Philadelphia Society of Botanical Illustrators artists bring their skills to Philadelphia Flower Show

Philadelphia Society of Botanical Illustrators member Susan Jenkins has many of her paintings hanging in her home.
Philadelphia Society of Botanical Illustrators member Susan Jenkins has many of her paintings hanging in her home. Painting by Susan Jenkins
Philadelphia Society of Botanical Illustrators member Susan Jenkins has a studio surrounded by shelves of design materials.
Philadelphia Society of Botanical Illustrators member Susan Jenkins has a studio surrounded by shelves of design materials. Chris Barber — Digital First Media

PHILADELPHIA >> When the Philadelphia Flower Show opens March 5, visitors will be dazzled not only by acres of outstanding landscapes, but by a number of fine art displays featuring beautiful and fascinating plants.

One group, the Philadelphia Society of Botanical Illustrators, is gearing up for this year’s show as members assemble paintings they have created that examine and highlight the intricate details of flowers.

This society is a local branch of the national organization and covers the Pennsylvania counties of Chester, Delaware, Berks, Montgomery and Philadelphia as well as the states of Delaware and New Jersey.

The 80 or so members engage in a unique and highly specialized form of art that involves painting flowers and plants with high accuracy on a white background while artistically highlighting the unique and beautiful features.

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“Everything we do is botanically accurate. … The art goes back thousands of years to help people identify which plants were poisonous and which were not,” Flower Show Producer Carol Ashton-Hergenhan said.

Still, there is plenty of room for human creativity, as the artists are free to manipulate the positions and lighting of their subjects — just as long as the plants remain true to their species’ qualities.

“We tend to paint from life. We can see stereo-specifically. We can eliminate distractions and discern unique characteristics of the plant,” Ashton-Hergenhan continued.

Like many high-quality art displays, the artists submit their work ahead of show time and it is juried by outside judges for inclusion in the show.

When it is time to hang the display at the Pennsylvania Convention Center just before the opening, the paintings are placed in a setting that is landscaped with live flowers and a natural environment by the members.

The artists are guided in their selections of subjects by the theme of the Philadelphia Flower Show. Last year it was the movies, and this year it is the 100th anniversary of the nation’s national parks.

“We get the theme the year before and give lots of time to the artists,” Ashton-Hergenhan said.

Last year, they had some interesting subjects to work with that included depicting plant themes from such movies as “Pretty in Pink,” “Hollywood and Vine,” “Fried Green Tomatoes,” “The Grapes of Wrath” and “Cactus Flower.”

This year, they have the opportunity to explore the flowers, plants, vegetables, trees and even dead stems in parks from throughout the nation.

Society Secretary Marilyn Greist of Penn has prepared a painting for entry into this year’s show. It is a vivid portrayal of Asteraceae Helianthus annuus — or sunflowers.

Greist, 70, has come to botanical illustrating late in life. In fact, she said, she has only been in the society for a few years, even though as a very young child she loved art.

Still she has a highly equipped and well-lighted studio off her bedroom that includes paints, paper, brushes and an ample surface for his work.

She said she is consumed by her passion for painting flowers.

Sometimes, she said, she can go for up to eight hours working on a piece until her hands hurt.

The work, although it can be acrylics, colored pencil, graphite or egg tempera, is frequently done with water color.

Greist studies her subjects carefully and in great detail and mixes her own colors for accuracy. As she paints, the strokes are almost transparent, as creating even one flower involves layers and layers of lightly applied medium.

Quality is achieved by capturing even the slightest highlights or shadows.

Greist admits that there are many standards and regulations that apply to botanical illustration, but she said her personality fits well with that.

“I’d rather bake than cook, because baking is precise,” she said, adding that in contrast for some people, a free-wheeling approach to art (or cooking) is their cup of tea.

Greist’s neighbor, Membership Chairman Susan Jenkins, 63, agreed with Greist that those who engage in botanical illustration see it as a passion, even to the extent that they never seem to know when their picture is done.

“Sometime you have to put it up and keep walking by it [to know it’s what you want],” she said.

Jenkins said the judges who look at the paintings not only see the picture itself, but also consider the matting, the suitability of the kind of paper to the subject and the framing.

“They like metallic [or metallic-looking on wood] frames,” she said.

Preparing for the Philadelphia Flower Show is not the only thing the members do, although it’s very important.

Jenkins, who has not submitted work for this year’s flower show but has in the past, said she makes cards and prints, takes her work to craft shows and puts it online. Members also have their own shows.

Overall, members of the Philadelphia Society of Botanical Illustrators meet throughout the region for demonstrations, workshops and shows, both individually and as a group. There is one major business meeting a year, but the members meet often at socials, and many times those socials include speakers.