On a crisp Sunday afternoon we follow Edith Barrett on the Karloo track through the Royal National Park. As we walk, she names the plants she knows, sometimes by using their Latin names, such as the towering Angophora costata (Sydney red gums) that dot the track, and others with less formal names. “These are eggy-bacons,” she says as she holds a small red-and-yellow shrub flower.
Barrett was raised on a 20-acre property in Yendon, Victoria. A childhood spent around native flora nurtured her love and knowledge for all things botanical. She went on to study Textile Design at RMIT, and majored in screen printing – learning the laborious process that she now uses to turn her drawings into textiles. However it was her time spent on a university exchange to the Estonian Academy of Arts that she acquired a deep interest in natural history, and an appreciation for drawing in situ.
“It was really in Estonia that I first came across this process of immersion and freedom to create things,” Barrett says. “The way they study the arts over there is so different; in one of my subjects we just went on field trips and spent hours left to our own devices in different locations, purely to create some sort of work. It was a difficult and great education.”
Since moving to Sydney several years ago, Barrett spends her spare time doing just this – taking small field trips to national parks and areas out of the city where she can walk, explore and draw. “I’m a collector,” she says, “But I always feel bad taking a branch or a bloom from the tree!” Barrett picks small wattle, which is currently in abundance. She will walk and collect these small pickings and eventually pause at a suitable spot to sit and draw for a while. “I will often get quite lost when I’m drawing, time easily gets away and several times I’ve had to make my way back quickly through a track as the sun is going down.”
She works in pen and ink because the neatness and fine lines appeal to her. “Also because it translates onto textiles quite well,” says Barrett. On her own, or occasionally with like-minded friends, these expeditions provide her with opportunities to learn more about the botany she finds, and to explore different regions for unique species. She likes to draw on location if she can, depending on the weather. Today there is a strong winter sun, but the air is cool – ideal weather for sitting among the gumtrees and drawing.
Barrett’s drawings from today could end up in one of her upcoming exhibitions, or they might find their way onto delicate silk scarves, printed locally in Sydney for her brand Edith Rewa. Her latest collection, Fossick, documents some of her botanical adventures this year, and features native flora and fauna she encountered, mostly from specimens collected from the Blue Mountains.
As we walk Barrett exclaims, “There’s a great rock up ahead!” and we watch as she unpacks her paper, pens and all the strange-looking branch clippings she has collected so far on our walk. As she bounces back into the bush to get some more grevillea, we stare in awe at her drawings and try to recount the specimens she has laid out. Her botanical knowledge is admirable and enviable, and, of course, the only species we remember is eggy-bacons.
Barrett’s tips on how to draw from nature:
The subject you choose is very important. I can spend up to an hour selecting the right flower or branch to draw. You need to find a specimen that is right for you, and then spend a good amount of time inspecting all aspects of it, so you really get to know it. Sometimes I even lay out a sprig or flower on the page I am working on and arrange it in a way so that the composition will be natural. Otherwise, placing it into a vase with a nice skinny neck always works.
Tools! I love taking a knapsack with my favourite pens, a loupe, maybe a few books, snacks, water, my adventure hat and music so I can be out in the bush without distractions for quite some time.
Be prepared to spend quite a long time with a specimen, the longer you take to get to know it and its surroundings, the more natural the illustration will be. I also like to start on a smaller, more insignificant part of the illustration first, because the longer I draw for, and the more I get the feel for the textures and movement of the specimen, the better the illustration becomes.