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Drawing of a botanical specimen

Here are some wonderful questions posed by our visitors and answers from the experts here at the Smithsonian Institution.

September 13th

Question:
How I differenciate a poisonous plant from another?

Elizabeth lozada
Bayamon
Puerto Rico

Answer:
Many plant species are considered poisonous plants. They come in a variety of appearances, and there is not one general “look” to a poisonous plant. The best way to know whether a plant is considered poisonous is to know which species grow in your geographical region (state, province or municipality). Your local native plant society may be able to help generate a list.

Gary Krupnick, Ph.D.
Head of the Plant Conservation Unit
Department of Botany
Smithsonian Institution

 

Question:
How do you see the role of conservation biologists in the continuing education of the general public about the critical importance of the conservation of habitats and biodiversity? By this I mean other than through passive methods like museum exhibits?

Mike Shipman
Nampa, ID
United States

Answer:
There are many ways in which a conservation biologist can educate the general public. Most methods tend to be passive—publishing books, writing newspaper and magazine articles, contributing to websites and blogs, creating exhibits in museums, zoos, and botanic gardens. Some more active roles may include teaching courses or guest lecturing (from primary school to the university level), and being involved with outreach (working with master gardener groups, etc.). The main importance is to get the message out – that the conservation of habitats and biodiversity is critical for not only the well-being of the plants and animals in those habitats, but for human health as well.

Gary Krupnick, Ph.D.
Head of the Plant Conservation Unit
Department of Botany
Smithsonian Institution

 

Question:
Hi, I just looked through the page showing all the experts and was interested to see only one man. Is this typical of this field?

It must be incredibly pains-taking. Drawing something about right" is probably not acceptable to you! Thanks.

Kay
Falls Church, VA
United States

Answer:
There is typically a larger proportion of women to men in the field of botanical art and illustration.  In the American Society of Botanical Artists the percentage of male members is about 6%.
The history of women botanical artists dates back to the eighteenth century but it was in British Victorian Society that women were encouraged to be educated in the fine arts and flower painting became a much approved activity for young women. Many of the botanical journals of that time were illustrated by women including Curtiss' Botanical Magazine. Today the tradition of flower painting is still very much a woman's field.

Alice Tangerini
Staff Illustrator
Department of Botany
Smithsonian Institution

October 11th

Question:
Given the huge advances in photography that have occurred over the last century, can you explain why biological illustration is still needed?

Mary Bradley
Gaithersburg, MD
United States

Answer:
Most biological and especially botanical illustrations are made from preserved material stored in museum collections.  Since the specimens are not living they are usually compromised in appearance-many are missing parts or suffer from the process of preservation.  Our herbarium specimens are pressed and dried, losing all dimension and many are not complete specimens.  Artists perform the function of reconstruction-making a whole specimen from incomplete or damaged specimens-often consulting many in the process. The artist makes many microscopic dissections and refines the drawing to make distinguishing characteristics prominent.  A camera can only focus on one depth and cannot provide the necessary reconstruction. The artist acts as the second “eyes” for the scientist sometimes spotting key differences in specimens. Good digital images may provide research material but not replace the artist.

Alice Tangerini
Staff Illustrator
Department of Botany
Smithsonian Institution

 

Question:
How much artistic leeway does an artist have in illustrating botanical species for scientific purposes? Are there certain conventions that MUST be followed in illustrating them? What makes a good botanical illustrator?

Karl
New York, NY
United States

Answer:
Artistic license is fairly restricted in botanical illustration but how much freedom in representing a plant depends on its ultimate use.  As a staff illustrator for the Botany Department I need to make drawings for floras (plants from specific geographic areas), monographs (a treatment of related plants) and illustrations of new species. The strictest representation of the plant is with new species.   If there is only one plant provided for drawing then the drawing may look very much the same as the specimen with detailed dissections added to show the structure of the flowers or fruit or even a magnified view of a leaf surface. The drawing must always agree with the scientific description written by the botanist. An artist may catch a discrepancy in the written description when researching the plant and should always inform the botanist.  Floras are much the same as field guides so the plants are usually known species and may not need as much detail.  The artist may be requested to make the plant more lifelike which may mean adding a three dimensional appearance.  Conventions that are usually followed for botanical illustration include: light source is from the upper left; stippling or parallel lines may be used for shading, cross hatching is only used sparingly (it tends to give a woody appearance); and dissections of flowers are usually longitudinally whereas fruits may also be in cross section.

A good botanical illustrator is an accurate, knowledgeable artist with a desire to show the attributes of a plant in a well executed technique.

Alice Tangerini
Staff Illustrator
Department of Botany
Smithsonian Institution

 

Question:
Hello. I would like to know why scientists don't just study botany using microscopes and other powerful technology. Wouldn't they see more that way? Does illustration introduce inaccuracies?

Judy Epstein
Chicago, IL
United States

Answer:
Inaccuracies may come from any scientist or artist who does not view the subject carefully.  Illustration is a means to show aspects that may not be represented by digital or scanning electronic photography.  Illustrators may make interpretations in the specimen to highlight the characters that make the subject unique-something that straight photography does not yet do.  Even photographers manipulate images to make the subject have a certain appearance.  The new technology makes it more possible to see the details but it takes an artist to present these in a format for the viewer to understand.

Alice Tangerini
Staff Illustrator
Department of Botany
Smithsonian Institution

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