In another lifetime, I would have been a botanist (in other lifetimes, I would have been many things). I have always loved studying plants, and one of the best ways to study plants is to draw them, as evident by the strong tradition of botanical illustration. Drawing is a form of seeing because to truly capture the likeness of a thing, you have to observe the details carefully. Whether those details are added to the drawing or omitted, you have to notice them first before making that decision. The curve of the stem, the angle of the leaf, the number of petals, the shape of the stamen, the texture of the bark, and so on.
Despite my long fascination with plants, I’m fairly mediocre when it comes to identification. The only time I’ve really made an effort to learn the names of plants was during the three years I lived in Japan. I lived in a small town, and for the most part, I walked everywhere. My commute to work, trips to the shops, and random ambling afforded me plenty of opportunities to note what was growing along the sides of the road and in people’s gardens. This may have been the only time I’ve truly been attuned to the seasons, especially since Japan imports little produce and what you see at the grocer’s reflects what is being harvested at the time.
A friend had gifted me with a handmade leather-bound, pocket-sized sketchbook that I sometimes carried with me during my strolls. There are a few sketches of the odd scene or landscape, but it’s mostly filled with small drawings of the plants I saw day after day, year after year.
Until just now, when I looked it up, I didn’t know the English name for nandina. It was a plant I learned to identify while living in Japan, and I only ever knew it as nanten.
Leafing through the sketchbook, it reminded me of one of my favorite artists, Ellsworth Kelly. Most people know Kelly, who passed away in December, for his abstract paintings, but the work I love most are his plant drawings. Many of them are simple; some are just contours. There is a beauty to the line and compositions of these drawings, and even though they may be devoid of detail, there is a quality of truth to them, as if Kelly has somehow captured the essence of the plant.
The drawing above is one of many included in the book Plant Drawings, a selection of drawings done by Kelly between 1948 and 2010. It’s a lovely book with beautiful reproductions and includes a great interview with Kelly. However, I’ve had the good fortune of seeing many of Kelly’s plant drawings at an exhibition, and they are even more spectacular in person. Many of these drawings are very large, anywhere from two to four feet, sometimes more. To see the drawings at that scale, the plants life-size and sometimes larger, is to experience them differently.
Since I don’t have thousands of dollars to spare, I’ve been noodling around the internet to see if I can find at scale reproductions of Kelly’s plant drawings. Alas, that quest has been fruitless so far. How amazing it would be to be able to contemplate one of these drawings every day.
I also love the botanical drawings of Margaret Stones, which illustrate the plant in as much detail as possible. In 1976, Louisiana State University commissioned the Australian artist to create six watercolor drawings to celebrate the United States’ bicentennial, which eventually expanded to include over 200 drawings and came to be known as the Native Flora of Louisiana project. Many of these drawings have been published in the book Flora of Louisiana and can also be viewed online as part of the LSU Libraries Digital Collection.
In many of Stones’ drawings, there are multiple renderings of the same specimen, including cross sections of stems and close ups of blossoms. The thoroughness of her illustrations and the attention to detail is wonderful. I especially love the tiny annotations indicating how much a specific part of the plant has been enlarged. I have also seen Stones’ work in person, and that is another experience that I cherish.
Revisiting all of this makes me want to go back out with a sketchbook in hand, even if it’s just to the backyard. There are certainly plenty of plants awaiting there, and with the change of seasons around the corner, plenty of growth to witness.