Monday, July 09, 2007

Flowers in Art...and Dame Elizabeth Blackadder RA RSA

Of contemporary artists who paint flowers, one of my favourites is Dame Elizabeth Blackadder - the first woman to be elected to both the Royal Scottish Academy and the Royal Academy.

Her flower paintings tend to be very large watercolours with interesting designs. I have prints of her work hanging to the left of the desk where I'm sitting and in my bedroom.

As she's a living artist I'm limited as to what I can produce by way of images - but you can see her work here:
I've tried to develop a synopsis of her approach for painting flowers - see below.

To do this I've used images of her work (around my home and online) and of her at work, various websites (see links below) and the book I read last week - the Elizabeth Blackadder: The Artist at Work in Her Studio (Royal Academy Masterclass)

This book is a total bargain at £4. For anybody interested in her work, I very much recommend you buy this book as it's rich in content and comment by the artist - it very much lives up to the notion of a masterclass. Plus of course it has a lot of illustrations of her work - including close-ups of her painting as the work progresses. It covers her development of two flower paintings, one in watercolour and the other in oil, an oil painting of an old building in Bologna and two paintings that develop Japanese themes. And yes - Elizabeth Blackadder is yet another artist who has been very much influenced by Japanese art. There is also a DVD/video The Art of Elizabeth Blackadder RA which accompanies the book.

I'm intending to try and develop a work this month which is grounded in the approach the Elizabeth Blackadder adopts - leave a comment below if you want to try doing the same thing.


  • she started with a strong interest in botany and wild flowers. She is also fascinated by botanical painting by people such as Ehret and the Bauer Brothers 
  • she very much likes flowers with a strong structure and particularly likes irises
  • her particular interest is in how people place items on the paper
  • she avoids using photographs on the basis that they create a tendency to try and copy too much
Composition and design
The spaces between flowers and objects are very important to the composition, in fact almost as important as the objects themselves Elizabeth Blackadder Masterclass
  • she starts with an idea but prefers not to plan and to allow the flowers themselves to dictate the design and composition of each piece - how to place them and how to relate one to another
  • she likes to 'grow' a painting - a notion which I particularly relate to in terms of the approach I adopted for the work I produced at the V&A. I can highly recommend it as a very stimulating approach to creating art.
  • she also allows the flowers to progress in form and shape during the work and prefers to leave tulips and irises until they gain a more interesting shape. This means she may paint the same flower more than once during the course of a painting
  • she focuses very much on the negative space (between flowers) when composing her paintings.
  • when painting flowers using watercolour she often leaves the background blank (ie white) or uses a very light wash in the background
  • she seems to only include a table or surface in the painting if she is painting flowers in vases
To me drawing is really important Elizabeth Blackadder Masterclass
  • her emphasis in drawing is to get the character of the flower
  • she almost always draws/paints flowers to their exact size - and photographs show her painting the image right next to the flower which is laid on the paper.
  • she does a certain amount of underdrawing but tries to keep this to a minimum to avoid the work becoming too 'tight' (an artistic euphemisim for 'stiff')
  • she usually uses a soft, soluble pencil but also draws using her paintbrush
Whether I am painting flowers or semi abstract forms I am using colour to create a particular kind of mood Elizabeth Blackadder Masterclass
  • she works on a fairly smooth hard surface paper. (I don't know which but I'm guessing Arches).
  • Images of her work suggest she works with her paper flat on the table and does not stretch or tape it. She says she prefers a paper which is quite heavy and not absorbent. This means the paint lies on top of the paper giving greater detail and a sharper edge.
  • works I've seen in person suggest she very often uses a full sheet of paper and then has it float mounted when framed
  • she uses a variety of brushes - pictures suggest these include Japanese brushes which are used vertically
  • she also uses a big range of colours; when she wants a dark she usually uses black plus a colour
  • she paints wet in wet when she needs colours to blend.
Now I need to go and focus on what I'm going to be producing this month!

Biographical Note

Painter and printmaker Elizabeth Blackadder was born in Falkirk. She studied at Edinburgh College of Art under William Gillies, and lectured at the college from 1962 until her retirement in 1986. In 1956 she married fellow artist John Houston. Blackadder is well known for her delicate paintings of flowers and still life subjects, however, she has also painted landscapes and portraits. She paints with both oils and watercolour, but uses the latter most frequently as it is well suited to conveying her sensitive brushwork. Regular trips abroad, particularly to Japan, helped stimulate her interest in colour and pattern. National Galleries of Scotland.
Elizabeth Blackadder was born in Falkirk in 1931. She studied at studied at Edinburgh University and Edinburgh College of Art under William Gillies from 1949 to 1954, where she also lectured from 1962 until her retirement in 1986. She was elected to full membership of the Royal Scottish Academy (1972) and the Royal Academy as a painter (1976) giving her the honour of being the first woman to achieve this. She has work in the collections a number of museums in the UK and USA (see links below). Interestingly her landscapes, prints and still life work which has been influenced by the orient and Japan in particular and landscapes have been selected by museum collections. Several of her non-floral pieces are now part of the Government Art Collection. Another favourite subject are her cats - which often creep into paintings of flowers! However her floral work is extraordinarily popular with the public, is always very prominent in the Royal Academy Shop and sells well as prints on various online websites!

Elizabeth Blackadder was awarded an OBE 1982 and was then promoted to
Dame in 2003. She also became Scotland's first female "painter laureate" in February 2001.


  1. I like her work very much and have for over 25 years! Glad you've mentioned her--haven't thought about her in ages. Good luck with your own work!

  2. Thanks! Sounds like you found her round about the same time I did.

    It's really nice turning up at the RA Summmer Exhibition each year to see a new set of flowers by her. I'm less keen on her other still life work and get quite fed up if she doesn't have a flower painting on show...


COMMENTS HAVE BEEN OPENED AGAIN for the weekly "Who Painted This" post on a Sunday. Comments are moderated and will only be published once a week on a Sunday.
Please feel free to comment on my Facebook Page as my blog posts are always posted there but please note
1) anonymous comments are NEVER published
2) automated / spam / scam comments are never ever published on this blog
3) I ALWAYS block and report spammers to Google and/or on Facebook