Jean Emmons, “Eggplants,” watercolor on vellum, 2020.
Summertime’s gardens have long inspired artists and botanists. Botanical illustration emerged around the time of Plato, more than 2,000 years ago. The medium launched not as a fine art, but as a record-keeping device and a teaching tool. At the time, botany and medicine essentially were one and the same.
Yet even in the twenty-first century, the human skill of rendering plants in painstaking details that are trademarks of botanical illustration defies the digital age.
“The natural eye sees what we can’t get through photos,” said Carina Bañuelos-Harrison, manager of the Denver Botanic Gardens (DBG) School of Botanical Art & Illustration. Bañuelos-Harrison has a fine art studio background with an emphasis in digital art and photography. She emphasizes DBG’s facilities as ideal for botanical illustrators.
“Our students have the opportunity to use our herbarium or use microscopes to focus into detail on specimens they’re working on to understand what a specimen looks like to illustrate it,” she said.
The Denver school for botanical illustrators was founded in 1980 by Angela Overy, a resident of Edwards, Colo., and a native of England, where she attended British boarding school.
“We were taught to draw flowers and had exams in drawing flowers, part of our curriculum with Latin and chemistry. I always enjoyed it,” Overy said in a telephone interview. “I’m 84, and my hands are not so agile, and my eyes are not so good, so I say do it while you can. I still do it, but mine won’t have some of the exquisite details.”
Overy earned a degree in graphic arts and did a lot of drawing. “I always loved painting flowers best. I was fascinated by them, and I wanted to study them and pick them apart and make them mine by learning more about them,” she said.
Sue Carr, “Oro Blanco Grapefruit,” water color and colored pencil, 2021.
“I was astonished when I came to America, in 1962, how few flowers people had in their gardens. Flowers were not too terribly important, but now horticulture is big business and very exciting.”
Overy cultivated her interest in drawing flowers. But when she took an art class at DBG and it didn’t teach what she wanted to learn, she created her own curriculum. “People wanted to learn to draw the flowers at Denver Botanic Gardens. I ran these classes, and much to my amazement they filled immediately. People were thrilled. They didn’t know how to look. They didn’t know about pencils or papers. They were not taught. There was a real hunger.”
Although botanical illustration manages to merge science and art, for students of the medium, realism reigns.
“I like to keep it pure. There’s another whole branch to the more artistic side,” Overy said. “It’s more about the audience and depends on who I’m drawing for.”
As for botanical prints, the art market includes a wide variety.
“I have several botanical prints, and I really love them,” said Overy, the author of “Sex in Your Garden” and “The Foliage Garden.”
Overy provided an overview of botanical illustrations throughout art history.
“The woodcuts were amazingly good for the 15th century. Engraving on metal with a very sharp stylus altered everything with amazing detail, shading by crosshatching with the stylus. Botanical illustrations were in fashion, and everybody wanted botanical prints during a horticultural mania. Everyone wanted new plants from new countries, and they wanted the marvelous prints they could buy or books with prints in them that gave accurate descriptions of plants. The prints were an exciting innovation and very lucrative.”
Overy firmly opposes taking botanical illustrations from books. “It’s awful to take them out of books. Books should stay intact. That’s a treasure just as it is and practically worthless if you take the illustrations out,” she said.
Overy and collectors value engravings over lithographs.
Paintbrush- Cathleen Harrington, “Castilleja sp.,” watercolor, 2018.
“Engraved prints are really special. You can tell engraving from a steel plate. You can see the lines,” said Overy. “If collecting and hoping they go up in value, go for the original engraving. They’re hard to find, but some places specialize them.”
Tam O’Neill specialized in prints and dealt with some botanical illustrations at her now-closed gallery, Tam O’Neill Fine Arts in Denver.
“I’m seeing more botanical prints now in some of the decorating magazines,” said O’Neill. “People have been nesting since COVID, and I think including a bit of the natural world in our environment is soothing.”
Botanical illustrations have a classic look that renders the prints timeless and adaptable to décor.
“I’m seeing mix-and-match groupings with a more modern framing treatment. Floating the sheet to see the deckled edges of the paper is a more modern approach,” said O’Neill. “Using a natural wood frame and neutral color can help bridge the vintage prints to a modern room.”
And some students of botanical illustration frame and display their own works, however masterful.
“Like croquet or tennis, you can learn and have a lot of fun and don’t have to be brilliant at it, just learning to play,” said Overy about botanical illustrating. “You don’t have to be Leonardo.”
Colleen Smith is a longtime Denver arts writer and the curator of Art & Object’s Denver Art Showcase.
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Jean Emmons, “Eggplants,” watercolor on vellum, 2020.