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


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.


Figure 1. Botanical illustration is the core.

I think that botanical illustration as shown in Figure 1, lies at the very core of the broader term botanical art because everything we do in botanical art relates back to, or is based in some way, on the information described in the botanical illustrations or the science that botanical illustration so clearly summarizes. That being so, then the rest of botanical art is us, as artists, speaking to everyone else; using our visual language skills in ways that might appeal to those different non-scientific audiences to say something we think is important about plants.


If looked at this way then botanical art can be seen as perhaps visual poetry, or prose, maybe spoken in a regional accent, a visual challenge to our perception of plants, or using an image to affect the emotional awareness of the general public; it can also be about drawing parallels to the human condition, or about saying “LOOK! look at what I saw & I want to share it with you all because it was amazing” … and frankly, about creating something quite nice to look at because after this year I think we all need to see something beautiful every now and then. And we can create beauty as artists.


Botanical art can also be about creating images to talk to other artists about technique or use of colour or line, and sometimes it’s just about sharing what we did last Wednesday in painting class.

We generally all agree about botanical art where it lies close to the style of botanical illustration. In the slide show I illustrate this with examples of plant portraits of the types seen in hardback floras for sale to the public often as an awareness raising exercise as well as an attractive visual record of the species*(see postscript at the end). And then other images showing examples of the range of the seed containing fruits that may be found in a particular country or area, or winter twigs or flower colours in a species.


I then used slides to show the difference between perhaps someone using an image to tell us of a particular plant in a particular place, compared to a more generalised image that would apply to the majority of plants of that species. Sometimes the artists points this out in the title so we are clear about how we are meant to view the image.


But some images can be viewed both as an illustration and a more abstract piece of botanical art, depending on the viewers knowledge and an example was given of half a tulip flower.

Then followed more images showing how we can use our artistic language skills to highlight particular aspects in relation to the plant, i.e. time or cultural references, technical matters like bloom or an iridescence.


Figure 2. Botanical art with "fuzzy edges".

It is as we move further away from that central core of scientific botanical illustration to communicate with our many different audiences that we start to wonder and think about where the boundaries are – at what point do we leave that circle of botanical art?


I think that circle should have fuzzy edges, a bit like Figure 2, because I like the idea that I will be surprised by something an artist wanted to say that I haven’t thought of, something that might be on the very edge of what I might term botanical art, but still exciting and effective. Perhaps it might even be a new technology that suddenly changes the way we see or portray plants - in the same way that DNA replication and computers have done for our understanding of evolutionary botany as we heard earlier. But equally just as science doesn’t always agree on what makes a plant in the strictest sense, perhaps we should as artists also leave a bit of leeway in our definitions just in case something interesting appears that changes everything.


Where then do the debates arise?


Insects and other non-plants in the composition – I’d say that was fine as long as the plant is the primary focus and the insects/non-plant are associated with the plant.


Coloured backgrounds. That’s more complicated – they have many historic precedents, but can also affect how you perceive the colour of the plant itself.


Choice of media. If we accept Steven Harris’s definition for botanical illustration, and also accept that botanical Illustration is at the core of botanical art, then we should be saying like the scientists do - it is the message not the medium that counts. And if you’ve seen those fabulous glass models at the Harvard Museum of Natural History in America or some of the papier-mâché botanical models from the late 19th century, then you know it’s not a problem for science and I think it shouldn’t be a problem at all in art.

I posed the question that perhaps images of dried flowers or leaves, which didn’t really tell us anything useful from a science point of view about the plant, were perhaps more of a still life but we have all assumed that they fit neatly within that space we call botanical art. And so does that mean we all have an unspoken agreement that as long as it is a representational image of part of a plant (no matter what state of preservation it is in) then it is within the realm of botanical art?


What then should we think about a painting of a pressed flower? A pressed flower on its own has very much the feel of a personal keepsake, or a found object; a preserved memory in the case of the painting of the pressed snowdrop I used to illustrate the point. But it has at least a reference in the herbarium specimens, which paintings of dried flowers & leaves with all their twists and turns don’t have in the same way.


I finished the images with a painting of a speedwell seed head that have been painted semi-transparent in parts to show the seeds inside - effectively the artist has taken that tiny element of a botanical illustration, enlarged it, and then chosen to make you think about hearts, about new life, even rather like the images of unborn babies they do with soundwaves. Is it in a fuzzy edge of a botanical art definition? – is it too far into the abstractness of art? Or is it simply a clever diagrammatic representation of the seed case, arranged in such a way as to show us the inside too? Both interpretations are clearly possible, but I’d favour the arty one given the artist used gold leaf in their work.


Exhibitions and competitions are frequently where the problems of ‘what is botanical art?’ usually occur. However, I think if you are hosting an exhibition you should be able to put forward whatever rules/regulations you wish, & equally people should be able to lobby for changes if they wish to, but as long as the rules are clear then artists know what is expected of them if they would like to enter their work.

Writing in the Journal of the American Society of Botanical Art in 2000, James White (who was at the time in charge of the huge botanical art collection at the Hunt Institute, Pittsburgh) hoped that botanical art work wouldn’t be restricted according to the media it was portrayed in and he was having his own problems deciding on what to do with including laser prints in their International Exhibitions, which traditionally had been limited to originals or original prints, given a laser print has no limit to the numbers of prints possible. It is not just the artists who have difficulties deciding what to do. He ends his letter with


“However, the organization ought to be a viable one for everyone interested in representational botanical art.”


The only black and white botanical illustration prize in the world, the Margaret Flockton Award, accepts digital entries (i.e. drawing carried out digitally via an electronic pen and tablet) but not photography or photo montage work under their rules. Elsewhere in science it’s not unusual to use a photograph of the plant in the habitat it was found either in a paper or to communicate with a wider audience, often a conservation message. Some scientific papers describing new begonia species are illustrated with photographs showing plant details against a black background. But that is not what the Margaret Flockton Award wants to celebrate – it wants to celebrate the skill of drawing and so that’s why they have the rules they have.


The RHS are also very clear with their guidelines for their “Botanical Illustration” competition “Artists are strongly advised to paint from living plant specimens and to make use of photographs for reference only.” because that’s what they are interested in encouraging. They give a definition of botanical illustration which does not include the wider areas of botanical art.


We do generally as artists tend to comment that our art must be an accurate or truthful representation of the plant – but that also gives us a problem in terms of a definition, because as beginners when we start drawing our accuracy is (bluntly) not necessarily 100% and then sometimes when we are more experienced artists we add bits from other plants of the same species to make a more complete image … which may look truthful, but is technically a lie.


And so I ended up with a definition of:

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.


This neatly removes the problems over issues of art medium, background colour, etc. but frankly it just informs us that we are to do with the physical aspects of plants that can be seen – so we still get to enlarge parts of plants but maybe it gets tricky to include a close-up crop of a plant that may look abstract. And then there are issues with that as a definition because I know some artists have started to invent ways in which we might visually represent plant DNA which I think is really exciting but maybe a bit of a fuzzy edge because we can’t see it – and yet I think that’s an exciting idea so I’m not sure I’d want to dismiss it. The word plants here is used in its scientific definition both current and historical as we have seen.


Perhaps such a broad definition is best so that all the bits and the gaps in-between, the images or the art mediums we might argue over, the fuzzy areas at the edges, the new technologies supplying new data and new ways of looking – those spaces become within your realm as an artist to fill as you wish and make your contribution to the botanical art debate through your art.


Postscript


As a postscript to the talk,


Laurence Hill got in touch afterwards and very sensibly suggested that the scope for calling something botanical illustration is much wider than just the species delineation implied in my talk and I agree with him. I was probably tempting fate when I said at the start “One definition we can agree on …” but that is the fun bit of working as part of a collective group; you not only have your perspective on the topic but access to lots of other points of view from your fellow ABBA members and so can build on each other’s experiences and knowledge. Lawrence pointed out that science also has need for images that illustrate comparative and evolutionary relationships, ecological studies, lifecycle studies, and anatomical details; given the ability to easily and more cheaply disseminate information digitally, then botanical illustrators are more likely to be commissioned to produce a broader set of images to communicate the science than has been the case in the past.


As a second postscript,


Susan Gubbay pointed out that current thinking on red algae was they were within plants … but brown algae were another matter…


And a final lucky third postscript,


I’ve remembered that before the talk I was having a conversation with Coral Guest in which she pointed out that “perhaps a definition which is prescriptive can only be given to botanical illustration as it has a specific purpose” but “When we use the word 'art' we are by definition removing all boundaries, all limits, and opening up the arena to interpretation and development, so when we say botanical 'art' we are making a declaration of what the word art means to us in the western world. “

I think that’s an important point too as in the same way that earlier I mentioned other people may view our artworks differently from the way that in which we as the creators might have intended, so it’s likely that the rest of the art world won’t use the term “botanical art” in the same way we might like it to be understood.


Martin Allen

6th December 2020


If you would like to contribute your views to the conversation please contact us at britbotart@gmail.com. and we will try to include you in the Forum discussion

Watch Martin's Webinar Presentation


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