Jeni Neale is a former knitwear designer with a passion for watercolour. Now living in Warwickshire, she tutors classes for adults on all aspects of botanical art and regularly exhibits her paintings. This year, Jeni has led a series of workshops at Winterbourne painting plant material collected from the garden. We asked Jeni to tell us how it all began, including an early visit to Winterbourne nearly 15 years ago.
“My mother was an artist and my father had three allotments, so when my art tutor introduced me to botanical art at college, it was already part of my psychology. ‘Botanical illustration’ is the bridge between art and botany and is primarily functional; showing the subtle variations that distinguish a plant from similar species. ‘Botanical art’ is still an accurate depiction of a plant but with a focus on its composition and wall appeal as a work of fine art.”
“Whilst digital cameras and software programmes become more sophisticated and expensive, a botanical artist can quickly draw selected details of a plant excluding any irrelevant background. A simple line drawing in pen and ink will satisfy a botanist, but the addition of transparent watercolour washes more accurately captures both delicacy and strength of form.”
“Students need a willingness and curiosity to learn about both botany and painting. I’ve been teaching botanical art for 15 years but I’m still constantly learning myself! We all see plants from a different perspective. Minimal equipment is required as long as it’s good ‘artists’ quality; pencils, hot pressed watercolour paper and a limited watercolour palette consisting of the three primary colours: Permanent Rose, French Ultramarine and Winsor Yellow.”
“One of the questions I frequently ask myself, is how do I capture a plants essence? How does it grow, how does its surface feel, and how do I translate that into watercolour? Just like handwriting, an artist’s pencil line and brush stroke is unique. It’s how we choose to use them that create individual style. Whilst I teach the basic methods for botanical art, once learnt, I encourage students to express their own style within the bounds of botanical accuracy.”
“Beauty can be found in all plant forms. Most people think of botanical art being about painting pretty pictures of flowers, but consider all the spectacular structures and forms of vegetables, fruits and dried seed pods, or a tangle of knotty roots! Any flower with tiny fiddly petals is always a challenge. However, with my macro lens camera I can see things in close-up. Painting from photographs stops the decomposition process and allows you to capture a plant in infinite detail.”
“The first plant I painted at Winterbourne was an Actinidia when I visited way back in 2003. For me, Winterbourne’s garden is a series of outdoor rooms. Each has a clearly defined planting scheme which tells a story about where the plants originate from and their preferred habitat. A plethora of plant material is always available whether it’s fresh flowers, fruit or vegetables, dried seed pods, leaves or bark.”
“It would be fascinating (and a challenge) to illustrate some of the cacti from Winterbourne’s collection. I would also like to paint outside on a perfect day; not too much sun or cloud, no wind, devoid of bugs (which constantly land on your paper), not too hot or too cold, and able to get close enough to your specimen without lying on the other flowers! Okay, maybe I prefer to paint indoors where the light and heat conditions can be controlled and specimens can be placed at eye level!”