Sunday, April 13, 2014

15 Top Tips for presenting work at an RHS Botanical Art Exhibition

There are two important aspects of artwork in the RHS Botanical Art Exhibition - the artwork and its presentation. The latter is very important - as discussed below.

Poor presentation will certainly lose you marks and downgrade the level of medal that might be achieved by the paintings exhibited.

So here are 15 top tips culled from the Gold Medal winning exhibitors this year (and in previous years).

[Note: I've spent the last two days at the RHS Botanical Art Show in the Lindley Hall in Westminster. This is the first of my blog posts about this show.  I've got at least two more planned this coming week relating to More Top Tips for winning an RHS Gold Medal and interviews with all six RHS Gold Medallists.]

Part of the RHS Botanical Art Show 2014

1. Presentation matters

Presentation really matters - a lot! These are the criteria used by the RHS when assessing an exhibit. They include (and I've highlighted in bold) points which are particularly relevant to presentation
B. The following may be regarded as positive features in assessing an exhibit:
  • Good draughtsmanship and, when applicable, good painterly skills
  • That the depiction of plants or plant material is botanically accurate
  • That each picture is well composed
  • That the space allocated in which to hang the pictures is well-filled without being overcrowded
  • That the exhibit has an overall unity
  • That any written information is accurate and well presented and includes the Latin name
  • That any frames, mounts or other accessories used are appropriate in style, scale and condition
  • That the design of the display enhances the appearance of the drawings or paintings
So that's five criteria which are all about matters other than the actual paintings!  It's apparent that the importance of all these criteria is not always appreciated by all exhibitors.

My personal perspective is that I've always maintained that RHS Gold Medal Winners always have excellent presentations.

2. Visit the exhibition

Several botanical artists told me in the last two days how much of a difference it makes actually visiting the exhibition. It helps enormously both from the perspective of the excellence of the botanical artwork on display relative to their own work AND in relation to the presentation.

I'd certainly recommend that all those anticipating submitting for assessment to exhibit should visit a show before they start the work for their own exhibit.

If you can't get to the exhibition, the next best thing is to take a look at my blog posts about my interviews with Hold Medal winners in previous years.  (see below)

3. Measure the Panels

Before you can start to develop your plan for your work, you need to know the size of the panels you have to work on.  Get the dimensions from the RHS.  (Four times Gold Medal winner Julia Trickey GM SBA has also got the dimensions all measured out. One of us needs to give her a nudge to create one of her famous "how to" leaflets - but about displaying botanical art, based on her accumulated wisdom about how to fit it all on to a stand!!)

People are allocated the number of panels needed for their work and people were using between one and three panels at the show this year.
  • Three panels: Gives you more room however you may well find that you can't see all your exhibit at once because of the need to bend the panels to keep them upright. (Take a look at the photo at the top to see what I mean)
  • Three panels: Essential if submitting nine works
  • Two panels: Gives scope for a good presentation if you plan extremely well, your works are not very big and you are not submitting nine works.
  • If you can get everything onto one one panel you're probably either painting too small or your exhibit is a bit too crowded
Three exhibitors display stands - each of three panels
two are exhibiting nine paintings in a portrait format - three per display stand
the one in the middle - which won a Gold Medal for Sharon Tingey
is displaying four landscape format and two portrait format paintings of Helianthus
Note that it's not possible to see all the paintings of any of the displays at the same time.

4. Measure the inside of your portfolio / suitcase / container

This was a tip from one of the exhibitors who wanted to stay anonymous. However I think it is one of the most sensible tips I've ever heard!  Can you imagine what it would be like to do your paintings, get them matted - and then find you've got nothing to take them in?!

Bottom line you need to transport your artwork to the RHS Horticultural Halls in Westminster - and that means they need to go inside something which in effect acts as a limiter on the dimensions of your submission!

You also need to check that the container can cope with the depth and not just the height and the width.

Suitcases are eminently sensible given they accommodate depth more easily, however you do need to measure carefully to check the maximum size they can accommodate.

I've also seen lots of people using the very robust archival cardboard boxes of the type used by photographers for transporting work between studio and exhibition.  This site provides some options relating to robust portfolio boxes for shipping. You just need to ensure that the internal packing is such that artwork does not slide about.

5. Start by deciding the size of the artwork - and the mat

Once you've got your constraints sorted as to dimensions, Nikki Marks tip and strong recommendation was to start the whole process of designing the exhibition with deciding what size of artwork you want to produce.

Her artwork was produced to sit within a consistent square format - see below.

Nikki Marks' Gold Medal winning Exhibition of seven watercolour paintings on two display panels
Note that the format for all the artwork is exactly the same even though the formats of the paintings are slightly different
You can also see how Julia Trickey exhibited six large paintings on two display stands in this post last year - Ten Top Tips for winning an RHS Gold Medal for Botanical Art

6. Plan the exhibit as a whole

This is a tip which comes through again and again from the top botanical artists. However it's one of those messages that not everybody "gets" first time.

So here's what it means
  • think about the composition and impact of the individual paintings as a whole eg
    • how the context of each relates to the others
    • how to balance out any dominant features of the design so we see counterbalance elements within the design of the exhibit
    • where the "look at me" start painting should sit if you have one of those
    • how palette influences which paintings can sit together
    • how to balance out palette across the exhibit
  • do a very accurate plan of what goes where on your display panels - including:
    • your title label 
    • all the artwork
    • all the labels for each artwork
    • any and all supplementary information: e.g. artist details, details about those who collaborated; details of the theme for the exhibition
    • any displays of cards and/or postcards

7. Use an independent person to review

There comes a point when you're just too close to your own ideas and artwork. It's a good idea to get somebody to vet your exhibit
  • once you've worked out a plan for the display - to see if this meets the criteria cited above.
  • the artwork - when completed - to see if any of it needs to be rejected for the final display. In effect you will be judged by all work submitted - and the least good work needs to be removed if it has an adverse impact on the presentation of the whole.

8. Lighten your load - lose the frame

The Regulations for botanical artwork states
Whether the work is shown framed or unframed is again up to the exhibitor but the exhibit must not be a mixture of both. Work should preferably be presented in off-white single mounts and, if framed, in simple light-coloured wooden frames.
The fact of the matter is that:
  • most people exhibit without a frame
  • it's a lot easier to transport work without a frame
  • you simply do not have to frame!
In terms of travel by air, it's probably essential to lose the frame.  In terms of travelling with your artwork across London, life is a lot easier without a frame.  Work which is matted only is also a lot easier to line up dead straight on the panels.

9. Robust mountboard and bevel edges

Note the 3mm foamcore sandwiches between the 1400 micron mountboard.
I saw mountboard which had been badly damaged at the corners. In general this is less likely the thicker the mountboard and/or the thicker the overall artwork - front to back.
  • Standard board thickness for mountboard is 1400 microns (micron = one thousandth of a millimetre).
  • You can however get mountboard in 2000 microns.
You can pack mountboard front and back out with foam core to create a thicker and more robust package.

This is what Nikki Marks' framer did when preparing her Gold Medal winning exhibit. It also gave the effect of a double bevel interior edge on the interior edge next to the image which set off the paintings very well.

Note: If you have the space in your luggage or portfolio, another good tip for protecting corners if are Cardboard Picture Frame Corner Protectors!

While we're on the topic, bevel edges should be the cut used to present the interior edge of your mountboard well.  It's perfectly possible to do this yourself - but you do need a good kit and the correct cutter - and you do need to practice.

Above all you must change the blade on a very regular basis to ensure you are not using a blade which has been dulled while cutting previous boards.

The double bevel edge on Nikki Marks work seemed to have a mount board fillet over the top of the foam core so no foam core showed in the presentation.

10. Use foamcore 

The benefits of using foamcore (USA = foamboard) in your exhibit are that:
  • the artwork is much lighter to transport
  • it helps to make the artwork more robust
However - the use of foamcore as a backboard or part of the mount makes for a much more robust exhibit only if the foam core is thick enough! Thickness are:
  • 3mm
  • 5mm / 3/16ths
  • 1cm - used by Hye Woo Shin

11. Clear neutral acetate with excellent corners

Check out the colour of the proposed acetate in good light before you use it.  One exhibitor discovered too late that her acetate had a slight blue tint - which meant her very white paper did not come across as white.

It's absolutely essential that your use of acetate results in excellent mitring and corner presentation so there are no bumps or bulges.

12. Seal your artwork

A number of artists had completely sealed their work - including Hye Woo Shin, the winner of the Best Exhibit for two years running.

Creating a complete seal ensures the following:
  • the work is safe from the impact of heat and humidity
  • tiny little insects - which tend to abound in areas where there are plants - cannot get into your artwork. On Saturday, some people who had artwork without a seal noticed that small insects had taken up home between the mountboard and backboard of their exhibits where this was neither tight nor sealed.
I'm going to be doing a post about how Hye Woo Shin presents her work. A number of people were intrigued this year and last about her very unusual presentation - as was I. So this year we had a chat - and now I need to do a blog post. However as it requires diagrams it won't be today.

13. Produce excellent labels

The Regulations state
That any written information is accurate and well presented and includes the Latin nameIt's imperative that you get this right, order the names correctly and triple check the spelling! I have heard of people who have missed out on Gold Medals because they didn't get the labelling right.

I'm personally of the view that after judges have checked that you've got the identification and botanical names correct, they like to know a bit more about each plant.

You will need:
  • a label for the name of your exhibit
  • a label explaining the rationale and story behind the exhibit - why you chose the theme, how you approached it, how long it took to do.
  • a label for each artwork - placed where it's easy to read. In my opinion some people had their labels too low.  However this is a judgement call. What I do know is that it's essential to plan the size and placement of your labels when creating the overall plan for the exhibit.
  • a label for details about you - with specific respect to your botanical art.
  • any pricing information for items you are selling
A5 Wall Mounted Clear Plastic Leaflet Holder
by Displays UK
- as used by Louise Lane for large postcards of her exhibits

14. Buy display holders for postcards

A number of exhibitors produce large printed cards and then sell them. For this you need a display tool which needs to be discreet but effective.  Remember the sale of any ancillary material cannot ruin the overall look of the stand!

Louise Lane recommends the perspex card holders (actually made in cast styrene) available from Displays UK.  She used one for large postcards underneath each of her watercolour paintings of Bee Orchids from Menorca.  They were attached to the display panel using stick-on tape by Velcro.

For international exhibitors this is something you could order for delivery to a UK address and then dump at the end as they're not expensive.

15. Sticky Velcro strips work better than double sided tape

Learn to love Velcro stick-on tape (in white)! You can use it for
  • fixing mountboard to backboards
  • fixing backboards to panels 
  • fixing labels to panels
  • fixing postcard holders to panels
It's available in squares, coins, strips, and tapes. Make sure you get the white.

The heat and humidity build-up in the Lindley Hall - particularly on the Saturday - can mean that two sided tape starts to fail. I saw more than on artists' work which was beginning to gape at the sides where the tape was pulling away.  I note that the Velcro stayed stuck whatever!


The next post will be about:
  • either Interviews with this year's Gold Medal winning artiss
  • or More Top Tips for winning an RHS Gold Medal for Botanical Art

More about Botanical Art

A couple of my previous blog posts you might find useful are:
You can find more resources about Botanical Art in my resources for artists websites:


  1. Brilliant post. Thanks Katherine! I was also told that double mounts aren't permitted. I really hope that I can get to see the next exhibition.

  2. It wasn't strictly speaking a double mount in the conventional sense

    I certainly saw a triple mount using thin mountboard!

  3. A very informative post here Katherine - really rather wonderful to read. Thank you for passing on all of the knowledge and experience from previous exhibitors onto us budding ones. Much appreciated.

  4. The way in which you present your work is very important to the public. There are experienced art lovers who may notice all the details, and there also are art amateurs who are looking for the sensation provided by the work of art. For either of them, it is important to have everything well-organized.

  5. @Catherine Hex - this exhibition is a bit different. Here it's very much the case that the artists are trying to present an exhibit which will win them an RHA Gold Medal which will have a significant impact on their career in terms of future opportunities.

    So it's nice for the public - but the first priority is what the assessors from the RHS Picture Committee think!

  6. What a great looking show! I would love to see one myself, but I have no heard of any here in the states. Thanks for the coverage on it.

    ~ Nancy


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