Kiesselbach: Tompkins draws authenticity

Published 2:20 pm Thursday, December 6, 2012

The care taken by artist Ann Tompkins as she works with tiny brushes to produce the most authentically representational depictions of Lake Michigan grasses, lilies and even oak leaves indicate her love of those Southwest Michigan plants.

Born in Elgin, Ill., Tompkins lived in Troy through grade school until her father was transferred back to Illinois when she was in middle school. Her favorite subject was always art as far back as she can remember.

“In grade school, there was a poster contest for each grade, and I won every year” Tompkins said. “In fifth grade, I wrote a book report about the human body and illustrated it. My teacher took points off my report because she thought I copied the art work from a book. She gave my points back when she found out it was my art work.”

When her parents went to parent-teacher conferences, they could pick her work out of the art displays without looking at the names.

After taking every art class her high school offered, her  art teacher told  her parents she should go to art school. Her parents wanted her to go to a traditional college because her academic standing was high, so Tompkins went to Iowa for two years, fell in love, married, then attended the University of Illinois at Chicago where she finished a bachelor’s degree in economics.

Tompkins started taking botanical art classes at Chicago’s Morton Arboretum in 1999, where her love of plants, gardening and art came together. She studied drawing (graphite), pen and ink, colored pencil, watercolor and related classes such as botany, tree identification and local flora.

“I chose watercolor after one of my teachers (a botanical artist from Italy) told me if I practiced everyday for a year, I would be ready for international competition,” Tompkins told me. “After a year, one of my paintings,”Grasses of the Indiana Dunes,” was accepted into an international botanical art exhibit at the Phoenix Museum of Art.”

Tompkins’ work reveals no visible brush strokes, and everything seems so tiny and perfect it is hard to imagine that a human being painted these. Tompkins does all her work in her studio and works from specimens, never photographs.

“A photo doesn’t have enough detail. I can see much more with a magnifying glass viewing multiple angles to study how the plant is put together. I use a constant light source from the upper left, which is traditional in botanical art. I start with sketching my subject, then transferring the line drawing to 140lb. Arches hot press watercolor paper. I begin painting by laying down pale washes over and over and end with a dry brush technique for small detail. First, I paint flower buds and blossoms because they change the quickest. Then I focus on the leaves and, lastly, the stems. A painting can take anywhere from one to four weeks to complete, depending on the size. I use Windsor Newton watercolors and brushes, some as small as 000 size.”

As is best practice, Tompkins never digs up plants in the wild but will snip small samples if the subject is abundant and common. Most of her specimens come from her  home in the dunes, many grown from seed from Prairie Moon Nursery in Minnesota (which specializes in Midwest native plants), and starts indoors in late March.

“I am so inspired by native plants, and my hope is that people will discover their beauty and grow them,” she said.

A member of the Nature Artists’ Guild, Tompkins started showing her work at the Morton Arboretum several years ago and still does so twice a year.

She also participates in a few art fairs, particularly, Michigan City, Chesterton and the Schoolhouse shop in Furnaceville, all in Indiana, as well as the Danada Nature Art Show at the Danada Forest Preserve in Illinois, where she won first prize in the plant category.

Tompkins said her goal is to continue to improve her paintings in technique and composition. She teaches workshops as well and has taught watercolor classes on Painting Fine Detail at the Morton Arboretum, and Painting Prairie Grasses and Sedges at the American Society of Botanical Artists’ (ASBA) yearly conference held in October.

Ann Tompkins’ work in the Clark Gallery at Fernwood Botanical Garden & Nature Preserve in Niles can be seen through Jan. 6.