Saturday, 2 January 2016

Cacophony of Green

As a botanical artist I feel it is important that we think about what we are doing with our art. It is lovely to be able to sit back and paint a flower just as it is like an Edwardian Lady, and that is absolutely fine, but I feel very passionate about trying to develop on this hobbiest approach to our work to give it some gravitas. I know I am not alone - there are many botanical artists who think very deeply about the meaning of their work and its evolution and this is superb as it benefits not only the art form, but all of us - from painter to observer.

Making pictures with soundwaves
Not long ago I was asked by someone how I would paint our Lord, Jesus Christ. Firstly, I thought - this is a very good question as I am now completely stumped. Unusually for me I couldn't find an answer and was left speechless. At the time I was with several other people and I could feel their eyes and hearts desperately trying to pull an answer out of me. I felt the weight of responsibility crushing down on my shoulders. With the knowledge that I could not just stand there in silence I was becoming aware that whatever answer came out of my mouth it had to delivered in an honest, heart felt and nourishing way. After what seemed like a lifetime of silence (but was probably only 30 seconds) I realised that the reason I couldn't answer was because there was no answer (this is a difficult concept again for me to realise as, like my father would say, I have an answer for EVERYTHING).

A Grid of Audio Speakers That Shoots Fleeting Patterns of Fog by Daniel Schulze 

I found myself merging a thousand catholic-based images of him dressed in linen robes or nailed on a cross with his wispy hair and sorrowful eyes. Then I was seeing him as white light and thought - yes a circle of white I would do that, but then I found myself revisiting all this stuff I have been considering about space, white and black, light and shadow, and realised that white wouldn't do. In the end, around a table where you could hear a pin drop, I found myself saying "I cannot depict him. I thought that it would be possible to draw him as a circle of white light, but that wouldn't work, because he can be there in the darkness. With this in mind I would have to describe him in sound - like a constant hum". To me, like the souls of all living things, he belongs to that part of the electromagnetic spectrum. It's the subtle hum of life that is observed only through dedicated listening.

A Closer Winter Tunnel, February - March, 2006
 "I heard myself close my eyes, then open them"
Loys Masson, Icare ou le voyageur

Sound in botanical art

Since that chilly autumnal evening in Chichester I have not stopped thinking about this conundrum and how I ended up, quite unexpectedly, communicating something this profound! I came to realise that at the time I must have felt that did not have the skill to make such an image that could capture something so broad and satisfy so many needs, but  I know that some artists can. I realise everyone has a different take on spiritual matters and so I am not going to go into that, but what I am interested in is if pictures can communicate sound or something beyond the image. For example, when you see a Monet, can you hear a sound? Obviously, not a real sound, but one in your 'being'. It could be a single frequency, or it could be a cacophony but something internal. What do you feel in sensory terms and is what you feel beyond touch, smell and taste? I am particularly interested in this from a botanical art point of view as for me, when a botanical painting is executed incredibly well, I can, on a spiritual level, 'hear' it. The plants sing, there is movement, there is time beyond our sense of it. For example, I am sure many of us would agree that Rory's pictures sing, you might not have noticed it, but there's a frequency there, it is beyond the audible.

Van Gogh Sunflowers - National Portrait Gallery

"Her secret was
Listening to flowers
Wear out their colour"
Noel Bureau, Les mains tendues

In science, we attempt to explain the universe objectively, that is, without a viewer, and therefore in my mind, science fails to explain art or the unique effects artists can synthesise from it. As a scientist, this has always fascinated me because in this day and age this is fundamentally where the pseudo-dichotomy between the two hemispheres begins. During my training I always found science too impersonal and felt that this unnatural treatment of observation was, and will remain to be, its greatest stumbling blocks. However, like in all things there are exceptions to this, for example, Quantum physics is one branch of the sciences where great discoveries are being made. I feel that this is because it focuses on the power of our observation - it is personal. Other pure sciences are more clinical in their approach. In every truly creative idea or discovery it should be noted that there is usually some form of fundamental discontinuity. For great art or science to happen, the methods in which the projection of images and sounds enter an observer need to involve more than basic logic or synergy. 

"You can hear the prattle of the flowers on the screen"
Rene-Guy Cadou, Helene ou le regne vegetal. 

So as botanical illustrators/artists, sitting all over the place on the spectrum of 'science art', from the representationalists right through the stylists, it is important for us to consider our imaginations and how they can always form something that is beyond reason to transport our audiences. We need to remember that our existence and our reactions to it cannot be explained in simple quantitative terms - something I think many of us forget as we try to capture 'form' (see previous blog post where I discuss 'emotion' in botanical art). I believe that it is in understanding this phenomenon that will make our art, in all of its forms, great.                                                    

"I live in the tranquillity of flowers, summer is growing"
Thoreau, Walden.

In her 'background coloured in' pieces, I believe that Margaret Mee was another one of those botanical artists who knew how to paint something could transcend itself by getting us to use our imaginations - playing on our senses to enter something quite primal in our being.


  1. Brilliant and thought provoking post l am a beginner Botanical artist and am pondering what speaks to me and what I can bring to the party. I love the quotes you have used.

    1. Thank you for your comment - I am delighted that you have found this post insightful and that it's got you thinking.

  2. Dear Jessie, I feel the underlying issue for artists who paint plants is how they match their techniques with their motivation. The vast majority of so called 'Botanical Art' is in fact illustration, much of which is enlarged illustration, and certainly not real painting. This type of work is not integrated into the fine art world and not seen as Art with a capital ‘A’, but as illustration that uses the traditional techniques that illustrators use. In the end, I feel that the new ways of understanding and depicting plant life will come from the next generation of painters who don’t depend on tiny brushes and illustration techniques. I suspect they will be freer with all manner or media and have greater spontaneity. The forth coming retrospective of the innovative work of Georgia O’Keeffe is sure to inspire a new generation of artists who have the courage to represent plants in a way that is currently unseen and unexplored.

    1. I think you're right Coral, I guess I feel like I am starting to straddle this line in my own work and might be looking at taking a leap. I have been laid up in bed with a very bad back all Christmas and find my mind wondering as I look a loads of half finished pieces and experiments. I guess I feel that traditional botanical illustration is almost dead and am concerned that there isn't a spokesperson/spokespeople for plants. It's difficult as I feel like my legs are running away with me and this is most probably why I have done my back in. I didn't know there is a retrospective on Georgia - where is that? Hang on, I will have a look online. Thanks Coral!

    2. Just looking over your posts Jess, especially at how it has at times affected your health, please may I say please do take care. Allow the art to bring you health and energy and happiness. Be kind to yourself. Everyone has to find their own way to manage their energy, particularly so when working professionally full-time. Do go gently if you can, as big ideas need a slow and steady construction built on firm foundations and a contented mind.

  3. The Georgia O'Keeffe retrospective will be at Tate Modern during the summer of 2016.
    So far as Scientific Botanical Illustration goes, I feel it will always be there holding the fort, protecting something that is unique that needs to be traditional. For example, the work of Lucy T Smith that is so superlative in quality, will never die. Anyone who has creative and experimental thoughts need not hold back or be held back by other forms of illustration, but should perhaps continue to experiment, to thing big and to make it so.

    1. Thanks for this Coral - will definitely be going to this show! Can't wait. I certainly hear what you are saying. So maybe it is that a new branch of experimental botanical 'art' can be made alongside all other forms? I love Lucy's work and I wouldn't want to see that craft disappear. This is work with a purpose. I guess what I am mulling over is how botanical illustration has become incredibly 'stretched out' as an art form. Unlike most other branches, which sit in an almost unchanging category, the spectrum of botanical illustration/art looks more like a time-line of work that is constantly morphing and evolving, but it does, for the most part, have a purpose. As we know, for the majority of its time it has been something that combines with the scientific – something that props up science, informatively and at times, like in the work of Fitch, glamorise it. I like to think that this is the central core of botanical illustration – art propping up science. We don’t really need the science to do the plate, we draw what we see, but the science appears to need the plate. I find this interesting – it appears that science needs art. We all do.

      Botanical illustration in its most strictest, traditional form will always be there as you say and although I welcome the new branches of botanical art, which is more art-based in its approach, it has, for me lost its context – Macoto Murayama would probably be the exception to this. This is not a problem – as I find this art form mesmerisingly beautiful, but I am trying to think of a way that botanical art still performs its role illustratively but in a very modern way. I suppose I just wanted to encourage people to think about what they are doing. Maybe people do and it is I who enters a dream like state with my work and just paints without thinking about it too much. It’s only about once every year or two do I finally get pushed into an uncomfortable zone where I actually wonder what I am doing. Maybe I am alone in this. Who knows?!

  4. Hi Jess

    I do enjoy your writing but do I want to wave the flag for Science - yes & no ! I see your point & it's not for me to correct you. It is important that we all have our opinions and scientists and science are no different. Yes, modern science is based on objectivity, which enables repetition of practice for comparison. It provides in the main, objective data. It is a TOOL, just as your BRUSHES.

    Given identical data, eminent scientists in all disciplines may frequently draw opposing conclusions due to their interpretation and other tool use. The scientists training is in the use of the tool - objectivity, just as the artist will learn how their many available tools enable them to produce a product. Then with experience and imagination, the creativity and interpretation of both the artist & scientist develop their communication with their audience.

    Why does science need to explain art ? When I look at the fine expanse of structures through an electron microscope, the beauty and wonderment are equal to those of the clear night sky. Does the scale matter, I think not. Is my appreciation determined by my scientific training? It may be, or may not be, as others without that training will also have their own appreciation, or not, just as 2 people looking at the same picture, of any genre, will have their own appreciation/opinion.

    I am perhaps loosing my way, but overall for me, I think we agree, objectivity or not, the best science and art is produced, where emotion is involved.

    I am pleased to see Coral commenting again on your posts and not for the first time is she offering you sound advice on your health, as I too have mentioned your firm foundations.

    Take Care !

    1. Thanks for your lengthy reply Chris - always good to form a debate. I agree with you on a lot of what you have said. Science doesn't need to quantify art; it is just my observation that it can't measure its effects and so comes across as inferior. Science needs art. I used to be a fan of science, it always felt like it provided us with some sort of magical key - a tool - to help understand the world we live in, but sadly for me it has fell short. It's not one big key, it is lots of little keys and you have to find the right one for the job and everything then gets too bitty and disintegrated. It is a tool, like a brush, but I feel the tool is limited. In my training I found that many of my professors discouraged the use of imagination or a dash of creativity. It’s not everyone naturally, but it was clear to me that biological science was becoming incredibly clinical. It’s not a romantic science anymore. It is militant. This is why I separated physics out, because to me, this branch of science still adopts an element of creative thought. This is my personal view of course.

      Furthermore, I was firstly attracted to science through some sort of spiritual conquest, like an alchemist. Science appeared to be magic, but after my training, it really did loose its magical glow. I suppose this of course is inevitable, because as soon as one finds out about something, the magic and wonder is likely to disappear. Like the disenchantment of a rainbow after Newton came along... If anything, I have learnt something about myself in this process, which is I go for things that are unattainable - the things that can't be explained. For example, I want to know how one can make art that 'sings' but without the knowledge of knowing how to. I then begin to wonder if one does actually need the tool and training, or is it something that just comes to you like magic? My gut feeling is that it is magic. Art is so accessible to so many and I still feel very strongly that it is by successfully using the magic of art and our imaginations that will help science to communicate more successfully – to touch more souls and with any luck, in a botanical sense, find a key that transforms mass view on our environment.

  5. I’ve so enjoyed reading these comments from you and Chris, rather like a triangle of views from of the three of us each reflecting a face of the diamond. For me it all comes down to the experience that the artist or the scientist has and what quality they hold within them as a unique individual and how their focus can express what they believe to be observable truth. Observation and beliefs ask to be honoured by the capacity to focus and manage awareness within, and then to activate this by the capacity to follow it through into expression. I have always been interesting in expressing what is observable and yet remains unproven. This is not an easy path, it takes courage and commitment. In some ways people are aware of the magical and yet cannot describe it, but they should be able to describe it in a multiplicity of ways. In the end, for example seeing spirit in plant and mineral life is not difficult, because most people can recognize spirit unconsciously if not consciously. There is none the less understood connection between spirituality and spirit. Spirituality is more difficult for an individual to comprehend and understand because it rests on self-discipline, inner training and development of awareness. The fundamental reality is that everything, like all the facets of the diamond we are reflecting, is connected.

  6. That's rather beautifully and eloquently put Coral. Wish I was as good at writing as you! I think you have hit the nail on the head - it is about awareness. Indeed, a difficult state to achieve and it does require a lot of discipline. Thank you for this, as it has given me some food for thought.

    This is for you too Chris - I read this the other day in Rapid Eye volume 3: "Science, of its very nature, must rule out subjectivity: its function is to observe, not to judge. It is not and must not be concerned with values". I found this interesting because I always felt that traditional botanical illustration was the same thing, it still is - one draws what they see, there is little room for embellishment and the artist has to cross reference with the botanist frequently. So is botanical illustration more of a science than an art and is what I am hoping to do more about art that science? I guess it comes down to what we feel is observation. As Coral touches on, observation might go beyond what one sees with the eye, because of course, what one person sees/feels the other might not. Maybe this is why, as 30 year old, I now find the idea of science so absurd, because in order to observe you need to take into account cultural and personal values, in contradiction to this quote and sciences philosophy. I realise this is getting very long winded, but the philosophy of botanical illustration and art has always fascinated me because I believe it holds a magical key into life as it should be. It is whole, comprehensive and integrated.

  7. Hi Jess

    While I can not match the literary skills of both you and Coral, we do have so much common ground around this discussion, hence Coral's diamond analogy.

    The little keys you describe in science, I think are a result of looking deeper into a problem / situation. Charles Elton was able to look at Ecology, which led to later evangelists / scientists looking at Marine, Freshwater, Terrestrial and smaller branches of Ecology, just as Biologists became Mycologists or Physiologists, Geneticists, Oncologists and more.
    As the search for an understanding continued, the objectivity of investigation was focused on increasingly smaller questions. Some of this guided by professors but also by finance supplies. (in the early 70's I obtained a number of research bench spaces in an equal number of universities, but none were able obtain finance for my proposals - for various reasons I'm sure).
    I wonder too, if relatively, only a few years ago, that chauvinism, even affected the limitations you reflect on. All this said, I return to my earlier comment that be it life science, chemistry or physics - academics provided with the same objective data, may on occasions provide a different conclusion. This then being, their imaginative, creative or spiritual input, based not just on the objective scientific methodology & data but also their experience and beliefs.
    When you discuss that "to observe you need to take into account cultural & personal values" Coral makes the point that this could be unconscious/subconscious. Stars in the night sky, a pollen tube in the style or nucleotides, these are all, integrated, all connected!