Interview with Artist Margaret Farr

About her work in the
15th Annual International
American Society of Botanical Artists at
The Horticultural Society of New York


Why did you choose this subject to portray?  Why this combination of plants?

Well, first of all, whatever is painted from nature in Spring is an expression of the pure joy of the season. One just wants to paint everything!  In May, I watched with amazement the growth of this gargantuan Sisyrinchium which had “volunteered” in a patch of periwinkle under a winterberry tree.   When it seemed to be peaking, I dug the entire clump, periwinkle and seedlings hanging on for dear life, and ensconced it in the studio.  The combination, composed by nature, seemed to tell a little story.  The size (and symmetry) were unusual for what is normally an unassuming little sprig of a plant.  Therefore, there was, in the group, a seeming irony of scale: the small things will become trees, the large thing is a small grass!   In addition to demonstrating scale, the new growth of the seedlings popping up suggested movement and continuum.  I must confess that the full tulip poplar blossom was only nearby and not “in situ”—I enlisted it to cue the time of year (late May), and to aid in establishing scale and a bit more color interest.  I was happy to have blooming periwinkle to indicate by comparison the color of the blue in the grass.

Did you face any unique challenges as you worked on this piece?  How did you manage to get all the individual blades woven through each other correctly?

The challenge with anything complicated is to find a way to start.  Thinking about the “whole” hurts my brain and prompts a kind of “fight or flight” instinct—this time I chose to fight!  But one has to early on try and find an inherent order, and start to reinforce it as the “portrait” proceeds along.  That is why all of my renderings are largely “ideals”—they couldn’t possibly be literal.  That’s for cameras—or paintings from photos.  I always work from life, and select gestures and forms that will portray the accurate idea of the object.  I start with a loose sketch of the whole, then zero in on the more literal pencil drawing of specific stalks, blooms, etc. which are defining for the plant and must be included. The application of the first few coats of paint is rather devil-may-care—I’m just after putting something down for each sprig, even if it’s wrong, so I can see what the big picture will look like.  Then begins the “fine tuning” which is the real work at hand.  I have developed a torturous “technique” of slapping on copious quantities of paint, then scraping back through with a tiny scalpel to find the “light”  (i.e. the white of the paper),  then applying a glaze, and doing it all again…”scratch and glaze, scratch and glaze”: sounds like a cure for poison ivy!  But eventually the form emerges, and I continue to find the color and shapes of the object in the process.  It is actually a handy way to do complicated things that crisscross, like the lower stems and roots, because I can paint  a mass form, and then scratch out the lines of individual patterns with the blade. I reinforce what emerges with painting outlines and glazing.  Good paper is a must—I haven’t scratched through yet, knock on wood!  This painting, by the way, took 73 hours.

What would you hope people would notice or appreciate when viewing this work?

My intention is always to elevate and glorify what I’ve chosen to portray…to find a little poetry in it, or to tell a story of form or color or both.  To simplify and, if you will, “classicize” it somewhat, to make it “lovely”. In the case of the blue-eyed grass, I would hope that the viewer might pause to reflect on the prospect that even the most inconspicuous of domestic garden plants—almost a weed—can, in some cases, attain a grandeur that causes a certain amount of awe—or at least of joy.  I would hope that this might happen for the gardener, or the casual observer of nature, as much as for the artist.

How does this work relate to your body of work?

Fits right in.  I’m always looking for a theme, and an opportunity to portray interconnected parts.  I am far surpassed by others, these days, in the competent portrayal of individual perfect specimens, but I do look to finding “stories” and relationships in plants –both visual and conceptual.  I am a collector—I collect all sorts of things, and in any collection, the interest is in the relation of the parts to the whole.  It intrigues me to organize and mount various specimens on a page so that they can be considered in a context.  An unplanned but frequent result is that I see the message of the image after the painting is completed, so it teaches me a truth in nature: how very red this thing is, or how very small—how elegant.  It’s a perennial challenge –one wouldn’t want to fail to do one’s best to do justice to the exquisite. 


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  • (C) Margaret Farr