Remembering Elizabeth Blackwell

Sketched in colored pencil on stained paper

Colored pencil on stained paper

The most recent project in my online Botanical Sketchbook Painting course is inspired by the work of a remarkable botanical artist who has been mostly forgotten in the 250 years since her death. A few remaining copies of her once-famous work still may be found in rare book collections and in the archival libraries of some of the world’s finest botanical gardens. Some people see Elizabeth Blachrie Blackwell’s story as a tragic one, and certainly it was not an easy life. But to me, it’s a story of incredible strength and determination.

Growing up in a seaport on the Scottish coast, Elizabeth inherited her keen intelligence and love of hard work from her father. William Blachrie was a wealthy merchant, a Burgess of Trade for the city of Aberdeen, Scotland — a self-made success who had started out as a humble seller of stockings and built up a considerable fortune for himself and his family.

Even in the puritanical 1700s, he was a forward-thinking man who insisted that both his sons and daughters were educated and independent. Elizabeth was trained in art, as well as in general subjects. When a favorite brother took up studies in botany, she soon became interested in the structure of plants. Three decades had passed since the publication of Maria Merian’s work on butterfly metamorphosis, and Elizabeth would have been aware of the celebrated German-born botanical illustrator. The world seemed full of possibilities.

And then Alexander Blackwell came into her life.  A member of Aberdeen’s highest society, his father was the Rev. Thomas Blackwell the Elder, a renowned classical scholar with a long and illustrious pedigree. His brother, Thomas Blackwell the Younger, became a leading author and historian. Alexander was a brilliant young man, the pampered favorite of his stern father, and his family expected him to accomplish great things.

But Alexander, handsome and impulsive, moody and irresponsible, was an adventurer. To the dismay of both families, Alexander and Elizabeth were drawn to one another. In personality, they were not at all alike: Alexander’s biographer calls him a “charming rascal” who swung unpredictably from one outlandish scheme to the next; Elizabeth was steady and was regarded as virtuous and kind, unremarkable in appearance but naturally cheerful and gregarious. The Rev. Blackwell refused to grant his son permission to marry. He had decided to send Alexander to Sweden to study medicine — and besides, Elizabeth did not fit his strict view of an acceptable wife. Her education in art, her interest in science, and her father’s merchant-class heritage all disqualified her from becoming a suitable partner for his son.

Undeterred, the couple did what so many have done before and since: they eloped.  They were away, and married, before anyone realized they were gone.

And so it was that Elizabeth accompanied her husband to Sweden, where he excelled (for awhile, at least) in his medical studies. His instructors considered him a genius. But his usual restlessness made him impatient, and he decided he had enough training. Without actually attaining his doctor’s credentials, he abruptly returned to Scotland and began practicing medicine. Within months, local authorities demanded he produce proof that he was a trained physician — so he packed up his wife and fled to London. Soon he was working as a proofreader in a large printing house.

Printing was regulated closely in those days, and all legitimate printers had to complete a seven-year apprenticeship and receive an official charter before going into the business. Alexander ignored the law, opened his own unlicensed printing house, and began attracting business away from rival printers. A reckless businessman who spent money lavishly, he eventually used up Elizabeth’s pre-marriage savings and then borrowed against future earnings. Several years passed and while they slowly sank deeper into debt, Elizabeth gave birth to four babies. Three died, but a little son survived. Somehow, Elizabeth never lost faith in her mercurial husband.

And then everything collapsed. Angry printers made an official complaint against Alexander and his print shop was shuttered by the authorities, the presses confiscated and hauled away. The family’s meager possessions were seized and Alexander, unable to pay the enormous fines levied for the illegal operation, was sentenced to debtor’s prison. Elizabeth was left alone in London with no source of income and a baby to care for. It would have been easy, in those bleak days, to turn back toward Aberdeen and go home.

But Elizabeth would not abandon her beloved Alexander in prison, and she had the flickering spark of an idea that just possibly could catch fire and win his freedom. During the time her husband represented himself as a doctor, Elizabeth had seen that there was a great need for an up-to-date medical herbal. New therapeutic plants were constantly arriving from the New World, and doctors needed accurate information on their cultivation and uses in treatment.

She sought — and secured — a grant to allow her to begin work on a new herbal. Elizabeth rented a modest room just outside the wall of Chelsea Physic Garden, an eclectic collection of medicinal plants from around the known world, and she began her work. Most herbals were created by three to five artisans who each performed one step of the process. But with no one to help her, Elizabeth had to complete the entire process herself: For each plant, she began with detailed drawings made at the garden. Then she used a steel needle to carefully etch her drawing into the surface of a copper plate for printing, and finally she hand-colored it using watercolors. Using impossibly fine lines and great skill, she even engraved beautiful calligraphy labels and notes on the plates — each letter and flourish in reverse!  At night, she carried her drawings through the city streets to Alexander’s prison cell and he dictated Latin names, dosages and plant descriptions. Day by day, one by one, Elizabeth created 500 separate pages — each with a different and highly detailed botanical subject. The task took more than three years.

Blackwell title page
Her completed book, A Curious Herbal, was an enormous success. Elizabeth marketed the herbal in professional journals and earned the endorsement of The Royal College of Physicians, a rare and wonderful accomplishment. It was praised by apothecaries and botanists. A savvy businesswoman, she negotiated deals with booksellers while retaining valuable rights to future publication of her work. Best of all, she paid off all Alexander’s fines and settled his debts. He was a free man.

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Unfortunately, his years in prison had not dampened the adventurer’s appetite for getting into legal trouble. Within five years of his release, Alexander’s lavish spending and a string of bad business decisions saddled the Blackwells with a fresh burden of debt. Elizabeth reluctantly sold most of her publication rights to raise enough money to give her husband a chance at another fresh start.

Ever charming, with an uncanny ability to impress strangers, Alexander arranged a position as a court physician to the royal family of Sweden. (Conveniently, he failed to mention that he was a medical school dropout.) He sailed away with a promise to send for Elizabeth as soon as possible. She remained in London, managing a small income from continued reprints of her popular herbal — and faithfully continued to send a portion to Alexander every month, knowing that he was often out of money.

What happened next is recorded in several versions, depending on the age of the account. The story appears in letters and journals from the late 1700s and early 1800s, and in historical references from the beginning of the 20th Century. Scottish historians tell the story differently from the way it is remembered by Swedish or English writers. But the general facts are these:

Alexander somehow inserted himself into a shady conspiracy to alter the line of succession to the Swedish throne. And, reckless as always, he was caught. As far as anyone afterward could see, there was no financial gain to be had — but playing an important role in a secret plot would have appealed to his sense of importance. And it would have been a grand adventure. There were international implications involving Denmark and the British royal family, so Alexander had committed a terrible crime.

Unsuspecting, Elizabeth was at last preparing to make the journey to join her husband. She had booked passage and was concluding her business in London when the news was announced: Alexander Blackwell had been executed for treason.*

Self-assured to the very last, Alexander joked with the crowd who awaited his beheading. After he placed his head wrong upon the block, he joked that he required instruction from the executioner from since it was his first experience with decapitation.

Elizabeth fades from sight that year, invisible from written history as most women were during that period. We know that she did not return to Aberdeen, but remained in London near the garden where she created her masterpiece. Successive reprints of her herbal provided a modest living, and she was surrounded by friends she had made during her years of botanical labor. There is no record of what happened to her young son, but we know that Elizabeth died in 1758 and is buried in the churchyard at Chelsea Old Church.

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Her beautiful herbal continued to be a valuable reference long after Elizabeth’s death. An edition was published in Latin. A major reissue in German was undertaken near the end of the century. English botanist Sir Joseph Banks brought his copy of A Curious Herbal on a 1768 South Seas expedition with Captain James Cook. The herbal was still a popular medical book well into the first decade of the 1800s. It was reprinted in a limited edition in the 20th Century.

Today, you can turn the pages of A Curious Herbal and see Elizabeth’s finely drawn botanicals online by visiting the book’s page at the British Library website:

The scanned images of the herbal used in this post were provided by

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*A conflicting account describes Elizabeth actually arriving in Sweden, encountering what seemed to be a festival of some sort in the city. Arriving in the public square, she learned that the crowds were gathered to witness Alexander’s execution. I have not been able to find reliable evidence for this story.

Dragonfly days


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sample sketch dragonfly

I always think of my mom when I draw dragonflies — she loved them. She had dragonfly scarves, dragonfly jewelry, dragonfly garden art. A writer, she doodled tiny dragonflies in the margins of her notebooks. During the last week of her life, when she could no longer leave her bed, the biggest dragonfly I’ve ever seen landed on her windowsill and stayed for hours.

So, when I was looking for an insect subject to demonstrate drawing on earth-stained paper, I naturally thought of dragonflies. This fellow is drawn with just two colored pencils, a black and a white, but the warmth and complexity of the stained paper makes him so much more. He’s part of a demo video for my Botanical Sketchbook Painting class, which gets under way on Tuesday. I can’t wait!

Inspiration for a day of nature drawing


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fb signs and seasonsA used bookstore is like a gem mine. Poke around for awhile, and you just might unearth an unexpected treasure — for example, a lovely 1887 edition of Burrough’s wise and luminous essays on the natural world. Tramping through his beloved Catskill Mountains, he pondered whether the rapid scientific advances of his day would diminish the grip of field and flower, woodlands and weather, on human imagination:

“Science does not mar nature… Study of nature deepens the mystery and the charm because it removes the horizon father off. We cease to fear, perhaps, but how can one cease to marvel and to love?”

And so begins a day in the studio.

Happy drawing, everyone!

Sometimes staining can be a good thing


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Speaking as someone who once spilled an entire mocha latte down the front of my shirt 15 minutes before I was due to speak before a workshop group, I can vouch for the staining power of coffee. But it’s that very characteristic that makes coffee a terrific alternative painting medium — it stains white paper with a gorgeous (and delightfully aromatic) brown tone similar to a watercolor wash. This page in my 2008 sketchbook is painted and lettered with three varieties of my favorite beverage:

Paper Prep Coffee Girl2I love drawing and painting on stained paper, with its raw warmth and sometimes-bark-sometimes-leather texture. We used earth-based acrylic pigment to stain sheets of watercolor paper in my recent North Carolina workshop. Dogwoods were blooming in the mountain coves, so we drew them in layered colored pencil and charcoal:


This week, I’m staining lots of paper in front of a video camera in preparation for the upcoming Botanical Sketchbook Painting course. The best part is the fact that you never get the same result twice — each sheet is uniquely smudged and pocked, each with its own rustic beauty. The second best part is the fact that… well… someone has to drink all that leftover coffee.

Is anything more fun than drawing ogres?


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This week is the final lesson in my online Draw & Paint the Enchanted World course. It has been quite a journey, alongside a cast of characters who ranged from elegant elven royalty to the hairy hobgoblins. Now it’s time to return to the natural realm, and begin filming the upcoming Botanical Notebook Painting course. That will be an adventure of a different kind.

Edible Stones


I bought a battered paperback copy of Gerard’s Historie of Plants this week, and I have been wandering his Elizabethan garden ever since. A contemporary of William Shakespeare, John Gerard wrote a vast and delightful old-time herbal cataloging the “Vertues” of medicinal plants ranging from calves’-snout (snapdragon) which can be worn as a garland necklace to protect against witches, to a meadow wildflower called jack-go-to-bed-at-noon — which, when boiled and served up with butter, “strentheneth those that have been sicke of a long lingring disease.”

Gerard was a prominent figure in his day, a 1636 horticultural celebrity with friends in the royal court. Travellers to exotic places collected plants for him. New specimens for his garden crossed the ocean in the hold of Sir Francis Drake’s ship. And yet, in the formal portrait created for the frontispiece of the Historie, he’s not holding his exotic Persian Lily (“the vertue of this admirable plant is not yet knowne”) but the stem of the humble potato. As it turns out, Gerard’s famous book was a stepping-stone on the spud’s journey from the temples of the ancient Inca to the inside of those little cardboard boxes at McDonald’s.


John Gerard and his potato plant

Gerard, ever inquisitive, was one of the first Europeans to grow and eat potatoes. In Spain, they were considered “edible stones,” a bizarre novelty unfit for the table. In Scotland, the tuber was condemned as unholy because there were no potatoes in the Bible. In France, depending on which doctor you asked, you would be told that potatoes were related to belladonna, and were therefore poisonous. Or, at the very least, they were the cause of leprosy. Either way, France passed a law making the cultivation of potatoes a serious crime.

None of this discouraged Gerard. He enthusiastically included the potato in his Historie of Plants, writing an entry that would go far to win the much-maligned vegetable a place in Old World kitchens. It reads nearly like poetry: “From the bosome of the leaves come forth long round slender footstalkes, whereon grow very faire and pleasant floures.”

Here we are, four centuries later. Gerard’s charming Historie is still in print and world potato production is upward of 300 million metric tons. Potatoes are no longer an exclusively Western menu item — in fact, China is now the world’s biggest grower of Gerard’s source of dietary “goodnesse and wholsomenesse.” I think the Elizabethan gardener would be proud.

As for cooking instructions, Gerard suggests “being either rosted in the embers, or boiled and eaten with oile, vineger and pepper, or dressed some other way by the hand of a skilfull Cooke.”

New course: Botanical Sketchbook Paintings

rosesnotebookEvery plant has a fascinating story waiting to be told. Roses and the legend of St. Elizabeth, irises and the survival of King Clovis to become the father of the French nation, angel trumpets and the doomed settlement of Jamestown — turn over any leaf and find a tale hidden just beneath. In my new course, Botanical Sketchbook Paintings, learn to tone and texture your own paper to create a wonderful vintage look that can range from rustic to refined. Then use a surprisingly simple four-step method for layering opaque paint and colored pencil to make botanical images that sing on the page. A lighthearted look at page design will provide ideas for arranging the elements of your botanical tale. We’ll also cover tips for distilling your written narrative down to a few bright, clear sentences and labels that communicate the heart of your story hand-in-hand with the drawn and painted page.coffeearabicaThis content-rich course will be posted IN ITS ENTIRE FORM with all video lessons and all printable pdf pages on Monday, July 6, 2015. This way, each participant is truly free to create multiple pieces, to work at her own pace and focus on each aspect of the process — designing, painting, writing, lettering — whenever it is convenient. Instructor feedback and guidance via email is available at all times. I love to hear from you! The window for completion will remain open for six months, through January 2016. The cost of the course is $65 and enrollment will be limited. To sign up, email me at irisanotebookptg2 Here’s the supply list. If you live where some of the materials aren’t available, live outside the US, or prefer to use something you already have, I can advise on good substitutes. 🙂 Supply List:

  • 2B drawing pencil and kneaded eraser
  • 12-tube set of Reeves gouache (costs $10.50 from
  • Large plastic watercolor palette or old white china plate for mixing paint
  • Pigma Micron black waterproof ink pen, size 03 or 05
  • Basic set (12 or more) Prismacolor Premiere colored pencils
  • Inexpensive synthetic watercolor brushes – #1 round, #4 round, #10 round
  • A sheet of heavy watercolor paper (at least 300 lb weight). Cold press. Buy a full 22×30 inch sheet if possible, and you can use it for several paintings.

Questions about the supplies? Email me.

Draw with me in North Carolina!

Barred Owl

Artist/Naturalist Workshop: Drawing Birds with Val Webb
Two Days – April 25 and 26, 2015
Red House Studios and Gallery in Black Mountain, NC
$150 (includes art supplies)

Learn to draw eggs, feathers and a variety of North Carolina birds during a two-day workshop in beautiful Black Mountain, NC. No experience necessary – all levels of art ability welcome. With lots of step-by-step guidance from illustrator Val Webb, the workshop includes:

  • Drawing lifelike eyes, beaks and feet
  • Drawing birds at rest and in flight
  • Techniques for fast and accurate pencil sketches
  • Layered charcoal and colored pencil drawings on toned paper
  • Feather textures: Shading for highlights and shadow
  • Drawing birds of prey
  • Drawing songbirds
  • Basic bird anatomy for the artist
  • Lots of illustrated material to take home

Bring your favorite sketchbook (8×10 or larger) and ALL OTHER ART SUPPLIES ARE PROVIDED.

Class size is small, and is expected to fill quickly. Registration is payable either by check or by PayPal. (Email Val at for instructions.)

Black Mountain is located 8 miles from the Blue Ridge Parkway, near Asheville. In addition to great natural beauty, it has a thriving arts community and a rich history. If you are traveling to attend the workshop, plan an extra day or two to relax and explore the area. More information about Black Mountain is available at


Exactly one month from today…


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…a new session of “Heirloom Garden in Colored Pencil” will begin.

L8 instagram imageBack by popular demand, this course includes 10 lessons on drawing old-fashioned flowers and vegetable plants — plus how to draw water droplets, transparent glass and favorite garden insects. Butterflies! Bees! Dragonflies! All in colored pencil. More info is available on my Upcoming Online Classes page.