Monday, April 14, 2014

More Top Tips for winning an RHS Gold Medal for Botanical Art

Last year I wrote Ten Top Tips for winning an RHS Gold Medal for Botanical Art - which proved very popular with botanical artists around the world.  So this year I'm back with more Top Tips from this year's "crop" of Gold Medal Winners

Gold Medal winning Exhibit of Parasitic Plants in Situ with the Host Plant by Lynda de Wet
The painting second from left with the red spot was bought for the collection kept at the RHS Lindley Library 
Last year the tips highlighted were as follows

1. Only submit top notch work
2. Find a Helpful Grower
3. Never ever forget that the RHS is a Horticultural Society
4. Get the Botany right - know what to show and highlight
5. Practice to achieve top quality
6. Size your work to fit the Panels
7. Have a good team behind you
8. Take care with your presentation
9. Start very early!
10. You need many more business cards than you think possible!

This year we have some different ones. The quotations you will find in each section come from either the Guidance or the Regulations relating to the Royal Horticultural Society Botanical Art Show held every year in the Lindley Hall.

1. Be happy - do what you love

Işık Güner with her painting of Gunnera which won
Best Painting in RHS Botanical Art Show 2014
This one came from the winner of both a Gold Medal and Best Painting in the show Işık Güner.

She thinks artists can work really long hours on a project when they truly enjoy what they do. Having the right subject can make for a really relaxed and meditative time and really make you happy!

I have to say I'm very much in agreement with this. There has to be an emotional connection between subject, media and artist for an artist to achieve their best work. Plus when tackling a long complex project it's always best if you love your subject!

TIP #1: Truly enjoy what you do

2. Do not rush!

This one is the result of various comments from different people. Some of the exhibits had a long gestation period while artists collected all the material they needed BEFORE they settled down to paint.  They emphasised the real importance and positive impact of very thorough preparation.

EXAMPLE: Isik Guner took three years to prepare her studies and sketches. Nikki Marks took two and half years to complete her project - because of a relatively short flowering period.

The Genus Arisaema - four works in the series by Nikki Marks

By the same token I could also see how somebody who was painting to a high standard suffered because of the relatively short timescale available for the project prior to exhibition. I personally have no doubt there would have been a much better outcome if more time had been available.

So, once assessed and accepted for exhibition, only apply and/or agree to exhibit when you're underway and have a pretty good idea how long each artwork and the staging of them will take.

Also - do not underestimate the time it takes to get the presentation right (see 15 Top Tips for presenting work at an RHS Botanical Art Exhibition)

TIP #2: Don't exhibit too early - outcome is more important than speed.

3. Do your research - ask experts for help

The importance of very thorough research was emphasised by Gold Medallists again and again. 

Louise Lane recommended that you should read and read and read some more - and know everything you need to know about the botany BEFORE you do the fieldwork so you know what to look for and what you are looking at.

Plus more than one Gold Medallist emphasised the importance of getting help from the experts - before you start painting.  Help can come in various ways - but it won't happen unless you ask.

Believe it or not people like being asked to help - particularly if it relates to areas they are expert in. Plus the worst that can happen is that they say 'No'.

This includes not being afraid to approach the author of the authoritative book on your subject matter to check whether your identification of specimens is correct!

TIP #3: Know your plant. Identify the best people - and ask for help

4. Pay attention to the brief

Gold Medals are only awarded to exhibits of outstanding and consistent excellence.
The RHS is very precise - in the Guidelines and Regulations - as to:
  • what they want to see
  • how they assess the exhibit
However I could see exhibits which did not win Gold which I think slightly lost sight of some aspects of the brief. In my view the Gold Medallists are almost invariably people who know the brief backwards and stick to it.

TIP #4:  Read the brief three times before you start. Keep reading it as you progress

5. Selection - avoid the obvious or commonplace

Gold Medals are awarded for all sorts of plants including those which are found in ordinary domestic gardens and the local nursery.
Higher awards tend to be given to exhibits illustrating a particular theme or plant family.
However time and time again I see Gold Medals awarded for plants which are NOT obvious or commonplace.

It reminds me of what I used to be told when doing dissertations for first a degree and then a professional qualification.  It's a LOT more difficult to do well on a subject which many people have done before. The benchmark has been created and you always have to do better. On the other hand, you can be original and innovative when you come up with something that nobody has ever done before before - and automatically you are the benchmark!

Innovation can be around selection - and it can also be around how they are presented.

Part of the Best Exhibit in Show
Hye Woo Shin (Korea) - Heterotrophic Plants in Korea

- such a pity that the stand for the best exhibit in the show was placed in area where the light was poor
This year we had Gold Medals awarded for:
  • two different types of parasitic plants - presented in completely different but advanced ways of documenting their botanical story (by Hye Woo Shin and Lynda de Wet
  • two different suites of paintings based on field trips away from home - to see
    • plants belonging to the woods and forests of Chile (by Işık Güner.) and
    • bee orchids in Menorca - based on studies done in the field (by Louise Lane
  • a project which took nearly three years to collect the plant material around varieties within the Genus Arisaema (by Nikki Marks)
  • and sunflowers from Tesco (by Sharon Tingey) - just to prove that there's always scope for the more accessible but only if done to a very high standard!
So there you are. Your chosen plant might be waiting for you at Tescos - but it's much more likely that you might have to go further afield and spend a lot more time collecting all the plant material you need to make a gold medal exhibit.

TIP #5: Think long and hard before selecting your theme and subject matter. Have you challenged yourself enough?

6. Tell a story

It's always interesting when an exhibit tells a story. A story has a beginning, a middle and an end - pretty much like the life cycle of a plant.

This year the RHS bought a painting for its collection from an artist who told the story of the "The life cycle of Castrospernum australe 'Black bean tree' or Moreton Bay Chestnut".  Not a Gold Medal but certainly something that I'm sure silver-gilt medal winner Penny Price is very proud of.

TIP #6: Find plants with an associated story or show the complete life cycle of one plant

7. Design the exhibit as a whole

This really relates to some of yesterday's tips and the presentation criteria contained in the Regulations

However it was fascinating to see and hear about how artists had made decisions as to where paintings should be placed relative to one another - and how studies made at the beginning and the emerging grand design then influenced the design of each paintings and the emphasis of different parts in different paintings.

TIP #7: Don't paint individual paintings. Plan your entire exhibit and the design of paintings within the design of the exhibit from the beginning

8. Think about the structure of the different elements

B. The following may be regarded as positive features in assessing an exhibit:
  1. Good draughtsmanship and, when applicable, good painterly skills
  2. That the depiction of plants or plant material is botanically accurate
  3. That each picture is well composed
This was a tip which emerged from observation of work by Gold Medal Winning Artists and comparison to those whose work was very good but who had missed out on Gold both this year (and in the past).

Gold Medal winning art is invariably coherent in terms of a theme and really well organised on the page.

 There's a clear and sometimes transparent structure to the layout of the grand design and the individual design of each painting. Examples include:
  • Lynda de Wet had all her botanical elements lined up at the bottom of the painting and grouped according to the multiple used for the scale and magnification.  
  • Louise Lane displayed her sketches and colour studies below each painting to demonstrate:
    • she had made the studies in a specific location
    • what she had recorded during the space of a two week field trip
    • she then displayed her paintings at 10 times scale!
I'd not seen sketches displayed in this way before. The Judges liked them.  There again they did include the colour notes, a detailed measured life size drawing, studies of the plant from every angle, studies of the anatomical structure and annotations plus the location, date, time and GPS location data!

I rather think this will do wonders for the development of sketches as preparatory work....

Orphys Balearica by Louise Lane

This very structured display - in different styles - contrasted with some of the other exhibitors whose botanical dissection studies led a less ordered life.  One silver gilt medal winner discovered during feedback that the RHS only likes to see dissections either vertical or horizontal - definitely not angled at 45 degrees!

I must confess I lean towards the notation indicating the scale multiple as opposed to the line and a length. I find the lines distracting if there are too many of them. They're a bit like writing  - they draw the eye.

TIP #8: Get your 'bits' organised! :) Provide all dissections and studies with a structured design which leads the eye through the painting.

9. Use best quality media

In my experience, botanical artists operating at the top level are always very fussy and particular about the quality of the media they use - as you would expect. After all if there's a good chance your work might end up in the permanent collection of an important art collector or institution you want to use the best!

For the record the count this year amongst the Gold Medal winners is as follows - and some caveats were expressed about possible falling standards


  • M. Graham Watercolors - favoured by Nikki Myers following the move of Winsor & Newton manufacture to France and what she felt was a deterioration in the quality of the paint in relation to colours she uses. She's not alone in making this observation - I've heard it from other artists elsewhere. I now ask artists whether they are using old or new W&N paint. Incidentally, I noted some adverse comments during the day about the new W&N Professional Watercolours and how difficult it is to read the text on the tube due to this being silver.
  • Winsor and Newton Artists Watercolours - favoured by 4 artists - although they seemed to be working for the most part from old stock 
  • Other manufacturers who got a mention were Daniel Smith (Bright Yellow),  Schminke (Brilliant Blue Violet and greens), Sennelier (Tyrian Rose).  
You can read more about Watercolour Paints on my blog and website - see:


It was interesting that heavyweight paper was favoured by at least two of the Gold Medal winners
  • 2 x Fabriano Artistico 300 lb / 640gsm extra white (no stretching required)
  • 2 x Fabriano 5 300 gsm (I had comments from artists about the variability in standards of recent batches of paper)
  • 1 x Arches HP 300gsm

TIP #9: Don't accept less than the best - keep an eye on quality control re. the media you use.

PLUS If you've not yet tried Fabriano Artistico 300lb, now's the time to give it a try.  
You can read more about Fabriano in Fine Art Paper and Vellum for Artists

10. Make more than you need to

You only need to show six artworks - down from the nine required in the past.  Whatever number you plan to show you definitely need to think very seriously about creating more so you can take the best paintings you produced.
Pictures are judged as a complete exhibit so that if one or two works are of a lower standard than the others with which they are shown, the level of award will be affected.
This is because the exhibit will be judged as a whole and the focus will be on the weakest just as much as on the best. Thus the weakest painting may lose you a Gold Medal.

Sharon Tingey and her three of her Gold Medal winning exhibit of Helianthus

Sharon Tingey recommends being totally ruthless and pruning out any which don't meet Gold Medal standard before hanging your exhibit.  She had one which she felt was weaker and she didn't want to allow it to let down her display - so she left it at home and won a Gold Medal instead!

This point also relates to yesterday's TIP 7 - use an independent person to review. Just because a painting has taken you a month to do doesn't mean it has earned its passage to the Lindley Hall. It's easier sometimes to accept this is the case if you get an independent expert to look at your work before you travel to London from both a botanical and artistic perspective.

TIP #10: Maintain high standards right to the end - and eliminate all paintings not up to standard

More about Botanical Art

These are links to previous blog posts and my resources for botanical artists websites.

You can find more resources about Botanical Art in my resources for artists websites:


  1. This is such a very useful and helpful series of posts re exhibiting at the RHS. You are offering a great blend of creative ideas,reportage and common sense. Your well grounded practical considerations balance out creative needs.

    I would perhaps also recommend that prospective exhibitors, when planning to paint something they love and enjoy, find an area of botanical subject matter that can act as a theme for a series of works that offers the judges something unique and interesting to view.

    The botanical art sphere is filled with potential, because there is so much plant life out there that remains unpainted.

    As with all your research Katherine, everything is ordered in such a fabulous way, imparting a spectactlar level of service to your artistic readers. Wonderful.

  2. Many thanks Coral - your comments are always much appreciated.

    I was showing your wonderful lifesize iris and lilium in Shirley Sherwood's collection - as currently seen in 21st century botanical art at Kew Gardens - to my better half yesterday and explaining to him you did them life size.

    At which point it struck me as a pity that the display panels for the show would find it difficult to display wonderful paintings like those.

  3. Yes,it would be wonderful to be able to exhibit larger works at the RHS. It could be that the logistical problems as well as the risks of showing delicate unframed large works on paper might prove to be too high. However, as so many Botanical Artists are now working in a large format, showing large pieces might perhaps become the norm one day.


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