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Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
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Drawing of a botanical specimen

The Role of the Illustrator

An original preserved plant specimen in the museum's collection, a photocopy of the specimen, and Alice Tangerini's illustration of a part of the specimen.
From top to bottom: Original preserved plant specimen, photocopy of specimen, and Alice Tangerini's illustration of a part of the specimen.
For a new plant species to be introduced to science, botanists need accurate images of the species they study. Scientists use the plant’s shape and form, not color, to distinguish between species. These illustrations must show the shape and structures of the plant in great detail.

The Illustrator’s Process


My name is Alice Tangerini and I have worked at the National Museum of Natural History for over twenty years. As a botanical illustrator, I am the eyes of the botanist. My illustrations describe the plant and its parts in a very visual form without needing any language interpretation. Let me show you how I do it.

I have a four-stage process that I use whenever I create a botanical illustration.

First, I make a full-size photocopy of the herbarium specimen. I use this to trace the overall outline of the larger parts of the specimen, such as the leaves and how they are attached to the stems.

Next, I draw several pencil sketches on translucent drafting film of the various parts of the plant. Throughout this process, I consult with the botanists who are publishing the scientific description.


Pencil drawing of various sections of a plant specimen. Pencil sketch of sections of a plant specimen.
Once the final pencil sketches are approved by the scientists, I arrange them in a 12" x 15" composition. Sometimes I scan the sketches into a digital file so I can resize them to fit and make very detailed touch-ups."


Pencil drawing of various sections of a plant specimen. Ink sketch of plant specimen.
Lastly, I place another transparent film over my sketches and trace the final image in ink.  This saves my pencil drawings for the archives. At this stage, I add many fine details that show the visual texture of the original specimen. I scan this final drawing at a high resolution for printing, which you can see in the framed illustration to the right of this case.


Artist's Tools

pictures of various brushes, pencils, pens, inks, and other tools used by illustrator Alice Tangerini.
These mechanical pencils, ink pens, small brushes, and microscope are some of the tools I use in my work. The small pens are increasingly difficult to find as more people switch over to illustrating directly on the computer. I now search for 'vintage' pens on the Internet when I need more.



Final Illustration


This is Alice's final inked illustration of the plant specimen.

Roll your mouse cursor over the image to see a magnification of the image.

Final sketch of plant specimen by Alice Tangerini.

Meet Alice Tangerini, botanical illustrator at the National Museum of Natural History.

Alice Tangerini, botanical illustrator at the National Museum of Natural History, drawing a plant speciment while viewing it through a microscope.

“As the museum’s botanical illustrator, I document and preserve records of the Museum’s collected botanical specimens…”



Share Your Illustrations!

Share your own illustrations on the museum's Flickr pool.

Upload and share your own botanical illustrations on the Museum's Flickr pool.



Send an E-Postcard

Send a botanical illustration e-postcard to family or friends

Send a botanical illustration e-postcard to family or friends.

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