Natural Science Illustration

There is a long history of illustrators working closely with scientists, and scientists who have been skilled illustrators. Natural Science illustration often aims to balance functionality and beauty and reflects a sense of drawing as an aesthetic activity and an observational one, of drawing as science and drawing as art (Course Guide p58).

“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 natural science illustration from for example 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, animals and still life; but since their goal was aesthetic, accuracy was not always necessary or intended. In the hands of a talented natural science artist, however, the illustration goes beyond its scientific requirements.

Although photography and perhaps particularly microscopic photography, may help inform natural science work, there is certainly still a need for illustration because simplification through line and shape based on detailed observation  can represent clearly what may not easily be seen in the continuous tones of a photograph. The composition of the image can be manipulated and features displayed together to highlight similarities and contrast in ways that may not occur in nature.

This project focuses on Botanical Illustration. I used work from a series of courses in botanical illustration at the Cambridge Botanic Gardens.

2.4 A Rose by Another Name: Phlomis


Asian botanical illustration

The earliest botanical illustrations are from Asia. See:

Natural History Museum Archives

Victoria and Albert Museum

Western botanical illustration

See history in Wikipedia

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 public.

  • 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

I am also interested in very stylised designs in Art Nouveau and Still Life painters.

Contemporary Approaches

The contribution of botanical illustrators continues to be praised and sought, very fine examples of drawing and watercolour continue to be produced. See  Google images for contemporary botanical illustration.

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 

Botanic Gardens Conservation International

Victoria and Albert Museum

Botanical Art and Artists Historical Overview

Botanical Art and Artists Contemporary

List from Wikipedia to be further investigated: