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A Meticulous Art Drawn From Nature

Botanical illustrating emerges from the past to fire new passions in modern students.


When 18th century naturalists reported back to their patrons in Europe about the flora and fauna of the New World, they sent drawings and paintings. These illustrations of corn, mockingbirds, rattlesnakes, acacias, laurel trees and flowering bays are now among the most prized relics of the golden age of botany. Today, it seems logical that botanical illustration would be a bygone art, that the advent of photography would have left it as extinct as the passenger pigeon.

But go to the Arboretum of Los Angeles County in Arcadia, and one finds that it is not only alive, but's it's also well. Weekday classes teaching botanical illustration are filled with students willing to drive hours to attend, then spend half a day sketching a bulb of garlic.

Across the country, fascination with the art has been steadily rising, says James White, curator of the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, where an international exhibit of modern work began this week and will continue through February.

Private galleries too are showing botanical illustrations, he says, and collectors are buying new works, not just historical prints.

From Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., Karl Niklas, botany professor and editor of the American Journal of Botany, says the state of modern plant drawing is "extremely elegant" and that "the quality is as high now as it's ever been."

Its admirers and practitioners stress that it is a discipline quite separate from flower painting and landscapes. There are far stricter rules. If a flower is shown with a bug, they say, that bug had better be its pollinator (although pests are also acceptable). The images might be painted, or they might be drawn, but they must be accurate enough for a herbalist to identify a medicinal plant, for a teacher to use in a lesson or for a plant breeder to use for a nursery catalog.

There is even a school of thought that dictates that only black and white truly conveys form, that color distracts. Yet some illustrations may be so brightly painted they are almost Disney-issue. Others might be so slavishly accurate in color and line that at first one takes them for a photograph, a spookily vivid one. The one essential qualification for botanical illustration is that the image must be anatomically correct.

Paradoxical as it might sound, the ability to achieve an exaggerated accuracy is what saved the art. Botanical illustration survived photography precisely because it is more vivid.

"Photographs see too much," says Alan Stonebraker, art director of Science magazine in Washington, D.C. In an illustration, the artist can select what to show, perhaps subtly emphasize the way seeds are attached in a cantaloupe, for example, while not portraying the stringy membranes that obscure the view. To the mind of Niklas, a good illustration can condense the information "of 10 photographs."

For all the considerable discipline, there is romance to match. Talk to enough of those who teach, study, collect and publish botanical illustrations, and their remarks emerge as variations on a rapturous theme. They are one blissed-out bunch. Botanical art, they insist, is the discipline in which art meets science, in which depicting a plant requires truly seeing it, in which seeing the plant requires truly understanding it, and in which understanding it is somehow a profoundly satisfying way to connect with the natural world.

Sally Jacobs has just taken over teaching botanical art at the Arboretum of Los Angeles County. She has studied biology at Cornell, science education at Harvard and until she took up drawing four years ago, even ran her own software company.

"I've always been a successful person," she says. "But I never knew what people meant when they said they had a passion for something until I took up botanical art. A real love that envelops you. Now I understand that totally."

Her home is something of a flower and fruit image museum with the odd beetle portrait thrown in. But while her walls are abloom, Jacobs herself doesn't garden. "I admire gardens and I like to be in them," she says. "But botanical art is very time-consuming--as is gardening. I can't imagine having enough time to really immerse myself in both."

Her painting of a cantaloupe is the talk of the arboretum staff. The original hangs in her kitchen. It took, she guesses, "100 hours and probably 15 cantaloupes."

The exacting nature of her passion is what makes it so beneficial, she says. "You're sitting before nature. You enter a meditative state. It's very calming, and you have to do things slowly. There's no 'quick and dirty' in botanical art," she says. "It's the tai chi of art."

Producing the image requires studying the subject under a magnifying glass. Jacobs' glass is strapped to a headband, like a jeweler's. Her studio is fitted with special lamps to provide natural light at night.

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