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Draw Flowers and Plants: Guide to Botanical Illustrations

Draw Flowers and Plants: Guide to Botanical Illustrations

Scientists, doctors, pharmacists, gardeners, herbalists, and other people interested in plants need to be able to share information about the various species of plants and the different parts of each plant. Today, it can be done as easily as labeling a photograph. However, long before photography existed, the need to share information about plant life existed. Botanical illustration was how information about plants was shared for centuries and how some botanists continue to share information today.

What is Botanical Illustration?

Botanical illustration is a marriage of art and science. Painting or artist drawing of plants or flowers are done simply for artistic expression. Some of the most famous paintings of flowers were done by abstract painters like Monet. Botanical illustrations are done to be as realistic and lifelike as possible. The purpose of the drawing is to give an accurate portrayal of the flower or plant that scientists can use to better understand the specimen. Illustrators want their botanical drawings to be attractive, but that's a secondary consideration.

History of Botanical Illustration

It is believed that the first botanical illustrator was Pedanius Dioscorides who published an illustrated text called De Materia Medica around the year 60 C.E. The illustrations were made to help other people correctly identify plants that could be used in the treatment of illness. The 1700s was a golden age for botanical illustration. Technological advances in printing allowed for drawings that were more detailed and colorful to be included in books. During this time botanical illustration became a respected career.

Importance to Plant Science

Botany was only able to develop as a scientific discipline because of botanical illustrations. Plants, flowers, and herbs are often too fragile to withstand being removed from their native environment. Studying a dried or preserved plant is very different from studying it when it is alive. Botanical illustrations allowed scientists to learn about plant life from all around the world. Since the art form started as a way of helping people identify plants and herbs that could be used as medicine, accuracy was prioritized from the earliest examples of published botanical illustrations. A non-accurate illustration could lead to people accidentally using a poisonous plant.

Getting Started with Botanical Illustration

Those with an interest in learning how to make botanical illustrations often don't know how to begin. Established artists agree that botanical illustration should be broken down into steps. Start by making a very simple habit sketch of the specimen. A habit sketch is around twenty centimeters tall and is done so the artist can focus on better understanding the plant they are going to draw. Botanical illustrators don't just look at one example of a specimen. Some drawing basil, for example, will look at several different basil plants. A habit sketch done in pencil lets them record how the various basil plants they look at are formed. Habit sketches also let artists practice drawing various parts of the plant. Once the artist has planned out their illustration, they will complete it in pencil, taking their time to make sure each part of the plant is correctly rendered. Finally, they will mix watercolors so that each color is as close to the colors of the plant as possible. Painting the piece is the final step.

Careers in Botanical Illustration

People who wish to make a career in botanical illustration have a few different career paths available to them. Many illustrators end up teaching, either classes for adults interested in botanical illustration as a hobby or at the college level for degree-seeking students. Some institutions, like Kew Gardens, have illustrators on staff. Most botanical illustrators are self-employed and make money by doing freelance work for local gardens and by exhibiting and selling their work.

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