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Old Lyme exhibit showcases finer details of botanical portraiture

There is the beauty of what you can see with the naked eye. And then there is the astonishingly detailed drawing and brushwork you can see with magnifying glasses provided to viewers who come to "The Magnified Eye II: Contemporary Botanical Portraiture" at the diane birdsall gallery in Old Lyme.

The show features works on paper and vellum by 16 leading, award-winning botanical artists from the U.S. and the U.K. who are represented by Susan Frei Nathan Fine Works on Paper of New York City.

Diane Birdsall says she chose to do the show with Frei Nathan because although this is not an area she's studied or of which she has done extensive observation, she's always admired artists that paint the beauty of flowers.

"I thought it would be a nice collaboration and that audiences in this area would appreciate this kind of work, which at this level of excellence is not shown around here," she says. "They are all established botanical artists who've been awarded in their field for their artistic accomplishments."

Birdsall said she discovered that it's necessary to use a magnifying glass to fully appreciate the show.

"I have learned the intensive seeing one can do when they observe under magnification a botanical watercolor," she says. "It is this art form of building up color over time using thin layers of paint and a very fine brush and the results can be life-like."

The artists, Birdsall notes, all have their own interest in how they present their botanical artistry.

"The variation in plant choice, scale, point of bloom or decay, composition - all these elements make each individual artist's work unique," she says.

Birdsall describes the work of some of the artists that particularly stand out for her.

"Jean Emmons (of Washington State) has two paintings on vellum I can not stop looking at," Birdsall says. "Both seem life-like and yet sort of captured in a bell jar of suspension. Her roses are worthy museum quality works - and she is in many museum collections."

Birdsall finds that Gertrude Hamilton (of New York), who created the largest works in the show, has utter gracefulness in her compositions. Hamilton is known for painting her subjects with distinctive personalities, as well as scientific accuracy, so her works are more like natural history portraits than simple studies.

"She is the only artist in the show whose compositions are made up of many botanical flowers and insects, which she balances in an absolutely beautiful way," Birdsall says.

Denise Walser-Kolar of Minnesota paints cherries on vellum that are rendered in an almost trompe l'oeil style, Birdsall observes.

"The small works are like gems and her position of the fruit and the stem seem to indicate just picked and held in the hand," she says.

Local artist Elizabeth Enders of Lyme and New York City is the most whimsical of the botanical artists in the show, Birdsall points out.

"She chooses to capture the essence of the flower in as few strokes as possible, sometimes not even connecting the leaves to the stems or the heads of flowers to the stalk," Birdsall says. "She is a brutal editor but she captures not only the specimen but also the personality of the flower … if one can say flowers have personalities!"


On June 5, Beverly Duncan, whose work is in the show, will give a demonstration of her process.

Born in Hawaii, Duncan, who now lives in Ashfield, Mass., studied graphic design and children's book illustration, but she didn't start doing botanical art until 1991 when she met the British botanical artist Jessica Tcherepnine, who she says inspired and encouraged her as a beginner.

"I was self taught in the beginning and then took classes," Duncan says.

She became a member of the American Society of Botanical Artists when it was first forming in 1998.

"I began to meet more botanical artists. I entered a piece in the show and it sold and I was commissioned to do another one.

"The organization has grown and the whole art form in the U.S. has become more sophisticated and more competitive," she adds.

Duncan has received numerous awards, including from the Horticultural Society of New York, which gave her "Best in Show" in 1999.

Duncan's own gardens and the woods surrounding her home are the inspiration for all of her work, including a series called The Ashfield Compositions in which she follows the seasons.

"I live in the country and grow a lot of my own vegetables, plants, fruit trees and flowers," she says. "Because I have been influenced by early botanical artists and not just the mainstream, this seasonal painting is really important to me. I paint the world around me in Western Massachusetts. I'm surrounded by so much beauty, I paint what I've grown or what's native out there."

Duncan explains that there are two parts to botanical art.

"There's the scientific part, portraying the plant accurately. And then there's the artistic part, expressed in composition," she says.

Her process is to start by drawing.

"The drawing part is very important to get it accurate," she stresses. "I bring plants into my studio and look at them from many positions, and think about how I'm composing on the page."

She then transfers her drawings onto watercolor paper or vellum - animal skin prepared for this kind of painting.

"It doesn't absorb paint, and so there's a translucency of painting on top of this surface," she says, "a wonderful play with light that makes paintings on vellum sparkle a little."

Finally, she paints using a dry brush technique and very fine brushes to get the detail, building up layers of watercolor, starting with the lightest to the darkest, and adding final details.

"The lighting is very important," she notes, "to have one good focus point that highlights the three dimensions of what we're painting."

Duncan says she will bring in some late spring/early summer seasonal flowers to paint during her demonstration. She will also bring in examples from her sketchbook series, in which she is commissioned to spend time in people's gardens, making sketches to represent the four seasons.

"The drawing in this series is more sketchbook like," she explains, "meaning looser, drawing in pencil with some color added, along with notations of plants, the season, the day, factual info, etc., as would be found in a good sketchbook."


What: "The Magnified Eye II: Contemporary Botanical Portraiture"; also in the show are wire and wood sculptures by Mare McClellan

Where: diane birdsall gallery, 16 Lyme St., Old Lyme

When: Through June 15; a demonstration by Beverly Duncan and lecture by Susan Frei Nathan will be held Thursday, June 5, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Reservations and info: (860) 434-3209


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