Margaret Saul
Are we Artists?
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Are We Artists?  - by Margaret Saul

Summary: Article published in the newsletter of the American Soc.Botanical Artists (ASBA) No.19 - Spring 2000.  Written in
response to a letter in the previous ASBA newsletter this article seeks to promote discussion about (1) whether botanical art
can be viewed as art and (2) defining “botanical illustration” as a branch of botanical art that is created in the service of
science.

Art is the expressive arrangement of elements within a medium born from creativity or imagination, and skill.  This is
surely a reasonable explanation and includes all aspects of artistic endeavor -  not just the visual arts but also  that of  
music, literature, drama, and  dance.  
Botanical Art is embraced by the fine artist who enjoys exploring the artistic
elements found in the world of plants.  Inspiration can be gleaned from the diverse range of fascinating shapes, forms,
colors and textures.  A direct influence and one that makes this art unique, is the artist’s inquisitive nature, a desire to
probe into the “how & why” or the science of plants.  This wonder can be magnified ten fold or more as the botanical
artist  studies the subject through a hand lens or stereo microscope while endeavoring  to create a work of art in graphic
detail.  

Do we find creative expression in botanical art?  Is it really art? What is the public’s perception?  A recent letter to the
editor by Martha Kemp (
The Botanical Artist No 18) notes  her concern for the apparent disdain for botanical art
expressed in the column
Mole in the British Gardens Illustrated Magazine.  The remarks which feed the perception that
this genre is not art, are not uncommon.   A questioning of the quality of some paintings selected by prestigious
organizations for exhibition, and thoughts expressed about replacing it all with photography  as a much cheaper
alternative should not  be passed off high-handedly. All professional botanical artists should find this particular jab at
botanical art disturbing, especially when a publication such as
Gardens Illustrated Magazine would surely include many
potential clients for botanical art. Are the tools we use to be the only distinguishing factor between photographs and
botanical paintings?  All should realize that a photographer with access to the latest digital technology and printing
methods can reproduce  botanical subjects against the traditional white background on watercolor paper to look for all
the world like a detailed painting but  sold for much less.   Thankfully this technology works to the advantage of savvy
artists where reproductions of their work can barely be distinguished from the original.  The only immediate clue
nowadays to a work being an original botanical watercolor painting is perhaps an ever-so-slight  
cockling around the
edges of the paper.....and the price!)

My concern here is that this journalist’s observations about contemporary botanical art may be justified!  Numerous
examples of so called botanical art from ages past can also be accused of doing little to inspire or to promote botanical
painting as an art form.  Perhaps at the time it was painted, even the illustrator did not view it as art.  The appeal for
many of these earlier paintings has often more to do with their age and at times interesting history rather than their
inspiring nature born from any artistic sense.   Contemporary botanical artists should intuitively (or knowingly) imbue
their work in a high degree of artistic sensitivity.    Teachers in this field need to ensure  not only that a high standard of
craftsmanship is attained in order to illustrate exquisite detail but equally important in my view, should instill a deeper
awareness for artistic concepts which, when infused into the development of botanical art pieces, creates further
dimension and added pleasure in this creative pursuit.  Suitable examples are certainly embedded in the art’s traditional
base found in the outstanding works of the more notable botanical artists.   The development of an “artistic sense” is a
major element flowing through the program I have developed for my school of botanical art and illustration in Brisbane.  
For some, these concepts are intuitive but for many they can be learned and appreciated to a major degree.  The results
are impressive and prove that not only can students learn how to draw and paint in detail, but can learn how to interpret
their subject  
through the eyes of an artist - utilizing their broader appreciation for art when applying the elements and
principals of composition -
choosing the composition’s structure, its range of values (the “tone” of the piece perceived
through its degree of contrast), appreciating contrasts in texture and color intensity,
all of which are influenced by the
artist’s emotional involvement!  

We
are calling ourselves artists - are we not?  Please consider - our botanical subjects can evoke a gamut of emotions
(painting a subject on a white background does not inhibit) and when the
artist is involved with their subject in this way
their beautifully detailed work can be both captivating and inspiring and rightly called a  “work of art”.  We should all be
receptive to this way of thinking and so to explain further - consider the emotions that can be conveyed to us by gnarled
branches, a striking
Protea or Banksia, sunlit sunflowers, the delicate pansy,  a stately Camellia or the writhing stems
of a poppy or tulip,  that wonderful painting by Leslie Berge of the cycad bearing its golden cones on the front cover of
Dr. Sherwood’s latest book, “
A Passion for Plants” - the emotional impact of which can be surely no less than that
found in artworks of renown in other genre.

With 31 years of involvement in the art field where I have worked as a professional illustrator, botanical artist and  a
botanical art teacher, I believe I have sufficient authority to offer further meaningful comment about the genre as it
exists  today and  to present a  succinct definition for botanical art, one which in my view,  is more appropriate  for
contemporary botanical art practice.  I sincerely hope my views will be given serious consideration and that it is
understood they look beyond  the focus of this particular society.   I hasten to add this has been presented out of
genuine concern and a desire to see this art form continue to thrive globally, not to raise the ire of those who may have
been instrumental in formulating a definition.

Indeed, it is unfortunate that the line between botanical art and botanical illustration is seen as blurred!   Conversely,  a
clear distinction is evident between the two categories and a perception to this effect should be engendered by its
practitioners  in order for botanical art to maintain its vitality and to generate interest in the community.  Contemporary
botanical art should exhibit an appreciation for artistic concepts and is created by artists largely for their own pleasure
and  ultimately for exhibition and sale.  It may also be linked to the artist’s freelance business where work is produced
for publications which appeal to a particular sector of the general public.  Botanical illustration on the other hand is
strictly in the precinct of the biological science researchers -
it can be quite technical and allows little scope for
“painting or drawing with passion”
.

In its true meaning, the word, “illustration” is not perceived as art!  The dictionaries describe illustration simply,
to
clarify by use of examples or to explain
.  Are some of us using it too loosely?  When the word is strictly applied there is
a clear separation between art and illustration.   In today’s world, failing to see that distinction (which seems to be more
clearly understood by others outside our field) can generate negative responses as we strive to promote our work as an
art form to both the visual arts community and the general public.   Botanical illustration should be regarded as a
specialized field within botanical art which is carried out under the direction of a botanist ultimately
for the advancement
of science
.   It is used as a graphic aid to further explain the scientific texts written by plant taxonomists in the field of
plant systematics.  There is very little room  for
artistic expression in true botanical illustration which may be in the form
of ink or full colour illustrations and contain the defining characteristics of the species as prescribed to the illustrator by
the botanist - an application which is still preferred to photography.  This requires an extremely disciplined and often
technical approach  where  numerous restrictions can be  placed upon the illustrator.  (I should state that my years
spent working as the botanical illustrator at the Queensland Herbarium in Australia were extremely interesting and
enjoyable.)  For all the restrictions placed upon them a botanical illustrator, who should be an artist at heart, will
endeavor to maintain a degree of artistic integrity in their work.    Unfortunately the more aesthetic elements sought by
the illustrator are often not appreciated or seen as of little consequence to the botanist.  A joke shared with botanists at
the herbarium was that they could only recognize a plant species that was pressed flat and taped down onto the
herbarium sheet!  This is how plant taxonomists view plants and what they traditionally refer to for identification or to
describe a new species.  To make a living from illustration there is a need to keep pace with time saving techniques and
the latest available offerings in technology.   The Guild of Natural Science Illustrators, of which I have been a member
since 1986, is a wonderful support for artists in the field of natural science illustration and many ASBA members also
belong to this Guild, however this is not the scene for many of you presently involved in botanical art.

Botanical artists should not regard their work as botanical
illustration unless it fits the explanation above.  There are
many wonderful exhibition pieces (some exquisitely detailed) plant studies I have viewed over the years which botanists
would reject as botanical illustration.  My concern here is twofold.  First, our art is often perceived by those outside as
“only” illustration.  My second concern is that if the stringent rules required for botanical illustration are used to define
the boundaries of botanical art, then this art form will stagnate.  So I cannot imagine why we would hanker for the
restrictions that apply to the science illustrators, other than perhaps for the misguided belief that it may add prestige to
bind it strictly to the restrictive perceptions of the art’s traditional base - or to directly associate it with science,  by
stating that it serves science.  It is prudent to note that the various rules for botanical illustration,
some of which are
valid, have been subject to change since scientists and the artistically challenged (who feel qualified) began to control
any flow of artistic endeavor - either through a need to reassert their authority over a field containing concepts not fully
understood by them or simply in an attempt to guide those “draftsmen” completely lacking artistic intelligence.

While contemporary botanical art is linked, by varying degrees, to its past traditions and is distinguished from other
forms of flower painting by its precise representational nature this should not be an inhibiting factor in the creation of
botanical studies which are “works of art”.    Botanical art is inspired by nature and through
creative expression the
artist can visually demonstrate an appreciation, or even passion,  for the artistic elements of nature’s design in which the
subject is bound.  If this be the case,  today’s botanical art should be, first and foremost artistically sensitive, and
secondly,  portray the subject as an
accurate graphic study.   When these two elements are successfully incorporated  
they do not conflict with each other but rather lead to the creation of work that can be inspirational!

A concise and simple definition for “Botanical Art” would be:
An inspirational art form which portrays plant subjects
as botanical studies in graphic realism, with artistic sensitivity,  in an endeavor to truthfully describe a species or
part  thereof
.   (This definition does not exclude three dimensional botanical art which can add further dimension and
interest to a botanical art exhibition.)  

(
My understanding of the aim of the ASBA is to promote the art of drawing and painting botanical subjects, hopefully
in the manner defined above, but its focus is on continuing the art’s traditions.   It would be understood by its members
that continuing botanical art’s traditions  implies a well defined but very limiting criteria for ASBA exhibition  
submissions - there is really little room for debate here at this stage
.)

If  the essence of my proposed definition is fully understood and accepted there is no need to stipulate the media to be
used, or to restrict the type of composition,  or as John Cody questions in a letter, The Botanical Artist No. 17, that
white backgrounds are mandatory.  (I would comment that other than for the case of uniformity, traditional illustration
“rules” state that white backgrounds are necessary in order to clearly define the plant’s structures.   If this logic is
carried through then white flowers should not be depicted against a white background.)   Personally I like the dignity a
white background imbues on botanical studies and my workshop, “
White Flowers -  capture the perfume”  (perception
of color in white flowers on a white background
) helps to open the eyes of the artist in my students.  

With a less regulated approach individuality can be alive and well and  the artist’s personal involvement with the subject
can emanate through their art - from their design of the overall composition, to the media chosen. Like all creative
works with well designed compositions set to inspire, we should strive to nurture and promote botanical art that  
provides diversity not monotony, with a balance between harmony and contrast, while we maintain a clear unity of
purpose and that one unifying thread that holds it all together is that of the artists’ passion of all things botanical (well
nearly all) and their desire to truthfully portray their subject.

Have I successfully defined botanical art?   Will I remain a voice in the wilderness?    I have recently become a member
of the ASBA and look forward to being an active participant.  I appreciate this opportunity to introduce myself and to
share my views and concerns and in so doing seek constructive responses that will help to clarify the definition of
botanical art.  I also welcome comment on whether it is seen as beneficial to define the line between botanical illustration
and botanical art within this genre.

Margaret Saul © 2000
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