Sunday, February 28, 2016

Tips from 2016 RHS Gold Medal Winners - Botanical Art

This is the fourth in a series of posts about tips from RHS Gold Medal winners.

The three previous posts are:

You can also find a summary of the Tips and Techniques - including those from RHS Gold Medal Winners - on my website Botanical art and artists

Where more than one artist provides a tip I don't identify the source by name. Otherwise each tip is identified back to its source.  (GM after the name indicates the individual is a Gold Medal winner.)

Your subject - plants and flowers

Choice of plant

Loving the plant

  • You have to love the plant says Julie Nettleton GM (Australia). Never ever paint a plant because you admire a painting of that plant by another artist, love the plant instead!
  • People love citrus plants says Simonetta Occhipinti GM (Italy) - who painted the citrus trees grown by the Medici family.
The Citrus of the Medici Family by Simonetta Occhipinti GM


  • Research your plant as thoroughly as possible before undertaking fieldwork. That way you can identify the best sites to visit. (Sarah Howard GM)


Two other 'trends' I noticed in the exhibition - relating to "botanical aspects" are as follows:
  • native species - more and more exhibits are highlighting aspects of plants that are native to the area where the artist lives and/or visits regularly. The two exhibits of the twigs and buds of common UK native trees were particularly popular (by Roger Reynolds GM and Sarah Morrish) and both exhibitors were asked lots of questions. The exhibition opened people's eyes to trees they see every day!
  • recording native species which are rare or endangered - This was a repeated observation and practice of a number of artists. There is no need to travel abroad to find plants which need recording!

Preservation of the plant

  • To slow down development and deterioration two options are recommended:
    • Store in a refrigerator overnight to slow down the development of flowers or fruit
    • Keep the stems in iced water while working on on a plant in the studio
  • Drop the bloom into alcohol before it starts to deteriorate. It will preserve the entire structure - including stamens - for reference purposes although the colour will drain away. (Akiko Enokido)
Classical Camellia Japonica by Akiko Enokido 

Preparation and reference material

Working in the field

  • Do lots and lots of sketches before you start to paint. Look at a plant every which way. Make sure you understand the plant from every angle and perspective (Julie Nettleton)
  • If planning to do sketches in a VERY hot climate:
    • prepare beforehand by sketching in a hothouse. You learn what media does and does not work and how long you can keep going! (Sarah Howard GM)
    • hire somebody to hold a big umbrella over you(Sarah Howard GM)
Horn of Africa Aloes by Sarah Howard 

Working in the studio

  • In addition to normal sketches, colour notes and reference photos make a 360 degree video of  the entire plant ("walk your iphone round the plant"). It's a great way of keeping a record of how the entire plant looked from every angle and provides great help resolving any difficulties of interpretation of sketches when it comes to the painting proper.  (Akiko Enokido)

Art Materials


  • There is a marked preference for the heaviest weight watercolour paper - 640 g/m2 / 300lb paper. This is because it does not require stretching and provides added functionality.
  • A significant number of artists told me they worked on Arches Aquarelle HP Paper - using a weight of 640 g/m2 / 300 lb.  This paper is heavy enough to not need stretching. Plus it behaves well and is very forgiving if you use a lot of water. It allows you to use lift out quite easily.
  • Another popular paper was Fabriano Artistico - although choice of white varied between Extra White and Traditional White. Extra White was used by Mariko Aikawa for her Best Exibit of Gold Medal winning Tillandsias and Sarah Howard.
  • Roger Reynolds (UK) recommends Schoellershammer 4G Illustration Board. It's not a watercolour paper. It's used more by people using pen and ink and/or airbrush for detailed illustrations. It requires a small dry brush approach and building up layers slowly if using watercolour.  It generates a relatively bright image.
The Tip of the Branch - four works in the exhibit of native UK trees by Roger Reynolds


  • Sarah Howard GM recommended the use of coloured pencils for making quick colour studies in hot climates
  • Not so much a recommendation so much as a point of informationWinsor & Newton is still being highlighted as the preferred paint by a lot of botanical artists at the RHS. However.....
    • I now always ask if they are working with old stock or with any of the new stock - and it's invariably the case that those expressing a preference for W&N are still working with old stock. 
    • I am getting repeated complaints from lots of artists about the new W&N watercolours. One well know botanical artist highlighted to me at the show that a tube and a pan of the same colour had been bought - and they were completely different colours when used. Another  was vitriolic about Winsor & Newton's Lemon Yellow! 
    • I'm now advising people to try alternative brands alongside W&N when they need to restock so they don't get caught out by any change in quality, consistency or reliability of hue.


  • Winsor & Newton Series 7 Kolinsky Sable and Miniature Brushes remain very popular.
  • Da Vinci Sable (Series 10 and 11) have quite a few fans
  • Julie Nettleton GM is a fan of brushes from L. Cornelissen & Son and loves their online service. She uses sizes 0000 to 1.
  • New brushes mentioned included:
    • Neef Brushes - for those seeking an alternative to sable, Neef handmake superior synthetic brushes in Australia - as used by (Julie Nettleton GM)


  • Esmee Winkel GM uses and recommends Rotring Technical Pens. They're not cheap but they're very good quality and reliable.  She uses the .35mm and .25mm line widths for all her stippling.

Drawing and Painting


  • Make a point of drawing to scale. It's traditional and works well. Only scale up for dissections (Sandra Sanger GM)


  • Plan the complete painting in detail before you start. (Sansanee Deekrajang GMThis is especially true for paintings where different sections will be painted at different times. Sansanee produces very complex paintings and her background in printmaking and etching provided her with excellent skills in thinking about the composition and getting it right before she starts. 
  • Use paint straight from the tube(Sansanee Deekrajang GM) This isn't a normal practice however having seen the impact of Thai artist Sansanee Deekrajang's watercolours of plants in a tropical climate maybe it's time to revisit this one. She keeps her colours very bright by using the colour fresh from the tube, mixing with a tiny amount of water and then applying straight to the painting. Every stroke is completely fresh. There is no mixing.  Judge for yourself.
Four of Sansanee Deekrajang's exhibit of Tropical Climate plants
Painted straight from the tube with a very small amount of water

Pen and Ink

Orchid drawn in pen and ink by Esmee Winkel
Lots of very helpful tips related to working in pen and ink from Esmee Winkel GM
  • Make sure pencil drawings are very accurate and clear about shape form and detail before starting on pen and ink drawings
  • When drawing an outline always draw down not up. Esmee rotates her paper continuously so she can draw a line down and maintain better control.
  • Practice drawing the form in your head before you try to draw it with a pen or pencil.
  • Never work "on auto pilot" - you'll lose track of what you're doing.
  • Avoid getting too close to your work - you need to be able to see the whole all the time.
  • Always use discrete scale bars for every dissection or different aspect being portrayed if a drawing is intended for reproduction  

Achieving the finish

  • Keep going and do not despair. Every long botanical art project has phases when your drawing or painting doesn't look great and you might be tempted to give up - this is normal. However it does get better if you keep going! (Julie Nettleton GM)

Continuously develop your knowledge and skills

  • Don't just go to one teacher - Avoid becoming a "clone". Learn how best to develop as an individual by taking classes with different teachers. (Sandra Sanger GM)
  • Take classes with experts every year. Sandra Sanger has won four RHS Gold Medals and always makes a point of taking a couple of class each year with other expert botanical artists eg Master Classes. She finds she always learns something new. (Sandra Sanger GM)


Sandra Sanger GM - Orchids: Paphiopedilum & Australian Natives

Planning your display

Xanthorrhoea sp., Grass Trees by Julie Nettleton 
  • Plan and design your exhibit as a whole - as well as designing compositions for individual pieces.  (Julie Nettleton GM)  Julie's exhibit tells the story of the life of a grass tress and changes scale between individual works in order to highlight the different features.  Sandra Sanger uses the floor to arrange photographs of the different exhibits and aspects of her display in order to work out how they should be arranged and presented
  • Place an emphasis on the quality of your mounting, presentation and packing. Don't skimp on time for the presentation. (Sandra Sanger GM).  Sandra's framer a hole in foam rubber to create a robust package around her exhibits.
  • Think about how readable your information is. Labels which use small font sizes are much more difficult to read than ones which are larger and better placed for the eyeline of the viewer. The exhibition had some excellent labels which were almost impossible to read (too small / too low) and others which were not quite as well presented but which were read because they used a larger font size! (That's one of mine!)

Fixing exhibits

Some of the exhibits fell down on Thursday. It's to be hoped that they didn't fall down during the judging on Thursday afternoon/early evening!

Here's a couple of good tips for getting the velcro right!
  • Use a template for matching and fixing velcro strips to the wall and the back of your artworks and labels. (Roger Reynolds GM) Roger cut a template the same size as his labels and then cut out a hole of the size required for four strips of velcro in each corner. He uses the template to fix the velcro on the back of the label and then uses it again to fix the velcro on the wall. When he puts the label on the wall the velcro matches exactly.
  • Use extra wide velcro - Sarah Morrish was taking no chances. She used extra wide velcro and attached the first strip right across the back of her work at home so it had time to 'stick' to the back of the backing board before it had to start taking the support of the artwork in the Hall. It also halved the time required for attaching velcro in the Hall! Her exhibit never moved a micron!

and finally......

  • ALWAYS Remember that a great RHS exhibit is almost always the product of a team!

Don't forget you can find out more about botanical art on:

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