Beginning my digital journey: Apr 2003 – Feb 2004

Posted on February 4, 2015 by Niki under Uncategorized
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First exhibit in the Reception area at RHS Wisley, Jan 2004
© Niki Simpson

Many people have asked me when and how I started working digitally, so for the record, my departure from the traditional botanical art path began in April 2003, following my Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust award.

It started with a morning of beginner’s photography tuition with the lovely Anna Saverimuttu, (Anna is a wonderful portrait photographer – take a look at her work) though at that point I was unaware of the divergence that lay ahead of me. My only aim at that time was to learn how to take better photos to use for reference purposes, as back-up against ephemeral plant parts wilting. A wild foxglove and an iris cultivar were my very first models; the iris simply because it was flowering outside my front door at the time, and the foxglove, well, with the generic name Digitalis, it simply had to be one to try for a digital project – and by happy accident, it too just happened to be coming into flower at the time.

By the summer, I had plucked up courage to buy a pc and had then bravely booked four sessions of one-to-one image software training, and thought I was all set to learn to draw and paint with a digital stylus on a digital drawing tablet. I didn’t have a digital camera, had never heard of Photoshop, and Adobe products had yet to become the industry standard.

I remember the mixture of excitement and anxiety of venturing into London and turning up for my first session of software training, but then being so dispirited after it, that I nearly gave up there and then. Even after weeks of practice, my early digital attempts looked dismally either plastic or pixelated – a far cry from the realism I had hoped for. But on the third of the training days I happened to take with me a CD of a few of my iris and foxglove photos, which someone had kindly offered to test scan for me, and so saw my own photos onscreen for the very first time. I was introduced to Photoshop, saw how my photos could be scaled, literally at the touch of a button, and was shown ways to cut out a part from its background. And it was at that moment the penny dropped. There, in front of me, was a ready-digitised, accurate plant part, which I could place against a white background, capable of conveying considerable detail on enlargement, and in full realism; indeed more realistic than anything I could see I was ever going to be able to achieve by observing and digitally recreating, however much time I had. Unexpectedly then, I found myself on new botanical image territory, and that I was on my own – there were no examples to look at, books to read or precedents to follow. I had to work out what questions to ask, to experiment again and again until, after my last session at the beginning of December, I finally managed to put together my first ever digitally-created, scaled, composite botanical image – my ‘digital Digitalis’. It wasn’t perfect, but it was 2003 and it was exciting – it felt like a milestone.

Later I experimented with ways to depict leaves involving digital line drawings, flatbed scans and, after going out to buy a home slide scanner, digitised slide photographs, and then manipulating and combining them in all manner of ways, though of course some were more successful than others. These were followed by attempts to depict the ginkgo, and lastly, with the help of Bernard Boardman to dig it up, the strange but beautiful purple toothwort, as the Wisley Curator, Jim Gardiner, had kindly given me permission to use some plant material from Wisley Garden for experimental illustration purposes. Inevitably there was much trial and error, but I must thank all my RHS botany colleagues, especially Peter Barnes and Richard Sanford, for their encouragement and help throughout that first year – it was much needed.

My first digital composite illustrations then, were created during the period when I was working part-time in the Botany Department at RHS Wisley and, as a way to mark the completion of my QEST project, I had the idea to put up a small informal display of my results in the Reception area in the Laboratory building. The Director, David Gray, kindly gave his permission and so the first display of my digitally-created botanical images was at RHS Wisley in January 2004. I must thank Patty Boardman, our departmental secretary, who kindly thought to put out a notice to invite Garden visitors to come in to Reception to take a look and even put together a makeshift Visitors’ Book for me – the first public comments about my digital botanical images.

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