Why botanical illustration is a science all of its own

Why do plants fascinate so many of us? What is it that drives us to this persistent desire for the natural world. Obsessed with plants of all kinds, whether that be the exquisite elegance of an exotic species, a simple succulent, or a humble lichen creeping across a rock. They never disappoint, and always deliver with their own unique properties and stories of historical wonderment.

Botanical Illustrator, Sarah Jane Humphrey has certainly earned her badge of ‘Plant Geek’! Here she writes about her illustration work exclusively for Mr Plant Geek, and explores why botanical illustration is such an important industry:

“The stack of books and research I seem to have acquired since a small child certainly suggests I am not alone in this chain of thoughts. I am indeed in great company, with botanical illustration dating back quite staggeringly to 3BC. It is almost unfathomable to imagine! Yet, with the connection between artists and scientists, and the will to discover, it has long been a quest to explore the natural world.

Sarah Jane’s kit
Medicines and tinctures

Early botanical illustration was first recorded in the form of medicinal plant drawings for physicians to identify herbs and other plants in which to create medicines. Being able to correctly distinguish the plant for pharmaceutical concoctions and tinctures would clearly have been a valuable asset.

A quest for the plant hunters

Over many decades of time, botanical illustrators have been equally respected, with importance and relevance to physicians, botanists and explorers. Each with one commonality; a curious mind and thirst for discovery. A simple want and need to understand the inner workings of plant matter, and quite magnificent in some cases, the properties they hold. Plant hunters have trekked and travelled to some of the most uninhabitable places on earth to discover alluring new species.

The Lacecap Hydrangea
Explorers and naturalists such as Charles Darwin would have taken artists with them on long expeditions to far off lands.

With a mission to quite literally record and document visually the discoveries being made on these journeys, botanical illustrators often saw a crossover in their research, of which they would have been as much the scientist as the artist. The illustrators would have been a valuable commodity to such a trip, making vital studies of exotic and rare plants on location, that would never have been seen before in the civilised world. This of course was a necessity, when it just wouldn’t have been possible to ship all the plants and specimens back to their destination by sea.

Whilst a romantic vision of the pure excitement and novelty it must have been to be the first person to illustrate the most exotic and unusual plants, for me, that very notion still remains in my research. Becoming absorbed in each of my studies, and allowing the uniqueness of them all to inspire an artwork. Some plants are without doubt more intoxicating than others, whether that may be the form, colouration or complex structures.

Himalayan Balsam

Trying to execute the dramatic seed capsule explosion of a Himalayan Balsam (Impatiens glandulifera), for example: this was one of the most fascinating components to this tall growing annual. A single plant can release up to 800 seeds, with a projection of around 7 metres, it is easy to understand how this contributes to the world’s growing problem of invasive species. I love the opportunity as an illustrator to portray plants from another perspective. In the case of the pesky Himalayan Balsam, I felt the obligation to celebrate its elegance and adept qualities to reproduce. This is almost how it must have been viewed back in the 1800’s when it was first introduced to the United Kingdom.

Himalayan Balsam seed pod
Slow living and a harmonious existence with plants

From one day to the next, no project is ever the same, although I must say that the more years I accumulate in this niche profession, the further I seem to be driven closer to one vision. That vision is to excite a global awareness of the natural world. Through my botanical illustrations, beyond a prolific eagerness to create realistic artworks, there is a parallel of wantoned desire to disrupt the mindset of our modern generation to look beyond the immediate. From taking time and slowing down, observing a piece of artwork, getting lost in the meticulous details and complexities. Admiring the beauty of an otherwise overlooked weed or revelling in a root system. With that in mind, I aim to encourage people to engage with nature, get out into the fresh air and to question their environment.

Are we making the most of living harmoniously and with good intentions?

Whilst my profession is that of a botanical illustrator, I am a communicator. I hope to inspire, with my details and compositions, and make people respectfully scrutinise, to feel compelled to look a little closer.  Hopefully next time you view one of my artworks you will walk away with a curious mind and begin to look at plants in a new light.”

I have admired Sarah Jane’s work for many years, and it is a great pleasure to have her as a guest on the Mr Plant Geek website. Please visit her website to experience the fascinating world of botanical illustration.

Sarah Jane Humphrey

One Comment Add yours

  1. tonytomeo says:

    That is precisely what those illustrations do. As a horticulturist, I am familiar with more plants than most; but such illustrations present them in a more compelling manner than what I am accustomed to, and shows how how others might see them. It is like looking at them as an outsider, as someone who is not a horticulturist. It is like looking at old hieroglyphs left by people who have been gone for centuries or thousands of years, and wondering if that is how those people saw themselves.

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