Article by John Fleming

OTANICAL ART HAS BEEN a life-long presence in Jean Johnson’s imagination. She recalls from early days recurring walks through fields and woods with her father, an avid gardener and amateur naturalist, who named as they went, in the well-established binomial system of Linnaeus, wildflowers, plants, and shrubs in both common and scientific terms. Thus the bloodroot plant (Sanguinaria canadensis), described in Champlain’s Voyages et Explorations (1604) and also in Elizabeth Simcoe’s Diary (1792), took root in, and still frames, her botanical vision, through images that now express in her drawings and watercolours the diaphanous effects of the medium: “In the afternoon we entered a lake (Lac des Chênes) five leagues long and two wide, where there are very beautiful islands filled with vines, walnuts and other fine trees…The soil is sandy, and a root is found there which makes a crimson dye, with which the savages paint their faces… ; “…the leaf springs singly from a thick juicy fibrous root, which, on being broken, emits a quantity of liquor from its pores of a bright orange colour: this juice is used by the Indians as a dye, and also in the cure of rheumatic and cutaneous complaints.”1

It was at Northern Secondary School that the instinct and directions of a professional career as a visual artist began to take shape during the four-year program in commercial art offered by the school. The Group of Seven was in the air, and Canadian landscapes were on the walls of many Canadian homes. In tune with the times, market conditions, and personal inclination, Jean’s first chance of a job after graduation presented itself as a choice between dull commercialism and working for Art and Design Studios, a company producing Captain Marvel comics, owing to an embargo related to paper shortages on U.S. comics entering Canada. Drawing skills were the basic ingredient for this newcomer to the art scene, attaching character heads provided by the company to bodies and action backgrounds to be created and called to life by the talismanic “Shazam!”

From these heroic beginnings in the age of action comics, now revisited in our own electronic times in movies and computer games, through many stages in the business and cultural worlds over the years, Jean Johnson’s enthusiasm for watercolours persists. I asked her “why watercolours?” rather than any of the other materials and techniques that had formed her background at Northern Secondary in fonts, illustration, life drawing, painting, sculpture, etc. The answer was immediate and direct: watercolour supplies lightness and delicacy of touch; it is luminous and colourful in effect; its innate fragility and apparent transience convey the essence of an object such as botanicals; and it leaves an impression with the viewer altogether more life-like and truthful than an image in oils. And, of course, there are the “lines,” that is, the basic component of drawing—outlines, parts, profiles, composition, structure. Jean also spoke about “contact drawing,” a technique sometimes used to discover an aptitude for drawing in a beginner, or by professionals, to create a more spontaneous image by using a single visual look to take in the object and then allowing this first perception to develop freely through unmediated imaginative impulses. These are the thoughts of an artist whose understanding of the medium is deeply felt and practised in a spirit of collaboration with paper, pen or brush, and pigments.

In addition to her activity as a watercolourist, Jean Johnson is a lecturer and amateur historian of botanical art in its scientific beginnings, its medical, topographical, and aesthetic uses, and a proponent of the many ways in which watercolour representations of the natural world have left a compelling visual and encyclopaedic representation of early travel and contemporaneous scientific discoveries. Of particular interest to her in recent years are native plants, bulbs and perennials, inspired by those childhood memories of botanizing with her father, and discovery of the many texts of early explorers and colonists who have left a record in words and often images, of local flora from the 17th century on. As a member of the Botanical Artists of Canada, Jean continues to practise and promote the unique qualities of watercolour as a kind of antidote to the shrinking presence and fewer contacts we may have with flowers and plants in a postmodern age of electronic distractions.

Excerpted from Spring/Summer 2014 Ornamentum. Click here to subscribe.

John Fleming is Editor of Ornamentum.

1 Mary Alice Downey and Mary Hamilton, ‘and some brought flowers’ Plants in a New World (Toronto Buffalo London: University of Toronto Press, 1980), 20.

Watercolour of orchid,
by Jean Johnson