Botanical Illustration: Why it's still relevant March 7th 2014

Story posted: Friday, 7. March 2014 by Lizzie Harper

I recently read a good blog by Susannah Spier about why botanical illustration still matters in this modern era of photography and digitalisation.  I agree strongly with it, and am using it as the basis of this week's blog.

It's a relevant question.  Why, when there are so many good ways of recording botanical subjects with digital devices, should the traditional skills of botanical illustration still need to be needed?

The answer is multi-faceted.  I don't want to come across as someone who thinks there's no place for photography in botany, nor as someone who thinks illustration and photography can't complement one another (they can, and frequently do), nor do I believe that illustrations are intrinsically more valuable and useful than photos.  I just want to argue that in today's modern world, traditional botanical illustration is still required.

So what are the advantages of botanical illustration when compared to photography?

Illustrators will often isolate parts of a plant which are botanically interesting or diagnostic, and draw these in detail, to accompany a central image.  These may be as diverse as the shape of a seedpod, adventitious roots, details of a leaf margin.  With dexterity, a botanical illustrator can highlight these features both within the illustration and as additions to a central image.  Including cross-sections of fruit, or longditudinal sections of flowers is also a common practise and clarifies matters for anyone trying to identify a plant.

Lizzie Harper Himalayan balsam study

I don't suggest photographers fail to do this, I just question if a photo of a cross-section of a flower can ever be as clear as a black and white line illustration of the same subject.

If you wish to describe a plant fully, you can't simply record its flowers, or its seeds.  A full description requires information on leaves, on flowering structures, on buds, fruits, and seeds.  I have no doubt photographers can combine these elements into one image by stitching together photos taken at different times of year, but I believe there's a grace to be found in a botanical illustration or study which unites all these elements on one sheet (as in my sketchbook study of a rose).

Lizzie Harper sketchbook illustration of rose and rose hip

Botanical illustrators are good at emphasizing features which matter, and this comes to the fore when a plant has numerous varieties or pheonotypes within one species.  This illustration is by Johannes Simon Holtzbecher (c. 1649), and shows variety in the leaves and flowers of Cyclamen hedrifolium.  Again, I have no doubt a photographer could artfully stitch together photos of different plants, but I do wonder if it would be equally successful in emphasizing the difference between the leaf pattern and shape.

Holtzbecher illustration of cyclamen hedrifolium

Plants are distinctive once you know them; they grow in specific and diagnostic shapes.  Perhaps the flowers always droop, or the branches are held at a certain angle.  Because it can be hard to untangle a plant in the wild from the habitat surrounding it, many botanical photos of plants show the specimen removed not only from this background, but also from its growing "habit" or characteristic shape.  If not severed from the main plant, a photogrpaher may try to show the plant growing in situ, thus preserving the growth habit.  This can be confusing as the viewer has to try to untangle the plant from its surroundings.  A botanical illustrator has the wherewithall to edit out or include the background of a plant growing in the wild, and simultaneously record the plants habit.  Perhaps a few blades of grass will be included, or some leaf litter.  These may provide context, but will certainly not confuse the viewer, not detract from the subject's growth pattern.  Compare the two images below.  The first is a photo of an early violet plant, from wikipedia.

Wikipedia violet

The second is of the entire early violet plant (the same subject), but instead of the whole background, I simply included a few bits of leaf litter as context.  Perhaps I'm biased, but I do think the second gives a clearer idea both of the plant habit and of which leaves are associated with it; in the photo the downy leaves (speedwell or dead nettle perhaps?) could easily be mistaken for part of the violet plant.

Lizzie Harper Violet botanical illustration

The last point is that a botanical illustration tends to be far clearer than a photo.  This relates not just to habit, but to structure too.  Compare the images of meadowsweet below; one a photo from Wikipedia, one a pencil illustration:

Wikipedia meadowsweet

Lizzie Harper botanical illustration of meadowsweet

In the illustration, the details of all parts of the plant have been drawn.  In order to do this, the structure of every part of the specimen needs to be understood.  The veins of the leaf need to be correctly illustrated.  This has entailed looking at the plant for some time.  This observation inevitably leads ot a clearer understanding of the subject than you'd get if you simply pointed a camera at a plant.

Finally, it's worth repeating a point made by Erin Tripp, Assistant Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado in Boulder, in Susannah Spier's blog, "lots of people don't speak the language of botany, but everyone speaks the language of illustration".  A verbal description of a plant may not interest a non-botanist; but I reckon a beautifully executed botanical illustration is more likely to ignite them and get them involved in searching for and respecting plants than any photograph would do.  But then, as I say, I'm biased.


Category:  Illustration techniques   |   Comments:  1   |   Viewed:  5752

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No argument here

Wednesday, 12. March 2014, 13:49:18 – Pat in Belgium:

(Perhaps,) I'm biased too. I completely agree with you on the relevance of illustration. When you draw something, you can "edit out" any extraneous "stuff". You can bring everything relevant into focus and separate and/ or expand on particular details. I realize that botanical illustration is important to botany. I also think it's beautiful art and can be appreciated as such.