The watercolor painting of an orchid taped to Juliet Kirby’s drawing table was a near- perfect match for the potted orchid sitting a few inches away.
Kirby had expertly captured the tones and shades of green in the bent leaves, but the piece of art differed in one major way from the plant itself: It featured a stem of beautiful pink-and-white flowers.
“I only draw from live plants,” she said. “I don’t draw from photographs. I need to see the plant.”
But the flowers, how did she see them?
“They were there last spring,” she said.
“Last spring” apparently being a reasonable time frame in which to work on a single piece.
“It’s not quick,” said Kirby, whose work will be featured in the Richmond Times-Dispatch gallery beginning Friday, April 1. “Sometimes, I’ll draw one year and paint the next.”
So goes the life of a botanical illustrator.
Botanical illustration originally was used as a means of identifying and cataloging plants. It is a drawing that perfectly captures the parts of a plant.
“How did you find out about plants before photography?” said Phyllis Laslett, adult education coordinator at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, which offers a certificate program in botanical illustration. “You can get a level of detail and clarity that you can’t with a photograph.”
The art is not for the impetuous or the impatient.
“It’s terribly careful and meticulous,” Kirby said.
In the past two decades, Kirby has become one of the most careful and meticulous artists of the type in Virginia. Her work has been featured in galleries, exhibitions and books, and she has been one of the leading teachers of the art in Richmond, Williamsburg and Newport News.
“She’s very good in helping people refine what they’re working on,” said Laslett, who hired Kirby to teach and allowed her to revamp the garden’s botanical illustration program. “She’s very encouraging, very clear. She’s able to really develop people.”
She also has been rather deft at developing a program.
Kirby was one of the first instructors Laslett hired after arriving at Lewis Ginter in 2002, and she was a leading voice in a group of artists who asked Laslett to improve the program.
“A group of artists, including Juliet, came to me and said the program needs a little work,” Laslett said.
Their idea was to give Richmond a certificate program similar to what exists at the New York Botanical Garden, where Kirby studied. Laslett agreed, and she, Kirby and others created what is now a robust program in which students have to complete 240 hours of study to earn a certificate.
That Kirby has become a master of botanical illustration is somewhat, but not completely, surprising.
She didn’t start studying the art until her mid-50s, after raising four children. But she’d grown up in an artistically inclined family and had once pursued a career in a different kind of art, so going to the New York Botanical Garden was more refresher than new pursuit.
“I wanted to see if I could still do it,” she said.
Once upon a time, she could.
As a child in England, Kirby’s mother, Lettice Sandford, was a nationally known wood engraver. (Prints from two of her pieces are on the wall behind Kirby’s drawing table.)
Her father, Christopher Sandford, was the publisher of a private press that specialized in classic mythology, the Golden Cockerel Press. The books were illustrated with her mother’s wood engravings.
Kirby was sent to art school. Process and patience, she said, were the lasting lessons. She had to spend six months drawing statues — mastering volume and color value along the way — before her teachers allowed her to draw a person.
She also studied anatomy in exacting detail.
“I learned everything there is to know about the human body,” she said.
She tried applying her lessons to oil painting but gave it up quickly.
“It didn’t suit me,” she said.
Instead, she pursued the family trade.
“The idea was that I’d become a wood engraver and illustrate books,” which she did, briefly.
Then love intervened.
She met Michael Kirby, and the two married and moved to San Francisco in 1958, then a few years later to Connecticut.
He began a career in advertising, and Kirby began what would become a decadeslong flirtation on the fringes of the art world while raising four children.
Kirby’s transition from aspiring artist to respected professional began in 1996, when her husband retired and they moved to Williamsburg.
“Connecticut is not a place for people who aren’t working,” she said.
The couple researched places to retire and chose Williamsburg for its comfort, cost of living and proximity to cultural amenities.
“It’s been a good place for us,” she said.
And she’s been good for the place.
Kirby taught at the Peninsula Fine Arts Center and has had a long relationship with the Century Art Gallery in Williamsburg.
Laslett invited her to teach in Richmond after hearing a recommendation from a colleague. Kirby helped Laslett create the program, and she went on to teach or mentor many of the other instructors.
She now focuses on the most advanced students.
“It’s a matter of making the best use of her time,” Laslett said.
She’s a hit with her students.
“While I was a bit nervous at first about skipping the intermediate watercolor class and (at the encouragement of my instructors) registering for Juliet’s advanced class, she quickly put my concerns to rest with her warm enthusiasm and relaxed teaching style,” said Patrice Mason, who is studying under Kirby this year.
“She prefers to teach one on one, after brief group demonstrations of examples of her work and the work of other artists, rather than giving longer lectures in a more structured manner.”
Kirby said there’s no better way to teach.
“You can’t learn from a lecture,” she said. “You learn by doing.”