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Why Botanical Artwork Matters: The Science Of Art

Aug 17

Plant lovers naturally value beauty. We are awestruck by the subtle curve of a leaf, the arc of woody stems, and the way sunshine reflects on flower petals to reveal surprising hues. Whether we are gathering the seeds of an endangered shrub, arranging flowers at the kitchen sink, or studying a majestic tree in a garden, observing plants is aesthetically engaging and intellectually enlightening.

The internet provides a rush of photographs, videos, and visuals that we flip through like an antiquated movie projector when we appreciate plants online. With a few mouse clicks, technology is making it easier than ever to edit, improve, and modify photographs to produce "picture perfect" pictures of spotless flowers and plants that "pop." But if we do so, we run the danger of ignoring the long-standing practice of botanical art.


NTBG's Botanical Illustrations

In contrast, hand-drawn images, paintings, and other conventional plant representations are still valued and used extensively by botanists, students, collectors, and curators.

At NTBG, we place a high weight on the need to preserve and use old botanical illustrations in our books and print holdings. Our botanical art collection, which includes a full copy of the Banks Florilegium, is kept at our Botanical Research Center on Kauai in The Sam and Mary Cooke Rare Book Room. At the NTBG headquarters and The Kampong in Miami, where we support and display the work of the NTBG Florilegium Society, we also hold botanical artwork workshops.

We've invited our team and partners to give their perspectives on why botanical artwork is important in an effort to emphasize and explain its ageless beauty and scientific usefulness.


Flower artwork


Why It Matters To Draw Plants

"Botanical illustration bridges the gap between art and science and is ingrained in both fields, as well. As a supplement to herbaria, it offers a thorough description of the species, whether as a pen-and-ink drawing or a watercolor with vibrant colors, emphasizing and enlarging hidden characteristics and presenting them in a way that is readily comprehended. The images contrast and enhance the dry plant specimens seen in herbaria by giving them life and a three-dimensional aspect. Tim Flynn, manager of the NTBG Herbarium Collections

Botanical visualization is vital for plant science for a variety of reasons, according to one researcher. For the spectator, the artist highlights the crucial or diagnostic features of a plant. Pen-and-ink line drawings, which are often used to illustrate or enhance descriptions of new plant species, are a good example of this.

In fact, an artist could see subtleties that a botanist would overlook. Line drawings include information on a plant's basic appearance or behavior as well as specifics about important traits like veins, pubescence or hairiness, blooms, fruit, and seeds that are enlarged or displayed in longitudinal or cross sections. Since these black and white line drawings are often created from dried, pressed herbarium specimens, they may look two-dimensional and flat.


Plant Species Are Preserved Via Art

The florilegium style of artwork is another genre and is often created using watercolor or colored pencil. This gives the plant being painted vivid, realistic color, and differs depending on each artist's own aesthetic. The picture may contain information like a close-up of the flowers or seeds, a cross-section of the fruit, a sketch of the environment, the development pattern of the plant, and even allied species like herbivorous insects, pollinating birds, or butterflies.

Even if a plant species, variation, or cultivar becomes extinct in the wild, a botanical image may almost indefinitely preserve it in books and periodicals. The same was true with the severely endangered Hawaiian endemic genus and species Kanaloa kahoolawensis, which was just recently identified and published and is currently only known from two plants grown in captivity. Finally, by raising public understanding and developing empathy for plants, pictures may aid conservation efforts. —Dr. David Lorence, Senior Research Botanist at the NTBG

Simply said, botanical artists and their creations benefit scientists. They serve as the scientific description's checker by illustrating what a botanist describes. Although it is becoming more popular, digital photography cannot discern the finer points of showing the specific plant elements a scientist may want to highlight, and a camera cannot create a convincing botanical specimen from dried, pressed material.

Although they now utilize more digital resources for research and create their images digitally, artists still make all of the decisions that affect the final product in their heads. The tools only move at the illustrator's choosing, whether they be in the form of pen and ink, pencil, watercolor, or a stylus on a drawing monitor.

The visualization method has always used the language of the scientist. To support contemporary trends in scientific writing and to make it easier to record the scientific literature, illustrators modify medium, presentation, and drawing techniques. A drawing must hold the attention of the spectator in order to be a useful tool for communication, thus the artist also has an eye for the aesthetics of botanical artwork. For an illustration to persist as a work of art and science, accuracy is crucial, but brilliance in style and execution is also crucial. — Alice Tangerini, Staff Illustrator in the Department of Botany at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History

"Botanical illustrations' aesthetic beauty has attracted and inspired people for generations, but in addition to their aesthetic value, plant identification and understanding are aided by them in a timeless way. Its initial intent was to assist in the identification of plants for culinary and medicinal purposes. Botanical drawing has shown to be very useful in recognizing newly found plants throughout the years as the field has grown.

The prominent botanical artists Georg Dionysius Ehret and Carl Linnaeus, who is regarded as the founder of modern taxonomy, employed illustrations of plants to categorize and explain their structures. Pierre-Joseph Redouté, a Belgian painter and botanist, documented the exquisite flora in Napoleon Bonaparte and Empress Joséphine de Beauharnais's garden at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

As a botanical artist, I must use my drawings to understand plants rather than just mimic their appearance. Botanical drawings need to have a three-dimensional aspect and show the morphological structure of a plant, such as how the reproductive organs, leaves, and stems are arranged.

Illustrations of plants draw us in and entice us. A beautiful bloom serves a particular function: to attract a pollinator. It is not merely a gorgeous flower. The flower's vibrant patterns give it aesthetic appeal, while its alluring aroma entices pollinators to the nectar within.

Invasive plant control, the preservation of endangered species, and coping with environmental changes all need the scientific study of plants, all of which are topics covered in botanical illustration. Despite the fact that science has mostly concentrated on black-and-white pen-and-ink illustrations, color may also be employed if the artist is able to accurately depict the key structural components of a plant.

The aspect of botanical art that I find most intriguing is its seductive character, which draws me in and satisfies my urge to remain within the flower's enigmatic heart and see through its leaves to another bloom like a bug darting from blossom to blossom. The floral image is seductive and attractive since it is filled with beauty and color.

—Wendy Hollender, author, instructor, and botanical illustrator


The Evolution Of Plant Form In Art

A rich and significant addition to the science of botany continues to be made by the custom and practice of combining botanical illustrations, watercolor, and other media into the process of describing new plant species. Even if it may be meticulous and aesthetic in its own way, the written diagnosis or description of a species is sometimes extremely lifeless and boring to many people. I find that the manuscript's contribution of botanical art consistently brings to life the singularity and breathtaking variety of the species being discussed.

The observer may delve more deeply into the divine beauty of a plant's shape and development via the botanical art itself, which in most instances helps establish the essential characteristics that make the species novel to science. The distinctive characteristics of the plant under study might be adequately shown by well-taken images, but for many, the botanical artist's interpretation is preferable since it puts us closer to the topic.

Why are we drawn to floral art? Maybe it's a result of meticulous attention to detail combined with the laborious internal human process of modifying a species' physical characteristics and personality via the lens of the mind and soul. The picture is carefully blended with the artist's love of nature, flowing through the hands to convey the significance and beauty of an old creation that has only just been documented. —Ken Wood, Research Biologist at NTBG