Education Forum

Starting An Instructional Program in Botanical Art - Part III 

By Margaret Saul 

Originally appeared in The Botanical Artist - Volume 13, Issue 2


Note by the author: This and the previous two articles are written from my teaching experiences, with the intention of providing information that ASBA member teachers will find useful. It does not necessarily reflect the views and approaches of other ASBA member teachers. Articles printed from the time the Education Forum pages began in TBA 31, Spring Issue 2004 should be of interest to both novice and experienced teachers who have recently become members of the ASBA.) 

Part III – Designing a Comprehensive Program 

The most satisfying type of course for teachers and students alike is one designed as a comprehensive program that takes beginners with no drawing experience and that sees steady progress to an advanced level. Typically such programs integrate core subjects, workshops, electives, exhibitions, projects and master classes. 

A certificate course encourages students to make a serious commitment while giving a degree of prestige to the center conducting it. The approach adopted by the majority of non-accredited continuing education programs in this art requires students to successfully complete a number of subjects through a credit process customized specifically for the program. Then students complete a period of independent study resulting in the submission of a portfolio of finished artwork for examination. 

The program I direct for Brookside Gardens, MD (started in 2004) includes a certificate course, which took me the best part of a year to design. The certificate course can take a student from three to five years to complete, while students not participating in the certificate program take approximately two years to complete the course work that finishes with classes at the school’s advanced level. 

Promotional materials 

Important promotional aides include: A handbook that covers all aspects of the program; a class schedule distributed twice each year; inclusion in the Garden’s general program guide with pages specifically for news of BI school activities; and school information available on a website. 

Other features of the program 

Core subject teachers follow my detailed lesson plans, to ensure the syllabus is strictly followed, and also to insure that students can comfortably continue the instruction with another teacher on an alternate day through the week if necessary. A scheduling concept of ‘course streams,’ is used, i.e. a body of students beginning the introductory course follows a set sequence of classes (core subjects, workshops, electives) scheduled to the level in which they are participating. This approach facilitates two influxes of students during the year – fall and spring – each stream with a full schedule of core subjects, workshops etc. The aim of the introductory course is made clear; it fosters in the student an interest in recording accurate botanical detail through finely rendered drawings and paintings of subjects artistically interpreted and set against a white background. This approach was developed with the view that once students attain defined skill levels, they can be confident moving into other approaches or styles applied within this art form. 

Establishing three levels within the introductory course is extremely effective and provides benchmarks that enable students to recognize certain degrees of expertise. A rigorous progressive assessment process for certificate students assures them of achieving the required skills once credit is attained for a subject. Students sub mit assignments for assessment by the director, which results in a written critique covering each of the three essential criteria (botanical accuracy, draftsmanship, artistic sensitivity). Teachers receive copies of these assessment sheets to ensure they are in tune with the student’s progress. Non-certificate students are also encouraged to complete the assignments, and then encouraged to bring their artworks to the start of the next subject they undertake. Then, a general classroom critique by their teacher ultimately introduces the new field of study. 

It should be noted that certificate registrants pay an annual certificate course fee that also entitles them to a conference with the director if they require further guidance in order to gain credit. After the successful completion of the introductory course certificate students are required to undertake a period of independent study supervised by the director – in brief, to produce a portfolio of finished art based on a theme of their choosing within categories that are most relevant to this art. The final assessment process includes the submission of class workbooks that have been kept up-to-date, previously assessed assignments and their portfolio for assessment by external examiners. While this approach can be instrumental in establishing a certain degree of accountability for a non-accredited certificate program it is ultimately judged by the quantity of beautiful botanicals produced as a result of such a program! 

However, do be aware that endeavoring to ensure some form of accountability for the program will create an extra administrative and teaching load that may not be welcomed by the institution unless certificate registrants are prepared to pay a realistic fee to cover the extra cost. Otherwise, this extra effort will not be deemed viable or indeed necessary when viewed from the perspective of promoting continuing community support for the particular institution. The Brookside Gardens School is under the jurisdiction of a department that oversees the parks and planning for Montgomery County, MD where it has come to be regarded as a jewel in its crown. Here, the county government plays an important supportive roll. 

Establishing an Effective Program 

Related information: TBA #32, 2004 

Comprehensive introductory courses generally cover a similar range of learning areas, though their presentation, and the duration and amount of content will vary. Likewise the resources available at the facility were classes are held vary. The core curricu lum subjects are usually set in a designated sequence and as a general rule these cover botanical knowledge, drawing proficiency, color and its relevant applications and promotion of an artistic sensibility. The programs with a certificate option conduct workshops and/or electives for students to reinforce practical skills. Programs may also include opportunities for advanced students and experienced artists to participate in master classes, group projects, and annual exhibition(s). 

In some localities there are now a number of educational programs offering classes in botanical art. Prospective students should be encouraged to consider the pros and cons of each while also being aware that the hourly rates for instruction, which vary considerably from one program to another, may be a poor indicator of the quality of instruction. Hence, it is useful to design a program that along with an attractive range of classes can state the degree of knowledge and the skills an adult beginner student can expect to achieve after their successful completion of either a short introductory course or a certificate program. 

Publicity through recommendation by current or past students is the most satisfactory means of advertising a program. This takes time. It is essential to seek fresh ideas for subjects of classes, and to review the list of classes offered. Well-established programs produce a substantial number of experienced botanical artists that should see the growth of an active local group, one that will further promote the art through exhibitions, and ideally, also provide further encouragement and inspiration for students participating in the instructional program. 

Courses in botanical art have spread across the USA, with one of the earliest programs being located at the New York Botanical Garden, which introduced its certificate course in botanical art and illustration in 1985, with the current ASBA Executive Director, Robin Jess as its first coordinator. The Denver Botanic Gardens program was established not long after, and the continued proliferation of new certificate courses has been instrumental in establishing general acceptance in the US of the Western European botanical art tradition, with its specific painting techniques that are viewed as that tradition’s hallmark. In order to keep this art pulsing however, it is important that we be receptive to new approaches and be aware of the ongoing debate as to what is regarded as botanical art. It is also important that we continually strive to present well balanced programs, administratively viable as well as maintaining a certain degree of rigor. This insures that students can gain specific skills, and present classes that can be regarded by students – most of whom view their interest in this art as a pastime – as very satisfying and of course, enjoyable.