Profile: Kent-based botanical artist Billy Showell

Billy Showell in her Tunbridge Wells studio

Billy Showell in her Tunbridge Wells studio - Credit: Archant

Tunbridge Wells-based botanical artist and teacher Billy Showell on painting blossoms, teaching and self motivation

Art by Billy Showell

Art by Billy Showell - Credit: Archant

Billy Showell has lived in Tunbridge Wells for 12 years, working first on the insulated wooden building that forms her studio, before completing renovations to the house.

Although she lived in London for 10 years, in Brixton and Norwood, Billy’s painting really kicked off when she moved to Kent and found that it was compatible with raising a young family. She started teaching painting in the evenings.

Her own artistic education included doing a two-year Foundation Course at Epsom Art School then going on to the prestigious St. Martin’s. She believes that formal art education “gives you contact with like-minded people and it teaches you to be self-motivated.”

Art by Billy Showell

Art by Billy Showell - Credit: Archant

Although she started out as an oil painter, Billy wanted to do watercolour which was more popular for teaching evening classes, as the equipment can be packed up easily.

She quickly became a convert, telling me: “Watercolour is a lovely fluid medium, I can capture the softness of natural subjects. It’s quick so you don’t have to work from photos and it’s delicate.”

After exhibiting in Lancashire, Billy got an agent, who helped shape what she chose to do. A slot came up for botanical teaching in Sevenoaks, which Billy accepted, then found that her pupils were encouraging her to put in for shows.

Art by Billy Showell

Art by Billy Showell - Credit: Archant

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There is a certain trajectory for botanical painting, explains Billy. “To gain accreditation with the Royal Horticural Society, one has to become a member of the Society of Botanical Artists, which entails getting five paintings two years in a row. Then you can be invited.”

Next year Billy, a member since 2000, will become President and gain a Certificate of Botanical Merit (CBM), which is judged by professionals in the area. She has seven.

Flowers had always been part of her interest and I am intrigued how she achieves such precise colour matching.

Art by Billy Showell

Art by Billy Showell - Credit: Archant

“It is basically practice,” she admits. “When I taught I suggested working with a minimal palette, the primary colours, and then you start adding in other colours, the hot colours.

“But I always try to get students to think of mixing colours first. Always start by trying mixing: it’s based on practice.”

Billy also doodles a lot, just to see if she can get the colour, and inspired by Dutch Still Life she even spent some time painting by candlelight, in order to get the muted tones. “That didn’t last long!” she laughs.

Art by Billy Showell

Art by Billy Showell - Credit: Archant

Botanical is one of the earliest genres of watercolour: “Even people doing the work for science would lay out paintings systematically,” she says. The medium could be oil, watercolour, coloured pencil, graphite or even collage and although the flowers must be botanically accurate, they can be portrayed in an artistic fashion.

Her favourite paints are Sennelier, and for new projects she starts with sketchbooks, kept beside her bed or in her handbag.

“I get an idea and bring it to the studio. The idea of composition is based first on shape, an idea of scale and then I match the flowers to do that.”

Billy has about 50 paintings on the go at once. “Sometimes the painting will go in the drawer because the flower is out of season, or you may be unsure how to complete.” Some of the illustrations are big, she has done one a metre and a half by one metre, but her latest is 50 x 70 centimetres. She uses hot-pressed paper, 100 per cent cotton which is very smooth and gives the stability she needs.

Billy names three works as her most exciting to date. “Firstly a painting of 60 apples in a spiral for an Iranian customer, and they all had to be perfect. That was one metre square.

“Then there was the logo for a soap company, a sheet of cherry blossoms, also made into cards and prints, which was on the cover of the American Society of Botanical Arts magazine. And thirdly I had to do 180 illustrations in two weeks for the International Fragrance Federation and for this I worked around the clock.”

Asked about the importance of art, Billy responds: “Without beauty what are we? It reminds us of where we come from.”

Her advice to a young student starting out is positive. “Paint what you love and it will lead to eloquence. Keep at it. If you can get into Art school, that’s great.”

Get in touch

Billy Showell exhibits through the Society of Botanical Art and also internationally. Her work is also available to view in books published by Tunbridge Wells’ Search Press: Flower Portraits in Watercolour, Fruits and Vegetables: Portraits in Watercolour, The A-Z of Flower Paintings and Billy Showell’s Botanical Paintings.

Contact Billy on 07762 648687 for a studio visit in Tunbridge Wells by appointment.