Thursday, 10 November 2011

The fascination of botanical illustration

Ever since I saw a programme about botanical illustration at Kew Gardens on telly a few years ago, and  a delightful exhibition of botanical art at the small but charming Museum of Garden History, or Garden Museum, as it is now called, in London shortly afterwards, I've been absolutely fascinated by this extraordinary art form. I think it's an art form that is often not really enough appreciated in it's own right. As with so many other forms of illustrations, they tend to be seen just  as accompaniments of the text in books and journals, without giving much thoughts about how and by whom they were done. But even today, in our modern digital megapixel world, a photograph, ultimately, can never be as accurate as a hand painted illustration, which is why all the good classification guide books still rely on painted illustrations rather than photographs. I find that quite extraordinary.

Botanical illustration is the art of depicting the form, colour, and details of plant species, frequently in watercolour paintings. These are often printed with a botanical description in book, magazines, and other media. The creation of these requires an understanding of plant anatomy, access to specimens and references, and are often composed in consultation with a scientific author. (Wikipedia).

Last year, I bought a book about botanical illustration, and then another one. I looked through them, admired the illustrations, studied the instructions, and put them into my book shelf. I was bad at drawing, and rubbish with watercolours. How could I ever dare to even attempt such an accomplished art, without even having the basic background skills? But two weeks ago, feeling so inspired by the autumn colours everywhere around, I took out my watercolours and sat down, trying to capture the colours, patterns, textures of some leaves, without much thinking about what I was doing. It wasn’t until a few days later that it occurred to me that, unconsciously, I had made my first attempt at botanical illustration. They are certainly not exact depictions of the leaves, and would be quite useless in a botanical book or journal, but painting them just made me so happy. And that's really good enough for me :)

Enjoying the autumn morning light flooding the room – and a cup of Earl Grey tea.

I had to run out in between, to take pictures of the flaming red tree in my street – and to collect some of its leaves – which of course I intend to paint as well.

And the final result:

I definitely want to learn more about the techniques of botanical illustration, and practise more, and maybe  find a course to take - maybe even at Kew Gardens? :)

In the meantime, I found some video tutorials on Youbute, like this wet technique autumn leaf  one – definitely have to try this!


  1. These are so beautiful, and your journey to them is so inspiring! I am curious about the preference for rendered images in botanical studies. So interesting! I love my little wildflower companion - and it's because of the pictures!

    I love it that you are working at bringing your creative vision to life, and seeing the fruit! (or leaves) :)

  2. These are beautiful and I loved watching the video. Now, if only mine will turn out so perfect!

  3. You have done a wonderful job with your botanical illustrations of leaves - they are simply beautiful!

  4. 4 leaves and 4 perfectly different textures - what a great job just from watercolour. And aren't they beautiful leaves? I remember, as a teenage photographer, a local artist asked me to photograph her set of botanical illustrations and I was blown away by the skill that must have gone into them. It really would have been impossible to capture the original flowers on film as well as she had created on her pages.

    I think it might be a little different now that we use digital technology with its ability to level out the contrasts and colours caused by natural light, but it's fascinating that it still doesn't completely match up to hand-drawn/painted images.

    I'm looking forward to seeing your efforts on the red leaves because the contrasts are very subtle by the look of it.

    I'm really glad you're enjoying this exploration so much - your enthusiasm is quite infectious!

  5. Hiya,

    Just noticed you haven't posted anything for a few days, and wanted to say I hope all is well. Then suddenly, as I'm writing this, I remember you had a trip to fantastic Salzberg some time, and maybe that's where you are. If so, I hope you're having a great time. If not, and you're feeling under the weather, I wish you a speedy recovery to your usual enthusiastic self!


  6. Hi Nigel, thanks for your message! I'm fine but I had a busy week at work and only limited computer access. I've still found some time to be creative though, and hopefully, it'll be a bit quieter from now on. I'll be going to Salzburg next month, and I'm so looking forward to it. But I still need to do some practising for it. Hope you're well too, I haven't had much time to check out your Flickr stream these past few days, but will do so soon. And I'd love to hear more about your painting therapy project at work, it sounds really a wonderful idea! Have a lovely day, Katja

  7. Beautiful! The green of trees is wonderful, but the changing of those leaves is magic.

  8. Great Leaves.....I love the tea cup in the background LOL