Yesterday we looked at a 19th Century natural history artist with enduring appeal, today we focus on an outstanding modern day one. Rachel Pedder-Smith is a contemporary botanical artist who achieved acclaim for her Herbarium Specimen Painting, first exhibited at Kew Gardens in 2012. At five meters long, this large-scale watercolour montage of plant bits is a rather thrilling piece of art, with some equally impressive botanical credentials: Over 700 carefully chosen Kew Herbarium specimens were used in the making, painstakingly chosen and then painted by Pedder-Smith. Some of these had been collected by British natural history luminaries, including Darwin, Hooker and Bentham. A minimum of one plant part from each of the 506 flowering plant families classified under the APG II system are depicted, making it a truly global expression of plant diversity, as well as a striking visual representation of the depth of botanical treasure held by Kew Gardens.
It is not just the size and botanical reach that makes this artwork unique. There is something in the way she paints. Her subjects have pop, seemingly full of life, jumping off the page if you will, which is amazing considering she is rendering long since deceased things stuck to the page. To try and understand how she managed to do it all so well, we asked her a few questions and you can read her answers below. If you missed this artwork at Kew when last on show, you will have another opportunity to see it first-hand later this year (see below).
We also really like her website, proving once again that even in this day and age, when you can employ a multitude of bells and whistles in digital design, if you are an artist with some amazing artwork to display, you need very little more to produce an original and engaging online presence.
Is Herbarium Specimen Painting currently on display anywhere now?
It is not on display currently but will be from September for six months in the gallery in Kew gardens as part of the Inspiring Kew exhibition. I think one small piece is currently exhibited in the gallery and the bean painting is on display in Japan.
The colours of Herbarium Specimen Painting really are striking. Herbarium specimen colours fade, others turn black, some may have been altered by pressing techniques. What process did you go through with colour?
I paint the specimens the colour that they are when I get them from the storage – I do not alter the colour. I did try and choose some that had retained original colour though.
How much compromise is there in your artwork between scientific accuracy and aesthetic rendering?
I try and be as scientifically accurate as possible and the images are checked over by the people I work with at Kew. I think composition is key to trying to make something look contemporary. Also being bold and not too much bright green!
Herbarium Specimen Painting was completed as part of your PhD, with the associated thesis readable online. Are you able to tell us one of the most interesting things your research uncovered about natural history or specimen art?
It was quite interesting to see that we were all trying to say the same sort of things about objects telling stories- and natural history specimens telling similar sorts of stories. I was really pleased to find that there was such a variety of art- from very representational to very abstract.
Sections of Herbarium Specimen Painting can be seen below along with Rachel Pedder-Smith’s homepage design.