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    Unexpected Thrills: Adventures of an Illustrator

    Lilac Sketch (Portrait)

    Unexpected Thrills: Adventures of an Illustrator is a blog about some of the more unexpected events that have happened to me in the line of duty.  Let’s take just three; The Lilac Debacle, Fear of the Buffalo, and Finding a Scab.

    The Lilac Debacle

    This exploit has a moral which, put simply, is Do Not Steal.

    I was working on the illustrations for “The Garden Forager” by Adele Nozedar, going through the species list.  Next up was lilac, and wonderfully, the lilac was in bloom.  I have none in my garden, but there’s a lovely big bush just up the road, overhanging the wall by the pavement.  (It’s already sounding like a fairy-tale, isn’t it?)

    The Lilac Debacle: Acting Decisively

    Being a girl who likes to act swiftly, I nipped out early one morning and snipped a couple sprigs.  I brought it back to my studio, proceeded to illustrate it, and thought no more about it.  Error.

    Quite often I’ll steal a tiny bit of a plant I’m asked to paint.  When I can, I ask permission.  But sometimes, if it’s a tiny bit of a much larger shrub, I’ll just steal it.  Or at least I used to.

    Lilac and sketchbook study on the desk in my studio

    The Lilac Debacle: The Debacle

    The next day, my neighbour Jude came by looking worried.  “Lizzie”, she said, “have you been stealing lilac from Miss Jones’s garden?  I said you hadn’t, but she was insistent.  And very upset.”  I admitted my guilt.  My neighbour looked increasingly concerned.  “I think you ought to go round and apologise.  She’s threatening to call the police”.

    Lilac sketchbook study

    I was almost finished with the sketch, so I rushed over there straight away.  I didn’t want to serve a custodial sentence for sourcing good reference material, and was half wondering which of my reprobate friends would make a decent character witness in court (none).

    I knocked on the door, and after a wait, Mrs Jones opened it.  Entirely naked, and very angry.  I apologised, assuming I’d got her out of the shower but no, the fury was entirely down to the stolen lilac.  The nudity was par for the course.

    I showed her my illustration, apologised prolifically, begged for forgiveness, and asked her not to press charges.  Immediately she smiled broadly, pronounced herself “delighted to see the sketch”, forgave me on the spot and embraced me.  Which was all a bit much, to be honest (not least cause she was still nude).

    Botanical illustration by Lizzie Harper on cover of The Garden Forager
    Cover of The Garden Forager, the lilac is under the paintbrush
    The Lilac Debacle: Lessons Learnt

    The book went to press.  I was forgiven.  The lilac appeared on the cover!  But I’ve learnt a lesson about stealing form people’s gardens: Do it at night!  (Names have been changed, like in all the best thrillers).

    Fear of the Buffalo

    This adventure is recent, and thus the terror is still fresh in my mind.  I was working on a series of illustrations for Wild Shreds Pet food, and one of the animals I had to illustrate was the American bison, or buffalo.

    After extensive searching, I found a buffalo farm here in the UK.  Bush Farm is run by an extremely pleasant farmer, Lord Colin Seaforth, and I think is the only buffalo farm in Britain.  I planned a visit, and turned up armed with sketchbook and camera.


    Pencil sketch of buffalo

    Fear of The Buffalo: Adult Male

    Lord Seaforth got me to pop on the back of his quad bike, and we drove to the first of two fields.  This one had a large herd of mature buffalo in, with one enormous male.  We saw him in the distance, down by a pool.  “He’s in a dreadful temper” commented Lord Seaforth, “driven mad by the heat and the flies.  We’re safe on the quad bike, but if you got off, he’d go for you.”  He was massive, even from a far.  “If you drive your car into this field, shut the gate; then wait.  He’ll come and investigate.  Don’t get out, whatever you do.”

    I followed instructions.  I most certainly did not “get out”.  The monumental bull did indeed come and investigate.  He nosed at the car, and I felt it shake.  He pranced about nearby, and I felt the ground tremble.  I took photos.  I did quick sketches.  I was very, very frightened.  The buffalo sat about near the car for a long time.  No way could I get out, and certainly not to open the gate and make my escape.  It was a hot couple of hours.

    Pencil sketch of buffalo

    Fear of The Buffalo: Adolescent Males

    After escaping, Lord Seaforth asked if I wanted to spend time with the adolescent males.  I needed to, the brief called for the body of an adult and the head of an adolescent.  This time he was more blase, “They’re pretty frisky, but you should be ok.  Just make sure you’re within running distance of your car, in case they, you know, play up.”  I don’t know how a buffalo “plays up” and wasn’t sure I wanted to find out.

    He disappeared, leaving me (and my car) in a field with about 15 young buffalo.  Now remember, the brief called for animals in a majestic and imperious pose.  Alas, this means they have to be seen from below.

    I have rarely been so frightened in my life.  Lying in the dirt on my belly, pointing my camera up at enormous bison, waiting for the perfect shot.  To get the level of detail; things like direction of fur growth, angle of eyelid; I had to be close.  When they were still it was fine.  It was not fine when they got skittish.

    Tonal pencil study of Buffalo

    I lay in that field for a good four hours, switching between creeping forward on my elbows like some commando; and springing up and sprinting for dear life back to the car.  My eyes were prickly with tears.  I did think on several occasions what an absurd and entirely appropriate death it would be, trampled to death by a lively teen-age bison.

    Fear of the Buffalo: Illustration achieved

    I got my reference.  I thanked Lord Seaforth.  I drove home fast.  I completed my illustration.

    Completed illustration of American Bison (copyright Spot Farms 2019)

    I vowed to never again be so frightened by a job that it made me cry.  It’s a year on now, and so far I’ve stuck to my guns.  But who knows what the next 6 months will bring…?

    Finding a Scab

    One of the oddest illustration commissions I ever had was for a book called “Scab on My Knee” by Jenny Alexander.  The book has a good premise, explaining the healing process to kids using a skate-board graze as the focus.  The illustrations were complete.  However, the art director felt the series of scabs needed a more accurate approach.

    Cover of “A Scab on the Knee”

    I was asked to illustrate scabs, as scientifically as possible, at different stages.

    The first was to be a fresh graze with dirt in.  The second was to be a healing scab.  The third was a picked scab and the fourth (and most unpleasant) was a scab peeling back to reveal healthy fresh skin underneath.

    Finding a Scab: Getting Reference

    It’s only when you desperately need to draw something that you realise how hard it can be to find.  This job was many years ago, and the internet wasn’t as full of useful imagery as it it these days.  I knew no children and hadn’t yet had my own; children are a good source of scabs.

    Initial illustration of a healing scab

    I tried to paint scabs without reference.  No way, it just looked wierd.

    I asked my sister, a teacher at kindergarten for help.  Could she take some photos if any of her class fell over, focusing on the graze?  Could she ask her children to pick their scabs and take photos of the resulting chaos?  Could she slyly snap a photo or two of scabbed knees?  Quite rightly she sent me packing and said I sounded like a pervert.  What to do?

    I started thinking about self inflicted grazes.  If I ran fast along a road with untied shoe-laces, could I supply my own reference?  I tried, and stayed firmly upright despite my best efforts.  Perhaps I could use a kitchen grater?  This didn’t work either, it hurt and also made me feel like I’d gone entirely mad.

    Finding a Scab: Wellcome Photo Library

    Suddenly I remembered the existence of photo libraries.  The Wellcome Trust has an image bank!  I got a train to London and had the sort of conversation one will only have once in a lifetime, with an extremely helpful woman in charge of image licensing.  Between us, we got out hands on exactly what I needed.

    Fresh graze with dirt

    The grim side of this enterprise was that minor grazes tend not to feature large in image banks used by doctors.  We found them as accessories to far more traumatic injuries.  A perfect fresh graze on the edge of a photo showing a horrific bike crash.  A region of healing scab next to a frankly revolting skin complaint.  Healing wounds alongside badly set fractures.  I had my reference.


    Scab peeling off showing healthy fresh skin below

    The illustrations were pasted onto the knees of the little lad in the story, and, for a while, I think the book sold comparatively well.  Although obviously to a niche market…


    So you see, the life of a natural history and botanical illustrator is not all pretty meadows and cheeping birds.  It can involve tangling with neighbours and the law.  It can make you cry with terror as the herds of bison approach.  It can see you accused of being a wierdo and looking at gross reference photos.  But I love it, whether or not there are unexpeceted thrills.  I wouldn’t change my job for the world. (But I might not steal lilac or share a field with a buffalo again…)


    1. Fabulous, Lizzie! I can relate to the stealing story, I do it all the time, have just been pinching corn marigold from the local park and hoping there isn’t a hidden camera. Never met a bison though, that’s seriously scary!What you suffer for your art!

      1. Ah Chris, we artists. Thieving for our art and threatened by bison. But yet we paint on, bold and brave to the end… X

    2. Yes, some of the adventures illustrators have getting references materials are quite interesting and varied! I have had many myself over my long career. It is the always the learning experience that each assignment offers that makes it all worthwhile! Think your new blog is going to be a hit!

      1. Thanks Linda
        It’s always good I know other illustrators suffer similar scrapes as we quest for our reference! X

    3. What a story! It’s like reading an adventure book, unbelievable that it’s all real! Thank you for making me smile

      1. My pleasure Laura. Not sure what the next adventure will be, but im hoping it won’t involve the police or bison! X

    4. Fabulous Sunday morning read. It really made me laugh. You paint such a wonderful picture with words as well as your paints.

    5. This was a fantastic read, i can’t remember the last time when something spontaneous has made me laugh out loud. And your work is beautiful, i absolutely loved your illustration of the lilac. Can’t wait to continue reading the rest of your blog!

      1. Kylie, thats such a lovely accolade; knowing I’ve made someone laugh. I’m off now to tangle with a teadel and berate some blackbirds. And note-worthy adventures and you know where I’ll be telling the tales… Thanks for the comment x

    6. Loved this, so funny! I had a big grin on my face reading about the lilacs, the naked lady and the Bison (what a book title that would be!). Just found you on the web.
      Greetings from a Swedish fellow watercolor artist.

      1. Hi Jessica, Im so glad you share my pain and found it funny! Thanks for leaving a comment. Oh the trials and tribulations of being an illustrator!


        1. Sounds horrible that I found it funny, especially since I´m sure it wasn´t at all funny at the time! But you described your endeavours in such an entertaining way. Love your blog and your beautiful illustrations, glad I found my way here.

    7. Hi Lizzie: I live in bison land ,America West, you were very brave…, about the flowers I have this problem……when driving along roads I must stop the car take pictures and probably get a specimen or a seed , is like I must……
      Next time come over here to draw, I’ll take you to the bisons… lots of wild animals around here.

      1. Now you know what, taking a photo is almost certainly going to get you into less trouble than stealing… I know exactly what you mean about having to do U turns to go and take a closer look!

        Thanks for the Bison offer too, they are amazing animals…although Im not sure Im that keen to get tooo close to them again in a hurry!

        Thanks so much for your lovely comments


    8. As both a gardener and an artist… this made me a bit sad.

      Because I know you’re joking, and I know it’s “just a bit” of a larger shrub. But I’ve had to stop gardening entirely in my front yard because so many people took “just one flower”. Or “just a sprig”. And I ended up losing an entire bed of sunflowers, along with most of my roses.

      It’s baffling to me that you have this attitude, even in jest. Isn’t this something that artists deal with all the time? It’s “just a sketch” or “not worth that much”. I work just as hard on my garden as I do on my art. I choose plants, buy them, plant them, and do everything I can to make sure they grow. There’s site selection, watering, fertilizing, pruning, deadheading, buying and hanging shade cloth… I could go on all day. I put so much work into my garden. And it breaks my heart that another artist would steal from that, just like it breaks my heart when someone copies or uses an artist’s work without permission.

      So while I understand the humor of this post, and I’m not enjoying being a buzzkill–please don’t steal plants anymore. So much work and love goes into a garden, and it’s so disheartening that an artist would choose to be one of the people who takes away from that. Your work is beautiful and meaningful and I hope you do it forever. But my work, in that garden you just took “a tiny bit” from, is beautiful and meaningful, too. And now I don’t have a front garden anymore because so many people took “a few sprigs”.

      By all means, keep asking people if you can take something! I’d gladly give flowers to any artist, and I’d be doubly excited to give to one who was doing illustrations for a book. But please don’t steal anymore. I want to have a front garden again. And as long as people make excuses for this attitude, I won’t be able to.

      1. Hi Dana

        Oh this comment has made me feel so bad, and sad. And I know you’re right. I hasten to say that I would never, not in a million years steal a rose or a sunflower! That’s outrageous. Generally what I take, which in truth I don’t do often, are actual weeds rather than cultivated plants, as most of my work calls for wild flowers. But even if they’re not the carefully cultivated ones, you’re right, I shouldn’t do it. It might alarm someone to see me crouching by their front gate picking groundsel.

        I also have to say that since being told off about the lilac, the only cultivated flowers I’ve taken was one leaf of Cerastium, and a couple of sprigs (no flowers) from municipal car-parks. But your point is entirely valid, and well worth thinking carefully about.

        Im so very sorry that you’re not able to grow things in your front yard anymore, that’s so horrid for you. And yes, I think drawing a parallel between nurturing plants and making something beautiful grow, and creating an illustration is valid. Next tiume I see one of “my” species I’m remember what you say, and either leave it entirely alone, or go and knock on the door and ask. WHo know, it could even lead to new friendships!

        Thanks for taking the time to leave such a heart-felt and thoughtful post. I think it will change the way I see things, and I thank you for that.


    9. Hello Lizzie, just discovered your blog and beautiful illustrations. I was working my way back from the latest one when I came across this post. I have to tell you I was laughing out loud while reading it, your stories are so funny and entertaining! Looking forward to working back through the rest of your blog and come next year, once I have got Christmas & New Year out of the way I shall be availing myself of your excellent tutorials & videos to improve my watercolour skills. Have a great Christmas yourself and let’s hope 2021 is a lot better than 2020 has been! btw, I would love to be added to your mailing list.

      1. Hi Charmaine, what a wonderful comment, thank you so much. Yes, Xmas and New year are a funny old time. Lots of little things to do, lots of free time, but somehow no space to get thoroughly “stuck in” to anything. I do hope you like the rest of my stuff, and the films. I’m adding you to my mailing list now, thankyou. Yes, here’s to a better and more normal 2021!

    10. Lizzie you are a wonderful artist and a great story teller. I understand the desire to take just a “small piece” of a lovely plant because I love drawing and painting them as well and I also understand the perspective of Dana as I cannot grow things next to the edge of my yard but not because of foragers but dogs. They too love plants. It warmed my heart that you apologized not only to your neighbor but to Dana as well. You are a lovely and delightful individual and oh so talented. Thank you for sharing yourself, your talent and you keen sense of humor.

      1. Hi Victoria, what a lovely comment! Thank you so much. Saying sorry when you’ve done wrong is kind of important to me, and it was helpful to see things from Dana’s view point. Oh, poor you with the dogs and the yard! Yes, it’s an indulgence to look at the tiny things, and easier than recording a whole animal or plant. And even a corner of a leaf can prove pretty absorbing! Glad you share my feelings! Thanks again for such kind comments, about my work and also about my blogs and even (bless you) about my morals! Much appreciate it, you’ve quite buoyed me up. Now I’d better go and draw a gecko foot, one of my latest list of commissions..

    11. Dearest Lizzie: Please write and illustrate your own book about your adventures; it would be a joy to own and read!

      1. Cheers Jay. Think Id need to have significantly more mishaps to make it longer than a pamphlet, but thanks so much for the vote of confidence! x

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    Lizzie Harper