Monday, 11 January 2016

The Artistic Process

Sketchbook studies in watercolour of green fern leaf by Shevaun Doherty
Blechnum gibbum studies © Shevaun Doherty
“Love the process and the painting will happen”

A friend once remarked that being a botanical artist is as much about loving the artistic process as it is about the painting. 
It’s true. I get a huge amount of pleasure out of creating study sheets and colour charts, chasing a leaf or flower across a sketchbook page, each time tweaking the colour mixes until it’s just right.

Artist desk with colour charts and watercolour studies of a leaf

Although there is an element of play in this, the notes that I make are also extremely useful. I’m constantly pulling out old sketchbook studies to find out what colour mixes I used to get a particular shade of green, or how to achieve a particular texture.

Watercolour study of Limonium sinuatum by Shevaun Doherty
Limonium sinuatum colour notes
Sketchbooks and study notes help me explain my process to other artists, particularly those who are just starting their own botanical art journey. I think it’s a bit of a relief for them to see the messy bits and the occasional crises of confidence (help! I’ve forgotten how to paint) !

Sketchbook page of pelargonium flowers with colour notes by Shevaun Doherty
It doesn't always work out, but making mistakes is part of the process
Very often our focus is on the destination and not on the journey, and that can lead to a creative block. It’s important to stop worrying about the finished painting, that ominous blank sheet of paper, and just enjoy the creative process that is needed to get us to that point. 
It’s only paper after all.

Sketchbook study of date palm leaf with colour notes by Shevaun Doherty
Phoenix dactylifera leaf studies... a case of trial and error!

Here are 6 steps to my artistic process-

I like to ‘bond’ with my subjects, and so usually start with a bit of online research. The Latin name is a great starting point as it often gives a clue as to where and how the plant grows, or it’s ethnobotanical story. I usually look up the botanical description of the plant too, and will make notes on the defining characteristics of the plant, so that I can depict them in the painting.

Artist desk with magenta lily flowers and colour studies Shevaun Doherty
Hey Mambo!
Sometimes there is not much written about a plant, like the Mambo lily I painted last year. Instead I put on some mambo music and read about the cha-cha-cha, which I like to think bestowed a bit of “Viva la vida" vibrancy to my painting.

Sketchbook study of daffodil flowers by Shevaun Doherty
Daffodil studies

Sometimes what I discover is fascinating, and makes me view the plant with renewed wonder and respect.
Colour matching: 
Even though I pride myself on knowing my pigments, I always make little colour charts so that I can see at a glance the difference between the hues. There can be a marked difference between paint brands- Raw Umber springs to mind as there is a huge difference between the W&N one and the Daniel Smith one, and both are great. Pans and tubes of the same colour can also yield surprising differences.

Photo of unripe dates with colour charts
What colours are these dates?
Colour chart made, it’s time to compare it to the actual subject and to choose the possible colours. Greens always have to be mixed, so I usually write out the possible colour combinations and do another colour chart to decide which one would work best.

Preparatory studies really help me understand my plant. It can be daunting starting a large piece, so I often begin by painting a leaf, or pulling a flower into pieces and concentrating on smaller parts. This helps me focus on the colours, patterns and size. There’s a great satisfaction in filling a page with lots of little studies. Some of them go horribly wrong, but when there are lots of them, you don’t really see the mistakes. By the time you have filled the page, you know how to paint that leaf or flower!

Hibiscus flower watercolour studies with colour notes

Colour notes:
This is the part that a lot of people skip. Admittedly I don’t make a colour chart for every painting that I do, but I’ll nearly always jot down the colour palette and the order in which they were used on a scrap of paper. This blog has been great for making me keep notes on what pigments I have used. As well as being extremely useful, a row of colour notes can really dress up a scruffy study page.

Artist's desk with colour notes and watercolour studies Shevaun Dohertyu
Neat or scruffy, keeping notes is very useful
Sketches and Thumbnails: 
Thumbnails and quick scribbles are the best way to decide a complex composition. Sometimes it’s a case of a biro on the back of an envelope, but I mainly use tracing paper to draw it all out. My sketches are always very messy, but they are a great way to loosen up before the real painting begins.

Artist desk with daffodils and drawings of daffodils by Shevaun Doherty

 Big paintings can take a lot of pre-scribbles. My agapanthus painting took a whole pad (20 sheets) of A3 tracing paper before I was happy, but it was worth it.

Whilst each painting is different, they always begin the same way, with a tidy studio. 

Tidy artist's studio Shevaun Doherty
Before painting
It will be very messy by the time that I have finished, but I need to be organized to start. A scented candle, a cup of tea and a good audiobook help set the mood. Audiobooks are great because I will often keep painting just to keep listening to the story!

Messy artist's studio Shevaun Doherty
The creative process can be messy!

Each artist has their own creative process. What suits some, might feel tedious and unnecessary to others. It’s important to find a way of working that feels comfortable to you. 

"The creative process is not like a situation where you get struck by a single lightning bolt. You have ongoing discoveries, and there are ongoing creative revelations. 
Yes, it's really helpful to be marching toward a specific destination, but, along the way, you must allow yourself room for your ideas to blossom, take root, and grow."
Carlton Cuse


  1. i am stuffed into the corner and it's cramped and messy and a nightmare...but somehow i manage
    you've come far chickie

    1. Everyone has their own style, Vi. Yours works wonderfully for you. Thanks for the kind words.

  2. I love reading about your process and seeing the steps thru photos is even better. No wonder your work is so gorgeous!

    1. Thanks Joan. You've seen me go from the beginner stage...

  3. Lovely post Shevaun. Hope to visit your studio one day

    1. Thanks Jess! Yes, please pop over to Dublin sometime!

  4. An excellent post - full of useful information on many levels. Your studio looks lovely. And I'm mega-impressed with the daffodils - the continue to elude me, no matter how many times I've painted them...yellow is hard!

    1. Thanks Roisin. I'm glad that you like the studio! We can definitely learn a lot from each other- I need to be as brave as you with your drawing!

    2. It took a very long time. It's so much easier said than done. I'm still thinking about the beautiful way you handled the foliage in that early sketchbook...

    3. True, but I need to throw away the comfort blanket of a pencil, and start drawing directly with a pen when out and about. It will give my lines more confidence. Cheers Roisin!

  5. Another wonderful post, Shevaun. It reminded me of my first contact with you. You shared a photo of a 'third hand' device you were using to hold and magnify a small item you were painting. You immediately responded to my ignorance with openness and support and I thought, "This girl is special." And you are. Keep on truckin'!

    1. You must have caught me on a good day, haha! Only kidding. I think it's because I really appreciate it when someone takes the time to respond to one of my questions (and I have asked many along the way), so I always try to answer questions. Thanks for the nice words... beaming here!

  6. I will keep this post in mind next time I start a painting! More often than not I get discouraged along the way, too much focused on the end result and not much on the beauty of the process itself. Thanks for this Shevaun, I have been admiring your work for years and your notes have been invaluable. Thank you!

    1. Thank you for those kind words, Marina. I think a lot of people feel like that about painting, to the point where they can feel intimidated by the blank page. Your own blog is lovely by the way :)

  7. I used to think botanical art was stiff and not for me - but I am finally appreciating the research, the educational aspect, the diligence - and the elegance of the final painting. Thank you for opening my eyes more to the beauty of this style of painting. Although I know I don't have the patience for it, I so enjoy seeing your work and that of other botanical artists working today.

    1. I know exactly what you mean! I think botanical art can be a little formal at times, particularly when it is more scientific. However there are so many wonderful contemporary botanical artists nowadays, with new approaches to composition and colour application. Botanical art is really changing for the better. I'm really glad that you are feeling inspired by it. If you don't feel that you have the patience for a large piece, why not try with a small piece, like a single leaf, fruit or seeds. Nuts are great fun to do. You've given me an idea for another blog post, thanks!

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  8. Thank you for your wonderful article and inspiration of your journey.

    1. I'm glad that you enjoyed it. Thank you for the comment... always encouraging to read!

  9. Have just discovered your beautiful blog...beautiful AND helpful...a great combination! i am teaching myself to draw and paint and still have a very long way to go. Thank you for the wonderful inspiration and information you share here. Can you explain a bit further how you go about making a color chart? are you mixing different pigments to try to match the colors you see in the specimen? i know it sounds like a dumb question, but i'm not quite sure what that process involves. thank you again :)

    1. Hi Starr, Thank you for the comment. It's always nice to see a new reader on the blog. I started by teaching myself too, so can appreciate your desire to know more. I was just like that too, and in fact, still am! The colour charts are mainly just the colours straight from the tube or pan... I just need to be able to see and understand what each one does. I do mix my greens, greys and blacks though. I have explained it in full on this blogpost
      I hope that helps! Best of luck!

  10. Thank you so much for sharing about the process.It's wonderful to follow you until the final result


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