The Jill Smythies Award given for digitally created botanical illustrations

Posted on June 12, 2018 by Niki under Uncategorized


It has been a very busy time of year for the botanical art world, both in the UK and around the world, and it has also been a quietly interesting one. I am delighted to write that at the Anniversary Meeting of the Linnean Society of London on May 24th, I received The Jill Smythies Award, given to “a botanical artist in recognition of excellence in published illustrations, such as drawings or paintings, in aid of plant identification, with the emphasis on botanical accuracy and the accurate portrayal of diagnostic characteristics”. Also receiving the award was Juliet Williamson, for her taxonomic illustrations (pen and ink) for Kew, and is known for her black and white illustrations for “The Kew Plant Glossary: An Illustrated Dictionary of Plant Identification Terms”.

Receiving my Jill Smythies 2018 medal © Linnean Society of London

While Juliet’s work is traditional, mine is not. My award was given specifically for my digitally created botanical illustrations using photography, and not for my earlier watercolour work. I would like to thank the Linnean Society of London for their open-mindedness in acknowledging the scientific content my digitally created work, at a time when this type of botanical illustration is still not acceptable to many. And I simply must acknowledge the huge contribution made by botanist Peter Barnes to developing my digital illustration technique.

See also Digital botanical illustrations recognized by the Linnean Society of London May 30, 2018 by Art Plantae.

There is another annually given, international, botanical illustration award, the Margaret Flockton Award made by The Royal Botanic Garden Sydney, Australia, which also “focuses on contemporary scientific botanical illustration, as distinct from botanical art”. It is given to an illustrator for “scientifically accurate drawings that accompany the published taxonomic description of the plant, clearly highlighting all of the distinctive features of the species”, but where submissions are restricted to black and white taxonomic illustrations. The results were announced quite recently, with the First Prize going to Natanael Nascimento, from Brazil, for his digital illustration of Lapidia apicifolia. Congratulations to Natanael and the other four! Notably, of the top five entries, not one but two were digital illustrations. Juan Luis Castillo, from Spain, a recipient of the Jill Smythies Award in 2001, is one of the three Highly Commended entries with a digital illustration of Theobroma cacao. Alice Tangerini, while Highly Commended for her traditionally drawn in pen and ink plate of Vernonia echioides, also now illustrates using digital as well as traditional techniques as staff illustrator at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution in the USA.  See also “Art, Botany and new technologies” by Juan Luis Castillo.

One could argue then that the making of these awards perhaps signals a degree of acceptance of digital techniques and that we are entering a period of transition for botanical illustration. Personally I feel no need to justify digitally created illustrations in an undeniably digital age (see my blog post from 3 years ago “The digital divide – botanical illustration in an age of change”, Jan 20, 2015) and am happy to let my images speak for themselves – one day I hope in an interactive way so that their potential can be realised.

I know change is difficult, but we are all faced these days with accepting technology in nearly every aspect of our lives. It was my love of plants and my interest in the future of botanical illustration that led me to experiment. Those employed in botanical institutions around the world, such as the Royal Botanic Garden Kew, will surely understand that a photographic technique quite simply and obviously cannot be used to illustrate from dried, flattened herbarium specimens, nor from extinct plant species for that matter. The creative process of compiling a composite botanical plate involves botanical knowledge, working in collaboration with a botanist, direct observation from life, hand-eye skills, accurate measurement, detail and accuracy of form and colour, a heavy emphasis on composition and importantly expertise in the established conventions of botanical art – regardless of whether this end is achieved by digital photography, digital drawing, digitally rendered drawing or by traditional methods

Perhaps 2018 and this year’s awards will prompt further argument against embracing digital techniques, but on the other hand it is always possible that opposition will just fall away, and before long digitally created and digitally rendered entries are considered, if not the norm, at least quite normal.


One thought on “The Jill Smythies Award given for digitally created botanical illustrations”

  1. Juan Luis Castillo says:

    Niki, I’m delighted and very happy for your Linnean award. A deserved award to a pioneering work in botanical illustration, in adición to being a turning point in the use of new technologies. My most sincere congratulations.

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