Monday, 19 April 2021

An Interview with Rogerio Lupo

The Botanical Artists Facebook group are delighted and most grateful to award winning artist, Rogerio Lupo, for taking the time out of his busy schedule to answer these questions for us. I'm sure you will agree that his answers provide a remarkable insight into his work and he also shares some exciting news about his new courses .... read on.

                                   Alstroemeria stramonia – detail.   


 1. First of all, please tell us a little about your background... such as where you grew up, are now  based as well as any other career and other interests?

 I was born and grew up in São Paulo - SP, Brazil. Although it’s a huge city now, by that time there still were many natural locations near my house. I also had many experiences in the countryside during my childhood, when I began to get involved with and fascinated by nature. Currently, I live in the countryside of Itatiba, a relatively small city near São Paulo (approximately 50 miles away). I don't have a parallel career, but apart from art, my other interests involve gardening and cultivating trees, studying music, science, philosophy, religions, and last but not least the so-called "spirituality" (I'd rather use the terms non-duality, transcending the mind or something like that…).

Alstroemeria stramonia – graphite and Polychromos Ivory on Canson Mi Teintes. Colored flower made separately in acrylic, both illustrations were blended with digital media.

2.      When and why did you become interested in botanical illustration? What was it about this field that captured your interest?


That was early in the '90s, during my days in the college where I studied Biological Sciences. As I entered the program of initiation to research in the laboratory of Systematic Botany, I loved flipping through the books in the lab's library, especially the ancient collections "Flora Brasiliensis" or "Pflanzenfamilien" (from the XIX Century), which contain fantastic woodcut or copperplate engravings, and lithographs, all black & white. Those would strongly inspire my quest for a refined hatching technique with pen nib & ink.


Another book that inspired me and triggered my interest was "Botanical Masters", curated by William Stearn and released in the early ‘90s. The magnificent watercolors in this book, made by some great botanical artists of that period, led me to feel a sort of fresh and ineffable sensation that I hadn’t experienced before with any other form of art. Trying to describe the indescribable, I'd say that I felt as though the pictures had life on their own. I mean it was not about the life of the plants depicted there, but rather the life of the very pictures. These experiences got me irremediably hooked by the botanical art and natural sciences illustration ever since. 


Microlicia inquinans – detail. Graphite on white paper.

3.      Was it difficult or easy for you to get into this field of work? 

It was easy for me due to the conditions of my life then. I was already working in a very active laboratory of systematic botanical research. I had got familiar with their needs and all their daily activities. Most students in there were doing research for master's or PhD programs and were keeping an eye on the evolvement of my drawing skills, as I was also studying classical art in parallel with the biology and beginning to make illustrations for my own botanical research. I was also working some hours by week in the laboratory of birds taxonomy and occasionally visiting the laboratory of bees research, where some of my colleagues and friends were working. Eventually, my artistic work transcended the botanical realm and I soon began to receive commissions from many biological fields simultaneously.

Pseudobombax longiflorum – detail; acrylic on gessoed canvas paper.


4.      Tell us a bit about any training or education in botanical art 


There has been a blend of my personal interests that led me to be “unintentionally” educated, so to speak, in botanical art. I attended classes of classical drawing and painting during the years of college, taught by the Spanish professor Ángel Martínez in quite a traditional and ancient way. As I was simultaneously initiating the botanical research, the knowledge of both those areas got naturally integrated within me. 


Professor José Rubens Pirani, my mentor in botanical research, appreciator of art and an excellent amateur draughtsman himself, guided me through the essentials of a good illustration and through the rules that science preconizes for an accurate and harmonious botanical drawing, including positioning, light, cleanness, clarity, composition etc.  


When I began my career back in 1998, I also attended a workshop with Cecília Tomasi. She was tutored on botanical watercolor by Christabel King in the Kew Botanical Gardens, in a program for Brazilian illustrators conducted by the Margaret Mee Foundation. From Cecília I learned the basics for the specific techniques of the contemporary botanical watercolor. Everything else I learned thereafter came from appreciating and investigating illustrations in ancient and contemporary books and from experimenting with techniques by myself.

Most of the techniques I use, like pen nib and ink, colored pencil or acrylic painting, came as a result of self-teaching, still in a time when the internet was barely a thing and information was hard to find even in books, at least in my country. That was a time when the magical paths of life, and how they always lead us to what we need, were more evident. There is a kind of cosmic google, not so clearly perceptible these days.


Microlicia cogniauxiana – detail; sketch done by using a stereomicroscope with camera lucida – graphite and Polychromos Ivory on Canson Mi Teintes.

5.      If you could choose botanical artist from any period past or present, to watch over their shoulder when working.... who would you choose and why?

No doubt I’d choose Pierre-Joseph Redouté. I believe he will always be a great inspiration to any botanical artist. He was able to create or improve techniques only to achieve some artistic purpose. He had quite an accurate view of his subjects, an incredible sense of composition, delicacy and harmony, an immense sensitivity to the light and colours and a sick dedication to the detail. Besides all those artistic qualities, he conducted even his very life story with art, being able to wander as an itinerant artist, living a precarious life for ten years and learning with other masters since the day he left his parents’ house at the premature age of only 13 years old. Now that would definitely be an inspiring life to watch.

6.      Tell us a little about your work. How do you describe yourself as an artist?


Well, that’s funny because even now after decades of my career as an illustrator, I still get a little surprised when people introduce me or refer to me as an artist, as if I had just realized that when they say it… “oh yes, I’m an artist!... Am I?”. Maybe I see myself as a wanderer, more than any other name. Perhaps one characteristic of mine can fit well into what we typically find in most artists, which is my facility to find some sense of harmony and unity when I’m making art – by the way I aim for that also in the process of living.


I guess I could better describe myself as a seeker though, because either as a biologist or an artist, I’m always in some kind of quest or investigation. Curiosity moves me way more than passion. So, when I draw from life, I’m always keen on finding out how some beautiful light could show up in a drawing or painting. I’ll also turn an object around for hours before I can decide the best position to draw it. This will play a major role in the general composition too.


Cedrela fissilis fruit – acrylic on gessoed canvas paper.

The same obsession with the details of an organism goes for my quest for technical aspects of the media with which I work. I need to comprehend empirically, experientially and finally theoretically how they work. And I like to do it all in this order so as to give myself the opportunity of having insights about the techniques and their functioning, before going through their theoretical essentials and then eventually confirming my glimpses and insights. 


This is a way of developing trust in my own intuition and my ability to investigate and learn by myself, thus getting to a more personal and creative approach and avoiding the limitations imposed by the “rules” that are eventually recommended out there about any technique. Sometimes these rules come from the theoretical essentials of the medium, sometimes they’re just part of other artists’ experiences, but none of those should represent a technical limitation to anybody, in my opinion. 


Hoffmannseggella angereri – detail; Polychromos and Caran D’Ache Pablo colored pencils on Canson Mi Teintes.


7.      You use several different mediums including graphite, ink and colour pencil, do you have a preferred medium and surface to work on? which are your favourite brands? 


No, it’s really hard for me to choose one medium as my favourite, as I sense some special pleasure with every medium I use. Some pen nibs with the right ink, running fluidly over certain papers, can induce an indescribable satisfaction. The same goes for a good graphite or colored pencil on any high-quality paper with the perfect tooth, and for the high-quality watercolor pigments applied with great pencils over some insanely well manufactured paper. It seems to me that besides the visual excitement, art is quite a tactile experience, and some papers and surfaces can confirm that, as we’re eventually able to guess when the material is good only by touching and caressing it. 


When it comes down to brands, I worship and pay eternal tribute to the vintage pen nibs Joseph Gillott #290. I also appreciate the Speedball Hunt #100, always using Talens Indian Ink. 


The graphite most commonly present in my pencils case is Staedtler, but I like Bruynzeel as well, Cretacolor, Koh-I-Noor. I’m right now especially fond of the Staedtler Mars Lumograph Black, as it’s a different quality of graphite akin to the charcoal pencil, which prevents the typical gleam that occurs on the halftone and dark areas when we work with graphite. 


Regarding colored pencils, I like the Faber Castell’s Polychromos, and also Caran D’Ache lines Pablo and Luminance. As for blenders I like Derwent and Koh-I-Noor, but the Caran D’Ache’s blender looks useless to me, at least the one I tested.


For watercolors I found great affinity with the Canson’s cold pressed grain fin Moulin du Roy, which unfortunately was discontinued. I like Talens and Winsor & Newton paints, and synthetic brushes like Keramik and Condor.


For acrylics I use Liquitex paints on canvas papers like Canson’s Figueras or Hahnemühle’s Akrylmalkarton. I eventually cover the canvas paper with gesso and sand it before painting. I also prefer synthetic brushes.


                                                                  Microlicia cogniauxiana – detail; pen nib and ink on Bristol Board.

Microlicia cogniauxiana – pen nib and ink on Bristol board. Collection of the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation.

8.      What is the most challenging botanical illustration that you have ever undertaken and why? 


When I work with pen nibs to illustrate with hatching, the intricate and ultra-textured surfaces are very friendly and forgiving subjects, though it seems it would be the opposite. What is actually challenging for me in this technique are the smooth surfaces like that of a perfectly spherical fruit, or else of a long smooth leaf… 


Hence when the filling in with the hatching needs to be flawless, any break of the general pattern will spoil the needed uniformity. The challenge is increased because you have to keep focused either on the line you draw at the moment and on the general shading, that is, the totality of the set of lines. Once you get to the end and eventually notice that the tone of shading got lighter than what you were aiming to achieve, there’s no improvement or correction possible, not without impairing the evenness. You can try and intertwine new lines or do some cross-hatching, but be prepared to give up the quest for harmony of the general pattern. 


                                    Amazonian “Igarapé” with Manicaria saccifera palm – graphite and Polychromos Ivory on Canson Mi Teintes.

9.      Do you have any subjects that are of specific interest to you and why?


My interest is usually very broadly distributed and perhaps even overly scattered. As to some specific interest, I can only think of my attraction for representing the sunlight on plants and/or animals, as well as illustrating landscapes and microlandscapes (which is how I name the illustration of a small area of the ground with all its natural elements). Awkward as it seems, those subjects are not much present in my work thus far, as I’ve tended to prioritize commissions and my personal projects ended up postponed. 


                                                                       Pseudobombax longiflorum – detail; acrylic on gessoed canvas paper.

Vellozia giuliettiae – detail; pen nib and ink on Bristol board (detail from the Margaret Flockton award winning illustration below) 

10.  What’s the most valuable lesson you ever learned about illustrating plants?


What comes to mind is not specifically related to plants, but to illustrating, making art and figuring out technical issues. I’d mention the occasion when I decided to definitely figure out all my issues with the pen nibs and their inconsistency. I was decided to find peace in the process, as it had been causing me anguish for some years then.


I learned that what we really and sincerely want and need always comes naturally and magically to us, be it the knowledge, the necessary inspiration or even the materials. 


Some decades ago, as I began seeking good nibs, by pure chance I found a seller that had an old stock of the vintage Gillott #290 nibs (I had no idea then that they were the best nibs ever created). I purchased a lot of them along a year until the stock was finished, but I never knew how to take good care for them. As years passed, lots of nibs were screwed, incrusted by ink, spoiled, rusty. 

Years later, the information that alcohol could remove dry acrylic paint from brushes led me to try removing old incrusted ink from the nibs. It worked, so the first step was done. They could now look almost like new again. I suspected I could also sand and polish the nibs in order to reform and recondition them, but how? My attempts had not been very successful until then. 


So I decided to definitely discover how. I was determined, and sat at my microscope to investigate the nibs in detail and intuit how to proceed. As I was trying and sanding, inspirations would come to me like: “do it this way” … “sand it on this spot, in this direction”… “this is how the nib works”…. “improve the tip, make it become perfectly symmetrical without any burr” … 


Since the internet was barely a thing yet, I suspect I was virtually accessing another web of knowledge. All the intuitive hints I received had worked, and some weeks later I would have my issues with nibs terminated at last. The pieces of information I “received” from who-knows-where made so much sense that I figured out not only how the nib works, but how and why it is manufactured in a certain way. Some time later I perfected my procedures and found out how to improve the nibs’ consistency, increasing the viscosity of the ink by reducing its temperature, hence also retarding its drying on the nib. Then I could work in peace, finally. That was a sort of “artistical enlightenment”. And it actually led me to increasingly higher levels of well-being and tranquillity while working.



11.  Last year you undertook a tour of the USA teaching. Could you tell us a little more about this tour and do you have future plans to do more? 


That tour began by the very kind and generous invite from Mervi Hjelmroos-Koski in 2017, who was then the manager of the School of Botanical Art and Illustration of the Denver Botanic Gardens in Colorado. I didn’t accept the invite immediately because I wanted to first translate my free guidebooks to English so that I could make the best of the workshops and help students start studying some fundamentals prior to my arrival, as I always like to do in my classroom courses. 


For the English translation I had the kind, generous and valuable help of Bobbi Angel revising my texts. One year later, Mervi could schedule my visit to happen in 2019. I activated then my network to let everybody know we were planning this trip, asking people whether they wanted to take advantage of my visit to have my courses in their institutions too. As many people declared interest, we organized my itinerary inside the USA in a way that would make the best use of time and aerial travels. 


I taught workshops on Graphite and Pen Nib and Ink in four different cities in California, Colorado and Virginia and spent some 40 days in the US, living unforgettable moments with the students, friends and so many generous people that welcomed me as a family member everywhere I went. The mere memory of that journey fills my heart with joy and gratitude all the time.


Indeed, after that I received new invitations and was organizing workshop tours in different countries in 2020, but of course the pandemic interrupted all plans. There is the perspective and the desire of coming back to the US on another tour in the future, and to continue with the plans for the other countries, but this is in standby while we wait for the apocalypse to come to an end. 


12.  We know you won the Margaret Flockton Award in 2010 and 2013, Can you tell us a little about this achievement. How did you feel to get the news that you had won?


Yes, regarding the overall life situation, both awards occurred by stunningly magical ways. In 2010 I sent my artworks to the competition, choosing two of them among the ones I liked the most, and then I went on living my life without any expectations. 


On late February, I was preparing to take a very risky step in my personal life, trusting that I’d be able to face the consequent financial challenge. Before going to bed on that day, I felt a little insecure and thought: “I wish life could give me a signal to confirm that I’m doing the right thing”. But then another thought came: “what do I mean? The opportunity coming up in perfect timing (a new house, precisely the one I wanted) is already the signal!”. I went to bed, confident that I would be able to put up with the financial challenges: “I’ll work for that”, I thought. 


The next morning, I opened my email box, just to see the message that I had won first prize. I was totally oblivious of the competition! Perfect timing again!

That confirmation moved me to tears…

After waking up inside this dreamy situation, I realized how gratifying and uplifting it was to have my work chosen and awarded among so many other incredible artists and their artworks. I wouldn’t ever be grateful enough, as that was the acknowledgement of many years of hard work in the pursuit of excellence.


Vellozia giuliettiae – pen nib and ink on Bristol board. Winner of the Margaret Flockton Award, Australia, year 2010.

As to the 2013 competition, the prize also brought along a lot of significance that transcended the scope of art and professional life. The year of 2013 was an ephemeris and the Margaret Flockton Award would celebrate ten years of existence, so they allowed all previous winners to participate. I sent my work, the aerial delivery got belated, but my package made it to Australia just 40 minutes before the deadline. 

That award was even more gratifying, because the presence of the previous winners’ artworks provided a very high quality to the competition. The aspects that transcended the artistic and professional significance of this prize, permeating even spiritual experiences and difficulties with material life, could not be reported here as they would require too much explanation. But it’s worth it to say that I feel such huge events and achievements of our life as being always connected to inner circumstances and deeper sincere quests.  

                                Vellozia perdicipes – pen nib and ink on Bristol board. Winner of the Margaret Flockton Award, Australia, year 2013.

Vellozia perdicipes – detail; pen nib and ink on Bristol board.

13.  You are a very generous artist and have produced lots of wonderful free materials.  You obviously believe it’s important to share with fellow artists and those interested in the genre. Why do you feel this is important? 


It’s clear to me that I do that out of empathy. As a young student and seeker of artistic knowledge, I lived in a time before the internet, when it was really difficult to gather some diversity of information. We had to rely on the experience of one artist only, or else just of a few people who could provide us some hints. But most of the time I felt clueless when I was researching on non-conventional techniques and specific approaches. The instance with the pen nibs mentioned above is an example of that. 

Thus, my tendency to freely distribute didactic material is an attempt to alleviate a bit of the suffering of beginners in their search for answers and clarifications. When I do that, what permeates my mind is mostly the awareness that my experience can spare a lot of time and work for the students. Eventually a simple word, a tip, a clue, can prevent the students from spending days or even weeks making experiments, going through trial and error before they find out more appropriate procedures to get the results they are aiming for.


14.  Please tell us about any new projects that you would like to share? 


I just accomplished my project of offering the graphite online course in English, so the videos are already entirely subtitled, and my personal guidance is also provided in English. This course can be continued, from the second module forward, with the study of colored pencils, or pen and ink. But watercolor and acrylics are also always requested by students.


Thus, beside the project of dedicating more time to represent the sunlight on nature and the landscapes, I plan to create in the next years an online course on the fundamentals for naturalist illustration in watercolor and another course on acrylics. 


                                                               Xylopia aromatica – fruit; acrylic on gessoed canvas paper.

15.  Finally, do you have any advice for those starting out in botanical art/ illustration?


Some people — myself included when I was a beginner — get afraid to “dare” illustrating plants before they acquire some technical knowledge… before they hear some specialist’s advice… before they have some minimal requisites — all of which seem quite abstract and have undefined source, since nobody knows where such rules come from, yet they can block people from starting. 

So, my advice for beginners is: get to practice, no matter what. 

Half an hour of questions grounded in experience worth way more than a year of questions grounded on suppositions and guesses. Honor your own questions and value your experiences.


When a student begins to understand even the “simplest” things like, for instance, the various gradations of graphite, the relationship between a well sharpened pencil and the smooth texture of a drawing, or between the hard hand pressure and the undesired gleam of graphite drawings… then there are some teachings that can be already transmitted to the slightly less experienced students. I mean it. 


No experience is invalid or worthless, including the disastrous ones. Welcome even the disasters in, so you learn how to avoid them. But do take actual and effective measures to avoid them…

Hippeastrum striatum – watercolor.

If you would like to find out more about Rogerios work and courses please see the following link:

Copyright of all images in this post belong to Rogerio Lupo