"Art is the only way to run away without leaving home" (Twyla Tharp)

The Light Within ...

Nelumbo nucifera - Sacred Lotus Bud © Vicki Lee Johnston

I have taken a while to write this post, so many transitions happening in my life and through all of it so many opportunities to find hope and grace.  It seems symbolic somehow that this painting of Nelumbo nucifera - Sacred Lotus - came at a time when change was essential.  

There are so many plants I love and am drawn to, however my favourite plant of all is the Sacred Lotus, at every single stage of its development from seed to leaf to bud to flower to the transition of death of self to new life.  So much can be written about the morphology of the plant but I think for me the deep symbolic meaning drew me right in.  The lotus has been regarded as sacred by many religions and seen as a symbol of hope and light, being rooted in the mud and rising to the most exquisite bud unfurling to reveal a clean, beautiful blossom, reflecting purity and light.

 I had visited the beautiful lotus ponds at the Sydney and Adelaide Botanic Gardens and taken many images in the hope of one day spending a lot more time studying this beautiful subject.  I decided to begin by painting the bud itself, a symbol of new beginnings, and the photographic captures allowed me to look more deeply into it.

It was a case of gently approaching the bud first, it had an incredible glow about it and I wanted to preserve the luminosity which appeared to be lit from within the folds.

I then proceeded on to the layers and layers of watercolour yellows, greens, pinks ...

Then it occurred to me that with a full white background as is usual in botanical art, the light from the bud would be less visible as the background would dominate .... I decided to include the lotus leaves which surround the bud and push it more into the foreground.

By changing a photograph of the painting wip to grayscale it helps to see where more depth and light is needed, so I continued to fill the background with many shades of yellow, blue and green

Sacred Lotus watercolour WIP - © Vicki Lee Johnston

 Nearly there!  Time to add more shadow colour and fine tune the detail ..

Once I am almost there I like to visualise a painting on the wall, this is done with a useful display app
to see your painting in situ.
 Nice to step back and look at a distance!

Voila!  My first Sacred Lotus painting, the magical bud glowing with light, framed and hung at a local exhibition.  

© Vicki Lee Johnston

"There came a time when the risk to remain tight in the bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom." 

 - Anais Nin

All images © Vicki Lee Johnston

Botanical Art Worldwide ...

Santalum acuminatum - Quandong © Vicki Lee Johnston
Australian artists were invited to submit for the Australian exhibition of the Botanical Art Worldwide initiative, to be held in Canberra in May.  
This exhibition is featured in a Worldwide Day of Botanical Art on May 18.

Botanical Art Worldwide website

Our Botanical Art Society of Australia  sent out expressions of interest a long time ago and I had made a choice for the native plant I wanted to paint as my submission.  I thought I had plenty of time and did my research, notes, planning etc ... only to find that when the plant came into flower we had a lot of very late storms and inclement weather - my only available flowering subjects had been battered by the high winds and heavy rain.  I realised because of my insistence on painting this subject that I was now left with very little available - the deadline was looming and I had to choose another subject quickly.   Back to the drawing board ..... literally!

My lovely Quandong bush has fruited for the first time!

It was during a gardening session on our property that I discovered our Quandong had begun fruiting for the first time since planting!  We planted this tree five years previously after another artwork assignment for the SBA - a part of my diploma portfolio.  Here is the first quandong artwork and the backstory. I had bought the small plant to study the leaf structure and growth habit.  Once I had finished we planted the shrub with its host plant (it is hemiparasitic) .    Being a desert quandong, it was left alone to do its thing and I checked on it frequently but until this time, five years on, it had not fruited.  I couldn't believe my luck.

Some of the bounty!

I was so happy to see the fruit, it can be quite tart and fleshy with a large brain-like nut inside, however I really love the quandong (or native peach) taste as I am quite partial to tart rather than sweet fruit.   I have to admit I ate the majority of the fruit, we had around forty and they were delicious!  Full of goodness and not to everyone's taste which is fine by me!

 Quandong can be eaten alone, added to sweet or savoury foods and contain vitamin C, the nuts containing complex oils and are a valued ingredient used by our indigenous people.  They are now becoming more widely used in high end restaurants and catering.

Because of my easy access to the plant, I was fortunately able to stage
my subject right in front of me to quickly study and draw.

On to my painting ... after the initial excitement of having my very own indigenous plant subject right in my back yard, I set to work very quickly drawing and composing the artwork.  I only had a week from start to finish, with no room for error.  Despite the rush I enjoyed working with this subject.

I was also lucky to have my sketchbook from the SBA course and found my old study pages for reference.  This really helps with colour selection and shortcuts a lot of the time spent colour testing.

First washes on the leaves ....

Bringing in the fruits ... starting with yellows, greens, oranges and reds

Gradually building up the layers of colour with the yellows, greens, oranges, reds and mapping out the stems and branches.

Getting a bit messy!

I like to look at my almost completed works from different angles, to check the liveliness, tones and form of the artwork so that it looks like a real subject viewed from all sides. 

Once I was happy I scanned the original artwork myself and also managed to get a professional        scan done.  As this artwork was to be submitted online to the jury via digital entry, the professional scan was the better option.  This took a few days and once ready it was sent off to be judged. 

 The judging took a couple of months and I was very happy to be notified that my artwork Santalum acuminatum - Quandong had been selected to be shown in the Flora of Australia exhibition.  It will be held in Canberra at the Ainslie Arts Centre from May 18 until May 27.  I will post another blog update as a reminder closer to the opening.

BASA information

Once I had been informed that my painting was chosen, I had some months to get it fine tuned and framed.  I always struggle with framing choices but usually go for something neutral.

So many choices!

This time I decided to coordinate with the native plant aspect by choosing a wooden frame which blended in with the colours used in the stems and branches.  Once the framing was completed I had now run out of time and it was straight to Pack and Send to head off to Canberra!

Childhood memories x

This painting has truly been a labour of love!  So many memories attached to my subject choice and the artistic experience reminded me of the plant itself, the difficulty struggling to germinate and flourish and the time taken to come to fruition.  Worth the wait for sure ...

On its way to Canberra

All images © Vicki Lee Johnston

Forest Floor ...

'Forest Floor' © Vicki Lee Johnston

The painting 'Forest Floor' came about after a call to artists to advise of an awards exhibition being held at a local gallery.  I always try to be involved where possible, even if the exhibit is not strictly botanical.

I had just over a week to compose, draw and paint the artwork and these creative ideas don't happen instantly.  I did what I always do when my mind isn't able to co-operate and went for a long walk in the hills nearby.  One thing I always notice in summer are the leaves on the ground, while they may be terribly messy and hard work to keep under control, I always seem to get lost in their beauty even though they are well beyond their best.

On this occasion I gathered a handful of half dead and dying leaves, a couple of gum nuts and took them inside where I laid them out in a pleasing mandala style pattern.  It was easier to see how a drawing might come to fruition and how the colours and formation interplayed with the design.  Our suburb in the hills of Perth is known as 'a home in the forest' for the beautiful green belt and natural environment, so the name became obvious to me as everyone living here would see this as such a familiar sight at their feet on the ground, and I had been playful with the outcome.

Decision made, I drew the leaves and gum nuts and set about painting them in the most lifelike way, trying to show the highlights and deep shadows to assist the piece in looking more three dimensional.

This was a kind of stop-start painting, which is unusual for me.  Usually I become somewhat obsessed with my artwork and slave over it for hours on end to the detriment of both my enjoyment and the artwork.  I simply didn't have the time what with renovations, Christmas, New Year etc., and was only able to paint for an hour here and there.  I found this process much more enjoyable and allowed me to step away and see it with new eyes more often. 

The leaves were very earthy colours with a few still quite green ... all having fallen from the trees on our property, my poor husband spends hours raking them up and looked quite bemused when he saw me bringing them inside.  

I enjoyed painting the gum nuts immensely but really took my time building up the washes and leaving the highlights and shadows to unfold slowly so I didn't overpaint them.
They really needed to look rounded and solid to enhance the overall idea.

Looking sideways at the painting often helps me 'see' whether the painting starts to leap off the page.

Finally stepping away from the painting,  I placed it upright and visited it at different times of the day!  I like to look at a painting from all angles to see if it appears realistic enough, before settling on the finishing touches, unfortunately time was tight but thankfully the details weren't too complicated and I finished in the nick of time.

I chose a box frame this time, with a nice amount of depth and shadow to the overall effect, choosing a very neutral frame and mat to allow the leaves and gum nuts to take centre stage.

What an absolute joy to be informed that my painting had been announced Winner of the two dimensional category at the Annual Art Awards - I hadn't been able to attend the big launch party and while I was sad I couldn't be there this was a beautiful keepsake to all my work.

I think it is very important for botanical artists to spread their wings and become involved in exhibitions from all genres, allowing yourself to be more creative and share the beauty of the natural world through observation and detail, this was a wonderful endorsement of this art form.  I finally managed to visit the gallery and enjoy the whole exhibition, there are so many beautiful works of art in all mediums and styles and I feel very honoured to have been shown among them.

The exhibition is open all this weekend - at the beautiful Zig Zag Gallery in Kalamunda, 
Western Australia.

All images © Vicki Lee Johnston

Watercolours ...

Greetings card © Vicki Lee Johnston

I hope this year has been a fruitful one for you - I know many family and friends have had a hectic time of it and felt the year has been a whirlwind.  That's certainly how I feel but a lot of things have been accomplished despite the busy-ness and has led to thinking about ways to savour the things we enjoy and make what we do more manageable and organised so we don't get bogged down with stuff.  Decluttering is a big part of the process, not only our belongings but also the way we work, to only have what is beautiful and useful in our homes and workspaces.

I love colour, especially watercolour - and I find the pigments fascinating also. The more I learn about pigment properties, the more I realise that the colour I choose in the first instance can save a lot of time in the long run.  How many times have we gotten further into a painting only to realise that a colour is not behaving the way we want, either it's too opaque, we can't lift it because it's heavily staining, the colour is granulating when we want a smooth wash ... if we familiarise ourselves with each pigment it can avoid a lot of problems and potentially save a painting.

My first teacher showed me how it was possible to make hundreds of colours from only six, a warm and cool choice of yellow, blue and red.  The colour charts above are the very first thing I painted and I learnt a lot about colour mixing.  However I had no idea that there was so much more to it!

After frustrating errors with watercolour finishes I became more interested in why these problems were happening, why I couldn't lift a colour, or why my colours weren't smooth.

 Soo many colour charts!  Learning how each pigment works ...

As you can see, I have done a lot of homework and tried to familiarise myself with each colour and divided it into cards showing the range of colours and properties for each one.
However, it's all very well having the colour charts in a nice filing system, now it's time to find the watercolours I need for a painting and because I have too many they reside in multiple tins and drawers and I find myself becoming a bit disorientated before I even begin laying the first wash.  I  wanted something to house all the stuff I need to get going, for it to be easy to find, easy to sort and categorise and still look neat once packed away.  Although things can get chaotic during a painting, I like to be able to pack things away in their place.

My studio, loads of places for all the stuff!
The most recent painting involved painting a lot of different leaves and quite a few colours.  This is when I realised my system wasn't working.

 I haven't worked out yet whether I prefer tubes or pans, but I am leaning towards watercolour pans.  I have bought a lot of empty watercolour full size pans and fill them from my Daniel Smith and Schmincke tubes but tend to buy Winsor & Newton pans due to recommended use by the manufacturer.

 I posted a question asking for suggestions in the  Botanical Artists Facebook Group, where you get loads of advice from fellow artists.  So many ideas were given which were very helpful.  Ultimately we have to find what works for us and in this situation I need storage and organisation, something to keep all the colours and charts in that I can take out of a cupboard or close up at the end of the day and it all looks neat.  It's not specifically a travel case, although it could easily be used for one, but if I were travelling I would definitely minimise my watercolours and tools and travel with a smaller setup.

This case was the perfect solution, it's a make up carry case but you could easily get a fishing tackle box or sewing basket, a wooden box, etc.  I liked the way the sections opened up and made it easy to see everything.    My husband very kindly cut up flyweight stiffener into squares for the base and also strips to fit in between the rows to allow for detailed labelling.  You could easily use foam core board for this job.  I find the tins which hold pans leave little room for labelling and if you want all the pigment info it's a bit fiddly, it's also not easy to take the pans out and use elsewhere.  I tend to splash around a bit and make a right mess in a tin!  Using this system I can easily take out only the pans I need and use them with my china palette.

When you first open the case

The sections fully expanded

I decided to use each square section for specific colours, top right are yellows, top left reds, bottom right blues, bottom left violets, browns and grey/black.  

Each pan is described by using an erasable pen on a sticker label and pasting it to the flyweight strip.  Of course you could also use foamcore board to put the base and sections it as well.  I wanted a decent space so I could see everything at first glance.

I leave all my colour cards and charts together at the base of the case.  The watercolour pad I used to make these charts is a perfect size to fit inside the case and under the tiers for easy access.

Underneath those charts are small boxes containing all the tube colours which I have used to fill the pans, all in their own colour sections relating to the trays above.  I also fit my colour strip fan in amongst those boxes, you can see it laid out below, with all the colour strips relating to the pigments in the case.  This colour strip fan is wonderful for choosing the right colour for a botanical subject as you can easily hold it over the subject and see through the hole punch area to get the closest match.


My new case with a rainbow of colours and colour charts and all the technical information needed!  It can be kept in a very small space and is portable.  I know it will save me a lot of time working out the colours I need - whether they be transparent, opaque, granulating, staining, single pigment, etc.  It will become second nature and eventually I will probably minimise the colours I use down to a much more manageable size.  You could also easily fit paintbrushes and a few ceramic palettes in the case so it's a very worthwhile option if you are feeling a bit disorganised and finding getting started on a painting frustrating due to chaos in the studio.  As mentioned before, this is more of a hold-all than a travel case, you don't need to take the whole kitchen sink when you travel or are out in the field!

My next painting is well under way,  very short deadline on this as it is due for an exhibition in early January.    

© Vicki Lee Johnston

I hope you find this blog post helpful and it encourages you to find a system that works for you.  We all work differently but most of all our creativity doesn't have to be limited to our artworks.  

"Necessity is the mother of invention" 

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