top of page

The three B's.... Beginner - Botany-Botanical Art

Updated: Jun 29, 2020

For those of you brave enough to watch our first live UTube broadcast on Monday the 18th May, this piece is a follow up from the presenter Elaine Allison, outlining the key aspects of the presentation. We hope you enjoyed our first online broadcast and look out for our next session in June which will focus on "Asteraceae" which includes daisies, sunflowers and asters. Elaine will look at our largest native daisy the "oxeye daisy".

For those members who missed the "live" session here is a link to the recorded version.

If you have a few minutes it may be useful to view the broadcast first and then dive into this piece or the other way round.

The Three B's...

If I want to paint an accurate illustration of a plant what do I need to know about my specimen?’

Let’s start with a statement that defines "botanical art" as distinct from "flower" painting.

Botanical art

‘Botanical art strives towards scientific and botanical accuracy whereas flower painting is focused more on the overall effect of the image and much less on scientific accuracy.’

From a botanical illustration you should be able to identify the plant even when not all parts of the plant are shown in the illustration for example a pine cone, when accurately depicted, should enable you to identify the parent plant.

Since these terms are crucial to our work as botanical artists we are intending to post a blog on the differences between the terms botanical illustration, botanical art and flower painting in the near future. With pictures of course! This definition of terms has become rather crucial given the large number of entries we receive for our various online exhibitions and competitions.

So here we go.

Session 1. The simple flower

In this first session we explore a few simple points that can help us reproduce artwork that is botanically accurate including:

  • The botanical knowledge needed to produce an accurate botanical illustration

  • What you need to know about your plant specimen before you start drawing

To illustrate these points we will use a common British native plant the Geranium, which has a simple flower structure

What botanical knowledge is needed to produce an accurate botanical illustration?

The simple answer to this is none, you can in fact portray a plant accurately without knowing what the various parts of the specimen are called. However, I would strongly suggest that if you are going to illustrate botanically then it is helpful to learn some simple terminology. It is useful for identification purposes and when you are completing a piece of work it should be identifiable down to the species level. So it could be easy to miss out important botanical features that distinguish your specimen from any other.

What you need to know about your plant specimen before you start drawing?

There is something more important than knowing what parts of the plant are called and that is what does it really look like. This requires detailed anatomical observation. Where possible, it is really useful to see the plant growing in the wild. Get to know the habitat, location with respect to other plants and if it is the same species, how the form can change depending on where it grows. Look at the way the leaves, stems flowers are positioned in relation to each other and make sure you always look at the plant from different positions as you normally would when you are developing a composition for your image. Seeing the shape and form of the original plant from different angles is really important and this is where you cannot rely on photographs alone when you are drawing. A single photograph is an image frozen in time, perspective and illumination.

Equipment that might be useful when studying the morphology of your plant are:

  • hand lens

  • fine forceps

  • dissecting needle or equivalent (just tape a needle to a pencil)

  • ruler for a scale bar or an object with known dimensions

  • fine scissors

  • blade of some sort - pen knife or equivalent

Figure 1. Basic dissection equipment.

Wild plants should not be dug up but a few small pieces may be taken where they grow in abundance for further study e.g. one flower head or a leaf. If it is a protected species then make all your observations in the field and take lots of photographs from multiple angles. If you require magnification then use a camera with high resolution so you can blow up the image or alternatively, there are some great macro attachments you can pop on your mobile phone lens that can magnify the image usually around x15 for most of the basic devices.

A Simple Flower - Common name "Herb Robert"

The native plant we will use to demonstrate this is:

Scientific name: Geranium robertianum , (Genus - species)

Scientific names have two parts the Genus, a grouping of plants that may have several different species within it. Plus the species, a group of plants that can only exclusively breed with each other. You write both Genus and species in italics or underline them and genus starts with a capital. Once you have used the full name once you can then abbreviate the genus to capital letter and put a dot after it. For example our plant would be G. robertianum.

Figures 2 and 3 show the same plant but growing in a different location.

Figure 2. Herb Robert growing in full sun and low moisture environment.
Figure 3. Herb Robert growing in a shady location under a hedge with higher ground moisture.

Same plant different environments. The specimen in figure 1 is much smaller and the leaves contain a lot more red colouration. The same species in figure 2 however, is larger (look at the ring for comparison of size) and the leaves are much greener (a story for another day).

I tend to use my wedding ring to give me a scale 'bar' but you have to keep your wits about you! Last year I left it up a large tree in the middle of a golf course and had to run back and find the section of the tree with my ring!

Simple Flower Structure - The genus of Geranium

This genus has what is called simple flowers which obviously, is distinct from flowers with a more complicated structure. The difference will be the focus of future videos and blogs.

At this point it is important to clarify that the ‘Geraniums’ you buy at garden centres are in the family Geraniaceae but in a different genus Pelargoniums which don’t have simple regular flowers.

Since they say a picture tells a thousand words the full details of the plant structure as I dissect it, can be seen on the video.

To demonstrate the structure of a Geranium flower I used a cultivated form where the simple flower structure is termed actinomorphic (regular, radially symmetrical).

Geranium robertianum has two flowers on each flower stalk with two red or green stipules at the base. The stems and leaves are covered in small glandular hairs. Figure 4 shows a close up a leaf and two flowers on a stem with some basic structures labelled.

Figure 4. Leaf and two flowers.

Flower parts are then in whorls (Inflorescence) which can be seen more easily in Figure 5 which shows a photograph of an exploded view. This is a great way to get to know how a flower is put together. Note the way the parts have been laid out exactly as dissected.

Figure 5. Exploded flower dissection.

The flower parts are splayed it out in order from the centre. It makes an excellent digital record for a sketchbook or alternatively this can be drawn and labelled.

  • 2 x small bracts (small leaf like projections often seen at the base of flower/s) these are seen at the base of the pedicels (flower stalks)

  • 5 green or reddish sepals ( the outer section of the flower), free (not linked together) ,with an awn (the pointy bit on the end)

  • 5 free pink petals (the coloured parts), with a narrow base (called a claw) On the cultivated Geranium they have an indent at the top whereas G. robertianum does not.

  • 10 Stamens (male parts termed androecium) divided into the filament (stalk) and anther (the bit on the top where the pollen is made and released)

  • Lastly the female parts of the flower (gynoecium) which have ovaries ( containing ovules) and styles (that hold the stigmas up) fused. However the pollen collecting area on the top of the style, the stigmas are not fused but lie closed until the pollen has been released by the anthers (the anthers tend to drop off then) and the 5 stigmas open wide to receive pollen from another plant (cross pollination).

The stigmas mature after the anthers, so pollen is released first on a plant to increase the chance of cross pollination. In the exploded diagram the stigmas on the female parts are not open. A simple but important development detail since a correct "botanical artwork" would reflect this.

Figure 5. Stigma from the dissected plant. It is about 9 mm long.

This is just a short introduction to basic descriptive botany and I hope you find it has been of some use. Have a look at the video and just remember it is a recording of a live broadcast with all its idiosyncrasies.

Remember to stop and have a closer look at flowers around you and we hope you will join us again in a few weeks time for the next installment.

Stay healthy.

Elaine Allison - May 2020


Michael Hickey and Clive King; The Cambridge Illustrated Glossary of Botanical Terms, 2000, Cambridge University Press ISBN: 978-0-521-79401-5

Michael Hickey and Clive King; Common Families of Flowering Plants; 1997, Cambridge University Press, ISBN: 0-521-57609-1

These are useful reference material however, there is a great deal of information overlap so you may not wish to buy both.

907 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page