Sunday, April 13, 2014

The art of the garden - feature on botanical artist Katharine Amies

SOMEWHERE deep in the woods of Snelsmore Common is a haven of tranquility: a light and airy kitchen where hours pass like minutes and creations of breathtaking beauty can be inspired by from something as apparently mundane as a root vegetable.

But these vegetables aren’t for eating, they are for celebrating in their raw state, to be captured on paper, frozen in time - and no; I’m not talking about potato printing: for this is the home of botanical artist Katharine Amies. Botanical art dates back hundreds of years, flourishing in the 17th century when it became a way of portraying and disseminating the beauty and novelty of plants brought back from Britain’s new colonies. It continued to be popular for the next two centuries, with detailed drawings and paintings of flowers, fruit, vegetables and other plants being used to illustrate flora field guides, catalogues and magazines.

The advent and advancement of photography has not made the skill of the botanical artist redundant, as the careful observation and detailed capturing of each subject brings it to life with a vibrancy and realism that somehow a camera could never capture. Amies has on display in her kitchen a line drawing of a pineapple which bristles with an micro-authentic hyper-reality that can only come from careful observation and the most delicate of pencil strokes building up layer upon layer of carbon to create three-dimensional depth and shadow.

As passionate about teaching the skill of botanical art to others as practising it herself, Amies has started holding workshops at her home, with the mantra that anyone can learn how to draw and paint, as long as they are taught well.

Attending a day’s session on painting summer flowers, I was worried that my extremely rusty pre-GCSE standard painting skills and frankly embarrassing drawing ability wouldn’t stand up to such a meticulous and detailed art form, but Amies’ explanation that botanical painting is as much a science as an art soon put me at my ease.

“Basically, if you follow the rules, concentrate, and don’t rush, there’s no reason why you can’t do it. It’s so prescriptive that if you do what I tell you, you will get a result that you can take home and be proud of. Most people who come on my courses are like you - they haven’t painted since school, and they are really pleasantly surprised by what they can achieve in a few hours.”

Amies herself discovered botanical painting after a few false starts at finding her creative forte almost put her off art for good. “I always loved drawing beetles, bugs and detailed things, but I didn’t really get on with art at school - it all seemed to be a bit vague, about ‘expressing yourself’, and that wasn’t up my street. Later on I went on a watercolour landscape weekend, but that didn't suit me either - again, I wasn’t given enough direction for my liking. I studied languages at university, and got a job in fashion retail marketing, so art didn’t feature in my life for a long time after that. 

“Then, in 2001, a friend invited me to see her mother’s botanical painting exhibition, after she’d completed a year’s course with the Florilegium Society at Chelsea Physic Garden. I was absolutely stunned - I remember her painting of a sweet pea which I found particularly amazing. I left my job, signed up for the course, and spent a year of Mondays being talked through how to create three-dimensional shapes through shading, how to make cherries and plums shine, and how to tackle petals and leaves.

“I loved it - I discovered that I like being told how to get a result rather than be told to ‘find it yourself’. I suppose the fact that I studied languages at university shows that I like being told what to do, and that if I work hard enough at something, I can get good at it.

Of course, a few generations ago, lots of people painted or drew - it was a common hobby among our grandparents when there were less alternatives, and their work can look surprisingly good, but it was because they kept at it. I believe that anyone can be taught to draw and paint if they really want to, and spend time on it.

I was taught in a way that I can pass on to others quite easily, even if they can only attend one of my workshops - all it takes from me is encouragement and patience.”

In 2003, Amies submitted her first artwork into an exhibition in Chelsea, selling eight pictures, and realised that she could make a living out of her talent. She booked a space at Shepherd Market Gallery in Mayfair for the following year, by which point she had produced 48 paintings, of which she sold 44. Her productivity has been slowed down in recently years by the arrival of her children, but she has held a third exhibition, and mainly undertakes commissions.

“Customers normally commission flowers, such as roses or peonies, but will buy the unexpected when they see them: beetroot, borlotti beans and courgettes for example. I do like to do things that wouldn’t be considered classical botanical images. Vegetables can be quite beautiful. The cardoon (also known as the artichoke thistle) is a good example of that.

Amies enjoys a challenge - “the passion flower was pretty tough, because it’s so detailed” - but there are still a couple yet to be conquered. “I started to paint a cantaloupe melon; the outside was difficult because of the spiderweb pattern, but then I cut it open, and thought “no way, I can’t do it.” Working with fresh plants also provides a challenge - flowers have to be painted before their petals droop, and the leaves of root vegetables tend to droop as soon as they are picked. The solution is to grow them in pots, only uprooting them at the last minute, so that the leaves can be painted in situ.

She also has an expert helping hand with the growing side of things from her father, the renowned wildflower cultivator and countryside restoration champion, Charles Flower. “People suggested that I use my maiden name for my artwork as it’s rather appropriate, but I thought that would be too much!” she laughs.

As for my own experience on Amies’ painting day; I was genuinely delighted with the resulting line drawing and watercolour paintings that I produced. Following the formula of imagining the light source coming from top left and thinking about how it would create light and shade on the petals and leaves, I was able to create three pieces of art that I would be proud to put on my wall. “You’ve got the hang of taking it steady, building up the colour layer by layer, not overdoing it,” Amies explains.

“The main mistake people make is to overload the paintbrush, and put on too much colour to begin with. It’s heartbreaking when that happens, because there’s often nothing I can do to help them correct it. It’s always possible to add more, but you can’t take it away once there’s too much colour on the paper.”

And so, with the motto “less is more” ringing in my ears, I departed Amies’ welcoming kitchen, the day having flown by in the blink of an eye, three pieces of artwork ready to frame, and thoughts of buying a watercolour and pencil set in my mind; with the confidence that if I practice hard and long enough, I could actually become a lot better at painting and drawing than I ever believed possible.

  • First published in Out & About, 2013

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