The digital divide – botanical illustration in an age of change
© Niki Simpson
We have seen rapid changes in technology, economics, environment and culture. Internet and digital technologies are re-shaping and will continue to re-shape many aspects of our lives, some apparent and some behind scenes, enabling new possibilities and amplifying all manner of potentials. Science, printing and publishing industries and communications have all embraced computerisation and emerging technologies. In Botany, research uses and benefits from a wide array of increasingly sophisticated connectivities and digital technologies, and is written up in digital documents, often illustrated with digitally-created photographs, scans and graphs, and is increasingly disseminated digitally, published online in botanical journals which are compiled, edited and produced digitally. New botanical websites, blogs and apps continue to appear, while mobile devices increasingly enable feedback, citizen science and social media interaction. And, notably, since 2012, it is now even acceptable for new taxa to be scientifically validly named by online publication.
And for botanical artists? I am talking here of beyond the now ubiquitous use of the internet, email and mobile phones for planning and arrangements, discussion of ideas, digital diaries, online banking and payments and communication of images, etc. On the learning side, there are online opportunities with institutions or private tutors, the use of Skype and webcams for online tutorial sessions, and YouTube “how-to” videos are emerging. New for 2015, botanical artist Elaine Searle offers two new online courses which can be taken using your tablet or mobile phone, as well as desktop or laptop. On the doing, rather than the learning, side of things, mention can be increasingly found, on botanical artists’ websites or blogs, of the use of digital cameras or mobile phone cameras to take reference photos and of iPads and tablets in support roles as aids to creation and observation as well as for photographic reference. There is mention too of digital microscopes to record detail, of computers for researching particular plants or their habitats and to research the historical development of botanical art. Many artists have their own websites and blogs, and it is apparent that many are now happy to state openly that they welcome the use digital photography as an aid to their work. Scanners are used to copy paintings for the purposes of uploading to websites to share, to submit work for exhibitions, and for printing scanned paintings and drawings on home inkjet printers. Archive quality giclée prints on fine art paper can be ordered from professional digital printers, while some artists mention using desk-top publishing software to fine-tune their digital copies of their images to be as near to the painted original as possible. Over in the US, the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators embraced digital illustration with workshops on “Digital Illustration – Adobe Photoshop & Illustrator” back in 2009 and 2010.
So why is digital botanical illustration still so unacceptable to so many? Beats me.
Art or Science? Sci-art & Visual Botany
© Niki Simpson
Botanical art in general is said to straddle the supposed art-science divide. From the early herbals right through to today’s scientific floras, artists have worked with botanists to create accurate, detailed and often beautiful illustrations to support their scientific texts.
For me though, there is no division, simply a continuum of everything. I aim to bring together disciplines and work across transitions, whether art and science, art and illustration or illustration and photography, as well as science and design. On the one hand I create attractive images concerned with the beauty of plants. I have a special interest in composition, notably in creating a flow through the image, while as a scientist, the primary aim of my images is not beauty, but information content – to convey to the viewer a scientific visual description of the plant concerned. For this I use a longstanding botanical language, involving conventions and signs, to clearly depict the plant’s features, show hidden parts otherwise not readily seen, and emphasise the significant. I need, not only to create a visual flow through the image, but to create one that is botanically logical and appropriate. As I wrote in 2010 in my artist’s statement for the Riverside Gallery, “There is no place in my scientific botanical illustrations for obscuring shadows, or for the charm of old paintings; no aim for a ‘look’ or a ‘mood’, or even the ‘essence’ of a plant – just what is, or importantly for comparative work, what isn’t. My focus is on detail and accuracy; no fudging, fading or false colour, and, ultimately, for the botanical truth.”
© Niki Simpson
Incredible though it seems to me, I find that I have now been creating these digital botanical images for over ten years, so why a new name and website? The answer is twofold.
Firstly, there is another Niki Simpson website which is completely unrelated to botany or plants, and secondly, since my work is unacceptable in group botanical art shows and exhibiting solo is prohibitively costly, I had been looking to find new ways to exhibit my work. I realised that I could take another route, and try to demonstrate the flexibility and potential of my botanical images to an online audience. So I hope to take advantage of the developments in website technology and use this new Visual Botany website to embrace social media, to use a blog to explain and demonstrate some of the advantages of this type of image and to showcase a range of uses for which these images have been, or could be, used.
I set out ten years ago to see what benefits new technologies could bring to illustrating plants for scientific purposes, in order to support botanists in their work in the future and I hope to continue in that direction, to experiment and improve my images. But for the moment, I feel it is time to mark the end of a an amazing, yet at times difficult, decade, thank Peter Barnes for setting up and maintaining my previous website for so many years, and now step up to the plate and learn how to manage a website myself …… and look forward to the next decade.
Just in case anyone has stumbled on these brand new pages, I would like to wish them a Happy Christmas. Here is the holly, ivy and mistletoe – which I put together recently for a header for Dr M’s interesting and entertaining AdventBotany.
Enjoy your mid-winter festivities!
I imagine some people, on sitting down to begin a new blog, find that when the moment comes, they wonder where to start, but not so for me. I simply have to open by recording my sincere thanks to those who supported me right from the start. In those days I was working in the RHS Botany Department managing the RHS horticultural database and also, like many others, using computers for spreadsheets and word processing. Picking up a paintbrush to paint in watercolour began to seem incongruous. I remember feeling that the possibilities of digital plant illustration in scientific work needed to be explored, to move botanical illustration forward into the digital era, in line with the other digital technologies already in use by botanists in their work. This was back in 2002, and that time, the very idea of digital illustration of plants seemed remote, futuristic, and even laughable. Without the backing of RHS Wisley botanists, Peter Barnes and Alan Leslie, who kindly agreed to support my applications for funding, my endeavour would never have got off the ground. Several places turned the idea down, but I was delighted in 2003 to receive an award from the Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust, for funding some image software and photographic training to ‘investigate digital techniques for the purpose of botanical illustration’. What a turning point that proved to be, and I would like to gratefully acknowledge their support.
And what a journey it has been since then…