NSI: A Brief Introduction to Behind-the-Scenes Botanical Illustration

In training to become a natural science illustrator, one quickly learns that an accurate illustration begins with good references. Illustrators will work with whatever solid resources they can get their hands on, sometimes traveling to sketch and photograph specimens on their own, sometimes working with specimens provided by a client, and sometimes working with scientific collections like those found in Natural History Museums.

Epilobium ciliatum flower detail
Epilobium ciliatum flower detail in pen and ink.

For my pen and ink illustration of Epilobium ciliatum I worked primarily with specimens from my own container garden. This little weed sprang up all over the place in my pots, and I thought it would be a shame not to take advantage of it! I sketched, measured and photographed the plants in a few sittings over a number of days in order to catch them with the flowers open and to observe changes in the seed structure. I also used this Herbaria collection to learn more about the plant and to see pressed specimens which have been photographed and cataloged online.

As is often the case in natural science illustration (NSI for short), I needed to use magnification to get a really good look at the plant’s structures. A 10x loupe is enough to reveal quite a bit that you can’t see with the naked eye, but for this project I took advantage of a 45x dissecting scope available to me in my illustration classroom. Under that scope the 1mm seeds had a surface texture almost like corduroy and I could clearly see individual specks of pollen in the flower. If you think tiny little flowers are boring, you just need to look at them really close up!

Two photos of one pine cone on different days illustrating the change in shape as the cone dries and spreads.
One pine cone, two different days.

One aspect of working with botanical specimens that might surprise the inexperienced is just how much plants change as you draw them. We expect flowers and leaves to wilt, but they also turn with the light and their buds open and close. It’s a good idea to be prepared with multiple specimens when working with something very changeable. Even pine cones can become unrecognizable within hours if subjected to a change in environment!

It isn’t unusual for me to see interesting plants while I’m out and about and to think to myself that I’d like to draw them sometime, if I can figure out what they are. I could always draw them and let them remain mysteries, but it’s much more satisfying to have a name for my subject. One handy tool that I’ve used for plant identification in Washington state is the University of Washington Herbarium Image Collection. This useful site includes a plant identification key that can help narrow down your search.

This is a long post, but it’s a very small piece of the wide world of plant illustration. I hope that this and further posts about the processes involved in NSI will help people understand what goes on behind the illustrations in textbooks, science journals, field guides and other places where we find science illustration. Thanks for reading!


Asian Small-Clawed Otters

posted in: Mammals | 0

asian small clawed otters

It’s always a good day to go to the zoo! Today was my first chance to see Woodland Park Zoo’s new Asian small-clawed otters. They cruised around their enclosure making adorable peeping sounds. The sloth bear cubs were out too (also adorable), but Gavin the porcupette could not be convinced to wake up and come out to say hello.


Signs of Spring

posted in: Birds | 0

Last night I visited some favorite local ponds, hoping to find some entertaining ducks. The many species that winter there seem to have moved on for the summer, but the year-round Mallard residents have adorable new ducklings. This family was much too busy scooting about the pond to notice me snapping pictures.

red clover

Red Clover and Spring Gardening

posted in: Plants | 0

Last winter I planted red clover seeds in my veggie containers, planning on turning the plants into the soil come spring. The problem with this plan is that the red clover is so pretty I hate to kill it. Now my veggies are unplanted and the clover is thriving!