The ARTS Interview: Botanical Artist, Jess Shepherd

Botanist and artist, Jess Shepherd, has a new exhibition this month (February) and has crowdfunded her new book as part of her Leafscape project
Ecologist Arts Editor, GARY COOK meets an artist determined to put plants centre stage with her new Leafscape project which includes a new exhibition this month and a crowd-funded book
‘Plant Blindness' is defined as the inability to recognise the importance of plants, to appreciate their aesthetic value and the misguided ranking of plants as inferior to animals

It's a very clever trick to bring the dead back to life. Botanical painter Jess Shepherd will be displaying that exact magical alchemy at her upcoming show of 30 beautifully reincarnated leaves; her under-the-microscope watercolour paintings of leaves in varying degrees of decay glow with carefully captured texture, light and life.

The impetus for the exhibition and book that Shepherd calls her Leafscape project began 18 months ago when the botanist picked up a Catalpa leaf from a London pavement. She explains: "At the time I felt that the condition of the leaf reflected my own story - city-bruised and unanchored, and so I decided to paint it larger than life size to capture all its blemishes."

The UK artist spends half the year painting in Spain, which might go towards explaining the clarity of her work. "The light in Spain is harsh and blue-rich and my work has been affected as a result. It has become sharper and I add dramatic shadows with more confidence than when in the UK. There is something so incredible about the shadows in Spain; they are so dark and black."

After painting her first London leaf, she felt the urge to try more from further afield. "The leaves I have painted in this exhibition were captured because they caught my eye, often at a time when I wasn't actually looking for them. I'd just be walking along a footpath and voilá - a leaf would scream out ‘paint me'. Some of the time, when I found a leaf, I would be going through some life event and the leaf would describe how I was feeling at the time."

The exhibition which runs this month (from the 16th to 25th February) at Abbott and Holder in London is accompanied by a beautifully printed book which has been financed by crowdfunding. The idea has obviously struck a chord with the wider public as it has been oversubscribed. The limited edition books will include a CD of sounds recorded where the leaves were found and then tracks their journey from the East End of London, through the avenues of Hyde Park and Chelsea into the deep rural countryside of Granada in Spain. It is the artist's way of trying to catapult botanical art into the 21st Century whilst also looking at topics close to her heart such as how we need to look closer at (and listen to) the natural beauty around us.

Shepherd explains, "Many painters have been fascinated by the effects of synesthesia and I believe that some feelings, especially those of a spiritual nature, sometimes can't be described in paint alone. Sound becomes part of us and is something that happens inside of us. It is deeply personal and this is why I believe it can do things that paint cannot."

Shepherd works for up to 10 hours a day meticulously layering sometimes as many as 30 translucent washes of watercolour. She usually outlines the leaf, the midrib and the primary veins in pencil but will do a lot of the drawing after this stage in paint with a brush. "This is my way of avoiding graphite, which can dirty the colours when painting with watercolour." She also learnt from Arthur Harry Church's work that burnishing the paper helped maintain the vibrancy and luminescence of pigments.

‘Plant Blindness' is defined as the inability to recognise the importance of plants, to appreciate their aesthetic value and the misguided ranking of plants as inferior to animals

These are the minute details and tiny differences that elevate Shepherd's work to another level. The accuracy and obvious love and knowledge of her subjects comes from her botanical science degree followed by her MSc at the Royal Botanical Garden Edinburgh which required portfolios of dissected flowers, alongside in-depth study of phylogeography, ethnobotany, phylogenetics, cytology and taxonomy.

Shepherd's hard-earned education gives the viewer a subliminal trust in the authenticity of her work. To emphasis this further, the titles have a technical tone such as "Leaf 100820151542 Catalpa bignonioides". Shepherd explains, "Life just seems so incredibly random and yet not. Once I started questioning mankind's use of scale and measurement to record size and space, I realised that to refer to time as a measurement in the collection was an absolute must. So the titles record the exact time I found the leaf."

The artist is concerned at how the botanical world doesn't garner the recognition it deserves and through her collections she aims to bring greater awareness to ‘plant blindness'. The term is defined as ‘the inability to recognise the importance of plants, to appreciate their aesthetic value and the misguided ranking of plants as inferior to animals'. Shepherd says, "Plants provide us with food, shelter, fuel, oxygen, materials and medicine and play a significant role maintaining the climate and improving air and water quality therefore plant blindness is a considerable problem when environmental conservation is so important."

Care for her subject matter even extends to her use of social media. Although it can sometimes become a mental distraction from the concentration of her work, she fills her popular blog with inspiring messages. "I want to encourage people to stop, think and ponder," Shepherd says. "I believe the Internet is an excellent tool if used responsibly. It is a question of balance. One of the problematic things about social media in particular is how draining it can be. I believe that this is because it extends our nervous systems, launching us into a world where we don't need a body or even an identity. The result of this can be very confusing and disorientating for the brain."

Fortunately, leafing through her new book, Shepherd's crowdfunding backers will find solace in the intricacy of nature's most easily overlooked objects of beauty.

The Interview

1. Audio working inspiration: music or radio?

Both. I often paint to Philip Glass. My favourite radio programme at the moment is Short Cuts, but I also tune in to Radcliffe and Maconie and Nemone's Electric Lady Land on Radio 6.


2. Kew or Wisley?

Neither. There's too much traffic around both gardens. I'd rather go into the wilderness, or walk around allotment sites. If I had to choose a British garden it would have to be the Chelsea Physic Garden in London.


3. Top environmental tip?

To exist and conduct one's life responsibly so that the environment doesn't need protecting.


4. Studio clothes: painting overalls or civvies?

Depends on the weather. Height of summer in Andalucia means a bra and my cotton Pakistani Aladdin trousers. Height of winter is my alpaca wool poncho, Afghan slippers and my Rajasthani scarf.


5. Lark artist or late owl?

Both. I am an early riser, but I notice I can do nights very well. My worst time is in the middle, especially at 3-4 pm, which is when I tend to go for a walk.


6. Do you sketch in pencil or pen?

Both, sketches are in pen then I transfer the image onto the watercolour paper with a pencil.


7. Favourite season for gathering plant reference?

Probably the autumn, I love all that transformation and so much happens in the space of a month. You get fresh leaves with dead leaves, and berries with flowers all at the same time as nature makes it's last push before the winter sets in.


8. Studio OCD or organised chaos?



9. Regular breaks or work through?

Depends on what I am working on and the time of year, but I usually work through. The really big pieces require more breaks to be taken.


10. Post-work: bike ride or box set?

Neither really. In the winter I like to sit by the fire listening to music and in the summer I will sit in the evening sun with a cold beer and listen to the birds singing and life happening all around me. My bicycle is usually only taken out when I am working, getting me into the fields quickly.


Jess Shepherd's Leafscape work can be found at

The Leafscape exhibition is at Abbott and Holder, London from 16-25 February


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Gary Cook is a conservation artist and Arts Editor for the Ecologist




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