The Contemporary Botanical

If you are one of those people who can live in the same place for many years without accumulating a lot of stuff, you have my admiration and my envy. The rest of you will understand what it is like to move house after thirteen years spent gardening, making art and crafts, and collecting interesting things. Such a move involves a lot of what can only be called drudgery. There are weeks of sorting and packing, followed by one extremely stressful day, followed by weeks of unpacking and finding the right place for every single thing.

You will also understand why, having survived this experience, I thought it was time to give myself a little treat. In this frame of mind, I signed up for a one-day workshop at the Vancouver Island School of Art (VISA). The workshop was titled “The Contemporary Botanical” and the teacher was the wonderful Wendy Welch, who is the Director at VISA. Here is the course description:

In the tradition of some of the botanical drawings from the Renaissance period, students create their own fantastical drawings. The process starts from a photomontage that is then developed into a watercolour drawing and then a scientific diagram. The workshop focuses on the relationship of nature and science in terms of depiction of imagery while at the same time opening up a very imaginative process for all participants.

How do I begin to tell you about the pleasures of this workshop? For one thing, it was lovely just to be in the company of such a teacher and such students. There were the familiar faces of artists I had met in other courses at the school and it was good to reconnect and catch up with each other’s lives. And there were others who were strangers to me; but as the day unfolded, I had the delightful experience of seeing their individual ways of making art and the results of their hard work.

Honestly, though, it didn’t seem like hard work. There was none of the agony that can occur when faced with a blank piece of paper. As often happens in Wendy’s classes, the first step was to construct a collage (photomontage). In fact, the very first step was to leaf through the donated magazines always in plentiful supply at VISA and to cut out images that we found appealing. This is about as threatening as a day at kindergarten. This time, Wendy had even managed to overcome my glue aversion. In the past, there was always a yuck factor involved with using a glue-stick to apply glue to the backs of small pieces of paper and sticking them down on white paper while my fingers became stickier and stickier and turned black from the ink of the magazines. At this workshop, Wendy introduced a new process, involving a small container of white glue, a paintbrush, a lot of water to brush away excess glue and a paper towel to blot up excess water. It worked like a charm, sped everything up and eliminated sticky fingers.

“Imaginary Plant” – watercolour

The assignment itself alleviated most of the fear, panic, paralysis, performance anxiety, call it what you will, that often comes along with an “art class”. We were told to create a collage depicting a “21st century plant”: a completely new plant, with any components and attributes we wanted it to have. So, there was never a struggle to paint a flower exactly like the flower in the vase at the front of the class. Imagine the freedom  of distributing our cutout magazine pieces over the white page: roots, stems, leaves, fruit, flowers; but also clocks, cars, maps, whirligigs and thingamabobs. It really stirs the imagination.

This assignment also pays homage to Dadaism and surrealism, “artistic expression[s] that appeared to reject logic and embrace chaos and irrationality. . .The Dadaists – the “monteurs” (mechanics) – used scissors and glue rather than paintbrushes and paints to express their views of modern life through images presented by the media. A variation on the collage technique, photomontage, utilized actual or reproductions of real photographs printed in the press.” (, Dada)

Once our collages were complete, we used them as the source for a watercolour painting. Now, my painting is not the most wonderful painting I ever produced, but I was already embarked upon a series! As Wendy reminded us, “work comes from work”. Or, in the words of David Bayles & Ted Orland in Art & Fear: Observations On The Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking:

What you need to know about the next piece is contained in the last piece. The place to learn about your materials is in the last use of your materials. The place to learn about your execution is in your execution. The best information about what you love is in your last contact with what you love.

“Imaginary Plant” – Collage


10 thoughts on “The Contemporary Botanical

  1. Interesting concept – I wonder how my ‘imaginary’ plant would look?! Great things on plants & paintings – I like wondering around your blog when I have time.


    • It’s lovely to know you are wandering around my blog from time to time. This was a freeing exercise, as many of Wendy’s assignments are. No one can say that I have been inaccurate in my representation of an imaginary plant!


  2. Fantastical artwork – and you paint such a clear description of the process of creation in your words. I just went back over your blog from the beginning – what a fine body of work you are accummulating!


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