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The Artist’s Handbook of Botany by Lizabeth Leech

This is not a botany textbook! Instead, by using copious diagrams and drawing on her knowledge as a botanist, Liz Leech explains how to look at plants and dissect flowers in order to make informed and accurate drawings. The later chapters highlight the special features to observe and understand when illustrating other types of plants, including conifers, ferns and mosses, or subjects such as algae and fungi.


Review by Pam Taylor, botanist, botanical artist and ABA Committee and Education Team member

 

Looking at a simple flower (Image courtesy of the publisher)
Looking at a simple flower (Image courtesy of the publisher)

This handy and well laid out book begins by looking at how flowers are made up. I particularly like the way Liz emphasises that the function of the flower is to achieve successful pollination and how this influences the structure.


When describing the parts of the flower she draws attention to details, such as how the anthers are held, which are so important for making accurate botanical studies.





Parts of a carpel (Image courtesy of the publisher)
Parts of a carpel (Image courtesy of the publisher)

Throughout the book the illustrations are clear, well labelled and easy to relate to the text, for example the parts of the carpel on page 15. There are one or two inconsistencies in the layout of the illustrations (mainly due to the constraints of fitting all the information on the page!), but the concise, informative captions mean that this is not a problem.


Chapter 2 is about the three methods of recording the flower structure in preparation for botanical drawing. Throughout this chapter the emphasis is on dissecting and bisecting the flower so that you can recognise the key parts and understand how they are put together, even if your technical skills do not give perfect results! By taking a range of species such as buttercup, mallow, viola and alstroemeria and showing how to draw the bisected flower alongside the floral formula and floral diagram, Liz shows how to use these three sources of information to build up and understand the flower in three dimensions before drawing it.


How multiple flowers are arranged in the inflorescence can be bewildering. In Chapter 3 the simple line drawings make it clear how the individual flowers are joined together in different ways to make the whole head, such as a panicle or an umbel. This chapter also describes the key features of different types of fruits and how they develop, including why apples have cores!


Good botanical drawing is as much about the leaves and stems as the flowers and fruits and in chapter 4 the key features of stems, including the position of buds, leaf scars and stipules are described. The way in which the different functions of the upper and lower leaf surfaces are described is particularly helpful because this knowledge is important for getting the textures correct in any botanical drawing. The final part of the chapter about how the leaves are arranged around the stem is also interesting and useful.

False oat grass ( Image courtesy of the publisher)
False oat grass ( Image courtesy of the publisher)

Like many botanical artists I try to avoid grasses, but the clear drawings and photographs in chapter 6 illustrate how to recognise their special features and how their flowers are constructed. The false oat grass diagram on page 88 is especially good, and I liked the way in which I could relate it to the accompanying photograph.

Comparing the leaves and twigs of the pine family (image courtesy of publisher)
Comparing the leaves and twigs of the pine family (image courtesy of publisher)

The special features to look out for when depicting Conifers are described in chapter 6. The arrangement of needles/leaves and cones of the four main conifer families are considered separately and I thought that the illustrated charts used to compare members within the families, such as the one for comparing the leaves and twigs of the pine family on pages 94 to 95, particularly useful.


Liz does not limit this book to seed bearing plants. In chapter 7 she describes the features to look out for when drawing ferns, paying special attention to scales and the shapes of the tips of the leaflets, as well as how they are arranged on the frond, which are key to identifying fern species. This book is about the botany needed to paint and draw plants accurately and so in this chapter the position of spore producing sori is described but the complicated life cycle of ferns, which would be covered in a botany textbook, is not.


Leaf shapes in mosses (image courtesy of publisher)
Leaf shapes in mosses (image courtesy of publisher)

Mosses and liverworts are becoming more popular subjects amongst botanical artists, and chapter 8 explains how these fit into the plant kingdom as well as how to approach such tiny specimens and their key characteristics - I had no idea there were so many different leaf shapes to be found amongst mosses! The special features of other subjects, such as seaweeds and fungi, which are sometimes depicted by botanical artists are outlined in the final chapters.


This is a very useful book, not just to learn how to dissect and look at plants in order to draw them accurately, but also to have at hand for reference when tackling new subjects or to remind yourself what to look out for before starting a new painting.


 
Author Biography

Lizabeth Leech trained and worked as a botanist before becoming a botanical artist. She is a founding member and Chair of the Hampton Court Florilegium, a member of the Institute of Analytical Plant Illustrators and the American Society of Botanical Artists.


To purchase this book: https://www.crowood.com/products/artists-handbook-of-botany-by-lizabeth-leech . Also available internationally online and in bookshops.

Published by Crowood Press, ISBN 978-0-7198-4181-1

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