For the Indian artists seeking work in the 18th century, some adjustment of technique was required to suit the European visitors. Landscape art in the European sense was almost unheard of in Indian art. However, portraiture had long since been practised under the Mughal rulers, and there was no doubt as to the artists' skills in painting detail - a relic of the Mughal dynasties.
The painting of plants was particularly suited to local artists. Their linear style and minimal use of shadow, combined with a meticulous attention to detail was ideal. There were some initial problems as the artists were not used to the needs of botanists in terms of scale.
This illustration of coconut is drawn with brightly coloured paints on thin, poor quality paper.
The traditional manner of laying a thin coloured ground on the paper, and adding subsequent layers of bright pigment, jarred with the muted European taste. Instead, thin washes of paint were applied, using the white of the paper to provide the lighter colours.
The Botanical Gardens at Calcutta
During the 1790s, a team of local artists found work at the Botanical Gardens at Calcutta, under the direction of the Scottish scientist William Roxburgh (1751-1815).
Tamarind flowers and fruit, painted by one of Roxburgh's artists.
Roxburgh paid around 3 rupees a drawing, providing a painter a monthly wage of roughly 35 rupees. Many of the artists' names remain unknown. However, one painter frequently mentioned by the European scientists was the talented Vishnupersaud. Such skilled artists were in demand and could gain the patronage of several botanists. Vishnupersaud painted plants for the botanist, Royle, and also Buchanan, who remarked that the artist's pay was 'entirely inadequate as a reward for his skill, which I would venture to say is not equalled among all the natives of this country and rarely exceeded by any botanical draftsman in Europe'.
By the 1840s artists working for the East India Company were taking home around 60 rupees a month, which was not a great improvement.
It is highly likely that some of the techniques used by miniature artists working under Mughal royalty were adapted. The drawings can be seen to improve in quality from the late 18th century. The linework becomes more controlled, and painted with ever smaller brushtrokes. Some of these are only discernable with the assistance of a hand-lens.
This would necessitate a very fine brush. Traditionally the miniature artists had used squirrel-hair brushes. The Whatman papers used by the artists at Calcutta were of adequate quality, but a smoother surface could be achieved if necessary by burnishing the painting from the back, allowing fine details such as plant hairs to be added last.
Local pigments could be found in abundance, such as indigo, vermillion and Indian yellow. However, European scientists preferred to import their materials from England.
Fine printing in India
Under the new direction of Nathaniel Wallich in 1817, the Calcutta artists learned the art of copper engraving, so that the entire process from painting to printing could be achieved locally. This technique was advanced further by the arrival of a lithographic press, beginning the Government Lithographic Press, shortly followed by the Asiatic Lithographic Press.