If traditional botanical drawings capture a flower’s scientific qualities then Rosie Sanders’s paintings celebrate its visceral beauty.
Back-lit and blown up out of proportion, they are the sensual stars of Sanders’s canvas, ripe with colour and movement. While meticulously realistic in execution, they are also larger than life and always painterly.
It is a style honed over 40 years – from a teenage admiration for the accuracy of Mary Grierson, through a discovery of the minimalism of Rory McEwen 30 years ago, which has seen her push at the boundaries of botanical representation.
“I felt I wanted to be an artist and not an illustrator,” says Sanders. “It’s part of my nature, I’ve never liked being in a tradition. So I have tried hard to see a different view of a plant.”
Sanders took a foundation course at High Wycombe College before marrying aged 19 and abandoning her art studies.
Having produced traditional works early in her career, she slowly discovered her style with the publication in 1980 of a huge monograph about apples – 144 varieties.
For the past 10 years, the mostly self-taught artist has been producing a series of paintings that are brought together in her new book, Rosie Sanders’ Flowers: A Celebration of Botanical Art. Prices for her work start at around £3,000 and go up to around £30,000.
A fever of experimentation has seen her playing with lighting in her studio, backlighting the stems to create a unique luminosity and capturing them from unusual angles. While still painting in traditional watercolour, she has moved away from traditional smooth, hot press paper favoured by old-school botanical illustrators, in favour of rougher papers.
“There’s something about rough paper that has a certain sparkle to it,” she says.
As a well as a lustrous quality, her work also has a realism that delights in her subject’s imperfections. A keen gardener, many of Sanders’s blooms are picked from her own garden or grown in her greenhouse and while she will source some from florists, they rarely have the drama that her paintings require.
“Florist flowers, particularly roses, are so stiff. They are lovely to put in a vase but they’re not very interesting to paint. In the same way that people with their foibles are far more interesting to paint than perfect skin. When you grow your own I like that they are a bit battered by the weather,” she says.
It is this realness, this imperfection, that Sanders is chasing. Because of the transient quality of her subjects, she rarely plans her works, and is led by the life cycle of her subjects.
“I tend to go with the plant. If it moves a bit, I’ll go with it. With irises I would have quite a few Gardening stems because they don’t last long enough for you to do the whole painting. I probably get one large petal done in a day and you come down next morning and it’s died. Then you simply splice another one in.”
After 10 years of working on her flower series, Sanders admits to being never quite satisfied.
“I’m just about to start a completely dead rose. It’s got a funny shape and the colours are all reds, browns and maroons.”
Painting is an obsession for Sanders, who pours passion into each piece of work.
“I can’t just sit down and paint me an orchid. It is about my response to the flowers. Something happens when I am painting and it’s not necessarily conscious.
“I do like subjects that have a certain presence. I am not so keen on orchids now, they are a bit stiff, whereas irises are so soft and sexy but have this incredible strength. They are like women. They don’t get blown over, they stand tall. They are powerful and feminine.” Sanders’s work, owing perhaps to its seductive scale, has been frequently compared with Georgia O’Keeffe’s – something that Sanders finds frustrating.
“I don’t particularly want to be compared to Georgia O’Keeffe. I don’t think my work is anything like hers. I’ve always been intrigued by her and her work, but there are other painters who excite me more.”