Jess Shepherd
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The Interview: Jess Shepherd, aka Inky Leaves


Jess Shepherd, (aka Inky Leaves) is London-based botanical illustrator. Jess studied botany at Plymouth University, and later taxonomy at the University of Edinburgh. Jess is a fellow of the Linnean Society of London. In February 2017 Jess had a solo exhibition called “Leafscape” with large-scale watercolours at Abbott and Holder, London.

Jess Shepherd
Jess Shepherd, botanical painter

— Please tell us about yourself. How and when did you start your art activity?

— My name is Jess Shepherd and I am a botanical painter. I have been painting plants for as long as I can remember, I was always drawn to them as a child - I loved their beauty and intricate design. At university I studied botany to help me understand plants further, their physiology and genetics, but soon after graduating I returned to my first passion which was painting. When I paint plants I try to become them. There is a great deal of observation involved even before my brushes touch the paper.

I believe that a good picture is made using not only sight, but also touch, sound, smell and movement.

Grape (Vitis vinifera) leave. Large-scale watercolour on paper. Jess Shepherd.
Grape (Vitis vinifera) leave. Large-scale watercolour on paper.

One has to be aware of all of these elements in order to portray the plant well and describe the space that the plant is growing into, both over and underground. Now in my work I am testing new approaches to push the capacity for botanical illustration to bring greater awareness of plants and our interaction with them. I hope to inspire people to think beyond their experience whilst enriching our current perceptions of botanical art, its applications and how it sits within the larger scope of the visual arts.

Jess Shepherd painting a giant Popular leaf (Populus x Canadensis). Watercolour on paper.
Jess Shepherd painting a giant Popular leaf (Populus x Canadensis). Watercolour on paper. 90х120cm.

— Why did you choose watercolours and botanical illustration for your art?

— I paint in watercolours because this medium allows the artist to build layers that create depth in the artworks unlike other pigments. Traditional oil painting can be used in a similar way when glazing, but these paints take a long time to dry and are therefore not really appropriate when working in the field. Watercolours, however, dry quickly. Originally I was a pen and ink artist and I still prefer to draw in ink. I find graphite can be very dirty and I can get in such a mess!

Blackberry Watercolour Jess Shepherd
Blackberry, Watercolour, Jess Shepherd

— How does your creative process look like? How do you choose the objects for your artworks?

— After years of practice I now just seem to know what will look 'good' in a painting. My eyes have changed and I see things differently, through an invisible view finder. I know which plants will light well and which ones don't. It's all about experience and trial and error. Sometimes I will find something visually interesting that I have never come across before and attempt to paint it, only it doesn't look as good on paper as it did in the flesh. These things happen a lot. It is disappointing, but they are inevitable when you are transferring three dimensional objects into a two dimensional painting. It's all a question of trial and error.

Lighting is really important, it always has been with my work. I like to change how I light a plant, either passing light through it or at a low angle to create dark shadows. I like how light transforms objects. I often find that nothing is ever what it seems in life and I like to communicate that with my painting.

I find nearly all my objects on my walks and sometimes people send me things or give me things. My walks are really important to me. They are when I come up with most of my ideas. I will daydream for about an hour, not really paying any attention to where I am and things just materialise within the daydream. For my latest collection 'Leafscape', most of the leaves were found in my back garden or on the streets of London. Other times, when I am working to commission, I will often have to visit botanical gardens to find source material.

Vitis vinifera Large-Scale Watercolour on paper Jess Shepherd
Vitis vinifera Large-Scale, Watercolour on paper, Jess Shepherd

— Do you have favourite artists or illustrators?

— I have many! Most are not painters. I am a big fan of the film director Peter Greenaway. He originally trained as a painter and creates these beautiful sets and storylines in his work that take on the guise of a painting. I am interested in the work of Bob Dylan and David Bowie as artists who were able to inspire large crowds of people. Such genius should never be ignored. It took them both a lot of work and I admire them hugely for that. I like to listen to Pink Floyd when I am painting. I am a fan of many painters, Leonora Carrington, Rory McEwen, Georgia O'Keeffe, David Hockney, Margaret Mee and Arthur Harry Church to name but a few.

Leaf Watercolour Jess Shepherd
Leaf, Watercolour, Jess Shepherd

— You recently released a book dedicated to your art. How did you get such an idea and what is the concept of the book?

— I decided to publish a book on the leaf collection because I was aware that although many people wanted to own a piece of my art, many of them would not be able to afford it. I wanted to be able to distribute the leaves in the best way possible. I wanted to publish them in a book that was beautiful and rare - like the artworks themselves - so that those who bought a book felt that they had something that was just as collectable as the original art work itself. In order to raise the money to publish such a book, I decided to run a Kickstarter campaign for 30 days before the exhibition. The event was exceeded all expectations and I raised much more than I initially needed, so I changed all the parameters and designs so that the book was even more special. I had a slipbox made and opted for lay-flat binding. I re-invested all the money back into the product and sold out of the hard back books within weeks.

I am now getting ready to post the limited (500 copies) soft back books and these a can be pre-ordered at inkyleavespublishing.com.

Vitis vinifera Large-Scale Watercolour on paper Jess Shepherd
Vitis vinifera Large-Scale, Watercolour on paper, Jess Shepherd

— What is your motto?

— Treat other people how you want to be treated.

Catalpa bignonioides Watercolour on paper Jess Shepherd
Catalpa bignonioides, Watercolour on paper, Jess Shepherd

All photos courtesy of J R Shepherd

Official website of JR Shepherd, aka Inky Leaves https://www.inkyleaves.com


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