Conversations with Our Artists 

Kate Nessler 

By Joyce Westner 

Originally appeared in The Botanical Artist – Volume 15, Issue 1 


A Conversation with Kate Nessler 

“We need…a new way to define botanical art.” 

Even in Arkansas, the temperature can plummet; Kate Nessler had her tea at hand when she talked with TBA on a 6- degree January day from her home in the Ozark Mountains. Kate’s thoughts on the complexity of the creation process shaped the interview. 

How did you get into botanical art? 

I was doing commercial art for Chicago area advertising agencies, then we moved to Arkansas in 1980. That move gave me the time to begin to work on my own art. I started with pen and ink drawings, with subject matter ranging from my cat to the chicken coop to linens to flowers. The style changed gradually as I did more. I started using light watercolor washes – the ink fell away as I grew more confident with color. I’d always loved rendering so when I found my way to the flowers, I was already measuring things. I didn’t know I was doing botanical art until a judge at an art fair pointed it out to me and suggested I contact Jim White at the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation. 

When the art had a name, it was a natural movement to what was right for me; like growing up, you try things and something sticks. It became mine. Jim gave me the confidence to continue on this path and gave me two skins of vellum from the estate of legendary botanical artist Rory McEwen. It was a defining moment in my career. The journey had begun. Jim purchased [my painting] “Poppies” for the Hunt Institute collection. 

Are you a botanist or an artist at heart?


Where do you get your subjects?

In our small Ozarks town. I live on 40 acres, rural, woods, pastures, fields. Eighty to ninety percent of what I find is from the land we live on and surrounding areas. I walk the road almost everyday with my dogs. 

What’s your favorite medium?

Watercolor, body color, pencil, vellum. However, I’m in a strong transitional period, haven’t painted in three or four months. I am not certain what or where the work will take me now. I spent two years on an exhibition on Veiny and Kelmscott vellum; it’s some of my best work, but it took something out of me. I think I am looking at new ways of expressing my relationship with the specimens, but can’t say for sure what that might be. I think that our mind’s eye is always ahead of our hand and therefore we keep trying to reach for that ideal vision. I think more now than I ever have. I try to make careful decisions, maintain a concentrated focus, and always pay attention to the detail as well as the whole. I believe strongly in the individual viewpoint and believe that as twenty- first century artists we need to push forward to forge a new way to define botanical art and our own art. 

Do you enter juried shows?

Not for a long time, I work with a gallery in London and a dealer in New York. However, I do think it is very important to enter shows, so that one’s work is seen. 

When and where do you paint?

I have a 20 x 20 studio 100 feet from my house (in organizing chaos at the moment). I love it. I work six to eight hours a day, less right now. I’m pacing, circling. I need this time right now to work my way through, to sort it out. As I grow older with the work, I spend much more time thinking about how to get to the painting. It has gotten harder, not easier, but more challenging, more satisfying. Lots of times, just more confusing! The actual painting is wonderful; I can get into an addictive rhythm and just keep going…even after I know I should stop! 

Do you teach?

Painting on vellum maybe once a year. I try to act as a guide for those who want to learn how to work with the material. It is so beautiful and challenging. I hope for the participants to go outside themselves, to push themselves further—we forget or perhaps don’t know what we can do if we just keep doing the same thing over and over.  What technique are you still trying to master? I don’t know yet; I’m trying to work it out. What one thing do you do that would surprise other artists? I like to go outside and build rock walls. We grow rocks in Arkansas. 

  • Tree Peony, body color, watercolor, and pencil on vellum, ©Kate Nessler, 2008, currently on exhibit in London