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Capturing experiences in my artwork


Banksia garden at Canberra Botanic Gardens

The Banksia garden at the Australian National Botanic Gardens, Canberra


In my last blog post, I talked about using memories as triggers for artwork.

For this post, I’d like to share how I have recently used an experience as a starting point.

When I talk about ‘experiences’, for me this is usually when I travel. On social media, I see lots of travel diaries where artists have bulging sketchbooks filled with drawings and musings. However when I’m travelling, its usually with other people on a tight schedule, or I am busy enjoying the place I’m visiting. For me sketching and writing takes time and focus, and I often don’t have a couple of hours to stop and get into a deep art response.

Using my most recent artist book as an example I’ll go through how I use travel experiences to create artwork.


The Location

Last year I visited the Australian city of Canberra to run an art workshop.  After I arrived, I planned to have a couple of hours at the Australian National Botanic Gardens before I had to check-in to my accommodation.

I prepared in advance by packing a strip of watercolour paper (50cm long and 20cm high) folded into a short concertina and a basic drawing kit of graphite pencils, eraser and sharpener. I left my usual plein air kit at home as I knew I wouldn’t have much time.  Taking minimal art materials reduces the pressure and expectation to create something amazing on site, as well as limiting time-wasting decisions about what drawing media to use.


My Concept – the experience

I’m really keen on Banksias – I adore their beautiful sculptural silhouettes and the distinctive shapes of their cones, which have intricate surface patterns including pores or openings that contain the seeds.

I knew that the Australian National Botanic Gardens collection would include many banksias from all over Australia, including some unique ones from Western Australia. And I wasn’t disappointed, I was awestruck, and that’s the feeling I wanted the book to capture.  Being surrounded by beautiful and unusual banksias is a kind of surreal, lovely indulgence for me.

Banksia cones in the Australian National Botanic Gardens collection


I loved the ‘museum’ collection display, with tags and mini perspex plinths

Plein air

As planned I spent most of my time at the botanic gardens in the Banksia garden. It’s a relatively new garden so the plants were small but that helped me to focus in on individual plants. My only disappointment was they used a thick gravel mulch and had removed any fallen leaves [I love picking up leaves……..].

Using a 2B graphite pencil, I drew a variety of cones and leaves onto my strip of paper. I worked relatively quickly and didn’t fuss too much. I also loved the name plaques beside each plant so I wrote some of the names on my paper too, not worrying too much about direction and composition. I took photos with my mobile phone for later reference.

My plan for the plein air session was to record the most interesting Banksia cones and leaves. I also wanted to capture my excitement of being in the gardens admiring all those beautiful plants.  I kept my expectations of what I could achieve pretty low given my time restriction.  I kept it simple and enjoyable.

And that left enough time to browse the botanic gardens’ shop – hmmmmm… books…..


Back at the studio

A week or so later, back in my studio, I revisited what I had done so I could formulate a plan on what to do next.

This took some time and several sessions to work through, but I wasn’t in a hurry. My goal was to resolve the work as I relived my experience in the botanic gardens.

I worked into my original drawings with ink, and then applied some watercolour and my favourite monoprint techniques to include some more detail and introduce a little colour and line. At this stage I felt it needed a cover to pull it together and feel more like a finished book form.

More musing and thinking required…..


Wrapping it up

I decided on a wrap around cover for my book.  My biggest challenge was finding the right paper – the right tone of white (white / ivory / cream) and thick enough for stability but not too thick that it couldn’t wrap around the book.

When I found the right paper, I then worked into it with drawing, watercolour and monoprint so it would complement the book content.  I also made a paper strap closure that slips on and off, to keep the book closed when not in use.

I designed the paper strap closure to ‘blend’ into the cover itself, for a seamless finish.

The concertina has a 2cm tab on one end which I glued onto the inside of the cover.

I named the book ‘Proteaceae’, which is the family to which Banksias belong. The name is derived from the name of the Greek god Proteus, a deity who was able to change between many forms. I think that this is appropriate, given my book explores the amazing variety of Banksia cones and leaves that I admired during my short time at Canberra’s botanic gardens.


This artist book demonstrates how to record an experience into an artwork without having to complete the entire work on site, but still be able to capture the feeling of that experience.

So give yourself permission to not finish a sketch / drawing / poem whilst you’re out and about, and get on with enjoying what is around you and who you might be sharing that experience with.

The advantage is you have something to work on when you get home whilst you’re suffering the post-holiday blues. 😁





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