Wordless Wednesday

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Interview with Jess Shepherd:  ‘Capturing the Essence of a Leaf’


Posted on January 17 2017 by joturner57




Jess Shepherd is a peripatetic UK botanical artist. She studied botany to ensure that her paintings would be botanically accurate, detailed renderings, based on an intimate knowledge of her subjects. Her most recent project is a series of thirty-four watercolour leaf paintings. It began in 2014 when she decided to paint leaves in her immediate environment. As she found each leaf to paint she noted its location; she then made audio recordings of the sounds she encountered around each. By manipulating these, sound artist Derek Thompson has composed a continuous soundtrack where place, time and space become intertwined.  The composition of these field recordings is ambient, yet totally immersive. The intermingling of natural and human worlds encourages listeners to pay more attention to the diversity and beauty of their surroundings, both in the city and countryside.

 It all began when Jess was living in London’s East End. As she walked along a street one autumn day, she noticed a leaf on the ground, and became fascinated by its intricate details. She decided to do a watercolor painting, on a larger-than-usual scale, and to record the ‘found sounds’ around it. Over the next couple of years, she expanded on the initial idea by creating a collection of thirty-four watercolour paintings.

Recently Miss Shepherd embarked on a Kickstarter project to raise funds so that she could publish a limited edition book, (500 litho-printed copies), entitled ‘Leafscape’.

Each volume has been made with a great attention to detail, from the selection of the paper to the overall design and layout, and each copy comes with a CD of the soundtrack. The project was highly successful.

There will be an exhibition to launch the book from February 16th – 25th, 2017: 

Abbott and Holder
30 Museum Street
London, UK


+44 (0)20 7637 3981

Private view: 16th February 2017

6.00pm – 9.00pm



To begin: Thank you Jess, for taking time to talk about your work at an especially busy time for you. Can you tell me a little about how the project began?

Well, the story of Leafscape began 18 months ago when I picked up a Catalpa leaf from a London pavement in July 2014. At the time I was moving house and felt that the condition of the leaf told my own story. It had been scuffed by the streets of the city and was no longer attached to the tree, just blowing across the floor in the wind. I began to paint it in larger than life size so that I could carefully document every scratch and blemish.  Once finished, I was drawn to paint another one and then another.

After months of painting these leaf portraits, all from different moments in time and different geographical places, I had accidentally documented a visual story.


 1. By pairing sound recordings with botanical paintings, you created a multi-media approach to connecting with these iconic representations of  nature… so familiar, yet represented in such detail, and at such a scale, that they may open people’s eyes to the exquisite beauty to be found in the everyday… Do you have any particular artists or musicians who have influenced you, or whose work you especially admire? 

I very much hope that Leafscape brings botany to people in a way that they didn’t expect. In all my work I encourage everyone to be aware of the diversity and beauty to be found in both the city and the countryside. I paint to give plants a voice… I admire a great many artists, so it is difficult to chose. I have always been interested in the work of David Hockney and his approach to painting. I am inspired by the work of Richard Long, Rory McEwen and Katie Paterson. I have a very large music collection that I dip into every day. I listen to Pink Floyd a lot, and have been repeatedly inspired by the work of Derek Jarman and Coil.

3.  On your website your approach to botanical painting is described as being ‘based on very close observation’, but then you take it even further. You write:

“I believe that a good picture is made using not only sight, but also touch, sound, smell and movement. One has to be aware of all of these elements in order to portray the plant well and describe the space that the plant is growing into, both over and underground.”

 By adding the sound component, is there anything in particular you are endeavouring to convey?

The idea behind adding sound is to add a new dimension to botanical art; to communicate the importance of plants and our environment more poignantly in our modern day. Sounds are different than pictures; they bring experiences closer to us by entering us, and are therefore deeply personal. As we listen, we become vessels; as space and time meld inside our bodies, we begin to contain a lost landscape in our minds. Pictures, on the other hand, are always separate from our bodies and we judge them from a distance.  By using sound I am able to bring the leaves closer to you than I could with paint alone.


4. Can you tell me a little about how you got into botanical painting, your training, and how long each picture takes?

I haven’t had any training in how to paint. I am self taught. I studied for my bachelor’s degree in botany at Plymouth University. I chose this course because a large part of the assessment at Plymouth would require students to learn about the history of botanical illustration. We also had to submit a portfolio of work. This appealed to me. I liked idea of including art in a science-based program.

I was already painting before this point, and had decided that I wanted to be a botanical painter so it really was a no-brainer! During my time at Plymouth I studied what was a science degree; plant physiology, biochemistry, genetics, ecology and identification were just some of the themes around our syllabus. After completing my undergrad degree, I secured a scholarship with NERC to study botanical taxonomy as an MSc at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (Edinburgh University). Here I was again expected to submit a portfolio of anatomical drawings, mostly of dissected flowers, for assessment.

ginkgo-leaf-painting5.   With your choice of leaves, do you have any favourites? I noticed one of your images is a Ginkgo biloba leaf. Such an ancient species, with lovely golden fall colour, like tiny amber fans… As a horticulturalist, I can appreciate your fascination with the intricate details in deciduous leaves, and their evolution through the seasons. Are there any particular qualities you look for, or like to highlight, in the leaves you select to paint?

Oh yes, I am a big fan of the Ginkgo tree. I admire its tenacity, and like the hidden symbolism in the heart shape of its leaf. It’s one of my favourite species. I do like trees – I have many favourite species. However, when it comes to leaves there aren’t really any particular qualities that I select for. Leaves just come to me, sometimes they are flat and in other times they are shaped. I tend to be drawn to big leaves.

6.  For your paintings, do you work from the leaves themselves or from photographs? If from the leaves, are they dried when you start? How do you maintain them? Are your paintings renderings of particular leaves, or are you working from your observations and memories of them, or is it a combination?

I begin a painting directly from reference material, which means you have to paint quickly when painting fresh leaves, I then move onto photographs if the leaf dies mid-painting. This is why I chose a lot of the mummified leaves for this collection as these didn’t wilt and they retained their colour. When working on different projects, I often press my reference material in a flower press to create the same effect, and I will take colour notes. After I finish a painting I tend to ‘hide’ it for a few weeks,  then revisit it, adding extra bits from my imagination. This last stage takes a long time and can be pretty exhausting because one has to use their eyes in a different way.




7.  I have noticed several of your paintings show leaves in a state of decline, or with ‘imperfections’. It reminds me of the designer Piet Oudolf, and his frequent use of structural perennials that ‘die well’, often with seed-heads that add interest to the fall garden, as well as providing food for wildlife. Was this a conscious decision, and if so, were you making any sort of comment? 

It wasn’t a conscious decision. I actually prefer my leaves to be green like my big artichoke leaf. I like dense green canopies that are teaming with life. In Leafscape, the semi-decayed leaves are mostly the Catalpa leaves which had ‘mummified’ under the searing Spanish sun. After having been dried so quickly in such a dry environment, these leaves kept their colour for months, and in some cases for years, in my studio. This made them ideal to paint from as they were frozen in time. They didn’t decay any further. Having said this, I am happy that there are some leaves in decay, as this refers to the temporal aspect of the collection and of life in particular. In Leafscape every painting has been coded by a man-made measurement of time to mark the point of acquisition. These codes guide the observer through a two-year journey, a man-made journey which is regularly intercepted by the lives of the leaves themselves, each at their own point of decay.

8.   Regarding the printing of Leafscape, you mention that you chose a local printer. Can you tell us a bit about the process involved?

I am using a printer in Sussex to print the book using litho-press. I have opted for a white textured cover and a slip box, and then have found another company to make the CD. I have chosen a local printer as I have dealt with them in the past and they always deliver a fantastic product. It’s quite a complicated process to have all of these parts. In addition to this, I am also working with another company who make bespoke postal boxes to ensure that the books are delivered all over the globe safely.

9.   This is quite an elaborate project. Can you tell us about some difficulties you encountered along the way? Any surprises? 

There are always going to be little problems, life is like that. However, I have been incredibly fortunate in that I didn’t come up against an obstacle that was too difficult to surmount. I have a fantastic support network of friends and family around me, without whom none of this would have been possible.


300720150946-catalpa-bignonioides-watercolour-on-paper-76-x-56cm        thumbs_100820151542-catalpa-bignonioides-watercolour-on-paper-76-x-56cm   thumbs_0807201681555-catalpa-bignonioides-watercolour-on-paper-19-x-13-cm


10.  Will there be a copy of the book in a public library?

Yes, I am donating copies to British Library, Linnean Society of London, Lindley Library, The Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, New York Botanic Garden, Royal Botanic Garden Sydney, Denver Botanic Gardens and Real Jardin Botanico in Madrid.

11.  Any future projects on the horizon? Do you see yourself working independently mostly, or would you like to collaborate with others at some point?

I have two projects which I am currently planning out, but I am keeping these pretty low-key as I work out which one to run with first.

Thanks so much for your time Jess… Congratulations on your work and the new book! I look forward to your future creative endeavors.

 Jess Shepherd’s upcoming exhibition: ‘Leafscape’   February 16th – 25th, 2017:


Abbott and Holder
30 Museum Street
London, UK



To find out more about Jess Shepherd’s work:

Twitter:  @inkyleaves
Facebook: www.facebook.com/inkyleaves
Instagram: www.instagram.com/inkyleaves
Website: inkyleaves.com



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Wordless Wednesday

“The past is history, the future is a mystery but the present is a gift.”

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Wordless Wednesday

“In silence there is eloquence. Stop weaving and see how the pattern improves.”

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Wordless Wednesday



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The Joys of ‘Autumn’

17 November 2016



Autumn: An anthology for the changing seasons’ edited by Melissa Harrison. This is third of a four-part seasonal series.


  • Firstly, thank you so much for taking the time to talk about Autumn, Melissa…We will be mostly focusing on the third volume of the quartet, but before that, can you tell a little about how this series began? Did you initially envision a quartet of seasonal anthologies, or did you start off wanting to cover one particular season?

Elliott & Thompson had already come up with the concept of the series, and in fact had begun the initial research for Spring . They were looking for a series editor, someone to help steer the tone and content of the books, and who could help with the commissioning process. When they got in touch I was interested straight away, but a little worried aabout whether I’d be able to do as good a job as I knew the series deserved, what with having a day job and also writing a new novel in my time off. But I loved the idea of the books, and I was already buzzing with ideas for writers and extracts we could include, so I said yes. Fortunately, the team at E&T were so good that I never felt overwhelmed by the commissioning or editing process.

  • Can you tell me a little about The Wildlife Trust, and how it is involved?

E&T had previously published an anthology in support of The Wildlife Trusts, called Nature Tales: Encounters with Britain’s Wildlife, so the relationship was already there. I’m a member of the London Wildlife Trust and have links to other Trusts, too, so I was very keen to support their work, which is of vital importance across the UK.

  • How did you select the pieces you included?

Our researcher, Bronagh Woods, spent a lot of time in the British Library, looking for extracts from classic works of literature and nature writing. I had my own list of older and more contemporary works I wanted to see represented, and established nature writers I wanted to commission. Meanwhile, The Wildlife Trusts put out a call for submissions among their members, and both E&T and I spent time looking for nature bloggers and conservationists who might be persuaded to contribute. Throughout the process, we kept an eye on the balance of male and female writers, the geographical spread of the pieces, and the range of subjects covered; we also looked for pieces by writers of colour, who are underrepresented in writing about nature.

  • Did you encounter any particular challenges along the way?

There were some extracts we weren’t able to include, either due to space constraints or because of copyrights issues, which was a shame – but anthologies can never be exhaustive. And the editing process was necessarily different with new and less experienced contributors than with established writers, who are used to being subbed. But overall, the process was very smooth – and really enjoyable.

  • Any future projects?

I’m working on my third novel at the moment, which is taking up most of my time. And I have another couple of ideas I want to get cracking on once it’s done…watch this space!



20151001_163258In her introduction Ms. Harrison describes her love of autumn…She notes that although this time of year has qualities sometimes associated with dying (or at least dormancy), we can definitely discern in it the vital interconnectedness of decay with new life. Although plant growth slows or stops as fall progresses, it is also harvest time with its bounty of food for wildlife and people. At the same time it’s a key season for saprophytes: fungi, moulds and relations, the recyclers of the world…A few writers take us along as they forage for fungi…Kate Blincoe writes, ‘It was macabre from a distance; a pure white, human-sized skull glowing out from the darkness of the woodland glade…It was a giant puffball mushroom, the size of a football.’


Through a variety of accounts, we experience the seasonal bounty ready to nourish humans and wildlife; sloes, blackberries, elderberries and more. In a piece from The Farmer’s Year: A Calendar of English Husbandry (1933), we are transported to apple harvesting in Kent where one of the party has picked ‘this seventy year’, and horse-drawn wagons are filled with bushel baskets. More recently, Janet Willoner brings the reader along with her into an old Yorkshire orchard, picking apples with fanciful names like Keswick Codlin, Blenheim Orange and Peasgood Nonesuch, and then through the fragrant (and sticky) steps of making cider.

For bird watchers,  fall migrations are full of anticipation and activity, both in the skies and on the ground. Dr. Rob Lambert describes frenetic annual pilgrimage of birders to the Scilly Isles or Shetland, where birders can witness mass migrations and ‘make or break reputations.’ Chris Murphy shares a similar autumn ritual at St. John’s Point, where he observes the return of hundreds of seabirds, including gannets, kittiwakes, razorbills and occasionally Sabine’s gull or storm petrels.


Each piece in this collection conveys  its author’s unique voice, which combine to create an ode to autumn. We are drawn into each writer’s experience of the UK landscape at this particular, often poignant season… Most are contemporary pieces, but there are a few works (usually short) from the 19th and 20th centuries. Several are by Thomas Furley Foster, from The Pocket Encyclopedia of Natural Phenomena, published in 1827. Here’s a portion of one:

‘Fieldfares, when they arrive early and in great abundance in autumn, foreshew a hard winter, which has probably set in, in the regions from which they have come. They usually come in November.’

It is comforting somehow to read observations of nature from previous times, as they punctuate a cycle of appreciation for similar plants, birds, wildlife and landscapes that we continue to experience today…

Some of the entries from current writers are particularly lyrical. Ginny Battson gathers strands from natural history and ancient Greek philosophy to weave a poetic tapestry on the ever-changing connectedness of the natural world:

‘A leaf is not a leaf forever. It is in a state of flux between leaf and particulate, living and dead. A leaf that falls in the stream is the beginning of a chain. Spin, yaw, pitch and submerge, it’s hurrying downstream in a thrum of fluvial energy and I lose sight of it.’

Another current contributor, Jo Cartmell, eloquently shares her experiences of wildlife at her local wetland, Barton Fields, in Oxfordshire, where her patience is rewarded with sightings of water voles and Tawny owls. She writes:

‘I love this season of gradual withdrawal. It is not only a visible withdrawal by nature, but a subtle inner withdrawal, too; a slow imperceptible retreat into ourselves…A chance to recharge the soul after a spring and summer of almost constant activity.’

Louise Baker creates a multi-faceted tour of the sensory pleasure of the season, from the plethora of berries, the perfume of wet leaves, the crunch of leaves underfoot to the soft sounds of wildlife in the growing stillness.


The format of this volume offers several benefits, apart from the pleasure of reading each piece. It provides an opportunity to discover new writers, (there is an index with short bios of each contributor), and to follow up by reading more of their work elsewhere. It also presents a diversity of styles and voices, whilst remaining under the umbrella of the theme… yet within that framework are a delightful range of perspectives and experiences.

I thoroughly enjoyed this entire book. This volume or the entire set would be a great gift for anyone, especially a nature-lover, or anyone who appreciates good writing. The length of individual pieces makes it perfect for busy people…easy to dip in and out of, yet satisfying to delve into for a satisfying bout of seasonal immersion.

Autumn: an anthology for the changing seasons, edited by Melissa Harrison, is published by The Wildlife Trusts and Elliot and Thompson.

Postscript: A boxed set of the entire series: Seasons: Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter (boxed set of four paperbacks) is now available at the usual outlets and online at: http://www.amazon.co.uk.

Very highly recommended…




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Blooms to Travel by…

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