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A snapshot of autumn

By Helen Roberts

With autumn having finally kicked in, what better way to spend a sunny Sunday than drinking in the colours of the Botanic Garden and tapping into our creative juices. A few weeks ago, Nicola and I did just this, enjoying the Botanic Gardens’ September colours whilst also taking part in the watercolour course “A Snapshot of Autumn”. It was five hours of uninterrupted, child-free, creative learning for two enthusiastic mums!

'I straightaway learnt apples are difficult to paint...' -
watercolour by Helen Roberts.
Annie Morris, an experienced botanical artist and member of The Society of Botanical Artists and Society of Floral Painters, taught 17 of us on the day. The course doesn't require any previous experience, which was good as Nicola and I are both beginners in watercolours. Though neither of us have ever attended a course, both of us (I think) are confident putting pencil or brush to paper in other media.

Annie started with demonstrations on drawing and basic watercolour techniques. We crowded around her as she worked confidently and swiftly, first drawing the outline of the leaves in front of her, then applying her washes of colour. Annie had brought in a considerable assortment of cuttings as inspirational material; there were lovely sprigs of rowan with bright red berries, clusters of acorns and branches of apples and sloes to choose from as our subject matter. Nicola grabbed an oak cluster and I chose an apple branch and we both steered clear of the rowan sprigs, fearing the complication of all the pointy leaflets.

The majority of people on the course were not new to watercolours and had attended some of Annie’s courses before; some are currently enrolled in the traditional botanical art course being run on Monday afternoons at the Botanic Gardens. Most people just wanted to improve on their technique and enjoy a day of uninterrupted painting.

Nicola's oak sprig.
After selecting our foliage of choice, we diligently set to work sketching. Annie had endless tips – for instance; how to place the plant in a way so it sits in a natural position rather than like some specimen sprawled on a table.  When we were satisfied we had captured the essence of our cutting in pencil, we then took the plunge with the watercolours. I learnt straight away, as I took the paintbrush in my hand, that watercolour painting is very difficult; Annie made it all look so easy with her demonstrations. You can’t muck about with the paints, you have to think about light and dark before putting brush to paper. You almost paint in the negative, if that makes any sense, thinking about where you don’t want to apply paint rather than where you do. Once you’ve added colour you cannot take it away easily and you don’t use white paint in watercolours to add light.

Straight away I struggled with mixing my colours and my initial apple leaves were an insipid green. Nicola, on the other hand, was struggling with having to work quickly and with small bits at a time to avoid hard edges when the paint dries too quickly. Before we broke for lunch, Annie pulled us back to her desk to demonstrate how to add the finer detail – with a few strokes she was bringing her samples to life and giving them depth.

We spent lunch in the garden, soaking up the sun’s rays. We sat with a woman who had travelled from Monmouth and had done a lot of calligraphy, but not watercolour. She and her husband are members of the Botanic Garden and she thought the watercolour course was a wonderful excuse to visit the Garden.

Helen's apple branch - the product of five delightful
hours spent painting.
We returned to our work to add leaf veins, holes, fruit, nut and stem details. I straightaway learnt apples are difficult to paint and was muttering a bit about my choice of fruit. Nicola was stumped with adding detail to the acorn cup. However, after 5 hours we had produced something pretty acceptable. The final demonstration from Annie was a number of useful techniques, such as how to paint a water drop on a leaf – the result was truly amazing, so lifelike!

We all had a very inspiring day and I was pleased with my final painting. My 5-year old son wants to frame it! Both Nicola and I are going to be investing in some good quality brushes and enrol on Annie’s course in the winter. In the meantime, we’ll be looking to the beautiful colours on display this autumn to get inspired and do some more painting!

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