I am often asked by botanical painters about my view on the permanence of digital work, and in particular, the transience of my botanical plates. I am repeatedly presented with tales of disaster scenarios where hardware and/or software upgrading has led to loss of data or the inability to read data. I am aware that this is often put up, sometimes not so subtly, as a defence for the continuation of traditional botanical painting against a move to digital illustration. But in this day and age, where so many, if not most, transactions are carried out electronically, this seems to me a strange question, since the same people generally seem happy to use mobile phones, internet banking and cloud storage for their photos, etc., which daily communicate their sensitive data which they wouldn’t be at all happy to lose. Yes, data can be lost or corrupted, but any institution or persons concerned about data which they deem to be important, will save work in industry standard formats and migrate those data accordingly. And surely relevant here, if botanical scientists, whose research botanical artists illustrate, are content to work, experiment and communicate electronically, record and archive digitally and then publish their results on websites or by publication in online journals as standard practice, then why should botanical artists creating illustrations be thought of differently? If the scientists are not worried about losing their scientific data, why should botanical illustrators worry about losing their visual data?
To me, all the negativity I receive over digital work being at risk of corruption and deletion, seems to direct attention away from the fact that a painting has no guarantee of permanence either; it’s just that the risks are different. So, to redress the balance, a digital work can be far more secure that conventional work, where there is only one original. A painting’s very uniqueness, in itself, confers considerable risks – it is a single item and one the artist cannot replace with an identical painting. Any one painting can be lost in transit, damaged at home or when on display, damaged by fire or flood in archives, or simply deteriorate over time, and so in that sense any permanence of record, or at least chance of enduring, is generally only achieved by publication in print or by copies – and in this day and age that will most likely be a digital copy. To emphasize my point, an original painting’s longevity will arise from a myriad of external factors, and often those factors will have little to do with the original artist or even their intentions. A digital image, on the other hand, can exist as multiple printed copies on paper and/or multiple electronic copies on the internet, the same as for copies of a painting, but the original digital image files can themselves be replicated and stored in multiple sites on multiple servers around the globe, and an exact image be recreated from the data – and the flexibility of layout remains available too.
It seems to me, that all such discussion on the permanence or otherwise of digital images simply misses the point – their whole point is that they are not unique and can be replicated exactly – and easily. It’s what they can do that is important. Digital scientific illustrations (and not just mine), are not created primarily for hanging on a wall, but precisely for their reproducibility into many copies; for their suitability for sharing via the internet in emails and text messages for discussions with or between botanists, for their use in apps and in national picture library websites, for ready use on electronic image transfer sites used by publishers, etc. They are created as scientific documents specifically designed to illustrate a scientific article, or to convey particular botanical information to the reader (who nowadays is increasingly likely to be a viewer). If botanical artists and illustrators are to fully support botanists in the future, then surely the illustration medium must suit botanists and publishers practices and methods.