Lesley Randall

ASBA Botanical Illustrator Award For Excellence in Scientific Botanical Art

By Myra Sourkes


Botany is a common theme in Lesley’s family. Her father is a botanist. As a child, she would hike with him on his collecting trips and learn about plants. She recalls that often while they were driving, he would suddenly slam on the brakes to look at a plant. Even though sometimes she thought it was boring, she absorbed a lot. Her mother is an accomplished gardener and fostered that aspect of plant world in Lesley. Both her parents have also given critical advice as well as unfailing support for her artwork. Nonetheless, her life’s path did not lead straight to botany. In fact, she actually resisted it! She wanted to work with animals and be a veterinarian or horse trainer and entered Cornell University in a pre-vet program. Then she took an introductory course in landscape architecture in the agricultural school. She had to keep a journal of woody plants, and had the option of photographing or drawing the subjects. She chose to draw them, which was more time-consuming, but gave her the opportunity to really learn about them and understand the intriguing little details which set species apart. Thus, her first scientific illustrations……As a result of that, she switched into landscape architecture. She then completed a Master of Natural Sciences at LSU, with an emphasis in botany and a minor in zoology. Similarly, her brother took a round-about route, through history studies, to become a plant ecologist. Her husband is a botanist who works for The Nature Conservancy. Her two adult children have always taken observation of the natural world around them as a matter of course, and they enjoy gardening.

Lesley’s work background is diverse. In the 1980s, she worked in Hawaii at the National Tropical Botanical Garden doing basic gardening, drawings for their journal, mapping of the collections and some landscape design. She worked in a fish hatchery in California as an interpretive ranger. She taught elementary school. For almost two decades, until 2010, she worked at UC Davis as a research associate in the Department of Plant Sciences. Her current position is Curator of Collections, Plant Recorder and Gardener at the San Diego Botanic Garden. She enjoys all the varied aspects of this job – plant and water conservation, researching the collections, creating maps, cross-pollinating and propagating plants and hands-on gardening. Her job exposes her to so many subjects for her art pursuits that the choice gets overwhelming and it can be hard to focus – “but I never get tired of drawing them!”

Lesley has worked as a scientific illustrator throughout the years, both in her “day jobs” and as a freelancer. Drawing the details is still her favorite part. If she is doing a work for publication, which will be reduced by 1/3, she has to be careful not to make the lines too dark, whereas if the work is for exhibiting, she will use a darker line to have more impact on the wall. She is proficient in pen and ink, which she especially enjoys, graphite and color pencil, and often does mixed media work. She will add light color to ink drawings with heavy black lines, using color pencils or watercolor, which is a fun way of creating an old-fashioned style with the look of a woodcut.

She has contributed scientific illustrations to the first (1993) and second (2012) editions of The Jepson Manual, whose goal is to describe and illustrate all native and naturalized species of California. She also illustrated grasses and sedges in The Flora of Yosemite National Park by Steven Botti. She also contributed illustrations to the book Tarweeds and Silverswords: Evolution of the Madiinae (Asteraceae), edited by Carlquist, Baldwin and Carr. She explains that
the story of these plants, in the sunflower family, is an amazing example of adaptive radiation. Tarweeds in California are typically small annuals to perennial shrubs with yellow petals. In Hawaii the tarweed group has evolved into many different forms reflecting the enormous diversity of habitats in the islands. There are trees, lianas, rosettes and shrubs living in a range of very dry to boggy conditions. The most famous example is the Silversword that grows only on higher elevations of the volcanic mountain, Haleakala, on Maui, Hawaii. They have rosettes of sword-like silvery leaves, which are curved like a scimitar, and they send out a big flowering stalk of small flowers that resemble sunflowers, but have a reddish petal. Quite different. But the Hawaiian tarweeds are considered to have evolved from an ancestral California tarweed which rafted to Hawaii five to six million years ago and colonized the islands!

Currently, she is working on a series of rare plants of San Diego County and is drawing Monardella viminea, San Diego willowy mint. “Looking under a microscope, you see incredible hairs and tiny, jewel-like glands, even clustered on the back tip of petals, which you can’t see with the naked eye, and they have an amazing scent.”

She has won numerous scientific illustration and botanical art awards. Her latest one was at the 17h Annual International at The Horticultural Society of New York - the Brooklyn Botanic Garden Award for a Drawing or Print – for Ma’o hau hele, Hibiscus brackenridgei. See The Story Behind the Art of Lesley Randall. Others have been at BISCOT, RHS shows, California Native Plant Society show and the 2008 Hort show. And she has won Margaret Flockton awards in scientific illustration at the Sydney Botanic Garden, which are named for a remarkable, trail-blazing early 20th century illustrator at the SBG.

In addition to her membership in the American Society of Botanical Artists, she is a Chapter member of the Botanical Artists Guild of Southern California, as well as botany organizations. She greatly enjoys her BAGSC connection – “they are a wonderful, talented group” – and is treasurer. According to Deb Shaw, fellow Chapter member and its Blog and Web Editor, the sentiment is reciprocated: "Lesley is wonderful! She's a rock-solid person — calm, both feet on the ground and wouldn't ever think of tooting her own horn. And she is a great artist and teacher."

Lesley says “I don’t like doing one thing”. That is an understatement! Her art pursuits extend in many directions. She contrasts her botanical illustrations, which are scientific documents, with the open creativity of her masks, inspired by her experience with Mardi Gras costumes when she lived in Louisiana. She makes the masks out of leather and paints them with colorful acrylic paints, to be worn or hung on a wall. As well, she has made mosaic pieces with tile and glass, does quilting and designs earrings. A truly multi-faceted artist. She says that receiving this ASBA award came as a complete surprise, and she feels thrilled and honored to be recognized in such a way by her peers, for whom she has great respect.

  • Lesley Randall in the greenhouse of the San Diego Botanic Garden where she is Curator of Plant Collections.
  • Aristolochia gigantea, Giant Pipevine, Pen and ink, Lesley Randall, 2007. It was awarded "First Prize: Margaret Flockton Award for Excellence in Botanical Illustration" in 2007. It won "Best Drawing in Show" at NYHS/ASBA in 2008 and was in the 14th International Exhibition of Botanical Art and Illustration at The Hunt Institute in 2013.
  • Nepenthes hybrid, Tropical Pitcher Plant, Pen and ink and watercolor, Lesley Randall, 2012.
  • Plantago erecta with Euphydryas editha quino; California Plantain with Quino Checkerspot Butterfly. The Plantago is one of two food plants for the caterpillar of this endangered butterfly (the other is Castilleja exserta). Lesley Randall, 2014.