Education Forum

Establishing Standards for Botanical Art

By Margaret A. Saul

Originally appeared in The Botanical Artist - Number 32


Three core criteria facilitate an accreditation process 

Sixteen years teaching botanical art and looking forward to more! The more I teach the more I learn - about teaching and about botanical art. This is a comment made by teachers who find their interaction with students has them reviewing the processes involved in creating their own art, as well as their teaching methods, from time to time. I am always seeking better ways to introduce various concepts and techniques while ensuring classes continue to provide a well-balanced mix of satisfaction, challenge, and enjoyment. Through the years, especially while directing the program for my Australian botanical art school, I came to realize that designing a comprehensive curriculum and teaching at the various levels are as much of a creative process as drawing and painting, but of course teachers need to do both. Wonderful opportunities have allowed me to share knowledge and ideas with students and teachers from around the globe and now once again I look forward to sharing a little more with you in hopes of stimulating an ongoing discussion. 

Why three criteria? 

We create our art, passionately recording accurate botanical detail and composing it into what, we hope, will reflect those elements that inspired us to artistically describe it. At least that is my view of the art that I now indulge in. The other art in my life was created while working as a botanical illustrator, a field I enjoyed and one that also allowed me to earn a living! This type of artwork is created for the purpose of graphic scientific description in the service of plant science and unlike the former is generally not regarded as inspiring or having wall appeal. 

Most of us hope our art will be suitable for exhibition. As artists we also hope that the elements that inspired us to paint a subject are those appreciated by the viewer. The reality however can come as a bit of a blow. Much contemporary botanical artwork now wins appeal if it follows a trusted formula – paint a popular subject or one with bright color or abundant detailing. In other words create a botanical study of a popular subject (or a flower within the primary color range) and spend ten to twenty hours adding detail and you will probably have it in the bag! For some of us, to continue in this vein without a more creative approach is tedious. If everyone adopted the trusted formula this art would surely lose its luster. 

Botanical art, everyone knows, must portray accurate botanical detail and exhibit mastered skills in the application of many techniques in order to record the fine detail. But how does a teacher instill an appreciation for the more subtle elements that can transform an accurate and finely rendered illustration into a more inspiring work of art? How can our art be defined to ensure students learn to recognize the difference? This is a challenging area of teaching - one that deals with concepts that need introducing over a longer time than most workshops can accommodate and one that keeps me interested in continuing as a teacher of this art. 

Defining this element and two other criteria has influenced my instructional programming so that I now integrate into a comprehensive program what I regard as three core criteria - botanical accuracy (accurate observation), draftsmanship and artistic sensitivity. In my opinion these are the criteria that, when fully appreciated, can lead to the creation of beautiful botanical art, creating a balance between pure graphic description and artistic sensitivity. These works balance the eagerness to reveal all, with a deeper appreciation and sense of enjoyment in the full creative process, producing botanical art that inspires, displacing what I have come to view as the present “trusted formula.” 

Many in the visual arts community would describe this art form as a “highly skillsbased art” – meaning there are many techniques to master before your artwork meets the standards required for a juried exhibition. But it is due to this fact that an objective approach to assessment of botanical art can be readily accommodated. 

Schoolís standards of achievement & program planning 

Currently, I am involved in developing the policies, organizational structure and botanical art curriculum for a new school of botanical art and illustration. The three criteria I have mentioned are the mainstay of this program, designed to facilitate a certain degree of credibility for the school. They have been used for developing recognized standards, designing syllabi, providing students with tangible short-term goals and an objective assessment process for core subjects. 

For the purpose of formal assessment the school has set standards for its core subject curriculum, namely – Basic, Intermediate and Advanced. A student who successfully completes all of the core subjects at a particular level will know they have met all the required skills to meet that standard. 

The mandatory criteria for assessing botanical art are more fully explained below. 

Botanical accuracy - achieved through observation and knowledge of plant morphology. 

Draftsmanship - skill exhibited in the traditional technical applications. 

Artistic sensitivity - exhibited through knowledge and appreciation of visual art concepts relevant to this art form. 

Some may rightly come to the conclusion that the selected criteria of draftsmanship and artistic sensitivity should be regarded under one criterion - “artistic skills”. However, with the increasing interest in contemporary botanical art, I feel strongly about the need to place more emphasis on the creative process, and therefore to distinguish the mastering of technique from the more elusive creative concepts. Teachers should encourage advanced level students to progress from relying on rules and technical skills in order to create carefully rendered “botanical studies” and move on to the creation of “botanical art” that includes botanical accuracy and fine draftsmanship but also “artistic sensitivity,” to facilitate a deepening awareness and a more personal involvement in the creative process, onethat ultimately leads to inspiring artworks. 

The example below is taken from my “Guidelines for Teachers,” and lists the objectives for achieving the intermediate standard. At attaining this particular level, certificate registrants are presented with the school’s Intermediate Level Achievement Award as an incentive to continue on to the advanced level subjects. Evidence of the student having achieved proficiency in botanical art should be exhibited in work presented as their final portfolio submission and certificate project, and formally recognized with the awarding of the school’s certificate. 

Sample of Intermediate Proficiency Standards: Class Title: Painting II, Dimensional Study & Botany for Botanical Artists. 

Student has attained the Basic Standard and successfully completed the following – 

Botanical Accuracy: A full appreciation for macro plant structures, through increased knowledge and developing observation skills; a desire to enquire into plant adaptation and a basic understanding of plant nomenclature and systematics. Draws at a level of accuracy that allows the subject to be readily identifiable at genus level. 

Draftsmanship: Illustrates an ability to enhance three-dimensionality in the creation of botanical studies by appreciating the form of surfaces in perspective, in order to correctly interpret and render these surfaces in graphite or watercolor.

 Confident at color mixing – creating a full range of unified color using three selected pigments. Exhibits satisfactory brush control over all illustrated surfaces. 

Skilled in the necessary color applications required to create a small botanical study. 

Artistic sensitivity: Structural patterns - awareness & enjoyment in recognizing natural design elements; Color perception - increased through further instruction & observation; 

Composition*: emphasis and focal points in particular, and increasing appreciation for tonal composition. 

Botanical Art History - 18th – 19th centuries (set reading) 

*The study of composition is integrated through all core subjects beginning with Drawing I.