Seeing the artist’s way

Six botanical paintings of pteridophytes.
Art meets science at the RHS Botanical Art and Photography Show. The Pteridophytes of Japan by Mari Ueda.

One of the (many) things I love about botany (in particular plant taxonomy – the naming and classifying plants) is that of all branches of science, it is perhaps the one where art and science, often thought of as opposites, are most closely bound together. Accurate botanical illustration has always been central to recording, understanding and communicating the morphological characteristics of plants and, even today, of the 2,000 or so new species of plant described each year, most are accompanied by an artist’s drawing as well as the formal written description.

Native Calanthe in Korea by Keahyung Lee (detail).

Botanists aren’t always great artists (although many are, and produce all their own illustrations), but during my training at Kew, a wise old botanist once told me that in order to unlock the secrets of plants, I had to learn the artist’s way of observing and seeing things, and having a go at botanical drawing is an excellent way of achieving this.

In the book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, Betty Edwards teaches how to “see in the special way that experienced artists see” through a number of interesting exercises. Once you can see in this way, she argues, then you can draw. I would add that once you can see in this way, you are also equipped to see far more information when you look at a plant than simply its aethetic appeal.

What’s wrong with the “normal” way of seeing things? Betty explains that when we look at an object, we generally do not really see what is in front of our eyes, but take a quick note of what’s there, and quickly translate the perception into words and symbols based on what we already know about the perceived object. She calls this “left brain mode”. Artists (and, I would argue, botanists) need to train their brains to perceive things exactly as they are, rather than letting the brain take these shortcuts. She calls this “right brain mode”.

I see this quite often when asked to identify plants for people. Sometimes they’ll ask “is it such-and-such?”, naming a plant which may look superficially similar, but is quite clearly very different if you know what to look at. For example, Liquidambar styraciflua (American sweetgum) is often mistaken for an Acer (maple) as they look superficially similar, and both have palmetely-lobed leaves. They can easily be distinguished however by observing the arrangement of leaves along the stem – in opposite pairs in Acer and alternately along the stem in Liquidambar. This will be immediately obvious when observing the plant the artist’s way (right brain mode), but the lazy left brain mode of seeing may take one look and conclude “Acer“.

Spot the difference: Phygelius capensis (left) and Fuchsia ‘Thalia’ (right). CC BY-SA 4.0

Looking at Phygelius capensis the “normal” way, one might see the bright, tubular flowers on a small shrub with opposite leaves, and mentally label it as a fuchsia. Observing it in the botanist/artist way, however, and one will observe subtle differences – the Phygelius has five petals rather than the four observed on a fuchsia flower; there is no sign of the ovary seen at the base of a fuchsia flower (which ripens into a berry), and so on. Unfortunately these superficial similarities often find their way into common names, for example Phygelius capensis is commonly known as Cape fuchsia, despite the two plants being unrelated. This is one reason why I’m not a fan of common names, as I think they can often cause more confusion.

Two pieces of equipment helped me start observing plants in this way, and are all you need to become a backyard botanist – a hand lens and a good illustrated botanical glossary.

A x10 hand lens (at any higher magnification they become difficult to use) is perfect for looking at seeds, scales, hairs and pretty much all the characters required to identify and study plants. To make it as easy as possible to use, I would recommend one with a wide lens (which makes it easier to look through) and a built-in LED light.

A botanical glossary is a useful guide to what features to observe in each part of the plant, as well as providing a vocabulary to help describe what you see.

Do you enjoy drawing plants? Have you found that it helps you observe things in a different way? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.