Tuesday, 3 February 2015


The importance of keeping hours...

Back in 2013 I was in the fortunate position to be able to study the show case above in a lot of depth. Does anyone remember it? I know some of you will. It was a show case in the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art at Kew Gardens and it contained a record all of Rory McEwen's hours. I remember starting work early some mornings so I could just be with with them all. In this exhibition, I actually found the showcases to be more interesting than the paintings on the wall. From these note cards you could tell so much. You could see that Rory had several paintings on the go at once, you could see that he painted INCREDIBLY quickly and you could see that he probably didn't cook his meals (or had lunch at a very regular time). You could see how long his lunches were and if he was an early riser. 

He tended to start at 9.30am and regularly took lunch at 1.15. Sometimes there was a tea break at 3ish, but more often than not the day gets disjointed. It's a pleasure to study these times, as his painting 'programme' looks rather like mine, and most probably like yours - there are days of procrastination, days where appointments got in the way and those days when you can see it's going incredibly well and its worth having a late night. What a detailed legacy to leave behind.

I love anything that records time. I am a big diarist (you can probably tell from this blog) and keep four diaries and one year planner (which I have just proudly made up and put on my studio wall). I am obsessed with time and the fact that there is never enough of the stuff. It really is the most precious commodity. 

Inspired by this display case I decided that year to start documenting my painting hours in the same way and it began with Caroline the Coffee Plant. Sadly I didn't keep these pieces of paper as it was all written randomly on odd post-it-notes and paper scraps, but I managed to work out that I spent exactly 160 hours on the plant. This was good for me as it allowed me to gauge how long the bigger pieces take to do whilst also taking breaks and navel gazing into consideration. Something I didn't really 'time' before.

Rory McEwen's time diary

Now I write my hours very proudly in one of those dairies - just the hour slots and I am so glad that I do as it informs me. I now know how long a painting really does take and this is incredibly useful when quoting for commissions and pricing ones work. I used this technique with the Plane Tree - that's why I knew it would take roughly 160 hours to complete and that wasn't counting the time I spent on sourcing the tree and all the communication between myself and the client, which of course is also important to consider if you are on a tight schedule. Sadly my hour slots aren't as incredible as Rory's - I don't have pretty little butterflies dotted about the place - just sets of numbers - but from them one can tell that I am on a Spanish lunch time, that I go for a walk everyday and that I drink a lot of tea!

A page from my time dairy


  1. This is so fascinating Jess, particularly as Rory wrote relatively little about his working methods and did not teach or lecture. This inclusion in the Rory Show also gave us a lot of hidden information about his use of photography as reference material for his work. This is something he also rarely talked about, but it is known, and can be traced in much of his work including the more commercial illustration projects with the Tulips.

    The lighting in the imagery is the key, and that which gives us the clues, as well as the dates he painted, some of which were unseasonal to the works, as well as the speed at which he painted, and the 'photographic' appearance of the imagery.

    I think this is all to the good to know about the use of photography as a useful convenience, something to speed things up - perhaps in the same way that you could create a painting of a Plane Tree in Spain during the winter monhs using photographs as reference material.

    Other famous Botanical Artists who worked from photographs who were contemporaries of Rory are Paul Jones and Raymond Booth.

    It has been suggested that it would be appropriate for Botanical Artists who use photography to state this when exhibiting their work, so that this can be in some way separated from the Botanical Illustrators who work from observation.

    Perhaps this might be the answer to resolving any dispute between the two ways of working and make it clearer to the public who often just assume that an artist has worked from life when they may have just as easily worked from a photograph.

    Putting this all aside, I am inclined to think that its not the photography that is the problem, just the general lack of acceptance of its use.

    My sense is that because Rory was such a good observer and could draw so well from an early age, his use of photography was strengthened and concentrated by this and he was able to utilise it exceptionally well in the time he had available.

    1. Thanks for your comment Coral. I remember talking about this with Martin during the Kew exhibition at great length. As you say - Rory most definitely did work from photographs for some of his work. The timeline does reveal so much, but you can see it in the paintings as well. His depiction of light changes suddenly in his career and a harsh blue light creeps in. The focus changes too – the type of focus you get with a lens – sharp in the middle and slightly blurry everywhere else.

      I find it is bizarre that photography has become somewhat of a dirty word in the botanical art community, rather like the use of white gouache for tinting one’s work. Nowadays there is such a broad spectrum for the use of photography in our discipline - from direct extraction like in the work of Niki Simpson and Laurence Hall to people like Rory, Raymond, Paul and Martin (funny how that list is all men) who work a lot from photographs, onwards to folk who use photographs only at the end once the plant has died and then onwards to artists such as yourself - those who I presume rarely rely on photographs, if at all?!

      I never used to use photographic images, but I had to start using them when I was on the SBA course because I had to go to work at Kew and it was impossible to keep something alive for all of that time. This time changed me. Works got bigger, I started playing with scale and I saw detail in a different way. I also lost the essence of the plant. I felt close to the plant, but in a more mechanical way. To this day I still prefer to work from a live specimen. Looking at the live specimen has become really, really important to me. So now, when I have to work from photographs I take my photography sessions incredibly seriously. I joke in my household when I am doing a photo session that I might be ‘gone for some time’. I usually am. I will take hundreds of images over an entire morning. I will just sit with the subject and do my best to understand it at that time. When I paint I often find my brain going back to that experience and this helps to bring the photograph to life and recapture some of that essence – although it never is as full on as would be if the real thing was there still.

      Since the Rory show I realised that the photography could achieve awesome things in botanical art, especially when one also plays around with light sources - something which we all know Rory did. I have started to play around a lot and am really enjoying the ‘creative playing’. I feel m moving so far away from traditional botanical art in my head (not actually produced these works yet) that I wonder if I might actually fall off the edge!

      These days I can be found hunched over in a very dark room, with a tiny spotlight between my thighs and camera, struggling because I don’t have enough limbs to do what I am trying to do. Added to this tangling experiences in the studio is the fact that what I want to achieve in paint cannot be achieved directly from a live specimen because I wouldn’t be able to see what I was painting with the room being so dark. Now I think it’s safe to say that with this body of work that I am about to produce I am pretty much fully dependant on a photographic image. I am trying to find a way around this, but it’s difficult as putting other light sources onto my canvas so I can see what I am doing is changing the intensity of the lighting I am providing for my subject matter. It’s a tricky business…

  2. What you are describing Jess is a defining creative process with photography. Fine Art dealt with the issue of photography being a 'dirty' word back in the 1960's and perhaps because Botanical Artists are so often so closely associated with traditional accurate drawing, there is the hidden harbouring of backward looking perjudices towards photography's use in creative work. So, in conversations like this I am dragging this issue out of the shadddows so it can be dealt with and laid to rest, and I am doing it because I care, and I am grateful to you Jess for allowing this to be spoken about here.

    I would like to see Botanical Artists moving forward collectively by happily acknowledging all the range of artistic methods without prejudice and laying to rest this issue (and in case anyone is making assumptions here - no, I am not a socialist or a communist).

    I have always been in love with observational work, and I need to have a lot of daylight around me, but I do take photos as a back up even though I am not entirely happy to have to use them. However, I come from a fine art background that praises all methods of creativity - its not what you use its how you use it.

    There is no need for those who work from observation to ever feel threatened or disenfranchised by photography because observational work will always be there, beause its something very particular that is eternal to humanity. To draw a flower in perspective is tremendously demanding, so I can understand how artists that do this would like acknowledgement for it. But for me, I am so long down this pathway that I am now in a way surrenderd to the needs of the flower I work with, and this overcomes my egocentric needs. However, lets not forget that I do get paid for the endeavour.

    The potential for the use of photography is endless and artists of all kinds have only scratched the surface. In the end, in the bigger picture, its all about the plant world and not about the individual egos of the artists.

    If we look from this point of view to see Botanical Art as an complimentary forum of many species of artistic methods, then we might be half way there to understanding the message that the plant world is to offering us in this bigger picture. In the end all Botanical Artists are the same in their love for the plant kingdom, and I dont mean this in a silly way, I mean it in a way that is absolutely profound, and this is what really counts.

  3. Hi Jess

    I'm not sure where to start as there is much of interest from both you and Coral. I had almost finished a long comment when my laptop crashed & it was lost !!

    Coral sums it up well at the end when she says "all Botanical Artists are the same in their love for the plant kingdom" and just before when she says " in the bigger picture, it's all about the plant world. As a scientist, albeit a Natural Scientist, this clearly resonates with me not just with plants but all aspects of the natural world, where I obviously include animals but also the environment in which they live.

    There is no difference between us as artists or scientists, in our appreciation of the natural specimen, but at times various limitations prevent such connections. If a photograph or video enables us to maintain that connection, I do not see why there should be a problem. That said, I do understand the debate in relation to the material used by the Botanical Artist.

    There are occasions when I try to be artistic/creative in the photos I take, especially with plants, just as there were pst times in the 'dark room' when I would experiment with development times to change the effects of a photo. However with digital cameras we can take hundreds of shots quickly and equally as quickly dispose of them if we wish.

    I just see this as making use of technology. While I understand what you mean in relation to marginal 'blurring' of a photo, with digital shots that can be taken so quickly sharper images of marginal areas can also be quickly obtained. Also while you balance & long for the extra arm as you experiment with your lighting, you do have the opportunity to see the product of your shot almost instantly & make adjustments accordingly.

    As a professional artist do you turn down a commission, because live specimens of the subject are not available and the commissioner does not want to wait 6 - 9 months ?

    Returning to Coral's first comment, I consider myself to be the public and I think we make our decision for various reasons, on wether we like the picture/product. Rarely are we concerned about the method of production - it is the end product that we decide to purchase or not. Having said that, I have a personal interest in seeing through your blog the way many of your recent works have evolved.

    In many ways there is no argument with the purist if they maintain fresh specimens are the only true source of material. However do we move with the times ? Do we allow technology to enhance our lives ? How many purists may come across this communication which they never would in a personal letter between us.

    Keep up the good work. Be true to yourself and we shall continue to enjoy the fruits of your labours.