Botanical art worldwide · Feedback · Information · Preparation guidelines

Feedback – Martin Allen

This blog’s a bit long – sorry – so I did a summary
“…a juried exhibition is just like an exam question; read it carefully before answering.”

1 Send in a good scan of your painting
2 Write out the botanical description before starting your entry
3 Draw the habit of the plant correctly
4 Don’t guess or bluff
5 If you don’t enter, you’ll never know…


If, as an artist, you enter a juried exhibition there will always be paintings that are rejected, other artists (who didn’t enter) thinking they could have done better than some of the paintings in the exhibition, and artists in the exhibition wondering why they got through but someone else didn’t.

To start with, there were the rules discussed and agreed by the international committee for the Worldwide Exhibition. Cleverly, enough space was left within that framework so there was a degree of flexibility to suit each country’s culture, the number of practising botanical artists who live and worked there, and other constraints that apply when volunteers arrange exhibitions.

For the British exhibition our steering committee decided to use the latest edition of the ‘New Flora of the British Isles’ by Clive Stace as our reference for what was a native plant and what wasn’t. This book, published in 2010, is the standard reference. Our UK rules were set out & promoted, and then with fingers crossed, we waited for the entries.

First point: a good clear scan is important because the first elimination stage is based on seeing a digital version of your painting. If you want to get a professional scan of your work you should be able to find a local specialist to carry it out, or ask for recommendations, and it will cost approximately £30 upwards.

Once all the entries were in, a copy of each scan was made (not by me, so I didn’t see who painted what) with the signature digitally removed and saved as a digital file. I was then tasked to look at each image and see if it matched the plant name given by the artist and then to make final confirmation of the plant’s native status. My day job is to do botanical surveys of native plants so this was something I enjoyed very much – where I wasn’t sure, I checked it with the Flora by Stace.

As an aside, naming of names is not as straightforward as one might hope. The RHS Plant Finder uses some different scientific names that have been decided more recently (scientists can update names in the light of new genetic/historic investigations …there’s a protocol for everything in science) than in Stace but we decided as long as there was consistency and clarity as to what we were using as a reference then it would be straightforward.


Second point: I know the fun bit is the drawing and the painting, but sometimes plants can look similar and yet be a different species, one native and one not native. I would suggest that when you decide on a plant to paint you write out its botanical description from a Flora; look up the technical botany terms so you understand them (I have to do this too) and make sure that you have not only the right species, but plant material that fits the given description. Plants can grow abnormally large or small, but as a judge doesn’t know what you saw they may just think that you drew it badly (i.e. over large or undersized). Often the crucial features of the plant are used in a key to differentiate one species from another…it can be a good idea to make sure these bits show clearly in your drawing if it is one of two similar species. Yes, I did count numbers of stamens and cross check with accurate photos on the internet.

My looking at whether the images fitted the criteria did show up some paintings to be ineligible because they did not fit the rules as set. As a side point I’ve also had things rejected before because they don’t fit the rules – a juried exhibition is just like an exam question; read it carefully before answering.

Then the remaining digital images – still without their signatures – were put in another file and our brilliant judges looked at them and reduced the number to 50. They were given clear guidelines for what they were judging for and each made comments individually. The judges were not unanimous on everything but gave useful feedback for the artists who we hoped might try again on another occasion.


Third point: when you draw the plant material make sure you get the habit right – the leaves should be arranged as they would normally grow (remember, don’t do a weird version of the species unless it is a species known for having weird versions and also take care to make sure the specimen hasn’t started to wilt). There is some leeway for decorative arrangements of the plant on the page but not so far as to be clearly un-natural. And ditto for the colouring in – typical colour is a good idea, but not a particularly pale half-starved plant whether you found it like that or not.

The artists of the remaining 50 images were requested to send in the framed paintings, safely boxed so they didn’t get damaged in transit, for the final selection of 40; our judges needed to look at the real thing and not just a digital representation.

Once the logistics of arranging times/dates with all five judges and a host room (thank you Kew Gardens) were sorted, there followed time-consuming details of packing a car for the trip to London, carrying everything up to the room, unpacking all the framed paintings and carefully laying them out on tables. Once the judges had judged, the paintings were all packed carefully away, taken back down to the car and are now safely housed at the home of one of the steering group, ready to be transported up to Lancaster in May.

When the standards are high, the judges have to criticise the slightest thing and we were fortunate to have such experienced and knowledgeable judges – they don’t miss things. They were volunteers too; I think they do it because they enjoy seeing botanical art. Reports I heard from the day were that they were there for the art and discussing the art; they’re enthusiasts who have spent lots of time looking at different examples of botanical art and always like to see more, which is very lucky for us.


Fourth point: At this stage, when it comes to separating out paintings to get to a final number to hang, it’s not just about getting things right it’s about not getting things wrong – or maybe just trying to be less wrong than everyone else. The judges will spot the mistakes first. Your painting is up against the other paintings present during judging – who knows how good they will be compared to yours when you enter?

The last bit of judging a juried exhibition is to inform everyone of what’s happened and give feedback that is hopefully helpful. This blog is part of that feedback so that everyone has a chance to benefit.

Final point: If you don’t enter, you won’t get your painting hung in the exhibition.

Also, if you didn’t get chosen make sure you understand your feedback and then do compare what you did to those that got chosen. I would recommend reading some of the other blog-posts here, on this blog at  that show the amount of preparation that often goes into a successful painting.


A personal note from me: There were paintings that were beautifully painted, innovative, and that I would have happily had on my wall and they didn’t get chosen as they didn’t meet the rules of the exhibition. Not being accepted or in the final 40 doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t continue to paint like that if you wish to, just that if you enter them for this type of exhibition don’t expect them to get hung or maybe also enter a painting in a more conventional style, just in case. And if you didn’t enter, like me…well we’ll never know, will we? Let’s hope there’s a next time…

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