«I was born with a pencil in my hand»

Interview with illustrator Florence Gendre.

Fleur d’ananas sauvage
Ananas cosmosus

Hello Florence, thanks so much for agreeing to join us for the second edition of “Fanatalk“, a conversation between nature enthusiasts.

You are a professional illustrator, and the quality of your work is incredibly impressive, especially your drawings of the natural world. Your talent for classical design is outstanding, as well as your mastery of stunningly beautiful evanescent colours. We’re real fans of your work and we’re excited about getting to know the artist herself…

Fan. Let’s start with an obvious question: how was lockdown for you?

F.G. Very good because I live my life in lockdown! I work from home, and all my work is done remotely. I receive my briefs by email and I send my files back to printers and my customers. It was actually harder for me when lockdown measures were lifted.

Fan. How did you become an illustrator?

F.G. I was born with a pencil in my hand. I have always spent my time drawing, ever since I was a tiny child. By the age of three I was sketching animals with fur and everyone in my family loves drawing. My grandmother went to the Beaux-Arts school of fine arts in 1920, my great-grandfather used to make model toys, my great-grandmother created very beautiful watercolours, and even people who joined our family through marriage loved drawing, so I was surrounded by art and it just rubbed off. Every Christmas and birthday, I would be given either boxes of coloured pencils or books about insects.

Fan. It’s pretty strange for a child to like insects.

F.G. To tell you the truth, I have always been fascinated by insects, reptiles and amphibians. My room was full of them, I used to breed Colorado beetles, ladybirds, lizards, all of that. My uncle and aunt had a house in Dombes and I spent hours at the local ponds finding out more about the creatures that lived there. I also like fish, especially exotic and deep-sea fish. 

Coléoptères / Scarabées

Fan. Why do you have such a soft spot for those species?

F.G. I don’t really like furry animals anymore, I’m not keen on dogs and I hate cats! I’m not interested in other animals either – I’m not bothered about birds – but if I’m anywhere near a pond I go mad for frogs and newts! I can’t get enough. If I find one, I run after it. And doing that has even got me into trouble… One day I was chasing a lizard, I wasn’t paying attention and when it got to a hornet’s nest it went in and I put my hand inside. I ended up in hospital. That’s just a little cautionary tale! I wasn’t put off though, I still love insects as much as ever, I have done ever since I was tiny.

Fan. What about other parts of the natural world?

F.G. Getting back to the subject of nature and my sources of inspiration, my grandmother had a subscription to Connaissance des Arts magazine since it was first published, as well as other magazines featuring the work of a single artist, such as Pierre Joseph Redouté. So we spent hours poring over those together, as well as all the Dutch paintings from the 17th century depicting transparent glass, hanging crustaceans, small lemons and so on. That was the really the theme running through my childhood. My grandmother would also take me to the Tête d’Or park in Lyon, she knew all the gardeners there and we would buy snails in the tropical greenhouse to clean the walls of her aquarium.

Coquillages, crustacés et étoiles de mer / Aquarelle sur papier
Shells, shellfish / Watercolour on paper

Fan. Were you a lonely child?

F.G. Yes fairly lonely. I did have two sisters actually, and a very caring family, but I always sat back and observed, and then I would take out my drawing boards and I always had drawing lessons. I based my entire life on drawing. As a teenager, I used to buy wooden bracelets. I would paint them with flowers and sell them at the homemade objects market in Lyon. My father made me a little machine that would spin the bracelet as I was painting it.

I studied art for my baccalaureate and when I passed, my father said to me: “Hey, I signed you up for a place at art school in Paris. But I’m not sure how it will turn out, because I’ve no idea how you’ll make a career out of it.” Then I found myself on a foundation course for Penninghen. I lived in what used to be a maid’s room on the Ile Saint-Louis. I had no idea how lucky I was because I didn’t know Paris very well. Then I took the entrance exam and was accepted at Arts-Déco. When I left there I started working in advertising.

Fan. How did you manage to stay focused on your love of the natural world while you were working in advertising?

F.G. At Arts-Déco, there was no commercial perspective, we didn’t even have portfolios. So I spent two months putting one together myself when I left: I had made several naturalist drawings depicting strawberries or fritillaria using coloured pencils, or pastels on acrylic backgrounds that I had created using a toothbrush. I had plenty of other designs that were great for advertising, but I’ve always had this love of the natural world, and my first client was the DIY magazine Système D. I did all their gardening illustrations for ten years, all the little things. The drawings weren’t always very artistic, but I had to make a living. 

Then I moved away from nature a bit, I designed car engines, jewellery, architecture, mainly for the luxury market. I love all that. My father had a collection of automated figures that he used to repair, so there were loads of tools around the house. We often helped him out and I became fascinated by mechanics. So I had several different interests and I did a lot of very different things but the seeds had already been planted, or they came from my family. Nothing happens by chance. Mechanics and architecture have always had a special role in my life as well, because when you love art, you also love architecture. When I look at what I do now, it’s an extension of many things that are tied together.

Fondation Cartier
Fondation Cartier

Fan. But looking at your most recent works, it would seem that the natural world has got the upper hand. Is that right? 

F.G. Six years ago I worked for Yves Rocher. I created illustrations for a short video about a plant that climbs upwards and transforms into other flowers. I couldn’t get the leaves right, the greens didn’t look good, I didn’t like it. So I found some tutorials and most of them were made by Agathe Haevermans, a scientific illustrator who teaches at the natural history museum in Paris. I ended up meeting and taking lessons with her. I was able to reconnect with my first love: observing plants and nature and it was a breath of fresh air! It opened the doors to a series of internships: in Lyon, Italy, the Pyrenees, the Amazon rainforest, and I met teachers in all these parts of the world. I don’t speak English but drawing is a universal language, and we always manage to communicate.

So I honed my skills in that area, first because I loved it so much, then I started posting on Instagram and it was a huge success! My customers discovered that type of art and started requesting illustrations. And it is true that it all happened at just the right time: with the increased popularity of organic, natural products, there was lots of demand for packaging art, especially from cosmetic or pharmaceutical brands which obviously contain plants. That all took off incredibly quickly without any real intent on my part.

Fan. And it’s not going anywhere any time soon, you’ve found a good niche! Can we segue into asking which artists inspire you the most and which ones have influenced your style?

F.G. There’s one painter who was a real revelation for me: Vladimir Veličković. He has actually just died. He drew people in motion from photos by Muybridge, with arrows and handwritten annotations. It goes back to the principle of botanical drawings which always include a caption, a description.

When I illustrated objects, I stuck to the same principle: I drew them face-on, at a three-quarter angle, with small sketches next to them and extra annotations. People in the advertising world loved that because it showed the object from all different angles, just like original sketches.

There’s also Domenico Gnoli, an Italian, who painted huge buttons, details from ties, and so on. I really love his work. I’ve drawn lots of inspiration from those artists. 

Fan. You were also inspired by the places you’ve visited…

F.G. That’s another thing I’ve inherited. My great-grandmother travelled to Egypt in 1898. She kept a diary that my mother cherished and bound, and we have all read it. She and my grandmother were both bookbinders, which is yet another manual profession! My father started out as a mountaineer. My mother went with him into the mountains and on many of his trips, which was unheard of at that time. They went to Peru to see Machu Pichu, then to the Amazon rainforest, they brought back parrot feathers and seashells for me. Then I was bitten by the travel bug!

Ten years ago I met a friend with whom I travel to learn more about nature. I love going backpacking, staying in small hotels or with local people, all over the planet. I have been to the Amazon rainforest and Machu Pichu. Travel is part of my life and is essential for my work. It allows me to discover the incredible nature of each country, especially around Asia and South America. 

Cactus Cereus peruvianus « spiralis » -Tillandsia Xerographica -Prèle Equisetum hyemale / Watercolour on paper

Fan. Let’s talk about Brazil …

F.G. It was a wonderful experience! In my drawing lessons I met Yvonne, who is half Brazilian and half Eastern European. Through her I was able to set off on a boat, following in the footsteps of the British botanist Margaret Mee. Gilberto, the boat’s captain, worked with her and knows a huge amount about the natural world.

Margaret Mee’s flowers are simply beautiful! She made forty trips to the region and spent her final years there. There are photos of her on all fours, doing her drawings on the floor or sitting on a tree trunk. Her works are extraordinarily large. If you are ever in London, I urge you to go and see them at the Shirley Sherwood Gallery, which is the temple for botanical artists from all over the world.

During our trip, we saw sloths, all kinds of birds, pink dolphins… Every morning we got off the boat in search of plants and in the afternoon we had drawing lessons with Dulce Nascimento, a well-known botanical artist from Brazil. I was living the dream! For ten days I was able to spend my time combining all my passions: drawing, observation, nature and the exoticism of travel.

Passiflora Caerulea / Watercolour on paper

Fan. And you’ve written all about that trip on your blog. It really made us want to find out more about Margaret Mee, and we’re going to be looking into her and her work for another article. Thank you, Florence, for this fascinating conversation. We’ll keep on following your work as an ambassador for nature. Good luck and see you soon!

Translated from French by Ruth Simpson

If you’d like to learn more about Florence Gendre, here are some links to her treasures ▾

To read:
French blog
Florence Gendre Illustrations

To follow:
Social Medias

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