Sunday, 27 April 2014

Irish Artists Painting Irish Plants

The Irish Society of Botanical Artists will present their inaugural exhibition at the National Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin in May 2014.  The exhibition entitled The Irish Alphabet in Botanical Art marries native plant species with the capital letters of their names in Irish. You can find out more here.

There are over 60 artists producing paintings for the show and these will be exhibited as a series of complete eighteen-letter Irish alphabets. Artists from the thirty-two counties of Ireland will be taking part, along with Irish artists living in Britain, France and Austria, Newfoundland and the American state of Oregon.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

A common question or a common comment

Over the two days I spent at the RHS, and when I am working at the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art, I frequently hear comments such as 'gosh wasn't Marianne North talented?!' and 'where did you learn to paint like that?!' and 'I could never paint like that' etc.... etc.... At the RHS show my response was always, and rather boringly, the same - 'it's just through practice'. It's nice for people to say such things, but it also worries me.

I don't consider myself to be a very good artist at all really. Ask me to draw a dog, a house or a human and you would be sorely disappointed with the result. You'll be able to guess what it was that I was drawing, but you‘ll be asking for a refund! I consider the reason for this to be quite simple - I just haven't practiced drawing these other subjects, which consequently means that I am not really naturally gifted in the arts at all. In fact if anything, my talents really lie with inventing things, as that was what I was good at as a child before my parents or schooling could drive anything. 

The ever inventive James May and his brilliant brain. I wish I had the guts to have done this.
It has always been known that in order to become good at something you need to practice and yet so many people still think you need talent to begin with. This to me has always been a load of codswallop. What you need is curiosity and passion in a particular field.

In 2008 a book called Outliers made this fact official. Researched and written by Malcolm Gladwell, the book claims that it takes roughly 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery in a field. I really do love facts like this... what a nice round number to come to?! So how did Gladwell arrive at this conclusion and, if the conclusion is true, how can we leverage this idea to achieve greatness in our profession? 

Well quite simply, Gladwell studied the lives of extremely successful people to find out how they achieved success. For example, in the early 1990s, a team of psychologists in Berlin,  studied violin students. Specifically, they studied their practice habits in childhood, adolescence and adulthood. All of the subjects were asked this question: “Over the course of your entire career, ever since you first picked up the violin, how many hours have you practiced?” All of the violinists had begun playing at roughly five years of age with similar practice times. However, at age eight, practice times began to diverge. By age twenty, the elite performers averaged more than 10,000 hours of practice each, while the less able performers had only 4,000 hours of practice.

Joanne Yeoh - Professional Violinist who also has a cool hair do.

One particularly fascinating point of this study was that no “naturally gifted” performers emerged. If natural talent had played a role, some of the “naturals” would have been part of elite regardless of having practiced less, but the data showed otherwise. The psychologists found a direct relationship between hours of practice and achievement. No shortcuts. No naturals. 

Even the Beatles liked flowers. Check out those Hollyhocks - nice.
In 1960, while they were still an unknown high school rock band, the Beatles went to Hamburg to play in the local clubs (wish I was around then). Apparently, to begin with the group was underpaid, the acoustics were terrible and the audiences were unappreciative. One would be forgiven for writing this off as a complete disaster, but the Beatles did get something quite special out of the experience - they got loads of time to practice which made them improve. As the Beatles grew in skill, their audiences demanded more performances and consequently more playing time. By 1962 they were playing eight hours per night, seven nights per week. By 1964, the year they burst on the international scene, the Beatles had played over 1,200 concerts together and by way of comparison, most bands today don’t play 1,200 times in their entire career. So there you have it.

On a last note, something else to bear in mind is that the ‘masters' don’t just practice more, they also fall in love with their practice whilst doing it. They love what they do to the point that it no longer feels like work, which is definitely an important part of the story and something I think we can all empathise with as illustrators.

So why am I saying this here? Well... I understand that us humans all want to be great at something, and on this blog we especially want to be good at botanical art... And I feel it is important to give everyone hope. It’s not a genetic thing – it’s practice that makes perfect. So why not start hacking into that 10,000 hour mark?! 

Practice plays a major role in success – so start now.


Tuesday, 15 April 2014

100,000 Page Views

I would like to say big thank you to all of my readers. This week has been quite something and to top it all off we managed to reach a big landmark in the world of InkyLeaves. Last night someone viewed/clicked on the hundred thousandanth page on the Inky Leaves blog!

Clive, Clover and Clivinda the Clivia seeds...
This is a huge achievement which has been made possible through teamwork. We are all part of this journey and what an exciting one it is!

My deepest thanks to you all for being so supportive, interested and open to new ideas. Together we make the world a more fascinating place to be present in, for both ourselves and our audiences.

Have a great day - I know I will.

P.S. Have a happy lunar eclipse, especially if you are lucky enough to see it!

Monday, 14 April 2014

A pop-up shopping list

So, after the last post I thought it might be useful to all of you all to see what I brought to the event. This list of things grew and grew as the RHS show approached, and rather like my packing, it was fairly organic. My way of packing is to put things in the corner of the room as I think of them. By Monday the pile was a bit disturbing and looked like it might actually turn into some sort of life form, so I tidied it up and packed it all into cases ready for Thursday.

Here is the list!

  • Foam board for packing duplicate prints and to stick my demo painting to
  • Masking tape - very useful
  • Scissors - very useful
  • Paper bags for post cards
  • Collapsible print cradle
  • Collapsible easels for framed work
  • A postcard rack
  • Plant material
  • Postcards in protective box to keep them clean and safe
  • Business cards also in their protective boxes
  • Table cloth
  • Paints - well that would be handy wouldn't it?!!
  • Brushes - ditto
  • Magic easer
  • Burnisher - nice starting point for conservation at the demo
  • Jeweller's Loop - ditto
  • My tablet complete with a photograph taken in the morning so I could identify where to put in the shadows
  • An example of a framed piece of work
  • Fine art prints, as many as you like
  • Invoice book
  • Change - mainly 50p, £1 & £5. Don't under estimate how hard it is to get hold of change these days! Banks like to charge...
  • Clip board with crib sheet for information like postage costs
  • A table light- it attracts people
  • Collapsible chairs - wasn't sure if the RHS were supplying them and if they would be at the right height.
  • Parcel tape - useful for securing boxes after the show finished
  • Plastic carrier bags - for prints
  • Stiffy bags for wrapping large prints and framed piece
  • A card machine
  • Chargers for the tablet, mobiles and card machine and a four way
  • Sticky labels-you never know when you need them - I did, despite printing it all out before hand.
  • Two pens
  • Money belt
  • A camera - to update your online audience on how the event is progressing
  • Visitors book - useful to get emails from
  • Tissue paper for prints
  • Flask of tea - essential really
  • Kitchen roll - ditto, especially when sitting in a pollen-filled hall. I used more for my nose than paint.
  • Pot for water - I forgot to pack this.
  • Suitcase to contain packing materials and framed work
  • Rucksacks so you can carry more with your hands - handy!
  • Portfolio for large prints

I managed to save a bit with the costs by using postcard racks and a table cloth from Kew and a print cradle and easel from my friend Piers Ottey (thanks guys!). I bought my prints and foam board in batches of 10 as it's cheaper that way, and got my cellophane wrapping on eBay. I was also very lucky in that my step dad designed all my cards for free and that I was able to update my website myself as it's on a WordPress template. However the costs of undertaking such a venture can still stack up. For example, I had to get a taxi to the venue. I had hoped to do it on the underground, but getting on a tube at rush hour on a Friday with an A0 portfolio is NOT fun! So... last bit of info:

Board - £72.00
Visitors Book - £3.83
Invoice book - £3.93
Orchid to paint - £14.40
Taxi - £40.00
Prints - £997.50
Postcards - £166.00
Tea on day one £8.00
Meal out on Friday night (Henry's wages) £67.00
Paypal machine £99.00
Saunders Waterford 420gsm HP paper to paint Odette on £7.00

TOTAL: £1478.66 ouch!

Things I got for free:

  • Acrylic shop signs - borrowed from Kew, but you can get them from Muji
  • Bags re-used from older ones. I had been saving all my big bags over the last year
  • Stiffy bags (I reused the outer ones used to package the ones Kew uses for Rory prints)
  • Easels, table cloth and prints rack (borrowed)
  • Business cards (a birthday present)
So there you have it. Not easy to compute all that money... but I consider it an investment. Some folk like to go on big holidays, or buy a car or a nice dress or make up. I don't. I have have made to decision to have my hair cut once a year, to use make up samples for my make up (or birthday presents) and buy cheap holiday deals. This year Henry and I are going to California to see some friends and we can't wait. We bought the tickets using his air miles during the sale and plan to camp over the two and a half weeks. It's going to be fun, fun, fun and hopefully cheaper, cheaper, cheaper! Yes, I am a martyr for my art, but aren't we all?!

Sunday, 13 April 2014

The ups and downs of pop-up!

So, it's done. The RHS London show has come and gone and we are all left feeling rather full with a good mixture of inspiration and awe and are probably budding to get cracking on with our next pieces. A good friend of mine Alena said that she was really eager to get painting after seeing all the marvellous work which is nice, as all too often I see how incredibly well executed work can have an opposite effect and make the task seem all the more daunting. It's all about little steps though isn't it?  I always like to think about trees... they start small and take so long to grow. Little narrow rings that build up slowly into something beautiful, fertile and useful. For me, a painting and the journey is like being a tree.

Odette the Orchid - after two days of demonstration work, just the washes in, but not bad considering!

So yes, I after this weekend I had a good think about what I could write about that would be informative for all of you lovely people. Something that you might not have got from the weekend or from Katherine's amazingly informative blog (another post can be found here)... So yes, a top tip that could actually be rather useful somewhere down the line. This year the RHS decided to have a live painting session at the back of the hall and I was lucky enough to have been invited to take part. So, after weeks of preparation and two days of painting in front of you lovely folk I have decided that the art of creating a pop-up studio is really something worth embracing and developing.  So here it is - "the ups and downs of pop-up!"

This photo was taken by Alena - thanks for sharing your pics Alena - brilliant.
Up #1:

If you are demonstrating to a large audience think about the access. I decided to paint on an easel, not only because I am a vertical painter, but because I thought it would be nice for the visitors. They would be able to stand behind me, feel that they weren't intruding and watch from a distance. By being at the edge of my table I hoped to create a space so that people could gather around and not block each others views. 

I think a table can also work well. If you are a flat worker, maybe position yourself at the table end so the same effect can be achieved. I heard that cafe Nero never place their coffee machines between the customer and the barista and always put them at the back of the shop so that the customer can see what they are doing and feel part of the coffee making process. It also means - more importantly - that the machine is not acting as a barrier. Try not to put barriers up between you and the visitors - such as sitting behind the table.

I even put a chair next to me so people felt that they could sit and watch. Later on in the day I even had Christabel King sitting in the chair - who would have thought it?!
Up #2:

Paint something bright - it catches people's eyes - and maybe paint with the theme of the show. This RHS show was an orchid show, and (this was actually Henry's idea) so I painted an orchid. That seemed to be appreciated by RHS members. I also scaled it up, not only because I like painting big, but so that they could see the work from a distance.

Down #1: 

Pack a flask and some milk. On the first day I forgot my flask and ended up spending all the money I made on postcards on tea. Rather silly really, although I suppose the money went towards the RHS, so I guess it's not too bad. 

Up #3:

I reckon about 5-10% of the visitors will take a business card at similar events. I was told that 3000-4000 people came to last years show and about 200 of my business cards were taken over the two days.

Down #2: 

Bring a sturdy easel to display your work. I had stupid easels that would not behave and needed to be stuck down onto the floor using masking tape. Still, that seemed to do the job.

Up #4: 

Buy a card machine. This was incredibly useful for selling prints as there was no ATM nearby. I looked into hiring a machine, but the cost of that was the same as buying one, so in the end I pushed the boat out and got my own Paypal Machine that works on bluetooth. Clever stuff indeedy!

Up and down:

Bring a table cloth. I am so glad I brought mine (which I borrowed from Kew - thanks Kew!), as the RHS had covered their tables with hessian. This produced a nice rustic effect, but the amount of fibres that came off of it and into my paint was rather annoying and would have been worse if I didn't bring that white cotton cloth.

Up if you are you, down if you are Henry and have worked 12 days straight:

If you are going to be busy and you have been asked to demonstrate, see if you can get a friend to help you with sales. It was marvellous having Henry on board as it meant I could just get on with the work. Having Henry help was especially super because he knew me very well and so he felt comfortable answering people's questions about me. He is also a natural sales person. God bless him.

Up #5:

Smile - that's hard when you are trying to paint with some of the world's best artists and most informed botanists staring at you, but it can be done and it somehow helps with your own confidence. Fool yourself, go on... it's worth it trust me.

Down #3:

Bring brandy. I should have done this for Friday and if I did it again I would bring a little sippette of brandy for the nerves.

Down #4:

Print everything well in advance. I got my designer step-dad Andrew at Browse Digital on the case of business and post cards very early on, which was lucky as the printer he sent them to made a boo-boo and printed my logos upside down on a couple of the designs. So another piece of advice is to check everything is correct as soon as you get it and to not do what I did and not look properly and discover the error with 4 days to go. The proofs were fine, but the printing wasn't - never assume it's all ola kala.

Up #6

Bring a clip board with all your information on it. I did this for Henry so that he had information on things like postal costs for each print, paper types and the length of time it takes to do a painting.

Down #5: 

Wrap your prints up with plenty of time to go. I had a slight falling out with Atlantis because the card I needed for the Coffee prints was a complete disaster from the beginning - from being out of stock, miss delivered, lost in the system to finally, the day before the show - the wrong size. Argh! So yes - give yourself time and try not to get ill like I did. That also helps!

Ending on a positive 'up' #7

Just enjoy it. It's a lot of work, but completely worth it. It's a very humbling experience. I was very aware all weekend that I am not at the standard of the artists on the other side of the hedge/hall (yet), but it was still so lovely to show people what the journey is like and that we all have to start off from somewhere and that practice makes perfect.

With thanks to:
  • My mum who taught me everything I know
  • My step dad Andrew who designed my website, my cards and my postcards
  • My dad who came up to London despite having a deep rooted phobia of the place and helped set up.
  • My beloved Henry who has been a massive emotional support as well as an epic salesman and tea-fetcher
  • My best pal Nick the super-dooper photographer
  • My fine art prints printer, Andrew Turnball, for his amazing attention to detail
  • My old science teacher who inspired me to pursue a career in Botany - Chris Watson, who also came
  • Sarah, the closest thing I have to a sister who bravely travelled all the way up to see me despite being on crutches
  • My fairy God Mother, Sue Freed, who taught me everything about retail
  • Henry's amazing family who all came to London - thanks Barbara, John, Morag, Wid, Sheila, Duncan & Cat!
  • My incredible friends Severina, Sasha, Tasha, Tam, Alex, Tim, Nikki and Dave who all came to join in with the fun
  • Julia and Lynn from Kew who emailed everyone about the event and came along to watch.
  • The other pop-up artists, including Julia who kindly pointed out my skirt was tucked in my knickers!
  • The medallists on the other side of the hedge who are an inspiration to us all
  • And all you lovely readers for all of your encouragement.
I feel so blessed to be surrounded by so many kind, generous, supportive people.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Research Statement Take Three

Want to know what I've been working on and why I haven't been painting as much? Here's the research proposal I have put together... it's the third application I have done over three years, so we shall have to see if it gets the funding. Anyway, I thought I'd share it with you all in case you wondered why my paint brushes have been collecting dust.

Jessica Rosemary Shepherd

Research Statement

How can botanical illustration be re-deployed using the tactics and techniques of the visual arts to communicate the importance of plants in the 21st century and can it be successfully used as a visual language to prevent plant blindness?

The way we are living our lives is causing the climate to change and many habitats across the globe are now critically endangered. Trying to find a solution to this overwhelming reality has become a massive cultural challenge (Buckland, 2007). We have already taken bold steps in addressing the crisis politically, but it is imperative that the issue does not just sit within the governmental and scientific debate, but that it enters our social fabric and becomes part of the entire global population. Through creativity and artistic thinking we are able to cultivate a visual language that can be transmitted on a human scale. For this reason, I want to build on our existing knowledge on the use of visual statements in science so that we can design better policies and develop more effective forms of communication globally in the 21st century.

Between 1956 and 1988, botanical artist Margaret Mee embarked on several expeditions to the Amazon Rainforest where she produced paintings that became powerful symbols for plant conservation (Fig. 1). Having committed her artistic talent to the benefit of botany, she successfully captured the attention of the wider public. Visually describing a very personal response to the rainforests, she became an influential spokeswoman for conservation (Crane, 2004). It was during this time, after the publication of The Genesis Strategy (Schneider, and Mesirow, 1976), that Environmental NGOs started to advocate environmental protection to prevent further global warming, and Mee’s philosophy was analogous to the debate.

Fig 1. Aechmea rodriguesiana, Margaret Mee, Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew

I propose to expand on Mee’s approach so that we can fully comprehend the exact supremacy of visual accounts and representations. Using both theory and practice I want to go further by measuring the capacity for botanical illustration to bring greater awareness of the botanical world. In 1998, Wandersee and Schlusser introduced the term ‘plant blindness’. They defined the term as ‘the inability to recognise the importance of plants, to appreciate their aesthetic vale and the misguided ranking of plants as inferior to animals’. Plants are the main mediators between the physical and biological worlds. They provide us with food, shelter, fuel, oxygen, materials and medicine and play a significant role maintaining the climate and improving air and water quality (Simpson & Ogorzaly, 1995). In addition to this, plants are used in many cultural practices and possess an aesthetic quality that can reduce stress and create a positive environment (Nyholm, 2009, Park & Mattson, 2009, Mattson, 2010, Halivand, et al., 2006). Therefore many botanists and conservationists consider plant blindness to be a considerable problem as we can assume that without sufficient recognition it is likely that policies in plant conservation will not be supported. Furthermore, less funding will be given to botanical research and education at a time when we need it the most.

However, plant blindness is a construct that has been under examined since its introduction (Slough, 2012). While theoretical assessments of the components affecting plant blindness exist, there has been little done to design, implement and evaluate strategies that alleviate the problem. It is clear that awareness of plants is advantageous for both economic and social reasons and that there hasn’t been a more appropriate time than now to improve our familiarity with the world’s flora. By implementing an artistic, creative visual language to extend the measured visuals of scientific representation, I propose that it is possible to execute a more comprehensive and quantifiable approach to environmental communication.

Fig. 2: ‘The Green Giant’ - Coffee Plant, (Coffea arabica), J R Shepherd,
 Watercolour on Paper (2013), 66 cm x 101.6cm
Images inspire people to think beyond their experience and grasp the implications of trends. In my own illustration work I am constantly exploring new methods and approaches to challenge the viewer. I have become widely known in the botanical art world for my large watercolour paintings of scaled up ethnobotanical plants and my ability to surprise audiences (Fig. 2). I have, however, reached a point in my work where I need to know more about the theory behind my illustration, its potential applications and how it sits within the larger scope of science communication within the visual arts. I want to be considered for a TECHNE studentship, because although I have considerable practical and scientific experience, I have to attain new expertise to carry on with my research. I need to understand the meaning of graphical statements better and how to think both critically and contextually. My work is diverse and utilises collections from numerous societies and institutions such as Kew, the Natural History Museum and the Chelsea Physic Garden and is therefore collaborative and holistic. This MRes is a starting point for my career in research and education; it will be the foundation I need to fully explore the social and cultural impacts of a visual scientific language at PhD level whilst utilising my existing cross-disciplinary reservoir of ideas and skills.


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