I’m a Sucker for Published Sketchbooks!—So Let’s Talk about That and Some Related Reading Matter

October 4, 2010

Books on botanical illustration and natural history painting.

51PWL1mWqgL._SL500_AA300_ Left: Cover image of "Botanical Sketchbook" by Mary Ann Scott. (©2010 Mary Ann Scott)

I've been catching up in my art-book reading and found a couple new ones as well as some I've been waiting to write about. Now seems a good time. Get some books from the store or library and curl up for the winter right? Nope, these books will get you to pick up your pencils and paints. That's a better way to spend the upcoming winter (if you're in the Northern Hemisphere like I am—all you Australian readers think of it as an excuse to stay inside out of the heat and sun!).

Because of my buying history (I taught botanical art for a bit and liked to keep up on what was available to recommend to students) Amazon told me about Botanical Sketchbook by Mary Ann Scott. This book is essentially her sketchbook record of her progress through the Distance Learning Diploma run by the Society of Botanical Artists. You'll see her assignment, notes from her tutors, her color mixing swatches, the finished assignments, and some text explaining her working process for a given piece. This is a unique look at one artist's dedicated work to achieve a goal. If you're new to watercolor this book isn't going to provide you with a blow-by-blow explanation. This book is good for people with knowledge of watercolor who want to look at refining their skills. And it is also good for new artists who want to get a sense of how much study, research, and work goes into creating a final piece of work. Scott's style is a little too delicate for my tastes—I'd like to see the dark values ummphed up in many pieces—but her work is lovely and technically impressive and sure to draw you in. The fact that it is a record of her course experience is just added joy.

51ZoWJZ0cNL._SL500_AA300_ Left: Cover image from Ann Swan's "Botanical Portraits with Colored Pencils." (©2010 Ann Swan)

Colored pencil is a medium that is near and dear to my heart so it is always fun to check out the new books on the subject—when they provide some quality work. Swan's Botanical Portraits with Colored Pencils definitely does.

While I think her dedicated discussion of techniques is short, she has filled the book with step-by-step discussions which will fill the void. I also have a quibble about using markers and solvent for underpainting—not just because of my own chemical sensitivities—but you can easily do such underpainting with watercolors. Happily she also does address that.

For me the major strengths of this book are Swan's own detail eye, her ability to render dark values and create a dynamic value range across her images, and her eye for interesting composition.

If these two books create a hunger in you for more botanical art how-to books I recommend

Botanical Illustration Course with the Eden Project, Rosie Martin and Meriel Thurstan as well as Contemporary Botanical Illustration with the Eden Project Challenging Colour and Texture by the same authors. Rosie Martin taught at the Botanical Illustration Course at the Edit Project in Cornwall. The first book marches you through an introduction of tools, materials, media, and techniques that will be helpful to beginners and a useful refresher to experienced artists moving into botanicals. There's a discussion of color mixing and a short chapter on composition. Throughout the book examples from the artist's sketchbook are included (so you know I'm going to like that).

The "Contemporary" book covers much of the same material, but with significant enough differences that if you like one you'll want to read the other. Particular emphasis is placed on the discussion of composition in the "Contemporary" book—movement away from the traditional compositions into, of course, contemporary work. I'm all for art reflecting its time. I think such discussions will help readers focus on finding their own artistic voices.

While their first book has a very helpful chapter on "Pineapples, Fir Cones and other Complex Forms" (read: Fibonacci series), the second book hits a homerun with its "Paint it Black" chapter.

When it comes to the natural history world this pair switches leads. Meriel Thurstan and Rosie Martin came out with Natural History Painting with the Eden Project. As you can imagine, this book was of much greater interest to me. Sadly I can't find my copy anywhere (perhaps I already wrote about it on the blog and shelved it away?) or my notes. I just remember that it was written with the same approach. I do remember they state a bizarre "fact" about sharpening pencils with a blade—that this would strengthen the wood. I'm sorry folks, I live with an engineer and that's just not so. I hate it when "facts" like that creep into a book, because it makes me look seriously at all the statements an author makes. But we are all human and since the book is very sketchbook-example-heavy and they recommend painting rocks (and you know painting rock portraits is one of my great passions) I'll let this sillyness go. Anyway, there are lots of true reasons for sharpening your pencils with a blade.

It's a worthwhile book for people interested in natural history painting.

Happy painting!


    • Carolyn
    • October 6, 2010

    Wonderful! Inspiring! Would love to get my hands on these.

    Oh, the dilemma. I’m always tempted to go for another inspiring book, but must learn to pick up my pencil and draw more and actually do…

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