botanical illustration: a romance between art and science

By Carolina Arán

From its inception, botanical illustration has been a fundamental means of communication for science and its dissemination. While still being a scientific tool, it has simultaneously starred in the curious phenomenon of becoming a tremendously popular artistic medium, provoking an unusual dichotomy in the world of the arts and sciences.

Used from remote cultures to make known the study of plants, this form of scientific illustration has gone hand in hand with the research of natural herbariums and pharmacopoeias throughout history, helping spread the characteristics of plant species, an essential task for botanical knowledge and taxonomy. The oldest illustrated volume on botany still preserved dates back to year 512, and it never ceases to surprise us how not even the invention of photography has succeeded in rendering this discipline obsolete. Botanical illustration requires deep prior observation and assimilation of plant morphology through the human retina. Thanks to this process, the botanical illustrator succeeded in capturing details and nuances of almost magical precision, dissecting and idealizing the vegetable world, until turning it into living images, ideal for study.

Despite having a scientific objective, it should not be forgotten that this medium «portrays» one of the favorite classic motifs in the artistic tradition: flowers and plants have always been a very popular theme in the arts and their trades. Thus has been produced this peculiar conceptual unfolding: works of scientific dissemination that hang framed on the walls of any of our homes. The indisputable proof that science can be artistic, and art can be scientific.

In the field of illustrated botany, the woman has played and is playing a definitive role. During much of the first great period of heyday in this field (17th-20th centuries), despite not being admitted yet in many universities, women opened the way to science through the arts, at a time when Natural History was considered an appropriate subject for the female gender. Many of them took advantage of this license, among them the Scottish Elizabeth Blackwell, botanical illustrator born in 1707 and first woman to publish a herbarium, the English Sarah Drake (1803), prolific illustrator who gave name to a genus of orchids (Drakea) thanks to her great work in the «Orchidaceae of Mexico», or as Margaret Mee, British illustrator born in 1909, who explored the Amazon rainforest to make her illustrations in gouache, and became one of the first environmental activists. Along with many other illustrators, they constitute a group of women who have made important contributions to scientific research throughout history, sublime combining art and science, and breaking down the limits imposed by patriarchal society in matters of study and knowledge, pencil and watercolor in hand.

Today, countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia enjoy prestigious associations of botanical artists of great importance. In these territories, the creation and dissemination of the illustrated botany are considered within the framework of the great arts, a perspective that has not yet been reached in many other places of lesser botanical tradition; to the rest of the world it remains a minor art, largely still unknown. However, it is unquestionable the relevance in the history of works such as that of Ernst Haeckel (Germany, 1843), naturalist and philosopher who contributed to the diffusion of Charles Darwin’s work with his exquisite illustrations, or that of Maria Moninckx, botanical artist born in Holland in 1673, who created with his father the monumental «Atlas de Moninckx», extensive herbarium that maintains its great artistic and scientific interest still today, or that of English Arthur Harry Church (1865), illustrator and botanist who began to illustrate to spread his own discoveries, with a deliciously direct artistic language and still in force today.

In the 21st century, not only has botanical illustration not become extinguished, but also it has consolidated and succeeded in generating artistic currents inspired by it. In the field of science, it continues working under the commitment to show the extinct species in the future to next generations, to recover the image of the flowers, already disappeared, that keep the drawers of the historical herbariums, to remember the importance of every leaf in the world.

With this very commitment, Australian Lucy Smith develops her work, who with her illustrations brings plants collected decades or centuries ago back to life, working side by side with the botanists of the Royal Botanic Gardens of London. Sharing this respect for the species, Chinese octogenarian master Zeng Xiao Lian, a botanical artist and creator of more than two thousand beautiful images he has sought to «capture the soul of the plants» with. Japan has also a great botanical tradition that has been able to incorporate reverence to the vegetable kingdom into contemporary expression with works as beautiful as Mariko IkedaAsuka Hishiki or Mariko Aikawa.

Thanks to the advances achieved, this scientific work still manages to be innovative and genuine, with illustrators developing their own style who, without losing the rigour of the strict scientific norms, show the species in a new and original way, moving their work from the laboratory to the museums and galleries. This is the case of Marta Chirino, a biologist and scientific illustrator who develops research and dissemination projects while producing artistic works of botanical inspiration in which delicacy and graphite are the protagonists.

Also, half way between science and artistic creation we find the British botanist, illustrator and editor J.R. Shepherd , known as Inky Leaves, whose hyperrealistic work reminds us of the crucial importance of previous observation. Irish botanical artist Yanny Petters teaches workshops and works in different media and supports (wood, glass, etc.), extending the botanical illustration to material terrains.

In addition to the unequivocal role it still plays in the study and dissemination, botanical illustration has generated contemporary artistic currents that inherit the love for plants, kicking over the traces of science, breaking the mold of their conventional historical square. The interest in the vegetable kingdom, a theme of choice in the figurative tradition, has grown even more in our times thanks to the current concern for the natural world and the recovery of collective awareness of the fundamental role that plants play in the health of ecosystems. This interest today gives us a non-scientific botanical tendency, which enjoys the aesthetic qualities of botanical illustration without the need to achieve the regulatory precision of the sciences, putting it at the service of art.

Thanks to this current, the vegetable spirit has slipped into urban murals and tattoos, independent stationery and fashion, and wonderful works of art that are born from the observation of the species. Within this category we find authors such as the English Mark Frith, example of the love for the proper detail of the tradition, with his great series of drawings of large format with pencil of old oaks, project to which he devoted three and a half years of his life.

The Chilean illustrator Angela Errázuriz divides her work into two lines of work, the children’s illustration and that of botanical inspiration, which inherits from the traditional genre the respect and contemplation of living beings, through a totally contemporary aesthetic. Also developing different paths in his thematic works the young illustrator and graphic designer Tatiana Boyko, Spanish of Russian origin, whose work includes illustrations of botanical inspiration, in simple compositions direct of flat colors. Similarly, the English illustrator, painter and muralist Graham Rust is known among others for his botanical facet, which explores the vegetable world in series of extraordinary elegance. Under the label botanical illustration we find today an endless number of creators inspired by the morphology of the plants, outside the responsibility of being an instrument for science.

The aesthetic and scientific concerns for the natural world sow a field that is always green, a fertile and perennial terrain, populated by creators who draw plants because they love them, and authors who love plants because they draw them. As John Ruskin said: «If you know how to draw a leaf, you know how to draw the world.»