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From Cabbages to Kingcups - Interview with Ann Swan, Botanical Artist

Ann SwanThere's something strangely compelling about botanical art. It has an almost old-fashioned air about it, which is understandable given that in days of yore the likes of Charles Darwin could hardly whip out an iPhone to take a quick pic of a hitherto-unknown plant, and so relied on a skilled artist to create a lifelike image.

These days the camera is king where new discoveries and identification are concerned, but botanical art is still very much in demand. People like plants. Who hasn’t sat out in the garden on a summer's evening and looked with pleasure at whatever is filling the flowerbeds, whether it's delphiniums or daisies? Botanical art is the perfect way of bringing such beauty into your house without having to kill the real thing, and - of course - it doesn't have to stop with whatever thrives (or doesn't, as the case may be) in your own garden.

Ann Swan is one such artist; she's not only incredibly talented, and constantly experimenting with techniques to push the boundaries of botanical art, she's also a teacher and conducts creative workshops around the world. We're very pleased to be stocking her curated collection of Faber-Castell Polychromos pencils, specially chosen because of their suitability for botanical art (plenty of shades of green and brown, and beautiful purples, pinks and reds). We wanted to know a bit more about Ann and how she got to be a botanical artist, and she very kindly obliged by answering a few questions. There's also more about Ann on her website: https://annswan.co.uk/.

'Making it' in the art world always seems very difficult, so how did you get to where you are now?

RadishBy focusing on a specific theme ie botanical art, but developing my own way of expressing this in a contemporary way and using a medium (coloured pencil) which at the time (the 1990s) was unusual for this type of art. I was also lucky to have a business background, to be working during a period when both botanical art and coloured pencil have simultaneously achieved much more popularity plus I have a natural curiosity for gadgets such as computers, the internet and social media, all of which have helped my career to develop.

Have you always been a full-time artist?

No. I went to art college in the 60’s to do a Foundation Course and then married and went to live in East Africa and paint for a year. On returning to the UK in the early 70s I worked doing technical drawing for a few years in business and then joined an advertising company doing product drawing which gave me my attention to detail. After re-marrying and having no children I chose to work with children and went on to train as a social worker working with children and families and specialising in group work, a skill which has helped me in my teaching practice. This was a highly pressured job and left little time for painting except on holiday when I took to doing watercolour landscapes of little merit. Then in 1988 after a series of life changing experiences (my mother and one of my best friends died within a couple of weeks) I became seriously ill with ME which placed me on invalidity benefit for a year. During my recovery I started drawing the flowers that well-wishers had brought and then I spotted a painting of a Savoy cabbage in a glossy magazine and I asked my husband to buy me a cabbage on his way home from work. I drew the cabbage in pencil and on the strength of that I gave up Social Work and applied for an Enterprise Grant which enabled me to get my first two limited edition prints issued and to concentrate on building a career around botanical art. This was in 1988.

If you weren't an artist, what was the back-up plan?

I would have had to continue working as a social worker.

Has botanical art always been your main subject or are there other things that interest you, or have interested you?

Initially, at school I wanted to become an oil painter but this was not viewed as a good way of making a living so I was directed towards textile design and I specialised in that during my foundation year. I didn’t come to botanical art until I was in my late thirties, partly by accident (see above) and partly fuelled by my love of plants and gardening.

Do you work from photographs or real life, or both?

CourgetteMy starting point is always the real plant which I study at length until I know what I want to say in my design. At that stage I take photographs and after matching my colours and doing a tonal study I work on my drawing using both the plant and the photos. Photos are taken either with a good close-up camera or my iPhone10, and transferred onto my large iPad Pro. Working with the plant material at the same time allows me to see the differences in colour and tone on the screen so that once the plant has gone I can compensate the iPad images.

How long does it normally take to complete a project?

Something small like a cherry or a leaf can take just a few hours but complex larger images can take up to six or eight weeks.

Do you work just with pencils or is there other media you use?

I work primarily with graphite pencils and coloured pencils but sometimes use graphite dust and pastel pencils. I often use an alcohol-based solvent or baby oil (liquid paraffin wax) to melt the colour to produce an underpainting over which I can layer either graphite pencil or coloured pencil to produce different effects or enables me to work on a larger scale.

You recommend materials on your website, but what would you say are your favourite pencils and paper? What would be difficult to live without?

Faber-Castell Polychromos are my go-to pencils and I use Prismacolor Premier, Caran d’Ache Pablo and Luminance and latterly Derwent Lightfast to augment that range. My favourite paper has been Fabriano Classico 5 as I prefer working on a white support but since 2012 this paper has not been so good. Luckily I have enough old stock to see me out.

You mention an embossing tool in your equipment - how do you use this in your work?

I use a range of embossing tools to create fine lines, veins, stamens and textures. My favourite is the Pergamano 0.5 Fine embosser.

Do you know when a work is finished or are you constantly tweaking?

A work is finished either when it looks exactly like the plant material or when I feel the statement I am making about the plant has been made. I try not to overwork to avoid damaging the paper.

What work are you most proud of?

My second Savoy cabbage drawing which I completed in 1990 in graphite as it kept a roof over my head during some hard times. The original, and the entire issue of 100 limited edition prints sold, and it then appeared on table mats and even t-shirts, and I became known as ‘the cabbage lady’ in my old home town of Teddington.

What tips do you have for young/aspiring artists?

Stay focused, develop and practise your skills and never give up.

Excellent advice.

Jay Feathers

3 March 2020


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