The Art of the Flower Garden

Spring is so close I can feel it in my bones. I’m envisioning sprouting grape hyacinths, daffodils and peonies, greening herbs and rose buds. I can’t wait to get going in the garden, clearing up winter’s straggly leftovers, digging and planting . . . and sketching, painting and nature printing my rewards.

Plant A Garden Be Happy, Watercolor and Ink, Laura Bethmann

Meanwhile, I get to go to the largest indoor flower show in the world, practically on my doorstep – the Philadelphia Flower Show. People come from all over the world to visit, and to participate.  There’s so much to see and do. Amazing exhibits, classes, garden related vendors, much more than I can list here (check the link below).  The dates are March 5-13, 2016.  This year’s theme is Explore America: 100 Years of the National Park Service.

Have you ever been?  All the information is on their website  Philadelphia Flower Show

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There’s Art We Like and There’s Art We Don’t Like (can we appreciate what we don’t like?)

Detail: Corn in Bloom, watercolor and nature print by Laura Bethmann
Detail: Corn in Bloom, watercolor and nature print by Laura Bethmann

Art is subjective, we choose what we like.  I like this painting. I like the tall, dramatic corn growing up into the bright sky. But I made it, so I know what I like about it.

Drawing by Austin Kleon, author of Steal Like An Artist
Drawing by Austin Kleon, author of Steal Like An Artist

What makes us distinguish between likable or not likable, beautiful or ugly, good or bad?

In 2012, the Huffington Post reported on an episode of the PBS program Antiques Roadshow.  A man brought in two paintings which he purchased for $2.50 each.  He liked one painting but thought the other one was ugly.  Turns out that the ‘ugly’ one, by American artist Willaim Victor Higgins (apologies to Mr. Higgins) was appraised for $75,000 to $100,000.  The one he liked didn’t have much monetary worth at all.  Beautiful and ugly can be at odds when it comes to personal taste, not to mention cash value!  (Why he bothered to buy what he considered to be an ugly painting wasn’t explained, but in the end you can bet he was glad he did.)

Our sociological patterns of choice and preference refer to how we view and adapt to styles, manners, and all kinds of things – including works of art.  Our individual tastes are influenced by many factors, but we know what we like.

child's drawing

We all love the wonderful, brilliant paintings created by our 5-year-olds.  I love everything the Beatles have done – been a fan for 50 years.  I took a quick survey from some of my near and dear.  Husband Chris loves the paintings of Johannes Vermeer.  Nephew Steve loves Tool and van Gogh.  Daughter Cara goes crazy for Bernini, Caravaggio and post-impressionist landscapes.  Son-in-law James is enthralled with jazz artist Sonny Rollins and metal bands.  Bunny is enchanted by Puccini.  Rosemary chooses Verdi, Springsteen, Gothic architecture, Shakespeare and wants to know if France and flowering trees can be considered art forms. Peter weighs in with more metal bands and JMW Turner.  Doug’s picks are John Singer Sargent and the pre-Raphaelites.  There were more lists, and longer, but you get the idea.  This was eye-opening for me!

Make a list of your favorite artists then take a survey of your own.  You’ll learn a lot about your people!

We also know what we don’t like, but it’s important to remember that we are judging through a lens of personal preference – our personal taste.  Even when we aren’t warming up to a painting, a song, a poem, or whatever it is, we can often appreciate art for it’s own inherent, redeeming qualities.

Maurice Prendergast watercolor paintings make me happy

Long ago I laid eyes on the watercolor paintings of Paul Cezanne and have been in awe ever since.  His watercolors have proved a huge influence for me (thank you, Monsieur Cezanne).  And even though I’m not enamored of his oil paintings, I realize that Cezanne was the father of modern art, a breakthrough genius, and I certainly appreciate his vision.

I’m not fond of Led Zeppelin’s music (my regrets LZ fans) but their talent is obvious.  ‘Stairway to Heaven’ – yes, I get it.

And so, rather than discounting any work of art entirely, it’s possible to stretch the imagination and come to realize it’s intrinsic value.  Of Led Zeppelin’s music I might say:

That song makes my heart feel like it’s beating the wrong way, but it’s because of the band’s phenomenal rhythmic patterns.

Of another artist that proves difficult for me:

It hurts to look at some of Francisco Goya’s paintings, like Satan Devouring His Son and A Pilgrimage To San Isidro.  They’re really disturbing, but Goya’s talent is amazing.

I love Stonehenge.  Those who don’t might consider that even though…

Stonehenge is just a bunch of stones, and some are broken or missing, no one knows how this 5000 year old earth work was erected, or how 50 ton rocks were transported over 200 miles to build it, or for what purpose.  Modern-day experts have theorized about it for hundreds of years.  It’s an astounding neolithic mystery and a tribute to the people who created it.

The important thing is, we can appreciate even what we don’t like.

A giant helps Merlin build Stonehenge. From a 14th century manuscript in the British Library. Roman de Brut verse of literary history, by Norman poet Wace
A giant helps Merlin build Stonehenge. From a 14th century manuscript in the British Library. Roman de Brut verse of literary history, by Norman poet Wace
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Why is ART important, anyway?

We’ve been making art since ……… always.

Cupule detail at Auditorium Cave at Bhimbetka, Madhya Pradesh, India  Dates from 290,000 - 700,000 BCE
Cupule detail at Auditorium Cave at Bhimbetka, Madhya Pradesh, India. Dates from 290,000 – 700,000 BCE



Early humans, homo-erectus, were creating cupules (a type of rock carving) hundreds of thousands of years ago.

15,000 to 40,0000 years ago, humans were creating expressive paintings of animals, hand prints and markings  on cave walls in what is now France and Spain.

Cave of Altamira, Spain. Paintings date from approximately 20,000 years ago.
Bison in the Cave of Altamira, Spain.
Paintings date from approximately 20,000 years ago.



Art is a very big subject.  It’s up there with the likes of philosophy, science and history (quite recent subjects compared to art).

If you’ve ever drawn so much as a stick figure, jotted a poem, danced a few steps or hummed a tune you’re part of the story.


It has always been in our nature to make art and here’s why:

  • Art reveals our ideas, emotions and experiences.
  • Art tells our stories.  It’s a form of communication, a union among people.
  • Art is about who we are as a creative species.

As long as I’m breathing I’ll keep painting, printing and drawing.  Because it’s important.

detail: Garden Path.Tulips, watercolor, Laura Bethmann
detail: Garden Path.Tulips, watercolor, Laura Bethmann

What’s your favorite go-to form of expression?  How do you bring art into your life?

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Where Nature and Art Live

Almost every day, in all kinds of weather, Andy Goldsworthy goes outside and makes art.

Nature provides the materials. He works with what he finds – leaves, flowers, twigs, branches, rocks, stones, clay, mud, water, ice, snow, feathers… The artwork lives where the materials are found.  When the delicate tension and balance are upset by a breeze, he begins again.  When a long chain of leaves held together by thorns is placed in a stream, it’s carried off weaving its way along the current.  All of his sculptures and assemblages are subject to the elements.  He says of his work that it grows, stays and decays.  Process and decay are implicit.

His tools are his hands and maybe a sharp stone or other found implement.  Goldsworthy’s land and installation art are captured in photos and on film.  Watch this great video, produced by wwvelasca,

Andy Goldsworthy’s books and a dvd about his work, Rivers & Tides, are available on

Thanks, Andy.

"Roof" Andy Goldsworthy. February, 2005. Photo by Lee Ewing. National Gallery of Art.
“Roof” Andy Goldsworthy. February, 2005. Photo by Lee Ewing. National Gallery of Art.
“Ice Ball” Hampstead Heath, London. December 1985. Andy Goldsworthy.
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Creative Learning is Sheer Trying

Creating a garden or creating artwork?  Great advice, which can be applied to both, come from Gertrude Jekyll’s  ‘A Gardening Credo’.   An excellent gardener and a fine writer, Gertrude learned by doing… and she did a lot!  Born in London in 1843, Gertrude designed about 400 gardens in England, Europe and America, and was also a painter and photographer.

The real way is to try and learn a little from everybody and from everyplace…It is no use asking me or anyone else how to dig…Better go and watch a man digging, and then take a spade and try to do it, and go on trying till it comes, and you gain the knack that is to be learnt with all tools, of doubling the power and halving the effort; and meanwhile you will be learning other things…and perhaps a little robin will come and give you moral support, and at the same time keep a sharp look-out for any worms you may happen to turn up…

Laura Bethmann. Garden Bound. 72ppi
Garden Bound, watercolor, 26×41. Laura Bethmann

Whether creating a garden or a painting (or most anything, for that matter) follow Gertrude’s sage advice and you’ll discover for yourself that

…there are all sorts of ways of learning, not only from people and books, but from sheer trying.

Thanks, Gertrude.

Find out more about Ms. Jekyll at




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Creative Genius?

“… the first real hero of the atomic age, if not the first personage on the scene, was Ernest Rutherford” for his work with subatomic particles.

These are not subatomic particles.

The above quote is from Bill Bryson’s book A Short History of Nearly Everything (which is a joy and a half) and this post is concerned with the supreme importance of creativity and endurance. Apparently, Ernest Rutherford’s math skills were not on par for a typical nuclear physicist, and his scientific mind was said to be less than brilliant, but still he managed to excel in his successful career winning many honors and awards including the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1908 for his investigations into the disintegration of the elements, and the chemistry of radioactive substances.

Also not subatomic particles.

So how did he manage that? It seems his genius shone in his own brand of creativity.

“According to his longtime colleague James Chadwick, discoverer of the neutron, he wasn’t even particularly clever at experimentation. He was simply tenacious and open-minded. For brilliance he substituted shrewdness and a kind of daring. His mind, in the words of one biographer, was ‘always operating out towards the frontiers, as far as he could see, and that was a great deal further than most other men.’ “

For those of us with strong leanings in the arts (oh, the humanities!) and our reliance on keen, penetrating, creative awareness, we can take a tip from this Nobel Prize winner and be receptive to distant-thinking possibilities, be willing to persevere day after day, night after night as we muddle through in our strive for perfection.

It seems atomic age timing was on Rutherford’s side, too, but it’s good to know that really hard work and a never-give-up attitude can pay off in the end.

No one knows what subatomic particles look like. Maybe they look like this.




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Beauty in Nature and Being At Home In The World

Wondering if I create paintings and nature prints just for form’s sake, just for appreciation of the beauty in nature, or do they have another purpose? The representations I create give another kind of life to the world I live in, what I can and can’t see. Creating art is an assertion of my relationship with my surroundings – as I experience and imagine them. This is how I can be at home in the world.

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Art is Life Translated

Experience is the real thing.

And in creating art we marry the real, sensory experience to something within ourselves that is beyond the senses.

The experience combined with our unexplainable-something is translated onto paper and canvas, into sculpted forms and notes of music, words on a page and dance moves.

Art is life translated.

And in that translation, the art becomes as real as the experience that inspired it.

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Creative Tool: The Commonplace Book

Not a journal or diary, not chronological or introspective, the commonplace book is akin to a scrapbook. It’s a way to condense and centralize any information of interest.

A commonplace book of my notes & sketches of ancient manuscripts from a visit to the British Library

Observing and recording quotes, ideas, expressions, images, passages from books; segments from blogs, articles, essays; tables, charts, bits of conversation; whatever it might be that the compiler wants to refer back to or keep for possible future use is a natural for those involved in any creative activity.



Erasmus by Holbein

What’s old is new again. Begun in early modern Europe, commonplace books became a regular practice for scholars including John Locke and Francis Bacon. Part of university education, keeping commonplace books was taught at Oxford and Harvard. John Milton, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) all kept commonplace books.

Commonplace books can contain information on one subject or a variety of subjects, entered into the book as you come across them. I tend to keep one book until it’s full, then take up another. When working on a specific project, such as writing a new book, preparing a series of paintings, or learning a new subject, I try to keep all the information in a separate book just for that project. If the book isn’t at hand and I scribble notes for a project on a handy scrap of paper, I can add it to the book later on.Some of my commonplace books

As a learning tool, record anything that is interesting or appealing in some way, to possibly use in future, or just for the pleasure of knowing it and being able to revisit or share it.


Maybe you prefer to keep your commonplace book online. That works too!



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Nature Printing Workshop with the Philadelphia Botanical Club

A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to bring the ancient technique of Nature Printing to the members of the Philadelphia Botanical Club and the Delaware Valley Fern and Wildflower Society. The workshop, organized by field trip coordinator David Lauer, was held at beautiful Pennypack Preserve in Huntingdon Valley, PA.





No doubt, each of the 19 participants greatly revere the horticultural world and hold genuine sensitivity toward these subjects. I find that reverence and sensitivity to be particularly important criteria for creating well-defined, skillful nature prints of plants.

Even a modest understanding and appreciation for the qualities of plants – their unique forms, patterns and structures – contribute to making authentic, successful impressions of them.


Those who study, work or play with plant life have an innate proficiency and resourcefulness for plant printing. With frequent handling of plants, we acquire a natural dexterity (hands are full of insight!) and, as we begin printing, the creativity we all possess bubbles out easily, competently. Those who have never worked with inks need a little extra practice, but after becoming familiar with the materials their love of all things botanical takes over.

After two and a half hours of collecting and printing abundant specimens from the wandering trails of Pennypack, and utilizing sprigs of sage, lavender, grapevine, ivy, black-eyed Susan and other plants brought from my garden, many lovely nature prints were accomplished.

A fabulous day!





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