Botanical Illustration, a selective history

 This post is based on research from the following books/references:
Assigned reference numbers are included throughout the post to indicate a direct quote or an idea that was gleaned from research.
(1) The Art of Botanical Illustration by Wilfred Blunt & William T. Stearn
(2) The Clutius Botanical Watercolors by Claudia Swan
(3) Jim Dine: Flowers and Plants by Livingstone & Abrams
(4) Hokusai and Hiroshige by Honolulu Academy of Arts
(5) The Floating World of Ukiyo-e, from the The Library of Congress website
(6) Podcast: “Botanical Illustration” with Alice Tangerini, of the Smithsonian Museum
(7) Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, Metropolitan Museum of Art
(8) Linnè on line, a site dedicated to Linnaeus history by Uppsala University
(9) The Endeavor botanical illustrations, Natural History Museum, London, UK
(10) Wikipedia is referenced throughout this post for term definition and person identification

In writing this post, the information presented was edited to give a high level overview. The artists and developments chosen were pivotal in the developments of botanical illustration.

Palaeolithic cave paintings, Lascaux, France.

Palaeolithic cave paintings, Lascaux, France.

Palaeolithic cave paintings, Lascaux, France.

Palaeolithic cave paintings, Lascaux, France.

Palaeolithic cave paintings, Lascaux, France.

Palaeolithic cave paintings, Lascaux, France.

Palaeolithic cave paintings, Lascaux, France.

Palaeolithic cave paintings, Lascaux, France.







Man’s earliest art depicts the elements of hunting, but not the elements of gardening.  Dating back approximately 20,000 years, these cave drawings/paintings reveal that man’s hand for skilled draftsmanship  and composition and color was evident early on. The earliest artists looked with intensity at their world, in particular game and the hunt.  Their artwork shows that they observed well and they show us the synopsis of a hunt, of charging horses, of a bison being killed as well as his hunter. Recognizable plants are rarely found in man’s early art. Plants were domesticated for a long period before their form was found in art.

The possible medicinal power of plants was the beginning of scientific botany. Pharmacists-in-training would use the descriptions and later the illustrations to help identify the plants/herbs. Medicine linked with science, prepared the way for the herbal presence in art.


Florilegium:  The word is formed in the Latin flos (flower) and legere (to gather): literally a gathering of flowers. This term is used when referring to a collection of depictions of plant forms.


Dracunculus vulgaris seedlings


Syrian plants, Egyptian stone relief in the Great Temple of Tuthmosis III at Karnak, c.1450 B.C.

One of the earliest known  florilegium is an Egyptian stone relief in the Great Temple of Tuthmosis III at Karnak c.1450 B.C.  This bas-relief recorded the spoils of a victory by Tuthmosis III collected during his campaign in Syria. An inscription reads, “all the plants that grow, all the goodly flowers that are in the Divine Land (country  NE of Egypt) His Majesty saith, ‘as I live, all these plants exist in very truth; there is not a line of falsehood among them. My Majesty hath wrought this in order to cause them to be before my father Ammon, in this great hall for ever and ever.'” (1)


Bramble (Rubus frutiicosus). watercolor from Dioscorides, Codex Vindobonesis. (A.D. 512). National Library, Vienna

Bramble (Rubus frutiicosus). watercolor from Dioscorides, Codex Vindobonesis. (A.D. 512). National Library, Vienna

In the first century A.D., two botanical works were created: the Natural History by the Elder Pliny in Latin and  De Materia Medica, written by a Greek military physician, Pedanius Dioscorides. This  later work would be a leader in the field  of pharmacology for over a thousand years.  The manuscript was not originally illustrated, but copied many times. In the year 512, a copied manuscript was made for the Byzantine princess Juliana Anicia, daughter of the Flavius Anicius Olybrius, Emperor of the West (Rome). The plant drawings in this codex seem to be made from earlier works, but they still offer quality in their naturalism. (1)

Piece of Turf, Albrect Durer (Das grosse Rasenstuck) watercolor, 1503. Albertina, Vienna

Piece of Turf, Albrect Durer
(Das grosse Rasenstuck)
watercolor, 1503. Albertina, Vienna

The practice of copying and recopying often led to stylization and loss of naturalism. Naturalism didn’t return until the 15th century. Two artists of this period show a renewed interest in observational painting: in Italy (Leonardo da Vinci), in Germany (Albrecht Dürer).  Dürer’s, Great Piece of Turf is a watercolor that displays such keen observation given to every weed, leaf and seed. This study of nature stands as an artistic first. Botanists can easily identify the unique species: such as the Taraxacum officinale (dandelion). A contemporary of Durer  is Weiditz and his work transitions into the printing technology of woodcut. (1&2)

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Botanical Illustration @ Reynolda Gardens

Winston Salem is a city that cherishes public gardens. Reynolda Gardens is one that was built Catherine Reynolds in the 1920’s and is a joy to visit. It’s in a French style, straight lines and a unique cottage mix of roses, vegetable and ornamental plants.

They have gracious invited me to make a presentation on Botanical Illustration, this October 1, 2013, at 12:30 pm. Here’s a link to their site with an announcement of the educational presentation.

Included in the discussion will be a brief history of botanical illustration. Following the talk, I will make a painting demonstration from a specimen in the garden.

You are invited.

Posted in Botanical Illustration | Leave a comment

Give Credit, Where Credit is Due

Over the past few years, the gardens of our neighborhood have been getting my attention. Conversations with my neighbors have spurred me to reconsider the garden and its role in our culture. Those gardeners have been so generous with their time and their understanding. I tease my neighbor across the way that her garden is so productive that she must sneak out at night and sing over her garden.

There are also institutions that I credit for their preservation of local gardens: Bethabara Park, Old Salem and Reynolda Gardens.  What’s not to like about gardening? There is design, there is process and of course the ever fleeting beauty.

At this same time I have also been meditating on artists that work in botanical illustration.  Earlier posts are evidence of that line of thinking. At this moment, I would like to credit the work of the following artists: Hokusai, Hiroshige, and ?.  The third artist is unknown, the work is a collection of watercolors called the Clutius Botanicals. In this post I will share some these artists’ images and conclude with some of the work I have  created in response.


Broad Bean, Vicia Faba
Part of the Clutius Botanicals collection of watercolors


Cuckoo and Azaleas
woodcut print by Zen Hokusai (1760-1849)
A sudden sunrise-
from a bamboo grove
in daytime, on the mountain,
to hear the first cry of a cuckoo.


Duck in Snow
woodcut print by Ichiriyusai Hiroshige (1786-1864)
The cry of the wild duck.
A gust of wind ripples
the icy water.








In the Renaissance, Botanical Illustration brought art and science together, letting each serve the other. The science of perspective and optics allowed for more accurate rendering and in turn the accuracy of art that observed and recorded the natural world aided those who were students of nature.  As seen in the Clutius Botanticals, the specimens are drawn from life. One sheet of paper includes the various stages of maturation.  Thus the artist could present more than the eye could see at one time. The image of Broad Bean, Vicia Faba is part of a collection of botanical illustrations made with the intent of educating medical students in the naming and identifying of herbals and plants in their pharmacopoeia.

Another historical credit belongs to Hokusai and Hiroshige. Their woodcut prints of flowers and birds reflected a classic Japanese theme of painting that they carried over to ukiyo-e prints. The inclusion of poetry reflects the society’s cultural and spiritual maturity. Consumers of the prints often wrote poetry.

The Okra, featured below, was made from specimens from the Old Salem heirloom garden and my own hortus (garden). This staple of the Southern dining room is honored with the following poem:

Palest creamy bloom
yields fruit with starry profile
batter, fry, enjoy!

Original Watercolor

Original Watercolor

Hand-colored Screen Print

Hand-colored Screen Print

Screen Print alone

Screen Print alone

Posted in Botanical Illustration, Old Salem, watercolor | Leave a comment

Looking back, moving forward


Jacopo Ligozzi, Mandrake, c. 1480. watercolor on paper.



Jim Dine, Mandrake Root (After Ligozzi), 1985. pencil, charcoal and watercolor on paper

Jim Dine, Mandrake Root (After Ligozzi), 1985. pencil, charcoal and watercolor on paper


In botanical illustration, one usually works from the live specimen. But there is also the artistic tradition demonstrated in Jim Dine’s work: of looking back at a master level work of art and then taking that work forward.  It’s perhaps easier to work from a present object, such as the dirt-encrusted mandrake root. The difference as described by Jim Dine: “To work from another image is another thing, you’re trying to make something come alive.”


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Handmade Valentines


In the third session of the intermediate watercolor class, we discussed the presence of the artist’s hand in their work. The handprint image listed below is from the Chauvet Cave in Southern France. It is considered to be the oldest portrait. Handprints are among the staggeringly impressive drawings on the cave walls. In Japan, there is a tradition for sumo wrestlers to mark their portraits with their own handprint. In pieces from Jim Dine’s heart series, the heart icon is readily received as a type of portraiture. Indeed there is the element of the self, of portraiture in all of these pieces. And so we made handmade valentines with our own ‘signatures’ on these cards of intimate communication.The prints of the glasses and the beetle are two examples of the relief prints we made. Watercolor is a versatile medium that was well demonstrated in this relief printing, as well in the other techniques we tested: stencils, collage and toning.Happy Valentine’s Day, as you take time to remember your loved ones.





Posted in Portraits, watercolor | Leave a comment

Poetry in Motion

This gallery contains 1 photo.

For this quarter in the watercolor class, I added to the discussion: the role of watercolor in literary illustration. Specifically, we began by looking at poems and ukiyo drawing. I have included a great example image from the Library of … Continue reading

More Galleries | Leave a comment


hokusai,-crow-fan vegetables3When I begin the watercolor class at Sawtooth, we talk about brushstrokes. In this post I have included two masters from Japan: Hokusai and Jakuchu.

Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) is well known for his views of Mt. Fuji series. The example here is a fan with a drawing  of  maple leaves and a crow.

Itō Jakuchū (1716–1800) is well known for his screen paintings. His work reflects careful observation from nature. The example here are of vegetables, which is quite appropriate since his family were greengrocers for three generations by the time of his birth.





Posted in Drawing | Leave a comment

Around the corner: Intermediate Watercolor at Sawtooth

Beginning January 28, 2013

Schedule: 01/28 – 03/04, 06:30 PM – 08:30 PM, Mondays

Intermediate Watercolor class at Sawtooth

Ready to try watercolor again? This class is a safe opportunity to flex those artistic muscles and express your inner painter. Keeping the basics of watercolor in mind we will build upwards. Practical applications are a priority for each class session.


Posted in Sawtooth | Leave a comment

Enter the Dohyō

Inspired by Japanese wood block prints from around 1900. These prints honored the champions of Sumo wrestling. The format of the single figure standing resolutely in his keshō-mawashi, an ornate, embroidered silk ‘apron’ which he will wear during the ring entering ceremony, or dohyō-iri. It is reminiscent of the American baseball trading cards.

Size: 3×5
Materials:  The nightlights are made from prefabricated LED nightlights, plexiglass, paint and glue.
sumo-001 sumo-004 sumo-013 sumo-018

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Ho! Ho! Ho!

My neighbor requested this ‘waving Santa.’ It was fun to make. The jigsaw gave my arm quite the workout. Laying the plywood was an instructional process for me. I hope to continue that layering element in my future work.

About the piece:

Roughly, 6′ tall and 6′ wide
Materials: 3/4″ plywood, paint, glitter, shellac, a motor, gliding arm, dowel rods and nuts and bolts.

When the motor is plugged in, Santa’s arm waves up and down.

Merry Christmas to All. I am glad to remember Christ’s gift of Himself, of Salvation.

Posted in Portraits, Sculpture | Leave a comment