Botanical Illustration is one of the oldest watercolor genres, associated throughout its history with the importance of plants to human health, recreation, and appreciation of beauty. Today it is one of the few art genres that unites watercolorists around the world in a shared love of nature and a common set of painting methods and pictorial conventions.

Botanical painting grows from the natural pleasure we derive from looking at flowers and plants, with the advantage that the patient and motionless plant allows a careful rendering of its form and colors. Watercolor early became the medium of choice: they were originally used as a form of drawing (often in combination with pen and ink), and there is a similarity between the translucent colors of flowers and leaves and of watercolors on the vellum page. One of the earliest modern watercolors is a botanical work: Albrecht Dürer's The Large Piece of Turf (1503, 21x13cm), made with watercolor and gouache, traces each blade with the precision of renaissance silverwork or embroidery, yet lets the life of the grass shine through. We want to run our fingers through it, and can almost smell the timeless summer of it. And for all its delicacy and naturalism, this is clearly a demonstration of technical achievement: Dürer has put his highly marketable patience, precision and dexterity on display for potential patrons to appreciate.

To succeed as a botanical illustration, a watercolor must combine accurate observation, graceful drawing, meticulous brushwork, and canny color mixing. These attributes first come together in works of science and healing. The anonymously painted Blackcurrant Tree (c.1580, 31x23cm) is one of a large collection of watercolors used as teaching materials at a Dutch medical college. Because doctors of the time relied on medicinals such as blackcurrant tea, medical schools often supervised gardens where the most useful trees, herbs and flowers were grown. Doctors were taught to harvest and process the plants, and to learn the distinguishing features of each species. Intended primarily as teaching aids, the early botanical paintings often present the specimen in idealized form (disease or damage is edited out), and cleverly combine views of the plant at different seasons — the flowering blackcurrant stem in the center, and the fruiting bough around it. Many other pictorial conventions were innovated by these early botanical artists, as ways to show the roots and flowers of tubers, the pods and seeds of legumes, the buds, bark and leaves of trees, and the cohabiting insects or snails, all within a single elegant image.

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As botanical illustration developed, it followed the temperamental kinship between the amateur gardener and amateur watercolorist. Both must be observant, patient, and in love with the colors and forms of nature. Throughout England and Scotland (especially during the eighteenth century), gardening and watercoloring were the complementary diversions of cultured ladies and girls. A long history of fashion contributed to this popularity. By the time of the infamous tulip bulb crisis in 1637, new and rare flowers, like new and rare artworks, had become the status symbols of affluence and refinement. And this in turn created a market for high quality botanical illustrations. In the eighteenth century the illustration of plants attained remarkable polish (and wide circulation) in the works of Johann Jakob Walther (c.1604-1677), Georg Dionysus Ehret (1708-1770), and Pierre-Joseph Redouté (1759-1840). In the next century, William Henry Hunt (1790-1864) became famous for his tiny landscapes of bird's nests and blossoms. Redouté's major collections include the three volume Les Roses (1817-24) — 170 handcolored portrait plates of flowers in the Empress Josephine's gardens at Malmaison (Versailles). His Opium Poppy (1827, 30x22cm), actually a printed figure, shows the accurate detailing and graceful composition that made Redouté's watercolors famous. Idealization is apparent in the graceful design and fluttery rendering of leaves and petals, but these stylizations were made for decorative rather than scientific reasons. Aristocratic patronage was essential to the production of these lavishly illustrated and costly works. But Ehret, Redouté, and other botanical masters were also innovators of the printing and engraving techniques that made it possible to mass produce vibrantly colored botanical images. These found a growing market of middle class readers eager to own these symbols of affluence.

The best botanical illustrations add symbolism to the image: implying taste through dew drops, touch through textural details such as thorns or bark, smell through vivid and succulent color. Birds and insects (whose lives are as brief as the flowers and trees they live in) often stray into the composition, reminders of ecology, climate and season. The tension between the actual plant used as a model and the idealized distortions that appear in the finished image is foregrounded in the many cultural variations in botanical art — which by the 19th century had become a global art form useful in science, commerce, and recreation. This Unidentified Plant (Leguminosae family) (c.1810, 22x17cm) was painted by an anonymous Chinese watercolorist who likely learned botanical illustration from Western plant traders and naturalists eager to find and export exotic Asian flora. The rendering is somewhat solid and flat, and dominated by two or three colors, all Asian art conventions accepted by the painter. Traces of decay or insect damage have been included as tokens of realism, but in fact the plant has been so much altered by the artist's culturally shaped imagination that scientific identification of the species is not possible. The artist correctly grasped the fact that a botanical image is idealized, but did not know the conventions that make an image scientifically useful. Instead, knowing he would be rewarded for how much his image stimulated desire, he made the plant as lovely as possible using Chinese esthetic assumptions.

Perhaps more than any other genre, botanical illustration highlights this balancing act between truth and beauty, a balance that the best artists are able to turn to splendid visual effect. From the Renaissance down to the New Millennium, botanical illustration has remained one of the principal methods by which plants have been taxonomized, anatomized, and published in scientific references. Redouté's roses documented the advances in horticulture that created modern rose varietals from medieval plant stocks. Botanical illustrators today are still called on to produce scientific renderings and naturalist field guides, even in an age of photography. Modern illustrators such as the late Margaret Mee are often known for their dogged exploration of jungles and back woods to collect, sketch, and paint rare plants. Particularly amazing is the series of watercolors of the Australian banksia by Celia Rosser, integral to a scientific tome on this unusual desert plant. Her Banksia serrata (1995, 76x51cm) is rendered with incredible detail — every seed hair, miniscule flower part and leaf blemish is captured with an unwavering eye and infallible brush. Yet the overall composition, balanced colors, rhythmic curves of the leaves, and varied plant textures are delightful in themselves, and succeed in transforming dry science into the purest art.

Gill Saunders' Picturing Plants: An Analytical History of Botanical Illustration (University of California Press, 1995) is a wide ranging yet concise survey that includes early woodcuts, Victorian lithographs and the plant pictures on commercial seed packets, as well as lovely examples of the watercolorist's art. Shirley Sherwood's Contemporary Botanical Artists (Cross River Press, 1996) and A Passion for Plants (Cassell Academic, 2001) offer a wonderfully varied sampling of contemporary botanical illustrators around the world, almost all of them using watercolors. A truly unique book for gardeners and artists alike, Flora : An Illustrated History of the Garden Flower by Brent Elliott (Firefly Books, 2001) traces the history of domesticated flowering plants through several centuries of superb botanical illustrations in the collection of the Royal Horticultural Society (England). The book review section of this site recommends some how-to books on painting floral watercolors, botanical illustrations, and nature outdoors. Rose Prints by Pierre-Joseph Redouté is a selective online gallery of hand colored prints from this very famous work, at the Rosarian web site. And for lovely contemporary botanical illustrations, BotanicalArtists.com displays works by several professional botanical artists, with links to exhibitions, classes, botanical societies, artist web sites, and online art suppliers.