more sign up.

Beckler's Botanical Bounty Botanic Art

“Botanic artists make science visible”

“Botanic artists make science visible.” That’s not just a quote from my friend and tutor, Mali Moir, but also a tenant of her art work. Drop over to her website to see the beautiful work that she does.

Last week was National Science Weekend I thought I would draw out the connection between botanic art and science a little more.

As a genre botanic art is more than flower paintings or still life. The main goal of a painting is scientific accuracy so that the plant can be recognised and distinguished from other species. However, it is an art form and should be as visually pleasing as possible. The elements of all good paintings, especially composition, very important. I like the way that it is expressed on the Botanic Gardens Conservation International’s website

Many great artists, from the seventeenth-century Dutch masters to the French Impressionists, such as Monet and Renoir, to modernists like Georgia O’Keeffe, portrayed flowers; but since their goal was aesthetic, accuracy was not always necessary or intended. In the hands of a talented botanical artist, however, the illustration goes beyond its scientific requirements.

The Golden Age of botanic art was at the time of the great explorations, when the world was being opened up. Voyages usually included naturalists and artists, who had the responsibility to collect and record the flora and fauna that were seen in these new lands. There was always the search for the next big thing, like tea, and spices. It was this search that drove many expeditions. After the expedition collected plant specimens were eventually housed in herbaria, only available to a few. The paintings of plants could be printed into books which were more accessible.

Not co-incidentally it was the time of many important developments in science. Linnaeus had revolutionised the botanic and zoological worlds by creating a classification system that worked at all levels. It allowed the newly discovered plants and animals to be systematically collected and recorded.

The botanists and artists were an important part of the voyages that were being made. There have been many fine botanic artists over the centuries, but I will show you two.

Sydney Parkinson accompanied Joseph Banks on Cook’s voyage in the Endeavour in 1770. Parkinson died of dysentery on the journey, but back in England his illustrations were used to create Bank’s Florilegium. He was also the first European to create images of Australian Aborigines. Unfortunately there was a lengthy dispute between Banks and Parkinson’s brother on the return to London.

When the Endeavour returned to England in 1772, a dispute arose between Joseph Banks and Sydney’s brother, Stanfield Parkinson. As his employer, Banks claimed rights to Sydney’s drawings, papers and collections made on the voyage. Stanfield claimed that Sydney had willed them to his family. Banks lent the Parkinson family Sydney’s journal and drawings with instructions that they were not to be published, however Stanfield disregarded this and arranged for A Journal of a voyage to the South Seas to be printed from Sydney’s account of the voyage. Banks managed to suppress Stanfield’s publication until the official account of the voyage, edited by John Hawkesworth, appeared. In return for Parkinson’s papers, Banks paid Stanfield Parkinson 500 pounds for balance of wages due to Sydney, but the dispute did not end there. Stanfield further accused Banks of retaining items collected by Sydney which were intended for his relatives. Stanfield Parkinson was declared insane soon after the publication of Sydney Parkinson’s Journal and died in an asylum. [From the NSW State Library]

By Sydney Parkinson and John Frederick Miller [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The accurate detail from Parkinson’s painting of Banksia ericifolia allows the plant to be distinguished from other Banksia species.

The second botanic artist is Ferdinand Bauer.  He was the artist on Matthew Flinders’ expedition of 1801 in the Investigator, to survey the coast of New Holland. Bauer worked with the naturalist Robert Brown. Flinders had orders to allow them time on land to do their work and they were given a specially constructed room on the ship to house their specimens. Unfortunately the ship was leaky and damp.

Bauer wan’t able to complete his paintings on board because of the mould and damp. He created intricate colour charts that helped him to work on the paintings back in England. He stayed in Australia for a couple of years after the voyage, bringing home over 2,000 drawings.

By Ferdinand Bauer (1760–1826) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Look at the amazing detail that Bauer has achieved in his Banksia coccinea.

Naturally botanic art has changed over time. Perhaps the Art has become more prominent than the Science. But there are still many artists who do the detailed dissections and microscopic work. It is not something that I am very good at but I love to marvel at the work of those who can. Even without the microscopic detail the art work aims to have the identifying features of the plant. Jump over to the website of the Botanic Art Society of Australia to see some beautiful modern botanic art, such as Helina Steele’s stunning eucalypts.

And so to the question of photography. I’m sure you have been wondering why do we still need to identify plants from paintings when photography is so good these days. There are some artists, like Niki Simpson, who use digital photos to create works of art.

It is true that many identifications would be done through photographs, although examination of the real thing would be best of all. Art has a few advantages. Again, let me quote from the Botanic Gardens Conservation International

Although photography and perhaps particularly microscopic photography, may help inform botanical work, there is certainly still a need for botanical illustration because it can represent clearly what may not easily be seen in a photograph. Outline drawings for example, distinguish elements that cannot easily be made out using reflected light alone. Also, the composition of the image can be manipulated more fully in illustration, and features displayed together which may not easily be shown simultaneously in nature.

While much of my work that I have been showing you lately isn’t true botanic art. So I will leave you with one of mine. It is a plant I have painted as part of a project, Beckler’s Botanical Bounty, a project that has a strong scientific component.

Cullen pallidum (image and photo copyright: Anne Lawson, 2014)
Cullen pallidum (image and photo copyright: Anne Lawson, 2014)
Artists Botanic Art

Vignettes — an exhibition pushing the boundaries of botanical art

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 on at the Ballarat Art Gallery, a gallery that has a strong interest in botanic art.

Top, L to R: Amanda Ahmed, Mali Moir Bottom, L to R: John Pastoriza~Pinol, Sandra Severgnini
Top, L to R: Amanda Ahmed, Mali Moir
Bottom, L to R: John Pastoriza~Pinol, Sandra Severgnini

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.

Some of Amanda’s art work


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).

Some of Mali’s work


John Pastoriza~Pinol’s work is also painted onto vellum.

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.

Some of John's work
Some of John’s work

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.

Some of Sandra’s work

IMG_1446  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. 🙂



Artists Beckler's Botanical Bounty Botanic Art My art work

Beckler’s Botanical Bounty — in ‘The Age’!

Beckler’s Botanical Bounty — in ‘The Age’!

I am involved in an ongoing botanic art project, connected to the Burke and Wills Expedition into Central Australia in 1860. Today there was an article in ‘The Age’, Melbourne’s newspaper, about the project, and an interview with Mali Moir, our driving force. It is very exciting!