Artists Botanic Art Melbourne Plants

The Art of Botanical Illustration 2014

Unfortunately the Art of Botanical Illustration Exhibition, organised by the friends of the Royal Botanical Gardens, Melbourne, is finished. Also, again unfortunately, I have no photos to show you. Photography was not allowed. Even if it was I would not show photos of the works of others without their permission. They are not mine to show. However follow this link to the Friends website to see the digital catalogue. Other links through the post will take you to menu of the catalogue and from there you can select the name of the artist I am referring to.

Botanic art is not still life or floral art [perfectly valid art forms], but rather a scientific depiction of a plant. That sounds rather dry until you recognise that there is a spectrum, from the pure scientific drawings that you would see in an encyclopaedia of plants, drawings that have to be accurate to exact length of the hairs on the stem, through to paintings that might be ‘portraits’ of the plant, almost floral art. Within that range there is scope for all sorts of works.

There were paintings in the exhibition that some might have been taken aback to see — orange segments, single autumn leaves, walnuts and seaweed. For me, each work displayed showed the amazing diversity, complexity and fragility of the our world.

It is the artist’s job to tell the story of the plant, flowers and seed, habit and form; to convey the complexity of the plant. We have to make artistic decisions about how to do that. What medium is best suited to the plant? What composition will tell the story best? I am always amazed at the quality of the works in exhibitions, and feel lucky to be able to learn from these wonderful artists.

Watercolour is the traditional medium for botanic artists. It has a transparency that allows the light to shine through. If you get it right it is perfect for plants like roses and poppies or plants that have very fine detail. Jennifer Wilkinson‘s Iceland poppy shows how subtle and delicate watercolour can be.

A number of artists chose other mediums because they were better suited to their plant. Have a look at Simon Deere‘s wonderful, controlled works in graphite [pencil]. Other artists, like Sandra Johnston, selected coloured pencils. The bark on Sandra’s eucalyptus work is amazing. For others the best solution was a mix of media. Two of my favourites used watercolour and graphite.

Joanna Hyunsuk Kim exhibited a couple of Strelizias, and both were gorgeous. However it was the S. nicolai that demanded that I stop and look. It was a dried flower head. The detail of the husk was captured beautifully in graphite, while the petals were watercolour. What really made it for me were the seeds. They had been painted in bright orange and popped off the page when compared to the muted tones of the rest.

Another perfect mix of media was Anne HayesBanksia serrata. The image on the website is lovely, but it doesn’t show the texture of the original. If you have ever touched the leaves of a banksia you will know that they have an interesting combination of a fuzzy surface with tough, prickly structure. Anne has captured that beautifully. And the control of the pattern of the seed head……oh my.

I was also taking note of composition, looking to see how others tell the story of the plant. I was lucky that on my plant, Cullen palladium,  the seeds, mature flowers and buds are all on the one spray. Other specimens are not so accommodating!

Fiona McKinnon solved the problem by having the different stages of the plant on different stalks that intertwined over the page. Kate Nolan’s composition for her Spinifex sericeus combined a couple of strand of the plant. This was another wonderful example of mixing media. Who knew that the humble beach grass could be so ethereal?

These are just a small number of the works. If you saw the exhibition, I hoped you liked it. Tell us, in the comments, which was your favourite. If you missed it, there will be another in two years, with another stunning selection of delights for you.


8 replies on “The Art of Botanical Illustration 2014”

Hi Anne, Thankyou for a wonderful piece of writing about an exhibition I must see. Have it noted in a prominent place in my kitchen so I don’t miss it in 2 years’ time. Meanwhile I have a lot of ‘places’ to visit, thanks to all the links you have given. As an observer of art I do like the combination of graphite and watercolour, both in the botanical style and the more loosely painted creations. Cheers, Sandi


“Have it noted in a prominent place in my kitchen so I don’t miss it in 2 years’ time.” I love how determined you are not to miss it! Often there are other botanic art and natural history exhibition in and around Melbourne. I will let people know about them [if I remember!]. I agree with you, graphite and watercolour are a wonderful mix. they seem to be made for each other.


Copyright is such an important issue, especially in this internet age. I can only control what I do, so I have set myself some rules about images. But, like you Ellen, I was wishing I could directly link the image and the words! Oh well…


What a wonderful sum up of the exhbitition. Do you get to write any of the promo etc for it? Because you have done so here resoundingly. Well done on the success. I’m sure now you’ll be thinking ahead to the next.


Your question brought a smile to my face, EllaDee! No I haven’t done any work for it. I guess when the passion comes through when you write from the heart. As for the next one… well, after my time in Menindee this year, I have two more paintings for the Beckler’s Botanical Bounty Project. I amy think about doing one of those plants for the exhibition. While I love paintings of roses, banksias and irises, I also think it is important to show case more unknown Australian plants.


As a botanist I can attest to how much the work of botanical illustrators is valued. My students often admire floras containing photographs, but I always direct them to books with watercolours… such illustrations tend to be of much more value – showing different life stages and magnifications when necessary. I salute all of you botanical artists for your skill and contribution to the work of those of us use your creations.


There are some excellent photographers who can create botanical photos. Niki Simpson (I think I have her name correct) is one I know of. But you are right. The artist can see more selectively than a camera and botanical illustration is still the preferred method for flora. The trick is to make it into an artistically pleasing work too. Thanks for understanding our work.


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