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Translating the beauty of South Africa’s botanical species into works of art for Wild magazine is a painstaking process. After much research, and countless hours of precise strokes, Daleen Roodt’s paintings come to life. By Arnold Ras

Artist Daleen Roodt has been contributing botanical illustrations to Wild magazine since 2013. Her first, of the knob-thorn (Acacia nigrescens), depicted the tree’s fluffy florets as well as the Charaxes phaeus butterfly whose larvae feed on its leaves. Her illustrations proved a hit with Wild readers and immediately became a permanent fixture. In each quarterly issue of Wild magazine, her beautifully detailed watercolours, along with fascinating background facts, make the study of plants a visual and accessible experience for all nature lovers.

Daleen invited Wild to her home studio as she worked on the illustration for the spring issue. Watch how hours’ of meticulous focus and tremendous talent result in her latest work: an orange-breasted sunbird perched on a Prince of Wales heath (Erica perspicua).

How did the botany bug bite?

In 2008, I started doing scientific illustrations for the University of Pretoria and SANBI. The ‘arty’ side of it naturally grew from there with watercolour as the preferred medium. In 2010, after my studies, I started painting full-time doing botanical art and scientific illustration. I did a few major art consignments, many private commissions, and whichever indigenous orchid I could find and squeeze into paint in my own time. So far, I have participated in a few major exhibitions – the Kirstenbosch Biennale in 2010 and 2013, as well as the World Orchid Conference in 2014. Here my paintings received both bronze and silver medals.

Have you always focused on plants and birds?

The lure of nature’s treasures has always featured in my work. Plants became prominent when I started exploring botanical art. The birds are a more recent addition. I do think that by including a breathing being, the painting creates some sort of eye contact with the viewer. That connection makes botanical art more accessible to the greater audience, and to people who do not necessarily relate to plants.

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Tell us more about the painting process…

I start with a basic outline sketch. Next is probably one of the most important steps in the process: a careful layer of primary colours. Blues and yellows in an array of tonal values are painted as a complete base for the full composition. I literally paint the ‘blueprint’ that sets the tone for my painting. It will guide the depth, the highlights, and basically the overall harmony of spatial perspective within the composition.

Your work is incredibly detailed…

I’m grateful that I have good eyesight and a steady hand. For me the biggest challenge is losing track of time and the physical strain of spending hours uninterrupted hovering centimetres away from the page. Sometimes it’s a mental challenge – wanting the detail to be too realistic, then finding that point of satisfaction and releasing the painting to be what it has become.

Could you tell us more about your layering technique?

Watercolour is translucent. Each layer will reveal what lies beneath it. If there is nothing underneath, the appearance will be flat. Layers of plain colour are built up to establish complex depth within a painted area through which light can move, thereby creating the illusion of something realistic. Keeping in mind their various wavelengths, colours can be manipulated to either be absorbed into the paper, creating depth on receding areas, or to be bounced back at the viewer, which makes elements appear to move forward.

In a way, it is a technique that mimics light being refracted through semi-translucent cells on petals and leaves glistening in natural light. This technique is achieved through the layering of primary colours that form the basis of the painting.

All of this is an intimate process of learning to see nature.
– Daleen Roodt

How long do you work on a piece?

A standard watercolour painting (A4 or A3) can take anything from a week to two if I were to add up all the hours to uninterrupted eight-hour working days. But in reality, those hours usually get distributed over about a month, following the tides of inspiration.

What happens when you make a mistake?

There’s not a lot of room for mistakes and definitely no time to redo paintings. It’s not really possible to completely erase or paint over something to try and cover up. I have always strived to work with and transform ‘mistakes’ into something that will contribute to the painting. I stay focused and get creative when the brush in hand does not obey the mind.

Why watercolour as your preferred medium?

In our technologically advanced age where the emphasis is on how fast things can and should happen, it almost comes as a welcome escape from time and reality to create something that is far from instant. It is the obsession with slowing down the creative process by breaking up the elements into primary basics and then slowly filling in the details that will emphasise the best the plant has to offer.

Win the illustration

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In every issue of Wild magazine, you have the chance to win a certified print of Daleen’s botanical illustration – exclusive to Wild Card members. Make sure you get your hands on Wild 40, out in September 2017, and enter our quarterly botany competition.

One of the perks of Wild Card membership is receiving your seasonal issue of the award-winning Wild magazine with the best in travel, wildlife, nature and conservation journalism. Not a member? Inspire your interaction with the natural world and become a Wild Card member now!