GUEST ARTIST: “The Perfection (and Imperfections) of Nature” by Cheryl Hodges

Monga Waratah Bontanical Illustration Watercolor by Cheryl Hodges

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.

australian native collection botanical illustration by Cheryl Hodges

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.

My Process

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.

eucalyptus leucoxylon red Watercolor Botanical Illustration by Cheryl Hodges

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.

swainsona recta Watercolor Botanical Illustration by Cheryl Hodges

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!

Materials

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.

Painting Insects

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.

cicada yellow monday botanical illustration by Cheryl Hodges

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.

Teaching

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.

quercus canberra Watercolor Botanical Illustration by Cheryl Hodges

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!

Online Tutorial

hodges_euc leucoxylon tutorial​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’.

Be Inspired

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.

snowgum tree painting by Cheryl Hodges

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!

Cheryl Hodges
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Online Tutorial (on Udemy)

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16 Comments
  1. Zertab Quaderi 2 months ago

    Your botanical artworks are breathtaking! I’m amazed at the amount of patience you must have. If you have any videos on YouTube, would love to watch the process!

  2. Susan Feniak 2 months ago

    Superb!

  3. Chantel Keona 2 months ago

    Nice!

  4. Mary Roff 2 months ago

    Incredibly beautiful work!! Thank you for sharing!

  5. Mugdha 2 months ago

    Hello Cheryl,

    Your botanical artwork is marvellous and so inspiring. I am a very early beginner so your paintings looked really overwhelming. I really loved the collection of acorns! Thanks so much for sharing your journey.

  6. Laura Kate 2 months ago

    I also like the collection of acorns – maybe because I have so many oak trees growing in my yard. I am intrigued with your backgrounds, such as the black line drawing of trees behind the purple flower spray, and the line drawing of wings behind your butterfly. They are way more interesting than classical botanicals, which are usually painted on white backgrounds.

  7. Eduardo Cabrera Campos 2 months ago

    Fascinante, me gusto tu trabajo, muy detallado, mucha paciencia,muy lindo. Fascinante

  8. Lisa 2 months ago

    Love the insects! They make me want to try some.

  9. Karen Fortier 2 months ago

    Thanks so much Cheryl for sharing your story and your gorgeous art! I had thought that this was the direction that my art would go a few years ago but my muse pushed me totally in a different direction. We all have our own path to travel.

  10. Sandra Strait 2 months ago

    Cheryl, your paintings are exquisite! I love the detail, sharp and complex but never confusing. Thank you for sharing your artistic journey with us!

  11. Marisela Delgado 2 months ago

    Wow, Cheryl! You rock star! Your paintings are stunning! They look like photographs.

  12. Kellie 2 months ago

    Beautiful pieces! 👌😊

  13. LoriCtoo 2 months ago

    Wonderful work! Thank you for sharing your story. You also taught me a tidbit that I hadn’t ever thought about….less water and more pigment for details. Well, that will be a game changer for me! Teehee

  14. Sharon Bonin-Pratt 2 months ago

    Cheryl, I love your approach to capturing the essence of nature by close observation and learning about the specimens you paint. Your caring for your subjects shows in every one of your outstanding paintings. What a pleasure to spend part of my morning looking at your artwork.

  15. Susan Masters 2 months ago

    Fantastic works!

  16. Jerson Antao 1 month ago

    Nice Botanical Art..keep up the good work.!😊

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