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.



4 replies
  1. Oonagh Phillips
    Oonagh Phillips says:

    This is really lovely, Shevaun and Holly, thank you! It’s always interesting and helpful to hear how others work, what paints and brushes are used, tips on colour mixes, I’ll definitely try some of these. Keeping the work simple is easier than it sounds….beauty in simplicity…..not too much and knowing when to stop can be quite tricky!

    Love the hot petals painting project and very much hope to join you all on 9th!

    • Shevaun Doherty
      Shevaun Doherty says:

      Thanks Oonagh! I found talking to Holly very inspiring- she has a great attitude to art. It is very easy to get caught up with the complexities of painting, especially when doing botanical illustrations, so it’s lovely to hear her saying keep it simple! Hope you manage to get the Hot Petals project done this summer!


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