Botanical Art is not just about drawing and painting plants.
The journey begins with a little bit of research, in order to fully understand and appreciate the plant that you are studying.
The research that I do is-
- Identify The Plant
- Identify The Botanical Features
- Look Up Any Other Interesting Facts About The Plant
1. Identify the Plant
In order for me to critique your work properly, I will need to know the correct name of the subject. Every submitted assignment must be labelled correctly. There is no point in sending me work that is simply labelled ‘leaf’, as I won’t be able to know if you have observed it correctly.
ALWAYS try to identify the correct botanical name for your subject before you start, even if it is just a simple study of a flower, fruit or a leaf.
Most plants have a common name or names, and a botanical name which also known as the taxonomic binomial name.
The binomial name comprises of two Latin names which refer to the Genus and Species, and is based on the system first developed by Carl Linnaeus in his book ‘Systema Naturae’ (1735).
The advantages of botanical names over common names are that they are accepted by speakers of all languages, and that each plant has only one name.
A plant can have many common (vernacular) names and often shares common names with other plants. For example,
- Bell peppers and chilli peppers belong to the genus Capsicum, but black pepper is the common plant name for Piper nigrum.
- Corn has the botanical name Zea mays and the common name maize. However in England, corn refers to wheat and in Scotland, corn can refer to barley or rye.
- Ginseng, Panax ginseng is a popular health supplement. However, ginseng is also the common name of the plant,Jatropha podagrica, which is sold as Korean red ginseng, and is in fact very poisonous!
For more reading about common vs. scientific names, see HERE
Often the Latin name has a clue to the origin, characteristics or growth habit of the plant, or can describe distinctive properties such as taste, form, smell and colour.
For example, Achillea millefolium, long believed to have wound healing properties, gets its Genus name from the Greek warrior Achilles, who was renowned for staunching the blood of his wounded soldiers with the plant. The species name is millefolium, which means ‘a thousand leaves’, and refers to the many tiny leaves of the plant. It’s common name is yarrow.
Binomial names explained
Binomial names always comprise of two words and are usually written in italics, or if written by hand, underlined.
The Genus is written with an upper-case initial letter. It is always a noun and is gender specific.
The Species is written in the lower-case. It is mainly an adjective.
Subspecies, Variety, Form, Cultivar and Hybrid all come after the Genus and Species, and are written in the lower-case and in italics.
TIP: If you are in any doubt regarding the cultivar, variety or hybrid name, just simply state the Genus and Species name followed by ‘variety unknown’, e.g. Lilium asiatic variety unknown. If you are unsure, simply put ‘Believed to be’ in front of the name. You can get away with a lot that way.
Sometimes the botanical name of your subject is fairly obvious- for example, an apple is Malus pumila. However (and this is the confusing part), it is also known as Malus domestica, Malus sylvestris, Malus communis, and Pyrus malus.
Botanical names can be a bit of a headache as they are constantly being revised. In the case of the apple, Malus pumila is the accepted name and the others are synonyms. To check any name, go to The Plant List
Identifying your plant
I am not a botanist or a horticulturalist, but I really believe that botanical detective work is part of being a botanical artist!
If I don’t know the name of the plant, I ask a gardener or botanist. If you don’t know any, then there are many online forums filled with helpful people who are happy to identify the plant.
I also use Google Image Search a lot- either by writing a description of the plant and seeing what comes up, or by taking an image and uploading that image directly into the google image search bar.
2.Identify The Botanical Features
To be able to paint or draw a plant correctly, a botanical artist must understand the structure of the plant and identify the unique characteristics so that they can be described.
Before I begin a botanical painting, I usually make a list of these characteristics so that I can include them in my work. Some characteristics are made through observation, but it helps to also to look up the plant online or to consult a botanist.
An example of the questions that you might need to ask are-
PLANT– Is it a monocot or dicot? What is the growth habit? What is the shape of the plant i.e. is it creeping, upright, clump-forming bushy etc.? Are there branches, and if so, what which direction do they grow (e.g. upwards, outwards, downwards)? Look at the angle between the branches and stem. See HERE for a glossary of terms describing plant habit
LEAVES– What kind of leaf is it, e.g. simple or compound? What shape are the leaves? Is the surface smooth or hairy? Is the underside of the leaf the same as the top? What are the leaf margins like? Are the leaves rigid or soft? Is there a leaf stem? How do the leaves attach to the main stem? How are the leaves arranged on the stem?
FLOWERS– Does the plant have flowers? What is the arrangement of the flowers on the plant? Take note of the growth habit of the plant e.g. if the flowers are on a raceme (flowering stem), which flowers open first? How many petals/sepals does the flower have? What are the stamens and stigma like? What colour are the flowers? Are there any markings or patterns on the petals?
Look carefully at the floral parts. Whilst most plants are bisexual, containing both male (anther) and female parts (stigma), some plants have distinctly different male and female flowers. These can occur on the same plant e.g. Cucurbita pepo, or on completely different plants e.g. Ilex aquifolium.
Many hermaphrodite flowers display dichogamy, meaning that sexual parts mature at different times to prevent cross-pollination, e.g. the stamens develop before the stigma (known as protandry), or the stigma develops before the anthers (protogyny).
For more information on flowers, see HERE
STEM– What shape is the stem (round, square, hexagonal etc.)? Is it woody, hollow, smooth, hairy etc.? Are there markings on the stem?
ROOTS– What do the roots look like?
FRUIT– What colour, shape, texture is the fruit? How is it attached to the plant?
Anne Bebbington’s book, ‘Understanding Flowering Plants’ is written for botanical illustrators. It is a fascinating and very useful book to have in your home.
Another great book is ‘RHS Latin for Gardeners’. It is a very enjoyable read, filled with interesting facts and superb botanical illustrations.
Below is an example of a sketchbook page with the botanical features listed in the notes.
3.Look Up Any Other Interesting Facts About The Plant
“To be a botanical artist, one must have good eyesight, a steady hand and a curious mind.” Wendy Walsh (1915-2015)
Once I have correctly identified my plants, and worked out what botanical features I want to describe in my painting, I very often dig a little deeper to discover more about the plant. For me this is the fun part, because with each little fact, I become more enamored with my subject, and this can influence the way that I paint it.
I usually type the following into my search bar-
- Fun facts about …
- Medicinal value of …
- Importance of … in biodiversity
- Historical importance of…
More often than not, someone somewhere has written something about the plant that is interesting and relevant and worth knowing!
Occasionally there is little written about a plant, particularly when it is one of the newer cultivars. In this case, I will take a bit of inspiration from the backstory, where I found it, where it grows, or sometimes even what it reminds me of!