This week we owe thanks to multi award winning artist Jean Emmons, for providing us with a wonderful insight into her working practice.
Jean initially trained in abstraction and colour and came to botanical painting through her love of gardening and career in horticultural book and magazine illustration. She found plants to be the perfect subjects for studying light on form and embraces the challenge of their reflective and iridescent qualities.
Read on and enjoy!
I live on an island near Seattle. The air here is often moisture soaked. While the constant rain makes people moody, the light is beautiful. Local painters and photographers call it “oyster light.” It’s like looking through a lens made from an opal, subtle pinks, grays, lilacs. Lots of low contrast, soft, neutral colors. Things glow from within.
Every week, I volunteer at our island no-kill pet shelter. Often, I am fostering some old or sick cats in my studio. The cats always help out and, with great dignity, humor and resilience, remind me of what’s important.
Gardening gets me outside, even in the rain, wind and cold. I particularly enjoy growing oddly-colored plants: coffee-colored irises, smokey dahlias, gray-green poppies. Also, lots of carnivorous plants in big pots on my back deck. I admire them for their fantastic patterns and their resilience. They aren’t hard to grow as long as they have nutrient-poor soil. Though, sometimes the raccoons, who are looking for worms, pull them out of their pots.
I enjoy painting from life, as I see a lot more than a photo can give me. I usually grow my subjects observing them in all stages of life. Plants are such a perfect vehicle for watching changing light on form. Light moving through translucent layers of tissue.
When I was art school in the 70s, there was a rift between abstraction and realism. Things seem better now, as an artist needs to understand both. The best realistic work succeeds on an abstract level. Good structural underpinnings.
With botanical art, the focus is on the plant, not so much the artist. And, botanical art touches on so many vital issues. Loss of plant diversity, loss of pollinators. Plants that are native in our area today, might not be in a few years.
Pacific Northwest Mushrooms (detail) watercolor on vellum stretched over a board
People are interested in my color choices. I work with color intuitively, not in a conscious or deliberate way. The key is that I am always trying to see in black and white. When I reach for paint, I’m not reaching for a specific color, I’m reaching for a certain black and white value. One of the great ironies about color is that if you can visualize your subject in black and white, you will become a great colorist.
Underpainting for Dahlia ‘Black Jack’ on Kelmscott vellum. Looking for a full range of black and white values.
These past 10 years I have enjoyed painting on Kelmscott vellum. It is such a forgiving surface, as long as you never use too much water. I can paint something one color, then completely sand it off and paint it another color. Constantly change the composition.
I love to use multiple layers, underpainting in unusual colors. The challenge for me is to pull it all back together after I’ve created chaos. Sometimes 60 layers or more of translucent washes and drybrush are needed. Many of these layers end up covered up. Yet, I hope the layers lend richness to my paintings that I hope people can sense, even if they can’t always see it.
There have been some bright spots in this difficult time. More time means I can paint 100 layers, instead of the usual 60. I lose myself for hours, painting the tiny folds and flares of irises and poppies. As I move my head a fraction, the color shifts and I see more. I am never done.
Botanical art is a small but very international genre. Thanks to Zoom and close-up cameras, we’ve been able to observe each other’s working methods in studios from Paris to Tokyo. It’s brought our tribe of botanical artists closer together.
All artists today need so many skills that have nothing to do with making art. Writing, photography, public speaking, digital skills. And, being a good teacher requires even more skills.
In a way, I think the most important skill for a botanical artist is to be
well-organized. Scheduling time for the work, organizing a studio, setting up a palette, having everything ready to go. I think a lot about the French culinary term, “Mise en Place” because our time is so limited, the genre so labor intensive, and our subjects so ephemeral.
Lastly, an artist should not be deterred by the occasional rejection. My advice to anyone new to botanical art, cultivate flexibility and a thick skin.
During the Pandemic, I’ve worked at gaining some fun new digital skills. Also, I’ve been delving into gouache and egg tempera, as I’d like to have the option of using background color.
For more information see http://jeanemmons.com
All images © Jean Emmons