Iris 'Jane Phillips' (detail) watercolour on paper 1:1 2005

Iris 'Jane Phillips' (detail)
watercolour on paper 1:1

The study of natural form and its relationship to space has become my lifelong experimental inquiry. Through this I have sought to free the flower subject from the still life genre and place it at centre stage.

A Short Discourse
Coral G Guest

My botanic work is focused upon the world of flowering plants. I describe myself as an Observational Flower Painter. In so doing, I refer equally to the botanical realm of flowering plants, and to the history of flower painting within the fine art sphere. This has become termed the New Flower Painting because the genre has now separated itself from its historic adventure into the world of still life painting. The genre now carries with it much that it has learnt from that formative experience.

The subjects that I focus upon include not only the flowers themselves, but also those which have the potential for flowers, or support the growth of flowers, such as fruit, seeds, stems, leaves, and roots.

I often represent hybrid garden plants, and include root or stem storage systems of plants such as the peony, tulip, lily and iris. I have a particular liking for individual flowers that have been cultivated by human intervention and for competition. I also watch over those which are pot-grown commercially, focusing upon the environmental, cultural and political implications of this. The thread that binds these separate classes is for me a lifelong interest in horticulture. As a practicing Artist Gardener, my views are based on being in close contact with plant life, on a daily basis, and exactly how this affects our material and cultural life.

My work is understated in a mannered and English fashion and my aim and major concern is to document our connections to the flowers in our lives and their link to popular culture in the making.

My work process has consciously sought to bring into being an evolved version of the classical art of Flower Painting. Because I have no recourse to dramatisation, but rather to observation, I refrain from anthropomorphising the flowering plant. In this way, I aim to reveal something that perhaps others do not have access to. This may be understood as an experience of the strange beauty that flowers bestow upon us, when we face them one to one and without the filter of personal need. 

The works I create have always had curious titles and employ the use of numbering. As a positive refrain from anthropomorphisation, I do not employ given names, as they are not my pets. Consequently, the titles are often mysterious and relate to my individual experience of the natural world as a whole. Place names are ubiquitous in my work, as these cannot be separated from the plant life or the work. Such works are depicted within an element that I perceive as space. The time of day is indicative of what the flora offers to the work as a response to its environment. It grows into space accordingly.

The history of botanical art has provided us with the flat background as a two-dimensional tradition. I broke with this tradition as a student in 1975, when studying formal abstraction with the painter Sean Scully. The spatial implication in which the image of the image of the plant is present, may be a coloured, white, or black space. Each one has its own inference and history.

The consequential training in large brush calligraphy in Japan, enabled me to develop an acute awareness of pictorial dimension. This marks my work as very different from other forms of botanical art. Conceptually, this goes far and beyond the inclusion of an unpainted area of paper or canvas that is used as part of a design or a composition. The study of natural form and its relationship to space has formed a lifelong experimental inquiry, through which I have sought to free the flower subject from the still life genre and place it at centre stage.

The naturalistic precision painting, and the study work, is fundamentally focused upon observational painting and drawing directly from life. I use the study works to capture a direct response to nature. As a reference material, they are a means of coming to terms with the transience of plant life, and I use them as reference material for larger works, often continuing the dialogue years later.

Painting and drawing directly from life is edgy and demands a leap into the unknown. A staged photograph will rescue an artist from this disturbing endeavour and provide a ready-made polished end-view, but this is not my approach. I use the work as a means of engendering a greater conscious awareness in myself.

Aspects of my inner naivety sometimes make an appearance in the work. As all painters do, I come face to face with myself. Thereafter, I experience transformative strengths and weaknesses through the working process.

Florist's Carnation, NW3  from the To Be Free Series watercolour on paper  1994

Florist's Carnation, NW3
from the To Be Free Series
watercolour on paper

The origins of the Colour Study can be found within the pages of the late medieval Books of Hours, where the naturalistic study was first created. The Precision Work that I practice has its origins in the landscape of the Northern Renaissance.

My early background with the flowers was through the suburban gardens and domestic horticulture of north west London. This, combined with childhood travels with my family, made an incalculable impression upon my life and future work.

I entered into the botanical art world as a painter with a background in serious fine art. Consequently, my work offers this kind of perspective on the flowering world and it holds content and meaning, which are philosophical in tone.

The origins of the Colour Study work can be found within the pages of the late medieval Books of Hours, where the naturalistic study was first created. The Precision Work that I practice has its source in the naturalistic landscape of the Northern Renaissance. These works were my first love as a child artist. I wanted to be amongst such works in museums.

These traditions demonstrate natural beauty in natural light. I have held true to this particular timeline, since discovering it as a young person, and have sought to rebuild and renew it in ways that are unusual and forward looking, whilst maintaining its original depth of purpose and intent.

I have drawn upon my background in both abstraction and landscape painting to develop techniques and methods of working. Through this, I aimed to raise the game for botanical artists, by putting techniques at their disposal that were previously not a part of the botanical art tradition.

I have sought to rebuild and renew the Flower Painting genre in ways that are unusual and forward looking, whilst maintaining its original purpose and depth of intent.

As a process, my work embraces the idea and reality of beauty. It explores a serious interest in how we experience beauty through the flowering world. I look keenly upon the influence this has upon us, both individually and collectively. This form of botanic work is not primarily devoted to decorative concerns, neither does it serve the work of the scientist. The flowers do not serve me, I serve the flowers. Through focused concentration, each flower image transmutes into an irradiation of tranquillity. I experience this as a creative collaboration with, and a meditation upon, the plant kingdom. Unlike other forms of botanical art, it is essentially devotional

As a painting student in the early 1970s, I studied the philosophy of aesthetics and read about the notion of beauty at a time when this subject was deeply unfashionable. In the early 1980s, I made the decision to endorse the actuality of beauty in the flowering world through my work. This intention became an ongoing artistic aim. I consider aesthetics very seriously, and do not use the word lightly. For example, I choose not to use the phrase ‘aesthetically pleasing’ as I find it both shallow and patronising to the viewer and the flowering plant.

My travels, and art education in both eastern and western traditions, have allowed me to cultivate a unique insight into the many ways that light reacts with form. Each piece of work is drawn and/or painted directly from life and within natural light, both in field study and in larger studio work. I view the flowers as inseparable from light. Daylight, in all its complexity, holds a very distinct place in my work, and I have an innate need to work with a moment by moment direct connection to the subject matter through its illumination.

Lamp light is not employed in my studio work, simply because I do not need it. As an observational painter, I am focused on the effects of daylight in both the studio and the field. If the days are short, I work with this.

All plants, when they come into the studio, are observed from a north facing daylight source. Many of the plants I work with are cultivated in my home garden. I have, therefore, always worked in empathy with the weather patterns of the time and place, and the seasonal alterations that affect plant life.

Travelling with my work is something that has been an ongoing theme since 1978. In late 2007, I consciously ceased international air travel. In this attempt to lower my individual carbon footprint, I have needed to employ other forms of travel. I have somehow survived as an international artist by quietly working with projects in the UK. I don’t see this as a virtue, but rather more as a necessity, and because as a self-employed artist I am able to change my work patterns.

I will travel again by plane, but not for the time being. The sacrifice has really not been a sacrifice, it has become a mystery tour. I respect that many artists don’t regard this issue as important. It is certainly not my place to prescribe to other artists how often they should travel by plane. This process for me has been a private and quiet influence over more than ten years of life and work. I simply could not justify regular air flight.

Sometimes, when in the garden, I look up at the sky and see a long-haul flight headed for a faraway place. Then, out of the blue, I have the great longing that all travellers have. This state of mind is swiftly eclipsed by the grounding knowledge that air travel is no longer glamourous or romantic.

January 2018 to May 2019

This essay may not be copied or used in any way without permission. Practicing artists or students may not lift phrases or language from this discourse and use them as their own. Lectures including Coral G Guest’s quotations require permission before they can be included.

Rosa 'Compte de Chambord' Unconditional Love Series rapid Colour Study watercolour on paper 2002

Rosa 'Compte de Chambord' Unconditional Love Series
rapid Colour Study
watercolour on paper

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