Botanical Illustration: Why it’s still relevant
Why use botanical illustration?
I recently read a good blog by Susannah Spier. She argues that botanical illustration still matters. I agree strongly with it. It’s the basis of this week’s blog.
It’s a relevant question. There are so many good ways of recording botanical subjects with digital devices. Why should the traditional skills of botanical illustration still be needed?
The answer is multi-faceted. I’m not someone who thinks there’s no place for photography in botany. Some think illustration and photography can’t complement one another. I believe they can, and do. Illustrations aren’t more valuable or useful than photos. Yet in today’s modern world, traditional botanical illustration is still required.
What are the advantages of botanical illustration when compared to photography?
Illustrators will often isolate parts of a plant which are interesting or diagnostic. Details are drawn up, and accompany a central image. The shape of a seedpod, adventitious roots, or a leaf margins can be included. With dexterity, a botanical illustrator can highlight these features. Including cross-sections of fruit, or sections of flowers is also a common practice. It clarifies matters for anyone trying to identify a plant.
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.
Botanical details in illustrations
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, flowering structures, buds, fruits, and seeds. Photographers can combine these elements into one image by stitching together photos taken at different times of year. I believe there’s a grace found in botanical illustrations which unites these elements on one sheet. (Perhaps as in my sketchbook study of a rose).
Emphasis in botanical illustration
Botanical illustrators are good at emphasizing features which matter. This helps when a plant has numerous varieties or pheonotypes in one species. The illustration below is by Johannes Simon Holtzbecher (c. 1649). He shows variety in the leaves and flowers of Cyclamen hedrifolium. 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?
Illustrators can isolate plants
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. It can be hard to untangle a plant in the wild from what surrounds it. Many botanical photos of plants show the specimen removed from the background. It means the plant is also removed from its growing “habit” or characteristic shape.
A photographer may try to show the plant growing in situ. This would show the growth habit. It can be confusing. The viewer has to untangle the plant from its surroundings. A botanical illustrator has the ability to edit any background. Illustrations can show a plant growing in the wild. They can also record the plants’ habit. A few blades of grass might be included, or some leaf litter. These details may provide context. They will certainly not confuse the viewer, nor detract from the overall plant shape..
Compare the two images of the same plant below. The first is a photo of an early violet plant, from Wikipedia.
The second is of the entire early violet plant (the same plant). Instead of a background, I just included a few bits of leaf litter.
Perhaps I’m biased. I do think the second gives a clearer idea of the plant habit, and the leaves. In the photo, the downy leaves could easily be mistaken for part of the violet plant.
Clarity in botanical illustration
The last point is that a botanical illustration can be clearer than a photo. This relates to habit and structure. Compare these images of meadowsweet. One is a photo from Wikipedia, one a pencil illustration:
In the illustration, all the details of the plant have been drawn. The structure of every part of the specimen needs to be understood. The veins of the leaf need to be correctly illustrated.
This involves looking at the plant for ages. This leads to a clearer understanding of the subject than if you just pointed a camera at it.
Botanical illustration as a universal language
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. She says, “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. I reckon a beautifully executed botanical illustration would. It is surely more likely to ignite them. It may get them involved in searching for plants. Perhaps it would do this more than any photo could? But then, as I say, I’m biased.