20 September 2019

In Pictures: Botanical artists at Kew

A behind-the-scenes look at how our botanical illustrators create their vital and stunning artwork.

By Meg Boldison

Paint brushes lying next to paint palette

Botanical artists serve a vital role in conserving the records of species, working from live plants, photographs or specimens.

A scientific illustration or botanical artwork provides a much greater level of detail than any photograph or description ever can, making them crucial to the documentation and protection of new and existing species.  

Before artworks begin, artists have to take several steps in order to prepare specimens for observation.

Botanical artist Masumi Yamanaka painting at her desk
Botanical artist Masumi Yamanaka painting at her desk, Meg Boldison © RBG Kew
Close-up of botanical artist painting a tree
Botanical artist Masumi Yamanaka painting a tree, Meg Boldison © RBG Kew

Hydrating flower specimens

A boiling ring is sometimes used to hydrate flowers removed from the dry specimens prior to drawing. The flowers are gently placed in water in the boiling ring using tweezers and are boiled for five to ten minutes, depending on the delicacy of the flower.

The boiling ring itself gets very hot in temperature so the tweezers are useful for removing the flower from the water.

A dried flower specimen being placed into a boiling ring for hydration
A dried flower specimen being placed into a boiling ring for hydration, Meg Boldison © RBG Kew
A dried flower specimen being placed into a boiling ring for hydration
A dried flower specimen being placed into a boiling ring for hydration, Meg Boldison © RBG Kew

Preservation

Once hydrated, the specimens are placed in what is called a Copenhagen mix for further preservation.

Copenhagen mix is a liquid made up of a mixture of ethanol and glycerine, useful for storing hydrated flowers, especially in instances where an artwork or illustration may take up to a few days or even weeks to complete.

Artists preserve specimens in this way so that the flowers remain hydrated, hold their true shape and can be removed from the liquid to be placed onto a petri dish when needed for observation.

Copenhagen mix, used for preserving specimens
Copenhagen mix, used for preserving specimens, Meg Boldison © RBG Kew
Maxillaria orchid flower specimen in Copenhagen mix
Maxillaria orchid flower specimen in Copenhagen mix, Meg Boldison © RBG Kew

Orchid ‘Maxillaria

A Maxillaria orchid flower specimen is placed in a petri dish ready for drawing. The flower is discolored from its usual vibrant pink, however, when creating black and white technical descriptions colour is not integral to the observation. 

The scientific name Maxillaria, derives from the Latin word 'maxilla', meaning jawbone; with its angular shapes, it is not surprising that the plant acquires this name.

Observing the hydrated flower specimen, the artist can make detailed and highly accurate drawings to scale.

Maxillaria orchid flower specimen in petri dish
Maxillaria orchid flower specimen in petri dish, Meg Boldison © RBG Kew

Measuring up

Proportional dividers are vitally important in botanical art as they allow artists to scale the objects they are drawing up and down as required.

For example, if an artist had a flower measuring one centimeter that needs to be drawn at an overall measurement of six centimeters, they can set the proportional dividers at x6 and use them to measure the different structures in the flower.

These measurements can then be transferred onto paper, keeping the same proportions and producing an entirely accurate observation to scale.

A pair of tweezers and a dissecting needle are other botanical art tools. The very sharp needle is important when pulling apart flowers to reveal their intricate structures.

Proportional dividers for botanical art
Proportional dividers, Meg Boldison © RBG Kew
Botanical art tools: A pair of tweezers and dissecting needle
Botanical art tools: A pair of tweezers and dissecting needle, Meg Boldison © RBG Kew

Other ways to preserve specimens

There are several other ways to keep specimens safe. In some cases we contain the specimen in a secure box with a removable lid to protect from light damage. Another method is to press the specimen in newspaper.

A plant specimen contained in a secure box with a removable lid to protect from light damage
A plant specimen contained in a secure box with a removable lid to protect from light damage, Meg Boldison © RBG Kew
Pressed specimens in newspaper
Pressed specimens in newspaper, Meg Boldison © RBG Kew
Pandora Sellars, Laelia tenebrosa, Shirley Sherwood Collection

Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art

The world’s first public gallery dedicated to classic and contemporary botanical art.

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