“Drawing and Painting Plants”, by Christina Brodie - The Story Behind the Book
Updated: Feb 14
It is safe to say that “Drawing and Painting Plants” was the book I had always been destined to write. People had already predicted that I would either write books and illustrate them, or become some mad scientist, from about the tenth year of my life. In a manner of speaking, this book fulfilled all of these expectations.
I had taken a break from Art following my degree in textiles and fashion - following which, the course leaders at Winchester, and myself, were glad to see the back of each other, and I swore never to touch Art with a barge-pole again. I was told by family members, who had clearly been unfulfilled in their own careers, that I had “wasted (my) time”, but rather than expounding openly on the irony of their words, and channelling my energies into expressing some elaborate and choice retort, spent the next few years doing Other Things, and finding out Who I Was. I worked; I learned to drive; I got married, and studied part-time at college for Biology and Chemistry “A” levels, with a view to doing a science degree in Botany or Biochemistry. In the event, I never went on to do either one of these degrees, but the qualifications were excellent groundwork for my later forays into botanical painting, and horticultural design.
My interest in botanical painting was piqued in around 1998, by the Keith West book “How To Draw Plants”. This, interestingly enough, was published by Bloomsbury, who were later to publish my own book. Through further investigation, I found that the National Collection of Passiflora, which was home to over 200 varieties of passion flower - and its curator, an expert in passion flowers and their pollinating Heliconia butterflies - were based only a short distance from where I lived at the time. On the days that I was able to paint on-site, I would cycle to the location with a drawing-board on the back of my bike, before subjecting myself to the challenges of 40°C and intense humidity in the large greenhouses, as well as the unmistakably exotic perfumes emanating from both flowers and fruits at certain times of day. Depending on the pollinator of the flower, these are not always pleasant; some are positively musty, and less appealing to the human nose than, I suspect, that of your average fly.
I was awarded a Silver-Gilt medal on first showing my work at one of the RHS annual exhibitions of botanical art in London. This was encouraging, and my move to Exmoor the following year opened up a whole new world of opportunities for me in terms of offering subjects from the natural world to paint, as well as my own personal improvement. I also enrolled on a horticulture and landscape course at Cannington Agricultural College. Whilst I have never been a fan of secondary or higher education, I have always found the type of Further/ tertiary Education courses offered by technical colleges, to be much more useful and enjoyable on account of their practicality.
I also acquired a basic qualification in teaching adults, and set up a botanical painting course in two parts, of ten lessons each - the material for which, both painted and written, was later to provide the basis for the individual chapters of my book. I was absolutely determined not to be the sort of unhelpful, proscriptive tutor I had encountered during secondary school and Uni.. I was adamant that I would do things differently, and offer something that was over and above the standard which most people could expect to experience.
Amongst my teaching groups were those with MS, different learning needs, or those on substance rehabilitation programmes, as well as those with PhDs in Astrophysics from Oxford. With very rare exceptions, the enjoyment of, and enthusiasm for, the classes was unanimous. Making reference to real-life examples, the classes covered subjects such as different plant categories and their botanical names, including fungi, algae, seaweeds and lichens; painting the flowers, leaves, fruit and bark of a tree in different seasons; the rendering of plants in different media; plant dissection and microscopy; making scientifically, as well as aesthetically sound, presentations; and laws covering the collecting of plant samples, where possible using photographs from which to work instead of material collected from the field.
As the book was taking shape inside my mind, I noted the feedback from publishers. The first publisher I sent my proposal to wasn’t interested. The second publisher I approached was A & C Black - a Bloomsbury imprint, and curiously enough, the publisher of the book by Keith West which had sparked my original interest in the subject. I was given the name of the Commissioning Editor to whom I should send my proposal. I duly sent the proposal and waited.
When I heard back from the publisher - via a phone call from the Commissioning Editor in person - my heart was in my mouth. To say I was delighted was an understatement. I had been very lucky, as this was only the second publisher I had approached in order to approve my proposal. Their reason for doing so was that, whilst they were indeed able to draw on their back catalogue of excellent botanical painting manuals, they had not updated their range for some time, and needed something with a new look and a fresh approach.
I was given some 18 months within which to complete the book. During this time, I also designed gardens (carrying off the Gold Medal in my section at the National Amateur Gardening Show, for my design of an interior garden), taught painting courses at RHS Rosemoor as well as locally, and was twice awarded an RHS Gold Medal for botanical painting - once for studies of grasses on a road verge, and once for drawings of diatoms (microscopic algae, magnified to 1000x) rendered using scraperboard.
The finalising of the book's material also coincided with the end of my marriage, and my subsequent move to London. Though some of these developments had been inevitable but sad, I was intrigued and curious about the book, which would be published the next year. Not only was it published in the UK under the A & C Black imprint, but also by Timber Press in the US; demand sufficiently outstripped supply to warrant a second edition. I was thrilled when it came out; the team who had worked on it was small but talented, and had clearly pulled out all the stops.
The book was something of an original when it came out in 2006, due to its novel approach; reviews I’ve read since then range from the understandably enthusiastic and likely to give five stars, to those who complain how hard it is to read, and how detailed/ complex/ scientific it is, and that they can’t get past the first word.
Now, I realize there is a market for instruction books which demonstrate how to produce warm and fuzzy flower paintings, where wet-in-wet painting techniques, and the old trick of spattering the image with paint from the bristles of a toothbrush, are freely extolled. However, me being myself (make of that what you will) - I am not for making purely pretty pictures for the sake of it; so if that is your goal, maybe this book is not for you. Or maybe it is - if you are content to enjoy the journey of leafing through the book, feasting your eyes on the eye-poppingly colourful and meticulous drawings and paintings, as well as a wealth of information, which even at the time of writing this article many years later, continues to be informative and relevant. One can dip in and out of it, at leisure; it is deliberately not proscriptive, and I never intended it to be so.
Drawing and Painting Plants was a hard act to follow, and my exploration of botanical painting had been so thorough and intense that I considered I had taken it as far as I personally could - for the time being. As any botanical painter will tell you, you don’t do it for the money - one of the exceptions being my contribution to an international advertising campaign by Honda, which was being coordinated by a major advertising firm, and won several awards in 2011. My task was to paint a highly detailed series of paintings of sweetcorn, as well as a car seat - which would be portrayed alongside each other in the finished artwork, to show how the new car seats of certain models would be derived from corn husk fibres.
Will I ever return to it? I don’t know. At present, I can only say that life is predictable in its unpredictability, and - as many would say, that the journey is there to be enjoyed. On my journey, I have accumulated so much information - and certainly, now have different priorities - that this present point in time is one of important development of my own personal ideas, as distinct from simply just being good at what I do.
The experience I gained from this period of my life was important to me, in terms of my being self-taught, and its sheer, self-imposed depth. It was a time where I learned everything I didn’t learn at secondary, or Art, schools - like how to draw and paint properly, via a failsafe method worked out by myself which would underpin any techniques one chose to apply to the original drawing.
For, not only was I, in some manner of speaking, publicly able to offer up my own learning methods as an antidote to the previous disappointing, frustrating and confusing teaching I had experienced, but I was also building up to a significant level of technical expertise, proficiency and confidence. This in turn meant that, once I had drawn and studied plants at the level which I ultimately did - having "taught myself properly", despite a reputation for "unteachability" - I realized I could draw and paint, whilst not everything, certainly not far off.
“Drawing and Painting Plants”, by Christina Brodie, is available from Amazon: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Drawing-Painting-Plants-Christina-Brodie/dp/071366889X/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=drawing+and+painting+plants&qid=1605899814&sr=8-1
A selection of Christina's botanical paintings is at https://www.queen-christina.com/queen-christina-botanical-art-ceramics