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Fiona Strickland on painting the perfect egg

Fiona Strickland's peaceful north-facing studio on the outskirts of Falkirk is full of dead things – a vase of dried-out tulips on her desk, fragile leaves pinned to the walls and lots of lifeless stalks and stems.

Photograph: Nick Ponty
Photograph: Nick Ponty

It seems an unlikely source of inspiration for the woman who provided the mouthwatering illustrations for one of the hippest cookbooks on the market. "I love the movement and colour and composition of dead flowers," says the artist. "To me, they're full of life."

But breathtaking clarity, vibrancy and intensity of colour in her celebrated botanical paintings is testament to her love of all things flora, dead and alive. This is achieved through her innovative technique of layering transparent watercolour with the tiniest of brushes on to heavyweight paper to capture the luminous glow of living plants such as irises, tulips, sunflowers and poppies.

The Edinburgh-born artist's preference for capturing her subjects in oblique and offbeat poses has propelled her to the forefront of the exacting artform and her paintings sell for upwards of £6000, a figure that is likely to soar after her upcoming nine-month touring exhibition of the US.

A graduate of Edinburgh College of Art and former principal teacher of art and design at Bannockburn High School, Strickland has never regretted taking early retirement six years ago at the age of 50 in order to pursue her interest in botanical art. Almost overnight, she became a multi-awardwinning member of the Society of Botanical Artists, an RHS Gold Medallist and a member of the American Society of Botanical Artists.

Yet she recently broke with tradition by accepting a unique commission to provide 43 hand-painted illustrations for a smart new book about cooking with eggs. It's the first time Strickland has worked in food, and she says she relished the challenge.

After a year and a half of working late into the night, Strickland produced her delightful actual-size paintings by working from photographs. She didn't see the recipes by the book's author – Rose Carrarini, co-founder of the Anglo-French Rose Bakery shops and restaurants in London, Paris, Asia and the Middle East, and sister-in-law of Comme Des Garcons fashion label founder Rei Kawakubo – so she never actually tasted the food, though she was in constant contact with both Carrarini and the publisher's art department.

"It's probably just as well, because I'm on a diet for my daughter's wedding in July," Strickland jokes. She did use her own kitchen to cook a frittata or two to capture the bubbles and textures of the cooked egg, and she bought a fresh mango and cut it up in an attempt to match the colour of the pavlova – only to find that to achieve this she had to stew the pieces in sugar as the chef had done.

Her inquisitive artist's eye bridled at what she saw as the instrinsic limitations of 2-D photography, her main source material.

"The photographs were absolutely superb, but at times I was tearing my hair out because I needed more to go on," she says. "The white reflections of light on the dishes, white icing dust and the white chocolate drizzled over the pumpkin cake, for example, were difficult to paint convincingly because some of the whites in the photographs were quite flat, with no depth. I wanted shadows and tones, because that's more realistic."

In traditional watercolour painting, using the white of the paper is a technique to create highlight and contrast as, left alone, it can shine through the paint. So Strickland never uses white paint mixed with a colour to make it "fade" or look pale, which made tackling the white in this project something quite new for her.

Using her iPad to zoom in on an emailed photograph and cutting a printed version into smaller pieces and magnifying them, she found her own way of overcoming these hurdles.

It took three weeks to finish each of the largest paintings, including the classic genoise sponge cake complete with lifelike raspberries, the green tea genoise with white dusting and the pavlova with mango. Painting little stripes of different shades of one colour on to a paper swatch and placing it beside the photograph of the purple corn and blueberry cake helped her find just the right colour.

Egg yolks – arguably the essence of the book – were a particular challenge. "They had to look flat and shiny so I used lots of tiny brushstrokes as I would do with my plants, but the publishers didn't want that; they wanted no sign of brushstrokes.

"If you're painting over a large area with watercolour you can achieve that, but if you're painting into a tiny area around a complicated shape it's difficult because of the speed at which watercolour dries, even if you wet the paper beforehand."

There are four types of watercolour mixes – transparent, semi-transparent, semi-opaque and opaque – and, for her botanical art, Strickland uses only transparent Winsor & Newton watercolour.

"I never use opaque watercolour because I like the colours from underneath to show through different layers of paint," she explains. "That was the approach I initially took with this commission. But I discovered that using a mixture of paint which included cadmium yellow, a more opaque watercolour paint, I could cover things more easily with little evidence of brushmarks. I also used a lighter weight of paper. I learned little technical tricks like that, which I hadn't previously used with my own work, and they're finding their way in now.

"Doing this was great, because it was a massive challenge and it pushed me. With botanical painting I can always find an alternative but here there wasn't one. I had to get it absolutely right.

"I'd be working from 7am until late at night. It was very tiring, especially on my eyes, but it certainly upped the ante for me and I learned a lot."

Does Strickland now have an appetite for more work with food? An exhibition of her work is being planned by the book's publisher but with preparations under way for her US tour, and her first major solo show in London after that, it looks unlikely for the time being.

Which is perhaps just as well, as mother-of-two Strickland herself admits she prefers paint to pots and pans. n

How To Boil An Egg by Rose Carrarini with illustrations by Fiona Strickland is published by Phaidon, priced £22.95.

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