Talking Paint with Holly Somerville


Cucurbita pepo, Holly Somerville

Cucurbita pepo, Holly Somerville

It was a year ago this week that a small group of botanical artists met at the invitation of the National Botanic Gardens, to discuss the possibility of forming a group that would both encourage and inspire botanical art in Ireland, and bring together both artists and those who just appreciate plants and painting. Our artists range from the more established and experienced, to those who are just taking their first tentative steps into the rather daunting world of botanical art.

We met up regularly to share ideas, admire artwork and forge new friendships, each time growing steadily in number. To encourage people to paint, we initiated projects like the Irish Alphabet Project, and the more informal Painting Project, where a fun brief is given out at every meeting to everyone.

Another idea is to hold regular Painting Workshops for ISBA members, the first of which will take place on June 9th at the beautiful Mount Slaney Studios. I met up with Wicklow-based artist Holly Somerville, who will be running the workshop, to discuss her approach to painting.

Mount Slaney Gallery and Studios

“My first advice is to always go for something that appeals to you, but keep it simple! You don’t have to paint every leaf! Personally I tend to go for the architecturally structural plants like unfurling ferns, or buds that are just about to open. I love the work by Karl Blossfeldt (1865-1932), a German artist, sculptor and photographer.


Karl Blossfeldt, Art Forms in Nature

Karl Blossfeldt, Art Forms in Nature

I usually paint my subjects from life, and preferably with natural light coming in from the left. I work in a north-facing studio. I also have a daylight lamp for use on those dark winter days. I set up my subject with a white board behind it. If I am painting a flower, I will use a soaked floral oasis to get the best position for the painting. If you can bring the whole plant growing in a pot indoors, that would work best.

Studio set-up with her Snowflake (Leucojum aestivum).

Studio set-up with her Snowflake (Leucojum aestivum).

I try to photograph the set-up at the beginning of the day, before the buds start to open and leaves start to move. It’s amazing how much plants can move!! Occasionally I use photographs for the whole painting, but only if the plant isn’t available and someone wants it quickly. However I am rarely satisfied with the results and much prefer to work from life! I always paint my subjects life-size. If I am doing a scientific illustration, I will measure up carefully, but otherwise I do it by sight.

I use Fabriano 4 which is very smooth but is quite lightweight. It doesn’t like a lot of water, but I tend to paint quite dryly. I use Winsor and Newton series7 brushes, the sable miniatures. I love working with tiny brushes- I have a 000 which I would use the most. I draw out my subject with a HB pencil. I use big sheets of paper, even if it’s a small painting. I tend to dive straight in to the painting!

I use white plates for my palettes, for example I have a plate for greens and a plate for reds, pinks and purples, depending on the subject.  (You can see them in the studio photograph) I use mainly Schmincke paints, tubes not pans. I keep a little sketchbook of colour charts, mainly charts of pure colour. Occasionally if I come across a good colour mix, I will make a note of that too. For example I found the perfect mix for an azalea recently- Opera Rose + Winsor Orange.

Holly's sketchbook of colour charts

Holly’s sketchbook of colour charts

Once set up, it’s time to observe the plant and to look for the light. I do a layer of all the lightest washes, reserving the highlights. Then I look at the plant and notice the darks. The next layer of washes would be to establish the midtones. I slowly continue building up the layers until I am happy with the painting.

Hip, Haw. Holly, Elder. Sloe  by Holly Somerville

Hip, Haw. Holly, Elder. Sloe by Holly Somerville

My favourite green mix would be Aureolin + French Ultramarine, with maybe some Burnt Umber added. When painting white flowers, I would use a grey of Viridian + Alizarin crimson.  Winsor Orange + French Ultramarine also makes a nice smooth grey. A big mistake of beginners is to use Viridian as a green… don’t!! It works best as a shadow colour.

My regular palette of paints would be Aureolin, French Ultramarine, Winsor Orange, Winsor Red, Alizarin Crimson, Burnt Umber, Viridian, Blue Violet and Purple Magenta.  I never use black!”

Holly’s Painting Day will be held at her beautiful studios in Mount Slaney, Co. Wicklow on June 9th from 10:30-4pm. The fee for the day will be €50 including a delicious lunch, which is a special reduced rate for ISBA members. Numbers are limited. Please contact Holly to reserve your place at

Mary Rose

The summer brief for the ISBA Painting Project is Hot Petals, given by Holly.


 Time to heat things up after that chilly grey winter!

 Find the warmest-coloured petals you can and paint them scattered on A5 paper:  Orange azaleas, magenta rhododendrons, scarlet tulips, winsor red primulas, whatever is available and hot.

Or paint a whole flower or floret.  Concentrate on capturing the vibrant strong colours rather than perfecting shape or tone.  Have fun with the brightest colours in your palette.

 We will have a Show&Tell for the completed works at our next gathering on September 19th.


If you are still seeking inspiration, then please come and visit the Bloom Botanical Art Exhibition at Phoenix Park, running from May 26th until June 9th 2013, where paintings by a number of ISBA artists, including Holly’s will be on display.



Wendy Walsh

I wonder how many of the artists in the ISBA had their interest in botanical art whetted by the wonderful work of Wendy Walsh? Now 98 years old and still ready to graciously receive guests, Mrs Walsh has been an inspiration to many artists on this island and elsewhere. To meet her and her family in the beautiful surroundings of her home, the early 18th Century Burtown House, was a memorable occasion for a group of us earlier this month.

On 17 May–an astonishingly sunny Friday–about 20 of us gathered in the courtyard and café of Burtown House to be fortified with delicious home-made scones, cake, tea and coffee before our tour of the house and gardens. Seated in our midst was a slight elderly woman with a shock of white hair, accompanied by her daughter Anna who provided care and oversight for her mother as we all gradually overcame shyness and met the artist, asked her to sign treasured editions of her Irish Florilegium and other works, and just generally looked on in awe (or maybe that was only me).

Wendy Walsh signs a card for Mary Dillon

Wendy Walsh signs a card for Mary Dillon

As well as patiently signing the many and varied books and cards, Mrs Walsh agreed to go outside for a group photograph, spurning the offer of a chair and standing with the group between the spreading limbs of an old cherry tree and the grace of a magnolia.

ISBA members with Wendy Walsh

ISBA members with Wendy Walsh

What a happy crew we were, and this was before we had the opportunity to see so much of her work! All through the house, up the stairs, in the various bedrooms, in the hallways, were paintings and drawings from, it seemed to me, most episodes of Mrs Walsh’s long and productive artistic life.

Early painting of white flowers in a vase by Wendy Walsh

An early painting of Wendy’s

Wendy Walsh was born in Cumbria in 1915. Educated at home by a governess, she painted from an early age, encouraged by her mother. In 1941 she married John Walsh and moved to Ireland with him and their family in 1958. Wendy had spent time in Japan after the war, where she learnt ink-techniques and the Japanese philosophy of painting a subject: “They want to capture the soul of a flower, not just an image; that’s why they watch it, understand it, have it in their head and see how it behaves in the wind”. Looking at Wendy’s work, it’s clear she took this philosophy to heart and hand: the delicate petals on her apple and hawthorn blossoms have clearly opened to the spring sunshine and felt the tug of cold May winds.

A Painting of Hawthorn by Wendy Walsh

Hawthorn by Wendy Walsh

Her work throughout the 70s and 80s included a series of images of Irish flora and fauna that were reproduced on stamps. This was not her only work of course and it was in 1980 that she received her first of many RHS medals. The awards continued throughout the 80s and 90s, but according to her daughter Lesley Fennell (also a wonderful and accomplished artist), it was her Doctorate from the University of Dublin, Trinity College—conferred upon her in 1997—that pleased Wendy the most. Having been excluded from formal education during her childhood, she placed great value on it and was honoured and delighted to receive formal recognition for her achievements.

In 1983, the book for which Wendy is probably best known was published. The Irish Florilegium – Wild and Garden Plants of Ireland contains 48 colour plates of Wendy’s watercolours, many of which show plants first introduced by or in some other way connected to some of our intrepid plant hunters, gardeners and botanists. Dr E. Charles Nelson (at the time a horticultural taxonomist at the National Botanic Gardens) and Ruth Isobel Ross (a horticultural journalist) contributed the words to accompany and provide context for Wendy’s exquisite paintings.

A painting of Viola 'Molly Sanderson' by Wendy Walsh

Viola ‘Molly Sanderson’ by Wendy Walsh

Wendy has continued to work through her 90s–an inspiration to us all–and it seemed more than right that the budding ISBA should use its first ‘official’ outing as an opportunity to acknowledge the debt we owe her and to thank her for marvellous work over the years.

A painting of Wendy Walsh, painted by her daughter Lesley Fennell

Wendy Walsh, painted by her daughter Lesley Fennell

Today, Wendy’s family continues the artistic tradition, both through their own work in photography, painting, jewellery and garden design, and through their support of other artists in their own endeavours – currently the meadow at the front of the house provides an idyllic setting for sculpture of various kinds. According to Lesley Fennell, they welcome artists to come and set up in the gardens to paint at their ease. She may well be receiving some more visits from ISBA members in the future for who could resist such an offer?

More here:

Thanks to Shevaun Doherty for information for this article and the photo of Lesley’s portrait of Wendy. Thanks also to Lesley Fennell for her most informative tour of the house, the garden, and her mother’s work. Any errors here are mine!

Fionnuala Broughan

Yanny Petters Floral Alchemy Exhibition


Taraxacum officinale ~ Dandelion
Verre Églomisé/painting on glass 42cm x 39cm

“My work is inspired by the minutiae of nature. I explore the detail, colour and form within the realm of nature and the environment. My wish is to share with the viewer my fascination with the beautiful and bizarre, in a world which we all too easily take for granted.”             Yanny Petters

Yanny Petters’  Verre Églomisé panels are beautifully crafted and exquisitely rendered, drawing attention to those humble plants that most of us consider to be weeds. She says,

Vicia sepium ~ Bush Vetch painting & gilding on glass  Verre Églomisé   42cm x 39cm

Vicia sepium ~ Bush Vetch
painting & gilding on glass Verre Églomisé 42cm x 39cm

“Wild plants are an essential part of the symbiosis of the earth, giving humanity the basis for medicine, food, dyes and garden flowers as well as many other uses. I have always had a particular interest in Irish wild plants; the act of exploring paint techniques to depict these plants has been both fascinating and educational.”

It was whilst training as a signwriter that Yanny first came across the technique of Verre Églomisé and fascinated by the possibilities, she began to experiment and to develop her own unique style. Verre Églomisé involves painting on the back of glass using opaque colours and gold leaf and dates back to the Middle Ages. At that time, the typical subjects were religious icons and depictions of significant figures. The frequent use of gold leaf often made these panels very valuable and as the glass was hand blown, paintings on glass were restricted to small dimensions.

  Papaver rhoeas~ Common Poppy Verre Églomisé /painting on glass  42cm x 39cm

Papaver rhoeas~ Common Poppy
Verre Églomisé /painting on glass 42cm x 39cm

Yanny’s love of the illustrated Herbals of the 16th century has also influenced her creative path. These early illustrations of plants, used to identify medicinal varieties, were printed from engravings or wood cuts. Just as with the traditional Verre Églomisé, paper and vellum were very expensive and limited in size, so the artists had adapt the shapes of the plant into the available space to give a pleasing design, whilst still conveying accurate information, although sometimes with artistic licence. A couple of better known examples of these would be Tabernaemontanus whose prints are in John Gerarde’s ‘The Herball’ (1597) and Petrus A. Matthiolus (1565) whose cuts were copies from Leonard Fuchs (1545).

Yanny’s work is the product of many long hours of careful observation in the field. From these field drawings Yanny designs each panel on paper. The glass is then etched with acid, and in some pieces, she also engraves elements of the design giving the artwork a soft line and sparkle. Colour is applied in a series of carefully selected layers with the highlights being applied first. Gold leaf is applied to certain parts of the design giving a reflective quality to these areas. The finished painting is sealed with a layer of varnish or paint effect.

Trifolium pratense~ Red Clover painting & gilding on glass  Verre Églomisé  42cm x 39cm Yanny Petters 2013

Trifolium pratense~ Red Clover
painting & gilding on glass Verre Églomisé 42cm x 39cm
Yanny Petters 2013

Her work can be found in many important collections, including Dr. Shirley Sherwood’s Gallery at Kew Gardens, London, and in the National Botanic Gardens, Dublin.

Yanny’s exhibition of Verre Églomisé panels, Floral Alchemy is currently on at The Olivier Cornett Gallery until May 24th 2013.  Just like an Alchemist, in her hands weeds become as precious as gold, and pictures of wild plants become as valuable as icons.

For more information and how to get to the exhibition, go to   

Her work can be seen on her website

A very interesting essay comparing Yanny’s painting of ‘An Irish Meadow’ to Albrecht Dürer’s ‘The Large Turf’ can be found here



Galway Garden Festival 2012

Galway Garden Festival 2012

Since 2010, the annual two-day Galway Garden Festival has been held within the grounds of the beautifully restored 15th century Claregalway Castle. From modest beginnings the festival has grown into a major attraction drawing large crowds from around the country. In addition to specialist nurseries from all corners of Ireland, the festival includes live music, a series of talks by well-known speakers, children’s entertainment, a specialist bookshop, food stalls and much more. In 2012, the first annual Botanical Art Expo was held at the Castle in conjunction with the Garden Festival.

Galway Garden Festival 2013 at Claregalway Castle

Galway Garden Festival 2013 at Claregalway Castle

Botanical art exhibitions have been sadly few in number in the west of Ireland in the past, in spite of the many artists who have found inspiration in the flora of two of Ireland’s botanical jewels: the Burren and Connemara. The intention of the organisers is to offer botanical artists a new and attractive venue to exhibit their work, and to provide visitors with an opportunity to experience first-hand the high standards that prevail in Irish botanical art.expo121

Since last year’s Botanical Art Expo, we have seen the development of our fledgling  Irish Society of Botanical Artists, and this year it is hoped that more of our members will take part in the exhibition. Last year’s exhibitors included Grania Langrishe, Yanny Petters, Susan Sex and Lynne Stringer.

This year the Garden Festival will be held on Saturday and Sunday, 6 and 7 July, and the Botanical Art Expo will run from 6 July until early August (closing date tba). The exhibition will be opened during the evening of 6 July by Brendan Sayers, who is also one of the guest speakers at the Garden Festivalexpo122

As an integral part of the Garden Festival, the art exhibition attracts many visitors and potential buyers. During the summer, the castle is open to visitors daily from 11.00am until 4.00pm, during which time the botanical art exhibition will also be open.

In addition to the botanical art exhibition, there will also be space for artists to display and sell related items with a botanical theme, such as cards, calendars, prints etc.expo125

Whether or not you exhibit at the Botanical Art Expo, do consider spending some time at the Garden Festival. There is always a good chance of finding unusual plants, the speakers and the music are always excellent, and the castle itself is well worth a tour. For further details about the castle go to, and for more information about the Garden Festival, go to The castle is also on Facebook, and over the coming weeks, more information about the festival and the art exhibition will be found there.

An Interview with Lynn Stringer

Magnolia campbellii, Lynn Stringer

Magnolia campbellii, Lynn Stringer

Lynn Stringer, one of our founding members, recently exhibited at the Royal Horticultural Society London Botanical Art Exhibition, winning a silver medal for excellence. Lynn was one of thirty artists selected and the only one representing Ireland. The standard of work exhibited at the RHS is extremely high with a strong emphasis on botanical accuracy, artistic effect, quality of technique and overall presentation.

First of all, congratulations! Thats quite an achievement. How did you first become interested in botanical art?
I’ve always loved illustration of all kinds. I did Fine Art at the Dublin Institute of Technology as a mature student, specialising in painting. A few years later I read an article on Susan Sex’s paintings for “Ireland’s Wild Orchids” and saw that she gave a one week workshop in the Burren every year.  I went down with a friend and was hooked!

Where did you learn your botanical art techniques? Who has been your biggest influence on your career?
Probably Susan. I had good drawing skills from college which definitely helped, but working with Susan, it was like a light going on as she went through the materials and techniques that she uses. Using good materials makes painting a good picture so much easier. I also read every book and article I could find on the subject and still do. The magazine that ASBA send out four times a year is great for hints and tips. Susan recently lent me a great book – Christina Brodie’s book Drawing and Painting Plants. Seamus O’Brien, head gardener of Kilmacurragh has also been a great help.

What paper, brushes and paints do you use to create your art?I use Fabriano hot pressed paper and needlepoint kolinsky sable brushes from Cornellisons in London or from Kennedys in Dublin. I also find cheap small wedge shaped brushes are great for lifting paint and cleaning up the line of a stem etc. After buying different paints over the years I’ve tended to come back to Winsor and Newton and Daler Rowney. I’ve started to become much more interested in the staying power of paints as well and have realised that some paints I’ve used in the past don’t have as much permanence as others and might fade in the future. I’m starting to read labels a lot more. I’m addicted to Rowney’s Olive Green and use it far too much.

What theme did you choose for your RHS submission and why?
Kilmacurragh and the Plant Hunters. A few years ago I decided I wanted to work on a long term project, rather than just randomly picking plants from the garden. Kilmacurragh is nearby in Co. Wicklow and is under the management of the Botanic Gardens. It has recently become a Botanic Garden in its own right and has a hugely historic plant collection. Seamus O’Brien is the head gardener and is so enthusiastic about the plants in the garden. Many of them have links to some of the great plant hunters of the past including Hooker, Lobb etc. Seamus suggested the theme. It’s really something to be handed a bloom to paint which has been cut from an ancient old tree and told that this tree was grown from a seed that Hooker collected in the Sikkim Himalaya and sent back to Kew in the 1840s.

Magnolia delavayi by Lynn Stringer

Magnolia delavayi by Lynn Stringer

Could you tell us a little about your RHS experience? What was the feedback like from the RHS judges?
It was really good. A bit of a blur to be honest as it’s such a rush getting to London and getting set up. The Standard was extraordinary with artists from South Korea, Thailand, Australia, America, Japan etc. Of course I’d love to have received a gold medal (there were eight given out from a total of 29 artists) but to be honest after seeing what the standard was like I was very grateful for my silver! One of the Judges, Gillian Barlow came around everyone afterwards. She’s an artist herself and she gives all the comments that the group of judges made. They very much look on the group of paintings as a whole and the general feeling about my work was that one piece didn’t fit in well with the others and perhaps was a bit overpowering compared to the others. Funnily enough the painting they liked the best – Magnolia campbellii was one I nearly didn’t bring and the one they were less keen on – Magnolia delavayi was one I was very attached to.

RHS Botanical Art Exhibition (photo Julie Whelan)

What advice would you have for Irish artists who would like to submit work for the RHS?
When you have your paintings completed, get another artist who hasn’t seen them before to look at them with fresh eyes. As artists we are so attached to our own paintings it’s really hard to see them objectively. Gillian made a few other comments to me which were so obvious once someone had pointed it out. They also pulled up artists on ‘outlines’ especially on white flowers. She told me they were a special RHS bugbear!

Now that you have won that coveted medal, what are your plans for the future?
To go back for the gold! But I might need a few years rest first!!

Thank you, Lynn, for taking the time to answer these questions. Best of luck with all your future plans.
I want to say a special thanks to Culture Ireland for their support. They provided a partial grant towards my costs – they help people to exhibit in other EU countries. Their website is

More of Lynn’s work can be seen on her website
Lynn will be giving a free demonstration of her botanical art techniques at Malahide Castle Visitor Centre on May 19th. Spaces are limited so booking is essential.
Further information about submitting for the RHS can be found on their website.

Here are some great tips on how to achieve a gold medal at the RHS Botanical Art Show.