13th August 2019: What Is An Endangered Ecosystem Painting?
This guest blog is written by one of our Fellows, artist Frances Livingstone, all about her work on endangered ecosystem paintings. Visit her website to find out more about Frances and her work.
Several months spent alone in a hut set deep in a Thai dipterocarp forest on the slopes of Doi Sutep released an unexpected passion for painting nature. The realisation that I could try to contribute to the fledgeling environmental movement by creating a new style of art began whilst painting endangered plants in the Lower Nursery at Kew. Installed in the mess room, I heard gardener's tales of huge sums spent by generous benefactors in an attempt to replace endangered orchid seedlings back into the world. Sadly failure seemed almost inevitable. Though the current state of our interconnected knowledge seems to be improving, the silo-like system of separate scientific disciplines has meant that even on the rare occasions where enough knowledge exists about a plant's true needs, for example, their pollinators, climate, geology, lichens, fungi etc., it is a huge task to assemble it all and give the seedlings in a re-wilding project a fighting chance.
So, over twenty years ago, to try and bridge the gaps, I evolved my watercolour paintings away from the traditional portrait on a white background to a more inclusive style which I named "Endangered Ecosystems". As a travelling artist, I can track down the often last remaining plants around which to gather a painting and record in situ as much as possible about their chosen habitat, pollinators, associated lichens and mosses etc. I can then include why the ecosystem is endangered and the scientific names of every element to create a scientifically accurate document. Just in case that information is useful in the future.
Initially, the choice of subject matter can be overwhelming. I try to narrow things down with plants from collections such as Kew's and French Sénat greenhouses in Paris and by choosing countries I need a good excuse to indulge in visiting. Before I commit to a trip, pollinators are at least guessed at by experts and some information is already trackable about sightings in the wild. As a self-funded artist, I have to also ensure that there is enough cash to buy months abroad during the flowering season plus the return ticket. So, in the end, decisions make themselves.
Well, you may reasonably ask, why not simply photograph? The answer is complex. Photographs can have a distancing quality which can inure people to content and is, therefore, the reverse of my broad aim. In a painting, it is possible to combine elements, jigsaw-like, into one image which could otherwise take many photographs or written entries to record. Plants can look very different when growing naturally and look much more beautiful, in my view, than those, no matter how carefully grown, in greenhouses. A painting can speak more passionately, clearly and for longer, providing nourishment for our complexity-demanding brains and offer mystery, focus and wider horizons for our imaginations. There is something about any painting which has clearly taken time to produce, in my case... months, that conveys the value of the subject matter to as many people as possible–my main goal! Another motivation has been to create paintings of beauty in celebration of our relentlessly exquisite natural world. Beauty can seduce the often disinterested yet powerful creators of change in our world and can help to sneak the monstrous facts of humanity's senseless destruction past their indifference and into their sleeping consciousnesses.
I'm extremely grateful for the generosity of those whose lives have been dedicated to the meticulous gathering of accurate data, from scientists to field naturalists and many in between. Through their sharing of this knowledge, and the endlessly surprising kindness of strangers to a stranger on a mission, these paintings have been possible.
So, with a few watercolour pans, very fine synthetic brushes and a few sheets of watercolour paper supported by a foamcore board, I'm underway. Because I don't draw the painting first, I have a lot of freedom over the course of the work to add elements if valuable information or details arrive later. I have got a general idea about the sort of compositional flow I'm hoping for, then, like white water rafting, just jump in and go!
At the end of one of my first journeys to paint in South Africa's glorious Fynbos, I'd trailed around the yachting centres of Cape Town, determined to avoid another flight by crewing my way to my next destination, Madagascar. Hurricanes forced general disembarkation so I seemed out of luck but thanks to the charms of my rescue dog, I was offered passage on a Christian missionary hospital ship which was, by chance, heading to The Great Red Island. But I'm getting ahead of myself as that's another story...
By Frances Livingstone FLS, artist