Lynn Woods interviews botanical illustrator Wendy Hollender
Wendy Hollender knows plants — the various shapes of leaf and the patterns created by leaves on the stem, the spherical forms of fruits, seeds and bulbs, the complex structure of flowers, including the tiny-fisted blossoms of common weeds, which viewed under a microscope are every bit as splendid as a daffodil. Formerly a home-furnishing textile designer, Hollender switched to botanical illustration over a decade ago. She never looked back. Enjoying rare success in a notoriously labor-intensive profession, Hollender has exhibited her work at the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew and at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. Her illustrations have been published in The New York Times, “O” The Oprah Magazine and other national publications, as well as on labels for wine and food, herbal products and inns (she also designed a charming logo for her own Hollengold Farm).
A highly sought-after teacher of her craft — she has taught for many years at the New York Botanical Garden, among other institutions — Hollender has authored two books on botanical drawing. She has illustrated Foraging & Feasting, a Field Guide and Wild Food Cookbook, written by Dina Falconi, which won two gold medals. A 1976 graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design who was raised on Long Island, Hollender is a member of the American Society of Botanical Artists and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden Florilegium Society. She has lives full-time on her farm in Accord.
The original artwork for the illustrations in Foraging & Feasting is on display for the month of May at the Depuy Canal House in High Falls, a perfect venue given Hollender’s fondness for edible plants.
LW: What led you to become a botanical artist?
WH: When I worked in home furnishing textile design, I’d look at old botanical illustrations for reference. I was in love with the way they looked and tried to paint flowers, but they never looked like the botanicals. I was living in Manhattan and started taking classes in botanical illustration at the New York Botanical Garden. I studied there for five years and started getting work and taught at the New York Botanical Garden.
LW: It’s not an easy profession. How did you become successful?
WH: Initially I did a combination of things, including teaching, which was always steady and paid well. Slowly it built up to point where I now do a lot of big illustration projects, including wine labels and food packages. I did a big illustration of the peanut plant for the National Peanut Board which was posted on the New York subway. I also did a full-color spread of the Op Ed section of The New York Times.
People find me now, and I don’t advertise. I’ve published two books on botanical drawing using color pencils and watercolor, and I teach that all over. My niche is the aspect of color pencil and watercolor.
LW: How is that different from traditional botanical illustration?
WH: The old-fashioned way is to use just watercolor, which is really labor-intensive. I use two kinds of color pencils, regular and watercolor, the latter to create a wash. I came up with the technique in my teaching. I was using mostly watercolor and a little bit of color pencil to do sketches. The New York Botanical Garden asked me to teach in their color pencil program, which is very basic. I thought, ‘I better learn about it’ and explored other materials, such as better-quality pencils. I developed my own way of using them and it got to the point where I used the pencils for the final product. I love the immediacy of drawing right on the paper. Whether it’s a big piece or a little sketch, I go right to the drawing.
The technique has helped me, especially on commercial projects. You can erase the pencil marks, so you have [more] flexibility [than just watercolor].
LW: Where else have you taught besides New York?
WH: The first place I conducted a workshop was in Trinidad. Then I went to Hawaii to visit my daughter, who worked on a farm, and also taught a workshop there. I went to the National Tropical Botanical Garden and met the head of sciences, and now I teach there for a month every March. I’ve also taught at the Chicago Botanical Garden, a few gardens in California and Portland, Oregon, and the U.S. Botanical Garden in Washington, D.C. I’ll be teaching a five-day retreat at Omega in September. But I also love doing my own projects.
LW: Do you ever get tired of drawing plants?
WH: No. The plants kind of talk to me. I have a thing for edible plants, maybe because I love to eat. I do like to work on projects that are multipurpose and help people, whether it’s to better understand plants, tell stories about gardening, or focus on improving the environment.
LW: The beauty of your work is that you reveal what’s marvelous and interesting about the forms of plants.
WH: When I did the foraging book, a lot of those plants are weeds, which have tons of tiny flowers. That’s because the more seeds you produce, the easier it is to propagate the plant. Looked at through the microscope, these flowers are fascinating. I work under the microscope all the time because understanding the structure is crucial. When I depict a plant in the earth, I dig it up, Iook at it while it’s in the ground, and take a few photos. I just did a book cover on the water system, which shows the roots of different plants in the ground.
LW: Any other favorite projects?
WH: I just did a project for the Botanical Garden in Hawaii illustrating the canoe plants — the 30 plants brought over by the Polynesians, including the coconut, banana, sugarcane and breadfruit. They brought these plants over 2000 miles Polynesia to Hawaii in their outrigger canoes.
LW: What’s on your list of future destinations?
WH: I would like to go to South Africa and Australia, where the plants are very different. But, truthfully, I get excited about the things growing in my backyard.
LW: When did you first come to the Hudson Valley?
WH: In 2008 I visited this area in summer and fell in love. I had a vision of living on a small farm and growing plants and eating them. I bought a weekend home in Accord in 2009 and in six months later I moved up here full-time.
LW: You’re from the city. Was it difficult making the transition to life on the farm?
WH: For me it was the most natural thing I’ve ever done. I have four acres and we heavily cultivate one and a half. My kids both work in farming in different parts of the world and have a background in permaculture. It had been a horse farm and so was a blank canvas. They designed the layouts [for the gardens], putting in food forests. Over the years a bunch of people have cultivated the land. Every year I’ve had a different person cultivate the land, including the Hudson Valley Seed Library. I get to share in the beauty of it, and my boyfriend and I grow plants on a bunch of it. We can’t use it all.
LW: What role does the farm play in your work?
WH: I do a lot of botanical drawing workshops here, and we make farm-fresh produce for the participants for lunch.
LW: Do you have any water on your property?
WH: Last year I put in a natural swimming pool, which has no chemicals. Instead it is full of water lilies and other plants that are gorgeous and clean the water. Natural pools are popular in Europe. It works great except for the fact that it can get overrun with algae; hopefully when the plants get bigger that problem will be solved. We have frogs and dragonflies. It looks like a pond, but underneath it has a filter system that circulates the water, which is complicated and high-tech. When I first moved here I was naïve. There was no water on the land, and I didn’t realize how important it was.
LW: How do you teach people who’ve never drawn before how to depict plants?
WH: I start one step at a time. They learn how to sharpen the pencil, then basic toning techniques. They learn how to use one specific light source and how to describe a form with tones. I start with a cherry tomato and teach people how to make it look round.