Scientific Illustration: Contemporary Approaches

To be done – not only botanical

Photography and other lens-based media like fibre-optic cameras, x-rays, remote cameras and video and new methods like magnetic resonance imaging have extended the ways in which we are able to see the world – for example freezing motion, capturing at distance and/or  microscopically, giving views of ‘reality’ beyond out senses.  Some illustrators are beginning to build on these new technologies in their illustration.

Some illustrators use stylised forms and flat colours:

Other sources to explore:

Wellcome Trust: a global charity that supports biomedical research into human and animal health.  The Wellcome Collection – a London-based gallery and online resource explores the connections between medicine, life and art in the past, present and future.

Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art, Kew Gardens

Society of Botanical Artists : on-line gallery 

Penny Price

Eden project

Cambridge Botanic Gardens


Botanical Illustration: Western

To be done

“The main goal of botanical illustration is not art, but scientific accuracy. It must portray a plant with the precision and level of detail for it to be recognized and distinguished from another species.

The need for exactness differentiates botanical illustration from more general flower painting. Many great artists, from the seventeenth-century Dutch masters to the French Impressionists, such as Monet and Renoir, to modernists like Georgia O’Keeffe, portrayed flowers; but since their goal was aesthetic, accuracy was not always necessary or intended. In the hands of a talented botanical artist, however, the illustration goes beyond its scientific requirements

So why can’t this job be done using photography?

Although photography and perhaps particularly microscopic photography, may help inform botanical work, there is certainly still a need for botanical illustration because it can represent clearly what may not easily be seen in a photograph. Outline drawings for example, distinguish elements that cannot easily be made out using reflected light alone. Also, the composition of the image can be manipulated more fully in illustration, and features displayed together which may not easily be shown simultaneously in nature.”

Botanic Gardens Conservation International

Victoria and Albert Museum

Botanical Art and Artists Historical Overview

Botanical Art and Artists Contemporary

In Western cultures interaction between science and arts goes back to early herbalist manuscripts of the Middle Ages, and flourished from the Renaissance onwards across all the various natural sciences. Media have traditionally used drawing, and other portable media like crayon, ink, watercolour and gouache. Many illustrations were later reproduced in etchings and engravings to reach a wider viewership.

  • Herbalist manuscripts
  • Leonardo Da Vinci
  • Albrecht Durer
  • Robert Hooke
  • Victorian hand-coloured engravings.

Women artists feature prominently, especially during the nineteenth and early
twentieth centuries when science was basically an entrenched male preserve. Botany was deemed a respectable pastime for young ladies, and their botanical drawing was analytical enough to feed into science.

  • Marianne North (1830–90), an English naturalist and botanical
    artist, and the
  • Mary E Eaton (1873–1961) American artist
  • Mary McFadden
  • Georgia O’Keefe
  • Sarah Simblett

From Wikipedia



Early herbals and pharmacopoeia of many cultures have included the depiction of plants. This was intended to assist identification of a species, usually with some medicinal purpose. The earliest surviving illustrated botanical work is the Codex vindobonensis. It is a copy of Dioscorides’s De Materia Medica, and was made in the year 512 for Juliana Anicia, daughter of the former Western Roman Emperor Olybrius.[3] The problem of accurately describing plants between regions and languages, before the introduction of taxonomy, were potentially hazardous to medicinal preparations. The low quality of printing of early works sometimes presents difficulties in identifying the species depicted.

When systems of botanical nomenclature began to be published, the need for a drawing or painting became optional. However, it was at this time that the profession of botanical illustratorbegan to emerge. The eighteenth century saw many advances in the printing processes, and the illustrations became more accurate in colour and detail. The increasing interest of amateur botanists, gardeners, and natural historians provided a market for botanical publications; the illustrations increased the appeal and accessibility of these to the general reader. The field guides, Floras, catalogues and magazines produced since this time have continued to include illustrations. The development of photographic plates has not made illustration obsolete, despite the improvements in reproducing photographs in printed materials. A botanical illustrator is able to create a compromise of accuracy, an idealized image from several specimens, and the inclusion of the face and reverse of the features such as leaves. Additionally, details of sections can be given at a magnified scale and included around the margins around the image.

Botanical illustration is a feature of many notable books on plants, a list of these would include:

Recently a renaissance has been occurring in botanical art and illustration. Organizations devoted to furthering the art form are found in the US (American Society of Botanical Artists), UK (Society of Botanical Artists), Australia (Botanical Art Society of Australia), and South Africa (Botanical Artists Association of South Africa), among others. The reasons for this resurgence are many. In addition to the need for clear scientific illustration, botanical depictions continue to be one of the most popular forms of “wall art”. There is an increasing interest in the changes occurring in the natural world, and in the central role plants play in maintaining healthy ecosystems. A sense of urgency has developed in recording today’s changing plant life for future generations. Working in media long understood provides confidence in the long-term conservation of the drawings, paintings, and etchings. Many artists are drawn to more traditional figurative work, and find plant depiction a perfect fit. Working with scientists, conservationists, horticulturists, and galleries locally and around the world, today’s illustrators and artists are pushing the boundaries of what has traditionally been considered part of the genre.

The use of illustrations was frequently seen in the herbals, seed catalogues and popular works of natural history. The illustrations produced during the eighteenth and nineteenth century are regarded as both appealing and scientifically valid. The finer detail of the printing processes, greatly improving at this time, allowed artists such as Franz and Ferdinand Bauer to depict the minute aspects of the subject. The use of exploded details would further illustrate the description given in the accompanying text. These details allowed a non scientific audience to go some way in identifying the species, the widening interest in natural history and horticulture was an inducement to the production of many Floras and regular publications.

Many books and publication continued to use the illustrators, even after printed matter began to incorporate photography. It would be many years before the colour printing would equal the illustrators plates. The accuracy and craft of the illustrators had developed in tandem with the botanists concerned, the work came to be accepted as important to the botanists and their institutions. The illustrated publication, Curtis’s Botanical Magazine (1787), was to eventually appoint an official artist. The 220-year-old magazine, long associated with the Linnaean Society and Kew Gardens, is now primarily one of finer botanical illustration. A stream of the finest illustrators to appear in print have been featured in the magazine.

The contribution of botanical illustrators continues to be praised and sought, very fine examples continue to be produced. In the 1980s, Celia Rosser undertook to illustrate every Banksia species for the masterwork, The Banksias. When another species was described after its publication, Banksia rosserae, it was named to honour her mammoth accomplishment. Other illustrators, such as the profuse illustrator Matilda Smith, have been specifically honoured for this work.

Notable botanical illustrators

(from Wikipedia to be further investigated)

Notable botanical illustrators include: