Thursday, 15 April 2010

Book Review: Botanical Sketchbook

Botanical Sketchbook by Mary Ann Scott with Margaret Stevens

Title: Botanical Sketchbook
Synopsis: This book will provide inspiration to all those who aspire to become botanical artists. It is a record of one woman's development into a successful botanical artist. As part of the Distance Learning Diploma Course run by the Society of Botanical Artists, students are required to keep a sketchbook. The one kept by Mary Ann Scott was exceptional and prompted the idea for this book. Her book covers the exercises, colour charts and basic preparatory work for each assignment, plus the three works for her final portfolio.
Summary review: This book provides a masterclass for all aspiring botanical artists and is highly recommended. It will become an essential buy for all students of the Society of Botanical Artist's Diploma in Botanical illustration. It's also a recommended buy for all other aspiring botanical art students and artists and many of their tutors. It provides an excellent benchmark for the standard of botanical illustration and painting which can be achieved by an exceptional student. It also tells the story of how such excellence can be developed - through much practice and intelligent use of the botanical sketchbook.

Read an interview with the author of Botanical Sketchbook - A Making A Mark Interview with Mary Ann Scott
  • the story of studying for a Diploma in Botanical Illustration - with a chapter for each assignment
  • provides a students perspective on completing the Diploma
  • provides an insight into what is taught and what tutors are looking for
  • demonstrates the qualities of character required for botanical art as well as artistic skills
  • lots of practical botanical art tips
  • particularly helpful for watercolour artists - colour charts and colour mixing swatches permeate this book
  • very well produced - the stand of colour reproduction of the illustrations is excellent
  • provides a practical benchmark for all students of botanical art and their tutors
Think Again?

  • while the book outlines the assignments it doesn't contain all the material provided for Diploma students. This is only accessible by enrolled students or by visitors to the Annual Exhibition of the SBA.
Who should buy this?:
  • actual and potential students of the Diploma in Botanical Illustration run by the Society of Botanical Artists
  • aspiring botanical artists
  • botanical artists who want to improve their work
  • botanical art tutors
Who should not buy this?
  • anybody not interested in botanical art
Author / (Publisher) Mary Ann Scott with Margaret Stevens (in association woith the Society of Botanical Artists) / Batsford - Anova Books
Technical data: Publication Date: April 2010
Hardcover (with dust jacket) - 128 pages;

I was told the story of how this book came about by Margaret Stevens, the President of the Society of Botanical Artists last year at the Annual Exhibition when we were talking about the work of the artists studying for the the Distance Learning Diploma Course in Botanical Illustration (see A Making A Mark Interview with Margaret Stevens). I've been really keen to see it ever since.

In brief, the assignments and sketchbook of one student from the January 2006 intake impressed a lot of the tutors and it was felt that this could work well as a book and a learning tool for all students of botanical illustration.

Tomorrow I'm going to be including an interview with Mary Ann Scott, the student and now author of this book, as a post on Making A Mark - so will focus in this post on the book itself rather than how it came about. Mary Ann received a Diploma with Distinction on the Distance Learning Course run by the Society of Botanical Artists and became a full member in 2009.

The book is a form of journal of the efforts of one Student completing assignments for the Society of Botanical Artists' Diploma in Botanical Illustration. In my view this book is very definitely a "MUST BUY" for every Diploma student AND every individual contemplating doing the Diploma. This is because it contains:
  • a record of every single assignment
  • Mary Ann Scott's account of how she tackled each assignment - including all her sketchbook preparation in terms of studies and working drawings plus the final work submitted for the assignment
  • comments from Margaret Stevens - introducing the nature and purpose of each assignment and commenting on the feedback Mary Ann received for each assignment
It's the perfect complement for the two books previously produced in association with the Society of Botanical artists:
If anybody wants to know the sort of standard of painting which can be achieved by somebody doing the Diploma this is the book to buy. It also acts as an excellent reference work for any botanical art tutor wanting to demonstrate to their students what sort of standard can be achieved by an exceptional student.

Most botanical art students will be familiar with the notions that to achieve an excellent standard in botanical art, it's essential to acquire knowledge (about botany and how to draw and paint) and develop various competences in the skills required.

What might be less apparent to some are the qualities of character which are also critical and thse are also highlighted in this book. Qualities of patience, discipline and application to practising and a willngness to explore and experiement are vitally important. An acceptance that not everything turns out right first time and the fortitude to be be willing to pick yourself up and try again are also very helpful.

I particularly loved all the experiements with colour in the margins of the sketchbook and all the careful annotations as to which colours have been used.

What's hugely valuable is the analysis of all the ways in which a student can get lost in and distracted by a plant while attempting to draw its structure - and the need to develop strategies to deal with this

I also found Margaret's comments to be very helpful. The emphasis on the importance of using a sketchbook and the need to get a good grounding in the basics before proceeding to what I always think of as 'the flowery bit' is invaluable to all those looking for quick results.

I also enjoyed seeing how Mary Ann approached the task of composing her work on the page for the assignments where skills in composition all counted for marks awarded.

I think all watercolour artists will enjoy Mary Ann's constant attention to how to get the colour right and her colour mixes which are found throughout the book - annotated with her code for the product names (which can be found in the appendix) along with notes of her favourite colours.

This book is a perfect complement for the two books previously produced in association with the Society of Botanical artists and is HIGHLY RECOMMENDED by me.

Links: Amazon - Botanical Sketchbook by Mary Ann Scott
Note: This book was sent to me to review by the author/publisher
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.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Book Review: Botany for the Artist

Title: Botany for the Artist: An Inspirational Guide to Drawing Plants
Synopsis: The emphasis of this book is on understanding the botany of plants and their different parts - roots, stems, leaves, flowers, fruits, cones and seeds - and how to draw the botanical aspects of plants. Its focus is on finding ways to unpick and illustrate the functionality of the plant - how it's constructed and how it works.
Summary review: HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. I value the fact this book is written by an artist, writer and lecturer who is an expert in drawing and communicating rather than a botanical artist. It means she brings a fresh and expert eye to the challenge of how to draw plants from a botanical perspective and an excellent approach to communicating the key messages. The quality of the text and illustrations is first class and the whole book provides a fresh perspective on botany for the artist while losing none of the fundamental and enduring truths of what's required of botanical illustration.
  • a fascinating introduction to how drawing plants developed across the centuries
  • excellent drawings of many different aspects of plants and different plant families
  • absolutely awesome photography of plants
  • very useful overview of media and materials used - highlighting some which may be unfamiliar to botanical artists
  • covers approaches for beginning a drawing as well as completed drawings
  • demonstrates how to convert a pencil drawing into an ink drawing
  • lots of practical tips for keeping speciments fresh and how plants behave when being drawn....
  • lots more tips about drawing!
  • master classes provide a valuable insight into very impressive examples of historical botanical art
  • conventional structure with a fresh approach to visualisation
  • precise and concise text which covers the 'need to know' facts to do with botanical differentiation and the naming of parts
Think Again?
  • at £25 (in the bookshops) this book is not cheap, However this book is actually amazing value given its contents and you can be sure it will retain its value over time. ( already quotes second hand copies of this one at $87.80!)
  • this is NOT a 'how to paint' book
  • make sure you have clean dry hands before touching the black backgrounds to the photos as fingertips show up very easily
Who should buy this?:
  • botanical artists
  • botanical art students
  • teachers of botanical art
  • floral painters
  • natural history painters
  • anybody who likes drawing and nature
  • anybody investing in good quality botanical art books
Who should not buy this?
  • painters who don't have any affinity with the natural plant world
Author / (Publisher) Sarah Simblet / Dorling Kindersley
Technical data: Publication Date: February 2010
Hardcover (with dust jacket) - 256 pages; Full retail price £25

An inspirational guide to drawing plants. An intimate understanding of botany will help any artist create vibrant and realistic art. Sarah Simblet's masterclass provides you with an awareness and appreciation of plants and flowers and shows how to apply that knowledge to your art. Covering every type of plant, from the tiniest mosses and lichens to sumptuous flowers and trees, Sarah shows how to evoke their beauty on your canvas or page. Drawing on the rich history of botanic art and combined with Sarah's practical drawing classes, over 350 beautiful illustrations and vivid photographs, provide an in-depth look at roots, stems, leaves, flowers and fruits and explain how to create life-like drawings. For anyone wishing to master the art of drawing plants or for all those passionate about plants and how they are portrayed in art.
Publishers's description

This is a glorious book - full of excellent drawings and photographs of every aspect of plants and flowers. Anybody wanting to know more about the botanical aspects of drawing plants will value it and its structured approach to dealing with all the different parts of various plant families.

Sarah Simblet is an accomplished artist, writer and freelance lecturer in drawing. I've bought her books, listened to her lectures and taken classes with her at the National Gallery in London and she is one of the most impressive artists and teachers that I know. She also teaches drawing at the University of Oxford where she is a member of Ruskin College. Although not a botanical artist per se she has a lifelong passion for plants, gardening and natural history. The last course I did with her was about Drawing Trees!

The book has been produced with the help of Sam Scott-Hunter who has produced some wonderful photographs and Stephen Harris who has acted as the botanical adviser. (He's Curator of the Oxford University Herbaria)

The book follows a conventional structure of starting with media and materials and approaches to drawing before focusing on very specific aspects of botany. Each section contains at least one Masterclass which demonstrates what can be accomplished. What I loved about this book is that there was absolutely no sense of 'same old same old'. Every aspect of this book brings a fresh perspective from the way it is written and illustrated to the excellent material it accesses to illustrate points.

The wonderful thing about Dorling Kindersley books is that they are always incredibly attractive from a visual perspective and this book is no exception. It immerses you in images of the natural world of plants which really stimulate the eye and lead you into every arc and angle of the plants.

The history of drawing plants

She introduces some of the key figures in the history of botanical art (eg Basilius Besler, Ferdinand Bauer, Georg Ehret, Sydney Parkinson) and some I'd not come across before! I loved the little bits of detail she includes about the reality of drawing plants which were botanical finds at the time. It's just worlds away from the contemporary botanical artist's studio - although those who draw and paint in the wild will appreciate the comment below!
Banks wrote in tahiti "a mosquito net covers chairs, painter and drawings, but even that is not sufficient....flies eat the painter's colours off the paper as fast as they can be laid on"
She also covers how artists from different cultures and periods of history have chosen to record and draw and paint plants. One tends to forget that the conventional 'botanical art' approach is not the only way to record a plant for posterity.

Drawing Plants

This is a book by somebody who is an expert in drawing and consequently a lot of the emphasis is on creating an accurate drawing rather than how to paint flowers using watercolours. What this means is that we get detailed explanations about how to convert a pencil drawing into a pen and ink drawing - which is an aspect I've often not found in a number of 'how to' botanical art instruction books.

I liked her emphasis on making use of the herbaria to obtain specimens. She highlights how the Oxford University Herbaria is open by appointment to everyone with an interest in plants. What I discovered as a result of reading this book is that Oxford University also has The Virtual Field Herbarium - which is a whole other topic (and will be the subject of another post elsewhere on my main blog)

She has a wonderful talent for making botanically accurate drawings which are also very attractive. It's interesting to note a drawing of a branch of blackberry by Leonardo da Vinci which is included in one of the masterclasses which has many similarities to the style of drawing adopted by Ms Simblet. She's certainly at her best when unravelling a very complex plant.

There are hundreds of accomplished drawings in this book which capture the character of the plant as if in its natural habitat - which is of course how it should be! There are fewer paintings and that's fine because (a) I don't feel her watercolour painting is a particular strength (when compared to the standards of the best botanical artists) and (b) this is NOT a 'how to paint' book and there are other books which cover this aspect much better.

Systematic analysis

Each aspect (eg compound leaves, inflorescences etc) are tackled in a systematic way so that one sees a variety of examples of the way plants can present themselves. It's highly instructive in this respect - I saw connections between plants which had never struck me before. It's also fascinating to see the drawings next to tiny versions of the botanists symbolic drawings for eg inflorescences. I never knew there were so many and I certainly did not know all their names Now I'll know a compound corymb next time I see one!

For those wanting to really get to grips with the different technical parts and names of of plants for botanical illustration this book will prove to be an extremely useful reference due to the systematic annotation with names of many of the drawings.

The text in each section is precise and concise and a little dense to read. However this is not a book designed to be read at one sitting. Many will just gaze at the drawings and the photographs for a long time before starting to read the text.


I particularly liked the approach used for the masterclasses which include very impressive examples of botanical art both contemporary and historical. Many of the examples of historical botanical art are ones I'd never seen before (and I have many books about the history of botanical art). They include paintings by Maria Sibylla Merian, Mark Catesby and other well known names. I also liked the way Sarah identifies (with magnification) how the artist tackled specific aspects of painting the specimen - which is not something often seen in books about the history of botanical art. The contemporary artists - and again these feature people who often have not described their approach to painting before - explain how they tackled the specimen piece.

Drawing Classes

These are used to focus on particular aspects of 'how to draw'. These typically take one topic and expand on how to tackle the subject matter to achieve the best effects.

Photographing botany - Sam Scott-Hunter

A special mention must go to the quite spectacular photographs of plants by Sam Scott-Hunter. (You can see examples in the Botany I and Botany II galleries on his website) For those of us who love photographing plants nearly as much as drawing them this book is a very real pleasure and provides an intense stimulus to improve our photography!

My only caveat about this book is that given Sarah's lack of credentials in this particular field (similar books are frequently written by RHS gold medallists and/or members of botanical art societies or florilegium societies) it would have been great to have seem an endorsement by the RHS or similar as to the approach contained in the book.

For me this book highlights and expands upon Albrecht Durer's Great piece of turf. It's quite something when you look at this at the end of reading this book and realise that it's actually very simple when compared to some of the plants illustrated in this book. When you begin to realise that virtually all the drawings are in ink it really makes you realise what a labour of love this book must have been

This book sits somewhere inbetween The Art of Plant Evolution and Valerie Oxley's Botanical Illustration and it's highly recommended by me.

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.

Saturday, 10 April 2010

The buying habits of fine artists - in the UK

How does your buying behaviour compare to fine artists in UK? Did you know that nearly 75% of artists responding to this poll buy online on a regular basis?

I've been running a poll on my information site Art Supplies in the UK - Resources for Artists since November 2007. The above chart shows you how people buy art materials in the UK. (Click the pic to see a bigger version or visit my information site)

Based on 86 responses - and in order of magnitude - the results are as follows (percentages are rounded):
  • 31% buy most of their art supplied online - spreading their custom around and doing business with reliable suppliers who offer great deals
  • another 31% have no particular preference and buy online and from their local art shop - choosing whoever can serve them better for their particular requirements
  • 26% are happy to do all their business with just one supplier
    • 16% have a great local art shop and are happy to do all their shopping there because it has a great range and good stock levels. Great art shops don't do one or the other - they do both!
    • just over 10% of fine artists are happy to deal with just one online supplier - who fulfills all their needs in a timely way
  • The UK fine artist appears to have little love for B&M art shops which don't offer a good service. Only 10% choose to do all their shopping in the high street despite the fact that some local art shops do not provide a great service.
    • 7% are prepared to shop locally even though the range of goods on offer may be limited and occasional stock-outs.
    • over 3% of people are averse to shopping on the internet and continue to shop locally despite major problems with what's available

The bottom line

When compared to the fine artists in the USA (see The buying habits of fine artists - in the USA), my own conclusions from the above is that
  • UK artists are slightly more likely to buy online than artists in the USA. 73.3% compared to 70% of USA artosts buy online
  • UK artists are discriminating and tend to spend their money with suppliers who deliver a good service. Although artists are happy to buy online, excellent local art shops still have an edge over excellent online suppliers if these are available to artists. I know I always oprefer to handle art supplies if at all possible and am prepared to pay the cost for doing that. However once I know my product well I may well order it online if supplies are available and the delivery service is good. My choice was the buy online and from my local art shop - however I always promote good local art shops.
  • UK artists use websites to shop around between different online suppliers. The message for online suppliers has to be that paying attention to the design and accessibility of their website could well prove to be a cost-effective measure. Anything which makes the information that artists want to know more accessible is likely to get returning buyers. Speaking personally, the websites I tend to look at are the ones which I know have got a good structure which is easy to navigate and good quality information about what is on offer.
If you'd like to take a poll just click this link to go straight to the poll

If you've got any comments - either as a retailer or an artist - do please leave a comment below (and please say which you are).

and finally......

If you'd like to see the inside of some excellent and traditional art shops in London and Paris try a virtual visit to see the slideshows on my information site My Favourite Art Shops - Resources for Artists which has just been awarded a purple star for excellence by Squidoo
My Favourite Art Shops - Resources for Artists
As more and more sales move online, it's crucial that all artists continue to patronise and support our favourite 'bricks and mortar' art shops in our towns and cities. These are where we can find the specialist art materials which can be impossible to find online. This site contains:
(1) reviews of favourite art shops
(2) photographs of what they look inside
(3) details of how to find them.

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

The buying habits of fine artists - in the USA

How does your buying behaviour compare to fine artists in USA? Did you know that
  • 99% of fine artists are willing to buy art supplies online
  • 70% actually do buy online on a regular basis.

I've been running a poll on my information site Art Supplies in the USA - Resources for Artists since November 2007. The above chart shows you how people buy art materials in the USA. (Click the pic to see a bigger version or visit my information site)

Based on 78 responses - and in order of magnitude - the results are as follows (percentages are rounded):
  • one third of fine artists (33%) prefer to go with whichever art materials supplier serves them best - they're neither wedded to their online supplier or their local art materials store. This figure is very similar to that experienced in the UK and suggests that around a third of the market is always going to be looking across the whole art economy of B&M and online art stores for their supplies and deals. These are the people who are going to be sensitive to aspects of online supply such as: ease of finding a product on the website; product pricing and delivery time and charges levied. In relation to the B&M supplier the issues are likely to revolve around whether items required are stocked, price points and urgency of need. In relation to both sets of suppliers artists may bring their custom for a sale but the really critical question is whether they come back and become a regular customer on a routine basis.
  • 24% prefer to shop online and are price and customer service sensitive. They always spread their custom around a range of online suppliers of art materials. Essentially they give their custom to whoever gives them the best overall deal. However all suppliers should note that this level is lower than that experienced in the UK.
  • Artists in the USA are much more tolerant of a poor customer service compared to the UK. 15% buy at the local art shop despite some problems in supply eg even if it has a limited range and occasional stockouts. This is significantly different to behaviour in the UK. I began to wonder whether distance between art shops might have anything to do with this. Some people will not buy online whatever and consequently will buy from a local store even if it's not providing the greatest service....
  • ....however in the USA this only 1% buy at their local art shop because they don't like internet shopping. That says an awful lot about how online shopping for art supplies is now completely rooted in the American mindset as a normal fact of life. It's a message that all B&M retailers need to take to heart - and their business plans.
  • By way of contrast some 14% are very happy to buy at their local art store BECAUSE it has a great range and good stock levels. This level is pretty much the same as experienced in the UK. Local art stores providing an excellent service can only be certain of capturing most of the purchases of around 15% of the the buying power of fine artists who live locally
  • 11% buy all their art supplies from one online supplier who serves all their needs. This is the customer who is like gold dust to online suppliers - a dedicated buyer who keeps coming back!
The bottom line

My own conclusions from the above is that
  • USA artists are more likely to support their local store and less likely to move all their purchasing online based on a parallel but identical poll in relation to UK suppliers
  • neither online supplier nor B&M retailer can be certain of the custom they will continue to attract. Consequently both sets of suppliers of art materials need to be working hard all the time to provide the best service and the best prices they can possibly offer. Artists continue to support their local art shops but 99% are also very willing to buy online if what they want is available at a reasonable price and can deliver when they need it - even if they don't do so right now
The latter conclusion is good news for all fine artists because the good suppliers are going to be working very hard to give you the best deal in terms of product, price and overall service.

If you'd like to take a poll just click this link to go straight to the poll

If you've got any comments - either as a retailer or an artist - do please leave a comment below.

Tomorrow I'll reveal the buying habits of fine artists in the UK!
My Favourite Art Shops - Resources for Artists
As more and more sales move online, it's crucial that all artists continue to patronise and support our favourite 'bricks and mortar' art shops in our towns and cities. These are where we can find the specialist art materials which can be impossible to find online. This site contains:
(1) reviews of favourite art shops
(2) photographs of what they look inside
(3) details of how to find them.

Monday, 5 April 2010

Updating Coloured Pencils

I've been updating my information site Coloured Pencils - Resources for Artists and creating separate modules for all the different manufacturers.

I cannot tell you how tired I got of manufacturers whose websites don't have absolutely basic information for a commercial website - like a page title and a page description set up within the code for the site. How on earth they ever get found on the internet is beyond me - because this is the MOST important information on any web page.

The only manufacturer which distinguished itself was Caran d'Ache which had paid attention to the detail that matters on websites.

Others didn't even have separate pages for the individual product brand names. Websites aren't expensive so this approach to marketing leaves me speechless - so I'm not telling who - but you'll be able to guess when you start to look at the new modules (on for each manufacturer)! ;)

Other information missing includes:
  • colour charts (Derwent gets full marks here for having a link on the individual page for each brand- and it gives their lightfastness assessments)
  • lightfastness ratings - there's a lot of silence on this point! I wonder why...........
The update was prompted by somebody telling me recently that Sanford had eliminated its lightfast range - and lo and behold I find a new website (with a new website address for the product information - which leaves me wondering how many other people have links pointing to a webpage which doesn't exist!) and absolutely no information about where the the 'new' lightfast pencils are or the lightfastness of any the Sanford pencil products. I think the poll on my website might provide part of the explanation.....

It also appears as if the USA is now not getting all the brands of European pencils which are available. They've not been discontinued - you've just not got them!

I am however very impressed with the Prismacolor Digital Color Coordinator which is a really useful innovation on their new website. All you have to do is choose a colour or enter a colour value to view the closest-matching Prismacolor products. If you choose a colour it gives you the CMYK and RGB profiles.

Coloured Pencils - Resources for Artists
Find out about coloured pencils. This leading resource has information for everybody from experienced artists to beginners wanting to learn all they can. Topics include
  • tips and techniques for working with coloured pencils,
  • information about coloured pencil brands and associated products (CHECK OUT the poll - find out which make of artist grade coloured pencils is the favourite.)
  • coloured pencil societies,
  • coloured pencil artists and
  • forums where you can discuss coloured pencil matters with artists working in coloured pencils

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