Portraits of plants: Jeanne Reiner captures the beauty of botanicals
The winning entry into the 21st International Show of the American Society of Botanical Artists, now underway at the Wave Hill public garden and culture center in the Bronx, is of a common and dying Cape gooseberry plant.
“I found it after a frost dangling off a vine up in the Poconos,” says Jeanne Reiner, whose home studio is in Greenwich. “What had happened was the husk had disintegrated and all that was left was this skeletal framework around the berry. It had a bright yellow-orange berry covered in what looked like lace and I thought, ‘God, this is just so beautiful.’ It was just the moment I saw it. It would be dead in two days. It would have frozen up and dehydrated.”
Reiner did her final gooseberry drawing in colored pencil and pastel on paper, but first she had done a detailed study in metallic pencil and charcoal dust that itself looks like a finished work of art. In fact, Reiner says she may spend months working on a single plant.
To listen to her describe her process is to understand that botanic art is about much more than faithful, if gorgeous, replication. She is part portraitist, part anatomist, part naturalist always on the lookout for the unexpected. She has a predilection for odd plants (like the fly-eating Nepenthes pitcher plant that won a spot in last year’s International show), but also takes fruits and vegetables and even insects as her subjects.
“It’s better if you don’t just sit down with and start drawing it,” she says, speaking especially of plants that change by the day or hour. “A plant will move with the sun, you know. It may be looking at you when you start drawing it, but then it may be looking out the window. That’s why some people do orchids. Orchids just sit there and don’t move at all,” she says.
“It’s better if you hold it in your hands. Maybe even do a dissection of it, and go on the internet if you need to understand how it grows. There’s a scientific side to it… that makes the art form so different from others.”
Reiner may document a new subject by photographing it and, because a photo may not capture true colors, also do a color study in pencil or watercolor. Even then she will write down the colors she used, so that when she actually begins the drawing, she has what amounts to a formula to guide her.
“You have to have a type-A personality, that’s a given. Because you have to be able to spend quiet, long hours with the plant, really examining it and then rendering,” she says of botanic artists in general.
Accuracy remains an absolute in botanic art, so much so that scientific judges screen every submission to a show like the International, which has entries from as far away as Japan and Russia. The primacy of accuracy, however, begs the question: Beyond sheer technical skill, how do botanic artists achieve individual creativity? The answer is in what they see in a plant and what they do with it.
Modern botanic artists, Reiner says, “Draw in a manner that is is more emotional looking, rather than just straight-forward. The flower may be in the last days of wilting and you’ll see the blowzy look of the petals starting to fall off.” Then for action, they may show the stamen moving in a certain direction or the plant falling off the page.
“It’s about composition and color and the pattern of the flowers and enlarging the flowers so they become something beautiful that someone would want in their home. So they wouldn’t look antique,” she says.
Reiner studied art in college and graduate school, but spent the first part of her career in graphic design, eventually opening her own studio and attracting clients ranging from Elizabeth Arden to the New York City Ballet. She returned to the study of fine art after moving to Connecticut in 2002, but didn’t respond to the emphasis on abstraction in classes she took.
“I’m the kind of person who needs to have a goal. I need to have an object to draw. ... I’m very literal in my approach to things,” she says.
She felt more comfortable at the New York Botanical Garden where a watercolor class she wanted to enroll in had drawing as a prerequisite. She ended up earning the Garden’s equivalent of a masters degree in 2014. It required a dissertation and a class in plant evolution. Now she teaches there.
Reiner began exhibiting years earlier though. She won entry into her first American Society International in 2009 with a drawing of a pomegranate. Besides the “right brain, left brain” skills it requires, she says another appeal of botanic art is that it is dominated by women. One of its first patrons was the Empress Josephine, wife of Napoleon.
Less than two years ago, Reiner became a co-founder of the Tri-State Botanical Artists chapter of the American Society. There is one man among its 55 members. He is Dick Rauh of Wilton, who is also one of the few men among the 48 artists selected for the Wave Hill show. (He also teaches at the NYBG and has doctorate in plant science, according to his online bio.)
The Wave Hill exhibit runs from Sept. 8 to Dec. 2. It overlaps with a Tri-State artists’ exhibit running to Oct. 28 at the headquarters of the New York and New Jersey Trail Conference Authority.
It features plants common on trails in the area and Reiner’s choice was a humble purple clover. After examining her specimen under a magnifying glass, she decided that by focusing just on the flower and enlarging it, she could make an interesting drawing.
“Enlarging things up helps me to see something in a different manner and it helps the viewer to see something they’ve never seen before,” she says. “You could walk all over that plant and you’ve seen it a million times, but when you hold it up close, you notice it has a real beauty to it.”
The Tri-State group will also exhibit and have artists working on site at Sleepy Cat Farm in Greenwich on Sept. 16, the day of an open garden tour organized by The Garden Conservancy.
Joel Lang is a frequent contributor to Sunday Arts & Style.