Mary Dillon: ”While there is a very clear connection between science and art in botanical illustration, my art is personal.”


Mary Dillon is an Irish botanical artist and founding chairperson of the Irish Society of Botanical Art. This November, Mary was a guest lecturer for Cembra School of Botanical Art and Illustration with a workshop entitled Warm and Rich – Painting the Seasonal Palette of Autumn. Having her here was an enriching experience on so many levels and a breath of fresh air in the middle of these uncertain times when the cultural life has become less vibrant than before, but definitely more needed.

At the end of Mary’s four-day workshop, we sat down and talked a bit about her work, and the path that led her to botanical art. Enjoy it!

Hi, Mary! Can you tell us about yourself a little bit?

I am from the South Eastern part of Ireland, from a beautiful city called Kilkenny. I grew up there and I recently returned with my family to live there. I am very happy I feel at home now and I am hoping to have my own studio there in the next short while. The studio would definitely be for myself to work on my art but also, because I love teaching, one day I would love to have people come visit and do workshops with me there.

I started painting when I was very young, but I got into botanical art about seven years ago. For many years, I painted professionally, in watercolor. It’s my medium, I just love the spontaneity of it, I love all the possibilities that it allows and I love the fact that with watercolor there always needs to be a little room for the paint, the paper, the water, the brush to do their thing. So, it’s almost as if it works through me and not always because of me. Of course, I am in a lot of control, but I do not want to be in complete control, I love the fluidity of watercolor. I enjoy how water, paint and paper can actually create something magical. Even if a mistake happens, there can be tremendous beauty in it.

What are you trying to capture when painting plants?

For me, it was always about capturing the essence of a plant. Very often I find myself painting subjects that are dying, fading, or becoming fragile. There is something about the frailty, the transience of life that I find beautiful and I want to capture that. Even in the beginning when my work was semi-representational, it wasn’t completely abstract. You might recognize the plant, but it certainly wasn’t botanical. The purpose was and still is to capture an emotive energy that exists within the subject.

How did you start painting botanical watercolors?

When it comes to botanical art, I always had a tremendous fascination for nature. As a child I enjoyed watching my dad gardening. As a painter, I started painting architectural landscapes. Eventually I felt that my real passion was for painting plants. Originally, when I started focusing on painting plants, my work was semi-representational or semi-abstract, wild and exuberant, very textured and layered. I love colour so I enjoyed all the possibilities of working with multiple layers of colour, building texture and depth while always allowing light to come through.

As a teacher in my thirties, I had a friend and retired colleague named Tom who was a botanist. He lost the sight of one eye and afterwards he began to look at the world differently and pay more attention to details. It came to the realization that he was much more vulnerable than before. He became very aware of the landscape, the trees and colors, in particular. He decided he wanted to learn how to paint and asked me to teach him. In exchange, I asked him to teach me how to read a flora. At that time I was still working with semi-abstract representations of plants but I wanted to explore the details, I wanted to learn more about botany. Tom and I started this wonderful connection and along the way another dear friend of mine joined us because he was also interested in botany. We would go off along the roads, in the woodlands and bogs and Tom taught us how to read a flora, how to recognize trees in the winter from a distance, how to find the name of the plants and so on. We did that for a number of years, until eventually Tom passed away. My other friend also died that year. There was something about us three sharing the same experience that I really felt I had to continue on this path. So eventually, I left that semi-representational side of my work behind and I started to explore the possibilities of botanical art.

This story about connection and mutual guidance is beautiful and it somehow answers to my next question. I feel that your art comes from a profound sensory experience and I noticed that you even try to guide your students to be more insightful and reach a state of mind that is deeply connected to the life of nature. So, I wanted to ask you, what is the philosophy behind your art and your way of teaching?

It is very interesting that you perceived that and thank you for reflecting that back to me. While there is a very clear connection between science and art in botanical illustration, my art is personal. When I paint, I paint because I notice something about the plant that speaks to me on an emotional level and I feel compelled to respond to that conversation. I rarely even think about how the viewer will perceive my art but I would like to think that they will be able to make that emotional connection, too.

With regard to how I teach, I feel privileged to share a journey of discovery with the students. People are walking on a path through their life and it is a gift to be able to work with them at some point on that path, to help them help themselves, see things more clearly, express things more clearly. Painting is not just about creating a product. It’s much more about the process. And likewise, when I work with students I want to encourage them to experience it as a process, not just as an end result. Of course I can teach you some techniques that would be required to go from point A to point B, and by the end of my course you will have the techniques that you will need to be able to make a piece of botanical art. But, when you focus on the process, it becomes more meaningful, a deeper personally enriching experience, even spiritual. I like to encourage people to reflect on how and why they are choosing to do what they are doing. I am not here to answer all the big questions but I would love to ask the questions, to give people the opportunity to open that door of exploration and possibilities for themselves.

What are some of the myths or preconceptions about botanical art that you would like to demolish?

First of all, a myth would be that you cannot make a mistake in botanical art. This preconception scares a lot of people or even stops them from really exploring botanical art. But actually, the reality is that if you use good quality paper and the right brushes and if you have someone that can show you how to correct mistakes, it is possible to overcome these challenges. An experienced person, who has made all these mistakes themselves and has learned how to correct them, will be able to show you how to get over that hiccup.

Then, the other thing I would say about mistakes, I think they are important. In fact, no mistake is an indication of complete failure. Every mistake is a voyage of discovery, there might be something about it that helps you to learn a different approach to watercolor.

Before I signed up to learn botanical art with the SBA, I remember going to my first ever botanical art exhibition in London. Looking at all those wonderful illustrations, I thought to myself it will be years before I will be able to produce something fine enough and detailed enough to justify being selected for an exhibition like that. So I feared I was not able to do it. But if I stopped there, I would not be here today. I’ve learned to go beyond that fear and grasp the nettle. It’s always worth it. It’s better to regret what you have done than what you have not done.

You had a lot of botanical art workshops, worldwide. How was your experience, here, at Cembra?

I want to stress the huge value of learning in person, because I learned botanical art on a distance program and I know now as a teacher that it wasn’t the ideal way. I taught with Helen Allen at the Chelsea School of Botanical Art. Helen, would say, You learn better because I can watch you painting, not because you can watch me. While we have come to understand the huge benefits of connecting with each other through remote online learning, I have never forgotten what I heard Helen say. Every time I have the privilege of working with students, I realise the benefit of learning in person.

My experience here at Cembra…Oh my God! Every workshop is different, but people are all the same. Of course people are different, but people are all the same. Those who come to workshops are looking for the same thing, it’s something within themselves, they all have a shared yearning for meaning or a shared fascination for art. And to that end, actually, people are all the same. But, to go back to your original question, I have had the most wonderful days here, I thoroughly enjoyed working with you all! And your town is so beautiful, I feel at home here. I know that I will be returning soon.


©️ Illustrations: Mary Dillon