Let's Talk About Botanical - The Conversation Continues

This is the blog that can be read in conjunction with Martin Allen's Webinar that was held on the 10th November 2020. For those of you that missed the presentation we have provided a recording of the webinar via the link below.

The presentation is a continuation of our conversation about a definition of the terms botanical art and botanical illustration and Martin has generously agreed to put the presentation into words.

Watch Martin's Webinar Presentation


a picture of Martin Allen
Martin Allen

My Summary (because it’s a long blog)

  • “A botanical illustration is a detailed and scientifically accurate representation of a plant, which gives particular attention to the features that distinguish it from other plants”

  • Botanical art is based on the information described by botanical illustration and uses that information to communicate with different audiences in different ways

  • It’s the message that counts, not the medium

  • Organisers of exhibitions or competitions should be clear about what art is expected from artists

  • If you are creating art for yourself, do whatever you want

  • Fuzzy edges to the boundaries of a botanical art definition allow space for new ways of seeing & communicating about plants

Botanical art (in the broadest sense) = the representational art of plants

‘representational’ meaning relating to or denoting art which aims to depict the

physical appearance of things.


I have tried to write down most of what I spoke about in the illustrated talk for those who prefer to see words on the page. I’ve also added a couple of postscripts.


Good definitions can be really helpful to the artist – they can give clear boundaries within which we then challenge ourselves to be creative and most of the time that’s what I like to do, but if you’re the sort of artist who doesn’t want to be boxed in then a definition gives you something to rebel against, doesn’t it? We all win with a good definition; unfortunately, good definitions aren’t always easy to make as we’ll see.

One definition we can agree on is of botanical illustration and that’s because it lies within the realm of science. I think this a good definition by Stephen A. Harris from the Department of Plant Sciences, University of Oxford taken from A New Flowering 1000 years of Botanical Art, Shirley Sherwood, 2005. Page 186.

A botanical illustration is a detailed and scientifically accurate representation of a plant, which gives particular attention to the features that distinguish it from other plants.

The illustration may be idealized as an amalgamation of numerous individual plants of species, or it may represent a specific plant; warts and all. … What are of greatest importance are naturalism and accuracy, based on detailed observation.”

As artists we know visually the sort of image that means, showing as many aspects of the life cycle and the details of the plant as possible, all arranged on the page in a logical fashion. We would generally think of a watercolour painting but most scientific illustration, especially when used to describe a new species, is a line drawing and has historically been so mainly for cost reasons i.e. too expensive to publish and more expensive to create a colour illustration.

Artistically this type of image is the visual equivalent of clear, precise, descriptive language; it enables a lot of very technical information to be shown in an easy to understand and accessible manner. You’ll know exactly how easy to understand if you have ever read a written botanical description of the same plant. And it takes just as much skill and experience to create a good botanical illustration as it does for the botanist to describe the plant in the first place.

We can also look to science for the current understanding of what constitutes a plant. New technology now allows us to study DNA more accurately and that information can then be applied to what we already know about evolutionary relationships between organisms. The Shirley Sherwood Gallery at Kew held a great exhibition in 2009, “The Art of Plant Evolution”, illustrating this new scientific classification.

Fungi, once thought to lie within the scope of botany, are now classed as more closely related to animals than plants. Also out are lichens and some of the algae, except when we say algae that’s a broad group and so it depends which part of the algae we are discussing and even then if we are thinking of plants in the broader sense or the stricter sense. Sometimes science has fuzzy edges when there isn’t enough evidence yet to absolutely support a conclusion and then sometimes the issue is a matter of words - scientists are generally going to use more technical and accurate language when communicating with each other than with the general public.

Stephen A. Harris has another important thing to tell us in his definition of botanical illustration – it’s the message that counts not the medium.

The fundamental factor in scientific quality of botanical illustration is not the medium the artist chooses to use or the technology used for its reproduction, but the artist’s understanding of plant morphology.”

This in turn informs us that digital work, including photographs and digitally manipulated photographs, are included under the umbrella of botanical illustration - provided the appropriate parts of the plant are illustrated in the correct manner. There are a lot of advantages to this type of work, especially given modern camera lenses and computing power, and it takes just as much technical knowledge and skill to do well as would a drawing or painting.

To sum up then, botanical illustration is artists presenting visual information about a plant in a way suitable for the needs of scientists and anyone else who needs an accurate, honest, unambiguous representation of a particular type of plant. To give an analogy with the English language we would say botanical illustration was a grammatically-correct piece of technical writing that was easy to understand and probably spoken in received pronunciation.