Acclaimed watercolourist, tutor and artist Billy Showell took some time out of her busy schedule to talk to us about her journey as an artist, the history of botanical painting and the role of Art Societies. An avid botanical painter Billy has been a member of the Society of Botanical Artists for the past 20 years, becoming president of the Society in 2018. Alongside her work with the society she exhibits her paintings, runs tutoring sessions from her own studio and provides online watercolour lessons.
Hi Billy, thanks for taking the time to talk to us! Firstly, could you talk a bit about your journey as an artist?
Hi and thanks for the invite
I was always creating and drawing as a child, my father was a graphic artist and drew cartoons for a hobby, so drawing was in my blood. I was encouraged in art when at junior school but at secondary school I was discouraged by my art teacher, it was with huge relief I found myself at art school despite the wilderness years at school. After my fantastic foundation at Epsom school of art I received a place at St Martin's school of art and studied on their 3-year fashion illustration and design course; I had dreamt about going there after reading an article about the course, so many great designers had come from that college, I was particularly keen on the illustration part of the course. I love playing with different ways of using art materials to create texture and impact in my work.
Sadly, I soon realised that drawing was a very small part of fashion and so after just a short spell in the industry I left to pursue a self-employed career in illustration. I took every job offered, I had some bad experiences where I went unpaid and some great jobs which led to other work; it was a precarious life but more fulfilling in that I was drawing every day.
Once I married and had my first child, I found an evening job teaching botanical illustration, it was a leap of faith from the course director but from those first few classes I knew I was going to love teaching art and it fitted well around bringing up my boys. I knew too what sort of art instructor I wanted to be, one that shares the love of art along with a caring and supportive role in order to nurture anyone with the urge to draw and paint well.
Billy Showell, Detail: Blue Shoes
In 2018 you took the position of President of the Society of Botanical Artists – a fantastic accolade. What role do you think societies play for artists today?
Since the invention and success of the internet I think societies have suffered, as the web encourages you to work and promote yourself without the need for others, this has been liberating and launched many careers, however, having been a part of the Society of Botanical Artists for 20 years I have experienced how having the support ,friendships, accolades and opportunities through this established network of like-minded people has been a huge help to me and many others. Online communication is all very well but it’s only when I have met and chatted with folk that I have been able to flourish. There are many societies of botanical art and new ones continue to be formed so there seems to be that need to belong. I accepted the role of SBA President not to be president but to work with a fabulous group of artists who have the society of artist’s interests at the heart of what they do. It’s fun too, there has been a lot to do this year but we have enjoyed creating a new look SBA, we have a new venue at The Mall Galleries in June and we have simplified the membership structure and yet created a new open membership level, which means anyone can join and work within the society moving on to a fellowship membership if they wish.
Billy Showell, Detail: Blue Shoes
The relationship between science, botany and watercolour illustration is one that goes back hundreds of years – from the historical, with artists such as Maria Sibylla Merian in the 1700’s to Ernst Haeckel in the late 18/1900’s and now to modern day contemporary botanical painters.
What is it about the medium of watercolour that lends itself so wonderfully to paintings of flora, apart from the ability to paint so easily in the field?
Watercolour is a faster medium than most, it’s great for field work as it dries fast and can be light to carry about. The difficulty is always what to leave behind when setting out to paint. I laugh at myself and my students as we use such a small amount of paint in class and yet we turn up with suit cases of art materials.
Watercolour also has that immediate transparency that lends itself to petal painting, the water element allows it to move naturally and also allows light to appear to shine through.
Watercolour paints have also improved so much through recent years the stability and light fastness has become more reliable. There appears to be more products associated with watercolour and I know I am not alone in my addiction to trying out new painting products. It is a tricky medium to start with but oh so addictive.
Billy Showell: The Dressmakers Flowers, Watercolour and Graphite
And what is it about botanical art that fascinates you personally as an artist?
I think it is the dream to paint the delicacy of life and developing the ability to capture to momentary, the fragility of a particular time in the lifecycle of a plant. One can go blindly through life never looking at things properly but when you paint plants you get to know every piece of it, every twist, notch and element; it is always enlightening and even if you don’t have the desire to learn all the science, the discovery of seeing how plants grow helps you appreciate how wonderful it is, this precious life on earth.
You work in collaboration with Sennelier on your own product range! How did this relationship come about, it’s quite a feat from an artist’s perspective to have your own range of materials?
I met representatives from Sennelier when writing my first book and at that time I was using another brand. I was wedded to the colours I was using but then thought why not try Sennelier? I had been toying with the thought of using a predominantly transparent range of colours and so once I found that the Sennelier were so smooth and the transparent colours were beautiful to use, I asked if we could do a Billy Showell palette. Sennelier were amazing and we started with a set of 12, we now have an extra set that nearly completes my choice of colours but I can’t let go of my Opera rose or bright violet from other makes. I also created a basic set, ideal for beginners but also those wanting more supplies of my most popular colours. I also included titanium white in my extra set, it’s hilarious how terrified painters are at the inclusion of white but it can be very effective used as body colour in small areas of botanical work; having worked as an illustrator no colours are off limits and I often wonder where this magical, must obey, set of rules resides, which bans colours from ever being used? I love finding great paints but also am aware that beginners need a guide or could waste a lot of money buying too many paints, so it’s important to keep a continuity in what I recommend.
Billy Showell, Detail: Pink Shoes
If I delved in your studio what materials am I always likely to find? Do you have any other brands that you continue to turn back to?
Of course I have all my Sennelier paints and my new synthetic brushes but I love collecting various bottles and containers, you would find many palettes, no brands just lots of ceramic palettes, I have yet to throw a brush away, so I think I have them all from my first brush to my current collection. I love the Winsor and Newton range of paint additives; I have a set of Faber Castell colour pencils that I am rapidly falling in love with. I have loads of paper my favourites being Moulin du roy, and Fabriano but I am always on the hunt for new paper. You would find loads of art magazines, ‘Artists and Illustrators’ and ‘The Artist’, plus ‘Selvidge’ magazine and I know I am not alone here, you would also find masses of art and plant books.
Billy Showell: Peonies
What advice would you give to someone who wants to get started with watercolour and may be picking up their brushes for the first time? What are your most recommended entry level materials?
I would start by recommending they buy 6 primary artist watercolours to include a pink or magenta and a green/blue, the best 100% cotton paper they can afford and one pointed round brush and then just play. Mix colours to match any objects that you have to hand, always try all the preliminary techniques in a how to book (as people always skip those) and try to paint 3-4 times a week even if it’s just for 15 minutes, you won’t finish anything but you will improve and ‘fuss less’ with your practice pieces. Make it a play session each time and try not to be hard on yourself if it goes wrong, when you fall off your bike you always get back on as that’s how you learn. Also find a teacher that you understand and enjoy working with, it makes all the difference.
Billy Showell, Detail: Pink Shoes
And finally, what’s next on the horizon?
At the moment we are working towards the exciting SBA Plantae show in the Mall Galleries in London on the 5th-9th June this year. We have 400 pieces in the show including 3d work. Cass Art has kindly donated a very generous prize and so it will be wonderful to see the winner of this and the other donated prizes, as well as meet the artists especially our new members and catching up with our regular Fellow members. It’s a show not to be missed we have works from all over the world and undoubtably some of our finest plant illustrators.
I am slowly working on a new book, as well as having just launched my new improved website, I am also introducing certificated levels for my tutorial site so there is a lot to do this summer. I am particularly keen to carry on painting with my new dressmaking theme, I hope to combine my love of clothing and the elements of patterns and pattern pieces with my love of plants. I have a huge number of flowers emerging in my garden this spring, all of them calling to be painted.
Pop in-store or shop online for everything you'll need. Our staff artists will be more than happy to give you advice on materials. Don't forget to hashtag #cassart on social media to show us your creations.
All images: ©Billy Showell