Behind the Scenes: Drawing Inspiration from Botanic Gardens for our New Collection of Letterpress Greeting Cards
Last week we released our brand new collection of letterpress greeting cards, and today we are going behind the scenes and sharing the first installment in a series all about the inspiration behind the new designs.
Botanic gardens are some of my favorite places to be and a visit to a new one (or an old favorite!) never fails to inspire new designs. Since the very beginning of Heartell Press, we have had wonderful wholesale relationships with buyers for botanic garden gift shops, and it makes me so happy and proud that you can find Heartell cards for sale at enchanting places across the country like Chihuly Garden and Glass in Seattle and Bloedel Reserve on Bainbridge Island on the West Coast and the New England Botanic Garden at Tower Hill and Wave Hill in the Bronx.
I want to share how I find gardens to visit, what I bring, what I look for when I’m there, how I record what I see, and what I bring home with me. I hope this will offer some insight into my process for drawing inspiration for the garden-themed and floral greeting cards in our new collection.
Researching and Choosing Botanic Gardens to Visit
I grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah, so the first garden I remember being inspired by was Red Butte Gardens. Covering 100 acres in the foothills of the Wasatch mountains, it is a wonderland of desert plants, flowers and trees. I even had a summer job there in high school selling sandwiches and delicious watermelon and lime popsicles from a cart near the gift shop. The t-shirt I bought there with my earnings had butterflies all over it and I wore it to shreds. Later, after my mom got sick and had surgery, Red Butte was the first place we ventured out once she felt well enough to leave the house.
If you are lucky enough to live in a big city, chances are there are some great options nearby. When we lived in NY I loved the majestic Brooklyn Botanic Garden and New York Botanical Gardens (the holiday train show was an annual tradition!) but the community garden on 6th Avenue in our Brooklyn neighborhood was an even more accessible place to see flowers and vegetables growing and sit under one of the most beautiful willow trees I’ve ever seen.
Even smaller towns can have hidden gems, so I always do some research before I travel somewhere new. Here in Indiana, we have a sweet but small conservatory-style garden, but one of my favorite places to go is actually the extension garden of Purdue Fort Wayne University. I didn’t know about the extension programs before I moved here, but they are part of the land-grant university system and are funded through federal, state, and county sources. They have a longstanding history of providing practical education and support to farmers, gardeners, and communities and Fort Wayne’s program is thriving. I live walking distance from the campus, and I love the low-key vibe up there.
For this new collection, I was mostly in Indiana during the development phase. Wellfield was originally a community service project of the Elkhart Rotary club, but is now a nonprofit with a long-term lease agreement with the city of Elkhart. Half the 36 acres are water, and there are 13 active wells on the property which has been a source of hydraulic energy and drinking water for the City of Elkhart since the mid-1800s. It has a great children’s garden, and lots of lovely shady places to sit.
We also got to go on a spring break trip to Arizona in March, so lots of the drawings for this collection were based on visits to Tucson Botanical Gardens and Tohono Chul. It is always fascinating to see the mix of local and imported plants growing in places we visit, and the Arizona desert produces some of the wildest garden landscapes I’ve seen.
What’s in My Bag: Essential Tools for Drawing Inspiration from Botanic Gardens
The factor that really determines what I bring these days is whether or not my children are coming with me to the garden. I love being able to share these experiences with them but they definitely change the game plan. I will be honest: two hours alone in a botanic garden with only the shape and color of petals and veining on overlapping leaves to concentrate on is basically my idea of pure heaven these days. But I have a two- and five-year old so those opportunities are rare. I still manage to draw a lot of inspiration when I bring my kids, but I come prepared with different tools and more importantly, different expectations.
Sans kids: I have a small Hershel backpack I fill up with:
- a medium sized sketchbook (I like simple smooth bright white bond-weight paper with a spiral binding so I can fold it all the way over for drawing and scanning later)
- A few blocks of hot press watercolor paper in various smallish sizes (Speedball’s Fluid line is good or Stonehenge) - a few because I find I have the most success with watercolor if I work on more than one piece of paper at once, it gives me more patience to let things dry in between layers, and blocks because they are glued around the edges and it helps the paper dry flat without having to tape anything down.
- Mechanical pencils with extra thick lead (2mm) because I like to be able to make both fine and fat lines with them, and I don’t want to stop to sharpen them (I like Ohto or Ooly)
- A Staedtler Mars Plastic Retractable Stick Eraser
- A Da Vinci travel watercolor brush that screws open so you can protect the brush and put it into a pencil case
- A small pan set of watercolor paints and a few extra tubes of colors that aren't in the set
- A selection of C’aran D’ache Neocolor Aquarelle water soluble crayons
- A Pentel Aquash water brush
- My phone, a big water bottle, snacks, sunscreen and a hat
With kids: I have a super cool fanny pack that fits:
- A tiny (A6) Field Sketchbook
- Mechanical pencils
- My phone
- My Lili Arnold bandana
Motifs, Details and Scenes: What I Look for When I’m Seeking Inspiration in Botanic Gardens
What draws my attention depends on what I’m working on. I look for things I can use as motifs in repeating patterns, which usually means close up views of individual blooms, leaves or vines.
For greeting cards I also love including evidence of human life that can serve as metaphors or supporting details when paired with words in a card designs; benches, trellises, watering cans, fountains, raised beds.
I also love to draw or paint wider landscape scenes that can become the backgrounds of card or print designs.
Documenting My Botanic Garden Discoveries
When I’m drawing in the garden, I’m never trying to create finished work. That’s part of what makes it so relaxing: I’m in pure observation mode and I get to just enjoy capturing the aspects of what I’m looking at that are most appealing or moving to me.
When I’m with my kids and I’m able to pull out my sketchbook I tend to focus on tiny details since I know it will only be a few minutes until their attention shifts and we’ll be on our way to another spot. I also use my phone a lot to take photos and I end up doing a lot of the observational drawing back in my studio, using the photos as a reference.
I pull color palettes out of the drawings I make and photos I take, and often make simple line drawings that I end up developing further later on.
Don’t Forget the Gift Shop
Aside from loving a good browse myself, I always make sure to visit the shop in order to get a feel for the other kinds of products for sale in these kinds of retail environments. I love to pick up postcards and bookmarks and other little mementos of my time in the garden, but it also helps put me in mind of what I’m trying to do with my work at Heartell.
I love making greeting cards because they are works of art that also serve a real purpose for people, helping them to make connections with people they care about. I love to look around the shop and think about what I’d like to say to the people in my life I was thinking about when I was in the garden that day, and what I might like to give them as gifts.
Being outdoors in places like botanic gardens helps us get in touch with parts of ourselves and each other that can be harder to access in the hustle and bustle of regular life. When people visit a garden, it is because they have some extra time. It might be just a weekend, or maybe they are young mothers taking time off to be with kids, retired people feeling lonely or lost (or thrilled to finally have all the time they want in botanic gardens!), families trying to spend time together and connect. Sometimes people have time to visit gardens because they are sick or have been laid off or find themselves outside of a regular routine for a million other reasons. It helps inspire new ideas for cards and prints to think about all of that for a while at the end of a morning or afternoon wandering.
I hope this has been fun to read! You can see all the new designs here. Please comment below if there are botanic gardens near you that you like to visit, I’d love to hear from you and I'm always on the hunt for new destinations!