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What is botanical art?

Meet some of Kew’s botanical artists and find out about the scientific role of their artwork. Hear from the artists at the Shirley Sherwood Gallery on Worldwide Day of Botanical Art, 18 May
11 May 2018
Blog team: 
Anthea Gordon

Global botanical art

Worldwide Day of Botanical Art celebrates botanical art from 25 countries around the world.

At the Shirley Sherwood Gallery, artists will give talks and demonstrations. 

These range from Lucy Smith’s talk on the challenges of illustrating Kew’s rarest plants like Encephalartos woodii, to a discussion by Georita Harriot on her colour-mixing research exploring how to make a staggering 1,000 shades of green.

Botanical art captures the beauty of the natural world in all its intricate detail. It also has an important scientific function; producing images used by botanists to identify plants.

Even more than this, it is crucial in the documentation and conservation of species.

Many of the species that Lucy Smith has drawn are new to science, and her role in illustrating them is ‘so that they can be described to science’ and protected.

Longitudinal section of the giant waterlily Victoria cruziana from Kew's Princess of Wales conservatory, Lucy T Smith

Scientific illustration

Botanical art is an umbrella term used to describe both scientific illustrations and botanical art, which can be defined slightly differently.

Penny Price, who will also be showing her work as part of Worldwide Day of Botanical Art, explains: ‘Botanical art is both accurate in detail, informing the viewer how it grows, and has a ‘hang on the wall’ quality. There is freedom to present the work in an artistic way on the page.

Scientific illustration is informative and is often done as black and white pencil or ink drawings and, apart from sensitively arranging the plant parts on the page, is more technical.’

Artists who describe themselves as scientific illustrators include Christabel King, Georita Harriot and Judi Stone, while Hazel Wilks is a botanical illustrator. Penny Price and Anita Barley identify themselves as botanical artists.

Lucy Smith, however, says her work ‘covers different parts of what we consider a spectrum of botanical art practice, from strictly scientific to more expressive art’. She is both a botanical artist and scientific illustrator.

Castanospermum australe black bean tree, Penny Price

Castanospermum australe (Black Bean Tree) Penny Price

Fusing art and science

Kew’s botanical artists and scientific illustrators generally agree that their work fuses science and art.

Judi Stone combines illustrating plants to ‘include sufficient information to enable botanists to be able to identify those plants’ with making a ‘resulting work [that is] favourable to the eye.’

For other artists, artistic interpretation comes in through elements such as compositional choices, techniques like shading, or, as Anita Barley puts it in ‘creating a balance on the page, so that they’re artistically pleasing as well as being functional.’

Hazel Wilks at work, photo by Sandrine Vivès-Rotger

Hazel Wilks, work in progress. Photo:Sandrine Vivès-Rotger

What to look for in botanical art

Christabel King, one of the artists judging the works included in the British exhibition for Worldwide Day of Botanical Art says these are the key elements she looked for in the artworks:

‘When judging I looked for a high level of technical skill and a lifelike image, also good use of colour and details of the structure which add interest.’

In botanical art, she looks for:

  • ‘An image which one can return to and enjoy looking at more than once.
  • An illustration which shows me the plant as interesting and attractive.
  • Skill in the use of whatever medium and technique is used to create the image.’

For scientific illustration she is interested in:

Detail of Senecio jacobaea C F King

Detail of Senecio jacobaea, C F King. 

Botanical art books

The Kew Book of Botanical Illustration

Kew’s foremost contemporary botanical artist Christabel King has been painting botanical art for 40 years at Kew. This book covers all aspects of botanical illustration, including the materials required, plant collecting and preserving, and drawing and painting techniques. 

Buy the Kew Book of Botanical Illustration

Kew Book of Botanical Illustration, Christabel King

The Florilegium

This beautiful book is a celebration of 200 years of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney, showcasing the botanical richness of these Gardens through the eyes of 64 exceptional Australian and international botanical artists.

Buy The Florilegium

Florilegium Sydney

The Golden Age of Botanical Art

The Golden Age of Botanical Art by Martyn Rix brings together the stories of the intrepid explorers and the many professional artists who recorded the flora that they discovered on their travels and expeditions.

Buy the Golden Age of Botanical Art

Golden Age of Botanical Art, Martyn Rix