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
+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.
5. 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.
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
To find out more about Jess Shepherd’s work: