Esmée Winkel


2016 ASBA Botanical Illustrator Award for Excellence in Scientific Botanical Art
by Libby Kyer


This award is presented biennially and honors an ASBA artist whose work epitomizes excellence in scientific botanical art. Libby Kyer ‘interviewed’ Esmée via long, chatty and very informative emails!
Esmée lives and works in the Netherlands, having built an impressive career in a very short time, but her passion for plants and nature dates to her island childhood.
Growing up in the Caribbean, Esmée was subsumed in island nature. Somewhat counter-intuitively, on Curaçao the vegetation is created more in a savannah-like climate rather than lush jungle, with a wet season and a long dry season. With the advent of rain, the land turns from brown barren landscape to green oasis. Plants burst into flower, new young green shoots develop everywhere. Rich in cacti species and thorny shrubs, several orchid species and bromeliads are also found.

Esmée recalls, “It was the many, many colors and the enormous variation in plant and animal life that interested me. From the tiny salt loving plants like the Banana di ref (Sesuvium portulacastrum, Aizoaceae) with its colorful leaves and tiny pink flowers to the spectacular tree called kibrahacha (literally ax-breaker)(Tabebuia billbergii, Bignoniaceae) that covers itself completely in bright yellow flowers. My mom’s love for orchids had a great influence on me. Watering her plants came with its difficulties though if an angry hummingbird had its nest close by!”

Creativity was encouraged in Esmée’s childhood. From an early age, drawing classes and music informed her life. Mathematics, biology and the arts were her best subjects, and she often took her art projects home to paint. Studying flora frequently involved studying attendant fauna at close hand, with an endless battle with the iguanas who loved eating all the young shoots!!

So, eventually Esmée moved to the Netherlands. “It all started at the Leiden University studying the anatomy of animals and plants,” she recounts, where she received her Bachelor of Science in Biology. “Then to enter the Master of Scientific Illustration you have to build a portfolio and do a live drawing exam. Once again a student, I left home at 5 in the morning and was back at 10-ish PM for two days a week for the next 4 years.”

Esmée works in pen and ink, watercolor, pencil and digital drawing programs. She believes, “There still is no better way to capture the essence of a living plant or animal then by drawing or painting, despite the great techniques of modern photography. This form of art captures the beauty of plants and is a powerful way to connect people with their environments.”

When asked what aspect of creating an image she likes the most, she replies, “When I start a new piece of art, scientific illustration or botanical art, I enjoy every aspect from studying and taking apart the subject and forming a composition to laying down the final brush strokes. To me the whole process is important, so I take my time for each step and don’t let coincidence rule my art. I believe that only then I can truly capture the essence of a living plant or animal and portray nature’s magnificence.”

Composition is a strong suit of Esmée’s, and she finds it critically important to the aesthetic and information contained in an artwork. Scientific illustration involves many elements. The size at which the image will be reproduced, composing  to provide habit, enlarged details, a dissected flower, the pollinia, a fruit, seeds etc. are critical to full scientific rendering. The more elements there are, the more difficult it becomes to create a perfect composition within scientific and print requirements.

Esmée first decides which element is the most important, often the habit, and then places everything in a way that details curl along with the habit, taking the white space into account. This creates a harmonious and balanced effect, allowing viewers to 'read' and understand how the species looks, which is exactly the point of a scientific illustration. It is essential to draw the viewer into the work and guide them around the various elements.

If the work does not have full scientific constraints, there are more options in composition. She relates, “Some disruption could make a botanical piece of art even more interesting if used correctly. This might not work for a scientific illustration. It all depends on the interesting forms, colors, contrast, positioning, etc., making composition an enormous intriguing aspect to me.”

When starting a new work, Esmée looks at her subject from all sides, assessing form, making various sketches. Then she dissects the subject, sketching every step. For tiny insects or plant parts she uses a microscope with camera lucida.  She uses millimeter paper to measure the various parts. This allows her to create a 3 dimensional view of the subject in her mind, and that 3-D sense helps her to make a complete reconstruction, creating correct and clear drawings, addressing perspective, contrast, bumps, holes, hairs, glands, etc.

For scientific illustrations Esmée mainly uses pen & ink on technical inking paper (Schoellershammer), or digital drawing programs (Photoshop, Illustrator, open source programs like Gimp and Inkscape). For botanical art she loves graphite on paper or board and watercolor on watercolor paper such as Fabriano or Arches. She recently discovered vellum and would like to work more with the substrate. 

As to the ‘differences’ between botanical art and botanical illustration, Esmée always tries to capture the essence of a plant. However a scientific illustration should reflect the findings of science and technology clearly at a single glance. The findings together with the illustration will then be reported in a scientific journal.

She believes botanical art is more focused on the plant or on a single plant part, most of the time without all the details that are important to a researcher. She says, “With my botanical art I portray plants for their magnificence and splendor bringing the viewer in contact with the wondrous world of plants and thereby underlining the importance of nature.”

Together with Hanneke Jelles, Hortus botanicus, and Rinny Kooi, Biology Leiden University, Esmée teaches scientific drawing at Hortus Botanicus. Everyone is welcome and students participate for free. Each workshop has a specific subject - fruits, seeds, angiosperms, conifers, economic plants, Dutch flora, pollination. Attention is paid to drawing and biology. For example 'how do fruits and seeds develop'? What is a 'pericarp' and 'how do I learn to recognize it'? She believes students are the future who will continue the conservation of the diversity of our spectacular plant world.

ASBA member and noted botanical artist Anita Walsmit-Sachs tells us, "I met Esmée Winkel when she was a student in one of my art classes in Leiden at the Hortus Botanicus, where I taught for 20 years. She was a very keen student and asked me if she could apprentice at the National Herbarium, Leiden University, and now NATURALIS Biodiversity Center, and she became a valued staff member. Esmée started her education in Maastricht for scientific illustrator, which she finished with good results. Although the focus in Maastricht was not so much plants but more on scientific illustrating in general, Jan van Os, our colleague and me, introduced her in the beginning to botanical illustration. In my opinion there is nobody who can stipple as beautifully as her. Esmée was always a hard-working and wonderful colleague and we had a lot of fun. I am proud of her, and happy she continued the job when I retired, and know she will inspire many young illustrators and artists for many years to come."

Many publications include Esmée’s artworks. A favorite of hers involves an illustration she created of a rare orchid in 2014, a newly discovered orchid species named Dendrobium goodallianum, in honor of Dame Jane Morris Goodall. Best known for her work with chimpanzees, Jane Goodall is very active promoting nature conservation across many countries and all generations. She recently published the book Seeds of Hope together with Gail Hudson, in which an entire chapter is dedicated to the conservation of orchids. Rogier van Vugt, head of the greenhouses Hortus Botanicus Leiden, helped writing this chapter and presented her the orchid when Jane Goodall visited the Hortus in Leiden. Esmée felt honored and inspired to meet her. (Reference: de Vogel, E., Winkel, E. and van Vugt, R. 2014. Dendrobium goodallianum, a new species of section Grastidium from Papua New Guinea. Malesian Orchid Journal 14: 87-90.)

Esmée’s work is included in the permanent collections of Naturalis Biodiversity Center, Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation, Focus on Nature New York State Museum, the RHS Lindley Library and in private (Royal) collections. Her work in the permanent collection of the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation, is one of a series of illustrations made for the first PhD thesis she contributed to. The researcher at the time was working on the genus Coelogyne of the Orchid family. Because of the Hunt Exhibition in 2010, Esmée became a member of the ASBA, and participates actively in Society activities. 

Among her awards, Esmée treasures The Jill Smythies Award, from the Royal Linnaean Society London. It honors a botanical artist whose work demonstrates overall excellence in botanical scientific illustration. Only members of the Society may nominate a candidate for the award, with a selection committee selecting recipients. As a nominee she was asked to send in a full list of publications to which she has contributed and a selection of her work. The Jill Smythies Award is established in remembrance of the wife of the late Mr. B. E. Smythies FLS. “The ceremony was very formal and honorable and I was also very happy to browse through the wonderful library. “

Esmée is an active member of the Dutch Society of Botanical Artists, a member of the American Society of Botanical Artists (ASBA) and a Fellow of the Linnaean Society of London.

Asked what’s next, Esmée’s response is typical of her inquisitive and artistic nature as she replies, “Currently I am working on a series of illustrations for a PhD thesis. Also, many new species are waiting for me to illustrate them, from families such as Annonaceae, Orchidaceae and Euphorbiaceae. These three families already show enormous morphological variations, which allows me to study these plants in the finest details.”

Congratulations on receiving this ASBA honor, Esmée. We look forward with great anticipation to see where you go next.

You can reach Esmée at




  • Monanthotaxis paniculata, a recently described species from Gabon, drawn for P. H. Hoekstra by Esmée Winkel, © Naturalis Biodiversity Center 2014