Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Book Review: Botany for the Artist

Title: Botany for the Artist: An Inspirational Guide to Drawing Plants
Synopsis: The emphasis of this book is on understanding the botany of plants and their different parts - roots, stems, leaves, flowers, fruits, cones and seeds - and how to draw the botanical aspects of plants. Its focus is on finding ways to unpick and illustrate the functionality of the plant - how it's constructed and how it works.
Summary review: HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. I value the fact this book is written by an artist, writer and lecturer who is an expert in drawing and communicating rather than a botanical artist. It means she brings a fresh and expert eye to the challenge of how to draw plants from a botanical perspective and an excellent approach to communicating the key messages. The quality of the text and illustrations is first class and the whole book provides a fresh perspective on botany for the artist while losing none of the fundamental and enduring truths of what's required of botanical illustration.
  • a fascinating introduction to how drawing plants developed across the centuries
  • excellent drawings of many different aspects of plants and different plant families
  • absolutely awesome photography of plants
  • very useful overview of media and materials used - highlighting some which may be unfamiliar to botanical artists
  • covers approaches for beginning a drawing as well as completed drawings
  • demonstrates how to convert a pencil drawing into an ink drawing
  • lots of practical tips for keeping speciments fresh and how plants behave when being drawn....
  • ....plus lots more tips about drawing!
  • master classes provide a valuable insight into very impressive examples of historical botanical art
  • conventional structure with a fresh approach to visualisation
  • precise and concise text which covers the 'need to know' facts to do with botanical differentiation and the naming of parts
Think Again?
  • at £25 (in the bookshops) this book is not cheap, However this book is actually amazing value given its contents and you can be sure it will retain its value over time. (Amazon.com already quotes second hand copies of this one at $87.80!)
  • this is NOT a 'how to paint' book
  • make sure you have clean dry hands before touching the black backgrounds to the photos as fingertips show up very easily
Who should buy this?:
  • botanical artists
  • botanical art students
  • teachers of botanical art
  • floral painters
  • natural history painters
  • anybody who likes drawing and nature
  • anybody investing in good quality botanical art books
Who should not buy this?
  • painters who don't have any affinity with the natural plant world
Author / (Publisher) Sarah Simblet / Dorling Kindersley
Technical data: Publication Date: February 2010
Hardcover (with dust jacket) - 256 pages; Full retail price £25

An inspirational guide to drawing plants. An intimate understanding of botany will help any artist create vibrant and realistic art. Sarah Simblet's masterclass provides you with an awareness and appreciation of plants and flowers and shows how to apply that knowledge to your art. Covering every type of plant, from the tiniest mosses and lichens to sumptuous flowers and trees, Sarah shows how to evoke their beauty on your canvas or page. Drawing on the rich history of botanic art and combined with Sarah's practical drawing classes, over 350 beautiful illustrations and vivid photographs, provide an in-depth look at roots, stems, leaves, flowers and fruits and explain how to create life-like drawings. For anyone wishing to master the art of drawing plants or for all those passionate about plants and how they are portrayed in art.
Publishers's description

This is a glorious book - full of excellent drawings and photographs of every aspect of plants and flowers. Anybody wanting to know more about the botanical aspects of drawing plants will value it and its structured approach to dealing with all the different parts of various plant families.

Sarah Simblet is an accomplished artist, writer and freelance lecturer in drawing. I've bought her books, listened to her lectures and taken classes with her at the National Gallery in London and she is one of the most impressive artists and teachers that I know. She also teaches drawing at the University of Oxford where she is a member of Ruskin College. Although not a botanical artist per se she has a lifelong passion for plants, gardening and natural history. The last course I did with her was about Drawing Trees!

The book has been produced with the help of Sam Scott-Hunter who has produced some wonderful photographs and Stephen Harris who has acted as the botanical adviser. (He's Curator of the Oxford University Herbaria)

The book follows a conventional structure of starting with media and materials and approaches to drawing before focusing on very specific aspects of botany. Each section contains at least one Masterclass which demonstrates what can be accomplished. What I loved about this book is that there was absolutely no sense of 'same old same old'. Every aspect of this book brings a fresh perspective from the way it is written and illustrated to the excellent material it accesses to illustrate points.

The wonderful thing about Dorling Kindersley books is that they are always incredibly attractive from a visual perspective and this book is no exception. It immerses you in images of the natural world of plants which really stimulate the eye and lead you into every arc and angle of the plants.

The history of drawing plants

She introduces some of the key figures in the history of botanical art (eg Basilius Besler, Ferdinand Bauer, Georg Ehret, Sydney Parkinson) and some I'd not come across before! I loved the little bits of detail she includes about the reality of drawing plants which were botanical finds at the time. It's just worlds away from the contemporary botanical artist's studio - although those who draw and paint in the wild will appreciate the comment below!
Banks wrote in tahiti "a mosquito net covers chairs, painter and drawings, but even that is not sufficient....flies eat the painter's colours off the paper as fast as they can be laid on"
She also covers how artists from different cultures and periods of history have chosen to record and draw and paint plants. One tends to forget that the conventional 'botanical art' approach is not the only way to record a plant for posterity.

Drawing Plants

This is a book by somebody who is an expert in drawing and consequently a lot of the emphasis is on creating an accurate drawing rather than how to paint flowers using watercolours. What this means is that we get detailed explanations about how to convert a pencil drawing into a pen and ink drawing - which is an aspect I've often not found in a number of 'how to' botanical art instruction books.

I liked her emphasis on making use of the herbaria to obtain specimens. She highlights how the Oxford University Herbaria is open by appointment to everyone with an interest in plants. What I discovered as a result of reading this book is that Oxford University also has The Virtual Field Herbarium - which is a whole other topic (and will be the subject of another post elsewhere on my main blog)

She has a wonderful talent for making botanically accurate drawings which are also very attractive. It's interesting to note a drawing of a branch of blackberry by Leonardo da Vinci which is included in one of the masterclasses which has many similarities to the style of drawing adopted by Ms Simblet. She's certainly at her best when unravelling a very complex plant.

There are hundreds of accomplished drawings in this book which capture the character of the plant as if in its natural habitat - which is of course how it should be! There are fewer paintings and that's fine because (a) I don't feel her watercolour painting is a particular strength (when compared to the standards of the best botanical artists) and (b) this is NOT a 'how to paint' book and there are other books which cover this aspect much better.

Systematic analysis

Each aspect (eg compound leaves, inflorescences etc) are tackled in a systematic way so that one sees a variety of examples of the way plants can present themselves. It's highly instructive in this respect - I saw connections between plants which had never struck me before. It's also fascinating to see the drawings next to tiny versions of the botanists symbolic drawings for eg inflorescences. I never knew there were so many and I certainly did not know all their names Now I'll know a compound corymb next time I see one!

For those wanting to really get to grips with the different technical parts and names of of plants for botanical illustration this book will prove to be an extremely useful reference due to the systematic annotation with names of many of the drawings.

The text in each section is precise and concise and a little dense to read. However this is not a book designed to be read at one sitting. Many will just gaze at the drawings and the photographs for a long time before starting to read the text.


I particularly liked the approach used for the masterclasses which include very impressive examples of botanical art both contemporary and historical. Many of the examples of historical botanical art are ones I'd never seen before (and I have many books about the history of botanical art). They include paintings by Maria Sibylla Merian, Mark Catesby and other well known names. I also liked the way Sarah identifies (with magnification) how the artist tackled specific aspects of painting the specimen - which is not something often seen in books about the history of botanical art. The contemporary artists - and again these feature people who often have not described their approach to painting before - explain how they tackled the specimen piece.

Drawing Classes

These are used to focus on particular aspects of 'how to draw'. These typically take one topic and expand on how to tackle the subject matter to achieve the best effects.

Photographing botany - Sam Scott-Hunter

A special mention must go to the quite spectacular photographs of plants by Sam Scott-Hunter. (You can see examples in the Botany I and Botany II galleries on his website) For those of us who love photographing plants nearly as much as drawing them this book is a very real pleasure and provides an intense stimulus to improve our photography!

My only caveat about this book is that given Sarah's lack of credentials in this particular field (similar books are frequently written by RHS gold medallists and/or members of botanical art societies or florilegium societies) it would have been great to have seem an endorsement by the RHS or similar as to the approach contained in the book.

For me this book highlights and expands upon Albrecht Durer's Great piece of turf. It's quite something when you look at this at the end of reading this book and realise that it's actually very simple when compared to some of the plants illustrated in this book. When you begin to realise that virtually all the drawings are in ink it really makes you realise what a labour of love this book must have been

This book sits somewhere inbetween The Art of Plant Evolution and Valerie Oxley's Botanical Illustration and it's highly recommended by me.

Learn about the best botanical art and botanical illustration books. Includes reviews of
  • botanical art instruction books - for those wanting to develop their skills and
  • books about famous botanical artists and painters of flowers in the past and present.


Robyn said...

Terrific review, Katherine. This is one for my Wish List.

dougm said...

Based partly on your review and a very strong recommendation by the Denver Botanic Gardens Botanical Illustration program, I got a copy. It is well worth the price and gives those details that help in doing accurate illustrations. Now I have to get her anatomy book.

Katherine Tyrrell said...

Thanks Doug - it's always good to get feedback

I hope you continue to enjoy it.

Her anatomy book is also excellent - as is her drawing book!

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