Saturday, June 28, 2014

A Finely Tuned Balance of Intent and Purpose

This post is a thank you and a response to the comment on the previous post, made by Geraldine Mackinnon:

Many thanks for making this point, and perhaps this is an important issue for the younger artists who come to arts education and rightly expect to find some clear and consistent definition of Botanical Art.

The quest to define one’s own art is an individual responsibility. It needs to be carefully thought through and understood, as you are wisely doing. From this point it can grow, develop, and change. 
But what responsibilities are there collectively?

The current issue arising is that the various societies and teachers of techniques that are located around the world are not in unison with their definition of the term Botanical Art.
So, just to make this clear, some see Botanical Art as an overall banner under which many types of styles and commitments exist; others see Botanical Art as a specific style of painting in itself. 

If no overall agreement is consciously made on this Primary definition, then the result is likely to be that the future of this genre will be compromised in terms of art history. If artists and their societies do not make themselves clear, then it will be left to the historians of the future to write books that will define it for them.

I’m suggesting that the term Botanical Art be sustained as a Primary definition.
As a Secondary definition, I feel it is an excellent proposal for all artists in this field to make themselves clear what they do and why – for example, Botanical Illustrator, Conceptual Plant Curator, Flower Painter. This is what many professional artists have already accomplished.

It is vital for an individual artist to link the techniques they use with purpose and meaning of their art. It also provides a catalogue of variation of all manner of unique art practices for both the artist and the art watcher. If Botanical Art becomes defined as only a style of painting for professional painters that focus on painting techniques alone, it will serve a much narrower purpose and be something of a lost opportunity. 

If the opportunity is lost through lack of recognition, Botanical Art might perhaps never shake off the general association with the amateur artist that it has carried for generations.
In short, raising this issue has perhaps brought a point of pressure where all artists who work with plants can be interested and inspired to make their purpose clear, and to become much greater as artists by so doing.

Every artistic work has a meaning however shallow it might appear, even if the meaning remains unconscious in the artist’s mind and is never fully understood.  Techniques are magical in themselves; the practice of them is a gifting when they are used to enable an artistic intention. Younger artists will naturally seek to develop their chosen field, and they need to feel welcomed in this, and free to grow and make changes. Perhaps if the older more empowered artists can come to a clear agreement of what Botanical Art actually means, then the artistic environment will then become a stable one for young artists to develop their art and make their own generational change for the new.

I myself feel that it is best to take the timeline of Botanical Art as a Primary definition because it honours the Plant Kingdom as well as the many kinds of artists that are devoted to working with it. Particularly as some artists work as both illustrators and painters, and labels can be as many and as long and as short as we want them to be. It would never be an uncomfortable situation for a Scientific Illustrator to also work as a Conceptual Plant Sculptor. 

Defining your actual artistic practice opens a door to clarity as some have the capacity to hybridize more than one technique and more than one purpose. There are so many possibilities here too, because artists may choose to redefine themselves with a new name for their style of work. There is no Botanical Art policing that says you have to use the existing terms that others use. If a new name best describes what you do, then give your style of work a new name and work with it. 

If you see others simply being glamour ridden and only concerned with awards, and this competitive attitude disturbs you, then don’t worry – simply be clear to yourself what you want, then just do it. 

The field of Botanical Art as a whole can embrace whatever you want to do as an artist in the plant kingdom. The one clear unification that all Botanical Artists have is that they all serve to enable humanity’s clearer understanding of the Plant Kingdom itself, and this is therefore a kind of very special form of service for an artist to undertake. The chance is there for young artists to take the best of what tradition can offer through the generosity of many exceptional teachers, and the availability of so many exhibitions worldwide. The test for a young artist is to run with what traditions inspire them, and fuse these into the scope of something that is really brand new.

And finally, an enticing thought – I wonder what Maria Sibylla Merian, Joseph Beuys, Mary Grierson, and Michael Landy would say to each other if they had all had the chance to meet? They may have far more in common than we would ever think possible.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Curious Case of the White Background in Botanical Art

A curious occurrence I have recently observed on various artistic blogs and sites, is the definition of Botanical Art as an actual style of painting. This is something I have to disagree with.
As I comprehend it, Botanical Art is an umbrella term that is used to define the current renaissance of all forms of painting and drawing that depict plant life. This may be Botanical Illustration, Flower Painting etc.
I understand Botanical Art as clearly a banner under which many types of art and artists co-exist. This is in fact a subtle and appropriate way of supporting many types of work as valuable, under the one banner. With the rise of this Botanical Art banner, it has become common for the many artists involved to use the title Botanical Artist. 

However, the definition of Botanical Art as an actual and specific style of painting is a contradiction to this umbrella term.
A Flower or Botanical Painter (the operative word being 'Painter') be they an impressionist or realist, will incline toward a very serious concern with the meaning and the philosophy that lies at the heart of their work. This is a complimentary polarity to the scientific aspect of the Illustrator. Both of these practitioners are Botanical Artists if the process can sustain the collective consent of the use of Botanical Art as an umbrella definition.
So we have a crossroads here, and which way will the general consensus travel? 

Do you, dear reader, see Botanical Art as an overall definition, or do you see it as an actual specific style of painting that is different from Flower Painting or Scientific Illustration?
It’s a sobering thought that the general world of fine art and the historians that work therein, generally consider what is described as ‘Botanical Art’ to actually be a form of illustration. This is because, in general, the images are placed on white backgrounds, which make it illustration, by definition.
This is something that Painters can change, by attempting to bring greater philosophical meaning into their work, and by coming to terms with what the white background can represent. Philosophy and meaning are currently very absent, because the focus is generally upon technique, making the works beautiful but often without any serious intent.
I would encourage all those working as a Botanical Artist or more specifically, a Flower Painter, to look deeper into the meaning behind their work, to search within themselves, and to write about what their intentions are and what they see as the philosophical purpose of their work. 

White back grounds have to be reconciled and made real by each individual, if they are to find their place beyond the traditions of illustration and become something more to those who observe their work.

Monday, June 09, 2014

The Quest for Meaning within the Spirit of the Flower and the Root


Iris 'Superstition'                             


Lilium regale                                                                                           

The definitions of Botanical Art are as ephemeral as the shifting sands beneath the ocean. Each individual artist defines Botanical Art through their work, reshapes it and drives it forward both consciously and unconsciously. The work of interested historians has offered many of the explanations required for it to be understood, such as that of Amanda Vickery, who in her BBC4 series The Story of Women in Art included the mysterious and courageous Maria Sibylla Merian. How well she explained the artist and her work in the context of that time.

My individual quest to redefine the work of the Flower Painter has always lived on the far boundaries of what has come to be defined as Botanical Art. This is simply because my work is unusual in that it has always involved meaning and purpose that is philosophical in tone. This is not emotion, nor is it intellect, rather it occupies a space and place that is neutral and beyond the polarities of decorative art and scientific illustration. In an ocean floor that is still shifting, it is an observational understanding of life that I fuse into the observational painting.

For the most part, my teaching career has run parallel with the painting, I have created methods and techniques, some of which have taken many years of experience to achieve. This sometimes leaves other artists bemused as to why I offer solutions so freely. The reply to this is that techniques are the tip of the iceberg, they are the means by which other experiences in creativity are encountered, and they are the means by which actual meaning is accessed. Each technique I create is really not something I claim ownership over, it is in fact something that I feel comes through me and can then be available everyone or anyone who wishes to benefit from it artistically. My teaching is now spontaneously given to those who ask for questions to be answered, and other impromptu talks in faraway places and galleries.

Recently, at the Shirley Sherwood Gallery in Kew, a group of artists asked me questions about techniques and methods, and this was what I was expecting, as no one has ever asked me to explain the meaning behind my work, because most look at it materially as technique. Thereafter, I sat alone on the seat opposite the two large paintings of Iris germanica ‘Superstition’ and Lilium regale, the two 5 feet high life size paintings now on display. 

There then came to sit next to me a girl of about nine years old who sat looking at the two paintings, and writing answers on her paper questionnaire. I asked her what she thought of the pictures and she said Wow, and when I explained that I had painted them, she said Wow again. She then looked at her questionnaire and asked me cheerfully – what do they mean?

I gave her a very simplified but hopefully interesting answer, and she went cheerfully on her way. And I sat there amazed that it was a child who had as last asked me the question I had been waiting for.

For the grown-ups reading this blog, here is the explanation of why these two paintings were created as a pair:

The work offers a connection between two different flowering plants, which represent the past and the future, and chaos and order. The Iris germanica ‘Superstition’ represents the past, the chaos, and the unconscious mind, and the measure of misinformation that the past brings. The Lilium regale represents the future, order, and the conscious mind, and the measure of information that the future brings. These polarities can be read horizontally from left to right and right to left. They can also be read vertically from up to down and down to up. Vertically, the issues awakened are the experience of beauty in the inflorescence, the experience of ugliness in the root system. Each painting also represents the administration of the leaves and stem that symbolically move between the two polarities of the up and the down. In total, the two works are like a map of our human experience symbolised by the layers of the life expressed in the two plants.