Sunday, 9 May 2010

Book review: Botanical Painting with Coloured Pencils

Title:(In the UK) Botanical Painting with Coloured Pencils
(In the USA) Botanical Portraits with Colored Pencils
Author: Ann Swan SBA, GM
Synopsis: This is the first comprehensive guide to using coloured pencils for botanical painting. Ann Swan, an RHS Gold medal winner and one of the top UK coloured pencil artists in this genre, provides a guide to how and why coloured pencils are especially suitable for the accuracy required for botanical illustration. Topics covered include: all aspects of working with coloured pencils, including techniques for underpainting, layering and burnishing and several step by step demonstrations of how to develop artwork and mix and build up colour. Also provided are tips on how to complete a work to exhibition/gallery standard. The book also includes a gallery of artwork by the author, her students and other botanical artists also working in coloured pencils
Summary review: This is the first ever book written by an RHS gold medal winning artist to deal in depth with the execution of botanical art in coloured pencils to exhibition standard. It's an invaluable guide to those wanting to develop their skills in using coloured pencils for botanical art. It's also an extremely useful resource for all coloured pencil artists wanting to achieve the very high standards of execution achieved by both Ann Swan and her students.
  • botanical art basics: a comprehensive overview of the techniques required to record information from live plant material
  • excellent and practical advice on how to photograph a plant to record information
  • detailed advice and information about techniques used to develop artwork
  • very clear step by step demonstrations with good explanations of materials and approaches used
  • particularly good section on small details (hairs, stamens, thorns, roots, tendrils)
  • a really excellent section on finishing touches
  • gallery of coloured pencil work by RHS gold medal winning coloured pencil artists
  • includes around 200 colour illustrations
Think Again?
  • limited review of different brands of coloured pencils for botanical artwork
  • more information about the lightfastness of specific colours would be very useful
  • Ann tends to prefer the 'underdog' in the plant world for her own work - she's less about the popular and floral and more about the plants which don't get enough attention
Who should buy this?:
  • anybody aspiring to win an RHS gold medal for coloured pencil artwork
  • botanical artists wanting to explore a different medium
  • botanical art students and improvers
  • botanical art tutors
  • all coloured pencil artists seeking to improve their knowledge and techniques
Who should not buy this?
  • anybody not interested in plants, flowers or botanical art
  • anybody not wanting to improve their use of coloured pencils
  • UK: Collins 1 April 2009| | ISBN-10: 0007275528 | ISBN-13: 978-0007275526
  • USA: Barron's Educational Series (April 2010) | ISBN-10: 0764169742 | ISBN-13: 978-0764169748
  • Technical data: Hardcover (with dust jacket) - 128 pages;

This book has different titles for the UK and USA markets and I'm not quite sure why they've done that but I guess there must have been a good reason! So
  • if you're in the UK it's Botanical Painting with Coloured (with a 'u') Pencils and
  • if you're in the USA it's Botanical Portraits with Colored (without the 'u') Pencils!
Coloured pencils is a medium which now accounts for something like 10% of all the artwork in the Annual Exhibition of the Society of Botanical Artists in the UK. (seeThe biggest exhibition of coloured pencil artwork in the UK and Botanical art in coloured pencils)

The recent huge increase in such artwork is due to a few artists who have pioneered the use of coloured pencils for artwork which meets the gold medal standard of the Royal Horticultural Society.

Ann Swan has been enormously influential largely due to her teaching activities and her devoted students - many of whom now now have work in the Annual Exhibition of the Society of Botanical Artists and some of whom now have their very own RHS gold medals!

I've tried to sign up for one of Ann's workshops on a number of occasions but they're extremely popular and always booked up months ahead. She's a very experienced tutor and has been been teaching her workshops for over 15 years in the UK and abroad. If you can't get to one of her workshops then I reckon this book has got to be the next best thing.
An invaluable book for all botanical artists wanting to try this medium
Society of Botanical Artists (quoted on the front cover)
This book has been long awaited and it doesn't disappoint - although the content is as one would expect very much influenced by Ann's own personal preferences as a practising artist. Now - down to the details

Overall one needs to remember this book is about to combine two subjects - botanical art and coloured pencils. This means its covers authoritative information about how to tackle botanical art as well as advice and demonstrations about how to develop botanical artwork using coloured pencils. It's the combination of the two approaches which meld to make the excellent quality of Ann's artwork.

Throughout the book there are demonstrations identifying precisely which art materials were used and in what order - plus the details of any other technique used to achieve the overall effect.

Which brand? The first thing you need to know is that Ann favours Faber Castell Polychromos pencils. She highlights how they have a good range of the colours frequently used by botanical artists. However her review of art materials at the beginning of the book includes reference to Sanford Prismacolor and also provides a short overview of other artist brands she is familiar with and provides a brief comment on useful colours. As an artist who is teaching her own personal techniques, Ann needs to be able to use those brands which she prefers to use. This book in no way sets out to be a review of different brands and consequently for me this is a 'need to know' aspect - and I suspect it may well prompt some purchases of Polychromos pencils by those who have not tried them before! The book details a good basic range of Polychromos Pencils.
I like the way Ann's coverage of basics in relation to art materials, equipment and studio leans towards text rather than images because it provides more relevant information!

Recording plant information
Ann starts with a chapter about getting to know your subject. This is an overview of all matters relating to working from life with botanical material - including how to examine the plan structure, record information about the plant and preserve plant material. It's packed full of practical information and tips for working with plant material. For those artists used to working from photos this chapter will be absolutely invaluable. I like the way the emphasis is placed on all the preparation work involved in producing good quality drawings for example - creating tonal studies, colour swatches and colour matching. These are the habits of the experienced and practiced botanical artist the world over and are ones that need to be learned by all artists aspiring to producing prize-winning botanical artwork.

Many works are competent plant portraits, but when we visit an exhibition of botanical art and look around it is usually the interesting, striking or unusual compositions which catch our eye
Ann Swan - in the introduction to Composition and Style chapter
Composition and style This chapter is designed to take people who are competent at producing plant portraits to another level. She's very familiar with all the mistakes people commonly make when creating artwork. This is one of the few coloured pencil art instruction books that I've come across which gives over space to the design of the picture space and pictorial structure and matching both the the characteristics of your subject matter (in this case the plant material). I'm always amazed at how botanical artists manage to combine botanical accuracy with pleasing design and this chapter goes a very long way to explaining how. It's good to see Ann tackling the principles and elements of good composition in turn - while providing advice about how relevant and important each aspect is for the botanical artist. I liked the way she emphasised the psycholigical and mood aspects of design and composition - an aspect which I guess would not occur to most of us as being relevant to botanical art.

The commentary on how design and composition has changed over time is also very useful. (Incidentally, you can find websites I've created about the artists she mentions - containing links to information about the artists and their artwork - in A Compendium of Botanical Art)

Basic Pencil Techniques covers line drawing and the achievement of tonal contrast using monochrome media. She starts with monochrome work in pencil - and you very quickly begin to get a sense of the quality of work which can be achieved. Ann provides tips on how to work on pieces which may take a long time and techniques involving erasers, incising and underpainting graphite.

Coloured Pencil Techniques relate to layering, burnishing and underpainting and she provides clear explanations and images detailing how these work. (Speaking personally I was very grateful to learn that she considers Lascaux to be workable Fixative as I've never been sure!) I was fascinated to learn that one can underpaint with Faber Castell brush pens or Prismacolor felt tips to achieve much more saturated colour as I'd never considered doing this. (However using media such as this would render a work inadmissable to the Annual exhibitions of UKCPS or CPSA).

Her chapter on Colour very much focuses on the colours which are much used by botanical artists - particularly the greens! I'd have liked to see more focus on which greens were best in lightfastness terms as greens can be a bit of a problem due to some of the yellow and blue pigments used in the mix. I finally found an explanation for why layering dark colours over light colours can be more problematic than the other way round - and you'll need to buy yhr book to find out why! She provides very clear advice about what order to layer colours. She's also very good on how to tackle flowers which are light colours or white and prevent them from looking grey.

The Chapter on Small Details is to my mind one of the most valuable in the book for beginners and improvers. One of the things I found very useful was the detailed instructions for how exactly Ann gets the degree of finish in relation to specific aspects. One of the parts of the book which I read first was the one on how to achieve hairs on a sunflower bud! Ann is very obviously an expert at incising!

The best chapter in the whole book for me was the one on Finishing Touches - what you need to do to make your artwork look special in an exhibition. Particularly useful is the explanation of the different methods for sharpening up edges and removing unwanted marks. She then goes on to explain about signatures, storage, mounting and framing and presentation. I have to tell you Ann's own artwork always looks top notch and this chapter demonstrates why.

The book finishes with:
  • a gallery of artwork by fellow coloured pencil artists - including work by Diane Gould, Hilary Buckley, Susan Vize, MMaggie Hatherley Champ, Janie Gildown (stunning work!), Susan Rubin, Brenda B Green, Libby Kyer, Janie Pirie, Susan Christopher Coulson, Sylvia Sutton, Rachel Munn, Susan Martin and Janet Wilkinson
  • a summary checklist of tips
  • recommended stockists, societies, botanical art collections and gardens
Note: This book was sent to me to review by the author/publisher

Links: You can read more about:
Learn about the best botanical art and botanical illustration books. Includes reviews of

  • botanical art instruction books - for those wanting to develop their skills and
  • books about famous botanical artists and painters of flowers in the past and present.


    renatabarillipainter said...

    Since I was studing for my SBA assignment in coloured pencils in 2005 ,I found out Ann Sawn artist and look her weeb syte.
    I was surprise as it was the only artist to put few teacing instruction in her cyto. This means she is always for the botanical artist improving.
    So I learnt something indirectly from her.
    I do appreciate her very much and thanks to you to let me know this new book I'm going to purchase.
    RenataBarilli DipSba

    dougm said...

    I love your review and agree with it. Overall, it is a great book.

    As to the title differences, I wonder if most Americans don't consider it painting with colored pencil. I know that they keep making the point in the botanical illustration classes I've been taking that colored pencil IS painting.

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