My name is Cheryl Hodges, and I’m primarily a botanical artist from Jerrabomberra, Australia, near Canberra. I’ve been painting plants in watercolour for 20 years. In recent years, I have also ‘branched out’ into insects. My work is fairly detailed, in fact I’ve always been a detail person, which is why I think I was drawn to botanical art in the first place. After many years of creative pursuits, I did a one-day workshop in botanical art and it was just like a perfect fit. Finally, I was not only ‘allowed’ but encouraged to embrace the detail in my subject.
Botanical art is a great way to show the life cycle of a plant, which you can’t usually capture in one photograph. I love getting to know my subjects – I don’t have a botanical background so I usually learn about the plant as I’m painting it. Even if I’m not painting a ‘scientific’ style painting, I will always aim for botanical accuracy.
I do like to try slightly different approaches to my botanical art. One of my most scientific paintings was of a Dianella plant from my garden. I was able to view it over many months, and take pieces, dissect them, view them through the microscope, and paint all the plant parts and different stages of the life cycle.
Another theme of my paintings is ‘collections’ and I’m drawn to the work of Joris Hoefnagel and Jan van Kessel, Flemish painters from the 16th and 17th centuries. My painting Australian Native Collection was inspired those artists. It is on calf-skin vellum, a tricky surface but has a certain ‘glow’ which is beautiful.
I really love painting Australian native plants, and I think art is a nice way to raise awareness of our incredible range of flora. I am a member of a painting group at our Australian National Botanic Gardens and we are fortunate to be able to paint specimens which the rangers have collected from the Gardens (you aren’t allowed to pick these yourself). The variety of plants we see is wonderful, and we also hold an exhibition so that the public can also be inspired by our native plants.
In botanical art, preparation is key. I research the plant, observe the plant, sketch it, work out the composition, finalise all of that before I even touch the watercolour paper.
I generally start my paintings with a wet-in-wet approach. This gives great coverage and beautiful blending, and I can build up a few layers this way, with different colours showing through the layers. Then I paint wet-on-dry, building up more colour and tone, while being careful to still keep the paint fairly wet.
When it comes to adding the detail, my paint is getting ‘dryer’ – less water, more pigment. When I get to the final details, I am using a very fine brush (down to 0000) and what is called ‘dry brush’ technique – which is actually a damp brush and the ‘dryer’ paint. The hardest part when adding all this detail, is knowing when to stop!
I like to paint on Arches 300gsm hot pressed paper (hot pressed, or smooth is very important for achieving the detail required for botanical art). I use mostly Winsor & Newton artist quality paints from a tube, and some Daniel Smith. I use sable brushes (Raphael brand) a lot but occasionally use synthetic, they are cheaper, but don’t tend to last as long.
When I started painting insects a few years ago it was a steep learning curve for me – especially those shiny, iridescent beetles. When I’m painting the elytra (wing case) of a shiny beetle, it’s almost abstract and I get lost in the patterns, colours, and high contrast. I really love painting moths and butterflies, those scales and hairs require a lot of dry brushing, which I find very therapeutic.
Again, because I like the detail, I view my insects through a microscope. It’s really the best way to figure out what’s going – along with consulting reference books, websites. Also, Facebook groups are really useful for obtaining information from clever and generous individuals.
Many of the insects in my collection are found dead in my garden or when I go walking, and people bring me ‘dead bugs’ – I love it! Insects that we think are ‘boring’ are absolutely fascinating when you look at them through the microscope – I really think everyone should have one.
I started teaching botanical and insect illustration a few years back. It is really rewarding seeing the students’ confidence grow, along with their skills. People are always better at painting than they think they will be.
Really, anyone can do it. The ‘I can’t draw a straight line’ doesn’t wash with me – I can’t draw a straight line either! And I’m really bad at Pictionary because I can’t draw quickly. There is so much information available to us now, such as Doodlewash and other online resources – people should just give it a go. And practice!
I have taken a break from teaching for a while, but I get a lot of enquiries about classes. For this reason (it’s been on the ‘to do’ list for a couple of years) I have created an online tutorial. Being in Australia I decided to focus the tutorial on our iconic Eucalyptus leaves.
They are a great subject for practising the different techniques, and I have a troubleshooting section which addresses common issues in watercolour painting. Eucalyptus leaves are a great subject for painters of all skill levels. A simple wet-in-wet leaf can look stunning, or you can take it all the way to a really detailed study. These leaves usually have some imperfections caused by disease or insects, and it’s actually quite fun to incorporate those into your painting. They don’t look real if they are ‘perfect’.
Looking back over the last 20 years of painting, I have some great memories. Being involved in art committees, helping organise exhibitions, maintaining websites, designing promotional material, etc. There are always volunteers required in the art community and it’s a nice way to get involved and give back. I’ve met so many wonderful people interested in plants and art.
Once you start paying attention to the natural world around you, it’s impossible to stop. I’m inspired by most things in nature, from a pretty flower to a chewed leaf or tiny gumnut. Painting nature is a fantastic way to increase your appreciation of it. Be inspired!
It’s been fun sharing my story with you, and thanks to Charlie for giving me the opportunity. If you would like to know anything more, I’d love to hear from you. I hope I’ve inspired you to have a go at botanical painting!Recommended4 recommendationsPublished in