Illustration

What Is Botany, and How Does It Inspire Creativity?

Learn about the origin of this ancient science and how it has kept inspiring artists throughout the ages

Botany is the science that studies the features, properties, and processes of plants and vegetables; how they connect, and what their vital functions are. It is a scientific discipline that's part of biology. Botany is also responsible for describing and classifying the world of flora.

Origins of botany

The need for early humans to identify and later cultivate edible and medicinal plants and avoid poisonous ones originated in the Paleolithic. The first written list of plants, which made herbalism one of the oldest branches of science and the basis for modern botany, dates back to the Sumerians over 5000 years ago.

Later, in ancient Greece, a student of Aristotle called Theophrastus, wrote De Historia Plantarum (Enquiry into Plants) and On the Causes of Plants. These works, which gained him the title of 'father of modern botany,' were the most significant contribution to botanical science for 17 centuries, up until the Middle Ages.

Theophrastus. Enquiry into Plants.
Theophrastus. Enquiry into Plants.

The evolution of botany

During the 15th and 16th centuries, botany developed as a scientific discipline separate from herbalism and medicine. Among the factors that contributed to its development, progress, and evolution was the invention of the printing press.

Seafaring and botanical expeditions made an essential contribution in spreading local and regional knowledge of plants at an international scale. The development of botanical gardens combined with the development of the arts and sciences resulted in a noticeable increase in the understanding of plants' species at the time.

Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, London. Photo credit Alessandra Cesarato.
Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, London. Photo credit Alessandra Cesarato.

The first botanical gardens were attached to universities, facilitating the academic study of plants and subsequent plant taxonomy, i.e., the process of identifying, describing, classifying, and naming plants. In the 18th century, these studies led to the creation of Carl Linnaeus's binomial system of nomenclature, still used to this day.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, new techniques were developed to study plants, including optical microscopy methods and live-cell imaging to help botanists classify plants more accurately.

Botanical illustration

Increased demand for colorful and detailed botanical publications brought about by advances in printing processes paved the way for a new respected profession: the botanical illustrator. Illustrating the form, color, and details of plants became indispensable for physicians, pharmacists, botanical scientists, and gardeners who aimed to identify, analyze, and classify plant life.

James Sillett - Sweet violet and Blue passion flower (1806).
James Sillett - Sweet violet and Blue passion flower (1806).

Leading botanical artists

The Bauer brothers

Franz and Ferdinand Bauer belong to what is considered the Golden Age of Botanical Art and made an enormous contribution to natural history illustration between 1750 and 1850.

Francis (Franz) Bauer, rated as the greatest botanical artist of all time, was employed at the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew in London as the 'Botanick Painter to His Majesty,' where he drew all new flowering plants. His brother Ferdinand is noted for traveling with botanists and explorers and mapping and recording the natural flora and fauna of Greece and Australia.

Franz Bauer. Ink on paper illustration depicting all parts of an arctic flower.
Franz Bauer. Ink on paper illustration depicting all parts of an arctic flower.
Franz Bauer. Cypripedium calceolus, Lady's slipper orchid. Watercolour from British Orchids (1792-1817).
Franz Bauer. Cypripedium calceolus, Lady's slipper orchid. Watercolour from British Orchids (1792-1817).

Marianne North

Marianne North was encouraged by her Victorian parents to pursue art and became a prolific painter of plants and flowers while visiting 17 countries on six continents in 14 years. She was an energetic, experienced, and enthusiastic traveler who painted over 800 oil paintings while traveling alone in full Victorian dress.

Marianne North - Opium Poppy (1870).
Marianne North - Opium Poppy (1870).
Marianne North - A Bornean Crinum (1876).
Marianne North - A Bornean Crinum (1876).

Mary Grierson

Mary Grierson was an illustrator for Kew Gardens between 1960 and 1972 and was awarded several accolades for her artworks. She started her botanical art career at the age of 48. Her illustrations were regularly published in magazines; she produced designs for stamps for the Royal Mail and was a fellow of the Linnean Society.

Mary Grierson - Flower Study with Butterfly (1979).
Mary Grierson - Flower Study with Butterfly (1979).
Mary Grierson - Hylocereus Undatus, night blooming cereus (1985).
Mary Grierson - Hylocereus Undatus, night blooming cereus (1985).

Influence of botany on the arts

Nature will always inspire decorative, applied, and fine art. Countless artists have created vibrant and beautifully realistic art throughout the ages paying homage to plant life, showing a deep understanding, awareness, and appreciation of botany.

From Monet's Water Lilies to Van Gogh's Sunflowers, Georgia O'Keeffe’s Irises and Rachel Ruysch's Flower Still Lifes, to William Morris's Arts and Crafts movement’s plant and flower designs, the inspiration of the flora kingdom has been limitless and inherently connected to our human side.

Van Gogh - Sunflowers in a Vase (1888).
Van Gogh - Sunflowers in a Vase (1888).
William Morris - Honeysuckle printed fabric (1876).
William Morris - Honeysuckle printed fabric (1876).

Botanist Anna Atkins captured cyanotypes of plants and algae and created the first-ever photo book. Artist David Watkinson’s beautiful leaf and kinetic wind sculptures take inspiration from the natural world, as much as digital artist Macoto Murayama’s large-scale prints of dissected and processed flora images, a beautiful combination of traditional botanical artwork and detailed engineering drawing.

Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, Anna Atkins.
Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, Anna Atkins.

The botanical world will continue to inspire all beauty seekers wishing to manifest their creativity through all types of media and formats.

If you want to explore this theme and learn traditional and innovative techniques applied to various disciplines, be sure to check out the numerous courses taught by Domestika’s expert teachers who are also botany enthusiasts. You can learn to create beautiful illustrations through multiple techniques and processes, from traditional watercolor painting to printing, to botanical tattooing, embroidery, and more.

You may also like:

- 10 Artists and Designers to Draw Inspiration From for Your Botanical Watercolors
- Watercolor Tutorial: Paint a Leaf, Step-by-Step
- Watercolour Tutorial: Basic Botanical Illustration Techniques
- Botanical Sketchbooking: A Meditative Approach, a course by Lapin.
- Basic Botanical PressingTechniques, a course by Happy Green Family.
- Online Floral and Plant Design courses

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