A school that is part of the movement to revive an art form thousands of years old is getting settled in its new location at the Longfellow House. Previously at the Bakken, the Minnesota School of Botanical Art opened its doors at the beginning of the month.
Ten years ago, the School of Botanical Art was the fourth botanical arts school in the nation. Today it is joined by several more schools. The school began out of Founder Marilyn Garber’s desire to teach students botanic painting. A botanical artist herself, she found resources for her art few and far between. “If you love this art form, there aren’t many options for places to do it.”
This was also true when it came to finding courses on realistic drawing. A collector of art instruction books, Garber noticed that starting in the 1930s realistic drawing techniques began to be excluded in the books. The pendulum had begun to swing towards self-expression, and the step-by-step skills of realistic drawing were all but lost. As a result, a generation of painters didn’t learn the techniques needed to create botanic art works. Garber herself is self-taught, because she couldn’t find the instruction she was looking for in local universities.
One Hundred Layers, Six Colors
Painting botanicals is like the art version of the slow food movement. The process is a labor of love. The artist begins by finding the plant to paint, observing it, and then beginning the work on paper. Students and teachers use traditional media – pencil, paint, ink, silver ink, and watercolor.
When working with watercolor, students are taught the British method, which involves a little water, a very fine tip brush, and lots of layers of paint. The layers are what create color, shade, highlight, and a single work can have one hundred layers of paint. Garber says that students often ask how many layers they will need for a certain piece, and Garber always responds, “enough.” While they work with many, many fine layers, students paint with only six colors – warm and cool red, warm and cool yellow, and warm and cool blue. These colors aren’t mixed, new colors are created by the layers.
The process is slow and detailed, taking 60, 80, 100 hours of work. This amount of work commands a high price tag, and most botanical art works aren’t sold, but are shown in exhibits.
While the school will sell art, Garber isn’t interested in being a gallery or focusing on sales. She’s interested in improving the skills of her students and bringing in top talent for master classes.
This spring, Carol Woodin, who has won several botanical arts awards and has had her paintings exhibited at the Smithsonian and galleries worldwide, will teach a course on painting on calfskin vellum, a material that lends a distinct glow to its botanical subjects.
While the school focuses primarily on traditional botanical art, some of its instructors explore what can be done with the art form. Garber describes a work that applies tessellation to botanical drawing. She explains that this type of work could be used as a print for fabrics, as a wallpaper…the possibilities are endless.
Learning to Draw
Some of the students that come through the school are gardeners and love plants, others just appreciate the connection to the natural world that this art form offers. Fortunately, knowing how to draw is not a prerequisite. In fact, it might be better if you walk through the doors a blank slate. Garber likes to start all of her students in Drawing 1, where students learn step-by-step how to do a realistic drawing. “We start at the very beginning with with a contour drawing and then transfer that to watercolor paper,” said Garber.
When describing how she would teach a beginner how to sketch out a gourd, Garber says it starts with a ruler. She has the students measure the gourd and plot those measurements on a piece of paper. Then it is a matter of connecting the dots.
Once students learn the foundational skills, then they move onto perfecting their craft. “What has set us apart is that we are very step by step, and if you follow these steps you will end up with a nice piece,” said Garber. “And then after you’ve learned all of that, after you understand the materials and the tools and the process, then go off and do your art. But you have to have the foundation skills, and I don’t think that is taught very often.”
Garber was first drawn to the beautiful light in the Longfellow House. The move has also allowed the school to provide its students with drawing desks, hang botanical art 365 days a year, and allows them to offer classes at more convenient times.
This isn’t just art for art’s sake. “I think when people look at botanical art, they think of pretty pictures of roses…we’re more than that…we’re trying to replicate what we see in nature, as exactly and precisely as we can,” explained Garber.
Botanical art is often used to illustrate the findings of plant biologists in journal publications. Advanced students at the school have the opportunity to work with a plant biologist at the University of Minnesota. Dr. George Weiblen studies ficus plants and travels often to Papua New Guinea to conduct research. If he finds a new plant species, he works with students at the school to have the plant and its parts drawn for inclusion in a journal. “Its exciting for our students,” said Garber. “It’s a wonderful partnership, we learn a lot from Dr. Weiblen and he’s been very giving of his time and he gets illustrations to use in his publication and on his website. It’s a win-win.”
Botanical art is also used to record plants from a specific time and place, capturing the fleeting beauty and detail of a plant. The school is currently collaborating with the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden, the oldest wildflower garden in the United States, on a florilegium – a compilation of botanical art. The Eloise Butler Florilegium is a juried collection of student and teacher work that will document 110 unique plants and flowers from the garden. Sixty-one of the paintings are in process and the school will exhibit some of them in March. Once the entire collection has been completed, the florigeium will be exhibited at a local museum. The complete collection of paintings will be given to the the City of Minneapolis for exhibition and preservation.
About the School
The school offers six class sessions a year, and each class has no more than 15 students. Beginners and advanced students are welcome to attend classes.
If you are interested in seeing nature come alive in the dead of winter, stop by the Longfellow House. Its doors are open, even during class time, and visitors are welcome to view the botanical art hanging on the walls.
The school will also host open houses throughout the year for the community, and will provide the opportunity to enjoy new botanical art and meet the artists.
If you can’t make it to the school in person, check out its website to view galleries of botanical art by its instructors and students. See more images from the school and in-session classes on its Facebook page.