Interview with an illustrator & behind the scenes of 'Painting by Numbers'

In 1786 and 1787, the botanical artist Ferdinand Bauer accompanied Prof. Sibthorp to eastern Mediterannean to record the plant species. He drew these in pencil and colour-coded them and, some years later, used these along with his remarkable ability to recall colours, to produce over 900 watercolour paintings.  These were eventually engraved, hand-coloured and printed to produce one of the most expensive flora ever, The Flora Graeca.

Dr Richard Mulholland has been researching the pigments used in the original paintings. He ground up various components, mixed them with Tesco’s runny honey and put them into mussel shells to set. 

For the exhibition in the Weston Library of Bauer’s work, “Painting by Numbers”, Rosemary Wise prepared an illustration, showing the way in which Bauer would have worked. His colour code does not exist but, using three colours only, Gamboge (made from resin from Garcinia spp.), Carmine (from ground up cochineal insects) and Indigo (from Indigophera tinctoria) Rosemary devised her own simplified colour code.  This proved to be ideal for painting Fritillaria meleagris.  

In this video, we get a behind-the-scenes look at Rosemary drawing and painting Fritillaria meleagris (snake’s head fritillaries) for the “Painting by Numbers” exhibition using the pigments prepared by Dr Richard Mulholland.


We took some time to ask Rosemary a few questions about her experience as a botanical illustrator.

Did you always want to be a botanical illustrator?

I always knew that I would be concentrating on art in some form or other. My earliest drawing always featured plants. My great grandfather used to take me out on walks as a very small child, he was very knowledgeable about the names of wild flowers and birds and possibly influenced my future career.

What prompted you to explore this area of art?

I read Fine Arts at Reading University and wasn’t too thrilled with life drawing three whole days each week. My first year tutor arranged that I could draw in the botany department greenhouses instead. He was the first to mention the possibility of a career in botanical illustration. I did get a lot of encouragement from the botanists, especially E.V.Watson. After University I taught for almost 2 years and had a few exhibitions of plant paintings. I was interviewed for a post with the late Frank White in 1964 and started work in January 1965.

You have travelled all over the world in your career – of all the places you have been, do you have a favourite?

That’s difficult as every place has been so different. The Seychelles islands come very high on the list, probably because this was my own project. I had to do my own collecting and spent hours scrambling around in the mist forests searching for the 80 endemic species. South America was amazing, another completely new flora (Bolivia with John Wood and Peru, Terry Pennington, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew). West Papua (another series of Kew trips) was incredible, especially the time when 5 of us were taken by helicopter to a very remote spot at high altitude to collect alpine plants. The jungle in Borneo was a new experience too, the first time I had ever been camping and how exciting to draw a new species on the same day that it was collected.

And of the places you have yet to go – what place is at the top of your list?

I am off to Mexico in a few weeks’ time, more new experiences. But top of my list? Again difficult. I would like to see more of South America, especially Amazonia, but am happy anywhere where there are new plants to be recorded.


You can see Rosemary’s painting in the “Painting by Numbers” exhibition at the Weston Library, on display until 9th July.

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