Conversations with our Artists

Nancy Savage

By Joyce Westner

Originally appeared in The Botanical Artist - Volume 18, Issue 2


Not far from where Henry David Thoreau wrote about wild fruits while walking through fields, meadows and woods, Nancy Savage seeks and finds those same plants as subjects for her botanical art.  “Every time I sit down with a new leaf I think, ‘How am I going to do this?’”

How did you get into botanical art?  I stumbled across it when I read a newspaper article about classes at Wellesley College’s greenhouse. It said if you like drawing and plants, you should try it. So I tried it in 2004, I’ve been doing it ever since, and after eight years I’m about to graduate from the Wellesley College Friends of Horticulture Certificate Program. I took 40 classes, more than required, and will continue to take classes.

Are you an artist or a plant person at heart?  An artist – although in 2004 art was all new for me. I took botany in college, it was my favorite class, and I love the outdoors, the beauty and the miracle of plants.

Where do you get your subjects?  I walk in the woods or I go to the New England Wildflower Society’s Garden in the Woods.  Mostly I like things in their natural setting, plants native to New England or anywhere – I painted native cactus on vellum in a class in Arizona. My certificate project was based on Thoreau’s “Wild Fruits” manuscript and I did ten paintings including fox grape, jack-in-the-pulpit, even yew, which has a red berry-like aril, mentioned by Thoreau in his journal as the fruit of the yew. The Thoreau Institute owns Thoreau’s sister Sophia’s herbarium, where I can draw from her specimens.

What’s your favorite medium?  Watercolor (but I love graphite too), the translucency of the color – it shines and has a lot of light. I love how it moves on the paper and lets me create so many different values.

Do you enter juried shows?  The Concord Art Association has accepted my paintings of Thoreau’s fruits for a two-person show in October of 2013. I’m just beginning to enter juried shows, but it’s wonderful to be part of the New England Society of Botanical Artists [Nancy is its president] where all of our members can exhibit.

When do you paint?  Mid-day when the light is good.

Where do you paint?  Right near my living room window – I’ve turned the living room into my studio. I don’t even put away my materials anymore, I just show people what I’m working on.

Do you teach, and if so what special aspect of botanical art?  No.

What technique are you still trying to master?  Leaves! [Nancy laughs.] All those bumps and veins. I have tons of room for improvement and my biggest challenges now are composition and dry brush.

What one thing do you do that would surprise other artists?  I have a Degas quote I rely on. I read it whenever I paint. “Drawing is not what you see but what you must make others see.” I’m trying to tell the plant’s story – it reminds me what my goal is.

  • © Arisaema triphyllum, Jack-in-the-Pulpit, 11x14”, watercolor and pen and ink on paper, 2011