11 May 2018

Meet our artists

Meet some of Kew’s botanical artists and find out about the scientific role of their artwork.

By Anthea Gordon

Spathodea campanulata Beauv, RBG Kew

Global botanical art

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. 

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 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.

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.’ 

What to look for in botanical art 

Christabel King 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: 

  • ‘A life like image. 
  • Clearly defined details and a crisp, clear image 
  • An image which depicts a plant in a known size (either life size or an enlargement which states the scale)’