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Let's Talk About Botanical?

Visit an art show labelled Botanical Art and straight away you get twitchy. That's not botanical art it's flower painting, that's a fungus, that's not a plant. If you have heard it all before then you can see that once the topic of what is "botanical art" arises then the "heat in the studio" also rises.

Today we are starting a conversation about the definition of terms. In particular what do we mean by:

- botanical illustration?

- botanical art?

- flower painting?

This article is the first part of a series of integrated activities based around our forthcoming exhibition Purely Botanical?

One of the activities will ask members to categorise a number of artworks into these three common categories and this will be followed by an open discussion, hosted by one of our members and also an ABBA Trustee, Martin Allen. Details of this event will be published in the near future, it should be fun!

Back to today's topic. You would have thought that these three innocuous phrases would be easy to define. As it turns out the more you analyze the terms the more complex it gets so for this conversation we lay out some background and we invite your thoughts and opinions through our Forum.

With this in mind and depending on the time of day in your part of the world, grab a coffee a cup of tea or a nice glass of wine and settle down for an extended read.


First Term - Botanical Illustration

As an intellectual exercise let's break down the terms first.

Botanical (adj.)

The Oxford® dictionary defines the term botanical as: "relating to botany" and it can be used as an adjective or a noun (botanicals). Dig a little deeper and since botanical is defined as relating to botany this seems the word to tackle.

BOTANY = "the scientific study of the physiology, structure, genetics, ecology, distribution, classification, and economic importance of plants"


The root word botanic is late 17th century from the French botanique which originated from the Greek botanikos, "of herbs".

The key words in the definition of botany for our conversation, are probably:

  • scientific

  • study

  • structure

  • physiology

  • distribution

  • classification

  • plant

  • genetics

  • ecology

In short we are interested in - "the detailed structure, ecology and classification of a plant".

Liverworts - Ernst Haeckel - Kunstformen der Natur (1904),

Since it all revolves around the term "plant" we should probably go back to the Oxford® dictionary again.

PLANT = "a living organism of the kind exemplified by trees, shrubs, herbs, grasses, ferns, and mosses, typically growing in a permanent site, absorbing water and inorganic substances through its roots, and synthesizing nutrients in its leaves by photosynthesis using the green pigment chlorophyll"


Old English plante ‘seedling’, plantian (verb), from Latin planta ‘sprout, cutting’ (later influenced by French plante) and plantare ‘plant, fix in a place’.

If we get a little more scientific the name Plantae or plant when applied to a specific group of organisms, usually refers to one of four definitions. Some of these definitions are historical.

Parasol mushroom - © Helen Cavalli - 2019

1. Plants in the strictest sense

Include the liverworts, hornworts, mosses, and vascular plants, as well as fossil plants similar to these surviving groups. (Wikipedia)

2. Plants in a strict sense

Include the green algae, and land plants that emerged within them, including stoneworts. (Wikipedia)

3. Plants in a broad sense

Comprise the green plants listed above plus the red algae (Rhodophyta) and the glaucophyte algae (Glaucophyta) that store Floridean starch outside the plastids, in the cytoplasm. (Wikipedia)

4. Plants in the widest sense

Refer to older, obsolete classifications that placed diverse algae, fungi or bacteria in Plantae. (Wikipedia)

Here the Latin is fabulous for the above plant definitions.

  1. sensu strictissimo - in the strictest sense.

  2. sensu stricto - in a strict sense

  3. sensu lato - in the broad sense

  4. sensu amplo - in a relaxed, broad sense.

That's some background on the term "botanical" now let's turn to the other words in our three phrases.

Sensu amplo!
Red marine algae - © Susan Gubbay - 2020

Illustration (n.)

If we go for a relatively narrow dictionary definition, illustration just has two synonyms associated with it "image" and "picture", that's it. But if we dig a little deeper and explore these two words.

Image has this - "representation of the external form of a person or thing in art."

Picture has this - "painting or drawing" or this, "a photograph".


Late Middle English (in the sense ‘illumination; spiritual or intellectual enlightenment’): via Old French from Latin illustratio(n-), from the verb illustrare.

Now it's getting complex and you thought an illustration is an illustration but now art, representation of external form and intellectual enlightenment have joined the conversation.

Based on these terms the key words for illustration are probably:

  • picture

  • image

  • enlightenment

  • representation

  • external

  • painting

  • drawing

  • art

  • photograph

  • form

So if we summarise so far, there are elements in the term Botanical Illustration that involve:

  • detailed structure and classification

  • a term "plant" with several strict and not so strict definitions

  • painting, drawing and photograph

  • external form

  • a thing in art

  • spiritual or intellectual enlightenment

There is some meaty stuff to chew on here but let's move on.


Second Term - Botanical Art

We have explored the term botanical in some depth so in this section we look at the companion term art which popped up when we were looking at the term image. Just to refresh your memory one of the synonyms of illustration was image where one definition was:

Image = representation of the external form of a person or thing in art.

Art (n.)

Definition time again and several crop up for the term art.

" the making of objects, images, music, etc. that are beautiful or that express feelings"

"the activity of painting, drawing, and making sculpture"

If we want the longer more formal version.

ART = The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.


Middle English via Old French from Latin ars, art

So now we are getting away from some of the more rigid scientific, more narrowly defined terms associated with the term botanical into more "squishy" less defined spiritual, intellectually enlightened emotional areas. That is, images that evoke some sort of human response. We all know that response can range from love it to leave it and anywhere else in between.

From the definitions the key words for art can be listed as:

  • people/human

  • express/expression

  • creative

  • skill

  • images

  • feelings

  • works

  • drawing

  • ideas

  • imagination

  • visual

  • painting

  • sculpture

  • appreciated

  • beauty

  • emotion

So again in summary we have the botanical bit coupled with art this time which involves

  • making objects

  • expression of ideas

  • creative skill

  • imagination

  • visual forms

  • works appreciated for their beauty / emotional power

As soon as humans get involved then it becomes a little fluffy around the edges.


Third Term - Flower Painting

Flower (n.)

FLOWER - the seed-bearing part of a plant, consisting of reproductive organs (stamens and carpels) that are typically surrounded by a brightly coloured corolla (petals) and a green calyx (sepals).


Middle English flour, from Old French flour, flor, from Latin flos, flor-. The original spelling was no longer in use by the late 17th century except in its specialized sense ‘ground grain’

c. 1200, flour, also flur, flor, floer, floyer, flowre, "the blossom of a plant; a flowering plant," from Old French flor "flower, blossom; heyday, prime; fine flour; elite; innocence, virginity" (12c., Modern French fleur), from Latin florem (nominative flos) "flower" (source of Italian fiore, Spanish flor), from PIE root *bhel- (3) "to thrive, bloom."

From the definitions the key words for flower are:

  • seed bearing

  • reproductive

  • stamens

  • carpels

  • corolla

  • petals

  • calyx

  • sepals

  • coloured

The dictionary definition is a little cryptic to say the least and almost a reversion to the scientific. However the origin of the word saves the day and bread ingredients, innocence, virginity and heyday keep the fluffy human theme alive.

And finally our last word painting, used here as a noun.

Painting (n.)

PAINTING = the practice of applying paint, pigment, color or other medium to a solid surface (called the "matrix" or "support"). The medium is commonly applied to the base with a brush, but other implements, such as knives, sponges, and airbrushes, can be used.

"Painting is an important form in the visual arts, bringing in elements such as drawing, composition, gesture (as in gestural painting), narration (as in narrative art), and abstraction (as in abstract art). Paintings can be naturalistic and representational (as in still life and landscape painting), photographic, abstract, narrative, symbolistic (as in Symbolist art), emotive (as in Expressionism), and/or political in nature (as in Artivism) ."(Wikipedia)


c. 1200, "that which is painted, a picture depicted with paint," verbal noun from paint (v.). From late 14c. as "art of depicting by means of paint."

From the definitions the key words for painting are:

  • paint

  • pigment

  • colour

  • brush

  • knife

  • sponge

  • airbrush

  • drawing

  • composition

  • gesture

  • narration

  • abstraction

  • naturalistic

  • representational

  • photographic

  • symbolistic

  • emotive

So that's it, all the individual words have been defined.


Bringing it all together

Now we bring all the words, definitions and grouping of all our terms together and look for the similarities and differences.

In the figure the same colour indicates the word is present in our defined terms. The overlap (if any) seems to fall into two camps the scientific bits (botanical and flower) and the techniques and emotive bits (illustration, art and painting). Most of the overlap seems to be with the techniques/medium and the emotive bits and it is through the combination of the terms that you get the overview.

botanical illustration - botanical art - flower painting

Well that's it, as much information as you need to start a conversation about our three key terms and you may already have a clear idea of what you understand by these terms but does your fellow artist have the same view?


What do you think?

  1. As part of this conversation and once you have read this article, you can now judge your own work. How would you classify the artwork you produce, does it fall into one or more of our categories?

  2. Visit our Forum and add your thoughts to our conversation. You have to sign in as an ABBA Member to contribute to our Forum.

  3. If you are submitting work for our next exhibition Purely Botanical? you will be asked to categorise your work - this will make you think!

First challenge - how detailed does your image need to be in order to correctly classify your subject?
Second Challenge - how broad or narrow do you want to be in the definition of a "plant"?
Third Challenge - what does the term "art" mean to you?
Fourth Challenge - where do you think you sit when it comes to a definition of terms?

And finally.....

Look out for our next related event when you will have the opportunity to categorise a series of other artists artworks that we will put online. This will be followed by a live online session presented by Martin Allen who is well versed in discussing the finer points of botanical art or is it illustration, or flower painting?

Sensu strictissimo or maybe stricto, or lato, or even amplo!

AlanC - July 2020




All examples and images are used under a Creative Commons Rights - CC BY-SA license or attributed to a named person.

Cambridge Dictionary -

Online Etymology Dictionary -

Oxford English Dictionary -

The following artists were very generous in permitting their images to be used in this article.

Elaine Allison - Orange petaled passion flower - Passiflora aurantia

Lucy Smith - A new species of tree fern from New Guinea - Alsophila sp. nov.

Susan Gubbay - Red Algae - Drachiella spectabilis, Delesseria sanguinea & Dilsea carnosa

Helen Cavalli - Parasol mushroom - Macrolepiota procera

Other Images

Portrait of the three engravers of Fuchs' 'de Historia,'Heinrich/ Heinricus F(?)uellmaurer', 'Albertus Neher' and 'Ditus Rodolph Spectle' Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Liverworts - Ernst Haeckel - Kunstformen der Natur (1904) - (public domain).

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