David Mackay

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David Mackay is recognised as one of the best botanical artists in the world. Botanical artist David Mackay showcases his stunning works locally at Gallery 126.

His work was selected recently to be included in the inaugural exhibition at the Shirley Sherwood Gallery in Kew Gardens, London. This exhibition, titled ‘Treasures of Botanical Art; Icons from the Shirley Sherwood and Kew Collections’, was opened by Sir David Attenborough on April 17th this year. David last exhibited in London in 2001, in the ‘Botanical Artists of the World’ exhibition at the Tryon Gallery, a show-case of some of the finest contemporary botanical art produced by nineteen invited artists from eight countries. 
David first exhibited his work in 1989. This was in an exhibition of botanical art at the University of Sydney in which some of David’s drawings were hung alongside some of Leonardo da Vinci’s for a comparison of contemporary and older botanical art. Since then he has had solo exhibitions in Australia and his work has been included in many group exhibitions in Australia and overseas, including at the Hunt Institute, USA, the Denver Art Museum, USA, the Smithsonian Institution, USA, the Japan Museum of Art, Tokyo, the Tryon Gallery, London, the NSW National Art Gallery, the New England Regional Art Museum and the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney where his work has been prominent every year in the annual ‘Botanica’ exhibitions. He exhibits regularly in galleries around Australia, will be included in another group exhibition in USA next year and has had two solo exhibitions in Armidale, his home town since 1995.

The exhibition that he is currently organising to be held at Gallery 126 in May is an exhibition of paintings, drawings and sculptures by eleven artists from Armidale, Tenterfield, Warwick and Brisbane, all of whom have attended classes or workshops run by David. This exhibition, called ‘A Class Production – Paintings, drawings and sculptures inspired by botany’ will include a wide variety of works, from formal botanical portraits to less formal works inspired by botany. Several of the artists have not exhibited in Armidale before so there will be a lot of new and interesting work and different styles not previously seen in Armidale.

In the late 20th and early 21st centuries there has been a renaissance in botanical art coinciding with a rising awareness of and interest in the natural world. Botanical art is going through a huge surge of popularity. Old botanical prints from the ‘golden age’ of botanical art have an attraction that is linked to a yearning for simpler days and a return of that lovely and exciting sense of wonder that people experienced with the discovery of new worlds and new botanical treasures. Modern botanic art has a similar appeal but it has more than that – it can convey the excitement of discovery in other ways: most botanical artists paint plants life size, as was done usually in the 18th and 19th centuries, thus helping to give their works a traditional look and the allure of times-gone-by. David Mackay, however, often enlarges his plant subjects in his paintings, as he feels this can give the paintings a further attraction: it can bring back some of the wonder of discovery that we have lost in this cynical age. This is because he is able to show, through enlargement, things about his plant subjects that people aren’t aware of, even with plants they feel quite familiar with. This gives the warm ‘wonder-of-discovery’ feeling to viewers of such paintings as they suddenly discover something new about a familiar plant or bloom. David gets this same sense of discovery and excitement when he is preparing a painting. 

Artwork by David Mackay

Artwork by David Mackay

The painting process begins with very close and detailed observation of the plant, often under the microscope, and David does many drawings of the plant and of its minute details to get a feel for the plant – to understand it – before he feels familiar enough with his subject to confidently draw up and paint the final work. This process of discovery and understanding does not come simply through clinical knowledge and rigorous observation of the plant’s structure and function (but certainly this aspect of botanical art is very important and careful, detailed observation is crucial. ‘Be guided by nature,’ Albrecht Dürer said. ‘Do not depart from it, thinking that you can do better yourself. You will be misguided, for truly art is hidden in nature and he who can draw it out possesses it.’). The whole process of producing a piece of botanical art can take several months. As well as the need for accurate detail, good botanical art reflects another demand placed on the botanical artist: a warm understanding and love for the plant. Here, truly, is the combination of art and science, for the botanical artist combines the rigor and detailed observation required by science with the aesthetic qualities and emotional input that come from the artist. This combination of artistic and scientific qualities in botanical art is a lot more important today than in the past. This is because botanical art was created in the past to illustrate books whereas today, botanical paintings are created as works of art to hang on walls. The difference may appear subtle, but it is significant as it impacts on the style of art being created by today’s botanical artists.

David’s career development has mirrored, to some extent, the development of botanical art itself. His first professional job as a botanical artist was illustrating a book on New Guinea orchids during school holidays at the age of 15. He went on to work at the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney for over 16 years as Botanical Illustrator, some of these years part-time as he completed a degree in botany at the University of Sydney. He was Botanical Illustrator at the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney at the time the Wollemi Pine was discovered, so he got a taste of the excitement that must have filled people in the 18th and 19th centuries as he prepared the first-ever illustrations of this newly discovered species. 

Such discoveries are few and far between these days, though. Today’s botanical artists are driven not so much by the discovery of new species but by the rapid extinction of species on this planet, so that their paintings are sometimes a record of species that may never be seen again rather than of a species seen for the first time.

David has illustrated well over 100 scientific reference books and papers. Almost 5000 of his drawings and paintings have been published. His work is described in various publications, including ‘A Passion for Plants – Contemporary Botanical Masterworks’ by Shirley Sherwood, ‘Australia: 300 Years of Botanical Illustrations’ by Helen Hewsen and ‘Drawn from Life – the Development of Botanical Illustration of Australian Plants’ by Ed Wilson. He has also authored or co-authored over 20 botanical publications of his own.

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